For as far as I can remember, I have had a fear of the the distant. The right word for it is Agrophobia, a fear of open spaces. Not arachnophobia, which is a fear of spiders. And no, not acrophobia, which is heights. I know what my anxiety is called. It does admittedly sound a great deal like Agoraphobia, which is a fear of nearly everything, and does seem appropriate during my particularly bad days. Like any fear, it's grip on me waxes and wanes depending on my overall mental state. By far this fear is at it's most acute in the presence of open windows. I am constantly uneasy whenever I am close to such a portal, and am incapable of sleeping comfortably in the same room as one. My mind often projects images of something horrible coming over the horizon and climbing in through that window. I suppose I can't really impress the dreadful feeling of exposure that being surrounded by unfamiliar, open ground can instill in someone with my particular neurosis. An outer door left ajar or an unexplained draft in a room can make me feel uneasy, and I find it difficult to concentrate in these conditions.
For years I thought I could live with what I considered to be a minor mental quirk. But gradually it began to affect my behaviour more and more. I could not turn my back on a large window, a gust of air on the back of my neck made me flinch and worst of all, I found myself moving my own bedding down to my basement, the only place I could get even a wink of restful sleep.
Eventually I realized that I could not let this phobia control my life. I sought medical and psychological help, and one of the more attentive doctors offered a suggestion that stuck with me. He said something as simple as a vacation could be ideal; a change of scenery, somewhere with wide open spaces and plenty of fresh air. Total immersion in what so deeply unsettled me.
Initially I was skeptical, believing that this immersion he proposed would prove to be overwhelming. But as the long hours of summer began to wear at me, I decided that I might as well take some time off of work and finally confront my psychosis while I was at it. And so I found myself packing my bags and booking a ticket out to Newfoundland, in search of that “Fresh Air” that so long eluded me.
Almost immediately I began to fall back into old habits. The window next to my seat on the airplane remained firmly shuttered for the duration of the flight, and upon arriving at the bed and breakfast that I would be spending the next several days sheltering up in, I requested a room in the basement, comfortingly small with only a few bulbs to provide light in the otherwise sealed off space.
I suppose as I lay in my quarters in that dim light, staring at the cracked plaster of a wall I could practically reach out and touch with the tips of my fingers while lying on my bed, I felt the reality of my affliction settle in. My entire life would be nothing but a long parade of self-imposed prison cells if I didn't end up doing something about it. The next day, things would be different.
I might not have entirely had my wits about me when I hopped the first bus that I could find headed to the coast, emerged in unfamiliar environs and after quickly getting my bearings, trekked off towards the sound of the ocean, comfortable that I could find my way back if necessary.
I suppose it isn't much of a leap to discuss my somewhat auxiliary fear of open water that comes part in parcel with my agrophobia. I've never seen Jaws, or really very many scary movies at all for that matter. But I don't think I need the image of some big rubbery shark biting at Richard Dreyfuss to have a healthy dislike of floating in deep water, legs dangling below me with a great blue abyss waiting to swallow me up the second I stop kicking.
But I could still appreciate the maritime shores, breath in the salty air and truly attempt to marvel at the rocky coastline surrounding me. There is an energy to the maritime, and along the ocean shore, I could feel it. The land is....old. You don't need to travel far to leave human buildings behind and stand among rocks and earth that have been shaped and moulded by eons of erosion, crumbling down into great rocky tides or being whittled into unique shapes over the millennia. It carries it's history and even someone like I could appreciate it. Every once in a while you could swear you hear a whisper passing among the rocks, or become overwhelmed by the sense of some great, eclipsing force that has been there far, far longer than you have. Until that day, I have never believed in the supernatural, but if magic exists, I feel that it could be found in a place like that.
This certainly didn't help the knot of apprehension curling in my gut that refused to let me go. Before I could let the anxiety consume me, I set off at a brisk pace, taking some moderate amount of comfort from the rocky cliff face that acted as the parallel border to the beach. The sky was overcast, so I was spared the sensation of the sun against my back as I continued my preamble. I was in unfamiliar territory, alone and facing one of my biggest fears, but I reassured myself that this was the best way to confront my own doubts, that I had a fully functioning phone in my front pocket and a map of the area in my back.
