Shadows congealed at the underpass, thick and black as a smoker’s lung, suffocating even the brightest of lights. Street lamps stood sentry along the footpath leading to the underpass, but even they were afraid of the shadows: despite frequent repairs, the lights closest to the underpass rarely worked for longer than a single day. Sometimes, if a person stepped towards the shadows, the shadows could be heard whispering. Sometimes, if that person turned and ran, they would escape.
Most people who heard the whispers were not so fortunate.
Bobby Fisher, then, trod towards the underpass with trepidation. He knew the stories, he had heard the rumours; up until that point he had even heeded his parents’ warnings not to go near the place. Vague threats of ‘it’s not safe.’ Parents were afraid of it, but even they were unsure why.
But Bobby Fisher was at Big School now, and things were different. Everyone else had seemed to grow at least an extra foot over the summer vacation, yet Bobby had stayed exactly the size he was beforehand. He barely came up to the shoulders of most of his classmates. When he was younger, he never cared about being short. It made him the ‘cute one’. He soon realised that ‘being cute’ and Big School were two wholly incompatible entities. To make it out of there in one piece, you had to be the opposite of cute. You had to be in with the cool kids. Not necessarily the ones who got in the most trouble, but those who trod the fine line between getting the occasional telling off from a teacher and getting themselves suspended every other week.
Dead leaves dropped from branches, roused by a breeze emanating from the underpass. They rustled as they circled his feet, tapping his legs as he approached the darkness of the entrance, encouraging him, leading him onwards. Bobby glanced back over his shoulder. The other kids remained where he had left them – safely within the security of the last working streetlamp. Their features blurred in the darkness that bridged the gap between Bobby and the others, but Bobby could still make out their expressions of grim fascination mixed with concerned amusement. Joe Peters put his hands to his mouth and called out to Bobby:
‘What are you waiting for?’
Joe’s voice was barely audible, but Bobby caught the gist, and also the nervous sniggers that came from the other three: Sam Irons, Tim Westerman and Abbie Reynolds. Bobby didn’t really care what Sam and Tim thought of him – they were like Bobby, clinging on to Joe for life support in school – but he knew Joe’s opinion mattered if he wanted to survive the next few years. And then there was Abbie. Beautiful Abbie. She was the first girl he had ever noticed as a girl. Someone he could like. She had some strange effect on him he could not quite understand; he found that even speaking in front of her became a chore. Hearing Abbie laughing at him, Bobby was further determined to continue.
He took another few steps forward.
The darkness whispered to him.
The words were hushed, soft, indecipherable. It was as though they were spoken in a language Bobby half understood: he could not work out the individual words, but somehow he knew what they were saying to him: Join us. Come to us. We’ll take care of you.
Bobby turned once more to look back at the others. They waved their hands at him, beckoning him to continue. Then the waving stopped. Their faces changed. Rather than bemused admiration, their expressions turned to terror. Eyes and mouths wide open, staring straight past Bobby. Their fear paralysed Bobby. The whispers sounded right by his ear:
He heard Abbie yell to him: ‘RUN!’
He turned his head to look towards the underpass.
Something black blocked his view.
Bobby Fisher screamed.
The taillights of the car ahead emerged out of the fog like the glowing eyes of a demon roused from the sulphurous clouds of its damnation. Maggie Fisher slammed on the brakes. Too late. Bumper hit bumper and the car shuddered to a halt.
‘Dammit,’ Maggie muttered under her breath, reaching for her documents in her glove compartment.
She watched the driver of the car she had hit head towards her through the fog and breathed deeply. Wiping wispy black hair out of her face, she wound down the window and put on her most apologetic smile.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she told the man who peered in at her. ‘This fog…’
‘Not a problem,’ he replied. ‘Let’s just exchange details and let the insurance companies sort things out.’
‘Sure. Thank you.’
‘I’m Mark, by the way – Mark Ryland,’ he told her, extending a hand through the open window.
‘Maggie Fisher,’ she replied, shaking it.
Mark glanced past her, into the car. The top had come off of a large cardboard box, perched on the passenger seat, revealing the contents within.
‘Say, are you that kid’s mom?’
Mark’s demeanour had changed. His voice and face, initially soft and accommodating, had stiffened, and there was an air of caution about him now.
‘Yes, I’m Mrs Fisher.’
‘Terrible business. What those kids said…’ He trailed away in his own thoughts.
‘Can we just…?’ Maggie handed her documents through the window to the man.
