Date Published: 2/1/2021
What would you do if God asked you to help destroy the world?
After a full-grown gorilla is kidnapped in the middle of the night from the San Diego Zoo, Jim is hired by a Hollywood movie producer to try to track down the animal. Following the death of a child and the collapse of a marriage, Jim has been surviving as a private detective in Los Angeles. Jim follows the peculiar trial of clues, including the business card of a mysterious gypsy fortune teller, deep into the dark abandoned subway tunnels beneath New York City. Meanwhile, a young boy in Brooklyn secretly keeps a list of his fears in his closet, adding fears and crossing them off as he ages. Near the top of the list is one word that has never been crossed off: “God”. Their lives become mixed in this darkly relevant, heart pounding adventure that will keep you up at night, making you ask yourself questions that you may not be ready to answer.
Darryl lay in his bed in the darkness, doing everything in his power not fall asleep. He clenched and unclenched his toes, hoping the movement would keep him awake. Then he did the same thing with his fists. He dug his fingernails deeply into his palms so that it hurt. It still wasn’t working. He could feel the lids of his eyes growing heavier with each passing moment. He opened his eyes as wide as he could and stared up at the dark, empty ceiling. His eyes began to burn as invisible specs of dust landed on his eyeballs. He fought the urge to close his eyes, but they began to water, and he was soon forced to blink. A tear trickled down the side of his face.
None of physical tricks that Darryl had used in the past were working so he knew what he had to do. He hated it, but he knew he had to. Darryl began replaying baseball games that he’d played in park in his head. To ease himself into it, Darryl started by thinking about positive moments, moments when he got a hit or made a nice catch or throw. But remembering the good moments did nothing to keep him awake. In fact, they only seemed to speed up his drift into unconsciousness, so Darryl took the next step. He started picturing every mistake that he had ever made on the baseball field in his mind.
He recalled the ridicule when he struck out, the cat calls when he booted a ground ball.
Over and over again, he let himself relive the moment when he had dropped an easy fly ball, allowing the other team to score three runs and win the game. His stomach turned but, on that night, even the bad memories weren’t doing the job. No matter what Darryl did, his mind kept drifting towards emptiness.
Darryl wondered if he’d been awake long enough already. He sat up in his bed and listened. He turned the side of his head towards the open bedroom door and listened.
Beneath the sounds of the television, Darryl could still faintly hear the sound of his mother shuffling around the living room. She was still awake. He needed her to be asleep.
He didn’t dare get out of bed until she was asleep. Desperate, Darryl decided to take drastic measures. He began to imagine bodies, dead bodies. He imagined them piling up atop a wheelbarrow being pushed slowly down a dirt road. The bodies were piled up so high that Darryl couldn’t even make out the face of the man behind them, pushing the wheelbarrow. The image in his head was so vivid that he could smell the stench rising off the rotting corpses. He could hear the sound of the flies buzzing around them. His heart began to race. He could feel sweat rise on his palms. He endured. He didn’t even try to wrench the image from his head. It was working. The image haunted him. He knew that, now that the image was in his head, he was stuck with it. He had no power over it any more. Darryl followed the image of the cart in his mind. Every so often someone would come out of house along the side of the dirt road and throw another body on to the heap.
Darryl could see each of the bodies so clearly. Their skin was almost a translucent but still had a strange blue hue. The bodies were covered in boils and bruises. He saw their faces, void of expression, their eyes glassy and empty; their jaws hanging slack beneath their noses. Time passed. Real time passed. Darryl didn’t know how much time, but he knew that he was still awake. Sleep wasn’t going to come to him for a long time now.
Darryl sat up in his bed again. He could still here the sound of the voices coming from the television, but the sound of his mother’s shuffling was gone. It worked. At least, it seemed to work. Even as young as Darryl was, however, he wasn’t the type to take a thing like that for granted. Before he made his next move, he had to see for himself that his mother was truly asleep. He pulled his sheets aside and swung his legs over the side of his bed. Before he’d gotten into bed, Darryl had placed a pair of socks on his night stand. He grabbed them now and slipped them on to his feet. He used the socks to muffle the sound of his footsteps. He dropped his newly sock adorned feet onto the linoleum floor and stoop up.
