PseudoPod 857: Of Dark That Bites

Of Dark That Bites

Jess Whitecroft

“Where do we go when we die?” asked Bea.

She was in her car seat, a masterpiece of straps and safety standards that did less than nothing to assuage the mad patter of Lucy’s heart whenever she had to drive over Brassknocker Hill. The slopes were too steep, the roads too narrow. Recently someone had crashed into one of the low walls at the side of the road, opening a snaggle-toothed, hazard-lit gap in the stone. Nobody had gone over as far as she knew, but every time she passed the gap her heart leapt in her mouth and her head crowded with gory pictures. The smallest skid would do it. No time to even panic – just a roller coaster lurch in the pit of the stomach, a screech of tyres trying to grip, and then a blur of Cotswold green before the lights went out. Her skin was still crawling from a recent conversation with someone who was supposed to be a rational adult, and now here was her seven year old daughter coming in hard with the existential questions.

“Um…nowhere,” said Lucy. “Do you remember what it was like before you were born?”

Bea thought for a moment and then came up with what, until very recently, had been a four letter word. “Dark,” she said.

“There you go then.”

Here the edge of the road was only a foot away from an almost sheer drop to the valley below. The loud background hum of her anxiety was joined by the sound of Bea’s small mental cogs grinding away. “So was that lady lying?” said Bea.

“Mummy’s driving,” said Lucy, falling back on a case that her wife Darcy called Third Person Maternal, one she always tried to avoid unless she really had enough. And today she had. Even before their eldest Georgia called – citing an imminent nervous breakdown as a reason for why she couldn’t take a bus – the day had been a shitshow. Bea’s school was closed for inspectors, leaving her with no choice but to take Bea with her to interview a psychic medium named Alice Poole. The interview was for Darcy’s book, but Darcy was teaching, and a lifetime in the cutthroat world of American academia had left her abrasive. Lucy – who had started out as a fashion journalist – was the one with the people skills in the marriage.

In theory, at least. “Look,” she said, as the car descended and her pulse slowed back to something like normal. “The truth is that nobody knows what happens when we die. And for some people it makes them feel better to think we go somewhere nice.”

“Like a garden,” said Bea. “With butterflies.”

“Yes.” Alice Poole had painted the afterlife in Disneyfied strokes and Bea had eaten it up enthusiastically. Almost as enthusiastically as she’d responded to Alice’s glittery collection of glass unicorns, which had left Bea speechless and wide eyed with admiration. Psychic or not, there was something slightly unseemly about an adult woman who dressed and decorated as though she’d been specifically setting out to impress the hell out of a seven year old. “When women give birth they walk the line between life and death,” Alice had told Lucy. “They open doors between worlds, some more so than others.” And then she’d taken Lucy’s hand, ran her thumb across the palm and looked into her eyes. “You’re like me,” she’d said. “I can tell.”

The words slithered around in Lucy’s head as she approached her destination. Once again she could sense the tone of Bea’s thoughts, the grind of cogs accelerated to the persistent mental whirr of a child unsatisfied with an answer. “Look,” she said, pulling over. “Ms Poole wasn’t lying. She was just…saying what she believed was true, which isn’t the same as a lie. Not really.”

Bea continued to whirr in the backseat, and Lucy did likewise, shocked by how much she’d sounded like her own mother. She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel, an echo of maternal impatience. There was a fleck on one of her unvarnished fingernails.

It was black, like the negative impression of one of those white spots that her mother always told her were her own fault for not drinking enough milk. It sucked her in, consuming her attention as immediately as a mysterious bleed, or an unexplained bruise found when she undressed Bea for her bath. She recalled Alice Poole’s touch and her heart started its crazed hammering all over again, pounding so loud in her ears that she startled when the passenger door opened.

Georgia, Darcy’s eldest – theireldest – threw herself into the passenger seat with a kind of adolescent disgust that said she didn’t want to talk about it, thank you very much. If only to keep herself from screaming out loud, Lucy asked anyway. “So what happened?” she said. “Did you have an argument with someone? Are you all right?”

Georgia sighed so hard it was a wonder she didn’t blow away. She had grown six inches in the last year and it had left her stretched like chewing gum. Like her mother she was dark, so that in the wrong mood – and had been a lot of them lately – her irises were as black as holes. “Can we justgo home, please?” she said.

