Here We Are, Falling Through Shadows28 min read

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Originally appeared in Interzone 225

Miker drove our fire engine through the dark neighborhood, the red emergency lights flash-synching to the deep bass of the rumbler siren. Parked cars and flower gardens and mailboxes flashed by, illuminated for seconds before sliding back to night. We used to turn the siren off on quiet streets like these to avoid disturbing the peaceful, sleeping taxpayers. Not anymore. Now we wanted everyone to know there were still those who braved the darkness.

But bravery didn’t mean we were stupid. While Miker steered, the rest of us aimed spotlights all around, jumping burn-deep shadows off everything we passed. As we entered one intersection Karl, the probie four months out of the fire academy, yelled, “Ripper!” For a moment we saw it–a black line reaching with stick arms. But then the ripper shifted and we realized it was only a tree’s shadow, cast by a front porch spotlight.

Karl muttered, “My bad.” While everyone had made the same mistake at some point, Miker grumbled, “Rookie,” from the front seat and we laughed.

The laughing stopped when we reached the fire.

“It’s fully involved,” Miker said. We stared out the engine’s large windows. Only three months ago, we rarely encountered fully involved house fires because someone would call 911 at the first sight or smell of fire. Now no one went out at night, and fires too often grew massive before people noticed.

“A guy’s hanging out the third floor window,” Karl said. “He has a kid in his arms.”

I cursed. Karl reached for the door handle.

“Do not open that door!” our squad leader, Lt. Helen Stivers, ordered.

Karl looked like he wanted to argue–hell, we all did–but we knew she was right. Helen had that weird mix of caring and kick-ass attitude found in all great leaders. During her three decades with the division, a few macho-cocky firefighters had defied her orders, but never twice. She’d once smashed a disobedient firefighter across the face with a tire iron. None of us would go against her.

“Forty-five seconds, boys,” Helen said calmly, stating how long it took our engine’s booms and remote spotlights to properly deploy. Once arrayed, the lights made it difficult for shadows to exist in our field of operation. “Keep a good watch,” she ordered.

So we searched for rippers. Our spotlights star-brighted the neighborhood until the fire receded to a dull glow, as if cowering before our power. Lights also shone in the houses around us, showcasing people peeking from behind the security blankets of curtains and blinds. In the house across the street, a picture window framed a pink-robed woman kneeling in prayer.

“The guy’s screaming,” Karl whispered, stating the obvious as all rookies did. I looked at the dying man, sickness gagging my throat. Helen counted the seconds out loud–fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen–steeling our nerves and hers–as the superheated air boiling out the window cooked the man alive.

To the man’s credit, he didn’t let go of the little girl, holding her clear so the heat and smoke couldn’t reach her. After a final pleading glance at us, the man’s strangled face disappeared completely into the smoke. Only his arms hung down from the spewing clouds, like an unknown god debating whether to spare the girl’s life.

“Twenty-nine, thirty, damn it, we can’t wait,” Helen yelled. “Go!”

Karl opened the door and we sprinted toward the house. The man’s grip had weakened so he barely held the screaming girl. She was small, a toddler, and Karl and I held out our hands to catch her. But, as she fell, the tall blackness of a ripper rose from the ground beside us, protected from our spotlights by the barest sliver of a tree’s shadow. The damn thing had been waiting, hoping the man would drop the girl through its dark rip in space.

Trusting Karl to catch the girl, I flipped on my portable spotlight and illuminated the ripper. For a split second I saw another world through the ripper’s body–a surreal scene of darkness upon darkness, of shadow creatures slipping here and there screaming unknown obscenities and begging for my soul. Then the combined illumination from my spotlight and the engine’s lights overwhelmed the ripper and it singled out to nothing.

When I turned to Karl, he held the crying girl in his arms. She pushed away from his face, more afraid of his protective gear than the fire or ripper. I glanced up at the man’s down-slung body as Helen and Miker grabbed a ladder to try and save him.

He was dead by the time we reached him.

After we’d extinguished the fire and sent the girl to the hospital, Helen told Karl he’d done good. Karl kept glancing at the dead man’s sheet-covered body. Helen slugged the rookie in the arm to distract him.