‘Not at all.’
As Mark took down her details, Maggie looked across at the latest box of freshly printed flyers. Bobby’s smiling face looked up at her from the top most flyer, frozen in that split second during the previous fall during which the photograph was taken, less than a week before the last time she saw her son.
Details exchanged, Maggie closed the box, hiding Bobby from sight, and drove away.
Maggie could tell John was in a foul mood when she noticed he had not even stopped to take his shoes and coat off before bursting into the living room.
‘What happened to the car?’ he demanded.
‘So glad you’re home,’ Maggie said drily, not taking her eyes off her laptop.
‘Mags, we can’t afford another bill. We really can’t. Not with all the money you’re spending on – ’
John cut himself off before he could finish the offending sentence, but too late.
‘On finding our son?’ she asked.
‘All I’m saying is, let the police do their job.’
‘It’s been five months, John.’
‘Why don’t you take up a hobby or something.’
‘You think embroidery or baking or whatever is going to make me forget about Bobby?’
‘No one’s saying you should forget about him.’
‘Maybe your focus would be better spent elsewhere.’
She walked from the room, grabbed her coat and pulled on her shoes.
‘Where are you going?’
‘I’m focusing my attention elsewhere,’ Maggie told John, and walked out of the house, slamming the door behind her.
Abbie sat underneath the lamppost from where she had last seen Bobby. She felt drawn to go back to the underpass from time to time. Just to sit, to watch, to listen. Sometimes she thought she heard Bobby’s voice, calling out to her. Sometimes it was a voice that beckoned her towards it, like the sweet song of the Sirens. Other times the voice warned her away, telling of the dangers that would befall anyone who approached too closely.
That night, the underpass was silent.
She shivered despite the relative warmth of the evening. She wrapped her arms tightly around her body, hugging herself for both reassurance and warmth. Flowers were starting to bloom, some white blossom on the trees. But even the snowdrops of early Spring perished if they dared to grow in the ground too near the underpass.
The fog surrounding Abbie shuddered.
The shadow of a figure moved towards her silently. Abbie froze. The figure continued to advance. Abbie closed her eyes, screwed up her body tightly in a ball, trying to disappear in to herself.
‘Abbie?’ a voice asked.
Abbie peeled her eyes open, squinted in to the fog. A woman stood in front of her, a familiar face that made Abbie sigh with relief and, simultaneously, worry.
‘Mrs Fisher? What are you doing here?’ Abbie asked.
‘I just came out for a walk,’ Maggie replied looking doubtfully towards the underpass, the entrance like a black hole, devouring the surrounding light. ‘Somehow I found myself here.’
Maggie frowned, her thoughts as thick and impenetrable as the fog.
‘I come here some nights,’ Abbie told Maggie.
‘Something keeps drawing me here.’
‘You’re hoping he’ll come back,’ Maggie turned sad eyes to Abbie.
Abbie fiddled with the buttons on her coat, suddenly uncomfortable.
‘I’d better go,’ she said after a silent moment.
‘What you said you saw that night…’ Maggie began.
‘It was all true. I swear it.’
Maggie looked towards the underpass, straining against the darkness that she might see her son one more time.
The single word pierced through the fog like a talon through flesh. Abbie and Maggie watched fog billow towards them from the underpass, creating a tunnel through which they could clearly see the black entrance, welcoming them in to its gaping mouth, a shadowy tongue licking its lips in anticipation.
Maggie took a step forward. Abbie grabbed her arm.
‘It’s a trap,’ Abbie warned her.
‘I know. But my baby’s in there.’
Abbie let go of Maggie’s arm, taking hold of her hand instead.
‘I’m coming with you,’ Abbie told her.
‘You don’t have to.’
‘It’s kind of my fault Bobby went in there in the first place. I knew he liked me. I guess I liked him too.’
‘Funny way of showing it.’
‘That’s why I’m coming with you.’
Maggie’s dinner sat across the table from John, slowly getting cold. It was going to be ruined by the time she returned from wherever she had gone. He could put it back in the oven, try to keep it warm, but the cheap meat tasted grim in the first place, and had already dried out. He picked up the plate and tossed the contents in the garbage.
By the time John had finished washing the dishes there was still no sign of his wife. His frustration and anger towards her transformed in to worry. He found himself grabbing his coat and heading outside to try to find Maggie in the dense fog.
