Broken

catacomb
First sentence submitted by Imtesal Jawaid of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Nyctophobia is the fear of darkness; I’d know, because I’ve got it worse than most. It started before I was old enough to even pronounce the word.

I don’t remember much from my toddler years, but I vividly remember how it felt trying to find my way in the dark of my bedroom, arms swishing in front of me as if swimming blindly through a black ocean, terrified that at any moment some toothy creature might gnash off my wriggling fingers. I remember screaming for Mommy, coughing and crying until my throat hurt. I remember my hands throbbing from slapping them against my door.

It was Dad’s way of breaking me, but I was too young to learn that way. I later read that children don’t understand the concept of consequences until they are three or four-years-old. I believe I proved this to be true, because even though Dad locked me in that room every time I didn’t cooperate with bedtime, it took me months to learn to just go the hell to sleep.

It’s rare to form memories at that age, but such repetitive trauma crawls into your brain and sets down anchors that don’t shift no matter how many years of life’s undertow sweep across them. Images of my father unscrewing the light bulb from the ceiling fixture, unplugging the My Little Pony night light and whipping around, the pronged cord dragging behind him like a devil’s tail, the slam of the door, his voice, while I cry and fumble with the child-proof handle, a different voice, the voice he only uses when he’s angry, “This is what happens when you don’t listen! Why do you do this the hard way every single night? Go to bed!” And then the crack of hallway light below the door disappears one hand-width at a time, he’s stuffing it with a towel.

Mom hated when he locked me in there like that. She told me years later that sometimes she cried harder about it than I did. She pleaded with him several times that it wasn’t fair to me, that I was too young to understand, but he always met her with the same criticism, “If you go in there now you’re just reinforcing her ridiculous behavior. Haven’t you ever heard of Pavlov’s dogs? You’re going to teach her that when she throws a fit she gets exactly what she wants.”

I don’t mean to shame my father. He was a great dad. Other than those dark and scary nights, I never doubted that he loved me dearly. He did all the things little girls dreamed their dads would do – he built me a dollhouse, snuggled up with me on the couch to watch cartoons, had squirt gun fights with me, taught me how to drive and bought me my first car, never missed my softball games. I know now how stressful it sometimes is to be a parent. Though I would never do anything like that to my daughter, I’m certainly not perfect either.

This phobia of mine is just a scar I’m forced to acknowledge. We all have a few scars to remind us of past pain, some are just harder to ignore than others.

Bless my husband, Drew, he doesn’t mind sleeping with the closet and bathroom lights on and the doors cracked. I own eleven flashlights, one in every room of the house, two in the basement, one in my purse. I do battery checks every Wednesday and Sunday.

Drew is out of town this weekend, so I bumped my check up a night. Without the light Drew’s security provides, my imagination throws me through black holes and seas of antimatter, crashing down with threatening emptiness on me and my daughter, who, I realize while approaching the flashlight drawer in the kitchen, I have not seen in a while.

“Delilah?” I call.

I should be concerned about her when she doesn’t respond, but instead the panic that blasts me explodes from the empty flashlight drawer.

“Delilah?” I call, urgency expanding higher into the tight chamber of my chest.

I run to the living room. The flashlight on the mantle is gone too. I turn away, straight into a standing lamp, and together we crash to the carpet. The lampshade crumples. I hear the crush of the bulb. The ceiling fixture still gleams, but it feels as though it, too, will soon be gone. Every light seems as fragile as a candle flame, like dying torches extinguishing with the wind of some creature whipping past, galloping toward me along the halls of a catacomb, a wall of bones ahead, past meals ready for me to join them.

“Mom!” Delilah screams.

I look through the foyer in the direction of her voice. The front door is open, and the night swallows everything beyond. I push up from the mess of the lamp, away from the sour, salty smell of the broken bulb’s gases which grow chalky in my mouth.

“Where are you?” I call.

“Outside! Help!”

She’s only thirteen. I know nothing of the dangers lurking in that dark corner of Hell out there, but whatever they are I doubt she can fight them herself. I step toward the door while searching for anything that will help. A gun? A rope to throw? Where the fuck are my flashlights?

“Mom!” Delilah shrieks.

I trigger the switch for the porch light. Nothing happens.

“Dammit, Drew,” I say, because he should have noticed it wasn’t working, because he’s not here to spare me this nightmare, because he’s not here to save his daughter.

The only light outside is that which falls through the doorway into a long rectangle across the porch, a shadow of my body standing in the center.

“Mom, please,” Delilah cries.

I think I see her, a dim figure to the right, my eyes struggling to capture more of the moonlight that fights weakly through the clouds, and then I see the second figure.

Much taller.

Sprinting at her.

“Get away from her you sick son-of-a-bitch!” I scream.

I have no choice but to thrust forward into the heart of the darkness, to face the darkness in my heart, but I forget about the steps. The porch falls away, and I slam down upon the cold sidewalk.

