There is a cliché for you. Shallow words if you ask me. Sure, I have spoken them myself. I have even meant them. They are still shallow. They are spoken when you have nothing better to say. The person you speak them to knows this, in their secret heart, and nods in agreement. I find the term ridiculous. If you think about it, it really is silly. The moment right before dawn’s early light starts to caress the sky is just the opposite of absolute darkness. It is a slow process, that I will grant you, but it is in no way darker than it was previously.
Why do you think we say it then? That is a damn fine question. We say a lot of meaningless garble throughout our day as we fumble to make connections with other human beings. Sure, it would be a hell of a lot less complicated if we just came out with the obvious, “I feel your pain. It is not mine so I am not really hurting as badly as you are and I have absolutely no fucking clue how to help you. Here’s a nice cliché to show all of that so we can move on with the moving on.” See, I could not even give you a blunt example without using another cliché, “I feel your pain.” True empathy is a rare occurrence. To really feel another’s pain you have to shove your own feelings completely aside and crawl into another person’s darkest recesses. Once there, you have the tedious task of digging under the dusty shelves. Sometimes you can find what you are looking for quickly. Often times, this is not the case. There are always those pesky boxes hiding on the very top shelf. The ladder you need to reach them always has a broken leg. You have to move half a dozen other nick-knacks to get to the damn thing only to have the bottom fall out once you have wrestled it from its hiding place.
If you are like me, you’ve also managed to drop three or four items onto your toes, head butted a shelf, and my personal favorite, banged your elbow so hard on a most unforgiving piece of shit ladder that you wish you would die. Mind you, this all happens exactly after you have finally located your prize just to have it scattered to kingdom come on the floor under you. This is why any home improvement project that I tackle tends to end with several mystery bruises and my general discontentment about the whole process. Sadly, I still haven’t gotten off this shaky ladder. Just my luck, it decides to go catawampus on me, sending me crashing to the ground in a tangled heap of metal, arms, legs, and somewhere my torso is in there too. While lying there on the ground, contemplating life and how I always manage to get myself into this crazy situations, I cannot help but bust out in the most maddening of laughter. It is good to do that every once in a while. Here’s another cliché for you, “If you can’t laugh at yourself, call me and I will do it for you.” I think there is even several different memes out there that boast that same tagline.
What I just described is what it is like to truly empathize with someone, to feel their pain, raw and broken. It is no wonder people shy away with empty sounding words that are false to even their ears. It is why we accept them with only a worn out sigh and a shake of agreement from our weary heads. If you are the lucky sort to find a rare soul who is willing to not only dig around in that dark and unforgiving environment, beat themselves silly and then, stand up and say, “Is that all you’ve got?” hold on tightly. There is a treasure of epic proportions. This remarkable individual will not only stand up in the face of utter defeat, but will start methodically cleaning up the mess that chaos had decided to heap on the two of you. That broken box, well what do you know, here’s a handy roll of industrial strength duct tape. Good as new. It is now the envy of every feline on the block. Better lock your doors before whiskers gets any ideas about commandeering said box-o-awesome. That traitorous ladder, not a problem. Some things are best thrown out. Ladders are replaceable. The contents of the box can be gathered, sorted and catalog. No problem. No worries.
If you are thinking that this is just one long ramble about my personal thoughts of the various wasteful clichés that encompass our day-to-day lives you are wrong. This is also not about my apparent lack of grace. Granted, there are times that I do make Mr. McGoo look downright ordinary by comparison. Unfortunately for all of you, or maybe fortunately if you are slightly twisted in nature, this is another beast entirely. Do you know what happens to all of those lost opportunities to empathize with another’s plight? It festers in the darkness. It grows. It feeds. Once it becomes strong enough, it has the power to leave the one that harbored it for so long. This is when it becomes dangerous. Without the confines of its previous prison, it has the room to expand and eat the darkness until it is a festering beast. Not only does it leave its host a hollowed out shell who feels nothing, it is loose upon the world. What do you think it does with its newfound freedom? Be brave now and I will tell you for I found myself in its presence and am damn lucky it did not consume me whole.
