Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
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No Man's Land

by Dan Zangerl

I knew the time was ticking down. It had to be, otherwise I wouldn’t have done this… no one in their right mind would be doing what I was doing. But then again, I am not in the right mind, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this.

It was becoming too much. I knew too well, it was getting to point where I couldn’t hide it anymore, the pain, the regret, the feebleness, the inability to stand among the rest of humanity. Even thoughts that once gave me comfort, happiness, encouragement, dare I say… confidence? Now were becoming yet another source of pain. Stabbing, bone snapping, constricting, blinding pains that would be lethal had they been physical. Now the desire to make those pains physical started to consume my mind, day and night.

It was just hopeless, I couldn’t find the way forward. “Where will you be in ten years?” that damned question that always crops up when you desperately are seeking direction for dear life. ‘Ten years?’ Ha! Like I could even make it that far, the rest of the world is so optimistic, at least more optimistic than I am, or they hide their own inner cynicism and then project out only positive, optimistic world views. The weight of the world is far too great for me…. hence I wanted to end it.

Why I didn’t do it, that was quite the question. Did I want an answer before dying? A revelation? Closure?

No, you know damned well what you were looking for. One last shot at redemption, a coward’s hope. That is why you sought him out, didn’t you?

Ellision, Harlan fucking Ellision. The one man who had gone before and still prevailed. But how did he do it?

I felt bad, a humble writer seeking out a legendary writer, and not one well known for good moods or pep-talks. But that wasn’t what I was seeking anyway…

When I called Harlan, he was irritable as to be expected, demanding explanations, I informed him of… well… my pains, my problems, in one last desperate hope that someone could understand me then explain me to myself. The predicted abuse hit cold and hard in the form of the tirade over the phone. How dare the likes of me seek help form the likes of him. Then I desperately snapped back at him why I was seeking him, the real reason why. No Man’s Land.

Harlan fell silent over the phone. It took him a while to speak again, though his tone was less harsh it was still unsympathetic. “So you know of it?” he asked

I swallowed. “Yes, I know of it.” I said feeling I found some even ground with him upon revealing my secret of taboo knowledge.

Harlan sighed over the phone. “Then you should know what you are in for, and if you don’t, you will learn soon.” I remember holding the phone, breathing hard in anticipation. Yes, I knew of No Man’s Land, the last trial for those with no hope. The make or break of the will. All weakness and life could be faced there, for in No Man’s Land, men face themselves.

He told me…. how to find it…


Here I am now, in the seat of a rapidly moving subway car, this car has seen better days. Rust, mold and rot line the yellowed walls as corroded machinery whines, moans and scrapes below. I keep my eyes focused on the floor, though I can still the dirty, shriveled, cloth-wrapped feet of the Figure sitting across from me. It has not moved and neither have I. It’s gaunt and sagging shape is disturbingly humanoid, it just sits there, deathly still, it doesn’t even breath. But if I move it follows suite, if I look up, it looks up. How or when I dared to learn this I cannot recall, but I do KNOW how it would react should I dare to move. I keep my gaze to the floor paralyzed in fear not wanting the face the horror in front of me. Its cowl is pulled low, I have yet to see its face, and I do not want to.

A screeching, scratching and wailing turns my attention to the back of the train car. I pan my head, but I do not raise it. Under the flicker of the dying lamp, the rear entrance to the car being pummeled battered and scratched from the outside. Only in the brief moments of illumination do I see the flailing of hundreds of tiny articulated and viciously writhing limbs and tiny bodies. Their cries and screeches grow more agitated with the presence of the light.

Having to look away I dare a glance to the front of the empty car. Another corroded door stands on the opposite side of the car, with a hastily scrolled text scratched across its rusty center. It simply reads “Proceed.”

