Zave was yanked out of his dreams by the sensation of a smooth, wet tongue sliding over his face. Groaning, eyes still closed, he groped blindly in front of him until he found the guilty snout and pushed it away.
“Clueless,” he mumbled as it ducked around his hand to lick his face again. “Clueless, stop!”
Clueless barked and moved from licking his face to sticking her tongue down his ear.
“CLUELESS!” Zave yelled, sitting upright and throwing the dog off of him. “Cut it—”
His voice trailed off when he realized what he was looking at: nothing. His room was pitch black, as if he’d woken up in a cave. The only light was a faint sunbeam squeezing its way between his curtains, not enough to chase away even a square foot of the suffocating darkness.
“No,” Zave whispered, dread forming a weight in his stomach. “No, no, no, no…”
What had happened to the light he’d left on when he went to bed? It must have burned out while he was asleep, he realized. After almost a year of leaving it on all night, every night, he should have anticipated this. But the realization didn’t help him, as the dread turned into panic.
With an incoherent whine, he jumped out of bed and made for the door. There would be light in the living room! Safe, bright light that would make the darkness go away! Before he had taken even one step, though, his foot caught on something big and furry, and he pitched forward to crack his head against the door. There wasn’t time to contemplate his dog’s latest betrayal, though. Not when he was still in the dark.
Dark, dark, dark, dark, dark!
Like an animal himself, Zave clawed at the door, searching for the—yes! He turned the knob so hard it nearly broke, and yanked the door open. The living room was dark too, but that was okay. He stumbled his way through it, and his heart leaped when his shin banged against the coffee table. Reaching up, he ran his fingers desperately across the overhead light fixture until he found the chain that dangled from it. He gave it a pull, and…
Zave sighed in relief when light filled his house once again. With his heart still hammering in his chest, he collapsed onto his recliner. How long had it been since he’d had a panic attack that bad? Years. He was usually so meticulous in keeping the darkness at bay that his phobia hadn’t gotten the better of him since he’d moved out of his mother’s house two years ago.
A clang came from the kitchen, and Zave looked over to see Clueless pushing her empty food bowl into the wall. When the golden retriever saw him looking, she wagged her tail, thumping it against the bag of dog food beside her, as oblivious as ever to her owner’s troubles.
Wiping the sweat from his brow, Zave stood up and headed for the kitchen. He still felt like a rag that had been wrung out too hard, but he doubted his boss would accept that as an excuse for being late to work. He gave Clueless a quick scratch behind the ears and—
“Lovely weather we’re having.”
Zave spun around. There, sitting in the chair he had been in no more than five seconds ago, was a man. He was wearing a black suit and tie, and had black hair that had been slicked back. His eyes were too big for his face, and seemed to be entirely pupil. Looking at them from across the room, Zave could see his own reflection in their inky black depths.
And he was smiling at Zave.
“Did you watch the game last night?” he asked.
His grin was unnatural. That was the only way Zave could describe it. It reached too far up the sides of his face, and it revealed too many teeth.
“Wh- Who are you?” Zave asked. “How did you get in here?”
The windows were all shut, and the door still had its chain bolting it closed. The only way anyone could have gotten in here was if they were already inside—or if they had somehow walked straight through the walls.
“They are looking for you,” said the man. His voice was as slick as his hair, but there was something…off about the way he spoke. It was like listening to a computer read your text back to you, able to form the right sounds but not the right tones and inflections.
“Who is?” Zave asked.
“They don’t know they are looking for you, but they will once they find you. How are you today?”
Zave hesitated. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Nasty weather we’re having.”
Zave looked down at Clueless in confusion but, true to her name, she gave no indication that she knew there was an intruder in the house. She merely looked back up at him, patiently waiting for her breakfast.
“I’m going to call the police,” Zave said.
The smiling man stared at Zave for a minute, his expression never changing. Zave wondered if it would be safe for him to make a run for his phone. It was in his room—his dark room—but wasn’t suffering another panic attack better than whatever this grinning creep was planning to do to him?
“You need to buy dog food,” the man said suddenly.
“What? No, I don’t.” Zave looked at the bag sitting by the wall. “I just bought some last…”
The bag was gone. Zave looked up in surprise, but the man had vanished.
“What the hell?” he whispered.
What to do now? Did he call the police? What was he supposed to tell them if he did? That a man with a scary smile had broken into his house without using any of the doors or windows and then vanished into thin air? They’d bring him in for drug testing, and then he’d never make it to work on time!
Clueless gave a hopeful bark, and Zave put a hand on her head. Well, the smiling man had been right about one thing. He did need to get her some more food. Checking the clock, Zave decided he had enough time to run to the pet store and back and still make it to work.
“Come on, girl,” he said, grabbing his keys and heading for the door. “Wanna go for a car ride?”