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MELODY WALKED through the stranger’s home. She liked new places; here was a condo, part of an expensive high-rise. She peeked around the corners, taking in her surroundings, evaluating today’s job. Everything was lavish to the point of looking a little ridiculous. The decor was deep burgundy against a white backdrop; the furniture looked like it was straight off a showroom floor. The spacious living room looked across through a breakfast bar to the kitchen; the gas stovetop was set in an island, the cabinetry was ornate white wood with pewter hardware.
She felt the animal before she saw it; a cat mewed and padded curiously around the corner. Melody smiled and bent down to pet the grey and white creature, which immediately sprang up into her arms, purring contently.
“Looks like you have a new friend,” the woman spoke, peering out at Melody from the kitchen. The woman’s face was trapped in a permanent scowl. “Ferdinand normally doesn’t like anybody. He’s Anton’s cat. Very particular.”
“Oh, he’s beautiful,” said Melody, as the cat nuzzled her neck. “Aren’t you just precious?”
The woman looked at her strangely. “I’ll be gone in a few minutes. I just have to finish… you know.” The woman disappeared into the hall bathroom, but her voice still carried. “Then I’ll be out of your hair and you can get to work.” The woman spoke as though housecleaning was something to be ashamed of. A few spritzes of perfume later and the woman pranced down the hall, her heels clicking on the wood floors. “My car is here. I’ll be back in a few hours. I expect you’ll be gone by then.” she paused, and added with forced consideration. “There’s sparkling water in the fridge, but please stay out of the bourbon. I know how much is left.”
Melody tried not to act insulted. Instead, she held out the cat in offering, who looked up at the woman and promptly sneezed. “Say goodbye to Ferdinand?”
“Oh, good gracious no,” said the woman, turning abruptly and exiting the condo. “Dreadful animal.”
Now alone in the house, Melody let herself relax. “Poor little thing. Anton’s her son, isn’t he? He must off at school.” She ran her fingers along a family photograph on the wall, one among many. A wife and husband and a son in his late teens, all sharply dressed and carefully posed. All the pictures looked roughly the same, all carefully postured – the parents looked stern and the boy wore a quirky half-smile, as though he constantly on the verge of a laugh. “I’d laugh too, boy, if I had to wear those clothes all the time.”
The cat sniffled and jumped out of her arms, and began grooming himself on the edge of the sofa. Melody busied herself first by opening every drape in the house and cracking a few windows. Light flooded in, and a cool breeze trickled through, dispelling the stillness in the air.
She gathered her bag of supplies. The condo was barely lived in; Melody wondered why on earth a family would need a maid when it was clear to her that no one ever touched anything. Still, a paycheck was a paycheck. And they had a nice cat.
She started in the kitchen, disinfecting countertops that looked like no one had even cooked on them, vacuuming immaculate floors. Only the furniture needed the slightest attention, and she cleaned off the residual fur with a lint brush and fluffed the pillows. The cat followed her, softly, from room to room – scattering whenever she turned on the vacuum or swept the broom, but returning quickly to her side when the dangerous appliance had been put away.
She was dusting the cabinetry, the cat perched in a windowsill, when she felt it – not quite something dangerous, but something unusual. A tingling crept up from the edges of her awareness. There was a shiver in the air, a dry crackle like all the moisture had suddenly been sucked away, and the atmosphere was trying to compensate for the vacuum. The cat hissed suddenly, and jumped down from the window, circling her leg and looking up at her anxiously. Melody looked out at the window, surprised. She was nine stories up – there couldn’t possibly be anything dangerous outside. Still, she crept toward the window like she anticipated something jumping out at her, and peered out into the street.
The street was as busy as expected. An afternoon in Newark: people milled about, but nothing out of the ordinary. Then she saw him, almost a shadow below her, dark skin and pale eyes, watching from across the street. Her blood ran cold as she stared down this dark figure, still against the constant motion of the city street. She did not know how this shadow could pick her out from a window ninety feet in the air, but she knew with absolute certainty that she was being watched. And even from that distance, she was somehow certain he was smiling.
She heard the cat skitter behind her; Ferdinand quickly hid under the sofa, somewhere out of sight.
Then the traffic lights changed color, the traffic began to move, and in an instant the shadow was gone. A shudder took her, racing up and down her spine. She exhaled involuntarily, and stepped back from the window, yanking the blinds closed behind her.
The cat butted up against her leg and she jumped, barely stifling a scream. Her pulse was racing. The cat mewed up at her curiously and she picked him up, absentmindedly petting his fur, trying to calm the electricity in her nerves.
The house she finished cleaning in absolute silence.The bus ride home was cold and lonely, and Melody spent the hour reaching out to her surroundings with her mind, unable to shake the feeling that someone was following her – someone just beyond her reach.