The Drowning of Chittenden: Chapter One

 

Prologue

Autumn arrived early that year the river disappeared from the Chittenden Hills. The current ebbed. Katydids hushed their song. Stagnant air smothered the valley, and tobacco fields lay useless, gone to kudzu. Timber stood girdled and looked like twisted, old men, waiting for death.

One old man squatted beside his dog and his homemade dinghy, beached for the last time. He watched a water moccasin lift its head from the muddy waters, stare at him, then dart away under water, fleeing like the others.

Tobias Mullen plucked at the gray bristles of his unshaven chin. He knew he shouldn't be here. The TVA boys had warned him, but the old man couldn't leave his river without one last glimpse of her. She'd been like a good woman, this river, sustaining him over half a century.

Janie would be a grown woman by now.

Rising slowly, as much as his old bones would straighten, he reached into the deep side pocket of his overalls to pull out a pipe and leather pouch, worn soft with age, like himself. His callused fingers shook as he tamped the dried, pungent leaves of the tobacco he'd raised from seeds into the smooth bowl of the pipe.

For Janie. It was all for Janie.

He swiped at his eyes, misting with memories of the last time he'd seen her. That summer she'd brought the fool dog home. A puppy then, just like she was with those blonde pigtails and freckled nose. Never did come back after that, but he reckoned she had her reasons.

She was gone, as surely as the rich bottomland he'd worked most of his life was also gone. Any day, the dam would begin operation, and a flood of water would fill the valley of the deadening and destroy all that had ever mattered.

His house had been among the last ones hauled up to higher ground, up there in the woods on top of limestone cliffs. The entire valley was supposed to be evacuated by now. He glanced over his shoulder at the hole in the ground where his white frame farmhouse had stood for sixty years. Kudzu vines were already sneaking into it, no matter the growing nip in the air.

But he'd tricked those government boys after all, he thought, wheezing on a chuckle.

He shoved the pouch back into his pocket, the pipe into his mouth, then lifted the first of the empty barrels from the boat. Pausing to glance up at the white face of the cliff towering behind him, he wondered how in the name of the Almighty he'd ever get them up there. Never mind, he'd find a way. This was the only work he had left now. He wished he'd thought of it sooner.

A twig snapped.

Dropping the barrel, he jerked to attention, sending a shot of pain through his joints. Fool! he told himself. Reckon it's only a coon, come to take a drink. He don't know it'll be his last one.

He glanced down at the dog dreaming and twitching at his feet. You never was no count. Only kept you because of Janie.

Heavier rustling sounds made the old man step behind the barrel, closer to the side of his boat.

That ain't no coon. Reckon I'm in a peck of trouble now. Clenching the pipe between his gums, he anticipated yet another battle with the TVA boys. Slowly, he turned around.

The dog lifted his chin from his paws and opened bloodshot eyes. A low growl rumbled in his throat.

"Oh, it's only you," Tobias said. "You like to give me a start." Then the old man saw the shotgun pointed at him, and understanding spread through his gut.

The explosion echoed around him as Tobias ducked into the protective hull of his boat. The memory of blonde pigtails ebbed from his mind.

No... Janie...

 

Chapter One

 

The road looked like a ribbon of dust. It twisted ahead, disappearing into the tangled woods that blanketed the Chittenden Hills. Janie Bainbridge shivered, despite the unseasonable heat. The road was a link from her past to her future, from the real world of numbered, paved highways to the uncharted territory that lay ahead.

She swallowed hard and steered her Volkswagen Bug a little too fast over the jarring rattles. She didn't care. She'd never felt so alone in her life as now. Not two years ago when her husband had left her, nor last winter when her mother had died, nor six weeks ago when she'd received the pink slip.

"Mom!" Eight-year-old Jeff straightened from his slump and shouted as they rounded another bend. "Look out!"

She stomped on the brakes, and they lurched forward in the sticky interior of the Bug. The woods opened in a clearing, and she blinked from the unexpected light. No more than three feet beyond her bumper, the road ended suddenly in a giant bite of erosion. A snake slipped from the crumbling drop-off, strewn with chunks of red soil and a few remnants of gravel, and slithered into the mucky water of the newborn lake that had swallowed the road.

"Looks like we took a wrong turn somewhere, Jeff," she said, laughing off her surprise. "So this is Chittenden Lake. We could've driven right into it. I wonder why there was no road block?"

Of course there would be none. They were in the boondocks. About twenty miles back, they'd driven into a blank quadrant on her map. No pavement. No road signs.