“Least he didn’t get sucked into that ripper’s hell,” Karl muttered. “That’s gotta be worse than burning alive.”

As the wind shifted and blew across the sheeted man, carrying the greasy whiff of cooker-burnt meat, I prayed Karl was right.

 * * * *

After my shift, I arrived home to discover my sixteen-year-old daughter Sammy slumped on the sofa, watching the news on her reader. I leaned over to hug her, but she shot a scowl which stopped my arms in mid reach.

She held up her reader with a disdainful flick of her wrist, showing me the video of the fire and ripper. Obviously one of the neighbors had filmed us last night.

“The man’s name was Aaron Wills,” Sammy said in the word-flattening voice she’d adopted since her mother was taken. “His wife was staying across town helping a sick relative. Their daughter’s in Children’s Hospital. Expected to recover.”

“He was a brave man,” I said. “You have to honor courage like that.”

Sammy snorted, like she did anytime I mentioned an emotion or ideal not grounded in pure cynicism. For a moment I stared at her and didn’t see her close-cropped hair–sheared off in the bathroom by her own hand–or the black ripper tattoo on her cheek–reaching for her right eye as if to pull her sight into another dimension. Instead, I saw Sammy as she’d been at nine, the girl with flowing red hair whom I’d tickle until she laughed tears from her eyes. The girl who hugged me in a tight python grip before each shift, and always kissed my cheek as she whispered to be careful.

Now such love seemed beyond her. As if to taunt me, Sammy muttered how I should have let the ripper take the girl.

I couldn’t believe she’d say that. “Why?”

“She’d have ended up doing something worthwhile with her life.”

“And you know this…”

“A friend told me.”

I groaned. If Sammy had spent the night talking to a ripper, I was going to get an earful from my mother-in-law.

 * * * *

I got an earful.

Turned out my mother-in-law had caught Sammy talking to the ripper outside her bedroom window. Scared Arlene silly, seeing that monster in the backyard, Sammy grinning at it from the window like some idiot-struck firebug.

I tried telling Arlene not to worry. The ripper had appeared in our backyard for the last two weeks, but I’d installed spotlights outside Sammy’s windows, which kept the damn thing several yards from the house. However, Arlene had no patience with my ideas of safety. “Never your fault, is it?” she asked, tired razor-eyes slicing my words to ribbons. “What’s your plan? Let the damn things take your whole family?”

I tensed, the exhausted part of me screaming to beat the crap out of her. But instead of giving in to anger, I took a deep breath as I looked at Arlene’s tired face and saw my wife’s. Or, I saw what Carie would have looked like in another two decades if we’d been allowed to grow old together. Red hair turned grey. Thin bones and muscles etched with strength and determination.

Arlene and I both knew Sammy’s morbid fascination with the rippers resulted from her mother being killed by one. Well, not killed. Disappeared. Transformed. Whatever you called the painful things those creatures did to those they took.

When Sammy had first talked to the ripper outside her window, I feared she’d let it in. For some reason, rippers only appeared when there was no light, and they wouldn’t cross the simplest of barriers, whether a shut door, a closed glass window, or even a tent’s fabric. They wouldn’t follow ventilation shafts or bends and curves inside buildings, almost as if they were truly shadows which couldn’t leave the path of whatever blocked their invisible light.

Some people said rippers didn’t enter our houses out of a minor respect for humanity. Others searched for a scientific reason. But in the end, all that mattered was if you left a door open at night, or a window cracked more than a hair, a ripper might reach in and steal you away.

With such devils outside our homes, it’s a wonder anyone slept at all. Even during the day, everyone looked numb and scared. Few worked their jobs anymore. Instead, people rushed out by day to find food and supplies, and rushed back home before night fell.

I thanked Arlene for watching Sammy. Arlene sniffed and apologized for being so angry–”It’s just the tired speaking,” she said–and walked to her car.

“My fault,” Sammy droned from the sofa after Arlene had driven away. “You said not to act weird while Gramie was here. ‘Act weird.’ Your words.”

I winced at the accusation. Instead of taking her bait, I told Sammy not to worry about her grandmother. “She simply misses your mom.”

If I expected Sammy to say she also missed her mother, that was expecting too much from my emotionally disconnected teenage daughter. Sammy stared at me blankly before returning to her reader.

