I no longer hear the cold wind rushing through the half-open car window, or the roar of the heater canceling the frigid air assailing me from outside. I’ve been listening to it for hours now, and it’s faded into the background so that it has become the sound of silence itself. I turned the radio off miles ago, having become disgusted with the trite angst of talentless Top Forty groups. As soon as I had clicked it off, the darkness of the world surrounding my car closed in, and I felt the familiar oppression of isolation. Quickly, I realized how even whining schlock like Creed, or manufactured boy bands provide a sense of companionship. A false companionship, but companionship nonetheless. I could turn it on again, but I feel that would be cheating. Cheating what, I don’t know. For now the silence is the only companion I can accept and the starkly lit island of road speeding through the glare of my headlights is my entire world. I leave the radio off, tap the ashes of my cigarette out the window, and stare into the darkness ahead.
The Darkness Behind: Rumination
During the summer when the night is crippled by Earth’s axial
and our hemisphere of the globe is lush
with life, it is easy for people to feel full of that life. As a
whole, people are generally cheerier. It is evidence of the
fact that the weather has a very profound effect on human emotion.
If further evidence is needed, wait until there
is a long stretch of overcast, gloomy skies for a few days, and
you’ll notice those around you growing cranky,
irritable. As the Americas begin to slant away from the Sun, the
days grow shorter, and the night regains the
ground it lost during the spring and summer months. Things begin
to die or hibernate, color drains from the
world. We live more hours of our lives shrouded in the outside
darkness, relying upon the lifeless
artificial light of lamps and fluorescent bulbs to provide a false security. False light. False security. False life.
Despite our electrical illumination, our fires burning wick or log, the glow of our televisions and computers, the lifelessness of winter cannot be kept at bay.
It is at our windows, cruelly reflecting mirror images of our brightly lit homes. It says, I will show you images of warmth and life, but I am always here. I can see in, but you cannot see out.
It is beyond the halo of our streetlights and porch lights. Even the light of day does not banish it. The Sun is distant, small, and cold. In its brief appearance it illuminates only the dead, frozen world that orbits it.
Man has created sprawling cities of metal and glass, harnessed fire and energy, sped up the ladder of technological evolution. We marvel at our brilliance and ingenuity. We remake the planet in our own image, and desperately try to convince ourselves that we have conquered it.
But Man has not tasted victory. Not by a long shot. Simply by altering the climate, the Earth demonstrates its continuing grasp upon the human soul. The world itself toys with almighty Man’s basic emotional makeup, and there is nothing Man can do about it. We cannot act upon it; we can only react to it. We are helpless and alone in a world that does not care if our species lives or disappears. In the end, the planet that birthed us will swallow us again and continue as it has for millennia, endlessly dancing around its star.
The Darkness Behind: Restlessness
An acrid smell jolted me out of my gloomy reverie. My eyes focused back from the spot of infinity I’d been staring into for God knows how long, and fell upon the cigarette butt loosely clasped between my fingers. The filter had begun to burn, and there was a drooping cylinder of gray ash hanging from the end. More ash peppered my pants leg below the knee where my wrist was balanced. I tossed the cigarette over the balcony’s railing, and stared into a wall of gray fog while brushing the ash from my leg.
I don’t know how long I had been sitting, staring into space, lost
my own thoughts. There hadn’t been a
trace of fog in my last concrete memory before reality gave way to
the inner world of my thoughts. I didn’t even
remember lighting the cigarette. It had grown cold, too. Even colder
than it had been when I sat down on the
camping chair, feet propped up on a milk crate, hunched over with elbows resting on knees, chin in hand.
Here and there, the lights of other balconies around the apartment complex floated in hazy spheres of their yellow light, illuminating little bits and pieces of buildings and deck railings. On the ground two stories below, lamps lining the sidewalks flung their glow through the branches of trees, sending long spears of alternating shadow and light through the fog, until the thick gray swallowed it all. The leafless trees’ branches clawed skyward from the cold ground like the desperately searching hands of corpses clawing back to the world of the living from their subterranean prisons. There was no wind, sound, or movement. I felt like an island of life rooted in a vast expanse of nothingness.
