A Trick of the Light
A little something for Hallowe’en…
“There’s someone at the door,” said Hannah.
Sean couldn’t help but feel proud. Only five years old, and way ahead of the curve. His daughter was at such a precious age, fearless and inventive and a veritable sponge for knowledge. But also so fragile, so in need of protection – from cold winds at night in her pyjamas, from the harsh realities of the world, from her own insatiable curiosity.
“Bed time now,” he told her, advancing down the long entry hall, trying to keep his voice stern. “Go say good night to your mother.” He smiled as she cheerfully obeyed, skipping off towards the front of the house. Sean approached the front door to see their alleged visitor.
The front door of the house was a slab of oak two inches thick, perfectly balanced on its hinges so it could swing open with the merest of sighs; during this past summer more than once the warm breezes had swung it shut unexpectedly. Inset into the door were two tall frosted glass panels, lacquered with a design of dolphins, looking for all the world like an attempt at very cheap lead-lighting. That door was the sheer door-itude of Fort Knox married to the whimsy of Disney.
On the front porch, visible through the dolphin glass, a man stood dark and motionless.
A moment later, and Sean saw his mistake. The silhouette of a man was actually just a trick of the light; the lamp-post on the street outside masked by trees on the front lawn and the porch’s own overhanging roof. All the same, he could see why Hannah had been confused; through the frosting and at first glance, it could so easily have been someone standing on the front steps, a man silent and menacing in his intent solitude.
He’d never seen this pattern of shadows before, and a moment later he realised why. The porch light had not come on with the dusk, for the first time since they moved in. Normally this light, burning automatically for a few hours after the fall of night, triggered by a tiny sensor on the wall, would have kept the door brighter and dispelled the shadows. When they had first bought the place, Sean had wondered about that light, about its unusual settings; rather than turning on at the disturbance of motion, or as required from a light switch like normal lights, why would you have a light turn on every night of the year? Now, he guessed, he could see why. The shadow man was unsettling. More than unsettling; it gave him goose bumps, and the cold he felt was more than the autumn breeze under the jamb of the door.
He resolved to find a new bulb for the porch light as soon as the stores opened in the morning. It was too cold and too dark to be playing around with electric lights right now; the morning would be soon enough. It felt like an excuse even if it was true. He left the front door firmly closed.
As he went in search of his daughter, who was bound to be hiding from him by now in a vain effort to avoid her bed for a while longer, he felt watched.
“I think he’s lonely,” said Hannah.
“There’s nobody there, darling,” said Rebecca, spooning scrambled eggs onto toast for breakfast. She was unable to completely mask her annoyance; despite her best efforts over the past month, she hadn’t been able to convince her daughter that the curious shadow was no more than a trick of the light. It didn’t help matters that Sean was reluctant to be drawn on the subject. Whenever required, he would support his wife, but neither she nor Hannah could have been entirely convinced by his half-hearted insistence.
“He’s just shadows,” he said now. “When I can get the light working again, you’ll see, he’ll be gone. Light chases shadows away.”
“Lonely,” said Hannah stubbornly. Rebecca pushed a plate of eggs under her daughter’s nose, and as the girl started shovelling she shot a glance at her husband.
“When are you going to get the light fixed?” she asked.
“I’ll try again this evening,” Sean said. “There’s a store in Fairfield that might have the right bulb.” And it might not, he didn’t add. So far there had been six different bulbs, all supposedly the same as the one he kept tucked in his coat pocket, none of them giving the slightest glimmer in the porch light fitting. He was starting to become slightly more comfortable with the front porch; spending his evenings out on the step as the shadows fell, light blazing out through the dolphin panels from every light in the entry hall, had not so far harmed him. And the man-shaped shadow was only visible from within the house, seen through the door; open the door and the shadows remained but became formless. It didn’t stop him wanting, more than anything, to get the light working again.
He was secretly terrified of the entryway to his own house. He didn’t think Rebecca had noticed yet, but he spent as little time as he could there, ducking in and out under the cover of daylight as much as possible; he wouldn’t step outside at night without every light burning behind him that he could find, and preferably with a torch at his belt.
Over the past weeks, as autumn encroached, the winds and the waving of the trees had given the dark shadow a semblance of life and movement. Sometimes it even seemed to be breathing, shoulders rising and falling. And last night…
Last night it had seemed bigger. Or closer.
“I told him to come in,” said Hannah. “He was cold.”
Outside it was sleeting, the wind pushing the wet almost horizontally. The icy wind swirled through the entry hall from the front door, standing wide open with his daughter’s innocent eyes upon his. Slowly he approached. She was in her flannel pyjamas; warm enough for nights within the shelter of the house, but not nearly enough protection against the rage of winter.
“Close the door,” he said. “You’ll catch your death of cold.” He had to help her with it, the wind seeming to fight their attempts. Fort Knox stood open.
With the door finally closed, he turned to Hannah. Her hair was tousled and her cheeks flushed. He felt her shirt-sleeve; it was cold, slightly damp from the rain. “Your PJs are wet. You need to change into something dry. Go ask your mum to help you.”
She grinned at him, seemingly none the worse for wear. The indestructibility of kids, he thought wearily. He watched as she skipped away.
Turning back to the door, it took him a moment to recognise the change. When he realised, he caught his breath, then let it out through his teeth in a long hiss.
The man-shadow was gone. The mottled shades of the trees outside flicked left and right, swaying in the wind, but the glass panels remained resolutely free of man-shaped silhouettes.
He didn’t have time to make up his mind to feel either relieved or consterned before the porch light flickered… once, twice… and came to life. The globe he’d left there weeks ago, an exercise in futility, his last attempt to get it working before the nights turned too cold and he started making excuses. The new globe shone like a young star, casting a warm orange glow into the entry hall. The shapes of dolphins leaped across the floor at his feet. Two dolphins in graceful flight, and a third below them.
It looked for a second like a grinning, toothy, malignant face, but that was surely just a trick of the light.
Seconds later there was a loud pop, and Sean started violently as the lights in the hall behind him blinked out. Every light in the house was dark. But the porch light shone on, the dolphins on the floor mocking him. “What the hell?” he muttered.
And that was when the screaming started.