She pulled her coat tighter around her, the wind feeling like a GRIM BEAST that was tearing at the fabric to try to get inside.
As DARKNESS descended, the RUSTLING of the leaves sounded more OMINOUS than she ever remembered. Long FORGOTTEN SORROW was creeping nearer, PERCHED to swoop down and take over her SOUL again.
Once she reached the old house, she peeked through the only still UNBROKEN WINDOW she could reach. She had expected it to be bad, but nothing could have prepared her for the DISASTER she saw inside.
Alice shivered with GRIEF at what she saw through the only unbroken window on the porch. It was also the only one not covered with a board. Taking the old key out of her pocket, she steeled herself to enter Great Aunt Edna's house for the first time since she'd left for college all those years before.
There was no ELECTRICITY, of course, so she'd brought a large battery operated lantern with her. The door didn't want to open at first, but she doggedly kept at pushing it until it gave way. In fact, it gave way faster than she expected, and she was launched with almost VIOLENT force into the home she'd grown up in and that her other relatives had tried to take from her.
She was hit with waves of MELANCHOLY, just as she had known would happen. All the therapy in the world couldn't erase or ease these SENSATIONS and feelings, just prepare her to deal with them. The house was a wreck, all the furniture topsy-turvy and covered with the dust and cobwebs of the years. Evidence of rodents and spiders and who knew what else was everywhere. Evidence also that the relatives had taken whatever they wanted and destroyed the rest in their searches before the sheriff had locked the place and told them to stay out until the estate was settled.
Great Aunt Edna had adopted her when her own parents were killed in a very mysterious accident, their car plunging into a RAVINE because the brakes were damaged. Edna had always maintained it was no accident, although she'd only told Alice that after she was old enough to understand.
Walking across the foyer Alice turned her head away from the kitchen where the MURDER of her aunt had occurred. Hurrying into the LABORATORY where her parents and then she and her analytical chemist aunt had worked, she saw with relief that the bench with the hidden drawers was intact and it did not appear anyone had figured out what was in there.
"Our 'relatives,' and I use that word loosely," Edna had told Alice right before she left for school, "will stop at nothing to get this house, my money, and our secrets. When I go, they are going to fight my will, try to run though the money keeping it in court, and stop at nothing to get what your parents and I were working on and what you and I have almost perfected."
At that point, Edna would LAUGH and add, "They will try, they will not succeed. Eventually you will get it all. Even then, do not trust that you will be safe until the experiments are completed and the patents applied for, and under your name, too. You are young enough and smart enough, just like your parents. No matter what they throw at you, don't give up or give in, and make sure your own will is iron clad and leaves everything to the family you will have one day. Promise me!"
Alice had promised, and Edna had given her a KISS. She remembered like it was yesterday, and tears stung her eyes. She winked them back as hard as she could, and started opening the hidden drawers. All the work was there, Edna must have heard whoever was coming for her and got it all secreted and herself into the kitchen to use the phone to call for help.
She thought about how it would AMUSE Aunt Edna if she could have known the details of all the relatives had tried to do from that moment until the estate was settled in her favor. She wished her aunt could see her now, and hoped that somehow she did.
They tried to beat me, tried to dry up the money for college, tried to steal everything Edna and my parents had worked for, even tried to turn this beautiful home into a SLAUGHTERHOUSE and a wreck, Alice thought, but they didn't succeed and they never will.
VISIONS of what the house once was and would be again when she got finished with it helped drive out the NIGHTMARES Alice sometimes had. The bad dreams involved CHILDREN being chased through TUNNELS by a CLOWN. They would eventually be cornered by a stagnant pool of RED WATER, and she would awaken realizing she was one of those being chased. Somehow she also would realize, when she awoke, that under the make-up the one doing the chasing was one of her relatives.
