It’s been seven years since the darkness started killing people.
Wade had listened to the whispers this morning as he’d trudged along the busy sidewalks. People huddled in groups, talking in hushed voices about everything that had happened seven years ago, just like they did every year on the anniversary. Now, sitting in the back of a public bus, Wade shoved in his earbuds and slumped down. He was tired of hearing about the first few people that were taken by the darkness all those years ago; he was tired of thinking about that one whole block that had gone dark last week, out of nowhere, and what that might mean for the rest of them. He just wanted to put his head down and make it go away.
If Wade thought really hard, he could think of a time when the darkness didn’t scare him. A time when he could turn off the lights to go to sleep or go out and kick a ball around with his friends as the sun went down. But those memories were distant now, tinged with something unpleasant. It’s hard to look back without seeing things through the perspective of today.
“Hey,” came a voice near his head. Wade looked up, surprised to see a girl with warm hazel eyes peering at him over the back of her seat. He swallowed as he sat up and pulled one earbud out of his ear. The problem with public transportation was just how public it was.
“Hey,” he said. She looked kind of familiar, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on why.
“I’m Ellis,” she said, then added, “we’re teamed up to write that research paper together in Dr. Wiener’s class?”
“Oh, right.” He felt like an idiot for not remembering sooner, but the girl didn’t seem to mind. The community college where Wade was taking some classes in the daytime wasn’t huge, but there were enough people that he could easily forget all the faces in each class, and the fact that Dr. Wiener had assigned partners in class today didn’t change that fact. Wade sat back in his seat again and was about to replace his earbud when the girl piped up again.
“Maybe we should meet up sometime to work on it together?” The girl, Ellis, didn’t wait for a response. She pulled the wire that ran alongside the bus windows and collected her things as the bus screeched to a stop. She thrust her thumb at a squat building across the street. “That’s me,” she said, “4E. If you come by sometime, we can do some research for that project.” Without another word, Ellis walked off and dismounted the bus. Wade watched her cross the street as the bus pulled away into traffic again. He wasn’t sure why, but something about her had struck him as odd. Not bad odd, but just…something. Again, he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. He chalked it up to today being a strange day and slumped back down.
Though the sun was a good hour away from setting, bright streetlights were starting to flicker to life along the sidewalks. Witmere, Illinois, population 102,334, was never dark. From the streetlights to the countless incandescents and LEDs lining every ceiling and surface in the entire city 24/7, the dangerous dark had been banished. No dark alleys, no dark rooms, but especially, no more shadows.
No one knew how the shadows had come to life, but one day seven years ago, they had started attacking people. Cold tendrils of gloom had stretched out and grasped wrists and hands and ankles, swarming on thousands of people at a time. Screams tore from people’s throats on every corner, children wailed as unseeing adults sprinted past them to get away. Wade remembered that day like it was yesterday. It had started out so ordinarily; and then the world was on fire. Thousands of people flooded the streets to get out of town, but within hours the city was surrounded by the National Guard, and no one was allowed to leave. Over the coming days, the citizens of Witmere had started to learn about the monsters within the shadows. The darker the shadow, the stronger the creature within it, and when the darkness got a hold of a person, it could take them. It entered them somehow, and then the creatures were impervious to light. The only way to get rid of them was to kill the person the darkness had taken.
Wade shook his head to dislodge the image. That was seven years ago. The whole year had been something out of a nightmare, something he longed to forget. He trained his eyes on the passing streets outside and listened to the deep thrum of bass in his ears.
After a few more minutes he pulled the wire, and the bus driver stopped and Wade dismounted. He shoved his hands deep into his pockets as he crossed the street.
The building he entered was remarkably gray—gray walls, worn gray carpet, gray ceiling tiles. Even the many lights and lamps seemed to cast gray light into the foyer. Wade pushed through the door to the hall and tiptoed past the door labeled Superintendent. Just past it, he heard the door swing open, and Wade closed his eyes as his shoulders fell. Great. He just couldn’t catch a break today.
Plastering a smile on his face, Wade spun around to face the short man. “Hi, Joe,” he said.
Joe folded his arms over his protruding belly and cocked an eyebrow at Wade.
