What began as an attempt to create an evil looking Totoro turned into this. I want to thank my daughter and her big huge imagination. If this thing ever gets published, I swore to split the money with her.
So be forewarned. There is some abuse in this story. Just general mistreatment of a kid overall. (Neglectful parents.) Feel free to not read if this bothers you. Please know I do not condone such behavior in real life, and there are many amazing educators in this world (some of whom I’ve known personally) that are trained to help kids in these bad situations.
Just know: You are not alone. Abuse is real and there are ways to get help. And I think one of the bravest things to do is speak up.
With that in mind…
Here are some places that you can reach out to if you or anyone you know suffers from abuse/neglect/or mistreatment of any kind:
- Child Help Hotline – https://www.childhelp.org/hotline/
- Women in Distress – https://www.womenindistress.org/we-can-help/24-hour-crisis-hotline/
Okay…time for a story. Feel free to drop a comment at the end to let me know what you think. This story will only be available for two weeks before I submit it off for potential publishing purposes.
And like so many of my stories, I had some artwork done. This is from an artist in Australia who I have worked with many times before. Her Artist name is Lunaros, and here is a link to her deviantart: https://www.deviantart.com/lunaros/gallery/all
“Waiting for Dusk”
By D.A. Gatlin
Amber’s parents were fighting again. She sat in the dirt yard atop her crusted rope swing, hearing without trying to listen in for once. Her bike was in the garage, but it may as well have been on Mars. There was nothing that would make her go back inside the house right now, not even the leftover pizza from two nights ago that she’d hidden in the back of the fridge, behind her Dad’s last can of Pabst. Beer. That’s how the whole fight had started. And how it would end if Amber was lucky.
Her Dad would stumble out any minute, fish his keys from his work pants, and drive down to the 7-11 for another twenty-four pack, maybe some smokes, and probably a bag or two of salted peanuts. Amber sat feeling disgusted, thinking about the way her father would pop the peanuts into his beer and drink them like some gutter rat. But after that, he usually passed out. Her mother would then go into town, claiming she had to buy some more make-up down at the drug store, and be gone for hours. Otherwise, her mom might stay at the house and clean up the mess their fight had caused, or lock herself in the back bedroom. Either way, she’d be busy. And that was the only time Amber ever felt safe. When they weren’t looking.
The spring sun was hovering over the foothills, teasing a warm night. Most folks were returning home from work about now. Kids down the street were running to greet their working parents in the driveway. Some parents carried from their cars and trucks groceries, or briefcases, or buckets of chicken. There was the occasional pizza box too. The families it seemed would always laugh about something, though nothing was funny. The kids ran across their grassy, well-mown lawns, but not from fear of their arriving fathers. The sight of headlights and the sounds of slowing tires were expected in these homes; it wasn’t something to be dreaded.
Amber tugged lightly on the old rope from her swing. She wondered when it would finally snap. That’s when she heard beside her a whistling sound, coming from her neighbor’s fence. Amber shifted on her swaying seat and looked past the old sycamore tree in her yard. There sitting atop the fence as confidently as an old alley cat was a narrow-faced boy—maybe her age—with hair as light as day. He was wearing a Ninja Turtles shirt, blue shorts, and looked to be barefoot, though only one foot was tucked in her yard. The other rested on the other side of the fence, which Amber thought strange. No one had lived in the widow Sanders’ house since last winter when the old woman had frozen in her sleep. The house had stood deserted since then with a “For Sale” sign pitched in the yard. But now there was a hazel-eyed boy sitting on the fence, whistling some familiar tune. Amber didn’t know the song, but it sounded like it was straight out of one of those Looney Tunes shows she had used to watch on Saturday morning, back when her family had a TV set that wasn’t broken.
The boy stopped his whistling when he noticed Amber watching him. He brought his other foot—no shoe—over the fence and waved from up high.
“Hi neighbor,” he said cheerily, sounding as if he could be straight from a Mister Rogers rerun. “Don’t you go in for dinner right about now too?”
Amber could feel herself blushing violently. She covered her round face stupidly behind the rope. Could he hear my parents fighting too? She tried quickly to change subjects with this nosey new boy.
“N-not hungry. Who are you? No one lives in that house.”
“I do. Moved in last weekend. Name’s Ten.”
Ten isn’t a name. But she kept the thought to herself. “I didn’t see any moving vans.”
“We didn’t have a lot of stuff.”
“Who? Your parents?”
“Sure. Who else would I live with?” he asked, chuckling at her rushed question.
“W-were you watching me?”
The boy smiled. “Nope. Just came outside for a whistle. I gotta stay indoors during the day. But it’s a good dusk tonight. Probably stay and whistle a bit longer. Hope you don’t mind me using your half of the fence.”
Don’t let my Dad see you up there, she thought quickly, but hid this from him also. She didn’t want to scare the boy away if she didn’t have to. “You…I’ve never seen you at school.”
“Homeschooled. I just finished up my lessons for the day.”
That explained why he was stuck indoors. But she still couldn’t remember seeing anyone moving in next door. The sale sign was still in his yard. Memories swarmed her then of the old widow Sanders yelling at her television set most nights, shouting swears about the Democrats, whoever they were. Amber’s fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Myles, hadn’t covered that word yet, or maybe Amber hadn’t been paying attention. She spent most days in class thinking about lunchtime.
