Warmth is Fleeting, by Rick McQuiston

Simon ran a hand over his face. He could feel the sting of the darkness all around him; it jabbed at his cowering body like agitated scorpions itching for a fight. Vague memories of his lectures at the University crossed his mind. But somehow being huddled in a broom closet only four doors down from his own classroom forced his thoughts to muddle together. He was having difficulty separating them.

But one stood out: the lecture he’d recently given to a rather skeptical group of colleagues, students, and various members of the press.

“And so, my esteemed guests, I put forth this theory in the ardent hope that you will embrace its meaning before it is too late.” The words resonated in his head. If he closed his eyes he could still see the doubt on their faces.

He had to admit that his theory was hard to believe: darkness being a living thing, an organic entity that patiently waited wherever light was absent, sending out tendrils everywhere it could, biding its time.

“You see, ladies and gentlemen, the universe is chaos. Darkness and cold reign supreme. Light and warmth only occupy tiny points sporadically dispersed throughout the cosmos. Stars, supernovas, quasars, etc., only penetrate a fraction of space, and all around darkness waits for its chance. In short, warmth is fleeting.”

Simon almost let a smile escape as he remembered saying those words. He felt a swelling of pride, and he didn’t fight it. He was right all along. They were wrong and he was right. His theory, his ideas, his worries, they were all correct.

If only being right didn’t come at such a high cost.

Simon watched as the candles began to dim. One had already gone out, its wick dwindling down to an unusable stub, and the other two had been reduced to one-inch tall blobs of wax. They only had a little life left in them.

Outside was silent. The last thing Simon heard was a scream, a woman’s scream from down the hall. It sounded like Mrs. Tonelli, a fellow professor whose classroom was near his own. She was an attractive lady who was always smiling.

Simon wanted to jump to his feet and rush to her aid but when he moved something in the dark tried to take a bite out of him. Razor-sharp teeth had grazed his arm, drawing trickles of blood and a selfish promise to himself to remain where he was.

Mrs. Tonelli’s screams were abruptly cut off.

Pulling his collar up to his chin in a futile attempt to keep warm, Simon pondered his situation.

He couldn’t fight it; it wasn’t something one could shoot or throw a punch at. It was darkness itself, a tangible and deadly entity that apparently was snuffing out the last remaining vestiges of life on Earth. It wanted only darkness and cold, and eventually it would win, swallowing everything in its path.

What happened to the people who were killed Simon couldn’t begin to guess. He was never much of a believer in an afterlife, so any image his imagination only met with a grisly death.

He watched as yet another candle extinguished itself. Immediately, he could feel the darkness and cold seep in closer to his body. He huddled closer to the one remaining candle, desperate to remain alive for just a little bit longer. Every breath was precious, every second of life worth more than all the treasures of the world.

Darkness crept closer. Black tendrils periodically shot forward into the feeble light of the candle as if tasting its warmth. A sterile chill invaded the space.

Simon looked around the closet, his instinct to survive forcing the search for any way to stay alive, regardless of the inevitable.

And he found a way.

The flashlight was an industrial-strength model, similar in size and durability to a security guard’s or police officer’s. It was on a shelf right behind his left shoulder all along. He didn’t know how he had missed it before.

Simon snatched it up and held his breath as he pushed the button on its side.

A powerful beam of light flooded the closet. Artificial warmth sprayed throughout the space, temporarily nudging back the encroaching darkness and cold.

“At least I’ve bought myself some time,” he whispered as he forced himself to stand. “Now just to find some help.”

The confines of the closet seemed to press in on Simon as he stood. He could feel the unrelenting cold around his body, but tried to remain focused. He reached down and picked up the remains of the last candle. Its fading light joined with the flashlight.

“Stay calm, Simon. I just have to find other sources of light.” His mind raced across the campus, frantically trying to think of where he’d find another flashlight, or candles, or matches, anything that would help keep him alive. “My desk!” he nearly shouted. “I have a lighter in my desk! I can find some papers and start a fire!”

The darkness seemed to swallow his words. There was no echo, no reverberation in the closet.

The last candle began to fade. The wick, eroded down to a blackened stub, gave up its light as Simon watched in horror. Now with only the flashlight standing between him and certain death, he nudged open the closet door.

A solid black wall greeted him.

Even the relatively powerful beam from the flashlight failed to penetrate the blackness. It was like spraying a brick wall with a garden hose.

“Oh my God,” he moaned under his breath.

He gripped the flashlight tighter.

“The universe is chaos,” he mumbled, repeating his own words in a frail effort to find comfort. “Darkness and cold reign supreme. Warmth is fleeting.”

Taking a deep breath, Simon stepped out of the closet.

The temperature immediately dropped, pressing in on his body a clammy chill that sucked the warmth from his bones. But he steadied his nerve and moved forward. Even though the flashlight didn’t cut into the dark more than a foot or so he knew it was only a short distance to his classroom.

“Stay calm, Simon. Keep your wits about you.”

The darkness hissed around him. Needle-sharp spines poked his arms, his legs, his back. A dry stench wafted into his nose. The silence was deafening.

“Stay calm. Stay focused.”

But then something happened that Simon wasn’t expecting. Something that even after all he’d been through still caught him by surprise.

The hand shot out of the dark, and with one swift motion, snatched the flashlight from Simon’s hand and disappeared with it. In less than a second Simon was standing in total blackness.

He barely had time to scream.

 

*****
Rick is a 47 year old father of two who loves anything horror related. He’s had 350 publications so far, and is currently working on his fifth novel. 

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