I was driving “The Iron Maiden” then. She was a 87’ Thunderbird, beige with white wall tires. Her body was still in fine shape but this particular lady’s mind had almost given up its will to live. On the third try, I finally got her to crank, flooding the parking lot with a very pungent cloud of oily smoke, so thick that I had to wait for it to clear before I could back out of the parking space. When the coast was clear, I backed up and started my long drive home. It was hot that night and slightly overcast. I dreaded letting the window down in case the storms that had been building all day finally decided to break. Unfortunately, the temperature was steadily climbing and of course the air conditioner only worked when it felt like it. Tonight that was a big nope. “The Iron Maiden” came with electric windows but as luck would have it, by the time I purchased said lady, they had stopped working properly. One window absolutely refused to budge and the other was what I fondly called my manual automatic window. This meant that I had to manually slide the glass up and down with my hand very carefully without it sinking completely into the door. Loads of fun while driving 65 mph down winding back roads in the middle of the night but I managed to maneuver it into an acceptable position.
I passed the lone service station out of the middle of the sticks about thirty minutes later. Since I had fueled up that very morning, I blew past it without another thought. With my music cranked loudly, I was happily singing and dancing in my metal box on wheels. My lady though, was not doing so well. If I had not been jamming in my singular style, I might have heard her wheezing. If I had not been nineteen years old and dreadfully dim in the ways of cars, I might have realized that she was starting to feel funny. There was always a vibration in the steering column but this was becoming a jerk and a twitch. Within a half of a mile, the lights started to dim just a bit. I was too busy watching the ever closing tree lines that stood guard along the roadside to notice. Deer are notorious for jumping out at the most inopportune time. Ever since my stepdad hit one on his way to work and totaled out the front of his car, I kept a watchful eye for them. I might have been so careful in this aspect because he decided to bring the deer carcass home to show everyone. Everyone being the seven or eight girls that were celebrating my birthday with us that year. Needless to say, slumber parties at my house were always eventful.
A mile from the gas station, I finally realized something was wrong. The radio went dead. The headlights went out. The engine sputtered and coughed before giving up. I coasted along far enough to pull onto the shoulder. My right rear view mirror scrapped a passing tree but I no longer cared. I was broken down, again. Did I forget to mention that happens often? So often that I should have been more cautious, but the young are stupid at times, convinced of their immortality and so forth garbage. I pulled my trusty phone out of my purse and oh lookey here! This night is getting even better! No signal. I was out in the sticks after all, but boogers to hell this was a terrible time for this to happen. Well, when is it a good time for your car to strand you alongside the road in the middle of nowhere at night? Anywho, my favorite uncle had the good graces to give me a roadside kit for this very scenario. I tried to pop the trunk, which stuck, of course it did. You saw that coming didn’t you? Did I mention that “The Iron Maiden” was also a bitch? Rest her punk ass soul, she was the biggest bitch. How I miss her! She was my first car after all.
I set up the road cones and flares so no unsuspecting driver would do me the injustice of smashing the old biddy to smithereens. That was a task I hoped to do myself, thank you very much. I had a tire iron with her name on it, damn it. As the infamous Murphy’s Law kind of night would have it, the flashlight I stored in my trunk was broken. The batteries had exploded at some point during the summer. My fault there. I should have known that with the Southern heat, everything bakes like a cake in a baker’s oven. The sliver of the moon was peaking in and out of the clouds like a demented game of Hide-and-Seek. Somewhere in the cosmos, someone was having a fine laugh at my expense as I heard the first rumble of thunder in the distance. I would have to race the clock to keep my already disheartening evening from becoming downright dreadful. I gathered my purse from the heap of useless junk that was my car and started my hike back to the gas station. I was grateful that it was only a mile trek. There were a few hills but nothing that I could not tackle. I did think my delicate feet would be most put out for making the journey in the two inch, zip up boots I was sporting. Oh well. They would just have to take one for the team and be thankful for the opportunity. I had little time for mutiny as I wanted this task done with and yesterday.
I only got about one hundred yards from the car when the first real burst of lightning tore through the sky, blinding me. The accompanying thunder was so loud in my ears that they popped and I could smell the ozone in the air. My stroll along the dark highway from hell quickly became a fast walk. Tree limbs began to dance as the breeze picked up. The way they danced threw strange shadows on the black top every time their crescendo was hit with another bright flash of light from the angry heavens. The tiny hairs on the back of my neck raised in alarm. I thought it was my animal instinct kicking into hyper drive. I mentally chastised myself for being childish. It is only a storm after all. It is not like the trees are answering the call from some unholy beast that has come from the very bowels of despair, hate, and loathing. As if my thoughts conjured said nightmare, a hot wind pushed at my back. The stench was overwhelming. I gagged, fighting down the bulge of hot digested pizza that climbed my throat. My skin crawled as if a thousand tiny insects scurried frantically across the surface. My heart raced. Every nerve in my body cried out for me to RUN!
