Read Darkness Online

Authors: John Saul

Tags: #Horror

Darkness (8 page)

At last, from the depths of the darkness, a shadow even blacker than those surrounding it emerged from the night.

The shadow became a boat, rowed silently by Jonas Cox, a boy Amelie had known all his life. But in the prow, standing erect, was the tall figure of the Dark Man, clad in black, his face obscured by his black shroud, the cloth pierced only by the holes through which he gazed. Amelie’s breath caught in her throat, and she thought her heart might stop beating.

The boat drifted to a stop in front of the shanty. For several long minutes time seemed to stand still as the black figure gazed steadily at George Coulton. Finally the Dark Man’s right arm came up, his black-gloved finger pointing at George.

Saying nothing, moving with the steady rhythms of an automaton, George Coulton climbed down from the porch of the shack and stepped into the boat. A moment later the boat disappeared back into the blackness of the night, the Dark Man still standing silently in its prow, and except for the fact that George was no longer there, Amelie wouldn’t have been certain that anything had happened at all.

Refusing to think about what it might mean, terror beating louder in her heart with every passing second, she forced herself to begin working once more on the tiny garment in her hands.

But even as she worked on it, the certainty grew within her that her baby would never wear it.

Unless …

A thought flickered in her mind, but she turned away from it as quickly as it came. Despite what she’d said, she didn’t want George to die.

The boat drifted to a stop, and Jonas Cox shipped the oars. He looked up at George Coulton, seated in the stern, seeing George’s bloodless face glowing ghostlike in the first light of the rising moon. Jonas could feel the fear that had seized George, and knew that the Dark Man, standing behind him, still had his eyes fixed on the boy Jonas had known all his life.

“You have disobeyed me,” the Dark Man said, and though he spoke softly, the words chilled Jonas.

“I didn’t—” George Coulton began, but before he could go on, the Dark Man spoke again.

“You belong to me. You do what I tell you. I did not tell you to marry Amelie Parish.”

“She were havin’ my baby,” George whimpered.

“My
baby,” the Dark Man corrected him. “Your children are mine, as you are mine.”

“An’ I’m givin’ him to you,” George whined, desperate now.

“You promised your woman you wouldn’t,” the Dark Man stated. “You belong to me, and your children belong to me. It is why you live.”

George said nothing, his eyes widening as he began to realize what was going to happen to him.

“I will not be disobeyed. My children will not promise that which is not theirs to give.” The Dark Man opened his cloak and drew a long knife from a sheath at his belt. Leaning over, he placed it in Jonas Cox’s hand. “Release George Coulton from the Circle,” he said.

George gasped as he saw the knife, but it was already
too late. Before he could utter even a single word, the knife in Jonas Cox’s hand flashed in the moonlight, and its blade, razor-sharp, plunged deep into George’s chest.

A scream rose from George’s throat, rending the silence of the night, building as pain shot through his body, then fading into a low, horrible gurgling sound as blood bubbled from his lips.

As the life drained from his body, he began to change.

His eyes sank into his skull, and his skin withered into leathery folds. His muscles, lean and firm only a moment ago, turned flaccid, and his strong young bones turned suddenly brittle, his hip breaking under the weight of his own body.

Jonas Cox twisted the knife in response to a quiet order from the Dark Man, plunging it deeper, then ripping it upward to slice through George’s heart.

George’s body toppled from the stem of the boat, dropping into the shallow water.

Jonas, ignoring the corpse in the water, washed the blood from the blade of the knife, then returned it to the Dark Man. He put the oars back into the water, and the boat slipped away, disappearing once more into the darkness.

At first it was nothing more than a faint gasping sound, as if somewhere nearby in the darkness some unseen creature had been taken by surprise. Then, in an instant, Amelie heard the gasp turn into a scream of utter terror. It built, rising to a crescendo, then was suddenly cut off.

For a moment Amelie thought it was over, until she became aware of an agonized gurgling sound, a sound that died slowly.

Silence once again hung over the swamp. Amelie sat still, not daring to move until slowly, tentatively, the night sounds began to rise again.

For the creatures of the bog, whatever had happened was over.

For Amelie it had just begun, for as the scream had risen in the night, she had been seized by a gripping certainty about what had happened.

