FEARnet is proud to present brand new fiction from Nightmare Magazine. Once a month, we'll be featuring a story from Nightmare’s current issue. This month's selection is “Waiting for the Light” by Alison Littlewood. Please tell us what you think and enjoy!
Waiting for the Light
It had taken three days before the supervisor—“call me Marty”—asked Finn for the favour. He knew by the looks on the faces of the other staff—the little upturning of their heads that meant they were listening, but weren’t going to show it—that it wasn’t going to be a good favour.
“It’s nothing, really,” Marty said. “You just need to check the bridge before they close up. Alf’s supposed to do it, but he’s hurt his leg—we can’t expect him to do those stairs every night.” His tone said, they can’t expect me to do it, either.
Finn remembered the night when he’d got the job. He had stepped out of his battered Fiesta, into the dark and into the rain, slamming the door with hands that were still pitted from the bales of straw he’d been stacking in the barn the week before. Rain had found its way beneath his thatch of hair, and so he turned towards the over-bright lights of the service station. It was square, blank, anonymous. He could still hear the traffic rushing by; when he turned to look at it, he saw white headlights turning to the glow of red. It was an endless stream, all heading somewhere else.
His thin white shirt had been turning translucent, sticking to his skin. He turned his key in the car door—the central locking had packed in long ago—and set out towards the low building, its frontage nothing but glass and concrete and brilliantly coloured signs.
* * * *
The supervisor was shorter than Finn, and younger, and skinny; his hair was black and greasy against his scalp, his skin pale. The words Finn had prepared remained unspoken as the supervisor talked about fryers and chutes. He’d thought about what he could say of his experience. He’d never done anything like this before—had never wanted to or tried to—but he was reliable. If the farm had wanted him for six a.m., he’d been there. During the harvest, when they hired the big combine, he’d worked through the night to help them get their money’s worth. He hadn’t complained; it was just the way of it, his hours dictated by the land, the turning of the sun and the moon.
The supervisor didn’t ask and Finn didn’t suppose it mattered. It was only like the farm, wasn’t it? He remembered the day he’d been told: when the money ran out Finn was the first to go, something used up and disposable.
He looked around the walls, realising there were no windows in this section. He couldn’t see outside at all. It was a nowhere place, he could see that, had known it when he filled in the form, his life reduced to black and white. It was a hiatus on the road, where they fried fries, wrapped burgers, and dispensed sharply fizzing drinks into over-large cups made of paper, all of it ready to be crumpled into balls and abandoned on the forecourt, then picked up again by someone like him. But at least it was a place with new rhythms, ones that would remain the same no matter what happened: rhythms dictated by the road, by other people, people who were at least going somewhere.
The supervisor pointed out the other staff: a girl—Steph—who looked about sixteen, her bleached ponytail pulling the skin tighter over her narrow face, and an older man, Ken, his jowls and waistline soft. Ken was taking someone’s order without smiling or speaking.
It wasn’t so bad. It had seemed right somehow. Finn nodded as the supervisor went on; he was no longer waiting to be asked questions about himself, but it wasn’t until the supervisor held out his bony hand to shake that Finn realised he’d been given the job.
* * * *
The burger booth was positioned in an oddly-shaped space that Finn imagined must be defined by storerooms on either side. He couldn’t see the stairs or the doors, but he soon learned to recognise which customers had been heading south and which north. Those heading north would smile or nod when they took their greasy-smelling paper bags. The south-bounders looked sick of waiting, even before they reached the counter, and Finn knew it didn’t matter what he did: there was no way he wasn’t going to piss them off.
There was only one burger booth, despite the signs promising burgers on both sides of the carriageway. Those heading south entered the concourse looking for their dinner and a little warmth, only to discover that they had to first cross the enclosed footbridge that lay between. By the time they had slogged up the stairs and traversed the walkways and reached Finn, they seemed to have taken it as a personal affront.
* * * *
After Marty asked for the favour, Finn changed his route to work. He’d drive down a junction too far and turn around before parking on the opposite side of the services. If he had to check the bridge each night, he may as well have his car parked by the carriageway that led straight home. Of course, that meant crossing the bridge on the way to work, too.