Lucy hesitated, pressing her feet hard into the footwell as a grounding exercise she’d learned in therapy. Better. Better. Yes. You bumped your fingernail somewhere. Don’t catastrophise. Don’t get in a spiral about it. Don’t be sil…no, notsilly. You’re not silly. That’s your mother talking, and we don’t listen to her anymore, remember?

“George, guess what?” Bea said.

Georgia turned her head to the back seat, where Bea sat strapped as securely as an old fashioned psychiatric patient. “What?” she said, with a weary indulgence she now rarely extended to either mother.

“I know what happens when we die.”

Georgia gave Lucy a what-the-fuck look, and that was better. Better than the surly, hole-eyed look she wore too often now. Before hormones had lent her a new set of spikes Georgia had been mercifully easy to love, and it was a relief to know that little girl was still in there somewhere, buried deep under the gangle and snarl of the new-growing woman. “Long story,” said Lucy, and – bracing herself – started the car.

By some miracle Lucy found a parking spot not far from the one she had vacated, up by the Assembly Rooms near Alice Poole’s flat. With a fresh thud of dread she realised that the walk back down to Gay Street – an address Georgia had accused them of choosing purely for the purposes of embarrassing her – would take them through the Circus. The Circus was a wrapped circle of Georgian crescents, and Bea had never forgiven it for its lack of elephants. She also had a special hatred of the midge-blown shade beneath the enormous London plane trees at its centre. Lucy had never quite grasped Bea’s fear until now, when something Alice Poole had said came back to haunt her. The Circus and its surrounding streets had been deliberately laid out in the shape of a key, said Alice. The sandstone frieze of Masonic symbols were an obvious clue as to why. “How do you know if a man is in a secret society?” Alice had said. “It’s like that old joke about vegans: they tell you. They wear secret society rings, or incorporate it into the architecture. Or they fix the town planning so that the streets form the shape of a mysterious key. Trying to punch a hole between worlds, because they can’t do it naturally the way that women do. Every woman is a keyhole.”

She had been talking about birth, which Lucy had laughed off. “Not so much of a keyhole once that one was finished with me,” she’d said, lowering her voice so Bea couldn’t hear. “She was ten whole pounds and I had to have an emergency C-section.”

Now Lucy looked at the shade trees and felt Bea grip her hand more tightly. Bea hadn’t done that in a while, and Lucy’s heart gave another spidery skitter. Instead she elected to walk around the edge of the circle. Georgia walked ahead, straight through the large puddle of shadow, with her head down and her face ghostly pale in the light from her ever present phone. She dragged her heels so much that by the time they’d reached the front door she’d fallen behind. “Do you know anything about Lord Byron?” she said.

“A bit,” said Lucy, as she helped Bea off with her coat. “Wrote Childe Harold. Kept a bear in his rooms at Cambridge. Why? Is this for English?”

“Yup.” George didn’t take her eyes off her phone. “‘She walks in beauty, like the night, of cloudy climes and starry skies,’…ew, what slop…‘And all that’s best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes…’”

Bea yanked open the dining room door and a mannered creak of Bach escaped – one of the cello concertos, bringing with it a brief flash of those illusory, dinner party days before Darcy came clean and said, “There’s something I need to tell you; I have a kid.”

Darcy was in the kitchen, cutting up kale. A semi-colon tattoo stood out dark against the white inside of her wrist, echoing the black and white of her now salt and pepper hair. From the other side of the kitchen wall came the sound of Georgia clomping up the stairs in her too-high heels.

“So you found her, then?” said Darcy.


“Did you find out what she was doing at the rugby club?”


Darcy rolled her eyes, wiped her hands and stuck her head around the door. “Georgia?”

There was silence for a moment and then Georgia yelled back. “Wh-at?I’ve got homework.Oh my God.” Like most teenagers she reserved her the worst of her moods for the person who had given birth to her.

“Great,” said Darcy, giving up and returning to her risotto. “It’s a boy thing, isn’t it?”

“It might be a girl thing.”

“It’s not. Kid always came off as straight, even before she turned out to have aggressively heterosexual taste in shoes.”

“Come on,” said Lucy. “She’s a sensible girl.”

“She’s a beautiful girl. Some men will always behave like they’re entitled to her.” Darcy sighed, her knife thudding efficiently through mushrooms. She was right, as usual. You could install night lights, and talk freely and frankly about sex, but you could only protect your daughters so much. They were always going to have to go out into a world filled with men, and anxiety, and with people who sold them bullshit about the great hereafter. All you could do was hand them the weapons and hope you had taught them how to fight their way through it.

