Mary hated the weatherman’s yellow ties. The news was bad enough, either sickly sweet or terribly uncomfortable, but the ties disconcerted her the most. If she truly needed to check the weather, she looked it up on her phone rather than face the mustard silk. The process of turning on the TV and sitting through commercials was her dad’s routine, and she had tuned it out for nearly thirty-five years while he sat in his green recliner, listening intently. Now that he was gone, the forced smiles, dramatic reports and even the yellow ties became necessary to fill the silence.
The news droned on as Mary brewed herself a cup of oily coffee. She hadn’t slept through the night. Not for the past two weeks. And for those two weeks she cared little for appearance. Her hair remained in disheveled black knots atop her head. Rings of insomnia haloed her already dark eyes. She had not bothered to put on anything other than underwear and a t-shirt until last night when a quick trip to the store required it. Even then she went without a bra.
Today would be different. Her close friend, Rochelle, insisted on getting lunch. Mary knew it was a ploy to drag her out of the house. People mourn differently, take your time, Rochelle had steadfastly repeated for two weeks, but suddenly her tactic took a sharp turn. You’re meeting me for lunch tomorrow. That’s final.
Mary understood Rochelle’s concern. She had the funeral, watched her dad be lowered into the ground and marked with a modest stone, just as she knew he wanted. It wasn’t as though his death was a sudden tragedy. He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for too long, but when the day finally came it shook her to the core. She made no effort to suppress her grief. Many days were spent ignoring her buzzing phone, leaving her TV on, and taking Tank on walks around the property.
She stroked the big lab’s head as she sipped her coffee. He was her dad’s loyal companion long after he forgot his daughter’s name. Now Tank was there to comfort her, keeping her company through restless nights.
The TV drew her attention once more as it played a jarring tune signaling a news alert. “…shadow-gazers are baffled by a sudden darkspot that appeared at the center of Green Meadow suburb…” read the main news anchor in a serious voice. A live recording of the darkspot appeared on the screen while he continued to talk. “…Reports say it is the largest and densest darkspot ever recorded. It remains unmoving over the center of the suburb, encompassing four houses…”
The sight of the darkspot woke Mary more effectively than her coffee. It was massive in comparison to any darkspot she had ever seen. The shadowy mass was a solid shroud of darkness, floating at the center of the suburb and engulfing several houses. Darkspots were common enough. Harmless. They were like a dark fog or mist, usually transparent and only present for an hour or so. Shadow-gazers studied them, but after many years of the randomly occurring shades and no harm done, the subject became mundane. Mary was impressed that shadow-gazers still existed, let alone had the authority to evacuate an entire neighborhood in the name of science.
Her phone buzzed. Don’t forget. Noon. Rochelle’s text said.
I know, Mary answered. See you in a bit.
She pulled herself from the TV and reluctantly went to get dressed.
Rochelle was waiting for her at the café’s outdoor patio. “I thought you might bring him,” she said, bending down to pet Tank. “Luckily it’s a nice enough day to sit outside.”
Tank sat at Mary’s feet while they ordered drinks.
“I’m glad I could get you out of your stuffy house,” Rochelle said. The bright green dress she wore was covered in yellow diamond shapes. “How have you been?”
Mary rolled her eyes at the question. “I haven’t been sleeping well. I’m not sure what to do with some of dad’s things. I’m going to have to go back to work soon. They’ve already been generous giving me so much time off.”
Rochelle nodded at the usual answer. “I didn’t sleep well after my mom passed. I think that’s a normal response for most people. Just have to pull yourself up and keep moving. Eventually you’ll start sleeping.”
“I think it might be the emptiness. I haven’t lived alone in a long time. I can’t sleep in all that quiet.”
“You can always stay in our guest room. Steve won’t mind,” she offered. “Or maybe you can get a roommate.”
“To share my house with?”
“Okay, how about a boyfriend?”
“A girlfriend? A robot? Maybe you just need some white noise. I have a fan you can borrow.”
“Thanks, but I don’t think a fan will solve anything. I’ve been leaving the TV on lately.”
“That’s not very energy efficient.”
“Did you see the news today?” Mary asked, hoping to change the subject.
“No. But the internet is going crazy over some darkspot in Arkansas. Is that what you’re going to talk about?”
Rochelle made a dismissive wave of her hand. “It’ll fade. It’s just black fog is all. Not sure what people are freaking out about.”
“The suburb has been evacuated. It’s hanging over four houses.”
“Are the owners still inside?”
“I don’t know. They didn’t say.”
“They probably walked out their front doors, because, you know, it’s just a thick fog.” Rochelle grins. “Not turning into a shadow-gazer are you?”
“I just think it’s interesting. There’s never been anything like it.”
“It’ll disappear in a few days. Some storms are stronger than others, I’m sure darkspots work the same way.”
Back at home, Mary put her leftovers in the fridge, let Tank off his leash, and for the first time in two weeks decided to clean the house. It was stuffy and smelled of old coffee. She cracked some windows and let the sunlight in, then began to work her way through the rooms. It was not a large house. She bought it because it was cozy and perfectly spacious enough for two people and a dog. Living in a crowded neighborhood never appealed. The quaint home and twenty acres of land suited her well.
When she reached her dad’s room, she quietly shut the clutter of his things behind the door. She would deal with organizing it later. She had no siblings or close relatives to divvy up his belongings. Her parents divorced when she was six, and her mom was distant and difficult, living in Florida with a family Mary had never met. Of course her mom knew of her ex-husband’s death. She sent a store bought sympathy card a few days after Mary left the broken message. But there was no attempt to visit or make any claims to his things. Perhaps that was for the best. Mary did not know if she could handle her estranged mom’s presence.
