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Just a 20-Minute Walk

Not long after the rest of the party had left, Chloe decided it was time for her to leave too. It was late — going on 2 a.m. — and she could tell Ian was getting tired, trooper that he was.

“I drank a lot of water but I’m still pretty tipsy. Is it cool if I leave my car here? I can get it in the morning.”

“Oh yeah, totally. Or you’re welcome to crash here.”

Chloe had already decided against that. Three more drinks, maybe, probably. But not tonight. “I know I don’t have a curfew per se but if my mom wakes up and I’m not there, it’ll be a whole thing. I can just walk home, it’s a nice night. It’s 20 minutes, tops.”

“Alright,” he smiled, resigned. “Fuck, I’m so tired. Text me when you get home?”

“You got it,” she hugged him. A couple beats longer than she needed to, but that was how it was now.

She stepped outside and into Ian’s parents’ driveway. Their houses were on the same street, on opposite ends of a lake that sat in the center of their subdivision. The street itself was nondescript, deserted this late at night, and lined with modest, newish homes.

No more than ten steps into her walk home, her thoughts returned to Ian, and the same questions she’d been obsessing over for weeks. Had she made the right decision to rule out anything romantic with him? Was it even what she wanted? Could she be sure? Would she suddenly feel differently when Ian started dating someone else? Would it be easier or harder if she’d stayed with him tonight?

Distracted, she veered off the sidewalk slightly into a lawn, then found the sidewalk again, still a little fuzzy from beer and cheap vodka. “Goddammit, Ian” she muttered under her breath and smiled. It had gotten substantially chillier in the hours since she’d first arrived at his party.

As she rounded a corner, she realized something was seeping into her consciousness, interrupting the conversations with Ian she was prone to replay in her mind over and over. Gradual at first, then more and more obvious, gently dragging her into her current situation. Without understanding why, the scene around her took on a “Can you spot what’s wrong with this picture?” quality, akin to the puzzles she played as a kid — an illustration of a day at the park you had to examine closely before discovering that yes, lower left, the gentleman on the bench is reading his newspaper upside down.

It — whatever it was — eventually dragged itself directly into the forefront of her mind, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. A cool breeze moved through the trees and wrapped itself around her. Something’s off here, but what? The noise of it grew louder in her mind until she couldn’t take another step. She spun around on the sidewalk, looking to her left, to her right, behind her, ahead. Still. Quiet. She stepped out into the middle of the street to take it all in, to try to find her upside down newspaper. She turned back to face the house directly in front of her. And then she realized what it was: Every single light in the house was on. And the house to the left of this one. And the house to the right. All the blinds were open, and every light was on. Baffled, she turned around toward where she had been. On either side of the street, for as far back as she could see, the same story: Light pouring out of every window. She’d been so distracted, she’d missed it entirely. She reached for her phone to check the time: 2:09 a.m.

For several seconds she just stood there, trying to pull herself fully out of a lingering haze of alcohol, and wondering what could possibly account for what she was seeing. Even on a Saturday night, all these families would be asleep by now. She walked a little further up to the next house. She could see clearly inside — the den, the kitchen, the garage — no people, no movement at all. Reverse blackout, she thought to herself, like instead of all the power going out, it all turns on at once. But before she could even fully form this theory, she knew it was ridiculous. She crossed the street. Same story: Another house all lit up and by all appearances empty. And the house next to it. And the house next to that. She stopped and cleared her head and listened closely. Nothing. No cars. No dogs. No people. She pulled out her phone and texted Ian, “Hey, you up?”

She started home again, picking up the pace. “Hello?” she shouted, much to her own surprise, simultaneously hoping for and dreading a response of any kind. Nothing. Another turn she rounded revealed more lit up houses. She texted Ian again while she walked, her fingers trembling now, “Weird question but is anything happening in the world? Please text when you get this.” And after she sent it she became preternaturally certain of two seemingly contradictory things: 1) the subdivision was completely abandoned and 2) someone was watching her.

She took a sudden cut across the street again. Who was she trying to throw off her trail? She didn’t know. She passed a 2-story home — the Mallicks’, who she used to babysit for — and as her gaze swept across their well-lit living room her periphery caught a body quickly turn and crouch behind a sofa just out of her view. She gasped. She was certain she saw it. Hadn’t she? She doubled her speed, eager to put as much distance between herself and the Mallicks’ home as possible.

