You can’t open the window. Not after 23:13. Not before 05:53. Because that is when it happens.
‘What happens?’ She had many times enquired, only to be answered by the fear in her parents’ eyes — no words, only fear. Fear within her mother’s caring blue eyes. Her father’s eyes pale and haunted.
Every year the population of their town, a town in the middle of nowhere, dwindled. In winter only one or two disappeared (nightmares, it was rumoured). But in summer the relentless heat forced people to crack — and an open window would be all that remained.
Everyone in that room and usually the whole house.
Gone. Never seen again.
Once, when she was eight, Chloe had put her hand on the clasp to undo the window — only as a joke; she hadn’t actually intended on opening it. She had only wanted to see her parents’ reaction.
The sting of her cheek the first clue that her father had slapped her. Hard. Swift. Lovingly. Lovingly, because he didn’t want her to go through what his childhood best friend had gone through. It was always in the back of his mind, as ever present as his shadow; yet he never spoke about it. Part of the trauma could be because he had been in the house when it happened. He had never told her what it was though.
He had never told anyone.
That memory — the sting of the slap — but moreover the hurt in her father’s eyes had been enough to keep Chloe from even contemplating opening the window at a certain time of night.
But tonight is different.
Today had gone badly, and it had allowed Chloe to realise that she was fed up. Fed up with living her life under the fear of a seemingly sundry action. Fed up with waking every morning and wondering if her friends were still alive. Still there.
Chloe opens the window.
Her trembling fingers betraying her attempt at nonchalance.
She lets out a warbling pent-up breath. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
She inhales. The air from outside was sweeter. Chloe inhales again. Fresher.
Another inhale. Deadlier.
Chloe tries to cough, to choke, to move. But nothing happens.
A half-lost fact stumbles into her conscious mind just long enough to make an impact before disappearing into the ether again. The chemical weapons factory ten miles away was rumoured to release toxic fumes to the world between 23:13 and 5:53 and the no window time was protection against —