Jeremy lay in bed, remembering his party. Thirteen candles on the cake, then Mom had put one more on for luck; she’d always been the superstitious one of the family. If it had been up to Dad, there would have been just thirteen candles for Jeremy to blow out, no matter that some people considered thirteen an unlucky number.
He glanced across his darkened room, at the closed closet door, then turned his gaze, quite deliberately, up toward the ceiling.
What could be unlucky about thirteen? he thought. Everyone at his party had great things to say about being thirteen.
“You’re almost a man,” said Mom, and even though she said it in that teary way that told everyone she was happy and sad about it at the same time, that was pretty good.
“Guess I can’t call you Tweenie any more,” said Rosalie, his older sister, and that had been great. The nickname, a rip-off of the term “tween”—someone not a little kid any more but not quite a teen, caught in-between—had always bugged him.
“That’s another year closer to your driver’s license,” Dad had said, and that had been the best of all for Jeremy. You couldn’t get your learner’s permit in Colorado until you were fifteen, but Dad was from Iowa, and he’d learned when he was fourteen. He’d agreed to start teaching Jeremy when he turned fourteen—though Mom didn’t know.
A creak, quiet even in the night-time silence of his room. The warmth he’d felt at the thought of his father’s reminder disappeared, whisked away like the tablecloth a magician snaps from beneath a full place-setting, the linen popping free while leaving the dishes and silverware in place. He clamped down on his muscles, freezing them into rigid immobility. After a moment’s intense deliberation, and with completely grown-up self-control, he allowed his head to turn, slowly and intentionally.
The closet door was open.
Not wide open, but there was more than just a crack between the door and jamb. There was enough of a gap that he could see a hint of the greater darkness within, the blackness peeking around the door into the streetlamp-lit bedroom.
The windowshade being up had been Jeremy’s idea. Three years ago, his father had decided ten was too old for a night-light, and poof, it had just disappeared. That had been bad, Jeremy remembered: there had been nothing to keep the darkness from spilling right out of the closet and roiling across the floor—a shadow, invisible in the gloom of night. But he had known it was there.
He had known it was there, and he had done what every child knows to do, instinctively and without question: he had retreated beneath the covers, tucking the edges of his blanket beneath all his various limbs and parts, and locked the darkness out. He had known it was out there, had sensed it all about his bed, but it couldn’t touch him there under the sheets and blanket. A small opening to breathe through, a tiny gap at his lips allowing him to sip fresh air, that might be allowed. But actually thrusting the covers aside? Never. And leaving the bed? Preposterous.
It only took three embarrassing incidents for his parents to make a new rule: nothing to drink for Jeremy for an hour before bed. At least an hour.
And then, after a year of this, a stroke of genius. “I like to see the moon,” he’d told them. “I like to see the stars.” His mother had resisted, claiming the streetlight outside would keep him awake. “But the Big Dipper,” he’d said. “It’s cool.” He’d finally won out, and his shade stayed up at night.
If she’d ever stopped to look, she might have noticed that you couldn’t see the Big Dipper from Jeremy’s window. You couldn’t see any stars at all, what with that streetlight out there, shining brightly through the glass from dusk until dawn. He was lucky to see the moon, and that only occasionally. But it did fill his room with light, more than even the night-light had, trapping the darkness in the closet, where it belonged.
He gazed through the dim, toward the closet door knob, at the latch plate in the jamb, and wondered if his father would ever be able to fix it right. He’d tried. More than once. But every time, it didn’t take, or failed to work, or wore off; the latch would come loose again, the door slipping open seemingly at random. Seeming to his parents to be random. Jeremy had known differently, had known that it was the darkness, consigned to the closet, unable—thanks to the streetlamp outside—to gather about his bed any more, peering out at him from the closet.
But that was a younger Jeremy, not one who was “almost a man.” Not one who would be driving someday, who was leaving childhood things—like nicknames—behind.
A solution occurred to him—such a grown-up idea, he was actually proud.
He rose from the bed, crossed to the switch and flipped on the light. Before he could pause and think himself out of it, he wrenched the closet door wide. Bright illumination spilled into the closet, forcing the shadows into the corners, and the tight spaces between his hanging shirts and pants. He snatched up his workboots, bypassing the sneakers and slippers.
“Good night, dark,” he said, with great satisfaction, closing the door tight, then putting the heavy boots down as a matched set of doorstops. He pressed their thick treads deep into the carpet, wedging the door shut, then nodded, pleased with his handiwork. He switched off the light and lay back down, smiling as he gazed out the window at the night sky.
“Hey,” he whispered, “you actually can see the moon tonight.”
His smile froze at the slight click, and the faint creak of hinges; the quiet scrape of boot soles sliding over wall-to-wall.
“Good night, Jeremy,” whispered the Dark.
Rob Smales is the author of Dead of Winter, winner of the Superior Achievement in Dark Fiction Award from Firbolg Publishing’s Gothic Library in 2014. His short stories have been published in two dozen anthologies and magazines. Most recently, his story “A Night at the Show” received an honorable mention on Ellen Datlow’s list of the Best Horror of 2014, and was also nominated as best short story by the eFestival of Words.
His latest work, a story collection titled Echoes of Darkness, is available now from Books & Boos Press.
For more about Rob, including links to his published works, upcoming events, and a series of very short—but free—stories, please visit him at www.RobSmales.com.