I first heard them about a week after I tried to kill myself. Pills is what I’d chosen. I wanted to drift away on a dream. And I did. Before the EMTs brought me back.
I was in the hospital for eight days. I was discharged into my mother’s care but all she did was drop me at my apartment and tell me not to embarrass her like that again.
It started that very night. Foot steps, behind me. Wherever I would go, wherever I would walk. They followed. If I took a step, so did they. I couldn’t hear them in crowds. So, I started to prefer crowds. But at night, alone, they were loud. Sometimes deafening. And they followed me everywhere. To the bathroom, the kitchen, even my bed. When I laid down at night the steps would stop right next to my bed. And they wouldn’t move again until I rose in the morning.
No one could hear them but me.
Was it death? A ghost? Was it all in my head?
No. It turned out to be none of those things. And I know that because I saw him once. But we are not yet there in my story.
Eventually, like most things in life, I got used to them. But I still feared them.
It was almost a year before I started missing time. I would come to after a blackout, always when I was alone. Sometimes I would wake up lying on the floor, right where I had fallen, injured. Sometimes sitting in a chair. I couldn’t remember where I’d been or what had happened. But I was always cold. And I always felt hollow afterwards.
Despite this, I met someone. Fell in love. Started to enjoy life again. The following year I got married. We moved to the coast. We were happy.
But the blackouts continued. And the footsteps still followed everywhere, a corporeal shadow behind me. He was always there, except when I swam. I couldn’t hear him behind me when I swam. He wouldn’t follow me. He wouldn’t come into the ocean.
I swam a lot.
Our anniversary passed. My wife told me she was pregnant. We were both happy.
It was just after that that I finally saw him.
One day my wife roused me from the dining room floor. It happened occasionally. She was used to my “narcolepsy”, as she decided it was. Then she went out. And I went upstairs.
The steps followed, as always.
I don’t know why it happened then, specifically then. It seems like such an arbitrary point in time, but it was then. I turned a corner. I heard the steps following. I looked back a little, as I usually did. And then I saw him.
And the man who followed me, was me.
I wasn’t shocked by it. Perhaps because I always knew. So I spoke to him.
“What are you?”
He stopped, and I turned to face him.
“I am you.”
“Obviously you’re not.” I said.
“I am the you you should be, not the you that you are.”
“And why should I be you?”
“Because I am dead. You tore us apart. I am putting us back together.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You don’t need to.”
I paused to try and make sense of the vision.
“It’s you that makes me so tired.”
“And the blackouts.”
“Are you trying to kill me?”
“I am putting us back together.”
“You can’t! I don’t want to die anymore, I’m happy now. I have a family. A child on the way.”
“The dead cannot create life. There is no one coming.”
“My wife is pregnant!”
“There is no one coming.”
“Stop following me! Just…go back where you came from.”
“I am trying.”
We stared at each other. After a moment I took a step toward him, and he was gone. I never saw him again. But still he followed me. Everywhere…everywhere.
A few weeks later my wife started to bleed. And I thought back to what he said. There is no one coming. He was right.
My wife took it hard. She went to visit her sister. And when she was gone, I was all alone again. His footsteps seemed to echo all over the house. They became deafening.
I screamed at him. Screamed the house down, in my frustration, and my fear. I told him to leave me alone. To go away. But he didn’t. If anything it sounded like the footsteps followed closer. I ran, but I couldn’t outrun him. I went to loud places, but I couldn’t drown him out. Always he followed me. Except for in the ocean. There, I was free.
One day when I rose from bed, and the steps were right behind me. So close, I should have felt his breathe on my neck. I felt swallowed up. Crushed down. My house suddenly felt very small, like a bright, sunlit box with no corners to hide in.
I didn’t think, I ran. I could hear him following right behind me. And I ran faster. Out my door. Down the steps. Straight for the beach.
To the ocean.
I dove in. And I swam as far as I could. I was more than a quarter mile from shore before I stopped. I was cold, but there was no one behind me. It was the furthest I had ever been from him, the most alone I’d been in many years.
I looked back at the beach. I could see a figure there, waiting at the water line. It could have been anyone, but I think it was him. Watching me. Waiting for me to come back.
But I wasn’t going back. I wouldn’t let him put us back together.
So, I turned and swam away from him. Until I could barely see the shore. Or move my arms. Or feel my fingers. Until I was very, very tired. More tired than he had ever made me.
I’m not going back. In the ocean, I am free from him. I am so far away, I can’t even see him anymore.
I smile as the waves begin to lap over my head. I am sinking, but I am liberated. The ocean is big, and he isn’t here.
Sinking, sinking into the darkness. The coldness. I close my eyes. I am free.