Without a glance backwards, she stormed up the porch steps. The sounds of a gunning engine and churning gravel followed her into the house. Closing the door behind her, she muttered to the dark, “Some best friend. After eight years, you’d think Jack would know me.”
Too disgruntled to stop and turn on any lights, Stevie took the stairs two at a time. On the upper floor, she stormed down the hallway, pitched her purse into the bedroom, and stomped to the bathroom. She felt for the handle of the linen closet, grabbed a washcloth, and flung it into the basin. Turning on the hot water spigot, she wanted nothing more than to wash the makeup off her face and that stupid argument out of her mind.
At the sound of Tonka barking, she wrenched the faucet handle hard enough for metal to screech on metal. “What—really, Mom? Tonka’s still outside?”
When no response came, Stevie poked her head out the bathroom door. “Mom?”
Wait a sec… The lights are off. Mom’s not home?
She went down the hall, opened her mother’s bedroom door, and turned on the light. It was empty. A quick walk to the window to glance at the driveway revealed the vacant space where her mom’s SUV should be parked. I can’t believe I was so mad I didn’t notice.
She walked out of the room and absently flicked off the light. Her yellow lab was still outside and her mother nowhere to be found. The darkness of the house closed in around her.
Creeping back down the hall, she peered in to her room, and was relieved at the lack of movement and unfamiliar shapes. She tiptoed to the top of the stairs and looked down to blackness.
Tonka’s barking stopped. Stevie strained to hear anything, but all was still. An uneasy feeling washed over her.
Spring nights usually brought the sounds of crickets, birds, and an occasional coyote howl, but never silence. In fact, the normal cacophony of nature’s music frightened her “down the hill” friends the first time they stayed overnight. Comfortable in the symphony nature freely provided, Stevie would tease them about being “city kids”.
But this quiet was complete. It created its own strange vibration. There is stillness, and then there is deathly silence. This felt like the second. Compounded by Tonka’s sudden calm, the void was a weight pushing down on her. Stevie had never been claustrophobic, but a sense of being entombed and exposed at the same time unnerved her.
Quietly, she moved down the stairs, avoiding the middle one that creaked, afraid to bring noise into the void. At the landing, she turned right, in the direction of the kitchen. She passed the grandfather clock with its steady, rhythmic ticking, and glanced at the time.
Ten o’clock. Where are you, Mom?
Entering the kitchen, Stevie kept as close to the walls as possible, attempting to blend her five-foot-seven-inch frame with the shadows. Through the open blinds of the sliding glass door, a full moon cast weak light across the floor. Beyond the glass, Tonka’s shape could be seen in the backyard.
Stevie inched across the pine floor. Again, careful to avoid the creaky joints, she positioned herself so that only her head would be visible to the outside.
The yellow lab stood at the base of the nearest cottonwood, front paws clawing at the trunk, attention completely focused on the branches above. Tonka appeared to be attempting to climb the tree.
A mountain lion? That would account for the silence, at least.
Living in the foothills, it was not uncommon for wildlife sightings, even bears or pumas. Stevie searched her memory, but couldn’t remember when the last sighting had been broadcast. She leaned into the glass; hands cupped on either side of her face, and squinted into the night.
A tall figure stood on a thick branch, silhouetted by the moonlight. The way that it balanced on the tree, the easy athletic posture and height—it could only be a man. Tonka resumed her barking and the distraction drew her eyes downward. The lab’s normally yellow fur glowed green. Straining to make out the source of the strange light, she looked again at the man-shape. A gasp escaped her lips and she jumped back.
What the hell?
Steady blue beams radiated from where his eyes should be.
Afraid to open the door, but more afraid for her dog, she reached for the latch. She unlocked it slowly, trying in vain to be quiet, but the lock clicked. The blue beacons turned her direction, and then winked out. Stevie’s breath caught in her throat. She tried to locate the outline of the creature, but saw only the rustling of leaves.
“What was that?” she said to the dark.
Hoping the intruder had been scared away, she cautiously slid the door open, barely wide enough for her head. “Tonka, to me,” she called in a loud whisper. The lab’s head turned. One last look up the tree, and Tonka came bounding across the yard. She leapt onto the deck and pranced into the house, tail wagging as if nothing was amiss.
A quick close of the door, latch of the lock, draw of the blinds, and two shaky steps to the kitchen table, then Stevie collapsed in a chair. Within half a second she was up again, vaulting for the switch to flood the room with light.
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