Authors: Deb Donahue
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This is a work of fiction.
Nothing is in it that has not been imagined.
Originally published as a personalizable novel
by PersonalNOVEL (UK and Europe)
Copyright © 2015 Red Door Press
All rights reserved.
For my Mom,
ROSEMARY DONAHUE HAWKINS
It’s not Danielle Steele,
but at least there are no f-bombs in it.
The car shuddered with the force of the wind. Miranda Preston kept a firm hand on the steering wheel as she turned off the dirt road and pulled up to the locked gate.
As usual, she had terrible timing. She’d intended to arrive mid-afternoon, earlier if she could, in order to settle in well before nightfall. A flat tire, however, and the storm that brought premature darkness, had interfered with her plans. So here she was, raindrops just starting to plop against the windshield and blackness pressing in on all sides. The farm was so far from the nearest neighbor that the only light on the horizon was the dim glow of Greenville, ten miles north.
The battered mailbox at the side of the driveway had lost its door and the name painted on it was barely legible and missing several letters. This was the place, though. She recognized the long line of pine trees from her vacations here as a child. The massive trunks had looked like giants to the twelve-year-old she’d been on her last visit and still seemed so to the twenty-five-year old adult she was now.
“What do you think, Rufus?” she asked the Jack Russel-mix pup at her side. “Can you find any squirrels to chase here?”
The two-year old canine in the passenger seat hopped with his front feet and barked at the overgrown trees and bushes that flanked the pine-lined driveway ahead of them.
“You might find a few things in there big enough to chase you,” Miranda added.
She unlocked her door and rammed it hard with her shoulder as she opened it. The fifteen-year-old hinges released reluctantly and let in a mix of dirt, leaves and rain whipped by the wind.
As she exited, Rufus slipped out past her, headed for a clump of weeds in the ditch that looked like they needed marking. Miranda held her jacket closed with both arms crossed in front of her and, head down, stepped toward the gate. The headlights offered a comforting circle of light around her. She tried hard not to look or even think about the shadows that pressed close beyond their perimeter.
The attorney had given her a set of keys, but it took several tries before she found the correct one for the rusted padlock guarding the farm’s entrance. She had to lean hard on the arm of the gate to get it to arc open against the force of the gale. By the time she secured it against the post at the side of the drive, the storm clouds had settled just above, ready to stay awhile. The raindrops had grown smaller but fell more frequently, cold on her face.
Even Rufus seemed eager to avoid the elements, already waiting by the car when she returned and jumping in as soon as the door opened. Nose pressed to the side window, he watched the scenery eagerly as Miranda slowly drove in.
The garage came into view first, worn doors rattling in the wind. The white paint had peeled and splintered, exposing damaged, dry wood. A light pole at the corner leaned as if yielding to the storm, but the globe on top was dark. Only Miranda’s headlights reflecting off the building cast shadows toward the bulky farmhouse on the right. Miranda drove slowly around the circular drive so that she could see the place she planned to make her new home.
The roof of the unscreened porch slanted drunkenly and the railing had long since rotted away. The steps leading to it were cement, at least, and looked secure enough. She put the car in park and turned off the engine, but left the headlights lit. The place didn’t look like much from the outside, but it would hopefully be dry and warm inside. She grabbed her overnight bag and a flashlight from the back seat and she and Rufus ran for the house.
She shivered when she reached the comparative shelter under the porch roof, partly because of the cold wind and partly an anticipation that was at least half fear. She’d forgotten how dark a country night could be when there were no stars or moon out. A smothering blanket of blackness that, if she looked too long at it, would feel suffocating to her.
“Stop it,” she told herself. When Rufus looked up as if wondering if he had done something wrong, she had to laugh. “Not you. Good boy. It’s me who’s being a big baby.”
She fumbled with her keys again, finally finding the correct one. When she pushed the door open, she found her expectations of dry and warm had been a little high. As she stepped across the threshold into the kitchen, the room was dry, at least, despite the dripping she heard somewhere at the back of the room. But the chill that pushed back at her felt like all the winters since her last visit had been stored inside, awaiting her return.
