-From the start, I was calling the voids “Drains,” because of their function. It frustrates me others insist on ignoring or even suppressing my terminology for the phenomenon. It is to be much more descriptive than “void.”
Journal of Origon Cyrysi, Kirian majus of the Houses of Communication and Power
Sam was reading when the sun dimmed.
He looked up from his book in time to see the overhead light blink off, then on. The music playing on his laptop—Beethoven’s 7th—croaked a discordant jumble of notes before the screen went black. His bedside clock flashed, the red numbers fading away as a breath of air left goosebumps on his arms.
“What the—” Sam pushed up from the chair as the overhead light faded again. His breath caught in his throat, like he had swallowed a lump of ice. His room was not large, made smaller by the piles of boxes, and now shadows rose between stacks of waist-high containers. He wormed through them in the dim light, heart racing. Was this really happening, or was he having an attack? Why now? It took two tries to pick up his grandfather’s pocket watch from where it rested on an end table beside his bed. His hands were shaking, and thump of his heartbeat nearly overpowered the rhythmic ticking transmitted through his palm. He tried to listen to only the mechanical beat—let it inform his body with the regular beat of time.
Calm down. Stillness evaded him, left him unsteady. Which is perfectly reasonable. Everything is going dark in the middle of the day. At least the watch was working. He made sure to keep it wound, here in the safety of his room.
Sam watched the sky outside the window shade into twilight. His other hand fingered the lid of a small shoebox. His collection contained grass clippings, shells, sand, and other things, bought by friends and customers of his aunt. They reminded him of favorite sights and smells. The shoebox, though, contained things more precious than the rest: half a belt, stiff from water damage, and the heel of a woman’s left shoe, sheared off cleanly.
No. Can’t think of them now. They’re gone, and I can’t change it. He shivered at another gust of cold air. His room felt like late January instead of August. He eyed the window. The thought of opening it—of going somewhere he didn’t know—made his hands sweat, but he had to find out what was happening. His hand left the box, moving to the windowpane. He hissed and shook his fingers. The window was colder than the house—no need to open it. He breathed out and raised his watch to his ear, hearing the steady beat.
Is this all in my head? He hadn’t heard a transformer blow, and there was no storm. It was so quiet his rough breathing was like a train. He rubbed his arms, and a quick touch on the laptop’s case nearly numbed his finger. His cellphone was powered down and wouldn’t restart.
Aunt Martha will know what to do. Get to safety. Sam weaved through the precise stacks of boxes, trembling. She would be in her sewing shop. Sam wiped sweaty hands on his shorts before pulling a coat from the closet and socks from a drawer. He dropped his watch in a pocket of the coat, but kept one hand on it. If the power outage kept up, he couldn’t log in for his shift in technical support. What will they think? Will they fire me?
The chill air in the hall made him regret the shorts, but he shrugged his coat on, then leaned against the wall, pulling his socks on carefully. They’d just distract him, if the seams were going the wrong way, and there was too much going on already. He closed his eyes. Don’t shut down. Keep moving.
The dark wood-paneled hallway was cold even through his socks, and Sam made a detour to the front door to get his sneakers, adjusting his feet in them, making sure the laces were the same length. It took two tries with his shaking hands. The dark was deepening outside, and by the time he got to the other end of the house, he was using his sense of touch more than sight to navigate.
He met Aunt Martha coming from the small one-room addition that served as her workshop. She held a flickering beeswax candle in her hand. It’s not just in my head.
“What happened?” he asked. His aunt—or great aunt, she had never told him, and he never asked—only shook her head at him. Her posture was precise as always, like the romantic ideal of a noblewoman. He didn’t know exactly how old she was, except that her once graying hair was now almost totally white. She moved slower than when he first came to live with her, but the clothes she made for shops on Market Street in Charleston, and his job, would let him afford college. His aunt wanted him to go to a real college instead of online, but it was so much easier to learn at home. Since he had started taking classes, he didn’t have to deal with the crowds at high school, or worry if he forgot his homework.