“What time do you call this, young man?” he asked in a surprisingly high voice.
Wade glanced at his watch. “Quarter past five.”
“That’s right, a quarter past five.” Joe tapped his foot impatiently, and his furrowed brow accentuated his receding hairline. “And when did I ask you to check on Mrs. Fawcett’s sink upstairs?”
Wade hesitated. “Six?” he asked hopefully.
Joe threw up his hands with an annoyed grunt. “Boy, I keep a roof over your head and food in your fridge, and you can’t even check on a leaky sink every now and again for me? What kind of father do you have anyway, that’d raise you like this?”
Wade bit back his response. He wanted to shout that Joe didn’t keep a roof over his head, he just lowered the highway-robbery price to a just-over-reasonable price on the stipulation that Wade cover all the fat, lazy toad’s duties in return; Joe did nothing to keep food in the fridge, and Wade had fifteen chores a week in all the apartments in the building for the man.
But he didn’t say that. He couldn’t afford to lose another place, and besides, this place was the closest to his job at the deli. It’d be inconvenient to have to move somewhere else at this point. So he opted for a sheepish smile.
“Gee, I’m sorry Mr. Rattison,” Wade said with too much sweetness. The man’s eyes narrowed at him, but Wade kept talking. “I guess time just got away from me. I’ll go take care of that sink right now.”
Eyes still narrowed, Joe sniffed. “Too late,” he said. “The woman complained so much I had to go up there and do it myself.” He wagged a finger at Wade. “You better be glad I’m feeling generous right now, or you’d be out on your hide for all the times you’ve let me down lately.”
Wade muttered an apology with lowered eyes, trying not to let any sarcasm sneak into his tone. Satisfied with his verbal whipping, Joe grunted and retreated into his office, shutting the door behind him.
Wade sighed, feeling the weight of everything settling on him. He turned his feet back down the hall and went up the three flights of stairs. Maybe he could catch a quick nap before he started working on homework and bills. At the end of the hall, he wrestled a key from his pocket, turned it in the lock, and stepped inside.
The apartment was small and cramped, but other than that, it was nothing like the gray hallways. The white walls were littered with paintings and colors, and strings of turquoise paper lanterns lined the ceiling. Wade dumped his backpack on the floor and kicked off his shoes. Based on the strong scent of vanilla in the air, Gemma was here. Wade ran a hand over his face tiredly before stepping toward the bathroom.
Gemma, a tall, willowy fifteen-year-old with delicate eyes and wavy blonde hair, leaned over the bathroom counter to apply her mascara. Wade rested against the doorframe and looked at her through the mirror.
“Hey,” Gemma said.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Wade asked.
Gemma flicked her eyes to his in the mirror before screwing the top back on her mascara tube. “Out,” was all she said.
“You can’t go out, it’s almost dark.”
Gemma spun to face him. “Oh please,” she said with a defiant jut of her chin, “there are plenty of lights out there, and anyway, you can’t control my life.”
Wade stood up and squared his shoulders, blocking the door. He was so sick of having the same argument night after night. His sister was so different from him, and she’d definitely gotten her stubbornness from their dad.
“You can’t go out tonight,” he said with an edge of steel in his voice. “You know the streets aren’t safe at night, even with all the lights. What if one of them went out, hmm? What would you do then?”
“Wade, c’mon, you’re being paranoid—”
“—there’s no way we’re going to lose another block. It’s not going to happen. And anyway, not a single light has gone out in this stupid city in over three years.”
“Conveniently forgetting the dark block?”
Gemma rolled her eyes dramatically. “No,” she said. She folded her arms. “I’m just saying, I’ll only be on the street for like two seconds. And anyway, the lights can go out just as easily in here as they can out there.”
She had a point, and he knew it. The constant streams of light outside were just as reliable as the ones inside every building in the entire city. Images of mass construction flashed through Wade’s mind. Helicopters had delivered supplies without ever landing, back when the National Guard was still wrapped around the city. Within a month, every room in every building on every street was lit up constantly. Wade had no idea what kind of infrastructure was necessary for that kind of power draw, but it had to be impressive. The government had been no help back then, just as they were now. They’d thrown money and supplies at the city to keep it lit, and once they’d even sent a team of scientists to try and figure out what was going on, what kind of monsters inhabited the shadows. But once they’d slapped the band-aid of constant light on the city, they’d pulled out, and as far as Wade knew, they were just trying to pretend this whole mess didn’t exist.
