Ever been lying in a dark room long after bedtime, whole house asleep, certain that some razor toothed monster was lying under your bed? Waiting for you to fall asleep, maybe roll over and drop a hand over the side of your bed, when it’ll seize it’s chance to grab you and pull you down and tear your insides to ribbons before you can open your eyes? And when you scream your breath catches in your throat and even though you should be dead you’re still alive and you can see parts of yourself spilling onto the carpet, and all you hear is the monsters greedy chewing as it gorges itself on your liver? Well, if you haven’t had that feeling, you will now. Enjoy!
By Ben Pienaar
He and his brother were in separate rooms, but even so the sound of whispering reached Graham, through the thin walls or maybe a vent in the ceiling. The sound simultaneously woke him and froze him in place with fear, even though by now it wasn’t unfamiliar.
For the past week, around three or four in the morning (Graham’s watch glowed in the dark), he heard his older brother whispering to someone in the adjacent room. He almost never heard the someone’s voice, but when he did it made him sick with fear. Not necessarily because of that dry inhuman accent it possessed, but the fact that it was there at all. Because if it wasn’t, Graham would have been able to tell himself his brother was all alone in the next room and talking in his sleep.
Tonight, the whispering went on for less time than usual, and at about four thirty there was silence. Graham lay in bed and stared at the little glowing stars and planets on his ceiling and listened to his heartbeat. He thought about going over to the other room, but decided against it; why face that sickening, insurmountable fear, when he knew he was just going to wake up tomorrow feeling fine and rush down to see Terry already eating a bowl of Froot Loops and reading a comic?
So instead, he closed his eyes and went to sleep. And the next day, his brother was missing.
*** *** ***
The police searched Terry’s room and the house inside and out, from all angles, exhaustively. They found absolutely nothing. The window was open, but it hadn’t been forced and it was too tiny a gap for anything larger than a cat to fit through anyway. The family had no enemies and no one had a bad word to say about Terry. There were no similar disappearances in the area, and no suspects. If Terry had vanished into thin air, he wouldn’t have left less trace.
Every night at three in the morning Graham sat up in bed, wide eyed, ears straining to the point of pain for the slightest sound. He heard his heart thundering, his breath rattling, and the blood rushing in his ears, but night after night he heard nothing else. Not a whisper.
After a month, he too was losing hope. He knew something had taken his brother, if not what or where, but he couldn’t tell a soul. Even at twelve, he knew that if step one was telling someone that his brother was kidnapped by a disembodied whisper from the dark, step two was seeing a counsellor and step three was going to ‘special treatment’ and worst of all, ignored.
Instead, he clammed up completely when it came to his brother. He became dark and sullen and his grades descended three letters of the alphabet. He did see Counsellors, as it happened, but not one of them could get more than a sad little smile and a hello and goodbye. Smart, very disturbed, but not seriously damaged, they said. Give him time, they said.
That was fine by Graham, because it gave him a chance to search for his brother in earnest and care about nothing else. Bad grades, no friends, depression, isolation? All normal for a boy who’d just lost his older brother. Maybe not so much after six months, or a year had gone by, but he was certain by then he’d find him. Dead or alive.
Graham didn’t share the view the police had – that his brother had either been kidnapped by someone or run away. The latter he knew wasn’t true, and the former implied that the culprit was human, someone based in this reality. No one who’d heard that thick sliding whisper would believe that. So where had his brother gone? Into the dark. The whispers had only started late at night, when the air was so pitch black it seemed solid. And they never went till dawn – in fact by the time the first hint of light in the sky showed the whispers had always stopped. So his brother had gone into the dark, and the only way to find him was to follow, come what may.
It was winter, so there was no shortage of darkness, and what he had Graham made the most of. His curtains were always drawn and he taped the corners to the walls so not even starlight could penetrate. After he got home from school he would eat a hearty a lunch so that his parents wouldn’t nag him too much to come down for dinner. Then he’d close and lock his door, cram some clothes into the crack under the door, and turn off the light. By now he’d already taken down the luminous stars and planets from his ceiling and thrown them away.