“Anyway,” said Darcy. “How was Alice? How far through the looking glass are we talking?”

“She was okay. Nice. Sad.”

“How so?”

“Yeah, she talked about the afterlife as this bright, beautiful garden. It was like she was peering through the tiny door to the Queen of Hearts’ garden and crying because she couldn’t fit through it. Not sure how much use she’ll be to you, though. It was all very…experiential. Oh, and that flatof hers. She had a collection of crystal unicorns – an actual glass menagerie. Everything was pink.”

“Bleugh.” Darcy’s idea of dressing up smart was putting on her newest shirt and remembering to comb her hair. “Sounds like a glitter bomb went off in a Barbie house. Bea must have been in ecstacy.”

“She was, although I’m not sure she should have heard all that.”

“All what?”

“All that stuff about death and the afterlife. She inherited my nerves, and you know she doesn’t miss a thing.”

“Nerves shmerves. She’s nearly eight, Lu. She knows the difference between real and make believe. Hell, she busted us pretending to be the tooth fairy.”

“Perhaps,” said Lucy. “But on the way back she asked me where we go when we die.”

“Sounds like a normal question to me,” said Darcy. “Maybe we need to have thattalk with her.”

“Maybe.” Bea knew how people came into this world, so it only followed that she should know how they went out. Trouble was that the two were too often intertwined, especially in Lucy’s head. “But I don’t think we should have exposed her that.”

“What? Alice Poole? Oh, she’s harmless.”

“Is she?”

Darcy gave her a probing look.

“Okay, fine,” said Lucy. “She creeped meout, okay? I didn’t expect her to, because she was all pink and smiley and sweet voiced, but I don’t know…she said some things.”

“Baby, what?”

Lucy shook her head. “She lost a child. She wouldn’t go into detail and I kind of didn’t want her to, but then she started talking about birth and…I don’t know. I suppose it just brought some stuff back. With Bea and all.”

“We’ve beenthrough this,” said Darcy, putting garlic-scented hands on Lucy’s shoulders. “I know it was traumatic, but there’s no way it could have affected Bea. You can’t form memories of your own birth; the brain structure simply isn’t there.”

“I know. But the things she said. I still remember that moment where I must have been bleeding out.” It still had the dizzy-weird texture of a dream or a scene from a film, which was maybe why she remembered it so clearly. “Everything was so bright and glary. Screaming colours, blazing lights.”


“No, pleaselet me talk. It was like I was seeing all this brightness through a keyhole. There was all this dark fog around the edges. And that was the scary part; on some level I knew that dark was permanent.”

Darcy leaned forward, kissed her forehead, her eyes and mouth. “Okay. Time to step away from the séance room, I think.”

There was a thump from the living room and it was only then that Lucy realised the TV had been turned off. How much of the conversation had Bea heard?

“Beatrice?” said Darcy, into the sudden silence. “Are you jumping on the sofa again?”


“You don’t seriously expect me to believe that, do you?”

Bea emerged, grinning like a monkey. She stood in the doorway, stretching her arms and legs to try and fill it in imitation of one of Georgia’s high-drama poses.

“Go and wash your hands,” said Darcy. “It’s nearly time for dinner.”

“‘Kay,” said Bea, and went heavily up the stairs, chanting to herself, a weird metered muttering. “…of cloudy limes and starry skies, and all that’s best of dark that bites…”

“See what I mean?” said Lucy. “Doesn’t miss a thing.”

Saturday turned out to be a chapter of disasters.

It started when the day was barely an hour old, when Bea got out of bed to go to the toilet and the light bulb blew, prompting a meltdown about having to cross the landing in the dark. Lucy opened the curtains to find a single magpie peering at her from next door’s rooftop, and when she tried to boil eggs for breakfast they all cracked, except for the one that turned out to have a blood-streaked yolk. A blister on her heel popped the moment she tried to put her shoes on.

The sky was a sour shade of grey and by the time they’d reached the bottom of the hill it was beginning to spit. “It’s mostly indoors anyway,” said Darcy, determined to look on the bright side. You couldn’t, she said, live in Bath and not see the Roman ruins. As they passed out through the entry hall into the walkway above the great bath, the rain redoubled its efforts, streaming off the nose of a limestone Julius Caesar and pocking the green, orange streaked surface of the water.