Gemma sighed impatiently, bringing Wade back to the moment.
“That’s what I thought,” she snapped at his lack of a reply. She shoved him to the side and stormed out of the bathroom. Wade stumbled but turned on her immediately, heat rushing up his neck.
“Gem, don’t be an idiot!”
She ignored him as she snatched up her jacket and shrugged it on.
“You can’t stop me! You can’t always stop me!”
Wade crossed the room in two strides and put a hand on his sister’s shoulder. “You can’t—”
Darkness engulfed them and they froze. Wade’s heart shot into his throat as cold crept over him like fingers of ice. In the halls, Wade heard screams and pounding footsteps, jolting him into action. He jerked his sister’s arm and pulled her to the door, stumbling on the way. His toe rammed into the wall by the door and shot pain up his leg, but with one swift yank they were in the hall.
Icy tendrils curled themselves around Wade’s arms and legs and torso, and with them the sound of the shadows, like rustling silk. He pulled Gemma along faster, ignoring the screams of the other residents crashing into the halls below them. With one hand sliding along the hall wall for guidance, Wade strained his eyes, looking every which way for something, anything, but all they saw was—
Nothing. His eyes saw nothing, no matter how hard they searched. Fear seized at his chest, and he had to force himself to breathe. This couldn’t be happening; it couldn’t. Blood rushed in his ears, and the icy fingers were gaining strength, becoming hard as steel. People in a frenzy rushed past him, slamming their shoulders into him in their blind panic. The hallway seemed to stretch on forever.
“Wade—” Gemma gasped, and Wade tightened his grip on her hand.
“Come on, Gem,” he huffed. The stairwell couldn’t be far now.
And then his ankle rolled, and he was falling, crashing down the stairs he hadn’t seen. His head slammed on the landing, and his world burst into light and stars as he struggled to suck in a breath. The rustling sound was turning into a loud hiss now, and cold hands clawed at every part of him, pulling him this way and that. He sucked in a huge breath of air and forced himself to stand up. Gemma.
“Gemma!” he called, but his voice was impossibly weak as his head throbbed painfully. “Gemma, where are you?” Bile rose in his throat as he swung his arms all around him, searching for her. But she wasn’t there; she wasn’t anywhere. If the shadows get to her, she’ll be gone. The thought made him unable to breath as terror constricted his airways.
Wade’s head jerked around. She wasn’t far away, down the stairs somewhere. “Gem, where are you? Say something!” He felt along the floor until he found the stair leading downward. How had she gotten down there before he had?
“It’s got…me.” She was fighting something, struggling with everything she had against the darkness. Wade came out of the stairwell and dashed in the direction she had called from until he crashed into her. They went sprawling, but all he noticed was how cold she was. The chill leeched off her and deep into his skin.
He pushed himself up and grabbed her hand again. “Come on,” he said through gritted teeth. Cold fingers jerked and pulled at his hair and throat, but he pushed through. It hadn’t been long enough for the shadows to gain full strength, but Wade knew they weren’t far off. He was disoriented, but he had to get back to the stairwell and to the ground floor. He turned in the direction he thought he’d come from and tugged his sister along. They had to get out of there. They had to find light.
The fingers of a shadow yanked Wade by the hair, and he gritted his teeth, swatting at his head. It pulled again, this time on his jacket, and slipped a cold hand over his mouth and nose. Wade couldn’t breathe. His hand tightened on his sister’s, and he pulled her along. He couldn’t risk letting go of her now, and he couldn’t make a sound with his airways blocked. The coldness crept up his nostrils and down his throat. No, was all he could think. His heart pounded and his lungs burned from lack of air. He shook his shoulders and walked faster, feeling ahead for the stairs. Where were they? And where were all the people? Stars floated across his vision, the only light spots in a world of darkness. His head pounded and his heart slowed. The creature attached to his head squeezed tighter and tighter until he was sure his head skull would crack. He whimpered.
