☆ ☆ ☆ SHORT STORIES ☆ ☆ ☆



 

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About the Dark


I stood looking at the corner of the room through Fox’s eyes, yes, because mine were useless—as blind as a bat’s. I could, however, see what other people looked at, and right now, that other person was Fox, only he was looking up, at the spot where the green cement walls met the green cement ceiling, and I needed him to look down. I pulled on his chin. After we both studied the floor for a while, he kissed my temple, and this time, besides seeing the corner, he saw me as well. A white-haired girl in a long white dress. A very unhappy-looking girl.

He smiled (I felt his lips curve against my skin). “You can do it, Ever.”

I didn’t believe him, but I nodded. Took a deep breath. Then, squeezing my fists hard, I sprinted ahead, toward the corner. When I was an arm-length away from it, I leaped up and pushed off the wall with my left foot. This propelled me higher, although by far not as high as I wished.

I pushed off with my right foot, and as I was flying up, I arched backward, trying to do a flip and land on my feet, but the momentum was just not there. And so I began falling, my dress flapping, my arms and legs flailing, and my white hair zooming upward like a cloud around my head. Fox caught me three feet above the ground.

“Brilliant!” He laughed. “You didn’t miss my arms!”

“It’s not funny, Fox,” Demi snapped behind us. “It’s pathetic. Ever can’t do anything!”

“Demi,” Sinna, who stood beside her, said with a mild rebuke in his voice, “you are exaggerating about Ever. She can—”

“She can’t. She’s weak. And puny. And pathetic.” Demi stomped her foot with such force it shook our entire bookstore. I mean, technically, it wasn’t a bookstore any more—it was our prison—but it used to be. Fifteen years ago. A small bookstore on the second floor of a sprawling suburban mall. I bet it’d been a nice cozy shop with beautiful bookshelves and cushy armchairs and maybe even a few small coffee tables. The green walls peeking from behind this furniture had accentuated its rich wooden tones and made it so inviting that people had come in here often. They’d browsed the books; they’d drunk their coffee. Some of them might have even been teenagers like us. I didn’t know if those teens had drunk any coffee. We certainly hadn’t. We’d mostly been learning how to fight and jump and whatnot, hoping to escape this cement hole that looked like a dark green apocalypse because our guards had taken out the shelves and the chairs and the coffee tables. We’d also read a lot (because the guards had left the books). And bickered. And since not too long ago Fox and I had also kissed a little. And Sin and Demi had kissed a lot.

Demi stomped again. “We’ve been training for years. So that when we get a chance to escape, we’d be able to take it. But Ever is just friggin’ useless. She—”

“Ahem,” Fox said loudly, and when Demi looked at him, he gave her a dazzling smile. “Dem, do you happen to remember that Ever is my life, and I—”

“And you’re a melting piece of Jell-O around her? Yes, I recall something like that.”

Fox smiled even wider. “No, actually, I was going to say that I’m here to address all the grievances you might have with her. So you think she’s useless? Well, that’s a shiny thought. You can stick it—”

Sinna waved his arms at them. “Please, calm down. There is no need for this conflict. Since Ever is visually impaired, it is only natural that jumping is hard for her.”

I think he kept on talking, but I didn’t listen—I stepped closer to Demi, my five feet against her 6’3. I was shaking. “Yes, you’re right. I am puny, and I can’t do anything. I can’t walk. I can’t talk. But hey, why is it all about me? How about we talk about things you can’t do? Like for example, for all your strength, you can’t get us out of this hellhole. You can’t kill our guards. You can’t even win a game of blind man’s bluff.”

“What?” Demi inhaled sharply. “That’s not true, not about the blind man’s bluff.”

“It is,” I said. “You’ve never won against me.”

She glared. “That’s because you’re blind.”

“Am not. I’ve always been able to see through your eyes. And I’ve always looked through them. And so when the three of you put on blindfolds, I’m as blind as you and—”

“Whatever,” Demi barked. “Let’s play the stupid game, and we won’t stop until I win.”
Fox put his arm around my shoulders and looked straight into Demi’s eyes, for they were the same height. “Only if Ever wants to.”

“No, it’s fine. I’ll play,” I said.

