David Bowden pushed his shoulder against the frozen security hut door, pounding his bulky frame against it until it eventually opened, shifting a couple of inches of snow from the step. It had only been two hours since he last made his rounds. Finally out of the hut, he checked his inventory: torch – on, off, on, off – seemed to be working, spare batteries for the torch, oversized ring of keys, wallet, torch – on, off, on, off – still working,
Locking the door, he adjusted his hat and tightened his jacket collar around his neck. Switching on the torch he let out a long breath and headed towards the shopping mall. The car park lights were switched off at night to conserve energy, so the only light available came from the torch, the beam reflecting the glowing white discs of snow as he briskly stepped onwards, glancing around and whistling tunelessly whilst fiddling with his key ring in his spare hand.
The concrete structure loomed over him as it appeared out of the snow and darkness. Adverts displayed in the windows promised festive cheer with any purchase from their product range, giant grinning heads of happy families staring down at him, watching him carefully.
David approached the security door, tucked his torch underneath his arm, glanced around, and rifled through the keys. Finding the correct one, he fumbled it in to the lock, breathed heavily again, and turned the key. The thick grey door creaked open, revealing the darkness inside. He stepped across the threshold and closed the door with a clang that echoed throughout the deserted interior.
The darkness inside was greater than that outside, without the reflective coating of snow providing illumination. David’s torchlight cast long shadows across the storefronts, sometimes bouncing back at him, sometimes showing pale apparitions of reflections in the glass, sometimes revealing contents of the shop window.
After five years on the job, the smallest hint of movement out of the corner of his eye could still put David on edge. Knowing that there should not be another living creature inside the building, he was constantly wary lest he should see anything out of the ordinary.
David passed a toy store and – though loath to stop under any circumstances – shone his torch through the window to look at the toys in the display. Christmas was on its way, and he still had not found the perfect gift for Rosa. As his little princess, no gift ever seemed quite special enough. Since the separation, it had been so hard for him to know what she liked anymore – she was growing up so fast, she seemed different every time he saw her. Working night-shifts, he hardly got to see her as it was – and when he was able to, on a weekend, he was always so tired from changing his sleeping patterns for those couple of days. It was worth it to see the kids, of course; nothing was going to prevent that from happening.
And there it was, suddenly gleaming in the light of the torch, reflecting its glow like a heavenly beam shining upon it: a toy castle fit for a toy princess. The pink turrets rose from the display stand majestically, pink flags flying from the spires on an imaginary breeze. The drawbridge lowered, a handsome prince rode his white stallion purposefully towards the castle gates, the love for his princess shining in his big brown eyes. As he looked at the play-set, David could easily imagine Rosa playing with it, constructing her own fairy stories and taking great delight in uniting the princess with her beloved. It was the perfect gift for her – the only thing that had ever caught his eye in such a way.
He directed the beam of his torch to the display stand the castle stood upon, looking for a price tag. Finding it, a tear sprang to his eye, climbed over his eyelid and slid silently down his cheek. There was no way that he could afford that – not on the money he made.
‘It’s just a toy,’ he tried telling himself. ‘She’ll have grown out of it in a year or two – maybe even a few months. No toy is worth that much money.’
He turned away from the shop and continued down the dark aisle, trying to force the images of Rosa playing with the castle from his mind – the elaborate wedding scene she would stage, the gallant prince fighting for the love of his fair maiden, the hours she would spend lost in the world of her own construction. The beaming smile she would give her father when she opened the present on her birthday. The feel of her tiny arms wrapped around his neck as she squeezed him tightly in appreciation.
The tear blurred vision did not help. Dark shapes always crept out of the shadows as he made his rounds anyway; but the shapes seemed to creep that little bit nearer through his distorted eyesight. He blinked furiously, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hands, but that only fogged things further. But he did not want to stop and stand still – he had paused for long enough at the shop window, thinking of the toy he could not afford to buy – staying still in the darkness was not a good idea. Anything could be heading towards him; an easy target.
David shone the torch the full one hundred and eighty degrees in front and to the sides of him. He could turn and look behind, but he did not really want to see what was there.
He walked to the bottom of the still escalator that transported customers up to the first floor during opening hours, but during his working shift was nothing more than a passageway to further darkness. The torch beam shone against the uppermost step, but beyond that nothing else could be seen in the light.
He took a deep breath, put one hand on the handrail, and placed a foot on the bottom step.
‘Hey,’ a voice growled from behind him.
David’s jaw set tight and his hand gripped the rail tightly. He placed a shaky leg on the next step, uneasily progressing up the escalator.
‘Hey,’ the voice growled again.
He closed his eyes for a moment as a bead of sweat appeared on his forehead. He licked his lips, trying to moisten his suddenly dried out mouth. Opening his eyes once more, he span around to face the darkness, the beam of his torch parrying across the black, piercing its way through the dark shroud that covered everything, but it revealed nothing.
‘Leave me alone,’ David murmured, afraid to speak too loudly. ‘Please, just leave me alone.’
‘You know we can’t do that, Dave,’ the voice said.
