The Wraith

9. April 2020

It was a week after the precipitating incident that her withdrawal began. The withdrawal was slow at first, and not a conscious plan until well into it. Indeed, at first it was wholly innocuous: merely a withdrawal from the most taxing and unnecessary parts of her social life, such as going to bars and clubs. Soon after, she found herself skipping most social events, ostensibly to focus more on her work. It was only a short step from there for her to stop eating at restaurants and cafés and browsing for books at bookstores. A month after the precipitating event, her only contact with the world besides shopping for groceries was chatting with strangers online, and soon she would resolve to give that up, too.

Her seclusion was not compelled by any outside forces; it was rather entirely at her own behest. Indeed, she had originally conceived of it as a mere return to earlier conditions of life: a familiar way of living that could be borne without difficulty. Through this she hoped to finally tame desire, to subject the mercurial parts of her character to saturnine discipline; for in her relatively brief interregnum of social contact she was forced to face for the first time the potence and perversity of desire, both its protean nature and its obstinate resistance to command and control. Hopefully, the burden her presence placed upon society would be lightened if she were to ever return.

The first effects of seclusion were purely psychological, and indeed wholly anticipated: time seemed to lose its meaning, as the days began to run into each other; soon, her only awareness of time beyond the rhythms of daily life were the slow shifts of the seasons. As the weeks became months, her attempt to avoid the precipitaing event, to focus entirely on self-discipline, began to unravel: late at night, she compulsively, repetitively returned to the humiliating series of rejections, to their final straw that night which so thoroughly broke her spirit. A night’s sleep served to dismiss for the time being this obsession, and thus prevent any serious questioning of this project.

And yet, with each repression of the memory it grew stronger, making the next episode more devastating; it was only a matter of time before it would begin to threaten the numbness of her days and thus the whole project. Yet she refused to budge; instead, she embraced the obsession, and added to it an endless repetition of a single sombre, melancholy jazz record.

Then, as midsummer approached, she began to notice a curious change in her appearance. More than a mere dulling from lack of sun exposure, her skin seemed to have become a uniform grey; yet she insisted to herself that it was the former, and paid it no heed; certainly, the cabin fever of remaining put in a tenement for months was far more significant than a mere dulling of skin.

Still, she had to admit that there were some causes for concern. For, while she was the only one inside her cramped apartment, she had recently begun to hear noises, which clearly did not come from outside, and worse yet, which uncannily resembled her own voice, though at that point she could not clearly make out any words. And as the dulling of her skin moved from an odd novelty to old news, she began to notice that occasionally in mirrors her reflection would be ever-so-briefly replaced with a silhouette.

As the words became more comprehensible, she rationalized them as merely an odd manifestation of an internal monologue, a trick her brain played on her. Gradually, she began to talk to the voice, and the voice spoke back to her in her own voice, and she was grateful for the company, secure in the knowledge that it was only herself, and so she was not betraying but rather fulfilling her path of reflection and discipline. For its part, the voice never seriously confronted her; even when it was there to torment her, it refused to ask any sharp questions.

One day in the middle of autumn, looking in the mirror, she no longer saw her reflection, nor a mere silhouette, but instead nothingness. She looked down at her hand, and saw merely the floor beneath. And yet, her body seemed otherwise normal. As she came to terms with her newfound invisibility, she noted to herself that in previous times, she may have used this power to steal enough food for a banquet, but she no longer had anyone to eat with, and no longer had any appetite. This was a realization which proved more shocking than that of invisibility; she had been totally oblivious to the slow decline in her diet over the course of her seclusion.

By November, she had stopped reading, had stopped watching TV and movies, had stopped playing video games, had focused all her attention on the by-now clearly decaying jazz record, which she began playing as she woke up and turned off as she went to sleep. All representational, narrative art was merely a distraction, merely another way of refusing the duty of reflection and the rigors of discipline, consuming at the expense of the world. It was only another opening for desire, that all-consuming force, the source of all suffering.

One stubborn remnant was her imagination, plaguing her in nightmares and daydreams. She imagined an abstract landscape in greyscale, totally devoid of life, harsh, cold, and angular, extending without end, lacking in any sort of pattern. Another time she imagined being seized in the middle of the night and blindfolded, being sent to a painfully bright room and strip-seached by masked men, waking up in a cold grey cell with a piece of paper, a cigarette, and a pencil, with a voice demanding that she write her last will and testament, being made to run in the dark woods on a cold winter night to dig her grave, and then at first light being blindfolded, her arms and legs tied behind her back to a wooden pole, surrounded by soldiers. She dreamed of a town emptied of its people and so thoroughly poisoned that to visit was to sign a death sentence, and even animals could no longer survive there; a place eerily quiet, but bearing all the signs of former habitation.

Two weeks after she had resolved to kill her imagination, she noticed a further change. While she could no longer confirm what she had suspected with her eyes, her gait had changed, and she could feel parts of her skin dripping viscously as she moved. She began to wobble when at rest, though her motion was much slowed. Previously, she had to consciously dismiss the changes she had noticed as unimportant, but now she no longer had the will to even contemplate it.

Waking up at the outset of the following year, she found that the blanket which had shielded her throughout the night now overlapped with her body, and she did not need to open the door to exit her bedroom. She had become totally intangible. This brought one final curiosity to her: whether or not she could still feel pain (pleasure, of course, was by then a distant memory). She placed her hand above a gas stove and immediately shrieked in horrible agony, yet could not pull her hand from the stove. As she contorted and cried her mind reflected once more on her rejection, and she for the first time confronted that behind these noble goals of discipline and lightening the social burden lie a more base goal of preserving and healing a bruised ego. There was nothing admirable at all but rather pure selfishness and cowardice. Then suddenly, she went numb; the fire no longer seemed to hurt, and neither did a cut from a knife.

By February, her body had totally dissolved into a fine mist, floating within her apartment, unable to live or to die. The following weekend, her apartment was shown to a man and a woman: a happy, young couple, recently engaged, full of life and vigor, almost certain to be the new tenants.