Jeff whistled softly and watched the snake through the toy binoculars his dad had given him the Christmas before he'd walked out on them. "Gosh, Mom, you didn't tell me it was going to be like this." He scrambled out of the car and ran to the edge of the water. "It looks more like an ocean than a lake!"

Janie opened her door and stood up to stretch. "It is a big lake, isn't it?" she said, careful not to contradict him. The sullen tone that had grown ever worse these last few months had suddenly disappeared. Maybe this move was the right thing to do after all.

She lifted the blonde frizz from her neck and peeled the straps of her sundress away from sticky skin. After an unusually long winter, the heat seemed too oppressive, too early this first week of June. The air smelled deliciously sweet with honeysuckle, and she inhaled deeply, hopeful about this homecoming.

He lowered the binoculars and turned to squint at her. "How could a river make this?"

"When they built the dam, the river flooded the entire valley."

"That's when your grandpa drowned, right?"

Searching for the words to explain, she rubbed her neck and twisted the chain holding her pendant. The family heirloom of sapphire was all she had left of her mother's family. Still, words didn't come. Silence hung in the air between them, but it was never really silent out here in the hills. That gentle breeze whispering through blackgum leaves could be Grandpa's wheezing laughter.

Was he - or his spirit - out there in the woods, watching her?

"Last year, right?" Jeff asked.

The drop-off crumbled slightly under his squirming toes. Pieces splashed into the muddy lake water below. Where they stood had once been a hilltop with a road winding down into the valley. All that was gone now. Drowned, like Grandpa.

"Mom?"

"It was last September," she said, her fingers tightening on the sapphire pendant.

The chain broke. She clutched the pieces, feeling as if she'd broken as well. "They never found his body, but they think he probably drowned."

"Gosh, is he at the bottom of the lake?"

"I doubt it."

"Maybe we'll find him."

"No, Jeff." But she wished she knew more. Mother had rejected her own father even in death.

Why?

And Janie, torn between her warm memories of Grandpa and respect for her mother's irrational fear of this place, had done nothing. Hadn't even returned for his memorial service. Now Mother was gone, too, and it was time for Janie and her son to make a fresh start in life. Grandpa had left her his property. It was a new beginning.

"Then, can we at least go swimming? Mom?"

"Swimming? You want to swim with snakes? The water looks awfully mucky. Oona wrote that it may take a year or so for the water to clear. I bet you could fish, instead."

"I guess so."

"Why the long face?"

"Nothing."

"Come on, tell me." She pocketed the pieces of the broken necklace and lifted his chin to stare into his deep blue eyes. Smiling eyes, she called them, but they hadn't smiled for a long time.

"It's just that I don't have no one to fish with."

"You mean any one, Jeff, but that's not so. You've got me."

"Shucks, Mom, you don't even like worms. It's not the same as - " He broke off, and his cheeks flushed.

"You mean as with Dad, is that right?"

"I guess so." He turned away abruptly, and a thick wave of hair, too long on his neck, caught a sunbeam and dazzled her with blue-black sparkles.

He had his father's hair. He even had the same dimple on his chin that Roy used for beguiling and betraying women. She scowled. Her own child didn't appear to have any of her blood in him.

"Lookit that stuff," Jeff cried, his attention flitting from one backwoods novelty to another.

She followed his aim to the open hillside, covered with a blanket of green. "Kudzu," she whispered.

"I bet if you shimmied through that kuuuudzu no one would ever find you."

"Grandpa always claimed that the vines grew so fast they could chase an old dog. He said they'd take over the whole valley if people didn't watch out. He never let the vines get a start on his property."

"I bet that stuff could strangle you." Jeff went through the motions of choking, and he fell to his knees. "Maybe that's what made him drown," he finally said.

She couldn't help giggling at his theatrics. Then she remembered to scold him. "You're silly. You've spent too much time in the car today." Six hours, with plenty of stops along the backroads from Indiana. Now they were almost to Grandpa's house. Here in the Chittenden Hills. Auntie Mae had called them the foothills of Appalachian foothills.

"Maybe the kuuuudzu caught him in the flood, and he couldn't get away, and the river flooded the valley, and maybe that's why they never found his body, 'cause it's still trapped down there under the kudzu vines at the bottom of the lake."

"I sincerely doubt it." She pulled him to his feet and hugged him to her. He was all she had left of her immediate family.

