“Every house has them. The dark corners where light never seems to reach.” I click on my flashlight. “Where even if you shine a flashlight into it, the Darkness doesn’t disappear, so much as shift away from the light, oozing back in after the beam has chased it away.”
The stair tread under my foot groans and I glance down and shift my weight off it, gesturing with the butt of my flashlight for the benefit of both the clients and the camerawoman. “Watch that one.” Taking care not to disturb the cobwebs between railing and wall, I take the last five steps to the basement floor as quick as safety allows.
Stairs are not my favorite thing. Too often they’re the very place I’m looking for, and you can never tell until you’re halfway down them. I keep an eye out for hanging cobwebs as the light from Sara’s flashlight, tethered on her belt, jogs crazily. She nods at me once she reaches the bottom and steadies the shoulder camera. The couple hovers behind her, keeping out of the shot as instructed.
“This house has many such places. The Dark has gathered here, grown strong with the desperation of reality and the bones of memory.”
The man snorts and the woman shushes him. He waves the cobwebs aside as he comes down the last few stairs, wiping the sticky webbing on his business casual slacks. His wife has a hand on his arm for balance, cringing away from the dirty railing.
I ignore them. “It seeks the dead places first. Places where the sparks of life rarely intrude. Attics and basements are the most dangerous.”
“You didn’t find anything in the attic.” The echo of the man’s voice is muted by the ceramic block and plaster on the walls, leaving a heavier silence in its wake. I recognize the silence and use my peripheral vision to scan the open area.
The woman glares and swats him in the arm. “Shut up,” she hisses.
“This is ridiculous. He was wrong about the attic.”
Sara grins and winks at the wife. “Ren likes to check the attic first. Less bugs up there.”
Whatever I sensed is gone now. There’s too much talking, too much life. It retreated and now I have to track it down or flush it out. “Sara.”
She has the decency to blush. “Sorry.”
I gesture at the dark space under the stairs. “There first.”
The man mutters, “Oh for gods–”
“If you’re uncomfortable, sir, you can wait upstairs.”
He clamps his lips into a firm line and becomes a crutch for his wife again, letting her pull him along and use him as a shield from the threat of spiders dropping from overhead. I can sympathize with her. Ceiling spiders are terrifying.
The stairs have closed steps, but the space under them is open to the room. A few cardboard boxes, spotted black and sagging with damp are piled near the plastered wall, but there’s plenty of space between them for the Dark to hide. My light pushes it back, and it slithers around the cardboard, filling in the shadows as the light moves on.
“There’s one here.”
The man sighs with all the put-upon drama a businessman can produce, but doesn’t speak. Sara juggles the camera for a better angle as I move my flashlight to play with the Dark hidden behind the boxes. It has plenty of shadow to keep it safe, but instead of just edging around the boxes like I expect, it slides to the underside of the stairs, leaking into the space under the bottom step full of cobwebs and accumulated debris. Shit.
I back up and turn in place, canvassing the area with the beam from my flashlight. The couple protest as they shield their eyes, but Sara just looks at the ground until my light stops moving. She edges closer to me, trying to catch the underside of the stairs in the background of her shot.
Bless her. I remember her coaching in time to glance at the camera lens instead of her. “It’s a nest.”
She peeks out from behind the camera, raising an eyebrow. “Seriously.”
I refuse to rise to the bait. It doesn’t matter if they don’t believe me. It’ll target the man, I’m sure of it. The woman is too worked up by the story. I start to make my way through the basement, shining the beam along antique furniture and boxes of whatever these people were willing to forget about, but not let go.
I see a few small Darks flicker away from my light, but nothing more dangerous than you’d find in a bedroom closet or pantry cupboard. They’re enough to make you uneasy, give you a prickling feeling across your neck. Those kind are still growing and often get themselves glimpsed out of the corner of someone’s eye.
I hear the woman whispering to her husband as they follow us, and return to my memorized script.
“People think we developed fire as our defense against the Dark, but that was only part of it. Fire keeps it away of course, as light keeps all darkness at bay. But we also developed stories, to turn the Dark into something harmless… impotent.”
The man grunts again. By this point I’m thinking he deserves it, but I stay in character. “The creativity of stories strikes at the Darkness itself. It’s an armor we wear, a weapon we wield.”
I flick the beam of my flashlight into a corner and it reveals a handmade shelving unit of two-by-fours with too many nails holding it together. Plywood shelves are mostly empty, sagging and streaked with black mold. The dust is so thick I can see traces of mice trails across the surface. Shadows cling to the angles of the wood and the wall behind it. My eyes want to look away.
Found it. You can never see the big ones until it’s too late. The little ones– they catch your eye, trigger your defenses– but the big ones sit like a fat cloud of menace and your mind just wants to be somewhere else. They don’t need to run from the light. They dim the beam if you shine it right at them, and bear the thinning to make you think you’re safe.
