Off the motorway, between one city and the next, there was a town that disappeared at night. Not literally, of course, but the truth was just as strange – the town emitted no light.
No street lamps or traffic lights. No lights in the houses. Certainly no television, phones, or anything with a light-up screen. Strangers driving past in the dark didn’t know there was a town there at all.
But Carly Ainsworth knew.
Carly lived on the outskirts of the neighbouring city and could see the town from her bedroom window. Every evening, she’d watch the sun sink and the town vanish with it.
Plenty were curious about it but, in Carly’s opinion, she had the right to be curious. Her granddad lived there.
She couldn’t imagine how he got on without a TV. He loved TV, at least he did before Dad died.
“It’s…it’s a tradition of sorts, I suppose.” he said one afternoon while she was on the phone with him, “No. No. It isn’t. It’s for safety….oh Gordon Bennett!” His words became an incomprehensible mutter.
Carly waited patiently. Her dear granddad was at the age where patience was a necessity.
“How about you come over and I’ll explain it to you?” Granddad said, “It’ll be easier to explain in person.”
She wanted to see him, but she wasn’t so sure about the town. Rumours say it’s run by a cult. Why else would they have such a strange fixation on no light-emitting technology? She was scared that she’d go in and never come back out.
Her step dad, David, didn’t help.
“Cultism.” he’d grouch whenever the subject came up. “That’s what it is. A big, bloody cult!”
“You’re being ridiculous!.” said Mum, “It’s a nice, simpler life. I hear everyday about the terrible effect technology is having on our mental health, so I’m happy that he has a healthy lifestyle after…”
The family death went unspoken, as it always did.
“Besides, he must save a purse-full!” Mum said, “It’s good for his pension, if nothing else.”
Loyalty stopped her from admitting it, but Carly agreed with David. A simpler life she could understand, but having no street lamps and traffic lights went past simple, straight to stupid.
“It’s because of David, isn’t it?” Granddad said, bringing her attention back to the call. “I don’t care what he thinks, he shouldn’t have married your mother!”
Carly snorted. “He’s not so bad.”
She thought she’d hate him. Heard too many stories about step parents from hell, but David was closer to a brother. He never tried to be her dad.
Granddad was quick to change the subject. “Did they ever tell you about them moths at school? The ones that turned black because of smoke in the 1800s?”
“Peppered moths.” Biology, natural selection. Her best subject. “What about them?”
“You know how they changed because of something we did? We pumped out smoke, turned trees black, and the moths turned black so they could hide and not get eaten.”
“It doesn’t quite work like that. They didn’t change col…”
“No, no. Listen. You’re missing the point.” he sighed. “You know, I tried explaining this to your dad too.”
Carly’s heart stung. The unspoken death suddenly out in the open had her struggling for words, but Granddad dropped the subject as quickly as he brought it up.
“These peppery moths came about because of a big change. Now, what else has changed recently? Tell me. Show me you’re listening.”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do. Come on.”
She didn’t want to talk about moths. She wanted to talk about Dad. Granddad had been the only one there that day.
“I honestly don’t know. Can’t you just tell me?”
“Artificial light. It’s everywhere nowadays. On the streets, in your rooms, in your hands. Suppose a creature could use that.”
“Well…that’s why we don’t have lights over here.”
“Because of moths?”
“Not moths, a -” he made a choked sound and stopped.
Carly could hear her step-dad’s voice in her head. Cult. Extreme beliefs. Crazy rituals.
All it took was a single point of weakness, a need for meaning…perhaps brought on by the sudden death of someone close.
Her heart hammered against her ribs. To hell with the town and their weirdness, she needed to see Granddad!
“Maybe it is better if you explain in person.” she said, “Could I come visit? Tomorrow?”
There was a pause. “Really? You want to visit? That’s fantastic.” he breathed a relieved sigh, “Yes, you’re right. This will all be easier to explain in person.”
