There was always the cabin. Always the darkness outside of it, the calendar on the wall, and the flickering bulb.
But some things do change. There were more of us once. Gumpaw and Gamgam for starters. How we cried deep sobs of anguish when they could not be saved. Too slow, too feeble. Father can only do so much, he is already spread so thin protecting us that nobody blames him for what happened.
Out the window I can see other lights in the distance, spread out like strange constellations. Other cabins I think. But day by day, the lights go out. Many hundreds when I was small, just a few dozen now. Our own light, a single worn bulb dangling on wires from the cracked ceiling mount, is still going strong.
Even so, every so often it flickers. Goes dark for just the briefest moment. That’s enough for it to get in. We only survive because Father is so quick with the axe. It’s shaped differently every time, perhaps trying different strategies. But always made from the same viscous, stringy black shit, spreading out like spiderweb. Like a rapid mold colony time lapse from the point of entry. Writhing, thrashing, a tangled mass of wrong flesh.
It takes a lot of work to kill it. If not for Father, I don’t know what would happen. Whatever happened To Gamgam and Gumpaw. It just engulfed them, then when the light next flickered, they were gone. How they screamed, muffled by the constant flow of the black stuff into their open mouths.
All we can do is to mark on the calendar when the flickers occur, so there is time to prepare. All the while, the walls close in. Something pushes them from the outside. The darkness, I think. When Father leaves to go hunting in the darkness, the rest of us prop ourselves against the walls and push so that we don’t lose any more space. It’s the least we can do.
Every time he returns with this wild look in his eyes. Black sticky residue splattered across his face, takes ages to wash out of his hair in the metal basin we all bathe in. He never tells us what it is that he sees out there, however we badger him. He says he goes out to hunt so that we can have the luxury of not knowing.
Where does the meat come from? Not from the thing that gets in when the light flickers, surely. It’s tender and juicy, what little blood left within each cut looks red. But we ask enough questions already. None of us know what it is like to be Father, the only one who dares go outside into the black expanse for the sake of us all.
Mother does not always appreciate it. At times she complains that she is left to clean everything, to raise us, to break her back keeping the walls from moving in. Father is usually content to listen in silence, but today something out there must’ve rattled him unusually bad, because he snapped.
“SHUT UP! SHUT UP, SHUT UP, SHUT UP! LISTEN TO YOURSELF! DON’T YOU KNOW WHAT I DO FOR YOU? FOR THIS FAMILY? SOMEONE HAS TO GO OUT THERE! IS IT GONNA BE YOU? IF NOT, SOMEBODY HAS TO KEEP HOUSE WHILE I HUNT!
IS IT SO MUCH TO ASK THAT I COME HOME TO A CLEAN FLOOR AND FRESHLY MADE BED? IS IT SO MUCH TO ASK THAT YOU DO YOURSELF UP NICE AND PRETTY FOR ME BY THE TIME I GET BACK??
WHAT I’VE DONE JUST TO KEEP YOU AND THE CHILDREN FED! THE THINGS I’VE DONE JUST TO BRING YOU MEAT FOR YOUR BELLIES, THE THINGS I’VE SEEN OUT THERE!”
Mother quieted down, casting her gaze at the table before her. But she still ventured to say that he could simply tell us what’s out there any time he likes. Her change in tone calmed him down, a great relief to myself and sister as we’d been watching the exchange wide eyed and fearful until now. A house divided against itself cannot stand, and something wants very badly for ours to collapse.
“I’m sorry. If only you knew what’s out there. What’s always been out there. But if I told you I’d be worse than useless to you and the kids. Everything I do, day in and day out, is so you can be insulated from that. So you can have something like a normal life, until the boy is of age to take up the axe in my place. After that, before long what happened to Mom and Dad will happen to me.”
I began to cry. He came down on me for it as harshly as ever. “Stop that. I don’t abide any sign of fear. The moment you fear, you are lost. It finds any weakness, however small, and pries you apart from there. I need you to get stronger, for the sake of your mother and sister. Otherwise-”
The light flickered. Just like that it was inside, this time spreading from a crack in the door. Pandemonium followed. Sister and I shrieked as we frantically sought someplace to hide. Not that there would be any escape should Father fail.
How he hacked at it! Bellowing like some great beast. Chopping away the new growth bit by bit faster than it regenerates, until he’d whittled it down to the original nucleus. Just before he could deliver the final blow, it squirted some noxious fluid into his eyes. The axe still struck true, and the thing died as it always does. But this time Father collapsed, clawing at his eyes and howling.
He’s blind now. Several days have passed with no improvement. He lay in bed, simple grey sheets up to his chin, and whispers for me to come near. “This is why I told you that you must grow stronger. This was always going to happen someday. You can only protect so much with the strength you have. Eventually it takes away whatever you can’t.
But, there’s something I haven’t told your sister or Mother. I kept it from you until now because you were a boy. Now, however I’d like to give you more years as a boy, you must quickly become a man or all is lost. The walls will close in as you lose power against the darkness. Mother and sister will be taken even as you watch, powerless to stop it.”
I teared up, remembering too late how he doesn’t tolerate tears but also realizing he couldn’t see them. “What is it Papa” I whispered to him, clutching his cold hand. “Is it what waits for us outside in the darkness?” He weakly shook his head. “You’ll discover that for yourself soon enough. No, it pains me to say it’s something much worse. Look at the calendar.”
I did as instructed and eventually noticed that the flicker had been scheduled for the day after it happened. “The bulb’s finally going” Dad wheezed as the last life passed from his body. “The flickers will just keep getting closer together.”