“Don’t turn on the light.”
Amy Bennington turned on the light.
Under the yellow glow from a corkscrew CFL bulb, her new home looked like an alien landscape. Moving boxes littered the purple-flowered carpet surface. She breathed in an atmosphere of aniseed and antiseptic the ancient alien who’d occupied the house had left behind.
Mr Ainsley was the alien who’d sold her the house. A widower in his eighties who’d spoken a strange alien language through his shrunken lips. She’d managed to interpret his words on her last viewing.
“Teem faw a cheenge,” he’d said.
Time for a change.
How much time he had left, she didn’t know, but she agreed. She’d made a change herself. Now, standing in the new house, in a new neighbourhood far from the house she’d shared with her husband, she felt lonely for the first time in months.
An image of Owen in his permanently white trainers, and a permanent frown on his face, walked through her mind. That look hadn’t changed in all the years of their marriage. It hadn’t changed much even in the days after their child had died.
Six months had passed since she’d seen Owen. Sometimes she missed the stupid frown. Sometimes she missed his dumb white trainers. Sometimes only the trainers came to mind when she thought of him.
If I can so easily forget Owen, what hope do I have of remembering a child who never lived a day? she thought.
A chill ran through her at the thought, but Amy shrugged it away. She couldn’t afford to lose another night to tears. She’d vowed her new life would begin in the new house on Blakely Close, far from Owen, far from the memories.
Not far enough, she realised as she picked up the nearest box.
Constructed with red cardboard and sealed with brown packing tape, the box had once housed a colourful variety 24-pack of crisps – green packets of Salt & Vinegar, blue packets of Cheese & Onion, red Ready Salted, and pink Prawn Cocktail. Now it contained a single black wooden box.
Inside the red box sat a smaller, matt black wooden box, about half the size of those that Owen’s white trainers came in. And inside that box…
Amy dropped to the couch. She’d packed the smaller box inside the larger as an act of camouflage. A pointless trick, but it had felt right at the time.
Inside the red box, a black box, and inside the black box…
Amy took a deep breath and started to pick at the edges of the packing tape. It came away like sunburned skin, but didn’t expose enough of an edge to pull.
Inside the red box, a black box, and inside the black box…
A Russian nesting doll packed away in one of the other moving boxes came to mind. A childhood gift given to her by a friend of her father. The first doll, brightly painted in oranges and red, gave way to successively dully painted dolls beneath, the last almost sepia.
Nested inside the bright red box, a dark black box. Inside the dark black box…
Grey. Her son’s brief life reduced to a handful of grey ashes in a black box.
Amy fixed on the red box in her arms. She saw through the red, the black, through the grey and into the past.
She returned to the night in the hospital after Noel’s death. Alone in a room dipped in amber light, thick netted curtains on the windows trapping the stars, she’d cradled a baby who wasn’t there. She’d whispered a name, “Noel”, to a child who’d never hear it.
Inside a red box, a black box. Inside a black box…
With Noel’s name still numb on her lips that night in the hospital, she’d ghosted her way through the pine-scented halls to stand in front of a large, wide window overlooking the sleeping newborns.
She’d imagined Noel amongst them, swaddled in blankets, his tiny hands reaching up to hold onto her. But his hands would never grasp. His lifeless body, wrapped in white, lay in a locker in the morgue, as colourless as the last nested Russian doll.
Everything is nested, Amy began to think. Everything inside one thing or another.
Inside a hospital, a woman, and inside a woman, a boy. Inside a boy a heart, and inside that heart an unseen flaw.
Amy turned from her memories and watched through the front window as the street lights shivered to life on Blakely Close.
A youngish couple dressed in luminous Lycra jogged out of the cul-de-sac, a thin German shepherd dog at their side. An old woman stood on her porch with arms folded, watching over two fat corgis as they relieved themselves on her lawn. A black cat yawned its away across the garden hedge, then lost itself in the shadows of the only tree on the close.
Life went on unmindful of Amy Bennington and her memories. Life went on, and so would her life, she’d vowed. A new home, and a new start. No matter how alien it felt, she had to put the past behind her.
Half an hour later, Amy climbed the folding stairs into the attic with the black box in hand.
A layer of dusty footprints marked the pattern of her previous journeys from the attic entrance to the far corner where she’d stored her past. There, a pancake stack of birthday, Christmas and Valentine’s cards leaned up against a rucksack bulging with forgotten photographs. Her one-eyed childhood doll, Suzy, sat nearby, her hand extended for a cup of tea twenty-five years late. Above it all, Amy’s white wedding dress hung from a rafter like a tired ghost.
Amy felt the dull ache of grief and turned her back on the collected remnants of her past, but she couldn’t ignore the feeling. She carried that feeling with her like she had the weight of Noel through her pregnancy. She thought she might carry it with her forever.
No, she told herself. I have to move on. I must try to forget. New life in a new home. New me.
