The following was my entry for the 2018 Short Story Writing Contest over at A Writer’s Path. Hope you enjoy it, feel free to leave feedback if you have any!
The lights surrounding the Hallman Industries factory kept it lit up like a beacon. A light fixture was positioned every 50 feet around the structure with 60,000 lumens of output. These lights formed a ring of safety approximately 150 feet wide all the way around the factory. A ring of safety Mitra had hoped he would never actually need to rely on.
Calamity befell Mitra as he worked at the production line today. A misaligned rotor caused the belt on his production line to tear, taking it offline. The process of fixing it and making up for lost time to meet his daily production quota had taken two hours.
Now it was 6:30pm, and the sun was setting. It took with it the safety of its 90,000 lumens per square foot of blanketing light. As Mitra stared at the growing darkness beyond the safety of the factory lamps all he felt was despair.
The electrical hum of lights spinning up was welcome, so familiar a sound now that the dark was so terrifying. He looked up with hope and saw its source. A path of light fixtures illuminated before him, leading away from the factory. Looking more carefully he was certain this path led to the worker dormitories. To Mitra each light looked like an angel descended from heaven promising to guide him to safety. Each one another 50,000 lumens of defiance against the devouring darkness.
Mitra hurried towards the path of lights, anxious to get back into the safety provided by being indoors. There were rumors remaining outside after dark was dangerous, even with a light. He didn’t want to test the truth of it. As he approached, he began to see a problem with the path of lights. Each lamp post lit up a sizable area, but they didn’t provide a solid path of light. Between each circle of protecting aura was a dark region, probably about five feet across.
The first dark region was at the edge of the factory lighting. Mitra stared at it in apprehension. Was it really only five feet across? It seemed more like five miles. With a sigh he reached into his bag, looking around while still in the safety of the factory provided lights. After a few moments of searching, he pulled out a small lamp he always carried for emergencies. Its output was a measly 5,000 lumens. It couldn’t compete with the output of the floodlights above him, but maybe it’d be enough to get him across five feet.
Mitra approached the first dark region, his lamp held high above him, its light not even noticeable amidst the lighting from overhead. He approached as close to the darkness as he dared before he faltered. Mitra sensed the eyes watching him. He knew where they were coming from. They were coming from the darkness, just outside his sight. The devious things in the darkness, they were out for him tonight. Mitra felt compelled to ease back a few steps into the safety of the barrier of light from the factory.
Why would the designers leave gaps in the light here? Didn’t they know that even small gaps in lighting were dangerous? Mitra cursed, the designers must be ridiculously cruel, or ridiculously stupid, to have set up the lights like this.
Mitra studied the distance to the first circle of light. The gap was ten feet away, and the light five feet after that. He held his breath and closed his eyes. Then he sprinted, screaming, into the barrier of darkness, his small lamp held above him. He could tell when he crossed into the darkness even through his closed eyelids. His eyes also immediately told him when he returned to the safety of the light.
Mitra stopped and opened his eyes. After a moment spent looking around him he jumped for joy. He had made it! It was a small milestone, reaching the first light post. But it was proof, proof he could do this. He would simply sprint from light to light, all the way home. Mitra’s trusty handheld lamp, a mere 5,000 lumens, was enough to fend back the monstrosities that lurked in the darkness.
Mitra felt his confidence building as he approached the next gap in the light. The lamp held above him. He bolted through it, this time with his eyes open. He emerged from the darkness to the next spot of light. A wide smile formed on his face. He could do this.
Lift the lamp.
Sprint across the darkness.
Rest and recover.
Collect, lift, sprint, rest. Collect, lift, sprint, rest. Over the past several lights Mitra had gotten into a steady rhythm. He had almost lost track of how many lights he had run through. He hadn’t though, this was his fortieth light post. Things were going well, all things considered.
At light twenty-one, he had the sounds started. A weird mixture of chirping and clicking. He swore a dragging sound was accompanying it. And he was absolutely certain the sounds sped up, got closer and louder as he was sprinting through the dark areas. At around light twenty-four the worry started that his small lamp may not keep the darkness at bay. That just made him run faster.
He noticed the odor at light twenty-nine, a dank, almost rotten stink. It drifted in on the breeze, seeming to engulf him in it. The first time he smelled it he was taking a deep breath after his sprint from twenty-eight to twenty-nine, and he keeled over. It was a real struggle to keep his lunch inside him. The odor was so awful. However, now at light post forty, he barely noticed it. He was aware the stench was present, but, like the sounds, he had put them out of his mind. Mitra needed to do this to keep going forward, ignore the obvious signs of danger all around him, and focus on the task at hand.
