I check my watch and see the hands are just past three o’clock in the morning. We still haven’t found enough food to feed my daughter and I for the day, but we have to keep trying. We still have some time before they emerge.
It’s been six years since the last time we could enjoy the sunlight. Six years since we were a dominant species on this planet – six years of nocturnal scavenging. They used to call us bipedal hairless monkeys ‘humans’, but they might as well call us the Nocturnals now. We’ve become the same types of animals we used to fear: those who came out only at night, those who fought their battles in the dark, those that kept to the shadows and to the corners of our most convincing nightmares. And while the night is still dangerous, it’s nothing compared to what prowls during the day.
Sandra and I walk over the crumpled empty bags of chips and clicking soda cans that roll across the floor. We don’t use flashlights since our eyes have adapted to the dark after all these years. Quite frankly, we’ve developed such an aversion to the daylight that it’s now nothing but blinding – as if our full bodies have come to fear the light. I check my watch again. My hands are clamy and shaking now. There’s a lump in my throat. “Sandra,” I whisper. She doesn’t hear me the first time. “Psst! Sandra.”
She springs to her feet from a squat and spins around without a sound. “What?”
“You find anything yet?”
She shakes her head and raises an empty candy bar wrapper. “Nothing.”
When I’m not looking, I step on something mushy that releases a horrible smell. I think it was at one point a banana but I can’t be sure. Flies buzz around it and now swarm my shoe. I shake my shoe in the air and wipe it against the wall where it leaves a colorless streak of slimy colorless mold. Everything is nearly colorless in the dark. As much as you can adjust to the dark, colors never really translate the same. Everything just looks like shades of black and grey. I haven’t seen proper color in years.
I’m about ready to give up at this point. This is the fifth shop we’ve looked in and again have found nothing. In the second and third we found a can of tuna that had probably gone bad and a half-eaten box of cereal. I wondered what happened to the person who’d eaten the first half of the box. This haul is normal for a night, but a few nights in a row like these and your stomach starts to feel like it’s eating itself.
I don’t think we have time to go through another shop before dawn, but the way Sandra hunches over and holds her stomach with a wince makes it hard to turn back empty-handed. “How about we check O’Hara’s next door. It’s a bar, but it might have some food left over.”
“I don’t think we have the time,” she moans.
She’s right, we probably don’t. But I don’t know how much more she can take. What if tomorrow night’s the same? It most likely will be. The reality of six years in the wasteland is that most of the food that was left is all gone now and I never did learn my farming skills. Plus, we don’t have a few months to let a couple seed maybe grow into a small batch of carrots or something. “We’ll be quick,” I whisper.
She begrudgingly agrees and we venture into the next store through a gaping hole in the wall between it and the convenience store which we just searched. The hole is made from sagging drywall and corroded rusted pipes leaking between the buildings. I’m only optimistic about this place because the front door is boarded up, so the only way in is through that hole in the wall. We duck under the pipes and make our way into the restaurant, making sure not to get snagged on them. There are no tetanus shots or anything like that anymore – even a rusty pipe can kill you. But a little more than a rusty pipe awaits us in the daylight if we aren’t careful.
Sandra leads our way through the restaurant, making sure to keep quiet. She starts going table to table looking over and under each and running her fingers across the chairs in every booth looking for anything, even a lone crumb she could eat. It doesn’t matter how it tastes, we just need something to eat that won’t kill us. I split off and go toward the back in the kitchen. There’s a metal cart looking like a sad gimpy animal on the side of the road with one of the wheels broken off. It’s especially dark in the kitchen since the only light comes from the moon through the restaurant’s front windows. But the extra darkness makes me feel safe, like a cold hug wrapping around my gut.
I’m looking around for shapes that look like they could be food. Suddenly, something crunches beneath my feet and I stop. I’m perfectly still for a moment, trying to think what it could be. I move my foot and pick up the plastic bag on which I stepped, then feel it with my right hand. It’s a bag and it’s sealed. It’s sealed and there’s something in it. I hold it up to see the blue and red foil packaging and a little wavy Italian flag at the center of the graphic with the word ‘SPAGHETTI’ printed written in white lettering across the top. My heart palpitates and I grin like a child. I can’t believe it: a full bag of spaghetti and it’s totally intact.
“Sandra,” I call out, not whispering this time. “Sandra, look what I found.” I turn around with the bag in my hand, holding it close to my chest like it’s a stray puppy I just found. But she’s petrified – I can see it through the darkness. Her eyes are wide and her cheeks are pale. I think she’s even shivering. She grits her teeth and moves her lips. “What?” I whisper.
“They’re here,” she says.
I almost drop the bag in my instant fear, but I’m too innately possessive about this find and only grip it tighter until my knuckles turn white. I look back at the bag scrunched in my fists: the red and white foil, the visible lettering – none of that is normal. You can’t see these colors in the dark. I look back to my watch again and the hands are still on 3:00am…the watch is broken. But of course it is: it operates on solar power. I found it a few months ago and it ran just fine, but I bet it’s been on its last breath for a few nights now with not an ounce of solar light to power it.
And Sandra is right: they are here. And the clicking is starting. I can hear it pattering against the broken pavement outside. Click clap click clap click clap click. Faster and faster their rigid and pointed legs scamper against the ground, chasing down the smell. Nobody knows where they come from, but wherever they do – they can smell light wave frequencies. That means they can map out a whole building and its contents through walls with a few sniffs, but it has to be bright out for them to paint a vivid distinct picture. And as the sunlight creeps over the horizon, it’s time to hunt.
I look back up to Sandra from the bag of spaghetti, then point to the freezer in the back of the kitchen. “Run,” I hiss.
We sprint over the soiled greasy floors toward the freezer. The clicking gets closer and I can even hear it breathing now. “Get in,” I yell.
Sandra practically jumps inside and her knees smack into the hard floor inside. She then slides across the floor until her forehead rams into a shelf. The creature shrieks and clicks faster. I turn back toward the restaurant and see its eight gigantic legs pushing their way through a shattered window. I follow Sandra inside and pull the freezer door shut. It slams into the rubber lining and locks into place. Sandra is breathing heavily and letting out a whimper every now and then.
But these creatures are unrelenting – they’re hungry just like us. This one scuttles through the kitchen and quickly makes its way to the back. It stops just outside the freezer door and taps, then listens to the feedback. It taps a few more time and Sandra wants to scream, but I put a trembling palm over her lips. Tap. Tap, tap, tap. The creature doesn’t have much to do during the day – it’s running out of us nocturnals to attack. So instead it stays a while, maybe hours.
But for now, we’re safe. Its pitch-black in the freezer and the power’s out so it isn’t too cold. The darkness is bliss. We squeeze our eyes shut and pray for nightfall to come again.