Unable to handle any more drama, I walked to my room, closed the door, and fell into bed to cry.

 * * * *

I’d met my wife two decades back. Carie was a successful artist who painted beautiful illustrations for children’s books. She also spent her weekends volunteering as a rural firefighter. Her tiny department responded to car crashes and brush fires thirty minutes outside the city.

One night my department was called to assist Carie’s. We arrived at a full-gone warehouse fire to see Carie dragging a fellow firefighter overcome by heat. I’ll never forget the sight of that determined woman–red hair crowding her facemask as she dragged a man twice her size to the ambulance.

After we beat down the fire, Carie and I talked. Carie said when she wasn’t volunteering with her department, she worked as a freelance artist. “My last book was Boo Boo Gets a Choo Choo,” she’d said, wiping sweat and black soot from her face.

How could you not love someone like that?

Because of Carie’s experience, she understood the dangers and stresses of my job. Where another spouse might have worried about my safety, Carie waved it off. In fact, I worried far more about her volunteer work than she ever did about me.

The rippers stole her on the night they’d first appeared. She’d been on a routine medical call, walking toward a house where a child had broken his arm, when a ripper appeared. Carie vanished before her squad could react. All they heard were her screams echoing from nothingness as the ripper tore and twisted her body and soul into things they were never meant to be.

I still wonder about the hell she was stolen away to.

I pray it’s a nice place.

 * * * *

I cried until I fell asleep, and woke in the late afternoon. To my surprise, Sammy wasn’t in her room or the backyard. Instead, I found her in the basement studio, painting on my wife’s smart canvas. I almost yelled to get away from the canvas, but caught myself. Carie didn’t need the computerized art system anymore, and if Sammy was still interested in painting, I should encourage her.

I walked over to see what she was painting, but Sammy raised her hand to stop. All through Sammy’s youth, Carie had spent hours each week painting with our daughter. Sammy had always kept her paintings a secret until they were finished, at which point she’d reveal her work with a dramatic flourish of her hands. I smiled at the memory, and assumed she was about to do this again.

Instead, I heard a computerized click, followed by the stylized swish of the canvas’ trash being deleted. Sammy yanked the memory sliver from the canvas’ control board and threw it to the floor, crushing its crystal shape beneath her right boot.

I screamed, and shoved her away from the canvas. Part of me heard Sammy hit the basement wall, but I didn’t care. I touched the smart canvas with my finger, pulling up the memory. Where before there had been hundreds of paintings created by Carie and my daughter, now there were none.

“What did you do?” I asked, my body shaking. That’s when I noticed Sammy’s nose bleeding from hitting the wall. Ever my daughter, she stood up as if she didn’t hurt, smirking at my anger.

“It’ll be over soon,” she said nonchalantly, wiping her bloody nose with the back of her hand. Her blood sparkled starry highlights in the smart canvas’ blue light.

“What’ll be over? Your painting?”

“The rippers. They’ll only be here a few more weeks.”

I remembered my daughter’s talks with the ripper outside her window. I chuckled nervously.

Sammy walked up the stairs, leaving me with the blank canvas. I tapped the controls and accessed the recovery program Carie had installed after a crash had deleted one of her paintings. The canvas began rebuilding what was left of its remaining memory as I climbed the stairs to tell Sammy dinner would be ready in a half hour.

 * * * *

Our department ran on modified Kelly schedule, meaning I worked forty-eight hours straight with four days off. Even though I always slept soundly in a noisy firehouse, at home I couldn’t rest. Every few hours I’d obsessively pace the house, making sure the windows and doors were closed tight.

Sometime well after midnight I passed Sammy’s door and heard her whispering. I didn’t wish to disturb her privacy. But I also needed to apologize for what had happened in the basement.

I knocked on the door, which creaked open. “Sammy, I wanted to…” I stopped, fear slamming the words from my mind. The spotlights I’d rigged outside Sammy’s room were off, and her window stood wide open with a ripper filling half her room. Its flat body hovered like a shadow swollen on pain.

