's 2018 Horror Write-off:

On A Clear Day

Submitted by Cassie Heath

On A Clear Day

You can see France from my living room window on a clear day. Not all of it, obviously. Just the cliffs of the coast, close enough to see but far enough to hide in the sea mists. It's something my mum said to me once when I was about fourteen, and I don’t know why it stuck but I’m glad it did. It calmed me down when I was having a bad time at school, at my Saturday job, in my head… whenever I was getting agitated. "You know, you can see France from here on a clear day".

It helps, you see. It genuinely does. When you're in my position, you'll take anything you can get. Depression's a real bastard like that; there's no telling which treatments are actually going to work, so you have to keep trying and trying until something sticks. In the meantime, your life gets stranger and weirder and it just doesn't stop. Until it does, and then you can start putting your life back together. So my doctor tells me, at least.

Sertraline was the first one I tried, back last year when it was getting too much to pretend something wasn't wrong. This was, um. Not fun. It worked, though, it really worked. After the six-week induction period while your body gets used to the exciting range of new chemicals intended to surprise and delight, at least. The problem was the side effects were... pretty hardcore. I seem to have the worst luck with those.

It started with a little nervous tic in my right arm. I've had that since I was a teenager. The muscles in my arm just lock up and bend my body into weird positions. After week six on sertraline, though, it started to spread. It went up my shoulder and started working on my neck, making it twist through ninety degrees and stay there until I could taste blood and my vision went grey. It spread through my face, too, my eyelids fluttering and jaw lurching off to one side like a drunk trying to walk in a straight line. It spread down my other arm and into my fingers, and they trembled and shook and bent back on themselves. Eventually I'd get whole-body micro-seizures that lasted a fraction of a second, but my whole body would be jerked into this completely random position and then... nothing. It'd be back to normal, assuming the rest of the tics calmed down.

I had six months of this before I couldn't take it any more. Pun absolutely intended. I just couldn't handle feeling like a puppet on a string given to a bored child. I talked to my doctor about being hit hard by the side-effects train and she switched me over to citalopram. Which, well, it didn't work nearly as well as sertraline did, but all psychoactive medication is a choice between efficacy and dignity. The whole-body tics stopped, for the most part, but I still got shivers and my arms still locked up. Them getting better almost made things worse. It didn't help that the twitching spread to my eyes and ears somehow, if that even makes sense. My hearing would judder and shake and cut out completely sometimes, like I was wearing headphones plugged into a dodgy jack. My eyes would twitch from side to side as well. It meant I'd be looking all over the place and my vision would be disjointed, like I was watching bad stop-motion animation. I could be standing stock-still and the world would lurch like a train rounding a bend for a second, but I'd not be moving at all. It messed with my head something chronic, but it would pass. All things pass. I hoped.

The stuttering sound and vision made things... change. My partner would shift from one side of the room to another in an eyeblink and back again in the next. Moving around became difficult, so I became all but bedbound for a few weeks. I had hope that it would get better, and it did; at least, the symptoms did. I was still riding the side-effects express but the train was slowing down. Possibly it was reaching a level crossing or something, or maybe there were leaves on the line, or a goose flew into the dining car and ate all the sandwiches. Sorry, this metaphor's getting away from me a bit. In any event, I was up and about once more, but sometimes my legs would just decide not to work and I'd fall to the ground. The whole mess of conflicting perception alterations meant that, well, the absolute best I could hope for was the odd hallucination or two. I can't really explain it in any other terms, to be honest with you. At least, I don't want to.

It looked like people's shadows weren't lining up right. Like they were lagging a few moments behind, or in the wrong place. That was how it started, anyway. They'd be a moment out of place, and I'd blink once and they'd be normal again. How they should be. Until I went dizzy and my eyes moved faster and they couldn't keep up. For a fraction of a fraction of a second I saw that something was wrong and I didn't know who to tell.

I couldn't tell my doctor. I didn't dare. With my mental health history that's grounds for a long stay in a padded cell on an all-crayon diet. So I started to experiment. Subtly, obviously. My side effects were lessening day by day and I wasn't sure how long I'd be able to see the wrongness. So I tried to do things that exacerbated them. The first plan was exercise. Where I live there's a lot of lovely views, so I started trying to get up early and take some long walks to get my heart rate up. I've never been a particularly active soul, and a couple of miles was my effective range. But it worked. The dizziness and cramps and occasional injury from bouncing off a particularly stealthy bollard – they sneak up on you, big pig-iron inanimate objects – were all worth it. I'd twitch and jerk and see them, see the wrongness. Just for a moment, but a moment was all I needed. At least I wasn’t crazy.

