Huge congratulations to Laura Keller! Her short story, “Finding Someday in the Dark,” originally published here at YARN on January 13, 2014, won the YA Fiction/Nonfiction SCBWI Magazine Merit Award! If you missed it then, be sure to check it out now.
By Laura Keller
I never would’ve guessed that I’d be tinkering with thoughts of Rafferty Long on that night of the apocalyptic ice storm; I’d sworn off thinking about him when we hit the middle of eleventh grade, about a year after his accident. But there I was, another year later, and close to sixty minutes into a blackout, seriously contemplating the insane notion of trudging over to his house.
My parents were probably in the midst of wine tasting in Napa on their annual anniversary escape while I sat there listening to ice-shrouded branches begin to crackle outside. If I had my cell I would’ve called and hassled them about child abandonment, but I actually couldn’t find the damn thing. I mean, I wasn’t the type who lived and died by my phone, but now that the power had been wiped out for about an hour and I was the lone inhabitant of an icebox, yeah, I missed the amazing palm box.
Said Ice Storm was freaky for a variety of reasons, namely: a) it snuck up out of nowhere without fair warning, b) it was relentless in smothering all roads, sidewalks, trees, cars, power lines, and anything of the currently-outside sort with a sheet of ice, and c) it knocked out our power, rendering it both dark and cold as hell in the house. That, and I was stranded without any means of communication. Yeah, freaky.
The irony was that when I was a kid, power outages felt like magic. I’d wish outright for a big storm to roll in and steal our light so we could disappear into the dark for a while. But so far that night, the power-outage-happy-place was lost on me. I wasn’t a kid anymore, but like those old times—when my parents would fumble around looking for improperly maintained flashlights and matches that were never in the junk drawer when we needed them—I was lacking any emergency light. And thanks to my cell phone going MIA, I was beginning to feel very alone. Enter thoughts of Rafferty.
He lived right next door—since the second grade—and at one time was my tree-climbing buddy. He was good too. He could get up so high, on the thinnest of branches. It was a miracle that a horrific plummet from our tree hadn’t been what had put him in a wheelchair. But it was more of the usual stats that got him there: teenage boy, driving too fast, and an overcorrection that would change his life forever.
He never let me visit him in the hospital. Or in physical therapy. He was so damn stubborn. I was half-tempted to show up unannounced to see him anyway, but I had too much respect for him to do something like that. When I caught wind that Lucas Brim and Tyson Morton had been to see him, it bummed me out that I hadn’t made the list, but I figured it was a guy thing. Then I heard that Madison Cross had visited him too—that just cut me. I didn’t even see him in his wheelchair until he returned to school. And things hadn’t been the same between us for almost two years since.
But right now, I knew he must be home. And his parents were probably holed up at The Lion’s Den, the pub they ran that was practically their second home. I doubted they’d return to Home Proper tonight; so far any vehicle I’d glimpsed on the road would be best described as sideways-sliding in nature. And anyone I’d seen attempt to go out and walk on the ice just fell straight on their asses. But at that point, I was freaked out just enough to want to brave the ice—and brave facing Rafferty—to avoid spending another moment in that icebox alone.
“Julia Carson, what the hell are you doing?” he asked. He opened the door with a quickness that impressed me. He truly moved with finesse in his wheelchair; it was like a sleek, sporty extension of himself. Right there, Rafferty Long looked more complete than me. I hoped he hadn’t seen me clinging to the fence that ran between our homes while I slipped along on the ice, or the giraffe-on-roller skates routine that occurred as I tried to inch my way up the ramped walkway that lead to his front door. Luckily I’d managed to pull myself up to a less awkward position before he opened it, although I was still clinging to the doorframe. “Well, get in here,” he said.