I have never been afraid of anything in my entire life. I have never backed down from anyone who threatened me. I have never stood in the face of true horror and pain only to crawl into the nearest corner. I straightened my shoulders and continued on my fast paced walk. My imagination was not going to get the best of me. The putrid smell was some poor animal whose carcass must have been located right at the edge of the woods nearby. The wind just carried the unfortunate creature’s stench to me. Nothing to it. Easy peasy, mac-n-cheesy as my Kindergarten teacher used to say. I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and on slowing my breath before I found myself face first on the asphalt due to hyperventilation. My plan was working as the first drops of rain splashed up my legs. Wait. Up…..my….legs?
Why is it warm? Oh and it smells so badly! Goodbye pizza. I vomited in between my feet. More stench to add to the goop on my trousers. Having the time of my life right now. Still hunched over, with my stomach in knots, that hot wind pressed so hard on my backside that I almost fell in my own mess. Scraping my hand and smearing puke into the wound, I caught myself in the nick of time just as another round of whatever rancid matter covered my face. Spitting all manners of yuck out of my mouth, I stopped my wobble crab walk when a soul shattering growl tore through my very essence. Even now, my heart races to even recall that horrendous sound. I nearly fainted. Something deep inside me kicked the blue blazes out of my psyche and bolted me upright. Every muscle in my body was clenched as my feet were planted into the ground. My heart did not know whether to stop or explode. Sour sweat broke out and ran the ick into my eyes. I was too terrified to wipe it away. My hair hung in defeated clumps on my skull. Not a thought ran through my head as another wave of fire hot air hit me, stinging my eyes. My aching sinuses turned loose and ran freely. I absently spit a wad of mucus onto the roadway. This was met with another a bone shattering scream. Lightening flashed, keeping the source in silhouette. I saw enough though. Whatever it was, it was huge. My feet finally got the message and came unglued from the blacktop. I almost fell as they tried to run in two different directions only managing to slide in the puke. A barrage of unwelcome hot substance, raining down upon me got their act together. The pursuit was on.
I have never been a fast runner. I am the girl everyone hates on their baseball team. If I do manage to get onto a base, it is hell trying to get me to go fast enough to snag that second one. I actually had a boy pushing me from behind who caught up with me and he was two bases away when he started. We both made it to home, just in case you were wondering. Oh and not that kind of baseball. Don’t be perverts. Anywho, where was I before you all started swimming in the gutter? Oh yes. I remember now, running like Satan himself was after me. To be honest, I would have preferred Satan over whatever the hell that was chasing me. I knew the instant it began its pursuit. The ground shook with every step it took. I say step, judging by the timing of each ground quake, it may have been leaping for all I knew. Several times, my never graceful, two left feet almost tangled in themselves. Each time I faltered, I could hear the creature sneer gleefully in triumph. My blood turned into ice water fueling my need to get away. The lightening became more frequent. This was a curse disguised as a blessing. I could now see my path more clearly, yet what I saw was far from encouraging.
The trees were dancing wildly and seemed to step closer with every wild thrash to the beat of the thunder. The once wide road was swiftly closing in on me. I felt as if I were a mouse caught in some unearthly maze of some mad scientist. Once again, smelly gore rained down upon my head covering me with their tainted ooze. Since I had my own private strobe light to guide me, I could now clearly see what it was that I was being pelted with, I wish I couldn’t. Rotten hearts, livers, and intestines burst upon impact at my feet, covering my already caked legs. A severed hand smacked me in the back of my head and bounced onto the ground in front me where it ruptured, spilling maggots and roaches. Deteriorated legs came next. One tangled in my own causing me to finally fall. A cry of final victory exploded into the night. I scrambled onto my feet, sure that as I climbed this hill it would be my last. The ground shook more frequently as the creature sped up its pursuit. I screamed and jerked myself forward once again. At the top of the hill, I saw the one thing that could possibly mean my salvation, the faint glow from the service station lights. This fueled my need to survive. I found reserves that I never knew I had and pushed my already aching muscles to the brink. I was not going down this night damn it. I cried out as my legs cramped. I pushed them further still. I was going to live and there was not a damn piece of me that this creature was going to sample tonight or ever. Fuck that in the ass with no lube. One more hill and I am on the home stretch. Oh if those kids from school could see my lame ass run now!