There, in the quiet dark, he’d wait, and think. It occurred to him to wait in his brother’s room, but somehow he didn’t think it mattered. The whispers came in the dark and that’s where he had to be. But they didn’t come to him, and slowly he despaired.
He never expected to hear his brother’s voice again, but he did. He was walking home from school one day. It was overcast and raining heavily. He’d forgotten to bring his raincoat and he was soaked through, but still he dawdled along the sidewalk, shivering slightly and staring at the slabs moving under his feet.
‘Gray!’ It was definitely Terry’s voice, the one he used when he was trying to whisper and shout simultaneously. Graham turned so fast a jolt of pain shot through his neck, and he took a step back into the gutter. The voice had come from the alley joining the old Chinese Restaurant on Way st. It was a narrow alley, and though he could usually see right to the end, on an overcast day at five o’clock in the middle of winter it was black as a sewer.
‘Gray,’ the voice said again, though this time it was fainter. Graham stared into the darkness, wanting badly to run forward and grab his brother, but he couldn’t. For all his desperate searching, he realised he’d never expected to find anything. He never really believed that something so horrible could be true. His brother was really there, out there in the dark.
‘Terry?’ He replied at last, unaware that he was whispering.
‘I’m scared Gray. I can’t see anything in here.’
‘Where are you?’
‘I don’t know… Somewhere under the bed. Did you look? I didn’t believe their lies so they took me.’
Graham took two steps forward, trying to home in on the location of the voice. He hovered on the brink of the alley now, hesitant to venture further, even though it felt like the two of them were standing only a few meters apart.
‘How do I get there?’
‘No! Don’t come, just get me out of here! If you come we’ll both be lost. Get me out!’
‘I’ve got to go after you.’ Graham said. His whole body was tensed now, as if he was prepared to run headlong into the alley. He wondered if that would even work.
‘If you… Wait. Something’s coming…’
Graham held his breath and tried to listen into the dark, but before he could hear anything a car drove past behind him. Then there was only silence, dragging on for minute after minute. He wrinkled his face at the stench of what he thought must be rotting shellfish and eggs from the Chinese Restaurant.
‘Bring a light,’ came the soft reply.
Graham stood at that alley for a long time, but he didn’t hear anything else besides the pattering of rain on concrete.
His mother’s mouth fell open at the sight of him as he came through the front door, soaked in water and late, but before she could say a word he dropped his bag at the front door and hurried upstairs. ‘Don’t worry about dinner for me!’ he called from the hallway.
He ruffled around in the bathroom until he found the candles and matches they kept there in case of a blackout. He took the matches and headed into his bedroom. He locked the door, pushed the clothes under the crack, and just like that he couldn’t see a thing. He flopped onto the bed and stared at nothing.
‘Terry?’ he whispered after a while. There was no response. He tried again every ten minutes or so for an hour but nothing happened. No secret world opened up in the dark – he didn’t feel himself being sucked into another dimension. Maybe he did have to go to his brother’s room, after all.
He wondered about the darkness, about where it was and what lived there, and soon his wonderings turned to daydreams, and his daydreams became real dreams as he passed into slumber. At length, they became nightmares.
He woke again, and it was immediately obvious to him that he’d been asleep for several hours. The house had that dense silence it only got when it was late at night, and the rain had stopped. He got the feeling someone had shouted his name, but he wasn’t sure if it had been in his dream or not.
‘Terry?’ he whispered, forcing himself up on his elbows and trying to get accustomed to the dark. Of course, it was impossible. Even the light in the hallway was out, and there was no moon tonight. No light from anywhere.
It was only then that he really thought about the things Terry had told him in the alleyway, and he recalled one strange remark in particular. I don’t know… Somewhere under the bed. Did you look?
He hadn’t looked, had he? You were too afraid, a voice in his mind told him. Because secretly you knew that’s where it was all along.
