Daniel had a strange fascination with death.
No. It wasn't his fascination that was strange. Many people have that sort of obsession. What made Daniel stand out was the degree to which his fascination extended.
The initial focus of Daniel's fixation was not death. In fact, it all started quite innocently, with nothing out of the ordinary. You see, it began like this:
One day, a smaller, younger Daniel, only eight years of age, was riding in the car with his mother. She was a good mother, just as his father–working, that day, at a fairly low-stress job–was a good father. Abnormalities were few. Daniel felt no animosity toward either parent, nor did they him, or each other. Life was calm enough, Daniel was a good son who caused little trouble for his mother and father, did well in school, had many friends and led an active yet peaceful existence. No external dangers had afflicted him with their presence, he had been exposed to little violence, sexual depravity did not touch him. In short, Freud would have been at a loss as to the causes of Daniel's later behaviour.
He rode in the car, happily playing with a rather fancy toy his mother had bought him just an hour earlier. It was a pleasant spring day, and so they had the windows rolled down in order to enjoy the cooled warmth of the afternoon. Daniel's mother smiled down at him once, when at a red light. Her smile was tender, full of the sort of love happy mothers feel for their young children, when looking down on them they see in them all the joy of youth that life has to offer those select few who have yet to be tainted by misery. Yes, life was grand. Daniel smiled back, one of his baby teeth missing in an endearing fashion. He was certainly happy in the car with his good, kind mother, holding his new fancy toy. And that was when the strange feeling first came over him.
He could not explain why but he had a sudden overwhelming urge to throw his toy out the open window of the car. What a strange idea! He had no real desire to lose his new toy. He loved it, and he loved his mother, and he knew she would be very cross with him should he act upon this odd impulse of his. But that feeling! Consuming him the way it was, like little voices in each of his ears encouraging him to do evil. The thoughts began to fill his head. He imagined what it would be like if he did throw out his toy. He pictured it flying behind them, carried down the road by the wind. He imagined his mother pulling over and scolding him, wondering what had possessed him to do such a thing. He imagined never being able to hold the toy again for, even if they went back down the road and found it, it was sure to be permanently damaged by the other cars that, no doubt, would drive over it.
The feeling became so strong that Daniel felt he could no longer stand it and, in order to counteract it, he immediately rolled up the window and set his toy down; maybe, if he were no longer holding the object, and the possibility of the open window was eradicated, the urge would disappear, too. His mother gave him an inquisitive glance.
'Why did you do that?' she asked.
'I felt cold,' Daniel lied, and he lay back against his seat more calmly as that strange feeling washed over him and vanished.
Daniel's eight-year-old mind could think of no explanation for this occurrence. He wondered if maybe there was some evil impulse buried deep within him.
'Maybe I'm showing my true colours,' he said to himself, quoting an expression he'd heard his parents once say. 'I'm just a bad child. That's all there is to it. I'll probably end up having to do all kinds of awful things, all the time.'
He was unaware, at that young age, that this strange urge to do something one does not want to do is actually quite common. It has been spoken of for centuries. Dostoyevsky spoke of a human impulse to throw oneself into peril, in order to bring about suffering, due to an unconscious desire to repent. In modern, more atheistic times, psychologists have decided it's simply a problem within the brain, linked with anxiety disorders, which can be removed with proper treatment, be it psychological or surgical.
Daniel's fear that this feeling would come over him again was justified. It did, in fact, consume him many times after that first moment. The second occurrence happened when he was a year older. His mother handed him a glass during a meal, and he found himself compelled to drop it onto the floor. He imagined the way it would smash, the little shards flying every which way. He thought about one of them sticking into his leg and cutting him. He could almost feel the pain it would cause, the vision was so strong. He instantly placed the glass on the dining table and felt the feeling wash over him as it had before. His one relief lay in the knowledge that he could rid himself of that strange impulse simply by ridding himself of the circumstances that brought it about.
As time went on, he began to notice that the urge came more and more frequently. When once they were isolated instances, separated by great expanses of months, gradually they would occur every few weeks, until one day, when he had reached the age of 17, he realised that they came almost every day. It was difficult for him to be in any sort of situation without finding himself imagining the worst possible outcome.
It wasn't limited to physical destruction, either. It reached out to his relationships with people. He would imagine arguments with people. On a prototypical occasion, he was at a party with several schoolmates, when he realised something one of his friend's said just didn't sit well with him.
