His screams were stolen from him, like a vacuum had passed over his lungs and emptied them. His muscles were completely paralyzed, his body limp. He couldn't blink but found he didn't need to. He expected to feel himself fall, his hair being blown back into the air like he was falling head-first from the roof of a skyscraper. But he felt nothing of the sort; it was as if he was motionless. Looking down into The Void was like looking at the back of his eyelids. Intensely nothing. Only from this he couldn't escape. It terrified him.
His body turned, and he anticipated the unconsumed corner wall and ceiling of his bedroom to be just behind him, a step away, but what he saw made his heart skip: his bedroom was moving further and further away, as if it were falling, until eventually, it was swallowed whole. With that, as the last possible thing that Neil could see was gone, his next sense was taken from him.
For a moment he wondered, in a frenzy, if he would be here forever, unable to move or see, left to think in perpetuity, alone. A prison of thought.
(Was he aging?)
He was beginning to wonder if his body really existed anymore when, yes, he felt something. A dull feeling inside his skull, painless. At first, it was somewhat of a relief to know he still had a body, but the feeling grew, slowly, like a balloon being blown up inside his head, as it morphed into a minor headache and didn't stop there. It pushed against his brain, the inside of his skull on all sides, the back of his eyes, and he became convinced there was something inside him, something physical, and it was going to push and push against his skull until it killed him, and suddenly, somehow, the prison of thought was preferable. Neil wanted to put his head in his hands and squeeze it, as if to keep the contents from bursting out, but still he was hopelessly limp. Tears flowed from his eyes. The balloon continued to grow without regard to the matter it found itself in. Neil screamed in his thoughts, but his face was lifeless. As it grew, his head felt as though it had inflated, his skin stretched horrendously, and he knew he would die soon.
And then Neil felt the sensation of death. It was not the euphoric release of pain that he had hoped, but rather, like someone had flicked a switch to shut off his incoherent brain. The last thought that came from his head, although it did not feel like it was his own, was this: You can always go deeper.
When his senses came back to him, his first thought was that he knew time had passed. He was unsure of how much, but he knew it had, like he'd fallen asleep and although it seemed his consciousness had done nothing but blink, it was at least aware that that was a mere illusion.
His next thought was an energetic acknowledgment of what he felt. His hands and neck felt the dew on the grass, and his back and legs felt the soft, cold ground below him. He opened his eyes to see a blue sky, obstructed by the branches and leaves of oak trees. He sat up and dug his fingertips into the soft dirt, felt the grass and the moisture on his hands. He didn't care about what was around him, then, although it seemed to be nothing more than trees. He didn't care how he got where he was, not at that moment. He turned to balance himself on his knees and dug his fingers as far into the earth as he could, as if the mud were his gloves, and he cherished it. He laid his forehead on the ground and sobbed, loudly. He cried and screamed and laughed into the forest; he was alive, he was alive, and he couldn't believe it.
The sobs came in unstoppable waves. They overtook his body until he couldn't bring himself to move. This was joy, he thought, indescribable joy.
He didn't know how long he stayed like that. Five minutes or half an hour, he couldn't be sure. Eventually he unrooted his fingers from the ground and wiped the dirt on his pants, and finally he truly observed his surroundings.
Truthfully, there was nothing much of note. It was not a particularly dense forest, and the puffed branches of the trees left relatively large clearings for view of the sky and rays from the sun. It looked as though it were late afternoon, although Neil was not so savvy as to even guess beyond that.
It hit him then that he couldn't be entirely sure if this was even real. Sure, he felt the grass and the ground so vividly, and he sobbed until his throat and face ached, but there were too many other questions, most of them stemming from How did I get here? There was no Void that he could see, no mechanism that could have transported him. But, perhaps more importantly, what was he supposed to do now?
He pondered the question for only a moment until he decided that his only real option was to pick a direction and walk. The first rule of survival, it was always said, was to stay put and wait for rescue, but he figured there would be no one to rescue him. All around, the forest seemingly extended into infinity.
He walked for what felt like a long time, although the sun didn't seem to have moved much. He dragged his fingertips along the bark of trees as he passed them, appreciating his renewed sense of touch. There were not the typical sounds of the forest, there were no rustlings of wind or bird chirps; it was uncanny silence. He knew that he should be frightened, seeing what he was seeing, the seemingly endless grid of trees around him with no variation of environment in sight. And he was, to an extent, but more so he was driven by this abstract sense of purpose. Was he simply transported here to dehydrate to death, or starve, or live immortally until the loneliness drove him mad? Well, it was certainly possible, but what good was that? Why would this forest be the mechanism in which The Void would kill him? And what forces would even make that decision for him? No, he thought, there was a reason he was here. This couldn't be random.
Perhaps that was naively hopeful of Neil, but shortly thereafter he was proven right.
"Neil," he heard from behind him, and, startled, he spun to meet the voice.
His insides twisted.
"Erin?" he said.
