BY LISA QUIGLEY
It’s cold, in the dark. You must understand this.
I’ve been formless for so long. The others are always in and out of humans, but you mustn’t fault them. We have a need. We have been deprived. It is our instinct. It is in our nature.
Still. I’ve always felt the wrongness of it, and like a man avoiding a fix, I have stayed away. Stayed sober. Stayed cold.
For a long time. For eons.
But the longing—the empty ache of that cold existence—is always so great.
There is warmth in your smile. Warmth in your youth, warmth in the honey-light of your long hair, in your innocence. The laughter that wafts from your lips: like sunshine warming hard wood floors.
I try to put my guard back up, but it is too late, the promise of your warmth is too enticing. Just a glimpse, I tell myself. Just for a moment. Just long enough to remember.
I slip from the shadows, float, formless, on the breeze, drawn in by your breath, your receptivity, your naivety. You invite me in through your lungs, into the hot pulsing of your heart, through your arteries, your limbs, to your fingertips and your toes, up your neck, along your spine, into your brain. You invite me. Remember this. And suddenly, I can see the world through your eyes.
You stop—I stop—mid-walk. Your skin—my skin—stretches itself over muscles and ligaments: soft, pliable, elastic. I breathe in sharply and feel electric as oxygen enlivens every cell. I blink, just to feel it, once, twice, three times.
I have forgotten how good it feels to be human! To be human-adjacent.
The world, usually muted, grey, flat, is alive with color and texture. The depth of sensation is vivid and intoxicating. I stand still, my feet—your feet! I mustn’t get too attached—planted firmly on the dirt hiking trail. I rub my hands together and blow into them, enjoy the friction of fingers and skin, the heat of blood and breath. I am enchanted by the glittering brilliance of the breeze licking through lush green leaves on the surrounding trees. A flash of purple catches my attention and my head jerks to the side, a clumsy motion. I see a swath of lavender flowers in a nearby bush. I surprise myself by laughing, hysterically, uncontrollably, fiercely. It bubbles up from my very core and oh, it feels so good.
And then I hear you, a prisoner in your own mind. A stab of pain as your consciousness shrieks: Let me go!
And I feel the familiar ache of guilt. But even that feels good, because it is better than feeling nothing. Just a moment more. I won’t be here long, I tell you.
I don’t want to think about you anymore, but you are stronger than you appear. You name is Madelyn Thomas, Maddie for short. You are eighteen years old, quiet and shy on the outside. You love to read about people and places and things and you want to travel, you want to taste the world. When people see you, they don’t see your dreams. They don’t know your deep capacity for love. They don’t know how you sometimes lie in bed at dawn, just so you can feel the breeze that drifts in the through the open window and lifts the pale hair on your forearms. They don’t know that for all your quietness, you are full of insight. They don’t know about your capacity for goodness. Your strength.
We are most attracted to the good-hearted because they are the warmest, the most inviting, the most open and full of trust.
You don’t deserve what I’m about to put you through.
I don’t mean to do it, or even want to. I am driven by instinct. I can’t help myself. A squirrel eats nuts, a wolf hunts deer, a beaver makes dams, and demons possess.
The last time didn’t end well. I’d ached—I still ache—over what I’d destroyed, and I’d vowed never to do it again. To be content with my cold life in the darkness. Or—life seems like such a funny word to describe it. Existence is more apt. To exist. To go on.
Forever is a long time, and you are special. And it’s been oh so long, and I just need brief relief from that relentless cold.
But it is too late. I am already slave to the demands of my addiction. Before I know what I am doing, I am on my knees, digging with my fingernails in the dirt. It has been so long since I’ve worn a body, and now that I have one, I want to feel everything. Pain intoxicates as deeply as pleasure.
I dig in the dirt like a rabid beast, ferocious, saliva dripping from the corners of my mouth—because no, it isn’t yours, not in this moment. Even as I feel your pain, I dig. Even as your fingernails shred off, I dig. The action is raw, so purely primal. I want to interact with the physical world, not just observe it from a disembodied and unattached vantage point. I want to connect with the earth in a way that humans take for granted, to feel the way the sun warms the dirt and then go deeper, into the soft cool moisture of blackened soil.