At every RECURRENCE of the dream, she would wake up and go get out the plans for the house, poring over every detail. If it was late enough in the morning, she would call one of her FRIENDS and ask for suggestions or just talk over the agenda each had for the day. They knew Alice still needed COURAGE to finish what she and her aunt had been working on, and to get the house back in order, and they shared freely.
As difficult as it was to simply go about her business, Alice knew she could not HIDE, that although they stayed away as the restraining orders commanded, her relatives knew where she was and kept up with her. She had never had ASTHMA before, but working with the choking clouds of dust in the house left her wheezing. She would go back to the hotel, regroup, and go back again with the workers. No way was she going to let them see her weaken.
Alice pushed aside the DIARY she'd retrieved from one of the hidden drawers of the workbench and tried to gather her thoughts. In the SEVEN weeks since she'd taken possession of the house and gotten all of the other properties and moneys put into her name, she had done wonders in getting workers in to do the repairs.
The house was very close to being ready for her to occupy, in fact, she really could have moved in the week before if she'd not minded the unfinished bits. Her excuse that she did not want to live in a house while it was being remodeled was partly true, and partly it was that she was still HAUNTED by everything that had happened in that house since the last time she'd lived there.
In two days she would FLY out to the destination wedding of one of her dearest friends, and she did not want to cloud the joy of the occasion with TALES of what she was going through. When the work crew was finished at the house for the day, if she stayed for any length of time every moment was a spine TINGLER. She knew no one was there, and did not believe in ghosts, but couldn't USHER out the feeling of something INVISIBLE being there.
I'm a scientist! she would sternly tell herself. My parents were scientists, and my Great Aunt Edna was a scientist, and I have everything I need to finish the research we were working on, and gain patents on chemicals that will revolutionize how we deal with garbage materials that can't be recycled or composted or reclaimed in any other way. WAX dripping off of a candle shouldn't spook me, a RAVEN flying suddenly past my front door shouldn't make me SCREAM. My mood shouldn't swing like a PENDULUM, from elation at the work that's getting done on the house to terror that one of my relatives will show up and harm or kill me. Somehow, some way, I have to get a grip, I can't let fear of them win.
“I like what you’ve done with the place so far!”
Alice’s friend Eugenie had come back from the wedding to visit for a couple of days. As much as she’d tried to hide it, Alice’s behavior the whole long weekend had been enough to AROUSE suspicion among her friends that she needed more tangible help than just the occasional phone call.
The ANCIENT, BEDRAGGLED garden in the back yard now had a NARROW row of delicious smelling HERBS growing in it, and more was going to be plowed under to be made ready for growing vegetables the next season. An UNWIELDY gate led to the still very DUSTY barn where Alice was storing items from the house that she wasn’t yet sure she wanted to keep.
When Eugenie had learned about the “keeping things I’m not sure about” from Alice, it had been the FORTUNATE excuse she needed to say she was coming to help her decide. “Sometimes you need an outsider’s eyes to help you EVALUATE these things,” Eugenie had told her.
Many of the items were too FRAIL to survive long in a barn, Eugenie had decided after a cursory inspection. She put on her thinking CAP to come up with a plan, and finally got Alice to agree to let her EXECUTE it before she left. A donation truck was coming to get almost all of the items early the next week.
“As you can see,” Alice said, “this turns the once toxic substances inert and makes them recyclable.”
Alice and Eugenie were in the lab among the COPPER and glass tubes and the HUM of the machines where Alice was trying to EXPLAIN to her friend what some of her experimentation was about.
“You science people are EDUCATED way beyond me,” Eugenie laughed. “I majored in history for a reason and only have a TENUOUS grasp of what you are talking about.”
“Well, you don’t have to understand everything about how cars and computers work to use them,” Alice noted, “so you don’t have to understand this much either to know it will be useful. It’s a BRANCH of chemistry my parents and Great Aunt Edna and I were working on, and it will have a DECISIVE effect on the recycling of previously non-recyclable toxic materials that everyone will someday NOTICE.”
