Shirley sat bolt upright in bed. The first thing she noticed was the smell. It was incredibly odd, like nothing she could recollect.
Wrinkling her nose, she squinted in the dim moonlight and looked around the room. The gauzy white curtains billowed lightly in the summer breeze. “4:22” glared red from the bedside clock and the full moon watched her from its perch.
The blue flowered cotton gown that Shirley favored on summer nights clung to her damp, slender form. She tugged the faded yellow coverlet up to her neck, the breeze and humidity causing a chill despite the summer heat.
And that smell. It made the fine hairs on her arms and the back of her neck stand on end. The sweaty dampness of her skin seemed to ooze it. But she couldn’t particularly smell it on her body. It must have drifted in the window and somehow wound its tendrils around her.
Shirley swung her legs over the side of the bed, slipping her feet into strategically placed mules. She moved toward the window, arms locked across her waist, the feel of her elbows pressing into her sides.
The velvet cushion on the window seat skittered a bit as Shirley knelt on it, pulling aside the sheer curtain. The oily smell floated lazily on the breeze. Glancing up and down the street she was surprised by the stillness. Lakewood certainly had its nocturnal side, so the quiet was especially strange. She continued to squint at the wide empty avenue, hoping for any indication of normalcy.
Without her usual debating of the pros and cons, Shirley slipped into her worn cotton robe and cinched the frayed belt; the soft fabric elicited a shiver as it slid across her skin. She returned to the window seat, loathe to leave the security of her room. There was nothing to keep her there, no reason to stay upstairs, but she couldn’t quite force herself into the hall. The darkness seemed corporeal.
She laughed at her silliness and paranoia, but it was a discordant sound and made the night seem even more eerie. She grabbed a toss pillow from the end of the bench and pulled it to her, a cushy bulwark against the creepy night. Shirley stared up and down the tree-lined block, willing normalcy to return, but silence and emptiness remained. She swallowed thickly, trying unsuccessfully to dispel the acrid smell from her mouth and throat.
“That’s it!” she told the empty room. She threw the pillow aside and moved toward the dark hall. She flicked the light switch and the resulting crack and blue flash of the bulb burning out caused her to jump several feet, her hands clutching her throat where the scream had lodged. She ran back to the window seat and grabbed her protective toss pillow.
She sat, grasping her fringed shield, for a long time. She watched the street, praying someone would come out, maybe a factory worker going in early or a paperboy determined to beat the sunrise. But nothing moved about outside except the smell.
“Okay, Shirley Zanetti, enough. You are behaving like a fool.” She stood, resolute, and headed toward the door. But as she passed her dresser she paused. She fumbled at the back of the lingerie drawer and found one of her grandmother’s old linen handkerchiefs. She doused it with the remnants of an ancient bottle of Chanel, long ago abandoned to younger days.
She felt along the windowless corridor, one hand holding the handkerchief to her nose. She made her way down the stairs, squinting in the gloom. Shirley had absolutely no interest in turning on another light, sure her heart couldn’t take another blown bulb. Instead, she moved through the dark living room toward the front door, a streetlight shining in the oval window, and reached for the lock. Hand on deadbolt, she hesitated. A long shiver ran through her, like a goose walking on her grave.
The smell seemed more intense on the first floor of the house, despite the scented hankie. Maybe because the space was more open, maybe more window sashes were up. Was it her imagination or did she feel a thin film under her hand resting on the smooth metal of the handle?
“I shouldn’t go outside. There’s something weird outside.” Silence answered her. “Oh, for heaven sake. I’m being ridiculous. This is Lakewood, Ohio, not the Twilight Zone.” But her hand on the latch remained still and Shirley stood immobile, listening to the ticking of the grandfather clock as an eternity passed, still no signs of life outside her door.
She jumped when the clock struck five, pulling her now cramped hand from the latch. The street was still deserted but the sky was beginning to show a gentle pre-dawn lightening. The smell seemed worse now, if that were possible, more fetid. The handkerchief she’d been holding to her nose had wilted as she watched the street, the smell permeating the delicate hankie and morphing the beautiful perfume into something unspeakable. She let the fabric slip from her hand and drift to the floor.
Aimless, Shirley wandered to the back of the house, through the kitchen with last nights dishes stacked neatly next to the sink, and into the mudroom. There was no need to feel her way here. She opened the heavy wooden door, the screen a barrier between her and the outdoors. The smell breathed.
She could see the train tracks through the neighbor’s yard quite clearly, stretching east to west. She’d long ago quit paying attention to them, habitually stopping mid-conversation if a train rattled by. But now they seemed to cut like a gash between the yards. “Must be the morning light,” she mumbled.
Shirley moved to close the back door when a scream froze her. She looked back outside, still gripping the door. She could barely make out the hugely pregnant woman barreling up the track, heavy curtains of hair flying around her head like a halo.
“What’s happening?” the woman shrieked, “What’s happening?” She ran up the tracks and out of sight, her screams fading with distance.
Shirley clutched her robe at the throat, terrified. She moved again to close the door but couldn’t seem to bring herself to do it. This was the first sign of life she’d seen since she woke over an hour ago. And it was beyond bizarre. The smell seemed to pulse with life now.
“Oh, jesus, get a grip,” she scolded herself. She stood, hand on door, looking for any other movement on the tracks. From her current vantage point she could no longer see the street.
She didn’t know what to do. She wanted desperately to go back to bed but she couldn’t make her feet move. Something strange was obviously happening, but what? She suddenly remembered an old Steven Wright joke about a thief stealing everything in the comedian’s apartment and replacing it with exact duplicates. She felt a chuckle rise at the thought but choked it off.
Ignoring the warning bells blaring in her head, the ones that had always kept her immobile, Shirley Zanetti stepped out the door.