No one talks about what happened in the Lands. Every time I see someone else like me: trying to look normal, shrinking away from people, fliching at any sound of music, speeding to walk past others while pushing their hood farther to cover their face… I wonder.
Nothing is normal after the Lands. Every second you are awake, you are scared. At night, you cannot fall asleep because you are terrified. The first time they come, it is always night. They come when it is quiet when they can make sure that you can hear them coming, frozen with either the delusional opinion that they won’t see you or go away if you hold your breath and don’t move or with the acceptance of the sobering knowledge that escape isn’t possible. You are always the only one who can hear the jingling bells that make your fingers go numb as your heartbeat races, heat and cold mixing to make you nauseous. They never come on moonlit nights – they never want you to see them too early, the freakish whiteness of papery skin that stretches taught over their bones like cellophane wrapping, the yellow jagged teeth dripping slime, ink-black tongues, multiplying limbs, frosted glass eyes…
Before the Lands, you think that you can always run away. But when they come for you, bells jingling softly, at first, then growing louder, you cannot escape. You can try to run. I did. But you cannot. The doors will always be locked, windows shut, if you ever manage to get outside, houses will sprout from the ground where they never were before, trees will crowd around you, shadows pouncing for your ankles in attempts to tackle you. The ringing in your ears will only get louder as your breath is sucked from your lungs, legs growing heavy and jelly-like, feet tripping over each other. The bells and chimes that came from only one direction will be coming from everywhere. You will be surrounded, no one around to help you. You won’t know where you are when they take you.
The Lands have rules. They never tell you. You just know it, but by the time you do, it’s too late. The creatures come, but they can never kill you. They can take you places, but they always have to return you by the morning. They can rip you apart, but they must make you look whole. They can modify your memory, but they cannot change how you see the present. The Lands have a purpose. They are a punishment.
After the Lands, you stop dreaming. You try holding back thoughts and fantasies, desires and fears. Once you have thought of something, you can never take it back. Of the entire night that you spend in terror, both soul and body dissected and digested by horrid things, screaming until your lungs are bloody pulp, your throat is torn to sore fibers, only a few seconds are spent in the Lands. Those are the seconds that you hate yourself for, the seconds that you would want to die burned alive instead of living. The Lands stimulate your mind. They stimulate you to think more than ever before or after in your life. They activate every brain cell, every slumbering sensory neuron in your body. They make you have ideas. Horrible ideas. Good ideas don’t come after hours of panic and suffering and even if they do, the Lands make them worse. Every idea or thought that you have in the Lands will soon become your reality.
Once you’ve seen the Lands, you stop crying. You can’t shed a tear for a single silly thing that happens during the day, nor for the disasters that happen at night. You cannot mourn when you lose everyone you love to deaths crushed beneath icebergs, murdered by friends, held hostage by madmen. You can’t even cry after you leave the Lands, adrenaline pumping, body on overdrive, your brain trying to settle down, but burning through more and more energy. You never know whether what you do after is hallucination or reality. All you know is that you want food. And you do anything to get it, regardless of what it takes.
Right after the Lands, you can’t think. You do anything for your cravings. You don’t know what you are doing, you cannot control yourself, as though infested by a demon. You hunt, you chase, you murder, you feast and gorge on what isn’t yours to take. Then, you are overtaken by primal fear. You fall, blind, unable to hear, and still unable to reason. Your body shakes, convulses, and strangles itself in attempts to calm down.
The Lands make sure that you wake up. If you believe right away that everything really did happen, then you will know that you are alone. No one can help you. No one will believe you. They think that you are joking. They ask you if you are ok. But you are not. They think that something is wrong with you. Then, they think that you are crazy.
The Lands make sure that you lose everyone that matters completely. First, you lose understanding, then trust and confidence, much later love. Then, one morning, when you wake up, they make you doubt. You are sure to doubt whether everything you saw and lived through actually happened. You know it did only when you get off the bed, feeling soggy carpet beneath your feet, finding it an unsettling shade of red. When the bells ring even as you see the light outside. When you look at yourself in the cracked mirror and see the blood-covered monster that still holds a knife smile.