Authors: Deb Donahue
Rufus thought she was playing as she crawled into the back seat and started rearranging the toys and bones he had scattered there. He hopped from front to back to front, tail wagging, retrieving each thing she tried to throw out of the way. Finally, however, he let her make a halfway decent bed for herself. Settled under the comforter, flashlight securely pointed at the ceiling, she leaned into the front seat one more time and turned off the engine. Then, with a deep breath, she flicked off the headlights.
It wasn’t so dark, she told herself,. The flashlight beam reflected off the ceiling like a warm glow. Miranda settled under the comforter and rearranged the overnight bag under her head as a pillow. She was careful not to look out through the rain streaming down the windows, and reached down to confirm that the extra batteries were within easy reach on the floor, right next to the gun. As she settled fairly comfortably on her back, knees up, Rufus jumped on top of her and laid down, head on his paws to look intently into her face. His warmth and company made her think maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
She did manage to fall asleep, although at first she thought she would not. The wind rocked the car and the rain sounded loud on the roof. She turned on the engine twice to warm the car back up before falling into a shallow restless dream where she was running down the hallway at the offices of WKLU, trying to outrun the lights which were shutting off after her one by one with explosive pops.
In her dream the pops turned to barks from Rufus. Miranda awoke with a start.
“Rufus,” she called, realizing the barks were real.
The dog was standing on her stomach, barking furiously toward the window at her feet. Thunder rumbled, followed by a flash of light, and in that brief second, she saw what had disturbed him.
A face, white and distorted by the rain rivulets streaming down the glass, stared back at her.
Miranda screamed, scrambling for the gun on the floor, but by the time she retrieved it and sat up, the face was gone. Rufus had jumped to the front seat and still growled low in his throat, but only looked at her, as if she were the one he didn’t trust. Miranda looked out all windows, shining the flashlight as far as it would go against the night.
Rain had puddled in the loose gravel of the driveway. Was that indentation near the door the result of someone’s footsteps as he stood and watched her sleep? A pair of gardening gloves lay on the concrete surrounding the well pump. Had they been there before?
It wasn’t until another flash of lightening showed her an empty yard and driveway that she sat back, pulling the comforter close as if that would stop her shivering. Had it all been part of her dream? It had felt so real. Still, it wasn’t uncommon for one of her bouts of anxiety to be followed by unusually disturbing dreams.
“That must be it.” She said the words out loud, hoping to convince herself. Her childhood phobia had invented a foe waiting in the feared darkness and in her half-awake confusion she had given the illusion the shape of reality. No actual human would be wandering around in this torrential downpour, nor would the person be able to disappear so quickly.
Still, it would be impossible to sleep again. Miranda reached to turn on the engine to keep the cold at bay and found the book she’d picked up before leaving Chicago. Her watch told her dawn was only a couple of hours away. She could stay awake that long reading—that should keep her distracted away from thoughts of peeping toms and boogie men hiding in the shadows. She wrapped the comforter around her like a cloak, pulled her knees up under it, and turned to Chapter One. Rufus curled up at her feet, tucked his head under his tail and soon started to snore.
Reading did, in fact, distract Miranda so well that she fell asleep without intending to. By the time she jerked awake, stiff from her curled, uncomfortable position, morning had come and the rain had stopped. The sky was still overcast and gray, but a breeze scooted the clouds quickly overhead and the sun actually managed to force a few rays through, low on the eastern horizon.
It was too early to go into town and talk to the electric company, so Miranda decided to confront the specters of the night before by going inside and seeing what the house looked like by light of day. First, she ate some cookies and drank water from her thermos to stave off her hunger, then filled Rufus’s dish with dry kibble. Before feeding him she let him go outside and followed him slowly, stretching and looking around carefully.
The rain, which usually left such a clean feeling in springtime, only seemed to have made the fallen leaves and trampled undergrowth look sodden and weary. Around the circular gravel driveway, the lawn had grown wild and gone to seed. The long, thick grass curved in random patterns from the wind and animals passing, like a painting still wet from the artist’s brush. The purple heads of clover flowers, faded from the summer sun just past, poked through the green.
There was no sign of the observer from the night before. The puddles in the ground were just puddles, although she realized the rain could have washed away any footprints he had left behind. She was able to convince herself she had only imagined or dreamt the face at the window. There was certainly no one in sight this morning.