'I can't believe what he just said,' Daniel fumed silently while pretending to following the continuing conversation around him. He doesn't even care. I bet he doesn't even think he's done anything wrong. I should point it out…but what the hell do I say? Staring vacantly into the throng of people easily communicating with each other, his mind was elsewhere than the room; it was galloping away, visiting deeper and deeper places in his imagination, desperately searching for a choice rebuke to the offending comment, yet always drawing up against blank space.
Later, as is the case with most people, he thought up a thousand different things he could have said. Vicious, cutting things that would have stopped his friend dead, mid-sentence. He then imagined having said them, imagined how startled the enemy would have been, how angry he would have become, the words that would have then been exchanged…. With a faint masochistic smile, Daniel indulged in presuming there would have been violence. To make it realistic, in his mind, he started the fight. He shoved him a little, then harder, until it was finally enough to provoke a reaction. Eventually, there was blood, and Daniel focussed his mind's eye hard on the vibrant colour until he felt sick to his stomach with migraine.
It gave him a sense of morbid satisfaction that I'm sure no human would deny having felt many times in life. In essence, these sorts of thoughts are common, but Daniel took it further. There came a point, when he was 19, where he found himself unable to control these argumentative urges. One day, after having spent more than a week dwelling on the clever arguments he could have made in response to an 'enemy' of his, he realised he couldn't take it anymore, and decided the only way to rid himself of that compelling feeling was to give in to it. And so, seemingly out of nowhere, he approached his 'enemy' and made a grand show of all the hostile remarks that had been stored up in his head all that time.
The 'enemy' (really one of his good friends) stared in shock. 'Where's all this coming from?' he asked when he finally recovered his speech. His eyes were wide and slightly bulging, yet not as much as Daniel's.
'I can't believe you don't remember,' Daniel breathed in just as much astonishment, for he'd been able to think of nothing else but the off-hand meaningless comment his friend had made days earlier. In an effort to make the situation go according to his fantasies, he jogged his friend's memory.
'But that was ages ago now–'
'Actually, it was only last Tuesday,' Daniel corrected.
His friend gaped at him, his mouth open as if ready to speak, yet unsure what on earth to say. Daniel silently held his ground, glaring in return. 'It-it didn't mean anything,' his friend finally stammered.
'It did to me.'
'Yeah, but…okay, I'm sorry.'
This was not at all what Daniel had expected. In fact, to anyone else, it might have been the perfect resolution to an uncomfortable scenario even Daniel had to admit he would have liked to get out of quickly, but after all the horrible visions he'd had all week when imagining facing off with his friend, this sudden apology seemed so anticlimactic. And it was with this thought that he suddenly punched his friend as hard as he could, knocking him straight onto the ground.
His friend looked up at him, his hand to his eye, feeling the damage–then picked himself up and walked off, never looking back.
Despite the guilt and embarrassment he felt at having made such a scene of himself, at having been so misunderstood, Daniel felt relieved. He had made the thoughts go away. No longer would he dwell on that point. However, it was his misfortune that he could not see this would set a precedent, forcing him to give in to the urge time and time again afterwards, until the time came when he found himself very much alone, his peers having given up on him long ago.
Finally, his urges had no choice but to turn inwards.
* * *
Daniel was 21 when he was shaving and suddenly, without warning, he felt an unnatural impulse to slash the razor through his own eye. He couldn't explain why. Obviously he didn't really want this to happen, and yet there it was. His mind ran away with him, and he unwillingly imagined what it might feel like. His brain tried to picture what it would be like for his vision to suddenly be ripped in two, the blood pouring out, the sound of his scream….
Instantly he stopped shaving and replaced the razor, even with the job half-finished. It was too much for him to handle. Losing precious items, and even starting belated arguments and estranging himself, were both tolerable compared to this strange inexplicable new desire.
From that point on he became a sort of fetishist. He would watch films and pause them at the most violent scenes, and stop to imagine what it might feel like to be the one being harmed so brutally. He would read scenes in books, scenes of violence, depravity, abuse, and put himself into the picture, too. Sometimes the feeling would consume him to the point where he would become emotionally involved and feel the terror more than the characters did themselves. He shared their pain and took it a step further, making that pain all his own. And, for some reason unknown to even him, he revelled in it. There was a strange sense of satisfaction intermingled with the horror, ever urging him on to do it again and again. He even learned he had favourite types of suffering; having his fingers shredded off in the garbage disposal was a particularly fearful yet pleasurable fantasy.
The real tragedy of Daniel's life, however, was that this affected him in reality as well as in fiction.
* * *
It began with the train. When he was 24 he was standing on the platform waiting for the train. Normally he would stand a bit away from the edge of the platform, but on this occasion something told him to stand closer to it. And so he did, and found himself staring down woefully at the tracks that lay below.
