"A Shattered Life"
Written by Matt Dymerski
ESTIMATED READING TIME — 14 MINUTES
I don’t know when you’re going to read this, but I can tell you when it started: I was out for a walk alone in the woods when the entity came for me. It was beyond a blur. It was, for lack of a better term, absence of meaning. Where it hid, there were no trees; where it crept closer, there was no grass; through the arc it leapt at me, there was no breeze of motion. There was no air at all.
As it struck, I felt the distinct sensation of claws puncturing me somewhere unseen; somewhere I’d never felt before. My hands and arms and legs and torso seemed fine and I wasn’t bleeding, but I knew I’d been injured somehow. As I fearfully ran back home, I could tell that I was less. I was vaguely tired, and it was hard to focus at times.
The solution at that early stage was easy: a big cup of coffee helped me feel normal again.
For a while, that subtle drain on my spirit became lost in the ebb and flow of caffeine in my system. You could say my life began that week, actually, because that was when I met Mar. She and I got along great, though, to be honest, I’m pretty sure I fell in love with her over the phone before we even met.
It was almost as if the strong emotions of that first week made the entity fight back—it was still with me, latched on to some invisible part of my being.
The first few incidents were minor, and I hardly worried about them. The color of a neighbor’s car changed from dark blue to black one morning, and I stared at it before shaking my head and shrugging off the difference. Two days later, at work, a coworker’s name changed from Fred to Dan. I carefully asked around, but everyone said his name had always been Dan. I figured I’d just been mistaken.
Then, as ridiculous as this sounds, I was peeing in my bathroom at home when I suddenly found myself on a random street. I was still in my pajamas, pants down, and urinating—but now in full view of a dozen people at a bus stop. Horrified, I pulled up my clothes and ran before someone called the cops. I did manage to get home, but the experience forced me to admit that I was still in danger. The entity was doing something to me, and I didn’t understand how to fight back.
Mar showed up that evening, but she had her own key.
“Hey,” I asked her with confusion. “How’d you get a key?”
She just laughed. “You’re cute. Are you sure you’re okay with this?” She opened a door and entered a room full of boxes. “I know living together is a big step, especially when we’ve only been dating three months.”
Living together? I’d literally just met her the week before. Thing was, my mother had always called me a smart cookie for a reason. I knew when to shut my yap. Instead of causing a scene, I told her everything was fine—and then I went straight to my room and began investigating.
My things were just as I had left them with no sign of a three month gap in habitation, but I did find something out of the ordinary: the date. I shivered angrily as I processed the truth.
The entity had eaten three months of my life.
What the hell was I facing? What kind of creature could consume pieces of one’s soul like that? I’d missed the most exciting part of a new relationship, and I would never understand any shared stories or in-jokes from that period. Something absurdly precious had been taken from me, and I was furious.
That fury helped suppress the entity. I never imbibed alcohol. I drank coffee religiously. I checked the date every time I woke up. For three years, I managed to live each day while observing nothing more than minor alterations. A social fact here and there—someone’s job, how many kids they had, that sort of thing—the layout of nearby streets, the time my favorite television show aired, that kind of thing. Always, those changes reminded me the creature still had its claws sunk into my spirit. Not once in three years did I ever let myself zone out.
One day, I grew careless. I let myself get really into the season finale of my favorite show. It was gripping; a fantastic story. Right at the height of the action, a young boy came up to my lounger and shook my arm.
Surprised, I asked, “Who are you? How did you get in here?”
He laughed and smiled brightly. “Silly Daddy!”
My heart sank in my chest. I knew immediately what had happened. After a few masked questions, I discovered that he was two years old—and that he was my son.
The agony and heartache filling my chest was nearly unbearable. Not only had I missed the birth of my son, I would never see or know the first years of his life. Mar and I had obviously gotten married and started a family in the time I’d lost, and I had no idea what joys or pains those years contained.
It was snowing outside. Holding my sudden son in my lap, I sat and watched the flakes fall outside. What kind of life was this going to be if slips in concentration could cost me years? I had to get help.
The church had no idea what to do. The priests didn’t believe me, and told me I had a health issue rather than some sort of possession.
The doctors didn’t have any clue. Nothing showed up on all their scans and tests, but they happily took my money in return for nothing.
