It was dark.
Celya couldn’t remember the last time she sat awake so long without turning on the lights, or when midnight had last seemed such a deep hour. Her knees were beginning to ache from the tight angle she held them, and she had sat still so long the edges of her arms, hands, fingers had started to blur. She had one hand tightly laced in her daughter’s hand for such a stretch of time that the sensation had sunk deeper than her bones and her mind was beginning to wonder if it felt anything at all. Almost, she wondered if she still had hands, if she asked them to move if she might find that her limbs had faded away while she just tried to breathe.
She couldn’t turn on a light. She wanted to more than she wanted to take her next heartbeat or feel her next breath, but she could not, and she wasn’t sure if it was because she knew what light would bring, or if she simply didn’t have the hands or feet anymore to strike the match, light the wick, replace the glass on the lamp.
Celya couldn’t remember another darkness like this, that hung in curtains around her familiar room and never cleared. She had been blinking into it for hours, waiting for the shadows to clear into the strange gray light eyesight sorted out in the middle of the night. She knew she was staring at her bedpost, at the dresser on the other side of it, and the wall behind that, the shaded corner deepened by the thick curtains on either side of it, the carved door. But she had to blink harder, faster, to see the real edges of them, not the memories she’d memorized.
It was dark. Too dark, and just their breathing was turning to shy sighs sliding sideways into something sinister between the silences. Just their breathing was shaking her.
And then, on a sudden, too loud, and too dim, and too sharp, and too near, something shouted. Something crashed. Something ran and something broke. It was in the hall, echoing on stone, and moving too quickly. Celya tightened her hold on her daughter, wrapped an arm around her and dragged her close. She held her daughter’s head tight against her shoulder, and she wished for the quiet shudder of breath again.
The shouts faded. The crashing stopped with a bone-jarring crescendo. And a few minutes later, they came back, a little farther away. Faded. Returned, closer. Faded, returned, around a different corner. And in between breathing felt treacherous, like lifting too-heavy iron where her ribs should be, like yelling down an echoing valley when she should have been absolutely silent.
And the dark never shifted, no matter how many times she blinked it away.
Her knees ached.
The shouting came and went. The breaking started and ended.
Something shuffled outside the door.
Celya felt her daughter close her fist in her skirts, pulling at the fabric.
The door latch clicked. A shadow shifted, and Celya imagined or saw the handle turning. The darkness stayed, thick with new whispers, someone else breathing, someone’s skirts rustling, someone’s boots tapping in even strides. The door settled shut, silent except for a vague, deep echo of wood tapping together.
Celya tried not to move, tucked into her corner where the dark was deepest. But she found her daughter’s hand again, held her fingers over the bunched cloth.
The woman at the door moved a few long strides into the room, looking around with something long and silver hanging from her hand.
“Celya?” the woman whispered finally.
And Celya’s chest almost collapsed under the weight of the iron as she dragged in too quick a breath. “I’m here,” she told her aunt. And she still didn’t move.
Her aunt, Evelyne closed the gap between them, sank to the floor beside her. There was blood on her cheek, a thin line that ran along the bone, and more spattered into the loose knot of her hair.
“Are you all right?” Evelyne asked her.
“We’re fine,” Celya said.
Evelyne held her eye until she was sure there was no lie in that, then squeezed Celya’s hand. “Follow me,” she murmured. “I can get us out.”
Celya started to rise, then stopped when her daughter held her back. Wide-eyed, she looked up at Celya, mouth tight while she tried to swallow something that wouldn’t keep to her chest. She was twelve and hadn’t curled into her mother’s side this way in years, but now she held too tight, and didn’t let go. Celya pulled gently on her hand.
“It’s time to go,” she told her.
“What’s out there?” her daughter asked.
Evelyne and Celya looked at each other, slow. The quiet stretched, not quite silence anymore, and not the shudder of breath either. There was no way they could tell her what was happening. There was no explanation for this.
Evelyne turned back to Celya’s daughter first, calm, even as she brushed absently at the cut on her cheek. “It’s only ghosts,” Evelyne told her seriously. “We have to creep past them, or they’ll make us ghosts, too.”
“Ghosts?” her daughter repeated. She sounded a little steadier, if just for knowing what it was.
“Come on,” Evelyne said. She held her hand out to the girl. “It’s only ghosts.”
Happy Halloween, everyone! Here’s hoping your darkness clears, or carries only ghosts.