The day was grey and windless and, although not a drop had fallen, the smell of rain filled the air.  The sky was a bleak grey void.

William would not have gone out at all that day since it was the sort of day that usually depressed him, but his little dog had suffered his indifference long enough and needed to be walked.  Usually the dog was fairly quick about his business, but that day he seemed to the man to be determined to drag him about for most of the afternoon.

There were no people out. There were no animals in evidence either. No bird chirped, and no insect buzzed.  The day seemed unnaturally still.

Although William liked to think he was not prone to fits of moodiness, he found the atmosphere to be singularly oppressive that day, and his depression worsened with each passing second.  Suddenly bewildered by this inexplicable rush of emotion, he even considered picking up his little dog, and retreating to the sanctuary of his home. Why wouldn’t the dog hurry up?!

Just as he was about to implement this plan he became aware of the presence of someone not far behind him.  He clearly heard the heavy steps of the stranger who seemed to be stomping upon the pavement like a man purposely announcing his presence, the footfalls sounding with alarming rapidity.  The stranger’s strained breathing grew louder, and he knew he would soon feel that breath upon his neck.  Prepared to defend himself, he turned to confront his pursuer.

To his surprise there was no one there.

Afraid of some unseen assailant, yet more afraid of admitting to himself that he had imagined it, he walked back a few yards, scanning the bushes for some sign of life while his dog, seeming oblivious to the strange drama, tugged at the leash in an attempt to continue along his former course.  It was odd the dog had failed to notice the alien presence.  In fact, it was impossible for anyone to come so close and still escape the dog’s notice, for although he was a poor watch dog, he was usually friendly and curious about every creature he encountered.  He decided he had imagined it after all.

Once he was back inside his house he again felt safe, but he still was apprehensive about his mental state.  Why had he suddenly started imagining things?  Why had this walk, on this particular bland and unthreatening afternoon, so upset him?  The rest of the day he wrestled with the fear of impending insanity.  He questioned his every action, and each desire, no matter how trivial, seemed to be the abnormal lusts of a mad man.

His father had deserted the family before birth, leaving his mother with a burden too great for a woman of such frail nature to bear.  As he grew older she became, day by day, ever increasingly insane.  By the time he had reached his twenty first year she was in constant agony, tormented by beings invisible to all but herself.  Three years later, a razor blade opened her wrists. “I will not pay the rent” had been scrawled in blood on the floor by her head.

He had long considered himself immune to the phantoms of the mind that had driven his mother to her death, but he suddenly found himself reliving old fears and agonizing over the prospect of new fears yet to come.  That day he started putting paper down for the dog and, work not being necessary due to some wise investments, he vowed not to venture beyond his front door unless dire need compelled him.  After a time he even came to dislike being near a window and hung heavy blankets in front of the windows that lacked blinds or shades.  The curtains in his home were made of a thin material and were, he decided, not thick enough to prevent the gaze of a voyeur, nor were they thick enough to prevent him from seeing out.  He was terrified of each shadowy form on the other side of the glass.  He decided that he would rather cower behind his front door than open it and confront madness.

After a week of this self-imprisonment he became afraid to answer the telephone.  A call in the middle of the night had sent him into near hysterics.  The caller had refused to identify himself, his only words being “Alive” and “Back again” whispered over and over.  He threw the phone to the floor where it remained.  Later that night he dreamed he was a child again, sitting with his mother in the kitchen of their old home.  While in reality they never entertained, in this dream they were not alone.  There was a man sitting across the table from his mother, a man who chuckled malevolently at some unvoiced joke behind the thick smoke that hung before him like a veil.  This worried his dream self since his mother would never allow smoking in the house.  He was certain that she would become upset, but she seemed oblivious to this indiscretion as she sat at the table, polishing a large knife.  The strange man’s voice was gruff and somehow hostile, yet his words were as indistinct as his features.  Afraid, yet curious, the dreamer moved closer to the stranger.  As he did so, he could make out the man more clearly.  Clenched between the man’s teeth was a cigar which he puffed on furiously, and with each puff, plumes of smoke billowed out of a long, jagged wound in his throat.

The next day, he became frantic when he realized that his supply of food had dwindled to almost nothing.  He thought he would expire from the effort of lifting that receiver to his ear again, for he knew he would explode from terror if he heard the harsh voice of his foe, now wearing the form of the man from his nightmare, before he could slam the phone down again.  He was certain the stranger was still on the line, waiting to reveal to him the secret he dreaded to hear, waiting to confirm that he had gone insane.  Though he heard only a dial tone, he was sure his enemy was listening.

After the ordeal of ordering his groceries, when the phone was again safely away from his ear, he waited and prayed he would have the courage to open the door when the boy came to deliver the food.  What if it wasn’t the boy knocking?  What if it was the fiend trying to get in?  Would he then have the courage to kill him?  His mind was swirling with visions of the hard, cruel face he had seen through the haze in his nightmare.

After he had lived through an eternity of those hellish doubts, the feared noise sounded throughout the room.  At first, he was tempted to ignore the knocking.  It might not be the boy!  It’s a trick!, he almost screamed.

“Sal’s Market!” shouted the high-pitched voice on the other side of the door.  “I’ve got your stuff.”

It sounded nothing like the man.  He decided to chance it.  Gathering all of his willpower, he leapt up and rushed across the room to the door.  He hesitated only a moment, his hand upon the ice-cold knob, before throwing the door open and gazing out upon a boy who could not have been more than sixteen.  His expression must have been wild for the boy looked shocked when he looked up at him.

“I’m sorry it took me so long,” he said, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically.  “I was in the—“

He stopped, unable to complete his thought.  Behind the boy, across the lawn, was the man.  For the first time he saw him clearly.  He was short and stocky.  He was balding and his mean face was unshaven.  He seemed dirty, looking as if he would reek of sweat and stale smoke.  Worst of all was his expression.  He had the look of an idiot, a malevolent throw back to a more brutal age.

William grabbed the boy and pulled him inside slamming the door behind him.  To his surprise the boy began to shout and tried to push him away.

“Good God!” he screamed “Don’t open the door you fool!”

The boy, as terrified of him as William was of the man outside, fought frantically for his freedom, but he could not allow him to open that door.  Grabbing a marble bookend from a nearby shelf, he struck him.  Again and again he brought the thing down upon the boy’s head.  Over and over he struck the motionless form until at last he realized what he had done and the weight fell from his quivering hand.  Outside, on the porch, the man was laughing.

He had obliterated the boy’s face.  Next to the corpse, the contents of the package, the man’s groceries, were scatted about.

Suddenly, he could smell the cigar smoke that oozed in under the door.  The man had stopped laughing, but he could still hear his heavy panting.  Soon there was a knocking, slow and deliberate, on the door.  Drained of all emotion, his fear spent in the fury that had left the boy dead, he reached for the knob.  It was time to pay the rent.