Monster in the Dark
For this one, I’m going to advertise my short story THE SOUND OF DARKNESS, which you can buy in eBook on its own in various formats, or as part of the F IS FOR FEAR anthology in paperback, eBook and audiobook. It’s reproduced for free below, but if you’d like to review it on Goodreads, that would be great.
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You can grab a copy directly from me via my Ko-Fi shop!
I’ve read a version of the story aloud on my podcast for free. Listen here.
The Sound of Darkness (from F is for Fear)
Murat Yildiz stood in the doorway to the living room, his living room in his own damn flat, the flat he had been renting for two years now, and could not go in. The bulb had blown the night before, and he’d forgotten to change it.
There was nothing in there except his own furniture, his own things. A deeper rectangle of flatter, reflective black on the back wall was nothing sinister, no mirrored black hole leading to abyssal realms, just his mounted plasma TV screen that would cast its own light if only he could turn it on from the narrow hall. It reflected his own squared shoulders back at him, a vaguely outlined shadow-man grown into his adolescent fat and heavier-set frame, a stocky veteran of random scrawny aggressors on match days and Saturday nights. Here he was, stuck on the edge of his own living room laminate like a child.
The bulk of the second-hand sofa was nothing more than that, hiding nothing behind it but cushions and a rug. He could make out the chairs and the glossy rags of old magazines Cheryl left scattered about the place.
Murat clicked the switch out of habit, but it didn’t do any good. Of course not. He strained his ears. There was nothing there, nothing to hear. He should close the door, forget about it, go into the bedroom instead, but he didn’t like to think about the living room being a box of darkness so near to where he slept. Cheryl complained about sleeping with the lamp on, even though he turned the dimmer all the way down when she stayed over, but even with her beside him he couldn’t bring himself to turn it off. Murat still kept up his childhood habit and drifted off to sleep as he had always done, with his eyes glued to the straight line of light under the bedroom door until his eyelids grew too heavy.
He swallowed, forcing himself to look away from the gloom and focus on the door handle. He should close up the darkness and walk away, leave it to the morning sun to lance through the blinds and beat the dark back into sulky corners.
Murat made to shut the door, safe in the corridor of sixty-watt illumination, but something stopped him. His faltering hand fell back to his side. He realised what it was. The room was not only dark: it was silent. Not the silence of a brightly lit room, or even the silence of a mood-lit one, but a different kind of silence altogether.
It was a sound, or rather an absence, that he had never truly heard before.
From the recesses of his memory came the half-forgotten face of thirteen-year-old Tommy Danage, wide-eyed and pale.
Have you ever listened to it?
A shiver ran up Murat’s spine, exactly the same as back then, and for a moment he was nearly returned to that night.
Listened to what? thirteen-year-old Murat had asked.
And Tommy Danage, never rattled by anything, had looked as if he was about to wet himself. He’d leaned in, looking at the sunset as if the sky might betray them, and whispered,
Now in his thirties, Murat could still say, hand on heart, that he never had. The hum of electric formed the background note of Murat’s early life. Its buzz permeated his first memories. Light flooded those memories, too: banks of soft nightlight-glow holding back the shadows, the harder orange wedge beneath the partly open door. Light chased him down corridors, humming along wires, yellow, neon, halogen, glaring loudly. All his life, it haunted him. There was something concrete about light, its shafts and slithers, sharp-edged and neat, always in hard, straight lines except when thwarted by shadow. Light flooded the paths, the car parks, the stairwells. Light chased his shadow, his proud companion in the playground, and paled it, reduced it, drove it back to cling around his feet. Murat was drawn to shadow the way some were drawn to venomous snakes. In the Estate, shadows were forbidden fruit. Not the juicy kind. The kind that killed you.
It was in the darkness.
It was the darkness.
