Into the Mist

Preview 2

She cracked open the door and stepped out. I’ll just take a quick peek. After all, once I go to work and get straight, maybe I could buy the place and fix it up. Or at least that’s what she could tell anyone who questioned her presence there. Probably someone died without an heir and there it sat on the county books with no buyers and not a cent coming in for taxes. Maybe the thought that someone might actually buy it would keep them from prosecuting her. I’m actually thinking about doing this. I really am.

Oh, just go and take a look, she told herself, and marched purposefully toward the front steps.

It didn’t appear very menacing in the daytime, but she knew that would likely change come nightfall.

You could light candles and a fire, her mind whispered to her. And you’ve got a blanket and a pillow. You could hide your car around the back.

For a night or two it might work, until she could think more clearly and figure out what to do.

She mounted the steps and crossed the porch to stand before the double doors. They were still closed the way she had left them.

What if they had locked when she’d yanked them shut and she had been standing out here worrying herself silly for no reason? Entering an open house was one thing; breaking and entering was another. That she would not do.

“There’s no time like the present,” she said aloud, and reached for the handle. “Or the past,” she added when the door opened easily.

Probably they’ll get you for trespassing, or squatting, the rational side of her brain tried to insert, but she was already stepping inside.

A bright shaft of amber shone down on her like a spotlight from the stained-glass window, and she stood there for a moment, bathed in color and soaking up the warmth, before walking on in.

Filled with wonder, she stopped to touch the elaborately carved post at the foot of the staircase, then crossed over to run a hand over the smooth surface of a table. A layer of dust came away, revealing a streak of still gleaming varnished wood. Craning her neck, she gazed up at the opal globes of the chandelier, faintly glowing in the sunlight streaming in, and imagined what it must have been like to enter this house, as residents or as guests for some party or event.

Farther in, past a dusty library with tall bookcases still containing disintegrating volumes to her left and the large, mostly empty parlor across from it, she turned right into a small hallway that led to a long space that had probably been a ballroom. Retracing her steps past a smaller archway to the front parlor, she moved back out and turned into a narrow passageway, and there across from a second entrance to the library, she found a cozy space with two chairs still grouped in front of a fireplace. She continued on down the dim passageway and at the end, stepped into a smaller hall that ran along this side of the house.

Partway down it, she turned into another narrow passage, and at the end of it, past another doorway to the snug little room in the center, she veered left toward the back of the house and discovered what was probably the laundry room. Continuing on, she came upon the kitchen next and the dining room across from it, and then a gorgeous sunroom at the rear.

Through the windows across the back, she could see the faint remnants of the old drive curving around the side.

I could park the car right there.

She turned away from the wild wintry landscape and walked back to the little center parlor.

She ran her fingers along the marble mantel and lightly touched a small glass bird, coated in decades of grime. She picked it up gingerly and rubbed the top of it until she could see the deep ruby red of it. Like the wine she had drunk. Like blood.

She placed the bird back on the mantel and scrubbed her hands across her jeans.

The furniture in there didn’t look too bad, if it were cleaned up a bit. And the fireplace was fairly large and would put out a good bit of warmth. With the surrounding forest, she should be able to find plenty of firewood. It wasn’t even below freezing at night yet. If nothing else, she could load her car up a few times with those smaller stacks of pre-cut firewood you see everywhere in the winter, or else buy artificial logs. They sold those by the boxful.

She sat down in the nearest chair, a mustard-yellow wingback, ignoring the cloud of dust that puffed out, and trailed her hand across the faded fabric.

How had no one bothered this home during all of these years? Even if some obscure relative or county official routinely inspected the place, it still seemed likely that someone would have availed themselves of it, exactly as she was. But in spite of much of the furnishings beinggone, the place had a strangely untouched feel and look to it.

She got up and went back to the larger parlor at the front of the house. There she took note of a candelabra sitting atop a dingy upright piano, still holding the nubs of burnt candles from long ago, as well as a few grimy lamps.

She stepped over to finger an arrangement of dried flowers under a broken glass dome, but the old petals crumbled at her touch.

Finally she walked back outside. Halfway across the verandah, she came to a stop. Everything had a haziness to it. She squinted her eyes and realized it was merely a mistiness emerging from the woods again, creeping across the grounds.

If she was going to do this, she needed to go now. Darkness would be falling soon.

At the Walmart one town over, she grabbed two boxes of the least expensive logs and as many cheap gallons of water she could cram along the bottom and one side of the cart. Then, pushing it ahead of her, she started throwing in other essentials. Just what you need for now, she reminded herself. You can regroup and come back later.

