"Enough, Donald," Diana interrupted. "What are you trying to do, scare the girls?"
"Pleeeez, Mom," said Missy, rolling her eyes. Returning her gaze to the screen in her hand, she added "He's right about that anyway. Nobody cares."
"Not even you two?" Donald asked Trisha.
Trisha glanced over her shoulder at her father and blinked. "Who, us? What?" She chuckled and resumed tickling the dog's belly. Little Buffy squinted and squirmed happily and licked at her hands.
Donald continued flipping through weird news stories, listicles and factoids on the tablet screen, looking for anything wacky enough to snag his interest. Another two or three shrilly assertive contestants came and went on the talent show, each one greeted with wild applause that verged on the rapturous. Diana and the girls amused each other as they usually did with snarky comments about each singer's clothes or appearance. Now and then Donald glanced up and smirked. At times like this he felt enormously grateful for his family and for their life together; a sense of overwhelming happiness he had once believed impossible.
Glancing again at the iPad, he spotted a curious article titled "Mysterious Vortex Energy" on some ad-cluttered site offering a peculiarly gloomy brand of pseudoscientific quasi-mystical conspiracy-obsessed mumbo-jumbo. He read the whole thing over twice, three pages of garbled, barely coherent, apocalyptic rantings, predictions, warnings and beyond-esoteric references, shaking his head and chuckling to himself all the way. Clearly the work of some deeply disturbed individual or group, if not a misbegotten attempt at satire. Donald considered reading some of it aloud, but thought it might be too creepy for Trisha.
As he tapped the circled X in the corner to close that browser tab, something cold brushed fingertip-light across the back of his neck. He looked up.
At the front of the room a pair of windows looked out onto the street. A gentle breeze was coming in through them and stirring the white curtains gathered to each side. The curtain on the far right, in the dimmest corner of the room, had billowed out a little so that there appeared to be something tall and thin standing behind it. The air coming in carried a distinct chill.
Donald gestured dramatically towards the windows. "Look out! Ghosts! Woo-oo-oo-oo-ooooh..."
"Yep, reeeal scary, Dad," Missy droned sarcastically, not even bothering to turn her head. Trisha giggled and continued trying to teach Buffy to play dead. On the TV, somebody was laughing raucously and the audience let out a collective groan.
Donald set the iPad on the coffee table and got up, his chair snapping automatically into the upright position. "Ghosts or not, it is getting colder in here all of a sudden." He walked over to the windows.
Diana paused in her stitching and noticed goosebumps on her forearms. She rolled down the sleeves of her sweater. "It did! When did that happen?"
Donald went from the window on the left to the one on the right, sliding them closed and even locking both, as if this might provide an extra barrier against the sudden chill. "Brrrr!" He slipped his hands under his arms and shivered, but it wasn't all an act. The panes of glass had felt like ice.
"Maybe close the curtains while you're at it," Diana suggested offhandedly. Donald stood there looking out the window on the right, as if he hadn't heard.
Missy sat up now, pulling her hands inside the long sleeves of her sweatshirt. "And put on the heater. It's so cold." Trisha lifted her head at that and nodded, saying, "Please, Dad."
Donald hadn't moved from the window. For a second or two longer he stayed like that, not moving nor saying anything. Then he glanced back at Diana and said, "This is ... really kind of weird." He was smiling, but he looked and sounded a little nervous.
"What is it?" asked Diana, starting to feel nervous herself. Missy turned in her chair to look over the back at him. "Dad? What's the matter, Dad?" Trisha turned her head to him, suddenly curious and concerned, as Buffy turned to gnawing on one of her cast-off slippers. On the TV, a warbling singer continued to massacre American Pie, oblivious.
"It's so dark out there," Donald said, still gazing out the window as if trying to make sense of what he was seeing (or, perhaps more accurately, wasn't seeing) through it, "it's like ... I don't know, the lights must be out all over the street or something." He moved his face closer to the windowpane for a couple of seconds, his nose almost touching the glass. "But how can that be ... ?" He smiled again, nervously, glancing back into the warmly lit living room, at the still-bright lamps fixed to the ceiling, the TV still broadcasting an endless procession of aspiring superstars.
