Somewhere 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 had no light. There were no street lamps, traffic lights, and certainly no TVs or smartphones. Strangers driving past in the dark didn’t know there was a town there at all.
Those who did know hardly talked about anything else. But of all the people who knew, only Carly Ainsworth had the right to talk, thank you very much. Her granddad lived there, and had done since her dad died.
“It’s…it’s a tradition of sorts, I suppose.” her granddad said one afternoon while she was on the phone with him, “No. No. It isn’t.” His words became an incomprehensible mutter.
Carly waited. Her granddad was at the age were patience was necessary.
“How about you come over and I’ll explain it to you?” he said, “It’ll be easier to explain in person.”
Carly loved her granddad, but she wasn’t keen to visit the town. People said it was ran by a cult, a bunch of technophobic wackjobs. What if she went in and never came out again?
Her step dad, David, didn’t help.
“Cultism.” he’d grouch, “That’s what it is. A big, bloody cult!”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Mum would say, “It’s a simpler life. Remember that article about the terrible effect technology is having on our mental health. 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.”
Carly agreed with David, though she wouldn’t admit it to Mum. A simpler life? Fine, but getting rid of street lamps and traffic lights wasn’t simple, it was downright dumb.
“It’s because of David, isn’t it?” Her granddad’s voice brought her attention back to the call. “I don’t care what he thinks, he shouldn’t have married your mother!”
“He’s not so bad.” She said carefully. When they first met, she was ready to hate him. She’d heard too many stories about step parents from hell, but David was closer to a older brother. Dependable. He never tried to replace Dad.
Grumbling, her granddad quickly changed 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. 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 colour, it was directional selection…”
“No, listen. You’re missing the point.” he sighed. “You know, I tried explaining this to your dad too.”
Carly’s heart stung. Having the unspoken death suddenly out in the open had her struggling for words, but her 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. “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 a creature?” She could hear David’s voice in her head. Cult leaders are masters of manipulation. All it takes is a point of weakness and then they draw you in. Her heart hammered against her ribs. To hell with the town and their weirdness! She had to talk some sense into him. “Maybe it is better if you explain in person. 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. I can introduce you to everyone then, too.”
The next afternoon, Granddad arrived in the car to pick her up. Mum tried to invite him inside, but the glare between Granddad and David told Carly it wasn’t going to happen. Granddad must have felt like David replaced his son in their lives. He had, in a way.
Carly kissed Mum and David goodbye and got into the car. This is a rescue mission, she reminded herself, as the diminishing distance between her and the town sped up her heart beat. Be brave.
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?
She was terrified they were going to get hit by a car. Without traffic lights, wardens waved cars along in all directions. She clung to her seat belt until they were safely parked outside Granddad’s bungalow. She asked him what people did if they wanted to drive at night. They didn’t. There was a curfew.
They spent the afternoon making shepherd’s pie, and talking about Carly’s school work, her friends, and what she wanted to do in the future. She wasn’t sure what she said, she just wanted her granddad to be comfortable and know that he could trust her.
She brought it up at dinner.
“Granddad.” she said, pushing mashed potato around her plate, “Remember what we talked about yesterday?”
He was using his knife to scrape his plate clean, and she shuddered when he suddenly stopped. “I remember. I was waiting for the best time to bring it up.”
She smiled. “Me too.”
He smiled back, though it looked sad. “I know what you’re thinking. You think I’m daft. A daft old git.”
“No, I don’t think that, I -“
He pointed his knife at her. “You can’t fool me.” That same sad smile. “Your mum told me what David thinks and I’d heard all the rumours. It’s not true, you know. What they say. Not a damn word of it is true. 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, flashing lights and all. “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 while 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. She’d be crazy to switch it off. She put it on silent and quickly sent a text to David.
Be ready to pick me up any time. In case of emergency.
Back in the kitchen, Granddad was wiping the counter. He wouldn’t meet 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. 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 tried of crying over, tired of tip-toing around, too afraid of hurting someone to bring up Dad. She wanted to stop the pain, desperately hoping that one day they could talk about him again, and everything will be better. Everything now…it was like he never existed.
“Why don’t we go see Mum?” she pleaded, “I’ll kick David out for a day, he listens to me. We can go see Mum and it’ll be like it was-“
He twisted sharply out of her arms, keeping his back to her. His shoulders trembled. “Help…help your granddad light some candles, will you? Gets dark so quickly this time of year.”
If he doesn’t trust me, I’ll never get him home. She had to back off, do as he says. Once he’s calmed down again, then she’ll try again. She helped him light the candles. By the time they’d finished, the sun was near the horizon.
They sat in the lounge. Carly sat on the settee and picked her fingernails. Granddad swung backwards and forwards on the rocking chair. She felt each groan and beat of the wood in the ribs. The darker it got, the more nervous she became.
“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 her granddad’s wrinkles. His face looked like a cracked doll. He said, very quietly, “It killed your dad, Carly.”
She 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. It’s happened before, now it’s happening again. Only worse now because we’re what it’s after.”
“A creature that only lives in artificial light?” she couldn’t stop her 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 and you couldn’t save him.”
“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 -“
There was a pounding on the front door.
Granddad went very still. He slowly brought his finger to his mouth, “They don’t like that you’re here.” he whispered, “They’re just worried you’ve brought it here, that’s all. I’ll tell them you’re a good girl.”
Everything she feared was coming true. When Grandad wen to answer the phone, she snatched her phone from her bag. She was going to tell David to pick her up right now. She and David could drag Grandad out of here together if they had to, but she wasn’t staying here any longer. She squinted as the phone shone a harsh light and only when she heard the shouts she realised someone was watching her through the window.
An 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.”
Throat dry from panic, she breathlessly dialled the police and pressed the phone to her ear.
“Carly, please listen.” said Granddad. “They just want you to switch off your phone.”
She ignored him. Was the phone even ringing? All she could hear was her thundering heart. She felt a terrible pain in her chest, worse than any pain she had ever felt before…and then she felt absolutely nothing at all.
By the time Granddad broke down the door, it was too late to call an ambulance.
Carly Ainsworth was dead.
It was a heart attack that killed her, so the newspapers were told. She had a hereditary weakness in her heart, strained by the stress brought on by the angry mob. The media slandered the town and everyone it did. The neighbouring cities spat insults that surged into violence. The mysterious town was quickly deserted after that. Those who once lived there pretended they hadn’t.
Estranged from his grieving family and declared “unfit” to take care of himself, Carly’s granddad was sent to an old people’s home. For the first few weeks, he’d insisted on having candles in his room only until one day he asked for a new lamp. The morning after, a care assistant brought him breakfast, only to find his body cold and his bedside light hot.