There was a switch on the interior wall but no lights turned on when she flipped it. Looking up, she saw an empty socket outside and decided that switch must be the control for the porch light. There had to be another one for the interior lights. She couldn’t find it anywhere near the entrance, however, and a quick span of her flashlight showed only towers of boxes covering a Formica table and stacked nearly ceiling high along the floor. Rufus sniffed at the corner of the nearest cardboard pile, whimpering and scratching.
“Rufus,” she whispered to call him back. Then she realized how ridiculous whispering sounded and called him again in a normal tone. “Rufus. Come.”
He gave up his quest, but when Miranda moved forward, giving him instructions to heel, he clearly had difficulty accepting his restraints.
There were appliances on the other side of the wall of cardboard: a stove with rusted cast iron burners, a refrigerator with a rounded top that was even shorter than Miranda, a long porcelain sink attached to the wall. There was also a light switch, one so old it had two buttons rather than a flipper.
Her relief was premature. Nothing happened when she pressed the top button. She tried several times, as if repetition were the key to success, but despite that and the panic rising in her throat, the bare bulb hanging from the ceiling remained dark. Removing it, she shook it to make sure it wasn’t burnt out, and returned to the porch. The light that still flooded the entrance from her headlights felt like such a relief she sighed and felt the tension in her shoulders ease. The rain had begun in earnest, flooding the gutter that hung from the roofline on only one bracket. Putting the bulb in the empty socket, she tried that switch again. Nothing.
She’d called weeks ago. It had been critical for her to have lights working before she got here. The electric company told her there would be no problem. The caretaker had also agreed to have the propane tank filled and furnace checked to make sure all was in working order. Heat, however, she could live without, for a while. It was the darkness she needed to defend against. Even now with the glare of headlights beaming through the open door, her subconscious mind cringed from the dark corners where the light didn’t reach. Where something, despite her rational brain telling her otherwise, might be lying in wait.
“Rufus!” Her panic edged closer as she suddenly realized the little dog was no longer at her side. At that same moment, she heard him, barking from a far room. An excited, aggressive yapping which usually meant he had a victim at bay.
A rat, it had to be a rat. Or a mouse or a bird. Her brain knew there could be dozens of logical reasons for his behavior. But her nyctophobia, despite reassurances and years of therapy, only knew terror. Her childhood bouts of panic had always happened more frequently while staying on this very farm. That made sense in a way, since the darkness of a country night was so much more “complete” than that in a streetlamp-strewn major city.
Her heart fluttered and her breath shortened until she forced herself to inhale a deep, slow breath. She held it for a count of five and slowly released it. Her pulse still raced but the fear backed off a pace. She could do this.
With another slow breath, she stepped forward, flashlight held high. “Rufus,” she called. “Rufus, come.”
At the far end of the kitchen, she found the source of the dripping she’d heard earlier. A soup pot had been placed in a corner; a steady plop pinged into the rusted receptacle from a spreading stain in the ceiling. The next room appeared to be the dining room, though all the furniture had been covered and books and other debris cluttered the floor. Three more rooms opened off of this one, their doorways gaping black holes.
“Rufus!” Anger helped stave off the fear. “Come here.”
He ran out of one of the darkened rooms and pranced across the floor toward her like she had just invited him to fetch a thrown ball. Circling her feet, he yipped playfully. Miranda laughed, but the high pitch of it had an edge of hysteria that made her shiver.
“Heel,” she commanded, then hurried to the porch, closing the door behind them with a sigh of relief.
The storm was in full force. Wind whipped her hair into her eyes, sprayed her with rain even under the shelter of the porch roof. The temperature had dropped in just the few moments she’d been inside and held a hint of the winter to come. Holding her overnight bag over her head as a makeshift umbrella, Miranda dashed to the car. Jumping in, she locked all the doors.