"I mean, it's pitch black out there. Really. And it makes no sense. I can't see any lights at all. Not even at the Mayhew's. Not even the street lights. No stars or moon either. I haven't even seen a single car go past for ..." He turned back to the window for a second. "Hah! I should at least be able to see some of the light from in here falling on the lawn. But nope. Not even a hint of it. How in the hell ... ?" He walked quickly over to the other window and looked out. "Nope. Same deal."
Of course, Donald reasoned to himself, the explanation had to be something perfectly simple, even if he couldn't figure it out just now. Maybe some kind of prank by some of the smarter kids on the street; maybe somebody was throwing a big party somewhere on another block that everyone but the Bellmans had been invited to. But he knew that all he had to do was get a good look at the outside of the house and along the street in each direction, and the mystery or illusion or whatever it was would be cleared up right away. And a mischievous part of him didn't want that to happen just yet.
"It's like everything's ... gone," he intoned gloomily, adding a sinister inflection to the last word. Then he turned suddenly with his hands like claws and his face twisted into a monster's snarl more goofy than threatening. "SPOOOOOOO-KEEEEE."
Trisha laughed and picked up Buffy, and the dog dropped her slipper and yipped and began licking her face. Diana saw this and her expression of mild anxiety turned into a smile, and then she was laughing too. Even Missy couldn't help smiling at the silliness of it all.
Donald grinned. "Ahh, I'm sure it's nothing," he said, and turned back, reaching for the curtains.
Just then there was a knock at the door.
Three sharp taps, evenly spaced.
Donald froze in place. Missy and Trisha glanced at each other and gasped. Buffy's ears quivered. Diana quietly put down the section of material she was working on and slowly got to her feet. From the TV set, scattered applause and laughter, and in a high-pitched voice someone saying "Oh, NO YOU DI'N'T."
Letting go of the curtains, Donald looked quickly towards the others, rolling his eyes and makine a "What now?!" face, and walked out of the living room into the relative dimness of the small foyer. "Who is it?" he called. With a flick of switches light bloomed in the entryway. The solid oak front-door reflected the light warmly, but the sidelights, he noticed, remained completely dark, though he had turned on the outdoor light too. "Hello?"
"It must be poor old Nora," Diana said. "If there's some kind of blackout she'll be going crazy all by herself." Buffy barked three times, then let out a short nervous whine. Diana turned and glanced reluctantly toward the back of the house, into the dark kitchen area. "Maybe I should make her a cup of tea ..."
"No, just hold on," Donald muttered absently, and turning to the door again he called out "Hello? Who's there?" When that apparently drew no response, he threw a glance towards the TV set, on which two rival teenage singing stars were engaged in a vocal duel, and said, with a hint of irritability, "Girls, can you turn that TV down or turn it off for a second? I can't hear a thing."
Missy had started biting her nails, and she nodded at Trisha, who was sitting up with her arms around Buffy. Diana glanced at her and snapped "Go on, do as your father says."
Trisha reached behind her with one hand and found the switch. The TV instantly went dark, abruptly cutting off a high-intensity vocal performance of Memory from Cats. Quiet fell heavily over the room, like a shroud.
Donald approached the door and gripped the knob, but didn't open it. "Hello?" he repeated, his voice quieter now. "Who is it? Nora?"
"Don?" Diana spoke up. "Do you----?"
"I'm scared, Dad," Missy said suddenly. "Please don't open it." Buffy whined again and nuzzled Trisha.
"Yeah, it might be a vampire!" Trisha suggested playfully. "They can't come in if you don't invite them, so don't let him in!" She laughed a little and tickled the dog under its chin. "Look, even Buffy's scared."
"Would you all please cut it out?" Donald stood at the door for a few seconds, undecided. "They must have gone away, whoever it was." He let go of the knob and waited a few more seconds, then said, "Yeah, probably just some dumb kid out there playing a----------"
"Lock the door, Don," Diana broke in. "Make sure it's closed tight and locked."
Donald shook his head and came back into the living room, his expression vague and his eyes seeming to fix on something no-one else could see. Then he blinked a couple of times and seemed to snap out of it. "Oh, come on, Di. Forget about it. Someone put the TV back on."
The girls looked nervously at Diana, who folded her arms and said sternly "I'm serious, Don. Do it."
Donald waved her off and headed for his chair. "Come on, I want to see who wins that stupid show."
