The brilliant flare of yellow pierced the subcutaneous layers of my sleep with a single stab and I was instantly awake. I lay still for a moment trying to understand what was different, what was wrong.
Outside my window I could hear a low continuous growl and twin flares of light stared up, penetrating the thin gauze of my bedroom curtains. Where grey soft dawn should be, something monstrous stirred instead.
I pushed back the bedclothes and rose, my bare feet padding tentatively across wooden floorboards until I reached the curtains.
Still it stared. Still it snarled.
Before fear could freeze me I wrenched back the curtains and peered outside, momentarily blinded by the blazing lights. As my vision slowly throbbed back into focus I could see it was no monster after all, just a transit van, idling lazily in the road; purring, not growling.
I looked at my bedside clock which told me it was 4.30 in the morning and I frowned. The van must be Josh’s, or one of his customers’. He didn’t sleep well and some of the other neighbours had talked to him before about keeping the garage open too late, working on engines and blasting happy hardcore, his clever fingers quick with amphetamine, his overwrought nervous system twanging with Chinese takeaway food and menthol cigarettes. I’d speak to him about it in the morning.
Satisfied with my explanation I turned back to bed when another, subtler sound caught my ears; the distinctive creak of my garden gate. I flung the curtains back again to see the dark shadow of a heavyset man hurrying back to the van, jumping inside and, in a moment, driving off down the road.
I frowned, confused - Josh’s garage was just across the road. Was he testing the van? Surely he’d loop back around in a minute. I could talk to him, tell him it was a ridiculous time to be working. He probably had no idea what time it was, poor kid.
But then I realised that my gate, always fastidiously shut, was swinging recklessly open.
The man, whoever he was - because I knew now with certainty that it wasn’t Josh - had been in my garden.
The fear I had quieted now rose like vomit in my chest and I flew down the stairs before I could give myself time to think, my thoughts full of stories of criminals who left markings on houses to flag up the vulnerable, the easy targets, the women alone to return to later.
I reached my front door and stood, my face pressed against the frosted glass, trying to see if anyone stood waiting for me, but there was nothing.
With trembling fingers I unbolted the door and turned the key in the lock. It swung open, flooding my hall with the thin watery light of the streetlights and the approaching day.
There was nothing. Everything was exactly as it should be, except the gate, which hung agape.
I cast my eyes about, searching frantically for any kind of sign or anything that would explain why a strange man would let himself into my garden in the middle of the night.
And then I looked down.
There on the doorstep stood a single bottle of creamy white milk.