The sirens begin to scream, the sound like ice in the December air.
Wincing, we look up in unison, as though we belonged to one body. Though it is nearly dark, the park is full of revelers on the brink of celebrating the holidays. Full of now-frozen figures that stare up at the sound in a weary, united understanding. After several seconds, it rouses us. Wordlessly, we begin to move, quickly but no longer with the rushed, desperate panic that marked the first few years. Most return to their cars, locking the doors and raising the windows as they settle in for a long night. But not all of us are so lucky. Five tall figures head to the nearest house, and we walk briskly together the way a family does, though we have never seen each other before tonight. The owners – an elderly couple none of us know – watch us with the familiar, weary resignation from the hollowed space of the already-open door.
All the while, the night keeps screaming, as though in pain.
We enter like guests for a wake. A procession of thin, shuffling shadows, each as unwelcome as the next. With slightly-shaking fingers calmed only somewhat by practice, we close all the doors in the house and pull shut the windows. Checking and double-checking that the locks are airtight. Guarding the house from the traitorous breath outside that presses up against the glass. Once we are finished, we gather in the living room, where there is the most space for everyone to sit comfortably. The lights have been shut off, and we stare at the mere suggestions of one another’s faces in the dark. All around the city, families and strangers alike do the same.
Then we wait.
Wait as the scream of the sirens fades away like a dying man’s last exhale, to be replaced with the strange, otherworldly noises that we have all long since memorized, though, even now, never fully comprehend. Wait, huddled like scared children, as the shapeless shadows drip slowly over the house and run long, dragging tendrils against the walls. They sink down weightlessly from the night sky, heavy with the stars that burn like angry eyes. Hungry, searching, and as mindless as locusts, they arrive with no more fanfare than a whisper of cool air that ruffles the curtains in still-open windows. We can feel them more than we can see them, groping their way blindly like bad dreams, up and down the street. Wherever they go, the living things vanish. Eaten up by the air in the span of a single breath, as though they had simply been thought out of existence. Closing our eyes, we listen, imagining the quiet rippling in the air that is not just the heat, and the bodiless shadows undulating like ribbons that are no longer just a trick of the light.
Somewhere far away, we hear an impromptu chorus of screams through the static, cut off suddenly. Wide eyes find each other in the darkness, and we know that the sun will rise tomorrow over an empty house. The folly of a forgotten, open window and the terror of liquid shadows that pour in like nightmares. Even after all these years, we still know them only by the emptiness they leave in their wake. The way one can only know a body against the night sky by the way it blocks out the stars. Or a shadow by the cold mockery of shape it leaves on the ground.
After almost two hours, we feel the thick shadows rise at last, dissatisfied, and warmth crawls back into the house as shyly as a secret lover. It is several long minutes before the sirens that mark the end return, mournful and keening. Soon, those too fade, and silence settles once more like a lake once-disturbed. Outside, doors open cautiously, and the human-shaped shadows shuffle warily back out into the glassy night. The night has returned, but the festivities have been left behind. In the tense, held-breath quiet of the living room, we look at each other, afraid to speak of the thing we heard, in the last few minutes before the sirens returned. Afraid that if we spoke it, it would be real, and not just something to be forgotten with the rising sun.
The clawing of something unwelcome against the door, then, quiet – as though we had not wanted to hear it at all – the click of an unlocking door, and the slow turning of a doorknob.