The siren opened its metal mouth and blared. Its scream swallowed every other sound in the world, drowning out prayers and conversations. With dusk came the blare. With the blare came the message: night is coming and they are too.
It was peaceful outside, the sky ultramarine as the last shafts of orange and purple hues slashed the distant horizon, abandoning the earth to let the strangers in. The sultry autumn air mingled with the scent of baked banana pie, the last trace of normality that soured under the siren.
Sam scratched her nose, went to the window, locked it and pulled the thick curtains—her sunset ritual when the siren screamed. Complete darkness engulfed their house.
Josias grabbed her wrist and led her to the basement.
And finally the siren closed its mouth.
He closed his eyes and opened them again and saw no difference. His world was pitch-black. The only relief in this twelve-hour world was the warm skin over his hand. Samantha leaned her head on his shoulder, slowly caressing his wrist.
His stomach rumbled and she clutched his arm. The things outside didn’t bother about bodily functions unless it was too loud but it still made their hearts skip a beat.
Josias sniffed her hair, then ran his finger along her hand, writing now?
She remained still for a moment before she wrote ok on his elbow.
Every night, to pass the time and wait for sleep, they’d invent a story by writing on each other’s skin using a finger. Tonight they continued from where they had left off last night. He wrote and she ran. Sam grabbed his shoulders and squeezed them, indicating he should turn around. She then wrote on his back to a purple house so far away she could see the frozen mountains. Her knight in shining armor would arrive shortly. She invited her brother to dance in the night and bathe in starlight. Josias smiled in the dark and wrote on her wrist that was cute.
This imaginary world, where people still explored the outside, kept them sane and entertained from the doom that haunted them every night. At first, it had seemed silly but he grew used to it because he was doing it with her.
Samantha took his hand and wrote—
She froze. He held his breath. Something in a distant corner of the pitch-black world outside yapped until the sound transformed into an incessant bark. Someone’s dog alerted the world of its presence.
Josias closed his eyes and opened them again.
The dog barked and barked. Then its bark became a suffocating cough, then short panting, happy and louder than the world itself. And even louder than that, as if somehow the dog stood right there in the room. Then as abruptly as it had arrived, it was gone, the sudden silence making Josias’ ears throb.
Samantha was shaking, her skin cold and sweaty. He searched for her hand, kissed it and nibbled at it until she calmed down and hugged him.
There were no more stories that night, only the silence and their touches. Sleep soon came with dreamlessness.
A faint lullaby of birds chirping dragged him out of the black ocean. Josias rubbed his eyes and got up.
They went upstairs to open the doors and windows to welcome a new day into their home, the sight of a clear sky bringing tears to their eyes.
“God, I’m so jealous of them,” Sam whispered, watching the birds flutter across the roofs, her mouth a grin, her eyes wet and red. For some reason, small animals like birds were never targeted by the-ones-that-come-at-night.
Josias kissed her hair. “When will we get used to this?”
Sam breathed in the chilly autumn morning air. “We’re not meant to. Remember what Pedro—” She bit her lips. “I’m sorry.”
His laugh echoed inside Josias’ mind so loudly, he felt as if his throat were about to burst.
“Will you go to the farm?” He tried to brush Pedro’s voice out of his mind.
Sam glanced down. “Yeah, why not?”
Josias went outside after breakfast, welcoming the blessed kiss of sunlight against his skin. He said good morning to a neighbor placing a boom box beside a lamppost across the street. The sky was open and bright with only a few smudges here and there but down here, gloomy faces trod through a gloomier neighborhood. Most houses were empty, left to rot after they came for the inhabitants. Some left their homes thinking that out there, somewhere, they might find a safe haven but no one ever heard from them again. Others moved into better houses once they saw them empty. Next to the charred ruin of a three-story house that had burned down an eternity ago, a short geezer, who always wore floral dresses, sobbed against a young woman’s arms as a tanned man carried out of her home a lump wrapped in a pink blanket. A brown tail dangled out of one of its ends.
And a few blocks from that house, a couple sat on the sidewalk holding the mangled body of a child, their faces devoid of expression. Josias offered his condolences, as he did every day when someone was found. That was part of his job, anyway.
Alongside a group, his job was to knock on the houses that were still occupied. When nobody answered a locked door, he pried it open with a crowbar.
Today nobody answered the knocks on a derelict house standing alone among two barren trees, so a crowbar it was. As he stepped inside, the stench of rancid meat slapped his face. Within was all dark as thick curtains covered every window; the smell covered every corner. A podgy man called Roberto, who lived next to Josias’, stooped forward and vomited.
Yesterday, they had knocked here, and Mr. Casagrande had answered.
