The nightlight blinks twice and goes out. I stare at it, waiting for it to come back on, willing it to, but it doesn’t.
I know I’m not the only ten-year-old who’s afraid of the dark, but tonight, the raging thunderstorm is too loud and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that thunderstorms bring bad things.
I used to like them but not anymore.
Lightning crashes, and something that looks too much like an old, bony finger taps against the glass of the window. I know it’s just a branch, but that constant tap-tap-tapping has me hugging the blanket closer.
I reach to switch on the lamp on the nightstand. It clicks, but nothing happens. I try again. Nothing.
The power’s out. That’s all. The lightning must have knocked it out. The house is old. It happens a lot with storms. I’ll just go and ask my nanny, Lisa, for a glass of water.
Hugging my stuffed rabbit, Sofia, I push the blanket off. I take a peek over the edge of the bed before sliding my legs over the side of it relieved when my toes graze the soft carpet, and nothing happens.
No monsters under the bed. I’m safe.
I stand and walk quietly toward my closed door, and just as I reach it, another blast of lightning sends a flash of bright light into my room. I gasp because I see the eyes of my dolls, bright and shiny and watching me like they’re living things.
Quickly I turn the doorknob, pull the door open, and rush out into the hallway.
They’re angry, the dolls. I don’t play with them anymore. I asked my father to put them away, but he won’t. Just like the other, empty bed in my room. He won’t change anything since that night.
“Lisa?” I say as I quietly open her bedroom door.
She doesn’t answer.
“Lisa?” I ask again.
But when I peek inside, I see that her bed is still made. It hasn’t been slept in and she’s not here. Maybe it’s not as late as I think and she’s still downstairs.
I hug Sofia closer and tell her not to be afraid.
Using memory and my fingertips along the wall, I walk toward the stairs. I keep to the edge where the carpet doesn’t reach, and the hardwood floors are cold under my feet. When I get to the top of the stairs, I look down to the first floor. Colored light comes in from the stained glass of the double front doors, but otherwise, the house is dark.
I begin my descent down the stairs. I know where they creak, so I’m as quiet as a mouse. When I’m halfway down, I stand on the tips of my toes to peer over the bannister. Voices are coming from farther down the hall in my father’s study. It’s where he spends most of his time.
Lisa’s probably in there.
I continue down the rest of the stairs, still keeping quiet, but forget about the spot on the last step. When I put my foot down, the wood creaks too loud in this emptiness.
I freeze because something tells me I need to be quiet. I need to not be here. Biting my lip, I listen, waiting, but no one comes.
Those voices grow louder, though. And I don’t hear Lisa. I recognize my father as he speaks to another man. Someone I don’t know. I pass the kitchen, creeping down the hall toward the study.
“I lost, too,” my father says, sounding strange. I know from the tone of his words he’s talking about that night. He used to be different before then. Laughing. Always laughing. We were a happy family once.
“Not enough,” a man replies and the coldness in his voice makes me shudder.
I hear the sound of furniture being moved, a chair maybe, scraping against the polished wood, followed by a sob. I’d never heard my father cry before the accident, but I know the sound well now. I wish I didn’t.
“Leave her be,” he finally says after a silence that I think will last forever.
“I can’t do that, and you know it.”
“She’s a little girl.”
There’s a long silence, and I hold my breath so as not to make any sound.
“Are you willing to buy her childhood then?” the stranger finally asks.
My father weeps.
“Well?” the man asks after a long minute.
I should do something. Call someone. Lisa. She’ll know what to do. But where is she?
Something squeaks, the sound of wheels? Like a bicycle inside the house. Scott always rode his bike inside even though he wasn’t allowed. He never got in trouble for it. No one ever got angry with my brother. Or when they did they didn’t stay angry.
“Please,” my father starts to speak, but his voice is muffled, and I can only make out the last words, “—a child.”
“Children grow into adults,” says the other man. “Get on with it.”
Get on with what? My heart is hammering. Whatever is going on in there is bad. I know it.
“Daddy?” I ask in a whisper, my hand moving to the doorknob.
I should knock. It’s a rule that I knock. But I turn the knob and slowly push the door open. I see my father’s face for just a millisecond. See the surprise and panic in his wet eyes.
But then someone steps between us.
My heart beats so hard against my chest I can hear it in my ears. I’m frozen. I should run. I should go back to my room, get back into my bed, and pretend to be sleeping.
But then he steps out into the hallway, into the little bit of light coming in from the streetlamp outside. I stare up at him as he pulls the door closed.
Looking me over, he tucks something into the back of his pants and cocks his head to the side.