The next afternoon, her granddad arrived in the car to pick her up.
He’s allowed to leave then. The thought was hardly reassuring, but at least he hadn’t changed much to how she remembered him. He still wore that tattered hunting cap he’d had longer than she was alive.
Mum tried to invite him inside, but a momentary glare between him and David told Carly it wasn’t going to happen. She kissed Mum and David goodbye, and got into the car with Granddad.
This is a rescue mission, she reminded herself, as the diminishing distance between her and the town sped up her heart beat.
As they drove through the town, Carly scanned the streets and the people. No one looked odd, but she didn’t think they would. Cults are supposed to blend in, aren’t they?
“How do you not crash into each other?” she asked as Granddad let another car turn in front of him. “Without traffic lights?”
Granddad pointed to a woman in a yellow vest. “That’s Jackie. She’s a traffic director. We have lot’s of them. I do it every other Wednesday.”
They arrived at Granddad’s bungalow and Carly sluggishly slid out of the car. The neighbours looked at her suspiciously and she averted her eyes.
“You have a lovely garden.” she said, noting the weedless flowerbeds as she walked to the front door.
“Keeps me busy.” he smiled proudly, “Much better than a TV.”
They spent the afternoon making Shepard’s Pie, and talking about Carly’s school work, her friends, and what she wanted to do and all that. She wasn’t sure what she said, she just wanted Granddad to be comfortable before she did what she was there to do.
She brought it up at dinner.
“Granddad.” she said, pushing mashed potato around her plate, “Remember what we talked about yesterday?”
Granddad used his knife to scrape his plate clean, and Carly shuddered when he suddenly stopped. “I remember. I was waiting for the best time to bring it up.”
Carly smiled. “Me too.”
Granddad smiled back, though it looked sad. “I know what you’re thinking. You think I’m daft. A daft old git.”
He pointed his knife at her. “You can’t fool me.” That same sad smile. “Your mum told me what David thinks. I know about the rumours and they’re not true, not one of them. It may look strange to you on the outside, but it’s safer here. That’s all it is.”
Carly frowned. This wasn’t a gated community. She hadn’t even seen a police car, though she supposed they weren’t allowed either. “Safe from what?”
“Let’s clean up first.” He stood and pushed his chair under the table.
“Can’t we talk about it now?”
He either didn’t hear or chose to ignore her. He took the plates into the kitchen. Carly washed the dishes, and Granddad dried them.
He stared out the window the whole time. The setting sun reflected off his glasses. “Did you bring your phone?”
“You should send your mother a message, tell her you’re staying the night. She can’t drive down here with those head lights on, and I don’t want her to get hurt. Do it now before the sun sets.”
She dried her hands and went into the lounge, where her phone was sitting in the bottom of her bag.
Be ready to pick me up any time. In case of emergency.
She sent it to David. He’ll understand.
Back in the kitchen, Granddad wiped the counter and avoided her eyes. “Did you switch it off?”
“That’s good. We can’t have light here after dark. Candles are okay, just no artificial light.” he scrubbed the counter furiously, “You young people are on your phones all the time, carrying it around with you, letting it leech off you everyday until…” he made a frustrated sound and Carly realised he was crying.
She wrapped her arms around him.
He shook as he cried and it made her want to cry too.
“You’ll end up like Sammy.”
Dad. Carly tightened her grip. .
“You will, and Francesca will. Even bloody David will. But you won’t believe your silly old Granddad, will you?”
“I’ll believe you. I’ll believe anything you say, honest I will!” She felt guilty for the lie but she was desperate to stop him crying. She was tired of crying over Dad. She wanted to stop the pain, desperately hoped that one day they could talk about him again, and it’ll make everything better.
But no one ever did and that was worse. It was like he never existed.
“Why don’t we go see Mum?” she pleaded, “I’ll kick David out, he listens to me. We can go see Mum and it’ll be like it was-“
Granddad turned sharply and grabbed her by the shoulders. “It’s not safe there! Not at this time.”