Why do people get caught on the tracks, when playing Chicken? he wondered to himself. They can't so complicated that you could get caught in them like you always see in films. There must be a way to dodge out of the way in time and save yourself.
As always, it was a common enough thought, one many have when convincing themselves these unfortunate accidents that occur all too often in the world are the fault of the people, and that we're different–that we could survive such instances without undergoing the miserable outcomes that lie in wait of those other, less competent individuals. All people like to gamble with fate, in their minds.
Daniel, though, felt something more. All of a sudden he felt a powerful urge to throw himself onto the tracks and tempt fate. He imagined not making it, and the train running over him. He tried to picture what it would be like, what part of the train would be the one that would sever his body, how fast he would die as a result of the mangling, the announcement that would need to be made to other commuters, the shutting down of the line, the disgruntled passengers moaning about yet another person selfishly disrupting everything….
And he jumped back, away from the edge of the platform, frightened. But, this time, the idea took full possession of his mind and did not leave him once he had moved away from the literal brink of disaster. True, the urge melted away, but the idea of it still lingered, as though it had taken life and was determined to fight Daniel for space within his body.
Scared of what he perceived to be some sort of mental invader, Daniel then locked himself away in what he considered to be the safety of his own home, soon realising it was necessary to steer clear of any activity whatsoever, if he was to remain truly safe. Even at home, he found himself surrounded by temptations toward his own downfall. In their simplest form, there were objects he felt the desire to smash, even if they were very dear to him. In their more complex, there were knives in the kitchen, the razor in the bathroom, the glass in the little stand-up mirror he kept to check that his hair was sitting right, in the mornings….
It didn't take long to realise he was incapable of leading a normal life. This being that had wormed its way inside of his head, whispering things to his subconscious, was taking over his very existence. He could not handle the torment any longer, and realised that hiding away in his house would do him no good when the difficulty lay inside him, rather than outside in the world of disasters. And perhaps, he thought, the world is actually a very safe place; it's people who make it as dangerous as it is. Maybe this little voice inside me is in everyone, leading us all into peril. At any rate, he could not waste the rest of his days locked inside what had become his asylum.
And so it came to pass that Daniel left the confines of his house and decided to take a long walk. He strolled peacefully through the streets lined with the half-dead trees of autumn, their coloured leaves lying on the green lawns, and smiled happily at the sight. Seeing such natural beauty was relaxing to him, calming, and he felt that perhaps he would have a good day after all. Perhaps he would be granted one day of freedom, without that invading force speaking to him. Maybe it had decided he deserved a rest from the mass of anxiety his life had become.
With this in mind, Daniel came to the bridge midway through the town in which he lived. This bridge was made of stone, and arched high above a river that lay far below. The pathway to this bridge slanted upward until it reached this point, as the streets bent up and down in hills. Daniel looked down, now, into the waters below him. They were very rapid, and flowed freely over sharp rocks that jutted out toward the sky.
And the urge came over him, again.
What if he jumped?
It was roughly 20 feet down to the rocks below. There was no way for him to miss them, so prominent were they, looming below him like hands waiting to catch and impale him with the claw-like nails that rested on the ends of their fat, bulky fingers.
Daniel stared down, frozen still. I must move away from this bridge, he told himself. It was the only way to rid himself of that feeling, that impulse. As long as he got away from the bridge, that feeling would vanish, and then…what?
A new impulse would come over him, another time.
There was no way to escape it. It was as though those rocks had been waiting for him all those years, ever since he was just eight years old, and now he had finally found them. They were tired of waiting for him. They wanted him now. And, if it weren't them, it would be something else. Daniel knew there was no way of escaping this. His life would never be more than a consecutive series of negative urges. His motivation would forever be simply to avoid giving in to these impulses toward disaster. And for what?
'For nothing,' he now said aloud in a great voice that surprised him, as he had been alone so long that he had nearly forgotten the sound of his own voice.
And, with that, knowing full well his body would not obey the order to move away from the bridge, he jumped.
During his descent–which was in truth only a few seconds long, yet felt much longer to him–he imagined what it would feel like to hit the rocks, how their sharp peaks would pierce his body, the marks that would lie on his flesh, the blood that would come from it, the unconsciousness he was sure would ensue (as he felt quite certain he would smash his head on one of the rocks), the unknown that would fill him after it was over….
Then it all happened. He smashed onto the rocks, his head hitting one peak very hard, rendering him instantly unconscious. The waters flowed over him and cast his body off downstream, shoving him under and tossing him up again, slowly drowning him–
until the feeling, like those waters, washed over him for the last time, the urge being finally gone.