The boy on the fence looked off in the distance towards the foothills. The late sun glowed against his pale skin like a white ember trapped amongst a house of flames. He curled his lips again into a little circle and began whistling the same song once more. Amber listened for some time, humming the familiar tune in her head right along with him. Finally, she left the comfort of her swing and went over to where he was sitting. She wasn’t about to try getting up there with him. She had failed the pull-up test all four times that she’d taken it last year. Fat body and skinny arms, her mother had said.
“What’s that song your whistling? I know it from somewhere.”
“Hungarian Rhapsody Number Two,” he said, with an elegant poise. “It is my favorite song by Lizst.”
“Oh,” Amber said resignedly, not wanting to sound dumb. “I thought I had heard it…in a cartoon, or something.”
He nodded. “I’m sure you’re correct. The Looney Tunes used to play it all the time, right?”
A small smile creased over Amber’s lips. “Yeah, they did. Did you—is your name really Ten?”
“Sure is. And you are—”
Ten jumped down from the fence and walked over the dried grass to where Amber stood. She could feel her eyes trembling inside of her head, but she tried to keep her cool.
“Well then Amber,” he said coolly, “if you’re all done swinging, perhaps you’d like to play a game.”
“Shes!” What was that? A mixture of sure and yes, she guessed. All she did know for certain was that Ten was acting like someone she used to wish for back when she was younger. A friend.
The first thing Amber realized upon playing with Ten was that he was as fast as he was a good climber. She was embarrassed at first when he suggested that they play tag. Ten didn’t seem bothered though by her heavy breathing when she ran, or how slow she was compared to him. He even let her catch him a few times without ever making it look intentional. Amber couldn’t remember the last time she’d laughed so loud after playing either. She rolled onto the grass by the curb in front of her house and let the warm night air mix with her breathy wheezes after what felt like hours of play.
Ten sat beside her looking equally guilty of having fun. He tucked his knees under his arms and rested his cheerful face onto his upturned palms. Amber could see the truth though, as clear as if the sun were still out…he isn’t tired. She could feel her own sweat dripping over half-closed eyes and running down her hot face. But Ten looked just as tranquil as before, when he’d been sitting on the fence whistling. Almost as if he’d been waiting for someone to play with.
She’d have asked him about his folks, worried about his being in trouble now that the streetlights were turning on. Instead, her earlier thoughts of hunger resurfaced with a poorly-timed grumble. Amber’s eyes shifted quickly over to Ten as she desperately wished for the grass to crumble beneath her and let the earth swallow her up rather than admit to her new friend that she was starving.
“Wait here,” Ten said, looking as if he could read her thoughts.
He went back over to his yard and stepped inside the unlit house. Amber watched him intently, expecting to hear screaming of some form from an angry parent. Her own parents had stopped yelling a while ago. An eerie silence drifted then over her yard, like a growing shadow of some passing giant. She could feel the air starting to hiss, as if she were being swarmed by a pack of invisible insects. Frightened, she looked at her front door beneath the flickering sconce for some sign of life that wasn’t Ten. Any second now she expected her mother to come outside and start cussing her good for not going in sooner. Her father might burst from the front door having that unhinged look he sometimes got when he was starting to sober up.
But none of these things happened. Ten reemerged from the old house beside hers seconds later, carrying with him a blue plate and two pale bottles of what looked to be ice-cold soda. Ten sat beside Amber once more and handed her the plate. Amber’s eyes grew as big as her gaping mouth upon seeing the two slices of steaming hot pepperoni pizza, stacked neatly on the plate.
“Hope you like pizza,” he said, with a rascally grin.
For all Amber knew, they could’ve been the same two slices she’d hidden in her own fridge, though they tasted much better than had ever imagined.
For the rest of the night, Amber felt safe. Even after sneaking back into her house later and seeing her father passed out on the torn sofa and her mother locked in the back-bedroom blaring music, Amber wasn’t afraid. Ten had given her a night of peace—in addition to some of the tastiest pizza she’d ever eaten. Homemade. That’s what he had told her when she tried to find out where his parents had ordered it from. It was almost as unbelievable as having new neighbors move in next door without her knowing.
School was school the next day. Amber’s cheery attitude from the night before had waned the moment Iris Fritz tripped her in the hallway with the water fountains—the ones with the coldest water in school.
“Getting another drink, fat girl?” Iris asked, stepping over Amber’s crumpled body on the hallway’s linoleum floor.
Amber had gotten into the habit lately of asking permission to go and drink from these fountains often, sometimes over ten times a day. Mrs. Myles always said yes to Amber, even when Amber silently wished that the elderly teacher wouldn’t for once. It’d cause a lot less name calling and bullying from the other kids—who were usually told by the teacher to sit down. Amber couldn’t help asking though. She was always convinced—somewhere in the back of her mind—that one day there just wouldn’t be enough to drink.
Iris leaned down and Amber froze up. Even though Amber was almost twice the skinny girl’s size, she dreaded Iris’ ring-clad fists. Her sides cringed in pain just thinking of the bruises they’d given her the last time. Iris didn’t punch her though; instead she grabbed onto the back of Amber’s head, making her whimper in pain. Amber knew better than to scream. Iris would only deny it, and then find some excuse for her or some of her friends to sabotage Amber’s lunch again. Last time Amber’s lunch tray was picked clean by five pairs of quick hands the moment Amber had gone to sit down in the cafeteria. When Amber tried to protest how it wasn’t fair what they’d done, Iris told her that she looked like she needed to lose some weight anyway. Soon the whole cafeteria was in an uproar.
