Darkness

I never know when the darkness will come, but every time I go to sleep, I know that it might. As a rule of nature, everyone has their own shadow.

 

When I was a kid, my mom always encouraged me to watch TV. This is how our mornings went.

6:30 a.m.: I would pop out of bed and thunder down the stairs, carrying my Keds and whatever horse book I was reading.

6:30 ½ a.m.: She would pour me a bowl of Captain Crunch Berries and plop me down at the table next to my blinking, yawning little sister, Kristen. Strapped into her high chair, her short, burnt orange hair everywhere, I thought she looked like Marvin the Martian, or Medusa. She carefully smashed bananas onto her plate while Mom cracked open a double chocolate Slim Fast and finished packing my lunch for the day. Every morning, I had a captive audience and a story to tell.

“Mom!” I’d yell. “GuesswhatIhadadreamaboutlastnight!” Huge gulp of air.

“TherewasaturtleANDaflyinghorseANDahousethathadmagicalwindowpanesthatsangevery thinganyoneinsidethehousewasthinkingANDYOUKNOWWHATHAPPENEDTherewasan avalancheofrainbowglitter,andthepersoninthehousealmostdiedbut—”

“Kelli, slow down,” Mom would say. “I can’t understand you.”

“Thassokay!” I would switch tracks. “TodayMrs.Rublysayswe’regoingtopaint.Ilovetopaint IthinkI’mgoingtopaintahorse—butwait,Mom,arewegoingtothezoothisweekend?” Look out the window. “Yesterdaywelearnedthatifthere’safireyouhavetogetoutusingwindows—Cassie’smomhasstickylettersfortheirwindows,butIlikethefridgemagnetsbetter—”

6:31 a.m.: Click from the remote in my mom’s self-manicured hand. TV next to the window turns on. The Magic School Bus.

6:31 ½ a.m.: Silence, save for the sound of Ms. Frizzle and her classmates exploring the insides of another kid’s large intestine. Oh no, white blood cells! My story would vanish, along with everything else unrelated to The Magic School Bus. Vaguely, I could pick out the squelching sound of Kristen enjoying her bananas.

Dealing with my Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder on a day-to-day basis, Mom truly appreciated the value of quiet time. Looking back, it makes a lot of sense that I was constantly glued to the television, fixated on some cartoon or other.

People now claim that watching cartoons detracts from their children’s intellectual development. I don’t know if I believe that. I learned a lot of things—what to be afraid of, what to laugh at, values and morals and cuss words—all very important for a child’s brain function.

One of my favorite cartoons was Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? Hanna-Barbera produced the show in 1969 as a reaction to parents’ complaints that other cartoons of the time period were too violent or frightening for their children to see. As a result, the oddball team of adolescent paranormal investigators brought down the hoax-pulling perpetrators using clues and logic rather than fists and vigilante justice, and the spooks themselves were designed to look silly, not scary. Ascot-wearing Fred and bespectacled Velma (and sometimes the air-headed Daphne, too, I guess) always remained cool, calm, and collected, regardless of the creepy circumstances the team found themselves in. My problem was that I identified much more strongly with the skittish Shaggy and Scooby, whose fearful blundering usually only got them into more trouble.

The best was when Scooby and Shaggy inadvertently helped corner the culprit. Sure, Fred and Velma had all the logic down, but it was Scoobs who usually bumped the mask off of the villain in the end. Everything else about the show was great, too. The chase scenes were funny, the times when Velma lost her glasses even more so, and I thought it was hilarious to watch Scooby scarf down sandwiches the size of pole-vaulting poles.

Probably my least favorite part about Scooby-Doo, though, was the creepy groundskeeper, doorman, or [insert type of creepy servant here] that had to appear in every single episode. Shaky and bent, wrinkled and cataract-plagued, this “Old Man Smithers” character always gave me the heebie-jeebies, to put it in Shaggy’s terms. But despite my fear of this character, I soon learned that it was a mistake to peg him (it was always a male role) as the main bad guy.

 

When I first have the dream, I am probably eight or nine, and I don’t get very far into the story, I will later realize. Somehow, my entire family has crowded into one (or two?) 90s Suburbans, and my step-dad, Jim, is driving. The radio is on, and the road ahead is dark, a thick line of tall pine trees on either side. Our headlights shine weakly into the night as we rumble along.

Suddenly, there is a bang. The car bumps to a stop and we scream. Jim shushes us, tells us that everything is fine, blowing soothing words in our direction. Then he rummages in the glove box for his heavy Maglite flashlight. The car doors slam as he and Uncle Scott step out into the darkness to survey the damage. We are quiet in the car. Through the glass windows, we hear the buzz of their voices, and we breathe. Then they get back in the car.