The door, it must be the way out, or the objective of this place. But getting there it not so easy…

I start to raise my head to the cloaked Figure before me, fighting my terrors as I go. Through the rips in its decaying cloak I can see the tell-tale signs of white, sickly flesh and hints of small infected abrasions. My eyes tilt past the station of my face. I catch a glimpse of the horror below the cowl and quickly look down one again frozen in terror.

The Little Things outside the rear door gave their howl of sheer delight and resumed their bombardment of the door a new, with renewed vigor against the decaying structure of the car. They were going to get in. whatever those horrible things. They were going to get in!

But how do I get out, if I dared to stand, the Figure would stand too. And I would be forced to face with a dread I would soon learn.

The skittering, the banging, and scratching of the Little Things, the squealing of the tracks, the inconsistent flickering of the dim lamps, it was madding.

No! That’s what this place does! If you can survive No Man’s Land, you come back whole, more than whole! But if you let this place get to you, you come back less, or you may not even come back at all.

The Little Things continued to their aggressive banging, I tried to ignore them. No man’s Land still had rules, it wouldn’t just kill me. There was a lesson in here…

I dared to look up slightly, but the shuffling of ratted fabric from the Figure made me freeze.

“Why are you here?” I dared to ask, with what bravado I could muster.

Because you are here…” the Figure said in a coarse, dry voice.

The voice made me jump. “What!?”

Without thinking I looked up, there, facing me, the hideous visage up the Figure looking up at me under the cowl. I hurriedly looked down away from that awful face.

There was a chuckle, a dry, mocking, almost defeated chuckle. “Still can’t move on. You couldn’t move on in your life, so like a fool, you came to No Man’s Land. And you brought your fear…

My pride suddenly came back with anger. “I don’t fear anything!” I raised my face to glare at the Figure, but fell short when it started to raise its gaze to meet mine. I stopped short.

You fear the Little Things outside … And, you fear me…

The car hit another hard bump, causing the lights to flicker. I looked to the back at the Little Things outside, there seemed to be more of them now, and they seemed very agitated and escalated their siege of the door with squeals of maddened delight and violence.

I could hear the banging metal begin to twist, and the thick glass being to crack.

They will get in, eventually… If you let them…” The Figure whispered.

I looked down again, avoiding the Figure’s gaze. “Then that’s it. I just stay here till they get me?”

It’s up to you, you know the way out.

“Yes, but-“

But what?

I could hear the Little Things becoming more violent as the metal door and frame started to give way. I panicked, I didn’t know what to do… no, no, no, no… I knew what to do. I knew damn well what to do, but I didn’t want to do it! But why? No time for that! No Man’s Land holds no room for excuses!

Steeling myself I snapped my head up to face the Figure before me.

I wish I hadn’t.

Through a mask of crusty, blackened necrotic tissue, the Figure stared back at me with the loathsome eyes. The familiarity of its features froze my blood. I knew that face, and those eyes…

Well?” the Figure asked sourly as I maintained horrified eye contact.

The light started to go out as I heard the back door wrench loose. Then I heard the squealing and skittering of countless little bodies.

“Are we going to die?” the Figure prompted casually, confirming my greatest fears. But in that moment, I knew what needed to be done.

Despite my fears, despite my pain, I maintained eye contact with that horrible being. I stood up. The Figure mirrored my movements perfectly. The Skittering was growing closer bringing the darkness with them. I did not turn back. Despite the tears running down my face I gazes with the horrible Figure as I ran side by side with it, down the train car to the door. We both hit the door as all light in the car started to fade. Even with the Little Things growing closer, I felt some measure of relief till the Figure’s visage began to change. Those eyes… my eyes…

It was a blur between horror and panic, I don’t know if the Little Things got me, or if the Figure got me. I believe I went through the door. But that doesn’t mean it’s over…

No Man’s Land doesn’t let you go. Not till it’s done with you….


2019 Dan Zangerl

Bio: Dan Zangerl is a licensed Solar Site Assessor, PV Installer in central Illinois and used to Teach English in Japan.

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