It made shadows thicker, quieter. It watched from beyond the edges of light, where the bristling forest of cameras couldn’t see, and it was patient. They talked about it like that, like it was real, like it was alive. At first, young Murat thought they were talking about the dark itself: some of the adults probably were. But not all. Some talked about it in ways that made no sense, as if there was something else, something in the dark as well as of it.
Sometimes, after his dad died because his heart hurt so much it stopped, and Murat had to wear dark clothes for the first time, Murat crept out of bed and through the pool of nightlight-green illuminating the carpet to peep out into the night. His mum said dying was like going to sleep for a really, really long time, but you also got to go and live in the stars and look down on the people you left behind. Murat’s heart still hurt for his dad, but he was afraid that if it hurt too much it would stop, too, so after the funeral he took the black jacket and matching trousers out of his cupboard and stuffed them deep into the kitchen bin in case dark colours attracted the darkness to come and take you away to the stars.
The night sky was hardly ever clear enough to see the moon, let alone the constellations. Tangerine-bellied clouds blocked them out, obscuring the twinkling eyes of the dead. Light pollution, said Aunty Connie, who wore tiny polar bear earrings and smelled like flowers. It’s not natural.
Little Murat tip-toed to his window one night when he couldn’t sleep and wondered who else was looking down on him, how many bright eyes were up there peppering the sky. He was glad they couldn’t see him. A dusky blanket of burnt marmalade reflected the streetlight fug back down into the concrete and glass. The square below Peregrine House was fully lit, ringed around with CCTV. Teenagers on bikes with rainbow lights in the spokes did tricks and gathered in the centre, in full view of the buildings, reflective gear shining. They joked and laughed, music playing, but they stayed in the well-lit spaces. Murat wanted to join them, but he was too small. They seemed small, too, as small as him, smaller, matchstick figures, toys of whirring colours. The hum of energy buzzed in the air.
When Murat was seven-and-a-half, Casey Richards went into the dark and never came out again. Adult Murat couldn’t remember Casey Richards. Whenever he pictured Casey, he could only imagine a mirror of himself at that age, the face obscured as if by a sunbeam glancing off a window.
He recalled the arrival of new lights, red and blue, blinking in the frosty morning, and no one saying exactly what had happened but everyone muttering and passing things along, over his head. The flats becoming an echo-chamber for the glum murmur of rumour. Casey’s name became a fable, a playground mystery, only half-remembered. Someone said Casey had chased after a ball and no one could find him. When the sun came up, there he was, the light peeling back the darkness like a duvet to reveal him on the ground. They said it looked like he was sleeping. They never found his ball.
When Murat was eleven-and-three-quarters, the old man from downstairs died in his sleep. Murat’s mother said she’d come in to clean as usual and found him in the chair with his TV off, the lightbulb blown, fuses tripped by a power surge. The flats were old, and so was the wiring.
Murat heard his mother on the phone to her sister, relaying the moment she found him and the shock, the terrible shock, repeated over and over, but it was the little phrase, “He died in the dark, Connie… he died in the dark, all on his own,” that stuck in Murat’s mind. He hovered in the hall between his bedroom and the kitchen as his mum poured out her story, thinking about Casey and the missing ball, the dark corners of the Estate, the teenagers who never strayed into the shadows.
But it wasn’t either of these two incidents that prevented a grown-up Murat from setting foot in the darkness of his own living room in Luton, in a perfectly ordinary building where no one bothered about the shadows, miles away from the Queen Mary Estate in Pagham-on-Sea. Not on their own, at any rate.
Murat figured the blame lay with Tommy Danage and that summer’s night in 1998.
1998. The year of Saving Private Ryan, My Heart Will Go On, and I Did Not Have Sexual Relations With That Woman. By the end of July, France had won the World Cup and David Beckham was not yet forgiven for being red-carded in England’s match against Argentina, leaving Murat devastated and temporarily idol-less. No one could fill that gap like Beckham. As if this wasn’t bad enough, he was grappling with his changing body, his dad’s fading memory, and trying to get on with Mick.
