Authors: Deb Donahue
While she waited at the open door for his return, she flicked the porch light switch on, off, on and off again over and over, as if doing so would make the electricity turn on. “Stupid power company,” she said viciously. Rufus ran back in the door, skirting sideways and looking at her warily.
Locking the door behind him, she made the rounds of the ground floor again, making sure all the interior doors and windows were locked. There was no lock on the door leading to the basement however, and she knew there was a way to get into it from the outside. They could get in that way, creep up the stairs while she was sleeping. Murder her in her sleep!
She could see the outside door at the bottom of the stairs by shining a flashlight, but couldn’t tell if the lock was snubbed shut or not. Taking one of the lanterns with her, she headed down, stopping at each stair tread to listen with her heart in her throat. Finally when she reached the bottom, she saw that the door to outside was firmly locked shut. Relief washed over her.
Holding the lantern up high, she looked around the main room at the bottom of the stairs. The walls and floor were cement and there were no windows here. An old wringer washer and tub sat in one corner by a floor drain. Next to the ancient furnace sat a fairly new water heater with a box of kitchen matches on top. Harlan must have left them there when he came down to check the pilot light.
Two rooms led off of the first. Just to make sure there was no other way to get into the basement from outside, Miranda knew she had to investigate. One was a workroom with a rudimentary work bench. The window in there was not only locked, but partly boarded. The tools on the workbench were covered in blood. No, not blood, she told herself, shaking her head. Rust, it was just rust. But she couldn’t bring herself to look too closely in case she was wrong.
The other room was a giant pantry of some sort, with empty glass jars upside down on shelves. On one shelf she could see jars of slimy pickles that looked like rotten slugs floating in black blood. The room’s two windows were locked. At the back, a wooden door was closed with an old fashioned latch.
The musty smell that permeated the basement seemed to be coming from behind the door. The nausea she’d felt earlier flooded back and intensified. She took two deep breaths before lifting the latch. With the lantern held high, she opened the door onto an inky blackness. The rotted smell made her cringe back. Heart pounding, she forced herself to step forward, shining the light around the room.
A stench emanated from bins on the dirt floor which were filled with rotten potatoes and squash. Beneath the odor lingered a more subtle smell, like sulfur. The depth of the darkness was due to having black paper tacked across the shallow windows high on the wall. The rest of the small room was lined from ceiling to floor with cupboards. Staggered on the floor were long wooden crates, like coffins for children.
Miranda started shaking. Not coffins, crates. That’s all they were, crates. Tomorrow, tomorrow she would come back and…
She shrieked as a moth flew into the light from her lamp. Its shadow wavered and danced against the opposite wall.
Miranda snapped the door shut and ran back to the stairway. Her spine prickled as she hurried up the steps. Closing the door behind her at the top, she leaned against it. Perspiration beaded her forehead and her breathing was labored as if she had just run a long way.
A tree branch swayed in the rising wind outside, scraping against the kitchen window with a sound like fingernails. The house itself seemed to be breathing and groaning as it shuddered with the wind. It’s just an empty basement, Miranda told herself. Just a room without light.
Yet somehow the thought only brought back a memory of playing with the knickknacks years ago and her grandmother’s unexpected, harsh words as she snatched the pieces from the child’s hands.
For the first time in weeks Miranda took two of the sleeping pills the doctor had prescribed for her. The wind continued to rattle the bones of the house. She pulled the couch as close to the hearth as was safe and curled up on it. Despite the warmth of the fire she’d started, she lay shivering and shaking. The flames twisted and flared like goblins in a frenzy and she alternated between closing her eyes to keep from looking at them and opening them again afraid she’d find herself surrounded by darkness. Rufus watched her for a while, as anxious as she was, then eventually snuggled up at her feet and went to sleep.
Despite the pills, lanterns, candlelight, and her father’s gun within easy reach, it took her a long time to fall asleep. The couch was narrow and lumpy. She tossed and turned, sweating and mumbling. The house still smelled musty with misuse. No matter how natural the creaks and groans and wind gusts were, they crept into her disturbed dreams like ghosts from her past.
