Julie hadn’t minded working late until autumn began. As long as she’d arrived home in the daylight, there was nothing to worry about in the walk from her car to the front door. Now that the sun was setting earlier, though, she arrived well after dark, and Mama always said to hustle inside on autumn nights after dark.
She’d never really believed it, just like she’d never really believed in the monster under the bed, but there were still nights when she had to get up during the witching hour and you can be sure she pulled her feet up into bed real quick, and pulled the covers over her head, too. Just in case.
Julie drove slowly down the driveway, ignoring what may or may not have been eyes gleaming from the fields. At the end of the drive, she gathered her bag and jacket, turned off the car, got her house key ready, and marched at a near jog to her front door. Something rustled in the grass, but she didn’t look. Mama always said not to look.
She closed and locked the door swiftly behind her. Inside, all was normal – in fact, better than normal: Todd had gotten the kids to bed and was washing dishes. A game show was on, and all the curtains were drawn.
“Hi, sweetie,” she called, hanging her jacket in the hallway.
“Hey,” he called back. “You just missed it – this guy only had one letter left and he blew it.”
She kissed him on the cheek. “What was the answer?”
“Eh, I forgot already.”
Julie did a double take at the contents of the sink. “Did they eat any of their vegetables?”
“Aiden did. Andrew threw a fit, though.”
One set of blinds in the living room had been left open. Julie tugged them closed, trying to avoid looking beyond the warm reflection of her living room into the dark Georgia night.
“The cat is in, right?”
“Oh, shoot – sorry, I was trying to get Andrew to bed –”
“Todd, it’s after dark!”
“I know, sweetie, I’m so sorry – I’ll go out and help you look –”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” She went to the pantry and pulled out Magnolia’s bag of treats. “She’ll come running for these – ain’t no need for anyone to go outside.”
Though she could practically hear Mama’s ghost yelling at her not to do it, Julie unlocked the back door and opened it just wide enough to stick her arm through and rattle the bag. She tried to ignore Todd standing just behind her – he was probably trying to be comforting, but having her escape route blocked just made her more nervous.
The fields whispered in the night breeze; the dark forest beyond was only a jagged line below which there were no stars. Aiden had seen the ghost of a soldier walking there last spring; Todd had chalked it up to too much TV, but Julie believed him. She believed, like her mama before her, that every Southerner had seen a ghost at least once, it was just a question of how willing they were to admit it.
“Here, Magnolia…” Her halfhearted cry could barely be heard beyond the porch. Luckily, Magnolia heard the rattle of her favorite treats: she leapt onto the porch railing, practically giving Julie a heart attack, and trotted inside, meowing.
Julie stepped back, already breathing a sigh of relief that the door would soon be closed and the night shut out, when she saw eyes in the grass.
She froze, locked between curiosity and dread, staring out at the glowing eyes.
“What is it?” Todd whispered. He was much taller than her; he could easily see what had caught her attention. “Coyote?”
“Sure.” Julie backed away slowly, edging Todd back with her. The eyes had drawn closer. Julie closed the door and threw the deadbolt.
“It was just a coyote, right?” Todd’s eyes kept shifting to the blinds, as if he wanted to look outside but knew better.
“Ain’t it always just a coyote?” Julie rubbed the back of her neck; her heart was still racing. “I’m going to call the Parks, make sure their cats aren’t out.”
“Yeah.” Todd still looked distracted. She wondered if he would try to go scare it off with the shotgun, or if his mama had told him, like Julie’s had told her, that these things were always better off left alone. “Maybe I should call the Wrights. Just in case.”
“Yeah – just in case.”