We have a flat, they say, but no spare. Could we drive it to the nearest town anyway? No, because we have also run out of gas. We are stuck, and the dark night clings to us greedily.

My mom sees the light first. It is off in the field to our right, tiny and far away. After a quick debate, we decide that it has to be a house, and that we will go and ask for help. But we don’t have to worry—help has already decided to come to us.

A lantern bobs uncertainly toward our car, and Jim gets out again with Uncle Scott and Mom to greet the person carrying it. I squint out the window, curious.

One pruned and spotty hand made of what looked like wax-covered glass grips the lantern, which burns yellow next to our white headlights. The other hangs in the air like a raptor’s claw, fingernails blue and long. My eyes reluctantly follow the limp, baggy arms up to a cracked pebble face, where misty blue eyes stare back at me out of their yellowing sockets. The man’s few teeth stand like gravestones in his gray gums, and his nose is scarred and hunked out. One of my cousins rolls down our window a crack, and we listen.

“No, there’s no way you’ll get into town tonight,” the man sputters. “But I know a place you can stay.” He looks right at me and beckons with his fingers. “Follow me.”

 

My best friend from the time I was three to the year I turned six was named Emily Burnham. She was about as tall as I was, with wide teeth, brown eyes, and a birthmark on the back of her hand that looked like a Band-Aid. Emily and I were practically twins, our moms told us, having been born only a day apart (I was the older one), and we soon started behaving like sisters, sitting next to each other in class, going over to each other’s houses during the day, and so on. We shared fruit punch at lunch, even though our teachers would yell at us for spreading germs, and we lived for the swing sets. Horses were our favorites, as were the colors purple, pink, and green, and our moms would talk for hours in the kitchen whenever it was “time to go,” meaning that we had ample time to have adventures.

My first ever sleepover (though I didn’t count it as such, since my mom was staying over with me) was at the Burnhams’ house. Though it has been almost fifteen years since the last time I set foot in that house, I can remember the layout of the rooms perfectly. Their front door seemed like the entrance to a giant castle, made of thick, bright wood and stretching endlessly above me. It had three long, vertical glass windowpanes, and as soon as you walked in, you could smell the Burnham’s old dog, Ranger, whose fur went everywhere and made me sneeze. To your immediate right, there was a sitting room, and to your left was the dining room. If you kept walking straight, you would hit two narrow hallways, one going right, to the bedrooms, and one on the left that opened up into the den. Wedged directly in the middle of this fork was an elaborate, gigantic grandfather clock, the space between the hallways just big enough for it to fit.

Two-tiered and made of solid dark wood, the clock towered above me at age five, and I remember making sure to give it a wide, respectful berth as I padded by, venturing into the tenuous, unfamiliar darkness, in search of a cup of water from the far, orange-lit kitchen. A shined brass pendulum swung steadily back and forth, counting out the passing seconds from behind a thin door of etched glass. Practically ten feet above me loomed the clock’s pearlescent, gleaming face, glowering down at me from beneath a twisted, dark bonnet carved with roses (apparently that’s what they call the fancy top part of grandfather clocks). I remember thinking that this clock, in all its imposing majesty, in its strangeness, its excessive detail, must serve a higher purpose than simply telling the time like the neon numbers on our microwave at home did. No, this clock held treasures beyond belief, the portal to another world, the troubled, roaming soul of a long-dead witch or scientist. (To me, witches and scientists were equally fascinating; both made fabulous things happen using means completely unknown to me. In my mind, the only thing that separated magic from science was that magic was infinitely cooler, because magic made things like unicorns and dragons possible, while science only allowed for weird explosions.)

After I had successfully returned from the kitchen, I slunk under the covers of my sleeping bag in Emily’s room, and squeezed my eyes shut against the night. I was already shaky from my quest into the unknown, dark den, when I heard a deep, vibrating rumble come from the grandfather clock and crash down the stillness of the night around me. My eyes shot open wide and I stared at the Little Mermaid nightlight in the corner next to Emily’s dolls, willing it to light up the rest of the darkness, until the crashing ended in a perfect, chiming bell. I hated and loved that sound, was drawn to its monotonous ringing, the crystalline depth of its tone. From that night on, I thought of grandfather clocks as a passage to another world.

 

After the first time I dreamt about the house, I didn’t have the dream again for four more years.