“Someone’s been dead a lot longer than a night.” Roberto spat and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
They searched around the first floor until one of them found a locked door almost hidden under the upstairs staircase. The stench, sweet and pungent, grew heavier as they approached it. They covered their faces with respirators but the smell seeped in nonetheless. Another one vomited and Josias soon joined her.
The stench of death was never easy to get used to.
After they broke the door handle, putrid hot air hugged them. Swollen and gray and swarming with house flies, three bodies huddled together. Their bloated limbs coiled and wound around each other in a disgusting mockery of a family embrace. One was a woman, another a man, and one, thinner and shorter than the other two, a teenager. Mr. Casagrande had said some time ago that his family had gone somewhere south to find shelter.
They did find shelter right here but the things had still managed to find them.
Half an hour later, the group took the bodies to bury them with the many others, the burring of the wheels of the gurneys the only dirge for the dead.
Whenever they could spare some hours in the afternoon, Josias and Samantha enjoyed sunbathing in a lawn chair in their front yard. Black thunderheads gathered in the distance, cloaking the neighborhood in cold shadows when the clouds swept past the sun. His thoughts were blacker than the clouds. Six bodies only today, with Mr. Casagrande missing. Thousands of years ago, he could hear the noise of hammer against nail, men shouting orders, music playing, dogs barking and even children playing.
The only music now was the whistle of the wind.
“Tell me what’s on your mind.” He took Sam’s hand and kissed the knuckles.
She squinted at a lowering pall looming over white clouds, her eyes as silent as her face. “Pedro was right, you know. We were never meant to get used to this.”
That was a cloud blacker than all of them.
He was only a few months older than Samantha and yet much wiser. When their father died, the world was still alive; people could still go out at night and make noise. Both became each other’s anchors as their mother deteriorated inside and out. Or, as Pedro used to say, she “rotted from the inside out.”
Don’t make any noise and stay in the dark. Her brother’s words murmured inside his brain, poking out of a tight corner to haunt him again. Josias had never heard a sound like that, the mad crackle and wheeze bobbing out of Pedro’s throat when the things had come to twist his limbs.
“But we must.” Josias took a sip of cold coffee, watching some people passing by, faces carved by fear and loss—a sight he’d grown used to by now.
“There’s no salvation, no way for this to stop.”
His heart tightened. They could be each other’s salvation, each other’s reason to live. They made it after all; against impossible odds, they managed to keep on living. They even had electricity again.
But for what?
They couldn’t have a family. It wouldn’t make sense. Some still followed the instinct to reproduce and most paid the price. An eternity ago, a couple who once lived next door had decided to have a baby, their way of bringing hope and normalcy; they’d even named the poor baby Hope. She’d slept through the first few nights thanks to the sleeping pills, but one night her wailing had cut the silence. First, it had been a soft crying that had turned into sobbing. Then it had stopped for a second before returning louder, until sobbing became laughter. The baby had laughed and laughed until her voice had broken and after one last sharp shrill, silence had come.
He wrote on her wrist: the knight had a golden sword and he swore to protect her against the nocturnal creatures.
Samantha shook her head and giggled. “I love you.”
They kissed as the wind whistled.
Swollen black clouds soon covered the world. The drizzle gave way to a raging storm and the people gathered inside their homes.
A few minutes later, the blaring of the siren cut through the deafening storm, imposing and sharp. Josias locked the windows upstairs while Sam took care of the living room. Then, the siren shut its mouth to announce their coming.
From where he stood to the basement was an entire universe of distance. Anything could happen along the way.
And so Josias inched forward, one step at a time. A cold finger ran down his body as he exited the bedroom, still alive. He continued on downstairs, each movement a potential death sentence. Midway, he stopped and waited.
He went on, one step after the other, then another. With the stair behind him, he turned and saw the living room window uncovered, Sam staring right through it. A scream stuck in his throat, a lump of agony ready to call forth the strangers into his home.
But nothing happened. Samantha stood there, watching the storm, half her body hidden in the dark and the other tinged by the yellow glare of the lamppost. Josias approached her. She read his face and lightning flashed, bathing everything in pale white for a split second. The roar of the thunder came soon after.
She turned her head and he followed her gaze.
The night was never truly empty. Silhouettes, their shapes outlined by the raindrops, ambled through the streets, front yards, even the roofs. They trod around as if floating or traversing an invisible road only they could see. Some were as tall as the lampposts, others no taller than a child, capered around a shape that seemed to hold an umbrella, danced between two giants and jumped from roof to roof. One of them peeked at their window, dancing and teetering as if mocking them. Two shapes held hands on top of a lamppost and in their front yard, others gestured as if having a lively conversation.
These were the ones that had ruined everything, the ones that had brought the entire world to heel. Josias had heard friends and neighbors talking about seeing them in the rain and yet he’d never dared to look, could not look. Now actually seeing them in front of him, around him, it was almost peaceful, that relief that comes after going through a long-awaited event. Even the tall ones didn’t seem as monstrous as he’d imagined, perhaps because he couldn’t see them, only their outlines.
