Counting In The Dark
Derek Hilliard loved numbers and walking. On his way home from the accounting firm where his office was located he counted his steps; 572, 573, 574. This was his custom with every trip he could justify not taking a cab for, which also happened to be most of them.
From his house, he knew that it took 550 steps to make it to Nelly’s Diner for when he wanted a burger, and it was 495 to the grocery store. The count began when his foot left the stoop of his small porch and ended when his foot landed on either the first stair of the establishment or when he passed through his destination’s door if there were none. Most importantly the number when he reached said destination was required to end in a numeral of 5. This could never waver. Day in and day out Derek ran trillions of numbers through his mind and they were all arbitrary and messy, ending in 4s and 7s or, most frustrating, a 9.
Goosebumps rose on his arms and neck just at the thought of it. Derek shook it out as he re-popped his collar against the chill lingering in the late October air. The cold normally didn’t bother him, but it seemed to be moving in aggressively this year. Glad I decided to bring –
– my scarf with me today –
The sun had already dipped below the monolithic forest of buildings around him, but he could still see a puff of steam before his eyes with every breath and number counted. No matter –
– we’ll be home soon –
– and we’ll put on some tea.
Derek had finally purchased a new book the day previous, and the thought of tea, his chair, and a night of Grisham put a bit of a pep in his step.
– 579, 580
He nearly lost his count, a disaster which had only occurred once before, as he all but stumbled directly into a construction safety barrier. “What the?!” he started, indignant.
He recalled seeing the equipment and workers bustling about this section of the sidewalk on his way into the office that morning, but now the machinery was abandoned and the workers were nowhere to be found. Reflective orange netting was wrapped judiciously around large construction cones and barriers, blocking off all passage through the site which was now littered with large chunks of concrete, rebar, and miscellaneous trash.
His incredulity rose further as he wondered how he was to get home now, or how any other vehicle was supposed to pass through at that. As he stood currently, though, he had the road to himself. To his right, he saw a detour sign guiding the would-be traffic down a series of back roads that would most likely circle back around to 5th, where he now stood at 580 steps. If he had been able to progress forward, as he normally would, there only remained another 465 steps. If he took the path right, there really was no telling where it would lead. I believe that actually might be where the train passes through. The train had been the cause of his losing count three months prior. Forced to stop and wait for it to pass he had had no choice but to count the number of cars passing and, consequently, lost track of his steps. Right was a no go.
To Derek’s left ran a small trail he saw almost immediately hooked back right and seemed to lead parallel with the sidewalk. To the left we go. Almost robotically he swiveled in place and proceeded down the path, needing to duck a bit under the small tree branches.
581, 582, 583.
A mild stroke of panic rose in his chest as he saw the path meander a bit further off to the left before him until it disappeared entirely into a small grove of trees. What if this didn’t lead back to the road? What if it was a dead-end and he would have to walk back by the train anyway? He strained to see in the failing light what was beyond the trees and made out a brick wall. A small building, perhaps? It was likely he could skirt the side of it and be on his merry way. Hopefully.
He approached where the trail led off to the left. To his right, he could see the reflective orange peeking through leaves and branches. He had no choice but to proceed.
The trees now ran into thicker forest. Derek was a bit surprised to find this close to the city, tucked away in secret. The forest ran off into darkness that would most definitely impede the efficiency of his trip and his counting. The trail, though, curved right once more and led into its own problem. Before him, affixed to the brick wall he had seen before, was what looked to be a small utility tunnel. Rather, it used to have been one, for now small vines grew on and through the crumbling grout holding the building together. He could see thickets of weeds and unkempt tufts of grass dotting the gravel floor before it ran into total darkness.
He took a few hesitant steps towards the mouth of the tunnel. 588…589. Did he really mean to enter such a place? Derek was not one to entertain frightening thoughts of any kind outside that of losing his count again or coming upon a situation where he couldn’t round out the numbers, but he was not immune to finding a dark and isolating place such as the one before him unpleasant.
He squinted his eyes and saw a streak of light reflecting against the wall of the far end. The sun had all but set at this point, which meant that it was likely to be from a street lamp at its outlet shining against the interior bend of the tunnel. Good, a shortcut. Let’s just get it over with. Derek began to walk into the tunnel with more than a hint of uncertainty about what he was doing. No matter, though; the normal course home was just out of reach and this entire detour would likely only add another three hundred steps at most. He could adjust his stride once he was back on track to bring the numbers in line again.
He was torn in quickening his steps to get through the tunnel sooner, but the more the echoing darkness enveloped him, the less he wanted to be here. The soles of his shoes crunched on the soil beneath him, sending reverberations and startling sounds back at him in a disorienting fashion.
He swallowed a lump forming in his throat. Almost halfway now. Nearly there. He could no longer make out the mostly vulgar graffiti on the ancient walls around him. The ceiling was uncomfortably low even as he had entered, but in the void of the tunnel, fully within its shadowy grasp and unable to see where it was now hanging, it felt as if it were only inches from the hair on his head.
Derek kept his eyes locked onto the streak of light now only a few feet from him. It was his anchor and waypoint in the claustrophobic darkness that was everything his senses could perceive.
The sound that he had most definitely not caused came from behind him. He stopped walking. 602 steps, remember that. He considered if he should turn and see what the origin of the sound had been, knowing full well that he didn’t want to.
It came again. Crrrrrunch. This time followed by something dragging. Then again.
A low gurgle of a voice emerged from the nothingness behind him. “Now what do you think you’re doing here?” The inquiring voice bounced all over the walls and ceilings, surrounding him.
Unsure of what it was he had intended to say, Derek opened his mouth to reply, but was only able to produce small choking sounds as he was frozen in place.
“This is my corner, my place.” Another prolonged step and the sound of dragging. It now sounded terribly close. “There is no room for the numbers you hold dear, boyyy.” The voice drew out on the last word and curled around him.
Derek finally turned in place to see what it was speaking to him. The light bleeding in from the entrance of the tunnel he had come from was now a low and weak orange from the street lights on that end. The shadow was difficult to make out; he thought he could see what almost seemed to be a tophat on a human head attached to a fairly normal-looking torso, but the legs were cartoonishly long and reached forward like that of a giant spider, and his arms were of equal length, dragging like long strands of rope in the dust behind it. A scream caught in his throat as he watched this unreal thing make its way toward him with awkward, long strides. It moved like a marionette puppet, seemingly untethered by physics or gravity.
“Come back with me to dark under your bed, the void outside of your bedroom window where we will drink deep of the unknowable and I will sow you in with the others.” The things pace quickened, now only 30 or so feet away, which it would be able to cross in another three of its unnatural paces.
Derek finally broke free of his paralytic fear and ran for the exit around the corner in front of him. He was sure he couldn’t outrun the thing in the tunnel, but it didn’t matter. The shadow’s footfalls began to fall in a series of four at a time. In his mind, he saw it drawing its rag like arms in front of it in a horrendous gallop. He dared not risk looking behind, though, as it would only slow him down, and he might be overcome once again with the fright a child feels when they’ve caught sight of a coat hanging just so in the cracked door of their closet in the middle of the night.
And then Derek was standing in a clearing on the other side of the tunnel, the sidewalk in front of him and a street light bathing him in glorious sanity once again. He took four long and hurried strides to put himself into the ring of light and turned to look at the darkness from which he had just emerged, convinced he would see the thing lunging for him with otherworldly claws and a million small mouths to devour him. There was nothing, though. Just the mouth of the tunnel, almost leering at him.
Now the only thought persisting through Derek’s mind, other than he was sure he might never sleep again, was that he had now lost count of his steps.