Not too close now. I gesture at the couple, waving my flashlight so it seems like I’m directing them instead of pushing back at the Dark. They obediently move to the corner, the woman putting the man between herself and the dirty shelves, wrinkling her nose at the scent of mouse scat and insect skeletons.
I give Sara a brief nod and she steps back to get the couple in the shot as I turn my light to a pile of boxes well out of range of the Dark in the corner. A few smaller ones slip into deeper shadows, repulsed by my light. Sara clears her throat to get my attention and rolls her hand, mouthing nonsense words where the couple can’t see. Start talking.
I run through the scripts in my head. “But the Darkness craves the very thing it fears. It doesn’t consume flesh and blood. Animals don’t fear the Dark, because they don’t have what the Darkness hunts.”
I glance at the couple, and and the woman is clinging to her husband’s arm, absorbed in what I’m saying and fairly quivering in movie-worthy horror. The man isn’t paying attention. Something on the shelf has captured his interest and his eyes are locked on whatever it is.
“The Darkness wants that part of us that dreams.” I flash my light at the little Darks, driving them away from me and Sara. “The spark that makes us who we are. Our–”
The man reaches out for something on the shelf and shadows flicker over the skin of his hand. He looks confused for a moment, then even his cynical brain realizes something is wrong and he jerks his hand back, wiping at the skin like he’s trying to brush away cobwebs.
I motion Sara closer, my script forgotten as I watch the man’s face flicker through disgust, confusion, and a slack-jawed emptiness.
“Are you getting this?”
Sara nods, her eyes wide. The woman looks between her husband, who is seemingly freaking out about his hand, and the camera. She takes a step away from him to avoid his flailing elbows.
“Bill? What are you doing?”
The man screams once. A shrill, piercing noise from the back of the throat that bounces around the room and makes everyone wince. Then he settles into a dazed slouch.
The woman shakes his arm. “Bill! What–”
The Dark reaches out from the shelf.
I step to Sara’s side and push her to the center of the room and she starts to bring down the camera but I put a hand under it and raise it back up. “Keep rolling!”
The woman takes one step away from her husband, staring at the shadowy haze billowing off the shelf like dust. But it wasn’t dust. I raise my flashlight and the Dark doesn’t even flinch as the beam hits it and dims, like when you try to shine it underwater.
“Ren,” Sara whispers, “what do I do?”
“Keep rolling.” I take a step toward the woman and hold out my hand. “Maggie, right? Come away from it.”
Sara whispers, “Megan.”
I glare back at her, but focus again on the woman. “Hurry up. Just leave him there.”
The Dark expands, and I notice the corners aren’t as full of shadow as they were. It’s moving in the open. I glance at the camera to make sure it’s pointed in the right direction and catch a little Dark slip past my shoe. I stamp my foot at the thing, even knowing how stupid the reaction is, sweeping my light around on the floor.
The woman doesn’t go as quietly as her husband. Maybe because she has more to be taken, maybe because she’s so invested in my story, or maybe just because she has time to be afraid of what’s happening. She well and truly screams. It’s no reflex noise that startles the listener, but a knowing howl protesting a lesson learned too late.
The Dark covers her. It doesn’t hinder her movements, even though she brushes at it and nearly rips her own clothing trying to escape its touch. It follows her as she stumbles back and then lurches forward. When she looks up at me, I meet her eyes for a moment and see the light behind them blink out like a switch being flipped.
The screams stop and the woman sways in place. Everything is deadly quiet for a few heartbeats, and I recognize the silence. It has weight to it, intelligence, and malice. The Dark moves closer.
I shove Sara toward the stairs. “Go!”
She clutches the camera to her chest and runs ahead of me, dodging around boxes with Dark shadows between them, past furniture with Dark shadows reaching out from under them. The light from the flashlight on her belt spins wildly around the room like a sad disco ball with only a single bulb.
I’m right behind her, sweeping my light in front of us and stealing looks at the Dark behind us. Sara takes the stairs two at a time, I take them in threes. We crash through the kitchen and out the back door, where the rental car waits in the afternoon sun.
I pull Sara’s arm to stop her, bending over to catch my breath and checking the open door behind us even though I know full sunlight is too strong for the Dark to ignore. I can see shadows in the kitchen, but from here I’m not sure if they’re Dark ones or not.
My heartrate is finally starting to slow and I drop my eyes to focus on the locket dangling from the gold chain around my neck. It must have fallen out from behind my shirt. As the locket spins, the tiny picture of my wife appears with each rotation. Smiling. I tuck it back under my shirt.
Sara touches my back. “Jesus, Ren. What the hell was that?”
I ignore her and walk to the car. Before touching the door handle I hesitate and crouch to peer underneath the car at the shadows made by the sun, then into the backseat. Shaking my head at my own fears, I get inside and slam the door shut. “We’re done here.”