The more he shook the remains of sleep from his mind, the more things, small as they were, he noticed. Did he smell some remnant of that alleyway? Those rotten shellfish and eggs he’d been sure were from the Chinese restaurant? Why did his hand feel warm when he held it up in front of his face and ice cold when he let it dangle over the side of the bed. And why, when he did that, did he suddenly feel the urgent need to pull it away and hide under his covers?
Graham pushed the covers down to the end of the bed, exposing his damp clothes to the air. With a force of will that only another young child in a similar situation could comprehend, he got off the bed and then lay down on the floor beside it. In the dead of night, lying beside that gaping abyss beneath his bed, Graham understood fear.
I wouldn’t believe their lies so they took me. They Took Me. He pushed open the matchbox and was glad to see it was completely full. He struck one and felt utter relief as the warm firelight surrounded him. For now, the smell of rot and icy air was gone, and he was only here alone, in his dusty room.
Using his free hand to cup the flame though there was no draft, he wiggled sideways until he was exactly centred under the bed, and there he stayed, match warming his skin, hypnotising him. He waited.
The flame burned low, chasing his fingertips as they ran from it, until at last there was no more wood to burn and it guttered out. Graham’s stomach clenched tight and he felt sheer fear take hold of his lungs. ‘I’m coming for you, Terry,’ he whispered, as the ground fell away.
The carpet seemed to twist and turn under him, softening and dampening, and then it dropped and let him slide into it. If it weren’t for the cold, he’d have imagined himself dropping into the mouth of some great toothless beast. He came to a stop, curled up in a ball and propped up against something hard and jagged. It felt like a frozen thornbush.
This place was quiet, but not quiet enough. There was breathing apart from his own. It was wet and thick, but thankfully it didn’t sound close. It didn’t sound aggravated, like it knew where he was. From the sound of it, he was hidden away somewhere, a hollow or a cave separate from the rest of it.
Without thinking, he popped the matchbox open again and lit one of the matches. For a moment, he was certain something had seen and attacked him in the split second its light sputtered into existence. His feet jerked out and his back came down hard on… carpet. He was back in his room, staring at the underside of his bed.
For a moment, that was where he remained, breathing hard. As much as he loved his brother, the first thing he felt was incredible relief to be out of that foul smelling place that emanated evil so clearly it shocked him. But the hope was there, too. Bring a light, Terry said, and so he had. And now he knew, no matter how far he ventured into that place, he’d have a way back.
Graham closed his eyes and blew out the match.
This time, when he stumbled to the end of the short ride he hit that jagged thing a little harder and felt one thorn pierce his arm. He pulled away, biting his lip, and collided with what felt like a slippery boulder the size of his head. A moment later, it rose on a hundred stick thin legs and scuttled over his back.
Graham tucked the box of matches into one pocket and decided to proceed on all fours. He was shivering now, and gagging on the stench. It was so concentrated here that it was barely recognizable from what he’d smelled earlier. Like that voice, this was a thing not of the Earthly world. It was the stench of demons.
He was following a feeling rather than any actual sense of direction, specifically the feeling of wind. If he could get somewhere out in the open, maybe it would be easier to get his bearings. In the back of his mind was the hope he’d be able to see something somehow, but of course that couldn’t be possible, not if the slightest light transported him home. No, this was the Land of Dark: there was no light here.
He followed the light whistling wind up a slope and through a tunnel so tight he almost suffocated going through it. When he broke out on the other side, the wind was all around him and he realised he was out in the open at last. He looked up, hoping to see a sky of some sort, perhaps with a few stars and planets hovering… but of course there was only nothing. A deeper black, perhaps, like the kind you saw when you looked out over the ocean on a moonless night.
The things were all out here, too. He couldn’t exactly hear them, or not clearly (though there was that odd slithering somewhere behind him), but he could sense them. Great shapes, predators and carnivores. Any prey that existed here must be dead, or dying. Imprisoned, like his brother. Graham became suddenly more conscious of the blood leaking from his arm and he wondered if they could smell it. He certainly could. He raised the wound to his mouth and began to suck.