“Do you think the power plant has a problem?” Sam tried again. If his aunt had something to say, she would, but nothing could get her to talk when she didn’t want to.
“If it were, all the lights in the house would go out at once,” she replied. The rounded syllables of “house” and “out” served as a reminder of her Charlestonian heritage. “Haven’t you looked outside?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” He swallowed. Something was trying to catch in his throat, and Sam put out a hand to steady himself on a wall. His other hand snaked into his pocket to stroke the comforting curve of his watch. He couldn’t feel the ticking over the pulse of his heartbeat and his panting breaths.
They watched the candle flame dwindle to a speck, and Aunt Martha cupped her hand around the flame—so close Sam worried she might burn herself. She only nodded impatiently at him to move.
“To the living room, boy.” She still called him ‘boy,’ even after ten years. He moved, but she was at his heels the whole time, urging him on. If she hadn’t been using both hands for the candle, she probably would be poking him in the back. Her closeness was a comfort, in the dark and cold.
The formal living room was a contrast with the rest of the house, filled with overstuffed furniture, throw pillows and doilies—all the accouterments one would expect from a little old lady. Sam shivered violently, and knocked against the curio cabinet with the creaky leg, making the little porcelain figurines inside shiver with him. His aunt was staring at the ancient fireplace, unused since the last big snow, eight years ago.
No dressing down about being clumsy? She is worried. “Wh-what do we do here, Aunt Martha?” Sam’s body tried to shiver him to warmth, but even his coat wasn’t holding in the heat. Are the chills from the cold, or from the panic?
“Hush,” she said. Then, still shielding the candle, barely alight, she cocked her head toward the hearth. “Lay us a fire.”
Sam knelt obediently. Aunt Martha kept a well-stocked hearth. There was a pile of old newspapers, some kindling, and even a small cord of wood, just in case. He placed the fire as quick as he could, hands numb with the cold, stopping every few seconds to rub them together. He snuck a glance up at his aunt, but she watched the tiny candle flame, eyes narrowed. She was shivering, but only just, only what her proud bearing would allow. He laid the fire quickly. Like Dad taught me. It took his mind off what was happening, and he felt his shoulders unknot just a little, until he thought about what had happened to his parents—the similar temperature, the speed of it. No. Keep it together.
“Good,” commended Aunt Martha, and slowly, creakily, she knelt beside him, both hands still around the candle. He could barely smell it any longer, in the cold. He steadied her as he could, surprised she didn’t wave him away like normal.
Aunt Martha bent forward, hands creeping carefully to keep the flame from guttering, until the little light was just below a corner of newspaper. They both watched the fire—so slowly—blacken the newspaper. It should have caught in an instant and devoured the kindling, but the flame barely moved, unnaturally slow, like the fire was a slowed down recording.
Sam’s aunt sat back with a grunt as the newspaper finally lit, and the fire gradually grew. Her hands trembled as she took them away, and Sam saw the candle was completely extinguished. He reached out to the flame, feeling his hands tingle. His aunt did the same.
“Can we make it bigger?” Sam asked. It was an effort just to speak in the freezing air.
Her voice was soft. “There is cooking sherry in the kitchen, but I believe we must leave, instead. We shall warm ourselves, then I shall drive us into town and see if this condition is prevalent over the entire region.”
Sam’s mouth went dry. “I can’t,” he whispered. Crowds. People. I haven’t been in the middle of the city in years. It’s probably changed. I won’t know where to go…
His aunt only rubbed her palms together slowly. “You shall.” She wobbled as if she might fall, and Sam supported her. She put one hand to her chest and swallowed. Sam could see the discomfort she tried to hide. I can’t let her down. His breathing was fast. People he knew were one thing, but so many, all together…
More warmth was what they needed. “Let me put more wood on.” Sam’s joints creaked in pain as he moved.
