“What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Sorry, I ….” Marvene replied, trailing off in squints and shrugs.
Ivan stared at her briefly. Then with the help of a carefully pointed index finger, he slowly enunciated the one unequivocal rule, as if for the twenty seventh time. “We don’t go outside when the night is coming.”
“We talked about this. We agreed.”
“—Yes, I know. But it’s not even close yet. It’s all the way across the street.”
Marvene motioned to the window. “See? It’s barely moving.”
She was correct. The night was across the street standing quietly in the rain. It seemed almost to be not moving at all, still as a photograph. But they both knew that was a deception. They knew the night was always moving and that soon it would be at their doorstep. And this night would not arrive softly as a gentle veil to take them off to sleep.
This was a different sort of night. It moved ponderous and slow as heavy winter drapes. Now, it could clearly be seen in the near distance through the translucent blur of hard pelting rain and spaces between the autumn-colored trees. Stretching to infinity on both sides, it dropped down from the sky as a thick ebony curtain suspended from the heavens. Its uncompromising darkness blotted out everything behind it and buildings in front stood out brightly against its ink dark surface as if they had been painted on black velvet.
“We don’t go out at night.” Ivan reiterated.
“I know. I just wanted to empty the garbage, that’s all.”
“The garbage?” Ivan replied shaking his head. “I’m talking about our lives here. This is our last night. Let’s just try to be safe and make it through. Forget about the garbage.”
“Yes,” Marvene replied persistently. “But we had fried fish and the garbage is stinking up the place. I only wanted to take that greasy, awful smelling bag to the dumpster.”
She had a sensitive nose. Ivan knew that about her. He knew everything about her. If he cut one careless fart, she’d be spraying Fabrize for a day and a half.
“Why can’t we just leave the bag outside the door?”
“No, the animals will get into it and….”
“Animals? What animals?”
“Cats.” Marvene replied. “And maybe raccoons, but I have seen cats in the mornings foraging around.”
Ivan shook his head. It was hard to believe that anything could survive out in the night. He’d found the grim remains of a few dogs. At least that is what he thought they were. He’d found what was left of people as well, people that had been his neighbors. One in particular stood out in his mind. It was a disgusting sight, so tragically sad. There were red and brown foul-smelling remnants, crushed bones, shreds of clothing all melded together and painted onto the asphalt. To Ivan, the most disturbing part was the pieces of cloth. There were some shreds of a familiar multicolored material. He was certain that it was torn from a dress that Mrs. Murphy used to wear. She lived across the courtyard. Ivan had always liked her. A nice lady, he thought, very pleasant.
Most of his neighbors had already left. They had gone to seek refuge in the long abandoned deep mines of the Black Mountain. He’d printed out a Goggle map two weeks ago, just before the internet crashed. He couldn’t recall at the moment the reasons why they had waited so long to leave.
“Cats are resilient. They find places to hide.”
Ivan sat down beside Marvene on the couch.
“I don’t give a damn about the cats,” he said, “Or the garbage or the unpleasant smell. I only care about you. I want us to finish packing up the car so we can get the hell out of here as soon as the night moves down the road tomorrow.”
“Seconds,” she said.
“No.” Ivan replied firmly.
“I could be there and back in seconds”
Ivan sighed heavily and took a deep pause to calm himself.
“Seconds,” She repeated softly as Ivan placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“It’s just not safe. We’ve talked about this.”
‘Dammit Marvene!’ He thought. His mother would call him ‘hardheaded’ whenever he broke one of her sacred rules. She’d waggle a cautionary finger and pronounce with full motherly gravitas; “A hard head makes a soft behind.” And he’d straightened up immediately. It worked for him, a tried-and-true method for any four-year-old. But Marvene was a grown-ass woman who could (and would) do whatever she damn well pleased. And she would not hesitate to remind him of that whenever he got too full of himself. And so, although he dearly loved her and respected her free spirit, it did make keeping her safe a bit of a challenge.
They sat together in the resonating silence. He could feel himself inexorably softening in the sweet cocoon of Marvene’s presence. They watched television. Yes, although cable was dead, for now at least there was still television, rudimentary though it was, news alerts, cartoons, old black and white movies. More and more there was less of it. Ivan suspected that soon it would be gone altogether. To be replaced by what? He didn’t know.
