Ice begets ice and flame begets flame; Those that go down never rise up again. --Sailors’ proverb
An uneasy weight hung on Gretchen’s chest as she looked around the dim room. I was dreaming something--what was it? Gretchen’s mind cast about for a train of thought but clutched at emptiness. She couldn’t remember. She knew only that she was glad to be awake.
It was that moment before sunrise when the sky has begun to turn gray and the world is filled with shadows. The room was still, but the yellow curtains near her bureau fluttered slightly, and fear skittered down her spine with quick spider steps. “Who’s there?” Gretchen asked.
There was a sound like a sigh, and Gretchen’s chest tightened in fear. Something was there. By the window. A dark presence. She could almost make out the shape of a man behind the yellow cloth.
Her voice tightened in her throat; she couldn’t scream. Someone was in her room. Gretchen’s mind reeled, searching for an answer. It was Kirk. Crazy Kirk Worstler--the sophomore who babbled incoherently about seekriegers and angels--had come to kill her. He had stolen into her room once before, to give her a painting. It was a picture of mermaids, a coded message that only he could decipher. . . .
“Kirk?” she whispered. Her voice sounded loud in the still and silent room.
Gretchen sat up. “Kirk?” she said again. She blinked, and the light shifted. The dimness of the gray lifted, like fog burning away in the sun. Suddenly, everything looked different, and she could see clearly.
There was nothing there.
The curtains sagged, and Gretchen understood her mistake. The folds fell at odd angles, suggesting a human form. But the presence she sensed earlier had disappeared completely.
“Dream cobwebs,” Gretchen said aloud. That’s what her father, Johnny Ellis, called it when you woke up and still had traces of your nightmares clinging to your mind. She pushed back her covers and swung her legs over the side of her bed, and something tore at her ankle.
Gretchen screamed, jumping backward as her cat, Bananas, tumbled from beneath the bedskirt. The feline rolled onto her back playfully, then sat up and curled her tail around her feet, as if nothing had happened and she had no idea why Gretchen was acting so dramatic.
“Cat--” Gretchen started.
Bananas just looked at her, then nonchalantly began to groom her paw.
“Licking my flesh from your claws?” Gretchen asked, rubbing the scratch on her foot. It wasn’t bad, really, but it did itch. As if she was offended by the question, the orange and white cat turned and strutted out the half-open door.
As the striped tail disappeared, Gretchen again glanced toward the window. It was just a dream, she told herself.
The light shone through the curtains now, and she could see the shape of the tree beyond the window. There was nothing left of the dark presence . . . nothing but the feeling of dread that still sat in Gretchen’s chest.
Gretchen yanked off her nightgown and pulled on a pair of red running shorts. She tugged on her sports bra and then ducked into an ancient T‑shirt advertising the Old Mill, a cafe in one of the neighboring towns. When she’d lived in Manhattan, Gretchen used to run along the reservoir in Central Park. It was near her Upper East Side apartment, and Gretchen enjoyed running beside the water . . . and the fact that an enormous chain-link fence surrounded the reservoir. She could see it, but she couldn’t fall in. Gretchen didn’t like water.
Gretchen had never run much at the summer house. There were no sidewalks along the street by her house, so it wasn’t really convenient. But now that she and her father were going to be living here full-time, she would have to find a way. Running was what kept her head clear in the cold months. And even though it was only the end of September, the mornings were already turning chilly.
“What are you doing here?” Gretchen asked as she tramped into the kitchen. Her father was sitting at the Formica table, sipping from a cup of coffee and halfheartedly skimming the New York Times.
“I live here, remember?” Johnny said. He smiled at her, but it was a smile like a heavy weight--as if it was an effort to make it happen.
“Don’t pretend like you’re some kind of early riser.” Gretchen reached for a banana. “It’s six-thirty.”
Gretchen frowned. “That’s not good.”
Johnny shrugged. “It happens.” He took another long pull of coffee. “I’ll feel better once everything arrives.”
He meant the things from their Manhattan apartment. Once Johnny had given up the lease, it had taken only two hours for the building manager to find a new tenant. They had been replaced in true New York City style--immediately and without mercy. “When do the movers get here?” Gretchen asked.
Gretchen nodded. She would feel better once her things had arrived, too. Even though she would miss living in Manhattan, she was ready to close that chapter of her life, to write The End above it instead of having the pages go on and on with no clear purpose. Besides, she thought, we need the money.
When her mother had moved out, she had kept custody of most of the funds. Yvonne was an heiress and knew about investments; Johnny had never been in charge of the finances before. So, for a few years, things went on exactly as they had before: Manhattan private school, expensive rent for the apartment, trips abroad. Then, quite suddenly, Johnny realized that they were out of money. A few bad investments and several years of living beyond their means had left them in terrible debt. As a result, they were abandoning the apartment and living in what Gretchen liked to think of as “the ancestral home”--the old farmhouse her grandfather had bought more than half a century ago, which Johnny had inherited, and which he owned free and clear.