TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:
Twinkle lights clicked against the window’s exterior, threatening to break in the freezing wind. She was warm inside, too warm, unlike the people rushing by the small coffee shop. Her blunt fingernail repeatedly tapped the steaming cup, her second one, while her other hand clutched the badge hidden beneath her coat. The bell on the door kept chiming and her neck was starting to get sore from looking up…
(Stories need only touch on this topic in some way to qualify.)
When the news and the government were telling us to stay calm, I was still doing investigations. I was at a no-name cafe, waiting on a man whose wife suspected him of things I’ll not mention. I was to secretly follow him and observe.
Wind vibrated the windows, rattling twinkling string-lights inside, as anxious passersby stumbled in its wake through the dark.
I ordered a private investigator’s comfort food – coffee, dark as night, served by an anonymous waitress. She poured it and went back behind the counter. I inhaled the steam, tapping the cup with my fingers nervously.
I drank cup after cup. Hours passed. I glanced at the door often enough to strain my neck.
I didn’t take notice of the man in the trench coat after I realized he wasn’t my guy. He entered and sat at the counter.
The waitress blinked and said, “You wanna stay? Take the mask off.”
I looked at him closely; he was wearing a “man in the moon” mask under his fedora. He adjusted it with gloved hands and stared at her. She tried staring back,and, after a moment, looked at her shoes. The man murmured; she nodded, poured him a cup of coffee, and put a straw in it. She asked something. He shook his head and said, “Black,” almost too softly to hear. The lights dimmed slightly.
Something about him made me very tired.
The man noticed me staring at him and stood up. I blinked. Suddenly he sat across from me.
I tried not to recoil. He sipped from his straw.
“What do you want?” I asked.
His voice was the wind through leaves on a deep fall evening.
“What do you think of all this?”
“Of what?” I said.
“Stars winking out, too long nights, lights shrinking from shadows.”
I shook my head. Everyone knew about it. It was unnatural. The world was terrified.
“You ever noticed,” he said, “that no one ever says ‘goodnight’ to the night itself? Yet everyone says good night to each other. Most say it without even realizing it.”
I said I hadn’t noticed.
He leaned closer. He smelled of summer nights in my youth, every dream in the dark I was terrified to drag into the light. The waitress was watching us, within arm’s length of the phone.
“Care for a secret?” he asked.
I found myself mesmerized by him, and nodded.
“Would you believe,” he said, “that I’m the embodiment of night?”
I blinked and laughed. “You mean how the Grim Reaper embodies death? Or a god has an avatar on earth? All myths.”
I sensed anger, thinking this was usually the moment when men like him pulled a gun. Then, I felt his demeanor return to that of an evening breeze.
“In the old days, people feared and respected the night, stayed close to the fires, and told stories of shadows.”
He started with his coat, undoing the black buttons. As it fell open, he removed his mask. Hat. Gloves.
Where there had sat an oddly dressed man was now the deepest darkness I had ever seen. Pinpricks of light swirled within as sugar in black coffee.
I realized where all the stars had gone.
The waitress collapsed behind the counter.
Within that dark, I saw all the nights that had fallen on the world. All the hook-ups with strangers to stave off loneliness before dawn. The hungry, hunting creatures of deep woods. The sound of every wolf and owl. The whispers on the wind of conversations that couldn’t wait for daylight.
He was right. Credit was never given to the night itself. Suddenly, I was scared.
I heard the sound of crickets singing, as if from a distance, coming from its nebulous body. Crickets, I thought. Why hadn’t anyone noticed they were missing, too?
“I’ve given so much,” Night said. “I allow your kind time to dream of what you may accomplish once I give way to day. I’m the monsters that you fear. Without me, they are beasts fading in the light of morning. I have fought the sun and lost since time immemorial. I grow weary of losing, of allowing the stars free rein, and of those who can’t appreciate what I create.
“I came to realize that the cosmos beyond this world is also a vast continuation of myself. For eons, I’ve resisted joining it to preserve my sense of self. But I grow tired.
“Do you know of Buddhism? The belief of achieving a peace through the act of letting go, extinguishing the candle of self that creates suffering? With my candle goes the last of your light. Without darkness, there’s no light. One exists to oppose the other.
“I suggest you draw new maps of the night to guide you.”
I listened to the crickets and watched the stars within this man-shape, fighting back the horror that would consume me later.
I whispered, “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because,” said the Night, “you asked what I wanted.”
With that it stood and, like spilled coffee, slipped under the diner’s door.
“Good night,” I whispered, closing my eyes.