there’s nothing wrong with hard work. there’s nothing wrong with pushing yourself hard for the sake of your goals and your dreams. there are sacrifices that come along with such hard work, sometimes. sometimes you have to give up on the things that make life worth living if you want to succeed.
there’s nothing wrong with hard work. sometimes, though, hard work with no play can make someone a little...crazy.
you wouldn’t consider yourself to be high strung, wound tight, or, as some less pleasant people might say, that you have a stick up your ass. you’ve simply always believed in the power of hard work, even when that work ethic finds you outside of normal hours - processing reports and data entry and sending emails to this person and that - and yet you never seem to want to slow down.
and you’ve been plentifully rewarded for the work that you’ve put in, so despite what everyone else may say about you needing to slow down, take some time for yourself for once. even company retreats don’t slow you down, spending free time on the phone with international offices.
it’s this attitude regarding your work that gets you called into your manager’s office on a cold friday morning sometime early in november.
your manager asks you to take a seat, smiling at you in a way that makes you mildly anxious. perhaps this meeting wasn’t about how well you’d done on handling the separation of two clients who’d still wanted to stay with your firm.
“good morning.” she says, taking a sip from her coffee and leaning down to pull a file from her desk. “i’m afraid my reason for calling you in this morning may not be so pleasant.”
“oh?” your heart rate spikes even though you know you aren’t being fired. you’re one of the hardest working people the company has ever seen.
your manager opens the file and sighs. “you’ve accumulated more PTO than anyone in the company’s history has ever held at one time. you put in so much overtime we’re starting to worry that you may be here working more often than you are at home. and i know you work from home as well.”
you take a deep breath to try and settle yourself. “so what are you saying? to put in less time? i can do that, i suppose.”
she fixes you with a worried look. “i’m afraid i just don’t agree with you.”
“so, what then?” you ask, starting to let your anxiety bleed into your tone. you have no idea what’s going on and you wish she’d be more straightforward.
“we’re suspending you. well, perhaps that’s not the right word. we’re mandating that you take the PTO you’ve accumulated and use it . if you continue on working like this without ever taking time for yourself, we’re worried you’re going to have a mental breakdown, quite frankly.” she closes the file and folds her hands together on top of her desk. “you are an incredibly viable asset to this company, and we’d love nothing more than to keep you around for as long as possible. however, as we come into this slower period of the year i think it’s best for you to stay out of the office for a while.”
“how much time have i accumulated?” you ask. you’re not especially used to having free time, and you’re unsure of how you’d entertain yourself for any more than three days, truthfully.
“eighteen weeks. however, since we’re mandating that you use it and we’d also like you to still have some sick days and emergency time available, we’re only mandating that you use four.”
“a month? what am i supposed to do for a month?”
she sighs. “i was really hoping you wouldn’t say that.”
it turns out that your manager had - correctly, of course - assumed that you wouldn’t know what to with yourself and had spoken with some of the higher ups about possibly sending you somewhere remote.
the higher ups, for reasons you will never understand, agreed with her.
and that’s how you find yourself on a bus ride out into the middle of nowhere. the research you’d done indicated that there wasn’t much to do in the tiny town you were being sent to either, at least not in november when tourist season wasn’t at its peak. the town was settled around what was apparently a popular lake during the summertime, although you couldn’t attest to its popularity yourself.
from the bus station you take a taxi to the address your manager had given you, and when you’re dropped off there you feel a sinking sensation in your stomach.
the house is old, and looks worn from the outside. you wonder if the place is even hooked up to cable tv, let alone wifi.
you pay the driver and take your things into the house, pleasantly surprised to find the inside much more agreeable than the exterior. the kitchen is modern and the lights all work, and you breath a sigh of relief at the sight of not only a television but a collection of movies off to the side.
really, you think to yourself, you should have expected more from a home in a vacation town. you are, however, let down by the fact that there appears to be neither an internet connection or cell phone service. you sigh and take your things to one of the bedrooms and unpack.
you decide to take a walk around the town and later the grounds of the house - you’d seen a pizza restaurant on your way in earlier, and what looked like a garden from your bedroom window.
your walk into town proves successful, although when you tell people where you’re staying they all seem to go pale and give you looks filled with worry and fear. but no one says anything about it, so you shrug it off. small town people are always so superstitious.
