I Dare You, Dani Herrera
I think something is following me.
I don’t know what it is and I’m too scared to look.
I know it has long nails. They scrape and dig into my hardwood floors, in the cement in my backyard, in the tiles of the bathroom. It drags its body in an unrushed, even pull.
My brother notices it first, this thing following me.
We’re on the phone, I’m the one who called.
“Am I on speaker?” he asks.
I say no and he says, “Funny, because I could’ve sworn I heard someone with you.”
I look right. Then look left.
“No,” I say, “No one is here.”
Well, I think that’s what I say. Maybe all I actually say is, “No?” because I can never be too sure.
We used to play a game. I say it that way so that I can be a participant in my own memory.
My brother and I would stay outside till late, running wild like summer intended. Those days were special, where the streetlights turned on and you looked around and realized,
Oh, it’s dark.
Him being the older one would be the one to start the game. He would point at me and say, “It’s behind you.”
I would turn and never see anything.
He would go wide eyed. “It’s still behind you.”
I imagined it perfectly shadowing me, turning circles with me.
I would chase my brother yelling, “Please, stop! Stop it!”
“Don’t bring it over here! It’s still behind you!”
I don’t remember how we would decide the game was over. It would just stop.
It, the game
It, the thing behind me.
At night I see the deep scratches in the wall, right next to my bed.
Its nails have dug through the white paint, to the commercial blue, and finally, to my childhood pink.
All I can think is: that’s personal.
I close my eyes when I cover the mirrors.
I think that’s what you’re supposed to do when something is following you.
I know what I look like. I know the way my eyelashes curl, how my hair waves in the back. Any new pimples I can feel growing in and sprouting. I can trace the ripples on the back of my thighs and chart the cut of my hip bones.
There is no need for mirrors. They never show me what I need to see, only what I already know.
But now, would they show me a new face, one breathing on my ankles or resting on my shoulder?
Or would I look and still be there, all by myself?
I used to wake up from dreams, not just sweating but screaming.
The first few times I would put my face in my pillow. I was so ashamed to have been calling for my parents.
I remember holding my breath, waiting for their door to open, to hear them whispering, “Crisila, is that you mija?”
There was never any need for the shame.
No one ever came. I’m not sure anyone ever heard.
I think it’s getting closer, whatever it may be.
My shoelace came loose midday and ended up being eaten.
I’m retying the stubs of the lace when my brother calls.
“Chila, hey, have you cleaned out my old room yet?”
“No. Why would I?”
“What do you mean why? I’m not there anymore, no one is, you should have that place cleaned out.”
“All your stuff is still here.”
He says he’ll come by and get some stuff that he’s been looking for. I know he won’t. I’ll have to drive to his apartment and drop it off. I will knock and ring the doorbell and he won’t be home so he won’t answer.
So I’ll just leave it by his door.
I fall asleep, then wake up to a single, light rip.
And I realize it’s crawling over the ripples of my sheets hanging off the bed, coming for me.
I turn away and I fight the panic of having my back to the closet doors in the dark.
I’ve decided to not lie still anymore.
I will not pause, I will not rest.
I walk and never let myself stop. I pace so its nails never have time to grow. The tile and the cement and the wood file the nails down. Maybe making it safer.
Now I no longer hear the curved nails snapping into jagged edges as it rises to follow me.
My neighbors ask if someone has moved in. They wrote a note and left it on my backyard fence.
I read it as I walk back to the house, holding the paper close to my face, hoping it won’t be able to see.
Not rushing is the secret. If I run it could run faster. So I stay slow where I know it’s slower.
All the while it rustles through the grass, dragging itself so close to me that if I turned my head and rested my chin on my shoulder and looked, if I even wanted to see it,
I wouldn’t be able to.
And it’s just like when I was little, waking up late at night, standing on the edge of my bed. On the magic number I would jump.
I would jump as far as I could. Then run out the door and into the bathroom. When I came back I would close my eyes and take a running leap into bed. It was the only way to get back. I didn’t want the devil to swipe at my feet and take me away.
