Every Drop of Light
by Rachel Delaney Craft
No one ever said no to Grace, because she almost died when she was a baby. That’s why we always did what she wanted to do, even though I was the older sister. That’s why, when we were kids, I followed her into the woods behind the old factory.
We had no business being there. But Grace just giggled as she skipped down the path alongside the eroded creek bank. “Anna, come on!”
I trailed behind her, imagining the knots in the tree trunks melding into stern eyes and puckered mouths. I felt I was in a giant, slow-moving lung: each rustling breeze was a deep breath in, each creaking branch a collective sigh. I felt the place might inhale me and never let me out.
“Look!” Grace stopped, breathless, and pointed to a dark spot in the dirt.
I caught up to her and looked down. It looked like a snail had gotten smashed. “So?”
“Touch it.” Grace flashed a mischievous grin. “I dare you.”
“Come on!” Her blonde curls bounced impatiently.
“I double dog dare you!” She smirked. “Now you have to.”
With a sigh I crouched beside the snail, which was by then just a dark oily stain with bits of shell mixed in. I stuck out one finger and poked it. It felt like Jell-O, cold and clammy.
“There. Now let’s go.” I wiped my hand on my shorts.
Grace swished her skirt from side to side. “You touched a sna-il! You touched a—Oh!” She jumped back, pointing at the ground.
The goo was gone and a whole, live snail was creeping across the path. We stared at it until it disappeared into the rotten underbrush. Then we looked back at the stain, which had vanished.
“Holy crap!” Grace’s lips formed an O. “You brought it back!”
I frowned. “No. It must have—”
“Do it again.” Grace stomped on a nearby beetle.
I stared at the spot beside her sneaker. The crushed shell gleamed with blue-black juices; the wire-thin legs stuck out at bad angles. Determined not to blink, I touched it with a fingertip. The parts rearranged themselves. The beetle rose up and plodded away, as if death had been just an inconvenience.
Grace gasped. “You have a superpower!”
I couldn’t believe it. How was this real? And why me, of all people? Grace was the miracle child, the baby who beat the odds. If one of us was going to get a superpower, it should have been her.
But I couldn’t argue with the beetle, marching determinedly across the path at my feet.
I couldn’t sleep that night—or perhaps I didn’t want to, for fear of waking up and finding it wasn’t all a dream. I huddled against my headboard while Grace lay sprawled on my comforter, kicking her feet in the air.
“Why are you freaking out?” she asked. “You’re special now. I’m just boring and normal.” She stuck out her lower lip.
I hugged my knees tighter. “I want to be normal. Now I just feel…wrong. And how am I gonna tell Mom and Dad?”
Grace sprang to her feet, bouncing on the mattress. “You can’t tell them.”
“You can’t tell anyone! They might, you know, try to use you. Ship you off to some secret lab, do experiments on you!”
I stared into the dark space between my knees. “I guess…”
“Anna,” Grace whispered, sitting down beside me, “I won’t let that happen to you. I’ll protect you.”
“Okay,” I said, although I didn’t believe her. It was my job to protect her, and it always would be.
Grace tilted her chin down, the way she did when she got serious. “But you have to promise. To keep it a secret. Just us two.”
I looked into her eyes, with their tiny gold flecks reflecting the light. “Okay,” I said. “Just us two.”
I stuck out my little finger. “Pinky swear.”
With Grace’s help, I learned to live with the secret. She accepted me, so I accepted myself. After a few weeks I stopped lying awake thinking about it, and after a few months I stopped thinking about it altogether. But Grace didn’t.
The first time our hamster Ned died, we found him scrunched up on his back, half-buried in the wood chips. We could tell he was dead. It wasn’t just that he was so still, or that he was in such an uncomfortable position. There’s something else about dead things. They have a dullness, as if all the light has drained from the air around them.
Grace stared at Ned for a moment. Then she said, “Bring him back.”
I couldn’t look away. Ned’s upturned nose, once pink with vitality, was tinged with a deathly blue. His front teeth poked out from beneath stiff whiskers.