I grabbed Sammy, hoping to throw her into the hallway before the ripper took her. But instead of taking my daughter, the ripper inhaled deeply–for lack of a better word–and sucked its shadow back out the window. For a fleeting moment I saw the ripper’s portal. Saw its light-gone world, where shadow nightmares flickered and howled–creatures which my body felt more than saw. Then the ripper was gone.

I slammed the window and latched it shut. Sammy turned the bedroom lights on as the worst shakes since Carie’s abduction hit me.

Fury ran Sammy’s face. “You dumb asshole,” she screamed, kicking me hard. “That was mom.”

“Carie?” I stammered. “What the hell are you talking about?”

Sammy looked at me like I was slow, and maybe I was. “That ripper is mom,” she said. “Or what’s left of mom, after the rippers changed her.”

“Sammy, it’s trying to trick you. It wants to snatch you away.”

Sammy kicked her bedroom wall, leaving a dent in the plaster. She took a deep breath to calm herself. “Do you know why rippers take people?”

I waited for Sammy to say what she knew. After all, why rippers kidnapped people was the only question worth asking in today’s world.

“Well?” I finally asked.

“Well, what?”

“Why do they take people?”

Sammy giggled. “You’ll just have to find out.”

That made no sense, like so many of my conversations with Sammy since her mother had disappeared. In my mind I laughed, I cried, I screamed. I wanted to embrace her in a massive hug until some sense entered her mind–to tell her it wasn’t her fault or mine that her mother was gone. But I also knew that to Sammy, everything she said made perfect sense, which only frustrated me even more.

I looked out the window. The ripper had disappeared back into the dark. I also noticed both outside spotlights lying on the ground. Sammy must have knocked them down after opening her window.

I told Sammy to leave the bedroom light on until morning so the ripper wouldn’t return. Sammy bit her lower lip. “I suppose you’re mad,” she said.

“You suppose?”

Sammy sighed. “Mom wouldn’t hurt me. She simply misses me.”

I hugged her gently and told her to go to bed. As I walked down the hall to my bedroom, I heard Sammy say in her soft, low voice, “I can’t be here forever, you know.”

I didn’t know if she was still talking to me, or if she was muttering at the ripper again. But I didn’t stop to find out.

 * * * *

By the start of my next shift, Arlene had gotten a few good nights sleep and was in a better mood. “It’s not the lack of sleeping that burns me,” Arlene said. “It’s the stress of knowing those things are out there–and that Sammy doesn’t realize how dangerous they are.”

I thanked her for all she’d done for me and Sammy, and showed her the key locks I’d installed on all the windows so Sammy couldn’t open them. Arlene seemed satisfied by that, and said she’d see me when my shift was over.

At the fire station, Miker, Karl, and Helen sat around the kitchen table drinking coffee. I told them about the ripper, and how Sammy had opened a window for it. The only thing I left out was that Sammy believed the ripper was Carie.

“Sammy’s lucky,” Helen said. “Most rippers, they get a shot at someone, they take it.”

“I know. But I keep thinking about what Sammy said, that this ripper wouldn’t hurt her. You ever hear of a ripper taking a special interest in someone? I mean, Sammy’s been talking to the damn thing for weeks.”

Helen lowered her voice. “One of my friends is high up in the FBI. She told me there have been quite a few cases of rippers talking with people. The problem is: these people eventually jump into the ripper. So while most rippers are content to simply steal people, a few want to talk you into doing the deed.”

Miker and Karl nodded knowingly, as if the two idiots hadn’t been as clueless as me. From the limited interactions scientists had with rippers, we knew they were intelligent. But actually conversing with them was difficult. Most rippers wouldn’t speak, and those few who did rarely made sense, sometimes claiming to be friends and family, sometimes spinning lies as easily as truth. Sort of like when Sammy and I talked about anything deeper than what I was cooking for supper. Half the time we didn’t understand what the other was truly saying.

Karl, being a typical probie and needing to be the center of attention, mentioned a neighbor who’d been taken a few days back. “People heard his screams up and down the block. What makes a person scream like that?”

We all shrugged. Whatever the rippers did to people, it hurt like hell.

“I think rippers have been here before,” Helen said. “That’s why our religions have so many depictions of devils and hells.”

“Nonsense,” Miker said. “Hell’s a place of fire, not darkness.”

This was too much for me to ponder. “Maybe I should put more spotlights in my backyard.”