She tossed in toilet paper (Lord knows how that situation was going to turn out), paper towels, trash bags, soap and cleaning products, and on impulse some bug killer as she passed a display, imagining all the spiders probably lurking in the home. She took the largest can that promised “no unpleasant smell,” then threw in a pile of candles and a lighter, and moved on to the deli section, where she grabbed a couple of sandwiches and a few other things.

That should do it. She got the cart turned around and headed for the front.

After finding and maneuvering her way into the emptiest lane, she pulled a cold Dr Pepper out of the nearby cooler, selected a magazine off the rack beside her, and began piling her items onto the conveyor.

Soon she was wheeling her way out to the car, dazed over how much everything had cost. She would have to be even more careful from then on.

Back at the old house—after all the money she had just spent, she was committed now—she drove straight around and parked in the back.

She checked the rear door to the sunroom and the knob turned easily in her hand. Something seemed to be busted—loosened or frozen inside—keeping it from latching properly.

Feeling a strange sense of surrealness again as well as a feeling of relief at having found this place, this sanctuary in the storm her life had become, she carried her purchases in along with the other things she had chosen to bring with her. Most of the belongings she’d managed to get were in the storage building, safely locked away. The payment for that would come due in a month, but she would worry about that when the time came.

She knew in the back of her mind that what she was doing was a bit crazy, but the house, sitting there vacant and going to waste, called to her in her dire circumstances.

The food, she moved into a sectioned-off stone wine cellar she found in one corner of the basement, candelabra (with fresh candles) lighting the way, down a set of stairs at the end of the rear passageway, where it was significantly cooler. She brushed the cobwebs away and stashed the remaining sodas, juices, and waters, sandwiches, wraps, muffins, pears, and other food items away in the cabinets and drawers under a long counter to one side, and then turned to inspect the rest of the cold, damp space.

Ceiling-high shelves covered the side walls completely and still held a few antique bottles of various spirits. And over by a rectangular table and two chairs beneath a large ornate mirror, now cloudy with age, a few dusty bottles of wine poked out of built-in racks.

Beginning to shiver, she walked over and grabbed a wine bottle at random and carried it with her out of the cellar and back up the stairs.

In the kitchen she parked it on the round, scarred table across the room from the white enamel sink and an ancient-looking stove, and got out the bug killer.

First she used a wad of paper towels and the broom she’d purchased with the cleaning supplies to knock down as many spider webs as she could reach, paying particular attention to the inner parlor, and then sprayed the perimeter of the front parlor, the library across from it, the kitchen, and finally the smaller, cozier room she preferred. That was enough for the moment. She was too damn tired and the place was too damn big. Tomorrow would be soon enough for that. And then she’d give it a thorough inspection, too.

But she was no fool. Strapped to her jeans was a pocketknife she had grabbed when she dug out her sleeping bag, and she had a large stick she’d picked up outside, too. She hadn’t had it in her to do more than a quick walk-through of the rest of the house and these measures would have to suffice. And it didn’t appear to matter. Inexplicably, she felt safe. And at home, crazy as it seemed.

She placed the candelabra on a low marble-topped table between the chairs and a smallish, faded gold sofa against the wall of the inner parlor, and then walked back outside before it got too dark, leaving the doors wide open to air the place out.

She gathered some twigs and sticks and thicker branches to go with the logs and carried them by the armful into her inner sanctuary, as she was beginning to think of the little room, until the wire basket by the hearth was overflowing and more was stacked on the floor beside it.

After making sure the flue was open, which took some doing—the original recess for the fireplace had been filled with a cast-iron insert, and she had to yank hard and then kick the rod to get the damper to budge—she stacked twigs and sticks under and on top of one of the packaged logs, and lit the paper around it.

It took a few minutes to get it burning, but soon with a few bigger pieces of wood added, she had a crackling blaze going. There was a black cloud of smoke at first, and she was glad she had left the doors open. But finally it died down and the fireplace began to draw properly. After a bit she was able to close up the house again. The only fear she had was that someone would see or smell the smoke. But hopefully the house was isolated enough that it wouldn’t be detected.

She dusted off the mustard chair she liked, producing little sparks of static, then went into the kitchen, rinsed out a small glass, and retrieved the corkscrew and bottle of wine.

She returned to the little parlor and placed everything on the table beside the wingback. She went to sit down, then, spying the blanket she’d brought, lifted back up to grab it. Pulling it across her legs, she dropped back down wearily and propped her feet on the footstool she’d dragged over.