Donald leaned over the back of the recliner, his head bent down over the seat. He stayed like that for a few seconds. When he spoke, there was a slight quaver in his voice. "Everybody, can we all just-------------"
Knocking at the door again. The same as before. Three sharp taps.
For a second afterward everyone was still and quiet.
Then Donald was up fast and stomping back into the foyer, grumbling "To hell with this!" Before anybody could react he had grabbed the doorknob and pulled the front door open with a cry of "WHAT?"
No one was there.
Nobody Donald could see, anyway, because the door opened on complete, almost impenetrable darkness. A darkness so dense that it seemed a black fog had descended over the house and was now threatening to crawl in over the threshold. Donald rubbed his eyes and squinted in disbelief, but after almost a minute of straining his eyes he could make out only the faintest of details in that outer dark. The low boxy shape of the mailbox was just discernible in the middle distance, and there was a hint of what might be a glimmer of the sidewalk beyond that, maybe a couple of other things. But the outside door light, which had been working fine last night, was lost in the darkness a mere few feet away, providing nothing in the way of illumination, and even the broad pale granite stoop right in front of him was hardly visible, despite all the interior light that should have been pouring out the door and the living room windows.
Everyone else was still staring nervously into the seemingly impossible darkness that seemed to hover beyond the doorway when Missy suddenly cried out "Dad, please close the door, close it now!" Her voice was on the edge of panic.
Trisha turned to her, hugging Buffy. "Don't, Missy!"
"All right, everybody, just cool it," said Donald, looking from the door to them and back. "Just calm down, turn the TV back on, and relax, okay? It's nothing. I just want to take a quick look around outside for a second."
"Daddy, don't!" cried Missy. She was clearly on the verge of tears, curled up in her chair and with her hands wrapped in her sleeves to protect what was left of her nails.
"Knock it off, poopyhead! You're scaring Buffy!" Trisha yelled and looked down at the dog. Buffy was staring at the front doorway and visibly shaking.
"Don, what is it? Do you think I should call someone?" asked Diana.
Donald shook his head at her and smirked. "Don't be silly. Now get the TV on, quick, guys. I told you I don't want to miss the end." He turned back to the door and looked warily into the unrelieved darkness outside, but only for a moment. Then he cupped his hands to his face and blew hard into them and rubbed them together briskly. "Two seconds." And with that he stepped out into the darkness and disappeared.
Missy immediately called out "Dad, come back!" Then the living room was uncomfortably silent for a spell, the only sound the ticking of the clock above the archway to the kitchen. Everyone exchanged nervous glances with each other. Diana looked back at the front door, not sure what to tell the girls. Finally she said: "Just give him a couple of minutes to see if anything's wrong. Trisha, turn the TV back on. Maybe there'll be something on the news."
Tara just hugged Buffy closer to her and kept watching the front door, anxious for her father to return. But nothing appeared in the doorway, no sounds came from outside.
Without warning, Buffy jumped out of Trisha's arms and started barking excitedly and hopping around their spot on the throw rug. Trisha only had time to exclaim "Buffy!" before the frantically barking dog raced underneath the coffee table. As Trisha scrambled across the floor in pursuit, the dog shot out past the couch and Marissa's chair before anyone could grab it. Once it reached the foyer, it veered hard to the right, claws clattering lightly over the polished wood flooring, and rushed out through the open front door, where it was immediately swallowed up by the wall of darkness.
"Buffy!" Trisha cried, climbing to her feet. She immediately made to chase after the dog, but Diana grabbed her by the arm before she could get out of the living room.
"You're not going out there!"
"But whyyyy?" whined Trisha.
"You're just not! Now go sit down until your father gets back!"
"But I want Buffy!"
Diana rubbed her forehead and tried to make herself sound calmer and more in control than she felt. She brushed a hand gently through Trisha's hair. "Your father will bring her back with him when he comes back. Okay? Please, Trish-------------------"
"Who's that?!" Missy suddenly cried out. "Who's there?"
A chill shot up Diana's spine as she turned to her eldest daughter. "What's that?" she asked, but Missy was cowering in her chair, her eyes fixed on the front door. Diana turned and followed her gaze.
