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Telling Stories in the Dark

a short story
by William P Simmons

-- Daddy? Tell us a story --

Harold Sanderson re-checked the living room door, careful not to look at the sofa. He didn't have to look to know they were afraid, watching, waiting, wanting him to be a father and protect them. Waiting for him to begin.

Once he assured himself the lock was set and the door secure, he checked the windows. They were shut tight, shades drawn, keeping everything out but the soft whisper of an occasional car rolling and the raising dirge of the wind.

Harold hurried through the unsettling stillness of the room, past the sofa, unable to shrug off the children's whining. He winced at the sound his shoes made on the kitchen linoleum, and, taking a deep breath, opened the bedroom door.

These windows had to be secured as well, the door double-checked. Satisfied, he lifted the curtains of the window beside his wife's night-stand. Hands trembling, he stared in to the growing face of night, a bleeding configuration of twig and pavement both expressionless and expressive of too much. Early evening returned his scowl with distorted features comprised of tree-shade and grass and street and cloud until he looked away and closed his eyes to regain his nerve.

He'd passed the day inside with the children and Mary, waking earlier that morning with a throbbing head-ache and memories just on the edge of consciousness -- glimpses of the night before. To avoid clarity he'd kept himself busy with small household chores. But the night wouldn't be denied. Knowing this, he'd prepared the best he could, noticing with apprehension the sun slowly bleeding to death across the wall.

An hour ago, sweating, head throbbing with suspicions of what the old man might look like, he'd latched the first window shut, and then a second...a third-fourth-fifth! until he was racing through rooms, tripping, bolting his family inside.

Away from the night.

Away from Him.

Doing so had only brought the darkness early, as though turning locks and drawing shades had somehow invited the cold stench of memory, the acrid tang of fear.

Harold tasted the reflux scouring his insides. He opened his eyes to survey the arriving evening. Shadows curled across the sidewalk, gently lapped porch-ways, and melted over the peeling, chipped paint of the withered houses lining the street. Apartments resembled neglected tombs of weathered shingling and broken board, roofs and porches in disrepair lending an air of menace. Inside dusty windows flickering television light kept watch. Behind subtly moving curtains, cramped lumps of darkness resembled pinched faces.

What was left of the sun reminded him of a crippled fetus, orange-red life splashing across a sky ragged with purple thunder-clouds.

A storm was coming ...

He smelled the sweetly rotten decay of old leaves and vegetables as a breath of wind crept in the bedroom and played through the few remaining strands of burnt-brown hair matted to his forehead. A second breeze ruffled the sheets spooning his wife's sleeping form.

He approached Mary and let his hand stray briefly against her arm. Her face was barely discernible in the dark, distorting the familiar shape of desk, bed, and chairs until they resembled lepers with stick-figure hands and backs crumbling over on themselves.

Mary slept quietly.

The kids called him from the living room.

Careful not to disturb her, he took one last apprehensive glance at the street. She would be okay. He didn't come for adults.

The silence was unnatural, not so much an absence as a presence. He wasn't used to it, just as he wasn't accustomed to the reproach in his children's eyes. His heavy pants of breath grated on his nerves. The long pull of memories pounded in his temples.

He shook himself alert.

Quietly, gently, latched the door.

An overpowering love for his family slid over him, so much like the sweat that soaked his under-shirt. His wrinkled, stained slacks felt like a wet second skin.

Scrambling down the hall, shivering, he checked the thermostat although he'd already cranked it up three times that afternoon.

He hugged himself, watching thick curls of moisture leave his mouth.

-- Daddy? --

The kids again.

He felt time passing as he paced the floor, wincing at every little creaks from the floor, straining to make out the tiniest outdoor sounds.

Lightly ... he would do everything lightly, gently from now on.

-- Daddy? --

He was careful not to scream.

In the living room, shadows pooled in corners and stretched behind the sofa. Darkness gathered beneath the curtain-shades which played tricks with his sight, bulging inwards as though a face of leaves, twigs, and mashed cockroaches struggled to break through.

Harold feigned a smile for his boys.

Christopher and Lionel, six and eight, shared their father's thick brown hair and pale blue eyes. His heart ached when he saw them setting there.

Were they trying to show how brave they were?

The approaching dark, the threatening storm, the fear washing their eyes -- all this brought it back for him, those long-ago nights he had thought buried beneath the accumulation of years ...

Again, he was a child in his father's living room, the carpet crusted with food and sloshed with sour beer; stained white walls, the naked blotches where his mother's pictures had once hung now obscenely lonely. His father had put all her things in the attic the day of the funeral.

