Description: The Uncanny Valley is a collection of 16 unsettling tales that draws inspiration from old-school science fiction, horror, and dark fantasy series such as the Twilight Zone.
“A Chance in Hell” – Life is about to get worse for one troubled youth after he breaks into a house he thought was empty.
“Greet the World” – A company employee is told he’ll die if he tries to resign.
“Nox Noctis” – What would happen if one day all light ceased to exist? The characters in this story are about to find out.
“Scents of Life” – A husband has a late-night encounter with a mysterious woman cloaked in disarmingly familiar fragrances.
“The Uncanny Valley” – The war between man and machines is the least of one survivor’s problems in this post-apocalyptic future.
These, and eleven more tales, will launch you on a journey from the comforts of normalcy to a valley in which nature refuses to tread.
Today the lights went out.
It was brief, almost imperceptible, the way the lamps dim when you start up a vacuum and the voltage drops in the electrical current. There’s nothing unusual about those instances. They happen all the time. But this was worlds different and a million times harder to explain. At 12 p.m. on a clear sunny day in September, the lights dimmed.
I’m pulled over on the shoulder of the highway, trying to gather my wits. Trying to make sense of what just happened. My brain replays the events in sequence: I was on my way back from Capriotti’s with eight sandwiches for my co-workers at the office. The car was pregnant with odors of melted cheese, beef, sweet peppers, cole slaw. I wasn’t in the mood for a hot sandwich. I had a taste for pad Thai or some spicy Chinese dish, maybe General Tsao’s chicken, but the office was full of bread heads and sandwiches won the vote.
My stomach was staging a coup. I still had another seven minutes in traffic before I would be able to eat. I remember lifting the armrest and reaching my hand inside to get my Zippo lighter. It was one of the newer butane gas types with the blue flame, but when I opened the lid it still made the familiar clinking sound that Zippo lighters are known for.
I had just lit a Marlboro Light, lowered the window a crack, exhaled the smoke, snapped the lid shut with a flick of my wrist. What happened next? I remember glancing in the mirror at the stubble on my face. Two day’s worth. I’d wanted to grow a beard the last few years but my wife wouldn’t let me. Truth is, I’d tried several times to let it grow out against her wishes, but I always ended up shaving it.
There’s that one stage of growth between bare skin and beard where the face looks shabby, unshaven, grungy. I knew of people, celebrities and whatnot, who actually strove to achieve that look. Not me. I couldn’t stand it. What I remember thinking as I glanced back at myself in the mirror was that I should have shaved today.
And then before I could move onto the next thought – it happened.
Everything blinked three times. Three pulses of pure darkness in quick cessation. Even closing my eyes, I wouldn’t be able to simulate that darkness. It was pitch black, darker than the pupils on a pale corpse, the antonym of ‘Let there be light.’
I knew at once the phenomenon wasn’t an internal sensation. Right after it happened, two cars in front of me slammed on their brakes. They skidded into the median. I found myself swerving like a madman through a cloud of smoke and veering taillights. Tires screeched at me from all angles.
Somehow I avoided a collision and made it onto the shoulder. I put the parking brake on, gripped the steering wheel with both hands. I planned to stay frozen in that position for a while to catch my breath, wait for the pounding in my chest to subside. But a jolt of pain shot through the inside of my left thigh. In the chaos of a few seconds I’d dropped my cigarette onto the seat. My hand swept the cigarette onto the floor and I snuffed its fire out beneath my foot.
That all happened seven minutes ago.
The sandwiches are now on the floor, on the passenger side. They don’t concern me. What I want to know is what the hell just happened? I put my sunglasses on and inspect the sun to see if it looks unusual. Nope. Looks like the same old sun to me. Okay, I’m going home. I shift the car into drive, glance to my left, merge into the traffic that is snaking around at least one accident. There is no way I’m going back to work after something like this.