Collect himself and prepare.
Lift his personal lamp.
Sprint like hell across the darkness.
Rest when he gets back into the light.
Light post forty-one.
Mitra had never bothered to count the light posts between the factory and the dormitories. He had planned on avoiding taking this walk after dark. The number of lights wasn’t important if he never intended to use them. He wished he had counted them. He couldn’t bear to count the number of lights remaining. But counting how many he had gone through gave him some level of comfort. A reminder he had done this already an increasing number of times.
Light post forty-two.
At light post fifty-seven he encountered someone. It was stunning to encounter someone else out in the darkness. Had misfortune smitten him with a similar mishap to the one Mitra dealt with earlier today? But then, why was he still here? Wouldn’t he have continued forward? Everyone knew getting home was the safest option. Who knew if something might happen. One of these lights may fail, and then you would be trapped in the darkness.
The person seemed huddled on the ground, unmoving and staring into the distance. Mitra spent just a moment trying to engage, but they simply stared out into space. He decided if they were going to space out that was their prerogative. Mitra couldn’t stick around and worry about them. Not when it was dark outside. He looked up to the next light, and his heart sank.
Light post fifty-eight was missing. He could clearly see where light post fiftyeight should be, but in its place was only darkness, all the way to light post fiftynine. He fell to the ground, right next to the person he had just met, and let out a smile cry in despair.
Before him was the reason this person was stuck here. They had been trying to get home, just like Mitra, and had encountered this obstacle, and were unable to move forward. Mitra also knew he would not be able to move forward. Not into the sea of darkness spread out before him.
He faced the person again and inquired, “How long have you been waiting?”
The person looked up, in the light Mitra determined them to be a man, probably ten years older than him. He finally responded with, “I’ve been stuck here for thirty minutes, hoping the light would come back on. Not even a flicker though. I fear we may be here all night.”
He had gone and said it, ‘we,’ as if he and Mitra were both going to be stuck here together. But, who was Mitra kidding? He was trapped here too. Mitra didn’t see how he could make it across such a stretch of darkness. Not with the sounds from the darkness amplifying as he stood. Not with the horrible odor reencroaching on his awareness, reminding him of the horror that waited just on the other side of the darkness.
Mitra knew that staying here overnight would drive him mad. But he also knew that he’d have to be mad to try to make it through the darkness. For now he would have to wait. He put some hope into the thought light post fifty-seven would turn back on. He didn’t have much hope to spare though.
A few hours seemed like an eternity. First the stranger Mitra met, then Mitra himself, had to relieve themselves. A small pile of human waste reminding them of their fear. The stench of it mixing with the stench that continually wafted in from the darkness. The stench was getting stronger, the noises getting louder. He could feel the presence building up around him. It was only a matter of time before Mitra lost his sanity in this small circle of light. He peeked at the man next to him. They hadn’t even exchanged names.
A strange warble rose in the night. Mitra started up looking around him. He almost expected something to lash out at him, light be damned. Mitra spun around, he lost track of where he thought the sound had come from. He gritted his teeth, was he going to spend all night like this? Was someone going to find him dead in the morning, lying next to a pile of his own waste? No, he would survive the night. He would! Even if he was forced to stay awake all night in this stupid circle. He looked at the watch strapped to his wrist.
The time hit him like a punch in the gut. Only three hours had passed. The sun would rise at 6:32am tomorrow. He still had nine hours of darkness to endure, sitting next to his own filth, shivering in the dark with this stranger.
“Hey,” he spoke out, remembering too late that he didn’t know the man’s name, “hey you. We need to make it across. We won’t make it the night, not like this.”
The man chuckled, “No, we won’t make it. It is too dark. Nothing survives the dark.” His voice carried a tone of finality, he was not going to move from this circle of light. This circle of safety in the night.
The light above them flickered, momentarily engulfing them in darkness before coming back on again. During that brief flash of darkness the man had transitioned from sitting to standing. Between the light transition and the swiftness of the man’s movement, Mitra had not seen him move. He was simply sitting one moment and standing the next.
The man was visibly shaken by the sudden darkness, at least as shaken as Mitra was. In his peripheral vision Mitra was quite certain he saw some kind of shadow against the very edge of the light. The terrors were trying to get in; to find Mitra and his companion. This was too dangerous. The safety of light post fifty-seven might falter at any moment. They couldn’t just sit and wait, not here.