The house and garage were set at ninety degree angles to each other around the circular driveway. A frayed electrical wire hung between the two buildings like a leash between owner and pet. A small dog house, looking in better repair than either of the other two buildings, sat between them. Rufus was investigating it now, sniffing gingerly inside its door first, then going in and coming back out again. At some distance to the rear of the garage were the outbuildings, most prominently a huge red barn. The tall barn doors hung closed on wheels that looked so rusted she imagined they would be hard to roll open. A large multi-paned window in the loft, just under the eaves, had two broken frames and shimmered pink from the morning sun.
“Here Rufus,” she called, setting his breakfast on the concrete slab around the well cover. The gloves she’d seen there last night, she could now tell, looked threadbare and ancient. They had obviously been sitting there for months or even longer.
Miranda had never felt so alone in her whole life. There was a peace to that on the one hand, but she also felt, glancing once again at the pink-paned barn window, a sense of unease. Someone could be hidden behind that window right now, watching her every move. She shook off the thought. Surely she was safer here than in many of Chicago’s busiest, less reputable neighborhoods. It was just that the very foreignness of the setting felt almost ominous for some reason. In response, she dug a shoulder holster out of her luggage and strapped her gun into it. She felt more secure, somehow, with its weighty bulk secure and close at hand.
A pipe stuck into the concrete with a red-handled spigot provided access to water from the well below. Miranda ran it long enough to wash away a rusty color from the pipes, then filled a dish for Rufus. Cupping her hands under the flow she first sniffed, then tasted the water and, finding it potable, took a long soothing draft herself.
“City water never tastes that good,” she said out loud. Not even filtered water.
Rufus didn’t seem to care. After lapping up a few toungefuls of water and wolfing down his food, he was off to research the brush in the overgrown orchard by the side of the house. Which left Miranda by herself to explore inside the residence.
What she found was nowhere near as intimidating as it had seemed the night before. The kitchen had tall windows that let in as much of the early morning light as possible. True, the rays highlighted the depth of the dust on the kitchen counters and the cobwebs in the corners. But it also made the flowered border along the top of the walls seem cheerful and welcoming, The pale blue backsplash behind the stove had a miniature calf, lamb or chick painted on every third or fourth tile. Miranda could remember sitting at this very table eating oatmeal in the mornings and pretending the farm animals would play hopscotch from square to square when no one was looking.
Despite the nostalgia she felt, the job ahead of her did seem a bit overwhelming. The boxes she’d found in the kitchen appeared to be personal possessions of her grandmother’s. She assumed they had been stacked close to the door for ease of removal, but no one had carried through on the intent. Miranda used one of the boxes to keep the kitchen door propped up so Rufus could come and go as he pleased. A little fresh air would help diffuse the musty smell in the rooms, as well.
The stove and refrigerator were ancient and everything was covered in dust. None of the light switches worked, which confirmed her thought that the electricity had not been turned on as expected. No water flowed when she turned on the tap. Hopefully that just meant the pump in the well was electric-driven and not an indication of a more complicated and expensive problem.
The dining room seemed the best room in which to begin restoration. Once she had it and the kitchen cleaned up, those two rooms could serve as her living space while she took her time going through the rest of the two-story house. The two rooms combined would even provide more square footage than her tiny little condo in the city had.
She put off her exploration of the second floor when she saw the clutter that made the stairway look like an obstacle course. She also decided against investigating the basement for right now. The narrow steps off the kitchen not only descended into an inky blackness but was also lined along the walls with live spider webs.
The dining room fireplace would provide comfort and warmth. When she removed the cover and checked the flue, it appeared to be in decent repair. She found a stack of dry logs and kindling in a mud room off the kitchen and carried in an armful of the wood. Squatting on the hearth, she built a fire. Once the flames danced in the grate the damp began to drain away. Miranda found herself feeling more cheerful, rummaging through the items cluttered around the room with some interest.
There were tall bay windows surrounding a window seat. Miranda seemed to remember that they had once been draped with heavy velvet panels but they were bare of coverings now and the strengthening sunlight made warm patterns on the dark wood of the window seat. Much of the furniture from the rest of the house appeared to be stacked in this room. She found two bedsteads upended against the wall, five end tables, and several straight chairs. A dozen crates were filled with everything from books to candles to clothes.
