Shay stood in her doorway, chest heaving. She eyed the shadowed living room. Her skin prickled, itchy and hot.
She had raced halfway up the hill from the mailbox. The house was quieter than she’d expected. Fading daylight cutting through blinds made a stark, striped pattern on the hardwood floor.
A tickle rushed along her arms.
Her car’s ticking motor sounds filtered through the walls as the old machine cooled in its spot in the garage. Slowly, she realized Ken wasn’t home.
She’d imagined his surprise – she rarely left work so early. She’d planned to rush in, throw her arms around him, laughing in some absurd sense of freedom like kids sneaking out of class.
Breaths steadying and sweat cooling, loneliness crept in.
The air was too still. Her chest tensed at the soundless space. The lightless corners congealed into strange shapes.
Shay broke suddenly into motion. Ghosts had no chance against a strong hum. She yanked the curtains open, switched on lights, and filled the emptiness with music, her iPod two notches too loud in its iHome dock.
Friday, she sighed, intent on jettisoning her nervousness.
She let momentum carry her. The routine of cleaning required no thought. Her body danced through its motions while her mind wandered in fantasy. Ken stepped through her misted, imagined door, grinning. Everything he felt for her was vivid in the eagerness of his eyes. Wordless, they tangled, too warm for clothes. Seamlessly, they were naked. They tumbled, exploring the vastness of the floor, perfectly impassioned. The sound of his desire grew so loud it filled her body and drowned out the iPod.
Her fantasy dwindled. She let the heat of it simmer in the back of her head. Sweat trickled down her neck and she’d had enough. Floors were swept, counters were wiped. Sinks were cleaned and pictures were dusted.
Too early, she decided. She had devoured the miles to get home. Now, she felt foolish for expecting him to have left work early, too. It was just as likely he’d be late.
Shay slunk into their office. The small space suggested intimacy, chairs back to back and nearly touching. With a hopeful afterthought, she texted him three words and a smiley face: I’m already home! J
He was not the sort to text during work…or to leave work early, really.
The iPod blared a tinny noise from the living room, leaked some thin melody to the office. Her chair squeaked louder, computer coming awake louder still, as gasping and tired as her car. Shay kicked off her shoes in an implicit commitment to relax.
Her toes pushed into the old, smashed, and frayed carpet. Irritation scratched at her. Ken had promised to change the carpet. It was a running joke, one she no longer found amusing. Once a month, they seemed to revisit the joke and now, nearly a year later, her bare toes found the short, splayed fibers again.
She breathed in slowly, tilted her head back, and rolled her shoulders. His absence lingered and her fantasy evaporated.
Their first moments were usually tense, how had she forgotten that? She would arrive to find him slung across the couch, engrossed in the TV, or a book, or his laptop. Her gut would wrestle itself, self-control a web-work of crystal tinkling across her throbbing emotions.
Tension stretched through her hands.
She turned from the computer, huffed, and tried to relax with the view of the garden. At least, in this, he hadn’t let her down. Their office had been too cramped before. He’d been quick to install the window – he’d placed it between their “dueling desks” chest high. It had fallen to her to replace the dated, dung brown curtains.
Maybe if he fixes the carpet… Her forearms flexed like steel cables on the arms of her chair.
Outside, movement shivered through leaves. Her heart skipped a beat.
She leaned down, looking under the top pane of the window. Her eyes tracked through sun-dappled darkness. Just wind. Just wind. Breathe!
Beneath the trees, along the end of the lawn, herbs and vegetables sprawled, climbed, and swayed under the invisible swirls of wind sweeping over their tall wooden pickets. Tiny blue and red flowers dangled at the ends of stems, teasing her eyes. She was stuck on the higher limbs, where something had shivered, her breath cold in her throat.
She nearly yelped; two squirrels scrambled down branches – leaves shivered from their quick movement.
Shay’s heart started again. She shook her head and laughed at herself. This is where Ken would make fun of her.
She clutched her phone, pried it open to look at the screen. Of course. No texts. He failed with small touches.
