The lights are bright in East Memphis. It was one of the most upending things about my move from small-town Montana. Out near Flatwillow and Sumatra, you begin to understand the true nature of darkness — and the things that lurk within.
My friends in the city don’t understand it. They fix me with a perplexing stare when I say that it doesn’t get dark in Memphis. They point out the sun sinking low above Overton Park or point toward the fairgrounds and tell me that there’s no light out there.
But all I see are their eyes, glaring at me as they try to get me to understand. I am relieved knowing that those eyes, at least, are human.
“I suppose it gets dark enough,” I tell them. And, for most people, that’s a truth to live by. We fear the dark. Humans, I mean. It’s an instinct. Bereft of our senses, we wander around in the thick of it with our hearts pounding, our blood thrumming through our skulls. It’s been that way since the beginning.
The difference between then and now is simple: Our ancestors knew the shape of what many of most of us have forgotten about the night.
I know it, as do many who still live in the dark places of the world. But to civilized society, the darkness — and the joy of the morning sunlight flitting across the landscape — is little more than a half-remembered dream.
“You always speak about the dark like it’s some horrendous thing,” a coworker tells me. Hers is the kind effortless beauty that disguises itself in bright, white clouds or autumn leaves falling on a windy day. It is breathtaking, in a way, and I am captivated by it.
I am reluctant to speak to her of the dark, but she will not relent until I give in.
“The things that live there,” I tell her. “They’re dangerous.”
“Whatever,” she huffs and marches off.
I shake my head and regret the tug at my emotions. Natural beauty like that is incomparable to the shaped beauty of carved marble or smoothed glass. It is untested, and who knows how it may shatter when placed under pressure.
The blackout changes everything.
It is a sudden thing, a storm unlike Memphis has ever seen. Wind and lightning destroy the power grid and leave thousands without electricity. Whole neighborhoods go dark, swaths of homes plunged into inky black as when the sunlight fades.
I am in one such place but, knowing the value of the light, I am prepared. Between generators and solar collectors, I suffer little more than a refrigerator of spoiled food. During the blackout, I never travel past my threshold after dark. Instead, I turn the latches, draw the blinds, and settle down with a book.
The scratching comes on suddenly, a slow dragging against the front door. The oak whines as something in the darkness beyond draws its claws along the frame. I listen for it, reliving the nightmare of my past. But I am unafraid in this moment. Even if the door frame stands empty, the light will keep those terrors at bay.
Others are not so lucky. Death comes on the very first night. Some people are slaughtered. Others are simply taken, vanishing under the cloak of darkness. I mourn for those lost and for the search parties who will scour the city to find them.
It is a week before I see my coworker again. When she arrives, she does not drift through the office as if carried on a breeze. She staggers across the hall. Her gait is shortened, more abrupt. She is pale, as if shaken, and cannot regain her former luster.
When we speak again, I greet her kindly. But when she looks at me with a hard glint in her eyes and staggers toward a cubicle that is not her own, I know that she is not the young woman I knew only a week prior.
They have taken her, spirit and soul, and replaced her with one of their own. It is the only way they can live among the light.
There is something else in those eyes. Something familiar — something knowing — in that gaze. That is how I know those creatures have come for me.
It is how I know that I will not leave Memphis alive.