“But it must be as fast as light! Mrs Adams said light was the fastest thing,” James breathed hard, the words coming in thick from his excited thoughts. His short frame shook with each frantic in and out. “Grandma, dark must be as fast; I can tell look.” He clawed at the switch; arm extended to the fullest, with a resonate click clack to demonstrate his point. “Dark must be fastest than light!”
He beamed, he had proven his point and Mrs Adams could go and… he could not find the word he wanted. Frowning, a hand gently pressed his shoulder.
“I should think that Mrs Adams is right.” A voice rustled, sheaves of parchment in a breeze.
“She is the teacher.” James pouted and shook his head, unkempt hair swaying.
The fly on the wall did not care about the philosophy and science behind the conversation. It waited patiently, rubbing first its fore then back legs together, an insect prayer and reflection. Chemical stimuli directed it to fly towards a plate decorated in a mostly consumed lunch of some kind that involved meat and vegetables. Now cold and, imperceptibly beginning to rot.
James was about to launch into a tirade on how he was right, the only way a four-year-old (four and a half actually) can when he stopped. Something seemed out of place. He felt a new experience briefly rise, that feeling of skin tightening, goose bumps and a shiver in the spine. Adrenaline expanded the iris, allowing as much light as possible to flood his rods and cones. He did not know the name for this feeling. His subconscious mind allowing him to experience as much information from his surroundings as he could.
The green of the wallpaper shifted from olive to emerald, technicolour, like that old film he watched with the girl who wore ruby slippers. It did not seem real. The sensation came in waves, the second bought of the feeling made him appreciate the texture of the carpet, it was rougher and less comfortable under his bare feet than he remembered. As new sensations hit him unconsciously, his mind acknowledged, but could not understand or form a coherent message that this place he knew well was strange, different. The word his mind searched for but had no access too was threatening.
The fly had landed on the plate. It approached the remnants of the meal reverently. Light and dainty hops from rim to morsel made it appear an optical illusion. The movements were to quick and nimble and to the normal human eye looked erratic, like an automaton with a broken gearing twitching and jerking. When it finally stopped it resumed the rubbing of its legs. Its proboscis launched out to mix digestive enzymes with a scrap of meat. Slurping away, happily, might be the best word to describe it.
“What’s wrong James?” the voice of Grandma resonated, the tone had changed, like the wallpaper and the carpet, James was noticing more and more around him. As if darkness had clawed its way into the light and was changing. The veil had, ironically, been pulled but, hidden in the creases and corners of its folds it had removed distractions to see the nature of what lay underneath. These gaps made James uneasy.
There was something not right. For the first time he felt fear, proper fear. An immutable thing that had changed. Triggered by his thoughts on the dark, the dark, the darkness, the hidden and the tricks of the light. That was it the phrase that he had heard about, a trick of the light. Like in cartoons, where the shimmering heat haze turned the desert into a pool of water that the hapless character would dive into and have a mouth full of sand.
“James what’s wrong?” The same words from the same voice but in a different order. They floated up and away. Maybe they were asked again and again but who knew? His knees buckled, the school grey shorts revealing bruised shins from playtime. He was thirsty. Too thirsty to even scream.
The fly had lost interest in the desiccated plate. It hovered and swooped and followed a new lingering chemical sense. This was not rot – it lacked that sweetness; it was something passed rot but promising. It landed on something that should have been glassy but was now pallid and matt. The lidless and shrivelled eye of the boy watched.
The room seemed to contract and shimmer, it started in the corners, as if unseen hands flexed and remoulded the place. Resetting the pieces on a chessboard.
A framed photograph was the only sign of tidiness on the shelf. The frame surrounded by a shrine of dust and desiccation. Despite this the room was warm, the final spears of tired sunlight shifted through the window, flooding it with crimson, as a single fat fly lazily wobbled in the air. The elderly woman now had a name she thought she would be unused to but, when they passed the lips of Him, she realised it was as natural as getting old. Though many had now left here; this shining light was left. She glanced to the frame and studied the picture tears threatening to prick her opaque eyes. Reality had shifted.