“False security,” Helen said. “There’s always going to be shadows those things can hide in.”

“But why are they doing this?” Karl asked.

Helen muttered how better people than us had failed to understand the rippers’ motives. Before she could say more, the fire bell rang, pushing our minds onto nothing but work.

 * * * *

During the day, the runs felt like old times. Car accidents. Heart attacks. False alarms at the few schools still open. But as the sun sank and the civilians rushed home, the fire station lost its timelessness and became a great smoldering stack of now. We closed the front doors. Flipped on the spotlights. The station beamed like the heart of the sun, illuminating several city blocks in our false security of hope.

I think if people could, we’d light the whole world so there’d no longer be night. But light can’t remove every shadow.

There were no calls during the next few hours. Feeling daring, I opened the station’s side door and stepped outside. As my eyes adjusted to the spotlights, I noticed a tiny sliver of shadow between two parked cars on the street. Holding my hand before my eyes like a shield, I walked toward the cars. Sure enough, the shadow there squirmed and quaked as a ripper tried in vain to reach me. The ripper smelled of musk and sandalwood, like the incense my wife used to burn while painting.

“Carie?” I asked.

The ripper floated around its box of shadow as the word Yes caressed my mind, a word mixed with the sensation of Carie hugging me tight. I wanted so badly to reach in and touch the ripper, to find out if it was really her. But I knew the ripper was merely trying to trick me.

“Why don’t you like the light?” I asked, leaning over for a closer look. “Why don’t you enter our homes?”

The ripper merely stared–if a faceless shadow can stare–before opening the portal to its world. As always, the ripper world was pure darkness but, while my eyes couldn’t see anything, my mind saw all too clearly. I watched helplessly as a woman fell through the ripped dark–red hair blowing, her screams building louder and louder as a thousand cutting shadows sliced in and out of her skin, twisting and tearing her to pieces. As a vomit taste slicked my mouth, I realized this was Carie. This was what had happened to the woman I loved when the rippers stole her away.

But Carie wasn’t dead. As the ripper caressed my mind, I felt my wife’s lips on my own. Why don’t you and Sammy join me? she asked softly, her thoughts merging with mine. I miss you something bad.

I stumbled back, falling to the sidewalk as the ripper squirmed to escape its shadow prison. My legs wouldn’t work–except to run toward Carie, to join her in darkness. Ignoring my wife’s haunting needs, I crawled away, each inch and foot a battle to reach as Carie begged me to join her–the imagined smell and feel of her body beside mine smothering my every rational thought. Finally, I reached the firehouse door and crawled inside, slamming it shut as I shook and cursed.

 * * * *

Unfortunately, Helen happened upon me a few moments later and instantly knew I’d had a close call with a ripper. After letting me move past my shakes, she blessed me out, yelling that I’d better not be on some suicide trip. “You will not put this squad in danger,” she warned.

“I won’t,” I said. “I was just curious about the damn things.”

“And did you learn anything?” she asked sarcastically. I remembered her comment about better people than us not knowing what the rippers wanted. When I didn’t answer–not daring to mention that my wife might now be a ripper–Helen walked away shaking her head, obviously irritated.

Once I was alone, I called Arlene to check on Sammy. Arlene said Sammy had already gone to bed, even though it was barely ten o’clock. I thanked my mother-in-law, and told her I’d swing by the house in the morning. While I didn’t mention it to Arlene, I wanted to talk with Sammy about this ripper. About whether or not it might truly be Carie.

The entire squad felt squirrelly that night, so around midnight we boarded our engine and drove the traffic-emptied streets, the only vehicles we passed, an occasional police car or ambulance. We responded to a heart attack call shortly after 2 a.m., but otherwise the night was quiet.

We were driving back to the station when Sammy called my cell phone. It was strange for Sammy to call in the middle of the night; more so when she didn’t speak. I listened to the silent phone and heard crickets chirping and the wind blowing. Then my mother-in-law screamed, “Get away from her!”

They were outside. I knew from the shiver which ran along my nerves that Sammy had gone outside to talk to that damn ripper.

Helen asked what was wrong. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t say what I knew. “My house,” I gagged. Helen motioned for Miker to crank the lights and sirens as we raced to my neighborhood.

