What the Darkness Hides

Posted on: September 1, 2015

“What if there are other people like us?” Gloria’s questions start earlier every night; pretty soon, Margaret will be waking up to her hypotheticals. Dangerous.

Still, she indulges her. Margaret can’t survive solely with white noise and her own thoughts.

“Like us?”

“Living around here. Or something like it. You know, surviving on suburban scraps,” Gloria waves her arms at the Starbucks they have refashioned into a bunker.

Broken-down cardboard boxes cover the windows and block out the light. The area behind the counter has been converted into a barista’s nightmare and a child’s dream fort. For them it is an extra layer of precaution, a panic room.

The tables form a particle-board barricade, the chairs an interlocking ceiling. Gloria’s liberal use of duct tape lends the illusion of structural integrity.

Something skitters outside. Margaret’s mind visualizes the creature: six legs, serpentine body, vines pulsing down its back. A leaf-shaped head, curling in on itself like a bloom in reverse. Mandibles like a fire ant. A lizard, if H. P. Lovecraft designed it.

Margaret thinks of yoga, thinks of bliss, thinks of when all that mattered was which pair of ass-clinging pants would look best when she rolled and wriggled her way to nirvana.

Gloria picks up the chair leg she keeps as a weapon, brandishing it like a poor imitation of an action hero. It doesn’t matter.

A scream sounds from across the street, and Margaret puts her hands over her ears. It doesn’t matter. She hears everything. How the creature tears and rips. How bones crunch. How blood spills.

This is the third person she has heard die in less than a week.

When it has finished feeding, the rhythmic clicking of the creature’s legs punctuates its exit back down the block. Margaret listens to it fade into the distance, heading back to the nest.

After an hour, they breathe easy. Margaret peels back a corner of the cardboard. Sunset.

Not all the survivors get it. They think they’re safe in the light.

Margaret knew it the first time she saw one. Five days ago, her last afternoon shift. Todd had gone to smoke a joint behind the store, claiming the best kind of high was weed and the smell of shitty Starbucks coffee. Margaret was left alone to fill the young woman’s order, coffee Frappuccino and two cupcakes.

“What the fuck?” The young woman drops her iPhone, burgundy lips parting in a wide scowl. Todd pressed up against the window, his face wrenched in pain.

Two pincers wrapped around his waist like a hug, and tore him in half. A fat, fleshy lobster with sacs of chartreuse jelly on its back.

It’s an uncomfortable truth: make something scary enough and it wants its place in the sun. The darkness only hides what’s too chickenshit to be illuminated.

Gloria wants answers. Every night with the questions: Where did they come from? Why are they here? What are they?

They have their cell phones, though Gloria’s screen is shattered. They turn the brightness way down at night, even though it’s probably safe.

The internet has everything. Wild speculation about creatures that spread from Guatemalan rainforests. Asinine candidates ensconced in modern fortresses, pretending their opinions matter.

Some guy uploaded a video of a massive tortoise-shaped beast with fern carapaces. It walked through a cement highway divider like it was on a pleasant afternoon stroll.

Margaret scrolls through reports that the creatures are getting stronger.

“‘Not as many coming back to the nest every night,’” she reads from Twitter. A before and after photo: street lush with green and a sparse, scrubby-brushed highway. Gloria flops down onto white towels and green aprons woven into a synthetic spearmint mattress. She looks at the photo and bites her lower lip, her face an anxious mask.

“We should try to find whatever we can tonight, spend tomorrow packing and resting, and leave tomorrow night,” Margaret says. “We need to leave.”

“Where are we gonna go?”

“I don’t know. We can’t stay on the outskirts, though. They’re spreading,” Margaret replies. She peels the cardboard back from the door, ignores the moonlight shining through fresh stains. “You coming?”

Gloria pouts like a petulant child but gives in when Margaret promises they’ll stay together.

“We can’t let each other be afraid,” Margaret reminds her.

The first night was hardest for Gloria: there wasn’t anyone reaching out for either of them. Margaret came up through the system, a depressing euphemism for having a hard-partying sorority sister of a mom who took advantage of the state’s safe-haven law. But Gloria seemed like she had someone out there; there was no way she was on her own. She wasn’t capable.

“You were buying two cupcakes,” Margaret prodded.

“I was hungry,” Gloria replied, folding her arms.

Margaret takes her five blocks away, figuring they will work their way back to Starbucks during the night. The first street is all boutiques and frilly caf├ęs, their wares either impractical or rotting. Gloria pockets a pair of earrings, studs with bright pink crystals. She shrugs at Margaret and something shifts behind her.

The light blinds both of them, a neon green shock to the senses. It’s the Lovecraftian lizard she imagined earlier in the week, just shrunk and multiplied. Thousands of tiny creatures cover the walls, their bodies like smooth blades of grass. They throb with life and move in frenzied spirals, the sound of tiny legs a dull, buzzing drone. Their backs pulse a warning.

A sound from the boutique’s back store room. Rhythmic clinking, rapid and loud.

Not a warning, a call.

Gloria grabs Margaret’s hand and pulls her outside. Adrenaline propels them, their arms and legs pumping in synchronous survival. The moon casts a soft glow, and their shadows stretch down the street, the dark rounds of their heads meeting the twigged legs of the creature. Its mandibles clatter against each other, a hollow roar in the night.

“Fucking suburban sprawl,” Gloria pants.

Written by: Erin Justice
Photograph by: Anthony Delanoix

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