He span around wildly at a hideous giggle that sounded to be coming from the top of the escalator. Once again the torch light revealed nothing; only the remaining few steps ahead of him were visible.
‘You want that castle for your little girl, don’t you, Dave?’
David pulled on the handrail, carefully climbing up the escalator, his legs feeling as though they would collapse underneath him at any second.
‘Why don’t you just take it, Dave? You deserve something for all of your years putting up with this job – not seeing your children often, paid a pittance, afraid of the dark.’
‘I am not afraid of the dark,’ he whispered through gritted teeth, arriving at the top of the escalator.
‘You can’t lie to us, Dave. We’ve been watching you and looking out for you all this time. We know you Dave. You know that.’
‘Why don’t you ever show yourselves, then? You’re the ones who are afraid.’
‘Oh Dave,’ the voice said in mock pity, ‘you’ve seen us more times than you care to remember. You know what we look like.’
‘You’re wrong – I’ve never seen you. I’ve heard you, but I’ve never seen you. Where are you?’
He swung the torch around and around, spinning wildly on the spot, the beam glancing off shop windows, pillars, advertising boards. There was no one else there;. nothing but inanimate objects hiding in the darkness. Inanimate, yes, but somehow they appeared menacing, consumed by the darkness, perhaps hiding some secret within their shadows. The darkness seemed to creep closer to David, spreading its black fingers across his skin, pulling him in, deeper and deeper until he felt as though he was drowning. The torch did nothing to lighten the black, its sweeping beam doing no more than briefly scar the darkness, but the dark healed quickly leaving no trace of where the light had scraped across it.
‘We’re over here, Dave,’ the voice taunted from somewhere to his left.
The beam once again found nothing but darkness in that direction.
‘And we’re also here,’ the voice sounded from the right. ‘Join us.’
Out of the corner of his eye, David noticed something glowing faintly in the darkness. He cautiously headed in that direction, moving the torch, scouting for anything that might be lurking, waiting to pounce. Peering through the glass, David saw that the glow was coming from an LED on the front of a camcorder in an electronics store.
‘Want to see us, Dave?’ the voice asked. ‘You sure you want to see?’
Suddenly a bank of televisions within the store exploded into life, producing a gallery of glowing screens, all showing the same image – David himself, standing there, looking terrified. He took a step back from the store window, and the television replicas did likewise.
‘Here we are, Dave,’ the voice said. ‘Do you like what you see?’
‘What are you talking about?’
David watched the screens as his mouth moved silently within the store, echoing his own movements.
‘Watch carefully,’ the voice said, and David noticed that his mouth also moved at the same time as the voice spoke.
‘You know what’s happening, Dave, you’ve known this for some time.’
Still his mouth moved in time with the voice. He placed his hands across his face, trying to stop the movements, but his mouth continued to open and close and he felt movement within his neck, his tongue and his jaw.
‘Hello, Dave,’ the voice said, and he realised it was coming from his own mouth.
He stepped backwards, away from the store window, but tripped, stumbling over a litter bin behind him. He fell to the ground and the torch spun from his hand, casting flickering shadows all around. He reached for it and clutched it tightly to him, hoping to somehow fend off the encroaching darkness. Scrambling to his feet, David tripped and stumbled through the seemingly empty void in front of him, heading for a green exit sign in the distance.
‘You can’t escape us, Dave.’
Finally reaching the exit, he threw the door open, the booming sound of it hitting the wall a welcome relief from the voices that surrounded him. He rushed up a staircase that appeared out of the darkness, moving quickly despite feeling like he was going in slow motion. At the top of the staircase, another door waited. He stumbled through it and burst out in to the cold night air. The snow was still falling, but lightly, small flakes falling refreshingly against his sweat covered brow as he gulped in the fresh air.
‘Nowhere to go now, Dave,’ the voice seemed to come from over his shoulder as the door closed behind him. ‘Nowhere to go.’
‘There’s one way to go,’ he stated, and headed towards the edge of the roof.
He looked down at the ground below, a great expanse of snow covered concrete waiting to welcome him. The snow would be soft, the last thing he ever felt; a brief coldness and then it would be over.
‘We can’t let you do that, Dave.’
‘Just try and stop me.’
David took another step closer to the drop when he heard something fall beside him. Looking down, he saw his wallet lying in the snow, open. Photos of Rosa and Edward stared up from the rooftop, seeming to plead with him. He crouched down and picked up the wallet. Sliding his fingers down the photographs he dropped in to the snow, ignoring the cold wetness. Warm tears fell from his eyes as a soft orange glow spread through the sky. As the glow hit the photographs, David turned his head. The sun had just come above the horizon, peering through a small gap in the clouds, shining like a spotlight on the shopping mall. As he looked at his children, with the light behind him, the darkness seemed less threatening, something he could deal with, something he could conquer.
He stood and headed back to the door he had come through to the roof. He pulled it open and walked back inside.
‘See you tomorrow night,’ the voice said as the sun filled the inside of the mall with its radiance, driving out the shadows that had previously brought so much fear and darkness.