Ron and Gladys had day jobs though I didn’t know much about them. What I did know was every Wednesday and Saturday night Ron tended bar and Gladys waited tables at the Elks Club which meant every Wednesday and Saturday night I watched their two girls out on the Old Bogue Road.
Ron and Gladys were country people. I was small-town, and there is a difference between country and small-town. That difference is most pronounced after sundown.
In the country, dark is absolute and perfect. Even in the smallest of towns the darkness is disrupted by street lights, and porch lights, and light creeping out from the places where someone works late or a poor soul can’t sleep. But the country is cloaked in darkness. Each farm seems to have one tall lamppost with a single fixture pointing down, casting a circle of light, but just outside that circle lies complete darkness.
Country people seem comforted by the perfect darkness. It seals off their day and allows them to sleep in peace. A small-town girl like me finds no comfort in a darkness that hides what lies outside, and so it was on the Old Bogue Road.
The girls and I had played Hide and Seek until I couldn’t stand any more, then we’d switched to Annie, Annie Over for what felt like forever. The darkness was slow to come that night, and we had made the most of the long summer day. The girls were tucked in bed now, taking in long breaths that whistled quietly when exhaled. I was curled into the corner of the couch reading a library book when I first heard something brush against the side of the house near the front door.
I stiffened and concentrated all of my energy into listening. A thump and then the brushing again. The sounds repeated until they became a rhythm–thump, brush, thump, brush. My mind ran over all the possible things that could cause noise like that. A picture of the front stoop filled my memory, but I could not produce a single thing we had left lying loose that might be swinging in a breeze.
I crept towards the front window near the door each step as silent as the grave. The thought sent a shiver down my spine and I admonished myself for getting so frightened by a little sound. I flattened myself against the wall and with an almost imperceptible motion pulled the curtain back just far enough to look outside. Whatever was making the noise was pressed too close to the house to see, but there was an undeniable shadow of movement registering on the edge of the light circle cast by the yard light. As I stood stock still wondering what to do next, the handle of the door rattled causing my to swallow the golf ball sized lump in my throat.
Padding into the kitchen, I silently slid open a drawer and grabbed hold of the wooden handle of a butcher knife. Deciding my best bet would be to know who or what I would be up against and to use the element of surprise, I made my way to the back door. I was going to slip around the house and make my approach from behind.
Descending the back steps on bare feet, I was careful not to make sound. Then I eased around the back of the house and up the north side, grateful now for the country darkness that cloaked me. I got to the front corner of the house and froze. My next step could expose me. At the very least that step meant there would be no turning back.
I prayed, realizing suddenly the prayer had been running through my head for some time now. I took a deep breath, clutched the knife handle securely, and stepped out of the safety of the darkness at the side of the house hoping I was prepared for whatever I found. I was not. At the front door of the house just at the edge of the circle of light thrown down from the tall lamppost stood a cow trying repeatedly to relieve an itch on her back by brushing against the house and then rubbing the door handle back and forth down her spine.
Dropping the knife, I slid to the ground. I sat alone laughing loudly into the country darkness. The cow slowly turned her head to look at me in wonder before returning to her rhythmic brushing against the house.