From her vantage point of the second highest branch, Cassie saw it first, growing over the horizon like a bruise. She often spent afternoons by herself in the garden, away from the noise of the house- The music pounding from her brother Jamie’s closed door, Sampson barking at nothing, the rumbling of the ancient boiler. Her parents constantly screaming at each other. Or worse, being polite through gritted teeth. Cassie preferred the relative silence of the garden. Birds might chirrup at each other, but it never sounded angry. For most of the Easter holidays, she had got into the habit of marching out in the morning, her current book under her arm, with cheese and tomato sandwiches and lemonade in her backpack, plus another book just in case the first ran out. Suggestions of family days out and trips to places had been stubbornly resisted. She didn’t want to hang around her loser family at all, even if it meant going to a cool castle. Every day, she would head straight to the oak that grew next to the stream. This small brook technically marked the edge of their garden, but beyond was only fields. Beyond the fields was more fields. Endless fields. It was enough to make you sick sometimes. The other way, there were a couple of houses on the small road, but they were filled with farmers and their families. People who actually needed to be here. If her parents were really annoying her, Cassie would jump over the stream, run over the fields and scream at the top of her lungs, panicking swallows and ravens into the sky. She just felt this frustration inside her at all times, like her insides were headphone wires, all knotted and tangled.
Her parents were awful, buying this stupid big house in the middle of nowhere. They were lured here a year or so ago by the ‘charming’ stream and the ‘delightful’ wild flower garden. It was ‘an excellent opportunity’ they told her, she ‘would have so much space.’ To Cassie, it felt like a prison. An ongoing dispute with the ISP meant they didn’t even have Wi-Fi. It was like living in the dark ages. No Wi-Fi! It was unbelievable. Her phone signal was non-existent because they were surrounded by fields of sheep, who didn’t really need to check what they’d been tagged in. If Cassie leant out of the window, she could maybe get one bar, but that was it. She constantly thought of her friends at school, the lucky ones who got to stay over because their families were living abroad. They would be having so many adventures, she was sure of it. They would be raiding the kitchens or roaming the grounds. They’d have so many cool stories when term started again, but Cassie would have none. Every day, she had taken her supplies and climbed the oak next to the stream, sitting on the second highest branch because that was the comfiest spot. She could stay there for hours. That would be great, she was sure:
‘What did you do?’ ‘Read every day.’ ‘Oh.’
Then they would probably give Cassie a look of pity that would make her feel worse. Nothing ever happened here.
Cassie wished she could stay at school forever, over the summer holidays as well. It was never that great while she was there. She often felt lonely. Her parents were rich, she understood, but not that rich. They didn’t have a private helicopter or a stable of ponies like some of the girls. They didn’t have any ponies at all. Not one. But at least she had a couple of friends at school. At least there was computers that actually worked. Out here, in the place that was meant to be her home, she felt so disconnected from the world. It might as well of been the moon. Every half term, when her parents picked her up at the school gates, she barely recognised them. They looked more and more drawn, like they were getting less sleep each time.
That day, when the sky turned, she had argued with her brother and then her parents. Sampson probably would have been on her parents’ side if he could talk, because they fed him and took him for walks. Besides, as far as Sampson was concerned, Cassie was basically an intruder in the house for a few weeks of the year.
Her brother, Jamie, had been playing his stupid club music so loud she felt her teeth vibrate. He was older than her, nineteen, so was pretty much an adult and should know better. Jamie was meant to go to university but had got terrible grades in his A levels so was ‘taking a year out’. As far as Cassie could see, it just meant going out to clubs all the time, driving an hour to get to the nearest city so him and his stupid mates could stay out all night. The music wasn’t even good. Cassie had the misfortune of having a room next to his. The bass always thrummed through the walls. She had decided against going out today because even though the sun was trying to peek through the cloud cover, she had woken up shivering. That was another thing this house lacked- insulation. Where was the appeal in buying an old house when new houses were so much better?
Cassie had laid in her bed for an hour. She thought that was remarkably restrained. For the whole hour, she heard the same bassline and the same drum beat occasionally drifting through the bricks. It all sounded the same. Cassie had tried to read, she really had, but the music made the words jump around the page and she couldn’t concentrate. She had tried to take deep breaths but she could feel the rage building up in her, unstoppable. Her anger was a mighty storm and the breathing was just a flimsy shed that stood in the way. After forty five minutes of constant noise, she was shaking. She didn’t want to get into an argument so she tried to ignore it. Another fifteen minutes crawled by and Cassie was almost screaming. Then Jamie turned the music up louder.
