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Darkness on the Edge of Town
By Brian Keene
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2010 Brian Keene
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn the beginning ...
That's how stories always start, right? In the beginning? I guess mine should start that way, too.
In the beginning was the word. I know this because the Bible tells me so. The Bible tells me a lot of things. It says that Jesus loves me, and that you shouldn't suffer a witch to live, and in the beginning was the word.
Words have power. So do names.
It might sound like I'm rambling, but this is important stuff, so remember it. Names. Words. Witches. I'll come back to all of this later, if there's time. Who knows? It just might save your life. I wouldn't have believed that a month ago, but I do now. Things have changed.
My name is Robbie Higgins. There. Now you have power over me. It's Rob or Robbie to my friends. Robert to the cops or my teachers or anyone else who has ever hassled me.
Anyway, in the beginning was the word, and it existed alone in the darkness. The Bible tells us that, too-tells us about the darkness. And this wasn't just regular darkness either. No, sir. This was the complete and total absence of light-a darkness so deep and dense that it would have made your eyes hurt. A heavy darkness. Thick. At least, that's how I imagine it was. I mean, I can look out my window for inspiration and see the darkness pretty fucking clearly. I can't seemuch of anything else, but I can see the darkness.
According to the Bible, here's how it all went down. You've got the word and the darkness and not much else. The two of them are just sort of hanging out together. The word and the darkness, chilling together in the void. And then the word says, "Let there be Light," and there was. And things continued just fine after that, for the most part.
Then, millennia later, some asshole comes along and fucks it all up. Someone else says another word, maybe a bad word or a different word, maybe, "Let there be Darkness again," and in doing so, effectively reverses the entire act of Creation-erasing the light. No, not just erasing it. Obliterating it. The light is fucking gone, man. Light doesn't exist anymore.
And who knows? Maybe we don't either.
Christy says that we're all dead. That's her theory anyway. She says it explains everything-why the phones don't work, why there's no electricity, no contact with the outside world, no television or radio signals, why we can't see anything out there beyond the darkness and, most importantly, why nobody new has come into town since it all began, and why none of the people who went out into the darkness have returned. Christy says that we're all dead and this is limbo. Purgatory. We can't move on to Heaven or Hell, because we're trapped here. Stranded. According to Christy, this is why ghosts always hang around the place where they died-because the darkness prevents them from leaving.
The problem is, Christy does a lot of drugs-or did, up until she ran out of them-so her conclusions are kind of suspect. Now, don't get me wrong. She wasn't into the hard stuff. She never did heroin or meth or anything like that. She just loved smoking weed and enjoyed the occasional line of coke or a tab of Ecstasy. So did I, truth be told. In any case, my point is this. Scientific method is not Christy's strong suit. But I love her anyway-and not just because she's got a great set of tits. Before the darkness, she made me smile every day. She made me happy. For guys like me, that's rarer than you might think.
Christy's wrong. We're not dead. I know this because dead people don't die. And every single person who has left town since the darkness descended, every single one of us who ventured out into that black space, has ended up dead. You can't die if you're already dead. So, that means they weren't dead and they weren't ghosts. They didn't die or become a ghost until after they left town.
Of course, Christy disagrees with me. She says I'm just speculating. Well, fuck that noise. I know, man.
Sure, I didn't see them die. Not personally. I mean, you can't see anything beyond the barrier. But I heard them. Heard them die. I heard their screams.
And the other sounds. The sounds the darkness makes.
Sometimes it whispers. If you stand too close to it, right there on the edge where the candlelight is swallowed by shadow, the darkness talks to you in a voice not its own-a voice you've probably heard before. A lover. A parent. A friend.
But the darkness does a lot more than just talk. If chattering was all it did, we could just put cotton in our ears and be done with it.
The darkness bites. The darkness has teeth-sharp, obsidian fangs that you can't see. But they're there, just the same. The darkness has teeth, and it's waiting to chew us up until there's nothing left. The darkness kills us if we venture out into it, and if it can do that, then we ain't fucking dead.
Therefore, the darkness is alive, and so are we.
We don't try to leave town anymore. Nobody does. But staying here has become a problem, too, because this town has gotten teeth of its own. The darkness is getting inside us now, and the results aren't pretty.
We have a plan-me, Christy, and Russ. I'm a little apprehensive about it, because the last time I came up with a plan, a lot of people ended up dead as a result of it, and I became sort of a pariah afterward. That was early on in the siege. I've avoided trying to be a leader since then. But the three of us came up with this new idea today. It's not necessarily a good plan, and it probably won't work, but our options are pretty fucking limited at this point. We came up with the plan after what happened with poor Dez. That was the last straw-the final indication that things will not be returning to normal. Game fucking over, man.