Jim clicks on the radio, letting the country singer’s voice fill the car. My entire family is packed into two Suburbans, one red, one blue, and we wind down a dirt road in between two solid walls of towering pines, nothing ahead of us but blackness. My sister laughs at something my friend Carissa says, her red hair thrown back and mouth wide. Mom is talking to Jim about what they have to do the next weekend, soccer games and the like. Her voice fills me like honey, though the darkness around us presses in on the car, menacing. Suddenly, the car bangs and skids to a stop on the gravel, sliding through the night like a puck pushed along a shuffleboard. I grab my cousin Erick’s hand. He stares at me, blue eyes willing calm into my chest. Jim and Uncle Scott grab a Maglite from the dash and slide out of the car. The night is warm and breathes hotly into the car. Then the car doors slam and we are left to whisper about what is happening in the dark.

“It’s probably nothing,” says my mom, though I can hear the shards of glass in her voice. She twirls her thick, gold engagement ring around her finger, and watches out the window.

As if in response, Jim and Uncle Scott soon get back into the car and announce that we’ve had a flat, that we’ve also run out of gas. Though I feel the ripple of air from the front seat that means that Mom has relaxed, the spiky feeling in my chest expands and I breathe more heavily. My cousin Caroline, thin as if she is merely one drop of liquid from a stopper, shivers in my direction, blue eyes wide and pleading. I look away, into the night, whose danger is at least static, known. I fear what makes us all nervous, but I’ve also been here before, maybe, dimly. I shake my head.

“There’s a light over in that field,” Mom says, looking at her brother and rubbing Jim’s arm. As soon as she stops, the black hairs on it stand up, mirroring the shadowy trees outside. “Maybe it’s a house?” Mom suggests.

But then a smaller light flickers into life about thirty yards from where we sit, weaving toward us. We all stare. Vaguely, the outline of a hunched, decrepit man comes into focus. Jim and Uncle Scott get out to greet the apparition. This time, my mom goes with them. I cringe. Kristen leans closer to me. Carissa watches, protective, trying to use her imagined strength like a tissue paper shield. Fear thuds within me, constant and dull.

Soon, Jim tells us that we will follow the crooked, waxy man into the forest, across the field. We all pile out of the car. For some reason, we have no bags, and so all we carry is our trepidation. My youngest cousins skip ahead, racing each other through the tall, leaning blades of grass. My mind swarms with night insects, and Lauren wraps an arm around me, logical and soothing. We are here, her arm tells me. We are fine.

“The next town is sixteen miles from here,” wavers the man in front, voice like logs into a green fire. “But this house has always been here for those who come through.”

I watch my shoes crush darkened grass into a path. Behind me, some of my family straggles, rounding up kids. My sister leans on my mom, and Erick gives Caroline a piggyback ride. Ahead, the floodlight on a tiny shanty spills bluish light onto our shapes.

“This is where I stay,” says the man, staring at me, through me, with his clouded eyes. I tighten as his words rub against my cheek. “But you’ll be up the road, at the main house.”

We look down his shaking, varicose arm at a hulking shadow, shrouded in the breathing night, hissing all around us now, the cicadas using their summer voices.

“Follow me,” the crumpled man says, curling his brittle fingers toward me.

When we reach the house, I am expecting a mansion to burst from the earth, elegant and dripping, collapsing in on its own extravagance, but the building is more of a large shack, haphazardly made of dull aluminum siding and panels of flaking, white wood. The man’s lantern burns like a star ahead of me, and the beams from Jim’s flashlight skip over the shack’s surfaces like beetles on water. Once everyone has arrived, the old man shuffles up the steps to the screen door. Shaking, he wrestles with a ring of keys drawn from his pocket. The door creaks open, licking its lips, and pours its own stale darkness out into the night with us. The man steps inside and motions for us to follow him.

Inside, there is a tiny hallway, and soon we spill out into a type of den, where a beaten-in loveseat with broken springs sits across from an empty entertainment center. Everything here feels ancient and quiet under a thick layer of dust. I cough on the itchy air.

“Your rooms are down the hall,” the old man says, staring at us from under his circle of lantern light. He glances around the room and shrinks. I feel the house breathing beneath me, heavy like the night. I tense up. “I’m sure you’ll find all your needs have already been taken care of.”

As he gestures toward a hallway at the end of the room, I see the outline of a grandfather clock, darker against the room’s dim air. I glance around at my family. Couldn’t we have just stayed at the car? But no one else seems agitated. I can even recognize relief on some faces.

“Before I leave you for the night,” the man coughs. “There is one thing you should know.”