And then a small beam of light bounced off the walls, and the creature’s grip weakened. Wade jerked his body away from it and gasped, “Run!” They tore down the hall.
“My…phone,” Gemma huffed as they sprinted through the halls, and Wade noticed the light coming from the device in her hands.
Guided by this light, they found the stairs and the door leading outside. Wade slammed through the door, pulling Gemma with him into the light of the dying sun.
They didn’t stop running until they had cleared the block and were once again under a thousand streetlights. Wade’s lungs burned, and his heart pounded in his chest like a jackhammer. He pulled his sister into his arms and breathed a sigh. She was safe.
All of Gemma’s earlier bravado was gone. She shook like a leaf in his arms and buried her face in his chest.
“They almost had me, Wade,” she said, voice breaking. “They almost took me.” He tightened his arms around her.
“I wouldn’t let that happen,” he said. He let her stay there like that for a few minutes longer while he looked around and surveyed the damage done.
A whole city block had been shut off. Hundreds of people were now thronged around Wade and Gemma, most of them looking scared or angry or confused. Wade watched as families found each other and as mothers called for their children in panicked tones. What had happened here? How could this have happened at all? This was the second block in under a month to go out after years of stability. Wade didn’t know much, but he did know that each building had at least two backup generators that would kick into gear whenever the main power grid was down. How had none of them turned on? When would they fix it? When could they go back?
And most importantly, what if it started happening everywhere across the city?
Gemma pulled back from Wade and swiped at her eyes before looking up at him. “Where are we going to stay?” she asked. Such a simple question, but Wade bit his lip before answering.
“There’s this girl,” he began.
Apartment 4E in the squat building that Ellis had pointed out on the bus earlier had a door painted teal blue in a hallway full of beige. The ride there had been rough, since every bus was crammed to capacity with people from the new dark block, and just before they had mounted, Gemma had been kind enough to tell Wade that he didn’t have any shoes on. And his socks didn’t match.
But they’d gotten here, and Wade was relieved when he’d remembered the building and what Ellis had said her apartment number was.
Wade knocked three times on the door. For a long time, they didn’t hear anything from inside, and he started to think that Ellis must not be home, but then someone was rattling the locks on the inside, and the door swung open.
A middle-aged man with a pot belly and two-day scruff peered at Wade and Gemma. Wade hesitated. He hadn’t even thought to consider the possibility that someone else would open the door.
“Um, is Ellis here by any chance?” he asked.
The man raised one eyebrow—just one—and looked Wade up and down. Wade thought he saw the man’s eyes linger on his socks for a second too long before he looked up again.
“Depends. Who’s asking?”
“I’m, uh, Wade. I have a class with her at Witmere Community?” He hated how stupid he sounded, and he was keenly aware of how he must look. His sister standing beside him somehow made him feel more self-conscious.
“Who is it, Dad?” came Ellis’s voice from inside the apartment. Relief flooded Wade’s veins.
“Some guy who says he’s from the college,” the man called back.
The door opened a little wider as Ellis came towards them. When she saw Wade, her eyes registered surprise, just as he was sure his also must have done.
This was not the brightly dressed, chipper girl he had been seated next to in class or who had basically accosted him on the bus; this Ellis was subdued, dressed in an army green top and dark jeans. Dark glasses magnified her hazel eyes ever so slightly, and her hair was loose and wavy around her shoulders, and it looked wet, like she had just washed it. Without all the garish hues crowding her out, Wade saw for the first time how pretty she was. Not beautiful or model-esque, but pretty in a soft, rosy kind of way.
“Oh, hey, Wade,” she said. Her eyes fixed on Gemma. “And…?”
“I’m Gemma,” she said before Wade could introduce her. “Wade’s my brother.”
Ellis opened the door all the way and ushered them inside. Her dad turned back and sat on a couch in front of a large television in the comfortable living room.
“Why don’t you guys come into my room,” Ellis said, leading the way. Gemma followed first but looked back over her shoulder to shoot Wade a look. He wasn’t exactly sure what she meant by that look, but he had a pretty good idea that it had to do with the fact that this pretty girl she’d never heard of was the first person he’d thought of when they needed help.
