Our sixth story in the marathon was submitted to me by Jenn Allen. Now, I don’t know for sure, but something about the telling of this story makes me think it’s (at least in part) autobiographical.
From the curb, it was a perfectly ordinary house in an equally ordinary neighborhood. There was nothing special about it. It wasn’t architecturally intriguing; it didn’t have beautifully manicured grounds. It was a box with windows and doors where they were more or less supposed to be, and it was far more house than our money should have gotten us.
The bedrooms and bathrooms were on the top floor, the kitchen and living room were at street-level, with the garage below them at the nadir of a steeply sloped driveway. My brother and I shared a small bedroom, so our toys and books were kept in a long, narrow rectangle of a room that would have been called a basement if it were subterranean. My mother called it “the playroom”. It was at ground level, at the base of a staircase that descended from the garage. It was the lowest floor of the house, with one wide window that looked out on the scrubby beige backyard and the gnarled vegetation of the hillside beyond.
Abutting the playroom, through one of its three doors, was an unfinished room – an unbegun room, even – with packed earth below, exposed beams above, and rough cement all around. All around, that was, except for one pressboard wall into which someone had carved a ragged doorway barely three feet tall. Through this doorway, there was only the dark.
A cheap hollow-core door and a flimsy padlock the size of a quarter were all that stood between us and that oppressive darkness. This was where we were supposed to go to roll plastic trucks and argue over board games. This was where I should have tried to cram Barbie’s shoes onto Skipper’s stupid flat feet, where I should have pored over coming-of-age novels and books about horses. This was where I should have unselfconsciously dressed and cooed at dolls even though I was definitely getting too big for that sort of thing. This should have been our last sanctuary before the world decided we were grown. But when a thin wall and a thinner door were all that separated us from that perpetual darkness, who could expect us to play?
But I did try to play. In the bright light of day, the playroom was almost cheerful. One of the long whitewashed brick walls was lined with bookshelves, sagging 1x8s pinched between cinderblocks, which held an assortment of children’s books and young adult paperbacks. We’d sorted our action figures and matchbox cars into red and blue plastic baskets, a small wooden crib our great-grandpa built held dolls and stuffed animals, and my cardboard dollhouse stood in a corner beside the window. For my ninth birthday, a relative had subscribed me to Cat Fancy magazine, and I’d taped its feline centerfolds to the walls at jaunty angles.
I had tried – in spite of the dread that twisted through my guts, in spite of the steady awareness that, even if I was by myself, I was never alone down there – to make this a room where children could play. I’d brought my clock radio down and I kept track of the time. If I’d made myself sit there for twenty minutes yesterday, the next day I’d try to get to half an hour. This wasn’t play; it was rebellion.
I wasn’t always successful. I stayed for two hours one time, but it’d been because I had friends over, and they didn’t feel it, or – if they did – they didn’t mention it to me. There were many times when I couldn’t stand it for more than a couple of minutes. It was just so heavy. It was the kind of heaviness that made me blink and squint and screw up my face because I wasn’t sure if the light was dimming or I was going blind. Or crazy. It was the kind of heaviness that made me feel like my toes were curled over the edge of a very long drop. I couldn’t trust my legs or the ground or the air. I couldn’t see or stand, my ears were full of drums, but I couldn’t stay. I – blind, deaf, paralyzed – had to move. I had to run.
That was a typical two minutes in the playroom.
In the late morning, the playroom’s corners were flooded with light, the sun turning dust motes into drifting flecks of gold. Noon was lovely. One o’clock was pleasant. Two was comfortable. Three was tolerable, depending on the season. At around four, that was when it really began to shift. Generally, if I needed to switch on the light, it was time to go. And the light was always on.
The atmosphere of the playroom seemed to depend on several factors – some of which I knew and could guard against, others I never saw coming. Time was funny down there. That was partly why I brought the clock, because time of day seemed to be significant. The briefer the duration of time I spent there – and only during certain hours – the less likely I was to have anything happen. If I absolutely had to be down there for any length of time, or after sunset, I’d invent some pretense and make someone come with me. I realized there were rules, and I tried to follow them. I knew that the dark wanted to get me alone, that it reveled in my vulnerability, so I defined and then tried to play by the rules. I couldn’t give the room an opportunity to go dim. I couldn’t give the dark the chance to wind itself around my ankles and pull me down.