He stares at me again, and I immediately think of the clock. Both seem to hide something, but I don’t want to find out.

“You’ll need to stay in your rooms once you settle down for the night. Do not leave for the rooms for ANYthing,” his eyes glowed blue in the lamp light. “Anything.”

We nod collectively, and my family heads in to the bedrooms. I step into the hallway and stare at the clock, which has a broken, mother of pearl face, surrounded by black wood. The glass on the pendulum case is frosted over, or covered in cobwebs.

“Pretty, isn’t it?” The rasping voice of the old man floats over my shoulder. I nod, teeth throbbing. Then he tucks in his chin and cracks a jack-o’-lantern smile. “Goodbye.”

Then the old man is gone, and I am alone in the hallway, listening to the sounds of my family argue over which beds they want, hearing the familiar sounds of home, and staring at the shadowy grandfather clock.

 

The formal term for sleepwalking is “somnambulism,” which to me sounds more like a type of rare eye disease than a common sleeping condition. Though I have never walked in my sleep, I have witnessed others sleepwalking. Once, I saw my sister strolling through our house unconsciously, and last year, I stayed with a friend, Stephanie, who sleepeats. While on some level, yes, sleepwalking is pretty funny, seeing people move around in a trance, completely unaware of their actions, gives me the same queasy feeling that I get when I listen to people talk about blood cells and surgical procedures. If I do see people sleepwalking, I usually try to wake them up, even though I have heard that you’re not supposed to do that.

When I was ten, my mom and Jim (who had just gotten married) decided that it was time for me to go to my first overnight summer camp. Though I still hadn’t mastered the art of looking a stranger in the eye when I talked to them and though making friends was a daunting prospect for me, I loved the idea of getting to have new adventures in a far away place. Mom decided to send me to Camp Longhorn, located on Inks Lake in a tiny town called Burnet, Texas, and she told me that I was scheduled to leave a week after my birthday, in late July. As the weeks flew past that summer, I would daydream about flying off of the blob and into the lake, laughing with all my new friends, and listening to the counselors tell fireside stories about conquering the various lake monsters natural to all summer camps. Soon, it was time for me to board the bus. My dad, bloodshot and cranky, threw my camp trunk underneath the coach bus before giving me a hug and driving back to Sugarland. Mom kissed me goodbye and stood next to the bus, waving as we pulled away. I smiled at her, my daydreams beginning to crumble as I imagined new terrors waiting for me in Burnet. I didn’t want to disappoint her, though, so I waved back until I couldn’t see my mom from the window anymore.

Three days into the camp experience, I was disillusioned and heartbroken, having realized that camp was just another place like everywhere else, except that I didn’t know anyone here, and my mom was incredibly far away. The blob was just an oversized bruise waiting to happen, and there weren’t even any horses there. Plus, nights at camp meant living under a leaden blackness, and I was old enough now to know that this kind of dark played host to ghosts and murderers, crazy ex-campers and wild, bloodthirsty beasts. By this point, I had decided that I would remedy my situation by simply staying awake at all hours, covertly reading beneath my covers until I could sneak out to see the sun rise over the lake, to spread my arms and let the brightness of the morning burn all the leftover night away from my skin, from my mind.

One night, while I was immersed in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I saw something move in the cabin out of the corner of my eye. Mind full of witchcraft and wizardry, I froze, staring. I saw one of the girls in my cabin, Laura Ann, climb clumsily out of her bunk and waddle numbly into the center of the room. Then she just stood there, facing the door. She stared blankly out of ice-blue eyes, her paper skin and black, curly hair framing her thin face. I thought she looked like the something that had washed up on the shore, like something dead.

“Laura Ann?” I pushed a tiny wisp of words out to her.

She slowly turned toward me, and when her unblinking eyes caught on mine, she stopped. Inside, I screamed, but those blue marbles locked me in place. I counted the seconds in shallow breaths. Thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-six…

Then she rotated toward the door and mechanically pushed through it, letting the door slam against its frame carelessly. Sally Smiley, our counselor, jerked awake and immediately saw my flashlight. She pulled her blonde hair into a long, straight ponytail, and rubbed her eyes before crossing the cabin to my bunk.

“Kelli, why are you still up? Are you homesick again?” Her voice was tired but kind, but I still felt frozen. Laura Ann’s dead eyes burned into my own. I couldn’t force any words out of my mouth. Sally’s face changed.

“Kelli, what’s wrong?”