Sensing that its prey might outfox it, the trees decided to attack on their master’s behalf. Branches grabbed at my hair and face. Limbs fell in my path causing me to hurdle over them. I successfully cleared the first two obstacles. The third was almost my doom. My ankle caught one of the outstretched hands of bark and sent me tumbling end over end. My nose exploded as the bone was broken sending bright flashes of light to dance across my field of vision. My arm broke as I stopped my roll with it in vain. A wail that would make a banshee cringe in fear chased away my pain as I managed to throw myself out of the way of the fourth folly of death that would have crushed me if I had hesitated. I rolled unto my feet and started to run again. Those lights were ever so much brighter. So damn close yet still not within guaranteed reach. Run damn you! RUNNNN! I screamed as I chased my salvation. The creature was not done with its onslaught of gore. It became increasingly desperate in its attempts to beat me down with detestable body parts long past their due date. Just when I thought that I could live with the smell, it would pelt me with another item from its demented stores. Each more corrupt than the last. Bone cut into my back and legs. I continued to scream until I tasted my own blood pour from my ruptured and abused throat.
I climbed the last hill. The gas station lights were a nirvana of safety. They were only fifty yards away! The creature was so close behind me that I could feel the heat radiating off its twisted body. Every step was a chore. I did not know if I would make it with the way the earth under me trembled and rumbled. Even the storm seemed to be holding its breath in anticipation. The air was thick like syrup and choked me when I dragged it into my worn out lungs. I felt something that I can only guess was the creature’s claws tear into my back. White hot fire burned my flesh. I tried to scream but it was futile. My voice could not carry the sound. It may have been drowned out my another harpy from hell victory cry. I honestly don’t know. It doesn’t matter anyway. I leaped into the haven of light before it could make another swipe at me. The storm that had been waiting to see if I would make it, cried out in a gush of torrential rain. Craning my head up from the flat of my back, I tried to see the face of my almost demise. I was not prepared for what I saw. Heaven help me. Why did I look?
Through the sheer veil of rain, cascading from the canopy, I saw that the creature was at least six feet tall. It paced madly on all fours where the edge of darkness met the light. To say that it resembled a big dog would be stretching it, but it did walk in that manner. Instead of paws, it had multiple fingers and toes. From its legs were other appendages in various stages of rot and deterioration. They were twisted, broken, bend and weaved in chaotic patterns. Eyes poked out of random places along the hind legs of this abomination. As if reading the repulsion on my face, it stood upright and grabbed the top of the canopy, bending it. Metal groaned in the displeasure of having this unwanted weight put upon it. The lights flickered. An unearthly laugh escaped it mouths. Yes. I said mouths. The torso was lined with row upon row of heads. Each was disfigured beyond recognition. They blended and melted into one another. Some were just gruesome smiles too full of teeth. Others had multiple eyeballs from multiple faces. All were laughing at me. It was as if they knew something that I did not.
I scurried away like a cornered mouse as the lights, straining under the weight started to flicker on and off. There was no damn way I was going to die now. Gaining my feet once more, I moved into the safety of the canopy lights. This enraged the beast like my flight along the lonely highway was unable to do. Ripping pieces of itself from its mangled body, it threw everything in its hellish arsenal at me. The light disintegrated each bomb, turning it to dust. A cracked and slightly mad laugh escaped my shredded throat. The creature tried to tear down the canopy. It was only able to rip the first section down before it encountered the glare of the lights from within the store itself. The anger and pure hatred that I saw in every single one of its eyes succeeded in conjuring the biggest belly laugh of my life out of me. I coughed and spit out fresh blood but it was worth it. I was safe. Turning my back, I walked away towards the garage bay at the middle of the parking lot.