“They must have been very dirty,” said Bea. “If they washed in that.”

The old Roman street level was some four feet below the modern pavements. As they descended the staircase into the museum, Bea fumbled for Lucy’s hand, her fingers chill and wet from the rain. The temple ruins below looked ominously dark, lit mostly by flickering video screens depicting ancient Romans going about their daily business. The air had a strange, metallic tang, a flavour that reminded Lucy of the operating theatre, when the smell of her own blood had been so strong that it coated her tongue like iron filings.

She kept talking as she led Bea down the stairs. The metal smell grew stronger, so thick that Lucy began to feel faint and wonder if she was having some kind of brain event; her ears hissed and the air felt damp. Bea clung tighter to her hand, her little fingers cold as the claws of a goblin.

“This must be the outflow,” Darcy was saying, just ahead, around the corner, but Lucy was barely listening, afraid that if she let her panic show she would only reinforce everything Bea had ever hated about the dark. They rounded the corner.

Steaming water was pouring through a low arched outflow, streaming over rocks stained a deep, gaudy orange from the minerals in the geothermal spring. Maybe it was the shape of the aperture – a slight, upside-down smile – or maybe it was the ironish tang in the air, but Lucy once again remembered looking up into the ceiling of the theatre and seeing, reflected on polished metal, her own belly slit wide in the same smiling shape. And Darcy was there, holding her hand as tightly as if the dark was going to come up and eat her, too wrapped up in the moment (“She’s here. She’s okay, oh, Lu – she’s sobeautiful.”) to realise what it was that Lucy was seeing, what Lucy was tasting. Metal and blood, and the deepening darkness making perfect sense, because look how much blood was spilling out of that smile. More than you could lose and live.

Mummy,” said Bea, the fear in her voice yanking Lucy out of her half swoon.

“Lucy? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Just a little dizzy. Maybe it’s the steam.”

Darcy breathed in the smell of the mineral water and grimaced. “Yeah, I get that. Kind of a breath of brimstone, isn’t there?” She pointed the way out. “Come this way. Get some air; I think the rain has stopped.”

They found their way outside, where the great bath steamed in the chill and the thin grey light did nothing to make Bea relax her grip. Lucy could lie through her teeth to Darcy, but not Bea, who was still young enough to bob along in Lucy’s emotional wake. As she stepped into the open air Lucy had the awful sense that she’d done some damage; it was one thing to tell Bea that the dark wouldn’t hurt, but Bea would never believe her now, not now that she’d seen her mother go white and look like she was going to throw up.

Only there was more in store. The way out led back through more subterranean ruins, the swimming pool and caldariums and plunge pools, all fascinating and all darker even than the museums. Bea all but dug her heels into the cobblestones as they moved towards the bathing complex, finally getting on Darcy’s last nerve.

“Beatrice, come on. You’re a big girl now – and it’s just a little dark. It doesn’t bite.”

Bea started to whimper.

“There’s no other way out,” said Lucy, feeling simultaneously frustrated and something like a monster, forcing her daughter to walk into a place that scared her so thoroughly. She kept up a running commentary as they went – look at the big pool, see the steps? – but it was hopeless. To poor Bea it was just a series of dark rooms filled with a series of dark empty holes.

Finally they reached a huge plunge pool whose clear waters gleamed with the silver and bronze of all the coins that had been tossed into the bottom. Lucy, relieved to find something Bea might enjoy, fished in her purse for change, only to be interrupted by a full-throated scream.

She looked up and saw a man staring straight out of the wall at her. She gasped out loud, not helping, before swiftly realising that it was a projection, this time directly onto the wall instead of a screen. A fat man strolled into view, a towel wrapped around his middle. Bea went to pieces.

“It’s a ghost, it’s a ghost, it’s a ghost!

“It’s a film, Bea. Watch. Just watch and it’ll happen again.”

People were staring, and Bea was beyond reason, flailing against Darcy’s attempts to show her that it was nothing more than a recording. She yanked herself free and ran shrieking through the museum, past the water spigot and up the stairs to the Pump Room, where she threw herself against the heavy glass doors and screamed.

After that they decided to skip the gift shop.

