Sandy raged like a woman driven mad by torment. She screamed and shrieked and banged on the house. He could not relax and neither could she. The volume on the television blared, but Sandy's howl encompassed the sound, made it part of her song.
The lamp on the end table flickered once. Alarmed, he turned toward the woman. She sat on the edge of the sofa, eyes wide in alarm. Her lips moved, but the howling wind drowned her words. "What?" he mouthed. The lights flickered again and then were gone. Not just the lights, but the television, the segmented red display of the digital clock. All light snuffed out in an instant. The image of her drawn face, her pale, eyes wide, froze in his mind as the darkness came down.
Candles! There were candles in the bedroom. "Upstairs," he shouted, his voice a faint murmur in the cacophony. He reached out and found her wrist, then stood and pulled her in the direction of the staircase, groping before him with his free hand. The world was a place of darkness. No dimensions, no definition --a black void inhabited only by the voice of anguished Sandy.
His hand found the wall. Without thinking, he groped for the light switch and flicked it up. Nothing. Behind him, the woman clung to his arm like kelp in a raging sea. His toe stubbed against something --a step. He placed his foot at the top of the step, then turned and pulled her close. He bent his head to her ear and shouted "Upstairs! Light!" She squeezed his arm. He turned away and stepped up.
They began their blind ascent. Several steps into it something poked against his knee --a phantom finger, the nascent manifestation of the demon that howled outside. His lungs filled, preparing his indignant and terrified scream. But the poke came again, softer this time. The dog! he realized. It's only the dog. He dropped his free hand and felt the dog's nose, rough and wet, nuzzling against his palm. He pulled gently on the dog's ear, to reassure, then resumed climbing. He felt the dog staying close against his leg. He's scared, too.
The climb went on for a small eternity. At last he stepped forward and found emptiness instead of a step. They'd reached the landing. She was shouting something into his ear. "...all alone ...have to help her..."
He bent his arm and held it before him as he groped forward. She was behind him. When he found the doorway, he measured out the steps to the bed stand from memory, then reached for and found the drawer and pulled it open. His fingers found the candle stub, then the lighter. He pulled his arm away from her and spun the striker wheel. A sputtering flame birthed frail firmament out of the emptiness. A brief flare as the wick caught. Then the light grew.
The dog was halfway under the bed, hindquarters trembling. She stood near him. Her face was streaked with tears. She gaped at him, as if expecting a word. She pointed to the window which, thank God, he'd thought to board up with plywood the day before. Did she want him to open it? The window? Her mouth moved; she was shouting. He watched her lips move, barely made out the words "...might need help..." and at last he understood. The old woman who lived in the house across the alley... was she still there, huddling alone in the darkness? The storm outside was deafening. He glanced at the boarded window and back at her again. Though he could not hear her, he understood her well enough. His mind formed the words that her lips mimed: "We can't leave her alone."
He thought for a moment. There was a flashlight in the closet, but it was anyone's guess if the batteries held enough juice to light it. He stepped to the closet door and slid it open. The flashlight lay in the top drawer of the dresser among a litter of household baubles. He snatched it up and pushed the switch. The bulb behind the lens emitted a weak yellow light. He turned. She sat on the bed holding the dog close to her, stroking its head. Her eyes clung to him. The candle glowed on the bed stand.
"Stay here," he said. He held his hands out, fingers spread, palms to the floor, indicating she should wait. She nodded.
He turned away from her and left the room. He closed the door behind him. Even as the darkness fell, he flicked on the flashlight to hold it at bay. He paused at the top of the stairs. The old woman lived alone. Who knew if she were still there in that little house across the way? Could he even make it to her if she were?
Never mind. He pointed the beam of light at his feet and hurried down the stairs. As he crossed the darkened living room,, a coldness fell upon him, as if he had walked into a crypt. Everything that he touched with the flashlight beam --the sofa, the television, the curtains beside the dead window --seemed artifacts rendered irrelevant by a change in the world.
He paused. The door stood before him. Sandy's tormented voice swelled beyond it. He pulled the latch, and dropped his hand to the knob. As he turned the knob, he was struck by the certainty that the old woman was dead. A vision of her, lying in her bed, eyes frozen open, staring out at the darkness, flashed before him.
A roar and something pushed the door in. It cracked his forehead; his teeth clenched on his tongue, and he flew backward and away. The flashlight rolled across the floor.
He sat slumped against the wall for a moment, paralyzed by the sound of the wind. Cold rain lashed his face. Beyond the door, blackness, void. He tasted blood. His mind worked slowly. She's dead. It's useless. He wiped the rain out of his eyes, turned and crawled across the floor to retrieve the flashlight.
He crawled back to the doorway, braced himself, and peered out at the night. Nothing.
His mouth was full of blood. Part of his tongue flapped loosely in his mouth. The old woman was dead. The blow to his head had made him dizzy.
Drenched, wounded, dazed, he took a knee. The little house across the alley was a world apart. As was the room upstairs, with the flickering candle and the woman and the dog.
He turned off the flashlight. No man would risk it. Not in this world of darkness, confusion, and lamentation.
Sandy howled, triumphant.