The mess of Ken’s desk encroached on her space like a trash yard creeping across the floor. Reaching trees and swaying bushes, neat grass, flowers, and herbs, the framed serenity and quiet of the world beyond the window fell flat next to the scattered landscape of stacks of game cases, old bills, unopened mail, papers, and magazines that Ken had amassed all in her periphery.
Her sole, reliable comfort was the pull of her computer screen. Just till he gets home. She pecked a few keys, checked her email, and finally settled against the glowing numbness of YouTube videos. Time became effortless, worries fell away.
The landscape beyond the window had darkened some. She blinked from her daze, surprised at how long she’d sat there in a stupor. Ken was still…away.
Chin on one hand, she browsed, her other hand robotic on the mouse, clicks and pokes, random searches: cats, dogs, dolphins. Babies.
She deleted babies from the history – Ken might get the wrong idea.
Shay sat up on the edge of her chair and followed the play of squirrels scampering through the sun’s last golden splashes. They cut along bending limbs, raced round unsteady branches, up to the heights of the tree. We must look small to them from there…
She’d always wondered what her house looked like from up high.
She and Ken traveled once a year. Shay was fascinated by the way things looked from airplanes. She always tried to find their neighborhood from the sky but never succeeded. She always – always – sat by the window and watched the world shrink. It lifted a sense of hope into her, a mesmerizing serenity ambient with possibility.
The squirrels she’d watched earlier were gone. She clacked in a few words. The search engine convulsed, spitting over a billion hits onto her screen. Maps.
These aren’t maps; these people don’t know maps.
She and her dad used to sit on the floor and spread out maps of far off places: Paris, Turkey, Moscow. Now she guessed that he’d pick up maps from magazine stands, bookstores, or travel shops. National Geographic was an obsession. He’d make them tea, which was even better during winter. They’d been poor and they didn’t travel, but they warmed, side by side, fantasy coalesced into old bricks and tree-lined lanes, pastry shops and towering cathedrals, green lengths of pastures spotted with sheep. Too many languages to learn them all.
Look, Kitten, he’d whisper, dragging his finger down a line, crossing fold marks. The Arc is right here. They laughed and flipped through pictures. Sometimes they’d watch a movie after, eager to be taken somewhere new.
Heat bloomed in Shay’s chest.
On her computer, the map showed her area. It looked the way a map should, all colored lines and cartoonish. With a click she could view the street and it would be full of realism.
Realism’s not the point. Still, she’d never looked for her place in one of these online maps. She clicked.
The image was from days ago. She knew because the sun was out but there were puddles from rain. She found the façade of her house on its little hill, wedged between other houses. It was meant to be a starter. They’d said they’d look again in a few years. Their lives were too busy, too routine now to even consider looking for a new house.
The view stuck a hole in her chest, all those nearly identical houses in a tight row like a puzzle where she had to stare to find the differences.
The backyard had sold her. It was quiet and enclosed with trees, a wooden fence, and lush grass. It was almost a little park. Ken had kept his promise to maintain it, despite wavering on other promises…
Impatience stirred again, abrasive fibers under her toes.
The picture had captured Ken’s car parked out front. She usually eased her car into the narrow garage. They’d had to affix cushions against the end wall to dull her nervousness, and she had to nudge up against the cushions to open the car door. From the street view, their porch light was on.
It was impossible to see inside – thank God. The odd sense of someone watching her picked at her spine.
A shift, click, scroll of mouse and she was just above the roof. The gutters needed cleaning: a disadvantage of trees, but one she was happy to live with.
A smudge of gray marred the space between two trees like a thumbprint on the screen just up against the fence – a blur in the image.
Satellites were tricky, she guessed. Unreliable sometimes – and the weather must…
Her scalp itched.
Something about the smudge. Kind of leaning – craning? – from below branches. Unease spread through her hands. She tilted the camera, zoomed in –
The image clipped when zoomed, as if caught on the corner of the roof. Shay bit her lip, turned the angle, scrolled out, zoomed in, and tilted again.
The camera seemed to fight her, sticky in spots. She skipped the view over to the next yard, the Condrill’s, and hovered above their trimmed grass. They’d pulled up all their trees two years ago. They had actually had the nerve to demand she remove the trees bordering their yards.
