This story was written in 2018 and is published here for the very first time.
Alan pulled the car over and smacked the steering wheel in frustration, the impact shooting a rush of adrenaline through him. He was lost, he was sure of it. Maybe a wrong turn back at the last roundabout? He rubbed his eyes and squinted through the windscreen. It looked like the right road, but something didn’t seem right about it. The darkness hid everything; made all the roads look the same.
He leaned back in his seat and allowed himself a moment of shut-eye as he left the engine to idle. Tiredness crept over him, thumping through his head, layering itself over his limbs. It was greedy for him, desperate to claim him. Alan yawned. It would be so easy to hole up in the lay-by and get some real sleep. His head was heavy, his eyelids were heavier, and his vision had started to swim during the last few kilometres. But home was no more than a few minutes away. He could make it. Surely.
Unless he really was lost …
He picked up his phone and loaded up Maps, waiting for the blue dot to stop jumping around as the location recalculated. In that moment the fear grabbed him. What if the map didn’t load? What if it left him stranded in the darkness? At last the screen settled and found him. He traced his finger along the road the blue dot had placed him on.
Yes! He was following the correct route after all. Just a few more junctions and …
He broke into another yawn, thinking about the promise of his bed waiting for him at the end of the drive. His eyelids drooped. The weight of his head as he stared onto the phone screen threatened to pull him down, down … down into sleep …
… yes …
A bright light pierced the black. Alan looked up sharply, shielding his eyes as the guilt stabbed at him. Headlights. That’s all it was. Just another car driving down the other side of the road. No, not driving: screaming. The roar of its engine was deafening against the blanket of silence. The glare filled everything, blinding him, forcing everything else into red-tinged blackness. Then it was gone. In seconds all that remained was the distant red glow of the car’s tail lights in his mirror.
Alan watched it go, watched as the lights seemed to slow before blinking into nothingness.
He rubbed his eyes. Where had they gone? The other driver had just turned a corner, that was all. They had simply driven out of his field of vision.
But the lights had disappeared …
Alan ignored the voice. The shock of the car passing by had woken him up somewhat. Now that he felt awake enough to drive all he wanted to do was get home. He put the car in gear, checked his rear view mirror—and stopped.
There was something wrong.
What was he seeing…?
The mirror was completely black. No stars. No lights. No trees framed against a night sky scorched into paleness by a hundred street lamps.
Alan shook his head and forced a grin. It was just night time, that was all. A dark road. No houses. No cars. No street lights. If he got out of the car and looked with his own eyes he would see that everything was perfectly normal. He almost reached for the door handle before stopping himself. He was just being stupid. It was time to get going.
He glanced at the rear view mirror again.
His muscles refused to move. One hand rested on the door handle. He wanted to get home. That was all he wanted to do. He wanted to collapse into his bed; his soft, warm bed. The bed that would carry him away to long-awaited sleep. He wanted to be home.
But he had to see.
He pulled on the handle, opened the door and stepped outside, feeling the stiffness stretching out of his back as he stood up. Just ahead of him the rough gravel of the lay-by gave way to the smooth, black tarmac of the road. Trees and low grass encircled the space on the other side. The tops of the trees rose into the milky darkness of the night.
Alan turned, looking further down the road where he had seen the car’s tail lights disappear. The road travelled on for a hundred meters or so, and then everything seemed to fade. The night settled into a pure, unforgiving blackness, swallowing everything beneath it. The velveteen sheet of tarmac disappeared from view. Trees rose and vanished. The stars were gone.
Alan rubbed his eyes and looked again. There was no denying it: a wall of absolute blackness filled the road he had driven down not five minutes earlier.
And it was moving.
He stared, fascinated, as another row of trees succumbed to the creeping void, the dim light reflected on their trunks fading into nothingness. The road behind him shrank, consumed by the inky mass. Even the sky was changing: a canopy of pure black spreading above him.
It took Alan’s overtired brain two more seconds to register what it was actually seeing.
The blackness was coming closer: it was coming for him.
He grabbed the car door, wasting another disbelieving second to make sure he was really seeing what he thought he was seeing. The road continued to grow shorter, the end drawing closer to him, trees slipping one by one into the darkness. What would happen if it reached him?
He didn’t want to find out.
He hurried back into the car, getting it in gear before he even remembered to put on his seatbelt. He snapped the strap in place and automatically checked the rear view mirror before he drove off. Solid blackness glared back at him.
He floored the pedal and the car sped out of the layby, skidding slightly as it turned onto the road. Alan’s heart pounded, the adrenalin driving away all his tiredness away for now.
As he drove, he kept his eye on the rear view mirror. There was nothing in it. Through the driver’s side window the trees remained visible, enshrouded by a perfectly normal night. He chanced a look over his shoulder. The darkness was still behind him, but it was shrinking, fading into the background. He was going to beat it!
A harsh light filled the car. Alan whipped his head back around, holding a hand against the blinding light that now confronted him. A shriek roared through the air, growing closer, peaking, then fading as the other car finally went past, heading in the direction that Alan had just come from.
He trembled, hands clamped on the steering wheel, and looked at the black road stretching before him. He’d forgotten to put his lights on! He flicked the switch and the tarmac lit up ahead. In his rear view mirror he caught one last glimpse of the car that had passed him, before it disappeared from view.