I stepped inside. He had a couple small candles lit, which sort of made his eyes flicker in this beautiful way, even if they only met mine for a few seconds before looking off. I sat down on his living room sofa, the same one I used to plop down on when we’d play charades together as kids. I always loved his impression of Harry Houdini. For whatever reason, he always did that one, and the way he performed it was good for a laugh. He’d pretend he was shackled with his hands behind his back—or sometimes it was a straightjacket—then perform the great escape, involving lots of wiggling and writhing before ending with a proud bow to his audience of one, like he’d actually performed a real escape act right there in front of me. I could always guess it by the goofy look on his face before he even got started, but I let him finish every time.
Now, he joined me in the living room—his palms gliding over the wheels of his chair like it was his second skin—and pulled up next to the sofa where I was sitting. Then the quiet set in, and I just had to say something—which meant having unfiltered words blurt out of my mouth—because that’s what nervous did to me.
“So, I know this is crazy, but I can’t find my phone, and my parents are out of town, and I guess I thought maybe you knew something, like if they’re working on the power or whatever,” I said.
I felt him looking at me for a moment too long, then he sucked in a breath and spoke. “Well, on the web it says that half the city’s out of power, so it’s going to be a while. I talked to my mom and their power’s out at The Lion, too. They’re camping out there tonight.” He rubbed his hands together, trying to warm them up. Or trying to give them something to do. Or maybe trying to break up the quiet that had returned.
And all of a sudden the weirdness that had become the norm between Rafferty and me moved one step weirder on the scale of uncomfortable lapses in conversation. Something about him and me, there in the dark with no parental units around, and the chilled air reminding us that if our two bodies were closer together we’d be a hell of a lot warmer—it just seemed to suggest something. I was glad that he couldn’t see me blush in the dim candlelight. What was I doing there? And how the hell was I going to get back home now? Step out the door and slide my ass down the ramp in front of Mr. I’ve Got My Shit Together?
I should’ve been in Napa with my parents. They were probably freaking out since they hadn’t heard from me. Which—aha!—gave me the perfect alibi for being there at Rafferty’s in the first place.
“So, do you mind if I use your cell to call my mom? I can let her know I’m not frozen or anything.”
“Sure, let me grab it—” He was interrupted by a startling sound from outside that resembled a mix of fireworks exploding and fracturing glass.
“What the hell was that?” I asked.
He looked at me—really looked at me!—with that kid face, the one I grew up with, then sped over to the back window and peered out.
“Holy hell. Some big-ass branches are starting to fall from the weight of the ice,” he said. “Come look.”
I walked over to the window and stood next to him. Weirdness factor jumping up three notches: 1) because I hadn’t been this close to Rafferty Long since BA—Before Accident, 2) because we were both looking at the tree where the two of us used to climb, waaaay BA, and 3) because he smelled really good. He definitely had that clean-boy soap smell going.
“So, can those branches like fall and smash the roof?” I asked. It seemed a reasonable question, because our houses were about seventy years old, and those old oaks, were like, ginormous and looming miles above our postage stamp homes.
“Possibly, but they won’t. It’s just a few of them starting to give for now—Jesus, did you see that?” I hadn’t, but I’d heard the echoing crack, like there was a gunfight going on out there. Another limb down. It was going to be way more than just a few of them starting to give.
“Maybe we should get away from the window,” I suggested.
“Not a bad idea,” he said, and looked at me and smiled. Twice in one night. I blushed and looked away.
We moved back into the living room and he handed me his cell. “Here. Make sure your mom doesn’t worry.”
I gave her a call and soothed her nerves, which wasn’t too difficult given that she sounded at least three glasses of wine into the evening. She made me promise that I’d stay at Rafferty’s until things lightened up. Of course she probably figured his parents were home. “Mom,” I said in a low voice. “I’ll be fine.” I was mortified by how the weirdness factor would skyrocket if Rafferty knew I was potentially planning to hunker down there the entire night.
“Thanks,” I said, giving the phone back. Our fingers touched briefly as it passed between our hands, and it’s not like sparks flew or anything, but yeah, there was something good there. Kinda like there was a little bit of the old Jules and Raff in the room.
“You should stay here a while, you know. It’s not going to get better anytime soon.”
“Okay,” I said, trying to sound like it was no big deal.