“Come on.” Grace prodded my arm.
Something held me back. I was used to touching squished bugs, blobs of juice and exoskeleton. Ned was different. He’d had a light in his eyes, the way people do. He might have even had a soul.
“I don’t know…”
“Why not?” Grace put her hands on her hips.
“Well, hamsters are only supposed to live a couple years…”
Grace’s eyes stormed like ocean waves. “You don’t want to help him? You could fix him right now, and you won’t do it?”
“Maybe it was his time,” I said. “Maybe he wouldn’t want to come back.”
She crossed her arms, her lower lip trembling. “I want him back,” she whispered.
I looked from her to Ned. “Grace…”
“I want him back!” Her voice was so shrill I recoiled.
“Okay, okay. I’ll try.”
I unlatched the cage door and prodded Ned. It felt wrong, intrusive, touching something stiff and cold like that. I could feel the tiny curves of his ribs through his silky hair, and a second later his chest expanded with a fresh breath. He twitched, hopped up, and scurried back to his nest.
“Ned!” Grace leaned in until her nose brushed the cage bars.
He blinked at us, then hopped onto his purple plastic wheel and ran so fast the cage rattled.
Poor Ned. Grace never let him stay dead, and I worried what his life was like the third or fourth time around. But Grace needed him. Not him — how much can you love a hamster, really — but she needed something. She could never let things be. And I could never untangle from her.
One night in high school, when our parents were gone on one of their rare date nights, Grace came to my room and banged on the door. I opened it, and she grabbed my hand and pulled me down the hall.
“Grace, what is it?”
“Come on!” she shouted, strangely excited for a Thursday night.
I looked down at my baggy pajama shirt. “I’m in the middle of that history project.”
“You need a break,” she said as she led me to the garage. “Let’s have fun!”
“Where are we going?” I climbed into our hand-me-down Camry, avoiding the gummy bears on the floor and the liquid foundation congealing in the cupholder. Grace’s handiwork.
“You’ll see.” She revved the engine.
Ten minutes later we were winding down the backroads doing seventy, with the windows down and Grace singing along to a garbled song on the radio. I stared out at the blur of the cornfields and telephone poles, and the row of twisted half-trees left behind by last year’s tornado.
I yelled, “Where are we going?”
“Grace! What are we doing?”
“Looking for roadkill,” she said, turning toward me. Her breath stung my nostrils.
“Have you been…drinking?”
“Pull over,” I said. “You can’t drive.”
She swatted my hand away. “I’m fine, Mom.”
“Grace, I’m serious—”
A dark shape shuffled across the road.
“Grace!” I reached for the wheel.
With a gleeful shriek, she hit the gas. We thumped over the animal.
“Oh my god!” I yelled.
She slammed the brakes into a painful U-turn. The seatbelt dug into my collarbone as we lurched off the road and bounced to a stop in the grass. Grace laughed and cut the engine. The headlights were still on; their dusty yellow glare lit the carcass in the opposite lane with an angelic glow.
“Whew!” Grace’s eyes were alight with something feral. “Don’t you feel alive?”
She jumped out of the car, leaving the keys dangling in the ignition. I snatched them and hurried after her. We crouched over the dead animal.
“Why’d you do that?” I asked.
Grace stared at it with scientific fascination. I let my gaze wander over its bushy striped tail, its sloping rump, its crushed and bloodied head. Small glassy teeth protruded from the dark pool beneath its eyes.
She looked up at me. “Now, bring it back.”
I blinked. “You ran it over on purpose? Just for that?”
“Don’t you want it to live?”
“It was alive five minutes ago,” I said through gritted teeth. “You could’ve swerved.”
“Come on, do it!”
“I can’t believe you, I really can’t—”
“Just do it!” Her eyes shone like gold in the headlights.
With a sigh, I knelt beside the raccoon and stroked its tail. It was stiffer than I expected, like a bristle brush. The raccoon sucked in a breath. One of its hind feet shuddered. Then it rose up on two legs and cocked its head at me.