I reached up and tapped the windchime hanging beside and above me.
clinking and tinkling sounded
unnaturally loud. Alarmingly loud, even. Immediately, I regretted my
actions; it was as if the fog had a
consciousness, which had focused instantly upon this solitary creature
who had dared disturb its oppressive
tranquillity. Discomfort, tinged with an irrational frost of fear pushed back the gloom my soul had been mired in. The flurry of sound from the windchime ebbed into a slow, steady ting…ting…ting…ting as I stood and backed toward the sliding door. I fumbled at the handle one-handed, not daring to turn from the cold focus of the fog. The door finally slid open, and I stepped through it into my apartment. I slammed it closed and shut the hanging blinds against whatever had been outside. Light blossomed from the torché as I rotated its dimmer switch all the way up.
Still shaken, I sat down on the ratty old couch and lit another cigarette. I could still sense the oppressive atmosphere outside, so I turned the TV on hoping to banish the disturbing emotional residue of the fog and my own depression.
The cigarette finished, I stretched out on the couch, head to the
watching talking heads babbling at one
another on the television. I remained that way for maybe three full
minutes before growing restless. I went to the
kitchen and rummaged through cupboards and the fridge, but found
I wanted to eat, so I popped the cap
off a bottle of Budweiser and took it back to the couch. I sipped at
it, staring at the TV without really watching it. I
fidgeted, crossing and uncrossing my legs, bouncing my foot, rotating
the condensation-slicked bottle in my hand,
clawing at the label with a fingernail. My gaze began to drift around
the room. It fell over bookshelves, racks of
movies, the other couch, miscellaneous piles of clutter. I stood up
again and crossed the room to browse the
massive library of DVD’s my roommate and I had collected, looking for
something to watch. Of the hundreds of
movies both on DVD and VHS adorning the shelves, there wasn’t a single
one that seemed appealing, so I returned
to the couch and picked up the Star Wars book I’d been reading off
and on for the last two weeks. I read through a
few pages of it before closing it and tossing it to the other end of the couch. I stared blankly at the TV, and then abruptly shot it with the remote, silencing and darkening it.
I lit another cigarette, took it and my beer to my room, and sat down in front of my computer. As it warmed up, I stared through my desk off into a point in space somewhere beyond it. Windows eventually booted up, and I logged onto the Internet. Before the Prodigy homepage managed to load, I redirected the browser to my mail site, and logged in. No mail. I stared at the page for a bit before closing the window. I spent a handful of seconds using the mouse to drag little squares around the Absolut Vodka ad that constituted my wallpaper before sighing heavily, and whacking the Windows, “U”, and Enter keys in rapid succession to shut the computer down. The fan powered down, and the screen shut itself off a second later, sighing its own sigh of dissipating static electricity. I pushed myself up from my uncomfortable desk chair and flopped across the width of my unfolded futon. I stared at the bumps on my ceiling.
For weeks, the nagging feeling of something missing had been haunting me. It was inescapable. It lingered in the back of my mind at all times, no matter what my outside mood was. I’d gotten out more than usual at first, trying to get away from it. I’d gone to shows, seen a few movies, hung out with friends at coffee shops till the wee hours of the morning. Pot, alcohol, cigarettes, DVD’s, TV, CD’s. I knew it was all escapist behavior, and didn’t try to rationalize it. I knew full well that I was trying to push the nagging doubts out of my mind by keeping busy. But it always returned to this. Wandering the empty apartment, alone while my roommate was out.
It wasn’t just the sense of missing something. I found that at some
point, I had just plain stopped caring
about anything. Things happened, Shit happened, but it all just passed
through me without leaving a mark. I
plodded through my daily routine like a tired old cliché. I
became increasingly introverted, conversations with
anyone tended to trail off into silence. At school I would sit by
between classes on the cold steps outside
this building or that smoking, plugged into my Discman, staring at
the people wandering by from behind my
sunglasses. I kept my jacket zipped all the way up, and my hat pulled
down, trying to physically distance myself
from the world around me. I rarely thought in a conscious, linear fashion anymore. The things that passed through my head weren’t words or sentences, but vague impressions of emotion, states of mind. None of them were uplifting or positive. Much of the time, they weren’t specifically negative, either. I existed without living. I felt trapped and excluded even while surrounded by my own belongings and friends. Even the town, with its college and scores of interesting people and places had grown cold and alien to me. At the same time as the outside world and I receded from each other, I felt something closing in, clawing at me, prying into my subconscious.