That was it. Cassie had exploded. Before she knew it, she was banging on his bedroom door, the hard wood splitting her knuckles.
‘TURN IT DOWN,’ she screamed at him, struggling to be heard over the incessant noise. There was no answer. He didn’t even come to the door. Instead, in a lull in the tunes, she heard him laughing.
Alright, she may have told him to F- off. Alright, she might also have kicked the door so hard she split one of the panels, just slightly. But it wasn’t fair. Her mum and dad had marched up the stairs and immediately taken his side. They hadn’t even listened to her. She had blood on her knuckles and her toes really hurt and were probably broken but it was somehow all her fault. Cassie had tried to speak but they ganged up on her, like they always did. Jamie turned down the music, of course, then came to the door and said Cassie was using bad words. which she was, but only one and even so it wasn’t fair. Her dad called her mum far worse when he’d been drinking. Even using the C- word a couple of times. How could they accuse her of being rude when they used it themselves. It was one rule for them, another for her. And just because her brother was older he got to do what he wanted, even if it ruined the peace for everyone else.
So they had started yelling at her and Cassie had yelled back and it was horrible and so she had grabbed the nearest book and ran downstairs, through the hallway, through the unnecessarily big kitchen, out through the wonky door and into the garden. She had climbed the oak at record speed and found her nook, on the second highest big branch, then leant back against the trunk.
She stayed up in the tree. No one had even followed her out to see if she was alright. Cassie tried to read, but the words still swirled. She blinked back tears that stung her eyes. They weren’t worth crying over. She wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. Even as a couple dropped onto the page she stubbornly resisted.
What was going to happen in the future? The thought struck her like a lightning bolt. What was going to happen when she finished school? It seemed so far away, but it was only a few years. Next year would be her GCSE’s, then A Levels, then what? She wanted to go to university, but where? And how? There must be some kind of process to follow, Cassie thought, but no one had told her. She’d never really thought about university before. It was just something you did. If she went though, that would be her escape. Three or four years away from this miserable house full of shouting. Anything to avoid being like her terrible brother. Cassie wiped her snotty nose with the sleeve of her jumper. How many times had she been told not to do that? She sighed. The future was still ages away. For now, she just had to endure this misery, day after day, trapped in nowhere with nothing to do and-
Her thoughts halted as she stared at the sky. She had been looking idly into space, not really focusing on anything. It was only when the darkness started to move that she really noticed it. It squatted on the horizon, like a shadow or a storm cloud, but darker than both. It seemed to suck in light. It looked as if someone had taken a permanent marker and drawn a line on the edge of the world. Cassie didn’t really understand what she was looking at but the darkness filled her with a deep sense of nausea.
The worst part about the darkness was that it was growing. As she watched, she saw it spread further into the visible sky, like dark ink on a cotton shirt. This wasn’t a storm. Cassie knew that. It pulsed and pushed against the sky, unlike any cloud. Clouds drifted. This was angry. It was almost alive.
Cassie didn’t know what to do. The darkness had frozen her in place. All thoughts of the argument and of the future had vanished from her mind. It was like the darkness had entered her brain and frozen all thought. She was still, unaware if she was even breathing. All she could see was the tendrils of the darkness reaching out to claim new territory. She didn’t know how long she watched it. Maybe hours. Maybe seconds.
Then she was down on the grass and running towards the house, her heartbeat thumping in her ears, her breathing fast and quick, her vision blurry and her hands and knees grazed. She had no memory of climbing down from the tree, no idea what snapped her out of her frozen state, it was just now the most important thing to get to the house. Her bare feet skimmed the top of the damp grass. Where were her shoes? Or her book? Had she left them in the tree?
Ignoring the stitch in her left side and her focus that seemed to swim in and out, Cassie slammed into the wonky back door, before wrenching it open.
