Before Frank’s madness took hold, each town he raided got marked on an old Esso map with a pencil cross, or in red biro if it should be avoided, or an R if the place was worth a second look. There were other letters, but he didn’t remember what they meant now he wasn’t mentally ill any more.
This was a township off the highway, just a handful of buildings, with roads dwindling into the back country. Frank didn’t remember it, but there was an N on the map.
N might have stood for the noises. Easy to miss the warning noises if you sang to yourself a lot like Frank did. The gas station on the highway had been gutted long ago; today he was aiming for the stores in town.
A pair of cars blocked the main street, nose to nose, doors open, as if their drivers had just got out to argue, which meant Frank had to carry each load round them and back to his panel truck. It all took so long that the winter light was beginning to fail. This was his last, anxious haul: a cardboard box full of candles and books.
Gotta get back, gotta get back with the paperbacks, he hummed.
“Keep hold of the box,” said the woman, pointing a rifle. “I just want the keys to your truck.”
She’d swerved to avoid a sudden deer and clipped a tree. The air bag saved her, but the car was a wreck. Back in the city you just took a charged battery to a showroom and drove out a new car. She’d trudged along the highway for hours before spotting this man busy with his boxes.
He had ragged hair and a bushy beard, and the startled gaze and unwashed look of a loner. And he refused to hand over the keys, just kept saying he wouldn’t get back before dark if he did that.
“I’ve made a house safe,” he explained. “You can hide there tonight. Find you a car in the morning.” So matter-of-fact it almost made sense.
She’d shot men who tried to corner her, but this one was just bewildered and lost and her finger eased off the trigger. In the end, she found herself sitting in the back of his truck as he drove, trying to ignore the reek that came off him.
After a while he volunteered his name. “Name’s Frank.”
“Jane,” she said, unsure why she’d instinctively lied.
Frank, Frank, safe as a bank, he hummed to reassure her as they drove down empty roads, past deserted farms, bumping over rusty rail tracks.
The house had planks nailed across the windows and shiny new bolts fitted to the doors and a kind of panic room upstairs. He heaved a dresser across the door and jammed lengths of timber between it and the wardrobe blocking the window, so everything was solid and immovable.
“They’ve never tried to force the door,” he admitted. “But I can’t always stay awake.”
“Someone’s tried to get in?”
“I usually keep the shotgun handy.”
She shook her head.
“But there’ll be two of us,” he said, brightening. “I can sleep while you watch, then I’ll take over.”
She sank down in the corner opposite him, leaning the weapons beside her. His gaze kept wandering to the shotgun.
“I’ve got…” He examined dented tins stacked by the primus stove. “Food, if you want it.”
What she didn’t want was to hear his story. He sat with arms round his knees, rocking and rocking, and eventually her eyes grew heavy. She was startled awake by banging on the wall behind her. He leapt across the room and they struggled silently with the shotgun, his eyes wide.
“It’s old,” she managed to say. “Old houses settle.”
His trembling grip on the barrel loosened. “Wait.”
They stood like statues while the windows rattled and the walls thundered all round them, like someone using a lump hammer on the brick.
Then in the sudden silence, her voice was overloud. “It’s alright Frank, it’s just…”
She saw how it was for him, night after night, barricaded in this room, devoured by dread and loneliness.
“You’re being stalked.” By some other pitiful, deranged creature.
She pried the gun from his grip and checked it was loaded. “Let’s find out.”
But he shrank away, terrified, so she just motioned him back to his corner.
You don’t understand, he said finally. And leaned forwards to whisper his secret, a rambling childhood nightmare about something coming back from olden times, from the dark, when all we had to trust in were caves and campfires… until she made him stop.
She didn’t want to hear any more. She pulled the blanket tight around her, blaming the cold and damp of this old house.
Next morning, they jump-started a black SUV and sat waiting for the idling engine to charge the battery. He talked about food, about the expiry dates on tins, asking what the women in her commune would do when the tinned food ran out.
The date on the tin, the date on the tin, he hummed. Tells you about the state it’s in.
Let me come with you, he said suddenly.
Of course they wouldn’t vote him in, but in the end she wasn’t as hardened as she thought. She explained what she’d been doing out here, locating things for her group, like the nitrous oxide cylinder she’d left in the crash.
“We have a doctor. Well, a paramedic. Maybe you could hunt out stuff for her. You’d be good at that.”
“I’d still be on my own.”
“We’ll make sure the stalker doesn’t follow us.”
He tried to explain about victims, but she didn’t get it. She didn’t even realise how strong she was. Wolves always go for the weak and sick first, all victims know that.
So they drove in convoy towards the city, repeatedly backtracking round vehicles blocking the roads. He wondered what she did to pass the time. He hummed the victim, the victim, the wolves always pick ‘im.
When it was obvious they wouldn’t make it before dark, he signalled a halt.
Wearily, she watched him covering the truck’s windows, locking the doors, performing the rituals that trapped them safely inside, and was startled awake in the night by someone banging their fist along the truck.
Knuckles white around his shotgun, Frank flinched at each sound.
“How did they follow us?” she shouted over the din. Of course, he’d padlocked the back doors, so to get out she had to shove past him into the cab, and he was still struggling with her when the booming stopped.
She knew it was all wrong, bringing him back with her. For a while she’d imagined giving him lists of useful things to hunt down, rescuing him with her company, her reasonable words. She’d pictured him after a haircut, bathing again, less mad.
“You have to trust me,” she said. “While I go and explain things.” His truck dwindled in her driving mirror, the only vehicle in a Whole Foods car park gleaming with rain.
She put off going back the next day, and the next. His drivers’ door was open and the truck was empty. His shotgun and a torch lay on the asphalt. He’d listened to her and tried to be brave.
So many thoughts before. Such loud voices. Now the world was empty again, something ancient was venturing back.
Of course she never told her people, but she always made sure she was back before dark after that, careful that the doors were locked, safe in their kitchen, with company and voices, in the soft glow of the oil lamps.
The dark, the dark, not scared of the dark, she hummed to herself.
BIO: David Barber lives in Norfolk, England, a county considered to be a generation behind the times. This is a good thing. His ambition is to write. His work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, New Myths and Abyss & Apex.