Mitra scrambled back through his bag, pulling out the lamp he had put away. “Look! Surely you have a light as well? Alone they may not be enough, but together.” He held his lamp up, the light barely visible against the light post’s 50,000 lumens. The stranger pulled out his own lamp, Mitra saw it and his heart sank. It was a mere 2,500 lumen lamp. He understood why this man had not braved the darkness. Mitra wasn’t sure he’d have been able to brave the short gaps between light posts with such a weak source of safety. Even so, it would have to do.
“Look! Look!” he said, holding the two lamps together. The stranger lit his. Mitra could tell it didn’t exactly get any brighter, but he had to use this moment. This was it, or they’d be lost forever. “It’s brighter, bright enough to keep the darkness at bay!”
“It might be,” the man hesitantly agreed. Mitra knew the man wasn’t convinced it would provide enough safety, half unconvinced himself. Mitra led the way though, keeping the momentum, right to the edge of the circle of lightness.
“Here, come here. We’ll hold our lights up, like this. See!” He held his lamp above his head, the light seemed to eat into the darkness just a bit. Good, good, that’s what they needed. The man stood next to him, holding up his light as well. The darkness seemed to be pushed back, ever so slightly more with his added light. “We can do this. You hold your light, I’ll hold mine.” Mitra hoped the man wouldn’t see the begging in his eyes. Instead the man was staring at the small circle of light from their hand lamps, battling the darkness. Either convincing himself this plan would work, or this plan would fail. He had to avoid that argument, Mitra had to move now, lest he lose the courage to do this suicidal task himself.
“Alright, on the count of three, we run. One. Two.” Mitra began the countdown himself, not giving anyone a chance to back down. They would both run at once.
At the second count the other man started running, not even waiting for the third count, his small lamp held aloft. Mitra realized what was happening, the man was hoping to get ahead. The terror in the darkness would take the slower one. He couldn’t get too far behind. Mitra faltered, was it too late? He took a breath, closed his eyes, and sprinted into the darkness.
It only took two steps for him to realize how foolish it was to close his eyes when he almost stumbled. That would certainly have been fatal. He opened his eyes, focusing on his feet. Each moment a new patch of ground exposed by the light he held over his head. Each step he took, one more towards the safety of the next light post.
After a few steps he caught up to the stranger. He was sprinting as fast as he could, but so was Mitra. It seemed Mitra was a better runner.
The surrounding sounds became deafening, the stench overwhelming, the darkness terrifying. The chirping and clicking were joined by the sound of shuffling, almost slithering sounds. Mitra could tell something was moving on the surrounding pavement. What was it doing? Was it tracking him? Testing itself against the weak protection of his small lamp? It remained in darkness, out of his sight, but he had heard stories. Though part of him doubted them all because they said no one had lived to tell the tale.
So lost in thought and focus was he that he didn’t notice as he caught up with the stranger. The sounds coming from the darkness drowned out the own sound of their steps. The man didn’t notice he was upon him until after he started passing him. He wouldn’t stop, he wouldn’t slow. Mitra would make it into the light. Just a few more meters to safety. He could see the light ahead of him. It appeared to be reaching out to him as if offering a warm embrace. He longed to burrow in its warmth, in the safety it afforded against the ghastly darkness all around him.
He heard a sound, far too close to him. It sounded more like a screech than the clicks or chirps that had accompanied him so far. He turned to his right, unsure as to what he was seeing. A dark outline of a clawed hand appeared against the brightness, but it was gone in an instant. Mitra could tell his acquaintance noticed as well.
“Ha!” the man screamed, and Mitra felt his hand on his left elbow. What was he doing? The fool! He would trip him. The man jerked back on his arm, confirming what Mitra feared. The man wanted to trip him up. Only one of them would reach the safety of light post fifty-eight. If even that many made it.
Mitra almost stumbled, he was tired, but his adrenaline had peaked too. It gave him just one moment of strength, one moment of clarity, and, most importantly, one moment of balance. His left foot planted, then his right, and he jerked his elbow away. He felt the man try to pull him back, his arm extending before it reached too far. The man lost his grip and was thrown off balance. Unable to catch himself, he fell. Mitra leapt, trying to stay clear of the body that was flailing about at his feet.