At first she could see nothing different. There was the well-lit foyer where the front door still stood open, filled by solid darkness like a black curtain. It took a few seconds for her to realize what Missy was seeing. As she looked on, a shape became visible within the doorway, somehow darker and more substantial than the midnight shadows around it. A tall, motionless figure standing just beyond the threshold. She didn't think it had been there earlier, but at the same time there was no way she could be sure. She was fairly certain that whoever it was, it was not Donald. For some reason she couldn't even begin to explain to herself, she found herself hoping it was not him.
"Dad? Is that you?" called Missy, her voice trembling. She held her hands curled just under her mouth, as if reluctant to make any sound at all. "Daddy? Say something! Please!"
Trisha slid back to her spot in front of the TV, nervously watching her mother and her sister.
"Who's there?" Diana demanded, stepping around the couch without taking her eyes off the doorway. "Who are you?"
The shadow in the doorway seemed to twitch and grow larger or more solid somehow, and two wide white spots emerged from the darkness of its face. Eyes. They had round black pupils like pits at their centers that reflected no light or color. Diana Bellman could not believe those eyes belonged to any human face.
The eyes seemed to stare at all of them at once.
"DADDY WHERE ARE YOU?" Missy's voice was close to a scream now, and she began to sob.
"Missy, be quiet," Diana demanded. She didn't take her eyes off the ones watching them from the doorway. Missy began to stammer something in response, but she cut her off instantly. "Shhh! Get out your phone and call the police. Right now, do you hear me!"
Missy found her phone wedged under a cushion and fumbled it out, then fell back into her seat, tapping on the screen. Trisha looked on anxiously, her face grown pale.
Diana edged slowly along the back of the couch, moving to her left, her eyes never leaving the figure in the doorway. Once past the couch she turned to keep the door in sight as she began to walk backwards towards the archway and the unlit kitchen beyond.
"Mom, the phone's not working." When the display didn't respond to her efforts, Missy had tried resetting the phone, which usually solved any problems she had with it. But now it wouldn't come on at all, no matter how long she held down the Power On switch.
"Try again, Missy. Please just keep trying." Once in the shadows of the kitchen Diana turned and headed straight for the landline phone on the back wall by the end of the counter. She snatched up the receiver and dialled 911 even though she could tell right away that the line was dead. Dropping the phone, she rushed along the counter to the knife rack in the corner and grabbed the biggest, sharpest butcher knife in the house, the one she wouldn't let any of the kids use. Then she ran over to the back door, past the dangling phone, and tried to undo the deadbolt. But when her fingers came in contact with the knob she had to snatch them away fast; the metal was so cold it felt boiling hot.
Before she could try the door again, she heard Trisha call out "Mom! Mom!"
"Oh my God!" cried Diana, flying back into the living room with the knife raised in her right hand, fearing the worst. First she saw that Trisha was still sitting there in her spot on the floor in front of the blank TV, but then for a panicked moment she realized that Missy was no longer in her chair. Only when she reached the center of the room did she see that Missy was now in the foyer, walking towards the front door with the slow deliberate steps of a sleepwalker, but with her eyes open and fixed on those of the looming shadow on the other side.
"Missy, NO!" Diana grabbed her by the right arm and yanked her back towards the living room. Missy stumbled backwards into the couch and slumped to the floor. Diana turned to the door then and raised the knife threateningly. "Don't you dare, you bastard! YOU BASTARD!" she roared at the thing outside the door, and lunged forward, slashing once, twice at the air. "LEAVE US ALONE!"
"Mom, stop!" Trisha cried.
But her mother seemed not to hear her. She continued to approach the door, waving the knife, and on her face was a desperate, frightened expression that scared Trisha almost more than anything else that had happened. When she was within a couple of feet of the doorway she raised the knife over her head in both hands, blade pointed downwards, as though preparing to deliver a killing blow. It was then that something seemed to go wrong—whether an ankle or her knee turned under her, or she simply lost her balance, Trisha couldn't tell. Whatever the cause, Diana suddenly toppled forward, flailing the knife ahead of her, and staggered headfirst out the doorway under her own momentum, uttering a brief frantic cry before she vanished into the darkness.
Trisha, stunned into silence, moved towards the foyer with halting steps. She could feel the air getting colder around her. Her heart was pounding so hard her ears had started to twitch. Apart from the monotonous tick-tick-tick of the clock, it seemed nothing moved, nothing made a sound inside the house or outside.
The eyes still stared at her from the darkness beyond the doorway.