Home, a cold, harsh place.

Home, a prison.

Harold would never, could never forget how horrible it had been growing up there. Horrible nights setting petrified below his old man's hard eyes, careful not to show fear, careful not to give the ex-Marine and out-of-work construction worker an excuse to beat him. Fists or words, both hurt as deeply.

"He's coming for you," his old man had delighted in telling him, pulling the tab from his beer as he whispered, making Harold set without the lamp as they sat in the dark and listened to the wind.

The rickety creak of cart-wheels had seemed to echo outside their house every night back then, approaching the lonely dirt road leading up to their house.

"And I'll let him have you, too, you little fuck."

His father laughing without humor.

"Nothing to slow him down tonight."

His old man's laughter, nails scraping metal.

His old man's face, used up.

Tired.

Empty.

Harold, choking on fear, drowning between doubt and faith in the hoary nightmare-man his father had made so undeniably real to a twelve year old.

Harold would beg for a story, then.

-- Tell us a story! --

A tale to chase away the old man who loved the dark.

Something, anything to keep away the man who loved children.

-- And make it scary --

The knock made Harold jump.

Gratefully, he let the past drown and came back to the present. A cold skin of expectation wrapped tightly around him as he waited for the sound...

God, he was afraid.

He had been afraid of one thing or another his whole life. Except now, it wasn't only for himself, was it?

He wished the boys wouldn't look at him like that; wished they would smile or laugh or tell him it was all right -- "hey, everything's okay, pop! We understand."

But they didn't.

They sat watching him, urging him on in whispers.

He wanted to turn on the light, but he couldn't bring himself across the floor to flick the switch.

-- Tell us a story, and don't skip the good parts --

When he could face them, Harold walked over to the sofa and settled down between them. He reached out to cradle their heads, rocking them back and fourth with hands that had worked and loved and delighted in them.

"Shhhhh."

His voice sounded distant.

They waited like that for the sound of cart-wheels or the whisper of an opening bag.

"You're safe now." The lie twisted his gut.

The heater clicked on in long, low whispers. The room settled slowly, softly, as though it, too, hid secrets.

Floorboards groaning.

Feet walking?

The boys shifted uneasily. One of them groaned. A little hand slipped into his and he squeezed it. He wouldn't look at the dent in the wall, the broken furniture, the plates scattered across the kitchen tiles like tiny glass goblins. They were just tricks, illusions played by a strange mingling of object and shadow, stillness and wind. He hadn't been feeling well lately. Just his imagination -- a setting from one of the stories Christopher and Lionel liked to hear when he tucked them into bed, marveling that, somehow, they were his. Amazed that, by some miracle, he and Mary had made these two soft, warm, trusting creatures, and that he'd been able to resist the violence that his father, leaving him nothing else, had passed down to him.

-- It's getting late, Daddy! --

Anger in their voices now.

Blame.

Harold hugged them tightly and scrambled for the words to explain how he felt. Everything he feared.

A new breath of wind beat dry branches across the drain-pipe outside.

-- Tell us about --

Harold forgot to breath and motioned for them to be still.

There!

Something old and dry, coming down the road ...

-- Him --

In the dark, their eyes reminded Harold of dying pumpkins.

He swallowed, stalled, breathed in the sharp, bitter-sweet scent of their hair. When he couldn't put it off any longer; when he looked to the clock and realized the creaking cart wheels were right outside the door -- understood that, very soon, a knock would come -- he began.

"The Night Man," he whispered, sweating, "comes with the Northern wind."

The boys sat very still, listening.

Never looking away, refusing to blink.

He felt their eyes squeeze him.

"He's very tall and very, very old," he said. "His teeth are like razors, and his hands are made of spiders."

-- How can you tell he's coming? --

"B-by the sound of his cart."

Harold felt a scream burning in his gut but he fought it back, wrestled it down just as he'd shoved his father, drunken, to the floor the night he had left home. The night he had left his father behind but never the anger.

And never, ever the stories.

"Please?" he asked. "Don't make me, not again..."

Harold clamped his lips tight, closed his eyes against the dizziness threatening to swallow him through the floor. He didn't have to continue. They couldn't make him!

Maybe if he just sat there; maybe if they all sat quietly in the dark, it would turn out to be a nightmare after all. Everything would be okay in the morning. The old man wouldn't be coming to collect his treat. Because horrible things like this didn't happen. Not to him! Not with his safe job, faithful wife, and two beautiful children; not to a simple man living out his perfectly normal, perfectly boring life in the suburbs where folks cut the grass every weekend and knew each other by name.

