Authors: Deb Donahue
As she received her change, she wondered if she should know the young man. He’d certainly been looking directly at her. Since they were about the same age, it was possible they’d known each other as children from the days when she used to spend summers here. If so, though, how would he have recognized her after all these years?
She decided that was unlikely. His interest was probably just due to her being a stranger. In small towns where everyone knew everyone else, a new face was bound to attract attention.
Rufus was obviously delighted to see her car drive up to the house when she returned to the farm, but his attention seemed to be divided. He was stretched the length of his chain facing the barn at the back. While he looked over his shoulder and barked a greeting at her, he then renewed his yapping at something at the back of the property.
“Rufus, stop,” she called, but he paid no attention to her. Miranda walked over to squat down next to him and put a hand on his back. Finally he gave it up, turning to her with lolling tongue as if expecting accolades for his vigilant watchdogging. “What set you off?” The words caught in her throat as she glanced toward the barn and saw a flicker of movement in the upper loft window.
Miranda froze. A memory flitted across her mind of the face she saw watching through the car window the night before. Was there someone in the barn, or were both incidents just a figment of her imagination?
Rufus only added to her confusion. His original concern seemed to have vanished. All he did now was watch her instead of the barn.
Heart beating hard, she held her breath a few moments and waited. Nothing stirred, no sounds could be heard. The window remained an empty harmless frame of wood. It had only been a trick of light perhaps. A bird, or the wind shaking the glass.
“Don’t scare me like that,” she scolded Rufus, unhooking him from the chain.
When she turned away, however, the dog resumed his barking, jumping with each sharp report. Miranda whirled, but immediately relaxed. She could finally see what had set Rufus off.
A stray dog had just slipped into the partially opened entrance door to the barn. From the quick glimpse of his hind quarters and tail it looked like a German Shepherd mix of some sort, but since the barn was so far away and the Shepherd paid no attention to her yapping Jack Russell, he did not seem dangerous.
Still, Miranda kept Rufus in the house with her as she resumed her work, and was careful not to think too closely about that trick of light she’d spied at the window. There was plenty to do to keep her mind occupied. She brought in the cooler from the car and filled it with ice, then placed the milk and casserole dish inside to keep them fresh. Filling a huge pot with water pumped from the well outside, she heated it over a gas burner. With the hot soapy water she washed all the dishes and silverware “just in case” and cleaned the grime from the kitchen table and counters.
The corner was still cluttered with boxes since she’d forgotten to take them with her to drop off in Riverside. Still, after sweeping up the dust and stray leaves and swiping away all the cobwebs with an old broom, the kitchen began to feel cozy again. Outdated, maybe, but not enough to make her dash back to Chicago like she’d been tempted to do earlier that day.
For supper it seemed odd to have to reheat some of Sissy’s chicken casserole in the oven. She’d never been much of a cook so her microwave had always been her best friend, right after the Chinese restaurant on the corner by her house. But her Grandmother had apparently never bothered to buy one. So this was how they did it in the old days, she thought with a smile as she scraped the chicken and noodles onto a plate, trying to avoid the burned part that had stuck to the bottom of the pan.
Burning the food was probably what gave it such a funny taste. Not that it tasted horrible, especially since she was so hungry, but it wasn’t as delicious as she would have expected from an award-winning cook. A little too much rosemary or some other herb she couldn’t quite identify. Still, it was filling and warm. She almost pulled out the milk and cookies, then decided to save them till just before bedtime, when she was done working and could sit in front of the fire.
The thought, however, reminded her again about the electricity not working. Night would fall in just another couple of hours even though it was barely four o’clock. The light through the windows had already grown pale and weary as the sun dropped closer and closer to the horizon. Miranda strategically placed candles and lanterns at the ready in both dining room and kitchen.
“Don’t be such a baby,” she told herself. Rufus, who had been eyeing her empty plate hopefully, tilted his head and looked at her as if trying to understand her words. “I know,” Miranda told him. “I’ve got to stop saying that.”
She was no baby and had been dealing with her nyctophobia long enough that she knew she could keep it under control. Even if she had a full blown panic attack, it wouldn’t kill her. Experience had taught her that much at least.