The Darkness Behind: Desperation and Reaction
Laying there on my futon, it all came suddenly, rushing into me. I
it physically, my muscles tensing, a
scream welling up, mounting into a desperate crescendo that pushed
through clenched teeth, forcing my mouth
open. Suddenly sitting bolt upright, I found my arm swinging at the
case of diskettes on my nightstand. They flew
out, sailing in every direction, bouncing off my bookshelves and computer monitor, and finally clattering to rest across the floor in a random spread of multicolored squares. I pulled my backpack and hiking pack out of my closet, dumped my schoolbooks out of the former, and dropped a duffel bag next to them on the futon. I crammed as many articles of clothing into the bag as I could, and loaded the two packs with notebooks, an assortment of novels, and my CDs. I gathered toiletries and the more rudimentary camping gear: flashlight, batteries, pocket knife, matches. Everything went downstairs to my delapidated but functional Toyota minivan that I’d bought off my parents when I moved out. I went back upstairs for blankets, an old Army-issue mummy bag my dad had given to me, and all the assorted pillows on my futon. Another trip to the car and back upstairs. I raided the cupboards for food, and dug out more camping gear: propane stove and fuel, a cooler and large thermos, which were filled with the food and water, respectively. I lugged it all downstairs, and went back for the last load of stuff, which included a heavy winter
jacket, my photography gear, and assorted odds and ends that caught my eye and might prove useful. I wiped off the dry erase board that hung over the phone, and scrawled:
Had to go
for a while. Be back after Christmas sometime. Took your weed (sorry).
bucks on the end table to cover it, plus some. Sorry to worry you, but I just had to leave and get
things in perspective.
I checked my watch, and added:
3:14 am, Dec 21.
I remembered, somehow, that today was Winter Solstice. Shortest day of the year. More to the point, at the end of this day would be the longest night of the year. I marveled darkly at the timing. It seemed apropos in the most unsettling way possible. I don’t know how I even realized it. I’d never really thought about any solstice at all, winter or summer. I must have seen it on my calendar and stored it away in some dark, out of the way closet in my memory for future reference. Shrugging the coincidence out of my mind, I gathered the last of my supplies and locked up.
I got in the van, started her up, and drove away, making one quick stop at the corner gas station to top off my tank, and for several packs of Lucky Strikes and an armful of snacks and beverages.I headed northeast once I got to the highway, because I’d never been that way before.
Flight from Darkness: Fog and Nigh; Enlightenment and Dawn
I drove through the fog, keeping my speed down a bit after I noticed a tendency to speed. The lack of visibility drastically reduced my perception of speed, so I locked the cruise control for just below the legal limit, and concentrated on staying within the lines. They swam out of the impenetrable wall of diffused light cast by my headlights just a few feet in front of me. To either side, there was nothing but blackness and I imagined I was sailing through the unthinkable interstellar void of deep space. Behind me my taillights cast a cloud of red that chased me like a ball of fire. The radio was on low, tuned to an early-morning techno show. It was the relaxing, mellow sort. The kind you listen to when you get really baked and stare at a wall, just relaxing. As I moved through the shroud of fog and night, any awareness I had of the rest of the world dwindled, and eventually was left behind, left to sit by the side of the road watching the red cloud of my lights disappear into the fog.
From time to time, I would pass another car. Their own clouds of light would swim out of the murk slowly, and then swim back into it behind me. Each time I passed another car, I would be intrigued by the fact that they only made me feel more isolated. The people in those cars might as well be on distant planets. Totally unreachable, essentially nonexistent.
Like a shadow, I flowed effortlessly through the night, cutting a
through the fog that filled immediately
behind me. I left no trace of my passing. I came and went like a
dream. My right hand loosely gripped the
wheel, my left held a constant string of cigarettes. Staying between
the brief lines that flashed by became a
subconscious act. My hand moved the car, sensed the road, acted. Soon, it seemd that my body and the car itself faded away, and I was just a spark of consciousness cutting through the world. Freed of my body and of the world, I felt a weight lift from my mind, and I edged closer to contentment than I had for ages. I flew through the hours and miles, knowing them for the abstract concepts they were.
