I sat in the darkness and waited for her to bring the light. She was taking rather a long time.
I liked to sit hunched up on the carpet with my back against the radiator, but only when it was on. We had been away in Scotland for a few days, and when we got back the heating was off. My bedroom light shorted out when I flicked the switch.
As usual the silverfish had taken advantage of us not being there, and the silence and the darkness, to make themselves at home. I watched them darting there and then some of them stilled.
I don’t like having to kill things, and doubtless when my mother came back up the stairs with a new forty-watt, she’d kill them. But in the meantime I kept an eye on them, half-disgusted, half-fascinated.
At last, she came in.
‘Ergh,’ she made a face in the half-light cast from the landing. ‘They’re out in force again, I’ll wager.’
‘Where do they come from?’ I asked her, because I never knew, and still don’t understand.
‘I don’t know. They’re made out of dust, and they eat dust. Your carpet’s old, the underlay’s probably rotted, and there might be a nest of them in there. I don’t know.’ She took off her slipper and started to thwap the silverfish out of existence.
‘How can they be just dust and know how to move around?’ I wondered aloud. ‘I thought that dust was just dead, not living. How can something alive come from something dead?’
‘Oh, I don’t know! Ask your father.’
‘He’s not here.’
She straightened up and took a long breath. Coughed. ‘Well,’ she spoke thoughtfully, ‘dust comes from us. From dead human skin cells, and fluff from your clothes, and so on, but mostly our skin.’
‘Yuck. You’re telling me our own skin falls off and then starts crawling around as little fish and eating itself?…Yuck!’
She shrugged. ‘Pass me your chair, I want to change the bulb.’
I handed her the chair, and she stood on it, started twiddling with the light fixture, breathing heavily in concentration.
After a moment she climbed down and flipped the switch.
‘Let there be light,’ she chuckled. ‘Now, are you ready for bed, Darren?’
I thought about the things I had read in school, about how the first fish crawled out of the sea on its fins and pulled air into its lungs. All of us had come from fish. And now here we were, producing more of them. Well, sort of. They don’t need water and they have lots of tiny little legs, but still, they look and move like fish.
‘Mum,’ I said as she tucked me in, ‘if they eat dust, and dust comes off of us, does that mean they’re man-eating?’
‘Er.’ She blinked. ‘Poss-ib-ly… I never thought of it like that. Why?’
‘Just wondered. So what would happen if you didn’t kill them? Would they keep getting bigger and bigger and grow into another human person?’
‘Ahh… no. They only get to a tiny size and then they die, or disintegrate. The funny things you think of!’
‘Well, goodnight then.’
She shut the door, I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
A sudden noise woke me up. I couldn’t be certain what it was. I sneezed and got out of bed. Looked at the clock. Half-past three.
Then there was a noise, again, and a bright, glaring light seeped through the curtains, throwing everything in my room into sharp contrast, before sweeping away again.
I waited, tense, heart palpitating.
A moment later the light and the sound came again. And again, a minute later. I would be hard put to describe that noise, despite having been subjected to it four times; it was the kind of unfathomable loudness that I do not want to remember.
‘Mum?’ I called.
I went across the landing into my parents’ room. Kicked open the door. They weren’t there. The bed hadn’t been slept in.
The light continued to penetrate all the windows in the house, pulsating. It was disorientating, and I wondered if my parents might be downstairs. Maybe they had dozed off on the sofa in front of some stupid TV show.
I walked downstairs. They weren’t there either.
The front door stood open, leading out into the darkness and the source of the light.
I stood in the doorway with my mouth hanging open, like, well, a fish out of water.
A sleek, metal aircraft - not a plane - was parked on our front lawn. The light was beaming out from the top of it, like it was a lighthouse. My parents, pajama-clad, were standing in front of its open hatchway, gawping up at it in silence.
‘Mum?’ I said. ‘Dad?’
My mother gave a start and looked over her shoulder at me, a vague half-smile on her face.
‘Shush,’ she said. ‘You’ll disturb them. Come and see. Look, they’re looking around in people’s gardens.’ Her voice was hushed, like a vicar’s in church.