“Heard you started eating lunch in Mrs. Myles’ room,” Iris said, still clawing on the back of Amber’s short hair. “Is that cause you’re scared, big baby?”
“She n-needed help during lunch,” Amber cried. It was a half lie. Mrs. Myles did always have tasks to do, but Amber mostly asked to stay in so she could avoid Iris and her posse of lunch thieves.
“Whatever you say, Butterball.” Iris loosened her grip and stood up. “More room in the cafeteria now. Just saying.”
Amber wanted to break down and sob, like she’d done so many times before, but she knew that was what Iris was after. Amber supposed it was a relief then that she’d been knocked face down. Iris wouldn’t be able to see the marinara stain from the pizza last night. Amber had failed to notice it this morning after leaving the house wearing the same shirt as yesterday. It would’ve just been something else to make fun of, she thought.
The single fluorescent light in the hallway started to blink rapidly, dropping light on and off of the hallway. The corridor became draftier, and then even darker than before. From far down the hall, under the absence of light, a metal chair slammed onto the linoleum and rang out under Amber’s body. Iris backed away with a scurry.
“What the—who’s there?” she snapped.
Amber stayed rooted to her spot on the floor. A low, pain-filled groan filled the corridor. Iris took off like a bolt of lightning out the door and back towards the direction of class. Amber watched as shadows swelled all around her. She felt like she was being sucked into a black hole. She clenched her fists, pushed herself up with a stumble, and ran faster than she’d ever run out the doorway that Iris had left open.
She was able to grab her and lunch and leave with only catching one frightened—but mostly cold—glare from Iris as she did. Back in Mrs. Myles’ classroom, Amber tried to collect her thoughts as she fidgeted with the packaging on her hot burrito.
“Are you alright, Amber?” Mrs. Myles asked in an elderly tone. It was the way Amber suspected a grandparent would sound, if she had any.
“You know—Amber, you’re wearing the same shirt from yesterday, aren’t you?”
Amber hesitated, but eventually looked down at the dried sauce stain on her shirt. “No Mam. This was at lunch.”
“…I see.” Mrs. Myles removed her glasses and put them on her desk. She rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Is everything alright at home, dear?”
“Your father. He works for the oil rigs?”
“And do you get to see plenty of your parents? They at home every night to make sure you get your dinner?”
“Y—yes Mam.” Why is she asking so many questions? Amber tried to focus on her empty lunch tray. There were still some caked-on beans lining the wrapper. Amber wouldn’t dare eat them in front of her teacher.
“Oh, well I’ll let you eat. Just checking on you Amber. You know—you can tell me if there’s ever anything wrong at home. I’m here for you. All your teachers are.” Mrs. Myles leaned in forward, practically hanging from the edge of her rolling chair.
Amber should’ve known. Teachers had been asking her questions like that ever since she’d started school. But if there was one thing her parents had ever taught her it was how to shut up whenever they were being talked about.
“…Yes Mam. I’m fine.”
“Yes, Mrs. Myles.”
The snowy-haired teacher sunk back into her chair and looked across the room at her open classroom door. Whenever Amber saw her doing this, she knew class was about to start again soon. She was still hungry.
“Have an extra pudding cup here.” Mrs. Myles suddenly said, catching Amber off guard. “Do you want it?”
Amber’s eyes lit up, savoring the change of subject. She nodded and came over to the long desk on the other side of the classroom, snatching the pudding from her teacher’s open palm like it was a test for reflexes. Mrs. Myles, it seemed, always had an extra pudding cup.
Later that day as dusk settled in, Amber saw her father’s headlights scratch along the edges of their hedged driveway, sending a surge of fear through Amber’s stomach. She had been sitting on her wooden swing ever since returning from school, wondering if Ten might come out to play again. She even considered knocking on his front door, but didn’t want to upset his parents. Homeschooling was much different than public school, that was obvious by how smart Ten seemed to be. He probably needs the extra hours of study, she thought sadly to herself. But now that her father had come back from work, her only thought was on how long before he’d be gone again.
Amber’s father belched upon opening his squeaky truck door, and then he stepped out onto the crusted grass he’d parked on. He undid his work gear, and locked it all into the back of his truck. He pulled from his passenger seat a crumpled fast food bag and a twenty-four pack of beer. He almost didn’t notice her sitting there, until the wood beneath her made a creak. He met Amber with a red-eyed, glazed over stare.
“Clean this yard up!” he barked. “Tired of looking at this mess.”
Amber sprang from her swing and went to work picking up every single wrapper and food carton she could find in the square yard. Her father—after drunkenly supervising for a couple of moments—went inside the house with the goods he’d collected after his twelve-hour work day. As soon as Amber heard the screen door slam behind him, she began to breathe easier again. She slowed her pace some, wondering desperately what was in the fast food bag. Smelled like a burger. If she was lucky, there’d be one left for her somewhere in the fridge. She was, however, hardly ever lucky.
“Do you need help?” came a soft, but anticipated voice beside her.
Amber shrieked—having felt jumpy all day since her incident in the hallway—but was relieved to see that it was only Ten. Surprisingly, he was wearing the same outfit from yesterday also. He had with him a garbage bag and was already scooping up trash when Amber finally acknowledged him.
“You don’t—I don’t need you to do that,” she tried to say.
Ten continued scooping up trash with one hand and filling the bag with the other.