Is it really that hard to clean your gutters? She shook her head, aggravated.
The view obeyed, tilted. Cramping pain struck her fingers. She shook it out and adjusted the camera to a clear shot of their barbeque grill. She could almost see the stains on the lid; she could count the bags of charcoal stacked on their back porch.
Hoarders, she smirked.
Shay eased back, slid over, tilted. Zoomed rapidly. Halted.
The thing still wouldn’t go where she wanted. She angled the camera again to center on the gray smudge.
The smudge was gone.
Cold electric needles tickled up her neck. She slid the camera back to the street. Nothing was moving. The cars, the trees, everything was motionless.
Captured images, not streamed.
The front door slammed. Shay shot out of her seat.
Her breath caught in her throat. She went to the doorway, hands balled into fists at her sides.
Knife…block…kitchen. If she could get just a few feet without being noticed…
“Shay? You home already, Hon?”
She breathed again. Blood rushed into her face and she rushed into the living room. Laughter spilled from her. “Yes! Oh, God, yes! You’re finally home!”
“You okay?” worry creased Ken’s brow. His laptop bag was against his body like a shield. He dropped his jacket on the back of a chair and set the bag on the floor. “You’re pale. And sweaty!”
“No. Yes! I’m okay. It’s just…there’s a weird thing…” Words crowded in her mouth; weird what? Smear? On her computer? It must be dust on the screen. Or a squirrel – a fat squirrel. Raccoon, possum – it could be a lot of things. Why am I so freaked out?
“I’m good. I just-,” she shrugged, staring at the couch. “I guess I got too far into my head. You know. Alone in the house.” She snorted a laugh but didn’t sound convincing.
By evening her tension had melted. They ate and laughed about things that happened at Ken’s job. He had a talent for amusing anecdotes told at the expense of the absent. They slept and his warmth wrapped her in comfort.
The next day slipped by. Weekends were a sane routine. She wasn’t fond of surprises. Saturday’s farmer’s market, a leisurely breakfast, coffee, and books. Ken performed his perfunctory Sunday house chores: trash, laundry, and yard work. Shay set her clothes for the week on five hangers at the end of the closet. Overly organized, Ken sometimes teased her.
Since she’d cleaned on Friday, she reviewed interview notes instead, mentally practicing her presentation. Each moment was a comforting lull, small assurances that they would last despite their differences. They splurged on a movie and went out for dinner Sunday night. By Monday, the maps were a tarnished silvery tug at her memory.
Monday brought a lecture from her boss that lasted exactly 23 minutes and kept her late at the office. Her little car looked lonely in the corner of the lot.
Still, it won’t be long, she mused. If the promotion went through, she’d have a new boss, and she would never suffer these macho, posturing lectures again.
The windows were dark when she got home. With each step towards the door, her breaths became shallower, as if her belt cinched tighter with each footfall.
Ken was a prankster. Sometimes he’d hide and jump out to scare her.
She stood poised in the doorway, skin tingling, and checked her watch. Likely he was still at work, but if he was here, she might get the jump on him. She shut the door quietly behind her, took off her shoes, and crept quietly through the house. She paused to listen for his breathing. He was a noisy breather; she covered her mouth, anxious laughter in her chest.
Finally, she cleared the house. He wasn’t home yet. She snapped lights on in every room, heart still pulsing in her throat and hands.
The fridge was half stocked, with more than enough choices for her to get creative. The sourness of being alone settling in, she realized the lecture had drained her. All she wanted was to be pampered, not to spend thirty minutes chopping vegetables for dinner, not even sure when Ken would be home. This was a great night for delivery, she decided.
The computer came on quickly, her fingers fast on the mouse button. She opened two windows accidentally. One she needed to help her search for food, but the other sat blank, ready. She typed her address into the search bar to find delivery places close by.
The map took over her screen, as if it had been waiting.
Her fingers flexed, hesitated. Her loud breaths filled the small space.
Let’s see. Let’s see this possum.
The top of her house flickered, framed neatly on her screen. Shay’s hand covered her mouth, other hand clicking, clumsy on the mouse. She zoomed, tilted.
