Bourbon Penn 27

Rules for Sneaking Out at Night

by Travis Schuhardt

Rule #1: If they catch you, you’re dead.

The farthest any of your sisters ever gets is the bottom of the staircase. Her name is Adelaide, and she hugs the walls better than anyone, has a set of all-black clothes that help her blend into the darkness. When she never returns, you hope that it means she made it out. By the light of the morning, though, you see her body resting at the bottom of the stairs, positioned against the wall of the landing in such a way that you think she might have just fallen asleep. At the breakfast table that morning, your parents give a strict lecture on the importance of staying in your room when darkness falls. They do not want to hurt you, they say. They are protecting you from worse things, things that move about the night outside your house, in the neighborhood, in the world. Poor Adelaide, they muse, because she was their favorite, which you always, always knew.

After breakfast, her body has gone to where the bodies always go, which is nowhere – or, nowhere that you know, anyway – and no one speaks of Adelaide anymore. This is the usual routine. By dinner time, a new sister arrives, barely thirteen, and your parents called her Adeline. She looked delicate, thin blonde hair and a small but wiry frame. There is confusion in her eyes. In bed that night, she asks you the usual questions: How did I get here? Who are all of you? How do I get out? And you explain, like you always do, that no one knows the answers to these questions. Once, you asked your parents where you came from, and they said you had been delivered by a massive bird in the night. You offer this as an explanation to Adeline, who insists that that is not her name, her name is Lena, and that she hates it here and does not want to be here. She begins to cry for her mother, and you try to remember if you cried for your mother when you first arrived, but you can’t remember so long ago, or if you’d ever had a mother to begin with.

Adeline lasts less than a week. She says she isn’t going to be like you, like any of you, sitting around, waiting for nothing, living under the tyranny of the parents. That she has been fed and clothed and kept in comfort the past four days is of no importance to her. You try to explain that it gets better with time. Easier. The food is nice, the parents are nice so long as you do your chores, and that life in the house is simple, yes, but it is not that bad. But Adeline is of the mind that it is that bad, and sometimes there is no convincing people. You explain to her the rules you’d gathered for sneaking out at night. They are simple, but the girls who know them seem to get farther than those who didn’t. Adeline hugs you, the same way Adelaide did before she left, the same way all your sisters hug you before they leave.

Adeline doesn’t even make it to the stairs. The next morning there is no lecture, no lament. No one knew Adeline well enough to miss her. Your parents simply pretend she never existed, your sisters exchange an all-too-familiar sullen glance, and you eat in silence.

• • •

Rule #2: Go as late as possible.

Parents need to sleep, too. This is a fundamental law of the universe, though it is one parents never seem to follow – especially during late nights when all you want is to sneak out; these are the nights they stay up late, sharing a meal or a glass of wine in the kitchen (which just so happens to give a nice, clean view of the staircase, meaning you must pass it in order to get to the front door). After midnight, though, there is a far smaller chance that the parents will be up; they need to be up at six in the morning to begin preparing breakfast and waking you and your sisters, and so they tend to head to bed early.

Charlotte scouted this a few years back, when Charlotte was still living with you. She would take a few steps out of your bedroom door each night until she could see whether the light was on in the kitchen, then run back into bed. She was not the most quiet of sisters, but so long as she was in your room when the parents came to check, there were no problems. No one was caught, no one was dead. Charlotte always had that boldness to her, that willingness to bend or break rules in order to figure things out. She invented most of these rules, and left them with you on the night she made her escape attempt. You had pressed an ear against the door in hopes you might hear the front door creak open and then shut; instead, you heard her stumble on one of the stairs, and then heavy footfalls as she tried to sprint back to your room for safety. Then silence. When you opened the door the next morning, Charlotte was curled in a little ball, eyes shut so peacefully that you did not try to wake her. Not that it would have mattered if you had. On the stairs there was so much blood you had to look away to prevent throwing up.

Charlotte’s death hurt the most out of everyone. Your sisters openly wept at the table, your parents said nothing of it, your father with his face buried in the morning paper, your mother up and down at the table, portioning out food and running to take things off the stove. At the end of breakfast, mother turned to you and said that, today, you were going to learn how to wash blood out of a carpet. Somewhere in your past life you had done that before, had bled, or seen blood, and learned how to clean it – this was years ago, when you still remembered the life you’d led before the house. You wondered how her body had been so drained of blood yet looked so peaceful seated by your bedroom door; as though it was the blood in her body that caused her misery, and now that it had been removed, she could finally be at peace.

