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Authors: Saundra Mitchell

Defy the Dark

BOOK: Defy the Dark
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Dedication

For my friend Steve

To you, my dear friend:

Since my very first library card
, I've loved nothing more than books. Through them, a kid who lived in government housing could also live in a windswept house by the sea (thanks, Lois Duncan!), in a secret-filled hacienda (thank you, Isabel Allende!), and even in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (love to you always, E. L. Konigsburg!).

Long Saturdays at the Warren Library supported my habit. I burned through novels and anthologies, bereft when I had to wait for new ones to arrive. In the meantime, I fantasized about meeting my favorite authors: we would be great friends!

We'd have tons in common, and we'd do cool stuff together, and oh yeah, they'd love to write a new story just for me. Anytime, about anything I wanted! I got older, but I never gave up the fantasy of getting my favorite authors to tell me new tales. We were friends, after all.

I loved Stephen King's anthologies especially because they were frequent and fat, and in them, he wrote letters. (To
me
!) In
Skeleton Crew
, he said a short story is like “a kiss in the dark from a stranger.”

That thought stayed with me. It rose to the surface when I wrote my first novel, my second, my third. Every time I put words down, I thought about a stranger's kiss in the dark. Anticipation and tension, romance and fear, places where bad things happen, places where wonderful things happen unexpectedly—the dark! Of course!

So I asked some of my favorite authors if they wanted to write about things that only happen in the dark—and they said yes.

From a wrong number that might be right to the blue-and-white pill that makes everything bearable, from the backseat of the Night Trolley to the smoky corners of Club Rose, this anthology contains seventeen kisses in the dark, from strangers.

They might scare you, or haunt you, or show you something you've never seen before. But these authors are trustworthy, I swear. It's safe to go into the dark with them, and this is why:

They're your friends now. They wrote these stories for
you.

 

—S
AUNDRA
M
ITCHELL

I
NDIANAPOLIS
, I
NDIANA

Courtney Summers

Sleepstalk

J
ed Miller is a sleepwalker.

I found out the first night I went to his house. I wanted to break his bedroom window into a million pieces. I had a rock and it felt good and heavy in my hand at first but the closer I got to his place, the lighter it became until finally, I was standing on his front lawn and I wasn't holding anything anymore. It probably would have looked bad to anyone who walked by: me, standing outside Jed Miller's house, staring at his bedroom window with no rock in my hand to break it. But no one walked by. That's how late it was.

It was also cold. Fall was giving itself over to winter and I could see my breath on the air. I wouldn't have known I was alive, otherwise. Ever since my accident, I'd been so empty. I couldn't feel anything. My parents kept telling me it could change if I just started making the effort, but they were wrong. I think they were wrong. The emptiness had to change on its own, and that night it did. It became an itch.

The itch made me pace for hours. It made me shove my knuckles into my mouth. It made my teeth bite down.

It made me crawl out of my bedroom window.

I had edged over the sill and jumped to the ground without hurting myself. I could have crept down the hall and left through the front door—I had the house key in my pocket for when I got back—but the window seemed right because it was the kind of thing I had done before, and I was trying to remember what that felt like. It was hard. I had to rewind past the Jed parts to do it except when I got past the soundless, fast reverse of him in my head, the tape would stop and if I tried to go back any farther, it was blank.

Once my feet were on the ground, I picked up a rock from our flower bed. I walked the streets with it, trying to make sense of this new feeling invading my bones, disturbing my cells. After months of nothing, it was this scream inside me begging to get out and I had to swallow to keep it down. I didn't run into anyone else. The whole world seemed dead, and for a moment I really thought it was. I tossed the rock onto the road just to hear something. The clatter of it was too loud and it made me wince.

I should tell the truth; no one will believe me, but I didn't know I was heading to Jed Miller's house, not that first time. I was told to stay away from him and I did. And if I didn't know I was heading to Jed's house that means I didn't set out to break his window, either.

It's just when I got there, I wished I had. Broken his window, that is.

Because I wanted him to see me.

I wanted to see him.

I wasn't wearing a jacket that first night. I crossed my arms and watched wisps of clouds drift across the sky. They were so faint, the stars shone through them. The moon was close to full and for as late as it was, I could see everything. It was that kind of night. Clear.

Nothing happened until something did.

The front door opened. The subtle
click
of a lock releasing interrupted the quiet all around me, and the Millers' front door swung out. I was already still but I made myself go even stiller than that. I stopped breathing.