After a few weeks, though, it just wasn’t enough on its own. My body was adapting. My tics and twitches calmed, like waves when a storm is passing. So I needed to change tactics again. My diet shifted. I joined up with a slimming group and obeyed the rules – no milk, no alcohol, but all the sugar-free fizzy drinks you could get your hands on. It was why I’d picked out the group. I’d wanted to find one that recommended those so that it wouldn’t look weird to those around me when what I was eating changed. My vision blurred sometimes, but when it didn’t, and when the caffeine and energy and aspartame spiralled like diving dogfights through my veins, I could see so very clearly. I moved too suddenly and too fast for the shadows to stay where they were supposed to, and if that meant putting up with a middle-aged man called Kev talking about kale for two hours a week then so be it.

You really shouldn’t be able to observe and track the movements of beings made of shadow with nothing but antidepressants and supermarket own-brand Irn-Bru, but I could. I did. It made me feel more like myself, on the days when the experiments went wrong and I hit the floor or the wall or my own temples until the blood ran, molasses slow and thick. That was why I wrote it all down. It’s all in my notebook – notebooks plural now. Page after page of jittery chicken-scratch like a seismograph printout about to make someone have a very bad day. I write for myself and I read to myself to prove it’s real. That I’m not just making it up. That the effects are reproducible in as close to experimental conditions as I can get. That people's shadows are wrong.

I say beings made of shadow because, well, what else can they be? They move when we move. They walk behind us, all of us, out of sight and out of mind because they’ve always been there, as long as we’ve known. Objects don’t hide, with the possible exception of car keys. There’s an intent to the shadows, a drive to stay hidden, that I can only call intelligent. Is this how Victorian scientists felt when they first dredged up a giant squid from the depths? The hints of cunning and of knowledge that hid behind their eyes creating a far greater sense of terror than grasping tentacles or monstrous size. At least they had eyes you could see, though. At least those old, tired professors looking at something unknown and unknowable could look at each other and go “Yes, this is a real thing that is happening, we’re not the mad ones, it’s just the world”.

The shaking and the twitching still petered out though. Slowly. I couldn’t get the twitches to happen often enough. Something had to give. I spoke to my doctor and I lied, said that the meds were okay for making me not shake like a frightened trifle in a hurricane but didn’t help at all with the fear or the panic or the incoherent rage or, worst, the crushing slate-grey lifeless liminal states halfway between being and not that left me flat on my back for hours at a time, doing nothing, being almost nothing, feeling nothing but echoes of pain from far away. I could get up and about given time and effort, but it was as impossible for me to really move forward as Sisyphus’s boulder. That was the saddest part. I had the balance right. I had medication that worked for those horrible forever-moments. I chose to give it up. I had to. For the shadows.

I moved on to fluoxetine, the next wind in the storm. My doctor wrote out my prescription and she just looked sad. We both knew why. This was attempt number three to slay a dragon that I’d just brought back from the dead. The following six weeks were some of the roughest I’d ever had in terms of side effects. I was dizzy and nauseous and my vision was blurry. Sometimes I woke up to my whole body contorting into hideous, twisted shapes, all the while my girlfriend looming over me like some sad unreachable god. There were days when I couldn’t hold a pen or keep sat in a chair long enough to type out a single word. I was constantly falling from the top of a building, limbs thrown around by the wind, red terror running through my mind as all I can see through a haze of speed and darkness is the approach of a cold, hard expanse of broken black and grey. I think I was being punished. I couldn’t say who by. Not for certain.

After six weeks of seizing so violently my teeth tore bloody stripes into the roof of my mouth and the knuckles of my hands were cracked like mirrors against every hard surface in the house, they faded. It was as if day was breaking. Coping with the bedlam of shivers and seizures made my sight keener. The shadows couldn’t hide now, not from me. So fast came my twitches, and so many, that whenever my mother came into my room I would smile like a hanging judge donning the black cap. The nameless thing that haunted her steps danced to keep away and failed at every turn. I just wished I could record it somehow, truly prove the beings’ existence and the threat they posed, for what could their furtiveness mean but malice aforethought? Why hide themselves if they had nothing to hide? A saying about the innocent having nothing to fear brings itself to mind.

