Jennie Hackman Memorial Award for Short Fiction, Second Place (2015)
Her bedroom lights haven’t been off for twenty-four years.
Oh, it is silly, isn’t it — to be scared of the dark? Yet here she is, shivering in her nightgown, far too tired to go to sleep.
She likes to think she is a reasonable woman. Those superstitions did not haunt her when she was younger, and why change now? Eighty-four is far too old for change. Eighty-four is far too old for such nonsense.
But she’s only that strong woman by the light of day. In the day, there are grandchildren and daughters and sons. There are hugs and simple I love yous and crayon drawings presented to her with proud smiles. There is the warmth and the smell of grass, and the colors, bathed by the sun, shine down on this moment, on this pedestal of her life.
She can’t see them at night.
In the night, he visits. His winter skin glows. He’s younger and his eyes are sharp, but his words are sharper and her heart is a soft peach. She tries to remember a time when they were happy.
You’re eighty-four. You’re supposed to be happy, she reminds herself sternly. The next thought is softer, sad:
Why can’t I be happy?
She shudders and tries to close her eyes, but she knows fully well that she’ll never get a good night’s sleep with the light on.
“Who are you?” he barks. “Get out of my house!”
The doctors said he wouldn’t be able to stand after the last episode, but he sure as hell is trying.
She blinks back tears that won’t fall. “It’s me, hun. It’s me.” But who are you?
He shakes and he stutters but she can’t tell if of anger or something else. She reaches for the phone – to call the police or the hospital?
“You aren’t my wife,” he manages to say. He is sitting down again but somehow this is worse. He is shaking his bottle at her. He’s not supposed to drink. “My-my wife’s twenty-two. She’s perfect. Not old. Not like you. I don’t love you.”
“Please remember,” she whispers. She hates this. She hates his twisted smile. She hates the tone of his voice. She hates standing here, quivering against a wall, a wailing cave-canary. She hates herself for wanting to hate him. Because she can’t. Not when this man here isn’t him.
Or is it?
The man laughs. It’s a crow’s laugh; the sound hurts her ears.
“Go away, Stella.”
The doctors say he needs to be monitored 24/7, but she flees before he could destroy her further. She knows it’s futile. She has given up on telling him her name isn’t Stella.
Small fires wink at her atop a cake and she kills them with a swift blow. Ghost-smoke trail from the candles and the room is suddenly dark. She doesn’t care. She can feel him beaming at her and he pulls her in for a hug.
“Happy—wait, how…” He shakes his head. “What’s…?”
Her eyebrows push together slightly and her delight feels like it was blown out, too. “What?”
He shakes his head again; his lips purse. “Nothing… Stella.”
She laughs at first. “I’m not ‘Stella,’ silly. Who’s that?” She stops laughing when she sees his green eyes cloud. Then they clear and he kisses her greying hair and she rolls her eyes.
“Happy birthday, Ellie-bean.”
Her husband comes home late nowadays. “Just work, Elle,” he calls it. “It’s busy at the office.”
“At 2:24AM in the morning?” she wants to protest, but he looks so tired, so worn out, (so guilty, but she doesn’t want to dwell on that), so she just motions him into her arms. He grasps her like she’s a lifeline. She squeezes back.
One night she stepped out of the tub and her raisin-skin did not swell back. One day he woke and his hair was eaten by the pillow. Yes, they’re still chasing their kids around, but soon enough Peter and Elena would be out of the house and on their way to their own lives.
“When things calm down,” he promises, “we can travel the globe. Like we said we would when we were young.”
“I’d love that,” she whispers.
“And I’ll always love you.”
Elle chooses to believe him.
“Wow,” Peter says. “Is that my sister?” The five-year-old peers at the pink bundle in his mother’s arms. Elena squirms, and Elle shifts the baby to keep her calm. Beside her, her husband laughs.
He chuckles. “Of course, silly,” he says, and ruffles their son’s blond hair. He’s taken after his father with his looks. “That’s my sister!” he asserts.
And this is my family, she thinks.
Her brown eyes study him when he sleeps and observe the gentle rise and fall of his chest. His warm breath just barely reaches her face. He’s not smiling— but he’s not frowning, either. She decides that he looks calm.
Elle smiles slightly at the sight of glasses still on his face. They help me see in the dark, he had insisted, accompanied with a wry grin tugged across his lips. She had laughed and told him there was nothing to see in the dark, turning off the light before climbing into bed.
The rhythm of his heartbeat lulls her back into a sleepy mood; she’s neither awake nor truly asleep. The sun from the window has not yet reached the bed, and she knows that when it does, it’ll cast its light on his hair: a golden halo.
She counts the freckles that scatter from his jaw to his shoulders, almost blending with his tan summer skin. There were twenty-four. Was it normal to want to kiss every one? Would it wake him up; would he squirm? She presses her lips to one on his shoulder to test it out, but he doesn’t react. So she inches her way up to his jaw, watching for a reaction. She leaves a promise behind with every kiss.
“Hi,” he whispers, sleepily, stirring at her touch.
“Morning,” she replies. And Kyle smiles, as radiant as the sun behind the curtain, and Elle smiles back.
This story first appeared in the 2015 edition of LRR.