In the flash / Stories

Replaced.

When the end of life as the townsfolk knew it came, they went about their day without a show of any thought as to its strangeness. They had, in fact, not a show of any thought at all.

At nine o’clock on that Tuesday morning, the roads were oddly nightdark, and the adults of the town filed through the main street under lamps that had been activated by the lack of natural light. Their faces were low and vacant in their range, a kind of chain gang shuffle. The smallness of their steps was caused by no obvious physical constriction; the reason for the darkness, not immediately apparent.

A small girl noticed it first.

‘There’s no sun,’ she said. And, while the adults of the town snaked by her stationary form, they didn’t join her in looking up.

She’d had the day before off school — ‘Sally was absent due to illness,’ read her mother’s note in shaky hand — and she had stayed home to recover from the sudden onset of levitation and other-worldly whispers she related to her family. While the rest of the town was trick-or-treating, she was cloistered in the basement, which scared her witless but it was the quietest room, sealed off from the outside world. Sealed in from the voices.

Sally emerged late that morning. Finding no one to make her breakfast or to care that she was not out of the house in time for school, she wandered out alone. Her tardiness was not to matter: on her way, she found her teachers pacing the main street like her parents and every other adult — mindlessly, and invisibly hobbled.

It struck her that this had become a childless town, and her own mind was in a place not quite real.

Nonetheless, she skipped to school in the spirit of curiosity rather than dread, because she was a curious child and she expected to find that this was a dream from which she would wake at any moment. She was certain she would later spend time laughing about her weird dream with her friends over a homemade snack, but for now the grounds and corridors she combed were black and still.

She was searching for someone specific: her best friend. They’d made a pact to seek each other out in case of danger, and this strange state surely qualified as that.

‘A pact is a promise you keep no matter what,’ he’d said, his eyes gleaming bright when he said it. ‘You will come for me, Sally, won’t you?’

‘Of course, Thomas,’ she replied.

But it appeared she was too late: his house was empty.

When the silver discs whirred into sight, she squatted under window frames and scampered up the three-storey climb to her best friend’s attic, where she had a sheltered view of the school and the main street and the adults moving up, through the air to giant crafts on beams of blue, against which they flopped like slack-stringed marionettes.

Sally was the last person left in the town. Until the discs returned.

This time there was a beaming down, and her heart leapt momentarily with recognition at the hundreds of child-sized people reaching the ground — her classmates in their school uniforms — but they were not quite the friends she knew. Even from her high-up place, she could see they were the same but different, and she couldn’t say how they were different, only that something was wrong and the wrongness of the situation was manifesting itself in tightening strands around her throat.

Sally gasped at the sight of her best friend in the middle of the childmass. He looked up and located her position with a solitary finger. Other heads raised to follow his line. At this, she slipped behind the attic curtain and shuddered. She shuddered because she’d been found and she didn’t yet know what that meant. And she shuddered because she understood their point of difference: their eyes were shining white and not of them. Replaced.

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