To read the first part of “In the Dark,” check out Volume 2, Issues 5 in the Inkwell Literary Magazine’s online archive.
“We have to do something,” Ellis said for the thousandth time. Wade watched his sister and Ellis talking, hunched over. The whole city was talking about the town meeting earlier in the day, and Wade, Gemma, and Ellis were no exception. Ellis had been on a warpath since they’d left the meeting an hour ago, and as she sat hunched over her barely touched burger under the checked umbrella with Wade and Gemma, her voice rose, and she waved her hands emphatically; her eyes sparkled with conviction in the sunlight. They’d opted not to take the bus back to her apartment because of the crowds, but Wade thought it was because she’d needed to blow off steam. Being crammed in a tin can with a bunch of other people wouldn’t have been a good situation for anyone. It had been his idea to stop for lunch, and he figured buying a meal for her was the least he could do after everything that she had done for him and his sister.
Wade took a bite of his lunch and regarded Ellis and Gemma. They were getting along very well. Maybe too well. Gemma’s eyes mirrored Ellis’s excitement, and she ate up every revolutionary word that came out of Ellis’s mouth.
“We can’t just sit on our hands and do nothing!” Ellis exclaimed.
Gemma patted her shoulder, pushing her untouched plate away from her with the other hand. “Then let’s do something,” she said.
Wade’s hands, buried in his pockets, clenched into fists. Maybe Ellis wasn’t a great person for Gemma to hang around. Gemma was too young to clearly remember everything that had happened, but Wade wasn’t. He looked away and clenched his jaw, not listening to what they were saying. Why couldn’t they just let it go? It was out of their control. Soon the power would be back on, and everything would be back to normal. They should just leave it alone and let the professionals deal with it.
“Yes, Wade, please can we?” Gemma’s voice punctuated his thoughts.
He looked at them blankly. “Can we please what?”
“Go with Ellis to the meeting tonight of the people who want to find a way to stop the shadows. Have you even heard a word we’ve been saying?”
He glared at Ellis. He’d hoped, after last night, that she would drop the subject, but clearly she’d infected his sister with her radical ideas. There was no way to kill the darkness except by killing the host. He knew that better than anyone. Dark images flashed through his mind, but he shoved them aside. Now was not the time to dwell on past failures.
“Wade, come on—”
“I don’t want to hear it, Gem.”
They sat in tense silence for a second, Gemma shooting daggers at Wade and him staring unflinchingly back, before Ellis shoved a bite of food in her mouth.
“This is really good,” she said with a mouthful. “Thanks, Wade.”
Gemma sat back with a huff, but Ellis had managed to diffuse the power struggle. He gave her a weak smile.
“I need to call Mom,” Gemma said, snatching her phone from the table and walking towards the line of saplings a few feet away. Wade glanced at his watch. He hadn’t realized it was already time for their daily check-in. When he looked back, Ellis peered at him with furrowed brows.
“What?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Just surprised,” she said. “Last night you said it was just you and Gemma, but now…” She gestured to where Gemma stood talking and pacing a few feet away.
Wade shifted in his seat and fiddled with a fry on his plate.
“It is just us,” he said. He swallowed and looked up at her. Ellis’s face was so open, he could see her interest but also her unwillingness to pry as clear as the moon in the night sky. He cleared his throat. “Seven years ago, when I was thirteen or fourteen, my granddad in Portland got really sick, so my mom went to help him out for a couple weeks.” He remembered that day with such clarity, down to the color of his mother’s suitcase and the smell of her vanilla lotion when she hugged him goodbye. “While she was gone, everything with the shadows started, and the barricades were put up around the city. I think the National Guard guys thought they were just keeping the monsters in, but they were also—”
“Keeping your mother out,” Ellis finished. Wade nodded. It felt strange to talk about it. Usually, people didn’t ask, and he didn’t have any problem keeping things to himself. But for some reason, talking about it to Ellis made him ache to see his mom again. It had been so long. He drew a face in the ketchup on his plate with a fry.