Mick, his mum’s whirlwind romance of two years ago who had moved in out of nowhere, hated everything he termed ‘superstitious crap’. Mick seemed to lump everything into this category, from Kumail’s brother’s kufi to Murat’s mum’s habit of leaving the lights on. He was the genial type for whom everything was some kind of joke, except when he turned that casual eye-twinkling banter on you, you were the only one not laughing. Murat liked Mick mostly, or tried to for his mum, but he had learned fast. He’d stopped asking about the dark corners and put a brave face on walking along the well-lit streets after dark.
Mick only called him Mat, or Matty, or Matty-boy. He’d been to Istanbul once, and all he said when Murat asked him what it was like there, where he still had a few uncles, was that all the taxi drivers were thieves. His mum never mentioned his dad anymore and Mick wanted him to change his surname if he and Murat’s mum got married. It was like his dad had never existed. Worse: Murat was getting used to not thinking about him.
He went by ‘Mat’ in school now, something the others had started calling him. It sat uncomfortably with the gap in his life where his dad’s family ought to have been, his disconnect from them leaving nothing but his name behind.
It was also the year he could finally boast of being best friends with Tommy Danage, who overshadowed everything and everyone around him by sheer force of personality.
Tommy was the first to get tramlines shaved into his head as soon as school finished for the summer, and he always wore branded everything. Knock-offs from the market, but they looked the part.
Tommy lived in a world where all possibilities were true at once; aliens, conspiracies, secret societies, every religion known to man and a few Murat was sure Tommy had just made up, yetis, the sasquatch and the Loch Ness Monster. At thirteen, Tommy had oceans of belief, in the world, in people, in the future, in himself. Later life would suck all that out of him, and Murat had since lost touch with both the memories of the boy Tommy Danage had been and the sour, embittered man he turned into.
Murat wondered what Tommy saw in him; he hung around Tommy hoping that something would rub off, some spark of originality, a sliver of that magnetism, but didn’t know if it was working.
Somehow, in all that time, the question of the darkness had never come up.
They hung out in the daylight or in each other’s homes where the lights were always on.
Then, one evening in the summer holidays, the darkness came for them.
“Come over,” Tommy said, as he and Murat walked home from town late that evening. “Gemma’s boyfriend rented the sickest film and left it at our house, it doesn’t go back until Tuesday. It’s an eighteen.”
Murat nodded. He wasn’t allowed to watch anything rated above a twelve. “Cool.”
“We’ll be back before dark,” Tommy said, eyeing the sunset.
Murat shrugged, kicking a can into the road. “Don’t matter,” he said, sticking his chest out. He didn’t want Tommy to think he was scared.
Murat hadn’t said much about the dark to Tommy, but he assumed Tommy was too cool to be afraid. He pushed his gelled lick of hair out of his eye in an attempt at nonchalance.
“There’s nothing to be scared of. All that crap’s for kids.”
Tommy gave him a look that Murat would remember for years afterwards. His broad forehead creased up, big russet-brown eyes wide, small thin lips pursed. He stared at Murat as if their friendship was all a big mistake.
“Not!” Murat yelled, faking a joke of his own, chest cinching with panic. “Kidding!”
But Tommy was serious and unsmiling, staring at him with deep mistrust. “It’s not funny,” he said.
Murat shook his head, surprise kicking him into silence. Could it be? Tommy Danage, afraid of the dark? The kick in the chest was like Beckham’s red card all over again.
Tommy turned and carried on, picking up the pace. Murat blinked, watching him go, then hurried after him not knowing what else to do. That was how it was: when in doubt, follow Tommy Danage.
Queen Mary Estate, adjoining the newer, equally grim Jubilee Estate, was on the edge of town, kept separate by the trainline and Pagham-on-Sea Parkway, connected by an underpass. Between the underpass and the Estate was the towering purple-signed chain hotel, squat and square in its own car park with its back to the Estate’s high surrounding wall.
