It’s June ’78, and I’m in a panic-driven sprint behind my older sister. I feel the cool splash of linoleum hit the soles of my feet as we race into our farmhouse kitchen, one final lunge to stop her before—
“Daddy, Cheryl’s afraid of the dark!”
I mouth ‘I hate you’ to my sister behind my father’s back.
Daddy turns to me and I see his brow furrow, etching deeper marks onto his weathered skin. I’m ten years old, attempting to lie my way out of a bad situation.
“Is this true?”
I lower my eyes and study my bare feet, splotchy with the dust of the day’s adventures. No eye contact will give me the best chance of lying with conviction. I trace figure eight patterns onto the green speckled flooring with my big toe, and ready myself for a persuasive denial.
“So, you’re not afraid of the dark?”
The words bring shame. Up to this point, the only thing I’d been taught to fear was the prospect of an eternity in hell for lying. Fear was unacceptable; especially fear of the dark because it’s unreasonable. My lie is weakening but I’m fully invested in it, so I continue to deny the truth and shake my head no, I’m not afraid of the dark. My father bends down to my level.
Eye to eye now, the lie slides off me. Daddy catches it.
“See, Daddy. I told you. She’s afraid of the dark,” my sister says.
I plan to disown her and never speak to her again.
For the most part, she’s a loving sister. Just two years apart, we share a bedroom. She is patient and comforting at bedtime as I will not sleep until she completes ‘the routine’. If the routine is neglected at lights-out, I whine or cry until she complies. If I can’t sleep, why should she?
“Closet! Check the closet.”
“I’m checking the closet. See? There’s nothing in here.”
“You have to turn the light on so I can see!”
“Fine. The light’s on. Look. No monsters. No boogeymen.”
“Look under my bed!”
“Look under your bed, too! It could be hiding under your bed, crawl out from under there when you turn out the light, and get us both!”
“Both beds. I’m looking under both beds. There is nothing under either one of them.”
“Behind the door?”
“Nothing behind the door.”
She tucks the covers around me all the way up to my neck.
“See? You’re safe.”
“Thank you, Sissy.”
Lastly, Sissy must make a run for it once she hits the lights because any creeping thing can materialize under our beds if our feet are on the floor longer than a few seconds in the dark. Bed is the safe zone sort of like home base during hide-and-seek.
Sissy tells Daddy the whole routine. My cheeks burn red.
There is a lesson coming, I know, but I could never have guessed the lengths to which my father would go to toughen me up against the night.
“Daddy, No. Please.”
There on our Tennessee family farm, there are no homes visible without a lengthy stroll. This is the lesson. I am to walk around the lake, through the woods to my grandmother’s house, and back. Alone. In the dark. An exercise meant to prove to me there is nothing in the darkness that can hurt me. There is no way I’m getting out of it.
I need shoes. I choose super-fast ones, knock-off royal blue sneakers with white stripes on the sides like the ones Starsky wears on Starsky & Hutch. Daddy calls for me from the front porch.
“Go on now.”
“Will you leave the porch light on for me?”
“I sure will. It’ll be on the whole time. Your grandmother’s porch light will be on, too.”
I step off the porch, most certainly to end my young life, turn back, and look as pitiful as I can.
“Daddy, can I please, please have a flashlight?”
“Your grandmother will give you one for your walk back. Go on now. You’ll be fine. There is nothing out there that can hurt you.”
I don’t believe him.
I walk toward the lake, as slowly as a June bride saunters toward her groom, heightening anticipation, only I’m not anticipating—I’m scared as hell. I hesitate at the place where the light from our porch goes dark. It’s a clean line in the grass. Here is light, I am safe here. One more step, and the night will take me. I force one foot across that protective line, one foot in the safety zone, one foot touching down into nightmares. It’s just a dream. Nothing can hurt you in a dream. It’s just a dream. I squeeze my eyes shut. When I open them, I’m still between good and bad, light and dark. I snatch my foot back out of the darkness, better not to straddle this place and that one. I force myself across.
I walk very quickly, as quickly as my small legs will take me. I’m almost running when I hear something behind me. I knew it! I stop and listen but I’m too afraid to turn around. Maybe it’s an animal. I will my feet to move forward. I creep along at first and then quicken my pace once more. I hear it again. There is something following me. I glimpse a shape not animal-like moving behind the trees. I knew it! I run! It runs, too! I hear the thing moving faster to track me better. I yell into the night.
“You were wrong, Dad! There is something out here!”
There is something. I hear it through the woods and all the way around the lake. It’s only when I near my grandmother’s house the rustling stops. My grandmother is a Godly woman. Whatever is back there is from hell and wouldn’t dare go near my grandmother’s house. It’s a holy place. Jesus is everywhere in that house. Her bible will be at her bedside table, the pages loosened from their binding because it’s been opened and closed so much, mostly opened, it’s hardly ever closed. There is a picture of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane in the living room above the couch. There are enough crosses to fend off a large coven of vampires if necessary. Or witches. And there are handwritten scriptures tacked to the walls, refrigerator, mirrors – anywhere you need them. Psalm 23 is on the bathroom mirror so you can read it while you’re washing your hands. I don’t even have to look anymore…Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.