The box in her hand disagreed. It weighed as much as the earth, and Amy couldn’t hold it much longer without sadness threatening to overwhelm her.
She approached the gathered history in the corner of the attic, the box in hand like a sacrifice to some ancient and forgotten god.
All I have to do is leave it here and forget, she thought.
I’ll never forget. I can’t forget. I won’t forget him.
Hands shaking, she turned her back on the gathered past and walked to the opposite side of the attic, where a slanted window looked up into the sky above. She sat cross-legged beneath, the black box cradled in her arms.
Tomorrow, she thought. Tomorrow I’ll let go. Tomorrow I’ll make my new start properly.
Amy rocked back and forth, an unsung lullaby running through her head.
Go to sleep. Go to sleep. Go to sleep, little baby.
I wish he was alive, she thought. I wish. I wish. I wish he was alive.
She searched for a star to make her wish upon, but a starless sky looked down at her.
I wish. I wish. IwishIwishIwish.
“Noel,” she whispered, through fresh tears.
A fresh wind howled across Blakely Close, and the street lights flickered off and on again as if in answer.
The howling wind broke Amy from her thoughts. She wiped the tears from her eyes, then carefully placed the black box containing Noel’s ashes on the attic floor.
Tomorrow, she thought as she walked back to the window. Tomorrow.
Amy stared out onto Blakely Close. Before her, the lonely oak crackled under the blowing wind. The street lights blinked nervously. A wind chime screamed, then lost its voice as the gale tore it off its hooks.
From the mouth of the cul-de-sac, the running couple emerged, their barking German shepherd dog whirling around them.
“Colonel! Stop that now. Bad boy,” the running woman shouted.
The dog twisted on its lead, trying to break free in one moment, then biting at the wind the next.
“Colonel! What’s got into you? Stop that!” She yanked hard, and the dog came up off its paws.
Amy gritted her teeth and stepped back from the window. The running woman reached five feet in height, and it didn’t look like she could pull a full-grown dog off its feet, but reality proved the opposite. Amy feared the dog might choke to death if the woman gave a few more yanks.
“Colonel!” the running woman shouted.
Amy stepped toward the window, ready to reveal herself if it would help stop the torture. Even a quick whistle might distract the woman long enough to save the poor dog from a hanging.
She had no need to interrupt. The running woman let the lead go, and the German shepherd landed back on its paws.
“Will you stop it? Stop it right now. Bad boy!”
The dog looked confused, but not for long, as it started barking and biting again a few seconds later.
The running woman turned to her partner. “It’s your fault he’s like this, David. I said we needed to get him trained, didn’t I? Didn’t I?”
The running man, David, looked everywhere but at the woman next to him. He lowered his head and nodded like a guilty school boy.
“I was all for a cat, but no, David wants a dog, so David gets a dog.”
“All you had to do was--”
The howling wind robbed the words from her mouth. An angry look crossed her face, and Amy thought the woman might start shouting at the wind as she had her husband and the dog. Then the lights went off.
One by one the street lights on Blakely Close blinked out. Darkness spread like spilled oil and swallowed the running couple and their dog whole, along with all their noise.
Amy hugged herself against a sudden chill in her bones.
The lights would come back on soon, she reassured herself. More than likely the high winds had damaged a local power station. It had happened before in her old neighbourhood, and the utility company had the lights back on in fifteen minutes.
The thoughts couldn’t reassure her as she stared into the darkness. Blakely Close had disappeared in the black. Beyond the cul-de-sac, the lights of the town twinkled and flickered like faint, unreachable stars.
A familiar and dreadful loneliness crept into Amy. She’d felt it the first night in the hospital after Noel’s death, when a crazy notion had entered her mind only she’d survived the end of the world. She’d pictured herself shuffling through lonely corridors in a lonely hospital, then out onto streets just as lonely. She’d seen herself walking forever in an empty world, and part of her had welcomed such a future after the death of her child.
Not any longer. Dread suffused her. The loneliness felt real, not a figment of grief and imagination. In the blacked out and silent neighbourhood only she existed now, and that terrified her.
Turn on, Amy thought, wishing as hard for the lights to come back as she had for Noel to return to her. Come on, whoever it is who fixes these things, get a move on. I don’t want stand here all night in the dark.
She didn’t want to stand there for fifteen minutes, or five minutes, or another second more with only her nervous heartbeat and the dark silence spreading through the neighbourhood.
Where are the running couple? Why aren’t they saying anything? Amy thought. People don’t just stand around silently in the darkness. Neither do dogs, for that matter. Why isn’t that dog of theirs barking like it was before?
The silence stretched out thin and frail as crepe paper around her. She felt herself about to tear along with it.
Where the bloody Hell are you? Where’s your stupid bloody dog? she thought.
Amy stepped forward, hoping the faint lights of the town would reach the couple below. Even an outline would do to calm her fears.
The wind howled, but the light from the town died long before it reached Blakely Close. In the black, Blakely Close no longer existed.