“I’m going to put on a coat and hat,” he said, gliding across the dark room like his path had a smooth automaticity to it. He opened the hall closet door. “You want a hat?”
“Sure.” I still had my coat on, but I realized that my ears were feeling frosty. “But I have to warn you, I’ll look like I’m twelve. Hats aren’t so flattering on me.”
“Everything is flattering on you, Jules,” he said, with his head still in the closet. But I heard it like a whisper in my ear.
He pulled out a hat and spun around, tossing it my way. The room was made of shadows, and I barely caught it. From what I could see, he’d gifted me with a thick white hat dotted with rainbow hearts and a big pink pom-pom on top. Hideous.
I looked at it and he laughed. “A gift I got my mom for Christmas when I was a kid.”
“I don’t remember seeing her wear it. I wouldn’t think I’d forget this hat.”
“There’s a reason you don’t remember.”
“Never worn?” I asked.
“Not ’til now.”
“Oh, what an honor. Well, here goes,” I said, putting it on, knowing that I must look like a total dork.
He laughed under his breath. “Maybe it’s just my eyes straining in the dark, but you might be right. You do look twelve-ish.”
“Thanks,” I said, but I didn’t care. It was so good to have him laughing, with me.
“No, it’s cute. Like a flashback.” He was interrupted by another crack outside, another branch casualty. I wondered if it was our tree again, or another. I looked toward the window, wondering what was happening to our tree. I couldn’t see anything, but I was imagining the worst.
“I’m sad for that tree,” I said. Our tree I wanted to say, but I couldn’t get the words out.
“Yeah,” he sighed. “But you know, shit happens.” His words hung in the air, ten times heavier than the branches crashing outside.
“Yeah, sorry,” I said softly.
“It’s okay. I mean, I’m okay. That tree’ll be okay too.”
“I mean, it has to be, right? We were kinda the heart of that tree,” I said. I felt like a kid, looking for some sort of reassurance that was too much to promise. But something about the dark, or the quiet that blanketed the house in between the breaking of branches just tore my guard down.
He didn’t answer me. He picked up his phone again and the room brightened a bit as he looked up more info on the web. He told me that there were over 30,000 households without power.
“Whoa,” I said. “This is one shit-serious storm.”
“Did you just say shit-serious?” he asked. I loved the smirk that slid over his lips.
“Well, we’d better get more blankets than these,” he said, tossing his hand toward the flimsy throws they kept in the living room. “You want to run upstairs and grab a blanket off the bed in our spare room? I’ll grab mine down here.” It took me a second to process that his room was now on the main floor. Duh. Of course it was. It was upstairs BA.
“Sure,” I said, wondering if this meant I was staying longer, or staying over, or what. “You know, I can head home and you can go to bed if you—” I offered, before Rafferty cut me off.
“No, you’re staying here. We should stick together. I mean, our parents are probably shitting bricks over this.”
“Okay,” I said, but it came out sounding more like a question. His words were foreign to my ears. I mean, he’d hardly looked my way since his accident, and now I was being asked to spend the night?
When he first got hurt, I figured the way Raff was avoiding me had everything to do with his new condition, like something he’d get over in time, and we’d be … the old us. But after months of waiting, and enduring the way he seemed to look through Courtney Massery’s soul—Courtney, whom he’d always professed to me was a big fake—and the way he laughed with Steph Simmons all through study hall when he’d barely say hi to me when we passed in the hallway, or the driveway for that matter, it just killed me. Eventually, I gave up. The new Rafferty seemed too good for the old me. Go figure.
“You know, they’re calling this Storm-mageddon,” he deadpanned, pulling me out of my thoughts. “We’d better take full precaution.”
“Right,” I said. “You don’t screw with Storm-mageddon.”
He laughed, and my chest ached for the smile that crossed his face in the candlelight. Why had he let two years go by between us? How could he have kept that smile from me for over seven hundred days?
We heard another crack outside and decided to check out the window again. A stray bit of moonlight found its way through the mist, and it was enough to spread a faint glow across the lawn. Our tree was taking a beating. We were lucky so far that the house wasn’t.