She was a child again, running toward her grandmother’s house, looking over her shoulder at the barn, terrified by orange flashes from the loft that wavered like the flames of a fire. Eyes stared out the window at her, glowing with the light.
An old black and white car was headed straight toward her as if the driver did not see her in the way. She screamed and put her hands up as if that would stop it.
Then suddenly she was in the kitchen. Grandmother towered over her, frowning and shaking a finger at her. Little Miranda looked down at the figurines she held in her hand and the rosy cheeked cat she’d been playing with turned into a twisted, fire-blackened being with leering face and a black cape flapping like wings. It writhed in rhythm to a tinny tune that sounded like it came from the steel-comb teeth of a music box drum that had warped. Miranda dropped the statue, screaming, and could finally hear her grandmother’s words.
“If you’re not careful, Miranda, the things you do in life will come back to haunt you.”
Miranda screamed and woke up, but the dream words still rang in her ears, as did the last few notes of the eerie music. Rufus stood close to her, shivering and whimpering as if he, too, had had a nightmare. Or perhaps he was simply feeding off of her fear. Miranda held her breath and listened. The only sounds now were the normal house sounds she’d already begun to recognize: the shift of logs in the dying fire, the branch scraping against the kitchen window, the rush of air whistling through a loose doorframe.
“It was only a dream.” She wasn’t sure if she was trying to convince Rufus or herself. She did know that it would be impossible to get to sleep right away. Not until she once again checked the doors and windows.
As she swung her legs to the floor and sat up, her head spun and her stomach gave a lurch. She paused, waiting for the feeling to subside. When she finally rose to her feet, she still felt weak, but not as strange as she had before.
Gun in hand, she made the rounds, finally stopping in the kitchen where she hesitated before edging the curtain away from the window. Dawn light spread fingers across the driveway. She took a deep breath as relief poured through her. She had made it through the night.
That was when she realized the light on the porch appeared to be lit. She stepped outside to confirm that the bulb she’d placed in the empty socket was indeed live. As she did so, the motion-sensitive light on the pole over the garage went on.
“Yay!” Miranda clapped her hands and gave a small hop. All was well again. No more boogey men or night terrors would be visiting her. The electricity had been switched on sometime while she slept.
Rufus barked and ran around her. Suddenly he ran to the edge of the porch and growled. The ruff of his neck stood straight up. Miranda turned to see what was disturbing him.
Far back at the line of timber behind the barn, the German Shepherd she’d seen before was running toward the trees. This time, however, the dog was not alone. This time, a man ran alongside the canine: tall, thin, dark haired. Wearing a brown jacket. A leather one, maybe? Just before the two reached the woods, they turned. The man was only a profile against the dawn-rimmed horizon, but it seemed like he was looking right at her. A moment later, both figures were gone. Miranda was left alone on the porch, gripping the door jamb with whitened fingers.
The whole scene was eerily reminiscent of the incident at the grocery store the day before. The man in the field had been about the same height as the one who watched her through the grocery store window. She even thought—maybe she was just fooling herself—that the man in town had been wearing a brown leather jacket.
Miranda hurried inside and locked the door, leaning against it as if that provided extra security. Every nerve felt on edge, every sense heightened.
The branch scraping the window sounded more like fingernails than ever before. A subtle
made her jump until she realized it was the sound of the furnace kicking in. Warm air blew against her bare feet from the vent in the floor. The refrigerator began humming.
Most of the candles she’d left lit on the kitchen counter had gone out, burned down to blackened wicks surrounded by melted wax. Those still burning she blew out. Returning to the dining room, she flicked on the switch. The chandelier over the table blazed with light, all but one bulb glowing bright. The cobwebs directly above it stirred from the movement of warm air from the heating ducts.
Miranda laughed as she took a deep sigh of relief. She would have to remember to clean that later. The electricity was on, a new day was starting. She was ready for it. Whatever strange spell she’d fallen under last night, whatever strange man might be trespassing on her property, she felt she could take it all on.
And all this just because she could now flick on a switch any time she wanted to and say, let there be light. Strange.