He parked his car now and stepped out; it was late afternoon but already dark. Inside the services, it was bright as day. The stairway to the bridge was set off to one side but open-topped, so that as he ascended he could look out across the crazily-patterned carpet, the chiming slot machines, the frontage of the WH Smith’s bookshop.
At the top of the steps was a walkway. It was lit by flat plastic panels that glowed brighter as he passed. Some of the panels were cracked, little fractures radiating from depressions the size of a fist, as if someone had punched them as they’d walked by. It ended in a set of double doors, each with a cloudy window set into it. These were crisscrossed with wire to stabilise the glass should they shatter.
After that was the bridge. The bridge was not lit.
“At his age,” Marty had added. “Poor devil.”
Finn had only nodded; he didn’t mind. It was something to make him feel he had a role here that was uniquely his, not something that could be replaced by someone making identical movements, though he supposed the idea was false; Steph or Ken could have checked the bridge just as well as he.
As he stepped away from the doors, the first set of overhead lights flickered on. They revealed a structure within the bridge, a square walkway delineated by a grey-painted tubular metal framework. There was a gap between it and the windows, which sloped towards the motorway, creating a narrow, almost triangular space. Finn supposed it was meant to keep people away from the glass; to reach it, a person would have to duck between the tubing. Some of the panes were cracked anyway. Everywhere was this thinly-veiled anger, the lingering trace of violence. As cars passed beneath, the cracks became starbursts that pulsed with the traffic.
“You just need to take a quick look,” Marty had continued. “It’s a health and safety thing. Then you lock it. The place doesn’t close for long. It used to be twenty-four hours, but there are bigger services now, farther down. So it all gets locked until the morning crew turns up at five.”
Finn had made a joke then, something about getting stuck up there on the bridge, but Marty hadn’t laughed. “No one stays on the bridge,” he said. “Not this time of year. Not ever.”
And now Finn knew why: because the bridge was cold. Deep cold. It wasn’t lit and it wasn’t heated. The cold reached inside his jacket and stroked his skin, curling itself around him. It was odd to think of the nights he’d sat in the big old tractor, wrapped in a quilted coat and a blanket, and never felt as cold as this.
At the other end of the bridge was a matching pair of double doors leading onto the other concourse. Between them was only this: a between place, a nowhere place. The glow rising from the road beneath made the darkness darker; the endless rushing sound emphasised the silence.
Finn’s breath rose, a visible, writhing thing. He shook his head and opened a door into bright light and brilliant colour. Yes, Marty was right: this wasn’t a place anyone would linger. It wasn’t somewhere anyone would choose to be.
* * * *
It was just as cold on the night Finn saw the woman, but the bridge was colder still. He walked across, the lights flickering on as usual, and he emerged on the other side, locked the doors, and went down to where Leon, Alf’s equivalent on the southbound side, was waiting to close everything up.
“All right?” Leon raised his eyebrows, and Finn nodded and waved. It was what they did: he’d leave Leon to lock the grilles and whatever else he had to do. The first time, he’d waited with him—had felt it the polite thing—but when Leon finished, he’d looked surprised to see Finn still standing there. He gave him a What do you want? look, and so Finn now headed for his car, taking the keys from his pocket.
It was when he pulled out of the services slip-road and glanced at the bridge in his rear view mirror that he saw her.
The lights drew his attention first. They flickered on just as he looked back—not all of them but one central section—and that was how he saw the woman standing in the middle of the bridge. She wasn’t moving, and Finn caught the merest impression of pale skin, her dark hair hanging limp over her face, her eyes sunk deep and shadowed. He wasn’t sure it was a woman at all but that was how it felt, a woman standing there, peering out as if she already knew that she was trapped, cold and alone and helpless until somebody came.
He swore under his breath and slammed on the brakes. A moment later, he juddered onto the hard shoulder. He twisted and looked back; now all was dark. He couldn’t see the figure at all. She must be standing quite still, knowing there was nothing to be done, that she was locked in. He sighed. The next junction wasn’t far, but from there he’d have to turn around and get back down to the one below the services before he could turn around yet again.