Goose bumps pricked her arms. She turned the engine on and cranked up the heater but even with the blowers going full blast, Miranda couldn’t stop shivering. Putting her hands on the steering wheel, she rested her forehead on them, trying hard to do the deep breathing exercises that usually kept her calm. Deep breath in, then out. Deep breath in…. But her breath came out in a sob, short and angry.
“Stupid, stupid,” she whispered, hitting the steering wheel. “Don’t be such a baby.”
The words helped, reminding her of the pep talk she’d had with her coworker at WKLU during her last days on the job.
“Don’t be such a baby,” the woman had told her last time Miranda complained about how cutthroat the entertainment business was. “I bet you were tickled pink when they offered you the weather anchor job. You were green then, were you? Thinking life was going to be all smiles and promotions from that point on? Of course not. So don’t expect a tea party now. TV news is a cutthroat business, always has been. So either embrace the madness, or change directions. Take control of your life like the adult you are.”
So she had. The lawyer who’d handled her grandmother’s estate had been pressing her to sell the 40 acres she’d inherited; he even had a willing buyer waiting in the wings. But rather than get rid of the small farm her father had grown up on, she decided to quit her job and start fresh. Maybe a few months away from the crazy pace of Chicago would help her decide what she really wanted to do with her life.
Except the house in front of her looked nothing like the warm cozy home she’d enjoyed so much as a child. The isolation she thought she longed for felt oppressive on this dark stormy night. And the rain, the God awful rain was dampening more than just her flimsy jacket.
Miranda laughed suddenly, realizing the irony of a “weather girl” letting a storm get her down. Rufus jumped into her lap at the sound, putting his front paws on her chest. The pup searched her face.
“Yes,” she told him. “I know that was crazy. But do you realize this means we can’t stay here tonight?”
Rufus barked, two short yaps, and hopped back into the passenger seat, tail wagging.
There was no motel in Greenville, not unless a lot had changed for the better in the past fifteen years. Riverside, however, while further away, was right on the interstate, and now that summer was over, was bound to have a room available somewhere. Miranda dug for her phone in the glove compartment and turned it on.
No bars. She held the phone out in front of her, up by the ceiling, off at her side, but she knew it was hopeless. She’d gotten so used to city living it hadn’t even occurred to her she wouldn’t be able to use her cell phone this far out in the country. Being in the valley of a glacial moraine probably didn’t make the reception any easier, either.
So, there was no way to make a motel reservation or call the custodian for help. What was his name again? Harlan something. Harlan Hunter, that was it. She even had his number programmed into the phone. A lot of good that did.
Her options then were to drive the twenty file miles to Riverside on unfamiliar roads hoping to find a room for the night, suck it up and go back into the cold, dark farmhouse, or— Miranda peered out at the storm. Though the rain fell steadily, there had been no thunder or lightening. There were no tall trees close enough to squash the car if blown over in the wind. There was nothing on the property to tempt a trespasser even if he hadn’t been put off by the torrential rain.
She could spend the night in the back seat. Surely that had to be better than staying in the cold, unfamiliar house with its gaping dark doorways and shadows lurking in every corner. Her flashlight had fresh batteries plus an extra set in the glove compartment. Rufus would be more than willing to share the comforter that served as his bed and she could run the heater periodically if it got too cold. She would be perfectly comfortable and safe for one night. She had, after all, trained in martial arts for self-defense. And for extra added protection…
Miranda rummaged in her bag. In the very bottom, her hands closed around the butt of a .38 revolver and pulled it out. Opening the chamber, she loaded it and clicked it closed again, making sure the safety was on. She and her father hadn’t spent much time together before he died—he’d been too busy with his career. But they had enjoyed the hobby of target shooting together and the weapon she held had been kept for both sentimental and practical reasons when she’d gone through the things he left behind. Knowing she was a fair marksman would hopefully give her the security she needed to get at least a few hours of sleep before dawn.