Then there was a splash from the docks and a scream. Everyone was up, looking toward the lake, where the sound skittered and bounced off of its shined moonlight surface, trying to figure out what had happened, but I could guess. Though I said nothing, Sally glanced at Laura Ann’s empty bed, and then she was gone, racing down to help. In silence, I clung to my flashlight, feeling shaken.

 

The car creeps down the road, Carrie Underwood’s voice carrying us into the blackness. Ahead, between my mom and Jim, I can see the road, like a hallway framed by blacker trees, from behind the Suburban’s cracked spider web windshield. My sister laughs with Carissa, their voices spilling comfort into the otherwise creaking, slithering night. I hate the road, so much that I burn with it, so I stare into the darkness of the fields between the trees.

A light glimmers in the distance, a light from a house, and with a bang, the car has a flat. Mom, Jim, and Uncle Scott get out to assess the damages, and a smaller light bobs up to them from the night, carried by a bent, frail old man with gravestone teeth and witches’ eyes.

“I know a place you can stay the night,” he says, voice like a rickety chair. “You’ll never get into town without a spare. Come with me.”

Willingly, my family follows him, though I feel the night around us gushing with stinking breath and shadows, sewing us into its darkness. Hidden crawling things lace their way up my bare legs, into my shorts pockets. But still my family follows this man, until we make it to the house we would be spending the night in.

The house smells different than any place I have ever been before, but somehow is also friendly, familiar. We pile into the house, after the old man, squeezing our way through the kitchen hallway, and into the main den, where a decrepit couch sits beneath a molding popcorn ceiling, springs haywire and stuffing overflowing. The walls look stained, and I can tell where old family portraits might have hung, though there are watermarks on the wall as well, as though the whole house had once been dipped in milk like an Oreo.

An entertainment center stands on the other side of the bare room, the TV ripped out of it. The far right-hand wall is actually a window, boarded up from the inside with graffiti-ed plywood, dusty metallic duct tape, and dirty sheets.

“You will stay in the bedrooms down the hall,” scratches the old man, his lantern shivering like his frail limbs. “There, you’ll find everything you need laid out for you.”

I stare past him, at what I know is the grandfather clock, and I start to wonder at the logic of that, of an ancient grandfather clock being a part of this run-down shack—the whole place shimmers, as if made from flexible glass, and I feel misplaced, suddenly.

“You should know one thing before I leave you,” the keeper says, snapping me back to the situation at hand. “Do not leave your rooms for any reason, is that understood?”

“But why?” I hear my little sister chime in. “What if we need the bathroom?”

Looking at Kristen’s glasses-framed eyes, I realize that I wonder this too. The old man’s face slices into a sideways smirk.

“For your own safekeeping, please stay in your designated rooms regardless of the circumstances,” he coughs metallically.

While the rest of my family nods and smiles and heads back into their rooms, I linger in the hallway, peering at the clock. I notice the dust, or lack of it—a pristine clock in a room coated with dust, defined by dust. The minute hand points south. Half an hour till nine.

“Yes,” says the old man over my shoulder. I can feel his breath, like clammy fingers, cling to my neck. “It is a very pretty clock, isn’t it?” Then he waddles away and out of the house, though his dripping words stick to my skin.

I stare at the clock, trying to understand the carvings on it, the iridescent moon dial that crowns the clock’s face. In the rooms, I hear the noises of my family.

“Kelli, come pick a bed!” Mom calls. “We’re all tired.”

Reluctantly, I oblige, choosing the room on the left. To my surprise, the ceiling is vaulted and five or six beds have been crammed into the space. A set of silk pajamas, striped, is folded on top of the covers, and several of my family members are already wearing them.

Soon, we settle into bed, though it is long before I fall asleep. The air in the house is too strange, sticky and familiar, biting and damp. The shadows are too new, slanted weirdly, outlines of the crooked trees outside leaking in through the window, sliding across the wood floor. I try to focus on the insides of my eyelids. Finally, I drift off.

Then, the earth splits apart with sound. The clock chimes eleven, and I feel my teeth rattle in my head. Somewhere, amidst the sound, I manage to hear the slip of silk as it brushes against the carpet, then an eager padding of footsteps. I roll over and cover my head with my pillow, but still the bonging continues. Finally, I look up, to see that many of my family members are missing. A weight like a bowling ball settles behind my ribcage, and I taste copper.

Another rustle of silk makes me look toward the door. Caroline, my cousin, is making a beeline for the hallway. I cry out to her, but she doesn’t respond. I follow her to the doorframe, wary of the old man’s words, and the last thing I see is her opening the door to the glass casement on the grandfather clock. Then she disappears.