“Don’t be mad, Dad,” Sammy whispered over the receiver. Her phone hit the ground. I heard my little girl scream in horrible pain, a sound which echoed far longer than any parent should ever be forced to hear it.

“It’s okay,” I whispered, even though Sammy was no longer listening. “I’m on my way.”

We arrived to find my mother-in-law crying on the front lawn, oblivious to the dangers around her. We lit the scene and I asked where Sammy was. Arlene pointed to the grass beside my boots.

There lay Sammy’s cell, the line still open and connected to my phone.

 * * * *

How do you grieve for those who might be dead, or might be alive? Who might return, or might never be seen again?

Helen told me to take all the family leave I needed, but there was nothing for me at home but tears for a daughter and a wife whom I prayed still lived on the ripper’s dark-hell world.

Arlene told me she’d checked on Sammy in the middle of the night and found her asleep. She’d then gone to the bathroom, at which point Sammy ran outside to talk to the ripper. Arlene chased her, but the ripper only wanted Sammy.

I told Arlene it wasn’t her fault, but she didn’t believe me. After she’d gone home, I wandered my empty house, feeling Sammy’s lingering presence. Her bed covers turned down. The slight indention from her head on the pillow.

In the basement art studio, the smart canvas glowed its usual blue light. A message said the retrieval system had recovered the last painting viewed, probably whatever Sammy had been looking at before she’d deleted and destroyed everything else.

My finger hovered over the ‘view’ button, but I couldn’t handle the past right now. I told the canvas to save the painting and walked back upstairs.

At the start of the next shift I returned to the fire station, grateful to be around my only remaining family.

 * * * *

The next two weeks passed with numbing speed. Helen kept a close watch on me, afraid I’d go suicidal, and to my shock I considered it. On night-time runs, I obsessively watched the rippers flickering just beyond our spotlights. I found myself edging toward the damn things, wondering if I had the guts to follow my family. Wondering if Carie and Sammy were among the rippers prowling around us.

To keep me safe, Helen stuck me with routine tasks like manning the apparatus controls. She and the squad also refused to leave me alone for even a few minutes.

Then came the shelter fire.

The fire broke out in an abandoned megastore converted to a shelter for people with nowhere to escape the rippers. Because it was night, the people inside were afraid to leave the building, even with the fire beating down on them. They stampeded to rooms not filled with smoke and flames and waited for us to save them.

We were the second engine to arrive. After setting up our spotlights, Helen ordered Miker and Karl to enter an emergency door and do a quick check. Less than a minute later, they dragged two young men out.

“We heard more people yelling,” Karl said as the EMTs began working on the victims.

Helen glanced at me, trying to decide if I was together enough to risk going into the building. “Okay, we four go in, find as many people as we can, get them out.”

Karl and Miker nodded and walked back in. Helen checked my air supply and facemask and muttered, “Don’t screw us up.” I breathed a cool swallow of bottled air and followed her in.

The billowing smoke was so thick I couldn’t see. I heard myself breathing, always breathing, and heard the roar of the fire, a raspy Sammy, Sammy which boomed louder and louder the deeper we walked. Just when I thought we wouldn’t find anyone, a faint cry echoed across me. I grabbed Helen and pulled her toward the sound. We entered a new room to find five people huddled beside an emergency exit. They crouched against the tile floor, breathing what little good air was left.

Helen reached for the emergency door release, but one of the women stopped her. “Rippers,” the woman yelled. “Just outside. They already got one of us.”

Helen waved me closer as she radioed in our position and situation. The smoke was building, the heat rising. This spot wouldn’t be safe much longer. “We can’t take them back through all that smoke,” Helen yelled.

I pushed against the door release to test it, opening it slightly and closing it again. “We wait,” I yelled. “Let them bring spotlights to this side of the building.”

But waiting is hard with hell screaming over your shoulder. We passed our facemasks around, letting the men and women take turns breathing clean air. But the smoke built up more and more, and the fire burned nearer and nearer. The spotlights still hadn’t reached our door when an explosion knocked us to our feet. A flash of flame washed over us, and smoke filled the entire room.

