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art by Justine McGreevy

Dancing in the Dark

Stephanie Burgis is an American writer who lives in Wales with her husband (fellow writer Patrick Samphire), their son, and their crazy-sweet border collie mix. The first in her trilogy of Regency-era fantasy novels for 10- to 15-year-olds was published in the US and Canada as Kat, Incorrigible and in the UK as A Most Improper Magick. Her short fiction for adults has appeared in several magazines and anthologies, including Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, and Bewere the Night, edited by E. Sedia. To find out more, please visit her website: www.stephanieburgis.com.

I have three uncles, but one of them is dead.
He's the funny one.
The afternoon that Mom and Dad didn't come home, Uncle Rom was the one who took care of all the details. He stood as solid as an oak in the kitchen of our house, making phone calls all through the evening. There were four chairs in the kitchen, but he ignored them all. Even as Billy and I were being herded up the stairs to bed that night, I could still hear his voice, endlessly calm and reasonable, talking our future into place.
Uncle Kev isn't like that. He was the one who picked me and Billy up from school that day and cried as he told us the news. He hugged us both hard before he turned off the lights that night, and he swore he would be waiting downstairs in the morning. He promised that we would never be alone.
But in the middle of the night, even Uncle Kev couldn't hold off the darkness. Billy woke up crying after midnight and crawled into bed with me. I'd already been awake for hours, staring into the dark, imagining everything Kev hadn't told me. I'd passed a bad car accident on the highway, once. I'd seen the ambulances gathered around, the woman sobbing on the side of the road. At seven years old, I already had what my teachers called "an active imagination".
Uncle Jack was the one who saved us that night.
He was wearing a ripped T-shirt when he appeared, but it didn't look old or grubby. It looked stylish. My mom had always told us that Jack was the rebel in the family, which made him sound wild and dangerous, but he just looked like a regular grown-up to me. Nineteen looks old to a seven-year-old, I guess.
Jack had floppy hair and a goofy grin, and when Billy saw him, he was so surprised, he stopped crying.
My breath caught in my throat, but I wasn't scared. Not exactly. I knew who he was, right away. He was Mom and Uncle Rom's little brother, the one from the picture in the living room.
And if he was here, then maybe someone else was, too.
"Can you bring Mom and Dad?" I asked. My voice quavered as I said it, but I gripped the blanket hard in my hands so I wouldn't cry.
Uncle Jack's smile dimmed. He shook his head.
"I want Mom and Dad!" Billy said. He started crying again.
Jack put one hand to his mouth, miming the message that he couldn't talk. Then he turned his back on us, and I thought he was going to leave.
"Wait!" I said.
But he'd already started dancing by then. It was a funny, awkward little shuffle-step, like a penguin dancing on slippery ice, and at the end of it, he took a fall so long and comic, Billy started giggling even through his tears, and we both scrambled down to the end of the bed to see. Jack reached out for the toy chest to pull himself up, but his hand passed straight through the wood, and he fell right back down onto the floor, opening his mouth and eyes wide in such exaggerated shock, I had to bite my own hand to keep myself from snorting with laughter.
He stayed all night, even after Billy fell back to sleep. I finally closed my eyes, too, but I couldn't sleep for more than fifteen minutes at a time. Every dream turned into a nightmare of fire and screams… but every time I opened my eyes, I saw Uncle Jack sitting on the floor with his back against the wall. He'd wink at me and put a finger on his lips to remind me not to wake Billy up, and I'd keep my eyes on his face until I started to feel calm again.
He finally faded away as the sun came out, but by then Uncle Kev was awake, already cooking in the kitchen. I could smell the scents of fresh coffee and baking sugar drifting through the house, Kev's own best cures for sleeplessness and grief.
I asked Uncle Kev about Jack over breakfast.
"I never met him, sweetheart. He was before my time." Kev pointed at my pancake, rolled up with strawberry jam and thickly frosted with sugar on top. "Now take a bite before it gets cold, okay?"