As for the Estate itself, they’d built it like a prison, CCTV bristling all around, floodlights lining the road on the approach. There were no gates, the wall breaking either side of the main road forking through, which Murat had always thought odd. It wasn’t until later that he realised the bank of bright light flooding the road was a kind of gate, a barrier between the shadows within those high redbrick walls, and the other kinds of shadows on the other side. Shadows seemed less deep in town, the dark sunless corners shallower somehow, almost peaceful. They drew him in, but he was never quite brave enough to stand in them.
It wasn’t like that in the Estate. The brightness of the lights lining the paths and flooding the concrete squares between the blocks of flats held back a darkness that felt solid, as if touching it would be like touching fabric. Casey had run into the dark corner between Glassman House and Jubilee Tower, and the kids with him said they’d heard a thud, a smack, then silence. He’d fallen, the adults said. But the kids knew better. Casey had run into something, and it had killed him and taken his ball.
Murat tried not to think about this as they traipsed back into the Estate, turning off the road. Tommy was moody, silent. His pace quickened.
“Are we going to yours?” Murat asked, hoping he hadn’t lost his best friend.
Tommy didn’t answer straight away. He hunched his shoulders, hands in the pockets of his tracksuit. He shrugged. “Sure.”
Murat wondered what was happening, whether he’d broken something. His throat itched to take the words back. “I was just joking,” he said, knowing he ought to leave it but unable to, poking it like a half-healed scab.
Tommy turned to Murat, his usual cheeky grin wiped clean off and his face drawn into a tight, pale mask. “Have you ever listened to it?” he asked, hoarse, as if someone – or something – might overhear.
Murat froze, his chubby wide stare reflected back at him in Tommy’s russet-brown eyes.
“Listened to what?”
Tommy swallowed, glancing up at the sunset colours washing across the summer sky.
A shiver crawled up Murat’s spine. “What… what d’you mean?” He didn’t want to admit he still slept with the touch lamp by his bed on low, his lava lamp glowing on his windowsill, and the door cracked ajar so the light from the corridor could stop anything – he hesitated, tripping over the idea – anything… getting in that way. But he didn’t seriously believe there was anything there, he told himself. It was like Mick said. Superstitious crap.
He shook his head. “Have… have you?”
Tommy darted a look over his shoulder into the Estate, and hoicked Murat away from the wall by his elbow. He bent to Murat’s ear, nearly pushing him off the kerb into the road. “Went into my sister’s room once,” he whispered, breath stale with the illicit cigarette they’d shared on the walk home. “She was out. No lights on. Window was open.” He tugged Murat back as a car raced past and bundled him further down the pavement. “You ever do that? Just listen to the dark outside?”
Murat shook his head.
Tommy’s eyes were watering now, unblinking and wide. “It makes this sound. Like, a – really quiet sound. Like. There’s something there, something in the room with you. Like… a kind of breathing.” He channelled an almost-silent breath of air against Murat’s ear, and the hairs prickled up all over Murat’s arms and the nape of his neck. “I swear. On my mum’s life.”
Murat nodded, believing. In the moment, it was almost impossible not to believe Tommy Danage, no matter what he said. Later, he thought it was the breeze forcing itself through the window crack, the blood ringing in Tommy’s ears – and yet, no matter what he told himself Tommy heard or thought he heard, Murat never switched off the light to listen for himself.
They entered the Estate together, Murat’s pulse quickened by the thrill of Tommy’s tale and their re-forged camaraderie, heading for Peregrine House. The streetlights were already on although the sun wasn’t fully set, and Murat couldn’t recall anything being amiss as they passed the row of shops, bookended by the Chinese takeaway and the Blockbuster.
The Estate was a mish-mash of post-war flats, rows of garages, and parallel streets of council houses. Jubilee Estate adjoined it, more blocks of flats, council houses and amenities, and as bristling with lights and CCTV as its older neighbour. Both were contained by the high wall, which was the subject of frequent residential complaints by newcomers. After a few weeks, they stopped complaining. Not even Mick complained anymore. That bothered Murat.
