The Darkest Moment

“It happened at the darkest moment of the night,” Grandpa Bert began his story.

“Midnight!” Lucy shouted, although she’d promised to sit still and be quiet during what Grandpa Bert promised to be a true-life scary story.

“Shush,” her older brothers hissed in unison.

“No, my dear Lucy, midnight is not the darkest moment of the night. It’s usually sometime between two and three in the morning. It’s long after your night owl parents have turned off the TV, clicked off their laptops or closed the cover on their electronic books. The darkest hour of the night is the loneliest hour of the night; and the darkest moment, is the darkest minute of the darkest hour. It is when laughter halts and singing goes flat and dancers take off their shoes. Midnight is a party by comparison.”

This surprised seven-year-old Lucy as midnight was the witching hour in fairy tales and with both hands on her bedroom clock locked together it always looked like an arrow pointing up at her shelf of teddy bears.

“You remember me telling you about my childhood friend Robbie?’

“Yes, yes… Robbie and Bobbie became Rob and Bert when you grew up,” ten-year-old Jon tried to rush his grandfather to the scary part of the story. Jon, and his twin Ben, had been to sleep away camp and heard ghost stories around a campfire. The one about the escapee from an insane asylum was Jon’s favorite. It made him jump off a log and drop gooey marshmallows on his sneakers.

“Best friends both named Robert,” Grandpa Bert sighed. “Rob had a little sister named Sue and they lived with their grandparents in a house not far from here. It was closer to the woods, and before the new highway, it was very quiet there at night — very quiet and very dark. Their grandparents went to bed every night at nine and, by the time Robbie and I were 12, they’d given up trying to get Sue and Robbie to bed on their schedule. Those kids were night people and whenever I slept over, I was a night kid, too.

“We’d stay up reading ghost stories out loud from a big book Robbie kept hidden under his bed. Sue’s teeth would chatter with fear and Robbie would laugh and laugh. I’d try to laugh too, but I was often as terrified as little Sue. Robbie was the brave one.

“When we got older, we didn’t read so many ghost stories. We went to horror movies or stayed up late watching them on TV. Robbie was feeling nostalgic one autumn night. We were 19 by then and home for Thanksgiving. Sue was sixteen and wanted us to tell her stories about college parties. She said she didn’t care about our ghost story tradition. ‘Aren’t you two too old for silly stories?’ She asked, but Robbie — by then called Rob — insisted.

“This night would be different. Rob agreed that we were too grown-up for his old storybook, but he said he had a new one — a huge, ancient, leather-bound book he’d bought at a used bookstore for only a dollar. I didn’t believe him when he said it was only a dollar. The tooled leather cover alone, with ancient symbols, was worth much, much more — maybe even thousands of dollars.

“Rob handed me the book. The title was “Magik Tales” — yes magic, spelled with a ‘K.’ and I turned the pages to look at beautiful illustrations of all sorts of scary things — spooky castles, headless horsemen, wolves standing upright like men and…”

“Were there ghosts?” Ben asked.

“Yes, but in this book they were called phantoms, shades, shadows or specters. They hovered over people sleeping peacefully in their beds or stood just outside a doorway looking in at people just like us.”

“Like us? Jon jumped form his perch on the sofa arm.

“Yes, people relaxing in their living rooms or sitting down to a family dinner around a table.”

“But not exactly like us? Not a picture of you and me and…”

“Oh, no Jon, it wasn’t that kind of magical book. But it was a magical book in another way because when you read a story out loud it became real.”

This statement was met with complete silence from the children. The clock ticked on the mantelpiece, grandma’s kitchen radio rumbled in the background and an owl hooted someplace far away.”

“You read a werewolf story and the wolf came to the door?” Ben prodded his grandfather.

“No, not a werewolf story.”

“Oh.” Ben was disappointed. Werewolves in movies on TV were cool. They played basketball and told funny stories.

“And kids, we would not have read any of the stories out loud if we’d known that the book was magical. Rob had already read all the stories, but he’d read them to himself. He promised us that they were much scarier than the book with the stories we already knew by heart.

“We gave the book to Sue and she picked a story because she liked the illustration — a shadowy figure hovered in the moonlight outside a second story window. His feet were at least 12 feet off the ground and a breeze rippled through the lacy curtains in the window.”

The kids moved closer to their grandfather, listening intently.

“Because I was the best at reading out loud, I read from the book. I remember that the story began with a description of loneliness. It went something like this…

It happened at the darkest moment of the darkest night of the year. The phantom half remembered what it was to be a human being. He recalled the pull of family ties and the warmth of knowing that he was at home. But, in his present state of being, he was no longer a son or a brother. He was no longer a friend or a lover. He was alone in the darkness and would be forever and ever

“I remember how pale Sue grew as I read about the phantom’s loneliness and how Rob nodded at my dramatic reading. ‘Go on, go on…’ their faces seemed to say. ‘Go on with the phantom’s story.’ And so I did.