By the time I ran out of options, I’d decided to tell Mar. There was no way to know what this all looked like from her side. What was I like when I wasn’t there? Did I still take our son to school? Did I still do my job? Clearly, I did, because she seemed to be none the wiser, but I still had a horrible feeling that something must have been missing in her life when I wasn’t actually home inside my own head.
But the night I set up a nice dinner in preparation, she arrived not by unlocking the front door, but by knocking on it. I answered, and found that she was in a nice dress.
She was happily surprised by the settings on the table. “A fancy dinner for a second date? I knew you were sweet on me!”
Thank the Lord I knew when to keep my mouth shut. If I’d gone on about being married and having a son, she might have run for the hills. Instead, I took her coat and sat down for our second date.
Through carefully crafted questions, I managed to deduce the truth. This really was our second date. She saw relief and happiness in me, but interpreted that as dating jitters. I was just excited to realize that the entity wasn’t necessarily eating whole portions of my life. The symptoms, as I was beginning to understand them, were more like the consequences of a shattered soul. The creature had wounded me; broken me into pieces. Perhaps I was to live my life out of order, but at least I would actually get to live it.
And so it went for a few years—from my perspective. While minor changes in politics or geography would happen daily, major shifts in my mental location only happened every couple months. When I found myself in a new place and time in my life, I just shut up and listened, making sure to get the lay of the land before doing anything to avoid making mistakes. On the farthest-flung leap yet, I met my six-year-old grandson, and I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said, “Writer.” I told him that was a fine idea.
Then, I was back in month two of my relationship with Mar, and I had the best night with her on the riverfront. When I say the best, I mean the best. Knowing how special she would become to me, I asked her to move in. I got to live through what I’d missed the first go-around, and I came to understand that I was never mentally absent. I would always be there—eventually. When we were moving her boxes in, she stopped for a moment and said she marveled at my great love, as if I’d known her for a lifetime and never once doubted she was the one.
That was the first time I’d truly laughed freely and wholeheartedly since the entity had wounded me. She was right about my love for her, but for exactly the reason she’d considered a silly romantic analogy. I had known her my whole life, and I’d come to terms with my situation and found peace with it. It wasn’t so bad to have sneak peeks at all the best parts ahead.
But of course I wouldn’t be writing this if it hadn’t gotten worse. The entity was still with me. It had not wounded me and departed like I’d wanted to believe. The closest I can describe my growing understanding was that the creature was burrowing deeper into my psyche, fracturing it into smaller pieces. Instead of months between major shifts, I began having only weeks. Once I noticed that trend, I feared my ultimate fate would be to jump between times in my life heartbeat by heartbeat, forever confused, forever lost. Only an instant in each time meant I would never be able to speak with anyone else, never be able to hold a conversation, never express or receive love.
As the true depth of that fear came upon me, I sat in an older version of me and watched the snow falling outside. That was the one constant in my life: the weather didn’t care who I was or what pains I had to face. Nature was always there. The falling snow was always like a little hook that kept me in a place; the pure emotional peace it brought was like a panacea on my mental wounds, and I’d never yet shifted while watching the pattern of falling white and thinking of the times I’d gone sledding or built a snow fort as a child.
A teenager touched my arm. “Grandpa?”
“Eh?” He’d startled me out of my thoughts, so I was less careful than usual. “Who are you?”
He half-grinned, as if not sure whether I was joking. Handing me a stack of papers, he said, “It’s my first attempt at a novel. Would you read it and tell me what you think?”
Ahh, of course. “Pursuing that dream of being a writer, I see.”
He burned bright red. “Trying to, anyway.”
“All right. Run off, I’ll read this right now.” The words were blurry, and, annoyed, I looked for glasses I probably had for reading. Being old was terrible, and I wanted to leap back into a younger year—but not before I read his book. I found my glasses in a sweater pocket, and began leafing through. Mar puttered in and out of the living room, still beautiful, but I had to focus. I didn’t know how much time I would have there.
It seemed that we had relatives over. Was it Christmas? A pair of adults and a couple kids I didn’t recognize tromped through the hallway, and I saw my son, now adult, walk by with his wife on the way out the door. As a group, the extended family began sledding outside.
Finally, I finished reading the story, and I called out for my grandson. He rushed down the stairs and into the living room. “How was it?”
“Well, it’s terrible,” I told him truthfully. “But it’s terrible for all the right reasons. You’re still a young man, so your characters behave like young people, but the structure of the story itself is very solid.” I paused. “I didn’t expect it to turn out to be a horror story.”
