“Put the blinds down,” Mom called from the other room. “It’s getting dark. We don’t want what’s outside looking in.” It was only 4:30, but it was so dark on the other side of the window that the window was almost a mirror—I could see the living room rug floating out there, and behind it the kitchen lights and cupboards. But in between those reflections I could see the bare branches of the trees, and between those, already one outsider face peering back at me. Just the eyes, and the hint of a body. I let the blinds down with a thump.
The outsiders are such a mystery. What are they, even? You’d think we’d be able to discover something about them just by going outside ourselves, but when we’re outside, they make themselves scarce. Maybe they’re in the shadows. When me and my friends are out in the dark, we try to frighten each other with talk like that. “They’re right behind us. Can’t you hear them? We better walk a little faster. Oh, what’s that? I thought I felt a touch!” That sort of thing. But I’ve never met anyone who’s actually run into one of them. I certainly never have, even when I’ve been out without a flashlight. Nope, the only times I see them are when I look out at the dark outside from the bright inside. They seem drawn to look in—maybe they’re as curious about us as we are about them. Once I counted five sets of eyes, staring in. That time I let down the blinds extra fast.
Errol was out without a flashlight tonight. Mom was pretty angry at him when he got back; she was in full “you know better than that” mode. He brought a fair whack of outside in with him, too. Nothing you could see, really, except the dirty snow melting out from the treads of his sneakers, but you could feel it push past him before he shut the door, and for the rest of the evening I kept on feeling the coldness of it in corners of the house, like it was checking out the place.
Mom made Errol take a hot bath, poor kid. I remember one time when I went out without a flashlight—it was in autumn, though, not winter. I got carried away, decided I’d never come back in again, but mom sent Errol out—with a flashlight—to bring me back. Mom made me take a hot bath, that night, just like she’s making Errol tonight. Everything wild and nightlike leached right out of me and dissolved in that hot water. I wasn’t even sorry, by the time the bath was over—I felt all warm and pleasant and ready to curl up in bed. I only missed the wildness later. Poor Errol; it’ll be the same with him, I’m sure.
There’s a house up the street that the outsiders got into. At least, that’s what people say. That’s what Mom says when she gets on our case for not making sure the door is shut tight when we come in. “You want our house to end up like Number 116? You want to sleep in leaves and old newspapers and snow?”
There is a hole in an upper window in Number 116, and the front door is missing a hinge. In the daytime we’ve dared each other to go in there. We’ve gone in together. Mom’s right. All the corners are filled with leaves and old newspapers, and snow does drift in, when it’s winter. In one of the closets is a huge stash of acorns. Something ate something else in what was once the living room—there are tiny bones in there. There are bats in the attic and abandoned sparrows’ nests in the light fixtures in the kitchen. Spiders have hung long, trailing curtains across the bare windows and gray tapestries across the walls.
I wonder what happened first—did the outsiders get in, and then the people who lived there abandoned it, or did the people leave, and then the outsiders came? If the outsiders were hoping to be inside, they must have been disappointed. They just turned the inside into more outside.
It’s like when I see Megan from up the street walking her dog in the evening. She always has a flashlight, and she always has her iPod on. Her dog’s tugging at the leash—you can see he’s crazy-wild with being outside—but Megan’s all wrapped up in a bubble of inside. She’s brought the inside with her.
Maybe that’s how it is with the outsiders—they bring the outside with them. Maybe that’s what an outsider is, someone who can never come in. But they still watch us from the dark on the other side of the window.
And me, if I get the chance, when I go out at night I turn off my flashlight and I run-like-flying, arms out airplane-style, half hoping one of them will catch hold of the hands I’m offering.