The light isn’t coming back, Amy thought. This isn’t a normal blackout. This is--
Her thought died as voices floated up from the darkness.
“David?” the running woman asked.
“Polly? Where are you?”
“Right here. Where else do you think I’d be?”
“Right, you’re sorry. Always sorry. That doesn’t help us now, does it?”
He mumbled something near to a ‘no’, but Amy couldn’t hear it as the howling wind muted him.
Amy reached into her jeans pockets for her phone, but found them empty. She remembered she’d left it charging downstairs. As far away now, it seemed, as the town and its light.
From the street, the running woman spoke again. “Yeah, right,” she said. “Give me your phone, David. You did manage to remember that, didn’t you?”
On the street, a bright oblong of white bloomed in the running man’s hands. Under the light, both his and his wife’s faces shimmered like pale ghosts. Amy allowed herself a fantasy of the running couple as real spirits, doomed to run the circuit of the cul-de-sac forever.
“Just give the bloody thing to me, David. God! I have to do everything!”
The running man didn’t complain as he handed the phone over to his wife. Soon, she led the way, the phone held in front to guide them to a house at the end of the cul-de-sac. Her shrill, complaining voice haunted the night even as they entered the house, their barking dog closely behind.
“I should have bought a cat.” BARK. “Two of them.”
Amy felt the tug of fear again as the voice faded into the blackness.
I’m alone, she thought. I’ll always be alone. The lights won’t ever return.
She counted heartbeats like seconds, but time had slowed again in the presence of the darkness. She’d made it to ten and ten again, not knowing if a minute or five had passed, when the lights blinked back to life on Blakely Close.
Amy let out a held breath in relief. She’d never feared the dark, but she’d never faced it alone before.
I’m stupid, she thought. I’m not a child. It’s just a power cut somewhere, nothing more.
She shook the fear off as she descended back into the house.
With the lights on, the world had returned to normal, and life went on. Her life went on.
A new life in a new home, in a new neighbourhood.
She’d made three visits to the house before deciding to settle into the house on Blakely Close. The affordable asking price had spurred her on, but the neighbourhood had sealed the deal.
No curtains had twitched when she’d visited. Not a soul had visited after she’d moved in. Privacy, the time alone she’d thought she most needed, seemed guaranteed. Outside the house a faded metal sign bolted to the oak tree read: NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH ACTIVE IN THIS AREA. But nobody watched on Blakely Close, and nobody cared.
With the lights back on, and the past hidden away in the attic, Amy started to unpack.
In her upstairs bedroom office, she shelved her books by colour. At the library where she worked, such organisation would equal a sin, but at home Amy preferred orange next to orange and green next to green. It didn’t matter if Charlotte spun her web impossibly close to the tree where Boo Radley left his trinkets, or the Swallows and Amazons rode the river beside the Hundred Acre Wood, they looked pleasing to her eye.
She finished the colourful display with crystal butterflies from her childhood collection, as though books and flowers contained the same nectar.
By midnight, her alien feelings had dissipated. Even the faint smell of antiseptic and aniseed had faded, smothered by the fumes of instant coffee and a microwavable tandoori chicken she’d eaten for a late tea.
The last of the moving boxes folded down, ready for recycling, Amy stood in the kitchen preparing lunch for work the next day when a loud crash came from the garden.
She jumped, dropping the butter knife from her hand.
Fool! she thought as she scooped it up. You’re on your own now. No more Owen to run to because you’re scared.
Like I ever ran to Owen for anything, she thought. He’d be the one running to me, if I’m being real.
She giggled nervously as she stepped out into a garden revealed under the backwash of the kitchen light.
A strip of lawn, ankle-high with uncut grass, reached back to a brick wall where the previous owner had left his garden tools to rust and rot. Under the weak light they formed a lumpy shadow, but Amy had inspected them earlier that day.
Two toothless rakes, a spade with a missing handle, a handle with a missing spade, and several rusted trowel heads formed the bulk of the shadow. Off to one side, a garden hose coiled up around the bottom of a three-legged stool with only two legs remaining. To the left, sat a collection of glass jars filled with brown rusted liquid and strange twists of metal.
Cat, Amy thought as the crashing sounded again like a clumsy one-man-band, all instruments out of tune.
Amy pulled out her phone and tapped the torch app.
The phone pushed out a slab of white ice light that melted the further from the house it reached. The last grey trickles of it touched the back wall.
Amy strained to see a cat under the new wash. The shadowed, toothless grins of rakes looked back at her. The coiled snake of garden hose rose up as she cast the light out and across it. Shadows grew in the glass jars and turned the twisted metal into grinning fetuses. She shivered at the thought of something living in the jars and turned her back on the garden.
She’d taken a few steps when the wind cried out.
Amy turned as the gale hit her and pushed her into the kitchen. She fell onto her rear, the phone spinning wildly across the kitchen floor and out of reach. Then the lights went out on Blakely Close again.