“A Spark in the Night” – Rick Mitchell

I remember seeing nothing at first, except for an oppressive darkness; a kind of binding absence that wrapped itself over me again and again, and I was alone. All sense of place and time were lost. There was only blackness. I couldn’t move either, just look ahead of myself, trying to make shapes out of the blank space before me until, in the very center of my vision, a light sprang into existence. I suppose I could say it was more like a spark than a light, as it danced like one tossed from a campfire, tumbling in the air until it went out. But just before the little spark extinguished, two more popped into existence, and now these two danced about until they went out, their passing met by more and so on, until finally those little sparks became a flame, and the flame turned to light. Its brightness shone until there was no darkness left.

Then I was running. I was running as fast and as far as my legs would carry me. I ran through fields and forests, across plains and swamps, up hill, down hill, over, around, and even under mountains, and I swam the rivers and streams that I came to, and I never tired; my lungs never ached, my heart never pounded, my knees never buckled. Each step brought me closer to something I was looking for, though what I couldn’t say. As I traveled a feeling without proper name crept slowly into my mind, growing stronger and stronger as I approached my destination; at first I would have said it felt like being scared but, just before waking—I would have called it terror.

Paul sat in bed, his shoulders slouched, hands wiping the sleep and sweat from his eyes and brow. A murmur rose from the pillows,

“What’s wrong, baby?” a cracked, dry voice whispered.

“ Its nothing, just a bad dream. Go back to sleep.” He kissed his wife on the forehead, running his hand through her hair, “ I’m gonna get up, maybe watch some TV or something.”

She protested gently, “ but it’s four in the morning. You gotta get some sleep for work. Besides, you might wake Elizabeth.”

Paul turned over and slid out of bed, his feet quickly finding his dark-brown slippers. “ She sleeps like a stone. Always has, ever since she was a baby.”

She chuckled lightly to herself, “She is a baby Paul. She’s only four years old.”

Paul headed for the master bathroom, his hand fumbling for the switch, “Her room is upstairs Holly. So long as I don’t bang shit around it’ll be fine. Dammit—where’s the—Holly we gotta fix this light switch.”

She rolled onto her back and sighed, “Hiding again?”

The light flicked on as Paul reached for his toothbrush, “It’s always moving. I swear that switch is never in the same place twice.”

Holly laughed quietly to herself, “Uh-huh… and how do you plan on fixin’ that’?

Paul poked his head out of the doorway, toothpaste on his lips and chin, “ Aren’t you supposed to be sleeping?”

She smiled, “Goodnight Paul.”

He closed the bathroom door quietly, “goodnight.”

Turning on the sink, he let the water run, a finger dangled in the stream, supposedly checking the temperature, but rather feeling the water pass over the skin, relaxing the hand, its pressure constant and steady, attracting his eye to the flow of water, a million little droplets coalesced together, with an occasional fleck leaving the stream or bouncing from the bottom of the sink, tossed wildly in the air, turning over and tumbling to oblivion. Paul couldn’t help but be reminded of his dream; of the sparks, the light, and the feeling. It was all rather strange to him. Where dreams should be fuzzy and detail should fade, his mind recalled every tree, the way the wind stirred the grass, or how he ran and ran, though to what end he didn’t know—he would never know.

The water, now smoldering, called Paul back to his senses. He adjusted the temperature of the water and washed his face, trying to wipe the dream from his mind. He crept from the room where Holly lay, fast asleep, her breathing even and deep, and slipped into the hallway. The soles of his slippers gave a dull click off the wood floor as he walked quietly down the hall, past several collages and photos of his family, all in matching frames, evenly spaced along the wall, his daughter the focus of every photo but one of his wedding day: a black and white photo of Holly, her back arched, her breast against his chest, his hand along the small of her back, fingers spanning the gap between each of her hips, the two smiling, their eyes lightly glossed and glinting, connected at the iris, pupils reflecting the feeling the photo sought to capture.

