A classic horror short story about fear of the dark. What is the most masterful is the way Greene develops a subtle but emphatic language of light to illuminate the enveloping and ineffable terror of his story’s dark. It has been reprinted many times in anthologies. The short story features 9-year-old twins, Peter and Francis Morton, on the day of a friend’s birthday party…
Peter Morton woke with a start to face the first light. Rain tapped against the glass. It was January the fifth.
He looked across a table on which a night-light had guttered into a pool of water, at the other bed. Francis Morton was still asleep, and Peter lay down again with his eyes on his brother. It amused him to imagine it was himself whom he watched, the same hair, the same eyes, the same lips and line of cheek. But the thought palled, and the mind went back to the fact which lent the day importance. It was the fifth of January. He could hardly believe a year had passed since Mrs Henne-Falcon had given her last children’s party.
Francis turned suddenly upon his back and threw an arm across his face, blocking his mouth. Peter’s heart began to beat fast, not with pleasure now but with uneasiness. He sat up and called across the table, “Wake up.” Francis’s shoulders shook and he waved a clenched fist in the air, but his eyes remained closed. To Peter Morton the whole room seemed to darken, and he had the impression of a great bird swooping. He cried again, “Wake up,” and once more there was silver light and the touch of rain on the windows.
Francis rubbed his eyes. “Did you call out?”‘ he asked.
“You are having a bad dream,” Peter said. Already experience had taught him how far their minds reflected each other. But he was the elder, by a matter of minutes, and that brief extra interval of light, while his brother still struggled in pain and darkness, had given him self-reliance and an instinct of protection towards the other who was afraid of so many things.
“I dreamed that I was dead,” Francis said.
“What was it like?”‘ Peter asked.
“I can’t remember,” Francis said.
“You dreamed of a big bird.”
The two lay silent in bed facing each other, the same green eyes, the same nose tilting at the tip, the same firm lips, and the same premature modelling of the chin. The fifth of January, Peter thought again, his mind drifting idly from the image of cakes to the prizes which might be won. Egg-and-spoon races, spearing apples in basins of water, blind man’s buff.
“I don’t want to go,” Francis said suddenly. “I suppose Joyce will be there Mabel Warren.” Hateful to him, the thought of a party shared with those two. They were older than he. Joyce was eleven and Mabel Warren thirteen. The long pigtails swung superciliously to a masculine stride. Their sex humiliated him, as they watched him fumble with his egg, from under lowered scornful lids. And last year he turned his face away from Peter, his cheeks scarlet.
“What’s the matter?”‘ Peter asked.
“Oh, nothing. I don’t think I’m well. I’ve got a cold. I oughtn’t to go to the party.”
Peter was puzzled. “But Francis, is it a bad cold?”
“It will be a bad cold if I go to the party. Perhaps I shall die.”
“Then you mustn’t go,” Peter said, prepared to solve all difficulties with one plain sentence, and Francis let his nerves relax, ready to leave everything to Peter. But though he was grateful he did not turn his face towards his brother. His cheeks still bore the badge of a shameful memory, of the game of hide and seek last year in the darkened house, and of how he had screamed when Mabel Warren put her hand suddenly upon his arm. He had not heard her coming. Girls were like that. Their shoes never squeaked. No boards whined under the tread. They slunk like cats on padded claws.
When the nurse came in with hot water Francis lay tranquil leaving everything to Peter. Peter said, “Nurse, Francis has got a cold.”
The tall starched woman laid the towels across the cans and said, without turning, “The washing won’t be back till tomorrow. You must lend him some of your handkerchiefs.”
“But, Nurse,” Peter asked, “hadn’t he better stay in bed?”
“We’ll take him for a good walk this morning,” the nurse said. “Wind’ll blow away the germs. Get up now, both of you,” and she closed the door behind her.
“I’m sorry,” Peter said. “Why don’t you just stay in bed? I’ll tell mother you felt too ill to get up.” But rebellion against destiny was not in Francis’s power. If he stayed in bed they would come up and tap his chest and put a thermometer in his mouth and look at his tongue, and they would discover he was malingering. It was true he felt ill, a sick empty sensation in his stomach and a rapidly beating heart, but he knew the cause was only fear, fear of the party, fear of being made to hide by himself in the dark, uncompanioned by Peter and with no night-light to make a blessed breach.