There was nothing like an old familiar book for comfort when everything in your life was up in the air. Turning the yellowed and aged pages Amara inhaled that musty old book smell, smiling as she summoned up the images of the familiar characters. Books had always been great friends of hers - they were reliable. Even scary books provided excelled company when you were feeling low or alone.
This particular book was one she'd bought with some Christmas money in her early teenage years. It was technically a children's book, but she loved it all the same and would continue enjoying and reading the story for as long as she lived. The main character, a guy named Tony, had become her imaginary friend at a particularly rough point in her life. She'd addressed her diary to him for a short period, and he often appeared in her dreams. He was shy but intelligent, brave but caught up by intense fears of social interaction. The book's plot wasn't so great - a standard teenage story about a kid growing in confidence as a result of certain tragic life events - but the characters had touched her. They leapt off the page and into her mind, nestling there and starting a warm fire.
Her eyes lingered on page 61, a favourite of hers. She was about to re-read one of her favourite paragraphs when her reading light suddenly flickered, and then went out. She swore and felt for her phone on the table beside her, using its light to guide her out of the room.
From across the hall he heard a loud bang mixed with a string of muttered profanities. Rayan's bedroom door opened and she saw his silhouette lit dimly against the shadows. It wasn't completely pitch black, it never was when you lived in the suburbs. A faint orangey glow spilled in through the windows from the surrounding street lights and every minute or so the shadows danced as they were illuminated by a car's passing headlights.
"I was right in the middle of an online game. Two minutes... that's all I needed. Two minutes and I would've levelled up. Going to take me forever to redo all that progress," Rayan kicked his bedroom door shut, disgruntled.
Amara didn't respond, but waited for Rayan to feel his way up the bungalow corridor to where she was standing. Their rooms were at opposite ends of the house - his was where the living room would usually be, hers was at the back of the house, the master bedroom with an en suite. It was good for them to have their own spaces far away from each other, it made living together a lot more bearable.
Rayan pretended he couldn't see Amara when he reached her, flailing his arms around and hitting her lightly on the nose. She punched him on the arm, hard, in response, which soon stopped him.
"You're no fun," he muttered, "So where's the torch?"
Amara tutted and walked past Rayan down the corridor into the kitchen. It was reasonably bright here - the room had a large bay window looking out into the garden, but it was a clear night and the moon was full, its light bright enough for Amara to find her way to the kitchen drawers and pull out the large torch.
She clicked it on with the button and-
Flicker.Behind Rayan's right ear, out in the hallway.
She shut the torch off quickly. Then, turned it back on again realising it was a stupid move.
The shadows have moved thought a voice in her head. It didn't feel like her own.
"What are you-" began Rayan, but Amara clamped her hand over his mouth with some force. He turned round to follow Amara's gaze. The door into the hallway was mostly closed, taunting them with what it was obscuring. Amara wanted to spring into action and do something, but her feet were frozen to the soft pink lino. She couldn't help remembering when they moved into the house and saw the flooring. It was abysmal - a salmon pink, clashing with the royal blue tiles that lined the wall. They kept saying they were going to change it - that was going to be their priority. A decent kitchen floor, maybe some new tiles and perhaps a lick of paint.
She shook her head, trying to rid herself of stupid thoughts, but her head felt... clogged. Thinking was slow, heavy and a big effort.
Rayan watched her attentively. He wouldn't act without her, he never did. Plus he looked as mixed up as she did.
She held the torch out in front of her, both of them noticing her hands were shaking violently. She quickly turned the beam off then put it back on again.
Movement. She was sure of it. Something had changed but she couldn't work out what. Her mind thought of the 'spot the difference' puzzles she'd loved to do when she was a kid. Obsessed about puzzles, she was. Every few days she'd go up the local shop to see whether there were any new puzzle books in. Each afternoon when she got home from school before getting a snack or turning on the TV she'd do the daily crossword in the paper...
Rayan didn't let himself speak or share his thoughts, he knew that he was experiencing the same thing as Amara, it was written all over her face. And she, like him, looked spaced out. Their minds were wondering.
He tried squinting, scrunching his eyes up and blinking hard. It was like everything was out of focus in his mind. He was clawing at concentration but it was slipping through his fingers like water. He wanted to sleep. He wanted... to continue that xbox game. He wasn't far from reaching the top level, then he could prestige and-
The shadows are dancing.
The thought shattered through his skull, and Amara's too. She flinched, he jumped violently. The torch clattered to the floor and the bulb smashed, although the floor was nowhere near hard enough to cause such damage. Amara grabbed onto Rayan with hands like talons, dragging him away from the open door. It felt like they were crawling, not making any ground. The shadows were not leaving, the door was still within arm's reach, the monster behind was just as close. It was parallel to one of those nightmares where you can't move properly, where you can't run or even walk away from something. You find yourself on your hands and knees, scrambling ferociously over a floor that's moving away from you, pushing you closer to your predator.
You feel its breath on your neck, and that's when you wake up.
There was nothing breathing down their necks here. But they didn't find that fact reassuring.
Eventually, after what felt like hours but could only have been seconds, they reached the back door. It was, of course, locked. Rayan shoved Amara out of the way and kicked it down with his foot, adrenaline suddenly kicking in. She lurched forwards, abruptly vomiting at his feet and falling to her knees. He grabbed her, ignoring the sick, and slung her limp body over his shoulder. He crashed out of the back door and into the garden, running full pelt along the grass. He used his foot again to smash through the garden gate as he didn't trust his shaky hands to do the bolt lock. Tumbling through the gate, onto the gravel driveway, Rayan collapsed, Amara's body covering him like a blanket. Unaware of the cold, forgetting the shadows, he fell quickly into a deep, dreamless sleep.