We all have a little darkness inside. Except mine is real. I see it when I look in the mirror. I turn my head to reach for a towel after showering; the mirror is white with fog and from the corner of my eye my shadow moves—like it’s got a mind of its own. Like it’s waving hello. It’s not there when Benny comes to stay. I’ve been asking her over a lot more.
I play video games a lot. Halo, Call of Duty, Silent Hill, all of those shooting games where your character wields some heavy ammo and a chip on their shoulder. I close my eyes and let my hands do the shooting. When I was little, I played Legend of Zelda. The character is this elf-kid who goes out to save the princess. I remember the world in the game had an alternate reality—a “dark world” that was the same, but bad. And a dark version of the elf-kid lived in the dark world. Same kid, except all dark, like Peter Pan’s shadow.
It starts the night of the concert with Benny. She holds our spot in the crowd while I go to get beers. The stars are faint above the pavilion. There’s a crappy emo band on. I’m standing in line, looking out over the crowd of shadowy faces. I like rock concerts because they’re loud and easy to get lost in. This big guy taps me on the shoulder. He’s like a fat version of Thor—long lanky blond hair and a smirk on his face.
“Hey man, there’s some shit on your neck,” he says. He raises his eyebrows and points. My hand floats up and I run my fingers across my neck. They come back black. At first I think it’s blood, but it feels too oily, slick between my fingers.
“What the fuck?” I say. Thor just grins at me. I stumble away—towards the row of green port-a-potties at the back of the place. They glow like little confessional booths. I pull the plastic door and reach for the grimy, plastic sink—it’s like a little doll sink in a little doll house. I bend my head over to slap water on my neck. The blackness swills down the drain, absorbing pee and beer and vomit. I crane my head in the tiny box mirror. My neck is white again.
“What happened?” Benny asks when I find her. It’s obvious I’m fucked up on the inside.
“Nothing,” I lie. She shrugs and wraps my arms around her waist. She’s pretty here; the lights from the band ricochet off her blonde hair and make it red, or blue, or black.
I try to forget the blackness as the band plays. Maybe it was mud. Or maybe I broke a pen and didn’t realize it.
But this morning, the black’s back again. I’m half-awake in the shower and there it is—swirling down the sink like the time I dyed my hair for Halloween. I scrub my neck raw. I stare at myself for a long time in the fog.
Sometimes I have bad thoughts. Like I’ll be driving and I need to grip the wheel because I can see myself veering off—into the pines that line the road. Or at night I’m lying awake and I’m thinking about knives and the way they feel when they cut into your skin. There’s a big saw in my dad’s garage. I think about cutting off my hands. I think about dead babies and where they go after they die or if they even exist yet—because they can’t think. Or if they can think and we just don’t know because they can’t communicate yet. Maybe “goo-goo-ga-ga” means “I’d rather be dead.” I think about car crashes for days after I see them. Once I saw a truck on its side in the middle of the highway and I kept driving. I was going too fast to stop, I told myself.
Benny and I met at work. We both do tech support. We’ve got matching cubicles, mine is by the copier, hers is by the bathroom. She complains about the noise of flushing and our receptionist going to pump her breast milk. I complain about the copier jamming all the time and how I’m the only one who seems to know how to fix it. I take apart the inside and shiver when the black toner plumes up in clouds. I instinctively reach for my neck. All week I’ve been running to the bathroom to wash it. It just keeps coming back. It’s moving down my back, a dark arrow. I keep thinking it won’t come clean, but it does. I can’t bring myself to ask Benny over anymore.
I’m leaving early today to go to the doctor. I google “black ink neck,” and “black shit skin,” to no avail. I tell myself I’ve got a condition. I just need some heavy-duty ointment or something. But what I’m really thinking about is how if I cut myself open the black would step out of me and leave me, like a skin suit on the floor, between the gray cubicle walls.
There’s traffic on I-90 so the doctor’s office makes me wait. There’s an old woman in the waiting room wearing a Mumu. She tells me she’s here for The Arthritis. She taps her ebony cane in rhythm with the piped-in music.
The doctor wears spectacles that make his eyes look like two black dots. I stare at the tray of silver instruments at his elbow, tweezers, scalpels, and scissors. He tells me I need to be evaluated.
As the scalpel cuts into his cheek and blackness spills out in weeping rivulets, I feel relief. I carve answers into him, into the blackness, Rorschach blots shaped like faces. The dark world is just like I’ve imagined.
Holly Lyn Walrath‘s work has appeared in Abyss & Apex, Pulp Literature, and Grievous Angels, among others. She lives in Seabrook Texas, just five minutes from NASA. She wrangles writers as a freelance editor and volunteers as the associate director of Writespace, a nonprofit literary center in Houston, Texas.