The house sat empty at the top of the hill. Its security lights were a beacon in the night, like a lighthouse alone in the mist, warning ships away from the kiss of sharp shores. The closest neighbor was further away than a man could throw a rock, a fact that didn't appear to be a coincidence.
Inside its smooth walls, gray hardwood spread out across an expansive, single floor. The leather furniture decorating the space looked like someone’s idea of a futuristic catcher’s mitt and felt half as cozy, chosen, as was the case for much of the house, for color more than comfort. Doubly so for the tank of tropical fish that shimmered against the far accent wall. Its forty-odd gallons of water sparkled in the dark, cared for by a professional who came out to the house on alternating Tuesdays.
Overhead spotlights clicked to life. They were triggered by the abrupt opening of the heavy front door. A burst of cool air was followed into the house by Douglas, the owner. He shut the door just as quickly as it had swung open, his gray, unblinking eyes flecked with bits of blue.
Three hard clacks and the door was locked. Four beeps and the alarm system was activated.
In the kitchen, Douglas stood at the refrigerator and poured himself a glass of water, drinking it down in one gulp, then did the same with a scotch. He was thirsty and had been for some time. His nerves were on fire and needed extinguishing. After another scotch, this one over ice, he drew the blinds and ran the shower until the mirror couldn't be seen. Then he undressed and stepped in.
Under the hot water, Douglas kneaded his sore neck like a baker working a tough batch of dough. Three days now it had been stiff, three days of limited movement, of waking in the mornings with a cry. The rub helped, but he knew within twenty minutes of getting out of the shower his neck would be back to the way it had been before. A masseuse was in order, he thought to himself, one of those cute girls he always passed by at the gym. The thought alone was enough to relax him.
The little hairs on the back of his neck suddenly stood up. He felt the unmistakable presence of a man standing just behind him. He rubbed the water from his eyes to catch the intruder in the act, ready to pounce on him in a commotion of fists. But he was alone in the steamy shower, and though the feeling faded the longer he kept his eyes open, Douglas swore he could feel subtle changes in the direction of the air- shifts so slight they didn't move the shower curtain.
Almost like breathing, yet soundless, and cold.
Ready for bed, Douglas turned off all the lights in the house. As he went from room to room he checked the windows to make sure they were locked properly, noting with some comfort the wires of the house's alarm system. He had settled into a decent state after two large scotches and a hot shower, and he looked forward to a good night's sleep for a change. He crept into the bedroom, slipped between the cool covers and let his eyes close of their own accord.
The house was quiet. Secure. A few odd moments in the shower notwithstanding, Douglas felt the closest to content he could expect. Already the silken kiss of sleep was swallowing him down, like sinking into the warm sap of a thousand, billowing trees.
“Tastes like salt.”
A whisper in his ear. He jolted awake at the man's voice, with it the sensation of breath on his face. A moment later came the loud bang of something hitting his bedroom window from the outside, first the impact, then the shimmy of glass dancing in its frame. It sounded like a fist had pounded at the window. He threw the covers off and jumped out of bed, looked around the room for whoever had whispered to him. Once he was sure he was alone, he yanked the curtains open.
No one. Just his front yard, a hill which sloped down to the empty street, all of it blanketed in yellow-white moonlight. Douglas leaned in close to look under the window. Possibly the trespasser had ducked down and was hiding against the house, tucked in behind the azaleas.
A black bird twitched in the grass. Its wings flapped in erratic rhythms and its legs were two, hardened sticks. Douglas looked for and found a sign that the bird had hit his window- an impression of the animal's shape had been left behind, a fine silhouette rendered in dust, the body at the center and the two feathery wings spread outward. The bird continued to twitch in the grass until the movements slowed, its solid, black eyes finally drained of sight, left to stare unfocused into the sky.
Douglas watched the bird die. Then he returned to bed.