They take our children first.
I’m walking Eddie home from school when we hear a horn sounding over and over. Up ahead I can see four of his classmates blocking the road. They just stand there, slack shouldered, staring at the shadows under the bus. The driver hits his horn again, shouting at them to get back on the pavement, but it’s like they don’t hear. Eddie wants to see what they’re looking at but I pull him away, reminding him it’s dangerous to play in the road.
Two days later, I find Eddie in his bedroom, enthralled by the darkness in the back of his wardrobe. I try to get his attention but he won’t listen. I stand in front of him, blocking his view, and this noise erupts from his mouth that’s relentless and urgent like a fire alarm. My skin prickles and I cover my ears, begging him to stop. He pushes me away and flees the room, bounding down the stairs towards the back garden. Through his bedroom window I see him staring into the hole under the shed, the one the foxes dug last winter. I run as fast as I can but, by the time I reach him, he’s gone.
Not that it’s easy to tell the difference. He still looks exactly like the sweet-natured boy in all the photos and his voice still sings to my heart. But he doesn’t eat for pleasure anymore, only nutrition, and he’s started downloading nonsense apps on his tablet that play nothing but TV static to the sound of twisting metal. If other parents are noticing the same things with their children, they don’t say, but their eyes are puffed up like water wings so I know I’m not the only one who’s worried.
I wake up in the middle of the night and Eddie’s in my bedroom, staring out of the window. I ask him what he’s doing and he tells me he’s waiting. He won’t say what for.
Over breakfast, we watch news reports of fathers being arrested for throwing their children out into the streets while grim-faced mothers linger in the background. The reporter says there’s no evidence to suggest recent behavioural changes in minors are anything out of the ordinary. The official line is that we should remain calm and act responsibly.
Next they take the adults.
People post links to articles saying the safest time of day is after sunset. Discrete shadows are more dangerous than total darkness because the signal—that’s what they call it—is more focused. Other news sites warn of an impending takeover, advising us to lock our children in their rooms and not take any chances. Pictures begin to surface of the military moving into major cities and there are rumours that when enough of the population has been converted there’ll be a war. This all seems like scaremongering to me until I’m walking Eddie to school one morning and a tank stops to let us cross at the lights. An actual tank, complete with caterpillar tracks and a cannon. Eddie holds my hand while we cross the road, both of us trying to act like everything’s normal. But of course it isn’t. I don’t breathe again until the tank is out of sight.
Another night and Eddie’s back in my room. I rest my hand on his shoulder and he looks at me, saying “Mummy? Where am I?” I sweep him up in my arms, desperately wanting to believe my little boy has returned to me, promising I won’t let go this time. Then he asks me what I’m doing and I know it isn’t him.
I think about quitting my job at the library but then I wonder what else would I do? I don’t have a plan for this. All around me people continue to live their lives the way they’ve been taught to do since birth. The way they did as climate change reshaped the continents and plastic killed the oceans. The world is always ending but it’s easier to carry on as if nothing is happening. So Eddie goes to school and I go to work, I’m just more careful about where I look. When I see someone standing motionless, staring into the darkness, I don’t follow their gaze. Instead I bow my head, say a quick prayer and move on.
At home we watch YouTube tutorials on how to eliminate shadows by using blinds and mirrors to diffuse natural light. I feel guilty for not doing this sooner. Eddie whispers to his tablet while I replace our existing light bulbs with lower watt, softer tone equivalents. Sometimes I wonder how much of him is still my son, and will he attack me in my sleep? And if he does, will I be able to fight back?
One evening we sit down to eat, Eddie and me, and I ask him if he’s happy. When he doesn’t reply, I look at him and notice he has tears in his eyes. I ask him what’s wrong and he points to his left eye, saying it’s probably just an eyelash. I offer to help and he leans towards me until I can practically taste the tomato soup on his breath. I pull his eyelids apart with my thumbs and tell him to look up, look down. There’s nothing there. I tell him to look left but he looks right and we both laugh. Then I tell him to look straight at me and I fall into the deep and swirling blackness of his pupil.
Christopher Stanley puts dragons in people’s basements and monsters in the plumbing with just a few, carefully chosen words. His stories have been published in The Arcanist, The Molotov Cocktail, and Calendark: The Infernal Almanac. Follow him on Twitter @allthosestrings or visit his website: whenonlywordsareleft.wordpress.com
Lead image: “Tank” (via Flickr user Taber Andrew Bain)