It wasn’t a long walk down the hallway from Darryl’s bedroom to the living room. During the daytime Darryl didn’t even notice the distance. During the night, however, in the darkness, trying to be silent, the hallway looked long and ominous. The darkness stretched it out like a hallway in a funhouse. At the far end of the hallway, Darryl could see the blue-gray shadows born from the flickering light of the television as the shadows danced along the walls. It made the walls appear to be alive. Darryl put one hand against the wall behind him and stepped slowly down the hallway towards the moving shadows. He placed each foot on the floor gently before putting any weight on it, making sure no footstep squeaked. All the while, he listened. He listened to see if he could hear any sound other than the laughter echoing from the audience of whatever late-night talk show his mother watched as she fell asleep.
Slowly, Darryl found himself near the end of the hallway. He leaned his back against the wall so that the living room was behind him. He took a deep breath. Then, with only one eye at first, he leaned into the emptiness of the doorway and peeked into the living room. At first all he could see was moving light. The light from the television was so much brighter. It flashed around the room, changing colors and intensity with each new second. It took a moment for Darryl’s eyes to adjust. When his eyes finished adjusting to the flickering light, he could see his mother lying with her eyes closed in the middle of the pull-out sofa. Ever since his father left them—so for almost as long as Darryl could remember—his mother had fallen asleep with the television on. At some point in the middle of the night she would wake up and turn it off. She used to sleep in Darryl’s room. Darryl used to sleep on the sofa. Then, when Darryl turned ten years old, his mother gave him his own room and she began to sleep on the pull-out. It was his birthday present. His mother said that a growing boy needed to have some privacy. Even though his mother still wouldn’t let him close his door after nine o’clock at night, it was by far the best present Darryl had ever gotten.
Darryl stared at his mother. Even sleeping, there was no peace in her face. Her eyes were closed tight, and her mouth was turned down in an unpleasant scowl. Her jaw was clenched, and Darryl could see her grinding her teeth together. Darryl traced his eyes down to her chest. He watched her chest rise and fall with each breath. He counted the number of seconds for each rise and fall. Three seconds—that’s what he was comfortable with. He knew from experience that if each breath took three seconds, that meant his mother was sound asleep. He counted. Inhale. One, two. Exhale. Three. He was satisfied.
Now he could get the work.
The walk back to his room was quicker, but Darryl still took each step carefully, trying not to make any noise. When Darryl got to his room, he took a flashlight out of the drawer in his nightstand and flicked it on. He immediately flashed the light into each dark corner of his room to make sure that he was alone. Then he walked over to his closet door and slowly opened it. He pushed aside the shirts that were hanging in the closet and made his way towards the back corner. He shined the light on a pair of old sneakers that he had resting on the top of a shoebox. He had drawn an outline of the soles of the sneakers on the cardboard lid of the shoebox so that he could tell if anyone had moved the sneakers.
They were still in place. He reached down and picked the shoes off the shoebox and placed them behind him. Then, the beam of the flashlight still his only source of light, Darryl sat down on the closet floor and leaned up against the wall. He lifted the lid off the shoebox. Inside was another, older pair of sneakers. He stuck his fingers inside the left shoe and grabbed the list. He pulled out a roll of paper from an old, desktop calculator.
He’d found the roll years earlier when he and his friend Benny had snuck into the old abandoned middle school down at the end of Benny’s block. They climbed in through a broken basement window and ran around inside for hours breaking glass and exploring old lockers. Darryl saw the ancient looking calculator in one of the classrooms with the roll of paper hanging from the back. The paper had yellowed at its edges over time.
Without knowing why, he took the roll, shoving it in his pocket and not even telling Benny about it. He brought it home and did nothing with it for months. Then one day he needed it and he knew exactly why he’d taken it and what he was meant to do with it.
