It is dark, intensely so. With their lights off, the houses on the right are nothing more than large, geometric shadows. Down below, on the left, the stream murmurs, whispers, shifts over the rocks- ceaseless white noise. The moon is smothered by clouds, and the wet, rain-washed road before me glistens dimly in its weak gleam. Leaves are scattered in my path, green and brown, damp and leathery, like a frog’s skin. My flashlight casts a grey-white antiseptic halo on the road. Everything beyond that circle of light disappears.
I walk down this deserted street barefoot, in my nightclothes, a white sheet wrapped around my shoulders.
I’m scared. My skin prickles and jumps; something, somewhere in the wet, clogged cotton wool of my mind, tells me that this is unusual. I live on this street, and I do not usually feel afraid outdoors, not even on a cloudy, moonless night. All the night sounds- crickets chirping, leaves rustling, the odd hiss from the bushes- are expected and familiar. There are no rattling windows, creaking doors or bedposts to collide with. Outside, there are less sharp corners and oddly shaped shadows, and I feel safe.
But I feel afraid now. Afraid that somebody, anybody, will materialize out of the dark and walk into me – me in my nightclothes, wrapped in a sheet.
I gasp quietly, and my feet freeze, my sore, bare heels smarting. One of the shiny leaves slithers and glides into the grass fringing the road. I watch it disappear, then walk on.
The gate to my house finally appears out of the grey-black gloom. It is bolted from outside. I slide the bolt noiselessly. The spaces between my toes feel gritty as I step into the garage.
For a few seconds I can’t find my feet and the world is aflame as the fluorescent sun glares off my glasses. My vision returns to find me peeking between the bars of the garden gate. There is a river in the garden, and a man swimming in it, his arms breaking the water rhythmically as he slides against the current. I shudder at the grotesque bulkiness of his muscular shoulders.
My feet slip and slide over the slick marble as I mount the steps to the house. The cat slips in from between my legs as I open the front door to go inside. It whizzes about, a brown blur. I bolt after it, flying up and down staircases, taking the steps two at a time. I finally catch it, burying my fingers in its fur, and carry it towards the back door.
Approaching the kitchen, I glance down at the furry ball I carry. A young girl, at least five years old, but frail and angular, rests in my arms instead.
She reaches up with a small, white hand. A cold, horrified quiver chills my veins as she runs a thin finger along my jaw line. Her voice is soft, and oddly clear.
“You look different from this close.”
I wake up.