Josef walked alone under the falling sun, looking into the luxurious windows of Clearwater Avenue’s old brick houses. Lights seeped out of them, illuminating the crepuscular scene. Some of the homes were hidden behind curtains, but others were open to the world, as if to gloat about the lives contained within. Josef liked the open windows—each one was, for him, a screen playing a different, exotic movie.
There was Mr and Mrs Baker’s manor, all turrets and bay windows. They were ornithologists celebrated for a study they published long ago on the declining population of peregrine falcons. They conducted their field research not far from here, during daily hikes to the estuary out east. After the study’s publication, in a tragic fit of nostalgia, they returned to the trail with their young daughter, hoping to kindle in her a naturalist’s curiosity. But it was February and the peregrines were abnormally aggressive, even for wintertime; in an unattended moment, the daughter was mauled to death. It became the first and only recorded case of peregrine-on-human violence, which was previously thought to be a myth. That singular data point would be the Bakers’ last and most unfortunate contribution to falcon research—they retired the following morning.
Johannes Höfs lived next door in a more modest and charming home. He was a reclusive genius who earned a fortune from his work as an early computer programmer. Some say half the internet runs on his code. With no pressure to work, he spent his nights penning brilliant blog posts under half a dozen pseudonyms. Every few months or so, when his urge for human contact built to a breaking point, he threw Gatsbyesque parties with enough champagne to satiate F. Scott Fitzgerald himself. Everyone in town knew when Johannes was having one of his soirées because of the sudden influx of supermodels.
On the corner, in a house built with so many lopsided additions that it was a miracle it remained standing, lived Mr and Mrs Starkey with their eleven children. Nobody knew what they did for work, and their kids did not attend any school in town. In fact, none of them had ever been seen out of the house—but every now and then, around the solstice, pictures would circulate of a pagan cult performing a human sacrifice in what seemed to be a Scottish glen. The cult members hid their faces under animal masks, but there were thirteen of them, and their silhouettes looked suspiciously similar to the ones in the Starkeys’ windows.
With a sigh, Josef turned onto the markedly less opulent Still Lane, where he rented a studio apartment. These were just flights of fantasy. The Bakers were professors at the local university and their daughter, a sulky teenager, was very much alive. Johannes Höfs was indeed a computer programmer, but now he worked as a middle manager for a nondescript tech company. His parties were BYOB, and the girls in attendance were definitely not supermodels. And the Starkeys were simply garden variety Christian fundamentalists. Josef never saw them because he never attended church, and as for their kids, they were homeschooled.
When he looked into each of their windows on his way home, all he saw were faces glowing in the pale blue lights of screens, headphones in, mouths slightly open but never talking. For all their differences, every one of them looked exactly the same.
Josef pushed open the door to his musty apartment which was overflowing with old books and records. There were thousands of them spilling out of shelves and crates and piled against the walls. The curtains were drawn shut and a small lamp illuminated the room from its corner. He placed a record on the turntable at random—Glenn Gould playing Bach’s keyboard partitas—and poured himself a glass of burgundy. He was starving for life, so he sat at his desk and began to write:
Postcards from Clearwater Avenue…