“We go now!” Helen yelled as she grabbed a woman beside her. One of the men screamed that he’d take his chances here, but I pulled him to his feet and aimed my spotlight at the door. Helen kicked the door open and we pushed the five people out as we shone our lights around, looking for rippers.

“Stay close,” I yelled as we coughed in the chilled outside air. Each tree and bush and blade of grass cast a flickering sliver of dark. An engine’s spotlights sliced the smoke from around the corner of the building, barely a hundred feet away.

“Go!” Helen yelled. We ran for the light, Helen in the lead, me bringing up the rear and pushing the scared people along. A tall woman ran next to Helen and, as we neared the spotlights, I saw she had red hair. But even as such a worthless detail registered in my mind, the woman disappeared, the barest shimmer of a ripper standing in her place. Her screams echoed across the dark empty all around.

“Get away,” one of the men yelled. He panicked, slamming me against the side of the building, my helmet hitting hard on the cinderblock wall. I collapsed–dazed–as the man bolted across the shadowed night and fell into another ripper. I again saw a glimpse of that dark world as the man begged for mercy. Then Helen stood before my face and pulled me up.

The other two men and one woman we’d been trying to rescue stayed with us, and Helen placed them between us and our spotlights. She talked the civilians through their fear–”Just keep going, we’ve got you”–until her light crashed to the ground, a ripper vanishing from where Helen had stood. As I would have expected of Helen, she didn’t scream at whatever the ripper did to her. Only a single, pained groan floated through the air, followed by silence.

I threw my spotlight at the vanishing ripper. “Go ahead,” I yelled. “Take me.”

A greater dark rose before my face, ripping space and time into whispers and tastes–the roar of the fire becoming Carie’s body beside my own, the fire engines’ comforting flashing lights becoming Sammy’s final cry as the ripper stole her away. As my world disappeared into the ripper’s darkness, my arms and legs tore into base strings of muscle. My throat spasmed once before being pulled through my mouth even as it refused to stop screaming. The ripper giggled, and I suddenly knew the worst was yet to come. It would merge our souls. Me into it, and it into me. Worse, the bastard would never stop laughing at what it’d done to me.

And then, just like that, the pain disappeared.

I remained partly inside the ripper, it in me, but the perverted amusement I’d felt moments before was gone. Instead, my daughter’s monotone voice whispered, “It’s okay, Dad.”

The ripper seemed irritated at this interruption and tried to dispose of Sammy. But Sammy merely flicked herself from wherever she was and appeared alongside me in the ripper. For a moment the ripper’s consciousness screamed before it was absorbed by Sammy–just like the ripper had been trying to do to me.

I fell to my knees, unable to understand what was going on. I was split between two worlds. I distantly felt the three people I’d been trying to save, who huddled around my body back on earth. But I also floated in a world I couldn’t begin to comprehend. Darkness surrounded me. My eyes were worthless, even as I saw millions of shadows circling and laughing and tearing into one another with wild abandon.

“I’m one of them,” Sammy said, both of us sharing the ripper’s body. “Mom promised I’d be with her if I came here.”

And just like that, my wife’s consciousness appeared in the ripper with me and Sammy. Carie hugged me, if I could say she still had arms to touch with. Instead, she and Sammy were ghosts, haunting the strange emptiness which was the ripper’s body.

Seeing I didn’t understand, they opened themselves to me.

I saw the rippers–ancient, powerful, their way of life completely alien to humanity. They traded consciousness the way we communicated words. Their shadow bodies were merely containers to hold an eternal parade of souls–souls which continually merged and changed with each interaction among the rippers. A strong consciousness might absorb a weaker, only to be enveloped by an even stronger soul moments later, and split into two new rippers the next second. But nothing was ever truly lost as the rippers merged and split and merged again.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“Imagine we’re talking,” Sammy said. “Imagine human souls as simple words. Each time you spoke, your consciousness would go out, mixing with each person who heard you speak. As people repeated what you said, you’d continually be turned into something new. But you’d also remain. Changed. Different. But still partly you.”

I shook my head, vertigo shoving my mind as I felt a renewed vision of Carie and Sammy holding me. But this wasn’t the Carie and Sammy I remembered. I felt the hundreds of rippers which had already merged with them. While Carie and Sammy still loved me, they were also quite capable of tearing my soul to shreds for their own needs.