She put her sewing aside and moved into the small house, emerging a moment later with a lantern held high, its wick glowing softly. She climbed clumsily down off her porch into the canoe that was tied to one of the pilings supporting the house, and set the lantern in the prow. Untying the line, she cast the boat adrift, then began moving it forward, a single oar slipping silently in and out of the water.

She followed her instincts, moving through the narrow channels of the bayous. After a few minutes she found what she was looking for. Holding the lantern high, she peered down into the water.

Lying faceup on the bottom of the shallow channel, its face only an inch or so beneath the surface of the water, was a body.

The open eyes stared up at Amelie, but she could see there was no life in them.

The eyes were wide. The mouth was still open in a silent, flooded scream, the lips drawn back in an expression of frozen terror.

And from the wound in the chest, ripped wide nearly to the throat, blood still flowed, staining the water around Amelie’s boat a ghastly shade of pink.

Amelie stared wordlessly at the body. An odd sense of relief came over her, for though she had been right in her presentiment, she had also been wrong.

She’d found the body she’d come looking for, but it wasn’t the body she’d expected.

The body in the shallow water didn’t look anything at all like George Coulton.

Slowly, she began making her way back through the swamp.

She came to her house and passed it by.

Soon, in the distance, she came to another shack, very like her own, crouched at the edge of the swamp.

But this house was different. This one had electric lights brightening its windows. And in this house there was a telephone.

Amelie sighed. It was going to be a long night.

4

K
elly Anderson gazed at the footbridge uncertainly. Was it really the same bridge she’d crossed earlier? And what had she been doing for the last hour?

She couldn’t remember.

The only thing she was certain of was that it had still been light when she’d crossed the canal and set out along the path that wound through the tangled foliage of the island. It didn’t seem as if she’d walked very long; indeed, she could barely believe it had taken more than fifteen minutes before she found herself back where she’d started. And yet the sky was black, and the full moon hung well above the horizon.

Why hadn’t she noticed that night was falling?

She was in for it now. She could already hear her parents, telling her how irresponsible she was, demanding to know where she’d been and what she’d been doing.

The thing that frightened her most was that she couldn’t tell them.

It wasn’t just that she’d promised to stay away from the marshes.

It was that she couldn’t really remember what had happened.

She searched the corners of her mind for some clue.

There had been a sound, almost like music, but not quite. The tones had struck a chord in her, and she’d felt herself drawn … drawn where?

She didn’t know.

There were only fragmentary images, nothing she could put her finger on.

But now, as she thought about it, she had a sense that she hadn’t been alone.

There had been others near her … but who?

No faces came to mind. Only images of indistinct figures, figures that drifted past her, going somewhere.

Somewhere she could not find.

Something had been happening, something she should have been part of but was shut away from. She could bring none of it into focus, yet all of it had an eerie sense of familiarity.

The people around her—whoever they had been—were people like her.

Like her
.

The phrase echoed in her mind. How could they have been people like her? She’d never met anyone like herself before, never known anyone who shared the lonely inner emptiness that had always pervaded her.

But now, as she looked back at the wilderness, she had a compelling feeling that somewhere, lost in the tangle of growth, she’d found other beings like herself.

Yet there were no clear memories of anything. The fragments in her mind seemed nothing more than remnants of a dream.

She started across the footbridge, but came to a sudden stop as she heard the wail of a siren. She listened, frozen, as the sound grew. Had her parents
called the police? They couldn’t have—she wasn’t
that
late.

Unconsciously, she held her breath until the sound began to recede. Letting her lungs collapse in a sigh of relief, she ran across the bridge and started back to her grandfather’s house, already searching for a story that would cover her lateness.

A few minutes later she opened the back door and stepped inside. From the den she could hear her parents’ voices, still talking with her grandfather. Maybe, if she was lucky, she could slip up to her room and, if anyone came looking for her, claim that she’d been there for nearly an hour. But as she passed the open door to the den, her mother called out to her.

“Kelly?”

Kelly went to the door, bracing herself for the tirade. But her mother was only looking at her anxiously. “Honey? Are you all right? We were starting to get worried.”

Kelly hesitated, then suddenly found herself blurting out the truth. “I’m sorry. I just lost track of time. All of a sudden it was dark, and I wasn’t anywhere near home.”

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