"I'll go none too bravely into the night. I'm so tired of living the suicide life. That ain't no reason to live"
They say that when you’re sure you’re going to die, your life flashes before your eyes. In the precious few seconds before all hell breaks loose in my world, I gain something of an understanding of what that means. It isn’t my whole life, there isn’t time for that; It’s just the important things. I remember my mother and father dancing in the living room; the brunette lying on her back in her garden, blissfully unaware of my lustful gaze; the cold fingers that once brushed my spine and came so close to dragging me down. I remember the Shades dancing and twisting in the air above me; a shoe in my back pocket; Dennis’s half-smile when I’d told JD I loved her; my father saying she was a good kid; her face in the darkness when she’d breathed my name and her thighs had gripped my waist so tightly that I gasped.
“I don’t think you’re a murderer or even a con artist,” I’d said to Cartwright. We’d been walking in Oak Park. I’d been starting to trust him. It had felt like everything was going to be okay.
In my head, JD smiles beneath the Lanterns of Abbot Street, twin tear-tracks glittering on her cheeks like something from all those fictions you wish could be true. I’d watched her and felt so damn sure of myself and my plan. I’d believed I’d see her again. I’d trusted my judgement and it had come through in almost every department. But almost can never be enough. Somehow, I’m sure, Patrick Cartwright has fooled me.
“You bastard,” I murmur.
And, as if that curse were a call, the shadows come to life. Henry screams and I hear him scrambling beneath the truck, despite the fact that we’re both invisible and safe within the aura of light from the Lanterns. I stand my ground, though I feel and understand his terror, feel it every bit as much as I had in the Curfew Bar, when I’d finally realised just how many there were. The Shades are a swarm of pulsing, undulating shapes, crowded so closely that they might be a single entity rather than thousands of individuals. They burst from the mouth of Witches Path at an unspeakable, predatory speed, as though they’d been tensed and waiting for this very opportunity. Crowded together the way they are, the pack resembles nothing so much as a giant snake that rushes past the Lantern Truck without pause, gathering its brethren from every place the light does not reach, growing ever larger as it arrows towards Quarter B.
“Henry!” I scream. I’m wrenching open the door of the truck, sliding in behind the wheel, turning the key the way I’ve seen Dennis turn it so many times. I have never driven before, though I’ve seen it done enough times to know the logistics. I stamp on the clutch, find first gear, and then accelerate.
“Handbrake! The fucking handbrake!” Henry yells. He is halfway into the passenger seat, his voice almost lost beneath the roar of the engine and the awful grinding sound coming from beneath the truck. Before I can react, he disengages the handbrake and pulls the door shut, drags himself up beside me.
“What do we do?” he asks, his voice high and hysterical. “Ken?”
The engine screams, I change gear and we are both jerked back into our seats, the truck shrieking and coughing in protest at this treatment. I have the accelerator pressed all the way down to the floor. Ahead of us, the snake has disappeared from sight, leaving only the drifting forms of stragglers. I drive straight through several of them, the Lanterns rendering their outlines in silhouette, making them turn to face the oncoming truck like luckless pedestrians in the instant before impact. Even in this frantic, desperate state, I can’t help but notice the one particular Shade raises its arms as though for protection. Such a human gesture, like building a material memorial in the woods. Then it, like the others, becomes a soft thump against the front of the truck, tossed aside or wrapped across the grille like an obscene, writhing blanket.
I wrench the wheel hard to the left and we veer into the residential part of Quarter B, carrying such momentum that two wheels momentarily leave the ground. Henry gasps and falls against me. Our heads meet with a sickening crack I both hear and feel, a white flash of pain lighting up the left side of my face and leaving me stunned. Without my foot stamping down on the accelerator, the truck slows and almost stalls, and when I blink to clear my vision and glance back at the windscreen, I see a vision from a nightmare:
If Shelley was right, and there is a hell, then this must surely be it. Beneath the high-pitched whine of impact inside my head, beneath the low growl of the truck, I hear screams punctuated by the sound of breaking glass. Some of the shapes ahead of us now are not floating but running, chased down and covered by deadly blankets of darkness that bring them swiftly to the ground. The slaughter is in the road, on the pavements, in front gardens and living rooms. All around us, the Shades are stalking and attacking their prey, silent assassins in their natural habitat.