I climb to my feet and spin around in search of Delilah. Scrapes burn my hands. My twisted ankle and jammed wrists are epicenters of outward pulsing aches. Disoriented, compressing under the weight of my anxiety, searching for something I can’t find, I’m transported back to my three-year-old self stumbling around, my arms flailing in front of me.

“Lucy,” the man says, “get a hold of yourself.”

How does he know my name?

A hand snatches my arm.

“Knock if off you creep!” I cry. “Somebody help!”

He captures my other arm. His rough hands squeeze tighter. I squirm and kick. My lungs can’t catch up with my breaths. My foot connects with something, but with no shoes agony jams into my toes and up my metatarsals.

Delilah is in fits. “Stop it!” she screams. “Just stop!”

A second large body slams into us. The first one is ripped away from me.

“Get inside!” the second man yells. “Lock the door!”

I move toward Delilah’s cries until I feel her arms wrap around my rib cage. I grasp her wrist and yank her with me. We hurry toward the glowing haven on the other side of the open front door. Behind us they’re grunting, wrestling, fighting, their attempts at words cut breathless halfway through. I guide Delilah up the steps. Our feet pound across the porch. We cross the threshold, and the light bleeds through my skin into my spirit like a warm shower on a winter day, melting away the gooseflesh. I slam the door. Engage the deadbolt.

Delilah falls and curls on the carpet, her body jerking with deep, hyperventilating sobs, her perfect little face filmed with snot and sloppy with tears. I bunch the front of my shirt in my hand and wipe her face, drawing clear, glistening streaks across the fabric. I’d get a wet washcloth, but I don’t want to leave her; I don’t want her to be alone. I don’t want myself to be alone.

I stroke her back and say, “It’s okay, baby. Momma’s here now.”

Her pajama shirt speckles dot by dot from my dripping eyes. The faint wail of sirens emerges in the distance and then crescendoes until flashes of red and pale blue burst at the edges of the curtains. The sirens stop. The flashing remains.

“Hands up!” I hear. “Get on your knees! Slowly!”

The strobing lights, my daughter’s terrified face, the broken lamp in the corner; I want to close my eyes and pretend it’s all gone away, but even the dark behind my eyelids seems full of evil, and each time I’m forced to blink it throws another violent blip to the limits of my EKG, so I hold my eyes wide as long as I can and try to calm the wild jump of my jugular, throwing itself against the inside of my neck.

I envy Delilah as I watch her tired, blue eyes slide into their sleeping bags. Her innocence lulls my frantic mind as though the universe has shifted and she’s now the one cradling me, just as I had done for her so many times. I stop fussing and stirring. Sleep sneaks up on me. It taps me on the shoulder and whispers in my ear. I’m about to whisper back, but the doorbell rings and yanks me back into consciousness and pushes me into fear.

I stand and stare at the door. Seconds tick off a loud internal clock.

The doorbell rings again.

“Mrs. Madison,” a muffled voice says from the other side of the door, “it’s the police. We need you to speak to you.”

I ease forward to the peephole. My eye hovers in front of the glass. The faces of two men in black uniforms with dully shining badges stand on the other side. The presence of their authority should offer some sense of relief, but as I disengage the deadbolt it clacks with an unsettling finality, and as I wrap my fingers around the knob and open the door my muscles squeeze my bones, bracing in fear of the looming night about to throw itself against me.

And sure enough, it’s there, behind them, bleeding in on us, though they don’t seem to notice.

“Evening, Mrs. Madison,” says an officer. “Are you and your daughter okay?”

I steal my focus from the void just long enough to make eye contact. “I think so. Just shaken up,” I say, and again my attention goes to the terror beyond. Their unilluminated squad cars parked crooked at the edge of my lawn look like dormant animals with empty eyes.

“Mrs. Madison,” the officer on the left says, “we have two of your neighbors detained right now, and they have two very different accounts of what just took place on your front lawn. We’re going to need your side of the story.”

“My neighbors?” I ask.

“Yes,” the officer on the right says. He lifts a clipboard and reads from it, “William Burleson and Anthony Pritchard.”

“Bill and Tony?” I ask.

“Mom,” Delilah says.

“One second,” I say, squinting to discern the silhouettes of the men in the backs of the squad cars.

“Mom, it was me,” Delilah says.

I look down to my daughter. She is sitting with the soles of her shoes flat on the floor and her knees pulled to her chest.

“What was you?” I ask.

“I took your flashlights,” she says. “I took the bulb out of the porch light. Then I screamed to get your attention. To force you to come out in the dark so I could say, ‘Look, there’s nothing to be scared of.’

“It’s called immersion therapy,” she says. “I saw it on TV. Bill must have heard me and tried to help. Then you freaked out. He tried to grab you and calm you down. Then Tony came out of nowhere, and he got between you two. He probably thought Bill was hurting you.”

“What?” I say, dreary, struggling to wrap around her words, gaze turning back to the chasm outside, waiting for the officers to move so it can shove its way into me.

A denser cloud slides between us and the moon. Darkness darkens.

Delilah says, “I was trying to fix you.”