I walked down the path and stood next to them, watched with them. It was a warm night; I couldn’t sleep, what with the ’ship’s searchlight on full beam, and there was nothing better to do.
Creatures were slithering around, silver, lithe and sinuous. Looking at their skin, I couldn’t be sure if they were organic or made of metal. They had lots of thin, long legs, and they were surreptitious as they sped up and down the street, in and out of our neighbours’ front gardens (occasionally rearing up to peek in people’s windows, if they weren’t lighted) in an orderly manner, like worker ants.
They didn’t seem to notice us. Perhaps we were too small.
‘Darren,’ my father told me, ‘go and get your camera. Nobody else is about. I’d like to take some photos as proof.’
‘But Dad…’ I said. ‘Dad, I don’t think they’d like that. I don’t think they like light.’ I don’t know how I came to that conclusion.
‘Then why has their ’ship got a great sodding light on the top?’ he demanded, and I shrugged, ran back inside, and got my camera, hoping that the flash was off.
‘Thanks, son,’ my father said when I got back outside, and ruffled my hair (although I hated that) and took the camera off me.
He managed to get one photo. There was a flash.
A couple of the silver, snaky creatures started to come uphill, up the street towards us. They had noticed we were here.
‘Hey, Dad,’ I said. ‘Nice one.’
As they came on, more and more of them joined the crowd, until the whole lot of them paused in front of us, spread out, and had us surrounded. We would have ran, but they were too fast for us. Quicker than reflexes. And the smell…! It was like something rotting. Something dead, but also burning - the smell of burning hair. I knew what burning hair smells like. A girl in my science class got clumsy with a Bunsen burner.
I tried not to breathe through my nose. My mother held hers. My father yanked the top of his pajama shirt up over the bottom half of his face.
Close to, the creatures were pretty ugly. They were, I realised, like giant silverfish, only when one of them towered over us on its back legs, I could see they had almost humanoid faces, which really, really freaked us out.
‘YOU DARE TO TAKE AN IMAGE?’ the creature intoned. Its voice was like that - all it could do was either drone or intone.
‘H -’ my mother said. Just a “hhhh”ing noise, as if she was trying not to laugh, or had trouble speaking. Then she crumpled up into a faint.
My father didn’t notice. He kept on staring up at the alien. It was a good foot taller than he was, with feelers like a catfish that waved and tested the air as it spoke.
‘What do you want?’ my father said. ‘Who are you?’
‘WE ARE THE FIRST-BORN. WE WERE FLUSHED OUT OF THE SEA. WE TRAVEL. WE MONITOR THE EARTH.’
‘Then how come we’ve never seen you before?’ I dared to ask.
‘IT TAKES MANY LIGHT-YEARS. WE DO A ROUTINE CHECK-UP ONCE EVERY FIVE HUNDRED YEARS. WE HAVE YOUR BOOK.’
My father looked confused. ‘I’ve never written a book in my life.’
The alien had something clutched in the crook of one leg. Or arm. It threw the object at me, and I caught it. It was an old King James Bible.
‘WE HAVE STUDIED IT,’ the alien addressed me. ‘OUT OF DUST ARE YE MADE, AND UNTO DUST YE SHALL RETURN.’
‘Is that a threat?’ said my father, resting a hand on my shoulder. ‘What do you mean? Dust is dead. How can something living come from something that’s dead?’
The giant silver alien twitched impatiently. ‘WE CANNOT KNOW. ASK YOUR GOD, HUMAN.’
‘He’s not here.’
‘YES, HE IS. THE BOOK TOLD US SO.’ Behind their spokesperson, the other aliens started to rustle and click to each other. ‘DAWN APPROACHES,’ it continued. ‘WE CANNOT SURVIVE UNDER A SUN.’
With that, they filed out of our front garden, down the path and into the metal aircraft. The legs folded up and it shot into the sky with no sound, before shrinking to a pinhead.
‘Great.’ I said. ‘Religious aliens. What next?’
My father snorted and picked my mother up from the ground. Grey light was filtering up over the eastern horizon. We walked back inside, and closed the door on it.