Peregrine House was a pale, weather-streaked five-storied building from the 1960s, one of the first blocks of flats to be built on Queen Mary Estate, surrounded by several other blocks like it in a square, spindly trees planted at intervals along the street leading up to it. Murat didn’t like the trees. They were always sick and half dead, and now the leaves were an unhealthy, bitter yellow on the edges.
They came to the front entrance, brightly lit inside and out, cameras blinking at them as they jostled through the main door. The lift was dodgy and usually reeked of ammonia and Mr Carmichael, so they opted for the stairs.
Halfway up to the second floor they bumped into Kumail, Addy and Emmanuel, trading Pokémon cards. Emmanuel was sitting on the top step with his back to the stairwell, long black legs outstretched, knees grazed, in his knock-off Arsenal shirt and football shorts. Kumail was below, thick glasses slipping down his broad nose, his card album on his knees. Addy, gelled dirty-blond curtains quivering in symmetrical speech marks either side of his forehead, was dribbling his football in the stairwell behind them and bouncing it from foot to foot, arguing with Kumail about what his Venomoth was worth.
Murat wished he was as good at football as Addy and Emmanuel. He couldn’t kick a ball even halfway straight and was last to be picked for everything. At thirteen he’d never even heard of dyspraxia, and neither had anyone else: even if they had, Murat reasoned bitterly later on, it would just have been another synonym in their Games teacher’s vocabulary for ‘bloody useless’. He didn’t know much about Pokémon either, not as much as they all did, so he hung back out of habit as Tommy went first.
They greeted Tommy with the usual enthusiasm, but Murat hovered on the bottom step, hands in his pockets, until Emmanuel waved him up.
“Oi, Mat. Beat my high score.”
He handed Murat his phone, small black squares blinking on the tiny screen. Murat plonked himself awkwardly on the step below, conscious of taking up far more space on the stairs than his athletic classmate. He knew he couldn’t beat Emmanuel at anything. Inevitably, his snake ate itself and the game ended thirty points off Emmanuel’s top score. He handed it back and Emmanuel grinned. “I’ll beat it this time, you ready?”
Murat nodded, settling on the steps as the debates and card swapping continued around them.
This distracted them for some time, until the sun died and the shadows crept over the concrete, crawling up the stairs. Addy was the first to notice.
Murat frowned as Addy punched his arm. “What?”
They hadn’t noticed the sun going down and the lights coming on, as they usually did. Except that, this evening, one of the lights was out.
The shadows thickened on the stairs below them, gathering, creeping. To Murat, focused on the phone game, they seemed to stretch out like the pixel-snake, progressing at right-angles over the hard lines of the stairs to gobble up the next target.
Emmanuel leapt up, Kumail scrambling backwards.
Murat pushed Emmanuel’s phone at him and tugged Tommy’s sleeve.
The light above them flickered.
This got Emmanuel’s attention. He knocked Kumail’s arm with the back of his hand.
Kumail’s eyebrows shot up. “What?”
Emmanuel pointed at the light. Kumail followed his finger and swallowed.
“That isn’t good,” Emmanuel said, voice tight.
Murat shifted, catching the collective unease.
“We got to go, yeah.” Kumail tucked his cards away and backed off into the brighter pool of light, album under one arm, as Tommy’s arguments faded. Addy bounced his football into his hands and stood frozen, clutching it into his chest.
Emmanuel’s Adam’s apple bobbed hard.
Murat backed up.
The light went out.
Tommy grabbed Murat’s t-shirt and yanked him, Emmanuel bounded past and raced Addy for the next set of stairs, and they scattered in the stairwell. Addy and Emmanuel tore off to their neighbouring flats, Kumail ploughing through the nearest fire door to his flat on that level. Tommy and Murat got to the lift, and Tommy jabbed the button with his elbow. Murat made to run up the next flight after Emmanuel and Addy, but Tommy held him back.