"Well, it could've happened that way," he said, squirming away and squinting up at her. "I know, Mom, let's go out on the lake and look for him."

"And how are we going to do that?"

"In a boat, of course."

"But we don't have a boat, and besides..." She didn't know the first thing about operating one. Roy had always handled anything mechanical.

"Yeah," he mumbled, his chin sagging. "The boat was only a dream."

She sighed. She had to be both mother and father to him now, and somehow she'd do it. If they were going to live on a lake, then she'd learn how to operate a boat. "Maybe we could spend a little of our savings and rent a boat."

"Huh?" His eyes opened wide, and he stared up at her from under the cover of a stray lock of hair. "But Mom, we'll run out of money."

"You let me worry about the money, young man. We came here to have a grand time this summer, so let's do it." She held out her hand. Maybe being laid off would turn out to be a good thing, after all. "Come on, let's go back to that last fork in the road and see if we can't find Grandpa's house from there."

* * * * *

"Lor-r-r-rdy, it's mule kill'n weather, and I reckon Janie's bringing it with her. Nossir, it don't set well in my bones." Oona Potts reached for the only piece of paper in her kitchen and waggled the limp program from yesterday's church service directly over her bosom, drooping from the weight of duty of raising five young'uns.

She paused for Dexter's response, but her half-brother never was one to waste words, especially when food was around. With his red cap pulled down low over his eye patch, he propped bony elbows on the kitchen table and stuffed leftover Sunday chicken into his mouth as if he'd never eaten a meal in his life. Certainly it never stayed on him the way it did with her. Oona's body had the same shape as the broad backside of a hog's hind leg. Dexter, on the other hand, stayed as skinny as a sassafras sapling. But what else could anyone expect when a man didn't have a woman to do for him for nigh onto thirty years?

"Humph!" She grunted and snapped the program at one of several flies buzzing just out of reach, a constant reminder of the curse she'd bear to her grave. That no-good husband of hers. She'd been after Seymour since planting time to fix the screens, but it seemed he always had something better to do than chores.

"That patch of corn Seymour planted is already burning up, and it ain't even knee high to a grasshopper yet." Oona clucked her tongue, thinking on her husband's foolishness. A woman's duty to her menfolk would never stop her from faulting him. "Now, you tell me just how come he wants to grow all that corn instead of tobacco like everyone else in these here parts?"

"Hogs don't eat no tobacco." His chin shining with grease, Dexter paused over his drumstick to grin at her with that all-knowing deacon's grin of his. "And Seymour's hog farming."

"You ask me, he's whiskey farming. That's why he needs corn." Oona thrust one arm across her ample bosom. Despite her determined anchor, the extra skin that dripped down from her arm jiggled with each jerk of her fanning arm.

"Naw. He's too honest."

"Being honest ain't got nothing to do with it. I thought you knowed that. Plenty of honest folks has been whiskey farming in these here parts since the days of the first settlers, but you mark my words: every last one of them will burn in hell."

"It's their God-given right."

"No good will ever come of tempting the devil."

"Oh, yes there will, woman. It's called money. Folks got to make a living. Ain't no money in hogs and tobacco. But Seymour ain't smart enough when he's sober to know how to make hisself that kind of money. That's how come you're stuck in this rut."

Just because he was a deacon of the church, Dexter thought he knew everything. "Don't be so all-fired sure of yourself. Seymour cain't keep money in his pocket any more'n you can keep fat on your bones. Nossir, I got half a notion to turn him in myself."

Dexter slammed his fist against the table. "Confound it, woman! You bring them revenuers in here and you gonna have half the county wanting a piece of your hide!"

"Well, slap my bones, but that don't scare me none. Only thing that keeps me from trotting myself down to that there revenuer's office this very minute is that he's a fureigner, and no fureigner's got the right to poke his nose into our business."

Dexter mopped his brow with the crook of his arm. The eye patch slipped away from his dead eye. He pulled it into place, then pushed his cap back from his forehead. Only time he ever took off that red cap was in church. "You keep poking your own nose where it don't belong, and you ain't no better than the revenuer hisself trying to tell us decent folks how we can make a living and how we cain't. Woman, you're going to end up with more trouble than you can shake a stick at!"

"Humph!" He was right about that, so she did what she always did when she had to concede a point - she put it out of her mind and changed the subject to suit her.

