“The Dark” by Lu Whitley

the-dark

My fire is black as coal dust. Through this window in my chest, I see it flicker through shades of gray like the scenes of an old-time movie.

They tell me it’s my soul. Murky and tortured as it may be.

“Why are you so dark, Erin?” My ordered psychiatric visits always begin this way. As if I choose the color more than the color chooses me. The doctor’s fire burns hot and pink in her breast. The colors of unicorns and butterflies and all things as happy as I’m supposed to be.

“Maybe some people are just dark.” She casts a spurious glance. Telling me, without words, ‘some people’ are not dark. No one is. Except me.

My flame flickers and sputters in fits and starts. I wonder, not for the first time, if it might go out altogether. “I don’t know how to not be dark.”

She hands me another pamphlet on self-realization and positive thinking. My collection is already rather large, but I take it anyway. I’ll find a spot for it among the self-help books and the mountain of pill bottles from anti-depressants that never gave me a moment of color – despite the doctors’ assurances they would.

We spend the rest of the prescribed hour talking about my mother, my childhood, and where it all might have gone awry. Incidentally, talks with my mother go much the same way. Usually ending with tears. On her side, not mine. I don’t remember the last time I cried.

Cross-town traffic is all but dead in the early afternoon. Those with jobs are still working. Those without, rarely take the high-speed rail. And it’s there, with the skyscrapers whizzing by, I do my best facsimile of meditation.

I collapse in the seat and let my body go slack like a corpse. Corpses have no fire. Aren’t they lucky? I lay my chin on my chest and wish my fire away. It stays. It always stays. With a sigh, I shut my eyes and pretend my fire is gone. And for the first time in days, I smile.

“You should smile more often.” The comment is as unwelcome as the sentiment, and my eyes flash open to see who said it.

He is sitting against the opposite wall, staring in my direction. “Were you dreaming?”

“Would that be any of your business?”

He pushes his thick glasses higher up on his nose and crosses is arms over his ribs. “No, I suppose not.”

I follow the line of those arms down to the thin window between them, visible through a hole in his simple white shirt. His fire is a vibrant blue. The color of summer skies and clear ocean waves. I close my eyes again, afraid I might be blinded by its brilliance.

Fabric rustles. Feet shuffle across metal. And when I open my eyes again, he is sitting in the seat directly across from me. “I’m Dean.” He extends a hand toward me.

I stuff my own hands up under my armpits. “I didn’t ask.”

“I noticed.” His smile is close to infectious. His eyes the same limpid blue as his flame.

“What do you want?”

He retracts his unshaken hand and slouches back in the seat. “I want to know why the dark.”

I huff and pull my arms tighter across me. My little fire contracts to a tiny onyx ball. “I don’t know.”

“Has it always been that way?”

I shrug. “As long as anyone remembers.”

Unbidden, he leans forward and stretches an arm out as if he means to touch me. I wince. No one touches me. “No one,” I whisper aloud.

He nods as if he understands, but reaches forward anyway. His fingertips graze across my arm. I want to stop him, but I can’t find my voice. No. Stop. Those fingers continue their journey until their caressing the edges of my window. My fire spreads across the surface, flattening itself to get closer to him.

“Beautiful,” he breathes.

I finally find the will to shrug him off. “I’m in no mood for jokes.”

His eyebrows raise. Cerulean eyes sincerely confused. “It’s no joke.” He waves a hand at the passing scenery. “I’ve travelled this city, time and time again. And I’ve seen all the colors. Reds. Greens. Yellows. Pinks. But I’ve never seen one so dark.”

“I’m the only one,” I say on a sigh.

“And that’s beautiful.”

I can’t hold back the snuffed breath that pushes out my nose. He gives me a crooked smile and reaches out his fingertips again. This time, I let him lean in closer. My brain is telling me to stand up. To run away. But my fire is pushing toward him like there’s no place it would rather be.

I look down as his palm settles on the window between my breasts. My flame shoots around its invisible prison like a caged bird. The black swirls to lighter gray and darkest ebony. My breath swirls with it, getting caught up in my lungs and refusing to come out.