We grabbed flashlights and split up to get blankets. I stole mine from the upstairs guest bed in the room that used to be his. When I got back to the living room, I settled into the overstuffed chair and watched as Rafferty scooted himself effortlessly from his wheelchair to the couch. He lifted his legs up onto it one by one so he could stretch out and face me, then he began to put on an extra pair of socks. He shot me a guarded look.
“You probably haven’t really seen me move around much outside of my wheelchair, huh?” he asked.
“Nope,” I answered.
“Temperature regulation problems. One of my side effects,” he said, motioning to his foot as he shimmied his sock on.
“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t know.” I wondered what his other friends knew about him that I didn’t. When Rafferty had returned to school after the accident, in his shiny silver wheelchair and his lucky-to-be-alive attitude, he was treated like a god, some phenom of the human spirit that everyone longed to be near. He befriended everyone and then some, which was probably what’d stung the most. I’d been dropped. And replaced.
“Plus,” he added, without any apparent inkling that I was spending so much of the evening trying to figure out what’d happened to us, “I can’t feel my feet, so I figure I better throw these babies on for some popsicle insurance. You want some extra socks?”
“Sure,” I said, suddenly in tune with the chill creeping up through my toes. “I could use some popsicle insurance, too.”
“You can grab some from my room.” He pointed down the hall, even though I’d just seen him go in there. “Second drawer down on the dresser. Don’t look at my underwear.”
I smiled, but the truth was, I was nervous about what I’d see in his room. I hoped it wouldn’t look like a medical ward or something. But when I shined the flashlight through the doorway, it pretty much looked like a regular room. Yay Raff. I was happy for him, and his normal looking room.
I returned with two pairs of thick socks, in case his temperature-impaired feet needed a backup later. I turned off my flashlight, and realized that one of the candles had burned out. There was a single flame left flickering.
“Wanna play charades?” he asked.
I laughed. “In the dark?”
“Sure,” he said.
“Okay, you first.”
“Are you doing it?” I asked.
“Harry Houdini,” I said.
I could see his smile, even in the dark. “You remembered,” he said.
“Of course,” I whispered. For some reason, I felt choked up. I prayed he couldn’t hear it in my voice. What the hell was wrong with me? Maybe all of the falling branches were starting to freak me out; but I didn’t think that was it. The room was suddenly crazy with quiet. Shit, he could tell something was weird. Who was I kidding? The whole night was weird.
“Hey, why don’t you blow that out,” he said, motioning to the candle.
“Do you mind?”
“I guess not,” I said.
“I want to talk to you.”
“Okay. In the dark?” I asked. My chest was squirming.
“Okay.” I leaned forward and blew it out. The darkness that surrounded us was a million shades blacker than the darkness that had just parted when I’d extinguished the flame. If I’d been granted a wish for blowing out that candle, it would’ve been to sit in that deep, deep, dark there with him forever.
And then, I started to cry. God, I tried so hard to keep quiet, but whatever the hell was wrong with me, it just kept going. And I realized in that moment, as I silently scolded myself for not keeping my shit together, that I’d never cried for him. Not once. I’d been so busy worrying about why he was ignoring me, why we couldn’t be the same us, why he wouldn’t let me be the one to comfort him, that I’d neglected to cry for him. In a way, he never let me.
There were more echoes of branches fracturing outside, some like little progressive pops, while others carried sound effects with them that rivaled a tree taking its final t-i-m-b-e-r in the forest. It seemed that the ice was winning the battle outside and stepping up its assault. I hoped that the drama out there was somehow masking what I’d unleashed inside.
The silence between us lasted an eternity, but finally Raff spoke up. “Jules, are you okay?”
A huffy sigh bust out of my lips before I could contain it, and all I could say was, “You wrecked and ended up in a wheelchair, and you’re asking me if I’m okay?”
“Yes, I am. Are you okay?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Tonight, it’s weird. I feel like we’ve been thrown back in time together, and I just—God, I just miss you Raff.”