Fox hugged me tighter. “You don’t have to.”

“No, no, really, it’s okay.” Anything was better than jumping in a corner. I mean, sure, in theory, it was a useful trick. If learned, it would allow me to escape when cornered, but in reality, it was all nonsense because our guards were professionals. They were paid a lot of money and given a lot of guns to keep us here.

Demi was already stalking around the room, looking for the blindfolds, three strips of white fabric that had been ruffles on my dress. After she found them, she gave one to Sinna not too gently, but not violently either—I guess she’d wanted to show she’d forgiven him for sticking up for me. The other ruffle she threw in Fox’s direction, and the third one she tied around her own eyes.

Fox kissed my forehead. “It’ll pain me not to see you.”

“Enough with the sop,” Demi groused.

Fox gave me a long, loud kiss on the lips. “Ev, you do know that if you don’t want to, you don’t have to learn that jump. Or play this game. Demi’s not the boss here.” He didn’t add who the boss was—we all knew it was him.

“Yeah, sure,” I said.

“Can we finally start the friggin’ game?” Demi demanded.

“Just a sec.” Fox pulled me to his chest. Positioned me so I was facing the same direction he was, his chin resting on top of my head. Then, like a slowly revolving periscope, we turned around, he looking at everything in the room and me following his gaze. It was a large, roughly rectangular space with a kidney-shaped counter running parallel to one of the walls. There were three doors, or rather one door and two doorways. The door, a gigantic block of steel, led into the mall and was locked while the doorways opened into a bathroom and a back room, both of which were off limits in this game. The doorframes were splintery, and the steel handle on our front door stuck rather far into the room, but it was the books that were the main challenge. We had tons and tons of them. We’d mostly stacked them neatly along the walls, but the piles sometimes toppled, and the slick magazines dispersed at the lightest touch. Besides, specifically this morning, I had built my own rendition of the Empire State Building in the middle of the store. I memorized the spot where it was.

When Fox and I finished our rotation, we saw Demi and Sinna already blindfolded, standing across the counter. Fox winked. I couldn’t see this of course, but half of his field of vision quickly blinked out, and that’s how I knew what he’d done. I smiled at him just as he closed his eyes to put on the blindfold, and instantly, the lights around me went out. I stood in absolute dark.

“Ready?” Demi pounded something on something, most likely her fist on the counter. Without waiting for our answer, she began to count, “One, two…” On the count of three, it was game time, and Demi counted as quickly as she could, all in a rush to catch me. Just as quickly I pulled off my polyester dress because it was long and stiff and noisy. It had a zipper in the back, but I didn’t have time to undo it—I simply yanked the gown off. Sure, this left me in just my underwear, but since everyone was blindfolded, what did it matter anyway?

“Three!” Demi yelled, and I heard a dry knock, which was probably her body bumping against the wooden counter as she dived across it, trying to grab me. I felt the air swishing around me from her violent movement. I ducked. Then, with my legs still bent at the knees, I tiptoed away from the counter and kept on going until I bumped into the wall because the single most important thing in this game was to not get lost in the room.

Sure, we’d spent all our lives here. We knew every scratch on the floor, every bump on the walls. We knew the number of steps between the counter and the closest wall (ten of mine and seven of Fox’s), and yet every time I went blind, I felt disoriented. Every. Single. Time. It was like the darkness around me kept on churning and shifting, and the ten steps to the wall turned into fifteen or twenty or infinity when I couldn’t find the damn thing at all.

As for the others, they must have felt just as lost, maybe even more. Over the years, I had of course caught on their strategies of playing the blind man’s bluff. Fox, for example, would usually stay by the counter, our mandatory starting point, and try to calculate where I was, judging by who knew what. The sounds I made? My previous behaviors? Demi, on the contrary, would demand I say something often, then stomp as fast she dared in the direction of my voice. And Sin…well, Sin unfortunately liked to improvise and experiment. And yet, even with all these schemes in the air, they’d seldom captured me.

“Ever!” Demi barked. “Are you going to say something or what?”

“I’m right here,” I said and hugged the wall. “Wherever here is.”