The leap carried Mitra into the light of the light post fifty-nine. The man sliding in the dirt, slowed down quickly by the concrete on the ground. Mitra stopped, turning, extending his hand. He saw the man’s upper half had made it into the light. Both of them were going to survive! He had thought it impossible, but here it was, reality turning out far better than either of them had dared to imagine.
He took a step closer, then two. His hand reaching out, “Come on, pull yourself up! Grab my hand!” Mitra screamed at him, urging him forward. In this instance of mutual desperation he was willing to look past the betrayals this man had committed against him a few seconds ago.
A loud crunch emanated from the darkness. The mans eyes widened, and his struggles stopped. He looked at Mitra and his outstretched hand, shock overwhelming his senses. But only for a moment.
The man’s shock turned to terror, he let out a blood curdling scream, his fingers seemed to dig into the very concrete beneath him. Streaks of red forming as he dug. With growing horror Mitra realized that he was being dragged back into the darkness. His fingers desperately grasping at the concrete, his scrabbling grinding off the tips of his fingers and leaving a trail of blood behind. The man’s eyes locked on Mitra’s, pleading through the terror. His mouth locked open screaming in pain and horror.
The man’s pleading stare seemed to last for hours. Mitra frozen in place, realizing he could do nothing to help him. If he grabbed him he’d just be pulled into the darkness as well. Then with a sickening squelch the man was suddenly pulled into the darkness completely. Mitra expected a scream, but the night was engulfed in complete and utter silence.
Fear gripped Mitra, his chest contracting, his breath stopped. He peered into the darkness. It beckoned to him. Dared him to enter. Mitra saw a face in the darkness. It called to him. “Just a little closer,” it whispered. Part of him wondered if it was something he imagined, or if it was real. He took one step closer to the edge of the circle of light. His foot stepping on a splotch of the stranger’s blood. The redness of it shown out amidst the gray of the concrete, reminding him of what he had just seen, bringing him back to his circumstance. He had to get home.
He turned around and ran. Sprinted faster than he ever had before. He hurtled past the next light, and the one after that, and the one after that. Not even bothering to count or build up courage at each gap of darkness. He ran forward like his life depended on it. To the core of his being, he knew it did.
Mitra had stopped keeping track of his progress after the dark light post. But he had crossed the light trail from the industrial zone and was now safely within the residential villa. To his right was the first dormitory, over fifteen stories tall, it probably housed fifty families.
Living space for factory employees was at a premium. It didn’t help that the owners of the factories were jamming as many employees in the prefab dormitories they had built near their source of labor as they could. Mitra didn’t mind, it was just him living in his dorm. The three room block he had rented out sufficed just fine. One room for him to sleep in and maintain privacy, one room for guests and some light cooking, and one bathroom. It wasn’t much, but when he considered he knew of families of four living in the same space, he figured he had it pretty well.
The dormitory building Mitra lived in was several blocks within the dormitory villa. Things tended to be more lit further inside the dormitories, providing a better sense of safety. And most importantly, with the residential villa came the lights of the residential villa. More 60,000 lumen lamps, every 150 feet, forming a grid over the entire villa. When Mitra reached the edge of that bastion of safety he fell to his knees, breathing convulsively. Each ragged breath dragging in another lungful of air and then pushing it out. He needed to get more oxygen, he didn’t even notice how long he had been running. His body almost purely fueled by adrenaline. Now that he was in the relatively safety of the residential villa, his legs complained along with his chest. He would sleep well tonight for sure. Mitra knew he would probably still be paying for what he had put his body through in the morning.
Mitra took a few moments to recover, stooped over, breathing hard. He then stood up and looked around. It took a moment to reorient himself. He was still on the outskirts of the residential villa. He got up to walk towards his house. It still didn’t feel comfortable outside int he darkness, but the safety of the villa lighting was far superior to the lamp posts he had been in. He didn’t want to guess how long he had been outside. And he was actively putting the events at the dark light out of his mind. He would deal with that trauma a different day, not tonight.
As usual, all the residential lights were on throughout the dorms. No one slept with the lights off. To do so was considered suicidal. Even the unoccupied rooms had lights on. More light was preferable to even a shadow of darkness. Mitra walked past column after column of windows. Each one had a family lit by the lights in their dorm, engaged in a variety of activities. Some were eating late at night, some sleeping, some watching the television feeds. Anything to distract them from the horror that was lurking outside in the darkness. A horror Mitra had just become much too closely acquainted with. Mitra avoiding thinking about that. His home was a few buildings away. He focused on making it home. If he hadn’t been too distracted trying to keep his mind busy, he’d have noticed that a few of the windows in his dormitory building were not lit.