Miranda returned to her makeshift bed and threw another log on the fire. Was it just the fact that it was morning that made her feel this way? Surely she should be freaking out about seeing someone on her property, especially accompanied by the dog she knew had been in her barn just the day before. Somehow, though, the more she thought about it, the less disturbed she was. She was more curious than alarmed, just as she’d been yesterday when that other man had been staring at her.
It wasn’t like she knew the man she’d seen yesterday, but she felt like she should know him. There had certainly been nothing threatening about him. There had, in fact, been something about his face that drew her in. A strong jaw and serious expression yet there had been a vulnerability in his eyes, too.
She told herself that was silly and settled under her blanket once again. You couldn’t tell a person’s character from one glance through a plate glass window. And you certainly couldn’t identify him again in the distance hundreds of feet away. Still, the encounter at least kept her mind off the disturbing dream she’d had and the strange way she’d been behaving the evening before.
Without really intending to, she slowly fell asleep, exhausted from her tossing and turning during the preceding hours.
She woke feeling refreshed with a bright morning sun leaking through a tear in the makeshift window coverings. “Curtains,” she told Rufus as she yawned and stretched. There had to be curtains packed somewhere in these boxes. She would make finding them a top priority for the day. In the meantime, she pulled all the dusty sheets down off the rods to let in the beautiful morning sunshine.
Yesterday, she’d purchased breakfast cereal, but the box of vanilla wafers sitting on the shelf tempted her. Was cookies for breakfast so much different than Frosted O cereal anyway? Probably just as much sugar in both. Leaning her elbows on the counter, she read the labels on both boxes while the water in the electric percolator she’d filled began to burble. Soon the smell of coffee filled the room and Miranda put the cereal back and poured herself a bowl of cookies. After all, she hadn’t been able to enjoy them as a bedtime snack like she’d intended.
She took her meal back to the window seat where the sun streaming in the bay windows looked the cheeriest. Dunking her first cookie into a glass of milk, she dropped the whole thing into her mouth and closed her eyes in bliss, letting the flavor permeate her taste buds with childish memories. She washed the bite down with a sip of coffee which was almost as pleasurable to her adult aesthetics.
Sitting there in the sunshine listening to birdsong outside and the clatter of Rufus scooting his dog dish across the kitchen floor as he licked up the last crumbs of dog food, she finally felt relaxed and at home. Whatever anxiety or illness had rattled her nerves the night before had disappeared. Thinking about how she’d been acting, and her strange, vivid dreams made no sense to her. Certainly her phobia had been part of it, but she’d never felt that terrified before. It had been as if something had magnified her old familiar fear by a thousand-fold and threw in night terrors as an added evil twist.
“Old ghosts,” she murmured, remembering the broken cat and the memory of the argument which caused a rift in her family. That must be it. She’d simply been overloaded with bad mojo.
When she finished eating Miranda stood up determined to make headway into the remainder of the downstairs at least. Once this place looked more like a home than a flea market, her insecurities would settle down. She was sure of it.
She moved the milk from the cooler to the newly cleaned and humming refrigerator. She even found some ice cube trays which she filled with water and placed into the small freezer section. She could make iced tea later to go with lunch.
The kitchen and dining room already looked fairly habitable, cleared of excess junk and dust. The bathroom also didn’t require much work, just a good scrubbing with soap and water. The study had been set up as a bedroom. She suspected that was where her grandmother had slept in her last years in order to avoid using the stairs. The antique bedstead, dresser and bureau looked too worn and faded to be worth much, and all the drawers had been emptied out.
She stripped the bed linens and replaced them with ones she’d found in a box in the kitchen. She would have to find a laundromat in Riverside soon, because there was no way she was going to do laundry in the ancient wringer washer she’d seen in the basement yesterday.
After unpacking her suitcase into the dresser, she plugged a flowery lamp in and set it on the bedside table, then moved on to the front room which seemed to be a storage room for furniture of all kinds: chairs, two sofas, tables, dressers, even a wooden rocking horse. Miranda surveyed the room with her hands on her hips, at a loss for what to do. Where had all this furniture come from? And what on earth was she going to do with it? A few pieces she could move to the dining room or bedroom, but the rest looked like it needed to be hauled away or sold.