I couldn’t help it in the end. I had to make contact somehow. The dread had mixed with curiosity and the resultant amalgam was something far more potent than the sum of its parts. The question was how. It would certainly be on their terms, not mine; given their secrecy, that much was obvious. There was no indication they spoke English, or spoke at all. Did they even communicate with each other? Was the thing pretending to be the shadow of a passer-by waving hello at another of its kind, just as their hosts were doing? Or was it just matching the movement with no thought for the context? Do they speak or sing? Or are they just black ivy that hangs from every living thing? They run and they hide like hunted things. Apart from one quivering little human, what is it that hunts them? And then the thought struck me like a falling star:

What do they do when the lights go out?

So I began to prepare my largest experiment. My old room at my mother’s house was small and cramped and most of one wall was window. It was perfect for what I had in mind. I began to stockpile supplies – duct tape, thick curtains, lamps, electrical equipment – and moved back in. My girlfriend understood in the end. She looked defeated by the time I left for my parents’ house again. I wanted to come back. In truth I wanted nothing more than to stay in her arms until the shadows and pain and wild-eyed seizures all disappeared from my life like a bad memory. I had to know first, though. I had to finish it. She understands me. She understands what I have to do now. I wish I could tell her more but it was too much for me, God alone knows what it would do to her. No, she doesn’t need this wasp’s nest in her life.

It took me more than a month to set up my old room to my satisfaction. The lights were everywhere in the room. Perfect placement. They’d break up every shadow and fill it with light. Wiring everything together was a hell of a job – I actually wound up in A&E when my arm twitched and I stabbed myself in the meat of my leg with a screwdriver – but it had to be this way. I needed everything to work on one switch, needed to get the element of surprise. The twitching and shaking and falling off stepladders would all be worth it in the end. They had to be. This had to be. I had to really see them for what they were, give them nowhere else to hide.

The setup wasn’t the worst part, it was the waiting afterwards. After all my falls and jerks and occasional self-inflicted stab wounds, my mother made it her mission to monitor me as much as she could. For my own benefit, she said. I think she even believed it too. She asked about the lights and I answered. I made something up, I think. I don’t remember exactly. It wasn’t that important. But she couldn’t throw them out, because I didn’t leave my room, and besides I was finished with my remodelling project. After a few more weeks, she left to go to an academic conference of some description – I admit I rather disengaged from the conversation once I heard she was going on a trip – and the first night, I had my chance.

It got dark early, as winter nights do. It was black as pitch outside by five p.m. the day before my big test, the apotheosis of my work. So the day she left, I hung the blackout curtains and taped them to the wall around the frame, sealing all the darkness in. I turned out every light, held my hand on the light switch, and waited. It wasn’t long until I felt the urge to twitch and shake again, and when I couldn’t hold it in any more, couldn’t stay still in the tarmac-black room, I opened my eyes and flicked the switch.

All my lamps roared into life, the shadows gone, all of them gone. Actinic purple spots danced in front of my eyes from the bulbs. It felt like my own eyeballs were screaming or singing some hideous broken song of agony, but it was worth it, because the thing was there! Right there! Hanging in space like a gap in the world! The blackness called to me and I reached out and it reached back and in the deep void I saw uncountable echoing burning stars that made the face of a sad unreachable god and-

I’m sorry, someone said, and that was when the bulbs exploded. Every one, accompanied by a storm of hot glass shards. I don’t remember feeling any after the third impact. My body fell, and I twisted and screamed in the glittering white shingle-beach that was my bedroom floor now, or was it mine, I couldn’t see, couldn’t see, couldn’t see anything except the face of the frightened thing looking down at me as my wind-battered body finally hit the ground and scourged itself amidst the shattered glass, and red ran free and I ran free and I’m sorry, someone said again, and I couldn’t see anything-

Until I could. Space was wrong, I felt wrong within myself, but there I was, in a mirror, in my room. Short, skinny, teenage me, always looking like I was in pain, always looking like something was wrong. I’d been crying. I’d hurt myself, I think. I couldn’t cope with it any other way. I’m only fourteen, for God’s sake. There was a flicker of black and I looked around, but it was just Mum. She walked in and drew the curtains.

“It’s all alright,” she said. “I know things look dark now. But come here. Look out your window.

“You can see France from here, on a clear day.”