Sometimes when I was really quiet, the voices would start.
Everyone has a voice, singular, in their head. It’s what they use when they’re reading newspapers or when they have pop songs stuck in their heads. It’s what people “hear” when they make-up conversations that will never transpire with people they will likely never see again. It’s what they are listening to when they absentmindedly talk to themselves. You probably don’t think very much of it.
But sometimes, I hear more than one.
It happens when days begin to blur together like strands of pearls on a necklace, each no different than the last. It happens when my fingers start twitching and my blood feels like fire in my veins. It happens on dark nights when I forget myself under the sheets of my bed where I lie, pressing my hands over my ears.
It happens, despite the endless pills and appointments and promises.
And when it happens, it starts with a crash, a bang, a disruption of my usual, familiar inner monologue.
Tonight for example, it started with a memory.
The first person I ever knew to die was my grandfather, who finally kicked the bucket when I was twelve. Some kind of cancer that was a result of years of inhaling nicotine was no doubt the COD, and I never even got to kiss him goodbye when he lay in his hospital bed, hallucinating in his final hours.
The nightmares came after that. I was at my grandmother’s house when something would call me into the basement: a voice. The stairs would creak beneath my feet as I trampled down them to get to the voice. I’d turn the corner to see my grandfather, smiling through a face that was rotting and full of maggots.
I’d run back up the stairs only to hear more voices coming from the bathroom. I’d open the door and he would be there, staring at me with dead eyes and holes that went right through his skin. The walls of the bathroom would ooze moss and mud and suddenly, the voices would get louder and louder until I woke, sweating in my bed.
It was the first time I heard the voices.
Now I know what you’re thinking: undiagnosed schizophrenic with paranoia, right?
That’s what I thought too, for a long time. But when the pills didn’t help and the treatments didn’t work, I started to doubt it.
“Yes sir,” I’d tell my doctor every month. “I can’t hear any more voices, sir. No, the dreams are gone. Yes sir, I’m sure.”
But every once in a while, like clockwork, they’d be back. For a while it was tolerable, even not bothersome sometimes. But they grew louder and more insistent, more urgent. It would feel like clawing and scratching at the back of my skull whenever they would start. I would rub my head in frustration until my palms were sore.
It wasn’t until one night when the worst of it came that my right ear started to bleed and I knew I wasn’t insane. Or at least, that this wasn’t purely psychological. It couldn’t be, right?
This time though, this time I was ready for them.
They began after a dinner of cold pizza and soggy salad consumed over the process of a few hours. I retreated to my bedroom and drew the curtains when I dropped onto the bed suddenly. I heard them then, loud and angry, at the back of my head.
I started scratching at the bald patch where hair no longer grew just above my neck. My nails were broken to the quick, a result of previous scratching, just like the bald spot, but I kept scratching.
The voices grew mocking in tone and some even began to laugh. I scratched harder, trying to free myself of them once and for all.
More laughter followed and my scratches grew desperate. I began to bang my head on the wall, which had often worked in silencing them before.
BANG. BANG. BANG. I was pounding my head against the wall, blood beginning to drip from an old wound on my forehead. Tears swelled in my eyes but I refused to let them fall.
I knew what they meant when they said “tonight”. They had often spoken like this, threatening my death. They had been planning it for months now.
I knew then that tonight was the night I had to get them out of my head.
“He thinks he can win.”
“That won’t work boy, put it down.”
The final voice made me freeze, nail file poised in my left hand. I was ready to start using it to scrape at the back of my head when the voice spoke. It was the first time one of them had ever given me a direct order, or acknowledged that I could hear them.
“Of course we know you can hear us,” a different voice said in the same, eerie drawl. “We’ve known you could hear us ever since we first lured you into that basement.”
“A sane person wouldn’t have gone down there,” the first voice agreed.
Although I hadn’t said a word, the voices were now communicating with me. Or rather, with my inner monologue or “own voice”.
I started jabbing the nile file into the back of my head with such force that blood squirted out on the first blow.
I heard more laughter. “No, we’re not your grandfather,” a third voice whispered, answering my unspoken question.
I started shaking so hard that I dropped the bloody file onto my bed. I frantically searched the room for another weapon while I tried to still my hands, which were growing cold.
“You’re a fool,” the first voice said.
“Have you never wondered who we are?”
They have asked this question before. The first few times I thought they were asking it to me, but seeing as they had never before responded to my own voice, I had assumed it was rhetorical. I kept scratching at my skull.
More laughter. It was a wheezing, sputtering, unearthly sound. It sounded like it was coming from right behind me.
“We are not death, no.”
“Demons, he says!” This was followed by a low chuckle. A tapping sound began in the same place at the back of my brain that the voices seemed to originate from. This was followed by a scraping sound similar to nails on a chalkboard.
“You wish we were demons, boy,” said the third voice.
I started to sob then, blindly searching for my meds – sleeping pills, Cymbalta, Xanex, anything that would help cushion the voices from my ears.
“He thinks he’s scared now,” a fourth voice said in broken, half-English that sounded more like gargling.
“Wait until he realizes.”
I was crawling then, trying to get to the nail file again. Tears were running down my face, mixing with the blood from my head. I never thought the voices would actually be able to kill me until that moment.
I can’t remember where I dropped the file.
“You can’t file us away, idiot boy!” I think that was the first voice.
More gargling and hissing in some unknown language. I choked out a sob that shook my whole body. I was at the side of my bed by then.
“Aren’t you curious who we are?”
Under my bed I saw it. The shiny red corner of the tool box my father gave me for my thirteenth birthday, over fifteen years ago. I reach for it.
I heard the scraping sound in my head again and screamed. It was louder.
“You… want… to… know… RIGHT?” yet another voice croaked.
“He thinks it will work.”
“SHUT UP!” I screamed, trying to open the tool box with hands slick with blood and shaking with a terror that was seizing my entire being.
But they only grew louder, closer. The pain in my skull was unbearable – searing, white-hot pain that racked the bone at the base of my neck up to the tip of my head.
“We are you.”
I froze, my hands gripping the hammer. “No.”
“We are fear. We are YOUR fear.”
“We are your anger, your fear.”
“We are exactly who you made us.”
I closed my eyes and swung the hammer.