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The Light Thief
by Ruth O'Neill

Andrea walked down the hall to her bedroom, swinging her book bag. As she stepped into the room, she reached out automatically with her free hand and flipped the light on, but nothing happened. She froze, staring into the room, her hand still on the switch. It was not quite dark yet -- just dim enough that she could barely see. She listened, too, but could neither hear nor see any movement in the room. The air whooshed out of her lungs and she started to breathe again. The Creature was still asleep; it would be invisible until it woke.

Slowly, Andrea drew her arm back, then she forced herself to turn and walk calmly back to the kitchen. She couldn't help hurrying the last few steps, though, and her socks slid a little on the linoleum as she turned the corner. "Dad, I need a new lightbulb in my room."

Her father was scrubbing carrots in the sink. "What? Again?" he asked as he faced her. His glasses had slid down almost to the end of his nose; he pushed them up with the back of his wrist as the carrot he was holding dripped onto his shirt. He tossed the carrot back into the sink and dried his hands on a towel, brushing at the front of his shirt as he continued, "Didn't I just put a new one in last week?"

"Um, no, I don't think so. I think it was a while ago," Andrea hedged. Once, when she was four, she had tried to tell him about the Creature only she could see, but of course he had not believed her. He had patted her on the head and said what a big girl she was, and how silly it was to be afraid of the dark. She had stomped her foot and said she was not afraid of the dark, which made him laugh before she could tell him she was afraid of what lived in the dark in her room.

Andrea fidgeted as her father hunted in the cupboard for a new lightbulb. "Hurry," she whispered to herself, chewing on her bottom lip.

"Here's one," he said, frowning at the last bulb in the box as he handed it to her. "Hold onto it while I get the step stool. Honestly, you go through more lightbulbs in that room than all the rest of the house put together." He kept muttering about the electricity she must be using as he pulled the stool out of the closet. Andrea followed him down the hall.

He set the stool down in the middle of her bedroom. Andrea hung back by the door, staring anxiously into each corner of the room. Safe so far, but the daylight was fading fast. She startled when her father spoke.

"Make sure the light's off, please," he said as he climbed onto the stool. Andrea pushed the useless switch back down and watched him unscrew the old bulb. "Here, honey, take this and give me the new one," her father said as he reached behind with the burnt-out bulb. It was getting hard to see. Andrea took two steps forward and traded bulbs with her arms stretched out as far as possible.

As Andrea backed quickly toward the door, she half saw, half sensed the large, familiar shape of the Creature stirring in the corner. Her father started to turn the new bulb. Andrea put her hand on the switch as the Creature spread its wings and faced its prey. It would rather have light, she knew, but without that it would go after a source of heat. It gathered itself and leapt towards the nearest warm body: Andrea's father.

Oblivious to the thing swooping towards him, he pulled his hand away from the new bulb. Andrea bit back a scream as she slammed the light switch up. Her father winced and stumbled backwards off the stool, awkwardly keeping himself from falling by leaning on the dresser. "Andrea!" he said as he turned to glare at her, "You could have given me a moment, or at least warned me!"

"Sorry, Dad," she answered. There was no point trying to explain about the Creature eagerly drinking in the light produced by the new bulb. She shrugged. Too bad it wasn't bright enough to put the thing to sleep for a while, she thought, but only daylight seemed to do that.

Once her father had left with the stool, Andrea did her homework sprawled across the bed while the Creature hovered around the light above her. She was used to that.

Later, at bedtime, Andrea carefully plugged in her night light before she switched off the overhead light. Her father thought she was a little old to have a night light, but she had convinced him to let her keep it, as she said, "In case I have to get up to go to the bathroom. You don't want me to crash into something and break my arm, do you, Dad?" When the main light went off, Andrea watched the Creature move down to crouch beside the glowing green frog face that covered the small bulb.

Andrea sighed and crawled into bed. She lay on her back with her arms crossed over her chest, pinning down the covers, and stared at the ceiling. Sleep came quickly.