Paul turned on the TV and absent-mindedly flipped through the channels for a few minutes trying to find something decent on, but was quickly disheartened, turned the TV off and headed to the kitchen. He put a pot of coffee on and watched sleepily as the coffee drained into the pot. Its drip was slow—steady—rhythmic, filling the glass holder a sliver at a time, the liquid at its base darkening with each drop, going from a dirt-like color to a dark brown, and darker still to blackness. Paul stared at its depth, and was reminded once again of his dream; of the blackness that enveloped him, the sparks, and the immense fear that gripped him. He listened to the dripping and thought of rain and how it used to scare him as a child, hearing it bounce off his bedroom window or the wind rattle the house. He still didn’t like storms. Neither did Elizabeth. It would seem she had inherited the fear from him. She was a lot like him. She even had his eyes—green and dazzling. She was stubborn sometimes—also like him—and wanted things done her way. To top it off, she had her mother’s charm, and always knew how to get exactly what she wanted. He chuckled as he poured a glass of coffee and headed back into the living room.

The house was so quiet this time of night. Paul sat and sipped his coffee and listened to the frogs outside, nesting in the pond at the edge of the yard, competing with the crickets, their sounds muted by the walls of the house, reduced to nothing more than a gentle lull in the background, broken by the sounds of the occasional car passing by. Here the birds roused earlier than most places, their chirps and squeaks lording over the rest. Every now and then a stiff gust of wind would whip across the yard and batter the house. Its boards would moan in protest, a creek erupting here and there or a pop-like sound of the wood set in motion occasionally gapped the relative hush that lacquered the home.

Nearing the end of my coffee I heard the sound of feet moving along the upstairs hallway. The steps were quiet and slow, and had no resemblance to the sound of children’s feet. If it had been my daughter the steps would have been reckless and quick, a pitter-patter specific to children, the door to her room would have been slammed shut, the frame would have rattled with the stress, and I wouldn’t have thought about it another minute. These steps were not the tread of children’s feet. These steps were careful. Calculated. Terrifying.

The creaking, quiet at first, grew louder as the steps drew closer to the bedroom resting above the living room—Elizabeth’s room. Paul’s breath caught in his lungs. In a single moment his mind had turned flips in his head, a whirl and buzz of questions blurring together, becoming nonsense flooding in, ebbing through his consciousness as the tide, permeating all that he was—and then clarity came, first like a spark, and then like a light, shining through the sudden chaos of his mind.

He fumbled his cup on its way to the coffee table, letting it hit the carpet without so much as a glance, running out of his slippers, moving as quickly and quietly as he could to the base of the stairs. He listened carefully for a few seconds, with one hand on the banister, the other clenched and tense, sweat beginning to pool in his palm. He strained his ears to hear any sound at all, but none was heard—so he climbed slowly, his feet meeting each step without a sound. Reaching the top, he felt a chill wind rush down the staircase, chilling him to the bone. The window at the end of the hall was open, not more than eight feet to his left. His eyes went from the window to the floor. Mud had been left in the shape of boots, whose trail wandered down the hall, past the staircase and study straight towards his daughter’s bedroom. Elizabeth’s door, on the left side of the hall, stood ajar only a few inches. Paul’s brow furrowed, his chest tightened, his palms wet from sweat, his heart thumping in his chest, determined to beat right out of his rib cage. He took deep, slow breaths as he stepped stealthily down the hall, hoping that his tread was at least a little quieter than his raging heart, and that the blood in his ears didn’t dampen all sound from being heard.