After three hours of deep cleaning, she called for Tank. The lab rose excitedly from the couch and trotted for the door. He had gotten used to the daily excursions. Mary left him off his leash. She disliked keeping him close when she knew he wanted to roam.
It was a perfect day. The beginning of Fall, cool enough to open the windows, but warm enough to not need a jacket. Tank ran across the yard and lifted his leg over his favorite bush. The immediate lawn was tidy and well kept. Her dad made sure of it. They only ever argued when it came to the lawn. After much of his memories became jumbled or lost, he still continued to remind Mary about mowing the grass, sometimes three times a week. For the most part Mary was understanding of his illness, but was bitter about the yard. He forgot my name, but heaven forbid he forget the damn lawn was a daily thought.
Tank led the way down one of the many trails cut through the intermittent woods. Occasionally, there was a clearing of trees or the edge of her distant neighbor’s corn field, but much of her property was overgrown and unkempt. Mary walked for a half hour, feeling content. She entertained herself, wondering if Rochelle dragging her out to lunch helped after all. Maybe it was because she turned off the TV for once or because she cleaned. She didn’t really know the reason she was finally relaxing. Is this what acceptance is?
Tank froze on the trail, his head lifted and ears perked. Before she could ask what was wrong he took off, barking down the path.
It was not uncommon that something would attract his interest, usually a rabbit or some far off noise, but he had never ran away. Mary followed the trail, hoping he had not run onto the neighbor’s property. “Tank!” she yelled, but he did not turn back at the command.
As time passed, she grew more worried. She jogged down the trail, pausing every few steps to call for Tank.
She wished the trees and overgrown brambles would disappear. In that moment, she hated every aspect of nature, hated that she did not put Tank on a leash, hated that she panicked so quickly and couldn’t pull herself together.
At the end of the trail, near the back of her property, she slowed to a stop. Her racing heart sloshed against her ribs and slowly slid to her stomach. She stood at the edge of a clearing in the trees. Hanging in the air before her was a darkspot the size of a garage.
It was a smaller version of the one on the news, but still uncommonly large and dense. It was clearly shadow—nothing like fog. The mists rolled like black waves, slowly swirling, revolving as though trapped by an invisible sphere.
Mary had encountered darkspot patches before. She treated them like a normal fog. The only difference was their shade. Still, they were never completely opaque. Even the thickest spot was somewhat translucent. She never had cause to fear them. No one did. That would be silly, like being afraid of rain.
The spot before her made her want to run.
“Tank?” she questioned the mass. He may have ran through it and out the other side. He may be wandering around, sniffing at the odd presence. She waited. Called his name several more times, but did not approach the shade.
She did not want to leave, not without Tank, but this was something she did not know how to handle. The darkspot was unnatural, oppressing, ominous. She had left her phone at home, not wanting its distraction. Another mistake. She needed to call this in, get someone out to her property to fix the problem. But how? If there was a way to make the spot vanish, then why would they leave one hovering over that Arkansas suburb?
She ran back to her house almost as quickly as she chased after Tank. Her breaths were heavy as she tried to remember where she put her phone. A quick internet search told her that the darkspot in Arkansas had not moved. People were mildly frightened. Shadow-gazers were curious and unsure.
She did not know who to contact. The police? This did not seem to be their area of expertise. Shadow-gazers? They seemed to know little more than anyone else. The news? Yes, a dozen reporters in my backyard, exactly what I want.
Regardless of who she called, the results would be the same. A mob of reporters, shadow gazing scientists, and gawking strangers would be pressed against her property. She’d be removed. Her home overtaken. She might have been convinced to leave. She could have stayed with Rochelle until the issue was resolved, but not without Tank. He had been there for her dad’s illness and for her grief. She wasn’t going to abandon him to the shade.
The darkspot hung before her. She briefly considered digging out one of her dad’s old hunting rifles before returning to the woods, but the idea seemed silly. What good would bullets do against a scary cloud? So instead she calmed herself, sent an evasive text to Rochelle (Tank got lost in my woods. Going to go look for him. Call me in two hours.) and went back out.
It was nearing dusk. There was still enough light to see. She circled the darkspot, reminding herself not to be afraid. Tank had not ran back to the house. He did not answer her calls as she walked the trails for a second time. Gazing at the spot, she called his name, giving him one last chance to appear. It would bring her great relief if he would come running to her side. She had brought his leash in case he did. Her plan was to hold him tight and flee to Rochelle’s house. But he did not appear.
She carried a flashlight, although she was not sure if it would be useful within the shade. Sunlight could not pierce the darkspot, so she had little hope that a flashlight would. There was a chance the sphere of shadow would dissipate once she was immersed, like fog parting before the headlights of a car. No one seemed to understand the new breed of spots, not even the experts. Mary didn’t know if there was an attempt made to penetrate the spot in the Arkansas, or the fate of the people within their enveloped homes. Perhaps no one had yet tried to breach the shade. Maybe those people did walk out their front doors and emerged safely in the light. Or maybe, like Tank, they were waiting to be rescued. She clicked on her flashlight and stepped into the dark.
Catherine Dodds is a senior Creative Writing major at Albion College located in Albion, Michigan. She is currently co-editor-in-chief of Albion’s campus literary magazine, The Albion Review, and is in the process of completing a fantasy novel for her thesis. When she is not writing epic fantasy, she likes to dabble in science fiction, run with her mom, and ride her horse.