“So many,” Henry whispers. “My God, there are so many. How do we save them?”
“We can’t,” I say, stepping on the accelerator once more.
And we don’t. Most of the people we reach are gone before the light from the truck can drive the Shades away. Those that remain are lying in extremity, jittering at the effects of being terminally Touched, taking their last, trembling breaths beneath an open winter sky. The first few times, I slow down and see Henry reaching for the door-handle. Not once do I stop, though, and not once does he get out.
“We should go,” he says finally. “We can’t do anything here.”
I shake my head, both at his words and the scene playing out before us. “I can’t leave them, JD and dad and Dennis. I can’t.”
A Shade, confused and lost in the glare of the Lanterns, thumps against the windshield, making us both jump. Its fingers claw at the glass for a moment, and then it slides away, the awful whispering of its passage sending a shiver up my spine.
“Drive,” Henry says. “For crying out loud, drive!”
On we go, up Park Hill and then another hard left onto Abbot Street. I slow outside JD’s house. The windows are smashed, the door hanging off its hinges. All is darkness. Even as we watch, a group of Shades appears from inside and rushes across the road in front of us, arcing to bring down a lone figure stumbling on the pavement opposite. It is over before I even have time to turn the wheel.
Panic, grief, and rage, like I’ve never experienced. I open my mouth to reply and what comes out is a single, strangled sob. My anger is huge and hot in my throat and stomach, my loss like a cold hand squeezing my insides.
“Ken?” Henry says again.
He may as well be dead. I may as well be dead. This time, I let the clutch out gently, let it bite and draw the truck forward. The road ahead is filled with shadows, some dormant now that there is apparently no life on Abbot Street. I find second gear, third, fourth. I haul the wheel to the right and hit two of them, back to the left for another, clipping an old telegraph pole and ripping the wing mirror off my door. Through a screen of tears, I watch them as they feel the oncoming light, always just a little too late to move out of the way. I no longer have a destination in mind, only some kind of revenge, some recompense for what they have done. I am dimly aware of my passenger screaming at me, his words garbled and lost beneath the howl inside my head as Shade after Shade disappears beneath the truck, those subtle impacts becoming almost percussive, a soundtrack to my fury.
When I reach the end of Abbot Street, I slow and begin to turn around, meaning to make another pass, to get all of them.
“They don’t die!” Henry screams. “Do you hear me? They don’t die!”
I close my eyes, feel for the first time how hard I’m crying. His hand closes around my upper arm and squeezes hard enough to hurt.
“Look,” he says. “They’re going somewhere. Something must be drawing them.”
Though a part of me has ceased to care, I look and see that he’s right. The Shades are leaving Abbot Street, heading over and between the houses, out towards Oak Park.
“Someone’s alive out there, Ken,” Henry says. He seems calm and assured now, as though we’ve switched roles. “Let’s check it out and then get out of here. It’s a long time until dawn.”
I nod, still unable to find words. I turn away from Abbot Street, from JD, and steer us towards Oak Park.
Without the familiar and comforting glow of Lanterns, it is a dark and empty place. Even here, Shades can be seen, still more of them taking on the aimless drifting that tells us there is no life here, no warmth or light. There is a short slope leading up to the main path, and while I’m almost sure that I could take the truck up over it were we carrying enough speed, I now realise that almost is a foolish assumption to base any plan on. I pull over and kill the engine.
“There’s nothing here, Henry,” I say. “This is a dead place.”
“This is where they were going,” he replies.
“Then we’re too late. Let’s go.”