No, no, those shapes had nothing peaceful about them. They mocked the living because they knew nothing could be done against them.
Once a man called Virgilio had attempted to hose them off but the water had simply streamed out. He had called out for his wife before he began to chortle.
Josias took Sam’s hand and inched backward. She stood still. He wanted to scream at her, lock her in the room until dawn. But he couldn’t move quickly or speak, so he clutched her hand harder. She still didn’t move.
A vibrant blue light blinked across the street. Then a raucous noise of plates breaking boomed across the world, louder than thunder, louder than the rain.
“Hello, morning, afternoon, evening! This is your one and only Miss Flower Sunshine!” The childish voice shook the walls and the ground. This time Sam was the one who clutched his hand. The front door of the house across from theirs flung open with a loud crack, and a woman burst out of the darkness on an electric bike and drove off.
Some people never, ever learn.
The woman, whose name was Carolina or Catarina, her wet black hair flailing behind her, managed to drive a good ten feet before the bike slid from under her, and she stood hovering in the air. The bike skidded off and hit a tree. The man, whose name Josias didn’t remember, drove a bit farther away. The dwarfish form that stared at Josias and Sam swirled around and jumped and jumped. Two other dwarfs leaped over the boom box and grabbed the man’s legs and he slid away from the bike and slammed onto the ground. His bike jerked and swerved and fell and lay rumbling.
“Mommy, will you help me bake chocolate cake?” The child’s voice joined the man’s shrieking.
Then the giant form holding an umbrella also turned and hugged the man as if comforting a sad child. And the man laughed louder than the storm, louder than Miss Flower Sunshine. His piercing guffaw faltered and became a mad howl as the enormous wet outline twisted his arms, snapping each bone as calmly as a man snapping twigs. And still, a broad smile never left the man’s face.
“But don’t eat too much sugar!”
Another giant shape held the woman as she hollered and howled like a mad woman. A middle-sized silhouette approached her and twisted her neck as if turning a screw. When her head completely faced backward, the body slumped down, shuddering.
This time Sam stepped back and took Josias with her. Thunder raged, Miss Flower Sunshine sang about the pleasures of chocolate cakes and the wet shapes outside sauntered away from the mangled bodies to resume their lively nothingness.
The creatures were too many, strong and hungry. I’ll defend you! The knight in shining armor brandished his sword toward the night and he slashed and slashed as the bodies fell.
He dragged himself out of the cushion in the basement and out of the house, ignoring his rumbling stomach. He left Sam still snoring and went to check out the results of last night’s slaughter.
The streets glistened wet and blotches of clouds still lingered in the sky. By midmorning, the bodies had already lost color, the astringent scent of death beginning to ooze from them. Josias and a couple of other workers covered the bodies in a tarp and dragged them to be buried in the cemetery half a mile east of the neighborhood.
Before noon, they would find five more bodies, including a cat, two men, a teenager, and the geezer who had lost her dog—her pale gray body adorned in a pretty pink floral dress.
“Don’t you wanna go? Mr. Oliveira will cook some burgers.”
Sam didn’t leave bed all morning, which was odd, and refused to go to Mr. Oliveira’s, which was even odder since she loved burgers more than humanly possible.
“Go, please go and have fun. We both know you need it.” She rolled to her side and propped herself up on an elbow.
“We both need it.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You’ll go. And I’ll be really pissed if you don’t bring me some burgers.”
He shook his head and grasped his crotch. The silly gesture was worth it just so he could see her laugh.
Once in a while, the neighborhood would organize a small get-together to forget, for just a moment, the ones that come at night. They could gossip, share trivial things about life and their jobs (at least those whose jobs didn’t involve retrieving dead bodies from their homes,) anything that could distract them for a bit.
If only for a moment, they allowed themselves to forget about last night and many nights before and the nights to come. All his life brought him to this simple medium-rare burger dripping with onion and green sauce. Nattering with those who still remained and enjoying the afternoon sun was that glimpse, that spark that told him: life could still keep on going, despite everything.
But the siren opened its metal mouth to blare its usual message: night is coming and they are too.
Conversations snuffed out. Smiles withered. Plates and cups fell, spreading half-eaten burgers on the ground and orange and lemon juice plashing down. Neighbors and friends ran without uttering a word as the siren screamed.
His house was visible from two blocks away, the windows still uncovered. Then he ran as fast as his legs could take him.
Complete silence engulfed the world and he heard only his panting and his heartbeat throbbing in his ears. The sky was a deep shade of dark blue. Stars already blinked and stippled the quiet firmament, watching him.
Do it now.