Halfway to the door Paul stepped on a loose board, its creak and moan like thunder to his eardrums, his head fevered with frantic thoughts, hastened into frenzy by the adrenaline pumping through him.  Another sound drifted to his ears, diffusing through the air like a foul odor, assaulting his senses, stopping him in mid step, his body held rigid by the strain of perception. A whimper escaped from the room at the end of the hall, but a hurried shush quickly stifled it. Brief whispers, meant only for the person addressed, inaudible to all other ears and vastly imperceptible to most, crept from the room. He took another step down the hall, both hands clenched now, his shoulders rigid, his teeth tightly clenched. His eyes could see where the muddy boot prints ended, inches before the door, which rested ajar not more than the width of his hand. He stood as close to the door as he could get, one hand on the frame, the other against the door itself, ready to push the door open; to burst in, switch on the light, and see if his fears had come true—if there was an intruder in his house.

It’s funny the things people won’t admit to themselves. Standing outside that door, my daughter on the other side—I knew what was happening even before I saw it. The open window at the other end of the hall. The muddy prints leading me to her room. But still some part of me hoped in that moment before going in that I was wrong; that my daughter was alone in her bed, and that nobody would be with her, and I could go and tuck her in, give her a kiss on the forehead, and watch her dream—that I could crawl in bed with my wife, and forget any of it happened. A part of me hoped this too was a bad dream, like the one that woke me on that horrible night.

He heard her whimper once more, the sound of her tiny voice setting him in motion. He burst through the door to find a dark figure looming above his daughter, one hand over her mouth, the other on the wall she huddled against. The voice shushed her softly and the figure did not move as Paul entered the room, but instead stayed focused on his daughter; on the one he had come for, this shadowy visage, undefined except for his largeness and his presence, quieting her, comforting her in such a way that terrified her into compliance. “ You got three seconds to get the fuck out of my house, understand?” Paul’s voice shook with anger. He was a coil ready to spring at the first sign of aggression. The figure didn’t move or take its eyes off his daughter. “ Do you think I’m fucking kidding, asshole?”

“ No, I don’t believe you are. I’d be protective of her too, if she were my daughter. So beautiful and small. I wouldn’t share her with anyone else.” Paul felt the intruder gaze at him, combing over him, taking him in; sizing him up. The figure slowly rose from the bedside. Even in the dark, Paul could tell the man was much larger than him, standing at least half a foot taller and filling the room with a powerful oppressiveness his stature and demeanor afforded him.

“ You sick bastard, you shut your mouth, you got me? Not one more word. You don’t even fuckin’ look at her.” Paul’s voice now quaked in the back of his throat, his trembling tone threatening and lethal.

The man spoke, his voice deep and confident; a rasp set in its low tone, his speech more steady than Paul’s, “ I knew she was perfect the moment I saw her—her hand in her mother’s, walking to the car after grocery shopping. I knew it when I followed her here, to your home. And when I saw her playing in the yard—all the countless times I drove by, I knew what she was. I knew what you had—what I wanted. Do you know what it’s like, to covet? It’ll bring a man to many deeds. You see,” the man edged closer to Paul as he continued, “We all have our vices. We all have our sins. Beauty is my vice. Coveting, my sin—”

Paul lunged at the man, his fist rifling through the air, knuckles hoping to bite flesh. The dark figure staggered to the side and let loose a swing of his own, hitting Paul on the side of the face; knocking him off balance. The intruder laid his shoulder into Paul and the two crashed to the floor, grappling and swapping vicious blows.

It didn’t matter what I did. I punched and kicked, clawed and scratched; I grabbed anything my hands could find in the dark to hit with. I wrestled him with all my strength, but I couldn’t get the better of him. At some point in the struggle Holly woke up. She called the police, then came crashing into the room, hitting the light switch as she went. When the light flicked on, I saw his face, but only for an instant. A moment later he struck me; his blow knocked me unconscious. In the moment that I did see him, I remembered only his eyes. He looked into mine, my green eyes reflecting off the pale blue-grey of his own, and I saw his joy. He relished in the struggle. I don’t remember anything else about him—just those eyes.