Bea went to bed with the light on that night. Even her usual plug-in night light failed to hold off the panicked fits at the shadows in the corner of the room. Lucy – having finally reached the end of her rope – left Darcy to handle Bea and went downstairs for a much-needed glass of wine.

She opened a bottle of Malbec and went to tidy away the shoes in the hallway; George was sleeping over at a friend’s and had a bad habit of rummaging through the shoe rack to find the particular pair she wanted, none of which were comfortable or sensible. Lucy straightened them up and turned back towards the dining room, but when she put her hand on the doorknob something caught her eye.

The keyhole cover. It was one of those features of old houses that she’d forgotten about until they moved here. What were they for? To keep out drafts? Or perverts? To settle the fears of children who thought that the dark could sneak through keyholes?

She pushed the cover aside, feeling it scrape against the paint; oh God, what if she couldn’t put it back? The anxiety pounced on her like a leopard, that old, childish fear that you’d broken something and couldn’t put it back the way it was. She scrabbled at the cover, but it refused to go back in place, leaving that small black hole to reproach her.

“Oh God, no, please,” she said, thinking of doors left ajar and other worlds that might pour through them like water through an outflow, and in her bones she knew Alice was wrong and there was no garden of bliss on either side of this life. Just a rising tide of dark nothing.

The cover flicked back over the hole.

“Lu?” Darcy whispered from the top of the stairs. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing. Waiting for the wine to breathe.” It was a pathetic explanation and only seemed to deepen Darcy’s puzzled frown, but Lucy got a grip of herself and returned to practicalities. “Is she down?”

Darcy nodded and came downstairs, quietly closing the dining room door behind them. “Finally. You were right about Alice Poole, by the way.”

“I was?”

“Yes. Bea shouldn’t have heard all that bullshit; she hasn’t been this scared of the dark in years.”

Sometime later Lucy went back upstairs. The landing light was on and Bea’s door was ajar. She tiptoed across the landing to the bathroom. In the light her nerves felt better, cushioned the way they should have been after a large glass of wine. As she got up from the toilet she caught sight of herself in the mirror. The scar always looked worse in artificial light, a wide slash made with no time for aesthetics, even as an afterthought.

No time for anything besides getting Bea out, because they couldn’t find her heartbeat. Just gave Lucy a quick epidural and whisked her into theatre. For all those natural childbirth classes Lucy had never been a keyhole; she’d been a gash, an upside-down half smile lipped with clownish red and yellow.

She turned on the tap and the hiss of water reminded her of the outflow, the stained rock and the strange, infernal smell of the drifting steam. There had been something obscene about the way the water belched shamelessly forth from such dark, private depths. A hole she hadn’t been supposed to see, let alone stare into.

“Stop it,” she told herself, as the creeping anxiety returned. She took a swallow of water, but the tap water – now that she knew the metallic smell of it – coated her tongue with an iron taste like blood. The bathroom light flickered.

Lucy set down the glass on the sink, slowly, as if the sound of it against the china might somehow startle the light into going out altogether. Her heart swooshed loudly behind her ear drums, the skin of her belly crawling as if the severed nerves around the scar were standing up in response to some dark, unseen tide, blind and secret as tubeworms at the pitch black bottom of the ocean. A door slammed.

She would have screamed, but Bea started screaming first. Lucy flung open the bathroom door to see that although the landing light was still on, Bea’s bedroom door was closed. And it hadslammed; there was no doubt in her mind about that. It could only swing shut so far, then it always stopped, caught on the carpet and the uneven floor. Behind it Bea was shrieking, howling, pounding on the door with both fists. There was no light coming from under her door.

Lucy grabbed the handle, but the door wouldn’t budge. “Bea, I’m here. It’s okay.”

“It’s dark! It’s dark in here, it’s dark, it’s dark, it’s dark!

Darcy came running up the stairs. “What’s going on?”

“The door slammed,” said Lucy, trying to push it open. The keyhole cover was painted firmly in place and the door held as fast as if it had been locked shut. “Bea, move away from the door, baby. You’re leaning on it.”

There was no reply from Bea. “Oh my God.”

“Give me that,” said Darcy, taking hold of the handle. She shook it and shouldered the door, but nothing happened. “Beatrice? Where are you? Talk to me, honey. Talk to Momma.”