A handful of seconds disappeared abruptly. I blinked, and lost more time than I should have. I uttered a curse to myself, realizing I had begun drifting off. I had become pure consciousness, and then that too had succumbed to the rhythm of the road. My body and the car came back, and drug my mind back with it. The spell of my brief enlightenment was replaced by adrenaline. I turned the heater down, tuned in an obnoxious morning show, and rolled the window down halfway to keep from growing too comfortable again. I popped a No-Doz and opened a bottle of Jolt.
Soon, the road took over again, and again came the sense of peace, but I remained more alert than before. My mind was heightened rather than elevated. Not quite as beautiful, but having advantages all its own.
Just like the night before when the fog had snuck up on me, I abruptly realized that the world had grown lighter. Suddenly I could see the shoulders of the road, and a longer stretch of asphalt ahead of me. I didn’t bother to look at the clock. It was enough to know that dawn was coming. The measurement of time meant nothing to me, and would only ruin the spell I’d set upon myself. Ahead of me, light broke over an unseen horizon. It seemed clean even through the fog, which was gradually dissipating. With the creeping dawn came a sense of ending. The night’s hold on me dwindled away, and I mourned the loss. A sense of sadness returned slightly, like the end of a long journey. I was abruptly aware of impending exhaustion, so I pulled into the next rest stop, and stopped the engine. It ticked and hissed as it relaxed after its marathon through the cold night.
Wanting to make the stop more productive, I pulled my camera out of its bag, and climbed out of the van. I finished off a color roll with shots of the rising sun and patterns of frost on crimson leaves strewn across the grass by the rest stop. I wound the roll up and popped a black and white roll in. Working quickly, trusting my intuition about framing, I snapped as many pictures as I could of bare trees shrouded in the last dregs of fog, and of the picnic gazebo and restroom facilities looming out of the dwindling mist. I caught pools of clouds hiding in dips in the ground, and candid shots of a vanload of weary parents and their children stretching their legs before journeying back out onto the highway. I climbed back into the van, pulled all the curtains and, shivering, stripped down to a pair of cotton shorts and a stocking cap. Wrapping up in the mummy bag and pulling several heavy blankets around me and a nest of pillows in the cramped but oddly comfortable floorspace between the seats, I fell into an abyss of dreamless sleep.
Flight from Darkness: Waking and Doubting
I awoke late in the day. The sun was low on the opposite horizon,
the first evidence of dusk was
spreading around the rest stop. I felt refreshed, and for some time
remained wrapped up, laying on the van’s floor.
Within seconds, a dull panic began to encroach on my peaceful state
of mind. What the hell was I doing? Just
dropping everything and fleeing into the night was ludicrous. People would worry, I would most likely have no job when I returned. Scenarios of my death flashed through my mind. Alone, dead, lost to my friends and family. The people I know standing by my grave, angry and grief-stricken at my stupidity. Any one of a million things could happen to me, and for what? So I could indulge some fantasy of finding a new life on the road.
All the oppression and nagging emptiness returned in a heartbeat. I
put my hands to my face and wept
uncontrollably. When I stopped, out of breath and stained with tears
and snot, I stared at the ceiling. My breathing
returned to normal gradually, and I felt slightly better, though I
realized that now I really was very alone. I cleaned
myself up and got dressed. After turning the car on to defrost it, I bundled up and stepped into the deepening evening. I headed for the restroom, and returned to the car. After some coaxing, I got my propane stove to work, and cooked some soup in the gazebo. I ate, and then hid behind the gazebo to smoke a joint, then took a last walk around the rest stop with my camera before getting back in the van. I sat behind the wheel without moving.
I had a renewed sense of hope for my expedition. I decided to drive out through the night, and half of the next day before turning around and heading back. With some hard driving, I could make it home by Christmas Eve, and spend the Holidays with my family, and the friends who were coming back from miscellaneous colleges.
Heartened, I looped out of the rest stop and continued east into the evening.
