Monday night. It arrives without warning. A white shadow slithering off the main highway and slinking down the cracked road toward the end of the cul-de-sac.
You know it’s coming, because it comes every week, at the same time without fail, like an eternal clock ticking off the seconds of your life.
But still it catches you off guard.
Across the street, your neighbor pauses in the middle of raking his leaves to wave at you, his rake held upright in his best American Gothic, his face drained of color, his hand an open-palmed act of contrition, Forgive me neighbor, for I have sinned. You smile back at him, knowing that it’s too late for him. Knowing it is too late for all of you.
You watch your neighbor, his back to you now, as he rakes furiously, struggling to keep at bay the entropy of the coming winter, and—blink—he’s gone and there it is, the great white beast blocking your view of the world.
You step away from the window, and slip into the shadows of your darkened living room. You feel the cool softness of your yoga mat beneath your feet, and shift your weight from foot to foot, trying to ground yourself into familiar serenity.
But it has already sensed your presence. There’s no hiding now.
You see a quick movement and it lets out a horrendous cry, a long, sharp bleat like a sheep giving up the ghost to a pack of ravenous coyotes. On the bookshelf near the front door, the statue of Buddha, shaken from his quiet reverie, sheds a single tear at the sound of that cry.
You wait, wondering if it will move on, and pass up your house tonight. Please leave us alone, just this once, for the love of … and you catch yourself, stopping that final word before you dig yourself any deeper.
But there’s no turning back. With a sterile whoosh, it opens its gaping maw and its eyes burn with flames, lighting the street as the sun sets behind the houses across the street. Your neighbor is now only a shadow moving erratically among the growing piles of leaves.
They come quickly, their soft stockinged feet shuffling on the carpet, their eyes glinting in the light of the protective wall of candles that surrounds the Buddha. You kiss each one of your children on the head and they slip on their shoes and boots, and you send them out into the fading night where it waits for them.
When your youngest starts for the front door, you pull him back, and hold him by the shoulders. He looks away from you, but you lean down until his eyes meet your own, and he reads your thoughts, already aware of his transgression.
He reaches into the pocket of his coat, and pulls out his clenched fist. You hold your palm open in front of him and he releases his grip and drops the mala beads in your hand, the same beads you bought him for his birthday last year. I’m sorry, he says, and you forgive him, as you always do, but you know that one week you will miss something he has stashed in his pocket, the mala beads or a little vial of patchouli, and then they will all know the truth.
You stand in the doorway, the chill of fall sneaking past you into the house, stirring the candle flames into a frenzied whirling dance. You watch your children walk across the lawn single file, from oldest to youngest, shouldering their invisible burden, leaving damp traces in the knee-high grass.
One by one, it swallows them up. You hold your breath until the last is inside and the mouth closes behind them, with that same rush of crisp, clean air that lingers in the street as it moves off down the road, its appetite sated for another night.
Behind your neighbor’s house, the sky is ablaze in orange and red, like fire wedged between darkness, the two rims of the forest hemming in the neighborhood. In the distance, you hear a fox cry, a screech that sounds like a woman being murdered.
But then silence.
The church bus is gone.
You close the door to your house, shutting out the cold and darkness, and think, I hope they at least have ice cream tonight.
Short story: When Night Falls, It Comes Without Warning © 2014 by Shawn Radcliffe / Branáin
- Dead End, Keep Left, Flickr, © takomabibelot
- Buddha Statue, Wikimedia Commons, © Kwz
- Orange Sky at Night in the Suburbs, Geograph, © John Wernham