Henry frowns and shakes his head. Wherever he is drawing his calm from, there must also be courage, because he opens his door and steps out into the night.
“Don’t,” I hear myself say. I sound young, panicked.
“Something…” he says.
A flicker in my peripheral vision, light between distant trees. I turn my head and watch it move out into the open, a single orb of luminescence bouncing and swaying in the night. All around us, the Shades freeze and then move quickly in that direction, as though the light were a magnet. Henry is already off and running across the park, and before I’ve even processed what we’re seeing, I’m out of the truck and sprinting after him. In moments, I have caught and passed him, my young, strong legs leaving him easily behind. For a moment, I listen to the voice in my head telling me that if I was the second-fastest runner in Quarter B, I’m certainly the fastest now. But it’s only a moment. I’m closing rapidly on the light, dodging between groups of Shades that become increasingly dense, forcing me to slow down to avoid touching them. Ahead I hear shouts, men’s voices raised in anger and fear. Between the bodies and limbs crowding out my sight, I see them fighting; Cartwright and my father and another man, surely Daniel Nolan. They are surrounded by Shades, but those Shades refuse to tempt the light, and I realise that what Cartwright has in his hand is a portable Lantern. His invention. My father and Nolan are wrestling while he stands as close as he dares, holding the Lantern above his head so that its influence extends as far as possible. My father throws one of Nolan’s brawny arms back, frees his own right hand strikes the other man in the face. Nolan staggers, loses his balance, and falls. He is out of the light for less than a second, but that is all the Shades require. There are so many now that they simply drag him away. One moment he is there, the next he is gone. He makes no sound.
“Dad!” I am so close now, maybe ten feet away from the circle of light where my father staggers back, his breath coming in great clouds of condensation, his face dark and glistening with blood. He turns towards the sound of my voice.
“Cartwright!” I scream, my voice cracking, my throat raw.
The last Lanternman swings the last Lantern with all the force in his body. It meets the back of my father’s head with a sickening crunch. His mouth falls open and his eyes widen. Even as he slumps forwards, I see that there is no life there, that he is gone.
I do not see him hit the ground. The light is drawn away as Cartwright turns and runs back towards the trees. For a moment, I am frozen to the spot, Shades rushing by me on all sides, one passing close enough that I feel its numbing touch against my elbow, that sensation of bitter, endless cold making me feel weak even through my thick sweater. The world spins and I feel myself beginning to fall. Only Henry’s hands are enough to keep me on my feet. He is breathless, confused.
“What is that?” he asks. “What’s happening?”
“Cartwright.” The word sounds distant and empty. “He lied. He killed them all.”
And then I’m running again, chasing down Cartwright with no emotion left to slow me down. I am nothing inside, cleansed of everything I was by an all-consuming anger that burned out almost as quickly as it was brought to life. All that had meaning in my life is gone, and there is no way I can ever bring it back. The only thought in my head is to catch the man responsible, and see him dead. In the cold night of Oak Park, I am a vengeful wraith engaged in a hunt that can only end one way. I am faster and stronger than my victim, and my intent will not be denied.
I know exactly how it feels to be a Shade.
I catch him on the edge of the woods, throw myself at the backs of his legs so that he goes sprawling onto his front, the small Lantern rolling just beyond his reach. I climb over his struggling form and grab its handle, standing to hold it over him.
“Ken…I…you…” he gasps, scrabbling backwards away from me before turning his head to see how close he is to the edge of the light and pulling up short. I smile and take a step back. He shrieks and crawls back towards me.
“Please…I…I…only wanted to…I…”
While he struggles for the words, I listen to the whispering in the branches around us. The Shades have gathered like an audience, lending their ears to this final display.
“Hear them?” I ask, taking another step back.
“Yes!” He scrambles towards me again, and when he gets close enough, I kick him in the face as hard as I can. He cries out and grabs at his nose, fresh blood pouring between his fingers.
“Listen,” I say.