The Darkness Ahead: Climatic Changes and Unease
The sun sank below the horizon, and the last splinters of color drained after it from the cloudy sky. The moon rose, and I watched it drift behind thickening clouds until it was lost to sight. Though the sky above was dense, the air was clear on the ground and visibility was excellent. The road stretched ahead into the limits of my headlights, and their white, harsh light lit the fields on either side of me starkly against the dome of blackness that capped the world. There was a naked beauty to the sharp contrast of light and shadow created as I sped deeper into the night. I played some upbeat CD’s, smoked my Luckies, and generally communed with the night.
It began snowing lightly not long after I had left the rest stop. At
first, I was dazzled by the beauty of the
slivers of ice crystals flashing into the beams of my lights. They
came straight at me, streaking through the
blackness. It was akin to entering lightspeed, with the stars
towards me in a column of flickering light. It
was dry snow, so the road soon began to disappear occasionally beneath slithering tendrils of windswept snow. They undulated like sea snakes across the black pavement. It made me feel wonderful, watching it. I was again glad that I had left my world behind for a while.
However, the storm continued to grow. The snow got wetter, heavier.
It must have been moving west,
because there was more accumulation as I headed east. It was passing
through, and I knew I was heading into the
heart of it. The sense of awe was tainted by an underlying layer of
nervousness. I chalked it up to being uneasy
about driving in such weather, and told myself that I could stop at a rest stop or small town if it got too bad.
But the storm continued to grow, as did my unease. My earlier thoughts of misfortune and death began to creep back into the forefront of my mind. Determined not to turn back, I tried to ignore it, and concentrate on the beauty of the storm instead of its threat.
I noticed I had begun to chain-smoke, and that my grip on the wheel was making my hands ache. When not sucking on a cigarette, my teeth would clench, and my jaw muscles tightened.
The night before had given me a sudden enlightenment. I had jumped into a state of complete contentment, near bliss. This night, though, the sudden change went the other way. I was gripped abruptly with panic, verging on outright terror. I realized I didn’t know exactly where I was. All the weeks that had gone before came back with their emotional baggage. As it had been in my apartment, so was it now in the van. I felt claustrophobic, depressed. I felt as if I was forgetting something vital. I sensed that I was about to scream, to break again, so I sparked another joint and took a few puffs off of it. The panic dissipated, but the old darkness in my soul remained. I was angry and alone again. The thicker the snow became, the more shut-in I felt. Last night I had felt my isolation as a good thing. A sort of meditative detachment. Now it was again the enemy.
The snow stopped. It was slow going for a long time, because the road was very much buried. The gloom I felt inside was augmented by the stress of slipping and sliding, and being pushed around by the fierce winds that had begun blowing some time before.
Though hundreds of miles away from home, I was right back where I had started.
The Darkness Ahead: Last Oasis and Revelation
God knows how long I crept through the snowbound road, clutched in
grip of my increasing insanity. It
seemed like eternity. It seemed like I was moving without making
The landscape changed and yet
remained the same. Everything was a sea of bare, undisturbed whiteness
that glowed unnaturally under the dark
Without warning, my tires found traction, and I jolted ahead before regaining control. I had come upon plowed roads. As I gained speed, my panic subsided, leaving me with a post-adrenaline low that made things even worse.
Plowed roads meant civilization, which meant I would not be alone. I decided to find a truck stop, even though I was alright on gas, having filled up a couple hours out from the rest stop. I hoped the prospect of seeing at least one other person would lighten my mood, but this, too, only made it deepen. It was a future event, as yet untouchable. I was still alone, still being ground down by the weight of the world.
When the bright, harsh lights of the truck stop finally glimmered
view, I sighed heavily, relaxing a bit. I
pulled in, squinting against the brilliant halogen lights that glared
down onto the huge paved lot, lighting it and the
surrounding snow with excruciating intensity. The truck stop swam in
the surrounding night like an oasis, and I
welcomed it as if I had been roaming through blistering sand dunes with no memory of the last time I had tasted water.
I filled up at a pump, and went inside to get some coffee and donuts and pay for the gas.
“Nasty night to be out drivin’ around,” said the scruffy, unshaven man at the counter, his voice raspy from too many cigarettes and too much alcohol, but friendly in the way old men can be. “Headed back home for the Holidays, son?”
“Not headed anywhere, really. I just took off for a while. I’m turning back tomorrow at midday.”