"Nossir, but this early heat don't set well in my bones," she said. "Ain't no good will come of it. I reckon Janie is plumb bringing it with her, 'cause her mama done took it away that other time. It was the same mule kill'n weather then as it is now. 'Course it was only April then." A shiver rippled through her layers of fat, in spite of the heat. The memory of Fern, God rest her soul, still produced shivers because Fern came close to taking away with her a whole lot more than just the heat. "That time when Fern up and run off. You remember?"

She should've known better than to bring it up. He went all funny-eyed on her, like a hound dog in heat, every time the subject came up. Why, she remembered a time when Daisy, Seymour's best coon dog, went into heat and ran off with a pack of wild dogs. They got into Crockett's chicken coop and killed three of his finest bantams before the old man shot Daisy.

Not that Dexter was going to run off with a pack of dogs and get himself shot up, of course. But still, she didn't like it when his one good eye glazed over with that wild look. "Settle down, honey. Let me fetch you some biscuits and gravy to go with that there chicken."

She bustled over to the humming refrigerator, so short that she had to stoop to poke inside. "'Course, you better shake a leg before Seymour gets home. He ain't gonna be none too happy iffen he catches you here on his property then sees all his Sunday chicken et up." She pulled out several parcels covered with rumpled plastic and turned to scowl at him.

Dexter snorted, and a piece of meat flew from his mouth across the table. "I ain't scared of him." A nervous tick tugged at one of his bushy eyebrows.

She knew better, but instead she said, "I reckon not, but Seymour ain't never forgot. He's got a bone to pick with you." Inside, Oona glowed with pleasure. It made her proud to have her menfolks feuding because of her, even if Seymour was clearly in the wrong going against a deacon of the church. 'Course, the church didn't mean a hill of beans to Seymour, and that was part of his problem. But he was her old man, and she'd have to put up with his faults all the way to her grave.

Dexter licked his fingers with a loud smack.

She carried the bundles of leftovers to her shiny white stove and began warming them. "Yep, I reckon Janie's bringing this heat with her."

Dexter's chair creaked with his shifting weight. "What's she want with you after all these years?"

"Why, she's family. I ain't got no choice but to take her in, whether I like it or not. It's my duty as an upright Christian woman, you see. And Janie's got herself into a passel of trouble. Left her husband, she did." The very idea!

"That so?"

Oona planted one hand on her hip, and with the other, she shook the saucepan with vigor. "I tell you, it just ain't right. I reckon Fern never done taught Janie about a woman's job. Lord knows, a man needs a woman to do for him, 'cause he cain't do for hisself."

Dexter grunted.

"Now I reckon it's up to me to teach her what's what," Oona said. "What else is family for? She ain't got no one else now that they all passed on, bless their souls." She shook her head. "You just never know. Only last summer they was all with us, and now they're all gone. First Uncle Tobias, then Mae, and now Fern. Makes you sorta' wonder who's next, don't it? Of course Janie would come here. Where else would she go? A woman all alone? With a boy of her own and no husband. Last she wrote, she didn't have no job, neither. Say, you reckon you could find something for her to do like you done for Griffy?"

"Woman, are you tetched or something? Go ask that boy over yonder at the yarb doctor's. He's got money. I ain't."

"Junior Wanamaker, you mean?" She snorted. "Uh-uh. My Bonnibelle's got eyes for him."

"She's got eyes for everyone."

"That makes no never mind. She's got her sights set on that one, and what she wants, she winds up getting, or there'll be heck fire to pay. You mark my words. Uh-uh. I ain't fixing to throw him and Janie together. 'Sides, she's a married woman, whether she likes it or not. Someone's got to teach her that, so I reckon it's got to be me."

He grunted. "You ain't got room for no more folks here."

Oona scooped the warm leftovers onto a plate and set it before Dexter. "Oh, she ain't fixing to stay with us. Wrote that she and her boy are gonna stay over yonder at Uncle Tobias's place."

Dexter coughed, then coughed some more. He scraped his chair backwards.

"Take a drink, honey." She pounded on his bony spine. "I declare. It's a danged fool thing to do. Why, that place has been closed up all winter, and I reckon it smells to high heaven."

Dexter made a choking noise and hung his head between his knees.

"It was Taffy's job to check up on things over yonder all winter, but you can bet she ain't doing it. She never does anything lessen you sit on her, and I ain't sat on her like I should ought've." She stopped to cluck her tongue and shake her head. "That girl ain't been the same since Uncle Tobias passed on. And now I reckon it's up to me to go over yonder and air out the place because Janie aims to stay there and nowhere else. Soon as her boy gets out of school. She just don't know the sight of trouble I have to go to. But that Janie won't pay no mind to no one. She's just like her mama. Has to find out everything for herself. Hey! Where you off to in such a all-fired rush?"