it’s dark by the time you return to the house with your dinner - and breakfast, from the empty state of the fridge - so you decide to forgo the garden tour and sit down for a few movies instead.
you end up falling asleep on the couch, not waking until sometime near three am. you yawn and stand up from the couch, stretching your arms up over your head. you twist your body to attempt to pop your joints, and that’s when you see it for the very first time.
there, in the window that looks out onto the front porch, is what appears to be two glowing red eyes. a scream rises in your throat, but you blink and suddenly the image is gone. your chest heaves a bit, your body relaxing from the tension it had been holding. you chalk it up to exhaustion and make your way to your bed.
for the next week, you find yourself touring the town, spending time down by the lake with books and notebooks. you try your best to not do any work, but it’s something ingrained in you. you did your relaxing last week, and now you can’t seem to fight the urge to think about what you must be missing at work, to think about things that can be done better.
you also think about the fact that the longer you’re in this tiny town, the more strange phenomena you come across. when you’re down by the lake, you see strange, dark figures moving across the treeline, hearing noises in the house at night.
but it’s not only noises that you hear at night. it’s not even only at night.
you hear a deep voice telling you to ‘relax’, sometimes from parts of the house where you aren’t.
more than once you’ve caught glimpses of a man walking around on the property. tall, with dark hair, but you never see enough of him to get a really good look. you only ever see him as he moves back into the trees surrounding the house.
the more often you try to work, the more often you hear the voice. the second you think about working, you can hear the deep timbre of it begin to ring out from somewhere in the house.
during the second week, you begin to have nightmares.
you dream of the broad back of the man who wanders the property. you try to follow him into the forests, but when you do, everything around you goes black. the man turns to you and his face pulls into a broad grin, mouth full of too-sharp teeth, eyes blazing red. in the next instant you’re surrounded by thousands of bright red eyes, and the deep voice echoes around you, telling you to “ relax, give in to nothingness”
you wake up each time screaming, tears trailing down your face.
you amble around the house not doing much of anything, after that. if the voice wants you to do nothing, than you will. you’re not exactly eager to hear it again any time soon if you can help it.
you spend a few days doing nothing but sleeping and eating, occasionally. you pile books into bed with you to fill your time when you’re awake, but soon even those begin to bore you, flipping the pages beginning to feel like too much effort.
you find yourself often in a strange haze, somewhere between being fully awake and being asleep - you hear noises that sound too far away to really be heard, things like the rustling of leaves from the bathroom, the sounds of birds cawing from your closet. your vision swims and blurs, and you offhandedly wonder when the last time you ate anything was.
you also think about how it doesn’t matter, because trying to cook or even eat seems like too much work.
the night seems to stretch itself out, the darkness of early winter afternoons making it easier for you to sleep longer. when you wake you often find that it’s still dark, the blackness of night taking over.
on the first night of the third week, you open your eyes and at the foot of your bed stands a man.
you think it’s a man, anyway - it’s dark in the bedroom and your vision is ever-blurred, but it seems to be a man.
he comes closer, leaning down to peer into your face. you notice that his eyes are glowing a dark, haunting red.
“i’ve done well with you.” he says, and you recognize his voice as the one that boomed through the house, telling you to relax and give in. “isn’t it so much easier to just do nothing? doing things takes too much effort, isn’t that right?”
you nod, if you can call it that, and he smiles. the closer he is to you the easier it is to make out his features even in the darkness. he seems to glow - that, or he simply soaks up the darkness around him. it’s hard to be sure, and thinking about it too much hurts your head.
“you -” your voice croaks, and it hurts when you try to clear it. you haven’t spoken to or seen another person in so long. the man reaches out and trails a finger down your throat and then the pain is gone, so you start again. “you’re the man that’s been wandering the property.”
“wonwoo.” he says.
you sigh. “but you’re not really a man.”
