We have a good response time. Really good, in fact. We can be on the road within five minutes after getting the call, and can reach anywhere in the county within half an hour. Average response time is only fifteen minutes. There aren’t many teams, anywhere in the country, who can say that.
It’s still not enough. Fifteen minutes, for a kid trapped with one of them, is a long time. We get there fast, but rarely fast enough.
This call isn’t a close one. Twenty minutes drive, with clear roads. Plus the five minutes to suit up, plus however long it took for the parents to notice what was happening. By the time we get there, the kid must have been in the dark for at least twenty-five minutes. Probably closer to an hour.
Once it gets past about fifteen minutes, retrieval stops being a realistic option. Anything you can pull out of there isn’t going to be the same kid. It changes them, on the inside if not the outside, and “saving” the kid after that isn’t much of a kindness.
So we know, going in there, that we’re aiming for containment. We won’t be able to save the kid, but we can stop the situation getting worse.
The van screeches to a halt outside the house, and we are moving. It’s obvious that we have the right address – the crying parents outside are a clue. As is the swirling darkness pressing against the upstairs windows – from inside the house – and the wavering, high-pitched screaming that cuts through every other noise.
We drill every day, and so setting up is second nature. In under a minute, we’re ready to breach. The floodlights are aimed at the windows, stopping it leaving that way. The speaker system – mounted on the van – is blaring out lullabies. For now, it’s contained.
That makes it my turn. Mine and Kowalski’s.
There’s always a lull, just before the breach. The light pushes it back away from the windows. The lullabies slow it down. Once you put the ear plugs in, blocking out all the noise, it just looks like a normal house. A safe house. Nothing to worry about.
I look at Kowalski. We nod to each other. I can see his mouth moving in time with mine as we count to three. Then I put my hand on the door, and push it open. Show time.
Inside the house, it’s dark. Very dark. Darker than you’d think it could be, with the floodlights shining across the lawn. The light spills across the threshold, but no further – within a few feet of the door, the shadows take over again.
Kowalski walks behind me, as I move further into the house. He holds the torch over my shoulder – it’s a powerful beam, 3000 lumens of white light, but it still doesn’t stretch that far. Outside the house, the torch could shine a spotlight across a football field. Inside, it lights only a few metres ahead of me. Enough to see where to place my feet, work out where the furniture is. Not much more.
I’m grateful for the light though. It will get darker as we go.
We find the staircase, start climbing them. The darkness presses closer, the torch beam weak and yellow, unable to pierce the shadows at the top of the stairs.
Fourteen steps in the average staircase. Fourteen steps from the ground floor to the first. Each one is an effort. The darkness swirls around us, almost a physical weight as I lift each foot and place it down. It’s a cold November night, but I’m warm. Too warm, as though something large is in here with us, breathing hot in the dark.
I clutch the gun in my hands, find comfort in the bulky shape. I tell myself it’s okay to be scared. It’s natural to be scared. That’s how they work. The important thing is not to panic.
The whispering starts on the sixth step. It goes through the earplugs – they can block out any other noise, but they only dampen the whispering. You’d think they weren’t worth wearing, just to lower the volume slightly, but I’ve seen – too many times – what happens to people who get the full effect.
It isn’t really words. Not most of the time. Just a formless muttering, sounds that almost – if you strained, if you took the earplugs out, might make sense. It’s always a temptation – just to listen, just to catch what they say. It might help us fight them, or explain how to ward them away. It might be worth it.
But it’s not. It never will be. The whispers just want you to think it’s a good idea. I’m not going to fall for it; I’ve seen it too many times. I’ve helped restrain too many people, visited asylums too many times. Whatever the whispers are saying, it’s lies.
We reach the top. Stand on the last step before the landing. Breathe in and out, slowly. It’s important to be calm before going further. Breathe.
One last equipment check. I run my hand over the glowsticks in my belt, ready for an emergency. I check the gun, make sure the canister is loaded, that I’ve remembered the spares. I check the flare strapped to my arm, make sure the fuse is free. It’s all fine – of course it is. We drill every day. But the tiniest doubt, the lightest flicker of uncertainty, can be deadly. You have to be confident. You have to be sure.
The beam of light jiggles up and down as Kowalski checks the battery level. It will be draining fast, but still should be good for another ten of fifteen minutes. We should have enough light.