Maybe this is the devil. Maybe I never saw the best version of him, him in his prime back when I was seven.
I’m twenty-six now. He could be old, quitting all the rules we made up together at 3 am when I was shaking and too afraid to move. He could be following me now, still trying to catch me, be it day or night, in the grass or in front of my bed. He’s just here to collect an overdue debt.
See, someone once told me that when you lie, the devil tickles your feet at night.
Beep, the machine says.
“Hey. You know, remember when you said you heard someone the other day on the phone? Sometime last week you said it, guess it’s been a while. But what did you mean? What did you hear? I’m just wondering.”
I leave a note on my neighbor’s fence.
I imagine they will grab it without a second thought and read it over. But it would be one of those read throughs where you think you know what’s written so you read it wrong. They will see, “Yes, he just moved in and we are so excited! Thank you!”
But they will catch the mix of words. The note says, “What do you see?”
“So there is something there!”
“Stop yelling, you’re too loud,” I tell my brother. I say something familiar like that, instead of “Quiet, it can hear you.”
“You haven’t even looked.”
I want to say, “You don’t know that,” but that’s another one of my phrases. I don’t want this whole conversation to be pre written.
“You didn’t answer my question. What did you hear the other day? Tell me.”
“It’s now. I hear it right now. It’s something behind you, breathing, being. It’s just right there,” he says.
“This is all your fault.”
This conversation is over. There’s no yelling, no angry hang up and stomping out of the room.
We just stop.
If light travels at however fast light travels, how fast does the dark travel?
Light from where is another variable. We usually just say the sun. So if darkness could be a variable, the other one would have to be the source. Darkness from where.
I’m not saying my brother saw its shadow in the darkness from childhood and now it’s all just finally arrived.
I don’t want to say that.
I’m saying he might not be the only one. Because darkness from where? Mirrors, out from the closet, in the middle of the street?
It could be all of those and I called out to it.
Darkness from everywhere, traveling at the speed of nineteen years.
My neighbors finally leave a note back. It took two days.
The note says:
We see dancing. We see two shadows tugging and pulling at the space in the house. Who is running from who? (I can tell this is teasing by the tilt in the handwriting.) He looks tall and thin and crouches at the space around you and above you. You twist and twirl and run away and yet he never leaves. It’s beautiful.
They even drew a picture.
What a tragic ballet.
Sure, I had the devil’s rules.
I jumped from the edge of the bed, at night I walked with my back to the walls, and I always slept facing the closet.
It was a plan, a fortress, of no surprises.
But I can’t help but think, I still should have closed my eyes so I didn’t have to stare at the danger all the time.
That’s when you start to see things. The flickers, the movement. The blinks of hazy eyes.
I let myself stop for a second when I get back in the house.
I hold the note and the picture away from my body.
“Is this what we look like?” I whisper to it.
My family was never good at greetings, at stating that we needed to have a serious discussion.
When I pick up the phone my brother says, “I’m sorry. I feel bad. I know that you’re scared.”
I can tell he’s been thinking of our last conversation. And it’s been bothering him.
“This isn’t your fault,” I say and wonder if he remembers everything I do.
“I know. But I still feel bad because I’m not helping.”
He doesn’t remember the games we used to play. To him, they were so small his memory never thought to keep them.
“It just feels like—like suddenly I’ve been carrying this thing around my whole life.”
“Technically, you haven’t been carrying it. It’s been following you.”
I try to fall asleep but I can feel the dip at the end of the bed where it hangs onto the edge.
I can hear its nails tapping.
I hold my breath and hear a slight breeze.
It’s whispering back at me.
I wait to fall asleep, refusing to answer and refusing to look.
I wake up to four bruises on my right knee.
I sit up and yell at it, just like my mother told me to do when ghosts are bothering you. See, anger makes me brave, chemical courage that I store in the pits of my jaw and release into iridescent speeches.
Vete. dejame en paz. No quiet nada contigo. Regresate con los tuyos. Vete!
This is no longer a ballet. It’s no longer beautiful.
Now that it’s not mystical or imaginary I want to look.
But I don’t know the rules anymore.