"Okay," I said. I cut off a piece, but I couldn't force myself to raise it to my mouth. There had been a hard fist clenched inside my stomach since yesterday afternoon, and the thought of putting any food down there made me feel sick. So I rubbed my forkful into the plate as if I were trying to soak up extra sugar, and said, "Rom and Mom talked about Jack, though, didn't they?"
"Oh, sweetie." Kev sighed. "You know your uncle. I'd been dating him for almost a year before I even found out he'd ever had a younger brother. I didn't find out about what happened to Jack until after we'd moved in together, when I saw the old newspaper articles." He frowned. "It's not that Rom doesn't care. You know that, right? He cares too much. That's why he has a hard time talking about things."
"I know," I said. Rom hadn't said a word to me and Billy about the accident yesterday. All he'd done was give us hard hugs and tell us, gruffly, to eat the dinner Kev had made us.
But Rom hadn't eaten last night, either. I was pretty sure he would understand if he knew how my stomach was feeling. I didn't always want to talk about things, either.
So when Kev stepped out of the kitchen for a moment, I cut off two thirds of my pancake and dropped it onto Billy's plate. Billy didn't mind--he was already nearly done with his first pancake anyway. By the time Kev walked back into the room, Billy was almost finished with everything on his plate, and I'd settled my fork and knife neatly across the last few inches that remained on mine.
"I can't eat any more," I said. "I'm sorry."
Kev looked at my plate and then at me. He sighed. "That's all right, Becca," he said. "Maybe at lunchtime you'll feel hungrier."
It took weeks, not hours, though, before the fist in my stomach finally unclenched. Months before I grew used to Rom and Kev sleeping in the room that had belonged to Mom and Dad; before I woke up in the morning simply knowing what had happened, instead of having to remember it like a cliff falling on top of me, every single day.
But Uncle Jack stayed with us every night. Sometimes he danced for us, the way he had the first time. More often, he just sat by the window, keeping us silent company through the night. Keeping us safe.
Two weeks after the accident, I stole the photo of Jack from the living room. He was grinning in it, standing with his arm around some girl I didn't know. I hid the photo in the top drawer of my chest of drawers, so no one could see it and take it back. Whenever I was alone in the room during the day, I took it out and set it next to me on the bed. Whenever I left the room, I put the photo back in the drawer and covered it in a layer of clothing to keep it safe.
My secret only lasted two days. On the afternoon of the third day, I walked into the room and found Rom standing over the open drawer, staring down at the photo in its frame. A pile of clean clothes lay forgotten on my bed as he looked down at his brother's face, tracing it through the glass with one big finger.
I froze in the doorway, too startled even to run away.
Rom looked up at me. He didn't say a word. But he picked up the frame and set it carefully on top of the chest of drawers, propping it up so Jack grinned out at both of us.
The photo stayed there from then on, without any discussion required. And that was how I recognized her, when she came.
The doorbell rang on a Saturday morning, eight months after the accident. Billy was out shopping with Kev, but I'd been allowed to stay home and watch television. Rom was in his workroom in the basement with his music playing, so I was the only one who heard the doorbell ring.
I opened the door, keeping it on the latch the way we'd learned in school. Stranger danger, my teacher had taught us, and I knew the moment I saw the woman on the doorstep that I had never met her before.
She was younger than Rom and Kev, younger than my parents, but older than Uncle Jack would ever be, and dressed in what I thought of as serious grown-up clothes, even though it was a Saturday. I really hoped she wasn't here for my parents. It had been months since I'd had to tell anyone what happened. Everybody was supposed to know, by now.
I stood behind the cracked-open door and watched her warily. "Yes?"
She looked down at me and her eyes widened. "You… oh, my goodness. Are you Rom's little girl?"
"No!" I said. Just hearing the question made my stomach hurt. Rom and Kev lived with us now, but that didn't make them our parents.
I'd spent all morning in the living room, as if life were normal again, but now all I could think of was getting back to my bedroom and to safety. I started to close the door, but she stepped forward, pushing her hand into the crack to hold it open.
"Wait! Is Rom at home?"
