by Brian Ross

A voice. A pull. A realm of darkness dropping away, revealing another world of darkness. His arm. She was tugging his arm. He closed his eyes again. "I'm not working today," he said.

But the tug continued. It pulled him back from the darkness again. Her fingers, digging into his skin. In his darkness, he imagined teeth tearing into his hairy forearm.

"Get up," she whispered, her breath hot in his right ear. "Get up. Now."

He pinched his eyes and tried to make out her face in the low light of the bedroom. There was some moonlight and there was the glow from the alarm clock. He could not see her eyes. "Get up," she whispered again, digging her fingers deeper into his arm. Five points of fear clawing into him. He tensed and pulled his arm away.

"I'm awake," he said. "What? What is it?"

She pushed herself up against the headboard and pulled the sheets up to her neck. He still could not make out her eyes. "Somebody's in the house."

"What do you—"

She grabbed his arm again and the sheet fell away from her left shoulder. "Shut up and listen. Someone is downstairs. Listen." She drew her hand back and pulled the sheet taut.

They were quiet. He heard nothing. He watched her shadow, frozen with expectancy.

"It's nothing," he said, whispering and wondering why he was whispering if truly it was nothing. He waited a moment longer. "It's nothing," he said again.

She shook her head, slowly, left to right. Then, again, left to right.

Then he heard it. Something.

"I'm calling the police," she said.

He reached for the sheet at her neck. "It's nothing. It's the cat."

She was still pressed against the headboard. "I'm calling the police."

"Don't," he said. "Don't call the goddamned police." He untangled his legs from the sheets and swung them off the bed. "I'll go downstairs. I'll go down and get the damn cat. "

He rubbed his nose and started for the door.

"Take something," she said.

"What?" He turned to face her shadow.

"Take something with you."

"Like what?"

"A golf club. Something."

"The clubs are in the garage."

"I don't know," she said. Her voice, still a whisper, was higher now.

He was quiet as he slipped through the bedroom door. He was quiet for her. Nobody was downstairs, but he kept the hallway lights off anyway. He could see in the dark. He had better vision than she did. As he descended, he thought about the carpet runner she had demanded they install on the stairs. He wanted the pile to massage his feet but it was new and unforgiving.

Something was different. The spot on his arm where her fingers had been began to tingle. He touched his arm, thinking that she might have broken the skin. It was smooth, but there was an unmistakable tingling, a weak fire at the tips of his forearm hair. Something was wrong.

At the base of the stairs, he felt a breeze. The windows were closed. It had been cold that day. He squinted in the foyer and saw nothing. The den was empty. He moved through the living room. It was undisturbed. The dining room, too, was clear. There was no sign of the cat.

At the threshold of the kitchen, he reached for the light switch.

"Right there," a man's voice said. There was a thickness to the word "there."

Tiny spots appeared in his vision as his eyes adjusted to the light from the recessed bulbs in the ceiling and the fixture above the kitchen table. And then he saw him. Across the kitchen, a figure was facing him, standing with its back to the open sliding glass door that led to the deck. A man in a ski mask and a black coat and jeans. His hand was extended. It was holding a gun. The man was pointing a gun at him.

"I said stop," the man said, and he realized that he had not stopped walking, even when he saw the man. He had taken a step or two across the kitchen, toward a man in a mask with a gun. He stopped. He saw that the man was wearing a black turtleneck. He saw that the man had pale skin around his eyes.

The gun was pointed at him. The gun did not look like the guns he had seen in movies. It was not shiny. The man raised the gun level with the eye holes in the ski mask. "Not another step," the man said.

But he had not moved, or he did not think he had. He stared at the end of the gun. What was it called? he asked himself. The barrel? And he knew that he was going to die. He knew it because the cold wind coming through the open sliding glass door carried it to him. The wind was telling him that he was going to die. It was the song of the March night wind.

And he thought that he was supposed to see something about himself or his life. He thought that he would see images from his life, revelatory moments like the kiss at the altar on his wedding day or the night he crouched at the top of the stairs and heard his parents first say the word "divorce " or the first time he fell off his bicycle and felt the bloody kiss of the pavement. But these thoughts were incomplete, these images inchoate, and all he could fix upon was the cat in the corner of the kitchen. It was standing astride the long white vertical blinds that hung over the left half of the sliding glass door. The cat was gray and black and it looked up at him with blank greenish-yellow eyes. He could not remember its name. It was her cat.