Instead, he stepped out of the car and started running back the way he’d come, towards the slip-road. He was already wondering how long Leon would be taking with his grilles and his locks.
* * * *
By the time Finn reached the top of the slope his breath was rasping, but Leon was still there, standing halfway between the building and his old Volvo, staring with surprise at Finn.
He approached, unable to speak, waving one hand. He knew his face must be red, probably lurid under the electric lights. Then he said: “There’s someone on the bridge. Leon, I have to get back in.”
The older man frowned. Then he scowled. “Back in,” he echoed, and he glared some more before slowly, as if with great effort, drawing the bundle of keys from his pocket. He heaved a sigh and turned and led the way towards the building, sorting through the keys to find the one he needed.
It wasn’t until afterwards that Finn realised that Leon hadn’t asked who. He hadn’t asked why. He hadn’t even asked how the hell Finn had managed to miss someone on the bridge when he’d already walked across, supposedly checking it was empty, locking both sides behind him. He simply led the way as if it were something inevitable; as if it were something that had happened before.
Leon opened the narrow service door and drew aside and waited. That was it, no offer to go in and look, just an open door that led into darkness. After a moment, Finn ducked inside.
Normally, there was noise and light. Now there was only the dull glow of emergency exit signs. Finn could just make out the receding lines of seat backs, the gleam of the grilles covering the shops. It crossed his mind that someone could be lying in wait for him, that it might all be an elaborate joke, but he didn’t hesitate; it didn’t feel that way. The place felt empty.
He headed for the stairs. His feet knew the way; it was familiar now. He took out his own keys, flicking to the correct one without looking. He paused before slipping it into the lock. What he was thinking of was the cold: that deep-down chill, the dead cold, and then he unlocked the door and pulled it open and called out a soft “Hello?”
No one replied. He stepped away from the door and looked down the length of the bridge. Everything was dark, and he realised the traffic had paused, too. The overhead lights did not come on. Leon must have switched them off after Finn had seen the woman in his mirror. She would have been left in the dark. She must have been terrified.
“Hello?” he called again, taking a few more steps. He glanced aside and saw the dull grey of the road, wide and true, cutting straight across the land. Beneath, where the bridge cast its shadow, all was dark. He blinked. He could make out the dull tubular steel describing the square walkway, receding in front of him. He braced himself, waiting for her, knowing that he would be the one to be startled, now: waiting for her pale shape to emerge from the shadow, her arms held out towards him. But there was nothing. He shook himself and walked along its length. The bridge remained dark; it was entirely empty.
* * * *
The next night, as Finn was driving away, he saw her again.
This time his foot twitched, going for the brake pedal, but he moved it back to the accelerator and pressed down. He shifted his gaze from the mirror back to the road. He didn’t blink and he didn’t look back; he just drove on, a little more quickly than before, towards home and warmth and light.
* * * *
People came to the booth and bought their food and went away again. Some of them were frowning, and some scowling, while some had a certain tension about the lips. These people didn’t speak to Finn; they muttered. They didn’t thank him when he handed over their food.
Since the night he’d first seen the woman on the bridge, he’d often woken in the dark, batting the covers away from his face. He was never sure of what he’d dreamed—he only brought back a sense of stepping off the road, out of the stream and onto some lost shore, of being caught in a hiatus along the journey; of turning around and finding there was no way back, that the way had vanished, and only the dark and cold remained.
He handed a paper bag, loaded with large fries and a double burger, over to a tired-looking guy in a crumpled suit. He took it and walked off without saying a word.
Finn had always known that the extra time and trouble of crossing the bridge pissed people off; now he wondered if that was all it was.
* * * *
Between customers, Finn watched Alf doing his rounds. Alf was getting on. His hair was grey and his face was grizzled, and he pushed his mop bucket around with the mop so he wouldn’t have to bend. He did everything with the same blank expression, so much so that Finn began to speculate that he and Leon might actually be related.
What Alf didn’t do was limp.
Finn tried to remember if he’d seen him limping when he’d first started this job and found he couldn’t. But Alf was older than him; perhaps that was the real reason Marty had asked him to take over the bridge. It was fair enough. He couldn’t really argue.
He asked the old man about it, once.