“Why isn’t she sayinganything?” Lucy could barely feel her lips as she spoke, her face and hands numb with fear, her mind full of awful possibilities – seizures, injuries, all the things she feared the most. She wrestled the door handle from Darcy, and then she could have sworn she heard a kind of rushing sound, a swoosh that might well have been her hammering, overwrought heart. The door gave way.

At first they couldn’t see anything, then Darcy kicked the door wider, illuminating a little huddled heap against the wall. A huge eye peered up at them and it took a split second before Lucy recognised the eye as that of a cartoon; Bea had wrapped herself up in her Frozenduvet. Lucy leapt forward and Bea – under the cover – let out a shriek.

“Bea, it’s okay. Mummy’s here.”

Bea babbled about the dark, but Lucy pulled back the duvet, to discover that Bea had tented herself next to the plug socket, where her night-light was still on. “It must have been a fuse,” said Darcy, but Lucy wasn’t listening. She grabbed Bea out of her makeshift shelter and hurried to the landing, Bea clinging to her like one of Harlow’s monkeys. As she stepped out of the light she felt something tug at her ankle.

Darcy checked the bedroom light. It flicked on, but Lucy was in no mood to think about wiring. She rolled up the sleeves and legs of Bea’s pyjamas, checking for broken bones. Bea submitted to this examination with snuffling, sobbing relief, but she seemed unhurt. Just scared out of her mind.

There was no question of Bea going back to her own bed that night. She crawled in between her mothers and lay there staring up at the light so long and hard that Lucy had to beg her to close her eyes. Even the darkness behind her own eyelids seemed to scare her senseless, a relapse into those early days when all was black and white and shadows were a thing to be hated and feared. Finally, around three o’clock, Bea fell asleep, her cheek pressed against Darcy’s, her baby blonde hair pale as a ghost against Darcy’s chopped-off black curls. Lucy watched them sleep for a while and deliberated over whether she should risk turning out the light now.

She got out of bed to go to the bathroom. As she set her foot on the floor her heel hurt like she had a bone spur, the same sensation of stepping on the point of a knife, only colder somehow. And then she remembered that moment – in the height of her fear – when she had felt that tug on her ankle. Maybe she’d been imagining things, but maybe not. Maybe she really had felt something grab at her Achilles tendon as she fled from the dark. Cold, goblin fingers reaching out…


Lucy stood with her hand on the door handle. Beyond was a darkened landing, and she knew if she walked out there with all this nonsense on her mind she would only be making it worse for herself. It was nothing but the dark. Nothing to be afraid of.

The night hissed in her ears as she turned the knob. She stepped out into the dark and made herself stand there. You never felt more alone than at three o’clock in the morning when the entire world seemed to be asleep.

The hissing silence swelled, growing louder and faster until it oscillated in her ears, a vile, insect-like chittering that stifled her breath. She crossed the landing in one pace and reached for the bathroom light cord. But it wasn’t there where her fingers expected to find it and for a second she flailed blindly in the dark, sure she was going to scream. There.


She had never felt more ridiculous. There was the familiar bathroom, the body scrubs and toothpastes and make-up bags, the bath sponge in the shape of a pink, smiling crab. Lucy pressed her hand to her chest as if she could still the mad beating of her heart manually. Then, as she stepped forward, her heel throbbed again. This time it was hard enough to unbalance her, and she stumbled a little, leaning on the side of the bath.

It was nothing. She’d been on her feet all day, hoofing around the Roman Baths with a popped blister. No big deal. She lifted her foot to look at it, then the bottom dropped out of her world, one of those big, stomach-swooping shocks that got you when you saw how far you had to fall, or when the doctor said they couldn’t find the baby’s heartbeat.

There was a black mark on her heel. Not big. Just a round mark, not much bigger than the eraser at the end of a pencil, but to her it looked enormous. Another hole that should never have been there. The skin around the edge was purple-red and puckered. She raised her foot to look closer, almost tipping herself backwards into the bath because she was shaking so hard. Oh God, it was so black. The centre was as black as cancer, but there was nothing there. No oozing, no blood, just a black space in the middle, as though something had punched through her skin and exposed the nothing inside.

Her first impulse was to find a needle, or a pair of tweezers. Something sharp to dig it out her flesh. But no – she told herself to stop, to breathe. She was in no shape to do anything right now. Her heart was hammering half out of her chest and her skin was crawling all over, like her whole body was attempting to get away from its own foot. If she’d had a sharp knife in that moment, she might have bit down on a bath sponge and attempted to hack away at her ankle. It was nothing. Just a bad bruise. Dark, as they were so fond of telling Beatrice, did not bite.