Ivan reluctantly dragged himself away from Marvene and the comfortable couch to take one last turn through the house before the night arrived. He went from room to room rattling closed locked doors and securing windows. He also checked the garage where the half-packed Subaru Outback was waiting for their dawn departure. The garage door was closed, and the house seemed to be safe from the night at least for a day or two. That is what they thought. But it was clearly wearing down.
Although the night was seemingly too thick to enter small cracks, it could easily pour through an open door or window like a great gelatinous sea. Once inside, it could fill up the entire house and smother and grind up every living thing inside. Other than ensuring that the doors and windows were closed, there was nothing else he could do at this point to protect them against the oncoming night. He paused briefly at the attic window looking out at the rain and creeping darkness. That gloomy sight made him yearn for a long-ago different time when sunsets splashed brilliantly across an orange-colored sky and the sweet nights were soft and smelled of warm earth and honeysuckle.
Things do change.
Ivan knew that Marvene was right (at least sort of right). But even though the black night was some distance away, as she had pointed out, he felt that it was still much too close to take any chances. And what was the point? Usually, the night crept along almost imperceptibly; slower even than the slowest moving most plodding funeral procession. But that could change without any warning until all at once it was all at your elbow, ready to pounce like a great black angry dog. The night was unpredictable, almost as if it had an actual mind and could think.
In the living room, Marvene stood up and delicately pinched her nose, even though no one was there at the moment to witness her displeasure. She made a face and with an exaggerated theatrical flourish fanned away a bad fish odor with her hand. Then, she reached out and retrieved the book of matches beside Ivan’s flip top box of Marlboro cigarettes. She carefully lit the two almond-colored candles that decorated the coffee table, an ancient gift from a long-ago lady friend. That truth of them, but a truth Ivan felt would be somewhat more than inconvenient. So, he had told her that he had gotten them at Target. She was suitably impressed with his good taste.
When the heat of the candle flames had asserted itself into the wax, a pleasant curl of jasmine smoke slowly emerged dancing cheerfully into the air. The sweet smoke blended with the lingering odor of fried fish to create a wholly new, somewhat less daunting aroma. It was better, Marvene thought, but still not good. She placed the book of matches back onto the table top and glanced up through the front window. The dark curtain had by now completely consumed the houses across the street, with front porches, steps and posts seeming to be stuck to its opaque pitch-black surface like bizarre decorations or pieces of art.
The metal dumpster was still in plain view near the edge of the courtyard, well in front of the advancing darkness. It shimmered and sparkled in a thousand splashes of falling rainwater. although it constantly beckoned to Marvene with its silent siren’s call through sparkles and squints of diminishing daylight, Marvene resisted.
That was just as well. Because as she turned her gaze away for just a moment and then looked back, the night had suddenly devoured the entire courtyard and stood now as a great black wall no more than two feet from their back window. Emptying the garbage this late in the evening would have been a mistake for sure. Marvene stared at the way too close encroaching night and shook her head slowly up and down. She thought, ‘Success in life is all about timing.’ The falling piano crashes into the sidewalk, missing you by six inches. The guy in front of you in line at 7/11 wins the lottery for 100 million dollars just because you stopped to tie your shoelace. It all equals out somehow, she thought.
Ivan returned to the couch. The Subaru was packed and waiting. All they needed was to get through the night.
And now at once the night came fast and heavy, claws out, like a hungry, red-eyed beast in the wilderness.
Soon the house was altogether covered by the heavy black curtain. Ivan and Marvene sat together on the couch (as they had done many times before) listening to its eerie, rumbling cadence as it laboriously dragged and crawled and scraped its way across their shingled roof. The sound of it was frightening (of course). Yet their hearts did not burst with fear and their minds did not run wildly out of control with flailing hands and terrified thoughts. Ivan and Marvene, just like other members of their species, possessed an enormous capacity to adapt to the worst possible circumstance. No matter how frightening, no matter how dire, they simply got used to it.
So, now they just sat quietly waiting out the hours, hoping that the house, their once beloved home, would not suddenly give up and collapse around their ears. They knew the dawn was coming as it always did. But they hoped that they would still be alive to see it when it arrived.