“We’ll be inside, of course it’s safe.”
He scowled and turned to the window. He sniffed, “Help…help your granddad light some candles, will you? Gets dark so quickly this time of year.”
By the time they finished lighting candles around the house, the sun was near the horizon.
They sat in the lounge. Granddad moved backwards and forwards on the rocking chair. Carly sat on the settee and picked her fingernails.
The darker it got, the more nervous she became. The candlelight cast frightening shadows all around her. People who hate artificial light are idiots.
“It’s not really safe is it?” she said, in an effort to calm her nerves, “All these candles in the dark? Aren’t you worried about a fire?”
Now the sun had set, the only light was the faint candle glow that blackened Granddad’s wrinkles. His face looked like a cracked doll. He said, very quietly, “It killed your dad, Carly.”
Carly said nothing.
“I know it’s a lot to take in. I didn’t realise it at first, but I talked to the folk around here who know-“
“- They’ve seen it too, you see. It’s all true.”
“Dad had heart problems.” She pushed back tears, forcing herself to stay strong, “Just like Grandma did. It wasn’t a creature, it was a heart attack.“
His face twisted. “No it – it’s like the moths – the peppery moths. Changed so they could live in the world we created.”
“A creature that only lives in artificial light?” Carly couldn’t stop the tears now, “Granddad, please listen to yourself.”
“You don’t think it’s possible for a creature to do that?”
“It might be. It probably is.” she wiped her face on her sleeve, “But it didn’t kill Dad. I-I think you believe this story because your traumatised…b-because your son died in front of you.”
Granddad didn’t say anything for a moment. “We think it sleeps in the day -“
“-because there’s more light at night. That’s better for it. It goes to the light because that’s what it’s prey likes. It latches onto them and it stays with them and you – you don’t see it, but it drains you. All this news about mental health, physical problems all because -“
Carly took hold of his hand, “Please come home. Come see Mum. She misses you. Come in the day if you h -“
There was a sudden pounding on the door.
Granddad brought his finger to his mouth, “They don’t like that you’re here.” he whispered, “Go hide in the bedroom. I’ll send them away.”
Everything she feared was true. She ran into the lounge to get her phone to tell David to pick her up right now. Emergency in progress. The phone shone a harsh light and only then did she notice the figure watching through the window.
“She has a light!” the person outside shrieked, and a orchestra of footsteps invaded the house.
Carly fled into the bathroom and locked the door. It wasn’t long before fists rapped against it, so loud it jarred her teeth.
“Open up!” barked a voice she didn’t recognise.
Someone shushed it, and a gentler voice said, “Little girl – Carly? Carly. Open the door. We’re not here to hurt you.”
Bursting into the house doesn’t exactly scream friendly. Throat dry from panic, she breathlessly dialled the police.
“Carly, please listen.” said Granddad. “They just want you to switch off your phone.”
Carly ignored him. Pulse hammering loud enough to match the pounding on the door, she pressed the phone to her ear. She wasn’t sure if it was even ringing, all she could hear was her thunderous heart. She felt a terrible pain in her chest – and then nothing at all.
By the time the mob broke down the door, it was too late to call an ambulance. Carly Ainsworth was dead.
An autopsy found she died of a heart attack. A judge ruled that it was brought on by extreme stress, straining her heart’s hereditary weakness.
A wave of vengeful petitions and vicious attacks had the once mysterious town quickly deserted. Most of its inhabitants moved to secluded areas around the country, and pretended to know nothing about the town or the fourteen year old who tragically died there.
Estranged from his grieving family and declared “unfit” to take care of himself, Carly’s granddad was sent to an old people’s home. One morning, a few weeks after he moved in, a nurse came in to find his body cold and his bedside light hot.
It had been left on all night.
Header photo by Mohamed Khaled.