Darryl reached inside the other sneaker and pulled out a thick pencil. He took his flashlight and propped it up between his shoulder and his cheek. He slid the fingers of his left hand into the center of the roll of paper and slowly began pulling the end of the paper with his right hand. The paper slid out from the scroll, revealing the markings that Darryl had made over time. They were words. Some of the words were crossed off but many remained untouched. Darryl kept unrolling the scroll into he got to empty space. He had unrolled nearly four feet of paper. Then, in the empty space, beneath the word Zombies Darryl began to write. He stopped for only a second to determine the exact word or words that he should write. It was important that he write the right thing. His history book had used a number of different names—the bubonic plague, the black plague. The one he chose was Black Death, being sure to capitalize the first letters of each word. He felt a chill drift down his spine as he wrote the words.
After writing the words, Darryl stayed hunched in the corner of his closet, the yellow beam from the flashlight barely cutting through the darkness. Darryl took a few moments to look at the words he had just written. He remembered the illustrations from his history book. He remembered his teacher’s descriptions. His classmates had giggled and joked. Darryl didn’t think it was funny. Black Death. Darryl looked at the words one more time. Satisfied, Darryl began to slowly roll his list of fears back up, scanning the list as he went. This was the most important part of the ritual. Every time Darryl added a new fear to the list, he looked at all of his old fears to see if there were any that he could cross off the list. His eyes scanned past the names of monsters like zombies, werewolves and vampires. He glanced at the names of kids from his school, older kids and bullies. His eyes moved over the names of animals: lions, alligators, snakes, rats, bats. The word dogs appeared on the list, but Darryl had crossed it off. He liked dogs now. Now he knew how to put his hand out so that they could smell him before he pet them. The further up the list Darryl got the greater the frequency of crossed off words. Darryl looked at each crossed off word with pride. He was no longer afraid of water after learning how to swim at the local pool. Darryl’s friend Elton had made the list when he first moved into the neighborhood because Elton was so big, but then they became friends when they were seated next to each other in science class. Some words that Darryl had crossed off were added again. Sometimes conquered fears returned. The word Dad appeared on the list at least eight times. It was the first word Darryl ever put on the list. He started the list after his father came to their house drunk one night. Darryl had watched helplessly as his father slapped his mother in the face with his open hand. That night, as Darryl hid in his closet in fear, he started the list. The word Mom appeared on the list five times. It was the second word Darryl ever added. All five of the Moms were currently crossed out. The same couldn’t be said for the most recently added Dad. The night Darryl added Black Death, he didn’t find any words that he could cross off. He hadn’t conquered any new fears. Slowly, Darryl made it to the beginning of the list. He could see the words Dad and Mom at the very top, both crossed off there. His hand writing was so much better now.
Then Darryl looked at the third word on the list, right below the words Dad and Mom with their lines running through them. The third word was the highest word on the list that Darryl had never crossed off. It stood out among all the other crossed off words, surrounded by fears that Darryl had overcome long ago. Darryl didn’t need to think about whether or not to he should cross the word off this time. He knew that he was still afraid.
He looked at the word. He had capitalized it without even really thinking about it when he wrote it. The word was God. It had been written so long ago that Darryl barely recognized the child’s handwriting that it was written in. Darryl remembered writing it though. He remembered the fear. After staring at the word for what could have been a few seconds but also could have been an eternity, Darryl finished rolling up the scroll. He placed it back inside the right sneaker and placed the pencil back inside the left. He put the lid back on the shoebox and carefully lined up the second pair of sneakers inside the trace marks on top of the lid. Then he turned off the flashlight and stepped quietly back out of the closet. Slowly, gently, Darryl climbed back into bed.
It took Darryl a long time before he was able to fall asleep.
About The Author
Trevor Shane’s novels have been published across the globe in numerous different languages. He is the author of the Children of Paranoia series and the award-nominated Memory Detective series. He is a graduate of Columbia University and Georgetown Law Center. He currently lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two sons.