You try not to think about Charlotte most days, but sometimes the memories come in. She had a knack for making you laugh and would use a flashlight at night to make shadows dance on the walls. She wanted to be an actor – she would escape the house, join a traveling troupe, and become so famous that she could come back and rescue everyone. After she was gone, the parents took her flashlight and threw it in the trash.

• • •

Rule #3: Be able to navigate the house with your eyes closed.

Wendy had already invented the game by the time you moved into the house. It was an easy game – Can you walk through the entire house with your eyes closed? – and at that time you didn’t suspect it was training for an escape. At that time, you had just moved in, your eyes still wet with tears and ignorance, an unfounded trust in the parents, a snide distrust for your new sisters. Your sisters wouldn’t be the ones punishing you for misbehaving, so it would have been silly to listen to them. Wendy extended an olive branch anyway, asked you to play.

“Hi, it’s nice to meet you. I’m Wendy. I’ve been here for twenty years,” Wendy said. Wendy looked no older than fourteen. You wonder if this is a joke, but she doesn’t say. “I have this game that I like to play, and I’m really good at it, and I’ll teach you to be good at it too.” During sewing sessions in the living room, Wendy would cut an extra stretch of cloth to use as blindfolds. Playtime was from five to six every day, and Wendy would start all of the sisters in the bedroom and then help each one navigate the house. No one had been there longer than Wendy. She looked a lot like mother, but whether she always had or had simply become that way over the years, no one knew. Unlike the others, it always seemed like Wendy was holding a secret under her belt. Then, one night you opened your eyes late, after midnight, and saw Wendy missing from her bed.

You quickly rang the bell by the side of your bed to alert the parents (what if something was wrong? What if Wendy was in trouble?) and mere seconds later the sound of hundreds of running feet filled the hallways – and shortly after, one scream. None of your sisters would play with you after that night. Slowly, though, you learned. And one by one the sisters tried to sneak out, until none of your original sisters remained.

• • •

Rule #4: Be Perfect.

Isabelle whispered too loudly to the rest of you that she was going to escape, and the moment she stepped out that bedroom door, she vanished. That is how quickly they can get you. If you are planning to escape: do not want anything too much, do not slack on your chores, eat your meals, say please and thank you and I love you to your parents. This is why Adelaide had made it so far. Everyone had loved Adelaide.

Adelaide used to garden, that was her assigned chore, and now that she is gone it falls on you. A large, picket fence stands around the house – able to be climbed, you know, from when Catherine had tried to escape in daylight when she had been the gardener – where a few perfectly kept flowers grow. Reds and blues and violets, the names you never learned, but they stand beautifully against the back fence. You tend to them for a duration, feeling like they might grow just as fine without your input, that even Adelaide had barely done a thing to them; in fact, were you to tend to them too closely they might simply die from so much tending, from too much tenderness. Any water might be over-watering – how do you make something grow? You wonder what Adelaide spent her time doing out here.

“Hey,” a voice from the other side of the fence. It is a boy. Teenager, you guess. There is something about his voice, like it is in transit between two points. Deepening, but not yet deep. Kind of scratchy and rough – but not unpleasant just … wild, developing. “Addie?”

“No, I’m her sister,” you say. “Addie won’t be tending the garden anymore.” Now you wonder what your voice sounds like on the other side of the fence. How old is it? What does he hear? Is it good?

“Oh, well, can you get this to her?” He asks. A small piece of paper floats over the fence and falls into your palms. It is a flyer for some concert taking place that night, at the school down the street. You have never been to the school, but have seen children during the year heading there and back, passing your house but never once looking in to wave at you so that you could wave back. The parents don’t let you leave, have not let anyone leave the premises. You do not know how long you have been at the house, but you cannot remember ever not being there.

“Yeah, I’ll pass it right along. Our parents are strict, though. I don’t know if she’ll be able to make it.”

“That’s okay, she didn’t show up last night either … As long as she knows I asked for her,” the voice says. “Oh, you can come too. If you want.” And then the voice shuffles away from the other side of the fence.