She hopped to the medicine cabinet and took out a bottle of antiseptic. Lucy poured it on to a cotton ball, spilling spots on the bathmat. She clapped the pad over the black mark and waited for it to hurt, wanted it to hurt, because if it hurt it meant it was normal and nothing out of this world. The edges of the hole stung and she breathed a little easier, then she covered the wound with the biggest plaster she could find, then sealed the edges with a couple more, just to be certain.

Nothing to worry about, she told herself, although she crossed the landing faster than usual, and lay stiff in the bed for a long time before exhaustion finally forced her eyes closed.

It was so much easier to feel sane in the daylight.

The rain had stopped and the sun was shining brightly, winking on the warped glass of the bedroom window. Downstairs Darcy was tinkering with the fuse box, a solution so mundane that Lucy could have cried for gratitude. “Bulb must have blown,” she said. “Tripped the switch. Explains why the plug socket was still working.”

“Right,” said Lucy, forcing herself not to wonder too much why only Bea’s light had gone out if the switch had tripped; surely the others on the circuit would have done the same. “You’re right.”

Darcy pushed the fuse cupboard door shut and raised an eyebrow. “Are you okay?”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You’re not arguing with me.”

“I’m tired. That’s all.”

Darcy kissed her on the mouth. “Tell me about it. God, she kicks, that daughter of ours. Want some coffee?”

“Yes. Please.” Usually Lucy would have asked for tea, but right now a cup of Darcy’s spine-stiffening coffee sounded like just the thing. Her foot felt better, normal enough for her to pretend that last night had been a crazy dream, and that when she peeled away the Elastoplast on her heel she’d find nothing worse than a blister caused by walking around all day in a pair of ill-fitting shoes.

She went into the living room, where Bea was watching cartoons and snarfing down cereal like nothing had happened. When you were seven there were few things that sugar couldn’t cure. “Momma’s fixed the lights,” said Lucy. “So it won’t go out again. Okay?”

Bea glanced up. For an instant she looked like her old self, then her eyes widened less than a millimetre, an expression so small that it was a hundred times more frightening than if she’d looked up and just started screaming again.

“What?” said Lucy, barely daring to breathe. Of all the people in all the world her daughter was the last person who should be looking at her like that.

“You’ve got dark on you,” said Bea.

Lucy turned towards the mirror above the mantelpiece, not sure what she expected to see. Maybe a blank space where her face should be. But it was small, a patch of black just on her hairline, easy enough to miss when her hair flopped forward. There were no purple edges like the hole in her heel, but it was a hole just the same, another one punched through the fabric of this world and into the next. Where there was nothing.

She ran upstairs, needing to know in spite of her simmering fear. Then she shut herself in the bathroom and – closing her eyes tight – pulled the plaster off her heel. It felt normal, emboldening her to open her eyes and look, but no. The hole was bigger, puckering the edges of the wound the way the surrounding skin of her belly had creased when they put in the retractors to open her up. Only it wasn’t blood red and fatty yellow this time. It was that same ugly greying purple, the colour of rot, of flesh gone so far beyond help that the only way to deal with it was to cut it off.

“Lucy?” Darcy’s voice at the bottom of the stairs. No, there was no way she wanted to talk about this, or even face it. Not with Darcy, anyway. She’d make it practical. Real.

“I’m okay.” Lucy’s voice sounded thin and unconvincing to her own ears. There was a pause and then Darcy said “Coffee’s ready,” and moved away from the foot of the stairs.

Hands shaking, Lucy opened the bathroom door and tiptoed across the landing to the bedroom. Clothes, shoes. No time to brush her hair or clean her teeth; she needed answers. She hurried down the stairs, past a confused and newly returned Georgia who was (oh God, no no no) examining a blister on her toe. Almost tripping over an abandoned sandal, Lucy rushed out into the street, up the stem of the key to the Circus. No time to walk around; she ran across the road to the green, under the shade of the big plane trees.

