What prompts you on a normal day? What has taken you out of your comfort zone (but you’re still safe)? If you look at your favorite pieces of your writing, was there a specific inspiration that prompted you to write it?
I walk outdoors every day. Some days, it’s a short walk. Other days, I spend hours outside working in the yard, walking in the woods, and taking photos that I hope will be focused enough to upload to iNaturalist. Spending time with nature can inspire me; or, can provide a break to get my brain back into writing mode. While watching birds might give rise to a story idea, or an unusual mushroom might get my mental gears turning, it’s rain and dark of night that inspire my more twisty tales.
I find that a unique component of my writing only comes out with my discomfort. A storm and the power goes out? Thrown into darkness with thunder so loud it frightens the cats… my mind goes places it doesn’t go in the daylight.
The piece below is unfinished. I wrote the first draft of this short story by candlelight during a power outage. Yes, thunder boomed and the rain was so loud I could hear it hitting the second-floor roof from the first floor. To pass the time, I used the darkness as a writing prompt. I let myself imagine what might be hiding in the dark, and drafted the short story below.
I believe it to be unfinished, because each time that I’ve edited it has been during daylight. In a way, I’ve ruined it. I would call it stilted. Until the next house-shaking, power-cutting storm comes through, I cannot properly edit the words. To properly shape the happenings, even to clean up the language, I believe that my discomfort must return. While I’ve cut this tale from my upcoming short story collection (unless it storms before then), here it is for your consideration. Sorry in advance for the tameness… the chills have gone.
A Trick of the Light
The power flickered and went out. The snuffing of the light from the room caused Olive’s heart to jump in her chest. It wasn’t often that a storm knocked out the power. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up, and her hands began to sweat.
She blinked repeatedly; it was an automatic response and didn’t change her situation. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, picking up little.
Not only was it late, but with the storm-darkened sky only lightening flashes lit the living room around her. Lightening flashed and she peered around as much as she could in that split-second’s worth of light.
No electricity meant no air conditioning, no ceiling fan. With the house closed up, there was no breeze. She started to perspire in the still air. The prickling of fear increased — as it had for humans-in-darkness going back to the beginning of time.
Olive shook her head and attempted to push the fear aside. It’s just a storm. The power would be on soon. I was safely locked in the house when the lights were on, and that hasn’t changed.
Her cell phone binged with a text message and a small spray of light appeared on the table in front of her. She picked up the phone and squinted to read the text message, her eyes blinking a little at the glow. It was from the power company, telling her that there was an outage. Duh, she thought.
The phone binged again and a second message continued with the announcement that the estimated restoration time was three hours from now. Olive resigned herself to the darkness she’d need to live with for the coming hours. Might as well settle in, she thought. She pulled her cardigan tightly around her, letting her long hair cover her neck in an itchy yet warming way. Her lips pouted, unseen, as her eyes, on the verge of tears, peered at the now-encroaching shadows. The space she took up on the couch cushion felt smaller and smaller, darkness squeezing all around her.
Unsettled, she rose from the couch and inched forward through the darkness. Her first stop was the laundry room for a flashlight. She shuffled back to the living room, set the flashlight down on the table, and shuffled half-way to the kitchen before realizing that she should be using the light. She smacked herself on the forehead, feeling stupid.
Slowly returning to the living room, she felt around until her fingers bumped into the flashlight. She gripped it, fumbled to switch it on, and — more quickly this time — made her way to the kitchen.
Shining the light into the cabinet under the sink, she spotted the emergency candles. Juggling the light, candles, and a candle holders, she set each item down on the kitchen counter.
With the matches in her pocket — always there for lighting smokes — she lit the candles and placed them around the house: one in the kitchen, another in the living room, and one in each of the two bathrooms.
Returning to the living room by candle and flashlight — plus a few lightening flashes — Olive sat down on the couch, snug with her back against the couch arm, the wall behind her. Switching off the flashlight, she tossed it onto the living room couch so it would be close-at-hand if needed again.
She picked up her cell phone. Luckily, the phone had been charging; she knew she would have enough battery for a long while. As an afterthought, she turned down the phone’s brightness to further conserve power. At least she could use it during the power outage. The glow from its screen pushed back the dark a little, too.