"He's busy." I scowled up at her. I didn't want to invite her into the house or listen to her tell me what a shame my parents' deaths had been, once she figured out who I really was. All I wanted…
Oh. As she turned her head, some trick of the light caught her face and triggered memory. My grip on the door loosened with surprise.
I might not have met her before, but I had seen her--seen her at least a thousand times, although I'd never paid her any attention. She'd only been the girl in the photo; the girl with my uncle's arm around her.
She wasn't a girl anymore. Her hair was still blonde, but instead of hanging in a long, shaggy sweep around her shoulders, it was swept up in an elegant knot, and there were lines around her blue eyes and wide mouth now, even though she'd tried to hide them with make-up. She looked tired, and she looked as if she'd been crying recently… and maybe for a long time before that.
I said, "Rom's in the basement. I'll go get him," and at my words, she stepped back and finally let me close the door.
I turned around and had my second shock of the day.
Uncle Jack stood in the hallway. I'd never seen him in daylight before.
"Jack?" I said.
But he wasn't looking at me. He was staring past me at the panel of thick, leaded glass at the top of the door, where the wavering outline of a blonde head showed through.
"Jack!" I said again.
He didn't smile at me, or wink. There was an expression on his face that I'd never seen there before, and I didn't like it at all.
I turned around. I was going to tell the blonde woman that Rom couldn't come to the door, and then I was going to get rid of her and make things right again.
Before I could move, though, the door to the basement swung open. "Becca?" Rom rubbed a hand over his thick, dark hair, and wood shavings fell onto his flannel shirt. "Is someone at the door? I thought I heard the bell."
He didn't see Jack, and Jack didn't look away from the door. I didn't say a word, but Rom looked past me and saw the woman's outline in the glass. He sighed and put one hand on my shoulder. He looked like he might say something else, but he didn't. He just shook his head and went to open the door.
"Hello?" he said. "Can I help you?"
"Rom?" The woman's voice wavered, like she might start to cry again. "It's me, Susan. Do you remember me?"
"Ah…" As I stepped up beside him, Rom shook his head. "I'm sorry…."
"Susan," she repeated. "Jack's--I was with Jack when--when…"
"Susan," Rom said, and shook his head again. He looked staggered. "I… right. Yes. Susan." He stepped back, tucking his hands into his pockets as if he didn't know what to do with them. "Ah… do you want coffee? Or tea?"
"I'll take something stronger, if you have it." Her smile wobbled.
Rom blinked and looked past her into the sun-drenched street. "Aren't you driving?"
"Oh…" She waved a hand, flapping away the question. The gesture made her stagger slightly on her low heels. She caught herself on the doorframe.
"I'll make you coffee," Rom said firmly. He caught my eye as he turned, and winced. "Becca, maybe you'd better--um…" He looked back toward the living room, where the TV was still playing. "Weren't you watching cartoons or something?"
I shrugged and followed them into the kitchen. Jack followed after, standing in the doorway with his gaze on Susan. She couldn't see him any more than Uncle Rom had. Her gaze passed right over him as she drifted through the kitchen, turning over knick-knacks on the windowsill and touching all the magnets on the fridge.
The sight of it made me itch with irritation. Rom didn't look happy, either, as he poured out the coffee. He kept glancing at the clock--hoping Kev would get home soon, I bet. Kev was always the one who entertained guests.
Kev wasn't due back for at least half an hour, though.
Rom spoke again just as Susan was pulling one of Kev's to-do lists off the fridge.
"Do you take milk, Susan?"
She turned, setting the list back down. It missed the fridge and drifted to the floor, but she didn't notice. "Just sugar," she said, and crooked her mouth in a rueful smile. "Lots of sugar."
"Okay." He dug out a bag of sugar from the cupboard, looked at it doubtfully, then set it on the table with a spoon, next to a mug of coffee. "Ah, I'll let you measure it yourself."
"Thanks, Rom. You're a sweetheart." She sat down and wrapped her hands around the coffee mug. She didn't bother to add the sugar, just cupped her hands around the mug like she was soaking up its heat.
Rom poured me a cup of milk and sat down beside me. He didn't have a drink of his own, but he didn't seem to realize that until he was already sitting. He looked blankly at his empty hands for a moment, then laced his fingers together on the tablecloth and glanced at the clock again.
