After Joel put Sarah to bed, he trudged back downstairs to complete his nightly routine: turning off the lights and locking up the house. It was well after one in the morning, a little later than usual - but what the hell - it was his birthday. First, he turned off the t.v. with the remote and tossed it onto the sofa. Next, he made sure the front door was locked, then went to the kitchen to check the sliding glass door there, followed by the one in his office before heading back up to bed.

As he reached the glass doors in his office, his eyes caught sight of a shadow moving about in the darkness. He put his face close to the glass and squinted. Someone was rummaging through the bed of his 1972 El Camino, which was parked just a few short yards from the house.

Joel unlocked the door and slid it open. The car sat facing the house where behind it stood a wooden toolshed, the doors unlocked. He stuck his head through the opened door and called out, "Hey! Can I help you with something?"

Whoever it was jumped in fear. Joel slipped through the doorway and as he approached, he realized the shadowy figure was none other than Gordon Cooper, his next-door neighbor. Gordon was an average-sized man in his early fifties with an easy-going disposition. He was wearing a blue golf shirt and black slacks, his uniform as a salesman at the Ford dealership in the city. Upon seeing Joel, Gordon's face filled with relief.

"God," Gordon said, his face pale. "You scared the crapola outta me."

Joel glanced at his watch. "Kinda late, ain't it?"

"Didn't mean to alarm you, neighbor. Just, uh, Millie, well she's gone and locked herself in the bedroom and," he chuckled and shook his head, "she won't open the goddamn door."

Joel put a work boot on the fender of his El Camino and the car moaned under his weight. He rested his elbows on the tailgate. "Y'all have a fight or something?"

"No. No, nothing like that. I called her from work and told her I was gonna be home late, she said fine, and when I got home the door to the bedroom was locked. I thought she might've laid down with the baby. I tapped on the door, but she won't answer."

"You sure she's home?"

"Yeah, you can hear her breathing, heavy-like, through the closed door."

"Huh," Joel said, the wheels turning. He was thinking about the baby but didn't say anything.

Gordon nodded at the iron crowbar in his hands. "I thought I'd borrow this to try and jimmy the door open."

Joel reached out and took the crowbar from him. "How 'bout we find something that maybe'll do a little less damage?" He tossed the bar back into the bed where it clanged against chains and rusted saw blades. He looked around a bit before finding what he wanted.

"Here we go," he said, holding up a long thin nail that gleamed in the moonlight. "This oughta do it."

"Ah," said Gordon, smiling with approval. "Perfect."

"C'mon," Joel said. He motioned for Gordon to lead the way. "Let's go have a look."

Just as they passed the fence surrounding Gordon's house, a gunshot rang out in the night. It was some distance off to their left and caused them both to freeze.

"Somebody having a block party they didn't tell us about?" Gordon nervously joked, but Joel could sense the fear in his voice. And, the fact was, Joel felt it too.

Screams followed the gunshot, which followed more gunshots, followed by more screams. "Let's get inside," Joel said, ushering his neighbor to pick up the pace. A growing sense of dread filled him, like the shadows surrounding them as they moved about in the dark.

They hurriedly entered the house through the kitchen door and Joel shut it and locked it behind him. The kitchen was well-lit. Joel looked around and saw a half-dozen used baby bottles in the sink. An opened can of dry formula powder sat tipped over on the counter. Again, dread filled his insides. This wasn't Millie's kitchen, clean and orderly.

"What the hell is going on?" Gordon asked in a panicked voice as he peered out the window into the dark.

"I don't know," Joel said. He felt a disconcerting tug in his chest urging him home, but he resisted. He put a hand on Gordon's shoulder. "Let's go check on that wife of yours."

They walked out of the kitchen and down a dimly lit hallway to where the master bedroom lay. At the entrance of the hallway, the door to the left was open, and Joel saw a strange blue light glowing within. It was Jimmy's room, Gordon's son, a twenty-something whose job in the city required slacks and a tie.

Joel paused at the doorway to take a look. He noted with no particular interest a collection of glass containers scattered throughout the room. They all seemed to have a fungus growing inside them. The strange glow came from a blacklight fluorescent bulb hanging from the ceiling. The room itself seemed like some deep cavernous dwelling; thick spores hung in the air, made oddly visible by the blacklight. Joel reached in and yanked the door shut without thought, driven to action by a primordial survival instinct that defied explanation.

Joel's heart was pumping fast now. His mind struggled to make sense of all he had seen and heard this night - the gunshots, the screams - and now this. Gordon, his mild-mannered neighbor, was masking a growing terror within him, that much was certain. The hairs on Joel's neck had come to stand on end, just like his neighbor's.

"Oh," Gordon said, hearing the door close and seeing the expression on Joel's face. "Jimmy's been bringing those things home from the city in little glass jars to study them. He's says they're some kind of fungus or other."

The fungal growth in Jimmy's room had triggered a connection inside Joel's head. He remembered seeing those orange, finger-like images before, in the headlines of the papers, and on the evening news.

"I'm not sure that's such a good idea," Joel said.

"Yeah. That's what I told him," Gordon shrugged. "Think he listens to me?"

They moved to the end of the hallway, to the closed door of the master bedroom.

"This is it," Gordon said, sucking in a deep breath. Beads of sweat formed over the deep lines in his forehead. He put his ear against the door. "Listen… you can hear Millie breathing inside."

Gordon moved aside to let Joel have a listen. Joel put his ear next to the door - it was surprisingly cold - but just as Gordon had stated, he heard a deep raspy breath inhale and exhale on the other side.

To Joel, it sounded like labored breathing, not from sleep, but not entirely awake either. He fished the nail out of his pocket and paused.

"You think the baby's in there with her?"

As Gordon registered the question, his eyes widened. "He'd better be," he answered, and Joel could tell from the panic on the man's face that he had said the wrong thing.

"I'm sure it's fine," Joel said. He took the nail from his pocket and fished it into the tiny hole of the doorknob, found the catch and popped it open. What Joel saw next would haunt him the rest of his life...