He taps me on the shoulder, and we start moving again. It’s a small landing, with three doors opening off it. Kowalski swings the torch at each one in turn, looking for the right door.
The first two doors are nothing – the yellow light shows up white-painted wood, nothing more. The third is different.
The light hits the door, but doesn’t light it up. The light stops, illuminating nothing but blackness. It takes long moments for the shadows to draw back, and when they do, they do so reluctantly. Slowly.
Eventually, there’s a little circle of light on the door. Dim, dirty light, with shadows lapping at the edges. The hole in the darkness shows a name – coloured letters on the white paint spell out “Tommy”.
This is the door. It’s through there.
Tommy’s through there.
We go in fast. Internal doors are never the most stable, and I lead with my shoulder rather than bothering with the handle. Behind me, I hear the whine of electronics starting up as Kowalski kicks the torch into overdrive. Light flares behind me, and for a brief moment, as I charge forward, the darkness falls back.
I see the room in front of me, the darkness recoiling back into the corners. The kid’s bed – shaped like a race car – is overturned on the floor. I don’t see the kid. Directly ahead of me, on the far wall, the closet door yawns open. Blackness swirls and twists inside, untouched by the light.
I’m two steps inside when the light cuts out.
Instantly, panic yawns inside me. I stumble, stop, stand still in the pitch black. I know there’s light outside the window, but there’s none here. There’s nothing here except the blackness.
The whispering is louder, twining around me while the darkness presses close, and it’s clearer now. It would be so easy to listen, to let it tell me everything I want to know. But I can’t.
I force myself to slow down. To think. To breathe.
I need light, lots of it. But that’s not the most important thing. Fear is worse than darkness, feeds it more. Every movement has to be deliberate; I can’t fumble or flee. That would let it in. I have to be slow. If I’m sure, if I’m confident, I’ll be fine. It can’t hurt you if you aren’t scared.
Slowly, I relax the grip of my left hand on the gun. It won’t do any good in the dark. I ignore the whispers as I slowly, carefully reach down to my belt, to the neat row of three glowsticks hanging there. Calmly. Carefully. Not afraid.
The torch must have burnt out. That happens sometimes, shining full blast. The shadows drain energy fast, force electronics to work harder. The clinging darkness puts a lot of stress on everything.
Behind me, I’m sure, Kowalski is doing the same as me. Calming himself. Stopping the panic rising. Refusing to feel fear. We train for this.
It can’t hurt you if you aren’t afraid. It needs fear to come out, fear to hiss and touch and harm.
I’m not afraid. Kowalski’s not afraid. And that means we’ll be fine. If there’s no fear to feed on, then it’s just shadows. I select the first glowstick, and slide it out of the belt loop.
And then I remember the boy.
I didn’t see him in the room. He might be dead. He might be curled up beneath the overturned bed. He might have passed out.
Or he’s in the closet. If we were really late. If it had time to build up enough fear, time to grow strong enough to take him fully into the dark.
I’ve heard about it. A couple of stories, over the years. Arriving not just late, but much too late. They aren’t good stories. It gives them a lot of power, to have a life in the dark with them. A constant, screaming, source of fear.
I move faster now, still trying to be calm, but worried. I didn’t see the kid at all. The whole room was lit up, the bed wasn’t that big, but I didn’t see him.
I don’t want to drop the gun, and that makes the glowstick harder to use. I have to kneel, brace one end of the glowstick against the floor, and bear down on it heavily. I don’t hear the crack through the earplugs, but sickly green light blossoms near the floor. Not much, but growing all the time. I reach for a second glowstick, knowing that even at full strength, it won’t be enough.
Still calm, still breathing slowly, two glowsticks lit, I look up. The darkness is still close around me, still sluggishly flowing around the room, but it’s no longer pitch black. I can make out vague shapes.
Kowalski is in the room with me, no longer holding the useless torch. We can pick it up on our way out. Like me, he’s holding a glowstick in one hand, another on the floor at his feet.
With four glowsticks lit, still brightening slowly, we’re okay. We can see. We’re still alive. We just need to find the kid, close the closet door, and get out of here. We’re okay.
In the pallid light, my earlier fears recede. It won’t be like those other places. The kid isn’t lost to the dark. He might not recover, but we’ll make it out of here. No one else will get hurt.
I nod to Kowalski, smiling at him. He smiles back, just as the claws rip through his throat.
It moves so fast. Out of the darkness from the closet in a single stride, and then killing Kowalski before I can even scream, can give him any kind of warning.