Miranda wasn’t sure when her unreasonable fear of the dark had actually begun. Unlike most who suffered from the phobia, she had no memory of any specific event that might have twisted a child’s natural fear of the night into the heart-pounding, throat-strangling terror which made her feel like she would die. It wasn’t until she was in college that she had been able to get over her embarrassment about the condition and seek help. Now she had a full regime of tools she knew would help her overcome her fear: her breathing exercises, yoga, and above all keeping negative thoughts at bay.
If there was anything to be afraid of it wasn’t the dark. Stray dogs, eyes watching her through windows, neighbors who wanted to pressure her into selling—if she wanted something to fear, there were plenty of more substantial possibilities.
Miranda laughed at herself as she cleaned up after supper. Shifting her focus from one fearful thing to another was not a coping technique her former psychiatrist would approve of. Keeping busy was, however, and so she set to tackling the wall of items still to sort through in the dining room.
She started with the box of small knickknacks she’d found earlier. Each piece was carefully wrapped in newspaper scraps. As Miranda unwrapped them, she could remember playing with them as a child. They had been kept in the kitchen on the low shelves at the end of the kitchen counter and she used to move them around like they were toys in a dollhouse. When she unwrapped a miniature cat whose whiskers had broken off, she gasped at a sudden memory. “Don’t,” her grandmother had yelled at her once, snatching the statue from her. She couldn’t remember the rest of the scolding, or know why her grandmother had been so angry, but she did remember how her mother jumped to her defense and the argument that had followed.
“Don’t you talk to my daughter like that!” “Well if you don’t know how to raise the child, someone has to.” “How dare you?” More words, grownup words that made no sense. All that was clear was the anger and bitterness. Miranda had covered her ears to shut them out, crying at them to “Stop! Stop, Mommy. Please stop!”
Miranda shook so much she dropped the cat she still held. It fell and shattered into pieces. She cried out.
She’d forgotten about the argument between the two women, and now knew why she’d pushed it to the back of her mind. That had been the last time they’d visited the farm together as a family. Whatever disagreements had existed between her mother and grandmother, somehow the scolding had precipitated the split that shattered their idyllic summer visits. She’d come to visit once or twice after that with her father, but they never stayed more than a day, and her mother never visited again. Shortly after, they had moved away and even her father didn’t visit after that.
Miranda bent down to clean up the broken pieces of the disputed porcelain statue. A clamminess seemed to sweep up from her stomach, bringing a sense of guilt over breaking it combined with the childhood guilt she’d first felt years ago. The argument had not really been her fault. She knew that now. The incident had exacerbated what had to be a long history of unease between the two women. Still, to a child who did not understand the underpinnings of adult relationships, she had felt like she was the one at fault.
Taking the knickknacks into the kitchen, she felt a strange
sweep over her that made her feel dizzy. No one could scold her now, she thought fiercely. She could arrange them any way she wanted to now, couldn’t she? And if any children visited her, she would let them play to their heart’s content. As she set the figures into place on the shelves with vicious little snaps she found herself wishing one of them would shatter into pieces.
Miranda dug through the rest of boxes at an almost frantic pace. Mumbling as she haphazardly decided what to keep and what to give away, she created more chaos in the room than the one she’d been trying to clean up. A lamp with a painting of a horse and buggy prancing around the shade. An ivory and ebony chess set she and her father had bent their heads over many long summer evenings. A tin box filled with love letters.
The letters had been exchanged between her grandmother and grandfather while he was away in the war. One stack was tied together with a ribbon and consisted mostly of thin Air Mail missives on only one page. The crabbed, spidery handwriting and signature showed that the sender had been her grandfather and every one of them started with “Dearest Kitten.” The endearment “Kitten” was always followed by a simple sketch of a smiling cat and had obviously had special meaning between the two of them. The contents said little about the war, but talked much about the personalities and antics of the men in his company, and many yearnings for home.
