And when she awoke, the darkness was so complete she could not be sure her eyes were open—or, if even, she was awake. The whispering of the rain at the window—groan of joist and beam in the wind—could just as well have been a dream. The room was cold.
She slipped carefully out of bed and with cautious, measured steps—feet sliding along the floor, hands stretched in the darkness—crept toward the door. The plaster wall was cool and felt damp in the clammy air. She slid her fingertips lightly over its surface, trying to find the door-jamb. Her hand slid to the handle. The hallway, at first was as dark as the room—as not seeing—but as she stood, small and unsure, listening to her heartbeat, her breathing, her eyes adjusted to a faint light originating from the first floor and making its way, dimly—mist-like, through the hall and up the stairs, not quite showing the pictures on the wall.
Alice swung her feet slowly over the edge of the bed. They were bare and the wood floor was cold. The room was dark. There was a faint light from the window. The moon—somewhere she couldn’t see. The sky looked dark, but the tops and branches of trees at the edge of the lawn were darker against it. She could not see the shapes of things in the room. Could not see the door.
Two lightning bugs had gotten into the room. She had thought at first, when she woke and laid in bed before she worked up the courage to get up, that there was only one. She watched it—them—giving off flashes of pale green light briefly in the dark and trying to guess where it might be when it glowed again. It didn’t, for a while, make sense to her, until they lit up at once. Their presence was reassuring.
She walked cautiously to the door, hands raised in front of her. She turned the handle and in the same movement leaned into it to open it, but it did not yield and her head lightly rapped against the wood. She tried it again. She tried shaking—pulling it; throwing her shoulder against it. It did not open. She slid to the floor and sat, her back against the door and tried to keep her ragged breathing from becoming sobs.
The child. The child would not stop crying.
Alice stood on the landing, her heart rattling excitedly, halfway down the stairs. Her nightgown seemed almost to glow in the weak pre-dawn haze. She heard the scurry of mice from the ceiling above her. Nesting in the attic. The ceiling was like a drum-head; the room like a drum. The sound made her feel powerless. She stole down the remaining stairs it’s nothing it’s nothing it’s nothing I’m just being foolish—exhaled—tried to blow away the dread that gripped her. I’ve got to get some sleep.
In the kitchen: a tea cup on the counter; the drip of the faucet.
She woke in darkness to a voice. She had been dreaming—was still half in dream. The voice—she had brought it with her, but for a few moments, she was sure she had heard it in her room—that it had woken her—that, only a moment ago, she had been talking to someone but it’s just a dream there’s no one here I only dreamed it her ears strained in the darkness. The only sound she heard was the faint tap—soft and intermittent—of a lightning bug at the windowpane. She could not even hear her own uneven breathing as she struggled to calm herself.
The floorboards were cold against her feet as she inched her way through the blackness to the wall and door. She turned the handle and stepped into the hallway. The hall was just as dark as her room had been. She closed her eyes and counted to three and opened them again to find no difference. Closed, open, the darkness was complete.
Her fingers brushing against the wall like cat’s whiskers, she slowly began descending the stairs. She paused on the landing, thoughts rattling excitedly it’s nothing it’s nothing I was only dreaming. I can get a few hours’ rest after I see. There was no light from the windows. No light from below. She moved off the landing, fingers gliding along the wall when she began to sense she should be near the bottom. Her steps became exaggeratedly cautious as she anticipated an end to the stairs that didn’t come. There were seven steps from the landing, but she had not been counting. She kept walking slowly down, down into the still darkness.
Ethan Tinkler teaches Creative Writing and English at Atlantic City High School in New Jersey. A graduate of Fairleigh Dickenson’s MFA program in Creative Writing, he was a reader for The Literary Review for three years. Some of his work has appeared in RavensPerch, Rosebud, Spittoon, Storyteller, U.S. 1 Worksheets, Reverb, White Pelican Review, and Main Channel Voices. Recently, a story published in Gingerbread House was nominated for both a Best of the Net award and a Pushcart prize.