Daunted by the amount of work that would involve, she decided to investigate the second floor since there wasn’t much she could do in the front room until she made some decisions. The stairway to upstairs was barely passable. Piles of books lined the outside wall all the way up to the top landing. Some of the stacks had fallen over and Miranda had to move them out of her way to ascend.
Searching the bedrooms upstairs showed her why the front room was so crowded. All five rooms were completely empty except for dust and cobwebs. All the heating vents upstairs had been shut to avoid wasting fuel. She looked up a steep stairway to the attic. The depth of dust on the worn wooden treads was so thick it was clear no one had traversed them for months if not years. Miranda declined to be the first.
She felt grimy and sweaty from all the work she’d done so far, and discouraged at how much still remained. If she truly wanted to bring the house back to life, that would mean carrying all the excess furniture back up the stairs, some of which was too heavy and bulky for one person to do alone. And she knew no one who could help.
Well, no one except for Harlan Hunter. And something in her balked at asking for any further assistance from him. She was sure Sissy and maybe even the postmistress would be willing, but probably not able. They might, however, know people she could hire. She resolved to ask soon.
Miranda started down the crowded stairwell, eager to shower and change into clean clothes. Two small windows cast squared shafts of light on the piles and piles of books. Pausing, she picked through a few. She found novels and biographies and picture books and some that looked like journals. In one particularly dusty stack, she found photo albums that were so old the pages were brittle. Several of the stick-on corners holding the black and white photos in place had come loose from the black paper backing. Blowing dust off the top one, she took them back to the dining room and set them on the window seat.
A long, hot shower helped take away the chill from upstairs and made her feel refreshed. She set water to boil on the stove to make tea and picked up an apple to nibble on for lunch. Then, curled up in the sun pouring onto the window seat, she pulled the old photo albums close to look through them more thoroughly.
She started with the album that looked the oldest. Loose photographs had been stuck randomly in the pages of the book. Many of them had information written in faded, fancy cursive on the back. Dad and Grandpa, labeled the back of a picture showing a seated unsmiling man in a stiff color and tie circa the late 1890’s. The young boy standing at his side had a hand on the old man’s shoulder. Auntie 1938, said another one of an infant about six months old.
None of the names looked familiar to her and she had no idea which side of the family they belonged to. She wished her grandmother were still around to give her the story behind each photograph. It was so sad that there was no one left who remembered these faces of so long ago.
The next album, Miranda was delighted to discover, was more recent. She recognized pictures of her father as a child, and the young faces of her grandmother and grandfather, though her grandfather had died before she was born. Other faces she knew or could guess at: Dad as a young boy surrounded by all his cousins in an extended family shot, bridesmaids lined up next to her mother in a wedding photo.
There were pictures that showed the farm, also. Before the garage had been built, there had only been a small tool shed in place. The back porch had once been only a narrow set of steps leading to the door. And here was her father as a teenager standing by the water spigot in the middle of the driveway with another boy a few years younger. From their pose with tools and grins, it seemed clear that they had just finished installing the “newfangled” apparatus on the existing well and were pretty proud of their accomplishment.
Miranda drew in a sudden breath. Behind them in the picture was a black and white car exactly like the one in her dream the night before. She guessed it was a model from the seventies, and looked fairly new, so her father must have been in his late teens when the picture was taken.
There was something familiar about the young man with her father and she studied it for some time trying to figure out why. The boy was younger, maybe 9 or 10, with a shock of hair sticking straight up at the back of his head. Miranda frowned, trying to imagine the face aged. How would he look today?
Harlan Hunter! Miranda gasped. Wait, could it be? Maybe it was a relative of Harlan’s with the same facial features. Although, doing the math in her head, Harlan Hunter could be her father’s contemporary. She wasn’t sure why this disturbed her so much. Maybe it was because she had developed such a dislike for Harlan and her father obviously seemed to have been his friend.
