Copyright © 2000 by James Paddock. All rights reserved.
|The door was locked, but I continued to stare at it as if willing it to open, or not open, my gloved hands jammed up under my armpits. I watched my breath float off into the night as I said something about going back to the truck and waiting for help to come by. Michea didn’t respond. I twisted around to look at her. She was gone.
“Michea?” I whispered.
No answer came except the tinkle of a black cat decoration hanging from the corner of the porch, the slightest breeze disturbing its seven dangling chimes. I momentarily wondered at the fact that, in the dark, it appeared in almost new condition after hanging in that spot for who knew how many years. Maybe someone lived here now. I stepped off the porch and spotted Michea's tracks leading around the side of the house.
“Michea?” I whispered again.
I swore under my breath as I stomped in place in an effort to keep warm. The snow had stopped just before my truck quit and the clouds had broken enough to bounce a little moonlight about the white landscape.
I turned and looked up to find Michea standing in the open door.
“Get in here before you freeze," she said.
I hesitated. “How did you...?”
“Don’t worry about it. Come on!”
The cat chime dinged as I looked back down the long winding drive, to where I knew the mailbox stood, on county road six. I couldn’t see it, even in the moonlight, nor could I see my truck setting nearby, behind two big evergreen trees. I didn’t want to walk up here to begin with, to this house. Any house but this one. Would rather have waited or walked somewhere else or hiked the three miles into town. Not this house.
“Come on Daniel. There’s no one home.”
Reluctantly I climbed back up the steps. “Of course there’s no one home, Michea. It's been deserted for at least..." I had no idea how long it'd been deserted. "A long time. It's just that it's...” I didn’t want to say it. Felt foolish even thinking it.
“Haunted," she finished for me. "Yeah, yeah. It's just an old abandoned house and there’s nothing to be afraid of. It's all in people’s minds. Now get in here!”
She grabbed the front of my coat and dragged me through the door, slamming it behind me. The echo bounced from empty wall to empty wall, in rhythm with a candle flickering on the corner of a fireplace mantel. “Let's just go back to the truck and wait for someone to flag down,” I suggested and then noticed on the other corner of the mantel, a cat; a very live black cat, its eyes flashing with the flicker of the candle.
“We’ll freeze to death out there. It's one a.m. No one will be by for at least five hours on this road. We can build a fire and wait until my grandfather comes by on his paper route.”
“Where did the candle come from?” I also wanted to mention the cat, but for some reason I bit my tongue before it could get out. I was starting to feel as though I was imagining it all.
“It was just here.” She pointed the flashlight around the room. “See, there’re a couple more.” She lit two more. “Already I feel warmer. And there’s even wood and paper. I’m going to build a fire. You can help, or not.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea.” I really did feel stupid saying it, but... “The stories." The cat seemed to raise its eyebrows at me. "What if?”
Michea carefully placed in a number of strips of kindling with wadded up paper and then stood. “I’ve heard the stories all my life. Kids go in and never come out. What kids? Do you know of any families with missing children, Daniel? Can you name one person, kid or otherwise, who's gone into this house and not come out?”
“I know, that gypsy lady. Yeah, yeah, yeah.” She knelt down to put two logs on top of the kindling, stood and looked at it, then hunched down again to rearrange it, adding two more logs. “I’ve heard the whole story.” She lit the paper. “This weird Gypsy Lady and her cats come to town with that little circus affair, tells a story around a bond fire and ever since everybody shakes in their boots driving by this old place.” She found an old towel somewhere and began sweeping an area in front of the fireplace. “And besides; we aren’t kids anymore. We’ll both be eighteen before summer. Ghost stories are for kids.”
The fire blazed up and I stepped around her to get closer. One side of my brain said she was right, but the other would rather have been shivering out in the car. I opened my coat and let the warmth rush inside.
I watched the flames for a time as they danced, almost beckoningly. “Okay,” It seemed as if I were within the flames and they were dancing around me. I thought I should pull myself free. I knew I could but I was warm. I didn’t want to take the chance of being cold again, so I just kept staring, letting the flames heat me up. Michea took my coat, gloves and cap, saying something about making a bed. One flame leapt high and I followed it, coming eye-to-eye with the cat. It and the flame seemed to become as one, weaving and swaying like a cobra entranced by a flute. Michea pulled up on my sweater, up until I had to raise my arms to let it slide off. Even in that short duration during which the sweater covered my face, I could see the cobra-like flame with cat eyes.
It kept on dancing.
I blinked and the image started to fade.
I blinked again and the flames returned to just crawling around the logs, chewed up pieces of kindling glowing in its wake.
“Daniel,” Michea whined. “Come down here. Snuggling together in front of the fire can keep us warm, and we might get a few hours sleep.”
I turned and looked at my best friend, Michea Langstrom, the daughter of my mother’s sister. She wasn’t my girlfriend; she was my cousin, almost like the sister I never had.
“Daniel!” she urged again.
The reds and yellows of the fire danced and rippled about her. There was a sudden flash of bright light in the room. I dropped down next to Michea and looked at the fire, expecting the cobra to be back, cat eyes blazing into me. Instead I saw only very dry wood burning with enthusiasm.
“Here,” she said as she formed our sweaters into a pillow. “We’ll lie on my coat and use yours as a blanket.”
I rested my head on the pillow of cashmere and wool but continued to watch the fire. Michea arranged the coat and placed one arm around me, her head on my shoulder. My eyes remained on the flame as if daring it to come alive again. But my eyes were getting heavy. I kept forcing them open, over and over until suddenly the cat-eyed cobra was looking back at me and growing, seeming to engulf me. I forced my eyes closed against the obvious illusion but could still feel the heat as it wrapped around me. I could sense myself falling... falling... down... down... down into a deep, hot sleep.
“You’re my best friend, Daniel.”
I muttered something about being out at the truck by six to flag down her grandfather.
“You always will be,” she added.
I could still see the cobra-flame as I kept falling. Yellow eyes. Black, narrow slits.
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