“no, i suppose not. so why don’t you run, then? i know you’re afraid of me.” his mouth curls into a smile and you’re surprised when his teeth look normal.
you shrug and roll over, facing away from him. “are you going to kill me?”
you turn back over and he’s gone.
you close your eyes and give in to sleep once more.
the nightmares continue to plague you.
when you wake up, the room is filled with light. a peek out the window tells you that the ground is covered with snow, and you sigh. your whole body aches as you move to stand, eager for a good look outside regardless of how much effort it may take. the floor is cold beneath your feet but the feeling isn’t unwelcome, and you have to put a hand to the wall to steady yourself on your feet.
you reach the window and smile at the sight. the grounds look beautiful, pristine and undisturbed.
you slowly, slowly dress yourself, glad you’d looked ahead to know this area commonly received snow early into the cold months and had packed accordingly.
your clothes don’t fit quite as well as they did when you’d arrived three weeks ago, but you don’t particularly care. you take slow, careful steps down the hallway and towards the kitchen, but when you grab the handle of the fridge to check for food you hear wonwoo’s voice, deep and angry.
“ you should relax . ” his voice yells, and your body trembles with both fear and hunger. the hunger wins out and you rip the fridge open. you see bread that hasn’t gone moldy and grab it, fingers clumsy as you rip the bag open and shove the food into your mouth.
“you were doing so well.” you hear. you don’t look up, don’t look around to see if he’s inside or if it’s just his disembodied voice. “isn’t this too much?”
“i want to go outside.” you whisper, voice shaky. “i want to play in the snow. i haven’t done that since i was a child.” you hear the sound of wonwoo groaning and you jump when it’s followed by the sound of pounding on the counters.
“you’re being ridiculous.” his voice continues. you finally look up and see him standing there. the door never opened, but you’re pretty sure that whatever he is, he doesn’t need to use it anyway. “you should get back in bed.”
“why?” you counter. “i’m not sick, or injured. i just....”
wonwoo leans down and locks his red eyes with yours, and your vision goes hazy, then black.
when you come to, you find yourself back in your bed, body riddled with pain that makes you cry out.
“see?” comes wonwoo’s voice, soft and near your ear. “it hurts to do things. just lay here and give in.” he appears in front of you, leaning down to your eye level and smirking.
you whimper in response, and close your eyes again. “are you going to kill me?”
like the last time you’d asked, he laughs. “that would be far too much work.”
“if you die, it certainly won’t be at my hand.”
you open your eyes to look at him, fear joining the pain surging through your body. he’s looking down at you with something feral in his eyes, and you notice the sharpness of his teeth. you close your eyes again and say nothing, waiting for sleep to come.
when it does, you don’t dream.
as your body wakes up, things come into focus very, very slowly. you can hear the beeping of machinery, and soft voices, and your body thrums with a dull ache. your throat feels as if it’s been clawed apart from the inside. you clench your fingers and find something attached to one hand, something plastic and small. your eyes open and your vision is blurry, but you can recognize the outline of your manager sitting in a chair across from what must be a bed that you’re lying in.
you let out a small noise and reach out for her, and you hear her gasp. she yells for a nurse and comes over to your side, pouring you water.
“i’m so, so sorry.” she tells you. “i should have known better.”
she tells you that you’ve been gone for three months. when you hadn’t returned, the company had assumed you’d decided to take the rest of your time off and hadn’t thought too much of it.
when the end of the second month rolled around and no one had heard from you, that’s when they’d gotten involved. they called the police local to where you’d been staying, and they hadn’t found you in the house.
they’d found you, she said, out wandering in the woods. you’d been in shock, looking like you hadn’t eaten for weeks, limbs pale and nearly blue from the cold.
it was strange, they’d said. really, the cold should have killed you if not the hunger or the animals that wandered the forest. they’d brought you to a hospital to treat the hypothermia, and when that had been cared for, they’d brought you to a hospital closer to home.
you’d been asleep for a few weeks since then.
you look up at her and sigh. she pours you more water and you notice the tears running down her face.
“i’m so, so sorry.” she whispers, clutching your thigh. “i never should have forced you to go. i should have trusted you.”
you shake your head, not trusting your voice yet and pat her hand.
she stays with you for a while after that, but when visiting hours close she leaves, eager to spread the news that you’re finally awake.
and then you’re alone. you let yourself begin drifting off to sleep, body still tired and aching from your ordeal.
you’re nearly asleep when you hear it.
the sound of wonwoo’s laughter.