It wasn't long before I had to cut inland. Something about that much sky overhead and what could drop out of it at any moment made me reel with uneasiness. I found a small path that lead to an expansive field overlooking the water that gave me some reassurance and let me clear my head again. Still, the occasional rocky outcropping or protrusion loomed out from the grass, which seemed to grow higher the further I traveled, until it was practically up to my waist on both sides. If I concentrated, I could almost pretend they were walls, or the borders of a fence keeping me contained. Secure. Every once in a while I would look outwards towards the shore, often when a stretch or formation from the rocky coastline interceded on my self-identified sanctuary of grass. I tried to take in the horizon for as long as I was able, but always, eventually, returned my gaze to the ground in front of me before too long from a mixture of nerves and nausea. The cliffs rose once more to my right as my hike continued, a wide field of tall grass standing between me and the shore. Once more I looked up at the cliff face, before turning my attention to the far off edge of the ocean. I can't be sure if it was exhaustion, unease or some combination of the two, but I felt a wave of disorientation rush over me and the subtle fact that I had perhaps taken a little too much too soon hit me hard. I stumbled over to a particularly looming outcropping from my rocky environs and all but collapsed into a small recess of the cliff face, trying to catch my breath. My vision still swam and my eyelids grew heavy. Darkness settled on me like a shroud.
I don't know how long I slept. The cloudy sky seemed slightly darker when I finally recovered consciousness. As I willed motion back into my cramped limbs, I tried to tell myself that I had just grown weary from a walk over unsteady ground with a combination of jet lag, and had not, in fact, passed out from something innocuous as a hike. Awareness of my surroundings began to return as I continued to blink myself back into the waking world. Things seemed amiss to me though. The salty smell of the ocean had taken on a fouler stench, smelling akin to rotten meat. I thought perhaps the tide had washed some animal carcass up on shore, but with each passing second, the smell grew stronger, as though it were approaching me. And then I could see it; motion in the tall grass, the stalks bending and displacing as something moved among them. My hands cautiously traced the cliff wall behind me, trying to find purchase as the sound of shuffling and disturbed earth grew louder, still accompanied by that ghastly smell. Unfamiliar with the wildlife of the area, my thoughts turned to some kind of animal stalking through the underbrush. Fear dominated my actions as I turned away from the encroaching presence and began to scrabble up the side of the cliff towards an elevated ledge that I could see from my position. I had no intention of lying there while some potentially dangerous creature emerged from the undergrowth with the quite possible intention of mauling me.
A rock or two gave way underneath my grip, but I managed to hold on and pull myself up into the crevasse I had noticed earlier. At my back, I heard the clatter of stones as whatever had come to investigate my torpor finally breached the edge of the tall grass. I was too busy squeezing myself into a recess to get a good look at it, until a questing hand reached out and hit nothing. I fell backwards and was greeted with a whiff of stale air. It seemed that my hiding spot extended far deeper into the rock than I anticipated. Below me, the stench grew ever more intense, and the sound of shifting rocks grew louder. Whatever was below had begun to climb towards me. From the sound it was making, I could tell it was far bigger than any badger or raccoon.
Not sparing the time for another look behind me and out of options, I wedged myself further into the crevasse and began to crawl into the darkness of the tunnel that I had discovered, hoping that whatever was following me might pass by, or be too big to pursue any further.
What little light could be had barely punctuated the gloom of the tunnel, which stretched onward before me in an irregular straight line. I could barely get my feet under me, but managed to adopt a low crouch and began to make my way forward, one hand on my knee, the other tracing the ceiling, eyes straining in the dim illumination.
I felt as though I had made it about ten feet before the minimal light I had at my disposal was all but eclipsed by the sizable shape that had risen to fill the opening of my improvised escape route. I could barely see, and hastened my flight into the cramped darkness. The animal had followed me, right into the cave.
Another dozen feet or so, and the tunnel began to narrow. I had to revert to my hands and knees, pulling myself along and feeling both loose gravel and sharp rocks against my palm and legs. As I crawled, driven by the primal fear of re-entering the food chain, I realized how idiotic it had been to trap myself like this. Some part of my mind had obviously sought a tight, comfortingly small area when I had come under threat and as always, felt exposed. Now I was trapped in a narrowing cave, crawling forward into uncertainty with god-knows-what right behind me. At any moment, I might finally hit a dead end, or the path might become too tight for me to progress, and then, the thing behind me would have it's prey.
I could hear it now as well as smell it. The sounds of shifting earth intermingled with a heavy, fluid dragging, like a corpse over rocks. Something like viscous blubber that lay against the ground like a carpet. And the the breathing. A wet, ragged breathing that set my teeth on edge. It sounded pained and forced with each exhalation as though there was some torturous effort involved with the simple act of respiration. Every once in a while I heard something dripping off of the rocks, maybe ocean water if it had emerged from the sea, or it's own drool, or some other excreted fluid that it was giving off. I tried to banish any and all thoughts and imagery from my mind that this new information might conjure and pressed onward, pulling myself forward even as I felt the rocks around me cut and scrape at my skin. I do not know why my pursuer kept the pace that it did. Perhaps it was incapable of overtaking me, maybe it was as hobbled as I was, crawling on all fours into the increasing blackness. Or perhaps it was simply a predatory assurance that made it move so slowly. Like a cat toying with a mouse, maybe it knew I had no chance of escaping it, that it was only a matter of time before my battered knees would no longer obey my commands or I could not bear to bring my skinned palms against the ground. Then it would have me. It knew all this and it was just waiting for me to tire myself in a pointless flight deeper into the earth. For all I knew I was crawling right into it's den.