I smiled, relief flooding my chest. “Hey, buddy.”
The raccoon shuffled closer. I’d heard raccoons were very intelligent, so I reached out the back of my hand, the way you do with dogs. The raccoon nipped my finger.
Grace cackled. The raccoon scurried off into the night.
I drove us home, wondering what I was doing here. I hadn’t asked for this. Not the bite marks on my hand, and certainly not this superpower, as Grace called it. It didn’t feel like a power. It felt dangerous, dark.
I looked over at Grace, giggling in the passenger seat. I wondered what kind of darkness was growing inside her.
In my last year of high school, Grace took me to the woods again. When I asked why, she just said, “Trust me.”
I looked down at my crooked index finger, with its three little tooth-marks. The antibiotics had killed the infection, but the finger had been misshapen ever since.
Grace led me down the path until we heard the steady trickle of the creek. The fallen leaves were soft and rotten and deathly gray in the moonlight. The naked tree branches hovered over us like claws, just as big and dark as I remembered. Big enough to swallow us. I suddenly felt very small and young again, as if I were the same little girl playing by the creek all those years ago.
But Grace was different.
She stopped and touched my hand. “I need you to promise me something.”
“I can’t tell anyone else,” she whispered. “But I just…”
She bit her lip. In the moonlight, her eyes were clouded and colorless.
“I want to know,” she said, “how it feels.”
“How what feels?”
“Just promise me.”
“Okay, I promise. What is it?”
“You’ll bring me back.”
Her hand moved, and there was a shot so loud my skull rattled. Then she crumpled beside me.
I knelt and saw the revolver in her hand. Where the hell’d she get a gun? I touched her chest, and the sticky warmth of blood seeped between my fingers.
“Grace.” My voice cracked. “What’d you do?”
Tears sputtered on my cheeks. I clutched at her ribs, her shoulders, gripping her limp body as if Death itself were trying to pry her away from me. I cradled her head, praying. Don’t fail me this time.
With a gasp she lurched forward. Her eyes snapped open.
“God, Grace.” I squeezed her, feeling my heart hammering all the way through her body. “You scared me to death!”
She still felt limp.
She looked at me. Or through me.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She grunted. Her eyes pointed in slightly different directions. A drop of spittle oozed from the corner of her mouth.
My tears dripped onto her cheek. Her tongue curled out and licked them off.
No one could help my baby sister, not even the specialists in Indianapolis. All winter she hunched in the bay window, her wide, watery eyes fixed on the squirrels as they hopped over the frostbitten grass. She let me sit beside her and stroke her matted hair. I stared into the reflection of her eyes in the glass, searching for any drop of light that might have lingered.
Finally she ran away. The cops and their German shepherds never found her, but how could they? How can you track an animal in the woods where it was born? I go back there sometimes, walking the path like we used to, calling her name to the echo of the faceless trees. Once I saw human footprints along the muddy creek bank. Another time I found a half-eaten squirrel carcass.
I didn’t touch it.
About the Author
Rachel Delaney Craft lives in sunny Colorado, where she writes middle grade, young adult, and speculative fiction. Her work has appeared in the children’s magazine Cricket and the anthology FOUND, and she’s working on a middle grade novel. When she isn’t writing, she spends her time gardening, doing yoga, and walking her Jack Russell terrier. She also blogs regularly for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and on her website.
About the Narrator
Mary Murphy is a Brooklyn based actress/voice-over artist. Currently she can be heard on Disney Junior’s animated series Octonauts, Leap Frog, PBS Kids’ Past/Present, Muzzy, and on various audio dramas and audio books. She recently lent her voice to Kinetic Light’s production Descent, Quick Silver Theatre, and voiced several roles for the NoSleep podcast. She also performs regularly on the Fireside Mystery Theatre series and can be heard on their podcast and Midnight Shorts program.
You can find her on Soundcloud.