The lights went out in the next stairwell. They could hear the pounding of their friends’ feet echoing back to them, but now they were trapped between one pool of darkness and another. Murat could see the dull glow of the dirty light fittings on either side, still lighting the stairs themselves as they spiralled upwards: the shadow patches between should not have been that deep. The shadows gathered, playing tricks on his eyes.
He and Tommy were back to back now.
“There’s nothing in the dark,” Murat whispered, but these were Mick’s words.
Tommy was shaking beside him. The remaining light above their heads began to strobe.
Murat wanted to believe Mick more than anything, but doubt spiked his belly with fear, pooling cold inside him. “There’s nothing in the dark. There’s nothing in the dark…”
“Shh!” Tommy elbowed him, shaking his head. “Listen…”
With a thrill of horror prickling up his spine, Murat strained to hear the sound the shadows made. His own pulse drowned it out.
The lift pinged behind them and the doors juddered open.
Murat and Tommy bundled in, safe under the bright glare, mirrors reflecting their pale, scared faces.
The light strobed twice in the stairwell they’d just left and blinked out. The shadows surged to connect, washing over the floor in front of them like a pool of dark water. Murat backed all the way up against the mirrors as the lift doors stayed stubbornly open. Tommy jabbed at the fifth-floor button over and over. They wouldn’t close. It would be shit in a zombie apocalypse. Murat wished like hell he hadn’t thought of that, trying not to imagine lumbering corpses drooling up the stairs in the dark, seeking brains, nothing to stop them as he and Tommy were trapped against the sticky mirrors with no weapons and nowhere to run…
The doors finally juddered shut.
The darkness fought the narrowing wedge of light, pressing greedily in.
Murat thought he saw something between the closing crack, something forming in the shadows, a shape looming out of the darkness and leering at him. Not a face. Not exactly. Not a human face.
The lift doors pinged at last, closed and solid, and they both sagged at the same time, safe in their small cage of light.
“Did you see that?” Murat whispered to Tommy, whose pink-tinged eyes were moist with terror.
“Shut up!” Tommy pressed his finger to his lips.
The lift didn’t move.
Was that – something outside? A movement, a whisper, something pushing against the doors?
Murat itched to press the button again.
They held their breath, but the lift shuddered into life, familiar clanks of aging machinery reassuring them that they were safe.
“Mum says this lift’s a piece of shit,” Tommy said, attempting to recover. His voice trembled but there was a ring of defiance as he tossed out the s-word.
Hundreds of mirror-Murats and mirror-Tommys glanced uneasily around their enclosed cage, reflecting each other forever. Murat ran a sticky hand over the top of his short hair.
The lift groaned, making it to the second floor.
Murat swallowed, stomach roiling. Had he seen something in the darkness? If Tommy hadn’t, he couldn’t have seen anything. It was like Mick said, people’s eyes were trained to see patterns, that was all. Patterns in the dark were just… dots in front of his eyes, just tricks, just tricks, just tricks. He didn’t realise he was whispering that under his breath until Tommy elbowed him.
Murat pursed his lips around his mantra, but it kept beating around his brain.
The lift eased up from the second floor, climbing to the third. It was taking forever.
“Why’s it so slow?” Tommy complained, shifting from one foot to the other, skinny frame vibrating with impatience.
Murat thought about what was below their feet: a lift shaft full of darkness, darkness sticking to the underside of the lift’s floor, being dragged up behind them… He swallowed hard and looked up instead, at the reassuring lightbulb glaring at them from above. The darkness was above them, too. Bearing down. Heavy.
The lift shuddered.
Murat flinched into Tommy and they both pressed against the streaked mirror at their backs. Third floor. Tommy looked at Murat and nodded. Nearly there.
The lift’s light blinked once.
The hairs on Murat’s neck stood up. He froze.
The light blinked twice.
The lift shivered.