The incessant tolling of the clock ringing in my ears, I turn back to the room, only to see Lauren, Carissa, and my cousin Erick staring ahead with blank eyes, walking straight toward me. They march silently toward the door, and I realize where they’re headed: toward the clock.

I scream at them, but my friends only shove me aside roughly. Their eyes are waxy and devoid of emotion, their faces slack. Dread rises in my chest, and I tear at their arms, trying to pull them back to their beds, to wake them up, but instead they turn on me, and all three throw me off with extreme force. I crash against the wall. One by one, I watch them vanish into the clock, and the night crushes in on me, alone.

 

At my elementary school, anyone who hadn’t read the latest Harry Potter book was immediately excluded during lunch-time conversation, not out of malice, but out of the necessity to talk about what had happened in the last chapter, in the last book. To us, Hogwarts, which teemed with adventure and magical beings, was a precious escape from our mundane days of all-school assemblies, and games like around-the-world and heads-up-seven-up.

One of my favorite creatures in Harry Potter is the Dementor. Hooded and cloaked in black like Death, these floating, macabre phantoms say nothing, feel nothing, but thrive off of positive human emotions, meaning that literally, they scare you to death. Harry meets his first Dementor in the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, and describes the creature like so:

“Standing in the doorway…was a cloaked figure that towered to the ceiling. Its face was completely hidden beneath its hood…and the thing beneath the hood, whatever it was, drew a long, slow rattling breath, as though it were trying to suck something more than air from its surroundings.”

I was immediately both enamored with the creepiness of this Dementor and scared out of my mind by it. For the next few months, whenever it got suddenly cold, I would feel a prick of fear. Perhaps Dementors actually did exist and were out to get me. I began to imagine specters slinking around the corners of my house, hiding behind trees. I saw them in my peripheral vision, I saw them in the shadows. But most of all, I dreamed of them continuously.

 

Thick with darkness, the night oozes slowly around the car that somehow holds my entire family. Sitting in the backseat, my breath comes quickly and the black of the outside air squeezes against my lungs. I breathe it in, and it trickles from my lungs to my fuzzy brain in puffs of steam.

But I’m inside the car, I remember, not exposed to the tar-sludged sky. Inside the car, my family throbs, loud like vinyl scratches, bright like Christmas ornaments, warm. The ice around my ribcage melts, puddling into a burning stagnancy at the top of my stomach. The radio sings, and my step-dad, stretched out in the driver’s seat like a strawberry Twizzler, gaps a wide, rare smile. We might be singing Christmas carols, we might be belting country songs. The cacophony of warmth and comfort is tempting, coaxing, but for some reason, I’m immune to its whispers.

My eyes stare past the windshield, taking in the dirt path as it rolls under our cars’ tires like canvas. Between two walls of pines, our dimmed yellow headlights bounce against the night.

Far in the field to my left shines a light, fluorescent and wavering. In a moment, our car tire blows. Soon, a crippled old man with liver spots, a lantern, and a hand that’s permanently clutching an invisible cane appears, offering us a place to stay for the night. We accept, though I am wary of the night I see in his clouded-over eyes.

Inside the house, he tells us not to leave our rooms, and after we settle down in our striped pajamas, I fitfully dream of the grandfather clock in the hallway. When it strikes eleven, the world is thrown into noise, drowning in sound.

I turn to see my cousin Caroline slipping out the door, and I run to stop her, but I can’t. I turn around, distraught, and I see three of my friends zombie toward me, unconsciously pounding out the path to their own demise.

I yell and tear at them, pleading with them not to go. Carissa goes first, her blue eyes staring and solid, her thin bones guiding her toward the open door. Then my cousin Erick, strong and burly, but standing slack, moving like slime across the moldy floor. Finally, Lauren leaves. I watch as her smiling face slips past, the arches of her feet moving slowly but determinedly away from me.

I decide to take a stand, and wait for the next hour to pass. The clock finally chimes, and my heart stops. In the doorway, a hazy figure, like a column of smoke, looms. Vaguely human-shaped, the thing is made of the blackest parts of the shadowed room, and is sooty, like pollution seeping across the air. Watching it move is like watching a ripple of water in a vast black pool, slow and fast at the same time, like a DVD skipping scenes. One second, the thing is at the door, crackling like television static through the air and rasping across the floor like knives dragged along corrugated metal. The next, the thing is halfway across the room, having crossed it silent and invisible.