I’m sobbing when I make it to grandmother’s. I throw myself into her arms. I tell her there’s something out there, something straight from hell. She comforts me and assures me it’s just my imagination. I know she believes in the devil. Satan, Satan. She talks about him nearly as much as she talks about Jesus. She’s a believer. She can believe in whatever followed me, too. It’s then I learn about the limits to my grandmother’s supernatural belief system. She hands me a flashlight. My loving grandmother, as wicked as any hell-creature my mind could conjure up.
“You can’t send me back out there!”
Sadly, she says there’s no other way. She reminds me of my imagination once more, and then firmly sends me to my death. My own grandmother, with Jesus right there watching. I’m flooded with righteous indignation. I tell her she is a child abuser, and child abusers go to hell. She tells me she will be praying for me the whole way and that God will protect me. I don’t believe her.
“I don’t want you coming to my funeral because it’s gonna be your fault I died!”
I decide to put her on my list of family members to disown should I make it through this alive. Disown: Sissy because she did this to me, Daddy since he lied about there not being anything out here that could hurt me, and my grandmother—the child abuser. I make sure she sees me stomping toward the lake.
When the glow of her porch light no longer holds me, I soften my steps. But now, Sweet Jesus! I click on the flashlight and exhale a long and grateful sigh. I walk fast again. I hear the same sounds from before behind me, but this time, I’m protected by the light. I whip around and aim the beam into the woods.
“I know you’re out there! Leave me alone!”
This is how it goes. I move faster, the thing behind me moves faster, I shout my bluff—You better leave me alone! It works. The thing in the woods finally leaves me. Moments before I make it home, I hear it scurry off through the trees.
Miracle of miracles, I am home. I walk in and hand the flashlight over to my father as proof I made it to grandmother’s. I say not one word to him. I’m tired anyway, and I know the less I say, the worse he’ll feel. I go to my room and crawl into bed. My sister comes in not long after. Happy to be alive, I decide I don’t hate her anymore. I probably won’t disown my father or grandmother either, although I won’t soon forget their betrayal. Sissy goes to the closet, opens the door, and switches on the light.
“Nothing in the closet.”
“Doesn’t matter,” I tell her. “Even if there is something in the closet or under our beds, I think it’s more afraid of us than we are of it. So you don’t have to check anymore.”
“You can tuck me in though.”
Sissy pulls the covers snugly around my body all the way up to my neck, and I push my arms back through the cocoon. She smiles down at me, and then suddenly falls to the floor as if something has grabbed her from underneath my bed. She makes loud strangling sounds and cries for help.
We die laughing.
Dad was killed chopping wood two days after Christmas ’93. A massive coronary at the age of fifty-six. He was buried in the family cemetery there alongside the farm. It was the coldest day of our lives.
It was raining. Freezing, sleeting, and raining. I sat beside Sissy in front of daddy’s casket. Our friends and family gathered around us, more people than I’d ever seen at any graveside service. On the way to the cemetery, I looked behind us at the procession. Vehicle after vehicle, I could not see the end. Cars lined up on both sides of the road, and just kept coming. They hugged the cold off us the best they could. I see all those faces still.
Family and close friends went back to the farmhouse with us. The Christmas tree was still up, graced with all the decorations mom had collected over the years. Dad was a quiet man. It was easy to imagine he was there in a corner of the farmhouse with his stein of coffee and a warm smile to let us know he was content.
We soothed ourselves in the remembering of tender moments. There was the time Sissy and I had a snowball fight and it seemed that snowballs began to fall on us from the sky. It took a while to wise up, but once we did, we snuck around the farmhouse to discover dad had been tossing snowballs over the roof onto us. The three of us burst into a snow-brawl. There were other times even working the farm and another job away from home that Dad made time to play a little softball with us. Sometimes we fished the lake for bass. I like to think he enjoyed the life he had, although I know Daddy worked himself to death.
“Hey,” Sissy said, “do you remember the time when you were little, and Dad followed you through the woods to grandmother’s house to cure your fear of the dark?”
“You know. That time I was mad at you for some stupid thing, and told Dad how afraid you were of the dark? Then he made you walk all the way around the lake to grandmother’s house, and back, while he crept through the woods behind you.”
“That was him?? I knew something was behind me, I just didn’t think…of Dad.”
“I’m sure you imagined all sorts of monsters. Your crazy head.” Sissy rolled her eyes. “But no, it was Dad.”
“I’m glad I didn’t know that. The lesson wouldn’t have taught me anything if I had known he was behind me the whole time. I wouldn’t have been forced to face my fears.”
“Well, you faced them alright. I never had to check inside the closet or under our beds for boogeymen anymore after that.”
“I know. That part I remember.”
I took a moment to myself later that night. I went out onto the front porch, turned off the light, and watched a half-moon glow shimmer across the lake. My eyes traced the route Daddy and I walked as we headed out for grandmother’s house that fateful night.
I could see him out there in the dark. Ducking behind trees, trying not to be seen, grinning at my false bravado.
My father’s lesson. It was a good lesson. I’m fearless in the dark now.
Cheryl Smart is a second-year M.F.A. candidate at the University of Memphis studying creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. She is nonfiction editor of the literary journal The Pinch. She has publications appearing or forthcoming in The Little Patuxent Review, Appalachian Heritage, Cleaver Magazine, Word Riot, Apeiron Review, Crack the Spine, and others. Cheryl is currently working on a collection of short stories and vignettes about her restless rural upbringing entitled Homespun.
Image from Cheryl Smart