Rufus was enjoying his unusual freedom, first snuffling among the smells in the house, then rushing outdoors to investigate the many scents he found there, then coming back inside to see what he had missed. Twice she had to shout out the window at him to quit barking. Squirrels, no doubt. He loved barking at squirrels.
The dining room table and matching chairs looked like antiques. She found a dishrag in one of the boxes and dusted them as best she could. On her shopping list she put “furniture polish” near the top, along with curtains and dust mop.
One crate she opened contained carefully wrapped knickknacks which Miranda remembered from her childhood. She exclaimed with delight as she took out a porcelain angel she remembered as being one of her favorites. She put the rosy-cheeked cherub in the center of the dining table where it watched Miranda’s housekeeping efforts with a smile of approval.
Under one of the sheets, she found a sofa in good repair, though slightly musty smelling. Clearing a path through the boxes in the kitchen, she dragged it out to the porch to air off. The gray clouds had drifted away, leaving clean white tails streaked across the blue sky. Rufus had returned from the orchard to dig a hole under the depths of the porch, but hopped onto the sofa when he saw it, settling into a patch of sun on the corner. Tired despite the fact that it was still only mid-morning, Miranda sat at the other end, sighing.
This morning her decision to come here did not look as questionable as it had last night. From where she sat, she could see the tire swing she used play on still hanging from the cherry tree in the orchard. The sun had begun to dry up the puddles left behind by the storm and birds sang from the boughs of pine trees. She and Rufus watched as two squirrels chased each other from branch to branch. Today this place looked like somewhere she could call home.
She remembered her grandmother as a portly woman with a gray bun and huge smile who always wore an apron. There used to be chickens in one of the small buildings at the back, and a vegetable garden that had smelled like rich black loam when you pulled the weeds out. Her mother and father had been young and still very much in love in those days, and when her father tucked her into bed at night, he would tell her stories of his boyhood, hunting squirrels, running with his dogs in the timber at the back of the property. She’d always missed the farm once they went back home to Chicago, and when eventually they moved to New York, too far away to visit easily, she had been very disappointed.
She wondered now why they hadn’t come back more often after that. She supposed it was money issues. Certainly her grandmother had kept in contact, sending letters and birthday cards and presents at Christmas, but except for a few photographs that showed how feeble the older woman grew over the years, Miranda hadn’t seen her grandmother in years. They’d lost touch completely after Miranda graduated from college, until the attorney contacted her a few months ago to let her know she had been named in the will as the sole heir of the family farm.
“No cutthroat people climbers in sight out here, eh, Rufus?” she asked, reaching over to scratch his ears. “Just you, me, and the mice under the floorboards.”
And no electricity. Miranda hopped up and went back inside, intending to safely bank down the fire and get ready for the drive into town. The smell of wood smoke filled the room and sparks sizzled as she poked the last glowing log to settle it into the bed of ashes. Rufus watched her, curious. She thought if she put the heavy metal cover over the opening it would be safe to leave for an hour or so, but she hesitated, uncertain.
The greeting came from outside. Unexpected and loud, it made Miranda jump. She pulled her handgun out and clicked off the safety. Rufus ran toward the sound, barking. Miranda followed, calling his name and holding the weapon in both hands pointed toward the floor in front of her. She heard a car door slam.
There was no need to be afraid of her visitors, however. Far from it. As she stepped onto the porch, she saw her “vicious” watchdog Rufus prancing gleefully around the man and woman who stood outside. Hopping up on his hind legs, his nose twitched in anticipation at the covered dish the woman held.
“Rufus, down,” Miranda scolded, holstering the gun once again. “Come here.” The dog reluctantly obeyed.
“I knew a plumber named Rufus once,” said the woman who was holding the casserole. She had just stepped out of the passenger side of a midnight blue Mercedes. Her plump cheeks were red-veined and her smile cheerful. She wore a bright teal full-length coat and had a black handbag hanging from her arm. “His back end always hung out of his pants when he leaned over, poor man.”
“Sissy,” reprimanded the man with her. He stood on the driver’s side, twirling a key ring in his short, stubby fingers. “What will Miss Preston think, talking like that?”
“I’m sorry,” Miranda said. “Do I know you?” She’d never seen either speaker before that she remembered.