Before long, my sight failed me completely. Pitch blackness closed around my head, and the only way I could tell that I was moving under my own power at all or keeping up any sort of progress was the sixth sense of forward momentum, and the feeling of the cave floor beneath my hands and knees. I couldn't even bring myself to reach for my phone for a light source, the conditions were so cramped and I was terrified of breaking my pace long enough to access it that my pursuer would be upon me.
I gagged at the stench, feeling the toxic smell drip into the back of my throat so that I could practically taste it. It was getting closer.
I felt a rock brush past my face and nearly screamed.
I was hyperventilating now and for the first time in my life, I felt truly trapped by my environment. I couldn't breath. I was suffocating and being squeezed by the damnable cave that felt as though it was growing narrower with every passing moment. I sobbed quietly, breathing hot dread out of a throat all but throttled by fear. I was going to die down here, and I would never be found. I could feel my back occasionally make contact with the ceiling of the cave. A piece of my brain screamed at me to just stop, to no longer endure the white hot pain of my hands and knees against the ground and let whatever formless, nameless thing that had followed me into this cave finally have it's meal.
As I looked down at my own ragged, chipped hands, it took a moment for genuine thought to penetrate my despair and tell me that I could actually see my hands at all.
From somewhere, there was ambient light.
What little strength I had left in me reignited and I picked up my pace. The thing behind me wheezed and dragged itself forward, but I had renewed purpose. Somewhere, somehow, light was reaching me. As often as I felt I could spare it, I brought a hand up to the ceiling and walls, questing for a recess, some portal that the light was reaching me from.
Hand over hand, ever forward. Sweat stung my eyes and my cramped muscles begged for relief, but on I crawled, hand over hand. Hand over hand. I swore that I would see daylight again.
As I brought my fingers up to feel at the wall, I nearly gasped at the sensation of empty space. I turned my head in the same direction as my outstretched arm and swore I could make out a faint glimmer from somewhere distant.
Acting on the same impulses that had driven me to climb the wall and enter the cave, I all but launched myself sideways towards that speck of light. I could waste no time as the smell became almost a physical presence, curling around me like thin tendrils. The breathing behind me grew faster, a faint gurgling growl building from somewhere deeper in the creature's body.
I felt my skin break against the jagged edges of my new route, but I fought through the pain and lifted myself into this side cave, scrambling to cram my entire body through the hole that I could feel but barely see.
As I brought my last leg through, I felt something damp and coarse scrape against my shin. I didn't spare a second to think of what it might be. The sun. I had to see the sun again.
The shifting, squelching sounds began to echo and fade as I climbed, leaving whatever abomination that had trailed me for so long behind. I pushed on.
The ground began to soften. Rocks giving way to soil that my bloody fingers sank into. I pushed on. Once again I felt earth against my back, but it yielded to my presence and thin roots tickled my neck. I climbed.
I had to all but dig the last few meters, holding my breath as I passed through loose, damp earth. Finally, I felt fresh air against my hand. I pulled and my head followed. I breached the ground and gasped, howling in relief and pain at my numerous injuries and the sensory overload of sight and sound after such an extended period of isolation. I crawled free, shaking off the dirt that clung to me and shakily rising to my feet. I drew deep, grateful breaths. I had emerged.
Finally I could pull my phone from my pocket. 20% percent power was more than enough to help me find a main road and from there, transportation home. Aching, bleeding and still quivering, I began the limping journey back to civilization.
Safe in a taxi, I examined myself. My nails were chipped and cracked from digging into the earth. My knees had been rubbed raw and most disturbingly, several layers of skin on my calf seemed to have been removed entirely. My contact with whatever had followed me, however brief, had taken a piece of me with it. I huddled over, swallowing my lingering dread and fighting to stay awake. Maybe if I had just let myself sleep in that cab, things would be different.
I should have been quicker to react. I should have fought off the exhaustion and left that night, instead of descending the steps to my room and collapsing on the small bed. A thousand regrets spiral through my mind even now as my door strains against it's hinges. As the smell of rotten meat fills my nostrils, rousing me from my slumber. That same heavy, tortuous breathing is audible even over the creaking wood. I should have known that thing wouldn't give up nearly so easily just because I had eluded it underground. All that blood and sweat I was trailing was hanging in the air, it must have gotten my scent. And followed me.
I have to acknowledge it's persistence. It dragged itself every inch of the mile or so I had to walk, then the distance I travelled by car. And it's finally caught up with me. I have no doubt that it will eventually break through into my small room and then I will get to meet my pursuer. At long last, it has managed to corner me. And I have nowhere left to run.
It's my own fault, really. It was my phobias that drove me to this. I chose to come here. I went on that hike. But most of all, I insisted on a windowless room.