He glances up as though expecting me to speak, and when I don’t he looks puzzled. The movement amongst the trees grows louder, the sound of the gathering dead. I wait until I see the look of terrible understanding in his eyes, until his body tenses and he opens his mouth, perhaps to make one final plea or to tell one final lie.
I wait, and then I smash the Lantern against a tree. Darkness. The whispering rushes in from all sides, Cartwright screams in terror, and then the shadows claim him.
Henry and I spend the night in the truck. He sleeps with his head resting against the window while I sit motionless in the driver’s seat, watching the moon cross the sky until the clouds begin to pale and an orange glow spreads slowly across Oak Park, a barren, empty field surrounded by dead Lanterns. In the distance, I can see the dark shape that must surely be my father’s body.
“I’m sorry, dad,” I whisper. “I can’t. I can’t do it.”
I turn the key in the ignition and Henry stirs as the truck stutters and coughs into life. He looks at me and says nothing. There is nothing to say, only one last journey to make, back through Quarter B and out to the main road, looking for another town or even another Quarter where there is enough time to make a difference.
For memory’s sake, I take the long way. I drive slowly down Abbot Street and out towards Witches Path, where I pull over and get out of the truck. For a moment, I stare at the wooden box on the back. If I thought I could laugh, I would. I’m not the person I was yesterday, though, and all my laughter is gone.
Henry doesn’t call me back and I don’t look to see if he’s following. I walk up Witches Path feeling old and exhausted, make my way through the woods, and gaze down at the final mystery of the Shades one last time.
“Something human,” I tell the pile of clothes. “Something left behind.”
As I turn away, a shoe rolls from the top of the pile. I freeze, remembering the rumour about Shades in the daytime, remembering how they hide. Beneath this canopy of branches is dark enough, as naked as they are.
The mountain of clothing bulges just shy of its peak. Jumbled, ruined garments fall away. Something is emerging, lifting itself up from the Shade graveyard, stretching to its full height and shrugging layer upon layer away from itself. I take a clumsy step away, biting back a scream. The shape matches the movement, reaching up to snatch an old summer dress from its head. I see the hands just before I see the tangle of dark hair, just before I see her face.
“You…” I breathe.
“Surprise,” JD manages. Her face is pale, her eyes red-rimmed, her clothes damp and dirty. “I tried to find you. The lights went out. I ran. They…” She closes her eyes and stumbles towards me, old clothes wrapped around her legs and feet. I catch her when she falls into me, marvelling at how warm she is, how there.
“They got everybody,” she says, pressing her face into my shoulder, muffling her voice. “I tried to get to you…to the truck. But you were gone. I hid.”
“You ran. You outran them.”
She looks up at me, just enough of the old JD beneath her grief to remind me of all the times we raced them, all the times she won.
“What did you expect?” she asks, and offers a ghost of a smile, a Shade of a smile.
“I thought you were dead,” I say, and with the words come tears. I turn my face into her hair, inhaling deeply, unable to quite believe that she is alive just as I couldn’t believe she was gone.
“I thought you were dead,” she says, wrapping her arms around my neck, kissing my mouth and then the side of my face. “I thought everyone was.”
“They are. It’s just you and me and Henry. It was Cartwright. He knew all along. I…I killed him.”
“You…” Her hands move back to my face and she kisses me fiercely. “Only here,” she says. “It’s only you and me and Henry here. There must be others, must be. We can find them and tell them. There’s a world outside Quarter B, Ken. There always has been.”
“A Daylight World.”
“Then we’ll show them. We’ll prove it to them.”
Looking down into her eyes, I see that she means it, that she believes it. When JD believed that we’d make it down Witches Path, we did. When JD believed she would outrun the Shades, she did. And when JD believed that we’d get out alive, well, here we are. I nod and kiss her forehead, lacing my fingers through hers.
“Come on,” I say. “Henry’s waiting.”
We leave the graveyard behind and walk away up Witches Path, towards the waiting Lantern Truck.