Here bright flood lights lit the place up like daylight. As I approached, I realized that I was not alone. I was so distracted by the creature, that I never once gave a thought for the poor attendant manning this oasis. The man was about fifty, dressed in greasy blue coveralls. His hair was as oily and matted as his uniform. Actually, he was covered from head to toe with the stuff. Considering my current state of disgusting attire, I was not in a position to judge. At this point, he smelled a lot better than I. Not by much though. I don’t think this particular gentleman had ever gotten intimate with a bar of soap. It was not this that stopped me cold in my tracks. It was his smile. My arrival was greeted with way too many perfectly white teeth. Each were tiny and in a neat little row. His smile broadened as he read the certain dread in my eyes. A single metallic clank drew my gaze downwards to his hands.
In his hands, that looked twice the normal size of any regular man’s, was a faded metal box. I was fascinated with it. The paint was faded. I could no longer make out the picture on the side. Before my eyes, color slowly flowed back into the apparatus as the mechanic turned the now red crank jutting out of the side. A distorted tune began to play. At first, I was unable to place the song. Somehow, I knew that was not important. What was, scared me like the creature was unable to do. I realized that this man was just another creature and in his hands was the object of my unending torture. Who would have ever thought that my end would come to me not by some random mugger on a dark street but from a simple child’s toy, a jack-in-the-box. Remember that broken box I told you about earlier? This was the item I had been unwittingly searching for at the time. There was a reason why the ladder was broken, too much use. There was a reason why it was buried by so much other debris, to hide it.
I had stumbled upon my friend’s ultimate dark secret, one so heinous, that he tried to hide it even from himself. It was so tempting to him that it called to him again and again. He tried burying it deep on some long forgotten back shelf in the memory bank of his mind. It worked for a while too. He went on with his life like everyone else. Time would pass and the shelf and the box it held would be forgotten. Then, life would throw him a curve ball. Then another. Then yet another. Each time it would hit a little harder. Each time it would crack the boundary the hinges of his mind. Eventually, the day would come when one too many balls would blast the door and it would fall to the floor in pieces. One that day, he would stumble into the blackness and drag out that old box. He would turn the crank faster and faster. Disjointed music would fill his fragile mind until POP, the monster within would be unleashed and oh was it hungry.
Standing before my friend, who is only a few cranks from unleashing a hell that only a few can possibly imagine, I am forced to choose. Swim or drown time. Do I let him unleash the beast, turn out the last of the lights that are protecting me from its claws or do I stop him? I should be afraid but I am not. Instead I feel completely at peace. I have made my decision. It really is darkest before dawn. I understand that cliché now. In order for there to be a dawn, one must embrace the darkness. Only then can the light fill you with its warm embrace. Filled with this new knowledge I place my steady hand upon his. His demented smile falters, stopping his hand. Confusion fills his eyes. I gently take the jack-in-the-box from him. A quiet groan of protest escapes his lips and he half-heartedly tries to grab it back from me. I slowly shake my head in negation. Not this time. This time he will not be consumed by the beast. I walk to the nearest gas pump and turn it on. Spraying the liquid onto the deadly item, I turn my head and smile warmly to my dearest friend. Silent tears wash streaks down his face. Pain and sorrow flood out of him. He slowly walks toward my outstretched hand as I hang up the gas nozzle.
A wondrous thing occurs. With each step that he takes, his clothes change. No longer are they dingy and worn. His hair becomes clean and well kept. His eyes clear and become the brilliant blue that I have always loved instead of the dingy brown and blood shot that they were at the start. With his head raised high and his shoulders back, he grabs my hand gratefully. Silent tears still cascade down his face but no longer do they leave streaks through the grit and grime of his tormented life. These are the tears of one who is being freed. Reaching into his pocket, he pulls out a lighter. With a quick flick of his thumb, he lights it and tosses it at the dreadful thing at our feet. Bright orange flames consume the box before turning a deep blue. Surprisingly, it does not take long to burn the hated object. When it is done, nothing but ashes remain.
Why have I told you this tale? Empathy. Plain and simple. Empathy for another soul may be the only thing that can save them from being consumed by that nightmare that lives inside them. When you turn your back, it bites you both. It will devour you both without mercy. Find those hidden boxes in the ones you care about. Pillage those forgotten shelves. Find hope. No one sails the seas of life alone. There is always someone out there shinning a light your way. Oh and as for that bitch, “The Iron Maiden”, I would love to tell you that I got to smash her to kingdom come, but that would be a lie. I did get to sell her to a scrap yard with full knowledge that she was going to become a cube of twisted metal. If you ask me, that is the next best thing.