He nodded. “It’s a reflection of the times. Expectations for the future are dismal, not hopeful like they used to be.”
“You’re far too young to be aware like that,” I told him. An idea occurred to me. “If you’re into horror, do you know anything about strange creatures?”
“Sure. I read everything I can. I love it.”
Warily, I scanned the entrances to the living room. Everyone was busy outside. For the first time, I opened up to someone in my life about what I was experiencing. In hushed tones, I told him about my fragmented consciousness.
For a teenager, he took it well. “You’re serious?”
He donned the determined look of a grown man accepting a quest. “I’ll look into it, see what I can find out. You should start writing down everything you experience. Build some data. Maybe we can map your psychic wound.”
Wow. “Sounds like a plan.” I was surprised. That made sense, and I hadn’t expected him to have a serious response. “But how will I get all the notes in one place?”
“Let’s come up with somewhere for you to leave them,” he said, frowning with thought. “Then I’ll get them, and we can trace the path you’re taking through your own life, see if there’s a pattern.”
For the first time since the situation had gotten worse, I felt hope again. “How about under the stairs? Nobody ever goes under there.”
“Sure.” He turned and left the living room.
I peered after him. I heard him banging around near the stairs.
Finally, he returned with a box, laid it on the carpet, and opened it to reveal a bursting stack of papers. He exclaimed, “Holy crap!”—but of course, being a teenager, he didn’t really say crap.
Taken aback, I blinked rapidly, forgiving his cussing because of the shock. “Did I write those?”
He looked up at me with wonder. “Yeah. Or, you will. You still have to write them and put them under the stairs after this.” He gazed back down at the papers—then covered the box. “So you probably shouldn’t see what they say. That could get weird.”
That much I understood. “Right.”
He gulped. “There are like fifty boxes under there, all filled up like this. Deciphering these will take a very long time.” His tone dropped to deadly seriousness. “But I will save you, grandpa. Because I don’t think anyone else can.”
Tears flowed down my cheeks then, and I couldn’t help but sob once or twice. I hadn’t realized how lonely I’d become in my shifting prison of awareness until I finally had someone who understood. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
And then I was young again, and at work on a random Tuesday. Once the sadness and relief faded, anger and determination replaced them. After I finished my work, I grabbed some paper and began writing. While the weeks shifted around me, while those weeks became days, and then hours, I wrote every single spare moment about when and where I thought I was. I put them under the stairs out of order; my first box was actually the thirtieth, and my last box was the first. Once I had over fifty boxes written from my perspective—and once my shifting became a matter of minutes—I knew it was up to my grandson to take it from there.
I put my head down and stopped looking. I couldn’t stand the river of changing awareness any longer. Names and places and dates and jobs and colors and people were all wrong and different.
I’d never been older. I sat watching the snow fall. A man of at least thirty that I vaguely recognized entered the room. “Come on, I think I finally figured it out.”
I was so frail that moving was painful. “Are you him? Are you my grandson?”
“Yes.” He took me to a room filled with strange equipment and sat me in a rubber chair facing a large mirror twice the height of a man. “The pattern finally revealed itself.”
“How long have you worked on this?” I asked him, aghast. “Tell me you didn’t miss your life like I’m missing mine!”
His expression was both stone cold and furiously resolute. “It’ll be worth it.” He brought two thin metal rods close to my arm and then nodded at the mirror. “Look. This shock is carefully calibrated.”
The electric zap from his device was startling, but not painful. In the mirror, I saw a rapid arcing light-silhouette appear above my head and shoulder. The electricity moved through the creature like a wave, briefly revealing the terrible nature of what was happening to me. A bulging leech-like mouth was wrapped around the back of my head, coming down to my eyebrows and touching each ear, and its slug-like body ran over my shoulder and into my very soul.
It was a parasite.
And it was feeding on my mind.
My now-adult grandson held my hand as I took in the horror. After a moment, he asked, “Removing it is going to hurt very badly. Are you up for this?”
Fearful, I asked, “Is Mar here?”
His face softened. “No. Not for a few years now.”
I could tell from his reaction what had happened, but I didn’t want it to be true. “How?”
“We have this conversation a lot,” he responded. “Are you sure you want to know? It never makes you feel better.”
Tears brimmed in my eyes. “Then I don’t care if it hurts, or if I die. I don’t want to stay in a time where she’s not alive.”