"Jack said that, you know," the woman said abruptly. "He said, 'Rom, he doesn't talk much, but he's got the kindest heart of anyone you'll ever meet.'"
"Ah." Rom unlaced his fingers to rub the back of his neck. "Did he?"
"He did. He was crazy about all of you, though. You and Carol and your parents--is Carol still living around here? I heard she got married, had a couple of kids."
Rom didn't turn, but maybe he felt the sudden intensity of my gaze. "She's not in town right now," he said, and my shoulders melted with relief. "We're looking after the kids for her and Sam."
"That's nice." She picked up her spoon, stirred it idly through her black coffee. "I always thought I'd have kids by now. But… you said 'we'? So you've met someone, too?"
Rom gave a quick, jerky shrug. "Mm."
"That's nice," Susan repeated. Her eyes glittered with tears. "That's really nice."
I glanced at the door. Jack was staring at her with such intensity, I felt my cheeks burn. I looked away.
Rom said, "Susan, is there anything I can do for you?"
"Do for me?" She choked on a laugh. "I'm not… I know your family doesn't think much of me."
Rom closed his eyes. "That's not--"
"No, I get it," she said. "If it hadn't been for me, he'd have been safe on campus where he was supposed to be. It was my idea to skip class and drive out to that festival, my idea to stop in that stupid gas station even though he said we didn't need to. He said we could make it another fifteen miles, and we could have, but I was so paranoid and so fucking stupid--!"
"Ah, Susan…" As her voice rose, Rom nodded his head in my direction.
She put one hand to her mouth. "Sorry," she said, behind her hand. "Sorry, sorry. I didn't mean to… I didn't mean any of it," she said, and a sob caught in her voice. "Please. I really want you to know. If I could go back in time, be the one who went into that station to pay--if you knew how many times I've wished--"
"You don't have to do this," Rom said, cutting her off. I could see the lines of tension on his face, but his deep voice was steady. "No one thinks it was your fault. You weren't the one who shot him."
"But I'm the reason it happened." She pushed her chair back, sent the chair legs scraping against the floor, and scrambled to her feet. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have come here. I just--it was ten years this week, you know--of course you know--and I just wanted you to know how sorry--how very sorry…" She wiped one hand across her face, smearing her make-up. "And then there was the fire, and--"
"A fire?" Rom said. He'd stood up too, more carefully. "Were you hurt?"
"Oh, no," she said. "It was just my asshole ex--excuse me," she added, glancing at me. "God, I keep forgetting she's in the room, she's so quiet. No, I wasn't in the house when he set it, thank God. But all my pictures, Jack's old T-shirt, the one he gave me… anyway." She took a deep breath and lifted her chin. "That's not your problem. But I wanted--I just wanted you to know I haven't forgotten him. Won't ever forget."
"That's… fine," Rom said after a moment. "That's fine. I don't think you should drive yourself home, though."
She laughed, bitterly. "That's not a problem. I told you there was a fire, right? There isn't any home to go to. I mean, there is, but it's half-full of ash. The landlord's clearing it out for me, but until then I'm staying with a friend."
"Good," Rom said. "Good. Why don't I just call her, let her know where you are?"
She fumbled with her purse. "I can drive. I've got keys--"
"Can I see them?" Rom closed his big hand around them. "Why don't you sit down, finish your coffee first? You can give me your friend's number in the meantime."
They kept arguing, but I stopped paying attention. Jack was gesturing to me, for the first time since Susan had arrived. When he saw me looking, his face lightened with relief. He pointed into the hallway, then back to Susan. I frowned at him, not getting it.
He looked frantic as he pointed again and again. Finally he slapped his forehead, and started to mime. He was moving around a room--a bedroom, I realized, as he stumbled and fell into a bed. My lips curved, and I had to bite back a laugh. I loved Jack's mimes. Then he was pulling himself up, opening drawers, coming to the top of the chest of drawers, and then--
"No!" I said out loud.
Rom and Susan both stopped talking.
"What is it, Becca?" Rom asked.