He stopped after a minute or so as it occurred to him what he was doing. Even then, it took another minute to convince himself that the delicious substance melting on his tongue was his own blood – it felt like trying to gather willpower enough to step out of a hot shower on a winter night.
He dropped to his knees in the mud – everything seemed to be made of mud – and gasped for breath. How long had he been here? Hours? A day? Surely not even that long, and yet he was sure it was changing him. He had to think.
He slowed his breathing and tried to concentrate on his senses. He didn’t have his eyes, so what did he have that could help him find his brother?
‘Terry?’ The vastness swallowed his voice, and he heard nothing back for a long time. Then, at last, so close it seemed almost in his ear, his brother replied.
‘Gray! I’m here, follow my voice.’
There was something wrong with that voice, though. There was no question it was Terry speaking, but this was a different Terry. This one sounded happy, even excited. He knows I’m here now, Graham thought, that’s all it is.
There was no time to ponder it then, because Terry’s next words chilled him to the bone: ‘Hurry, Gray, they know you’re here now.’
They did, too. He could hear them coming – could almost smell them over the putrid offal stench of the world. He dropped lower to the ground and slid through the mud (if that’s what it was) grabbing anything he could for purchase. Down an embankment here, across a patch of razor sharp rocks, through a cobweb full of stinging ants. These were the pictures he conjured in his mind as he went, because in the absence of sight he had to revert to images he knew, though the realities of these things would have horrified him far more than his mere imagination, had he known it.
He was close to his brother, very close, when a hand shot up out of the mud and grabbed his ankle. He gasped and then cried out aloud as he felt nails dig into his flesh. He twisted around and clawed at the hand, but then Terry called out to him: ‘Stop! It’s me, Gray! I’m down here, in a cage.’
Graham stopped his frantic clawing and instead gripped the hand with mad relief. ‘Terry! It’s really you!’ He felt for some kind of opening, but the ground here was not solid. Instead, his hand slipped over what felt like thick steel bars, with a gap only large enough to fit his wrist and perhaps his forearm through.
He reached down into the cage and felt his brother grab hold of him almost desperately. His nails were so long they made shallow cuts in his arm, and his skin was so cold. The things in the dark were close now. Another minute and he’d feel hot breath on his feet, and a minute after that the only thing left of him would be the part of his arm in the cage with his brother. Then he felt Terry’s teeth on him and had time to think maybe not even that before the pain hit.
Instead of distracting him, the pain shot through him like a bolt of electricity and focused his thoughts into perfect clarity. This was not him, he knew, but the demon he was becoming.
In all his wildest dreams, Graham never would have believed that one day his life would depend on whether or not he could strike a match one handed in less than a minute. He jammed the box into his mouth, afraid that if he laid it down it might get wet or fall through the bars of the cage. He pushed it open and several matches fell down through the bars. He drew another out and pushed the rest back in. He tried to strike and the match broke.
Terry’s teeth hit bone and dragged a little before he began to close his jaws. Now Graham did see stars and planets, but these ones were all in his mind, as brightly as they shone. He opened the box, drew another match, and tried again, gently. It didn’t strike, and the box slipped halfway out of his mouth. Something was clawing its way up a steep incline behind him – he heard its irregular steps and frantic breathing and imagined a sick three legged dog.
Terry tore his mouthful free. Graham didn’t scream like a boy but roared like a beast, and it was the demon’s rage and sheer focus of energy that rose up in him. The world slowed to a crawl, and when as the matchbox fell from his open mouth he caught it a second before it would have slipped between the bars. In a flash he’d opened it, snatched four or five matches in a go and closed it. He jammed the box in his mouth and struck again with all the matches, hard. Three snapped and two lit. The fire exploded in the darkness like a sun, and just like that the cage bars disappeared along with the wild shrieks of hungry monsters and everything else that lived in the dark.
Carpet slammed up against Graham’s back and his vision returned to him. Still gripping the guttering matches, he pulled his brother – who was still clinging to his mutilated arm, out from under the bed.