Maybe I just have to close the door, Trisha wondered. Maybe then Mom, Dad, and Buffy will come back, and everything will go back to normal. Maybe I just have to close the door and wait.
A hand grabbed her left wrist and Trisha turned and cried out wildly before Missy crawled out from behind the couch and gently clapped her other hand over Trisha's mouth.
"Shh, Trisha. It's only me," Missy whispered. She smiled and took her hand away once Trisha calmed down a little.
"Missy?" Trisha whispered back urgently, squeezing her sister's hand. "What's happening? What's happening?"
Missy's expression was oddly serene. "It's okay, Trisha. That man says we'll all be together again soon. He promises."
Trisha stared into her sister's face in disbelief. "What are you talking about? Where's Mom and Dad? We have to find them!"
Missy continued to look at her with that strange, peaceful smile. "It'll all be okay, Trisha," was all she said.
"No," Trisha replied. Tears were starting to gather in her eyes. "No, it won't." She let go of her sister's hand; then, closing her eyes and wiping the wetness from them, she took a deep breath and yelled "I want Mom, Dad, and Buffy back!" She stomped over to the front door but stopped suddenly a few feet short of it, overcome by a powerful wave of dizziness. It felt like that time once when she had been on a high floor of a tall building and looked out a window to the streets far below. Except now it felt as if it was the sky outside and all its endless depths of cold and dark that was threatening to pull her into it.
She looked up, shuddering. The doorway was empty. The eyes were gone. There was no sign of a figure or a shape standing in the unbroken darkness outside.
"Let's go." The voice came from very close by and Trisha jumped. But it was only Missy, who had come up to stand next to her. Missy reached out with her left hand and clasped Trisha's right.
"Let's go find them. He told me where." Missy pulled at her hand and stepped out through the doorway.
"Missy, NO!" cried Trisha. But it was too late; Missy was already lost in the thick darkness on the other side.
Except she wasn't. Her hand was still visible, clutching Trisha's, and now Trisha could make out the rest of her, faintly, standing in the shadowy murk just outside.
"It's okay now. I promise. Come on." Missy tugged at her hand again. "We have to hurry."
"But, but ... wait! But ..." Missy's pull was insistent, though, and Trisha, in her confusion, suddenly found herself stumbling out through the front door.
Stepping outside was a little like falling into freezing black water. Trisha was suddenly engulfed in a terrible numbing coldness that took her breath away. At the same time, it felt as if her sight had been extinguished. All feeling seemed to be draining out of her, and she felt too weak even to cry out in panic. When she recovered her senses a little she realized she could see nothing but hints of light coming from the doorway behind her and the living room windows off to the side. Everything else out here was lost in coldness and darkness: the street and all the other houses along it, the sidewalk, the driveway, the cobblestone path that crossed the front lawn, even the freezing stone doorstep under her feet.
None of this seemed to bother Missy. Pulling Trisha by the hand, she started walking swiftly over the front lawn as if she could see exactly where she was going. Trisha followed behind, stumbling, her teeth chattering a little.
It was so cold that, if there had been any light, Trisha knew she would be able to see her breath pouring out in thick white clouds in front of her. She could feel them brushing past her face as she moved. They were walking over cold, crackly grass that must be in one of their neighbor's yards, she figured. No sound came from the street, or from anywhere else, except the harsh rasps of their breathing and the crunching of the frosty grass beneath their feet.
"Wh-where are we going, Missy?" she managed to stammer out as they walked. "Why is ev-everything so dark? Are Mom and Dad out here? Where's Buffy? What's going on?"
Missy didn't answer. She continued to lead Trisha through the dark at a fast pace, almost dragging her at times. Breathing heavily though the air froze her lungs, Trisha struggled to keep up, afraid of losing contact with her older sister in this silent lightless void that their street had turned into. They were mostly walking on cold hard grass, but had also crossed a few short stretches of concrete or asphalt that Trisha took to be driveways or paths in other houses' front yards. If her feet hadn't been so numb she knew they'd be getting pretty sore by now. Yet somehow Missy had managed to steer them around any major obstacles in their way without slowing down once.
"Stop, Missy, stop," Trisha whined after a while, but she couldn't help it. "I'm tired. It's too cold out here. I'm scared. I want to go home. I just want to go home."
