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The Darkness This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

The July night was cold, a black veil that cloaked the earth in silence. The car purred as my dad and I rolled towards home. The headlights swept through the dark as I fiddled with the knee of my baseball uniform and wiped crumbled dirt onto the car floor. We lurched over the familiar bump in the asphalt, and Dad clicked on the turn signal, ready to fork onto Middle Street. As he spun the wheel, we both saw him: a boy, frozen in the headlights like a deer, a grey hoodie pulled tight around his neck with a backpack, slung on a skateboard, propped next to him.

My dad rolled down the window. “You need a ride?” he called out. His voice was swallowed by the night, like a boat pulled under the water.
The boy approached the car and pushed the hood back and off his head. He was biracial, with light skin the color of hazel, and short—about five eight. He ran his fingers through close cropped black hair. I recognized him, but I couldn’t place him.

“I don’t have anywhere to go,” he admitted sheepishly. Only when his deep voice cut through the night did I remember him. His name was Michael, and he was the twin of a boy who I had done gymnastics with at a much younger age. I remembered my mom dropping his brother off at their house and spying Michael through the front window. From my vague memory of him, Michael was always polite to me and my mother whenever we had to take him home, too. My dad had never met him; to him, I knew, Michael was just another teenager. I wondered why he was out here. His house was just minutes away by foot.

My dad pulled our car up to the curb and motioned with his arm for Michael to follow. He twisted the key in the ignition, and the headlights disappeared, leaving the streetlight’s dull yellow glow the only brightness in the night.

“You okay?” he asked Michael, his voice gentle.

“Well, I don’t know, I mean,” he murmured, and shoved his hands into the pocket of his sweatshirt. “I was at home, and then my mom comes out, and she's just like crazy. She starts kicking me, biting me and all that. Hey, I can even show you, I got bite marks on my arm.” He rolled up his sleeve to show us, but it was too dark to see.

“And then I just pushed her away, because she was really going to hurt me,” he continued, “and so my stepdad comes, and he thinks I'm hurtin’ her, and he starts yellin’ in my face to get out, so I got some of my stuff and left. Now I don’t know where to go,” he finished. He dug a cellphone out of his pocket and clicked a button a couple of times. “It’s dead,” he murmured.

My father turned to me and sighed. To me, this seemed crazy: a scene right out of the big city, not where we live, in tiny Bath, Maine. Abusing a child was outrageous to me. But his story seemed to be true. Or was there a secret lurking beneath Michael’s blank expression?

My dad turned back to the window. He was calm, collected, and spoke with clarity and purpose. “Do you have any relatives in the area?” he asked.

Michael shook his head. “I called my grandmother, but she wasn’t—” He interrupted himself. “My cellphone died, so…” His voice trailed off until it was barely audible. “I don’t know.”

“You’re sure you can’t go back to your house?” Dad questioned.

”Not with my stepfather that mad. No.” He rubbed his hand across his forehead. “Before, I, uh, called my grandma, so I’m really not sure. Wait, um, hold on a sec.” He turned his back to us and rummaged in his backpack.

My father turned to me again. “Should we offer to let him to stay at our house?”

"I don't know. I mean we don't really know him," I shrugged. It was true: my foggy memory of Michael was from almost five years ago, and he’d probably changed. Was our family ready to trust a boy who was, basically, a complete stranger? Let him sleep at our house? My dad reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a couple of bills. He handed them through the window to Michael. He shook his head.
“I, uhh, think my grandma’s coming, but thanks anyways,” he said. My dad retracted his hand and tucked away the money,
“I think we gotta get going now,” Dad said. “But we live just down the road so if you really need to, you can head down to us.”

Michael nodded and turned away. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and turned to us again.

“Thank you,” he whispered, biting his lip. He reached out his hand to shake my father’s. When he stepped away, light glinted off his watery eyes, and he wiped them again. My dad twisted the key, and the car grumbled to life.

Michael stepped away from the car. “You’re the only ones who’ve stopped,” he murmured. “I don’t know what I would’ve done.”

He walked towards the curb, then sat. He buried his face in his hands and froze like this for a moment. When he looked up, a frown creased his face—one of sorrow: a child watching his parents drive off. He raised a hand, and my dad and I raised ours. Dad eased on the gas, and we slipped away towards home.

He turned to look at me. “Do you think we should go back?” he asked, his voice wavering with the unknown.

“Uhh, I really don’t know,” I replied, and I didn’t. Should we return, to trust someone we barely knew? Had Michael’s mother really attacked him? Was the stepfather correct in his accusations? I closed my eyes and slumped into my seat.

My dad curled the car into our driveway and exhaled. “Well, that was unexpected.” He opened his door and stepped outside. I remained in my seat for a moment longer, thinking of Michael. I worried for him, that no one would come to help him, that he would be left on his own. I called my father’s name, to ask if we should return, but he was already inside. I rose from the seat, hooked my bag over my shoulder, and crunched across the gravel path and up to the granite steps. I opened the door and was enveloped by the warmth and comfort of my home.
Later, after dinner, I heard my parents’ hushed voices in the kitchen, questioning each other about Michael. I heard them reach an agreement, then walk to the closet and pull out their coats. I knew they were going back to the corner, that they didn’t have the heart to leave a boy alone in the night. They were willing to trust him.

My mom walked up the stairs and returned with a some bills folded in her hand. She met my father at the back door, and together they stepped out into the darkness. Their headlamps bobbed in the road, slowly growing more and more distant, until, finally, they disappeared. I imagined them returning with Michael, feeding him, laying out pads for him to sleep on. I still wasn’t sure what to think, whether to trust him, or not.

An hour later, as the clock ticked towards nine, my parents returned alone, the money still clutched in my mother’s palm. As they stepped inside, shrugging off their coats, they noticed me watching them, and my father shook his head.

”He was gone,” he said. “Hopefully he went with his grandmother.” He sighed, and I could tell he was relieved that he didn’t have to bring a stranger into our house. I nodded, also relieved, but a bit scared, too, this time for Michael. I hoped he had found a safe place.

I gazed out into the street, and I could just picture the silent corner, the streetlamp’s yellow pall in the black, and the snaking tendrils of shadow dragging Michael out of the light and into the darkness.

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