Short Story: OUT THERE

A little mood piece about darkness for the Halloween season. 

OUT THERE

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The stars stared. Jem could see thousands of them, unshielded by clouds or pollution from the city. He wondered how many of them could see down this far – or perhaps the distance blinded them. But they are so big, Jem mused, that they can see as far as they like.

“Over here,” Jem’s father said.

He stood several yards away, at the edge of the street where the grass began. Winnie waited at his knee. Jem skipped closer and looked behind them, at the strip of subdivision. Its lights almost overpowered the stars, if you looked at them too long; but they could not shut out the mounds of hills, heaped on all sides. From far away, Jem imagined, these houses would look pitiful, and at any moment the hills could lean forward and swallow them. He blinked, cleared his eyes of electric light, and turned back toward his father. The flashlight he held revealed a patch of grass in front of them, and the beginnings of the forest. Otherwise everything was shadow – the stars glowed but did not illuminate. Jem knew that, when he stood behind the flashlight, he was a shadow, too. He kept himself there, wondering if he felt any different, ensured that he was only two steps away from the flashlight and reality.

“Go on,” his father said to Winnie. She perked up and trotted away into the grass, which half-devoured her. Jem’s father kept the flashlight trained on her without fault. He did not blink or flinch; in fact, Jem noticed that his hand bulged with veins, from the strain of keeping still. The beam did not waver, either – it cut a single hole in the dark, allowing the trees and rocks beyond to remain formless until sunrise.

Jem’s father had protested when Jem asked to go outside, too, and wait for Winnie to take care of herself. He said he did not want to deal with Jem being frightened in the dark. Their first night in the mountains, after being accustomed to the suburbs and the city where darkness was just a lower grade of light, Jem really had been afraid – he did not sleep for fear that the dark, so heavy and complete in the mountains, would break through the window of his room. But, when morning came and proved his survival, Jem realized that the dark was not an enemy. It allowed him to transform; without the watchful streetlights and windows, always keeping his body illuminated, he could become anything. He did not express these notions to his father, who would have snorted and shaken his head. He simply promised that he would not be afraid of the dark. Though the shadows were strong beyond the flashlight and hinted at moving shapes, Jem felt no fear. Besides, if anything should approach, Winnie would alert them.

She squatted now, glancing back at them with something like embarrassment, and marked her territory –she always did so over a small hole, once occupied by a fox. “Good girl,” said Jem’s father, almost like a command. Winnie straightened herself and trotted back, a bit faster than before. Jem’s father turned to follow, but Jem lingered and faced the dark again – did they have to go inside so soon? He felt the shadow on his skin, and marveled at how strong it seemed. His eyes strained to see detail and failed. A thrill wormed into his abdomen and worked its away up until he was grinning. Stay like this, he thought. Stay.

“What, girl?” his father was saying. “What’s there?”

Jem glanced up and saw Winnie staring at him. Her face was rigid, nose pointed at his head, or something behind it. The flashlight blasted into his eyes as his father followed Winnie’s lead. While his eyes danced with red and readjusted, Jem heard his father mutter something, a nasty sounding word. He looked where Winnie pointed, and his face was slack with dread.

The grass rustled behind Jem – a soft, inviting sound – and he turned to see what everyone else did. “Don’t,” his father snapped.

Jem would have disregarded the command, but he had never heard his father’s voice crack like that, as if he was being choked. Jem turned back to him and frowned in silent inquiry. His father waved a hand, beckoning, and Winnie took a step back. A low growl rumbled in her chest as she stared.

“Come here,” his father said, and the grass rustled again.

He walked toward the flashlight only to satisfy his father. The dark still felt calm and exciting on his skin. The flashlight was so loud in comparison. His father was shaking it now, as if flicking a whip. “Back,” he barked, not to Jem. “Back.”

Now behind his father, Jem turned to look. His eyes had quite recovered from the flashlight’s glare, so he was blind to the dark; and before he could blink away the light his father’s hand was over his face. “Don’t look,” his father cried.

“Why?”

“Because I said so.” It was not a demand but a plea. Jem looked back at the house; but slowly, long enough to glimpse something in the grass, whose movement was utterly wrong as it crept closer. The flashlight’s dancing beam did not allow for a more concrete view. His father continued to growl, “Back, back;” and something hissed, or sighed, in protest. Jem did not hear the sound so much as imagine it – no physical vocal chords could have produced it. He was suddenly glad that he had looked away.

Winnie had already raced back toward the house, and now his father followed, pushing Jem alongside him. The flashlight was weak next to the streetlamps. Jem took a last glance up, at the far away stars, and then the door slammed shut, and his father was coughing out a grotesque noise. Jem thought he might be laughing, maybe, and left him alone.

Neither of them spoke for some time. Jem’s father vanished into the bathroom for a while, where he continued making the noise, and Jem watched through the living room window in his absence. He could not see much beyond his reflection. It was possible that something looked back, and he would have turned off all the lights in order to see it, but then his father emerged, red-faced and sniffling.

“Why couldn’t I look?” Jem said immediately.

His father stared at him, as if not recognizing him. “Some things you don’t need to see quite yet,” he muttered. “There’s things out there that don’t leave you once you see them. That was one. You’ll have your time someday. But not yet.”

Jem nodded and pretended to understand.

“Promise me you won’t go out there,” his father said; his voice croaked again.

I’m not scared, Jem thought, but whispered, “I promise.”

His father smiled and murmured, “Good boy.” Then he retreated to his room again, shut the door, and locked it.

Jem stayed at the window and looked at his reflection. The glass made it look faded, uncertain, and small. He scowled and tried to see beyond. The darkness was still there, and would be for hours. Perhaps that meant the sighing thing was still there, too. He pushed away from the window and crept toward the front door. Winnie stared at him as he went, but did not protest. His hand fell on the knob, heavy and final; he would wait until his father started to snore, then he would go look.

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