Richard Bartholomew's little brother sat on the bottom stair and studied the line that bisected the rock-walled basement.
"What's the speed of dark?" he asked.
Trying to ignore the sudden knot of pain in his stomach, Richard answered. "Doesn't have a speed, Tim," he said. "Darkness is just the absence of light."
Shadows, almost lifelike in their furtive movement, crawled a few more inches away from the walls. Richard pretended not to see them.
"Light moves fast?" Tim asked.
"Nothing's faster," Richard said.
Small windows atop the western wall glowed with that special golden light which always seems to be reserved for crisp, autumn evenings. These tiny glass squares of life cast beams of airy gold into the spreading gloom. Billowing ribbons of dust danced along the slender rays, entertaining the watching boys, distracting them until the darkness closed in, until the colour of the light changed and took on the hue of blood.
Suddenly, Richard heard his mother's voice within his head. "Somebody’s got to go.”
She'd stood as a rock in the middle of the hall, blocking the way out to the world. Had taken her purse up before speaking, dug out the keys to the old Motor Cart. Then, casually, as if instructing him to do something as mundane as washing the breakfast dishes, she'd made her wishes clear.
"You decide," she'd said. "But I want somebody gone by dark."
Mother had locked them down—as she always did when going out. The rumble of the engine as she eased down their gravelled drive reminded Richard of distant thunder. A cold shiver walked up and down his spine. Bile rose in his throat.
Richard wiped the memory from his mind and joined his brother on the steps. He could feel the younger boy tremble. The cool, dry basement air was sour with the scent of Tim's fear. A centipede scurried across the floor, its serpentine movements and glossy red skin the perfect harbingers of this night.
"How do we get out of this?" Richard asked himself. Action was required. Becky had proved that.
Nobody gets to refuse mother. Not even once.
Tim had Becky's eyes. Richard had been able to keep her alive in his mind because Tim had her eyes. Grey. With striations of blue and yellow.
"Wanna try busting a window, Tim?" he asked.
Tim looked up at Richard with his copies of their sister's long-dead orbs and said, "Can't bust those rocks. So what good is it gonna do?"
"We can't just sit here and wait for it, Tim. She don't take no for an answer. We gotta get out."
"Windows are too small," Tim said. "Ain't no way to change that."
Both boys allowed their gaze to follow the lines of the walls. The basement had nothing in it but the stairs on which they sat, four bare rock walls, a hardened earth floor and a couple of rows of six-inch windows. They'd already tried to force the door at the top of the stairs. Hadn't managed it. Not even when there had been three of them.
"Can you make me not afraid, Richard? Can you make it so I don't have to go into the dark?”
Richard started crying.
"Watch the windows, Timmy," he said. "Let the sun fall on your face."
Tim got up and walked over to one of the diminishing beams of light. He turned toward the window from which the beam originated, then stepped into the path of the reddening light.
"Richard!" he exclaimed. "It's still warm.”
The older boy didn't have the heart to tell Tim that the warmth would fade, that there was no way to escape the darkness. Their problem wasn't the speed with which darkness travelled, he thought, but one involving the very nature of darkness.
Richard hung his head, tears darkening the soil below. He didn't know how to explain that the dark was already here. It had always been here.
Copyright © 2008 Clayton Bye
Once in a Lifetime
We were mice, moving through a myriad of tunnels in the north field. There were five of us in there. Hadn’t heard or seen anyone in more than half an hour.
I’d come to a crossroads. I was pretty sure the tunnel on the right headed to the northeast, eventually coming up against the eastern fence. The tunnel on the left would take me to the north and another fence, or, if I stayed left all the way, it would split and end at the western opening, near the water pump which sat at the very edge of the woods.
I laid on my back and stared at the sunlit ceiling above me. Someone walked overhead. Searching for mice no doubt. I stayed still and chewed on a long frozen stalk of field grass I’d pulled from the from wall of the tunnel. No danger here. My friends and I had never seen the like: you could jump up and down on top of any of the tunnels and never even make a crack. The crust of ice-fused snow must have been at least two inches thick.
We had played all sorts of games on the field this winter, overtop the tunnels: lacrosse, boot hockey, broomball. Christmas holidays had never been this much fun.
I don’t remember who thought of the tunnels. I think we started out building a fort and someone decided to dig a protective cave at the back of it. Genius from such a simple idea. When we realized the crust would hold our weight—even when all the snow beneath it had been removed, the digging began in earnest.
The adults had no idea what we up to, and in the following days we built such a complex set of trails, you could almost get lost in there.
I used the tunnels as a hiding place when it came time to pump and carry dozens of pails of water up to the house (mom used them for washing clothes).
The girls would disappear at odd times without warning. My brother and I had figured out they had a little room somewhere near the centre of the field. We just hadn’t been able to find it yet; I wasn’t sure I wanted to.
The tunnels became something special to us—magical for sure—but something even more, a thing we could feel in our bellies and in the thudding of our hearts, yet couldn’t name. All I know is that each of us were enamoured for the few weeks the cold weather kept the crust nice and firm.
Then came the day—this day— when with no warning at all a foot appeared through the roof of the tunnel, just a few feet away from my head. A second foot soon followed.
I called everyone out. We gathered in a mournful circle around the hole in our tunnel, knowing without speaking that the fun was over for now. None of us imagined that it would be forever.
Copyright © 2008 Clayton Bye