Off the motorway, somewhere 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. Street lamps had no bulbs. There were no TVs, or phones, or anything with big light-up screens. Strangers driving past in the dark didn’t know there was a town there at all.
Carly Ainsworth lived on the outskirts of the neighbouring city and could see the town from her bedroom window. Everyday, she’d watch the sun sink and the town blacken until it blended into the sky. Plenty of people were curious about the town 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 technology, iphones maybe, but not even a TV? He loved TV. At least, he did before Dad died.
“It’s…it’s a tradition of sorts, I suppose.” he blurted, one afternoon while she was on the phone with him, “No. No. It isn’t. It’s for safety. How about you come over and I’ll explain it to you?”
She wanted to see Granddad, wanted to for years, but she wasn’t sure about the town. There were rumours that it was ran by a cult. Why else would they have such a strange fixation on no technology? Part of her was paranoid that she’d go in and never come back out. It didn’t help that her step dad, David, had a venomous belief in these rumours.
“Cultism.” he’d grouch whenever the subject came up. “That’s what it is. A big, bloody cult!”
“I think it’s nice.” said Mum, “It’s a simpler life. I keep reading all this news about how technology effects our mental health and all sorts so I, for one, am happy that your grandfather has a healthy lifestyle after…” the family death went unspoken, as it always did. “Besides, he must save a purse-full! It’s good for his pension, if nothing else.”
Loyalty stopped her admitting it, but Carly agreed with David. A simpler life she could understand, but no technology at all?
“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!”
After a pause, Granddad said, “Did they ever tell you about them moths at school? The ones that changed colour because of the smoke in the 1800s?”
“Peppered moths. What about them?”
“You know how they changed because of something we were doing? 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. “Dad? Do…” 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 black peppered moths came about because of a big change. Now, what else has changed? Tell me. Show me you’re listening.”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do. Come on.”
She got the feeling this was a lead-in to another subject, and hoped it was about Dad. Granddad had been the only one there that day after all. “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.”
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. “Granddad…could I come visit? Tomorrow?”
There was a pause. “Really? You want to visit? That’s fantastic.” he breathed a relieved sigh, “This will all be easier to explain in person.”
The next afternoon, her granddad drove 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. 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.
Granddad’s house was a small bungalow a short walk from the town’s convenience shop. The neighbours looked at her suspiciously, but waved. She waved back, not sure if the warm expression on her face was convincing. She helped Granddad make Shepard’s Pie and talked about her school work and her friends. She wanted Granddad to be comfortable before she brought up what she was there to do.
She brought it up after dinner.
“Granddad.” she said, pushing food around her plate, “Remember what we talked about yesterday?”
Granddad was using his fork to scoop up every bit of the pie, 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 didn’t explain myself very well. Let’s clean up.” He stood and pushed his chair under the table.
“Can we talk about it now?”
While she washed the dishes, and he dried them, Granddad looked out the window. The sun reflected off his glasses. “Did you bring your phone?”
“You should sent your mother a message, tell her your staying the night. 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?”
“Yes.” she lied.
“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.
Without a word, she wrapped her arms around him, felt him shake as he cried and it made her want to cry too.
“You’ll end up like Sammy.”
Carly tightened her grip. Dad.
“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. “Why don’t we go see Mum? 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.”
“Unless we’re going to sit in the dark -” he paused and looked out the window again. 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 on a rocking chair, and Carly on the settee. The darker it got, the more nervous she became.
“It’s not really safe is it?” she said, trying to break the tension, “All these candles, in the dark?”
Now 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 – remember what I said, about the peppered moths, changing so they could live in the world we created.”
“The creature lives in light?” Carly couldn’t stop the tears now, “Granddad, please listen to yourself.”
“You don’t think it’s possible for a creature to adapt to artificial light?”
“It might be. It probably is.” she wiped her face on her sleeve, “But it didn’t kill Dad, and 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 night at light, and 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 -“
“You have to realise how silly this sounds!” Carly took hold of his hand, “Please come home. Come see Mum. She misses you.”
“I’m not in a cult.”
“Please, just promise you’ll come see us. Come in the day if you h -“
She was interrupted by a sudden pounding on the door. Granddad brought his finger to his mouth, “Go hide in the bedroom.” he whispered, “I’ll send them away.”
Everything she feared was true. She did not hide in the bedroom, she went into the lounge to get her phone and 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 in 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 on it.
“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.”
You would say that. 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. In the next moment, Carly Ainsworth was dead.
An autopsy found that her heart had stopped. A judge ruled that the cause of death was a heart attack brought on by extreme stress, straining her heart’s hereditary weakness. A wave of vengeful petitions and vicious attacks had the town quickly deserted. Most of its inhabitants moved to secluded areas around the country.
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, as it had been left on all night.
If you liked this, you might like my other stories:
Header photo by Mohamed Khaled.