The further west the sun moved, the more capricious the room became. The winter months were virtually intolerable; it was too dark, too cold, the sun too high and smothered by clouds to allow me any longer than I needed to grab what I wanted and go. I’d thought for a while that summer was safer, but it wasn’t. I’d thought for a while that staying in the light might be enough, but it wasn’t. And it wasn’t just time of day, or seasons, but actual time – minutes and seconds passing – that could trip me up. In the playroom, time was flexible.
I was down there alone in July of 1990, in the early afternoon, trying to be brave, trying to make myself stay for an entire hour. Trying to make the room tolerate my presence for an hour. I sat on the floor about six feet from my exit, putting my back to the padlocked door like I always did. Something inside me knew better than to face that door. I cracked the spine of a Roald Dahl book that I wouldn’t be able to pay attention to and checked the clock. 1:26. I read a few pages before I let myself look at the clock. 12:39. Wait, what? I blinked hard and looked again. 1:45. I tried to shake it off and I went back to “George’s Marvelous Medicine”. I got through a couple more pages before I checked again. 12:39. I didn’t try to blink it away this time, instead keeping my eyes fixed on the clock until they started to water. Still 12:39. I blinked and rubbed my eyes. 2:08. I gripped my book with shaking hands. I’d only been down there for 42 minutes; I needed to prove to myself that I could stick it out for 18 more. I gazed at the clock for another moment, daring it to switch while I was looking. It didn’t. I moved my eyes over a paragraph, trying to decipher the small black symbols that were supposed to mean something to me but didn’t. I risked another peek at the clock and wished I hadn’t. 12:39. I moaned.
I didn’t know if it was after two or 12:39 or midnight. The room wasn’t as bright as it should have been. I looked through the window at the sun-drenched yard. It was probably 90°F outside. The sun revealed streaks and little specks of dirt and dust on the panes, but the light didn’t penetrate the glass. The painted windowsill should have glowed with the summer sunlight, but it was gray with shadow. The incongruity of it hobbled my brain. I chanced one more look at the clock. 2:17. The numbers flickered and began to blink. 12:39, 2:17, 12:39. Back and forth, back and forth, faster and faster, the room dimmed around me and closed in. I wasn’t by myself. The playroom had become crowded with the dark.
Tapping into the last tiny shred of courage I had, I dog-eared my book and gently set it on the floor. I pulled myself to my feet and began to walk out of the playroom. As I reached the last two feet of carpet before the door, I could feel it behind me. Inches behind me. Closing the gap. If the dark could pass breath, I would have felt it fluttering the fine hairs at the base of my skull.
I forced myself to put one foot in front of the other, trying to resist the urge to sprint upstairs, in spite of the awareness that the dark was on top of me. I knew it was there, and it knew that I knew. It was a little game we were playing now; we were playing chicken, and I wasn’t going to yield. I needed it to see my defiance and my disregard. I had to try to show it that I wasn’t afraid of it, that it had no power over me. I was pretty sure that that was how it worked in the movies, and it was the only move I had left. It was my Hail Mary.
I laid my hand on the doorknob, my fingers closing on the cool metal, ready to pull the door closed behind me before I ran upstairs. But the dark had other plans.
I was lifted – onto my tiptoes, nearly off the floor – by the back of my shirt. I could feel the massive knuckles against my back. I could feel the fist wrapped in the fabric of my now taut t-shirt. I could feel the weight and reality of the thing that had seized me. I could hear seams popping around my arms. I don’t know how I didn’t scream.
I squeezed my eyes shut and wrenched and jerked and bucked and yanked until I was suddenly loose, and I threw myself at the stairs. If my feet hit three of the ten steps, I’d be amazed. I was sure the dark was in pursuit, chasing me, rippling up the stairs and spreading itself through the garage. I got to the top of the garage stairs and burst through the kitchen door, slamming it behind me. The digital clock on the microwave read 2:19. I was alone.
I tried to handle this thing like I’d dealt with school bullies. I ignored it, I reasoned with it, I stood up to it, I tried to understand it. All to no avail. Why I expected different results is beyond me, but you can’t fault me for trying. I never tried to tell on it, though. I never recruited an adult. What would a grown-up have done that I haven’t already tried? Worse, what if an adult had tried and they failed, just like I had? What then? How would the dark have responded? How would I? I realized I was on my own, that I was facedown with a live grenade digging into my belly. All I could do was bide my time, hope that my parents found a new house soon, and stay mindful of the rules.
Don’t let it get dark.
Don’t go alone.
Don’t look back.
Purging Fires (Book Two of the Day Soldiers Trilogy) is almost here! Soon, it’ll be time to return to the war against the darkness. You can get book one at Amazon for the kindle or in paperback, or you can pick it up for the Nook at Barnes & Noble.