But Dexter didn't answer. He jumped spang out of his chair like one of Seymour's flies bit him right through his overalls. He lit out through the screened-in back porch, and then she realized that it must be all that food passing lickety-split through him. Food never did stay on him long. He hurried through the chicken yard, but when he reached the outhouse, he kept on going.

"Wait, honey!" Oona waddled after him as fast as her extra pounds would allow. "Your vittles!"

By the time she made it to the barbed-wire fence surrounding her garden, he'd disappeared into the woods. "Well, I never! There's a fine how-do-you-do. Try to feed a man that ain't got no other womenfolk to do it for him, and he don't even give a body the time of day."

* * * * *

Janie's gaze dropped to the sinking needle on the gas gauge. "There's that rickety bridge again. Are we driving in circles?"

"This bridge is different, Mom. Lookit, there's a house by the river."

"Looks more like a creek to me," she said, steering carefully onto the twin planks that served as a bridge. One wrong turn of the wheel, and they'd plunge into the gully. It wouldn't take much rain to wash out a bridge like this.

"Cool! They've got a dock. I wonder if they've got a boat we could borrow?"

She grinned. Her son was just as stubborn as she was. "I can't approach a stranger and ask to borrow - "

"Mo-o-om!"

The car rolled off the planks and back onto the dirt road. Only then did she look in the direction of Jeff's pointing finger, and she saw the man at once. He rose on lanky legs from the sprung coils of a vinyl chair camouflaged in the clutter of junk on the porch. In a blink, Janie saw a refrigerator, broken chairs, stacks of tires, rusted tools and assorted pieces she couldn't identify.

She might as well ask for directions. They hadn't seen another soul since the pavement ended, and they weren't likely to find anyone else soon. She stopped the car, and the man hitched up his overalls and sauntered to the roadside. A dog emerged from the brush and joined him.

The man's body odor invaded her space first, and then his grimy fingers smudged the rim of the open car window. He stooped to peer at her. A string of graying black hair fell out from under his red baseball cap and hung over the patch covering one eye. His good eye shifted its focus from her face to her loose bodice. Recoiling, she wished she'd worn a bra.

"Well, don't this beat all?" he said, shaking his head and letting out a low whistle.

"Hey, mister, you've got a cool dock!"

The man blinked and looked up to consider Jeff.

"We're trying to find Tobias Mullen's place," Janie said, "but we got lost."

His attention shifted back to her. Bushy eyebrows twitched, and deep creases lined his brow. "Ain't no one living there no more."

"I realize that, but I'm his granddaughter, and I've come to live in my grandfather's house - "

"Ain't got no call doing a fool thing like that."

"I inherited his house," she said, tensing. She shouldn't have to explain herself to a total stranger, but if she was going to live down here, then she should get off to the right start with her new neighbors. "My mother was his other daughter, you know. The younger one, who - "

"I know." The man snapped the words and stiffened. He pulled away from the car and turned to watch his dog pawing at the underbrush alongside the road.

"If you could just tell me if I'm on the right road..."

He glared at them. The muscles in his jaw tightened, and he crammed his fists into his pockets. His eye narrowed to a black slit, and he jerked his head to one side. His gesture might have indicated the direction of Grandpa's house, or a warning to leave. Maybe he was just flicking a fly from his sweaty neck. She started up the car, and they drove away in silence. Jeff twisted in his seat to watch the man until he and his house disappeared from view.

"Wow!" he whispered.

Janie frowned at her son. He must be starved for male attention.

A sliver of lake shimmered through thinning trees and filled her with renewed anticipation. Jeff lifted his binoculars to his face and aimed them at the lake, and Janie hurried the car along as fast as she dared over the ruts.

"Mom, how come you don't know where we are? You said you came to your grandpa's house before."

"Only once, and that was a long time ago, honey. Everything has changed. Grandpa's house used to be down there in the valley, by the river. They had to move his house up here to the top of the cliffs, or else it would be at the bottom of the lake by now."

He whistled. "Is there still other stuff down there?"

"I doubt it. Whatever used to be in the valley is gone by now."

"Where'd all the people go?"

She shrugged. "There weren't very many in the first place, but those who lived down there sold out to the government when they decided to build a dam. Most of those folks moved away. But Grandpa was lucky because he already owned some property up here on the cliffs. So the government moved his house for him."