“Cristina,” he says.
I’m relieved it’s not the one who was speaking earlier. This man’s voice is different. Although he says my name like he knows me, not like it’s a question. But I don’t know him.
I hug Sofia.
“Where’s Lisa?” I ask.
“Oh, right. She took the night off.”
“Is in a meeting. What are you doing out of your bed? It’s late. Little girls should be sleeping.”
I swallow. “I’m thirsty,” I lie because I don’t want to tell him I’m scared.
“Ah.” He smiles, but even in this shadow, I can see it’s not a real smile. “Let’s get you a glass of water, then.”
He extends his hand for me to take, turning his palm up.
I look at it and have to cover my mouth, but not fast enough to hide my gasp. I stare at it for a long time before shifting my gaze back up to his.
He’s watching me and I get the feeling he wants me to see. Even in this dull light, I can make out a hardness in his gray eyes and I don’t want to put my hand in his. I’ve been warned against strangers, but that’s not it.
I look down again at the bumpy skin of his hand. At least half of it is like that. Like a patchwork. The rest is smooth. Normal.
“It’s rude to stare, Cristina.”
I glance up at him, opening my mouth to apologize, but a raised voice from beyond the closed door distracts me.
Before I can ask what’s happening, before I can barge into my father’s study and stop whatever it is, the stranger with the grotesque hand speaks.
“Who’s that?” he asks, his tone lighter than a moment ago.
Confused, I look at where he’s pointing.
He crouches down, and I look at his dark head as he takes Sofia from my hand to study her.
“She looks thirsty, too,” he says, smiling that not-real smile again. I decide I don’t like how he’s holding Sofia by her ears in his damaged hand.
He straightens, adjusts the jacket of his suit, and returns her to me.
“Let’s go get you a glass of water so you can go back to bed.”
“What’s happening inside?”
He studies me thoughtfully with his strange almost silvery eyes. Eyes like a wolf. He bows his head a little and exhales.
“Nothing for little girls to see.”
We stare at each other for a minute, and there’s a flicker of something almost gentle in his voice. Almost like pity.
I know pity because it’s how all the teachers at school look at me ever since the accident. I hate that look, but with him, it’s just a flicker. It’s replaced almost instantly by something hard and cold.
“What happened to your hand?” I ask him.
“Fire,” he says curtly. “Let’s go.”
I place my hand inside his because I don’t know what else to do. When he closes it around mine, it swallows mine up. I can feel the bumps on his skin and try to pull away, but he tightens his grip and doesn’t let go.
We walk toward the kitchen, and I’m not sure if he’s leading me or I’m leading him.
“Sofia isn’t thirsty. She’s a stuffed animal,” I tell him.
He glances down at me and nods, face closed off like he’s distracted.
Once we’re in the kitchen, I point at a high cabinet I can’t reach. “Glasses are in there.”
He opens it, takes out a tall glass, and fills it with water from the tap. He hands it to me.
I take a sip and hand it back.
Wordlessly, he sets it on the counter, then takes my hand again and begins to lead me out of the kitchen, but I stop him.
“Did it hurt? Your hand?”
“What do you think?”
“I think it hurt.”
“You have no idea how much.” He begins to walk me out of the kitchen and away from my father’s study, away from the noise there and up the stairs to my room. He seems to know exactly where that is, too, just like the kitchen.
Lightning strikes, and I jump.
He squeezes my hand with his burned one. “The lightning won’t hurt you, Cristina.”
“How do you know my name?” I ask as he opens my bedroom door, and I step inside.
He looks down at me and what I can see of his expression from the streetlamp is cold. “I know everything about you.”
I don’t know what to say to that. “What’s your name?” I finally ask.
“My name is Damian. Damian Di Santo. Now get into bed. And don’t come out until it’s morning. Do you understand?”
I nod because he’s not asking, he’s telling. I climb into my bed.
He follows me and pulls the blanket up to my throat, but stops short of tucking me in. “Good girl.” He walks to the door as I watch him go. When lightning next electrifies the sky, I can’t help my gasp.
“I’m afraid of the dark,” I blurt out. I don’t know why. “My nightlight…” I trail off, only realizing then that the lights outside are on. It’s only those inside that are out.
He stops and turns to me, his face hidden by shadows so I only see the glint of his eyes.
“You don’t need to be afraid of the dark. Monsters don’t lurk there. They don’t hide under beds or inside closets. They’re right out in the open where you can see them as clear as day. Where you can look into their eyes and see their evil. Don’t you know that?”
“Are you a monster?”