DARKER EVER AFTER • by Milo James Fowler

I’m too old for this.

Lights on, locks checked and double-checked, closets opened and shut just to make sure. Of what? That no boogeyman is hiding in there, waiting to jump out at me when I least expect it?

I shower with the door closed tight because I’ll hear it open if somebody comes in, and I’ll have that span of time between the creaking hinges and the attack to prepare myself, maybe fend it off. With what? I’ve got nothing more than my own two fists — and that nasty plunger beside the toilet.

I slide one of the chairs from the dinner table against the front door, thinking I’ll hear it scrape across the tile if somebody breaks in. I’ve never trusted a single deadbolt. Seen too many crooks break into too many houses in too many movies. Remember that one where the guy uses an oxygen tank to blow the deadbolt inside like a lethal projectile? It hits me every morning as I lock up on my way out: how minor a security measure it really is.

But I’m not worried about serial killers; human deviants don’t bother me too much. They’re few and far between, and they’re corporeal, limited by reality. Locks usually keep them out.

It’s the imaginary creatures that worry me, the ones I can see in my mind’s eye when I ask myself, “What do you really have to be afraid of? The dark? Give me a break. What’s the absolute worst thing that could happen?”

My wife is gone. She’ll be back, but she’s not here now. She visits her family in Alaska for Easter and Thanksgiving. I go with her for Christmas, but I can’t get time off work the rest of the year.

So I’m all alone. But during daylight everything’s fine.

Unlike some married couples, my wife and I are still honeymooners after five years of marriage, and I miss her. Maybe not having kids explains it. One of my coworkers recently shared the results of a study done on marital contentment, how it’s been documented to decline in direct proportion to child-rearing.

I don’t know about that. My parents always seemed content enough when I was growing up. But they do seem a lot happier now that it’s just the two of them again and my dad is retired. So there might be something to it.

If I had a kid to take care of, maybe I wouldn’t be so affected by the dark.

It’s not like a seasonal affect disorder or anything, and I’m not afflicted with a serious obsessive compulsive problem. I check the locks for my own peace of mind. And I double-check them just to be sure I’ve already checked them once. And I triple-check them before I go to bed on the off chance that I might have forgotten to double-check them.

Then I lock the bedroom door, and I inspect the walk-in closet. I keep the light on until I’m ready to climb into bed with my laptop.

Like I said, I’m not afraid of home invaders or psycho killers. I’m only afraid of those things that don’t actually exist — and I’m worried they might emerge from the dark, birthed from my own imagination.

Things like a grotesque dwarf-creature that stumps out of the hallway to stare at me while I’m watching TV, then rushes at me with a hungry growl. Or a deformed slug the size of a small sofa clinging to the ceiling over my bed with a gaping maw and inestimable rows of needle-teeth, waiting for me to fall asleep so it can drop onto my face and suck out my brains.

Okay, those are pretty stupid. I admit it.

So is the headless torso sitting on my couch, waiting for me to wake up around 3 AM for a bathroom break and a drink of water — self-defeating behavior, I know. The decapitated visitor is never really there, but I always look just in case, wondering what I would do if I found him one night, sitting so patiently and politely.

What really gets under my skin is when I wonder what it might be like to hear voices whispering, scuttling at the periphery of my consciousness in words I can’t decipher as such, yet I know they’re about me, planning to do something awful once I’m asleep.

The funny thing is, I sleep all right once the locks are checked and the closets are inspected and the chair is against the front door and the bedroom is locked and the light is on and I’ve made sure I’m alone. I sleep well enough, better than when my wife is beside me and I wake myself up with a snort and hope I haven’t woken her, too.

Maybe we should get a dog. I wouldn’t worry as much if I wasn’t all by myself.

Tonight there’s something in the darkness. I can feel it — a presence, scrutinizing me as I sit here alone in bed. Now that I’ve typed these words on the screen and realize how ridiculous my fears truly are, the dark has decided to switch tactics against me. There will be no stupid squatty monster or giant slug or headless body materializing from the void. There will be no whispered voices plotting my demise.

Instead, the darkness will thicken and grow blacker than black, suffocating my senses, and I won’t see the yellow glow of the streetlight outside penetrate the blinds on the bedroom window, and I won’t be able to reach for the wall switch and flick on the lights, because I can’t move, and I can’t see anything beyond my laptop’s glaring screen.

My fingers will slow down, too heavy to move correctly.

I will forget where some of the keys are, and I’ll keep making typos and backspacing to correct them.

I wont remmber how to s pell sone word  san d  Ill never beable to sumbit thiss wth al thes mistkkes../////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

Milo James Fowler is a teacher by day and a writer by night. His work has appeared in Cosmos, Daily Science Fiction, and Shimmer. In his spare time, he collects rejection letters.

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