Ellis’s room was small and cozy with mint green walls. Potted plants were dotted around the room, on the windowsill, on bookshelves, on the small desk, and even perched on the wooden headboard. Gemma and Ellis sat on the bed, and Wade awkwardly hovered by the door for a minute before sitting on the desk chair across from them.
“So…what brings you guys here?” Ellis asked after a second of silence.
And Wade told her; he explained about the power outage and the shadows and how they’d ended up here. As he finished, he said, “I didn’t really know where else to go that wouldn’t be weird for Gemma, so we just sort of ended up here.” That was mostly true; he didn’t know where else to go, and he didn’t know where would be un-weird for his sister. But the way he’d said it made it sound like they had options, when honestly, Ellis wasn’t only the first person he’d thought of, but the only one. He wasn’t exactly overburdened with friends.
Ellis took in everything he’d said. “The entire block was out?” she asked. Gemma and Wade both nodded.
“It was horrible,” Gemma said under her breath. Wade wanted to hug his sister again, but Ellis had already put a reassuring hand on her knee.
“Hey,” she said softly, “you’re okay now. It’s going to be okay.”
Ellis reached over the side of her bed and picked up the laptop that had been leaning on its leg. She searched on it for a minute, her brows furrowed and eyes widening until at last she flipped the computer around so Wade and Gemma could see what she was doing.
She was on the local news website, where an enormous picture of their block dominated the page. Under the picture, the headline read: CITIZENS DEMAND ANSWERS WHEN BLOCK GOES DARK—MAYOR GUNTERSON TO HOLD TOWN MEETING TOMORROW.
“The meeting is in the Meyers High gym at 2:00,” Ellis said. “You guys can spend the night here, and we can all go tomorrow to find out what’s going on.”
Ellis prepared the couch for Wade to sleep on, and Gemma shared Ellis’s room. Ellis tucked a sheet over the couch cushions and brought out a soft pillow and a couple blankets for him.
“Thank you,” Wade said earnestly. With Gemma in the other room, it felt a little strange to be here with Ellis. He barely knew her, and here he was, about to spend the night on her couch.
“It’s no problem,” she said. “I’m glad you thought to come here.” Her eyes shot up to his from where she was smoothing the blanket. She knew he hadn’t thought of anywhere else to go, but somehow, she wasn’t annoyed or upset or bothered that two practical strangers had showed up at her door and asked to spend the night.
“My dad goes in to work really early, so he might wake you up when he leaves.”
She finished making up the couch and straightened, looking at him. She cocked her head to one side as if trying to figure something out, and Wade felt that she could see into him with that searching gaze. He shifted his weight and looked down.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked suddenly. Wade looked up, confused.
She gestured vaguely. “All this. Bringing your sister here, figuring out everything on your own. I mean, don’t you have any family or anything here?”
Wade ran a hand through his hair and down the back of his neck. “It’s just been me and Gem for a long time,” he said, and left it at that. There was no reason to bring up his uncle now. Ellis looked at him a moment more.
“Do you ever wonder what the darkness is or how it became that way?” she asked.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Yeah, I guess. But what does it matter where it came from or how it started or whatever?”
“Okay, but what if there was a way to get rid of it, to stop it once and for all?”
Wade looked in her brown eyes, now sparkling with possibility. “We are stopping it,” he said slowly, “with the lights.”
Ellis gave a dismissive wave. “We’re treating the symptoms but not the root issue,” she said. “If we were actually stopping the darkness, you wouldn’t have showed up at my door after sunset with nowhere else to go.”
He hadn’t thought of it like that before, as treating the symptoms rather than the cause. But it made sense, and he hated that, though he couldn’t say why.
“The hardest part of anything is getting it started. But once you’ve initiated it, who knows how far it can go?” She smiled at him like she could actually see this something being initiated right there. “Listen,” she said, voice lowered slightly, “there’s this group I go to sometimes. They meet almost every night, and they’re learning things. They’re figuring out how to kill the darkness for real.”
