The sirens begin to scream, sharp as ice in the summer air.
Wincing, we look up in unison at the innocently-winking stars above, simultaneous as though we belong to one consciousness. Though it is nearly dusk, the park is full of revelers on the brink of celebrating the holidays. Full of now-frozen figures that stare up at the source-less sound in a weary yet united understanding. After several seconds, it finally rouses us. Wordlessly, we begin to move. Quickly, but no longer with the rushed, desperate panic that marked the first few months. Most return to their cars, locking the doors and huddling together as best they can as they settle in for a long night.
But not all of us are so lucky.
Five tall figures head towards the nearest house, their silhouettes reaching up the sidewalk like fingers outstretched in desperate plea. We walk briskly together, the way a family does, though we have never met each other before tonight. The owners of the house – an elderly couple none of us recognize – watch us with a familiar, weary resignation from the wide, eager mouth of the 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 last. With slightly-shaking fingers calmed only somewhat by practice, we close the doors in the house and pull shut the windows. Checking and double-checking that all locks are turned, and all windows airtight. Guarding the house from the traitorous air outside that presses up against the glass like the hungry exhales of a stalking beast. Once we are finished, we gather in the living room, where there is the most space for everyone to sit comfortably. The lights have already 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 for the screams of the sirens to fade away like a drowning man’s last gasp, to be replaced with the strange, otherworldly noises with which we have all long since grown unfairly acquainted – though, even now – can never fully place. Wait, huddled together like frightened animals, as the shapeless shadows drip slowly over the house and run long, dragging tendrils against the outside walls. They sink down as weightlessly as clouds, cloaked with halfway-reflected stars that now burn like angry eyes in the night sky. Hungry, searching, and as mindless as locusts, they descend 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; feel the cold, wet thickness of something like the rolling fog that gathers in narrow alleyways when it rains.
Wherever they go, the living things vanish. Eaten up in the span of a single breath, as though they had simply been thought out of existence. Closing our eyes, we can do nothing but listen, imagining the quiet rippling in the air outside that is not just the heat, and the bodiless darkness undulating like ribbons that is no longer just a trick of the light.
Somewhere far away, we hear an impromptu chorus of screams ripping through the white noise, cut off as suddenly as it came. The bright pinpricks of 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 attic window, and the noiseless terror of liquid shadows that pour in through the cracks like nightmares. Even after all these years, we still know them only by the emptiness they leave in their wake. The same way one can only ever 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 more minutes before the sirens that mark the end return, mournful, keening, and rising out of numbness no one ever notices until it is gone. Soon, those too fade, and silence settles again like a lake once-disturbed. Outside, doors open cautiously, and the human-shaped shadows shuffle warily back out into the glassy night. The evening has returned, but the festivities have been all but abandoned. In the tense, held-breath quiet of the living room, we look at each other one last time, afraid to speak of the thing we heard, in those last few minutes just before the shadows rose. Afraid that if we spoke it, it would be real, and not just another bad dream to be forgotten with the rising sun. Because among the screaming cacophony of noises we did not understand, there was one – low and terrible – that chilled the blood which runs hot in our veins.
Familiar, and all the more terrible for its familiarity; the slow clawing of something unwelcome against wooden panels, then quiet – as though we had not wanted to hear it at all – the click of an unlocking door, and the slow creak of hinges.