The Alley

By Elizabeth Miller

The deck light was a rough, neon orange, mounted on the corner of the house, turning the entire backyard a sick pumpkin color which really didn't seem like light. It casted upon the twisting vines, the darker foliage and the mysterious creepers that hinted at a wild jungle on vacation in the civilized world rather than a suburban backyard. But inside the house all was white and familiar, bright and safe. A TV was spilling forth a familiar sitcom with a reassuring laugh track, and in the background one could hear the tinkling of light jazz. A little boy's laughter mingled with the music and canned chuckles, creating a soothing melody to the harmony of clanging pots and pans. The smell of tomato sauce and sausage was everywhere. They were the sounds and smells of the safety of a home, the one place that someone could truly belong.

But the sounds and smells, comforting and familiar, were little consolation to the small ambassador shivering outside. All they did was remind her of how far away home was, practically miles to her terrified mind. She walked slowly, her sandals making sharp thumps on the wooden deck, her breath coming out quickly. The large bag in her hands was shaking. The night was thick and black with no moon or stars, the only light neon orange. Chirruping sounds, wild and mysterious, masked the sounds of family and sang songs of death and decay older than time itself. She walked to the end of the house, the end of the deck, the space underneath the orange lamp, and peered down the alley. A step down and -boom!- one would be surrounded by darkness and silence and strange smells. Thick, heavy smells of first sweet flowers that made her head ache, and then the stench of a garbage can nearly full, waiting to devour more refuse.

The little girl stared at her bag, asking herself if it could just be thrown down the alley and considered lost. She could go back inside where it was clean and safe and bright. She'd be with Mommy. Everything would be fine. Of course, Mommy would be angry because she didn't want raccoons in her yard, but it was so dark down there.....were there really trash cans in all that blackness? But another voice, firm and true, spoke in her mind. Stop worrying, it said. There's nothing to be afraid of. You were back here this afternoon dumping more trash. Nothing was waiting for you then, nothing is waiting for you now. Mommy would say so herself. Repeating those words of wisdom to herself, the little girl walked down the alley, her steps quick and firm with forced courage. The ugly smell of garbage overpowered the not-unpleasant odor of pollen-heavy flower after a few minutes, reminding her that there were indeed trash cans at the end of the passageway. Reaching out her hands in the dark, she found the trash can, grabbed hold of the lid, unsnapped it, and deposited her bundle. Snap the lid back on, she reminded herself with her mother's voice. Don't want raccoons getting into Mommy's trash cans.

The lid fastened, she turned around, ready to walk back. But what was that? The sound of dry leaves rustling under her feet made her turn her head. Maybe they were following her, hunting her, waiting for her guard to drop, then.... Stop that! she scolded herself. You're being silly. And you're doing it on purpose. Now come on. Mommy won't like it if you make everyone wait for dinner. But she snapped her head around when the rustling began again, and saw the unmistakable shadow of a monster. Her panicking mind tried to scream that it wasn't a monster but her eyes said wrong! and her heart said go! and her legs said run! and almost unconsciously she began to sprint back towards the light. Her arms began to pump wildly and she could hear them breathing behind her, faster, faster, faster, feet pounding against the sandals, in turn pounding against the concrete floor with sharp clacks like gunshots. Pure terror pounding through her veins, she dashed and dashed towards the light, towards day, towards home. She wanted her mommy, wanted to be saved, but knowing that she had to save herself faster and faster before they caught her, before....

She reached the deck and leaped onto it, breathing hard. Peering down the alley, her eyes used to the dark now, she saw nothing. What a fool she was! She wouldn't tell Mommy. Mommy would be mad at how silly she was. Mentally kicking herself, she slipped inside the screen door feeling very embarrassed and meek - just like all the other times.

Months, years later (for alleys cannot tell time) the girl was running down the alley again, running away from the monsters that lurked there. But the click of sandals was replaced by soft thuds of rubber, and the hair was longer, the face wiser. The terror on her face was the same, however, as well as the heaving of the chest when, panting, the girl made it to the deck. As always, she spun around, checking for the ghouls that were chasing her, and gave a half-smile to the darkness. Her breath returning to normal, she slipped inside.

"Well, Mom, the trash has been taken out, but it appears that monsters still lurk in the alley," the girl announced to the quiet house, and in particular the shadowed figure in the kitchen.

A petite, curly-haired woman walked into the light, two inches shorter than the girl and still shrinking. "Monsters? What are you talking about? I know there are ants back there, but..."

"I'm talking about goblins. Witches and warlocks and creepies and crawlies and things that go bump in the night." She wiggled her fingers teasingly at the woman. "The children of darkness. Ghosts - and in particular, the ghosts of my childhood."

The woman caught onto the spirit of the conversation. "Very eloquent, dear."

"Thank you. I haven't run down that alley for years, but tonight the bogeyman lurked in the shadows. Weird, huh?"

"Yeah, weird. You actually ran?"

"Yup. Like the wind. It's kinda thrilling, now that it's over. Knowing that once again I've escaped death at the hands of evil. Knowing that I'll always be able to dodge the forces of darkness and run inside to safety."

"I know. I used to run away, too."

This stopped the girl short. "You.....ran?"

"Yes, of course. When I was younger. Still do, sometimes. It can get kinda creepy back there."

The girl stared at the face that had appeared out of the dark to chase away monsters, the legs that had run to her terrified shrieks, the arms that had held her after nightmares. She listened to the voice which had told her that Mommy was here, that nothing bad was going to happen, that monsters and ghosts and vampires weren't real and they couldn't hurt her because Mommy was here. She looked down at her mommy, voice, legs, arms, face and all, and suddenly felt very, very scared, her insides melting with fright. She could see the little girl running down the alley, screaming for her mommy, but her mommy was ahead of her, running even faster....

"Dear, are you all right? You look sort of pale."

The girl found her knees weren't up for supporting her, and, in reflex, grabbed for a table. With some effort, she pulled herself up.

"I'm fine, Mom. What were you saying?" Her voice shook with exhaustion.

"I was reminding you that Jake's got a baseball game tomorrow, so if you could get dinner together, I'd really appreciate it. All right?"

"Dinner. Tomorrow. Um, sure. Consider it done." She tried to stand upright without the table, ending up on her feet but swaying back and forth slightly. "I'm exhausted. Bedtime for me. 'Night, Mom."

"Good night, dear," she replied, waiting for the girl to come over and kiss her on top of the head, a nightly tradition since the girl had realized that she could reach above her mother's face. But to her surprise, the girl turned around and walked carefully down the hall towards the bathroom, bracing herself on the walls as she went. Shrugging, the woman went to bed.

Somewhat steadier, the girl went through the nightly routine of face washing and teeth brushing on automatic, trying to avoid thinking altogether. She shed her jeans and socks once safely in her room, slid under the covers, pulled them up tight, and snuggled into the pillow, begging mentally for sleep to come quickly. But wild, unwelcome thoughts ran into her mind of goblins and ghouls and monstrous spiders and alleys where they lurked, chilling her blood solid and making her twist up and turn her back towards the wall. Upright, shivering, she almost called out for a comforting parent, but remembered. Mommy was afraid of monsters too. Mommy was scared of the night too, and Mommy ran down the alley on a dark summer's night with no moon too. Slowly, she lay down again, back pressed to the wall, eyes wide open, ears alert and listening to the creaks and squeaks and thumps of the dark. Tense and rigid, she lay there waiting for sleep, never once turning her back on the alley.

"The Alley" belongs purely to Elizabeth Miller © 1996.

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