(Note: This is in the horror realm, so wary readers be warned.)
“Look, I don’t think you understand â€” we open those doors, we let them in.” My dad’s voice is a growl. His eye is puffy and turning black, where I struck with my book and his face is red with rage, but in his eyes I see only terror. The same terror that had kept my family and I huddled in the locked basement, shivering in the dark for the past week.
“You don’t understand. We need water. Food,” I said, my own voice thick with fear and anger and guilt. I’m halfway up the basement stairs. The book â€” hard bound, sharp edged, thick as a brick â€” still hangs heavy as a dead weight in my hand. I suck in a stale breath. “We’re going to starve to death, if we don’t get food.”
“You’ll let them inâ€”,” he snarls, shifting forward aggressively.
My mother wraps a thin hand around my dad’s upper arm. “She’s right. Without food. Water…,” she says, letting the conclusion trail off.
My little sister and baby brother huddle together, clasping each other, staring up at me wide eyed, open mouthed, too afraid to make a sound. I’m eight years older than my sister, nine years older than my brother and in the absence of my parents who were always at work, I was the one who took care of them after school and made sure they did their homework, had an afternoon snack, didn’t make messes or injure themselves. Their eyesight stared up at me, pleading, begging me not to leave them.
“I’m just going to go upstairs and look around. I’ll be back before you know it,” I say to my brother and sister, trying to sound reassuring.
“Well, don’t expect me to join you,” my father said, falling backward in defeat onto the old beat up sofa.
â€œFine.â€ I press my ear to the door, listening for any sounds of movement. The basement and beyond are silent with al, of our held breaths. I dislodge the two-by-four bracing the door shut, turn the knob, and step into the hall.
Our family photos stair back at me, carefully arranged portraits featuring our smiling faces portraying an imagined joy I don’t ever remember having. I try not to think about the fact that my dad, my daddy had let his seventeen-year-old daughter come up here alone. I stand still for a long time, just listening. The house remains silent. No signs of movement or anything moving in the afternoon light filtering through the windows blinds.
Closing the basement door behind me, I crouch down and slip into the kitchen. I realize Iâ€™m still holding the book and put it down on the counter. Don Quixote stares at the windmills in the distance on the cover. I rub my sweaty palms on my dirty jeans and grab a butcher knife out of the block. It slides out with a metallic snick, long and gleaming.
No one knows where they came from. They reflected no light, seeming to be made out of pure shadow, seeming like small holes in the fabric of the world. They tore through neighborhoods, cities, towns, slaughtering anyone they found and, we think, eating them. Aliens, demons, ghosts, they were called many things, but I just called them Shadows â€” though they were no less substantial than any other living thing. You could shoot them. You could build barricades and block them out, until they swarmed and broke through. You could hide in the basement and hope they never realized you were there.
When the Shadow attacks began, we had all been home â€” a rare Sunday brunch in which everyone was present. My dad and I watched the news feed on our phones, neither talking about what the other saw, while the reports got more and more desperate, until we finally looked up at each other from over top our phones. â€œGather up everything we might need and take it down to the basement,â€ he said. So, we did.
Now, knife in hand I search the kitchen cupboards, the pantry, the garage and I find exactly what I expect to find. Nothing. All that is left of the food we had was already down in the basement. The water faucets are off, too, which meant no potable water.
I know what I have to do. But the idea of actually leaving the house and going outside to search through our neighborsâ€™ homes to scavenge leaves me shaking. My knees almost buckle and I just want to crawl back down into the basement and wrap my arms around my brother and sister. Maybe pull a blanket over our heads and pretend the monsters canâ€™t get us.
But a blanket wonâ€™t protect us, a basement wonâ€™t either â€” especially if we donâ€™t have anything to drink or eat.
Peeking out through the sliding glass door, I see the backyard. Green grass bordered by bobbing pink flowers. Wind rustling the trees. Everyone looks calm and peaceful in the sunlight. Nothing wrong, no black holes sliding behind corners.
Itâ€™s safer during the day. Less places for them to hide
I pull open the door as quietly as I can and step into the yard. Other than the wind, there are no sounds. At the fence, I peer over the side into our neighbor’s yard, equally still and quiet. Holding the knife, I clamber onto the fence and topple over the side.
The back door is open. I jab the knife into the mesh of the locked screen door and sliced it open enough to reach inside and unlatch it. I whisper into the living room.