The grass they were walking over gave way to another hard cold surface like concrete or paving stones. Now Missy turned sharply to the right. Trisha followed slouching behind, her head sagging. She wanted to fall asleep soon or she might start crying and wouldn't be able to stop, ever. They were following a path through the grass now, she realized vaguely. Their feet slapped along the chilly stone surface until they came to a spot where Missy paused for a second. When she moved again she was pulling Trisha foward at an upward angle.
Stairs. Wooden steps. They must be in front of a house, Trisha realized, a house that must be on the same street as their own. Missy climbed the steps hastily, pulling Trisha along and almost causing her to lose her footing once or twice. The wooden boards creaked loudly under their clomping feet, these lonely sounds soon lost in the surrounding silence. After the fifth step they were standing on a floor of firmer boards that Trisha assumed must be part of a front porch. She couldn't see it but she seemed to feel a roof hanging over her head, blocking out the endless darkness above.
"Where are we?" she asked, out of breath.
Without a word or any hint of what she intended, Missy let go of Trisha's hand and walked away.
Trisha immediately flung out her hands and swung them around blindly, grasping at darkness, desperate to grab hold of her sister but finding nothing. She took a tentative step forward, then another, fighting the urge to scream her sister's name, fighting the need to start crying like a helpless little baby. Her heart began to pound in her ears. She felt close to fainting.
Shuffling forward, her fingers brushed something in the darkness an arm's-length away. A cold flat upright surface, a door. She immediately rushed forward and began pounding on it with numb fists.
"HELP! HELP! SOMEBODY! MOM, DAD, ARE YOU IN THERE!"
She battered the door for several minutes, crying and yelling until her voice was hoarse. When she ran out of breath she coughed a few times and her head drooped against the cold unyielding wood.
It was all too much. There was nothing left to do. Even if she could go back home now there was no way she would be able to find her way in the dark by herself. She couldn't even find the will to cry now, and there was nobody to hear her anyway.
Then she realized there were faint sounds coming from the other side of the door.
She held her sobbing breaths for a few seconds and listened intently, one ear pressed to the chilly wood. The sounds seemed to be coming from inside, but from far away at the same time. She gasped in shock. It sounded like a song. Like voices, many voices, singing together. She remembered seeing choirs singing at church, and smiled. She closed her eyes and listened, comforted by the sounds even if she couldn't quite make them out, letting them lull her into something like a restful state.
Her ears soon began to pick up more sounds through the door. A low shuddering moan rose from somewhere close by, sending a chill up Trisha's spine. This was soon followed by a long low wail that emerged much further off, quickly rising into a wild piercing shriek that was abruptly cut off. Then there was a shrill, horrible noise like a combination of mad laughter and a baby's screaming that occasionally rang out from different points, each time just as awful to hear as the last. And from what sounded like somewhere far, far away a deep guttural roar that rose slowly and terribly out of the darkness, sounding more like an erupting volcano or an exploding bomb than any living thing Trisha could imagine and shaking the boards beneath Trisha's feet for what seemed like hours before subsiding back into silence.
And then she realized that the distant voices she was hearing weren't singing any kind of song at all. They were all just babbling nonsense, all running together in a noisy tumult of meaningless syllables without beginning or end.
Trisha didn't want to hear any of these things, but she no longer had the strength or the will to flee. She didn't even have enough energy to feel afraid anymore. And so she hardly noticed that the door in front of her was silently swinging open until it struck the inner wall with a subdued thud. She looked up then and gasped.
A light was dimly visible through the doorway. It was a frail, flickering thing that barely broke through the darkness, like the flame of a small candle glimpsed at the bottom of a deep well. As her eyes sought out its source she heard another sound, much closer, above all the horrible noises in the distance. A sound she recognized instantly.
Buffy's bark. Coming from the direction of the light.
And just like that all Trisha's fear and exhaustion blew away like smoke before a strong wind. The voices, the dark, the freezing cold, the confusion: everything that had happened tonight was as nothing against the hope that instantly filled her being.
"BUFFY!" she couldn't keep from crying out as she rushed forward, tears streaming from her eyes. As she stumbled giddily through the dark room towards the elusive spot of brightness at its far end, she hardly even noticed when the door crashed shut behind her. But then the light disappeared and all sounds ceased, and now there is nothing to see here, no one to see it.