A roll of thunder woke her. A flash lit the room as she opened her eyes and pushed herself up on one elbow to look out the window. Andrea counted seconds until more thunder rumbled. The storm was miles away. Several more bolts of lightning flashed across the sky. Andrea smiled, enjoying the show.

Suddenly, the night light flickered and went out. A power failure! Andrea jerked around and stared at the Creature. It seemed to hesitate for an instant, but then it gathered itself and sprang towards her. She threw her arms up in front of her face and started to scream, but its claws sank icy cold into one arm and made her gasp, strangling the cry in her throat. The arm the Creature was holding went numb almost instantly, and Andrea groped frantically with her other hand for the flashlight she kept by the bed. At last her fingers touched it, and she grabbed it and switched it on with her thumb, pointing it away from herself.

The Creature turned to look at it, then spread its wings and swept them down once, lifting itself off her arm and moving to hover in the light. It followed the beam as Andrea carefully set the flashlight down on the floor.

Her arm was still numb, so she rubbed it and shook it, and soon the feeling started to come back with pins and needles, as if the arm had just gone to sleep. Andrea glared at the Creature by the flashlight. "Thief," she said. "That's my flashlight, you know. My mother gave it to me." The Creature ignored her. She reached down, picked up the flashlight, and waved it around. The Creature chased the beam like a kitten trying to catch a shadow. Andrea laughed and swung it harder, forcing the Creature to work to keep up.

By the time the power came back on and the frog's face lit up again, Andrea's arm was getting tired, so she was glad to see the Creature settle back down by the night light. She put the flashlight down, but she left it on in case the power went out again that night. She fell asleep watching the spot of light on the wall and thinking.


"Dad, can I have some new batteries for my flashlight?" Andrea asked as they munched their cornflakes at breakfast the next morning.

"Sure, honey. They're -- mmph -- in the cupboard over the sink. Help your -- mmph -- self," her father answered through a mouthful of chewed flakes and milk. Fortunately, his face was hidden behind the Saturday paper.

Once there was only a little milk left in the bottom of her bowl, Andrea pushed herself away from the table and went to get the batteries. There were plenty of the cheap D cells, so she took four and went back to her sunlit bedroom.

Her flashlight was still shining dimly. She switched it off and unscrewed the top, then shook its batteries out onto the bed. She dug her old toy flashlight out from the bottom of the closet and put the two partly used batteries into it. It still worked, but it had tiny blue smurfs all over it, so she never used it any more. The one her mother had given her last Christmas was much nicer. And it was red, her favorite color. She dropped two of the new batteries into that one and screwed the top back on.

Andrea switched the flashlight on and pushed it way back under her bed against the wall so no light leaked out. She checked her watch: 8:18. The two extra new batteries she put away in the back of her sock drawer along with the smurflight. They would be needed later.

Several times throughout the day, Andrea checked on the flashlight. By afternoon, it was beginning to dim, so she pulled it out and kept it with her, watching to see when it would die. It faded and went out completely at 3:42 -- nearly seven and a half hours. Andrea wrote that down, then she removed the dead batteries and retrieved the others from among her socks. She put those in and turned the flashlight on, noting the time again.

The flashlight went back under the bed, but this time for only six and a half hours. Then Andrea pulled it out again and turned it off. It had about an hour left on the batteries, now. Just about what she needed.

There would be no moon tonight. Andrea got ready for bed and lay down, but she kept herself awake until her father's snoring drifted out across the hall. Dressing quietly in the dim green glow of the night light, she kept an eye on the Creature. She pulled on her green hooded sweatshirt and tucked the red flashlight into the front pouch.

Andrea crept out into the hall, carrying the smurflight; good, her father's door was closed. She flicked on the hall light, then went back into her room to unplug the night light. The Creature flew out into the hallway as she ducked, then it stayed near the hall light while she went forward to the kitchen to turn another light on. When she turned off the hall light, the Creature moved to the kitchen. Light by light, she led it through the house until they were both outside under the porch light.

