Read Long After Midnight Online

Authors: Ray Bradbury

Long After Midnight (26 page)

 
          
"Oh,
yes, the pretty teacher. She died in 1936, not long after you left."

 
          
Had
she ever married? No, come to think of it, she never had.

 
          
He
walked out to the cemetery in the afternoon and found her stone, which said,
"Ann Taylor, born 1910, died 1936." And he thought, Twenty-six years
old. Why, I'm three years older than you are now, Miss Taylor.

 
          
Later
in the day the people in the town saw Bob Spaulding's wife strolling to meet
him under the elm trees and the oak trees, and they all turned to watch her
pass, for her face shifted with bright shadows as she walked; she was the fine
peaches of summer in the snow of winter, and she was cool milk for cereal on a
hot early-summer morning. And this was one of those rare few days in time when
the climate was balanced like a maple leaf between winds that blow just right,
one of those days that should have been named, everyone agreed, after Robert
Spaulding's wife.

The Wish

 

 
          
 

 
          
A
whisper of snow touched the cold window.

 
          
The
vast house creaked in a wind from nowhere.

 
          
"What?"
I said.

 
          
"I
didn't say anything." Charlie Simmons, behind me at the fireplace, shook
popcorn quietly in a vast metal sieve. "Not a word."

 
          
"Damn
it, Charlie, I
heard
you. .. ."

 
          
Stunned,
I watched the snow fall on far streets and empty fields. It was a proper night
for ghosts of whiteness to visit windows and wander off.

 
          
"You're
imagining things," said Charlie.

 
          
Am
I? I thought. Does the weather have voices? Is there a language of night and
time and snow? What goes on between that dark out there and my soul in here?

 
          
For
there in the shadows, a whole civilization of doves seemed to be landing
unseen, without benefit of moon or lamp.

 
          
And
was it the snow softly whispering out there, or was it the past, accumulations
of old time and need, despairs mounding themselves to panics and at last finding
tongue?

 
          
"God,
Charles. Just now, I could have sworn I heard you say—"

 
          
"Say
what?"

 
          
"You
said:'Make
a wish’"

 
          
"I
did?"

 
          
His
laughter behind me did not make me turn; I kept on watching the snow fall and I
told him what I must tell—

 
          
"You
said. 'It's a special, fine, strange night. So make the finest, dearest,
strangest wish ever in your life, deep from your heart. It will be yours.'
That's what I heard you say."

 
          
"No."
I saw his image in the glass shake its head. "But, Tom, you've stood there
hypnotized by the snowfall for half an hour. The fire on the hearth talked.
Wishes don't come true, Tom. But—" and here he stopped and added with some
surprise, "by God, you
did
hear
something, didn't you? Well, here. Drink."

 
          
The
popcorn was done popping. He poured wine which I did not touch. The snow was
falling steadily along the dark window in pale breaths.

 
          
"Why?"
I asked. "Why would this
wish
jump
into my head? If you didn't say it, what did?"

 
          
What
indeed, I thought; what's out there, and who are we? Two writers late, alone,
my friend invited for the night, two old companions used to much talk and
gossip about ghosts, who've tried their hands at all the usual psychic stuffs,
Ouija boards, tarot cards, telepathies, the junk of amiable friendship over
years, but always full of taunts and jokes and idle fooleries.

 
          
But
this out there tonight, I though, ends the jokes, erases smiles. The snow—why,
look! It's burying our laughter....

 
          
"Why?"
said Charlie at my elbow, drinking wine, gazing at the red-green-blue Yule-tree
lights and now at the back of my neck. "Why a
wish
on a night like this? Well, it is the night before Christmas,
right? Five minutes from now, Christ is born. Christ and the winter solstice
all in one week. This week, this night, proves that Earth won't die. The winter
has touched bottom and now starts upward toward the light. That’s special.
That's incredible."

 
          
"Yes,"
I murmured, and thought of the old days when cavemen died in their hearts when
autumn came and the sun went away and the ape-men cried until the world shifted
in its white sleep and the sun rose earlier one fine morning and the universe
was saved once more, for a little while. "Yes."

 
          
"So—"
Charlie read my thoughts and sipped his wine. "Christ always was the
promise of spring, wasn't he? In the midst of the longest night of the year,
Time shook, Earth shuddered and calved a myth. And what did the myth yell?
Happy New Year! God, yes, January first isn't New Year's Day. Christ's birthday
is. His breath, sweet as clover, touches our nostrils, promises spring, this
very moment before midnight. Take a deep breath, Thomas."

 
          
"Shut
up!"

 
          
"Why?
Do you hear voices again?"

 
          
Yes!
I turned to the window. In sixty seconds, it would be the morn of His birth.
What purer, rarer hour was there, I thought wildly, for wishes.

 
          
"Tom—"
Charlie seized my elbow. But I was gone deep and very wild indeed. Is this a
special time? I thought. Do holy ghosts wander on nights of falling snow to do
us favors in this strange-held hour? If I make a wish in secret, will that
perambulating night, strange sleeps, old blizzards give back my wish tenfold?