A soft droning emanates from the front of the house. A fly buzzes past my head. Not far down the hallway red adorns the walls in mimicry of a Jackson Pollock painting. My heart lurches and slams against my eardrums. My palms sweat and my grip on the knife is slippery.
I fight the urge to vomit, to run, and stumble back into the kitchen, throwing open the cupboards to find â€” food. Picked over and not much left, but enough to last us a few days more. A few more days to come up with a better long-term survival plan.
I dig around and pull out some plastic bags. I stuff five small bags with cans and potato chip bags and cereal boxes. I toss them over the side of the fence. Then go back for one last quick search of the kitchen, finding (holy of holies) a gallon jug of water tucked behind a rotting turkey carcass in the dead fridge. I lumber back over the fence with the water and my knife, managing not to cut myself in the process.
I haul the water and three of the bags to the basement and finagle the door open without letting anything go. It swings open. â€œHoney?â€ my momâ€™s voice carries up from below.
â€œYeah. Come get this stuff. I have to go grab two more bags.â€
I step back out into the yard and â€”
The Shadow is four feet tall, thick and slender limbed at the same time. I blink because it hurts my eyes to look right at it, like staring directly into a tear in reality.
Before I can raise my knife, it slams into me, throwing me against the side of the house so hard the windows rattle. I collapse with stars in my vision. My knife. I numbly feel about for my knife. My fingers brush the handle and it spins a few inches away.
A flicker of movement. I spin around and raise my arm to shield my face just in time. My forearm splits open in three places, the white of bone shining through before blood floods out. I grip my arm, shock temporarily holding off the pain. The Shadow lifts an arm in a lazy movement to strike again and I canâ€™t quite register whatâ€™s about to happen through the blooming pain and the fear.
And then thereâ€™s the solid crack of a wood baseball bat connecting with something solid and the Shadow falls backward and my dad, my daddy heaves the bat up over his head and brings it down and the Shadow kicks and catches my daddy in the gut and my dad chokes on his own breath and the Shadow reels up and it lurches toward my dad and I grab the knife, slippery with my own blood and I stumble-lunge and drive my knife into the Shadow, into what I hope is the Shadowâ€™s back and I rip the knife back out with a squelching sound and I plunge it in again and again and the Shadow twitches and lashes out and it leaves welts and cuts and bruises on my arms, chest, and face and I just keep stabbing and stabbing â€”
and stabbing and finally â€”
finally, the Shadow is still, featureless and unmoving. It bleeds, profuse amounts black viscous oil spreading out like an abyss pooling into the world. I fall back to avoid the spread, even though my hands are soaked in the black sticky blood, mixing into my own blood from my arm wound, throbbing with its own pulse.
My dad lifts me by my armpits and hauls me into the house, back down into the basement.
I’m laying on the beat up couch, a little drunk from my dad’s liquor, a rather ineffective way to dull the pain of my mother sewing the flaps of my arm back together with a standard needle and thread.
â€œAre you going to be okay?â€ my sister asks.
“Sure,” I say, though what the hell do I know about what happens when Shadow blood mixes with human blood, what kind of infections that could mean. “I’ll be fine.”
His face puckers into a grimace. â€œWhere the hell do you expect us to go? You saw what was out there.â€
“But we can’t just stay here. You know we can’t,” my mom says. “What ifâ€” what if they realize you killed one of their own? What if they come looking for us?’
My dad just growls.
â€œWeâ€™ll figure it out,” I say. “Somehow. Weâ€™ll have to.â€
*Â * *
Short Reads Day 8: “The Saint of the Sidewalks” by Kat Howard â€” Published by Clarkesworld Magazine
Joan’s life is pretty screwed up and in an act of desperation, she enacts a prayer to the Saint of the Sidewalks for a miracle and gets far more than she bargained for. The idea of a saint who is worshiped and prayed to through found objects drew me in immediately. I love “detritus” â€” the word and the things left behind. As this story evolved into more than just a cool idea, it became a touching tale of hope and miracles. Really lovely.
Favorite Line(s): “She set her cardboard on the sidewalk, prayer-side up. Then lit the required cigaretteâ€”stolen out of the pack of some guy who had been hitting on her at a barâ€”with the almost empty lighter she had fished out of the trash. You couldnâ€™t use anything new, anything you had previously owned, in your prayer. That was the way the devotion worked: found objects. Discards. Detritus made holy by the power of the saint.”