The Midnight March – a flash fantasy story

Picture by Carl Milner via Flickr creative commons
Picture by Carl Milner via Flickr creative commons

Hank stood on his lightless porch, furiously trying to drag calm from a cigarette. He could hear Grace pacing in the kitchen, waiting for an apology or another round of the row. He wasn’t ready for either yet, or sure which it would be. The row seemed to be all they had right now, but it was better than nothing.

The garbage can fell with a clang, its lid rolling away as something scrabbled inside. Grace hated those racoons and the mess they left around the yard. Normally Hank chased them off. Today he was feeling more sympathetic to the critters.

Something scampered out of the garbage can, a piece of old bacon between its teeth. It had matted fur, a face like the world’s wartiest child, and it ran, hunched over, on two legs. Spidery fingers trailed on the ground. It was like no racoon Hank had ever seen.

Thoughts of Grace and their troubled finances lost to curiosity, Hank followed the creature out of the yard and down the street. It didn’t seem to notice him, focusing on where it was going, sniffing out a route with its long nose. As it emerged onto the deserted high street it was joined by a similar creature and a bearded man a foot tall. After a few minutes, Hank realised that the creatures’ shadows had grown, and they were now accompanied by seven feet of lumbering, ape-like darkness that strode to its own steady rhythm.

More creatures joined them as they walked quietly through town, including that beast the Hendersons had always claimed was a dog, which howled softly as it rose up on two legs and joined the procession. Hank trailed behind, unwilling to let them out of sight, but scared of what might happen if they noticed him.

They tramped out of town, up the hill to Epiron labs. Grace’s cousin Dill was a janitor there. He claimed to have seen pale, clammy men wandering the halls at night, bullet holes in the walls and fishmen bathing in vats of slime. But cousin Dill was thirty-four and still believed in Santa, so Hank had never paid him much mind. Not until now.

The motley crowd stopped at the lab doors, which were locked for the night. The shadow thing picked up the creature from the trash can – Hank had decided it was a pixie – and flung it up onto the roof. There was a creak of metal slats bending, followed by ten minutes of silence. Then the lights went out, including the red LEDs that flashed on alarm boxes around the building. The swearing of a distant security guard echoed through the night.

The Hendersons’ dog leaned against the door, which sprang open. Hank waited in the bushes as the creatures crept into the lab. The night was quiet and still, scented with pine and wild garlic. Then a rancid, sweaty smell returned as the monsters emerged. They were carrying a steel box, seven or eight feet long, and the twitchy quiet with which they had approached the building was replaced by solemnity. They processed in double file into the woods, and Hank followed them, trying not to tread on the noisy twigs. The moon spilt glorious white light across their path as it snaked between the trees, eventually emerging into a clearing.

There was a pit in the middle of the clearing, wide enough to bury the box and at least six feet deep. It was flanked by four pale men in black coats, hunched crane-like over spades. They doffed their top hats as the procession approached, then took the box and lowered it carefully into the ground. Their arms extended, flesh and bone stretching into the depths before emerging empty-handed and taking up the spades.

The creatures formed a ring, facing the trash-can pixie at the head of the grave.

‘He weren’t nice,’ it said, voice scratching through the thud of falling dirt. ‘He drank their blood and kicked our butts, and blamed everyone but himself for his lonely, bitter life. He hated most things, and cursed ’em all. But he was one of us, and losing him lessens us. I doubt we’ll miss him now, but someday we’ll miss every last lost bit of magic. I won’t say you should weep, but mourn while you can, ’cause it could be you next. Some day, they’ll get us all.’

One by one, the creatures took handfuls of dirt and cast them onto the grave before disappearing into the woods. At last there was only the pixie and a soft mound of mourning.

Hank stepped out of the treeline. Sadness drew him forwards despite his fear. He’d never seen these creatures before, but something about the dead guy and his lonely, angry existence struck a chord. It seemed right to pay his respects.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, taking his turn with the dirt. ‘For you and for your friend. I know it ain’t worth much, but I am sorry.’

‘Thanks.’ The pixie gave a half smile, looking up at him with watery eyes. ‘It helps a little, and sometimes that’s all we’ve got.’

It patted a last crum of earth onto the mound and turned away into the night.

*

Hank opened the kitchen door. Grace’s glare moved from him to the clock, then back again.

‘I’m sorry,’ Hank said. ‘I don’t rightly remember why, but I know it’s my fault and I’m sorry.’

She hugged him, tears welling in her eyes. Hank had missed that embrace, but even now it didn’t feel right.

‘It’s good you can say that, Hank,’ she said. ‘But it just ain’t enough.’

Hank nodded.

‘Guess this is how it feels when the magic dies.’

Across town, the Hendersons’ dog howled.

* * *

 

This story was originally published in Bards and Sages Quarterly in April 2012. Life got in the way of me writing a fresh story for today, so I thought is was time this saw the light of day again.

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