There was something about the night that Stuart found comforting. Especially summer nights in Lincolnville, when the darkness would wrap around him like a blanket. The earth was still warm, but the breeze was cool, and the crickets called out their songs. As he walked home, having closed the gas station where he worked some hours ago, he thought there was probably nothing like Lincolnville in all the world.
The houses were old, most built two hundred years ago when the town was first settled. They sat like frogs around the street, their windows glinting like eyes in the starlight. There were only a few streetlights that poured out little pools of light snaking up into the hills. They buzzed softly and each was crowned with moths.
Stuart imagined that this street had not changed since the old west days when the town was known for its gambling and whorehouses.
He caught movement out of the corner of his eye and saw an old woman staring at him from across the street, leaning against the rail of her porch. She had the porch light on and he could see her eyes were narrowed and her nose wrinkled.
“Howdy, Ms. Turnstead,” he said, tipping an imaginary hat. Ms. Turnstead snorted and went inside.
Stuart smiled and chuckled to himself and kept climbing the hill.
The street got darker and he turned to see the streetlights fade and then fail one by one up the street. The one nearest to him went out with a soft pop.
Stuart licked his lips. He looked around as his eyes slowly adjusted to the starlight. His house was not far, just a block away or so, and he knew these streets well. He felt a gust of cold wind rush up the street, carrying silence with it. The trees went still. The crickets ceased their song
Stuart felt the hair on the back of his neck prick up and his eyes widened. In the dim starlight, he could see something move down the street. He stood stock-still, his body trembling. The thing moved steadily toward him, hidden in the shadows of the branches.
Stuart stared and shook. He had seen bears here before, sometimes coyotes, but something in the way this thing moved frightened him. When it passed through a patch of starlight, he caught a glimpse of it.
It was two things, two men wearing hats like what a gangster might wear. One carried a briefcase with handles that flashed in the starlight. Their faces were obscured, but Stuart felt their eyes on him. They sauntered right up the middle of the street, growing closer and closer.
Stuart wanted to run, but his legs had rooted themselves into the sidewalk. He wanted to scream like a rabbit caught in a snare, but his jaw clenched and his tongue pressed against the roof of his mouth, sealing it shut.
A light flicked on at one of the houses. It was Ms. Turnstead’s place. The men stopped, and all at once Stuart felt the oppressive weight of fear lift from him and he bolted up the street. He didn’t stop running until he was at his front door. He fumbled with the keys in the darkness, the memory of the men pressing on him. He refused to turn around to check if they had followed, for fear of being right.
He unlocked the door, flung himself inside, and slammed it shut, locking it. He touched the lock again just to be sure.
“What the hell are you doing?” yelled his mother from the front room.
Stuart didn’t answer and ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time. He went into his room, and shut the door.
The window across from him yawned like a terrible mouth. He shivered and kept the light off, afraid that the light would attract attention. He hugged the wall as he edged nearby, and reaching with one trembling hand, he loosed the curtain tie and let it fall closed.
Stuart peered through the gap in the curtain, down onto the street. He could hardly see anything out there in the darkness. The stars shone overhead, cold and distant. Something moved and his eye flicked toward it.
He saw the two men walking down the street, their backs toward him, as quietly as they had before. When they reached the bottom of the hill, one stopped and turned. He did not know if he imagined it, but Stuart could feel the man’s eyes lock with his.
He gasped and darted away from the window and onto his bed. He lay awake, staring at the window until his body dragged him into the oblivion of sleep.
Stuart sat in the swivel chair behind the counter of the convenience mart. Outside, the sun bore the full might of its rays down on the gas station. He watched lazy waves of heat pour off the concrete.
“You could fry an egg out there,” he said to Blake, his best friend and coworker. Blake stood before the TV mounted on the wall, remote in hand, his jaw open as he stared up at it. The damn thing hadn’t been working for weeks and had been stuck on mute on some local news station.
“What?” said Blake.
“Why are you messing with that thing? The remote is busted.”
“So? I might be able to get it to work.
“It’s hot,” said Stuart.
“Thanks for the update,” said Blake. He pushed a button and the volume popped on.
The anchor on the TV spouted, “…missing since last night. Search parties for Margret Turnstead will be forming today —”
The TV muted again. Blake swore and turned to hurl the remote. At the apex of the swing, he let his arm drop, defeated. He dropped the remote onto the counter and sat in a folding chair beside Stuart.
“I give up,” said Blake, hands covering his face. “Today has got to be the slowest day.”
“Did she say Margret Turnstead was missing?”
“Who?” said Blake, eyeing a candy bar.
“The news anchor, dummy.”
“I dunno, isn’t she that old lady on your street who never gave out candy at Halloween?”
“Yeah, I guess she’s missing.” Stuart felt a cold fear grip him as his mind turned back to last night and the strange men.
“What’s wrong, dude? You’ve been acting weird all day.”
“Well, there’s these men I saw —”
“You’re seeing men now?”
“Shut up. These two men were walking up the street and they stopped at Margret Turnstead’s place.”
“What do you mean ‘So?’ Two men show up at an old lady’s house and now she’s missing, there’s gotta be something in that.”
Blake shrugged and scratched his side. “Maybe you should tell the police,” he said.
A bell dinged as a black sedan pulled up to a pump.
Blake leaned back into his chair and crossed his arms, “Not it.”
Stuart rolled his eyes and stood up.
The driver was already out of the car, looking at the pump.
“Wait a minute, sir,” called Stuart, “You can’t pump your own gas here.”