Had it been swallowed up by the blackness? Or had he just hit a turn in the road?
It was a straight road …
As Alan watched, the black wall behind him seemed to lunge forward, swallowing more of the sky and stealing the remaining trees from view. He put his foot down; in the brief moment of distraction, he had allowed the car to drift to a crawl. He couldn’t afford to let that happen again. Whatever it was, he needed to stay ahead of it. To stay out of the darkness.
Somewhere ahead, he recalled, there was a retail park: a freeway, car park, street lights—civilisation! Surely he would be safe with all the lights there. He pressed forward, not caring whether he was speeding or not. His rear view mirror showed nothing but solid blackness. Moments later, a sea of lights began to sparkle ahead of him. Almost there. Surely this was the moment he’d realise that he’d just seeing things: he would pull over, look behind him, and everything would be normal again.
He reached the first line of buildings. Street lights now surrounded him on all sides. The bright glow of the shops, demanding attention even when closed, gave him fresh comfort. Security floodlights lit up the shadows. A lone 24-hour McDonalds, bereft of customers, waited ahead of him. He drove up and pulled into the parking lot, grateful for the chance to stop and rest for a moment.
It was quiet. Normally he would have expected to see at least a couple of cars queued up in the drive-thru, but tonight the lane was empty. There were no customers inside, either. Just a single assistant waiting behind the counter, staring out at him. Alan shifted self-consciously. The assistant kept looking, their gaze pointed and accusatory, as if challenging Alan to drive over and order something.
He turned away and looked in the rear view mirror instead.
The blackness was still there. Still coming. It was almost up to the retail park.
Alan rubbed his eyes. Behind him the street lights blinked into darkness one by one. The glare of the retail park had done nothing to pierce the dark wall, or to slow it down.
And it was moving faster now! The more lights it swallowed up, the quicker it seemed to come.
Alan turned back to the worker, still sitting in his booth behind the window and oblivious to the approaching terror. The boy continued to stare at him, but this time there seemed to be nothing at all behind his eyes. The hollow gaze of the late night worker, Alan thought. He wondered if the boy had even blinked. He thought, only briefly, about going inside and pulling him away, saving the boy from oblivion, but that expressionless stare had started to scare him almost as much as the darkness.
He hit the accelerator and sped out of the parking lot. Lights beckoned him onto a road free of traffic. He watched into his rear view mirror, horrified to see the McDonald’s go dark, the blackness rushing over it in a swift and merciless second. He imagined the soulless gaze of the that worker, still staring at him as his world disappeared.
The traffic lights on the approaching overpass turned red. Alan looked in the mirror. The blackness was only metres behind: if he stopped, it would get him. He drove through, speeding past the stop light, praying there would be no cars coming from the off-ramp.
Then the overpass was behind him. He chewed tarmac, ignoring the red lights that occasionally stood in his path. Traffic passed him, but none of it seemed real. Cars drifted without pause into the wall of darkness. Nothing emerged again. Nothing appeared behind him.
And the darkness continued to get closer.
Alan sped up, going faster, faster until the road blurred ahead of him, until every glance in his mirror risked him missing the next turn in the road. He was driving for his life, even though it might just kill him. The road became an unreal thing, snaking and twisting ahead of him. Trees blocked his view until he drove past them to reveal the next potential obstacle.
Home couldn’t be far away now. Just a few minutes more.
He risked looking in the mirror again. Nothing there. He couldn’t see anything any more, not even the rear windscreen.
With his heart beating hard enough to escape his chest, Alan risked a glance over his shoulder.
The back of the car had gone, subsumed into the thick cloud of black mist that had finally reached him. It swallowed the rear seat inch by inch, crawling closer by the second.
And he was so close!
He pushed the accelerator all the way down, but it was too late: the darkness had him now. He had expected it to be cold and unnatural, but it wasn’t: it was warm, soft. As it caressed him, it was hard not to be seduced by its gentle touch. He just wanted to lie back, to fall into the warm darkness and let it wrap itself around him.
Then there was nothing but the blackness. All around him. Warm and soothing. Familiar. He stretched. Luxuriating in it. He felt the weight of blankets above him. The softness of his seat flattening and melting into the soft comfort of his pillow.
He was warm and safe in his own bed. The terrifying flight from darkness had been nothing more than his overworked imagination. He lay with his eyes open, relieved and tired, staring into the blackness of his room, no longer afraid of the darkness. The touch of his pillow against his head was the best thing he had ever felt. Sleep beckoned.
Then why was he awake?
A low rumbling came from somewhere. It caused the bed to tremble and filled the air with a low roar. He couldn’t understand it. All around him there remained nothing but darkness. He reached out, fumbling for his bedside lamp. He couldn’t find it. His hands kept coming up against nothing but wall.
A light started to fill the room, coming from somewhere far off, getting closer and closer. Twin beams coming right towards him. In moments they filled the room, forcing him to shield his eyes from the glare.
The bed began to shake, quaking violently beneath him, pushing against him as if to throw him into the approaching lights. A sound filled the air. A deep, thick wailing like the sound of a siren.
Alan opened his eyes. Bright light pierced the windscreen. It was all he could see. The air screamed around him.
Then, finally, there was blackness.
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