With hands that trembled faintly, she went to work on the wine.

The cork popped out with a thook, and she filled the glass. After giving it a sniff—it didn’t smell vinegary—she tentatively tasted it and was thrilled to find it smooth instead of bitter and tasting of fruit with only a slight earthiness. She took a larger taste and savored the plummy sweetness.

Sitting back, she sipped at it as she gazed at the flickering flames and the dancing shadows of the candles behind her.

Her mind wandered as she relaxed, content to sit and do nothing, not even think about her predicament if she didn’t want to.

The wine and her fatigue, though, soon had her moving over to the sofa. She swiped at it to remove some of the dust, spread the sleeping bag across it, and lay down with her blanket and pillow.

She knew if this was going to work, even for a short while, she was going to have to do a lot more cleaning, but right then she was just too tired and emotionally spent to deal with it.

Eventually she dreamed. Of the house as it once must have been, pristine and gleaming with plush furnishings and richly colored drapes and rugs and golden lamplight amidst the smell of fresh gingerbread and baked apples.

There were people there, too, glimpsed hazily in the periphery of her vision, moving about, some walking arm in arm, some dancing to faint music she could barely pick up. Although they were smiling and conversing, she couldn’t make out what they were saying. But as she approached the entrance to a long, open space, the occasional burst of laughter rang out loud enough to reach her.

It was the ballroom. And they were having a party. Folding her arms, she rubbed at the goosebumps that had formed on them. The air felt strange, like it was filled with electricity. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, and it crackled with static.

People swirled by her, oblivious as they danced past.

Lingering unnoticed by the sea of people gliding and twirling about, she marveled at their dazzling attire and the grandeur of the room as she turned to gaze into a mirror on this side of the doorway.

Her image looked back at her, hair tousled from sleep and still wearing the long-sleeved nightgown she’d put on for bed. But it didn’t matter, for not one person was paying the least bit of attention to her.

She shifted her eyes over and gave a start as through the mirror, she saw a man standing behind her against the far wall, his eyes boring into hers with full awareness. She whirled around.

As she stood there, his eyes traveled the length of her, then flew back up to meet her startled gaze.

They stared at each other as if mesmerized. Black-haired and tallish, he was elegantly attired in a dark jacket and matching close-fitting trousers and was easily the best-looking man she’d ever laid eyes on. And he seemed just as taken with her, although how that could be with the unkempt state of her hair and the way she was dressed, she couldn’t imagine.

He started in her direction, his brow knitting like he was trying to place her.

Rooted in place, she could only stare back as he made his way across the floor and stopped before her.

Only inches away, he gazed down at her. “I believe I know you,” he said, his voice smooth and masculine. “Although I can’t quite recall how.” He stood maybe six one, several inches above her five-foot-six frame. “Nevertheless, I’m happy you came, although I must say, you are a bit underdressed.”

Cheyenne peered past him at all the people. “Yes, well … I didn’t know I was …” Her voice trailed away as her confusion mounted.

His gave a quick glance over his shoulder, then moved closer and grasped her upper arm to urge her into the shadows. “Explain to me,” he said. “How my sister, whom I’m assuming you must be acquainted with, has failed to mention knowing such a delightful creature as you?” He raked his eyes down the length of her again. “You must tell me who you are.”

She wet her lips and swallowed. “I’m … My name is Cheyenne. And I’m not … I don’t …” She looked around. Why was …? This wasn’t …

As though from a distance, she felt his fingers tighten on her arm. Where …? Panic welled within her and she twisted away, pulling her arm free.

Pivoting, she hurried away from him, back through the house, heedless of his voice calling out behind her, moving in and out of shadow past the glowing lamps and flickering candles, down the staircase and through the doorway, into the smaller inner room.

And there she found herself in darkness that smelled of dust and smoke. My God, what had just happened? Swaying on her feet, she turned in a half circle. She was in the house. In the old house in the present, not a century in the past.

She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head to clear it. You must have been dreaming, she thought. And apparently you’ve now taken to wandering about in your sleep.

She had never sleepwalked in her entire life. And she didn’t think she had ever had such a detailed dream before, either. Such an exact dream. It had seemed so real.

Wincing at the stiffness in her muscles—the fire had died out and the room had grown cold—she shuffled over, lay back down, and tried to get into a comfortable position. She briefly contemplated getting up and throwing another log on, but then with her mind still full of splendor and finery, and of him, the one who’d seemed so vivid, she fell back asleep.

End of preview