Anyway, we'll be leaving soon, but before we do, I figured maybe I should leave some kind of record. An accounting, just in case. So I'm writing it all down in this notebook, and I'll leave it here before we take off. I guess I should tell you about everything that led to this. Tell the entire story from the beginning.
Names. Words. Witches.
In the beginning ...
Chapter TwoI'm not sure how long we've been here because I quit looking at calendars a long time ago and my cell phone won't give me the date-or anything else. The battery is dead, and I've got no way to charge it. Before the battery died, I'd occasionally flip the phone open, scroll through my contacts, and try calling people, but it never worked. There was no recorded message telling me their numbers were out of service or one of those short beeps you get when the cell phone you're calling from is out of range of a tower. The phone didn't even ring. Each time I tried, it was like placing a call to the afterlife. All I heard was the sound of nothing.
Judging by the length of my beard and hair, I'm guessing we've been trapped here about a month, give or take a few days. I'd never had a beard before. I hated the way it felt after a few weeks-itchy and tight, and all those little ingrown hair bumps that popped up beneath it, red and swollen and full of pus. But I'm too lazy to boil water, and shaving without hot water is a fucking pain in the ass. Plus, some dickhead looted all the shaving cream from both the grocery store and the convenience store. Then, not satisfied with that, they took the shaving cream from all of the abandoned houses. Who does that? Food, batteries, and water I can understand. Hell, we took stuff, too. But in our case, it was stuff that we needed. Who takes all of the fucking shaving cream? And so methodically, too. Taking the time to go house to house and abscond with it? I mean, that's just crazy.
But there are crazy people everywhere these days, and stealing shaving cream is the least of their bizarre behavior.
Anyway, I guess it doesn't really matter how long we've been here. All that matters is how this all began and what's happened since then.
What happened was this. Early one Wednesday morning in late September, me and Christy and everyone else in the bucolic little town of Walden, Virginia, woke up and found out that the rest of the world was gone.
Not destroyed, mind you, but gone.
Just ... gone.
Walden was still there. That hadn't changed. Our homes and stores and schools, our pets and loved ones, our cherished keepsakes and personal belongings, our streets and sidewalks-all of those still existed. But the outside world, everything beyond the town limits, had been replaced by an unbroken wall of black. A curtain of darkness surrounded the town. It stretched east and west, from the sign on Route 711 that said You Are Now Entering Walden, Population 11,873, to the rocky, tree-covered hills behind the senior high school, and north and south from the Texaco station on Maple Avenue, to the vacant lot behind the half-empty strip mall on Tenth Street. Everything inside that radius still existed. Everything beyond those boundaries had been swallowed up by a heavy, impenetrable darkness. It was dark inside the town limits, too, but not as thick as on the exterior. Inside Walden, it just looked like night. Out on the edge of town, the blackness seemed deeper. Denser, like congealing grease or motor oil.
Some folks didn't even notice the darkness at first. They woke up to find that the power, gas, water, and other utilities were off. That was alarming, of course. But it wasn't until they stumbled outside to see if their neighbors were having the same problem that they discovered what was really happening-except that none of us was sure just what that was.
Personally, at first, I thought it was an eclipse, but Russ nixed that idea. He said that if it had been an eclipse, he'd have known about it, and I didn't doubt that. Russ lives in the one-bedroom apartment above Christy and me. He's an amateur astronomer and before the darkness came, he spent most nights up on the roof, staring at the stars through his telescope and bitching about all the streetlamps. He said they caused light pollution and made it hard for him to see anything clearly.
These days he doesn't have to worry about light pollution anymore. The only problem is, there's nothing in the sky for him to see. The stars are gone. He says it's like staring into a pool of tar.
House by house, apartment by apartment, Walden woke up to find out that sunrise had been canceled. Their reactions were interesting. A few people insisted that it wasn't a big deal. They were convinced the darkness was just some freak weather occurrence, some bizarre atmospheric phenomenon that would dissipate in a few hours. They climbed into their cars and trucks and sport utility vehicles, and started off on the day's commute. Other people caught one glimpse of the darkness, then panicked and decided to flee. They chalked it up to everything from a terrorist attack to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ himself, back to judge us all, and then they loaded up their cars and trucks and sped away, convinced it was the end of the world.