I couldn't answer. I was staring at Jack's pleading face in the doorway as he mimed holding up a photo. A photo that belonged to me.
"No," I repeated, and I turned my back on him.
My eyes were burning now, and there was a prickling pain in my chest, like betrayal.
"Becca?" Rom said.
I clenched my hands into fists, holding back tears. "I think she should go," I said. "She said she wants to. We should let her." I felt Jack's gaze on my back. "No one wants her here anyway."
Rom's shoulders sagged. For the first time I could remember, my uncle looked at me with real disapproval.
"I think you'd better go to your room, Becca."
His voice was quiet, but it stung. I gritted my teeth and walked out of the room. Jack didn't even bother to step aside to make way for me--he obviously couldn't bear to take his eyes off Susan, even for a moment. I walked straight through him, then hurtled down the hallway at a run. I slammed the bedroom door behind me.
On top of the chest of drawers, Jack grinned out at me confidently, exuberantly.
He was my uncle. He belonged to me and Billy, not to her. We were the ones who needed him. She was a grown-up. She should be able to take care of herself. And anyway, she'd said it was her fault he'd been killed. She said…
I picked up the photo, carrying it with me to the bed. I curled up like a baby around it, tucking it to my chest and studying it while tears burned against my eyes and choked my throat.
She was grinning just as exuberantly as Jack was. His arm was around her shoulder; her arm was around his waist. They were wearing T-shirts for the same band. And I realized something for the first time as I studied it. They didn't just happen to both be happy. They were making each other happy.
I remembered feeling happy like that.
The tears stopped choking me, then. They ripped out of my throat like knives as I remembered.
Jack drifted in at the very end, as I was finally gasping my way to a halt. He sat back against the door and shut his eyes. He didn't look at me. He didn't beg. He only looked infinitely weary and a hundred years older than he had in the photo, even though it had been taken only a few months before he died.
I uncurled my legs and pulled myself up off the bed. I walked over to stand in front of him, the way he'd stood in front of our bed that first night.
His eyes opened. He looked up at me. I put one finger to my lips, the way he had a thousand times, reminding me to be quiet for Billy's sake.
"Shh," I said. "It's okay. It'll be okay."
Rom was helping Susan into a tiny, dented blue car when I came out the front door. Another woman stood next to them, shaking her head. They all looked up at me as I came out, even Susan, whose eyes were bleary.
"Becca?" Rom said. "I thought I told you to stay in your room."
I walked straight up to Susan. "Here," I said, and held out the photo. "This is for you. He wants you to have it."
"Well, isn't that sweet," the other woman cooed.
Rom said, "Becca?"
Susan took the photo in her free hand. Her lower lip trembled. She looked down at it, and then at me. "He wants me to have it?" she whispered.
I nodded. "He does."
"Thank you," she whispered. "Oh, thank you."
I tensed, waiting for her to lunge at me with an unwanted hug, the way adult women always seemed to. But she didn't. She just slid into the passenger seat of the car, holding the photo. She was still staring down at it as her friend drove her away a few minutes later.
Rom and I stood together, watching in silence as the car drove down the street.
Finally, he said, "'Wants'? Not, 'would have wanted'?"
I shook my head. "Wants," I said.
We stood there for another moment. Mr. Miller, down the street, was mowing his lawn. Cars passed slowly up and down the street, veering to avoid the soccer game some of the boys at the far end had set up.
"Well," Rom said. "I guess we'd better go back inside."
He reached out his big hand, and I took it.
That night, I waited after the lights went out. I kept my eyes open as the hours ticked by on the clock by my bed. But Jack never appeared.
In the middle of the night, Billy woke up crying. Jack still wasn't there.
I got up out of bed as he whimpered and rubbed his eyes.
"Jack," he said. "Where's Jack? I want Jack!"
I waved to catch his eye. He looked up at me, through the darkness.
And I began to dance.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 4th, 2012

Author Comments

Although all of the characters and situations described in this story are entirely fictional, I wrote this story as my own way of working through a terrible loss. I hope it speaks to others, too.

- Stephanie Burgis
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