And released a long sigh, tense muscles tingling. No gray smudge. It was a different day, dimmer light, though that was as much as she could tell.
She glanced at the window to confirm what she already knew: it was dark out, this was not live. That made her feel better, but Shay still mouthed stupid possum to herself.
She tilted the image again and took in a view of the neighbor’s yard. Her heart stopped hard.
In the image’s corner, in the gap between houses on a narrow run of grass on the street side, there was a blur of gray…
Her fingers trembled. She clasped them, shook them out. Swooped the view back, tilted. Spun slightly, scrolled closer. The corner of the roof obscured her view. She tried to tilt the camera: the thing twitched, blinked. And crashed.
An error message popped up.
She cussed so loudly that the Condrills probably heard. Screw them, her mind blistered, fingers impatient to get the map back up.
…down for maintenance…
She slammed a fist against her desk and pressed the power button.
Ken came home shortly after. She didn’t want him telling her she was silly. It could still be an animal – it had to be an animal. Why was she bent out of shape?
“I’m just sick of those 20 minute lectures,” she said, adding a huff for emphasis. Her hands were shaking; that part wasn’t fake.
“Wow. You really are upset. Listen, we’ve talked about this. It’s just a matter of time, you have to be patient. You’ll get your turn. You finish the paperwork?”
“Yes,” she walked to the kitchen, flattened her hands on the counter. The light above the stove seemed flat. The smell of old cooking oil was rich in her nostrils. Her eyes found a thin layer of dust along the crack between fridge and wall. It all bothered her and none of it was the point.
She wanted to run into their office, get in her chair, and pull up the map to see what the hell that thing was.
“Look. Let’s get something to eat,” Ken showed a stiff smile. “I’ll order us some dinner. Why don’t you take a bath, relax. Listen to some music.”
“That sounds good,” she breathed through a tight throat and walked to the bathroom.
Two nights had passed since their talk.
She’d calmed. But the stain in her mind lingered.
That night she had gone to bed, kicked at her sheets, and tried to put it out of her head. Part of her wanted to wake Ken, to tell him what was really going on. He didn’t deal well with “nonsense.” He had a short fuse. He would frown at her, annoyed: “You saw a smudge. Now you can’t sleep?”
She pushed and pushed at the memory of the gray smudge, trying to forget. Fitful sleep came late. The next day she stared at the wall often. The same sleeplessness followed the next night.
The third night.
Her feet jiggled, hands tapped. The sheets were suffocating. With her shifting around, Ken didn’t hold her. His back was a wide wall of well-shaped body. She thought about sliding her hands over his skin, awakening him… She could run her fingers along his stomach, down to warmer parts, help him stir…
But her gut was steel cord, tied in messy knots. Finally, she slipped out of bed and wandered down the hall through the fuzzy dimness that was neither night nor morning.
She was rigid in her chair.
She didn’t want Ken coming in, frowning at her, disapproving. She turned off her speakers before powering the computer up.
With a few clicks she was back on the map.
It was like being in a helicopter, poised over her house. They’d talked about taking one of those helicopter rides but the cost had kept them away. When I get this promotion, she smirked; as if reminding her why she was there, a tremor ran through her fingers. She clicked in closer to her house, cautious, nervous excitement plucking an insistent rhythm in her hands.
No gray smudge where it had been before.
She swiveled the view, swung into the back yard. Then swept back to the façade.
Her breath caught and she smiled: it was her! Standing at the front door!
Almost like being famous. She was on the web! They’d captured her image somehow, one hand on her front door. She wondered if anyone else would see her.
Dumb ass girl, Shay let out a steadying breath. This wasn’t YouTube. What had she been thinking? Her eyes narrowed on her image.
Stiffening, she panned. Tilted to the street, slid to the top of the hill and spun.
The clothes in the image – she hadn’t worn that outfit, had she? And the way she was looking over her shoulder…
Ice melted down her neck. Thighs flexed – she had a sudden need to get up, to run.
Across the street. A gray smudge. In the image, she was looking over her shoulder – at the gray smudge. Her legs were poised – was she running? The smudge was no animal. It was tall and lean, blurred in motion.