My insides vibrate, tense, as though there’s a single string running from my jawbone to my pelvis, and someone just snapped it back like a rubber band. As much as I want to, I cannot move. I stare, breath caught in my throat, my eyes more like marbles, and I realize that the thing is glowing on the inside, its billowing smoke exterior encasing, swirling around several orbs of violent, cloudy colors, pinpricks of light within its blackened core.

As it nears the foot of my friend Becky’s bed, I notice that the dusty air of the bedroom becomes sharper, denser, harder to swallow. I try to call out to her, to wake her up, but when I open my mouth, the words I want are stuck to the roof of my tongue, thick and slobbery, but urgent nonetheless, and fatally silent. Instead, in the quiet, because it is impossibly quiet, I watch as the thing slowly, with dripping claws of smoke, reaches into its own body to withdraw one of the orbs of light and let it float in its palm. I see Becky’s blue eyes widen, enthralled by the tiny star of neon light that the darkness holds, and the thing calmly leads her out of the room.

Again, I scream at her, yell, try to get her to listen, but nothing works. The monster sinks back into the depths of the clock in the hallway, only to return a moment later for my mom and Kristen. My sister goes first, and though I hurl anything I can find at the spectral figure, nothing hinders its progress. I feel my lungs begin to tear apart, each breath of this new, poisonous air threatens to rip me in half; moisture crystallizes on my cheeks, and finally I am left alone in the dark.

 

In my junior year of high school, I was taking Spanish Four from Señora Pacheco, a slim, beautiful Mexican woman with tanned skin that had just the right amount of freckles. For someone who was definitely “old,” she looked great and acted young, while continuing to be a good educator. With a smaller waist than half the class and killer designer shoes, Sra. Pacheco was one of the few “cool” teachers that actually commanded some respect.

In almost every class period, we would have “pacheqicuentos,” or stories that related specifically to Sra. Pacheco’s life. She would tell them in Spanish, and they always had something to do with the lessons, which would revolve around teaching us about Hispanic art, literature, and culture. We loved them, but no one loved them as much as the guy who sat directly in front of me. At five foot four, Matthew Putterman was a nightmare. He played football, of course, so his Napoleon complex was astronomical, and he would gleeck at any girls who did not return his attempts at flirting. Luckily, I usually came to school looking fairly raggedy and unkempt in my t-shirt, jeans, and ponytail, especially compared to the other girls, who wore dresses, heels, and designer jewelry. I was never Putterman’s first choice for gleecking target unless he’d had a particularly bad day, in which case he would just gleeck on anyone and everyone.

But if there was one thing you could not accuse Putterman of, it was being unreliable. Every morning, right after the class bell had rung, he’d tilt his head and flash what I’m sure he thought was a winning smile at Pacheco. Then he would strangle the following words to death, hoping for a story:

“Seenyoura, seenyoura, ¿pooehdehs deyseernos oohn pahcheckeekwentoe, pour fayver?”

To which she would usually reply, “Ahh, pero Pooterrmahn, no tenemos tiempo hoy. A ver si tenemos tiempo mañana.” (Which was basically a fancy and diplomatic way of saying, “Of course not. You’re disgusting.”)

I did gain a lot from that class, however, though I had to face the trial of dealing with Putterman on a daily basis. It was the first time I would ever hear about an author named Julio Cortázar, whose stories, I would later learn when I studied abroad in Spain, helped define a new genre called “neofantástico,” or “new fantasy.”

According to Señora María García Rufo (or simply Garrufo, as my friends and I called her), my bespectacled, frizzed out Latin American Literature professor at the Universidad Pablo de Olavide, the “neofantástico” story was a subgenre of fantasy similar to magical realism that depicted reality as having two sides, an apparent, lived reality, and a darker, more obscure and mysterious underside of reality. In neofantástico, these two realities wove in and out of each other, and the protagonist could move freely (and most often unwittingly) from one side of reality to the other, especially using dreams as a means of travel.

Toward the end of the semester, we read a short story called “La Noche Boca Arriba,” or “The Night Face Up,” in which a man in Paris crashes his motorcycle and is rushed to the hospital for surgery. While he is recovering, he drifts in and out of sleep, and he dreams that he is back in the days of the Aztecs, running from a group of Aztec hunters who want to cut out his heart and offer it as a sacrifice to the gods, according to tradition. As the story progresses, the protagonist starts getting stuck in the dream world, which causes us as the readers to question whether the dream world is actually his reality after all, whether the man is actually living the experience in the time of the Aztecs and simply dreaming of the Parisian hospital.