Alf stopped what he was doing. The lines on his forehead contracted—it was barely discernible, but it was there: confusion, or perhaps a memory. Then he looked away. “Never been anyone stuck on the bridge all the time I’ve been working here. Not ever.”
Finn tried to catch his eye. “But—a woman? Did you ever just think you saw someone?”
Alf turned, jingling the keys in his pocket. “Never anyone on the bridge,” he repeated. “All the time I’ve been here.” And he walked off, nothing else to say. Finn couldn’t help but notice, though, that for the rest of the shift, Alf never could look Finn in the eye; not even when he waved and said goodnight.
* * * *
The woman stood once more in the space between the walkway and the window, close to the glass, her hands by her sides, looking down into the traffic. This time she hadn’t waited until Finn had driven away. He still had to cross the bridge.
Finn couldn’t see her eyes, but he could tell where she was looking by the tilt of her head, the slope of her shoulders. She was about halfway along, so that he couldn’t tell which carriageway had drawn her attention. Her hair was dark and hung across her face. He couldn’t see how old she was. He couldn’t see how sad she was either, but he could sense it; the tendrils of it reached for him, stretched out along the cold air.
He couldn’t see her all of the time. It was late and cars were few, and it was only when they passed beneath that she was outlined by their light; now pale, now with a livid red glow. She did not move when they passed. She did not respond. She only stared, endlessly, at the road travelled by others.
Finn took another step and stopped dead. He knew, if he moved forward, he would trigger the next set of lights; they would not be close enough to reach her, but surely they would draw her attention, make her lift her head from whatever it was she was seeing. He would be able see her face. He would see her eyes.
He didn’t want to see them. His breath rose, more visible and solid than the woman. He wrapped his arms around himself.
When he closed his eyes and opened them again, she was gone. He could hear a lorry approaching, though. He knew what it was from its wail, not far now; then light surged and she was there, the headlights glowing around her hair, caressing the dark coat she wore, the pale dress beneath. When it passed, she was nothing but shadow; no, not even that. Finn could see the tubular steel frame that underpinned the shell of the bridge. The glass. The plain grey tile of the floor. Nothing.
He took a deep breath. Leon would be waiting for him. He had to cross.
He swallowed. If he held on, Leon might come looking for him. There would be two of them, and that would be better, wouldn’t it? Finn approaching from one side, Leon from the other, the thing between dissolving before them.
Another car was coming. It would be here soon. This time, when its headlights lit the bridge, she might have moved. She could have turned her head: she might be looking straight at him.
Finn took a step back. His toes curled inward inside his shoes, his hands echoing the movement, his nails pressing against his palms.
She wasn’t there: she couldn’t be there. The night, the tiredness—
He stepped forwards again and the lights in front of him flickered on. He had known it would happen, but he jumped anyway, and the glow spilled outward and he saw there was nothing there after all, only the blank dull structure: a nowhere place. Not a place anyone would linger, he thought, and forced himself to move.
He walked briskly and he did not allow himself to think about it. He did not look at the place the woman had been standing, but as he passed it more cars came, bunched up together—Why do they do that? Do they need the company?—and he saw something, in the corner of his eye.
But the bridge was empty. He knew that. And then the cold hit him like a wave, swallowing his body and his clothes, touching his face, and he started to run.
The next set of lights came on and the next, and he was nearly at the other end of the bridge, where there were exits and light and life, and he longed to be out there, even to hear Leon’s surly greeting. He would smile at him anyway: damn, he would pat his back, just to make contact. Just to make sure that the other man was really there.
Finn reached the door, and he turned and looked back down the length of the bridge, already wishing he hadn’t.
She stood alone in its centre, still gazing down at the road. She did not look back at him and she did not move.
* * * *
“I dunno who it is,” said Leon, scratching a match against the outside wall, trying to shelter his cigarette while he lit it.
Finn’s own hands were unsteady. His body shuddered, though surely only because of the cold; they were outside now. This time he had waited while Leon locked up, and the older man hadn’t looked at him as if he were mad.
Now Leon gave him an appraising glance before jerking his head to the side, towards the road where the bridge jutted, a dark regular shape standing watch against the glow beneath. Finn glanced at it and looked away. He didn’t know if it would be worse to see the woman or not to see her; he didn’t want to think about what that would mean.