He’d left so much behind when he’d gone out into the world. His was head full of adventure stories and his heart swollen with unrequited love. Surely he would return to triumph and appreciation. But he didn’t. A cruel trick of fate and his return came only after death at sea. Lonely and lost, he returned home only to find that he’d been mourned and nearly forgotten. If he were still capable of human rage, he’d have raged but…

“That’s when we heard a scream! A blood curdling shriek from upstairs where Rob and Sue’s grandparents slept in their second floor bedroom right above us. I looked up from the book in time to see something dark drop down to the ground from above and a dark figure running from the house. Sue and I flew up the stairs and Rob, strange but true, ran out the front door, in pursuit of the dark figure.

“Their grandmother, still in bed, continued to cry and scream. She’d seen something, something she could not describe, looking in at her from outside the window. Their grandfather, who by the way was younger and stronger than I am today, was sprawled on the bedroom floor. I called 911, as I was sure he’d had a heart attack. By the time the ambulance arrived with the paramedics, he was shaky but better. They gave him oxygen and stayed until he was breathing normally. It was not a heart attack. It was a terrible fright.”

“The grandmother? What about her?” Ben asked.

“The paramedics spoke very gently to her. One of them sat with her until she was calm. He offered her a sedative, but she said she’d prefer a cup of chamomile tea. Sue helped her downstairs and the three of us sat drinking soothing cups of herbal tea with honey until the paramedics said that their grandfather was OK. ‘He’s upstairs sleeping and I’ve told him to go to the doctor tomorrow, just to get checked out. Must have been some kind of big owl at the window.’ The paramedic said. Scared the two of them awake and…’

“The paramedics continued to talk with us as they packed up to leave. ‘Sometimes people just get a bad fright in the middle of the night.’ One said, but I knew he was looking for a reasonable explanation where there was none. The unreasonable, unreal, unbelievable was the right…”

“What happened to Rob?” Ben asked. “He chased the phantom down and…”

“He chased the phantom through the woods but didn’t catch him. He ran and ran, but the dark figure was always just ahead of him. Rob came back after the paramedics left. He’d run so far and so long that he’d lost his way, getting turned around in woods he knew better than the back of his own hands.”

“What did he say about the… ghost?” Lucy shivered as she spoke.

“He said he was sorry.”

“Sorry?” Ben asked.

“Sorry he’d bought the book, sorry he’d suggested that we read out loud from it, sorry that he’d endangered us all with magic that he didn’t understand and sorry that he didn’t catch the phantom who’d nearly killed his grandparents.”

“What? What….” Jon stammered. “What would he have done if he’d caught the phantom?”

“Excellent question. Rob told me that he wanted to tell the phantom he was sorry. That he was sorry about the magic book and how we had brought the creature to life just so he could experience the loneliness of the darkest moment of the night. You see Rob had already read the phantom’s story. Not out loud, of course, but he’d read it and all the other stories in the book. He knew the horrors that the phantom had experienced and the terrible, terrible loneliness that followed his treks across deserts and long sea voyages before he was ready to come home — only to die at sea when pirates attacked his ship.

“Rob was never the same after that. He dropped out of college that spring and joined the army. He was trained as a medic and volunteered for the hardest, scariest duties because he was as close to fearless as any man could be. He’d figured out that the stories in the book could come to life and that meant magic was real. That meant he had to become a hero.”

“The book?” Lucy shouted. “The book, did he take it with him?”

“He wanted to burn it, but Sue convinced him not to. She said she was afraid that a fire would release all the monsters in the book at once.”

“Wow!” Jon jumped from his sea.

“Yes! By this time Sue and Rob had figured out that the stories in the book came to life only when the words were read out loud at the darkest moment of the night. If you read the stories to yourself, nothing happened. Well, lots happened but nothing supernatural. They were very scary stories and lots of people like scary stories. If you read out loud from the book at noon or at midnight or at any time except that weird, dark and dangerous time that changes from season-to-season and night-to-night you were safe from the dark magic.

“So Sue kept the book. She was a clever woman and she wrote her own versions of the stories. With different words the stories were scary, but not quite as scary. The magic was tamed. Even at the darkest hour, Sue’s versions of the stories don’t come to life. Although a few have been made into movies.”

“Movies?” Ben replied.

“She uses a pen name, but she’s a bestselling horror and mystery writer.”

“But she stole the stories!” Ben was indignant.

“No. She didn’t steal them. She retold them, just like the way we tell fairy tales and make them our own. She made the stories safe, well, safe, but they still have some kind of magic. It’s Sue’s magic. It’s the magic of a good story. The kind that wakes you up at night and makes you look over your shoulder during the day.”

Ben was skeptical, but he didn’t have time to argue. It was his turn to set the table for dinner and his grandmother was calling him into the kitchen. While he placed the forks on the left and the knives on the right, his mind was racing. Maybe his grandfather was right and one story could become another story, an old tale growing into something new? He thought about how he could make the story that made his brother drop marshmallows on his sneakers better and scarier and — most of all — his own original story. Maybe the man who’d escaped from the insane asylum wasn’t really crazy? People just thought he was crazy because he told them the truth — that he was a werewolf!

The story began to brew in Ben’s imagination and it was magic.