And then I see all the blood—your blood—and from somewhere deep inside it registers, and I will myself to stop. Slowly, I draw the hands up to my face, observe the broken fingernails, the shredded flesh. I am trying to keep hold of myself. You must feel that. I am trying not to get lost. I feel a surge of remorse. These beautiful hands, that beautiful skin! What have I done to you?
I stick your fingers in my mouth.
The blood tastes of warmth, and earth, and salt, and life, and the earnest ache of youthful dreams.
I should release you. I should surrender your body and return to the cold shadows. I almost feel strong enough to do it and then—
And then I feel your heart beat. A steady rhythm, slowing now after the rush of adrenaline, after that pumping, frenzied pulsing. I place a hand over the spot where it beats, and breathe slowly, regain my composure.
It just feels so good to be alive, even if that life is borrowed. Even if it isn’t mine to keep. I make a decision. I want to stay.
I don’t want to hurt you, but I can’t go back to the dark. This body belongs to you and it isn’t mine, I’m so sorry, I have no right to this. But I’m here now, and I don’t want to go back to the empty cold. A taste is never enough. You must understand.
But I am not an unfeeling creature, so I compromise.
I recede, and you resurface, and I feel your revulsion when you see your hands, experience your terror as you stumble your way back to the world, back to your car. You drive back to the place you call home, a tiny but cute studio apartment that you are proud of, but will now never hold the same comfort as it once did. You vibrate with fear and I feed on it, inhale it with the starved desperation of a man taking a first meal, or a last.
We enter your apartment, and you close the front door. We stand there like that for a long time. You tremble. I dissolve into sensation, lose myself to the vast, rainbow spectrum of your flickering emotions.
And then, quite suddenly, you feel something so sharp and unexpected it brings me back to myself.
This emotion of yours is so unfamiliar to me in human form, it takes me several moments to sort it out. And then several more moments of disbelief before I am able to accept it.
Because what you feel right now is compassion.
Your fear dissipates like morning dew in the heat of afternoon sunlight. Compassion—tenderness—ripples through your body, a physical sensation, cool rain drops on the surface of a glassy lake.
We walk down the hall, to the bathroom. You flick the light switch and stand in front of the mirror.
Our eyes meet.
You observe me and I struggle to maintain my composure. For in your eyes I see the same spark of creativity and delight that ignited the universe, so long ago. It was a single, dazzling moment, nearly lost to the gulf of dark, frigid eons that followed, and yet here, in the wet, warm sheen of your eyes, I am thrust back there. Galaxies expand and contract in the heat and sparkle of your eyes, and even now, even still, I feel that same heat, that fire of potential, burn through your veins. There is wonder in your eyes, and curiosity, too. Who are you? Where did you come from? Why are you so sad?
You meet my gaze, and you do not look away. You see me, and you are not afraid.
There is more to you than the shy, bookish girl everyone sees. You are strong, and it is your strength that saves you.
Because your strength gives me strength. I can rise above my desires, my addiction, my instinct, my nature. I was created to be one way, but I have evolved to become another.
Demons don’t have hearts, but we are not without emotion.
The corners of your lips turn up into a soft, sad smile. You lift your hand to the mirror, so our fingertips are touching. The blood on our hands is dried. The glass is cool beneath our skin.
You have brought me back to myself. You have made me remember. You take a deep, slow breath in, and exhale slowly, so I can make my exit. The glass on the mirror fogs.
It is cold, and dark, and I exist in the in-between spaces, the world that is not the world, the emptiness between the cracks, the void. I exist, and I cannot feel physical sensations.
There are other ways to know you’re alive. Demons cannot find redemption, but I have power over my choices. My existence is lonely, and cold. But I do not have to blindly follow instinct. I am not at the mercy of my nature. I can evolve. I can be deliberate. I don’t have freedom, but I have choices. There is some warmth in that.
I don’t have much of a life, but I have my dignity.
And that’s almost the same thing.
Lisa Quigley is a writer, mother, wife, and irreverent witch living in New Jersey. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Riverside’s low-residency MFA program in Palm Desert. Her work has appeared on The Manifest Station and Dwarf + Giant. She is the co-host of the new dark fiction podcast Ladies of the Fright, and she is a professor of literature and communications.
Photo by Mario Azzi on Unsplash
Published May 13th, 2018