“Picking up trash is easier with more hands, wouldn’t you say?”
“…Yes,” she said, over fragile lips. “Thank you.”
When the two of them had finished making the yard look somehow less poor, Ten asked her to play again. Only he wasn’t interested in tag this evening. He ran over to the tree in her yard and challenged her to a climbing contest, slapping the dried bark as he did. Amber didn’t have the guts to tell him that she couldn’t. Her mind fumbled, frantically trying to think of a different game, but Ten reached up and climbed half-ways onto the tree in her yard without so much as a single grunt. He scooted out onto one of the bare branches and then dangled down with only his wrapped legs holding on for support. Amber freaked. If Dad catches him up there—
“Are you coming up?” Ten asked, casually rocking upside down as he did.
Amber’s chain of worries snapped. She couldn’t believe how carefree and natural Ten looked just hanging there. The blood wasn’t even rushing to his head. He could’ve been a sloth from the rainforest with how easily he was handling this.
“You’re going to break your neck,” Amber cautioned.
“No, I won’t. This branch is plenty strong. Strong enough for both of us.”
“Oh, yeah right,” Amber said, rolling her eyes. “The second I get up there it’ll break.”
Ten’s expression grew somber. “No, I don’t think that’s true Amber. And you’ll never known unless you reach out and try.”
Amber bit her lip, feeling her heart racing. “I…I can’t. It’s too high, Ten.”
“Have you ever tried before?”
Slowly, she shook her head.
Ten folded his arms. “Just try.”
Amber crept forward, feeling heavier than she’d ever felt in her whole life. If she stepped on the scale at school right now it would smash into two, she just knew it. Why is he making me do this? She hesitated, but then doing like he did, she wrapped her arms around the trunk of the tree and tried to pull herself up. It’s impossible. There was no way she could get it done.
“Just try,” he repeated.
And then, as quickly as it had come, the heavy feeling swept away from her. Her body felt light suddenly, as if a hundred hands were there carrying her up the tree. She gripped with all her might, feeling splinters tickle her fingertips. She managed to get one foot up higher, and then the other. She refused to look down, knowing whatever was compelling her to reach this height would give out the moment she doubted it. She placed her foot up one more time and then pulled herself up onto the branch, gasping as a wave of relief whipped across her face. Ten reached out his hand and Amber grasped at it quickly, the same way she had done with the pudding from her teacher. The next thing she knew, Amber was sitting beside Ten in the tree. Her yard had never seemed so small before.
“H-how did that happen?”
“It was all you. I knew you could do it.” He shrugged, casting a grin as he did. “Bet you didn’t even need me to take your hand.”
Amber didn’t care if she was blushing now. Nor did she care about what was happening inside of her house, or even what she was going to eat tomorrow since schools were closed on Saturday. All her problems seemed so tiny up in the tree, as if there would be no way for them to ever catch her up here. From this height she felt like a queen, ruling over all the subjects who lived on her street.
“Hungry?” Ten asked.
She fell back to reality. “Uh…I’ll eat dinner later.”
“Then will you have a snack with me?”
Amber stared at him, searching his eyes for some sort of trick or well-played joke. No one had ever been this kind to her before. So why is he?
“Ten—why are you being so nice to me?”
Ten chuckled like he was following a cue from some audience laugh track. He flipped down from the tree and landed perfectly on both of his bare feet. He gazed up at her, looking like a prince acknowledging fellow royalty.
“You’re my friend Amber. And you deserve to be treated nicely.”
Amber made no reply. Not that she could’ve. Her heart felt lodged inside of her throat. She watched him leap their fence and head back inside of his house. From up here, she could see that all the lights on his side of the yard were still turned off. Even when Ten went inside, there was still only darkness. Doesn’t he own a lamp or something?
A sharp jerk from below wretched her from her current thought. Amber held onto the branch tightly as she peered down at the ground. No one was there, but she knew that she’d felt something. Then, without warning it struck again, harder this time, as if the tree was being ripped from its roots. Amber screamed and toppled from the tree, realizing it was her only escape. She fell hard onto her folded arms, but didn’t feel anything break. Only the wind had been knocked from her. She shot up and stared back quickly at the tree. There at the base of the trunk a long shadow coiled around the tree. She screamed again and watched as the shadow stiffened. At the end of the coil came the figure of a pointed head with two spiked ears. Amber fell back, her knees knocked on the ground. She tried to inch away with her elbows, when suddenly a bigger shadow cast itself over the tree.
Amber turned to see that her screen door was open and her father was standing there looking ablaze with anger. He had a crushed beer can in his hand and sweat and alcohol staining his stretched white shirt. His stubbled chins trembled with a silent rage. He was about to speak, bark, breathe fire—something—when Ten came leaping over the fence again holding a blue plate once more. Amber didn’t even have to see what was on it. She could smell the freshly cooked burgers from where she was laying on the grass.
“Who the—who are you?!” her glaring father snapped. “And what are you screaming about Amber?”
“Get in here. Now!”
Amber stood up and shook the grass off of her red shorts and stained shirt. She turned back to Ten, but he wasn’t looking at her. Ten was matching glares with her father, standing tall as if he were ready to strike the larger man on her behalf.
“Sorry,” Amber whispered to him, unsure if he even heard her.
She rushed towards her father and stepped past him to go inside the house. She froze at the doorway and tried to stare past her father’s wide frame to catch a glimpse of Ten.
