Darren ran through the kitchen chasing the bouncing rubber ball that ricocheted off of a counter top and then off the pantry door. His knobby legs were small but moved fast enough that he could easily beat the other children from around the block in footraces. He loved the feel of the wind moving through his hair when he was allowed out of the house. Some kids didn't enjoy running, but Darren loved to race anyone who was willing.
He always won.
"Darren! Cut that out!" His mom loved to tell him to stop doing things.
He slid across the tiled floor in his fresh white socks and reached out as the blue and red rubber ball changed direction and sped towards his face. He snapped his wrist around and caught it, chest heaving from the sprint. The red emblem on the ball matched the emblem on his blue cotton pajama shirt. His pants matched as well but he liked to tuck his pants into his socks so he looked like he wore white superhero boots.
His mother stooped down, still holding the pan she was cleaning, and grabbed the ball out of his hand. "You have so much energy! Can you please just relax until I'm done cleaning? Then we'll go to the park. I promise."
Darren let go of the ball and ran over to the counter where his orange juice waited just where he left it. The house smelt of fresh cooked bacon and his mouth tasted of it's remnants. He looked over at his mother, humming a tune he couldn't place. She really was the best cook in the world, he was sure of it. He swallowed the citrus down in between gulps of air. Superheros didn't get tired. He was going to have to train harder. The park was good for that. The swings, the jungle-gym, the tires, they all were great to practice on.
His mom finished drying the pan and walked across the kitchen to put it away. Darren knew he was in trouble the second it happened. She spun around just in time to catch the large toy truck on the ankle. Darren squinted as she exhaled in pain. He felt bad that she hurt herself, but he felt a bit more bad for himself. She was going to yell at him, he knew it.
She didn't disappoint. "Darren! Pick up your truck. How many times do I have to tell you?" She lifted her foot up and rolled the sock down. Darren could already see a red mark.
"Want me to get ice?" he asked.
"No. What I want is for you to take your truck downstairs and put it away."
Darren felt his heart rate speed up. He hated the basement. He hated its smell. He hated the wet feel of it. He hated how dark it was. He hesitated.
"Now! Darren." She gave him that look that promised a red bottom.
"I hate it down there," he whispered. He picked up the truck anyway.
"Everyone hates basements. Now go put your truck away." She gingerly placed her foot back on the tile and flexed her foot.
He carried the truck under his arm, it was heavy and nearly half the length of his body. It was the only truck he had that could actually carry all of his army men standing up. He stood in front of the heavy door that blocked the musky basement from the rest of the house. He pushed it open and swung his hand around to the left of the door, groping for the light switch. He pungent smell of wet stone wafted up to meet him. The bit of day light that hit the stone stairs showed the cracking foundation and webs where spiders had taken up residence. He flicked the switch, bathing the stairway in a soft yellow glow. The light gave just enough illumination to allow a peak down the stairs and into the suffocating darkness.
Darren took a deep breath and put a trembling foot on the second stair down.
Superheros are scared of nothing!
He took another step. His heart kicked back and forth inside his throat like his rubber bouncing ball. He willed himself forward and down, down into the deep blackness underneath the house. Halfway down the steps Darren felt a breeze brush across his face as it traveled up the stairs and behind him. His neck prickled with goosebumps and he felt cold. The basement always felt cold.
He looked back up the stairs, feeling small as the door loomed up above him. But then he remembered he had taken his eyes off of the looming dark now to his back. He snapped his head around and ran the last half dozen steps to the hanging light bulb a few paces into the dark. Leaping as high as he could with the heavy yellow truck, he made a grab for the silver chain that hung like a life line from the ceiling.
The chain clicked and cast an eerie pall that fell from the ceiling like an unsatisfactory cone of dim light. Beyond the cone, the basement retreated into darkness. Darren squinted into the grey and black world clinging to his tiny refuge of light. He knew that his pile of toys lay a dozen feet deeper into the gloom, past where he could hope to see. He took a step towards the darkness.
Then he felt the breeze cross over him again. This time it tickled the back of his head first and then ran over his ears and face and into the black unknown. Darren rubbed his arms for warmth and took a step backwards into the light.
An idea struck him.
He bent onto his knees in the middle of conical sanctuary. The stone floor felt grimy on his hands and a small black smudge left its mark on his palm. Darren didn't care. He focused on setting the wheels of his truck straight. He eyed up the area where he knew his mountain of toys lay hidden from sight. He brought the truck backwards and rocked it forward. He had to get the angle right. He pushed the truck forward, the cool metal gliding across his palm as the yellow truck squeaked slowly into the dark on black plastic wheels. The truck rattled as it rolled along the uneven floor until it disappeared from view.
The wheels continued their cry.
Darren felt the hair on his neck stand up and he looked harder into the dark.
The draft washed over him smelling of basement musk and mildew and dirt.
Then he heard it. Faint at first, so faint he thought it may have been the squeaking wheels. But then he heard it again and his eyes went wide. His heart finally dropped out of his throat but it didn't resettle until it hit the pit of his stomach. On reflex, Darren stood straight up.
He he he...
It laughed again. He had never heard a laugh without joy before. Whatever lurked in the dark struck Darren's childlike sensibilities as instantly wrong. He froze, fear locking his feet to the cement floor. He thought to run. His feet disobeyed.
He heard the wheels of the truck again. Could he have imagined the laugh?
The sound seemed to be coming closer
The yellow truck emerged from the embrace of the shadows and came to a slow stop at Darren's feet. He knew he had to get out of there.
Superheros are scared of nothing!
The laugh seemed to come from the side this time. Darren spun around and made a break for the stairs.
He he he
He reached the stairs and leaped up two at a time. A breeze wafted over him again, but he ignored it as he made his way for the door and the light up above. He was at the top stair when the door slammed shut.
He turned around and looked down the stairway. He could see the mud from the floor on his knees and curling out from the underside of his socks. His heart seemed to stop beating and contented itself with rattling the inside of his fingers. Darren reached behind him and felt the doorknob. It didn't turn.
Then the light at the bottom of the stairs went dark as if someone or something had snuffed out a candle.
"Mom?" Darren tried to bang his tiny fist against the door behind him but his arms had gone week. He let out a trembling breath. A white cloud puffed out of his mouth as the cool air seemed to instantly drop to frigid. The last light flickered above him.
"Mom!" Darren yelled. His strength returned, he turned and pounded on the basement door. "Mom!"
The last light went out bathing Darren in frozen darkness.
"Mom!" his voice shook. He felt tears rim his eyes and they stung from the freeze that bit at him through his thin cotton pajamas.
He felt something grip his ankle. A frozen grip that lashed through his pajama pants and tore into his ankle. He cried out and gripped the doorknob in both hands. Then his feet were airborne as it tried to pull him down the stairs. Darren clutched the knob with all of his strength and his body went taut. Fire burned in his arms and his midsection felt like he might be pulled in two.
Superheros are strong.
"Mom!" he cried in one last desperate plea. Then it yanked him harder than before and Darren's grip broke. His face hit the top stair before he could bring his arms around to brace. He felt the warmth of his blood trickle along his brow and then he was descending the stairs. Each step bounced into his forearms at jagged angles and cruel ledges bit into him all the way down leaving a trail of fresh blood, invisible in the darkness.
Darren tried to scream as he was dragged across the dirty basement floor and past his idle yellow truck, but he had no strength left.
He he he
The voice seemed pleased. One last thought fluttered through Darren's fast fading consciousnesses as he succumbed into weeping oblivion.
"I'm not a superhero."