At once there was a thud, which must have been Demi hopping onto the counter. In her haste to reach me, she’d clearly decided not to bother with walking around it. I listened for the sound of her jumping down, but all was quiet. Why was Demi just sitting there? That’s when I heard a very familiar polyester rustling.

“Sin,” she called out in the next moment, “don’t take off your blindfolds until I say so.”

“What?” he asked.

But Fox got it. “Oh, that’s why I never hear your dress, Ev. I hope you won’t get cold. And hey, while we’re on the topic: Sinna, be kind and don’t grope my girlfriend if you catch her.”

Demi jumped down, and I heard her stampeding toward me. I hastened to bring the picture of the wall I was hugging before my mental eye. Yes, there were three stacks of books along it, the biggest one being my bed. I leaned forward. Then, keeping my left hand on the wall and my right one in front of me to feel for the books, I traipsed ahead.

Crash. It sounded as if two bodies collided, and I paused, worried that it was Fox who’d gotten hurt. Or Sinna.

“What the hell?” groaned Fox’s voice from somewhere close to the floor. “Okay, Dem, you can’t dash about like this. You’ll kill us all.”

“Sorry,” Demi muttered, her tone strained because she must have knocked the wind out of herself too.

I resumed my walk.

What troubled me the most was that I had no idea where Sin was. Had he walked away from the counter? When he’d talked to Demi the last time, his voice had sounded like he’d still been there, but where was he now? What if he’d managed to find my wall?

Fox began humming some wild tune; up and down it went, and the downs sometimes ended with muted grunts because he seemed to still be in pain.

Demi let out a hissing sigh. “Fox, could you friggin’ please shut up? I’m trying to hear Ever.”

“Yeah, right,” Fox said. “So you could smash into my groin again. I don’t think so.” He went on with his humming, and Demi must have decided to change the way she hunted me: she started sniffing, trying to pick up my scent. Which was beyond ridiculous—this room had been full of books for a very, very long time—it reeked of books.

Fox stopped humming. “You do know, Dem, that this place is basically airtight, right? And we won’t get any fresh oxygen, not until our guards come tomorrow.”
Demi scoffed, then barked, “Ever?”

“I’m here,” I said, and with that I walked into Sinna’s shoulder.

Demi heard this. “Do you have her, Sin?”

I leaped away from Sinna just as he moved to catch me—I felt his fingertips brushing against my skin. After I took another step back, I halted because I couldn’t afford to lose the wall. Nor could I have Sinna knowing where the wall was—this was my winning strategy—which meant I had to lure him away from it. And so I crouched and groped the air in front of me, and soon my hand bumped against Sinna’s knee. He leaned forward, and I noisily backed away. I hoped he’d follow me.

“You two are very quiet,” Fox said. “Is there any groping going on?”

“No,” Sinna said firmly and made a step after me.

“Keep it that way,” Fox advised him.

I straightened out and tapped Sinna on the shoulder. As he made another step deeper into the room, I tiptoed around him and back toward the wall. I slightly worried about not finding it again, but no, it was still where I’d left it. Sinna, however, was lost: I could hear his thoughtful, meandering steps.

“Ever, where are you?” Demi yelled.

“Somewhere,” I said, holding onto the wall.

Judging by her voice, Demi was on the other side of the room, and now, judging by the sound of her steps, she began walking toward me. I assumed she’d get lost en route because it’s impossible to walk in a straight line when you can’t see, but Demi must have moved too fast to lose her way. She slammed into the wall next to me, and even though it sounded painful, she didn’t complain. She only groped around. I barely dodged her. Yes, I knew it had been barely because her nails scratched my cheek.

As I trotted ahead along the wall, she started to chase me, her feet making harsh slapping sounds. I tried to walk as lightly as I could, but it wasn’t easy: my toes smashed into a stray book on the floor. I cursed. My fingers hit a wooden plank, and I got a sliver under my nail, which meant I had reached the doorway into the bathroom. The corner of the room was only a few feet away.

Demi was closing on me.

Just as my hand found the corner, I prepared to step away from the wall and crouch so Demi would pass me by. I was already letting go of the cement surface when I heard someone else approaching me, cutting me off from the rest of the room. Since Fox had stopped his humming a minute ago, I didn’t know if it was he or Sinna. I tried to “look” around the store in my mind.

