Richard Zucco was afraid. For as long as he could remember, he had lived with the constant fear that, at any minute, something terrible was going to happen, that he was being followed by the worst thing he could imagine. His life was controlled by panic attacks, night terrors and fits of anxiety that, out of nowhere, would swell up within him like a wave and make it impossible to concentrate on anything else. Psychiatrists gave him pills that didn’t work, and after a few months threw up their hands and foisted him off on colleagues they didn’t like. He was perpetually single, frequently unemployed, and some days it was all he could do to leave the house.
Nights were the worst. He would lay awake until dawn with the blanket pulled to his chin, biting into the covers to stop trembling. His heart pounded like it was about to explode. Some nights, he wished it would.
One evening he had a panic attack as he drove home from one of the few jobs he had been able to hold down for more than six months. He began shaking and hyperventilating, and his heart thundered in his ears like it was the only sound in the world. He pulled over to the side of the road and sat against the railing, near a steep hill leading into the nearby woods. He put his head in his hands and tried to slow his breathing, the way his last psychiatrist had told him to.
When the fit passed interminable minutes later, he looked up to see the strangest creature he had ever laid eyes on. The creature was tall and rail-thin, with corpse-pale skin and hollow eyes. It had a look on its face like it couldn’t stop seeing the worst thing it had ever seen.
The creature lurched toward him. Richard felt another fit coming on; this was like living in one of his many nightmares. His heart pounding, Richard bolted into the car and slammed the door. It didn’t lock all the way, however, and Richard watched in slow-motion horror as the thing grabbed the door handle and forced itself halfway inside the car. It grabbed at Richard’s ankle; its skin was cold and clammy, like a dead fish. As it grasped at Richard’s neck, it emitted a muffled, barking cry, like air being forced out of a dead throat.
Richard screamed and kicked blindly at the intruder, his mind on fire with panic. He and the creature thrashed around for what seemed like forever, as the creature tightened its soft yet horribly strong grip on his arm with one hand and grabbed his throat with the other. This is it, Richard thought. I’m going to die.
The creature slammed him hard against the passenger window and, suddenly, the car began tipping over. Richard and the creature both froze with dumb panic as everything went sideways. The impact jarred Richard badly, but he was able to throw most of his weight onto the creature. The unmistakable smell of dead flesh was overpowering. The creature made the horrible dead throat noise, and lashed out with its left arm, striking Richard on the side of the head. Richard reflexively punched back, hard, and he heard a snapping noise as the thing made one last tortured gasp. Then everything was dark.
When Richard came to, he saw the creature was dead, its neck broken and twisted at an impossible angle. Richard crawled out of the broken passenger window. He inhaled sweet, fresh air as he slowly pulled himself to his feet. He felt around for broken bones; other than a few cuts and scrapes, he was fine.
He was better than fine, he was alive. He was alive and the creature that had tried to kill him was dead. He had finally met the fear that had followed him his whole life, and he had broken its neck. He had faced down fear itself and won.
His fear was finally gone. The unreasoning terror that had run his life – anxiety in the pit of his stomach, trembling in his limbs, racing thoughts of doom – had vanished, and in its place was a wonderful lightness that flooded his body like a drug. He felt like jumping, singing, dancing for joy. He was free, free, free at last.
It was dark now, and the air was filled with the chirp of crickets. The car was beyond repair, and he would have to walk the trail that led out of the woods, back into the city to catch a bus home. An hour before, the idea of going out there at night would have terrified him, but now he was looking forward to a nice evening walk through the city streets, serenaded by the sounds of the world he had hid from for so long. As he walked the trail, he couldn’t stop smiling. Life was good.
He felt a tap on his shoulder and turned around. Something hit him in the face, hard, knocking him onto his back. Dazed, he looked up to see the creature standing over him, its head hanging at a grotesque angle and its dead lips twisted into a rictus grin. Its eyes were burning with an animal madness.
Richard heard the sound of the creature’s dead cries, only bigger and louder; he saw dozens of creatures just like his tormentor emerging from the woods, all with the same hideous smile on their dead faces. They stood around him in a circle, waiting to strike. The leader emitted a low growling noise, and the strange mob moved in for the kill.
Richard knew it was over, but was amazed to find that he wasn’t afraid. His lifelong terror was gone for good; dead or alive, he had beaten it. The last thing he heard was the sound of his own heartbeat, steady and at peace.