She scanned the weather reports, which showed that the storm was moving slowly across the area. Reading the same weather predictions on every local news website, she moved on to Facebook. She got bored quickly, then moved on to playing games — avoiding looking at the time display. Time was dragging on enough without her watching it tick by at a snail’s pace.
Exactly an hour after the storm had begun, the rain — which had been slowing — stopped completely. No more lightening left her in the midst of shadows. It was not utter darkness, thankfully, with the candles flickering. Around their stuttering patches of light, shadows wavered and crept.
She sat still, listening. Aside from dripping noises outside, the remnants of rain leaving the roof, she heard the creaking of the house, and thunder in the distance.
Not knowing what else to do, she looked around the room, down the hallway, into the kitchen. She didn’t look too hard, afraid she might see something looking back. This was her nerves, she knew, and an illogical thought. After a time, she relaxed, becoming more accustomed to the patterns of shimmering light. Her eyelids grew heavy.
Then, a light flickered in the kitchen. It didn’t fit the pattern of flickers that she’d been hazily observing. The flame appeared to have grown in brightness.
Olive stood and walked tentatively toward the kitchen, staring at the strangely behaving candle. As she reached it, the candle’s flame puffed and almost went out. She jumped back.
The flame danced briefly before returning to its normal flickering. My breathing must have disturbed it, she thought. She slowed her breath, turned her head to breathe away from it, and watched the candle suspiciously in side-eye.
Twice more the candle puffed, almost went out, and returned to normal. She exhaled a gust toward it, more from curiosity than a wish to blow it out. The flame didn’t move, and the hairs on her neck stood tall. Goosebumps covered her arms.
More than she felt afraid, though, she was puzzled. She backed out of the room and returned to the couch. She sat down and leaned back against the cushion, the wall at her back and the kitchen in her sights. This time, she didn’t relax. Her eyes scanned the living room around her, then returned to the kitchen candle. The prickle of fear continued on her neck.
Moving slowly, Olive picked up the flashlight, switched it on, and started pointing it at shadows, sending them fleeing. The next few minutes she wielded the flashlight like a sword in all directions, ending with it pointing into the kitchen.
She felt fingers on her side and quickly put her hand on her ribs, covering the spot where she had felt like she’d been touched. Nothing there, of course. She was home alone. She rubbed the spot with her palm trying to wipe away that sensation. Probably my t-shirt just twisted, and it put pressure on my side, she told herself, grasping at logic as her palms began to sweat. She wiped them against her shirt.
The light in the kitchen grew momentarily bright again, then grew much brighter. Shadows disappeared from around the cupboards and counter corners. She stood up without thinking and stared into the kitchen, flashlight aimed into the bright room, its beam lost.
She saw movement, then the candle faded to its normal little flicker, then went out. She swung the flashlight and stabbed its beam around the kitchen. Oddly, she realized that she was making a mental note to buy more emergency candles. That was no help now!
She felt something brush against her side again. “Damn it,” she said aloud as she covered her side with her hand and rubbed away the touch again. She heard the tremor in her own voice and repeated more firmly, “Damn it!”
Olive’s flashlight dimmed, then went out. She slapped it against the palm of her hand a few times, as if trying to jiggle more light out of it. No luck. She tried to remember if she had more batteries of the right size, and where they might be, as the candle on the kitchen counter snuffed out.
All the house lights suddenly flashed on. The refrigerator and other appliances beeped. The power was on! She silently thanked the power crews for banishing the darkness.
As she sighed in relief, she grasped that there was a figure standing in the kitchen. The semi-clear form of a man stood facing her, just a few steps away. Her heart leapt.
Then, like smoke in the wind, the figure drifted apart. She watched in horror as its pieces disappeared, one after another, into the tiny bits of shadow remaining in the room’s corners. There was only the bright light of the kitchen where it — whatever it was — had been.
How long it had been hiding in the corners, she didn’t want to know. She made a note to buy a generator, to never let the darkness spread through the house again.
From that night on, Olive left every house light on, inside and out, all day and night. She didn’t want the corners’ occupant coming for her in the dark.