His fire glows so brightly, the whole train car seems alight with vivid blue. His eyes shine the same as they meet mine. “Beautiful,” he says again. This time, I believe him.

A short spark. So quick I think I imagined it. “Say it again.”

His grin widens, and his eyes drop to my chest. He speaks directly to the flame. “You’re beautiful.”

Inside the pulsing fire, I see it. The softest color blooms. Dark and faded, like the sky on the brink of night. A brief flash of indigo before it settles back to black. “How did you do that?” I squeal.

He shrugs without taking his eyes off my dancing flame. “I don’t know.”

Breathlessly, I grab his hand and place it over my heart. It’s beating so wildly, I half need him to hold it in my chest. “Thank you.”

Momentum makes me lean closer into him as the train surges to a halt. Our faces so close his breath tickles across my cheek. “This is my stop,” he whispers and pulls his hand away.

I sigh and drop my hands to my sides. “Mine too.”

A dim awkwardness settles between us as we both rise, refusing to meet each other’s glances. He gestures me out in front of him, and we exit onto the vacant platform.

My shoes tromp hollowly across the concrete. No footsteps follow mine.

I turn and see him walking in the other direction. Stop. Come back, I want to yell, I have no color without you. “It was nice to meet you, Dean.”

He turns and gives me a shy smile. “You too…”

“Erin.”

“Erin.”

And he turns and walks away, as if nothing happened. So I turn as well, and make my way home.

My apartment is as dark as my churning soul when I reach it. I don’t bother with the lights. Or my clothes. I pull my thick comforter up over my head. The glow from my firelight flickers softly against the pure white.

I run my hand around the edges of the window, the little flame chasing the movements. I take a deep breath and center myself, placing my palm against the window’s smooth surface. Fire licks across my hand in shades of blackest night.

On an exhale – so quietly, I can barely hear it – my voice shapes the words, “You’re beautiful.”

The fire swoops and swirls like a bird of prey riding rising air currents, and down in its center, that pale indigo forms. “You’re beautiful.” Petals of color blossom, spinning out in fractal shapes that fight away the dark. My eyes blur with tears, reflecting and refracting the color like faceted gems.

“You’re beautiful.”

 

 

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Lu J Whitley is a full-time writer and self-professed oddball who lives a quiet life in the mid-Midwest with her geeky, roboticist husband and their four-legged children.

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4 Comments

  1. I’m male and English and therefore not equipped, neither culturally nor at the genetic level, to deal with feelings of this nature. So thanks for that, Lu. I don’t know whether I’m happy or sad or both.

    I also kind of don’t want to talk about the story too much, because I don’t want to spoil the experience of having read it. I do want to say that it’s just as powerful on a second read as the first. If I’ve not been clear, I really liked this a lot.

  2. Writing this short is *hard* but I think that this is the perfect length for this story. Though the phrase “magic realism” perhaps gets thrown around too much, this story is a perfect example of doing magic realism right. What might be a metaphor is completely real in the world of the story, and every character acts on that reality.

    And the theme is such a universal theme.

    Very well done.

  3. This is a very sweet story based on someone bitter about the world. The execution is perfect but we have come to expect that from Lu. Part of me feels like the resolution was a touch too easy, but there are certain people that stick with you even if you only meet them for a moment.

    Not a damn clue who I’m voting for. Both were so good, and neither went literal with the prompt. Very interesting round.

  4. This was just beautiful and a wonderful example of Lu. Although thematically it’s nowhere near as dark as, say, “Words on the Wind,” there’s still moments of sadness and isolation here that really worked well. The notion of everyone’s heart literally being a flame in a view-able window worked well for me and I enjoyed watching different characters and their fires interact.

    I do wonder what the judges will think of this though? Is this a story about fire or is fire just a metaphor for something more…and does that matter? No idea there. I just know I definitely enjoyed reading this and it’s always a pleasure having Lu in the arena.

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