No sooner had she stepped into the shadow she heard it, even louder than last night. That insecty sound, chittering and rustling, like the sound of a million tiny, near-mindless things crawling all over each other in their haste to start eating, reducing skin and flesh to dry, white bone. Her heel throbbed as she ran, the patch on her forehead starting to sting. She was full of holes and all the dark was bleeding through. She tore out of the shadows, her lungs bursting. Up towards the Assembly Rooms. For a second she couldn’t remember the number of the flat and thought about mashing every one of the intercom buttons in desperation, but then she saw the card – faded and slipped to one side in the holder next to the buzzer. Alice Poole – Psychic Medium.


“Alice? Help me. Please, help me.”

“Who is this?”

“Lucy. Lucy Stevens. I interviewed you for my wife’s book…please. Please, help me.”

The buzzer sounded. Lucy stumbled up the stairs, barely able to see straight she was so afraid. Alice stood at the top, holding open a door to her world, all pink and glitter and unicorns. When she saw Lucy’s face she looked like she wanted to slam the door shut and run screaming.

“What happened to you?” said Alice.

“You can see it, can’t you?” said Lucy, half sobbing as she gestured to her forehead. “She saw it too, my little girl. I scared her; my own baby. She was afraid of me.”

Alice shook her head slowly, but she didn’t invite Lucy in. “Your aura is black.”

“What does that mean?”

“I told you,” said Alice. “You’re like me. You’re a door.”

“I’m a hole,” said Lucy. “I got torn open and now I’m pouring darkness into the world. How do I close it? How the hell do I stop this? I’m leaking like a sieve.”

Alice took a deep breath and held out her hands, so that they hung in the air a couple of inches above Lucy’s head. They were shaking as she spoke. “You must see the beauty that I see,” she said. “You’ve looked into the other world and seen only the darkness within you. You’re not seeing the light, the flowers, the fragrance…”

The Queen of Hearts’ garden. Oh this was nonsense. You couldn’t pretend it was there, not when you’d stared into nothing. Not when you’d run so low on blood that you saw the darkness swallowing the edges of the world and you with it. No light to float towards, no smiling dead relatives waiting to meet you. Just an endless dark nothing.

“There is no garden, Alice,” she said. “Only dark.” Dark that bites. Dark with teeth. Dark that – in the end – devoured everything.

“No, you must think positively. Positive, beautiful thoughts.”

“There’s no time,” said Lucy. “It’s pouring out now, faster than I can stop it. How do I close the door, Alice? How?”

Alice lowered her hands. “I don’t think you can. You’re very powerful.”

“You’re hopeless.” Lucy looked down at her own hands. The nail beds and knuckles were tinged black, like stress fractures showing where the flesh was going to tear next. And all that dark would break out, its teeth sharpened and looking for the next bite, just the way Bea had always feared. God, Bea. Darcy, Georgia. It would spill out of her and come for them next, and there was no way she could let that happen. She ran back down the stairs, back down the hill to where she’d last parked the car.

Her hand shook as she jabbed the key in the door. When she saw the strap of Bea’s pink car seat she almost ran back indoors, but the darkness had found its way to an old scar on her forearm and was bleeding through the weak point in her skin. Her c-section scar would be next, or George’s blister, or that fine line behind the semi-colon on her wife’s wrist. There was only one thing she could do to close the door.

Brassknocker Hill.

Lucy started the car.

About the Author

Jess Whitecroft

Jess Whitecroft

Veteran romance writer Jess Whitecroft moonlighted into writing horror when she moved to a haunted location and discovered that none of the alleged ghosts did any haunting, and that she would have to supply her own. A rank amateur at the art of self-description, she outsourced her author biography to her nearest and dearest, who said, “Great cook, but sometimes eats crisps in bed.” Twitter: @JessWhitecroft. Patreon:

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Jess Whitecroft

About the Narrator

Kat Day

Kat Day

Kat Day is a PhD chemist who was once a teacher and is now a writer and editor. By day she mostly works as a freelance editor and proofreader of scientific materials, with bits of article and book-writing thrown in. By night she… mostly does all the stuff she hasn’t managed to do during the day. She’s had articles published in Chemistry World, has written science content for DK and has produced scripts for Crash Course Organic Chemistry. Her fiction can be found at Daily Science Fiction and Cast of Wonders among others. You can follow her on Twitter at @chronicleflask , or check out her blogs, The Chronicle Flask and The Fiction Phial. She lives with her husband, two children and cat in Oxfordshire, England. She thinks black coffee is far superior to tea. The purple liquid on the stovetop is none of your concern.  Kat joined the team in 2019, and became assistant editor in 2021.

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Kat Day