-- We're scared --

Harold realized he was moaning.

-- If you love us, you'll tell us --

Harold did love them, and feeling their frail hands, somewhere he found courage. He promised himself that, this time, he wouldn't disappoint them.

He wouldn't be like his old man!

"The Night Man smells like all the basements and damp leaves in the world," he told them, "and Halloween and old nights; like soil freshly opened and rotten fruit, and Grandma Baker's root cellar when you used to get her potatoes."

The boys trembled in his lap.

Were they trying to get away?

Were they thinking of leaving him to face the old man alone?!

"Hold still!" he shouted. Immediately he was sorry.

"You have to watch your temper," Mary told him often, rubbing his muscles, looking deep into his eyes -- through him -- her face a soft, gentle flower of concern. Thinking of her broke his resolve. Everything began to pour out in a babbling mangle of words -- everything he'd meant to tell them but hadn't found the time or words for. How much he loved them. How very sorry he was.

Christopher just stared at him through the dark and Daniel was crying.

Christopher, pudgy little fingers that had melted his heart the first time they grabbed his pinky; Daniel, fresh and as rosy-cheeked, both filling the house with the sounds of running feet and voices, filling him with so much pride.

-- You have to tell us --

Loving them so very, very much. Wanting to make everything right for them, wanting to give them everything that he hadn't had. But life had got in the way, filling all the precious moments up with demands and bills and anxiety until a man no longer knew what he was capable of.

"The Night Man," Harold continued, "smells it when you die."

The house's waiting silence pulled out his words like taffy.

"He travels the roads by night with a carriage that he uses to ... collect them.

-- Bad children? --

Harold didn't answer.

-- Were we bad? --

"H-he puts them in a sack."

-- What then? --

Harold couldn't speak.

-- What happens then? What!? --

"H- he makes them dig a hole." Coldness gripped his throat. The coarse, dark hair across his arms rose as Christopher became rigid beside him.

Something crashed down the hall.

The sound of dry cart wheels came to a stop outside the door.

"Stories," he blabbered, remembering. "Before she died, my mother told me the Night Man loved stories."

-- He can't take us as long as you're telling one --

"That's right!"

-- Then tell us again, Daddy --

Harold whimpered when the knock came, dull and hollow and lonely. A moment later, a flurry of blows shook the windows. He struggled to find words, syllables, anything to keep the sniffing, searching sound away.

A story?

He had a story.

One very sad, and very true.

"Once upon a time," he said, "there was a Daddy who loved his children and their mother very much ... he didn't mean to ever hurt them."

Something hopped across the hallway, a crooked shape darker than the shadows just beyond his rim of vision. For a moment, Harold thought he heard his wife calling frantically from the bedroom.

"This Daddy tried hard not to be like his Daddy, but one day -- "

Spidery feet roaming across the carpet.

The whoosh! of a big sack opening.

And Lionel screamed.

Beyond it, barely loud enough to register, Harold heard the rasp of heavy, ancient breathing coming closer in the darkness -- a tiny explosion that squished dust balls might have made.

Christopher reached around to hug his little brother, revealing the jagged red slash circling his neck.

Harold quickly looked away.

"I didn't mean to do it," he said softly, squeezing what was left of them. "You have to believe me."

Eyes condemning, eyes that knew.

-- Yes, you did --

No forgiveness.

-- You hated us --

Not ever.

-- And you hurt Mom --

Footsteps pausing in the bedroom, coming closer.

-- Now tell us a story --

Teeth gnashed in the kitchen.

"You won't take them," Harold yelled at the face bulging through the darkness. "I know a lot of stories!"

The spindly figure stepped out from behind a shadow and sighed.

Harold talked late into the night, weaving the stories he knew, the stories he'd made -- a scattered, bitter-sweet narrative of love and hate and fathers who sometimes lost control; about Daddy's who couldn't do anything afterwards but tell stories in the dark.

The Night Man fingered a large canvas sack with something wet and oblong hanging limply from ratty brown edges.

-- Tell us a story, Daddy, and make it scary --

"He can't take you away until I run out."

Harold wiped sweat from his eyes and searched the confused geography of his memory for words as the stooped face in the corner tittered. He held Lionel and Christopher tight as, slowly, he began: "Once upon a time..."

The Night Man crept closer, the cobwebs in his eyes simmering.

Waiting patiently, he poked at the small forms struggling inside his bag. He smiled because he had all the time in the world, and because, sooner or later, all stories came to an end.


© William P Simmons 2002, 2004.
"Telling Stories in the Dark" was first published in the collection Becoming October (October, 2002).

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