A boy stepped outside.

It could've been anyone. It could've been Mr. Miller. It could've been Jed's brother, Erik, but it wasn't. It was Jed. He stood there and turned his face to me, and it was like a thousand knives carved themselves into my skin. I worried I'd bleed out right there, while we stared at each other, and that would be the end of me.

My lungs hurt. I never thought I'd see him again, face-to-face, even though we lived in the same town, even though the only distance between us was mere streets. I worried he wasn't happy I was there, that he'd want me to explain myself. I didn't want to explain. I wanted to ask if he thought about me to see what, if any, emotion flickered across his face when I did.

But before I could, he walked down the stone path leading to the street. He passed me and he kept walking. The shock of it froze me into place. He saw me, but it was like I was so much a part of the landscape, it didn't matter that I was there. It should have mattered.

Nothing should have mattered more.

I opened my mouth to call out to him when it hit me: he was sleepwalking.

I'd never seen anyone sleepwalk before, but some things you just know. His outfit: low-riding pajama pants, a rumpled T-shirt, mussed hair, slippered feet. Glazed eyes. He was there but he wasn't, which meant that I could be there even though I wasn't supposed to be, and with that realization, the clear night became clearer. I could breathe again.

I followed him.

I chose the opposite side of the street to do it. Each of us claimed our own sidewalk. I wanted space between us because I was still overcome with the fragility of our closeness. I didn't want to ruin it in case that night was all I had.

As we walked, I studied him. My mother deleted and burned all of my photos. I had memories, of course, but months without him faded them out so I wanted to imprint this new visual on my soul. Jed Miller is beautiful and to describe him as anything less is less than he deserves. He's a sturdy twenty-year-old with blond hair and blue eyes, the kind of eyes that make you melt. My mother said I needed to teach myself to see beyond them but I wasn't sure how I could do that when they were just as amazing as I remembered them, if not more.

Jed kept walking. I wondered where he was headed, when he'd wake up, or if he'd make it back to his room before then. I remembered hearing somewhere that waking a sleepwalker can kill them, can shock their body dead. That scared me. What if I killed Jed Miller? What if I made a noise and accidentally startled him to death?

I'd never hurt Jed unless I had to.

I turned away and left him, and yes, it was the hardest thing I'd ever done even if it wasn't the first time I'd ever done it. I took a shortcut through the Donnellys' front yard, crossing lawns until I wound up back at my house where I went inside and crawled into bed. The itch was there until the sun came up and then it turned back into the emptiness because I knew Jed was waking up at that moment and he was waking up thinking of her, maybe, and waking up without me, definitely. In spite of it, I hoped he got home safe.

Since my accident, everything is different. I don't go to school. I don't see Jed. There are no more days.

 

N
o one would believe me, but I tried hard to reconcile with what happened that first night.

I tried hard to let it go.

I wasn't supposed to be near Jed Miller, so I decided maybe it was the universe's way of helping me make peace with everything that happened and then I'd move on. Because what were the odds after months of not feeling anything, I'd get that itch that told me to leave the house the same night he just so happened to be sleepwalking?

I also tried to convince myself the itch that displaced my emptiness was a fluke, that it
wasn't
the universe, that I should take what I got and not get too greedy.

But I couldn't help myself.

In the end, I went to Jed's house a second night. Everyone would've gotten so upset if they'd known. I dressed for it. I put on a jacket and I stood outside waiting but he didn't come out so I went home. I read online you can't kill a sleepwalker just by waking them; you have to kill a sleepwalker like you'd kill anyone else.

It was a relief because I didn't want to kill Jed Miller by accident.

I also read sleepwalking is sometimes exacerbated by stress, and then I started to hope maybe he was worried about me, he was thinking about me. The last time we saw each other was not good, so I could understand how it would torment him, and Jed's life was stressful, anyway, what with the pressure of having a father in politics and the entire family constantly in the spotlight—maybe that added to it, too. But mostly, I bet it was me.

I decided I had to be sure.

So the third night, I went to his place again. He still didn't come out. I thought I'd lose it. It was something to be there—the itch lessened, a little—but it was better when I saw him.

I sat on the curb across from his house and waited.

I went to the Millers' place sometimes. Before. But I had to. I did work on Mr. Miller's last campaign. The local TV station interviewed me and I told them I'd vote Miller if I was old enough to vote, and after that, I was occasionally asked to introduce the man himself at his rallies and talk about how much my generation believed in everything he said, like it was God's honest truth. The only thing I really believed in was Jed. I don't like politics. Politics is all strategy and secret keeping and climbing ladders and tearing people apart. But I got involved for Jed, so I had to come over. I
had
to. But it was usually Erik or Mr. or Mrs. Miller at the door—never
him,
no matter how much I hoped.