It was like a jolt surged through him. “The only way to kill the darkness is by killing the person who it’s taken,” he insisted. She couldn’t say otherwise. It was the one thing that they actually knew about the darkness—once it had claimed a victim, the only way to stop it was to kill the host.
“But what if—”
“I’m tired,” Wade said, shutting Ellis down. He didn’t want to hear this this, so he sat down on the couch.
Ellis held her mouth in a thin line as she nodded. “Okay. I’ll see you in the morning.” She slipped out of the room and shut the door.
The high school gym was packed to the max by 12:00 the next day.
Wade and Gemma and Ellis had showed up an hour early for the assembly, but apparently the rest of the city had had the same idea. They had to squeeze into some corner, where there was just enough room for them to stand right up against each other. There was a small stage set up with a table and three chairs—one for Mayor Gunterson, one for Sheriff Warner, and one for someone in a suit who Wade didn’t recognize. The room was tense, with people talking amongst themselves in tight voices, or else animatedly almost-shouting with hand gestures and worried expressions.
Wade looked at Gemma. He wished she hadn’t come. He’d wanted her to stay back in 4E, but when he’d gotten up that morning from where he’d slept on the couch, she was already having breakfast with Ellis and talking about what the meeting would be about. He looked down at the blue sneakers on his feet. At least Ellis’s dad’s feet were only one size too big.
“Good afternoon, everyone. If you could all quiet down, we’ll go ahead and get started.” The voice crackled through the high school’s sound system, and Wade strained to see who was speaking over the crowd. It was the man that he didn’t recognize leaning over his mic. The crowd hushed immediately, all eyes trained on the platform. The mayor, a fit middle-aged man with sandy hair gone gray at the temple and eyes so pale blue they were almost silver, leaned forward in his chair. Reporters snapped photos of him, their flashes reflecting off his silvery eyes.
“Good afternoon, people of Witmere,” he began. His voice was deeper than Wade remembered, but then again, he’d never been to a town meeting in person before. “We are here under unfortunate circumstances, and I want to let you know that I have personally been taking steps to understand what is going on and what is to be done about it.”
He continued to talk for a few minutes about how their community had to rise above the challenges they faced because of the unique position they were in, and he spun a yarn about how neighbors were going to have to step in and help those in need, yadda yadda yadda. It was all unhelpful, and none of it was answering the questions everyone had come here to have answered. The crowd was growing restless, murmuring amongst themselves and shifting where they stood.
“What about our homes?” someone from the crowd shouted. And with that, the floodgates opened.
“Where are we supposed to live?”
“How can I run my business if it’s dark?”
“When will the lights be back?”
“What caused this?”
“Should we be worried?”
People were shouting over each other, and Wade couldn’t even make out half of what they were saying. Everyone had a different question or concern, and the mayor had not addressed a single one in the time he’d been talking.
“Please, quiet down!” The unfamiliar man shouted into his microphone, cutting off the pandemonium. “We will address your concerns in due time. Please listen.” He leaned over and muttered something to the mayor, who nodded in return. Then, the man turned back to the mic and spoke up once more.
“My name is Special Agent Thomas Reilly, I’m with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
Wade’s eyes went wide, and he shot a look at Ellis and Gemma, who both looked as shocked as he was. They brought in a guy from the FBI? He couldn’t believe it. No outsiders had been into this city since those scientists who had come a few months after everything had begun seven years ago.
“I want to assure you that we are doing everything in our power to figure out what is happening in your city and how we can stop it. We have thus far been unable to locate the perpetrators who sabotaged the power in the 53 Block, but—”
The room erupted again, people shouting questions and concerns. Wade swallowed. Someone had sabotaged every individual generator in the entire block and found a way to destroy that block’s power grid. How? Why? He looked at Gemma, who was staring intently ahead, a crease formed between her eyebrows. How could he keep her safe if there was some madman out there cutting power? He put his arm around Gemma’s shoulders, and though he could see she was trying to look strong, she leaned into him.
Special Agent Reilly shouted for everyone to settle down again and tried to backpedal, but it was too late. The cat was out of the bag, and the answers people wanted weren’t here.
Wade knew that something had begun, though he couldn’t be sure what yet. Something had just been set in motion. Things were changing, and there was no going back.