Into the kitchen. No one. Lunch lay half prepared on the table, a bread knife halfway through a loaf. Cassie tore through the kitchen and into the hall, charging into the living room. No one there either. The tv was on, talking to an empty room. For the briefest moment, Cassie saw the news. It was still showing the same old boring politics. A breaking newsflash covered the screen and Cassie’s heart lurched in anticipation, but it was just some update on something else. She ran into the dining room. No one again. Where were they all? It felt like they had all just vanished. In her panic, Cassie thought the darkness and her parents’ disappearance were connected, that they had gone by the darkness that was growing over the sky. They would never be seen again. From now on, it would just be here alone in the house, alone in the world for all she knew, left to deal with whatever it was by herself.
In the hallway, she stood a moment, knees shaking, trying to think. There was still music rumbling through the ceiling. She ran from the hallway, up the narrow stairs, whose floorboards groaned in surprise under her feet. She hammered on her brother’s door again, with more urgency and panic than before. Her knuckles were raw from earlier but she didn’t care.
The door didn’t open. It confirmed her worst fears. Everyone was gone. She hammered again. Then a muffled ‘Alright!’ called out from the room. The music was turned down a fraction.
‘Open up!’ Cassie screamed ‘Piss off,’ said Jamie. ‘It’s important!’ ‘I said piss off! Go see mum and dad.’
Cassie screamed to herself, under her breath. She had no words. There was no way to explain what was happening outside, other than trying to get people to look. Her brother’s room faced the other way from where the darkness was spreading, so maybe he hadn’t seen it yet. She stood, silently mouthing words but unable to articulate anything.
Her parents would know what to do. Where were they? They had vanished. Again, the thought crossed her mind, as she ran into her dad’s study, that they had stopped existing. That she was all alone to deal with whatever it was that was happening and she was so underprepared and she knew she didn’t need them around but she needed them now to help because maybe, just maybe they might know what exactly was going on and maybe they could help.
The study was empty. A cup of half drunk coffee sat on the side. Her dad’s fountain pen still open on top of a pile of papers. From the study window she could see that same dark bruise covering almost half the sky. How quickly it had spread. It seemed to suck all the light from that part of the sky. For a long moment, she stared at it, her eyes quickly filling with tears. She realised she was shaking.
Cassie thought of one final place her parents might be. She marched the few faces to the closed door of the bedroom and flung it open.
Two heads poked out from under the covers.
‘Go away! her mum shouted.
‘Don’t you ever knock? Go away!’
‘I don’t want to hear it Cass,’ Her dad said.
Cassie quickly shut the door. What were they doing? Ewww. They had been screaming at each other all morning, now this. They were so gross. Cassie would never understand her parents. She couldn’t even focus on the embarrassment, it just seemed to fall away from her. The panic was more prevalent.
Hot, angry tears were falling from her eyes now. Her sharp nails dug into her palms. She didn’t know what to do. There was no-one to speak to. No-one to warn. It’s not like anyone would listen to her anyway. they never did. Really, as well, now she though about it, what could her parents or her brother do?
She floated down the stairs and back out the kitchen door, not noticing anything around her. Her head felt like it was full of a dust storm, swirling around inside her skull so she could only hear the wind and the lighting. The howling and biting dust consumed everything.
Cassie found herself sat on the cold lawn, with little memory of how she got there. Above her, the sky was diminishing and everything was going dark.
It was oddly beautiful. Now the panic had taken complete control of her body, now she knew there was nothing she could do, she just accepted it. None of her family seemed remotely bothered about the impending doom so why should she? All she was left with was a strange sense of acceptance. Cassie wasn’t panicking now. She was watching the darkening sky with a half smile. Of course this was happening. Of course. She felt the grass below her feet and hands. She could feel every blade, every inch of the cut grass. She could smell the sweet scent of the turf, like it had been raining. She listened to birds cut off their songs in confusion and fall silent as the darkness took over.
She was asleep. Of course she was. Cassie felt invulnerable to all harm, able to control the whole world. Half lucid. Only, she knew deep down that she was awake. She could feel the coolness of the wind on her bare arms, feel each individual goosebump. The trees were silhouetted in clear detail, with individual twigs visible. No dream, just cold reality.
Cassie heard gentle footsteps behind her swishing through the grass. A small girl, maybe four or five, came walking up behind her. No parents in sight. Maybe from one of the nearby farms? The child walked up to Cassie and plonked herself down on the lawn without saying anything.
‘Hello?’ Cassie said.
The girl scrunched up her face in confusion and concentration. ‘It’s dark?’ the girl said.
The girl reached out a small hand and clasped a couple of Cassie’s fingers. Together, they both watched the darkness consume the sky.