It’s midnight and we’re hunting again, my brother and I. We’re not hunting deer, or wild cats, or criminals, or unicorns, or holy grails, but something much more precious. We are stalking sleep, trying to chase it down to our beds and cage it there. And if nights of insomnia and glassy eyes in the daylight hours are any indication, we are poor hunters. Still, need spurs us on and we go just the same.
What we do is this: on nights when our mother is dead-asleep and will not awaken to find us gone or catch us leaving and lecture us on the dangers of wandering around at night, we step lightly down the stairs; and while Sterling quiets the dog, I silently slide the glass door open, and we slip out.
We never leave before midnight – midnight is the witching hour, the time of ghosts and demons, our time.
Once out, we simply walk.
It is a sharp, cold November night, and though the stars are partially hidden behind blurry gray clouds, there is no rain. But when it does rain, we are happiest. Walking in the rain is best, and we never miss a chance to journey through drizzle or mist or downpour. Rain changes everything, makes it all cleaner, sharper, more pure, more real. We wear only t-shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes, whether storms churn in the sky or the air is frozen like liquid nitrogen. We cherish the sensation of our skin peeling away until only the innocent center-point of ourselves is left behind.
But there is no rain tonight.
Laughing at our audacity, at our one short reprieve from that tiny townhouse and its reverberating walls, we leave the townhouse parking lot. Our stroll follows the road that transcribes a circle around the community. On our left, rows and rows of townhouses; on our right, pine trees. A blue SUV drives by rapidly and I wonder: late night working or late night partying? Either way he (or she?) is obviously eager to be home. We are eager to be away.
The curve of the black pavement, glittering like pyrite in the thin moonglow and thicker lamplight, eventually veers to the west. But our goal is eastward, so we turn, ducking beneath the low branches of pine trees. Pine needles brush against my face with a flash of stinging cold like rubbing alcohol – in the rain they carve icy tracks into my cheek, but there is no rain tonight and the sensation quickly fades.
Our trek takes us away from the line of trees, across a small field where construction continues to devour the grass and excrete dark wet dirt. A year ago the small field was a buffer between us and urbanization, filled with wildflowers and the occasional rabbit. Now, they are building a car wash beside the gas station and the Wendy’s, and a bank is scheduled to go up next. The tiny strip of nature that shielded us from Metcalf Road is rapidly disappearing, eaten by bulldozers like a salad.
Metcalf Road is our goal. It runs north and south, but we always go north – toward the shopping centers and stoplights, away from the empty stretch of darkness between 127th and 135th. I cannot say precisely why we avoid that small expanse between subdivisions and gas stations, where the air is dark as murky water and streetlights barely mark the passing seconds; why we are drawn to the lights that echo across the pavement in concentric circles around Target, Circuit City, McDonalds. Perhaps we are simply moths drawn to flame; perhaps we are simply animals like all others – instinctively (even despite our rational natures) afraid of the dark. Either way, it is toward the grocery stores and the fast-food restaurants that we turn.
Sometimes we stay on the south-bound side, too lazy to bother crossing the wide road. But on days like today we slowly glide across the six lanes like spirits, waving nonchalantly at the one or two cars that whiz past us, honking their horns. We smile and laugh at their vehemence, unconcerned. There is a reckless glee in the way we walk.
These are the moments when Sterling and I talk about everything – the crazy-stupid stunts he pulls in class, practically daring his teachers to kick him out; the way Mom has become so volatile, so dangerous in both her fear and her fury; the fact that we haven’t seen Dad in four years and we barely care.
I actually miss Laura more than I miss that bastard, Sterling speaks, the words squeezed from his tight throat. I add softly, well… and don’t forget Marcus and Maddie. Dad is always “the bastard,” but Laura, our step-mother, and Marcus and Maddie, our half-brother and sister, have kept us from breaking contact entirely.
We can imagine, in that Shakespearean darkness – where Ariel and Macbeth and the ghost of Hamlet’s father live – that sometimes… sometimes we see a tall balding man disappearing into the nearest empty shadow, and one or the other of us feels the need to point and ask: did you see–? But there is no one there, and the never has been, and there never will be, and we cannot finish our question because we both know the answer. We don’t like to say Dad – it is a lying word.