She spent the rest of the afternoon outside, pulling up a few weeds around the house, finding an apple tree with fruit ripe enough to pick. Mostly, though, she just enjoyed the Indian Summer weather. Sunlight glistened off spider webs stretched across the grass like gossamer carpets. Rufus chased squirrels and dug holes and raced after fallen leaves driven by the breeze.
Testing the tire swing, Miranda lowered herself into it and pushed off, gently swaying with her feet up and head back, a huge grin on her face. When her stomach told her it was almost supper time, she headed toward the house reluctantly. Stopping on the porch, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath of the clean fresh air. Tomorrow, she thought, she would open all the windows in the house no matter how chilly the wind might be. The place needed a good airing out before the cold winter months tamped down on them.
Opening her eyes, she looked across the field toward the barn. No strange movements in the window today. She smiled, but the smile faded as the man and dog she’d seen that morning skirted the edge of woods again. This time she could see him more clearly and was almost positive it was the same man she’d seen in Greenville. It was too far to see his face, but the hair color, body build, even the jacket, matched almost exactly what she remembered. He was carrying a rifle.
Suddenly the man noticed her and froze. He motioned to the German Shepherd, who also stopped and looked Miranda’s way. Rufus was still far off in the orchard so had not seen them. They stood that way for what felt like minutes before finally the man raised an arm in greeting, waving it slowly. Miranda hesitated, then raised her arm as well. The man nodded, then turned and disappeared into the trees, followed by his dog.
Rather than alarming her, seeing the trespasser a second time made her feel relieved. He must be a neighbor out hunting. The house had been empty a long time so perhaps he hadn’t known someone was now living there. Or maybe he’d even had an arrangement with her grandmother and had been given permission to hunt on her land. It wasn’t like anyone else was going to do it.
Rufus distracted her just then by running up with a dead bird in his mouth and laying it at her feet.
“Yech, Rufus, what did you do?” It was hard to scold him, though. He seemed so pleased with his accomplishment. So Miranda just sighed and headed into the garage, hoping to find a shovel so she could bury the carcass. Several shovels and rakes hung from a rack next to an old wood burning stove in the back corner.
She made her way past a workbench and several lawnmowers in various stages of repair. Standing in the corner just under the shovels, she found an old rusted safe with a combination lock. It was a strange place for a safe, she thought. Despite its rusted state, it didn’t seem to have been there that long. It was not covered with dust—in fact, it was evident someone had swept dirt out of the way before placing the safe down.
There was no way to open it, however, and Miranda doubted it contained anything of value anyway. No doubt it was just an artifact that had been relocated from the house much like the furniture in the front room. Maybe her grandmother had been planning on selling some of her antiques but had to stop mid-project when she became ill. That reminded her of Patty telling her how her poor grandmother had been left alone for two days after her death.
She shook her somberness off as well as she could, but as she patted the last spadeful of dirt on the grave for the dead bird, she decided to visit her grandmother’s grave soon and leave flowers. She could not undo the years of silence between them, but she could do her best to show some respect now.
She heated more of the casserole up for supper but was only able to eat a few bites of it. That strange, lingering taste seemed intensified today. Rufus appeared to like it well enough, however, so she gave the rest to him and threw some macaroni in hot water to make a simple pasta dish for herself. Sissy’s canned tomatoes were perfect for a sauce and when she mixed it all together with salt and basil and a little onion, the results tasted just like the spaghetti her grandmother used to make.
She finished off her supper with vanilla wafers dipped in cold milk, eating them in front of the fireplace like she’d intended to last night. She’d kept the couch pulled close to the hearth and lit the fire despite the fact that the furnace was working. There was something about the crackle and light of a fire that make a house feel so cozy. Stretching out with a pillow under her head, she watched the flames. After a while, they began to dance like pretty ballerinas and she began to feel drowsy, her head drooping as she sang some nonsense song to herself that reminded her of something she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
She’d almost fallen asleep when she heard Rufus gagging behind her. Sitting up so fast her head spun, she looked over the back of the couch to find him throwing up, shoulders hunched as he disgorged a smelly mess on the floorboards. Finished, he staggered a few steps away, almost falling sideways, then paused to vomit again, this time spewing more liquid than chunks, his stomach heaving like he was never going to stop.