More silence followed, except for my pathetic sniffling and more crackling outside. I needed a tissue really bad. And I needed him to speak. I just needed him to say something. Anything. At last, he did.
“Tonight, when you showed up, for a moment it seemed like you were some early Christmas gift delivered right to my door. Then I remembered—Jesus, I can’t handle being around you. It takes a lot of effort for me to be near you, Jules. Don’t make me explain, but it just does. But you were so cold and we’re in this goddamn storm, and I had to let you in. And then, somehow tonight in the dark, it seemed okay. And yeah, I miss the hell out of you, too.”
I kept sniffling as the tears rolled off my face, feeling touched by the sun even in the freezer we were sitting in. I couldn’t speak. I could only feel. And it was messy and beautiful and tragic and confused and fantastic and a million more words that would never truly describe how my heart had been rescued in that moment.
Raff filled the silence. “I’ve sort of become a master of dealing with things on the surface. I can’t deal with the deep stuff, not really, not yet. And you, I just always figured that someday we’d be holding hands or something, like someday we’d be—I don’t know, whatever we were gonna be—and now the thought of holding your hand, it’s just a flashback of how I used to pull you up in that tree, that tree outside that’s being ripped apart as we speak, and now—shit—I mean now I can’t. I can’t do that anymore.”
The slight quiver in his voice harpooned me. Please don’t cry over me, Raff. I’m right here. I drew in a deep breath so I could speak clearly. I suddenly felt stronger, like I had to be, like he needed me. Finally.
“Raff, stop. We don’t have to talk about it. Just don’t shut me out. Just be here with me. Just, here …” I said, getting up, fumbling around for the glass table in front of where I’d been sitting, making my way over to where he was propped up on the couch. I banged my shin on the table and inhaled sharply to try and disguise the pain. “I could use a little light here,” I pleaded.
“All right,” he said. I flicked on the smaller flashlight and made the rest of the way over to him. There he was, lying on the couch looking like a contradiction—the strongest person I’d ever known, and the most vulnerable. I found his hand, took it in mine, and sat down next to him. I cut the flashlight. Dark again.
“There,” I said. “Now the weird handholding thing is out of the way.”
“Thanks,” he whispered. We sat there, hand in hand, in silence, for minutes, or hours—I have no idea. I would’ve held his hand there in the darkness forever if I had the choice. But eventually, he wiggled a bit and said, “I should go.”
“Go? Go where?”
“My room. I have this mattress I’m supposed to sleep on.”
Mattress? What? My heart sank. Was this some kind of cop-out?
He picked up on my silent struggle. “Another side effect,” he added.
“Oh, right,” I said quietly.
“It’s pretty kick-ass as far as mattresses go. I wouldn’t leave you for just any old thing.” I could feel his smile, even if I couldn’t see it. I popped the flashlight on again and handed it to him once he got up to his silver chair.
“Goodnight, Houdini,” I said.
He looked over at me with those eyes that were, yes, definitely beautiful and said, “Please be here when I wake up.”
“I will.” I felt my chest expand.
He nodded, and glided down the hall toward his room. “We can assess the damage together in the morning,” he called out before disappearing through the doorway. Another branch cackled, right on cue. Yeah, everything was falling apart outside, but it was impossible to imagine anything that happened that night being regarded as damage.
The next morning, we faced the light. The trees were made of crystal, weeping with their too-heavy branches as the dawn lit twigs like slivers of the sun. Branches littered lawns as far as the eye could see. Our tree was trashed. I didn’t even know if it would survive. But we had. The night before, as I heard that tree being torn apart, I knew a piece of our past was dying. But it turned out to be okay. We had something better than that tree now. We had the future.
Laura Keller lives in Kansas City with her husband and two children. When she’s not busy shuffling the kids around, she’s either reading or writing YA. She’s currently seeking representation for her YA romance novel Making Sense of Us, which won first place in the YA Category in the 2013 SouthWest Writers Annual Writing Contest and also won the Storyteller Award in the same competition. She’s a member of SCBWI and would love for you to stop by and visit her blog at laurakellerwrites.tumblr.com.