“You get off my property, boy. Don’t let me catch you out here again,” her father warned.
Amber couldn’t see or hear whether Ten made a reply or not. Her father backed inside the threshold like a mad dog on a chain and slammed the door shut. He turned around towards her, his face red as magma. Amber stared helplessly down at the oil-stained work boots he was still wearing. It was the last thing she could remember focusing on before feeling her father’s sharp blow to the side of her face.
The moonlight trickled down into Amber’s bedroom, laying itself across her weakened body. She had been trying to sleep for over an hour now, but she was too hungry to even close her eyes. Her cheek felt tender atop her pillow. She knew her father must’ve passed out by now, and her mother’s music in the room next to hers was shaking the walls. Still, Amber wasn’t about to risk a trip to the refrigerator.
She heard a rhythmic tapping behind her, sounding like a peck on the window. She thought it was a bird at first, but then she heard it again. She sat up in her bed and carefully looked out her window. There was no one there. Or it was just the wind. Or perhaps the strange shadow was following her again. Just then, she saw something on the cement sill outside her window. She undid the latches and drew the window open with a quiet care. The scent of freshly-cooked hamburgers filled her nostrils. She could see it now. There before her was the same blue plate from before, and on it were two steaming hamburgers. Beside those, another cold bottle of soda. Amber could’ve cried if her stomach hadn’t done the thinking for her first. Wherever he was now, Ten had just given her another reason to get out of bed.
Ordinarily, Saturdays were spent playing outside, trying not to think about whether there’d be anything to eat that day. Amber waited until her father had left for work and then stepped outside her room. Her mother was still sleeping; her snoring was somehow drowning out the music. Amber quickly went over to check the fridge. She stepped across the sticky floor and went around a dead roach. She opened up the fridge. There was nothing in there except some cold beer and a pack of molded cheese.
Amber spent the rest of her day outdoors, wondering when she might see Ten again. They don’t homeschool on Saturdays, do they? By around one o’clock, she’d given up any hope of seeing Ten before dusk time. A thought occurred to her then. What if he wasn’t going to come over again because of what her father had said? Amber peeked through the slats in her fence, hoping to catch some sight of him. But the house remained as still and quiet as it did in the evenings.
She tried climbing the tree again. To her surprise, it was easier than it had been the night before. There weren’t any menacing shadows below shaking her out today. What if she’d been imagining it? Only…it looked so real. Sometime later her mother came outside and caught Amber climbing up the tree. She snorted with laughter.
“Amber, you can’t climb that tree.”
“Yes, I can Momma. Watch.”
Only her mother wasn’t watching anymore. She was stepping down the empty driveway in her scuffed heels. She was wearing one of the dresses she’d received from the last church giveaway. It was red with white polka dots. She looked like a grown-up Minnie Mouse, except her hair was curled and smelt of heavy coats of hairspray. She was looking down at her purse when Amber reached the branch again and sat out on it.
“That’s nice,” her mother said, still focused on the purse. “Shoot, I thought I had a another five in here. Going into town, I won’t be long.”
“…Are you getting food?”
“I’ll try to bring back some food. Check the fridge, we probably got something. I gotta hurry. The bus’ll be here in ten minutes.”
Amber made no reply. Her mother’s heels clacked onto the curb and she pounded up the street. Amber touched the side of her face where she’d been struck last night, realizing her mother hadn’t even noticed. Or was it she did and just didn’t care. It was hard to know what she was thinking behind all the make-up.
Waiting for dusk felt like waiting for the sun to burn out. Amber was tired, sore, and still hungry. Thoughts of pulling her bike from the garage and riding away as far as she could filled her mind again. Where would she go? More importantly, what would her parents do when they found out? Instead, she relented to seeking shade and throwing stones at old stacked beer cans that she’d pulled out from the bags her and Ten had collected yesterday. Her mother didn’t return quickly as expected. Her father would be home soon. There was no sign of Ten anywhere by her fence.
As the light outside turned to a vibrant orange, Amber left the safety of her shade and ventured back to her tree. She stared at the fence, expecting it to do a magic trick and make Ten suddenly appear. She even tried whistling, though it was mostly spit. Ten was nowhere to be seen. It wasn’t until she saw droves of headlights coming down the street that she decided upon the riskiest course of action. She was going to have to go and see him.
She thought of going around to the front of his yard, but instead decided upon climbing over the fence where she had first seen Ten. After all, she’d climbed her own tree over twenty times that day. How hard could a little fence be? The wood creaked and thudded under the scraping of her tennis shoes. She planted her hands onto the flat heads of the thick boards and hoisted herself over. She tried to balance herself on the skinny edge, but soon found herself falling over the other side of the fence. She jumped up and dusted herself off.
“Hello Amber,” came a voice from behind her.
Amber turned abruptly, surprised to see Ten—still in his Turtles shirt—sitting on the grass with his back to the fence. His knees were curled up to his pale face, and for the first time ever he didn’t look happy to see her. Instead, he was frowning.
“Ten how—have you been there the whole time?”
“Yes Amber,” he said coldly, “I was waiting for you.”
“You should’ve told me. I would’ve come over sooner.”
“No. It was too early. This time of day is best.” He gazed up at the darkening skies. “A chance for the sun and moon to share the same sky. Even if for only a moment.”
