Achilles’ Heel

by Lisa M. Griffiths

Achilles’ Heel

by Lisa Griffiths

Achilles slept with a nightlight. He was deeply afraid of the dark; he always had been. It started with night terrors he began having at five years old. His weary parents took turns consoling him. His dad suggested a nightlight in the hope that it might help.

Either the nightlight helped, or Achilles grew out of the night terrors. As he grew older he would try to ween himself from the use of the light. It didn’t work. Each night he’d wake up to a darkened room, his heart thundered, he felt panic, and broke out in a sweat. When the nightlight was secured in the socket, Achilles felt calm and slept soundly. I’ll grow out of this someday, but I’m just not ready yet, he told himself. He was now thirteen years old.


“Hey, Killjoy, we meeting up at your house Saturday?” The speaker was Dylan Hennessey, Achilles’ good friend. He liked making up nicknames for Achilles, changing them every two or three months.

“Yeah, my mom says it’s cool. Tell Dave and Spencer to come around three. And don’t forget to bring God of War.”

Since Achilles was an only child, his mom encouraged him to have friends over often. He had yet to have a sleepover or spend the night at someone else’s house; he didn’t trust himself to avoid a panic without the nightlight. And he would have rather died than admit that he still needed to sleep with one.

But as scared as he was of the dark, he was somewhat socially confident at school. He excelled at math and was everyone’s go-to for homework or test prep. He wouldn’t say no to anyone who asked for his help; this in turn made him very likable. It was also a great way to talk to girls.

Some were shy about asking him for help while others were quite bold. The latter group usually just wanted to copy his homework outright; with flirting expertise, they tended to succeed.

A month into the school year, Achilles found himself helping almost half his geometry class. A quiet girl with auburn hair approached him one day after the bell rang at the end of the period.

“Hi,” she said while blocking his path to the hallway. “I’m Apolline. I hear you can help with homework.”

“Uh, hi, yeah, I can.” He noticed that she was blushing; he felt the heat in his own cheeks too.

“Can you meet me in the library at lunch? I understand most of it, except I get stuck sometimes.”

Achilles felt like he was staring too hard at her and forced himself to shift his gaze. “Yeah, okay.”

Her face lit up. “Thanks,” she said and touched his arm. “See you later.” She turned and walked away.

With his mouth surprisingly dry, Achilles swallowed hard and touched the spot on his arm where Apolline had made contact. He smiled.


The tutorial session at lunch was going well. Achilles helped her with polynomials while sneaking bites of his sandwich. He noticed that she really didn’t need his help too much; she seemed to catch on quickly. He wondered just how much tutoring she actually needed. He wrestled with the urge to make small talk.

She was finishing up a problem, looked up, and said, “I get this. You can explain it so much better than Ms. Mahaffey.”

“That’s good. Teachers usually make all stuff more confusing.”

There was an eternity of awkward silence as Achilles couldn’t think of anything to say— anything that wouldn’t make him sound like a dweeb.

They finished with five minutes left on their lunch break. Apolline stood up, shoving her work into her backpack. “Thanks, Achilles. If you ever need help with writing essays, you can ask me.”

“Okay, sure. Well, see you.”

She made to leave but spun around. “Hey, don’t you live off Grand View?”

“Uh, yeah. I’m on Athens Drive.”

“Well maybe I’ll see you. I like to walk my dog up that way.” Her smile radiated.

It was all Achilles could see for the rest of the school day.

He sat in a daze on the school bus for the ride home. Even Dylan, who was usually clueless to anyone else’s mood, commented.

“Are you sick or something?” he asked as the bus bounced along.

Achilles did his best to appear fine. “No, I’m okay. Just a little tired.”

“Well, go to sleep early tonight, ‘cause you better be ready to beat Dave and Spencer on the PS4.”

“I’ll be ready for that,” Achilles said and laughed.

“There you go. Can’t have you really being a killjoy.”


When he got home, Achilles let himself in the house, threw his backpack on the floor, grabbed his skateboard, and went outside. He rode up and down the streets around his house trying his best not to look like he was hoping to see someone. He needn’t have tried; there was no sign of Apolline.

When he was getting ready for bed later, he went to the top dresser drawer and pulled out the nightlight. He stared at it, wondering why something so small could have such an effect on his well-being. Maybe I could skip using it tonight, he thought. But what if I wake up in the middle of the night? What if I can’t breathe? He decided that he still wasn’t ready.

Achilles’ friends began showing up at his house Saturday afternoon. They all arrived by skateboard and were ready to fill up on snacks and play video games.

With a mouth full of food, Dave mumbled, “Good popcorn.”

“My mom puts soy sauce or something on it.”

After an hour straight of playing, the boys needed a bathroom break. They were also looking for more snacks.

Achilles had an idea. “Hey, why don’t we skate for a little before we start playing again?”

“Can we use the ramp?” asked Spencer.

“Yeah, we just have to get it from the garage.”

They set up the wooden skateboard ramp at the end of the cul-du-sac. They took turns jumping and critiquing each other’s tricks. Occasionally, Achilles rode around the corner. He hid his disappointment as the sun slid down further in the sky.

“Killjoy, let’s finish the game,” called Dylan.

Achilles wistfully tore his eyes away from the other street. “Yeah, okay.” He was just about to head back to the group when he heard scampering and footfalls.

Apolline was running behind a small rag mop. The dog was pulling hard on the leash. “Phoebe, stop!” They both skidded to a halt beside Achilles.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hi,” she said, still trying to reign in the small dog. “I was just out with Phoebe. There are so many smells, she gets kind of crazy.”

“I can see that.”