Taking a deep breath and holding it, Andrea turned on the smurflight at the same time as she turned off the porch light. Would the Creature stay with her flashlight or move to a streetlight, she wondered. The streetlights on her block were pale pink things, and the light they cast was eerie. Andrea didn't like them, and neither, it seemed, did the Creature, since it stayed in the beam of her flashlight.

Andrea began to breathe again and walked briskly down the block to the path up the hillside at the edge of town. Once she was among the trees, she was holding the only light. She turned the beam on her watch to check the time, then had to point it away quickly as the Creature swept dangerously close to her, trying to stay with the light. She shivered. It was 12:30. The Creature seemed to need light or warmth constantly to survive, so Andrea hoped that walking half an hour into the woods would be enough to strand it there.

The flashlight in her hands was cold, and she had to switch hands from time to time so she could warm first one, then the other in the pouch of her sweatshirt. She checked her watch now and then, a little more carefully than the first time. At 1:05 she moved off the path a few feet and kicked a few rocks together to make a prop for one of the flashlights.

When she pulled the other flashlight out of her pouch, the red one, Andrea discovered the flaw in her plan. She didn't want to lose this flashlight, but it had the timed batteries in it. She could swap the batteries, but that would mean both flashlights had to be off while she did it. Could she withstand the Creature's attack long enough?

Andrea decided to try, but her hands were too cold and numb to unscrew the top of the first flashlight. Reluctantly, she set her best flashlight down against the rocks and turned it on, leaving it pointed at the sky. The Creature moved to that beam when she turned the other light off. Enough light spilled out from the flashlight on the ground for her to find her way back to the path. She felt her way along it in the dark until she could no longer see the beam behind her, hands brushing against the rough bark on the trees, then she turned on her old, childish, flashlight and continued her walk back. Andrea smiled to herself as she imagined the light behind her dying out. The Creature would be trapped in the dark after she was safely home.

It may have been a sound, or perhaps it was an extra chill that made Andrea glance over her shoulder, but when she did a spasm of fear gripped her for an instant. The Creature was flying after her. It must have sucked up all the light faster than she had planned. Andrea turned off the light and started to run, but in the dark she tripped and sprawled face-first on the ground, the flashlight flying out of her hands and bouncing away.

Wisps of her hair blew around her face as the Creature overshot, landing on the ground about ten feet away. It lay there staring at her, glowing faintly as she pushed herself to her feet and backed away. It stood up and hopped twice, following her. Andrea's back bumped into a tree, but she didn't dare take her eyes off the Creature to find her way. It crouched down, ready to spring. It jumped. But the leap fell short, and it crashed to the ground inches in front of her toes. It struggled to get up again, but flopped back. It hadn't had enough light, Andrea realized. It wasn't strong enough!

The Creature started to glow brighter and brighter, until Andrea had to close her eyes against a huge flash. When she opened her eyes, she could see no sign of the Creature, nor was there any of the vague sense of dread she usually felt when it was nearby.

Cautiously, Andrea nudged her right foot forward, but nothing stopped it. She took a few steps and stopped when one foot hit something solid. She bent down and touched it with a fingertip. Plastic! She picked up the smurf-covered flashlight she had dropped and turned it on. Sweeping its beam over the ground, she found the spot where the Creature had been standing. There was nothing there but a scorched, blackened area about 3 feet across.

Andrea shuddered and headed down the path again, jogging this time, but watching where she put her feet. At least the Creature was gone. As she reached her street, she heaved a sigh of relief. The houses looked so peaceful and quiet, she didn't even mind the pink streetlights. Then something caught the corner of her eye and she looked more closely at the houses. Three of them had faintly glowing windows, as if from a night light in someone's bedroom. And silhouetted in each of those three windows, Andrea could see a dark, familiar shape. She turned off the light and walked the rest of the way home as quietly as she could.

--Ruth O'Neill


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