“She’s tried to get permission to come in, written letters to the president, and even tried to break in a couple times, but it never works. So she moved about thirty minutes away and got a job and sends money when she can. We call or FaceTime almost every day.”
“That must be hard,” Ellis said with compassion in her voice. It didn’t sound like pity, which he’d heard plenty of times before, but like understanding mixed with a desire to help. Her words spread warmth through his chest, and he shrugged.
“We manage,” was all he said.
Ellis nibbled on her food for another minute and Wade retreated into his thoughts. But then Ellis cleared her throat and leaned across the table.
“What if there was a way that we could reunite you with your mom?”
Wade’s eyes shot up to hers. It was a thought he’d had a million times but never believed in. But the way Ellis said it, with such conviction, it sounded almost like it could be possible.
“I know you said you didn’t want to go to the meeting tonight—”
His heart sank. She was just on her warpath again. “I just told you we manage,” he said, a hint of bitterness lacing his words.
Ellis hesitated. “I know you manage,” she said, “but what about Gemma?”
Wade straightened his spine. “I take care of my sister. She has everything she needs.”
“I know you do; I don’t doubt that for a second. You’re a good brother, Wade.” She bit her lip. “But Gemma has a mom out there, and at her age, she needs one.” She sat back in her chair, twisting her paper napkin between her fingers. “Trust me, being a girl without a mom pretty much sucks. If there’s any remote possibility that you could reunite them, don’t you think you should at least try?”
Wade just looked at her. Memories danced in her eyes, just beyond what he could see; but even though he couldn’t read them, he knew the images conjured were painful ones. He glanced over at Gemma, smiling into the phone. His sister laughed at something their mom had said, and Wade felt the weight of his responsibility to her pressing down on his shoulders. What if Ellis was right, and he was the one depriving his sister of their mother? How could he ever bear that burden of guilt?
Gemma plopped down in her seat. “Mom says hi,” she told Wade, then looked from Wade to Ellis and back again. “What’d I miss?”
Wade raised his eyes to meet Ellis’s hazel brown ones. “We’re going to that meeting tonight,” he said, and Gemma squealed in excitement. Ellis smiled at him.
In the breath before dawn, Wade, Gemma, and Ellis scuttled down the street.
They had gone back to Ellis’s apartment after lunch and half-heartedly played cards and read the headlines, anything to pass the time. When the sun had set, Wade had tossed and turned for hours, and just when sleep had clouded his mind, Ellis was shaking him awake and telling him it was time to go. At five in the morning, before the sun had even thought of peeking over the horizon, the three companions had shrugged on jackets and headed out onto the sidewalks with Ellis in the lead.
The busses weren’t running this early, and they had a long way to walk. It felt strange to be out without the sun, Wade thought, and he kept his sister close by his side. The streetlights cast a cold glow over the sidewalk as they trudged along, and no one said a word. The farther they got from Ellis’s apartment, the more Wade doubted his decision. Had Ellis guilt-tripped him into this? How did he know this meeting was even going to help anything? Supposedly they’d been meeting for months, but Wade hadn’t heard of anything happening to end the reign of shadows throughout the city, so obviously they hadn’t had any luck so far. What if this was a massive waste, and Wade was endangering his sister for nothing?
“Here we are,” Ellis said at last, pushing through the doors of a pizzeria. Wade sucked in a breath to squash his doubts and ducked in after Gemma. He had to give it a chance.
Ellis led the way upstairs to the apartment above the pizza place and knocked on the door twice. It immediately swung open, and at least ten sets of eyes landed on them. Ellis stepped inside and Gemma followed. Wade bit the inside of his cheek and then stepped over the threshold.
“Guys,” Ellis said, “this is Gemma and her brother, Wade. Gemma and Wade, this is everybody.” All the people in the room intoned an unenthusiastic hello as Wade looked around.
