The Bad Thing

I wake up with it twined around me like the ragged remnants of a bad dream.

It follows me around the silent house like a shadow as I get dressed, get ready for work. When I leave the house it slips out ahead of me into the sunlight, into the bright morning, like the promise of rain.

As I walk through the deserted back streets it snaps at my heels, it tugs at the hem of my dress. I walk past the frieze of sealed doors and windows, the closed eyes and mouths and ears of houses; it runs ahead of me, seeking dead-end alleys. It dives into every splash of sunlight and every pool of shade. When it finds loose earth it digs, and digs, pulling up the twisted roots and tired bones that flowers are planted to hide. It rubs itself against rows of snapdragons until their fire goes out.

I have tried a million collars and leashes but it escapes them all. I can neither hold it, nor contain it, nor discipline it.

It scuttles out in front of me, nearly spilling me into the path of an irate cyclist, as I emerge from the maze of silent streets; it smells humanity ahead. It dances before me as I frame my face into a vague smile and prepare to pass through the nameless hordes. It tugs at the hems of passers-by, dragging them into my path; it bites, it scratches, it secretes its essence on everything it touches. Soon the people are a blistering rash of irritation, their faces swelling and distorting to unbearable grotesqueness, their voices loud and cracked and brassy; a wave of bile and nausea wells up within me, threatening to break over me and drown me. All the while it capers before me, mocking my distress.

Somehow I drag it -- or perhaps it drags me -- to work, and I sit at my desk, and it settles itself around my shoulders like a mantle. I become restless under its ever-increasing weight, I fidget, I cannot concentrate. It rests, vast and thoughtless. It appears to need no sustenance; perhaps it takes what it needs from me, drinking my tears before they reach my eyes. Or perhaps it is always cold and hungry, like the waiting jaws of a nightmare in the moments before sleep.

I stare at the screen. It is not interested in this, and tries to distract me. It succeeds. I continue staring at the screen but really I am watching it out of the corner of my eye; as I wait for it to pounce I chew my fingers so hard that I draw blood.

It never pounces. It just waits.

If it could talk, what would it tell me about tomorrow? No afternoon has ever gone so slowly. Yesterday seemed bad, the worst to date, but today is worse still. Would I want to know what it could tell me about tomorrow? If not, would it tell me anyway, even if I blocked my ears and screamed to drown it out, would it crawl into my head through the pores of my skin, would it burrow into the soft tissues of my brain until awareness of it was the only thing I knew?

I sit, doing nothing, as long as I can. Eventually it nudges me, reminding me what awaits me at home. It forces me to rise, to leave the building, to unravel my day back through the streets that brought me here. It forces me onwards, not letting me stop to see the damage it has done, leading me blindfold into its inevitable future.

Every flower is bright again now, and it blights them anew, building pain on fresh pain. It does not spare the dying sunlight; it wraps itself around the rays and pulls them up by the roots. On this, the return journey, it digs deeper; it taints the memories of tainted memories.

I let myself in to the empty house and somehow it is already there, waiting for me; perhaps it has slid in through the letterbox, through a nearly-shut window, through any last vestige of hope. I settle myself in front of a different screen and as I stare it curls up in my lap, offering me nothing, yet making its presence impossible to ignore. It is content, and I am too tired to protest.

When I finally crawl into bed, it slides in besides me.

One day it will curl around my head as I sleep and slowly, softly, smother me where I lie. Tonight, though, it merely winds itself around me like your absence, like a shroud.

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