The counter should be behind me, Fox’s bed should be to my right, and Fox himself should be somewhere on the other side of the room. As if upon some infernal cue, the darkness around me stirred, and I suddenly wasn’t sure about anything. I felt scared. Cornered.

If only I could do that stupid corner jump…

Demi panted right behind my back.

Wait, I didn’t have to do the flip; I only had to make Demi believe I did it.

And so I took a noisy breath and pretended I was running. Stomp, stomp, stomp. After a few stomps, I jumped up, slapped first my left palm against the wall, then my right one, at which point Demi must have panicked I was going to fall right on top of her because I could hear her backpedaling. The person on the other side, however, rushed forward, probably to catch me. Probably because it was Fox. He and Demi tangled together while I dropped on all fours and crawled away.

In a moment, after her expectations of my tumbling on top of her didn’t actualize, Demi stammered, “What? How?”

And Fox guffawed. “Nice trick, Ever.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Demi half-exhaled, half-growled, and who knew what exactly had set her off—my trick or Fox’s laughter or her frustration at her inability to catch me—only she dashed after me at a dangerous speed. I hastened to stand up, and as I did, my fingers brushed against my morning book tower. I yanked my hand away. The stack was here? Had I really crawled all the way to the middle of the room? The darkness whirled. Demi’s feet pounded on the floor faster than bullets coming out of a machine gun.

“Demi, wait!” I shouted. “Stop! There are books here. You’ll trip. You’ll fall. You’ll break your neck against the damn counter.”

But she was already ramming into the books. I heard her flailing her arms, trying to regain her balance. I heard her choked breath when she must have realized she couldn’t. I darted toward her, grabbing at the air, hoping I would catch her arm or her shoulder, but I overshot. I was still groping in front of me when Demi crashed into my side. She grabbed my neck, and I rooted my heels, and somehow…somehow…somehow I held up.

“Demi,” Sinna said, his voice tense, but relaxing as he spoke. “I am glad I haven’t heard you fall down. I am assuming you are fine.”

By this point I was clean out of breath because Demi stupidly kept on squeezing my throat. I thought she was just in shock, so I tapped on her hand to tell her that hey, it was high time she let me go. Only she didn’t. She was throttling me for real. Panicking, I pulled on her hands, but they were stronger than cement. I started to black out.

Fox, as if intuiting something, announced, “Well, Ever, you know I’d love to hear your voice. Just something along the lines: ‘Dear Fox, I love you very much.’”

I fought to make a sound, but my throat was crushed between Demi’s fingers. I did, however, remember I had fingers too, so I slapped on Demi’s arms as loudly as I could.

Fox ripped off his blindfold. “What’s going on?”

He saw Demi strangling me, but before he could move, Demi released my neck, and I fell in a heap on the floor. I gasped for air.

“Ever, you okay?” Fox ran toward me. “Ever, what happened?”

He glared at Demi as she removed her blindfold, and she seemed unsure of what to say. I weighed possible outcomes. If I told Fox the truth, he would try to kill Demi. She would of course fight back, and Sin and I would have to join the fray, he on Demi’s side and me on Fox’s, and all of us would get hurt, and some of us might get murdered, and then whoever left alive would still have to share this bookstore.

I smiled. “Oh, I tripped on the books, and Demi caught me.”

“By the neck?” Fox squinted at me.

“Well, she was blindfolded,” I said, struggling not to sound all scratchy and raspy. “She couldn’t see.”

“Demi?” Fox asked. “Is that what happened?”

Keeping his eyes on the floor, Sinna walked over to us and gave me my dress. I pressed it to my neck, hoping to hide the bruises that must have begun darkening there.

“Demi?” Fox asked again.

“Yeah,” she said tentatively, then with more certainty, “Yeah.”

I nodded. “Well, congrats, Dem. You won.”

But she shook her head. “No. You just tripped. It doesn’t count. Let’s play again. I insist!”

There was a ringing fury in her voice. And hate. And rancor. And abruptly, I felt dead certain the people who’d kept us here in hope we’d grow up to be their pet murderers were going to be very pleased with Demi and very disappointed with me. Because I wouldn’t survive the next game.