Eleven people were seated in various locations around the room—on a couch, on the floor, on top of a short cabinet in one corner, on various mismatched chairs. And the people gathered were just as assorted as their seats; they ranged from pimply high schoolers to working-class men to people Wade’s own age. Sitting on an easy chair in the corner was one woman who looked to be about a hundred, with whisps of snow-white hair sticking out of her head at odd angles.
“I just don’t understand why Marty’s idea didn’t work,” one of the high-school-age guys said, obviously continuing a conversation. “I mean, I totally thought that it was the one.”
Ellis, now sitting criss-cross on the floor with Gemma, piped up. “Marty’s idea didn’t work?” She sounded disappointed. “When did you try it?”
“Last night,” a woman answered. “We made sure he didn’t puke up the keychain flashlight, and it was definitely on when he swallowed it.”
Wade stood with his back against the wall, trying not to look as awkward as he felt. He had no idea what they were talking about or how this would help him and his mom. He’d wanted to talk to her all day, but he knew it would have worried Gemma and his mom if he’d called earlier. He slipped a hand in his pocket and curled his fingers around his phone. Maybe no one would notice if he just slipped out? But then someone in the room said the word “home” and he was thinking about his and Gemma’s home, now dark. How was he going to find somewhere else for them to live? They couldn’t couch surf forever, and there was no way he was about to show up at Uncle Greg’s place.
“I have an idea,” Gemma said tentatively. Wade’s ears perked up at his sister’s words. Clearly, she was following the conversation more closely than he was. Everyone listened while Gemma spoke. “My dad used to say the eyes are the window to the soul, right? So what if you forced a bright light in their eyes or something?”
The people in the room seemed to consider her words.
“But they can walk out in daylight,” someone objected, “so why would shining a light in their eyes be any different?”
Gemma shrugged. “I don’t know. You guys are the experts. Maybe they don’t look directly at lights, though?”
“I don’t know about that, but they’re definitely changing,” someone else said. It was a young woman, about five foot nothing, wearing a salmon-colored dress. “They used to be total idiots when they took a host, but they’re getting smarter. Pretty soon they’ll be able to completely blend in with society.”
“If they don’t already,” someone huffed.
“You guys really think the shadow monsters could take a person’s body and then just keep on living?” Gemma asked. Her voice was small and frightened, and Wade knew he should never have brought her here. She shouldn’t have to hear any of this.
“Well, when they take a host, they become impervious to light, as far as we can tell,” the five-foot tall woman said. “We’ve tried several things to see if we could get rid of the shadows without killing the host, but so far—”
“The host is already dead,” Wade said. All eyes turned on him, and his cheeks flushed with heat, but not from embarrassment—anger simmered inside him. “The host dies when the shadow takes him. That’s why the only option is to kill the host body. The person is gone.”
No one said anything for a long moment as they digested his words. And then the old woman spoke.
“They’re not gone,” she said in a warbling voice. Wade’s fury boiled. They didn’t understand, none of them did, but still the old woman continued. “The host is still inside there, but they just can’t get out because of the shadow.”
“That’s not true!” Wade shouted, slamming his fist into the wall. Several people jumped, and he could feel Gemma’s eyes on him. “You must not have seen the change happen. I have. I’ve watched as the shadows drain all the light out of a person’s eyes. I’ve watched as a person became nothing but a husk of what they had been.” He ran a hand through his hair and avoided meeting either Gemma’s or Ellis’s gaze. “When the darkness takes them, they’re just…gone.”
The silence that followed his words was so thick that he could have cut it with a knife.
Then the old woman warbled, “Someone should let him see.”
At first, nobody moved, and then a large, muscled man in his mid-forties stood up. Wade thought he was the one called Marty.
“Come on, kid,” he said in a deep, gruff voice. Wade followed him down a long hallway, and at the end of it, the man pulled a key from a chain around his neck and bent down to unlock a deadbolt lock that had been installed on the door.