Then, this summer, I discovered another way to look at this question of what truly constitutes reality, and whether dreams play a part in the answer. When I got back from Spain, my little sister went berserk, babbling on and on about this new movie I had to see with her. On its opening night, she and I were in the middle of the AMC movie theater, popcorn and ICEEs in hand, watching Leonardo Di Caprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt battle their way through the labyrinthine mind mazes of Inception.

What I found most intriguing about Inception was the concept of being able to have a dream within a dream, or multiple layers of dreams, for that matter. As I watched Joseph Gordon-Levitt administer “the kick,” in order to wake the others from their dreams within dreams, I remembered the one time I have had a dream within a dream.

 

The road is endless, black and taunting. My family, bright and alive in the car, weighs on me, threatens to push the salt from my eyes, though I don’t really know why. Something nags at my mind. You’ve been here before, it says, like a breeze, like a thought, unspoken.

We pass a town population sign too quickly for me to read where we are. Mom laughs.

“Who would want to live out here?” she says, half-smiling, but I can see the deeper waver of her mind, the iron twisting of her intestines. She looks back at me, and her eyes well with tears. My sister breaks the moment with a story of her own, but the residue from the glance is on me. I can feel it like a finger brushed along a thin layer of rust. My mom’s sadness stains me, and I turn toward the dark night between the trees.

Soon, our tire pops, and my family gets out to talk to the man with the lantern, ever-present and all-knowing with those lapis lazuli eyes, their onyx points obscured by clouds of mist. He knows us all, his tone more welcoming. The long grass caresses my bare calves as we cut through the field to the house.

Inside, the grandfather clock, tall and deep, watches me down the hallway, ticking off the steps I take to get to my room. My family and friends settle in for the night, changing into our obligatory pajama sets, folding ourselves into the covers.

This night, I do not sleep, even fitfully. I stare at the ceiling, ignoring the oppressive, unnatural silence. I ignore the rubber band stretched inside me. I ignore the frozen solidness, the zombie paralysis. And then the clock chimes two A.M., and shudders me out of my stillness.

All of me taut, I look around, snapping my head one direction, then the next. Every bed is empty. The darkness swallows my soul. Across from me, there is a mirror I haven’t noticed. Two shining, white slivers define my face; I am only my eyes now, which pinprick to a deep shade. I shut my eyes, but then I hear it coming. My heart cringes in on itself.

Crackling, rasping, silent and also scraping, it comes. A knife dragged along the counter, a trickle of water in the sink. These are the noises I hear. It comes for me, this time, I know, because it’s staring me down. It has no eyes, but I feel its focus, blind and unrelenting, squeezing the air out of me, wringing out my bones. Slithering, oozing, it leaks across the room, and I stand and shut my eyes.

With a squelching noise, I hear it peel the last ball of color from its insides, and the room suddenly feels lighter, though there’s still an edge like a new razor in the air. It makes my breaths hard to swallow.

I open my eyes, and the thing is well upon me. I am pinned against the corner of the room, though I can’t remember moving. All of my dreams, I realize, are encased in the light the thing holds, which pulses against the surrounding darkness weakly. I stare, seeing everything, until I hear the whisper of a blade and tear my eyes away.

An inch away from my face, from my mouth, a pair of iridescent, dripping fangs gape wide. The thing’s strange darkness, rippling with small rainbows like gasoline stains on asphalt, envelops me.

I wake up.

I’m in my room at my parents’ house. My cat is purring at my feet, lounging on my brown covers. Across the room, my wall is covered in books. Dirty clothes litter the floor, sunlight slides weakly through my dusty blinds.

Shaken, I push myself out of bed. I’m wearing my dad’s XXXL University Club t-shirt, which slides softly on my shoulders with each step. I slide open my bedroom door and trudge into the kitchen, running a hand through my sweat-soaked hair. I fill a cup with ice and water, then I round the corner to my living room.

There, in my mom’s place on the leather couch, the thing sits, staring. I drop my cup of water.

I wake up in my dorm room. Lauren is staring at me, eyes wide. I am shaking.

Kelli Trapnell is currently studying writing at Texas Christian University, where she won the first Sandra Brown Excellence in Literary Fiction scholarship, which pays for two years of tuition based on the literary merit of a fiction portfolio. Kelli’s short story, “Yellow Nikes,” will appear in the 2011 edition of descant, Fort Worth’s literary journal, along with an original poem, “Blips and Ifs.” Kelli is originally from Houston, TX.

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2 Responses to Darkness

  1. Ann Doty says:

    You are definitely a better writer than your Aunt Ann!!. I love you and your work.

  2. janice cummons says:

    Great story and I eagerly await reading many more from you in the future. JC

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