Maggie and Abbie entered the black abyss of the underpass. Behind them, the fog closed in again, a barrier between them and the outside world. The whispering continued unabated. Hushed approximations of words. Hushed threats. Hushed promises. The whispers came from all around, spilling through the smallest crevices in the walls.
As the darkness enclosed them completely, Abbie pulled a cell phone from her pocket and switched on the flashlight. She pointed it at the wall. Something moved. But it moved so quickly that they were unsure as to whether they had actually seen anything move or not. The same happened again when Abbie shone the light further down the underpass. Something lurked at the corner of their eyes.
They walked some distance further. The underpass seemed to go far further, far deeper than it appeared from the outside.
Abbie swung her flashlight in the direction of the sound. A liquid darkness squirmed across the wall under the gaze of the light, wanting to hide from it, but needing to stay where it was, encasing its prisoner. Where the darkness rippled, a boy’s features were revealed.
‘Bobby?’ cried Maggie. ‘Is that really you?’
‘Mom! Help me, please!’
Maggie grabbed at Bobby, trapped under a constantly flowing river of darkness. It was an elastic blackness, sticky, unyielding, clinging to both the boy and his mother. Maggie seized Bobby’s hand and did not let go. She pulled, pulled, pulled until finally Bobby fell through the black and landed at her feet. She pulled him to her, hugged him as fiercely as she was able without breaking every bone in his body.
‘I’m sorry,’ he told her, tears of mother and son intermingling on their cheeks.
‘Don’t be. Let’s go.’
They turned towards the entrance of the underpass.
‘Wait,’ Abbie called from behind her. ‘We can’t go yet.’
Abbie slowly moved her light around the walls. Amongst the flowing blackness were other children – tens of them, perhaps even hundreds. Some were dead, consumed by the darkness. Others were still alive. Some smiled, a blissful, ignorant smile of one completely unaware of their horrific predicament. Others cast terrified eyes at the three of them, pleading for their freedom.
Maggie knelt in front of Bobby, held his arms.
‘Listen to me,’ she told him. ‘You run. As fast as you can. Don’t look back. Whatever happens.’
‘What about you?’
Maggie glanced towards the other captivated children.
‘I’ll be right behind you. I promise. I’ve lost you once, I won’t do it again.’
‘But I don’t want to lose you either,’ Bobby told her.
‘Go. Do as I say,’ Maggie pleaded, trying to sound firm, but unable to hide a quavering in her voice. ‘Go!’
Bobby gave her one last look, turned, and fled down the underpass. The whispering escalated, surrounding him, chasing him. But then, finally, he saw a light ahead. Wisps of fog billowed towards him from the entrance as tendrils of shadow chased him close behind. He ran, ran, ran, until he thought his lungs would explode.
Light from the streetlamps bounced off of the fog, seeming to get brighter and brighter, until it was a blinding whiteness. Bobby closed his eyes against the intensity until, through his eyelids, he realised the brightness had faded. He opened his eyes. The fog had cleared.
He heard a man’s voice calling to him, strangely familiar, footsteps crunching through dead leaves that littered the ground, twigs snapping under foot.
‘Dad?’ he replied uncertainly.
John walked casually over to Bobby, laid an arm around his shoulder.
‘What are you doing out here? Dinner’s ready – you were supposed to be home half an hour ago.’
Bobby cast a glance back towards the underpass. He could see straight through to the other side, where streetlamps shone their fluorescent glow. For a second he thought he saw a beautiful girl, similar in age to him, screaming for help. But the vision fled from Bobby’s eyes and mind, fragments of a near-forgotten dream flickering in to the night like sparks from a bonfire, gone before he could latch on to them.
‘Lost track of time, I guess,’ he told his Dad.
John looked sadly at Bobby.
‘You weren’t out looking for your Mom again were you?’
‘Come on,’ John told him. ‘Your dinner will be getting cold.’
Bobby Fisher woke up with sunlight streaking painfully in to his eyes. He pulled the covers off, stepped down from his bed and crossed the room. It looked like it was a bright but cold day. He felt like he should probably do something while it was dry, and the fresh air would no doubt do him good. But he didn’t feel ready to face the world just yet. Not today.
He drew the curtains, sealing the crack of daylight that had accosted him, and climbed back in to bed. He looked across to his bedside table, at the photo of his mother, Maggie Fisher. Her smiling face looked towards him, frozen in that split second during the previous fall in which the photograph was taken, less than a week before the last time Bobby saw his mother.