And sometimes when it rains, I see another man, veiled in silver aureoles that shimmer over his head, ring his hollow eyes, settle softly on his shoulders. His hair is dark and thick; his body, once like a leopard’s, is skeletal and pale. Blink once and he is gone. And I dare not utter a word to Sterling when I see this specter – Sterling does not know how our uncle, dead and buried in Texan soil, haunts me.
Think you’ll get any sleep tonight? I ask Sterling, and myself, and the ghosts pressing in around us. The answer is always no… whoever it is that answers. Our hunt has failed again. Yet still we try to deny that we are the ones who are hunted.
Stars struggle like children to be seen through the mottled clouds, and I wish it would rain – clouds flowering into glass petals that tumble down our backs. Glass petals that slice away everything, until we are cut clean like white scars against the black sky. But there is no rain tonight.
Beneath the maple syrup light that drizzles out of streetlamps, I hear the soft murmur of a song, and as it grows louder I realize that Sterling is singing. He does sometimes, like a release, like a scream, and without thinking I join in. Before long our voices ring out across the pavement, bouncing back to us from the invisible walls of the night. And I wonder about that as well: why do our voices come back to us as if the music is caged by the dark? I cannot answer the question, but I know why we sing. We are trying to drown out the voices of the ghosts that follow us.
Eventually, we pass Jason’s Deli. A lone car – green, I think, it’s hard to tell in the darkness – is still sitting in the back lot, the employee parking. Someone is waiting for a delivery truck bringing the week’s supplies, and they’ll probably have to wait there until one or two in the morning. Sterling and I used to work there, so we know the bone-weary exhaustion that comes from that kind of waiting. Neither of us recognizes the car so we wonder which poor bastard got stuck with the job this time. And we laugh.
The air is cold like an old man’s fingers now, tracing curls and lines up and down my arms. The wind is a dance without music that leads trees and leaves and litter into other dances. And I am content with this: my hands are stuffed low in my jean pockets; my legs cut a long stride into the sidewalk; the dark and the wind are pressed against my sides – to keep some things in, to keep others out; and our voices mingle with the wind, adding music to the dance.
But Sterling is always hungry. His anger boils in his veins and fills his body with steam – like a boiler, the pressure builds until it splits the boundaries of his skin and he explodes. His rage radiates out into the cold air, leaving him empty, starved. So he eats up the green glow and red glare of the stoplights; he drinks up the sounds of sirens in the distance; he swallows sweeping trees and chunks of pavement whole. And still is never satisfied.
A black hole is swirling in his stomach, devouring everything, leaving nothing left over for him. And I tell him, again and again I tell him, that he’ll learn to live like this. I try to force the calm back into his bones. But he will not believe me. He cannot believe that I have swallowed a black hole too; that I too know that slow burn, that restless chill, that electric organ screeching high-high C in my brain. I have simply learned to hide it better, keeping it covered with make-up and mantras that vibrate and echo in my metallic skull like tuning forks.
But Sterling will learn. Eventually he must learn to hold it inside. Or he’ll simply dissolve.
I occasionally wonder what we look like wandering the empty road at midnight. Will a cop ever feel the need to pull over and ask us what the hell we think we’re doing? Do we look suspicious? Or merely pathetic? No one has ever stopped us. No one has ever asked us what the hell we think we’re doing. They see a tall skinny boy filled to the tips of his fingers with electricity. They see a long-haired shadow of a girl who laughs at everything and nothing because she can do nothing else. Both with an air, simultaneously, of people who do not give a damn, of people who are haunted. Perhaps passers-by see what we see – that memory is hot on our trail, nipping at our heels. At night, as spirits press down on us, we become like ghosts ourselves.
What are we supposed to do with all these moments that haunt us? Awake, asleep, or dreaming, they chase us. And we have learned that life is just this: running every night, at midnight, through shadow and light and rain.
And still I wish it were raining tonight. If it was raining, maybe we’d be invisible.
Originally written in November 2006.