They stared at each other for a moment, as if they didn't quite believe what they saw. Their faces slowly turned from confusion to elation. She ran at him, and he came to her, and in the middle they embraced. She squeezed him tightly, so tightly it took the breath out of him and pained his ribs, but he didn't care. He felt as though if he weren't out of tears already he may have cried then. Suddenly nothing else mattered, not The Void, not his house, not where he found himself, only that they had been reunited.
"Where were you?" she asked from over his shoulder.
"I don't know," he croaked. He'd forgotten what it had been like to be overwhelmed with love, so much love that it was difficult to speak. It tugged at his heart and his insides, and for so long he believed that this feeling was why he lived.
They stayed embraced for a long time, and he reminded himself that he couldn't be sure what was real, including this. And then he felt her against him, her arms wrapping around him and her chin on his shoulder and his hands on her back, and he decided it didn't matter if it was real or not. Functionally, it was the same. And, frankly, he was so overwhelmed that he had no choice but to believe it. He only wondered how long it would last.
He pulled away from her to look at her face. She was just the same as when he last saw her. They beamed at each other.
"Erin…" he said. "What's happening? Where are we?"
"I don't know," she said, pulling him back in. "I don't care."
There was another moment of silence.
"You died…" he said.
"Yeah," she whispered.
"I don't know."
"I hope not."
"Me too," he said earnestly. He pulled away again and sighed. He took her hands.
"Where have you been all this time?" he asked.
"I've been here," she said, gesturing vaguely around them.
He studied her again, closely this time. Her brown eyes and round cheeks and straight hair, it was all the same. So what was off?
The dread in his insides returned when he realized he had to ask her. And somehow, as he studied her, the answer was obvious.
"Are you real?" he asked.
"I don't know," she said. "Does it matter?"
"Yeah," he said, changing his mind. "I think it does." He looked at the ground, and she looked at him the way she always had when she was afraid she'd disappointed him, and it almost fooled him again.
"Should I go?"
She nodded. They looked at each other, the elation gone. Suddenly, his happiness was a mystery. He didn't know what he felt.
"How is your mother?" she asked.
Again, she nodded, this time looking at her feet. "Just like me."
"I suppose," he said with a sigh. He pushed her chin up so that they were looking into each other's eyes. He wanted desperately to see something behind her eyes but found nothing.
"Neil," she said, not breaking her gaze. "Why didn't you love us more?"
He was taken aback, and suddenly the terror of the situation struck him. What kind of nightmare was this? He let go of her hands and stepped away.
"Who are you?" he said.
She took a step forward, and her expression changed from soft and innocent to intense anger, not gradually, but in an instant. Now, he was sure he saw something behind her eyes: fire, hatred.
"You never did," she said to him, matching his backward step with a forward one.
"I-I did, I swear I did," he begged, his voice trembling. "I'm sorry, Erin…"
He backed into something, of what he first believed to be a tree, but then he felt a hand on his shoulder. Instinctually, he batted it away and turned.
It was his mother, not young and energetic as he had seen her in his dream, but as she was in the hospital: old, and terribly fragile. When he saw her eyes, he froze. They were black, so impossibly black and deep and absent that what inhabited that part of her face could only be one thing.
And it was consuming her, and then it would come for him.
He turned to see Erin had met the same fate. Where her eyes once were now instead was infinitely nothing, and it grew and grew until she no longer had a face.
"You are nothing," his mother screamed at him, and then he ran for his life.
He bolted past the oak trees at frenzied speed, and he could feel them right behind him. He didn't dare look back, but knew that he was not being pursued by Erin or his mother, no, this was something evil. The Void, perhaps, was chasing and growing towards him as it had back in his bedroom, but Neil sensed something greater than The Void, something more terrifying. He let out a piercing cry as he sprinted, broken and desperately wanting this to end, but not daring to allow himself to slow down.
Quickly the trees seemed to be closing in on him, getting less and less sparse as he ran. He could feel It just behind him, maddeningly close, biting at his ankles with every stride he took. It was only then he noticed that the sun and the sky had disappeared. The gaps between trees grew smaller and smaller, until he was turning his shoulders to squeeze himself through, slamming into and bouncing past the trees. He scraped his chest horribly on the bark of a tree that had somehow grown impossibly close to another, pulling himself through with purely adrenaline-fueled force. He felt the warm blood drip down his torso and stain his shirt.
But then Neil came to what he could only describe as the edge; there was no gap between these trees, this was a purely impenetrable wall that extended impossibly high and infinitely wide. He knew then that his chances of escaping had been reduced to zero. He would be swallowed again, his senses taken from him, and all he could guarantee of what might come next would be that it would extend this bout of true terror.
In a last-ditch effort, he led with his shoulder like a halfback taking on a linebacker and slammed into the wall. Immediately, intense pain shot all down his arm and torso, and the wall threw him to the ground. He laid there, his eyes shut tightly, not wanting to see what was coming for him, waiting to be swallowed.
Neil waited and waited. And nothing came.
Cautiously, he opened his eyes, expecting to see the line of trees just in front of him, engulfing his vision. Instead, he saw something remarkably unexpected.
The forest was gone, and Neil was surrounded by nothing. Just ahead of him, he saw himself, pathetically cradled into a ball on the ground, staring back into his eyes in obvious terror and desperation.