Fear. It freezes my hands and toes, even though I crouch in a pool of warm lamplight. It slams into my belly like a big fist, twisting my guts and making me want to throw up Nana’s beef stew. It fills my tiny bedroom with a custard-thick silence, so my thumping heart and shallow breaths echo off the poster-covered walls.
Nana’s sharpest kitchen knife rests on my shaking knees. I rub my thumb along the smooth handle, then close my fist around it when the low rumbling starts. The noise rolls out like a marble from under the radiator and explodes into a menacing growl. I shrink back, hiding behind my homework desk, the old wood digging into my shoulder blades.
My left arm throbs. Beneath the square plaster on my elbow, the ragged claw marks sting. How come the Thing’s getting stronger every night? More vicious. More real. How long this time before it fades into black smoke and disperses? Five minutes? Ten? Twenty?
On the ceiling, the shadows run together and drip, like dark ink, onto the worn carpet. They swirl into an oily, growling puddle, which stretches and twists, tight as skin, shiny as fish scales. Then the puddle splits and a wolf leaps out. Blacker than deep space, it sucks up all the buttery light.
I curl into a ball, but the wolf sniffs the air and reaches me in one bound. Like solid night, it crashes into my bruised ribs, knocking the knife from my hand. I fly backwards, cracking my head on the wall, and cry out for Nana, even though I know she takes out her hearing aid at bedtime. Giant paws land on my chest.
I struggle. I spit at its skinless skull and try to dig my nails into its empty eye sockets, but somehow the pain rebounds. I scream, my hands flying up to protect my burning eyes. Warm wetness soaks my fingers. Tears or blood? I bite back a sob.
Is this it? Is this how they felt? Am I going to die now?
The wolf melts, collapsing and oozing like sticky mud. It slithers around me, hissing and coiling tight around my body, squeezing the life from my lungs. Spots of green light dance before my closed lids.
“Why?” I croak.
Why do you keep attacking me? What kind of monster are you?
The hissing stops and the coils unwind. Coughing and retching, I sit up. The room swims, then sharpens around the wriggling body of a huge snake. Its long, thin head rears up, waving like a reed in a breeze. Then its toothless hole-of-a-mouth opens, spilling nothingness, and I drown in the stink of rotting breath.
The snake swallows everything: me, my room, Nana’s house, the twinkling city. Then it spits us all out again, and I find myself staring at a tall shadow man. He steps forward, shadow boots creaking, and picks up Nana’s knife. The knife glitters and beads of blood, like tiny rubies, slip off the blade. Their coppery scent sparks a repressed memory: Dad’s limp body, his staring eyes.
No! I dig my nails into my scalp. Don’t make me remember!
Flies peel off the shadow man, a swarm of them, buzzing louder than bluebottles. They dart, like winged imps, and take tiny chunks of my face, my neck, my bare arms. Each bite throws me back to the alleyway behind the cinema. The gruff voice demanding cash. The cars in the distance. The thumping music. Mum’s warm hand gripping mine.
“Run, sweetie,” she shrieks. “Run!”
Boots creak. Mum screams. My sandals slap the cracked pavement.
The shadow man raises Nana’s knife and slashes. I duck and trip backwards, my hand tingling from the memory of Mum’s protective grasp. Then I notice the fingerprints on the back of my fist. They shine softly in the gloom, like glow in the dark stars. I flip my hand, uncurling my fingers, and study her smudged palm print.
Heat shimmers along my skin, and the smudge bursts into light. The light spreads, filling me with strength, upwelling and pouring out, whiter than the brightest star. The flies burst into flecks of sparkling gold and wink out. The shadow man grunts and stumbles back, shielding his sightless eyes. So I lunge forward, raising my arms, and the brightness gushes, engulfing my whole body.
I am fire. I am light. I drive back darkness.
The shadow man roars, then shrinks into a skinny sixteen-year-old with braided hair.
As the light flares and dies, I lower my arms.
My shadow lowers her arms, too.
Izabella Grace grew up in London and now lives with her family in rural Ireland. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Online, Flash Fiction Online’s 2014 Anthology, Cease, Cows and Youth Imagination.