"Damn," said the man with the gun, cocking his head slightly. He began to lower the gun.

He blinked and stopped thinking about the cat. He looked down at his blue and white pajama bottoms and saw the material growing darker, the darkness radiating out, spreading down his left leg and across his left thigh. He tried to stem the flow but could not and he shivered and his hands shook as the wetness ran down the length of his leg pooling on the tile. He choked back the urge to whimper. He closed his eyes and thought of the only thing that came to mind—nothing. He thought only of the darkness, the void, the emptiness of that black world behind shut eyes.

When he opened his eyes, the puddle on the kitchen floor came into focus. Slowly, deliberately, he raised his head toward the other side of the kitchen. The man was gone. The chilly breeze was toying with the vertical blinds. The cat was gone, too.

He rubbed his fingers against the inside of his cold palms. He touched the back of his right hand to this upper lip, then the skin between the upper lip and his nose. He rubbed at his eyes once more and exhaled deeply. His chest rattled. Stepping over the puddle on the floor, he moved toward the open door. He placed his palms on the frame and slowly poked his head out into the night. Looking left, then right, he saw no trace of the man in the mask. The breeze raised the hair on his forearm. He still felt the tingling where her fingers had dug into him.

He stepped onto the deck. The wood was rough against the bottoms of his feet. He heard the fluttering of the leaves in the breeze, the sounds of tall, thin trees slowly shaking in the wind.

He looked up at the sky. Just over the tree line, the blinking light of an airplane crawled across the darkness. He raised his head further and looked directly overhead. It was a brilliantly clear evening and the stars, hundreds of them, looked down at him.

One of the stars above him was the North Star. He remembered reading about when he was a boy. Polaris was its name.

He thought about the light burning above him, the gaze of stars long dead that still traveled such a great distance to be seen. The cold breeze was filling his lungs and his chest began to heave and he shuddered when the wet pant leg clung to his skin. He slid down the wet pajama bottoms, followed by his wet underwear. He dropped them in a heap on the deck. Then he looked down at himself, at the lower half of his body naked beneath the pajama top, and the incongruity made him smile. He pulled the pajama top over his head and dropped it on top of the pile. He inhaled through his nose and exhaled through his mouth. He rubbed his bare chest and looked up at the stars.

Even when he heard her padding across the kitchen, he did not look down from the night sky. When she stopped at the edge of the door, she made an unintelligible sound. He looked at her. "Chris," she said, "why are you naked?"

He smiled when he saw the blinking light of another plane trail across the night.

"What happened? Was somebody in the house?"

He turned as she stepped out onto the dark deck. "Is that, um, piss on the floor? What was all the noise? What's going on? Was somebody here? Why are you naked?"

She was standing so close now that the clouds of their breath were mixing in the cold air. He pulled her against him and smelled her hair. He kissed the spot beneath her left ear. "I'm starving, sweetheart," he whispered. He let her go and looked over at the grill in the corner of the deck. "Are you hungry, too?"

She squinted at him. "Chris, it's freezing and you're not wearing any clothes. I'm going to call the police."

He smiled and touched her shoulder reassuringly. "No," he said. "You get some steaks out of the fridge and we'll grill them up." He kissed her on the cheek and gently nudged her toward the house.

"What the hell are you talking about, Chris?"

"Everything's fine," he said. "Let's eat something."

She nodded slowly, and he could see that she was having trouble understanding. But he inhaled deeply again, sucking the cool air into his chest. He looked past her puzzled expression, toward the open sliding glass door, where the cat had poked out its head. Its eyes were devoid of feeling.

Ted, he remembered. The name of the cat was Ted. Sometimes she called him Teddy because she said that he reminded her of a bear. Teddy the cat was staring at him and he was staring back and the longer he looked, the more he saw the face of a bear.

BIO: Brian Ross lives with his wife in Hoboken, New Jersey. His fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from Metazen, Short, Fast, and Deadly, and Eunoia Review.