Panic


Paul’s eyes fluttered open slowly and the incandescent lights around him seemed blindingly bright. So this is death, he thought to himself, if only momentarily. As his vision came into focus and the glare of the light waned, he realized that he was not dead at all. He was lying in bed, a sickly odor of disinfectant, unique to hospitals, lingering in the unmoving air. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see his parents conferring, in hushed tones, with two doctors, their backs to him. He tried to turn and face them but his neck would not move. He tried to speak but neither his lips nor his tongue would move and no voice came. Suddenly, his brain was furiously sending signals to all parts of his body from the tips of his toes to his scalp. All went unanswered as all had been unheard. The only responsive parts of his body were his eyes and eyelids, the latter madly blinking as if having taken on the burden of all the panicked brainwaves simultaneously. Horror, as profound as ancient death, gripped his brain in ice-cold hands. A shriek welled within him and drove up into the back of his throat. Except for his eyes and eyelids, not a single muscle twitched and not a sound came forth.

*

It was the middle of January in the dead of night as he trudged home angrily. He had fought bitterly with his girlfriend at her apartment and had ended up storming out in frustration. She had been accusing him of infidelity and not for the first time. He was entirely innocent. What was so maddening to him was that he had been less so with other girlfriends and, ironically, had never once before stood so accused. He bitterly kicked a hunk of ice up the sidewalk and Jack, his big, black dog, scampered happily after it. It was snowing heavily, thick wet flakes deadening what little street noise there was. He could see less than half a block in front of him.

He could hear the rasping of the shovel on the pavement before its owner came into view. Up ahead, an old man was laboriously clearing the snow from the sidewalk in front of his apartment. This was bizarre, given the lateness of the hour, but he was too preoccupied to think much of it. That is, until the man raised the shovel high over his head and was about to bring it down on Jack who was loping past him, tail wagging. Already angry, Paul was suddenly hijacked by an all-consuming, unbridled rage. His dog meant more to him than anything else. Charging at the man, he wrenched the shovel from his hands and threw it to the ground. Taking the alarmed man by the front of his coat, he repeatedly punched him as hard as he could in the face, broken teeth tearing at the flesh on his knuckles with each visceral blow. Only when he was too exhausted to throw another punch did he finally let go, the man collapsing in on himself, like a building collapses when demolished, into a snow bank. He marched away with his puzzled dog at his side, the pitiable moans emanating from the crumpled body at the side of the road fading quickly with each crunching step into the stormy night and towards home.

*

The next day, Paul slept in late and only woke up when Jack began licking the dried blood from the back of his right hand. As he examined his hand, the details of the night before came flooding back in their crimson violence. What have I done? he thought, trembling, as he made his way to the bathroom. His mind was reeling as he watched the last of the blood curl lazily down the drain. The police could be looking for me right now… I could… I could go to prison. The thought hit him like a hammer blow as his stomach coiled into a tight wedge of fear and his face and chest broke out in anxiety sweat. Terrifying panic swelled within him. He ran from the bathroom and into the kitchen. Fumbling with the cap of the bottle of Jameson’s, he gulped it down feverishly with two capsules of Xanax. Sinking to the floor, he lay on his back on the cool tiles and tried to breathe in the measured way his doctors had taught him. Jack whined and watched over him nervously.

*

He had suffered his first panic attack three years prior when driving over the bridge from the city after work. For no apparent reason whatsoever, he suddenly felt his heart rate skyrocket and became dizzy. His breathing became short and rapid as his throat felt like it was gradually constricting. He experienced terrifying rushes of blood to the head as his heart thumped ever faster. Convinced he was in mortal peril of being struck down by either a stroke or a heart attack, or both, he urgently needed to pull over. The panic intensified as he remembered he was on a bridge with no shoulder in choking rush hour traffic. He was trapped and almost deliberately crashed his car in order to be able to get out of it.

It took a number of subsequent episodes before he finally sought medical attention and was diagnosed with acute panic disorder. After months of cognitive behavioral therapy, taken in tandem with Luvox and Xanax, he managed to rein in the problem along with some un-prescribed assistance from alcohol. Nevertheless, he remained intensely uncomfortable, if not outright terrorized, by panic whenever he found himself in any situation in which there was “no escape”: subway trains stopped between stations, elevators stopped between floors, airplanes, driving across shoulderless bridges and so on. The mere thought of the 2010 Chilean mining accident, in which 69 miners were trapped almost a kilometer underground in the dark for 69 days, would provoke a formidable display of gooseflesh etched across his entire body. His ultimate worst nightmare was being buried alive. He also maintained that if he ever fell afoul of the law, he would rather be executed than serve a prison term.

*

Paul managed to get Jack out for a walk on the deserted train tracks near where he lived. When he heard a police siren wailing in the distance he almost threw up. He spent the rest of the afternoon pacing back and forth the length of the apartment wringing his hands, drinking Jameson’s, popping pills and wondering aloud what had made him snap so uncontrollably the night before. He had never been physically violent with anyone in the past. There was just something about the vulnerable innocence on Jack’s face before the shovel came down. There was nothing more to it than that, he concluded. The man was about to kill his best friend and his anger had simply obliterated, however temporarily, his sanity.