He bolted to the house closest to him, praying it was open. For once, his prayers were answered, so he slammed the door shut behind him.
In this dark world smelling of dust and spoiled food, he breathed in through the nose and out through the mouth as slowly as possible, gagging through the effluvia. A smooth wave of relief washed over him when he felt his body still intact.
He had been here last week to retrieve the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Souza, an elderly couple. They were found mangled together on the living room sofa as blow flies swarmed about them. The smell still lingered.
He could go, bolt out of the house and reach his. A single block wasn’t that far. He could still reach—
Silence meant the door was open and they had come in.
It wasn’t raining today, so there was no way to see them. But he had to reach her, embrace her, hold her all night long until the morning sun came to appease them. Would she do something crazy and come looking for him? No, no. She was smart, smarter than him. She should know he was safe.
Josias sneaked on toward the end of the hallway. The yellow light of the lamppost illuminated part of the L-shaped staircase and a corner of the empty living room. Ahead was a small kitchen reeking of burnt olive oil. The food had been thrown in the garbage; the furniture—except the couch—was distributed among the neighborhood, so the kitchen was also empty.
He sat on the floor, his back against the wall.
No matter how hidden you are, how deep underground, or how many walls between you and the outside world, those outside reached anywhere. A lifetime ago, a friend of a friend of theirs had turned his basement into a bunker by covering every corner, from floor to ceiling, with soundproof panels. He had thought that maybe this could help. It had taken two men to pry open the door. Josias had never forgotten his face contorted in agony, facing up like a faithful pleading for divine help.
When they had cleaned the room, it had looked too neat to abandon, so he had moved in with Sam. He didn’t know who first had the idea to sleep in the basement every night. However, it became their ritual; perhaps by doing so, it offered a sense of security, albeit false.
Perhaps if he moved slowly, he could reach her safe and sound. They would survive another night and another.
Instead, Josias remained sitting, stretching his legs and back when they got too sore. Her soft voice danced in his mind, her calling out to him. It wouldn’t hurt to try. He had survived until now; why wouldn’t he survive another night?
Instead, he lay down on the cold, hard floor and closed his eyes to embrace the gloom that was already there. He’d survive again. Nothing had changed. He was in another person’s house, that’s all.
Now go to sleep, soon it will be over.
When he opened his eyes, only the pitch-black welcomed him. Utter silence. Josias raised his hand and didn’t see it. He had drifted off but not enough to go through the night. His back was sore and the back of his head ached. Hunger and thirst commingled with the pain in his crotch and stomach. He begged for a waste bucket and a cup of water; he begged for a sleeping pill. He begged for Sam.
Thinking of her relieved the pain for only a moment.
Was she crying right now? Or had she gone outside to look for him? He’d have heard, yes. He’d have heard her scream and laugh. He’d have felt it.
He rose, biting through the pain, and went to the kitchen door and saw the still black of the night, smudged by the yellow tinge of the lamplight. He knelt and put his member out as close to the wall as possible so as to not make a sound, then relieved himself. He could almost smile if he weren’t here alone. With his mind clear, he tried to think of a way out.
No idea came.
It was impossible to reach his house without stepping outside. The things were blind when people moved quietly indoors in the dark—as long as there were no doors or windows open—but sharp-eyed when they moved even a fraction of an inch outdoors after the blare of the siren until sunrise. No, just forget about it.
Go back to sleep.
Josias breathed in the stench of burned olive oil and lay down again, this time on the other side of the kitchen. It didn’t matter if his whole body was sore in the morning as long as it was intact.
The night stretched out for eternity, a minute longer than a decade.
When would the night end?
The darkness did dwindle, bringing in a dim pale light.
A motor bellowed out and smashed the silence like a hammer. Josias jumped, only to groan and bite his tongue when a sharp blade sliced along his neck and down the back. He rolled to his side and stood there.
Josias eventually rose and pissed on the floor right there and then again.
He shouldered the door open and ran as fast as he could, ignoring the pain. His house wasn’t locked, so he went straight to the living room.
Her body was already cold and not yet stiff. She sat on the couch facing the window with her arms sprawled out. Dry blood drenched her left wrist, seeping to the floor and blooming like a dark-red flower. Her face, almost serene, was kissed by the faint morning sunlight, so relaxed. Josias whispered her name and shook her shoulder. Perhaps she was still asleep.
Of course not.
He sat on the floor and rested his pained head against her leg. Next to her foot, he found a piece of paper adorned with her neat handwriting.
She invited her brother to dance in the night and bathe in starlight. Her knight in shining armor kissed her brow and put his hand on top of hers. We will be together forever, she said.
Josias laughed as loud as his throat allowed as warm tears blinded him. It was a lovely morning out there, full of birds singing and gloomy faces. He kept on laughing because tonight, her knight in shining armor would see her again.