“…Ten,” she stared down at the dead grass in his yard, feeling embarrassed again. “About last night. I’m sorry that—”
“Don’t be silly Amber. You have nothing to apologize for.” He finally turned to face her, wincing at the sight of her. “He hit you there?”
Amber said nothing. Her eyes were still looking away.
“Monsters come in all shapes and forms Amber. Your father is no different.”
She was biting her lip now, nervously fidgeting on the spot where she stood. Out of habit, she looked towards her house, still silently dreading her father’s return. It was then she noticed her window.
“Your plate! I-I forgot to bring it.”
“It’s just a plate. It doesn’t matter. Hope you enjoyed the food.”
“I…yes. Thank you.” She looked upon him, sitting there on the grass that had turned back to dirt. Ten looked so tired. It was unlike him. “Are you alright?” she asked.
“No. I’m not…alright.” The word sounded strange coming out of his mouth, like he was saying it in another language. He closed his eyes. “I won’t be able to play with you tonight Amber.”
“Oh—well, that’s alright. We could just sit here. And talk.”
He shook his head. “No. You can’t—I’m sorry. I need to sit here alone.”
“…Oh. Okay, yeah sure.” She could feel her voice breaking. “I…is this about last night? Because, well he’s not usually like that. And you could probably still come over to play. And—”
“A monster will always be a monster, Amber. The only one that can change that…is the monster.”
Her eyes grew heavy with tears—hot, unavoidable tears. “Okay. Well maybe tomorrow. Or…if you don’t want to hang out anymore—” her cheeks became wet, “—that’s fine too.”
Ten looked at her, his still face unchanging. “I’m sorry Amber. You need to leave.”
Amber stumbled back, moving away from Ten’s yard. She wiped at her face, trying to hold back the heavy sobs that she could feel spouting up from her chest. When she stepped out onto the curb, she turned left towards her house. Her father’s truck was coming from down the street. She knew those angry looking headlights anywhere. Quickly, she turned right. She knew what was up the street: bushes, more houses with happier kids, a few more trees, and the park at the center of the neighborhood. It was as good a place as any for someone who no longer wanted to be where she was. She jogged up the road, hiding in the darkness of the unlit portions of street, praying to God that Ten would call out to her. Apologize or something. Have a change of heart. Ten, however, said nothing.
The streetlights were turning on, but Amber wasn’t about to head back home. Especially not now. Her father surely knew by now that she was gone. He’d be angry. Why? She didn’t know. It wasn’t as if he cared whether or not she was in their house or yard. Perhaps it was just having someone to yell at, someone to strike out at, that made her father angry about her absence. Maybe…even angrier than before. She sat alone in the park, atop one of the chain-link swings with the rubber seat, wondering what she should do next.
The children had all left and gone back home, no doubt to families that loved them. Families that fed them. Home? Is that what a home was? Was it really a place where families got together and lived together without living in fear of each other…together? A place with no yelling. Or hitting. If that’s what a home was, then Amber had never known such a place. It was impossible to imagine her mother doing make-up with Amber for fun, or preparing a meal for the three of them to enjoy. Even more so, Amber couldn’t fathom a night where her father would willingly skip having a beer in exchange for sitting at the table with his family and telling a joke. Come to think of it, she couldn’t even remember a time he had ever laughed with her, or hugged her, or said anything to her that wasn’t a harsh command. No, that house wasn’t home. Ten had shown her that, even if he hadn’t intended. He was right. She lived in a house of monsters.
She sat there considering her options. Suddenly, in the center of the park, a low groan began to resonate and fill the air. Amber’s eyes bulged as she stared all around her, watching as the circle of streetlights flickered and then shut off, joining the darkness of the early night. The groaning grew louder and the trees in the park started to shake and thrash violently, as if they were being swept up in a tornado. Amber fell off of the swing, feeling too frightened to get back up to her feet. The mountains of grass bowed down before her, quivering under the immense pressure of the now visible shadow moving on the ground. Yes, even though it was dark, she could see its shape moving in the blue light of the late dusk.
The shadow grew to over ten feet tall as it soared across the field. Its body was like an egg, but it had no legs, only a train of pitch-black spilling over the park. There were eyes, two eyes. They were the most menacing looking eyes she had ever seen, like carved jack-o-lantern eyes that watched and followed her as an umber glow pulsed from them. The shadow had a mouth too with sharp edges and layers of growing teeth. Each one looked like tiny, drooling knives, swirling into a vortex. Yet, it was the ears of the shadow which gave Amber her greatest fright. It was hard not to picture Batman’s ears in the moment, only these were longer and more jagged. They looked like devil’s horns, and their color was a spiral of what appeared to be leaking blood. Just the sight of them was enough for Amber to know that she was staring into the face of her own death. The shadow twitched its flat, doglike nose and then—as it rose to face her—the shadow pierced Amber with both of its jagged eyes.
“I…HUUUUUUNGERRRRR!” the shadow rasped, with a striking wind from its pricking voice.
Amber tried to scream, but her own voice failed her. She could feel her body being sucked in. It was useless. The shadow would have her for his next meal. All she could do was close her eyes and be lost in the darkness. She readied herself, saying a silent prayer as she did. Please God—I don’t want to DIE!
“You won’t have her!” came a booming voice directly in front of her.
Amber’s eyes sprang open. There standing before her, holding a sword—at least she thought it was a sword, glowing strong with a radiant light—was Ten. He waved the beaming blade in front of the shadow and sent the beast reeling backwards, as if it were just as surprised by Ten’s appearance as Amber was. The shadow screeched and launched a spindly arm towards Ten. Ten swung the blade with a rapid twist and severed the shadow’s arm, forcing a howl from its rounded mouth.