Jeff fell silent until about a mile past the man with the eye patch and red cap. "Lookit, Mom, a sign!"

The car crunched to a stop, and she waited for the dust to clear before reading the hand-lettered sign tacked onto a tree. "The Resort, another development of the Wanamaker Corporation." An arrow pointed down the road.

"Wanamaker," she said. "That name is familiar."

Jeff leaned against his seatbelt and pointed in the direction of the arrow. "Lookit! There's a mailbox!"

Lopsided on its post, it was nearly hidden by a stand of gnarled cedar. Faded black letters "M...ll..." were barely legible across one battered side of the rusted aluminum.

"This must be the place," she whispered, gripping the steering wheel until her knuckles ached. Letting out on the clutch, she guided the car down the gentle incline to the driveway. Her foot slipped, the car lurched, and the engine sputtered to silence.

Locusts rattled as she sat there, staring. Twin tire tracks needled through weeds toward the house. A driveway, of sorts.

Perched on a bluff overlooking the lake, the house reminded her of the discarded shell of a locust. Abandoned. How could this drooping, weathered gray house possibly be the same cozy white frame farmhouse from her childhood? Where were the vining morning glories, and the smells of Auntie Mae's cookies, and the sounds of laundry flapping on the line?

Janie's spirits sagged.

"Cool! What're you waiting for, Mom? Let's go."

She started up the car and turned onto the tire tracks. They swished through the weeds toward the porch where Grandpa used to rock, smoking his pipe. "I didn't recognize it," she said.

Braking to a stop, she reached for the ignition, but her fingers hesitated. Uprooting herself and Jeff to come here and find family and some indefinable something more out of life had seemed like a good idea, but now she wondered if coming here was really putting her life together or simply avoiding reality.

"It doesn't look right up here on the cliffs."

"But no one can kick us out," Jeff said. "Maybe now we won't have to move again."

He was right. Impatiently, she flicked off the ignition switch and pulled out the keys. She'd never get ahead in life, never move beyond her series of dead-end clerical jobs if she didn't take a risk.

Jeff pushed open the car door and scampered immediately for the cliff.

"Hey!" she yelled after him. "Don't go so close to the edge."

He slowed long enough to turn and roll his eyes at her. "Aw, Mom, I'm not a baby."

"Humor me, anyway. It must be twenty or thirty feet straight down. Can't you find another attraction in all of these great outdoors?"

He paused and looked around. "Well, there's some kudzu over there. Come with me, Mom."

She shook her head. "I want to have a look at the house. And you've got five minutes before I need you back here to help unload." She climbed out of the car and watched him skip away before she could change her mind. Trying to remember when was the last time she'd seen him skip, she thought that yes, she'd made the right decision in coming here, despite his protests at leaving behind his friends.

It would be a great summer. With rent-free living and care with her savings, she wouldn't have to look for another job all summer. Maybe not even for as long as a year. She could take up a hobby. Or finally write the screenplay she'd been wanting to write ever since Jeff was born. And if things got desperate... She wouldn't think about that now. The property must be worth something.

From her purse she pulled out the skeleton key the lawyer had mailed her. Gooseflesh suddenly tickled the back of her neck, as if someone were breathing softly on her bare shoulders. She whirled around, but of course no one was there. The buzzing locusts must've disoriented her.

Sweat beaded out on her upper lip. Humidity, that's all. In the distance sounded the forlorn baying of a dog.

A piece of gravel crunched behind her.

"Jeff?" Again, she glanced over her shoulder.

He wasn't there, but a creak answered her. It had only been a faint sound. She was sure it had come from inside the house.

Strange.

Sweat ran down her sides as she stumbled through the weeds toward the front porch. But she didn't feel hot, not with the breeze off the lake. A small brown lump next to the first step caught her eye. She bent down to touch it, and it crackled under her fingers like dried onion skin. A locust shell. She threw it down.

Creak.

She looked up. The front door stood ajar. The door stirred slightly behind the screen as the breeze pushed against it.

Her breath caught in her throat, and her fingers tightened on the useless key. She hurried onto the porch and reached for the screen, but it slipped. The door slammed, and she reached for it again to push her way inside.

"Omigod!"

Velvet chairs, overturned.

Litter sprinkled across the linoleum floor. Broken pieces of glass lamps. Framed photos. Earthen flowerpots.

Wind blowing through an unlocked door.

Not the wind... More than wind had done this.