It was dark. Too dark. The moon, which should have been full, was smothered in a blanket of clouds and the few street lights that were still standing and which hadn’t been strangled by ivy hadn’t worked in years. Even if there had been light it would not have been a happy scene. Tree roots burst through what had once been roads; the paving slabs were treacherous with moss. Once this had been a suburban high street, a place for little old ladies to stand in front of their favourite shops and gossip while their grandchildren shrieked around on scooters, a place of commerce and community. Now it looked empty of everything except ruins and the constant, pervasive, oppressive plant life.
Then something else. A hand. A foot. Moving slowly but surely, two figures scrambled over a tree trunk and onto what had been the road. Despite the darkness, both were wearing heavy woollen blindfolds.
“I think mine’s wearing off,” the smaller of them said.
The other held up a hand and turned in a circle. She seemed to be concentrating intensely through the wool. A brush of wind stirred the leaves, but otherwise nothing so much as twitched. The first figure sighed.
“They don’t come up here,” she said. “It’s the wrong side of town.”
“It’s not them I’m worried about.”
“Yes it is.”
The taller figure had spotted, somehow, something that could have been a door. If there had been glass, it had been shattered. A branch curled through the empty space, beckoning them. She consulted a piece of paper in her hand.
“I think that’s it.”
The smaller scratched at her ear under the blindfold. “Sure?”
“Won’t hurt to try.”
A little searching produced a window, long gone, that they could just about squeeze through. The taller figure went first, pulling the smaller figure after her.
Like most buildings on the street, it had been a shop. Branches and brambles had done for most of it, but the honeycomb of shelves was still just about visible and, though musty, they were still stocked with merchandise. It was nothing in high demand. All food and hygiene items were long gone, but this shop was almost full. The smaller figure picked her way over to a shelf while the taller did another sweeping check.
“Clear,” she said.
“It’s acrylic,” whined the other, weighing a ball of wool in one hand and trying to make out the label. It was impossible to tell what colour it would have been originally; now it was a damp, uninspiring brown. “Currie won’t like it.” She put it in her pocket anyway.
Satisfied that it was safe, the taller joined her at the shelves. Together they filled their bags, making comments about weight and needles and saturation, which would have sounded completely normal if you missed the occasional use of the word ‘magic’. When their backpacks were full they slung them back over their shoulders and wriggled back outside. The smaller one whimpered in pain as she landed on a thin, mossy tree root.
“I told you it was wearing off!”
The taller one shushed her. For a moment they stood stock-still, the slight rise and fall of their chests the only thing moving in the stillness of the night. They shared a glance, or would have done had the blindfolds not stopped them, and as one made their way down the street. The darkness swallowed them again.
Across town, another pair were inching along. They wore huge, heavy-duty backpacks and walking boots that were caked in years of mud. They had a torch. They were holding hands.
The torch was a mistake.
Without it, though, it would have been impossible to see. Here the plants had peeled back from the road and some of the buildings, making their passage easier as long as they avoided the cracks and piles of rubble. But a broken ankle could take only a stray stone, and they were some way from their destination yet. The young woman was passing the torch from side to side with the grim determination of someone who doesn’t want to miss even the smallest ant. The man held, without much enthusiasm, a plank of wood with a nail in it.
“What time is it?” he asked.
“Midnight,” she replied, without looking away from the torchlight. “Blackest, darkest midnight on the night of the winter solstice, a night when dogs howl and anybody with any sense stays inside with the doors and windows firmly locked, lest strange beasts from beyond rear their ugly heads in search of victims.”
He laughed. “What time is it really?”
“Hold on a moment.” She released his hand so she could inspect her watch. Against all probability, it was still working. “Quarter to two.” She took his hand again.
“We’ll be there by four.”
“God, I hope so. I feel like we’ve been walking for days.”
“We could play I-Spy. I spy, with my beady eye, something beginning with...D. D for donkey.”
“Where’s the donkey?”
The words were normal enough, for these two. The tone had only the slightest hints of hysteria behind it. It had been a long walk, from their commune in what had been the council building of the next town over, made longer by the need to weave their way through the maze of bushes and hedges and trees. The streets had only become passable in the last half-mile or so. If either of them had noticed anything suspicious about this, they were keeping it quiet so as not to disturb the other.
They should have said something.
They should also have remembered something else: you can keep as close a watch in front of you as you like, but it’s no good if the danger is behind you.
At the next junction, they had a discussion about where to go. Straight on was the more direct route, it seemed, but the street to the right was clearer. Both of them knew this area, or had known it before the Green, and by the sound of it there was another street that would take them left again, and then they could follow that and take a few more turns and be outside the city hall, and from there it was just a matter of going downhill until they reached…
“Let go of her,” said a new voice, from one of the shadows.
The young man held his girlfriend’s hand tighter and made a good attempt at brandishing the plank in the direction of the voice. “No.”
“Let go of her, or we’ll make you.”
“We,” noted the young woman with the torch. “There’s more than one of them.” She’d gone white, and the torchlight was trembling. The hand that held his was perfectly steady.
Another voice said, “There’s more than three of us. And we’re armed. And the Mother is behind us. So if I were you, I’d just let go and come this way, and that way nobody will get hurt.”
“We’re not going anywhere with you,” the young man declared, sounding braver than he felt.
The first voice laughed. That was bad enough, but then the second one joined in. The young woman whipped the torch around to take in the first figure, leaning against a doorway, but then another laugh started up behind her, from the straight-on street, and she couldn’t shine the light on all three of them at once.
“Who,” said the one pinned down in the light, “said we were talking to you?”
A shadow darted forwards; the torchlight swung upwards and he felt his girlfriend’s hand wrenched away from his. He lunged in her direction but stumbled forwards, blinded by the sudden movement of the light, finding nothing.
Her! Her voice, just once, before it was muffled by something - a hand? cloth? - but it was there and he ran after it without a second thought, forgetting that he was a coward and a weakling. Pain flashed through his toes. The next moment he was on the floor, winded and hurting, but she needed him and so he wrenched himself upright and...and…
And nothing. The only thing he could hear was his own breathing and the sound of his heart threatening to burst out of his chest. No footsteps. No strange figures. Nothing but himself.
A flickering light took him to the torch, abandoned on the floor. He picked it up. It was still warm, probably from the electric current but he pretended it was from her hand and gripped it, hard, to keep back the panic.
“Dannie?” he called, softly. When nothing answered, he tried it again, but louder. That got no response either, so he risked sweeping the torch around.
The street was empty.
Dannie was gone.