I turn on the radio. Since I never listen to the radio, the station is tuned to static. I twist the dial, careful not to smash into the Ford Explorer coasting in front of me. No one is mentioning it. Maybe that’s because their studios are indoors. If this had happened while I was inside, I wouldn’t have thought anything of it.
I tune to the local station for the traffic report. Sure enough, the reporter is having a fit: accidents all over the highway, toxic spills, smoke. Okay, that settles it, I’m going home. I’ve never experienced anything supernatural, never seen a miracle, never had an out of body experience, never heard God speak to me. This was … something. How do I put it in words?
I stop myself. There should be a logical, scientific explanation to this. Maybe something passed in front of the sun. If that was the case though, wouldn’t there still have been light: from the stars, reflected off the moon, not to mention all the man-made light sources? Whatever the cause, this was a total absence of light. In three clips.
I give up trying to rationalize it. I’m no physicist. I’m just a tired, hungry and overworked accountant, and I’m going home to my family.
On the way home I eat one of the sandwiches off the floor. Fortunately, Capriotti’s wraps their sandwiches like virgin geishas, each one bundled tight under several layers of paper. None of the sandwiches are soiled from the spill. But my co-workers aren’t going to be happy with me regardless, since none of these sandwiches will ever make it to the office.
At the thought, I pull out my cell phone from my front pocket. I say “work” at the prompt. Since I have my mouth full, the technology doesn’t recognize my voice. I chew my food, swallow it down, and try again. This time does the trick. I wait through the rings for my boss to pick up.
When she answers I tell her that I’ve been in a car accident. I figure if you’re going to tell a lie, you might as well make it a good one. And I don’t want to explain to her what just happened.
“Really? My gosh, are you alright?” she responds in a close approximation of concern.
“Yeah, but there’s blood on the side of my face and I’m not sure where it’s coming from.”
“Goodness. Okay. You’re not going to be coming back in to work later today are you?”
I can’t believe she just asked that.
“No, actually I was thinking about going to the hospital.”
“Yes, that’s fine, you go ahead,” she replies as if I had just asked for permission. “Don’t worry about our lunch. I’ll send someone else out to get something.”
“Right. Sorry about that. See you tomorrow I guess.”
I press end on the phone and sever my connection to that enormous chunk of my life. For the rest of the day at least, I am no longer Ed the accountant. Now I’m just Ed or sometimes ‘honey’ or, depending on my wife’s mood, I’m ‘stupid.’ On that note I say, “home” and the phone dials our number.
“Hello?” answers my wife in a sleepy voice.
“Don’t tell me you slept through it,” I say.
“Slept through what? What are you talking about?”
“We’ll talk about it when I get home. I’m afraid it might happen again while I’m driving and I don’t want to have an accident. Turn on the local news station.”
“Alright. Is everything okay?”
I tell her again to turn on the news and I hang up. Shit. I forgot to tell her that I’m on my way home. Oh well, I’m only a minute away now. I’ve just turned onto the exit ramp. I’m waiting at the light just two blocks away from our house. The air conditioner is blowing at max but my palms are sweaty. The front of my white dress shirt has a brown stain where greasy mushrooms trampolined off it earlier. That alone would have been a good enough reason to go home early. There’s nothing like walking through a stuffy conservative office with an unshaven face and a big brown stain on your belly.
The air feels heavy, like I’m being watched.
And with a pop the lights go out again.
Was there a pop? I thought I heard a pop but I may never know for sure. I can’t see anything. My head is jerked forward and the top of my nose hits the steering wheel. Pain. I raise my head. My car has been struck hard, from behind. My eyes are watering.
I can’t see a thing.
Even the instrument panel on the dashboard fails to give off light. I feel my car rolling forward. I brake harder than I have to and wave my hand in front until it touches the gear shifter. Now the car is in park. I can hear a horn blaring somewhere in the darkness. Perhaps someone’s forehead is pressed against the steering wheel. I begin to hear the sounds of panic:
–a woman screaming
–a dog barking
A gunshot. That didn’t take long.