They Are in Darkness

This story is part of a series I’m doing on childhood dreams, nightmares, and distorted perceptions of reality. Some of the stories have autobiographical ties, but they are mostly fiction. And some of the stories reflect fiction I was writing at that age. It might help to consider all of them and how they all fit together.

Jeff and his cousins have been playing night games at Granny’s house: crafting guns out of Legos and playing seek and destroy outside and inside, including in the unfinished basement. Jeff has taken a bathroom break and is about to wash his hands. He can hear his dad and his Aunt Carole talking in the front room.

“Yeah, so everyone is all on alert again,” says Carole. “There are rumors everywhere that some serial killer like Bundy is working the valleys, breaking into basements and homes, that sort of thing.”

“Have there been murders in the news?” Dad says.

“I thought they were gonna put that Bundy fellow to death,” says Granny. Jeff hears her clink a teaspoon against a teacup—she often has coffee in hand, though she claims it’s hot chocolate.

“Someone is always getting killed somewhere,” says Carole. “Hard to know if that’s a serial killer. Most of that is domestic stuff. But people are scared all over again. Afraid of a Bundy copycat. People thought others would copy him as his execution got close.”

“Is that Bundy fellow dead yet?” Granny says.

“His execution was delayed,” says Dad. “Hopefully, they get him before he escapes again.”

“Was it twice he escaped?” Mom says.

“That’s right,” says Dad.

Jeff washes his hands and starts slowly down the hallway. Jeff has his Lego gun in his hands, and as he walks toward the kitchen his dad spies him and says, “Come in here, son.”

“What for?” Jeff says. “Headed back out to play.”

“Just wanted to say hi to you,” Dad says. Jeff walks over and stands next to his father who sits in an orange armchair across from the green rocking chair. Dad pats him on the back. Granny is in the rocker, and Mom and Carole are on the couch.

“So add that on to what Joseph swears happened here and we can’t get the younger kids to stay anywhere alone for fifteen minutes,” says Carole.

“What did Joseph say happened here?” Mom says.

Carole sighs. “Oh, I’m sure it’s his imagination. But he was staying the weekend with Granny a month or two ago, and she had gone out to Smith Food King to get a few things. He stayed here by himself, and he heard the front door open and an old woman’s voice say, ‘Ah, home. Home at last.’ When he went into the kitchen, no one was there.”

“Really?” says Jeff.

“That’s what he says,” says Carole. “Who knows. The kid is always dreaming up wild games and stories.”

“We don’t know anyone like that, do we, Jeff?” Mom says.

Jeff looks at his dad. “Granny and Grandpa bought the house when it was new, didn’t they?”

Dad shakes his head, takes off his glasses, and rubs his eyes. “No. They were the second owners.”

“Who else lived here?” Jeff says.

Granny sits up a bit and says, “The McMasters. Helen and . . . oh what was his name . . . Steve or Barry or something?”

“Steve,” says Dad. “Barry was their adult son.”

“Her name was Helen?” Jeff asks, his heart pounding hard now.

“Yeah, that’s right,” says Dad. “She died in the back room. My bedroom.”

“Really? So is that who Joseph heard?” Jeff says.

Suddenly, Sean bursts into the room from the kitchen, slamming the door to the garage behind him. “Jeff? What are you doing? Our team is down a guy.”

“I think he was home alone and his imagination got the better of him,” says Carole.

“How did she die?” Jeff says.

Dad puts his glasses back on. “She was a pretty old lady. Barry was grown and out of the house. I think it was a heart attack or something.”

“The rumors were that she had a problem with sleeping pills and overdosed, but the official position was that her heart stopped suddenly,” says Carole.

“Come on, Jeff!” Sean exclaims.

“You better get back to your game,” Dad says.

“So you think the house is haunted?” Jeff says.

Dad laughs. “Son, I slept in that room every night from age eleven through law school. Except for my mission, of course. But every night till I married your mother. I never heard or saw anything. If it was haunted, I think I would know. Now get out there and finish your game.”

Jeff walks away trembling, trying to hide his fear from Sean. As he does, he hears his mother whisper, “Great job, you two. Now none of us will be sleeping tonight because Jeff is gonna think every bump in the night is a ghost.”


Sean charges ahead of Jeff through the kitchen. They both have their toothbrushes in hand and have just finished with their teeth. They just had family prayer in the living room, and Jeff asked when Mom would be coming down.

“Half an hour. Maybe an hour,” she said. “I’ll bring Randi down in a minute after I give her some medicine.”

