A few nights later the headaches still hadn’t eased, the sense of dizziness remained. I decided I wouldn’t be helping out with the brain experiments at the university any more. I’d started taking long walks because I was becoming restless at night. That same feeling of something being close wouldn’t go away. But despite this I was compelled to walk at night. I felt consistently uneasy and to curb the headaches I was taking painkillers all day and they were making me zoned out. I thought about contacting Carl and telling him what I was experiencing but knew it was pointless. The dull pain and fried feeling were nothing to do with the experiment. They were to do with whatever it was I was now convinced had followed me out of that room. Carl could do nothing for that. I researched phosphenes but nothing like what I was going through was to be found anywhere in the literature. I wondered if I had somehow psychokinetically brought something from some other place and even though I knew how patently ridiculous that was, the feeling wouldn’t go away.
My sleep had changed. I could no longer remember my dreams and I was falling so deeply into sleep that when I woke up it was almost as if I’d drifted so far away I hadn’t been in my body at all. This might have been due in part to the volume of painkillers I was taking. I was also losing weight quickly. Despite these deep sleeps I was exhausted in the days. By the time I finished my day job and then my shifts in the library at midnight I was drifting across the road, trying to keep my eyes open on the drive home. And all the while the pervading sense of a presence being near.
Christmas came and went but the festivities did little to rouse me from the malaise that had descended. I was cranky and was snapping at people in work and at home. My girlfriend said she was worried about me but I’d just respond by shrugging or mumbling something under my breath.
The university would email me from time to time to take part in more experiments but I didn’t respond. I noticed the messages from Carl had dried up entirely. In the weeks and months after the experiment he’d been dropping me the occasional line to check I was ok. I never replied to him.
Then, one night, at the end of January, I was out walking. It was well past two in the morning and it was sleeting. I’d taken to walking for two or three hours at this point, waiting until Amy had gone to bed so she didn’t realise I was staying out so late. Sometimes she’d wake up when I got back and sometimes she would ask the time and I’d tell her it was half twelve or one o’clock and to go back to sleep. That night I felt like I could walk forever. My route usually took me around the housing estates because I felt too unnerved to wander off onto the trails and nature reserves that surround my house. But that night something was different. The presence, which was now so familiar that I hardly even noticed it was pushing me towards the canal that ran behind the abandoned mental hospital. Along either side of the canal grew tall tress, that leaned over the water like a cathedral archway and as I moved beneath them the light from the streets was soon absorbed and I was near complete darkness. Almost immediately the presence drew close to me, behind my back and it pressed something like a hand to the back of my neck. Pain shot through me and down my face in the exact way it had all those months ago in the lab. It buckled me at the knees and I fell, almost into the dark waters of the canal.
I heard a breathing now, behind me, shallow and trembling. Where the presence had made contact with my neck I felt a coldness and a flowing, as if I were bleeding. I put my hand there but it came away dry. But there was a sensation on my hand, of a vapour moving across it, out of my neck. Something was flowing out of me. I could feel it. The best way to describe it is was as if my body had a kind of meta-webbing right the way through it, something beyond science but which will essential to my existence as Rhys Thomas, all the way down to my fingers and toes, and that meta-webbing was being drawn out of my through the back of my neck. The feeling was, truthfully, awful. It was so far removed any experience to which I can relate that it couldn’t be said to have been painful, but something beyond that, like the feeling when a dentist is trying to pull out your teeth, but right through my body. I was paralysed by it.
The breathing behind me grew louder as whatever it was gathered strength directly from me. A survival instinct kicked in. I had to do something. With all the effort I could muster, I managed to break the grip it had on me. Quickly, I turned, and as I did I saw the shape, dark, with a grey border, like the phosphene I’d seen in the experiment but bigger. The diamond shape was human-shaped now, but more massive, and it was floating, its feet pointing downwards. It had long arms that reached out to me ask if it were begging. Its head, tilted to one side had a darkness in the lower half, a gaping mouth. It was there for a second. It reached out its hand and pressed it slowly against my face, firing that electrical pain down it. It’s not real, I kept telling myself; it’s not real. My brain created it, my brain created it. The world blazed white and then the darkness came back, and the presence was gone.
The next morning I suddenly felt better. It felt like spring had arrived early. For the first time in months there was a warmth in the sunlight. I stopped going for walks at night. I wasn’t tired all the time. The memory of that night by the canal faded quickly, as if it wasn’t real but hallucinatory. I attributed the lifting of the pall to the change of weather – I figured I’d just been grouchy and achy because I was working hard and it had been a long, cold, wet winter. My migraines had disappeared so I spent the next month kicking my co-codamol reliance that had developed since the experiment.
A few weeks after that I received an email from the TMS Lab Manager at the university. She was asking about Carl, asking if I could go to her office. Suicides in universities are more common that you realise but not widely publicised for obvious reasons. Carl had thrown himself from the top floor of the psychology building, down the stairwell, hanging himself with a length of hosepipe. The Lab Manager only told me this after probing about what had happened with my experiment in the basement. I told her nothing had happened, other than it was stopped it early because of the pain. When she told me the date Carl had died I knew at once it was the same night I’d been at the canal but I of course did not mention this. Up until I was told of the suicide I had all but erased that night from my memory.
Apparently they discovered in Carl’s office a hand scrawled journal filled with incoherent babble about something following him. The TMS Lab Manager showed me the journal. The handwriting was neat at the start, the first page being dated the 13th October, the same date as the experiment in the basement hence the Lab Manager’s request to see me, but got messier later on. There was a lot of stuff about wave particle duality in quantum theory and matter emerging from nothing and then disappearing again. But the thoughts were not ordered or coherent. It looked like the ramblings of someone going insane. By the end it was dark lines of black ink scratched deep into the page and there, in the scrawl of the final entry, a vaguely witch-shaped form, a coherent darkness against the darker chaos. I handed the journal back to the Lab Manger and looked out the window of the 5th floor, across the university buildings at the golden leaves sweeping across the lawns of the war memorial gardens and said I couldn’t help. Things come into existence, then they go away again into the fabric and it’s only our minds that create any meaning.