He pressed his palm against the entry door and it buzzed in refusal. It was annoying they relied on biometric security for everything here. “You don’t need to carry around any keys!” was the selling point they used to justify it. But it meant if your hands were dirty you couldn’t get into your home. Mitra’s hands were obviously dirty after a long day of work and an eternity spent trying to escape the darkness. He wiped his hands off his pants until he was satisfied they were clean and tried again. The door dinged and let him in.
He pushed open the door and the warmth of the light embrace him. This wasn’t just any light, this was interior lighting, from his own home. It was a comfort simply to bask in its glow. He slammed the door behind him, hear the comforting sound of multiple automatic bolts locking behind him. The dormitories were built like fortresses, giving some semblance of hope even if the lights had gone out.
As he walked up the stairs in the center of the structure, it troubled him that one of the lights on the third level was flickering. He’d have to get maintenance on it right away. One flickering light was one too many. It brought back a brief memory of being stuck inside a circle of light. When had that happened? Eon’s ago? Or was it just tonight? He hurried past it when he got to that flight, not wanting to risk being in darkness, even inside the building.
He moved to his room and pressed his hand against the hand scanner. The hand scanner gave a chime, and he heard the mechanical bolts snapping open. The door opened with a satisfying creak. But through the crack of the door darkness emanated as if invading the light hallway.
Mitra paused. Had Mitra left the light off? He never came home after dark, but he always kept the light on just in case. Everyone prepared for the darkness, no exceptions. Mitra was having a hard time fathoming how he’d have left the light off in his dorm. He considered just sleeping in the hallway, but he had a duty to his dorm mates to turn on his light. All the lights on ensured the safety of the dormitory, one light off was a weakness.
He shuffled through his bag for his lamp again. It was getting way too much use tonight. He clicked it on and held it up before him, the light cutting through the darkness. As he pushed the door open the light from the hallway also crept into the room. He stepped inside, walking over to the light switch. The door automatically closed behind him, leaving him to just his hand lamp. When he reached the light switch, he immediately pressed the on side of the switch. But it didn’t work, the light switch was already in the on position.
He turned to find a replacement bulb in a cupboard behind him. Everyone kept a stock of spare light bulbs. As he reached up to open the cupboard, he lost his grip on his hand lamp. His heart almost stopped as the glass bulb shattered. The room was plunged into total darkness.
Then he heard it, the chirping sound from behind him, followed by a shuffling sound. Had one of them gotten into his dorm? This was impossible! He was well inside the residential villa. They couldn’t be here!
Mitra didn’t have time to fight for the light bulbs or the broken hand lamp, he dove for the door. He felt more than heard a loud thump as something impacted the cupboard behind him.
“Oh shit!” he screamed as he reached for the door, pulling on it. The locks! They were automatic. He heard the breath behind him, felt the floor seem to strain as the weight of whatever it was shifted behind him. His hands fumbled along the door frame looking for the lock mechanism. He found it, something screech behind him, he turned the bolt. The door flung open, a crack of light bursting into the room. A pained roar erupted from behind him, but he didn’t stop to look. He pulled himself out through the door, slamming the door closed behind him.
His body slid down the outside of the door, trying to comprehend what had just happened. He needed to raise the alarm, they were in the dormitories! The door behind him thumped with a loud bang. The impact practically knocked him off the door and into the hallway. He turned and looked down the hallway, he saw the fire alarm. He ran for it and pulled the lever.
The dorm erupted with an ear splitting shriek from the alarm, the emergency strobes flashed. A sudden, but welcome, annoyance. He expected to see residents pouring out of the other dorm rooms, but no one came. Mitra bolted to the window and looked outside. Terror filled him for the what certainly was the hundredth time tonight. Several lights throughout the residential villa were off. He pulled himself up under the brightest light, right in the middle of the hallway. The emergency light strobing away above him, the siren blaring.
Mitra noticed that his door was open, the darkness creeping out of it, but once ajar it seems whatever was in there was no longer interested in coming out. He laid down, trying to be as comfortable as he could. Before long he was overcome with exhaustion, the strenuous activity he had done less than an hour earlier took over his fear. His mind couldn’t take any more terror tonight. It was doubtful he’d survive until morning, but his body didn’t seem to care at this point. He was lulled to sleep beneath the wail of the siren and the strobe of the emergency light.