Slowly, silently, she sits up.
In the darkness, her windowshade is rimmed with the streetlight’s orange glow. She can’t sleep. She knows it’s there.
She found it this afternoon, but her mother was in the next room over and she didn’t dare touch it.
Her heart is pounding. She’s going to go.
She swings her feet off the bed, onto the rough carpet. She shivers as she slips out of her bed and into the cool air. Her Strawberry Shortcake nightgown provides little insulation, and she wraps her arms around her body for warmth as she steps into the hallway.
She pushes the cupboard door in as she turns the knob, so the door won’t make a pop when the latch retracts. Stepping on one of the drawer handles, she reaches up and takes the red plastic flashlight. Pointing it into her armpit to block the light, she flashes it once to be sure it works. She takes a deep breath and heads for the stairs, passing the room where Eric sleeps under a mound of blankets, his blue Bugs Bunny nightlight casting an eerie glow.
The stairs are carpeted, but every step produces a creak that seems ear-splittingly loud. If her dad wakes up, she’ll tell him she was going down to the kitchen for a snack.
Downstairs, the ticking of the antique clock on the mantel sounds like an alarm. ab-by, ab-by, ab-by, ab-by! The darkened first floor of her house has the same quality as her yard after a snow—all the familiar objects are there, but there’s a foreignness to them, an abstraction from their true nature. The effect is strange and sinister, and she takes care not to touch anything as she passes into the kitchen.
The illuminated clock on the stove says past midnight! The spotlight mounted on the garage shines through the back door’s four windowpanes and casts the shadow of a cross over her chest. She pauses. Her hand is on the basement doorknob. She swallows. She could go back to bed.
But she wouldn’t be able to sleep. She knows it’s there. She has to go see it.
She opens the door and beams the flashlight into the blackness below. One object is illuminated at a time: a board game, a basketball, a tool chest. She swallows and ventures onto the first cold grey stair.
The refrigerator’s compressor switches on, and she almost screams with the startle. Half a laugh tickles the back of her throat, and she’s down the stairs.
The silence in the basement is profound. The floor is cluttered, and she has to keep the flashlight shining on the ground in front of her as she picks her way among cinder blocks and ski poles on the brown linoleum floor. After a few steps, the last door is in front of her. It feels as though her heart has expanded to fill her whole body, and every inch of her throbs with its rapid beating. She pushes the door open.
Her flashlight’s beam glints off her father’s abandoned drum set. Afraid of causing it to make a noise, she steps toward the set with vast caution. Quietly lowering herself into a cross-legged sitting position, she faces the dusty bookshelf. She sets the flashlight in her lap and pushes aside the framed license plate that leans against the shelf.
There it is, roasting the other books with its hot blush.
Suddenly, she realizes someone is watching her, and a stifled cry grabs at her throat as she swings the flashlight’s beam towards the door.
The light strikes only the water heater. No one is there.
She sits there for a minute, listening intensely and trying to control her quick, shallow breathing. Swallowing, she turns back to the shelf and reaches for the book.
It won’t budge. Creeping mildew has plastered it to its neighbors. She pulls harder, and finally it comes free with a crackle. She has it. There’s no turning back. She sets the book in her lap and opens the warped pages. When she turns the flashlight to the book, she gasps aloud. She hadn’t imagined. She stares at the picture for a minute and then turns the page. Then another page. And another.
She’d expected words, but she’s found drawings. Heads between legs. Women sitting on men. Men riding women. Lying together, backwards. And hair everywhere—so much curly black hair. Never would she have imagined.
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