The sound of wheels on asphalt brought Achilles back to earth. He turned around to see his friends.

Dave flipped his hair and said, “Hey, what’s up?” to Apolline.

“Hi,” she said.

Spencer was openly gawking, while Dylan smiled at her.

“You live around here?” he asked.

Achilles secretly wanted to kick him.

“Yeah, I live off of Hyperion.”

“That’s kind of a long way from here,” said Dave. “You don’t have problems with the coyotes with that little dog?”

“Uh, I think I can make it back before it gets too dark.”

Achilles cleared his throat, perhaps a bit too loudly. “I can…we can go with you. You know, just in case.”

“What about the game?” Spencer had finally found his voice.

“Oh,” said Apolline, “I’m sorry. No, that’s okay. I can just call my dad to pick me up.”

At that moment, Phoebe caught a strong scent and bolted, slipping out of her collar, and headed toward the rain gutter.

“Phoebe, no! Come here!” Apolline took off after the dog.

Achilles looked at his friends, turned, and followed her. They slowly joined him.

Phoebe stopped at the gutter opening, sniffing and barking. She stuck her head through the grate. Her barks echoed off the sewer walls. As Apolline closed in, with Achilles right behind her, Phoebe slipped and fell in.

Apolline’s scream was gut-wrenching. She dropped to her stomach and stretched out a hand. “Phoebe, come on.”

Achilles looked at the grate covering the opening; it wasn’t big enough for any of them to squeeze through. The others had caught up.

“What happened?” asked Dylan.

Apolline was on the verge of tears. Achilles felt horrible.

“What if we got a rope,” said Dave. “Make a loop.”

“How are we going to get it around the dog?” asked Dylan.

Achilles knew it wouldn’t work. Phoebe was now scared and agitated, her barks giving way to yelps. An idea came to him.

“The wash,” he said. “The tunnel in the wash goes right to this gutter I think.”

A concrete wash ran behind some of the houses in the neighborhood. It would be easy enough to climb a fence and walk the wash. Kids did it all the time.

“Yeah, if it’s the right tunnel, I guess,” said Dylan.

They all looked at each other as if waiting for a volunteer. Achilles was thinking of the cramped, dark space. He shuddered. “Uh, I’ll go,” he said.

“I’ll go with you,” said Apolline.

“No, you should stay here and keep talking to Phoebe. We don’t want her going down any farther.”

“Oh, I’ll go with you,” said Dave. “I’ve never been in the tunnels.”

“Let’s go,” said Achilles.

He and Dave ran around the corner, jumped over some small boulders in someone’s yard, and climbed over a chain-link fence. At the bottom of the fence was a wall with an eight-foot drop to the wash floor. The stone on the wall was unfinished, not smooth, and had small, jagged bumps that they used to hold onto until they could jump down.

Luckily, it wasn’t rainy season, and the wash only had a mossy trickle of water going down the middle.

“This way,” said Achilles.

They ran another fifty feet before they came to a tunnel opening. The evening light only penetrated about six feet into the tunnel.

“We should’ve brought a flashlight,” said Dave.

Achilles was thinking the same thing. He took a purposeful deep breath. “It won’t be that bad.” He hoped it wouldn’t be that bad.

He stepped in first, Dave behind him. It took several minutes for their eyes to adjust. After ten feet the tunnel narrowed, which meant they had to walk hunched over. The temperature dropped, the darkness consuming them, their breathing amplified.

“I hope there aren’t any spiders in here. Or rats,” said Dave.

Achilles was aware of his breath quickening. He was imagining much more than spiders or rats: headless corpses, zombies, alligators, Gollum. He opened his eyes wider, trying to find light that wasn’t there. He could hear his heart beating in his throat, in his head. His pace slowed as he felt the beginnings of panic. I don’t think I can do this, he thought. But the image of Apolline looking distraught was pushing him. How could he abandon her now?

The tunnel began to bend to the left. Achilles stopped, and Dave bumped into him. “I think I can hear barking. We’re almost there!” His voice bounced off the walls, sounding tinny.

At last they came to the metal rungs of the ladder that went up to the gutter. It was a far reach.

“Dave, give me a push up.”

With his hands cupped, Dave lifted Achilles enough to start up the ladder. It took an eternal five minutes for him to make it to the top. He popped his head through and said, “Hello?”

There were cheers and some mad barking. Phoebe rushed at him as he pulled himself into the gutter.

“Oh, my god, you did it!” said Apolline.

Achilles couldn’t help but smile. He picked up a now whining Phoebe and held her up toward the grate. Apolline, with Dylan’s help, was able to reach the dog and carefully pull her back through the opening.

“Hey, hurry up!” came Dave’s voice. “I don’t like it down here.”

“I’m coming,” said Achilles. “See you guys in a minute.”


As Achilles got ready for bed later, he reflected on the afternoon’s events. Saving Phoebe seemed almost comical; the boys all had a good laugh about it as they finished up the game— only after Achilles and Dave washed up. The way Apolline kept thanking both Dave and him, but staring at him the whole time, replayed over in Achilles’ mind. She had waved from her dad’s car with a smile that made his face warm again.

All those things were very fulfilling, but there was something even more profound to Achilles: he was able to get through the dark without a light. It wasn’t an easy thing, but he did it.

As he opened the dresser drawer, intending to grab the night-light, he found himself closing it. Maybe I’m ready now, he thought.

He got into bed, turned off the bedside lamp, and lied down. He turned over onto his back, eyes open, staring into the darkness. But it wasn’t all dark; there was a light, and she had the most radiant smile.

If you want to download the pdf of this story, click here.

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