 
          
I
shut my eyes. My throat convulsed.

 
          
"Don't,"
said Charlie.

 
          
But
it trembled on my lips. I could not wait Now, now, I thought, a strange star
burns at Bethlehem.

 
          
"Tom,"
gasped Charlie, "for Christ's sake!"

 
          
Christ,
yes, I thought, and said:

 
          
"My
wish is, for one hour tonight—"

 
          
"No!"
Charlie struck me, once, to shut my mouth.

 
          
"—please,
make my father alive again."

 
          
The
mantel clock struck twelve times to midnight.

 
          
"Oh,
Thomas . . ." Charlie grieved. His hand fell away from my arm. "Oh,
Tom."

 
          
A
gust of snow rattled the window, clung like a shroud, unraveled away.

 
          
The
front door exploded wide.

 
          
Snow
sprang over us in a shower.

 
          
"What
a sad wish. And ... it has just come true."

 
          
"True?"
I whirled to stare at that open door which beckoned like a tomb.

 
          
"Don't
go, Tom," said Charlie.

 
          
The
door slammed. Outside, I ran; oh, God, how I ran.

 
          
"Tom,
come back!" The voice faded far behind me in the whirling fall of white.
"Oh, God,
don't!"

 
          
But
in this minute after midnight I ran and ran, mindless, gibbering, yelling my
heart on to beat, blood to move, legs to run and keep running, and I thought:
Him! Him! I know where
he
is! If the
gift is mine! If the wish comes true! I know his
place!
And all about in the night-snowing town the bells of
Christmas began to clang and chant and clamor. They circled and paced and drew
me on as-I shouted and mouthed snow and knew maniac desire.

 
          
Fool!
I thought. He's dead! Go back!

 
          
But
what if he is alive, one hour tonight, and I
didn't
go to find him?

 
          
I
was outside town, with no hat or coat, but so warm from running, a salty mask
froze my face and flaked away with the jolt of each stride down the middle of
an empty road, with the sound of joyous bells blown away and gone.

 
          
A
wind took me around a final comer of wilderness where a dark wall waited for
me.

 
          
The
cemetery.

 
          
I
stood by the heavy iron gates, looking numbly in.

 
          
The
graveyard resembled the scattered ruins of an ancient fort, blown up lifetimes
ago, its monuments buried deep in some new Ice Age.

 
          
Suddenly,
miracles were not possible.

 
          
Suddenly
the night was just so much wine and talk and dumb enchantments and I running for
no reason save I believed, I truly believed, I had felt something
happen
out here in this snow-dead world.

 
          
Now
I was so burdened at the blind sight of those untouched graves and
printless
snow, I would gladly have sunk and died there
myself. I could not go back to town to face Charlie. I began to think this was
all some brutal humor and awful trick of his, his insane ability to guess
someone's terrible need and toy with it.
Had
he whispered behind my back, made promises, nudged me toward this wish?
Christ!

 
          
I
touched the padlocked gate.

 
          
What
was here? Only a flat stone with a name and born 1888, died 1957, an
inscription that even on summer days was hard to find, for the grass grew thick
and the leaves gathered in mounds.

 
          
I
let go of the iron gate and turned. Then, in an instant, I gasped. An
unbelieving shout tore from my throat.

 
          
For
I had sensed something beyond the wall, near the small boarded-up gatekeeper's
lodge^

 
          
Was
there some faint breathing there? A muted cry?

 
          
Or
just a hint of warmth on the wind?

 
          
I
clenched the iron gate and stared beyond.

 
          
Yes,
there! The faintest track, as if a bird had landed to run along between the
buried stones. Another moment, and I would have missed it forever!

 
          
I
yelled, I ran, I leaped.

 
          
I
have never, oh, God, in all my life, leaped so high. I cleared the wall and
fell down on the other side, a last shout bloodying my mouth. I scrambled
around to the far side of the gatehouse.

 
          
There
in shadows, hidden away from the wind, leaning against a wall, was a man, eyes
shut, his hands crossed over his chest.

 
          
I
stared at him, wildly. I leaned insanely close to peer, to find.

 
          
I
did not know this man.

 
          
He
was old, old, very old.

 
          
I
must have groaned with fresh despair.

 
          
For
now the old man opened his trembling eyes.

 
          
It
was his eyes, looking at me, that made me shout:

 
          
"Dad!"

 
          
I
lurched to seize him into dim lamplight and the falling snows of
after-midnight.

 
          
Charlie's
voice, a long way off in the snowy town, echoed, and pleaded: No, don't, go,
run. Nightmare. Stop.

 
          
The
man who stood before me did not know me.

 
          
Like
a scarecrow held up against the wind, this strange but familiar shape tried to
make me out with his white-blind and cobwebbed eyes. Who? he seemed to be
thinking.

 
          
Then
an answering cry burst from his mouth: