Estimated reading time — 6 minutes
There’s three of them outside, hikers probably. Older maps usually show a route over the motorway behind my house but there isn’t one anymore. I don’t mind them usually, they just walk down and then walk back up a few minutes later and I go and explain the situation to them. I saw these three early so I hoped I could go out and talk to them before they walked down, save them the trip. They looked like a family, one man walking a little bit in front of two women, one just a teenager. The girls were looking at a map while he strode ahead, confident. It was late evening, the sun just barely falling behind the hill. Summer nights like this means the night comes late. I saw them from my window and walked around to my front door quickly. I put my hand on the handle and glanced outside through the glass.
Then I stopped. I stopped because so had they. For a moment, I thought they had just stopped walking to check the map or something but just the glimpse sent a chill through me. Like something was just barely off. Uncanny valley, right? I looked at them a little closer and saw that they had not just stopped, they had stopped mid step. The one at the front had their front leg raised in the air and the other two were weirdly balanced forward, a position that would be difficult to maintain. I assumed they had seen me and were doing some sort of performance, like those street performers that look like statues and maintain poses. Then I spotted it, the thing that had made my skin prickle.
Their map was stuck.
It was somewhere between the adult woman’s hand and the floor. Mid-air. It was not touching anything that I could see and was completely still despite the strong breeze. My mind raced through the options. Wires wouldn’t explain how it was so still. Maybe it was actually solid and only looked like thin paper. Either way, I let go of the handle. If they really were performers, no harm in staying inside and leaving them there. I had neighbors, so even if there was a problem then other people would be aware of it. I rationalized it to myself and turned away, unable to get rid of the throbbing cold in my stomach. I walked into my kitchen, made a mug of tea and sipped it, trying to warm myself despite my already perfectly heated house. I couldn’t help myself. I walked over to the window. They were still there, hadn’t moved an inch. But I was closer now. Looking back, I wish my window had been further away. I wish it was thicker and soundproofed. But is wasn’t. So I could hear them. The walkers were talking.
I could see it now, their mouths moving just a little to communicate enough. It was hard to make out words but the mother and father were talking in an attempt at a calm tone to their daughter. She was sobbing. I felt a pang of sympathy, shame for ignoring them and a rush of fear. I had ignored how wrong this felt before but this was too much. I desperately wanted to go help them, to hug the daughter and tell her was okay. But, I couldn’t. I couldn’t go outside, then it would happen to me. I’m not sure why but I had the overwhelming feeling that the exact same thing would happen to me. It was getting even harder to see them. They had stopped moving as the sun set and now they were only barely visible from the lights in my house. I remembered my neighbors and looked down the street. I could see Moreen next door, she was looking out the window like I was. I tried to get her attention but she was looking at the hikers. I usually avoided calling her, she was nice but always had some new drama going on. She’s just old and bored so she tends to talk a lot but we’ve been vague neighborly friends for a few years. However, I quickly picked up my phone and dialed her number. I saw her turn and walk out of sight before picking up.
“Hi, Moreen. It’s just me.”
“Patrick, are you at home right now? Do you see those people outside my house? They’ve been standing out there for hours.” It had only been minutes. An exaggerator as always.
“Yeah, I see them. Please don’t go outside.”
“I wasn’t planning to. Bloody travelers would probably beat up an old woman.”
“I think they’re just hikers. No need to be worried. I think they are just…” I couldn’t think of a good reason for why they were acting like that but wanted to assuage her fears. “Well, let’s just try and figure out what they’re doing and if they need help. Just don’t go outside, okay?”
“I heard you the first time. You don’t need to worry about me, Patrick. I’m going to call Albert to see if anyone further down the street saw where they came from.”
“Okay, thanks, Moreen. Talk to you in a bit.”
“Bye, dear.”Click. I looked back out at them, almost impossible to see now. It was only because I knew they were there that I could even make out their shapes. And I could still hear them. They were louder now. I could make out a couple words. Then just one, over and over. Help.
I suddenly cursed living alone, wishing I could at least talk to someone. Maybe if there were houses on the other side of the street, I could at least communicate with the person across the street from me. But it was just open fields. I used to like that view. I looked down the street again. And again, my spine felt like it was crawling out of my body. Maybe I have some sort of ability to spot things that were out of place in just a glance. But something else was wrong. The lights from the houses were out. The only lights that were on were the three closest houses on the right. I looked the other way and they were all on, all the way down the street. That’s how it usually was until much later in the night. I looked back and tried to see details in the blacked-out houses. Probably a power-cut. But why was it just those ones? Weren’t we all on the same grid? Then a flash. The furthest house’s lights just went out. All of them at the same time, like a fuse had blown.
I frantically reached for the phone and tried to call Moreen again, damning myself for not knowing the numbers of any of the further neighbors. It cut straight to an automated voice; the line was in use. I hung up and started pacing, looking out at the two remaining lit houses and glancing at the hikers outside. I couldn’t see them but I knew they were there. The voices were quieter but they were talking still. Could they see me? I had no way of knowing. It was too late now, I should have tried to talk to them earlier. I let out a shriek as my phone burst into life. It was Moreen.
“Moreen? Is that you? Are you okay?”
“No need to shout, I’m fine.” A sigh of relief. Cut short as the corner of my vision flashed. The next house had gone dark. It was only Moreen’s house lit on the right side.
“Did you talk to Albert?” I tried to keep my voice level. I didn’t want to panic her. Maybe it was just a power-cut.
“He picked up but then started talking nonsense. He said his arthritis was acting up, worse then usual. He couldn’t move. Something about a power-cut. He wanted me to call an ambulance, but you know how Albert is. Hypochondriac. I think we should go check on him an-”
Her lights went out.
“Moreen? Moreen! Are you still there?” I could hear her breathing.
“Patrick, something’s wrong. I can’t turn around.”
“It’s okay, Moreen. Just a power-cut. You’re just scared.”
“There’s something scratching.”
“What?” My voice sounded like a child who just heard the monster under their bed talk.
“On my door.”
“That-that’s just your cat.”
“The door is ope-” Then, she screamed. I pulled the receiver away from my ear as the loud, piercing shriek filled the air. I could hear it from the phone and from the house directly.
“Moreen?” I sounded distant from myself. Click.
I’m not sure if I hung up or she did. I looked out my window, trying to see the hikers. They were quiet now. They probably heard it too. I felt like I was in a daze. I stumbled over to my sofa and sat stiffly. My laptop was open next to me, half-finished work on the glowing screen. I deleted it and started typing. I’m not sure why. No one saw this coming; maybe I could warn someone. I typed frantically, fingers moving faster than in all the work I had ever done. Then, a flash, and my lights went out. The only light was the glow of the screen. My fingers could still move, but I couldn’t stand up. I could talk. I know because I screamed.
I dare not make any sound now. My laptop is still plugged in and getting power. This isn’t a power-cut. I haven’t heard the hikers since the scream. I hope they’re okay.
The only thing I can hear is the clicking of the keys. And the scratching at my door.
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