Until the day it was.

We'd talked before but only in public, at the kinds of events where everyone is on their best behavior and no meaningful words could be exchanged so nothing we said meant anything. But even when we had nothing meaningful to say, he knew I loved him. I know he did because the day he answered the door, he got right to the point. He invited me inside and told me he'd been watching me, too, and I stuttered over words that were so far removed from the normal formalities. He whispered things in my ear.

I have this way with the people I love. I always make sure they feel important around me and when you make people feel important, they want to be around you all the time.

For a while.

So that day he answered the door—Friday, June 10th, at 3:05 p.m.—was the beginning of everything. Each day after, I'd sit outside his house on the curb with my feet pressed flat against the pavement and my palms pressed flat against my knees, hoping he'd see me and invite me in and whisper those things to me all over again.

Sometimes he did. First, he'd open the door wide, gesture me over, and ask,
What are you doing here?
I never answered because there was only ever one reason I was there, and there was only ever one reason he'd open the door. Neither of us had to say it. It was our secret. He'd grin, and we'd go to his room. His hands would be on me, and I felt like I was made of electricity.

All through Jed's father's campaign it was like that. He would steal me into his room and run his hands over my skin, through my hair, and tell me how beautiful he thought I was and I loved it but I hated it, too, because as soon as those moments were over and I had to go home again, I'd feel the absence of that spark, a taste of existing without him.

I don't exist without him.

 

T
he fourth night, he finally came out again.

I was so relieved. Being close to him was terrifying but also made me feel powerful because he wasn't awake and I was and no one could stop us from happening. It was so nice. It was just like the first night; he stayed to his sidewalk and I stayed to mine. I tucked my hands in my pockets and matched his pace perfectly because I thought it would give me an idea of the kind of sleep he was having. It was unhurried and calm.

Jed.
I whispered it so I wouldn't wake him.
Jed, do you think of me?

He didn't answer.

Jed, do you think of me?

His mouth stayed closed.

I think of you all the time. Do you think of me?

He was supposed to say
yes.
Yes, he thought of me all the time. And he missed me. There was a second where it was like something stirred inside him, pulling him from sleep, and I was so sure he'd say what I needed him to say, but Roy Turner's porch light went on before it could happen and I couldn't afford to be seen by anyone, so I ran home.

The fifth night, he came out again and I followed him longer. It made me nervous. I worried he would wake up. I also worried he'd hurt himself and never make it back to his house so he could sleepwalk again and our nights together would end. That worry kept me awake.

The fifth night, no lights came on and I kept whispering that same question over and over because I needed to know.

Jed, do you think of me?

And then the most incredible thing happened: he answered my question.

But not in the way I guessed he would. When we reached the corner, he turned right. I had a feeling where he was going but I wasn't prepared for it. He took another turn, left, and it made me feel cold in a way that had nothing to do with the weather. He was going to the river. I had to stop following him. I didn't like the river. The river is where everything ended.

 

M
y parents wanted to move to a new town to get the ugliness behind us.

They meant well, but they didn't understand. I couldn't imagine giving up all these nights with Jed for days that would be hollow nothings.

I took a rock again, the sixth time out.

I wasn't sure why, but the itch made me feel like I should.

I held on to it, and he didn't show.

The seventh night was the same thing. The eighth night, I was so frustrated I decided to break his window after all. Even if it ruined everything, at least he would have to wake up and see me on his lawn. Maybe that was what was supposed to happen. He'd see me on his lawn and realize his family didn't matter; that girl he was with now, she didn't matter. What happened at the river didn't matter. I raised my arm and steadied myself. I'd never broken a window with a rock in my life—but before I could, the front door opened. He came out.

I love him.

People are funny when you talk to them about love. I don't think most people have the kind of heart I do. I've always been the kind of person who listens to my heart and follows it. When I say I listen to my heart, I mean I
have
to listen to it. It shouts at me. Sometimes it beats so loud, I can't think. When it does that, I have to pay attention, no matter what. It wasn't like the itch, it was different. It didn't tell me
what
to do, it just guided me to the people I needed in my life and then it made me wide open for them. It made me love them so much, it was hard to take.

BOOK: Defy the Dark
6.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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