The thing that Terry had become was so far changed from the brother Graham had known that besides the familiar red pyjama pants he was wearing when he disappeared, he was unrecognizable. He had a huge, misshapen mouth filled with razor teeth, skin paler than paper and eyes like jet.
Had Terry not been blinded by the flare of the match, Graham would have stood no chance. But the effect of seeing a flash of real light, no matter how small, on a thing that had seen nothing but pitch black for over a month, was akin to a person staring at the sun for several minutes. It wasn’t simply blindness but pain, and while Terry shrieked and struggled Graham pushed him into the closet and slammed the doors.
He braced against them with all his might and held them closed against the first assault. He didn’t wait for a second, but grabbed his small wooden desk (with his unmauled arm), and dragged it in front.
After that, he collapsed on his side and watched the carpet soak up congealing blood from the wound in his arm. The howls and cries of his mutant brother took second place to the rush of blood in his ears and intense nausea. The world went white for a split second. When the room came back to him all was silent and he realised he must have fainted from shock. His arm was heavy and hard to move, as though the pain had numbed the muscles. His hand hung limply at the end of his wrist, the crucial tendon digesting somewhere in his brother’s stomach.
Without standing – he thought he might vomit if he did – Graham turned his eyes upwards and squinted in the dark. The closet doors were splintered and broken badly, with considerable cracks from floor to ceiling, and the desk was now sitting a good inch back from where it had been. There was no sound.
Shaking, he got onto all fours and crawled over to his door. He reached up with his bad arm – it couldn’t support his weight – and flicked on the switch. He half expected to hear that terrible shrieking again, and the deadly sound of snapping wood as Terry broke free for good. It didn’t come.
He crawled back to the closet, squelching through the half dried blood and not caring, and used his shoulder to push his desk out of the way, inch by inch. At last the doors swung open and the real Terry fell out.
If possible, he looked even worse than Graham. They were both as pale and sickly as each other, but Terry had been reduced to skeletal proportions. There couldn’t be so much as an ounce of fat on him, and his torn pyjama pants hung from bony hips. He was covered in a thousand little scratches and punctures, some old and some fresh. His eyes, once clear, looked milky and unfocused, and his teeth were broken and cracked. But when he blinked and glanced up at Graham, he was once again Terry.
‘You got me out,’ he said. His voice was so broken it was a whisper, and it would stay that way for months afterwards.
‘You tried to eat me,’ Graham said, lifting his arm up. Terry looked as though he was going to throw up so Graham put it down again. A second later they were chuckling like the school boys they were, and more than a little of it was the bright, persistent light that flooded the room. Even the bed held little shadow now, and the Land of Dark seemed further away.
Moving with shaky energy, Terry went to the curtains and tore the tape on the bottom corners as he parted them. Fresh dawn light flooded the room, and Graham didn’t think he’d seen anything so beautiful in his life. He stood up with one hand on the desk for balance and grinned widely at his older brother. Soon they were laughing again, each infecting the other with his own mirth until they were both on the floor and had to stop for fear of passing out.
‘What happened to you in there?’ Graham asked after a little while. They were sitting beside each other on the bed, unable to take their eyes off the sun as if to do so would cause it to vanish.
‘I can’t remember much. They kept me in a cage with a couple of other kids, I don’t know where from ‘cos they didn’t speak English. They ate the kids one at a time. Just reached in and chewed them. I remember bits dropped down through the bars and I…’
He didn’t finish the sentence, but Graham knew all too well how it ended. He remembered how his own blood had tasted in the other world, and how pain had felt.
‘Anyway, they went off again and never came back. I think something bigger ate them.’
‘I dunno. But I think in that place, everything eats everything, and there’s always something bigger. I think it was hell, Gray.’
Graham thought the smell alone was enough proof of that statement.
‘I started turning pretty fast,’ Terry went on. ‘I remember talking to you, but it was like a dream. After that I don’t remember anything until I woke up in the closet.’
‘Where do you think it was, Gray? That place?’
Graham shrugged. ‘The Dark,’ he said. ‘It was the Dark.’