“You make it sound bad,” Carie whispered in her dream of a voice. “But it’s so simple: The rippers need an occasional infusion of new consciousness. This time they chose earth. It’s a true honor for humanity.”

“Honor?” I asked, shocked at these creatures which were no longer my wife and daughter. “Rippers steal people. Tear them to pieces. And you call that honor? It’s wrong! No other word. Wrong!”

Sammy giggled. “Wrong’s a human creation. Rippers don’t understand the concept.”

I screamed as Carie and Sammy dug into my soul, each licking different pieces of me, each tasting and deciding which parts to take into their own beings. I knew I should simply give in. That this would let me live with them forever. But instead, a familiar anger built in me. I kicked and bit and hit and yelled, a ghost fighting ghosts. Unable to tell if this was truly my body or merely an illusion, but still refusing to give in.

Carie and Sammy paused.

“You don’t want to be with us?” Carie asked, hurt by my decision. The anguish of tears formed in my eyes, but I knew that wasn’t my emotion. It was hers. Theirs.

“No,” I said. “I won’t live like this.”

I thought Carie would be angry with me, but she only laughed. She danced her mind through the air like her fingers used to fly across her magical canvases. But instead of creating colors and pictures, this time the rippers swirled to her motions, each oblivious to the changes the humans they’d stolen were making to their world. Carie dipped her being into a passing ripper. An echo of her soul lodged in the creature, which had been about to snag the scared woman who still clung to my body back on earth. The ripper released the woman and floated away, unsure why it now felt shame for the deed it’d almost done.

“This is art,” Carie said. “The deepest of arts.”

I remembered Carie sitting before the smart canvas in her studio, Sammy working at her side, and I was tempted to stay with them. So sorely tempted. But the Carie I loved would never have taken our daughter to a world like this. The Carie I knew was gone, and I didn’t like where what remained of her and Sammy were going.

“No,” I said again.

For the briefest of moments their souls locked together, swimming back and forth into each other, trading bits of themselves as they discussed my fate. Then Sammy, and Carie, kissed me on the cheek.

“We’ll miss you,” Sammy said, letting me see her a final time as the red-haired child hugging me before each shift.

Carie and Sammy stretched me and sewed me and stitched me back together before throwing me toward reality. I woke to find the people from the fire still huddled around me in fear. I stood them up and told them everything would be okay. I then led them toward the fire engine and the protection of its lights.

 * * * *

A few days later the rippers disappeared.

There are endless theories about what the rippers wanted, but I believe what Carie and Sammy had shown me. That the rippers are built for darkness. Are unable to tolerate even the faintest light shining into their world. But the idea that they didn’t enter our homes and buildings out of respect for us is bullshit. They did that because it made the hunt more fun. Granting an illusion of safety made us more afraid–and the more we feared, the more the rippers enjoyed feasting on our final moments of agony.

I refuse to accept the rippers’ belief that “wrong” is merely a human creation. Now that I’ve been to their world, I know their way of life is wrong. Absolutely wrong. Until I die I’ll scream this simple truth.

But maybe, just maybe, the rippers can be forced to change.

 * * * *

After returning home from fighting the shelter fire, I slept for two days. When I finally woke, I wandered into the basement, where the smart canvas glowed its gentle blue light.

I pulled up the single piece of art the canvas had recovered. It was a finger-painting of our family, created by Sammy when she was only six. Carie stood beside me–red hair down to her shoulders, her outsized-drawn hand holding my own. On the other side of me stood Sammy, a giant green grin touching both of her circle-face cheeks. Her cartoon hand also held mine.

I smiled, feeling echoing smiles from the remnants of Carie and Sammy now living inside me.

I wondered what Carie and Sammy would be like, years from now if the rippers ever returned. Maybe the art they hoped to create would actually work. Maybe we scared humans really could change the rippers. Maybe whatever remained of my wife and daughter would be the conscience which finally stopped the rippers from doing such evil.

Or maybe I’m lying to myself, afraid to see the truth of life.

Seeing no choice but to keep to my flicker of hope, I saved Sammy’s painting and shut off the canvas. I then walked back into the night to see if the station needed me to work an extra shift.

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