Outside her bedroom window, the blanket of fallen leaves moved -- one footstep at a time.
Cindy Swyteck lay quietly in her bed, her sleeping husband at her side. It was a dark winter night, cold by Miami standards. In a city where forty degrees was considered frigid, no more than once or twice a year could she light the fireplace and snuggle up to Jack beneath a fluffy down comforter. She slid closer to his body, drawn by his warmth. A gusty north wind rattled the window, the shrill sound alone conveying a chill. The whistle became a howl, but the steady crunching of leaves was still discernible, the unmistakable sound of an approaching stranger.
Flashing images in her head offered a clear view of the lawn, the patio, and the huge almond leaves scattered all about. She could see the path he'd cut through the leaves. It led straight to her window.
Five years had passed since she'd last laid eyes on her attacker. Everyone from her husband to the police had assured her he was dead, though she knew he'd never really be gone. On nights like these, she could have sworn he was back, in the flesh. His name was Esteban.
Five years, and the horrifying details were still burned into her memory. His calloused hands and jagged nails so rough against her skin. The stale puffs of rum that came with each nauseating breath in her face. The cold, steel blade pressing at her jugular. Even then, she'd refused to kiss him back. Most unforgettable of all were those empty, sharklike eyes -- eyes so cold and angry that when he'd opened his disgusting mouth and bit her on the lips she saw her own reflection, witnessed her own terror, in the shiny black irises.
Five years, and those haunting eyes still followed her everywhere, watching her every move. Not even her counselors seemed to understand what she was going through. It was as if the eyes of Esteban had become her second line of sight. When night fell and the wind howled, she couldeasily slip into the mind of her attacker and see things he'd seen before his own violent death. Stranger still, she seemed to have a window to the things he might be seeing now. Through his eyes, she could even watch herself. Night after night, she had the perfect view of Cindy Swyteck lying in bed, struggling in vain with her incurable fear of the dark.
Outside, the scuffling noise stopped. The wind and leaves were momentarily silent. The digital alarm clock on the nightstand blinked on and off, the way it always did when storms interrupted power. It was stuck on midnight, bathing her pillow with faint pulses of green light.
She heard a knock at the back door. On impulse, she rose and sat at the edge of the bed.
Don't go, she told herself, but it was as if she were being summoned.
Another knock followed, exactly like the first one. On the other side of the king-sized bed, Jack was sleeping soundly. She didn't even consider waking him.
I'll get it.
Cindy saw herself rise from the mattress and plant her bare feet on the tile floor. Each step felt colder as she continued down the hall and through the kitchen. The house was completely dark, and she relied more on instinct than sight to maneuver her way to the back door. She was sure she'd turned off the outside lights at bedtime, but the yellow porch light was burning. Something had obviously triggered the electronic eye of the motion detector. She inched closer to the door, peered out the little diamond-shaped window, and let her eyes roam from one edge of the backyard to the other. A gust of wind ripped through the big almond tree, tearing the brownest leaves from the branches. They fell to the ground like giant snowflakes, but a few were caught in an upward draft and rose into the night, just beyond the faint glow of the porch light. Cindy lost sight of them, except for one that seemed to hover above the patio. Another blast of wind sent it soaring upward. Then it suddenly changed direction, came straight toward her, and slammed against the door.
The noise startled her, but she didn't back away. She kept looking out the window, as if searching for whatever it was that had sent that lone leaf streaking toward her with so much force. She saw nothing, but in her heart she knew that she was mistaken. Something was definitely outthere. She just couldn't see it. Or maybe it was Esteban who couldn't see it.
Stop using his eyes!
The door swung open. A burst of cold air hit her like an Arctic front. Goose bumps covered her arms and legs. Her silk nightgown shifted in the breeze, rising to midthigh. She somehow knew that she was colder than ever before in her life, though she didn't really feel it. She didn't feel anything. A numbness had washed over her, and though her mind told her to run, her feet wouldn't move. It was suddenly impossible to gauge the passage of time, but in no more than a few moments was she strangely at ease with the silhouette in the doorway.
"What are you doing here?"
"Is Jack here?"
"It's our night to play poker."
"Jack can't play cards with you tonight."
"We play every Tuesday."
"I'm sorry, Daddy. Jack can't play with you anymore."
"Because you're dead."
With a shrill scream she sat bolt upright in bed. Confused and frightened, she was shivering uncontrollably. A hand caressed her cheek, and she screamed again.
"It's okay," said Jack. He moved closer and tried putting his arms around her.
She pushed him away. "No!"
"It's okay, it's me."
Her heart was pounding, and