Body clenched, Shay pushed away from the computer. She couldn’t move her eyes.
“Shay? You okay, Babe?”
She couldn’t look up at him. She shook her head, pointing at the screen. She wouldn’t touch it ever again.
Ken took slow steps and stood next to her. He bent to look. “Is that you?”
Her heart thrummed in her throat. “Is it me?”
“I… I can’t tell. Is this one of those online maps? Hey, check this out.” His hands moved toward the keyboard and she shrieked. His hands jerked up, eyes wide.
“Don’t touch it! Please, don’t touch it! Just…just look. Look!” She didn’t want to say why. If she did, maybe it would vanish. Or maybe she was imagining everything. She needed him to see for himself. To tell her he didn’t see anything.
“Okay,” his impatient voice. “What am I…?” He shifted his stance, pointed across from her image. “What is this gray thing?”
“Ken, it…” She shook her head. “This hasn’t happened yet.”
“What do you mean it hasn’t happened yet?” He frowned back at her. The image flickered. A pop-up ad smothered the screen, featuring a girl far too skinny for her breasts. “Oh, shit,” he muttered and clacked at her keyboard. “Have you been looking at porn again?”
She searched his voice for humor, but it was flat: he’s trying. He’s freaked.
“Let me,” Shay whispered. She forced her fingers toward the keyboard. Ken thought he knew computers better than she did, which was true in some ways, but she was faster.
“I got it,” he grunted. “Just…wait. Shit.”
The screen flickered, then went black.
Silence swelled between them. He hung his head and mouthed sorry.
“I don’t think you did it,” her voice broke over sharp, cracking words. “I think… I think it…”
“Just… Shay, just stay calm. Everything has an explanation.”
“Ken, those clothes! I was going to wear them tomorrow!”
Ken stared. His face turned bloodless, unreadable. He’d never admit he was scared. If she said he was, things would get worse.
“You probably wore them last week,” he shrugged, eyes fixed on a pile of game boxes. “You’ve probably just forgotten.”
“Not for weeks, more like.”
“Okay. Then weeks ago. These are old images. You can’t expect them to update every day.”
“No, Ken, I –”
“Calm down, alright?” he snapped. “Don’t be stupid.” He stood up, arms akimbo. “There’s no ghosts, there’s no aliens, and you’re up for a promotion. Stress has been keeping you up! You need rest. So let’s get back to bed.”
Shay did get the promotion. She was supposed to be elated, so she made a show of it at work. Just the right amount of pride, despite the cavern of fear in her chest. People at work didn’t need to know; the last thing she wanted was to give them any excuse to pass her over.
Tension lurked nearby. She’d felt the shadow of it for days. In the shower, she stared through the glass door, waiting to see a gray shape moving through the house. Behind the wheel, she’d glance down streets, look at the seat behind her – she knew it had to be close. Even in the office bathroom, she’d open all the stall doors before selecting one to use, and as she sat, she looked under the gap, her heart hammering a staccato beat in her chest.
Ken didn’t seem to remember. Or worse, refused to speak of it, or some other reason she couldn’t understand. They ate dinner and watched TV and talked about work as if nothing had happened. She wanted to shake him, force him to admit he’d seen it!
Her computer was a silent force from the other room. Like a stranger staring across the park; an empty city street in the middle of night.
Shay knew it was ridiculous. How could her computer hurt her? She would not turn it on, would not deal with it. She stayed late at work instead and did anything personal from her work station, and to hell with getting caught. Were they going to lecture her over sending an email to her brother? Here, deduct the five minutes from my check, she imagined telling them.
The clothes, though, she took out of her closet, stuffed them in the hamper, and changed her outfit plan. She had no intention of wearing those clothes.
Another restless night was upon her. Ken’s back was to her, as it had been since the night he’d seen the image. Again, she was sleepless. Staring at him in the dark, longing for him to wake, to surround her in warmth. Anger trickled through her, mingled with fear. Had he really not seen it? Had he convinced himself so thoroughly that they’d never been up that night?
