Into the Mist

Preview 2

She cracked open the door and stepped out. She'd just take a quick peek. After all, once she went to work and got straight, maybe she 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 be okay, until she could think more clearly and work 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 somehow 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.

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 containing disintegrating volumes to her left and the large, mostly empty parlor across from it, she turned right into a side hall 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 wider hallway that ran along this half 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 went 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 being gone, the place had a strangely untouched feel and look to it.

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

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 went back outside. Halfway across the verandah, she came to a stop. Everything seemed to have 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 it came open easily. She fiddled with the little knob on the inside, but time or debris had frozen the bolt in place, keeping it from locking 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 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. There were also several dusty bottles of wine poking out of a built-in rack over by a rectangular table and two chairs beneath a large ornate mirror, now cloudy with age.

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.

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. 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 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 maybe 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 a 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 too tired and emotionally spent to deal with it.

End of preview