Ten dug his bare feet into the ground. There on his back another glowing sensation started to occur. Amber watched in amazement as Ten sprouted two pearl-colored wings on his back—each spanning two car lengths at least. The shadow wretched his jagged sights towards an escape and moved away from Ten like an avalanche of charcoal. Ten used the newly-formed wings and hoisted himself up into the sky. When he had reached a considerable height, he steadied his blade and pointed it down towards the earth.
Amber remained hugging the ground, but her eyes never left Ten, even after his rapid descent had begun. His blade of light skewered the shadow and all at once the beast exploded into thousands of fragments, like black spiders washed away in a storm. Ten landed gracefully onto the ground as the remnants of the shadow grew still around his feet—a murky puddle of what once was. The light around his sword started to dim, and then it vanished entirely. Ten fell to one knee but he caught himself. He was soon able to rise back to his feet as the sword in his hand disappeared entirely, but his wings remained outstretched. Quietly, he turned to face Amber.
Ten’s face had changed. He looked older, though his body was still young. He appeared troubled, even after the darkness had fallen. Amber rose, and for a moment, the two of them looked at one another, both unsure of what to say. Amber had expected someone else to rush over here by now. Some person in a nearby house adjacent to the park to come and see the battle between light and dark occurring by the swings. Only no one else came. No additional lights came on. Cars drove by the park without tapped brake lights. There wasn’t anybody staring out their windows or slowing to survey the boy with the wings for themselves.
Ten sighed before hobbling over to her. His great wings scraped the ground and acted like crutches on the grass, holding his weakened body up for support. He looked scrawnier than she had ever seen him before.
“I’m sorry Amber. I didn’t mean for you to get wrapped up in all of this.”
“A-All of this?”
“The dusk troll.” He gave her a hard look, not as someone telling a story, but instead like one would give a warning. “A beast of old. He feasts on children. Sad ones. I knew he…would come after you. But I had to make sure. So, I acted cold to you tonight. To draw him out.” His eyes rattled. “Amber, I am so terribly sorry to use you like this.”
Amber stood there silently. Was that it? Had she only been bait? Is that why he—why he tried to be my friend?
She struggled with finding the right words to say. Ten had been one of her first real friends. So why was it so hard to look into his friendly eyes then? Was it because they were yellow now, while hers were still a natural blue? I hope they still are. She saw that his clothes had finally changed. Ten’s shirt had been replaced by a robe of gray. She remembered reading something somewhere about angels wearing white. But Ten wasn’t. Nor did he have a halo spinning over him, or sandals made of gold. He was the same barefooted Ten she felt like she had known forever—not three days. Minus the wings.
“So, are you an angel?”
“…I wish I knew.”
He took her by the hand and guided her fingertips to his wing. Amber felt the plush feathers crinkle at her touch. She thought it like sticking your hand inside a stuffed pillow. They felt cool to the touch, but also warming somehow.
“No one else can see you? Can they?”
“Only you,” he said, confirming her suspicions. “And only because I let you. Your dad saw me last night. I shouldn’t have let him, but—I was angry with him. He probably won’t have memories of me for long though.”
“You though, I allowed to see me. The truth is—I wanted you to.”
Ten stamped his feet around the area where the shadow had been slain. “I guess it’s because I didn’t want what happened to me to also happen to you.”
Amber’s eyes widened. “He—the dusk troll killed you?”
“Fifty years ago. Yes. I guess you could say I’ve been hunting him ever since. I wish I could tell you where the wings and sword come from, but I have no memory of such things. I really only kind of remember my life before all of this. I…” his eyes searched for an answer, “I think I was like you. Sad. Alone. Living with monsters. I don’t think anyone even cared when I died.”
Ten took both of her hands into his. “But I do not see this same fate for you Amber. Do you know what I see when I see you? I see someone who is strong. Stronger than I ever was.”
Amber could feel her tender cheek becoming wet with tears again. “Really?”
Ten nodded. “You are the bravest person I’ve ever met. You show love and loyalty to those who don’t deserve it. You face danger head on, when others would run and flee.”
“I didn’t—I fell. I couldn’t move. I’m not that brave.”
“No. I still don’t believe that. If you weren’t brave, then you wouldn’t have been able to climb the tree as many times as you did today.”
“I only—” she pulled back her hands and wiped at her flood of tears now. “—that was only because you helped me. With your powers. Right?”
Ten had a glowing smile then, though the rest of him was growing paler by the second. “I only showed you it was possible,” he replied. “You climbed the tree.”
Amber’s stomach growled. Her body ached. Her fingers were sticky from dirt, sweat, and now tears. Even still, she managed a grin. It was for him. And maybe, perhaps, for herself.
“Be brave for me again Amber. There is something I want to show you. Before it is too late.”
Ten held Amber close to his body. He felt so thin in her arms, so light, as if he weighed less than a pile of leaves. Ten’s wings straightened, and then mashed the field with a swooping gust. Amber clutched onto Ten as the two of them ascended into the air. She wanted to scream, but screaming wouldn’t have been brave, she thought. Instead, she turned her head slightly and saw what he was seeing.