“This one of those ‘finding y’self’ things? Sure picked a nasty time a’ the year t’ do it.”
“Naw. This is more like one of those ‘Getting away from things that found you’ things. Had to get out, get away.” I sipped my coffee, and felt the warmth of it rush through my veins. “But I guess if I find something else on the way, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, huh?”
“But there’s always a chance somethin’ else gon’ find you, though, ain’t there? You been successful at all gettin’ away from those otha things?”
“Guess that risk just goes with the territory. I’ve been partly successful. Not totally. But every bit helps, right?”
The old man smiled. “Good way to look at things. Y’ jes’ watch yerself out there. Never know when somethin’ gon’ find you.”
I chuckled lightly. “Guess not. But that’s life, huh?” I picked up my gloves from the counter and turned to go. “Have a good one.”
“Good luck, son.”
“Thanks.” I left, and got back into the van. I paused at the exit onto the highway, suddenly not sure if it was time to head back or not. I stayed for maybe ten minutes, mulling over what the old man had said, and the events of the last couple days. I looked east into the night, and west into the night. From where I sat, both looked the same.
It struck me how right that was and, smiling, I turned west and rolled into the night towards home, kicking up rock salt and sand in my wake, no longer terrified of the darkness I’d been fleeing.
The Darkness: Victory and Defeat
The roads had, by then, been plowed quite a bit further, and the going was easy. I relaxed, floating in the new sense of contentment I had found, anxious to get back home and take a hot shower, and sleep on my futon. Only two days absent, but what a difference. It seemed like an eternity rather than the handful of hours it had been in reality.
I tore through the dark night, appreciating again the crystalline beauty of the pure snow to either side of me, and the shimmering clouds of it tossed by the calming winds. It began to snow once more, slow, steady, with graceful large flakes. I smiled.
I had just tossed a cigarette out the window, rolled it up, and returned my hand to the wheel when I caught blur to my left. In the fractioned second it took for my body to surge with adrenaline, the buck was in front of me, and I was turning hard to the right. There was a flash of a deep black eye set in soft, light brown fur, the eye wide with horror, a flailing of antlers, a mouth gaping open in surprise. There was a crunching, and a shattering, and my vision burst with white agony. As the van tipped, I saw the buck somersault across the frozen ground. In terrible slow motion, I saw it head curve unnaturally under its body before it slid to a stop in a ditch by the side of the road. Pain exploded all around and inside me, and I felt the van follow the buck into the ditch, and stop suddenly.
I found myself laying across the shattered remains of the driver-side window. The van lay on that side, earth and snow strewn through the interior, mixed with metal, cloth, and blood. Part of my mind knew I was in shock, so I wasn’t feeling much pain. I began pulling myself from the car, out through the obliterated windshield. I rolled onto my back, my head tilted to the side, and I saw the buck.
The Darkness: Union
It was still alive, but just barely. I knew it was dying, and the buck knew it as well. Its breathing was ragged, and it twitched violently a few times, but its eyes remained alert, and staring at me. The wind had gone, and the snow fell delicately down. I could hear its soft wet pff pff pff as it hit the ground around the buck and I. I returned its gaze without blinking.
I’m sorry, I told him. But there was no accusation in the his eyes. He only stared at me, wondering if I, too, was in as much pain as he was. I sensed in his gaze that he was aware, too, of the falling snow, and the muffled silence of the world around us. I knew he was at peace, glad to die surrounded by the pristine beauty of the new snow. I reached my hand out, and stroked his face. His mouth closed, and the ragged edge left his breath. He blinked once, looked at me again, and closed his eyes. They did not open again. I stayed in that position, slowly stroking the buck’s face with my bare fingers, staring at his form, still powerful and awesome, even while mangled and broken.
Warmth blossomed out from deep in the core of my person. Calmness, contentment. I stared at the buck without blinking. I felt again the enlightenment I had experienced that fist night out, but in a much more profound way. I smiled, and closed my eyes. As consciousness began to slip away, I wondered for the first time if I, too were dying as the creature beside me had died: Content and happy in the untouched snow. I thought I heard a siren approaching as blackness took hold of me, and I sank deeper into it. I wondered if they would be quick enough to save me. My last thought before I slipped into darkness was that one way or another, something had found me, and I had found something.