Miranda ran her finger over the cat face drawn on the last letter. The figure seemed to dance on the page, making her giggle. Then sudden sadness overwhelmed her. The scolding over the statue made perfect sense to her now. Whether true or not, she imagined the porcelain kitten had been given to her grandmother by a young man she’d loved very dearly, a young man she’d lost early in life. She could almost see him sitting on the battlefield now, pen and paper in hand, missiles and bombs going off all around him. Her grandmother had simply been afraid that a small girl playing with the statue might break an irreplaceable memento.
“And now it’s gone. And it’s my fault. All my fault!” She began weeping uncontrollably.
Rufus stood at her side and gazed up apprehensively. Miranda stifled her tears and tried to focus on him, tried to calm her breathing, her heartbeat. What was wrong with her?
Miranda picked up a large manila envelope addressed to her grandmother. A piece of paper fell out. She read:
Dear Mrs. Preston:
“I’m sure by now they have given you the sad news of your husband’s death. I was there at his side when it happened, and feel his loss almost as much as you must, I think.
As one of his bunkmates, I know how much he loved you and how much your letters meant to him. That is why I am sending you all of your letters which he saved so you can know how much he treasured them.
Please believe your husband was a true hero and a loyal and true friend. His loss is felt by all of us here in Company Bravo.
She opened one of the letters that had been inside the envelope. Her grandmother’s handwriting was large and flowery, and each letter took up at least three pages. The woman wrote with great humor interspersed with smiley faces, giving her absent husband detailed accounts of activities involving the farm and local townspeople. Miranda read several accountings of activities her father had engaged in as a young boy. Feeling cramped from her position cross-legged on the hardwood floor, she moved to the couch, taking the letters with her. Turning on one of the lanterns she’d bought, she began to read.
Letter after letter gave her a vivid picture of what life had been like for the two of them, mother and boy, as they kept the farmstead going in the absence of the young husband. It was like the letters produced three dimensional images. Like a time machine that transported her back to her father’s youth. Totally engrossed, she read them all with her mouth agape with wonder. Her ears were ringing; her breath came in rapid gasps.
“Oh my God, Rufus,” she exclaimed. “Listen to this!” She read a passage out loud that talked about the fact that the farm had belonged to her grandfather’s family for three generations, and at one time used to be three times the acreage she now owned. “Three generations!” Goosebumps prickled on the back of her neck. Rufus whined and took a step or two away from her.
Her great-grandfather had required three full-time farmhands and several seasonal workers to plant, harvest and manage the livestock. Temporary bunks had been set up in the barn loft to accommodate the hired help.
That fact brought to mind once again the movement she’d seen in the high window, and the unease it caused her. At that very moment, a sudden blaze of light startled her so much she jerked and dropped all the letters to the floor. She’d been so engrossed in the stories the letters told that she hadn’t noticed the evening light fade to deep yellow. The flash of light had been one last ray of sunset striking one of the bay windows.
Immediately Miranda’s sense of wonder twisted into terror. Her heart pounded and sweat beaded her forehead. Breath, breathe, she told herself. There was still a little light outside and a lantern at her side. The calming exercise didn’t help however. She began to feel nauseated, her stomach churning. Shadows seemed to dart across the room and her nerves jumped just as erratically. The windows looked like square eyes looking in at her.
“Curtains. Oh my God, there’s no curtains.” Why hadn’t she thought of that earlier? Miranda scrambled to her feet
She had not come across any drapes as she unpacked, but she did have a pile of the dusty sheets that had been used to cover the furniture. Standing on the window seat, she managed to drape them over the curtain rods. She closed the doors to the hallway, front room and study, and lit so many candles on the kitchen counter their glow overflowed into the dining room as well.
When she covered the last kitchen window, she peeked outside. There was enough residual twilight that she could still see the white garage and red handled well spigot. There were no storm clouds tonight, however, and some stars already pierced the sky. Soon the moon would be up to make things even brighter. But every shadow looked like the shape of a man lurking, waiting.
Rufus began snuffling at the lintel, scratching and looking at her like he wanted to go out. She worried for a moment about the stray dog she’d seen earlier, but decided since he hadn’t posed a threat before, he probably would not harm Rufus now, so she opened the door to let him out.