“What do you want to do? Crawl into the hole in the wall or continue down the tunnel?”
“The hole,” Porter answers, confidently. He shuffles under the covers, staring at the book as Nikki flips to the correct page.
“There isn’t room to take the torch with you, so you set it down on the stone steps and crawl into the space in the wall. All four sides around you are rough, hard stone. Feeling the surface, you crawl across, you decipher in the dark that small cracks mark the length of each slab at about four feet. Your fingertips brush the next crack and a POP rattles through the darkness. The slab you’re on sinks about an inch before it catches. You try to move forward, but the slab drops, and you fall and fall into an endless blackness.” Nikki slams the book shut. “Why do you like these stories? We’ve died three times!”
“But you get to decide what happens.”
“Yes. Until you die. Then you have to start all over or figure out what the last three-page numbers are so you can make a better choice. It’s annoying.” She tosses the book to the end of the bed where it teeters over the edge. Porter dives for the book before it can fall, relieved at the feeling of the cover between his fingers. “Do you need a night light or something?”
“No!” The word slams out of Porter’s chest louder than he intended. “No,” he says more quietly.
“Really? After that story—dying in endless blackness—you’re not afraid?” He shakes his head, diving into the mattress and pulling the covers up to his ears. “Not even afraid of,” she glances to the closet and the space under his bed, “monsters?”
“You can’t see the monster in the Dark-Dark.”
“The monster?” Porter stares back at her, firm in his words. Nikki sighs and smacks the light switch. “Whatever.” The door slams and Porter finds himself alone.
He jumps out from the covers and kneels on the bed in front of the window. The moon reflects on the ripples of the river on far side of the yard. Porter pulls the blackout curtains closed—refusing the moonlight entry to his room. Sliding open the desk drawer beside his bed, his fingers slip in and around a pair of goggles. Pulling the strap around his head, Porter adjusts the painted lenses over his eyes. Satisfied, he cocoons himself inside his sheet and comforter.
Downstairs, Nikki carries a bowl of popcorn to the sofa. “Monster,” she mumbles to herself, flicking off lights as she goes to prove she’s not afraid, and plops onto the cushions soaked in nothing but the TV’s light. The channels flip from one to the next under the command of her thumb before settling on a reality show and tossing the remote onto the table.
Her phone vibrates on the cushion next to her and the screen lights up with a text from her boyfriend, Brett.
Her fingers fly across the screen as she types out: “Dumb as hell. What are you doing?”
“Hangin’ with the guys.”
“See you tomorrow night?”
Her stomach drops with excitement. “Yea.”
With a smile, she returns her attention to the TV screen. An hour passes before boredom sets in and she slips off to sleep.
Porter wakes. He rolls over in bed, fighting the urge to pee. His bladder decides for him that he cannot wait. Throwing off the covers, his feet find the carpet and his hand finds the edge of his desk. Despite the darkness of the room and the black of the paint on his goggle’s lenses, he squeezes his eyes shut. He shuffles forward, feeling the floor with his toes before taking a step and reaching out in front of him with one hand while the other grasps the desk. At the end of the desk, he counts the steps forward “One, two, three,” and breathes out when he feels the door at his fingertips. He turns the handle and swings the door open. Porter feels his way along the wall to the bathroom, counting off the steps as he goes. After relieving himself, Porter finds his way back to his room and gives the door a nudge so it shuts with a loud thump.
Nikki springs up on the sofa, the sound of Porter’s door stirring her awake. The room is full of light—so much she imagines every light in the house is on.
“Hey, sleepy head.”
The voice startles here, but when she turns around to see Brett there her relief falls out in a sigh.
“What are you doing here? I’m babysitting.”
“Thought you’d want some company,” he says, offering his hand to her. She slips her hand into his and rises to meet him eye to eye. He smiles and turns toward the door leading to the back yard.
“Where are we going?”
“Somewhere special. Just for us.” He winks and she feels exhilaration roll down her body in warm waves. Nikki follows Brett onto the porch, down the steps, and across grass—dew drops reflecting the moon’s light like silver blades. She follows him into the canopy of trees, the trickle of water meeting her ears.
“It’s a hot night. Why not swim?”
“Are you crazy?” she laughs but pulls her hand away. “The river is too fast. It’s dangerous.”
Brett continues walking and she follows. Tall grass brushes against her shins as they break out of the tree line and meet the water. She looks out and gasps.
“Where are we?”
A lake spreads out before them. Trees follow the edge of the lake, silhouettes dancing against the night sky. The moon stretches across the surface, waving, beckoning them in. “How did we get here?” she asks.
“Shh.” Brett is suddenly stripped down to his boxers and backing into the water. “It feels good. Come on.”
Nikki looks around, nervous enough to shiver against the heavy heat of the summer night.
“Come on!” Brett calls from chest deep in the water. She looks at him, his smile lighting up her insides as if she’d swallowed the sun. She rolls her eyes.
She steps out of her shorts, tosses her t-shirt to the side and runs into the water. She sees Brett, reaches for him. When she’s about to be swept up in his arms he disappears.
“Wha—” Her words are cut off as she gulps water. She bursts to the surface for a second as the current drags her along. She’s under again, river rocks banging against her arms and legs. Each hit bursts across her vision like fireworks. Nikki gasps at the air again before tumbling under and hitting her head.