When Marty pushed open the door, Wade wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be seeing in here. It looked like a normal bedroom, if a little untidy, with a bed and a dresser and a sheet tacked over the only window. He stepped inside, past a pizza box on the floor and a heap of dirty laundry and looked around. Then his eyes landed on the bed. He’d thought it had been a pile of clothes on the bed, but now he was inside, he saw it was a person—a guy not much younger than Wade. He felt something heavy in his stomach and didn’t want to be here. But at the same time, he couldn’t look away. Something was totally wrong here.
The guy on the bed was laying on his stomach, face down, wearing a striped shirt that hung on him like he was nothing more than a sack of bones. He shook his head back and forth and back and forth from the bed. Then he whipped his head around and locked eyes with Wade. They were dead eyes, dark, with nothing light in them. The guy flashed a wicked grin, and Wade took an involuntary step backwards. Shadows. They’d taken him. Wade’s heart pounded. Why wasn’t Marty doing anything?
“Someone new to play?” the guy said. He had a high-pitched, maniacal voice. He leapt from the bed with unnatural spryness and circled closer to Wade, the plastered-on grin never leaving his face. He reached out a bony hand to touch Wade’s face. Wade recoiled, but then the guy’s face changed.
A battle waged on the planes of his face, his expression changing and morphing and fighting itself. And then the guy looked at Wade again, and this time his eyes shone with regret and light and humanness.
“I’m…I’m sorry,” he said in a soft, scared voice. “I can’t—” and then the light fell from his eyes, and his cheeks stretched taut into another grin. “Someone new to play?” he said again and lunged.
His fingernails bit into Wade’s throat, stinging the warm flesh there. Marty was on him instantly, hauling the guy off Wade, but not before the kid managed to sink his teeth into Wade’s forearm. Wade jerked back, stumbling away from that thing, and into the hall. He ran into the wall and collapsed to the ground, kicking to get away from whatever that was in there. Marty grunted, shut the door, and locked it behind him.
Wade heard blood rushing in his ears. “What was that thing?” he demanded. The man finished locking the door and slowly turned toward Wade.
“That thing,” he said in a hoarse voice, “was my son.”
Wade’s mind raced. Somehow, that kid had a shadow inside him but was still able to come through sometimes. How had it not killed him? How was he still in there? How was any of this possible? It went against everything he’d always thought, always assumed. What could this mean for the city? And did that mean that Wade had—no, he couldn’t think like that. He covered his face with one hand as he tried to process what he’d just seen.
“The person is still inside when the shadow takes them.” The man’s voice surprised Wade. “They just have to learn how to fight the darkness.”
Marty went back to the meeting, leaving Wade to collect himself in peace. He sat there for almost an hour, thinking and fighting his own thoughts until he couldn’t anymore. It was a long time until he was able to stand up from the floor and walk back to all the people sitting in that other room. When he came back in, he sat on the floor beside Gemma. She squeezed his hand without saying a word, and when he looked at her, he felt sudden gratefulness wash over him.
“So the question is, why are they bringing in the big dogs now, after all these years?” someone asked, and the room launched into a discussion about the FBI’s involvement in everything. Wade glanced around the room again with fresh eyes. These people were from every walk of life, from different age groups, financial brackets, and city blocks, and yet here they all were with one common goal—to defeat the darkness. Even if it was a fool’s errand, he couldn’t help but stand in awe of them and their determination.
“You guys,” Ellis said suddenly with an urgency that shut up everyone in the room, “six more blocks have gone out.”
Ellis just shook her head, eyes glued to her phone screen. “That’s not the worst part,” she said, face pale. “The mayor has ordered the sheriff to mobilize a team to go out and shoot anyone who’s taken by a shadow, and the special agent is going with him.”
Cold lead settled in the pit of Wade’s stomach. If he dared to believe what he had just witnessed, if he even had the capacity to hope—the mayor had just warranted the mass murder of the citizens of Witmere.
“We have to do something,” Wade said.