In the darkness of the cabin, thirty-eight-year-old Wes Carver sat at the kitchen table and stared at the picture of his wife Claire and six-year-old daughter Lily, smiling from the screen of his cell phone. His two beauties had been gone now for an entire year, killed last Halloween by a trucker who lost consciousness after suffering a heart attack. The eighteen-wheeler crossed the median and demolished several cars, ending the lives of his young wife and child.
Many nights Wes awoke suddenly, tears on his face. He had good friends, parents still alive, a loving brother and sister, but none of them understood the blackness of his despair.
Ironically, he had made friends with another kind of darkness, the one surrounding his family’s cabin deep in the Adirondack Mountains. Outside the wind and forest were silent. It was a new moon and the heavy overcast had snuffed out any starlight, increasing a radiant darkness that held no fear for Wes, only the promise of seeing his family once again.
He had blown out the last candle hours ago and sat in the dark with only the light of his phone. To most, the darkness would have been suffocating, but Wes felt energized by its rich depth, echoing his heartache beyond the walls of the cabin.
A physicist by trade, religion his hobby, he knew many of the discoveries in modern day physics had only led to greater mystery and uncertainty: the cosmic rug pulled out from under the discipline. And if the universe were composed mostly of dark matter as the math insisted, the promise of eternal light was no longer a dependable vision.
A lapsed Catholic, Wes believed in the transcendent, minus the orthodoxy of organized religion and had no plans to beckon his wife and daughter through prayer. And he had no intention of resorting to childish games of witchcraft or Ouija boards this Halloween night.
During the past year he opened the Bible often, not for comfort, but to search for his loved ones the same way he did among his books and research papers. When he came to the Ten Plagues of the Egyptians, he rediscovered the Plague of Darkness.
The Lord told Moses: ‘stretch out your hand toward heaven so that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be felt.’
Wes ran with the potency and tangible nature of darkness. He believed that in the darkness all things came and went eternally. Since the Big Bang, nothing had ever been destroyed, nothing had ever really died. Quantum physics showed that subatomic particles didn’t reside in a specific position so that the particles composing every person, plant, and star were in flux, connected, allowing for the possibility of instant communication with the other side of the galaxy, or with those whom death had taken away.
Why couldn’t his desire, his love, bring back his wife and daughter from such a universe boiling over with possibilities?
Physics demonstrated that darkness was palpable, a new medium in which to someday journey. Perhaps shamans utilized the dark energy of the universe to fly. Wes believed that when he opened the front door he’d find a midnight world of sky, forest and animals that had become something else. He would be stepping onto a new runway, accelerating toward his loved ones.
Shortly after his loss, he walked outside on a moonless night and felt an oily darkness suffocating him with loneliness. Inside, outside, no longer mattered. He shrieked and the night responded like a great serpent squeezing him with more sadness.
Once his pain subsided in the days that followed, he began thinking like a child who knows that anything could be formed in the dark, changed in the dark: shadows at the foot of the bed, movement under it, a long arm reaching out from the closet, the chair across the room with clothes tossed on it no longer just a chair. When the lights went out, anything could swim into existence.
Looking one last time at his Claire and Lily, he held the button and the power-off slide command appeared. With a swipe, all the room’s furnishings were swallowed by the darkness. Yet a simple touch, the shine of a flashlight would fix these items in time and space. A chill traveled his spine. Without sensory experience, what was really there? What did a chair or refrigerator actually look like?
The minutes passed and the darkness only grew more complete. Several times he closed and opened his eyes to be sure they were actually open. Wes began staring in the direction of a painting on the opposite wall and wondered if his eyes would ever adjust and gather up some remnants of light, displaying the landscape painting as a deeper shadow, a black hole that offered passage. He saw nothing.
Not just the painting, but now the walls, ceiling and furniture existed only in his mind. He could no longer turn up the lights in his imagination, for even there the cabin’s interior stood in a twilight world. Dark matter itself was seeping into memory.
And what was memory? Research in other sciences, especially Neurobiology, caused him to finally reject the reductive belief that life was just the sum total of a lot of matter guided by the chemical-electrical activity of the brain. Psychologists had search and failed to find a location for memory. Professor Carl Pribram even went so far as to reject a biological location for memory in the brain.
Consciousness had to be outside the body. Now, in a small cabin in the woods, he sensed a greater consciousness, unblinking, wide awake. Was it staring at him from across the room, from across the universe?
The hair on his arms rose and he pressed further into soundless communication, a witness to the blackness in motion all around him.
He stood up and kept one hand on the back of the chair. It was solid, but without touching more of it, or seeing it, how could he be sure it existed as he remembered it?
He touched a lamp shade near the front door and its familiarity calmed him. Breathing slower, he thought of last Halloween. Lily wanted to be a witch, a happy one, she had said, one that smiled a lot. Of course her mom had to be a witch too, a very pretty one. He was going to be out of town for a conference, so before he left, they dressed up for him and he took their picture.
This innocent moment had become his hell. Whenever he thought of his wife and daughter he saw them in their masks, pretty masks, frozen smile cutouts that leered at him. He deleted the photo months ago and went to album pictures and others on his cell phone to recover their likeness, but in his mind’s eye they were always in costume.
The worst moments came in dreams, where on a quiet street he’d spot his wife and daughter waving, calling him to join them. He never approached. But in a recent dream they were behind him on a wind-swept night talking and giggling. The witch masks made their voices buzz slightly, and he heard a scratching behind the masks every time they spoke. His daughter asked him to hold her hand and his wife said that he had nothing to fear. But he did. Others in strange costumes walked toward him and they sought his gaze but he looked away.
Wes moved carefully toward the old walnut door and could only imagine its carved relief of an eagle in flight. Darkness moved over everything, dimming the memory of his grandfather crafting the bird with knives and chisels. The everyday world was fading.
Footsteps came up the wooden porch, one pair light, the other heavier.
He expected an announcement–trick or treat? A declaration of love? But nothing came. Only the wind circled the cabin.
He stumbled, groping for the door knob, making a mumbled plea to a forgotten Creator when a knock came. Two hard raps made him jump. Tears filled his eyes. He waited. They waited in costume. Then a long scratch started down the wooden door, and it no longer mattered if he opened it or not.
Wes froze, aware that something alien was approaching from behind. In the dead space it had found him. He sensed its curiosity as it leaned close and touched his back with something cold and unfamiliar. The coldness pushed deeper. It had been aiming for his heart all along. All that is good was dying.
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