Claire knew that if there hadn’t been a map inside the brown envelope, there was no way she would have been able to find the log house. The barely there dirt track broke off from the narrow two-lane road six miles outside of a little town call Monuta. She stopped the car to double-check her directions before pulling onto the winding trail.
A little more than a hundred yards from the cutoff, and past the tangle of brush that scraped the sides of the car, Claire finally came within sight of the house.
“Wake up, Mike. We’re finally here.”
Fortunately, it had been an uneventful trip. She had pushed herself the first day to go as far as Des Moines before finding a motel for the night. With more than half the route already under her belt, it made for an easier second leg of the trip.
She pulled the car and U-Haul as close to the house as possible. She slowly climbed out and stretched until her joints popped as she studied her new home. The cat promptly jumped out of the vehicle and began to exam his new surroundings.
It was not an imposing structure, and looked smaller on the outside than she knew it was, but that was because of the trees surrounding it. Somewhere beyond it lay a small inlet, part of Lake Weemonaka. The house got its water directly from the lake instead of a well. The notes in the envelope explained the water went through a purifying filter, making it safe enough to bathe in or cook with, but suggested she carry in bottled water to drink.
“Don’t go far,” she warned the animal. “There could be big, nasty forest critters in the vicinity that would love to have you for dinner.”
Finding the key on her keychain, Claire made her way onto the small porch and up to the front door. Thankfully, there was enough daylight left to check out the place.
The heavy brass key squealed as it turned in the old-fashioned lock, but the door opened with little difficulty. The house may have been fashioned out of logs, but the hardware was modern.
The door swung open, and the first thing that struck Claire was the smell of dust. The scent of abandonment. What she didn’t detect was decay, and that was good. The abandoned old house had withstood the test of time.
“Come on, Mike! Get inside. The sun’s starting to set.”
A low growl answered her, and Claire turned around to see what was raising the Bengal’s fur. The woods nearly engulfed the house, since the area hadn’t been cleared in ages. A movement near the front of the car caught her eye, and she started to call for the cat again when another movement behind a tree alerted her.
“Mike, get in here right now!” she called out fearfully. The last thing she needed was to lose her beloved pet. Mike had always been there for her, no matter how bad things got. He’d even learned to eat dry cereal when she was too poor to buy cat food.
The feline scurried between her legs as it dashed into the house. Claire quickly closed the door and moved over to the window to see if she could spot what had spooked the both of them, but after another minute nothing revealed itself again.
“We must have scared it off, whatever it was,” she said. A quick glance found the cat partially hidden underneath a sheet covering a piece of furniture. Claire nodded. “Good choice, Mike. You stay there while I go unload just what we need for tonight.”
On the other side of the door was a light switch. She flipped it, and was rewarded with a bulb coming on outside. “Hey! Electricity’s on!”
It felt like a portent of good luck. The way her life had been heading these past few months, she wouldn’t have been surprised if the power had not been on, which was why she had bought a flashlight at the gas station the last time she’d filled up.
The perishables were in the back seat of the car, as well as her single suitcase. The van was loaded with items that could wait until tomorrow. Taking in the last load of the evening, she locked the door and went into the kitchen. Crossing her fingers, she turned on the faucet. The pipes rumbled. There was a gurgling sound, but nothing came out.
“Come on. Please. Don’t make me have to go out and truck water back from the lake.”
If the electricity was on, it should be powering the pump, which brought the water up from the lake. Either the pump wasn’t working, or something could be clogging the pipe.
She reached for the faucet to turn it off when a thick black clot of mud shot into the sink, followed by a hard stream of dirty water. Within seconds, the water turned clear. She stuck her hand into it. Cold and clear.
“Hey, Mike! We have water!”
She placed a few items in the small refrigerator, including the loaf of bread. Until she could be sure there were no mice or other night crawlies around who would eat whatever she had laying out on the counter, everything would go in the fridge.
A quick search of the cabinets turned up some dishes and glasses above, and a few pots and pans below, but no perishables or cleaning supplies. One drawer contained eating and cooking utensils, while another held an odd assortment of items. She picked up a package of batteries that had an expiration date of six years ago. She also found nearly a dozen large bags of rock salt stored on the floor in the back of the pantry, which she assumed was for use on the roads when they became covered in ice.
It was quickly getting dark. The surrounding woods blocked whatever sunlight there was left. A short search found another light switch near the kitchen that worked that area’s ceiling lamp.
“All right. Where’s the light switch to the living area? You wouldn’t know where it is, would you? Or if you did, would you tell me?”
She felt happy. For the first time in nearly a year, she felt truly and serenely happy. Coming here had been the right decision, and already she sensed it to be a good omen for her. That, and the fact that the electricity was already on, including the water.
A single switch sitting by itself on the living room wall didn’t produce anything. Sighing, Claire proceeded to remove the sheets and old blankets covering the furniture. Mike promptly claimed the end of the sofa for himself and proceeded to clean himself.
“That reminds me. I need to get your litter box taken care of. Necessities first before I try to dig us up something to eat.”
Once that chore was accomplished, she ventured into the back of the house. There were two bedrooms and a bathroom, plus a couple of smaller closets. Again, the information in the letter the attorney had given her was correct. The house was furnished, although the place needed a good cleaning and airing out. There was no way she would be able to sleep in one of those beds tonight. Not until tomorrow. The smell of disuse was everywhere, but the home appeared to be snug and dry.
She went back into the living room to find the cat standing on the window sill. Its back was raised, and it was hissing at something outside.
“Oh, good grief, cat. You’re starting to make me feel jumpy. It’s probably a raccoon or something. Come here. You can share a can of sardines with me.”
Claire was surprised by how quickly it got dark, and how absolutely black it appeared outside. She commented to the cat that the trees were probably blocking out the stars and moon, which was why she could see themselves reflected in the curtain-less windows.
Even more surprising was the total silence. Nothing broke the dead calm; not even a breeze stirred the leaves. She shivered at the encroaching cold.
“Until I learn to start a fire in the fireplace, we’re going to have to share body heat, old man. Let’s go ahead and hit the sack, and get a fresh start in the morning. How does that sound?”
Over on the couch, Mike meowed as he licked his paws. Leaving the light on in the kitchen, Claire joined him, along with a blanket, and settled down. Mike curled up at her feet. She was asleep within seconds.
A few minutes later, the animal lifted its head and stared at the window where it had been peering out earlier. The ears went back, and it hissed a warning.
The face that had been looking into the house disappeared instantly.