She looked back at the house, her gaze drawn toward the large second story window glowing in the upper northwest corner of the house. Empty, she thought, the house is empty like the others. Just get home, get home.

She walked faster. Looked back. Glowing window. Nobody. Faster. Don’t look back again, she instructed herself.

She fought the muscles in her neck and looked back. Window. Nobody. She walked even faster. I have to.

She turned again. Window, nobody. Stop it, faster, c’mon, get home.

She turned back this time to see a large silhouette filling out the entire frame of the window. A figure. Alive. Watching her. This is happening now. Right now. Now fuck, run, now, make your legs move, fucking run NOW RUN NOW.

She sprinted as hard as she could down the street, lungs throbbing, barely any feeling in her legs, running faster faster. You were wrong, the voice in her head told her, these houses are occupied. Just not with the people who live there. Not anymore. The echo of her shoes on the pavement sounded like someone chasing her. Or was it the other way around? She didn’t dare turn to see for herself. Each glowing house she passed made her sprint even harder. They’re in there, the voice said. They’re all in there. They’re ready. Up ahead was her house. Her legs pumped harder than ever up a hill, carrying her to safety. Were those footsteps behind her? She couldn’t think about it. She rounded one last corner. And some part of her was afraid this would happen, this very thing. Even if she hadn’t realized it. Her house was pitch black. For as far out as she could see, hers was the only dark house.

But she didn’t let up, she couldn’t. She rounded the turn into her driveway, as fast as she could, up the incline, up her front steps, to the front door, she fumbled for the key, found it, opened the door, slammed it shut behind her, locked, deadbolted. She doubled over, there wasn’t an ounce of energy left inside of her.

She let loose a raspy “Mom?” caught her breath a bit more and louder, “Mom???!” Silence. She’s gone, along with the others, the voice said. We’re ready.

“Chloe?” and she heard her mom’s bedroom door open and her footsteps carrying her down the hall. “Are you okay??” She turned the light on as her mom came around the hallway. “Chloe, Jesus!”

Chloe’s chest heaved, breathless, she tried to talk “I can’t– shit, mom.”

“Chloe, what on earth? Take a deep breath. Talk.”

She took a few seconds to gain her composure. “Mom, what’s going on? Is something happening in the world?”

“I don’t — honey, what are you talking about?”

“I was walking home from Ian’s. Mom, every single light in every house in this neighborhood is on! Why?”

Her mom brushed past her to look out the front door. “I don’t follow. Honey, everything’s dark out there. It’s 2:30 in the morning.”

Chloe turned to join her. She looked up and down the street. All the houses were dark.

“Chloe, why were you running? Is everything okay?”

“I think — I don’t know. I think I just freaked myself out.” Did she really believe that? She wanted to. She had more to drink than she thought. The person in the window was Mr. Mallick. Everything was in her head.

“Were you drinking at Ian’s?”

“Mom, stop, please. I had like A beer.”

“When you’re 18 that should really be more like NO beer. Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah, it’s nothing. I just got spooked. Stupid.”

“Alright. Drink some water. Go to bed.” Her mom squeezed her shoulder and left her. She heard her bedroom door close. Chloe turned off the light and stood in the dark. In this moment, the darkness was more comforting than light. She looked out the front door again, into the night. The street was lined with darkened homes, and would remain so for the next several hours. For a few minutes she just stood there.

Her phone buzzed. In her panic and running like hell from imaginary silhouettes she had missed several texts from Ian. She scrolled through them.

“Hey sorry I nodded off, just got this. I’m up.”

“And you’re right, that is a weird question :) There’s nothing on the news. you ok?”

“Kinda worried now. Everything ok?”

She smiled and started to text back when she got another text.

“Ok so I kinda freaked out and ran over to your place. In your driveway. Are you up?”

Chloe opened the front door and looked out into the driveway. It was dark but lit up enough that she could see there was nobody there. She looked up and down the street. Empty. Her heart began to race. Her phone buzzed again with another text.

“Why are all the lights on in your house?”