She shed their sheets and stood in the bathroom. The bright lights cast a pale, heatless glow over her sullen features. She looked as if she hadn’t been sleeping. Her new position was still in the training phase. This wasn’t just stress. People had to be talking. How long before her new boss started asking questions?
Everything had an electricity to it, almost vibrating at the edges of her vision. Sleeplessness, the constant anxiety. She was losing it.
This has to end, she muttered. In bare feet she padded across the bathroom tile to the frayed carpet of the computer room. She powered up her machine, tapped with numb fingers, and swallowed a lump of rising terror.
The map ate the screen.
She put in her address and was over her house once again. She tilted, saw cars, the cold metal reflecting moonlight. Tilted more until she was across the street. Their house was dark, quiet in a still night. She swiveled, moved to a view from the neighbors’ yard.
There. Broken ice stuck in her throat.
The gray smear was just outside the backyard window. Tall enough to peer between curtains –
There was a light on in the window.
Sickness turned in her gut. A light was on…it was night.
She swiveled the camera, fingers nearly paralyzed. The image shook as her hand trembled. Her view was from where squirrels had rushed weeks earlier. She pushed toward the window, that slender gap between curtains.
A shadow on the wall. Inside the room, cast by the monitor’s light. Her shadow. Night. Smear of gray…right outside…
Glass shattered around her. Hard, sparkling shards littered the floor. She turned, fell out of her chair, hands flailing. Desperate to keep anything away.
Gray spilled over her, swathed her in frosted night mist. The moist, choking smell of fog filled the room. She shrieked again…
Ken woke with his skin damp. The sheets clung to him. He pulled the covers away and yanked on the shorts in a pile by the bed.
Shay liked them to sleep naked; it made her feel closer. He always felt exposed. He shook the sleep out of his head; had he heard a scream? He crept to the kitchen, paused, smirked at himself: his pulse throbbed in his hands, his stomach was tensed. Stupid.
He slid a knife from the wooden block – just in case.
The air was cold. Too fresh, like the air out in the woods. Almost…moist.
He started in the living room, sneaking, peering around the corners. He should laugh. It was like when he scared Shay. Sometimes she got him, too, but he was more cunning. She was probably at that damned computer again.
His hands were clammy. He didn’t want to think about it. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real. He put it out of his mind again. Shay was wrong; she scared easily and exaggerated anything that disturbed the balance of her life. She couldn’t stare down a spider, couldn’t stand horror movies. I get too caught up, she’d told him. She’d just gotten caught up in something again.
He craned his neck by the front door, shoulders stiff, listening to the quiet. She’d probably screamed. She’d went back online, looked up whatever it was. What was that site?
But he’d hidden her power cable.
He’d been waiting all week for her to bring it up. She should have caught the prank by now. Maybe she found the power cable, he thought dimly. Or took his. He hadn’t used his computer since earlier that day.
He shook his head, easing toward the computer room. Light filtered into the hall: that odd glow only a computer gives off, like a thing half alive.
When he was a kid, he used to imagine computers had minds, powers, and consciousness, and that they could reach out into the world in different ways.
Ken held his breath, sidled up to the doorway and reminded himself he was being stupid.
He couldn’t breathe and was growing annoyed that his hands wouldn’t stop shaking.
“Shay?” He waited, bit his lip. “Shay? You alright?”
He poked his head in, cautious.
There was glass everywhere from the broken window; every pane had been shattered.
The room was painfully cold. Ken shuddered, gooseflesh breaking across his entire body. Blood spatter was on the wall, on the fraying carpet.
“No, Shay. No…” He moved into the room, careful of the glass.
Her computer screen glowed. The image showed the front their house. Late. His car was parked out front. He was behind the wheel. Glancing back.
No. Staring back, mouth open, through the car’s rear window, over his shoulder…
…At a gray smudge, an odd figure, just yards behind the car.
Arley Sorg grew up in England, Hawaii and Colorado. He lives in Oakland, and most often writes in local coffee shops. He has a number of short stories out at various markets and is hammering out a novel. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, his day job is at Locus Magazine.
If you enjoyed this story, let Arley know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.
Story illustration by Dauny Mandir.