Here's what I don't get about either of these groups. The first group, the ones who went to work like it was just any other day-what the fuck were they thinking? I mean, how much of a fucking drone do you have to be to just go about your regular, everyday business like that, ignoring the reality of what's happening around you? Were they that consumed with their mortgage payments and promotions that they willingly just blanked out everything else, hoping that once they arrived at work, the world would right itself again? And the second group, the people who were convinced it was Judgment Day and fled-where the hell were they going? If Jesus really had come back to judge us all, were they rushing off to meet him, or were they trying to hide? If it really was the end of the world, then what possible destination did they have in mind? What place wouldn't be impacted by the planet's destruction? Think about that for a moment, because it's important. Where do you go to hide from the end of the world?
In both cases-those who took it in stride and those who freaked out-they drove out of town and into the darkness.
None of them were ever seen again.
That was how we first found out that the darkness had teeth.
Back again. I took a break from writing this and finished off the last of my whiskey. Basil Hayden's Kentucky bourbon. Christy got me a bottle of it for my birthday. Damn good stuff. Expensive as all hell, but worth every penny. I drank the last because I figured if I was going to write all this out, I should have a little bit of a buzz to get me through it. Grease the wheels, you know? Face my fears, because a lot of what I'm going to tell you is pretty fucking grim. And now my whiskey's gone.
Want to hear something funny? Even without the fact that there's no trash pickup day anymore, I'm reluctant to throw away the empty bottle. Booze is even scarcer than shaving cream these days. Walden was always a dry town, and the only place within the city limits that served liquor was the local Knights of Columbus hall-and you had to be a member to drink there. Not surprisingly, when the looting started, one of the first things to disappear was the booze.
The Knights of Columbus got hit first, of course. Then people raided empty houses-and sometimes they broke into houses that weren't empty-and cleaned those out, too. These days, a bottle of Smirnoff or Jim Beam is better than cash.
Hell, anything is better than cash. The only thing you can do with paper money is burn it to stay warm. Doing so is more psychological than anything else because the temperature in town never fluctuates. Sometimes it just feels good to be warm. So people burn their paper money.
Liquor keeps you warm, too, and without all that annoying smoke or the risk of burning your house down while you sleep. Like I said, Jim Beam rules over the green. And coins? The only thing you can do with coins is put them in pipe bombs. They make excellent shrapnel.
But I don't want to throw the empty bottle away. I'd like to cap it, and then once in a while, I could unscrew the lid and smell the leftover vapors. Breathe what once had been. But I guess that, like everything else, they'd eventually vanish.
It's nighttime again. There's no way to tell what time of day it is, really, unless you own a battery-operated clock or a watch that still works. Daylight is a thing of the past. I'm going by my internal alarm clock, and that's telling me it's around ten o'clock at night.
I've always been a night owl. It's when I'm most awake. Alive. Part of that is because, until recently, I worked second shift at Giovanni's Pizza. The pizza parlor, a little redbrick building, used to sit just past the outskirts of town. Now it's part of the darkness. When I worked there, I came in at three in the afternoon and made deliveries until eleven most nights-later if there was something special like the Super Bowl or New Year's Eve. When my shift was finished, I was usually wide awake, jazzed up on Red Bull and coffee and Mountain Dew. So I'd stay awake until dawn, playing video games or talking to Christy if she was still awake. She usually tried to stay up until I got home, but it was tough on her. She worked part time at the little New Age shop downtown, and her shifts were generally during the day. But we made it work.
I used to love the night. The darkness was like an old friend. I embraced it. Welcomed it. Nighttime was peaceful and serene and calming. It hummed with its own energy and possibilities.
I don't feel that way anymore, and now the darkness hums with something else.
Since back in the day when we were still cavemen, wandering around picking bugs out of one another's hair and trying not to get eaten by saber-tooth tigers, mankind has been afraid of the dark. I never understood why, until now.
I'm sitting here whistling a tune by Flogging Molly and wishing there was still electricity so I could listen to my iPod. I'd fucking kill to hear some music again-something other than Cranston down on the first floor strumming away on his warped, out-of-tune guitar, or the local juvenile delinquents rapping bad hip-hop to one another around the rusty burn barrel on the sidewalk. Yeah, I could go for some Flogging Molly right now. Or Tiger Army. Or The Dropkick Murphys. A little bit of that would chase the darkness away.
Excerpted from Darkness on the Edge of Town by Brian Keene Copyright © 2010 by Brian Keene. Excerpted by permission.
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