“No,” Tommy managed, his voice a tiny croak. “No, no, no…”
Murat couldn’t move. He pressed against the mirror for reassurance, but it didn’t help.
There was nowhere to go.
The light blinked out.
Murat had never known darkness like it – it swarmed them, plunging them into total jet black, his eyes not accustomed. Tommy yelped like a wounded dog, grabbing his arms.
Murat hoped it was Tommy grabbing his arms.
He hoped those were Tommy’s hands.
The light came back on.
Something in the mirror flickered away, disintegrating in his peripheral vision. Murat snapped around to look, confronted with hundreds of reflections of his face, of Tommy’s crumpled anguish, slashes of his own red t-shirt and Tommy’s white tracksuit, and nothing more.
The light flickered.
Something shifted in the reflection. The twisting pattern of a shadow? Murat was prepared to swear on his dad’s grave that neither he nor Tommy had moved.
They hadn’t reached the fourth floor yet. The lift crawled, creaking an inch at a time, and Murat imagined the strain of the mechanism as it battled the darkness. Was this how the old man from downstairs had died, when the power surged and his TV went off? Was this how he had felt, trapped in his chair, the darkness surging in to claim him?
It was stupid, stupid, stupid. There was nothing there, nothing, nothing.
His chest tightened. Dots burst in front of his eyes.
The light blinked out.
They were plunged into darkness.
Something slid past Murat’s ringing ears.
A breath? No: a sigh.
Was it Tommy, his ragged pants in Murat’s face? Murat’s own breath, mingling with Tommy’s?
“What’s that?!” Tommy whimpered, and the light flickered back on.
“I didn’t see anything,” Murat hissed, half strangled. “I didn’t see…”
Tommy was crying, staring into the top corner of the lift. “Who’s there?”
Murat couldn’t look. He squinted at the mirrors, trying not to see what was reflected there, focusing on the brand logo on Tommy’s back, the empty space around them.
“It’s just us,” he promised, praying he was right. “It’s just us…”
Tommy shook his head. “There’s some¾”
The light went out.
The floor shook.
Tommy let go of Murat’s arms.
Murat stumbled into the mirror, his hand finding the sticky dribbles on its surface. He drew away and bumped into something else, a solid form, but Tommy was the other side of the lift, wasn’t he? The shape was there, then it wasn’t. What the hell was that?
It must be Tommy, please let it be Tommy…
Oh shit, Murat thought, childish stories shooting up to comfort him, we’re going to be in the stars with Dad.
The light came back on.
Tommy was on the floor.
Murat’s chest hurt. He took a gulp of air, forcing his legs to cooperate, and shakily lowered himself into a squat. “T…Tommy?”
The light flickered.
Stars burst in his vision. He forced himself to take a deeper breath, his own hammering pulse ringing in his ears. Tears blurred the white, limp form, and Murat was too scared to touch him in case he was cold, in case he was sleeping, in case he was in the stars.
He swallowed hard and forced himself to touch his best friend.
He wasn’t sure what to expect. Tommy’s shoulder was solid, bony, under the light jacket. Murat thought you could tell if a person was dead by the way they felt, but Tommy felt the same. Was that right? That didn’t seem right. You were supposed to lose something, weren’t you, when you died? He had imagined the body being hollow, almost, after death, lighter, not weighted with resistance. He tried to pull Tommy onto his back, not thinking about things like First Aid or if he swallowed his tongue. He would cringe later, looking back, but Tommy’s eyes were open and he was still crying, and not dead at all.
He looked up at Murat with wide eyes, moist with fear. His small, thin lips struggled to form his question, and when he spoke a shiver lanced through Murat turning his bladder to water.
“Did you hear it?”
Murat shook his head, fear clenching his stomach in a leaden fist, shaking all over, tears rolling down his cheeks. “Hear what?”
Tommy whined but didn’t reply.
The doors opened.
Murat grabbed his friend and hoisted him as hard as he could, Tommy finding his feet and whimpering, urine stain soaking through the front of his trousers and dripping miserably down his leg. The lights lined the corridor, leading to Tommy’s flat.