Finally, the local evening news came on which he watched anxiously. The program was almost over when the dreaded announcement came:

And finally tonight, in the early morning hours today an elderly man was savagely beaten to death outside his home on Raven Street near Poet’s Square. The man has been identified as Mr. Abraham Doges and the Coroner’s Office has confirmed that the cause of death was traumatic brain injury. Neighbors are shocked by the killing and say that Mr. Doges, a widower, was active in the community and well-liked. Police say they believe the beating took place sometime between 2:30 and 3:30 AM. Currently no witnesses have stepped forward, likely due to the late hour, heavy snow and low visibility. Complicating matters, police say that the crime scene was contaminated by city snow plows cleaning the streets early this morning. If you have any information…

The TV image of a smiling, affable-looking Abraham Doges snapped off with a click. The remote slid through Paul’s fingers and clattered to the floor, batteries scattering from its casing. Sitting on the sofa, he clutched his head in his hands as spasms of sobbing wracked his body and Jack licked at his slippery cheeks.

*

Two weeks went by and it had become clear that there were no witnesses and the police had no leads. The case was already as cold as Abraham Doges’s frozen corpse the morning it was discovered. Paul’s acute guilt was a peculiar kind of torture. He wanted nothing more than to turn himself in and accept responsibility but his panic would not allow it. Going to prison was simply not an option. He resolved to simply lie low and hope for it to all just recede, over time, into the dimness of the past where doors can be locked and windows sealed.

It was then that the haunting began. It was always the same: Abraham Doges would appear before him, either from afar or at close quarters. He never said anything. He wore the same broad smile on his face from the television picture only his teeth were shattered islands of white in a black pool of blood that flowed gracefully from his mouth, fountain-like, down his chin and neck. His nose was split open. One eye was swollen shut and the other looked popping-out and demon-like, ropy pulsating veins orbiting its judgmental glare.

He could appear anywhere at any time: across the street, in a bus shelter, in an office corridor, the supermarket – anywhere. Paul knew he was not seeing things because Jack could see it too. He would alternate between snarling and whimpering, his fur standing up spikilly up and down his back and motionless tail. This terror was real. And it took its toll. After three months, Paul had quit his job and ended his relationship with his girlfriend. He only communicated with his friends and family online and then only briefly. The only time he would leave his apartment was to walk Jack on the tracks where there was no one around. His apartment had become his fortress as it was the only place, mercifully, that Abraham Doges had not appeared.

*

It was the one-year anniversary of the killing. Paul sat on the toilet seat attempting to vacate what little was in his bowels as he drank Jameson’s straight from an oversized bottle. On the side of the bath, a cigarette burned listlessly in a soap dish that had been converted into an ashtray. Jack had died a month earlier. The vet determined the cause of death to be a heart attack but was at a loss to explain why such a young dog would suffer from one. Paul knew why. He sighed heavily as he pulled up his pants and flushed the mucousy yellow fluid that had come out of him down the toilet. Crushing out the cigarette, he turned to face himself in the bathroom mirror and screamed. Abraham Doges was standing right behind him, his gory reflection leering within the mirror’s frame.

“No!!!” shouted Paul. “Not here! Not in here!!!”

“I wasn’t going to hurt your dog,” said Abraham Doges in a slow, creaking voice, the first time he had ever spoken in all of the hauntings, frothy flecks of blood spattering the glass of the bathroom mirror.

“You… you were going to kill my Jack… I saw you… you were going to!”

The ghost reached out a gnarled hand and placed it on Paul’s shoulder. It was colder than ice and a strange bluish vapor rose from the cracked, leathery skin. “I was only stretching my back. I was old and sore and you killed me. You killed me,” he hissed as the popping demon-eye went as red as burning coal, searching Paul’s gaunt, anguished face.

*

Paul walked along the train tracks, unused for so long they were overgrown with unsightly shrubs armed with curved thorns as if prepared for battle. A light fog weaved through the twilight air, partially obscuring the ramshackle warehouses, mostly abandoned, that lined the tracks still awaiting shipments discontinued long ago. There was an ineffable odor in the air. He thought to himself if corruption had a smell it would smell like this. At least no one was around. Not even Abraham Doges. He reached the bridge that spanned a dried-up, garbage-strewn spillway far down below. Halfway across the bridge, he stepped up onto the short crumbling concrete wall that flanked it and peered down. Quoting the Bible, but not addressing God, he said weakly “into your hands I commit my spirit” and let himself fall out into the gathering gloom.

*

The doctors had been gently explaining to Paul that he had locked-in-syndrome. Although fully awake and alert he could not move or communicate verbally due to complete paralysis of all voluntary muscles in the body except for the eyes and eyelids. The cause of the condition, they explained, was traumatic brain injury after falling from the bridge. As the doctors talked, telling him to blink once for “yes” and twice for “no”, his distraught parents, holding each other, looked on.

“Oh, my God,” his mother cried, “I’ve never seen him look so… so terrified.”

“I’ve never seen anyone look so terrified,” his father whispered. “He seems to be fixated on something behind us… in… in the corner over there by the chair…”

And it was true, for in the chair sat Abraham Doges, chuckling deeply and drooling blood as his veiny eye bulged. In his hand, he held Jack’s severed head.

*

About Requiem for the Damned

Ask the aliens
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