Sean swings open the heavy door to the garage and scoots by Granny’s 1972 royal blue Buick Regal. Jeff follows more cautiously, pulling the door shut firmly but not too loudly. He passes the car and stops at the door that opens to the backyard. He double checks the handle and finds it locked. He touches the flimsy wood door and shudders. The door into the house is heavy and can be deadbolted. This door is flimsy and light and only has a doorknob lock. Jeff knows from too many crime shows that a doorknob lock can be easily beaten with a credit card, and this door is so flimsy that a crowbar could pop it open easily. What can he do, though? No one will be installing a deadbolt tonight . . . no one has thought to do so his whole life that he has come here in the summer.

Sean is at the bottom of the basement stairs. “Come on, bro.”

“Coming,” says Jeff.

None of the kids go into the unfinished basement alone. The stairs down are cement and painted gray. The metal bannister between them and the car has spiderwebs between the twisted bars. The handle next to the stairs is cold iron. The well at the bottom is the darkest part of the house. The garage light is blocked by other objects that cast a deep shadow across the well.

Jeff gets to the bottom, opens the door, and immediately reaches for the light switch on the left side. When he clicks it on, a plastic Santa Claus nightlight to their right lights up, as do two hanging bulbs at the other end of the basement. Down the middle is wood framing that has never been filled in. Storage boxes, old toys, a broken bike, and a yard gnome are piled on either side of that framing. Following the piles is a wooden crib no one uses anymore. Following that are patches of carpet, and on the carpet are three single beds on the left side of the framing and a double bed on the right side. Strings hang from the lightbulbs, and when they go to sleep at night, they pull those and leave the light switch on so Santa can give them light if they have to go to the bathroom.

Jeff goes ahead of Sean now and walks carefully across the cold cement floor. The air is cool and heavy, and the pipes suddenly rush with water from someone flushing the toilet. Jeff climbs into bed and watches as Sean gets into bed.

“Are you turning off the lights?” Sean says.

“Mom can do it when she gets down here.”

“That’s good,” says Sean. “She’ll leave the nightlight on, too.”

Above them, the floors creak, and Jeff hears footsteps across the kitchen, hears the door to the garage open. Moments later, she enters with Randi. Randi walks on the left side of the framing and Mom walks on the right. Randi gets in bed, while Mom fusses around her nightstand with chapstick and tissues.

“You’re coming down soon, Mom?” Jeff says.

“I just answered this upstairs,” she says. “Make sure you all say your prayers.”

Mom pulls the cord on the bulb above her bed, and that side of the basement falls dark.

“Mom?” Jeff says.

“What, Jeff?” she says with a sigh.

He swallows and tries to get his thoughts out. “I, uh, . . . well, the back door . . . do you think Ted Bundy . . . ?”

“Ted Bundy is in prison in Florida,” Mom says flatly.

“Oh,” says Jeff. But that’s not quite what he’s after. Or not totally.

“Anything else?”

“Well, uh, it’s just that . . .”

“There are no ghosts. Your cousin’s story is just a story. Now go to sleep.”

She steps over and snaps the cord of the bulb above their beds.

The soft light from Santa is visible at the far end of the basement near the door, but they are otherwise in darkness. Jeff watches the form of his mother move away from him across the floor, then disappear behind the basement door. Moments later, he hears her footsteps across the kitchen above as the wood creaks and groans. The TV in the living room is above them, and he can hear muffled laughter from a late-night show.

Jeff looks to his left. His brother is turned away from him and breathing heavily. He looks right. Randi is curled in a ball, hugging a teddy bear, her eyes closed. Jeff listens carefully to all the creaks and noises. The nighttime sprinklers are running softly in the backyard, the washing machine has just been turned on again, someone is washing hands in the bathroom, and muffled voices on the TV are droning toward them through the floor. Now and again, his father’s voice rumbles over the TV.

Jeff strains to hear what would be most difficult. The wire gate to the backyard is four feet tall and has no lock. The walkway to it is paved driveway. The gate is about six feet from the back door. The back door could be opened with a credit card in near total silence. Soft-soled shoes would help an intruder move in silence up the driveway, across the soft Kentucky bluegrass of the backyard, down the cement stairs, and across the unfinished basement floor. If he sleeps, how could he know if someone came for his sister or brother? Of course, being awake would do nothing about Steve and Helen or whoever it was that came stomping around now and again.

It’s all my imagination, he says. Yeah, but that’s probably what Ted Bundy’s victims said too. Jeff lay there staring into the dark, listening for subtle sounds against the backdrop of the creaks, water, and television, hoping his mother would come down, waiting for that moment when he might have to step between a killer or a ghost and his siblings.

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