He made a sympathetic noise of understanding and then returned to his machines to hook several wires, diodes, and other bits of technology to my limbs and forehead. While he did so, he talked. “I’ve worked for two decades to figure this out, and I’ve had a ton of help from other researchers of the occult. This parasite doesn’t technically exist in our plane. It’s one of the lesser spawns of µ¬ßµ, and it feeds on the plexus of mind, soul, and quantum consciousness/reality. When details like names and colors of objects changed, you weren’t going crazy. The web of your existence was merely losing strands as the creature ate its way through you.”
I didn’t fully understand. I looked up in confusion as he placed a circlet of electronics like a crown on my head in exact line with where the parasite’s mouth had ringed me. “What’s µ¬ßµ?”
He paused his work and grew pale. “I forgot that you wouldn’t know. You’re lucky, believe me.” After a deep breath, he began moving again, and placed his fingers near a few switches. “Ready? This is carefully tuned to make your nervous system extremely unappetizing to the parasite, but it’s basically electro-shock therapy.”
I could still see Mar’s smile. Even though she was dead, I’d just been with her moments ago. “Do it.”
The click of a switch echoed in my ears, and I almost laughed at how mild the electricity was. It didn’t feel like anything—at least at first. Then, I saw the mirror shaking, and my body within that image convulsing. Oh. No. It did hurt. Nothing had ever been more painful. It was just so excruciating that my mind hadn’t been able to immediately process it.
As my vision shook and fire burned in every nerve in my body, I could see the reflected trembling light-silhouette of the parasite on my head as it writhed in agony equal to mine. It had claws—six clawed lizard-like limbs under its leech-like body—and it cut into me in an attempt to stay latched on.
The electricity made my memories flare.
Mar’s smile was foremost, lit brightly in front of a warm fire as the snow fell past the window behind her. The edges of that memory began lighting up, and I realized that my life was one continuous stretch of experience—it was only the awareness of it that had been fragmented by that feasting evil on my back.
I’d never managed to be there for the birth of my son. I’d jumped around it a dozen times, but never actually lived it. For the first time, I got to hold Mar’s hand and be there for her.
No. No! That moment had shifted seamlessly into holding her hand as she lay in a hospital bed for a very different reason. Not this! God, why? It was so merciless to make me remember this. I broke down in tears as nurses rushed into the room. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to experience it. I’d seen all the good parts, but I hadn’t wanted the worst part—the inevitable end that all would one day face.
It wasn’t worth it. It was tainted. All that joy was given back ten thousand fold as pain.
The fire in my body and in my brain surged to sheer white torture, and I screamed.
My scream faded into a surprised shout as the machines and electricity and chair faded away. Snow was no longer falling around my life; I was out in the woods on a bright summer day.
I turned to see the creature approaching me. It was the same absence of meaning; the same blank on reality. It crept forward, just like before—but, this time, it hissed and turned away. I stood, astounded at being young again and freed from the parasite. My grandson had actually done it! He’d made me an unappetizing meal, so the predator of mind and soul had moved on in search of a different snack.
I returned home in a daze.
And while I was sitting there processing all that had happened, the phone rang. I looked at it in awe and sadness. I knew who it was. It was Marjorie, calling for the first time for some trivial reason she’d admit thirty years later was made up just to talk to me.
But all I could see was her lying in that hospital bed dying. It was going to end in unspeakable pain and loneliness. I would become an old man, left to sit by myself in an empty house, his soulmate gone long before him. At the end of it all, the only thing I would have left: sitting and watching the falling snow.
But now, thanks to my grandson, I would also have my memories. It would be a wild ride, no matter how it ended.
On a sudden impulse, I picked up the phone. With a smile, I asked, “Hey, who’s this?”
Even though I already knew.
Author’s note: Together, my grandfather and I did set out to write the tale of his life. Unfortunately, his Alzheimer’s disease progressed rapidly, and we were never able to finish. He’s still alive, but I imagine that, mentally, he is in a better place than the nursing home. I like to think he’s back in his younger days, living life and being happy, because the reality is much colder. It’s snowing today; he loves the snow. When I visited him, he didn’t recognize me, but he did smile as he sat looking out the window.
Check out Matt Dymerski’s collection of short scary stories, Psychosis: Tales of Horror, now available on Amazon.com.
(Click HERE to pick up a copy of Matt Dymerski’s book, A Shattered Life and Other Stories)