The One Who Fell In Love With The Dark

Image of Long Story Short Award - 2022
Image of Short Fiction
It was counter-intuitive for Rita to fall in love with the dark, but it was also perfectly natural. Most kids do it at that age.

She had found a shadow, lurking under the large tires in the playground. It was always there, except for some extraordinary, bright summer days, and normally she avoided that spot. It was cold and there were things that lurked inside the dark. Like spiders, and worms, and the endless limits of the imagination. On this particular Monday though, Rita was feeling brave.

"You be a brave girl for daddy, ok?" Mommy had said earlier that week. Daddy was laying on the hospital bed with his eyes closed. Rita had nodded, but she wasn't quite sure what Mommy wanted her to be brave about, or how being brave would help anyone. She decided to be brave about everything, just in case.

So, on Monday Rita went under the tires and sat there all lunch, learning how to be brave.

Later that day, Rita discovered that the bathroom at home got quite dark when the lights were off. She experimented with turning the lights on and off, working up the courage to sit in the dark alone, until Mommy asked what she was doing, and she had to go to dinner.

This method seemed to be working, so throughout the next few weeks Rita systematically explored every misty alley, mysterious crevasse, and shadowy corner at the school and in her house. Except for the basement. Daddy wasn't at home, but the basement was his. Rita couldn't explore down there, it felt wrong. But after exhausting all other dark places, Rita was running out of ways to be brave.

That was when Rita discovered The Book.

The Book was a thick, faux-leather bound volume, that sat ominously on the top shelf of the school library. Rita had just been given permission to read the older kid books after complaining that the ones for her age range were too boring. When Rita saw The Book she had to get a librarian to bring it down for her. It rested heavily in her backpack when she brought it home.

The moment she began reading, Rita was enthralled. The Book was dark. In fact, it was a new kind of dark. It invoked the feeling of darkness, that soft, persistent, aching feeling in your chest, and yet when Rita closed the book, the feeling was gone.

Except that Rita had a different feeling, one that happened naturally sometimes, and it was only by using The Book, that Rita could banish that feeling and trap it between its gilded pages. She asked Mommy if she could buy her own copy at the bookstore and found a brand-new print sitting on her bedside table the next day.

Rita soon discovered that there were other books that did the same thing. Some made her cry, others made her mad, one even put her in a shocked trance that lasted almost three days. Her favourites were about fantastical new worlds, dying protagonists, and people's whose parents were suddenly not at home.

Mommy read one of these books one time and the next day gave Rita a stack of "funny books". "Why don't you want to read these books?" Mommy pleaded. Rita cried until Mommy gave her back The Book. All the funny books were too boring, and they didn't make the aching feeling go away. Rita had to be brave for Daddy, and these books were her way of doing that.

Slowly, the darkness in the books began to seep out of them and Rita's world became dark instead.

It happened first in gym class. Rita's class was playing dodgeball. Rita was not very good at dodgeball. When it became more and more clear that Rita's team was going to lose, the aching feeling got worse and worse. "Rita are you even trying?" one of her friends hissed at her. Rita looked over at her book, resting on the sidelines, and noticed a black smoke crawling between the pages and climbing outwards across the gym. Rita ignored it, and the smoke created a thick wall that Rita could see right in the corner of her eye. Rita's team lost. As Rita sat on the bench her hands slowly began to stop shaking and the wall dissipated. The aching feeling did not.

It happened again at home. Mommy asked what Rita had done at school that day. Rita tried to explain but Rita forgot what she was going to say before she said it. The smoke fell out of her mouth in waves, but Mommy didn't seem to see it. Rita and Mommy didn't talk much after that.

Finally, when Rita was with her friends and they all spoke over her and made jokes Rita didn't get and didn't look at Rita, she realized that they couldn't see her. She was enveloped in the darkness.

"That's alright." Rita thought, "I'm safer that way."

But she wasn't. She was just sadder that way.

Daddy died. Something in Rita broke. The darkness almost won.


Rita read the books religiously after that. There was something about the way the worlds she created in her mind sparkled, and while they were technically more dangerous, they felt nicer because sadness made sense there. Pain was for a reason, though sometimes that reason only made sense to the author and readers.

But there is a point where sadness becomes too much, and one is left with only three choices: continue to spiral, change something, or give up, and, regardless of all whining and crying, humans are creatures of continual change. Eventually Rita had no choice but to meet that change on her own terms.

Three months after the funeral, Rita got The Funny Book. It was a thin, flimsy thing, with a bright orange cover. Light exploded from its pages and Rita had to stop herself from scoffing at it. It was a stupid book. It had no meaning, the characters weren't very interesting, but...

But. The aching feeling went away. The darkness that Rita had held inside of herself, all bunched up in between her lungs, was being dissolved by The Funny Book. Rita was right, the book was stupid, but it was not meaningless.

Rita wanted to say that it was The Book that was meaningless but that also wasn't right. Both books were- well, useful.

"Mommy, what kind of books did Daddy read?" Rita asked at the dinner table. Mommy looked at Rita with a kind of pain that Rita wouldn't understand until years later.

"He read all kinds of books. Did you want to see them?"

Mommy brought Rita into the basement. Along one wall was a thin bookshelf, barely taller than Rita.

"He gave away a lot of his books after he read them. These were just his favourites." Mommy explained as she picked up a thick book right in the center of the bookshelf. She ran her finger along the title as if she recognized it and was greeting it as a friend.

They both spent that day in the basement reading Daddy's books. Mommy was right, Daddy read all kinds of books. There were dark books, light books, green books that made Rita feel confused, red books that made her feel heroic, blue books that made her feel intelligent, and wonderful, strange, combinations of all of them.

In one of the books, Rita found a small note written with blue ink on the inside cover:

"For Brian,
Here's to five years since the start of our greatest
adventure of all. Happy Anniversary!
Love Joan."

And when Rita saw the tears is Mommy's eyes, Rita finally understood what being brave meant.