They stumbled out of the lift as the doors juddered shut behind them.
The corridor lights were misbehaving, dimming with an angry hum. That was all Murat could hear: the hum of electric as it fought against the dark.
“Did you hear it?” Tommy whispered, whole body shaking.
“Shut it,” Murat returned, nerves taut as a guitar string. Now in the corridor, there was nothing to hear but the comforting sound of the lights.
They made it halfway along, Tommy’s flat the one on the far end, before the lift pinged open again behind them. He heard the doors slide open.
Tommy couldn’t look, but Murat had to.
He pushed Tommy ahead of him and turned around.
The lift was a box of darkness, so dark that Murat couldn’t see their reflections in the mirrors. He remembered it like a solid block of shadow, thick and rippling. It spilled out of the doors into the corridor in a wave as the nearest light blinked out.
Murat pulled Tommy with him and ran, the shadows at their heels, and pounded on the door of Tommy’s flat until his mum opened the door.
Murat remembered Liz Danage as a skinny, scarecrow-woman, straw-coloured hair lying lank around her hard, angry features, always in baggy cardigans that hung loosely off her shoulders and baggy grey pyjama bottoms she had to tie tightly around her waist. She didn’t say a word. Not about their frantic garbled explanations, their terror, or about Tommy wetting himself, although Murat was sure she’d noticed. She let them into a flat smoky with candles, their dim flames casting odd shapes over the walls.
“Generator’s gone funny or the fuses or sumfink,” she said, and pointed Murat to the phone. “Call your mum. She’ll be going mad.”
Tommy ran into the bathroom with a large wind-up torch but didn’t lock the door.
Murat sat in candlelight and Liz Danage gave him a plate of beans on toast, and the shadows twisted around them in the strange warmth of the flames, and the darkness stalked through Peregrine House until he wasn’t sure what was real and what he had imagined. But he didn’t joke about the dark again, and he never entered a room with the lights off.
Alone in chilly, drizzling Luton, lightyears away from those terrified boys in the lift, Murat dragged himself out of his memories. He was a grown man. This was his flat. There was nothing in here to frighten him.
His hand shook as he lowered it from the switch, staring into the depths of his darkened living room. There was nothing to be afraid of. There was nothing there, he reasoned, nothing at all – and yet it was as if the room was full for the first time, full of something he couldn’t see. There were shapes within, rounded, bulky, shifting as he squinted, only to settle in the form of his own, well-worn furniture. But around them the shadows gathered, dim and nebulous and pregnant with something denied him. All darkness was the same, surely? And yet… and yet…
It was not like the darkness of the Estate he’d left behind, not like the swallowing corners and stealthy flight of what lurked there, if anything ever had. He was too old for all that, he told himself, too old for that now. Yet this was different somehow, safer, emptier, in a way he couldn’t name. He’d turned and faced the darkness that night, he reminded himself. Maybe this was the night he would step towards it.
For the first time in his life, legs quivering, Murat took a step into a room without the light on. He nearly bottled it, darting back as something swam by his peripheral vision, but there was nothing there, nothing to get him. A small moth, disturbed by the light in the hall, fluttered out and flung itself upwards at the light. Murat watched it battering itself against the hot bulb, scorching its own wings, in thrall to the light’s blazing tyranny. He closed his eyes and stilled his rapid breaths to quieten his racing heart. For a moment he thought he was going to be sick, his face prickled hot and cold, his stomach roiled with tension. Then he stepped back into the dark.
He balled up his fists in case something grabbed his arms or bumped into his back.
Little by little, Murat forced his bunched muscles to relax. He forced himself to breathe in a gentle rhythm and let the pressing shadows envelop him. They were only shadows after all, intangible, insubstantial, but engorged with some quality of their own, and a sound he had never heard before.
Murat closed his eyes, and, for the first time in his life, listened to the sound of darkness.
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