Holly stormed into the room, adrenaline pumping at the cries of her daughter, and the sight of her husband on the floor. She grabbed a lamp and shattered it across his face as the intruder struggled to his feet from atop Paul. He grabbed her and threw her to the floor, getting down on top of her, pressing against her body. He laughed at her as she struggled; chuckling quietly in her ear as she fought relentlessly to break his grasp. Somehow, she slipped a hand free and grabbed the man by his groin with a crushing grip. He moaned in pain as she slipped out from under him and kicked his ribs and face. He fell on his back and rolled to his stomach, and was silent.

Holly stood, breathing heavily, covered in sweat, blood running down her face from a cut she couldn’t feel; her hands and feet tingled and trembled, her heart uncontrollable in her chest, her body battered, bruises forming already in several different places, her eyes fixed on the man—ready for any sign of movement. He lay still, only a few feet from Paul. “ Elizabeth, you come to mommy right now, you understand me?” She turned to see her daughter clutching her blanket, pulled up to the bridge of her nose, the fabric below her face wet with tears, sniffling and shaking, paralyzed by the scene that had unfolded and unsure of what to do. In her terror she had wet the bed. “ Mama?” she said in her smallest voice. Holly snatched her up, blanket and all, and ran from the room. They made it halfway to the staircase before the intruder had gotten to his feet again.

He called out to them in rage, his voice loud and booming as he stepped into the hallway, “You can’t run from me!” Holly stopped, her daughter clinging to her. She felt her daughter’s heartbeat fluttering over her own—her terrified grasping of her mother’s shoulders; she felt her fear.

“ I’ve called the police!” She yelled back defiantly. Again, the intruder laughed, his daunting figure seemingly larger by the second.

“ Do you think they’ll be here soon enough?” He rushed down the hall at her, his first step sending Holly in flight down the staircase. He chased her to the first floor of the house, knocking pictures off the walls in his bull-like rampage after her. Holly ran as fast as she could, getting one hand on the knob of the front door before the intruder caught up with her.

She was found on the steps of our house, unconscious and alone. I came to on the way to the hospital in the ambulance. Holly didn’t stir until morning, when the sun first crested the edge of her bedside window, creeping through the pale-colored curtains to rest on her face. She didn’t say anything for a long time after that—she blamed herself for Elizabeth. I suppose I blamed myself too for a long time after that.

The police did what they could. An amber alert was put into effect, and surrounding areas were notified to be on the look out for an abducted four year old—her photo ran on the five o’clock news for several weeks. Search parties and volunteers scoured the county, and later the state, in search of some sign of her.

People from all over sent flowers with cards, wishing us well and telling us to keep faith; to trust in God, and that all this was somehow part of some divine plan. Our house was visited by everyone in the neighborhood. Some of them we knew, and others we didn’t. People would come and go, some just to talk, others to ask questions. Questions I didn’t have the answers to. Questions nobody did.

Hundreds of tips came in; people claiming they had seen my daughter in New York or Chicago, at a gas station off the beaten path somewhere, or leaving some diner off the interstate, headed due south in a dark-colored car, truck, or van. Nothing panned out. It was almost as if she had never been. Did I ever have a daughter? Was that life a dream?

At night—before I sleep—I imagine she is still in her bed, the pillows and blankets wrapped about her, a stuffed animal posting watch, somewhere near the foot of the bed; a sentinel dropped from her grasp at passing into unconsciousness. I imagine her breathing, small but steady, and her eyes trembling beneath their lids. I imagine she is in her room—her home—with us, her family not much more than a flight of stairs away.

Then, like I imagine her to be, I too fall into dreams. Dreams where I find myself running. Running as fast and as far as my legs will carry me. I run through fields and forests, across plains and swamps, uphill, downhill, over, around, and even under mountains. I swim the rivers and streams that I come to, and I never tire. My lungs never ache. My heart never pounds. My knees never buckle. I am looking for something, always searching, knocking aside brush and tall grass, eyes scanning the horizon, and as I travel on a feeling without proper name consumes me. At first it feels like I’m afraid, but the feeling grows until its terror. Until I wake. Like a spark in the night, the dream that once burned so brightly ends, and I am lost in the darkness of my home.

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