Author: David Barber
The child has learned a lot of things.
It knows about the food machines and how to trick them; it knows where a tap drips water to drink, and it learned early on about light and dark.
It learned the lights in the ceilings get tired too, but because they are friendly lights, they warn when they’re ready for sleep by going dim. Then the child knows dark is close, and it’s time to hurry back to the hidey-hole.
Dark is worst, when something might be creeping up. The child has learned to bite off screams.
But the friendly lights always wake again, and the child eats and drinks, and holds its breath in the broken toilet room, and on good days sings all the songs it knows, and though the words are mostly jumbled or forgot, the child can still la-la through the tunes.
Sometimes the ache inside is very bad, but it isn’t the kind of hungry that food can help, so the child tiptoes into the place where it was told it mustn’t go.
The screens fascinate the child, and though it feels the urge to press buttons, it is always careful Not To Touch Anything.
The child likes to imagine it has been told to wait here while they go fetch something they forgot, and is content to stare out the window where the dark lives, sprinkled with the lights they called stars, back then, before the grown-ups all got sick and the child was left on its own.
It was like a dream of being lifted up and whirled around, and the child could almost picture whose hands they were, when suddenly they let go, and the child fell awake in the dark. Heart hammering, the child listened real hard. Yes, there were noises somewhere, like machines getting angry. And they were coming closer.
There were lots of noises in the child’s life. Some were good noises that it did not mind, like the plop of the dripping tap, or the whirring from vents that ruffled the child’s hair like someone’s hand; these were noises it had known forever.
Bad noises were the scary ones, waiting for the child to trot past, clicks and sudden thumps from behind the walls. There were some corridors the child would not go down now.
And these new noises were bad noises.
There in the gap under the door of the hidey-hole, the child saw a wavering glow, and it bit hard on its knuckles because it knew it wasn’t a friendly light.
The hidey-hole and the blankets had always kept the child safe, but now doors were clanging open and light being shone into corners, something was coming and the child knew the hidey-hole had always been a trap.
Without thinking, the child was on its feet, arms outstretched, feeling its way in the dark, past the sound of the dripping tap; past the smell of the broken toilet room; panicked into running by the thing following in the dark, its terrible teeth, its breath on the child’s neck, then a blinding light threw huge shadows and the child bounced off a food machine.
What loomed out of the brightness wore suits like the ones hanging by the airlock.
“It’s alright Jamie,” said a muffled woman’s voice. “We’ve come for you.”