You fold up the paper, put it in your pocket. Adelaide had someone in her life who called her “Addie.” That must have been worth sneaking out over. Someday, someone might call you a name you’d never owned before, too. You stare at the garden for long enough that anyone watching would be convinced you’d done your job. The only thing in your head is an invitation. Oh, you can come too. You can come too. That is something dangerous. What would you even wear? It is not worth it – but … There is a world out there, isn’t there? You reach into your pocket, run your fingers along the paper. You head back inside.

Your sisters are all ready for play time. You chase each other blindfolded around the house. No one can catch you.

• • •

Rule #5: You are not safe until you exit the front gate.

It is not even 10 o’clock, but the sheet of paper says the band only plays until eleven, so you cannot wait until midnight. You tell your sisters you have a date, even though the date is not technically yours. One by one they wish you goodbye until there is only you and the door. The door creaks, and it can get you caught, so you creak the door open and then wait. Of course they know this tactic, but their weakness is that they think they are more patient than you. It is five minutes before you slide out into the hallway.

It is darker, here, than you thought it would be. Darker, somehow, than when you are blindfolded, but you know this house better than you know yourself. It is only a few steps to the staircase. You are not even breathing, because even that might be too much sound. The hallway is the easy part – flat and linear. No one should ever have been caught in the hallway.

Your foot slips onto the first carpeted step. At night, the steps have somehow gotten larger. Your feet fall farther from one to the next, and by the seventh step, you need to slide down the flat part of the stair to continue moving down. This makes things difficult because the tenth step creaks. You were planning to hop over it, but considering how large it is, that would kill you. At the ninth step, you decide not to slide but to climb, grabbing on to loose bits of carpet in order to support your weight. A risky move: the carpet could rip, loudly, but a risked rip is better than a definite creak. You hug the wall of the tenth step and then climb carefully down it as well. You have been climbing forever, and then you are at the bottom of the stairs.

This is where Adelaide died, which means there is something here that will kill you if you are not careful. You are patient. You wait. It is still pitch dark. The door is around one corner. Natural moonlight will hit you as soon as you turn said corner. The most vulnerable you will be is between that corner and the front gate. Is it worth it?

There are footsteps in the hallway above you. Heavy ones. A parent was suspicious. You hug tightly the bottom of the gigantic staircase, letting the protruding top of the stair hide your body and shadow. The steps descend the stairs, thud by thud. Whoever it is, they are big enough for the stairs, even at night. The tenth step creaks as they land on it. Their legs step over you – you feel this but cannot see it. It is now you realize you have not been breathing and need to take a breath. It is now you realize that you have not been breathing for as long as you can remember, and that you have suddenly taken your first breath. It is soft, weak, unfamiliar. The creature above you does not hear it. Then it is gone. You cannot see what direction it went.

But you have to turn the corner now: you are breathing, your blood is moving through you in a strange new way, your body is strong, and you need to be touched by the moonlight – it is nine steps to the door. One. Your hair is in your face and you pull it back. Two. Every breath shakes, your body is rearranging itself to fit you. Three. The light hits you and you are suddenly aware that anyone could see you. Anyone could see you. Four. You are the smallest thing that has ever moved through a house. Five. You are the largest thing that will ever step outside this house. Six. Your mother’s warning echoes in your ears about leaving home at night. Seven. It is only an echo. Eight. There is something large moving behind you. Nine. You are outside.

The front yard is overgrown, like no one has tended it for years. The front gate stands at the end of the thorny and weed-ridden walkway. A piece of paper telling you the way to your first concert sits in your pocket. The moon is saying hello, welcome. You are a missing piece of her light. No, you are not safe yet. You step into the front yard. The thorns tug at your ankles, the weeds wrap your feet. There is a screech coming from the house, but you are at the gate. The house begins to cry. You cannot care what the house does, or else you will turn around. The buzzing in your heart almost makes you doubt yourself. Your rules are gone. You will never be safe again. But, oh. Music is in the air. It is coming from down the street. Do you hear it? It drowns out the sounds of the house behind you. It moves your feet forward. It goes: La, la, la

Travis Schuhardt is a first year MSt student at Oxford University and a recent graduate from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where he received the Léo Bronstein Homage Award for interdisciplinary achievements in the arts. His short stories have been published on Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood and in Brandeis’s Laurel Moon. He currently divides his time flying between England and the States as he pursues his degree. You can keep up to date with his work via Twitter (@travisschuhardt) and Instagram (travisschuhardt).