“Grandma, we learned at school that light travels fast, it goes faster than noises; than a plane even!” The voice was tinged with excitement at being able to show that it had learned something and was passing it along.
The face smiled, new wrinkles pouring into the skin to extend the various cracks and troughs already imprinted by a lifetime nearly spent. She was happy; this little boy in his ‘nice jeans’ and his shirt (that had become untucked at the back) kept the loneliness at bay. She did not speak but continued to listen to the voice that seemed to take a breath after every word in the desperate need to talk.
“It goes faster than anything and it is used for lots of things.” He paused waiting and looking at his Grandma. She smiled. She was beginning to forget about before
“That’s very interesting James,” she meant it, there was no condescension in her voice. He was a child who loved to learn.
“And… I guess that means that it is really fast.” He seemed distant and began picking at a small cut on the back of his hand. Playing the game children played of gently levering a scab for the strange pain and pleasure response it caused; to see the jewelled platelets and fibrin structures come away from the skin. All the while not pulling enough to remove it completely.
The branches of the trees in the back garden began swaying from an unfelt breeze, the light from the dying day had turned from crimson to bruise purple.
“Tell you what…” she began but was cut into by James as if she was not there – as if he were talking to himself.
“Light must be so fast, so it isn’t caughted by the dark.” This was said as a statement, not a question. James’ immaturity showed in his speech. “Why is that Grandma? How come the light doesn’t want to be caught by the dark?” The trees were gently dancing, and the sky had haemorrhaged its colour. Sepia tones scrabbled to bluish black. The fly had now landed on a plate nestled on an old-fashioned coffee table. Four of its too thin legs perched on the remainder of a sandwich. The back legs rubbed together anticipating riches. Its sponge like proboscis dabbing and tapping, a geologist looking for a rich seem.
“The dark doesn’t know it is catching the light.” This she said without realising it, the comment reached to ears of Stephen, his eyes widened impossibly; his lips parted as if panting waiting to drink in new and dangerous knowledge. An edge of innocence about to be lost.
“What do you mean?” The voice, listless, searching for solutions that are only available to the young before they become cynical and forget questions are as important as answers. “Why don’t the light like that dark?” His mother would have gotten cross, but he didn’t care – when his voice lapsed into less than perfect grammatical English it was because of excitement or fear. The fly had stopped moving no more natural sunlight flitted even on the horizon. Skeletal, branched fingers stretched and flicked as the wind, ever present, stirred them to life.
“Hush now, I will tell you a story.” This was partially true, this was a story. It could not be true, Grandma remembered her Grandma telling her. The woman had been dead and gone for years. She barely remembered what she was like, just a vague image of a map of lines on a face and a smell of something, something familiar. The smell of slow running water on a hot day – the chemical tang of old metal pipes and algae.
A pause – James barely moved, he was unnaturally still, even the rise and fall of his chest had slowed to nothing. Fully attentive and listening. A quick dab of a dry tongue to moisten old lips and she began, with a lilted voice sweetened in the tones of a fairy tale. “The light fears the dark, just like you. Secretly, everyone is afraid of the dark. The light runs to stay away from it because it knows in the dark is where bad things can happen. It is unseen and unheard. It is where the evils live, it likes corners because light can skip over it and forget. The things in the corners are dangerous but light can outrun them. The problem is the dark is always just behind and, if it catches it then…”
The phone rang and Grandma picked it up. “Hello,” she said, frankly relieved to be free for a moment from the precocious boy. James remembered the nursery story and said under his breath:
“What big ears you have,” he grinned. At the window, a shadow passed, looking like a tall man. It was so quick he did not register it consciously. His Grandma made non-committal sounds and after a minute she put the phone down. “Grandma?” He asked in a gentle tone, cautiously. He remembered the final part of the story, the bit about the teeth and the eating of human flesh. She moved towards him, call and caller forgotten. Grinning.
The boy simpered and made noises that seemed alien, the house had become dark. Through the insect’s prismatic vision, a hundred James and Grandma’s shifted and moved – lithe in their fluidity. Even to strange eyes this was strange. There was silence. The fat fly rubbed its legs together. A prelude to further feeding.