“It’s great to see you excited about the research and about all the work you’ve done on the house,”Eugenie said. “It’s really a NEAT old place.”
“It’s too quiet when I’m here by myself,” Alice said. “The relatives who wanted to steal this place from me can still UNITE and cause a lot of harm.”
“What can they really do?” Eugenie asked. “I think you are too worried about people with very little power over you.”
“The TRUCK that hit my parent’s car and knocked them into the ravine was never found because it was being driven by one of those relatives, it was no accident,” Alice said quietly. “And Aunt Edna was murdered by someone they hired, it was not just some ILL-FATED burglary gone wrong.”
“Are you sure?”Eugenie asked, and Alice answered, “As sure as we are talking right now.”
The beautiful FLOWERS inside contrasted sharply with the SLEET that was falling outside the window. As she took a SIP of her hot tea, Alice was hit with a ZANY thought.
What, she thought, if I pretend to stage my own MURDER? She almost laughed out loud at the thoughts that came. It would be so DRAMATIC. I could bring in a friend to make the DISCOVERY that I’d disappeared. As is TYPICAL of my relatives, they would go nuts AGONIZING over whether I was really gone or not. They would also, of course, OFFER to take over tending the house until I got back, and ransack it again looking for the science papers.
The thoughts of her relatives discomfiture had a STIMULATING effect on her, and she kept musing. I could come up with a new name and identity, take out the patents in that name, and simply leave all of this drama behind me.
She giggled softly, a DISTINCT sound in the quiet house. While she knew she would never really do that, the thought of it kept her laughing over the next few days.
Alice had become DISILLUSIONED with the two patent attorneys she had tried so far. They treated her as if she were NAIVE, like they could not believe she had been part of the development team of the chemicals she wanted to patent. One had shown a peculiar INTEREST in her and she'd felt like she was dealing with a sleazy salesman instead of an attorney.
Treating herself to a walk by the almost frozen RIVER to clear her mind, she decided she would try to fill out the patent paperwork herself. Alice didn't have any silly idea that she would be DASHING it off in an afternoon, and she knew she could always keep looking for another attorney for advice if she ran into too much trouble.
Now that she'd made the decision to try, she felt free of a weight she had not even realized she had. On the way toward the door she picked up the BUCKET by the wood pile, using her FREE hand to fill it with a few pieces and carry them in.
In the waning LIGHT of the WINTER evening, she stopped to SHRUG off her coat and drop the wood by the fireplace. She lit a scented WAX candle and turned on her computer. It came up, then the lights flickered and went off and her computer shut down.
"SUPER, just what I need" she thought to herself, and reached for her cell phone to call the electric company again.
Between the candle’s glow and the small warming fire in the fireplace, Alice was in no danger of being completely in the dark, but she still hated that the electric lights had cut off. She didn’t express it as such, but the scientist part of her felt almost INVINCIBLE when she was surrounded by even the simplest technology that separated her from the forebears who had hauled water from the old well and used kerosene lanterns. Not a sense of superiority, but more a gratitude that she had so much more available to her.
She heard a PURRING by her feet and reached down with her free hand to pick up the kitten she’d adopted the week before. PUNY and underfed, she still wondered how it managed to WANDER up to her house, and it had won her heart with its GOOFY big ears and propensity to ZOOM all over the house, playing with everything it found.
As Alice listened to the “your call is important to us” message from the electric company, wishing they would hurry and take her report of the power outage, she heard another SOUND. At first she couldn’t tell if she’d really heard it, or where it was coming from. She set the phone down and with IMMENSE concentration, strained to listen beyond the kitten’s purr.
It came again, and this time it was unmistakeable. Someone was at the back door. At first the noises were quiet, then came the noise of a solid KICK to the door. Someone was trying to break in.