The house shuttered and groaned as shingles and siding were ripped away. Pieces of it, large and small, flew off and crashed into the yard. And there was a gathering rhythm of loud bangs and pops as the black curtain of night itself dragged heavily along the sides and across the roof. The ripping, rending, and crashing of things from the house had a certain cadence like a ceremony of shotgun blasts one after the other. As things on the roof and in the attic crashed and ripped apart, the room filled with falling streams and great misty clouds of dust. Ivan and Marvene sat very close together on the couch, arms wrapped around each other, eyes tightly closed. But there was little to see anyway since the only light in the house came from the dim scented candles on the coffee table. Marvene wondered, ‘How much more can the little house take? But the horrible cadence of destruction continued deep into night and the absolute darkness that surrounded them when candles burned out.
They knew that at some point when the heaviness of their eyelids outweighed their fear, they would drift off to sleep. The need for sleep can be as compelling as the need for relief of a bursting bladder. Nothing can hold it back. They knew that no matter how hard they tried to stay awake, no matter how horrible, how terrifying the night sounds would be, at some point they would be overpowered by the need for sleep.
They had two Big Ben clocks that sounded off like fire alarms. They set both to wake them before the sunrise.
When the loud ringing clocks woke them, the gray dawn was beginning to rise in the courtyard. The back of the night had just slipped through the front yard and was moving rapidly away. The rain had stopped. Devastation was all around. Everything was sopping wet. Houses that had been standing the day before were now just piles of shingles and wood, a myriad of broken, indefinable things. They had thought that they might have two or three more nights before their home collapsed into a pile of rubble. But looking at the sad condition of it now, they agreed, the house would most likely die tonight. It was time to leave.
Ivan was tightening the straps around a three-foot pile of luggage on the roof of the Outback. Marvene had taken the garbage bag to the dumpster and was returning to the house through a gauntlet of rain-soaked trash and piles building parts. Ivan smiled to himself when he saw what Marvene was doing. He shook his head and mused that she was truly a credit to her community.
A tiny head popped up from one of the piles of debris.
“It’s Mrs. Murphy’s cat.” Marvene exclaimed.
‘Poor Mrs. Murphy,’ Ivan thought. He wondered why she had even ventured outside. Her house had remained standing right up until last night. The cat came over to say hello. Then she immediately jumped into the back of the Subaru through the open rear hatch.
“She wants to go with us.”
Marvene turned to face Ivan squarely and pointed at the cat.
“See? Cats know things I tell you! They do. She thinks that we know what we’re doing!”
“Do we?” Ivan asked.
“She thinks so.”
The two of them worked together to clear the debris that had covered the driveway. After locking the front door to the house Marvene climbed into the car and backed it out of the garage. Ivan pulled the garage door shut and climbed into the passenger’s seat beside her. She would take the first turn at the wheel. Before they went half a block the cat was asleep.
This was the plan. They would get on the main highway. They would chase the night down the road as they ran from the rising sun. Hopefully they would not run out of gas or have an accident or break down. Hopefully the pocked and damaged road would hold up and they would not encounter a game ending sinkhole the size of a Greyhound Bus. They would scrupulously follow the Google Map to the mines at Black Mountain and there (hopefully) they would meet up with other humans (including some of their former neighbors). And together, they would figure out what to do.
As they travelled down the highway, the sun continued to rise up slowly behind them. Soon it would be directly overhead. Whether or not they made it to the mines they would have to find somewhere safe before the sun set in front of them and the night appeared in their rear-view mirror. They could not allow its Black curtain to find them out here in the open. Ivan, now at the wheel, mashed down on the accelerator carefully dodging potholes and debris. They had plenty of gas and still hours of time. Although they increased their speed, they knew that no matter how fast they went, it would not be fast enough. Ivan and Marvene would try very hard to find that safe place. Because they certainly knew that not even the fastest Subaru on earth could outrun the night.
Leonard Henry Scott was born and raised in the Bronx and is a graduate of American University, with an MLS degree from the University of Maryland. He was a long-time staff member of the Library of Congress and he and his wife, Hattie presently reside in National Harbor, Maryland. Len’s fiction has appeared in; The MacGuffin, Mystery Tribune, Straylight Magazine, Crack the Spine and elsewhere.