He falls to his knees, blood bubbling blackly from the ruins of his throat. He reaches out to me, mouths something I can’t hear through the earplugs. I freeze. I don’t know what to do.
And then the glowsticks fizzle out. All of them, all at once, totally. I’m back in blackness, lost in an empty void. Trapped here, with it. It could be anywhere.
I panic. I know I shouldn’t and I know it makes it worse and makes it dangerous and I can’t stop and I don’t know what to do and it’s so dark and Kowalski’s dead. Kowalski’s dead and he was at my wedding and we’ve been partners for three years and he’s dead and…
And I’m still here. And it’s still here. And it’s going to get me too.
I clench my hands, hold tightly to the gun, and try to breathe. There’s no point hiding, or taking cover. I don’t remember where the door is. If I calm down, I might have a chance. It hasn’t got me yet. Maybe I have a few moments.
It feeds on fear. It takes our fear and turns it into strength. It gets stronger when I panic, when I let it into my head. I won’t do that any more.
Kowalski’s dead. The kid’s lost in the darkness. He won’t recover even if we could get him out. He’s just an empty shell now, panic and terror and nothing else – food for it.
I won’t let it get me too. I might die, but on my terms. I’m going to hurt it. Kowalski’s killer isn’t getting away free.
I need light. It feeds on fear and hides in darkness. I won’t give it fear, and I won’t give it darkness.
I drop the gun. It’s useless in the dark, useless without a target.
There’s a flare strapped to my left arm, and a lighter in my right pocket. A lighter designed to work in storms, in high winds and hanging upside down from mountainsides. A lighter that won’t fail.
It’s somewhere close to me. Maybe behind me, or in front of me. Maybe clinging to the ceiling above me, ready to pounce. It doesn’t matter.
It can kill me any time, but it hasn’t yet. It wants me to be afraid first. It wants me to be afraid, and that gives me a chance.
I bring the lighter round to the flare’s short fuse, depressing the little lever as I do.
Bright, white light. Brighter than the pallid glowsticks, brighter than the torch, brighter than the floodlights outside on the lawn. A starburst of illumination in the centre of the void, impossible to look at.
With the light comes agony, comes pain. I feel myself scream with it, smell my own flesh burning. I don’t care.
I can’t look to my left where the flare is burning. But I can see everything else. See the bedroom thrown into stark relief, every shadow banished in an instant. And I can see it.
It crouches in front of me, one elongated arm covering its eyes from the glare. It lives in darkness, and now there is nowhere to hide.
Even the darkness in the closet is forced back, weakened. In the depths – far further than any closet should stretch, far further than would fit in the house – I glimpse a pale, frightened face.
I am on fire. I can see the flames leaping in my peripheral vision, almost dark against the brighter light of the flare. I can’t release it now – the straps holding it to my arm will long since have melted into me. I and the flare will burn together.
Kowalski’s dead. The kid – Tommy – isn’t going to make it out of here either. I’m going to burn up. But we’re not the only ones who are dying tonight.
I ignore the gun. It can’t help me now. We’re well beyond blankets. Instead, I charge.
It stumbles backwards as I come for it, moving away from the light back towards the closet. If it gets there, closes the door, then it will be safe. It will be wrapped in darkness, far from the burning flare. I don’t give it the chance.
I’m still building speed when I hit it, wrapping both arms around it and continuing on, half shoving, half carrying it. It’s oddly light – a thing of claws and shadow, but little substance. It barely slows me down.
We cross the closet threshold together, falling into a well of blackness. This would be suicide, but I’m already dying. This would be pointless, except the flare comes with me.
I twist as we fall, looking back out at the empty room. I see Kowalski’s body on the floor. I see the closet door swinging slowly closed behind us. I think I see – just a glimpse, a flicker, a suggestion – a small figure stumble through the doorway as it closes.
And then the door is closed, and the thing is writhing in my arms and I am in the heart of its darkness, its secret sanctuary, its last retreat. I am in the black, empty void it comes from, burning and dying, and there is so much light.
This story is by far my best-received response to a writing prompt, ever. It’s not my favourite story – it’s quite different to the rest of my fiction, being more action-focused, and it is clumsily reliant on a whole range of clichés. However, it is more popular than work I consider better – Rock, Paper, Scissors is my best one, I think – so maybe I’m bad at judging these things.