I lay in bed and stay angry for so long that when I finally get up I can hear the curved nails breaking and splintering off.
“It scratched me,” I tell my brother.
The crack in my voice makes him quiet as he waits for me to cry, then waits for me to stop crying.
“You’re really scared.” He says it as if it never occurred to him that this could be something real to be afraid of.
What my family was good at was boundaries.
No intrusions, interruptions, or crowding.
Now I think it wasn’t a carelessness, but a fear of being somewhere unwanted. To not be a bonus, but a too much.
My brother sees it right when I open the door.
His eyes stare at the ground behind me.
Maybe this is it. It could lash out right here.
I walk to one of the back windows and turn to see my brother’s eyes scanning the ground then rising to the curtain rod.
I used to sit on the bathroom counter facing the mirror.
I would lean real close and look right into my own eyes, creating an infinity of myself for myself. And for whatever else wanted to be there.
“If you’re there you can tell me,” I told myself, which then told myself, which told
“I just want to see you,” I said, “I won’t make you leave, just say hi.”
It wasn’t an “of course.” It was a surprise, pure disappointment that nothing happened.
The me’s on both sides of the mirror, resting forehead to forehead, they wanted something to be there. For it to be bulky and made of steel. To weigh one ton. They wanted to see something that took up all the space around me and blocked all the air. They wanted to see a barrier, something that people must have kept bumping into. Those me’s just wanted an explanation for why everyone stays away.
But the me in my eyes, leaning forward, she wasn’t so sure.
She told me, “You’re a neon sign. There’s often buzzing and reflection, that’s all. The mercury drips out your eyes and it blurs the world.”
But that answer wasn’t good enough for me because it wasn’t what I wanted.
I would get down and put my hand on the door handle and take one look back and pretend jab at my reflection.
And I always flinched back from myself.
“So what is it?” I ask my brother.
“I’m looking at it right now and I still have no idea.”
“Is it going to kill me?”
“I don’t know.”
I start to say that I don’t know what it could be because that’s what anyone else would have said. A familiarity with monsters is a dangerous thing.
Nails wrap around my bare ankle and pull.
My head hits the floor first. A perfect fall.
I imagine my brain breaking and splintering off. Making me less dangerous, taking away my edges till I’m all filed down.
I feel it crawl on top of me. Burning me and turning so hot it starts to evaporate into my skin.
It was not a debt the devil was missing from me.
Somewhere along the line of my life,
between the rules and hidden in the fortress, with my back against the wall,
I wondered why whatever lived in the dark never looked back to me the way I looked at it;
So I called and I bargained before I knew what bargaining meant.
And now it’s finally responded to my begging, with half of it melting and evaporating in the pores of my skin, only half because half of it is already so much.
I will always hear it dragging itself, right next to me now.
But I will also feel it knocking on the bones of my ribs. Calling and responding to itself.
It looks exactly like what I used to expect in the mirror, like what I looked for in all those nightmares games.
It looks like me, the me with her forehead trapped against glass, peering into my eyes.
My brother is sleeping on the couch.
He’s staying even though I didn’t tell him to stay.
Earlier at dinner I smiled a quiet smile and said I was fine but I know all he was thinking was, “She was scared. She was so scared.”
“Did it look familiar to you?” I asked.
“No,” he says. “Nothing like that ever will.”
I sit in the backyard and play music for the first time in weeks.
There’s no more utility in listening to the silence of an empty house. Because, see, it already caught me.
I hear a humming to my right and a rumbling in the alcove of my chest.
It feels me watching it and it looks back at me. Me looking at it and it looking at me and I smile and it bares its teeth, just a flinch reaction.
But isn’t that what I did to myself in the mirror all those years ago?
Somewhere in the infinity I made of myself I will keep looking and it will keep finding me, baring its teeth.
Dani Herrera lives in the Central Valley of California. She is currently a fiction candidate at St. Mary’s College of California. She was previously published in Crack the Spine and is a writer for Chasing Shadows. Follow her on Instagram @dani.herreraa or support the mag @chasing.shadows.magazine