Richard Bartholomew’s little brother sat on the bottom stair and studied the line bisecting the rock-walled basement.
“What’s the speed of dark?” he asked.
Trying to ignore the sudden knot of pain in his stomach, Richard answered. “Doesn’t have a speed, Tim,” he said. “Darkness is just the absence of light.”
Shadows, almost lifelike in their furtive movement, crawled a few more inches away from the walls. Richard pretended not to see them.
“Light moves fast?” Tim asked.
“Nothing’s faster,” Richard said.
Small windows atop the western wall glowed with that special golden light which always seems to be reserved for crisp, autumn evenings. These tiny glass squares of life cast beams of airy gold into the spreading gloom. Billowing ribbons of dust danced along the slender rays, entertaining the watching boys, distracting them until the darkness closed in, until the colour of the light changed and took on the hue of blood.
Suddenly, Richard heard his mother’s voice within his head. “Somebody’s got to go.” She’d stood as a rock in the middle of the hall, blocking the way out to the world. Had taken her purse up before speaking, dug out the keys to the old Motor Cart. Then, casually, as if instructing him to do something as mundane as washing the breakfast dishes, she’d made her wishes clear. “You decide,” she’d said. “But I want somebody gone by dark.”
Mother had locked them down—as she always did when going out. The rumble of the engine as she eased down their gravelled drive reminded Richard of distant thunder. A cold shiver walked up and down his spine. Bile rose in his throat.
Richard wiped the memory from his mind and joined his brother on the steps. He could feel the younger boy tremble. The cool, dry basement air was sour with the scent of Tim’s fear. A centipede scurried across the floor, its serpentine movements and glossy red skin the perfect harbingers of this night.
“How do we get out of this?” Richard asked himself. Action was required. Becky had proved that. Nobody gets to refuse mother. Not even once.
Tim had Becky’s eyes. Richard had been able to keep her alive in his mind because Tim had her eyes. Grey. With striations of blue and yellow.
“Wanna try busting a window, Tim?” he asked.
Tim looked up at Richard with their sister’s long-dead orbs and said, “Can’t bust those rocks. So what good is it gonna do?”
“We can’t just sit here and wait for it, Tim. She don’t take no for an answer. We gotta get out.”
“Windows are too small,” Tim said. “Ain’t no way to change that.”
Both boys allowed their gaze to follow the lines of the walls. The basement had nothing in it but the stairs on which they sat, four bare rock walls, a hardened earth floor and a couple of rows of six-inch windows. They’d already tried to force the door at the top of the stairs. Hadn’t managed it. Not even when there had been three of them.
“Can you make me not afraid, Richard? Can you make it so I don’t have to go into the dark?”
Richard started crying.
“Watch the windows, Timmy,” he said. “Let the sun fall on your face.”
Tim got up and walked over to one of the diminishing beams of light. He turned toward the window from which the beam originated, then stepped into the path of the reddening light.
“Richard!” he exclaimed. “It’s still warm.”
The older boy didn’t have the heart to tell Tim the warmth would fade, that there was no way to escape the darkness. Their problem wasn’t the speed with which darkness travelled, he thought, but one involving the very nature of darkness.
Richard hung his head, tears darkening the soil below. He didn’t know how to explain that the dark was already here. It had always been here.
* * *
Tim fed them for months. Mother was pleased. One day, after finishing a particularly good roast, she even went so far as to say he tasted better than Becky. Richard figured that was because he was younger.
At night, when greasy rain fell on the rotting roof, creating phosphorescent droplets which occasionally fell on his skin and burned him, Richard would conjure up images of what his mother would say when the time came to eat him.
“Richard didn’t have an ounce of fat on him,” she would brag. Or, perhaps, “He made a fine stew.”
The boy could hear the smacking of her wet, red lips, could envision her licking juices from jewel-encrusted fingers, flat, black eyes studying each morsel as she calculated how to get all the precious meat from his dead bones.
* * *
On the days Richard wasn’t locked in the cellar, when his mother chose not to go foraging for edibles in what was left of the city, he enjoyed walking in the fields. Trees hadn’t yet recovered from the firestorm, but clover and hay and the like had come up greener than ever. He also watched dragonflies. They weren’t birds, but they were alive. And mother wouldn’t eat them.
Richard shuddered, gooseflesh rose upon his arms. Time to head back. Mother was cooking up the last of the Tim-steaks. She’d be angry if he was late.
The boy pushed through waist-high grasses. Poisoned grasses. Ones he’d contemplated ingesting on many previous occasions, as a way to bring about an end to the headaches and the nausea and the aching in his chest.
But Richard was more afraid of the dark than Tim had been. So, recently, rather than thinking about ways to kill himself, he’d begun to harbour a secret dream. Down in the black place that was now his mind, the boy was cultivating the thought that maybe, just maybe, he could find the nerve to make mother a dessert.
* * *
*Speed Of Dark is the first chapter of Clayton Bye’s horror novel due in 2010.