He could see there was somebody else in the car as he rounded the pump. He let out a small gasp as he saw the driver.
The driver was tall and thin, with a narrow face and wide-set eyes which looked even larger behind his glasses. He wore a black pinstripe suit and matching hat. The man smiled without showing his teeth and said, “I am sorry. I forgot that they do that here.”
His voice was soft and monotonous. Stuart felt his skin flush cold and sweat dripped down his back, sticking his shirt to him. He stared at the man, mouth agape.
It was them! The men from last night! Stuart was sure of it.
“Here,” said the man. He reached into his jacket pocket and produced a black credit card. “Fill her up, will you?”
Stuart nodded and took the card. His hand was shaking. He turned and slipped the card into the reader. It blinked and authorized the transaction. Stuart could feel the man’s eyes on him the whole time. His strange wide smile never left his face.
“What-” Stuart coughed, his mouth was dry. “What, um do you want it filled with?”
“Regular will do nicely,” said the man. Stuart nodded and hit the button to start pumping regular. He lifted the nozzle from its cradle and the man stepped out of his way. The gas hatch was open but Stuart fumbled a bit getting the nozzle into it.
The man said, “Do you live here in Lincolnville?”
“Yes,” said Stuart.
“It is a nice town. We — my business partner and I — were most impressed by its inhabitants. There is a lot of potential.”
“Potential for what?”
The man’s lips slid back, revealing a set of hard, square teeth as he said, “Development.”
The hose clicked off and Stuart turned to it, reflexively shook it a few times, and returned it to the cradle.
“Do you want a receipt?”
“No,” said the man, “Thank you, Stuart. You have been a great help.”
The man returned to the driver’s side and the car rolled away, whisper-quiet. Stuart stood, pinned to the spot as he watched the car turn onto the highway and head north toward Concord.
He turned and ran back inside.
“Blake! Blake! It was them!”
“Who?” Blake was flicking bits of straw wrapper at a fly that buzzed lazily above him.
“The men — those guys I saw last night!”
“Look, you gotta tell your sugar daddies they have to wait until after work—”
“Shut up, Blake! It was those two men I saw, the ones I think took Ms. Turnstead. Did you see them? They looked like aliens or something. Well? Didn’t you see them?”
Blake shrugged, “No?”
Stuart frowned, “Well, I bet that was them. They said that the ‘inhabitants’ here have a lot of potential. And they knew my name! How did they know that?”
“Your name tag, maybe? What does that mean, ‘potential’?”
Stuart shrugged, “Nothing good, I bet.”
Stuart’s shift ended around eight. He spent most of it rolling the conversation with that man over and over again in his mind. He was sure they were the kidnappers who took Ms. Turnstead. Blake didn’t believe him, but he said he should call the police if he really thought they had taken Ms. Turnstead.
He walked home, hands in his pockets. The sky was painted in crimsons and oranges, fading into indigos. He kicked a rock imagining what he was going to say to the police. They would laugh at him. He hadn’t even seen what those people looked like last night. How could he be so sure that they were the same people as the driver?
He cursed himself for not thinking of getting the license plate number. That way he would actually have something to tell the police. He reached his street at dusk. The lamps had popped on. He felt himself shiver as he thought back to the night before.
It would be fine, he assured himself. He had seen them going north. They’re long gone by now.
The porch light at Ms. Turnstead’s was on.
He stopped before her house, peering across the yard into the front window. Maybe they left it on in case she was just out for a vacation and somebody thought she was missing. Maybe they found her wondering some park, trying to take vengeance on the kids who threw eggs at her house every year.
The curtain in the window shifted and Ms. Turnstead looked out at him. She smiled warmly and waved before vanishing back behind the curtain.
Stuart pulled out his phone and dialed Blake.
“What’s up?” answered Blake.
“The lady who went missing. The lady from the news report!”
“What do you mean?”
“The news report! Don’t you remember I told you I saw some weird men at her house and —”
“I don’t remember you telling me that.”
“You never listen to anything I say, do you?”
“Who was it you said was missing?”
“The old lady on your street? She was missing?”
“Yes! Didn’t you remember hearing that on the news?”
“No. Let me ask my mom, she normally has bible study with her today.”
The line went quiet. Stuart could vaguely hear Blake talking. He felt somebody watching him. Stuart looked back up at Ms. Turnstead. She was in the window, smiling at him. A wide, toothless smile.
“Yea, I’m here. My ma said she saw Ms. Turnstead today. Nobody said anything about her going missing.”
Stuart ran up the road, clutching his phone. He felt Ms. Turnstead’s eyes follow him. Adrenaline pounded in his veins pushing forward, back to home, back to safety.
That was not Ms. Turnstead!
Like a mantra it repeated:
That was not Ms. Turnstead! That was not Ms. Turnstead! That was not Ms. Turnstead!
He turned and saw whatever it was that was in Ms. Turnstead’s house, wearing her clothes, hiding in her skin walk up the street toward him.
He strangled a cry in his throat, as he sprinted up the hill. The streetlights flickered and went out one by one, sweeping up the street.
Stuart froze in the faint starlight. He could hear the thing in Ms. Turnstead’s skin move closer, its footfalls echoing like a steady drum, pounding in time with the beat of his heart.
He saw his house for a moment ahead, framed between the last two streetlights. There was a black sedan parked outside of it, and a man in a suit stood at the front door. He watched his mother open the door and welcome him in before the lights went out, and the street went dark.