“No,” Aunt Martha said, putting her shaking hand on his. “Let it die, and then we shall leave.” The fire was already losing against the cold.
“Let’s stay here,” Sam suggested. “We can get more fuel, make a bigger fire.”
His aunt attempted to rise but fell against him, and Sam caught her awkwardly. “You must go,” she said. He was suddenly aware of how much willpower she must be using to stay conscious, to fight the cold that sapped their strength. She’s been strong for me, all these years. Now she was tiny, leaning against him. Her bright green eyes fixed him in place. “You save yourself. The keys are by the door. Get to the car.”
“I don’t know how to drive,” he said.
“N-no excuses.” His aunt shook, and one hand tried to reach for him, failed. She made a small sound he had never heard from her.
“Aunt Martha?” It was like a rock had lodged in his chest. She never submitted to anything. She couldn’t now.
“Go.” Sam barely heard the whisper. Aunt Martha’s eyes flickered and her head fell against him, unconscious.
With his remaining strength, he pushed her closer to the nearly extinct fire and wiggled onto the hearth. Something is deeply wrong with the world. His heart beat too fast, and his stomach clenched. The air’s too thin. It was as if the very energy around them was leaving, electrical and natural. He struggled to grasp his watch, raise it to his ear. Even the watch was ticking slowly, winding down. He put it back in his pocket. Their only hope was to get warm enough. Then he could wake his aunt up. She will wake up.
He prodded the weak flame with the thinnest piece of kindling, hoping to spark the fire back to life, but it wouldn’t catch. His hand spasmed, and he dropped the sliver of wood. He had no strength to pick it up again. Can I get to the kitchen, to the cooking sherry? His legs wouldn’t respond. Wouldn’t unbend. Sam’s head nodded forward. Just a moment to rest…
Sam’s eyes snapped open and he jerked his neck up, wondering how much time he had lost. Ice crystals cracked around his mouth, nose, and eyelids. He tried to move, and fell to one side. He was slumped half in the fireplace, his aunt’s head on his leg. His fingers and toes ached as if tiny needles bored into them.
He reached down, but when his fingers brushed his aunt’s white hair, the strands broke with a tiny crack and fell, like little ringlets of glass. He jerked back, then touched her wrinkled forehead. It was colder than his hands, and he winced at the pain in his fingertips. The skin there was dark. He brushed ice from Aunt Martha’s skin. Sightless eyes stared back. No.
He should feel something, but his hands and his mind were numb. His aunt had put up with him and his fears for ten years. Should have obeyed instead of questioning. Sam’s eyelids dragged him down to sleep. It was pitch dark, save for a hint of light hidden in the pile of barely-burned wood in the fireplace, like a little campfire in a cave. He was drawn to it.
Take the heat. He reached out to the little light, hoping to delay the inevitable. His aunt’s body was a cold weight against him. He wouldn’t waste the extra time, however small, she had given him. He wanted to be far away from here, somewhere safe.
The tiny light winked out, and he heard a plunk of a bass string snapping in his head, shattering into a thousand harmonious notes. Warmth flowed into him, then away, leaving him colder than before. He gasped as a thick ring of light erupted on the hearth, barely as high as his kneeling form. Two colors intermixed and rotated around the edge of the ring, one color bright, the other shiny, like circlets of gold and silver. In the ring’s center was a pool of blackness.
Sam reached out to the glowing circle. His mind was sluggish, but he craved the glow. Instead of intersecting anything physical, his hand passed through the darkness, to someplace warm. That was where he needed to be. It was not cold there. The world was not dying there.
Another hand, warm and alive, caught his arm in a vice-like grip. Sam’s eyes widened, and he pulled back instinctively, but the thing on the other side of the circle was stronger. He grabbed for his aunt’s body, trying to bring her along. His numbed fingers slid across her frozen shawl, down one arm, clutching. His hand closed on nothing as he was pulled head-first through the hole in the air.