Darla noticed him watching her while she was at the gas pump. Beneath the flaring blue lights of the overhang, she caught his reflection in the back window of her car as he walked behind her. Black eyes. Hat low across his forehead. He darted a look at her as he passed between the pumps.
Something about his glance raised the hair on the back of Darla’s neck. She looked back, but he disappeared into the darkness– just a jean jacket over hunched up shoulders.
Bugs sizzled against the fluorescent lights above. Darla placed the pump handle back into its cradle and climbed into her car.
On the drive home, she thought she spotted two baleful headlights bobbing along behind her. When she turned, they turned. When she switched lanes, they switched lanes.
Now, as she pulls into her driveway, Darla lingers in the driver’s seat, staring first in one mirror and then the next. The air is slick and hot inside the car– outside, the night is not much better. Insects seeth in the trees. The front light on her house shines a dim, amber puddle onto the front step; the windows are dark, blank holes.
A car inches along the street, headlights cutting through the dark, and at the last moment, it swings into her neighbor’s driveway. Lights flash across a blank house front.
Darla lets out her breath.
The insect noise overwhelms as she unlocks her front door but immediately goes muffled as she shuts herself in. Her front room shows a gradient of shadows; dim blue light spills from the kitchen. Solar lights glow outside the sliding glass doors that lead to the patio. Darla turns on the lamp, crosses to the glass doors, and yanks the curtains shut with a metallic ring. She rushes from window to window closing all the blinds and curtains.
Finished, Darla pauses in her living room and listens. The stillness of the house hums around her–the refrigerator purrs, the A/C rumbles to life, the walls settle as the blower turns on– silence.
The hair on the back of her neck bristles as she recalls the man at the gas station. She crosses to the front window and peels back the curtain an inch. Cream-colored sidewalks stretch from shadow to light; yards are dark hollows beneath sprawling tree limbs.
So many places to hide.
Just then a noise–like a tin can being kicked over and slamming into cement–echoes from somewhere behind her house. Darla’s heart leaps into her throat. She trembles and races to the covered patio doors, hands shaking as she reaches for the light switch and the curtains. She tugs back the curtains and flips on the light. Her fenced in backyard floods with light, shadows racing to the corners, leaping into the trees.
The yard is empty. Her yellow adirondack chairs sit vacant. Her watering can stands on the side of the patio, copper glistening in the light.
Darla frowns and slaps off the switch.
She tries to shake off the feeling from the gas station. “It’s not him,” she says. “You need to stop watching the news.”
Darla turns off the lights in the front room, washes her face beneath garish bathroom lights, and brushes her teeth furiously as she glances around her bedroom. The icy weight of fear that settled over her at the gas station begins to thaw. But still, she thinks– in the morning, she should go to the shelter and adopt a dog.
She climbs into bed and turns off her lamp. For one last moment, she listens to the silence of her house again– all the normal hums and creaks– and then she settles down to sleep. Her mind spins around her last thought– a dog, big and dark, ears pointed and expressive, eyebrows caramel smudges in a chocolate face…
A click. A subtle shift beside her, like something pressing down into the mattress. A breath of air moves against Darla’s cheek. Her eyes fly open. Against the backdrop of the gray window frame, a shadow looms. She smells the garbage rot of his breath.
Terror moves fluid and heavy into every part of her limbs.
Oh my gosh! It’s him!
© 2021 Katie Baker