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Boot Camp Day 3: Searching in the Dark

It’s the same dream, but it’s always different. I am back in the old house, the one where we lived before the war came and my father lost his job and we had to move north. I know, as I always know, that HE is here. He is here in the house with me. I can’t hear him, I never see him, I don’t want to see him, because I know what will happen if he finds me.

I wake up in my bed in the room we shared. I look around me in the darkness. I can see the three windows, filled with starlight and street lights. There is more light out there, on the shingles of the roof outside the windows, more light on the lawn that slopes away toward the valley. It is most dark inside the house, but this room isn’t the darkest.

Everything is there as we left it. The huge old radio sits on the dresser we shared. His big desk, my smaller one. His piled with books I couldn’t understand, with magazines, with the tools and supplies for his fly-tying, with pieces of leather and electrical components that I couldn’t identify. My desk has only an orderly row of books standing between two plain wooden L bookends. They are fiction—dog-eared paperbacks and thrift-store third editions of second-rate spy thrillers, science fiction, ghost stories.

I know that I cannot hide in the closet. That’s the first place he’ll look. That was always the first place he looked, and everyone had to learn that hard lesson once. I contemplate the attic door. He has to stoop to go through it, but I don’t. But I don’t know what I will find behind the small door. Will it be as we left it, packed from the center aisle below the peak of the roof all the way out to the eaves with moldering cardboard boxes and bug-infested baskets of old linens, broken toys, strands of Christmas lights, and outdated appliances? It used to be a maze of hiding places and a source of unexpected treasures. But this is a dream. Might I open the door to find the attic empty, and hear his footsteps in the hall outside our bedroom door? Will the bare bulb that hangs halfway between the door and the outer wall of the house be lighted, or will I have to feel my way carefully across the plywood sheets, reaching for the chain that hangs somewhere before me in the dark? No, I should not have wasted these moments considering the attic.

I climb out of the bed. In this dream, I am always surprised again to find how short my legs are. In my waking life, I cannot remember being small. It seems to me that I was always big, and strong, and if not an object of fear, at least imposing enough to avoid most physical confrontations. But my short legs—they are thin, too, not the sturdy pillars into which they would grow—my short legs barely reach the floor. I feel the carpet. Even in the dark, I remember its shades of brown and gold. I tiptoe to the door and press my ear against it. Nothing. He is not in the hallway. I think I would be able to hear his breathing. I pull the door open, taking care to keep the hinges from squeaking or the knob from banging against the wall.

In the faint glow of the nightlight coming from the open door of the bathroom, there is no sign of him in the hallway or in the open door of my parents’ bedroom at the far end. The other doors are all closed. He could be behind any of them. But that is not his usual game.

I keep to the wall on my right, from where I’ll have the best view into the bathroom and the open bedroom door. When I am outside the bathroom, I drop to my knees. I reach out and place the palm of my right hand on the cool linoleum. I know somehow that he is not in the bathroom. I draw back my hand and think about the space underneath the vanity. I could fit in there. I think of the warm, wet smell, and now I can almost smell it. No, not there.

He wouldn’t go in my parents’ bedroom. I know he wouldn’t. He pretends to have no respect for authority, and I think he is afraid of nothing, but we have been given a few rules, and he knows that we are not allowed in there when Mom and Dad aren’t home.

I wonder for a moment where they are. In the dream I cannot remember that one of them is two thousand miles from here and the other has been gone for 15 years. I am too young to think about these things.

I make my way down the stairs, careful to walk only on the ends of the treads where the nails are. Walking on the well-worn middle path makes squeaks and pops that you can hear from the front porch. Fourteen steps. I have to be more careful now. There is no nightlight in the downstairs hall. We aren’t supposed to go downstairs during the night. The curtains are drawn, and in this dream, there is never a light burning from my father’s study at the back corner of the house, and my mother is never in the kitchen making a cup of chamomile tea before bed.

I am quick to move away from the vulnerable open position at the foot of the stairs. Around the end of the banister to the left, there’s a small space next to the telephone table. I fit in this space, and in the deep darkness, no one can see my pale legs or the light-blue cotton of my summer pajamas. I wait here a few moments. It is always while I pause here that I realize that as much as I don’t want to do it, I must go into the basement.

Note: The prompt was “searching in the dark.” The character from whom the narrator is hiding—or whom he is seeking, perhaps—is loosely based on my brother, who did not abuse or torment me in the darkness (at least not on any regular basis), even if that’s how this piece kind of sounds.

© 2008 Edward F. Gumnick

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