Prologue:

Irrational. Absolutely irrational, I thought to myself as I stood facing the back door, flashlight in my left hand and sack of garbage from the party in my right. The dumpster wasn't far away. It was only across my backyard and six feet down the alley towards my neighbor's house; it was maybe a hundred steps, round trip. I shouldn't be so afraid to take out the trash.

But it's Dark outside.

I had a flashlight, and the porch light would be on, though its light was only anemic. It would only light up the patio and the first third of my backyard. Still, it was something.

But it's Dark outside.

So? I was eighteen, an adult. I shouldn't be so edgy about it. Besides, who could hurt me here? I lived in Branching, Texas, a small town with a population of less than two thousand. It wasn't like I was in downtown Dallas or something.

But it's Dark outside.

I'm a coward, scared of the dark just like I was when I was eight years old. I stood there facing the door for another minute. Then I sighed, turned the knob, and stepped out onto the patio. After taking five quick strides to the other side, I opened the gate, flicked on my flashlight, and walked into the backyard. I was engulfed by Darkness.

Chapter 1: Birthday

I grinned as the doorbell rang, signaling the arrival of the first guests to the party. I yanked open the screen door and greeted my friend Angela and her boyfriend Ben with a wide smile.

"Hey, guys!"

"Hey, Bella!" They replied in unison. They looked at each other and giggled. "Happy eighteenth!" Angela congratulated me.

"Yeah," Ben continued, "You're the first one of us to become an official adult. How's it feel, old-timer?"

I laughed, "Feels great." I directed them to the food, and Angela began munching on carrots from the veggie tray as Ben started snarfing cookies. The doorbell rang again.

"Hey, Bella!" Mike was next. Of our group, he was probably my least favorite. He was constantly trying to flirt with me, though I had repeatedly turned him down. He took the opportunity to give me a hug, which lasted longer than necessary. I shrugged him off, suggesting that he join Angela and Ben at the snack table. Mike agreed and helped himself to some Dr. Pepper.

The rest of my group of friends followed, and when everyone had arrived, my mom announced, "All right everyone! Who wants to play Pin the Tail on the Donkey?" They all stared at her. Mike snickered, "What are we? Six?" Mom pretended to be brokenhearted at our lack of party spirit, but she broke down in giggles when she couldn't stand it any longer. Renée was such a goober sometimes. "Fine, fine! I was just kidding. Bella, do you want to open presents or watch the movie first?"

"Presents," I replied. Better to get them over with sooner. I always felt guilty when people spent money on me. My friends each pulled out their gifts, and I decided to go with Ben's first. It was a new computer game, one that I vaguely remember mentioning at the lunch table. Next came Jessica's. She gave me a box set of three Jane Austen novels, knowing I had wanted to add to my collection of classics. I smiled as I unwrapped Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Pride and Prejudice. I thanked Jess and took the box from Lauren's hands; it was obviously a DVD. I undid the wrapper and gave a delighted squeal when I saw the cover for The Princess Bride. Tyler handed me his next, and I could tell it was a CD. Sliding the paper off the case, I gave him a puzzled look. "Muse? Who are they?"

"I think you'll like them," was his only reply. I shrugged and reached for Mike's gift. It was a small box, and I scowled when I saw the Marlboro logo beneath the paper.

"Cute, Mike. Real cute," I snarled. My friends knew I had never touched a cigarette and never would.

"Well, I thought, since you were old enough…" He suggested. I rose to throw the cigarettes in the trash when Mike stopped me. "No! You have to look inside!" Though I was still annoyed by his stupid stunt, I obliged. Inside the box I saw a $20 iTunes giftcard, and no cigarettes. I decided Mike wasn't totally worthless as I chunked the box in the trash and pocketed the card.

I saved Angela's for last, since she was my best friend. Hers was a simple cardboard box in the shape of a star, but when I opened it, I gasped. Glittering inside was a gorgeous hand-made necklace with the most intricate beading I had ever seen.

"Thanks so much, Angela. You're the best," I said, hugging her. She knew me so well; she didn't spend any money on me, other than buying beads that she would have used sometime anyway. It was times like these that I truly and deep down appreciated our friendship.

-X-X-

After everyone left, Mom and I began cleaning up. We cleaned up the table and put the leftover snacks away in the fridge. After ten minutes of straightening-up the living room and kitchen, Mom handed me a thirteen-gallon garbage sack, loaded with paper plates, cups, napkins, and coke bottles. "Take this out to the dumpster," she told me.

"Mom! Can't I please wait until tomorrow?"

"No, dear, you'll forget."

"But, Mom it's…" dark outside, I wanted to say.

"Bella. Go. Now."

"Fine," I mumbled. I slipped on my tennis shoes and yanked the flashlight out of a cabinet, glancing out the window as I did. I gave an internal groan. It was 11:00 at night in March. I was happy that it was mild outside; unlike the northern states, Texas wasn't in the middle of a cold spell. Warm as it may have seemed, though, it was still pitch black outside.

I got that queasy feeling in my stomach as I stood facing the back door. Nothing will happen. Nothing will happen. Nothing will…

My heart was hammering at the thought of not being able to see out there. I would only be exposed for a minute, but still…

It's Dark outside.

With my nerves trembling like live wires, I opened the back door.