They were rising above the playground, and soaring over the rooftops. She could see the last of the parents arriving home. The children were laughing and playing in the darkened yards. The smells of fast food and stove-top fumes wafted to even this height. Her stomach grumbled again, but she was too excited to be concerned over dinner. Instead of screaming, she found herself laughing in the night air, and wheezing like she did after a night of play. The world seemed so much smaller from this elevated height, like it did in the treetop.
She felt a lurch in her body though as Ten carried her back to her street and brought her down onto the familiar yard by her tree. His wings barely fit here without scraping the side of the house, but no one inside seemed to notice their quick landing. Feeling nervous—more so than just seconds ago when she was flying in the air—Amber loosened her grip on Ten and stumbled back onto the crunching grass in her yard. She tried to stop herself, but she began to sob heavily once more. Of course, she knew why this time.
“Don’t leave me again, Ten. I can’t—I’m not brave without you. When you’re here I just, I don’t know what it is.” She swallowed the heavy lump in her throat. “I’m not afraid when you’re around. And I’m just—I’m always so afraid. All the time.”
And that was when she embraced him. She didn’t care that her face was a mess or that his body still felt fragile in her arms. It was her own not so secret way of never letting him leave. He couldn’t. Ten had to save her from the monsters living inside the house. Her father’s truck was parked crooked in the driveway. He would know she had left. That man—that horrible man—always knew when she was doing something he didn’t like. “Please…don’t leave me Ten,” she whispered.
Ten returned Amber’s embrace, and though it seemed impossible that he was at once strong enough to climb the tree in her yard, he gave her a gentle squeeze with those rapidly fading arms of his.
“I would’ve stayed here forever. You made me braver too, Amber. I—I’m not sure what lies ahead. I’m afraid to go.”
“You?” she cried, almost laughing. “How could you be afraid?”
“The same as you. It’s alright to be afraid, I think. So long as we hold onto the hope that somehow it gets better.”
“And what if it doesn’t?”
“Then we make it better.”
“You know. I think you have always known, but were…too afraid.”
Amber nibbled her quivering lip. “I guess.”
“Promise me Amber. Promise me you’ll be brave.”
“…I’ll try. I promise.”
“Then I will try too. Thank you Amber.”
“…Being my friend.”
He turned his head slightly and kissed her on the cheek. His lips were as cold as ice, and they were as soft as the fluttering of an eyelash. Then, all at once, his body shimmered like a dimming flashlight. The wings broke into shards of feathers and drifted towards the sky. Ten ascended with them, his body slipping right through Amber’s arms. She reached out, and brushed what was left of his fingertips with her own.
“Goodbye Ten,” she cried out.
“Tenshi,” he whispered on the night air. “My real name…was Tenshi.”
The air grew still again as Amber stood alone in her yard. She turned to see the swing on her tree rocking slowly, as if some invisible figure was there waiting for a push. She brushed away the remainder of tears streaking her face. Every part of her wanted to obediently go and sit in that swing again, waiting, hoping, for some sort of leftover love from her parents. But she knew in her heart what the bravest thing to do was then.
She walked across the yard with a determined stride and went to the broken door of the garage. She knelt down, and hoisted the rotted wood with all the strength she’d used to climb her tree earlier. It didn’t matter that there were suddenly the sounds of raised voice coming from inside her home. No. It was never a home. Only a house where she lived. Her bike was there waiting for her, in the messy cavern that was her garage. She gripped the handlebars, pushed it down the driveway and hopped on. Her feet pedaled faster and stronger than they had ever done.
It didn’t seem like five miles away, but the sweat on her shirt and the sounds of her wheezing breaths left little doubt. She hadn’t expected to see a two-story home when she arrived. If she was being honest, she hadn’t known what sort of house to expect. She’d overhead the children in her class talk about the place back during Halloween. The candy in this neighborhood was said to be the best in the whole town. King-sized bars, not like the little packages in her neighborhood. But Amber had never considered going farther than her own street before without her parent’s permission. Not until tonight anyway.
There was a truck in the driveway, newer than her father’s, and an open garage that wasn’t as cluttered. A bald, heavy-set man was inside the place working. He turned to see Amber, watching him from the driveway. She felt the lump in her throat again. Maybe this was a mistake. What if she had the wrong house? She never should’ve left the comfort of her swing.
The man simply waved at her, and then stepped out a way from the garage. He didn’t walk with a clumsiness to his step like he was drunk. Rather, he stepped softly.
“Patricia!” he called out loudly. “I think someone is here to see you.”
Seconds later, the ajar front door of the big home swung open. Mrs. Myles, her teacher, was there wiping her hands on a towel. Amber had never seen her looking like someone other than a teacher before. It was strange, but also comforting to see her wearing the housedress and flip flops.
“Amber? Oh, Amber,” she gasped. “Is that you, sweetheart?”
But Mrs. Myles was already down the steps and ushering her inside with a gentle arm around Amber’s shoulders before Amber could sputter out her next words. Her teacher must’ve asked a dozen questions between the driveway and the steps to the door. Amber tried to answer all of them, as best as she could, but her thoughts had drifted towards the fresh smells coming from inside the home. Amber knew this smell, though not personally, and it was as perfect as she’d always imagined it.
“Let’s have some dinner, Amber. And you’ll tell me all about it,” Mrs. Myles said, in that grandmotherly voice of hers.
Tenshi had been right, Amber knew, as the front door closed behind her. She had always known how to make her life better than it was. Now, she had finally found the bravery to do so.