With SUPREME effort not to scream, she got up silently, scooped the kitten in one hand and the phone in the other, and headed for the root cellar. Not trusting that her relatives would keep their distance as they’d been told to do, she had turned the cellar into what she called a tornado shelter to make it more acceptable. She had stocked it with emergency food, water, candles, flashlights, even some LINEN, a futon and an emergency toilet in case she ever got trapped and had to spend a night there.
Pulling back the cellar door that was in the floor under the kitchen table, she crawled down a couple of steps and quietly lowered the door. She threw the bar that would lock her in by the light her phone provided, and hung up on the still not responding electric company. Dialing 911, she thought to herself, Now even Eugenie cannot PRETEND I’m being paranoid.
“What do you mean, she disappeared? People do not just disappear.” The voice at the other end of the phone was very agitated.
“I know, but I can’t find her!” he said, moving from room to room, pulling furniture away from walls and opening every closet.
“Didn’t I tell you not to go in unless you saw her through the window?”
“I did see her, in fact I stepped in PUDDLE and got prickled by that THORNY EVERGREEN she planted under all the windows trying to make sure she was in here,” he yelled back.
“So you are telling me she is not there when you saw her through the window in the room a few minutes earlier. That’s like telling me a GIRAFFE disappeared from the zoo, it does not happen!”
“I know people don’t just disappear, but I’m telling you she isn’t in the house! I’ve searched every room!”
Alice could hear the TORRENT of words as the man traipsed back and forth through the house, his boots clomping over her head like DISTANT thunder.
The intruder continued to argue on his phone while Alice dialed the emergency number from her hiding place. She whispered to the emergency operator that someone had cut off her electricity and broken into her house, to please send help immediately. The operator agreed to do so, and Alice held her phone out so the sound of the intruder slamming cabinets opened and closed could be heard.
“Look,” the intruder said into his phone, “I’m getting out of here, I’ve already lost the element of surprise even if she’s hiding somewhere in the house so I’m going back to the diner and catch a CAB.”
“Great, now we’re going to have to come up with another plan!” the person on the other end hung up, and the intruder, frustrated with not being able to find any sign of Alice, kicked at the TUBULAR leg of one of the laboratory tables, then yelled in pain.
As he hobbled out of the same back door he had kicked open, the police had driven up in the front with no sirens or lights. One officer headed for the front door while the other went for the back yard, hoping to catch any intruder trying to leave the scene.
By the time he realized the police were there, he had tripped over the faucet for the sprinkler system and was caught, face down, cussing up a storm.
The police told the dispatcher to tell Alice they were there, but she made sure she snuck out of her hiding place when they were in another room. She reasoned that this would not be the last time she’d have to use it, and wanted it kept hidden.
“Would you come and identify the intruder?” one of the officers asked. She answered, “I didn’t see him, just heard his voice, but I can tell you if I know him or not.”
“I didn’t do anything but come over here to visit my cousin!” he was yelling, but he got very quiet when he saw her peering into the back of the police car.
“Yes, I know him, and that’s his voice. He kicked the back door open,” she said.
“All I did was knock, I wanted to talk to you!” he yelled.
“Yeah, sure,” the officer said, “and the furniture moved around, the closet doors opened, what was that all about?”
“Not to mention,” Alice added, “you turned off the electrical main, knocked over my ASPIDISTRA, all of my TEDDIES and dolls are on the floor...”
“We’re going to take him to lock-up, you can come down and give a statement tomorrow,” one of the officers told Alice, and the other added, “Call again if you need us. Now that we know someone is after you, we will patrol here more often, too.”
After the police left, Alice went back into the house and pulled a heavy china hutch in front of the now broken back door.
“Tomorrow I will have to deal with getting a carpenter to fix the door and going to make a complaint with the DA,” she thought. “But I am not quitting, I am not giving up, THE SHOW MUST GO ON!”
“Now that the idiot has gone and gotten himself arrested,” he thought, “I am not going to try to work through her family any more. They’ve done dumb stuff before, but this is THE STRAW THAT BROKE THE CAMEL’S BACK!”