“You pays your money and you takes your choice,” Leon said. “It could be anyone. Could be no one. Could be just a . . . hallucination, like. But a lot of folk have died on this here road. Under the wheels and behind the wheels and God knows what.”
“And the bridge?” Finn said.
“What about it?”
“Has no one died on the bridge?”
Leon breathed out, a long steady stream of smoke that was whipped away on the cold air. “Nope.”
“Nope.” Leon shrugged and contemplated his cigarette. “I never heard of owt like that. I don’t think so, though I won’t swear to it. But what’s the point? If they had, you still wouldn’t know it was them, would you? What’re you going to do, go up an’ ask?”
Finn looked at him, startled: he shook his head.
“I’ll tell you who I think it is. There were a woman killed right here.” Leon gestured towards the car park, trailing smoke. “She were ower there. Stood next to her car. Getting ready to move on, or go inside, not sure which. An’ then some flash Harry comes through in his Jag, whipping his car between the spaces—couldn’t be bothered to drive around, too much of a hurry—and bam.” He smacked the back of the hand holding the cigarette into his palm.
Finn looked towards the place, half expecting to see her standing there.
“Whatever,” said Leon, flicking away his cigarette. “Her journey’s up, however it happened. She’s going nowhere, lad, and whatever it was, she in’t sayin’. It’s thee and me have to get ower it now.”
* * * *
She’s lost, thought Finn. The woman had stepped off her path and finished up here, and did not know the way back again. He did not know what he could do to help.
What was worse, though—far worse than seeing her—was the feeling.
It had come to him slowly, a sense of dread that made its way under his clothes, settled against his skin, entered his throat along with the air he breathed. It wasn’t to do with seeing her, or not entirely to do with seeing her. It was the feeling that somehow, when he stood in the middle of the bridge, the simple double doors at either end no longer led to identical concourses full of light and sound and people. They now led somewhere else altogether, and it was somewhere he didn’t want to be, somewhere he didn’t belong. He knew it would be dark and quiet and still. And once he stepped through, he knew he would never find his way back again.
The bridge wasn’t a bad place. It didn’t really feel like a place at all; it was more of a space between places. It was hollow, dead, and empty, and surely something that chose to spend time in such a place must be hollow and dead and empty, too.
Finn’s days had begun to blend together. It was as if all of them were one day, repeated over and over. He went to work, he went home, he slept. He lived inside the concourse, where his actions, the customers, and the weather were always the same. He’d stepped off the course in which his life had been running, and now he was here. That was the fear that nestled beneath the fear: the idea that maybe he only saw the woman on the bridge because she had recognised him. That maybe, somehow, they were both the same.
* * * *
Finn didn’t give up his job and he didn’t stop checking the bridge. Each time he drove away, he didn’t stop himself from looking in his rear view mirror as the woman appeared. He wasn’t done with the place yet. He wasn’t sure it was done with him. He figured that was his job now, his real job: to look.
She’s lost, he thought. She’s lost, and she’s going to stay lost.
The only thing he could do was to accept it, and know that was the way it was, and that was the way it had to be. He knew it was so; it was the same for him. Why should her fate be any different? One day the doors would open. They would open onto the place he knew was waiting for him, and he wouldn’t hesitate, and he wouldn’t turn away. He would just put his head down and walk through, and hope that somewhere, a light would be waiting for him.
- - -
Nightmare Magazine is edited by bestselling anthology editor John Joseph Adams (Wastelands, The Living Dead). This story first appeared in Nightmare’s November 2013 issue, which also features original fiction by Brooke Bolander (“The Beasts of the Earth, the Madness of Men”), along with reprints by Dale Bailey (“Hunger: A Confession”) and Melanie Tem (“Dhost”). We also have the latest installment of our column on horror, “The H Word,” plus author spotlights with our authors, a showcase on our cover artist, and a feature interview with bestselling author Dan Simmons. You can wait for the rest of this month's contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient eBook format for just $2.99. It's a great issue, so be sure to check it out. And while you're at it, tell a friend about Nightmare!