part one here

part two here

***

“I was going to take a walk in about an hour,” Sarah told me as we were cleaning up.

I rinsed my mug and placed it on the top rack of the dishwasher. “Oh?”

“Would you care to join me? I wanted to run out and check on Barbary, my horse.”

“I’m not big on horses,” I answered truthfully. When I was eight, I was thrown from a horse at my cousin Mickey’s 14th birthday party. It was one of those milestones that managed to scar me for life.

“You sure you don’t want some fresh air? You can stay outside the barn while I just run in and out…”

Her pout convinced me that a walk was essential to my very existence. The woman could pull a mean pout.

* * *

 

“How did I let you talk me into this?” I asked, shivering under my long wool coat. My snow boots were sinking into two feet of snow. It felt like I was wading through water, especially since we were moving steadily uphill.

Sarah giggled. Her nose and cheeks had turned pink in the frigid breeze. She looked like a tiny Nordic elf. I had to be a good 6 inches taller than her. “A walk is good for you.”

“Until it gives you pneumonia.” I chuckled.

There was supposedly a path beneath our feet, but if it was there, it was cleverly disguised as an expanse of unbroken snow beneath a canopy of trees. We had only been walking for about five minutes after leaving the barn—where Barbary was snorting peacefully—and I was already cold enough to wish myself back into the guest bedroom.

I was trying not to think of what I was going to do when the roads were cleared and I had to leave.

Sarah chatted about how nice it was to have someone to talk to as we took a sharp corner through the trees. I hummed noncommittally, and drew short as we found ourselves in a small clearing.

Rising from the center was a small stone cottage.

I couldn’t stop the sudden intake of breath, and my heart skipped a few beats.

The structure was perfectly symmetrical: a small blue door, flanked by two windows with matching, closed shutters. The roof was metal and rose in an A-shape above the house. The only thing it was missing was a garden.

“Are you okay?” Sarah asked, putting a gloved hand on my shoulder. “Mena?”

I shook my head. “I’m sorry. It’s just…”

“What?”

I grinned. “It looks like it fell straight from my dreams.”

“The cottage?” She smiled, dropping her hand to grasp mine. “Come on, I’ll show you the inside.”

The door opened right up—not locked. She led me inside a small, dark foyer. The hall walls pressed close on both sides, marking a straight line to a door at the end. I could vaguely make out an open archway in either wall, presumably leading into rooms of the cottage.

“This is the old caretaker’s cottage from the previous house,” Sarah told me, gesturing for me to follow. “The Koenig family has owned this land for eons, but the house we live in now isn’t the original, obviously. It was built about twenty years ago when the first house burned down.”

“What a terrible loss for your family.”

“Oh no,” Sarah said, shaking her head. She pushed through the door at the end of the hallway; it swung on squeaky hinges. “No one was living there at the time. Larson’s dad had passed away and his mom just couldn’t stand the thought of staying in their home alone. She bought a condo down in town. That’s where Larson and his brother grew up. His uncle built the current house in hopes Larson would move in when he was old enough. The two lived together for a long time.”

We entered a small kitchen that was just as dim as the hallway. Sarah walked to the sink and reached above it, shoving at the window.

“Where is he now? Larson’s uncle?”

The window finally gave beneath her hands and slid up. She pushed a palm against the shutters and they flew open, illuminating the kitchen. Sarah shot me a sad smile. “He died the year Larson and I met. I only got to know him for a short time. A wonderful man. He really loved Larson and Aaron.”

“Aaron?”

“Larson’s brother.”

The kitchen was quaint and perfect. The floors were stone and the cabinets made of pale ash wood. The basin sink had an old-fashioned pump handle, and the stove was an old wood-burner.

The silence dragged on as Sarah leaned against the counter and stared at me. She finally spoke. “What are you running from, Mena?”

I had to think about it. What was I running from? And did I really want to tell her?

I liked her. I liked Sarah. She was kind and good and she deserved to know what kind of person she had taken into her home.

“A past,” I murmured, pulling one of the saggy-bottomed chairs away from the table. I sank into it, clasping my hands on the tabletop and staring at them as if my life depended on how hard I could hold on.

“We all have pasts. Not everyone runs.” She eyed me. “Mena, this cabin is sitting here empty. I usually forget it’s even here, most of the time. I will let you stay here, live here, for as long as you need to get back on your feet. On one condition.”

I nodded for her to go on, my heart dancing.

“Tell me your story, Mena. You have bruises on your face. Plural. And you limp. I can already take a wild guess, but I’d rather you share.”

I rested my chin in my hand, my elbow planted on the dirty tabletop. Outside the kitchen window, small, delicate flakes were beginning to fall, nearly invisible against a backdrop of white, wintry sky.

“I met Tyler three years ago,” I told her, my voice barely loud enough to be heard over the howling of the wind as it picked up. “He was a regular in the coffee shop where I worked. He was the perfect gentleman—yes ma’am, no ma’am. He held doors, took out my trash…” I trailed off, remembering that Tyler—the Tyler with whom I had fallen in love. “It started verbally. Yelling at me for taking too long to get home from work. Screaming when I wanted to go out with my girlfriends. He even stopped telling me when my mom would call.”

Sarah nodded, finally taking the seat beside me. When her soft, warm palm fell over mine, I let it remain there.

“He didn’t start hitting me until he started drinking. He’d go out after work and drink until supper. If things weren’t just right—supper on the table, a willing wife waiting—he’d…get mad.”

I averted my eyes from her, touching my face with the tips of my fingers. “This isn’t even the worse he’s ever done.”

“The limp?”

I nodded. “He was on top of me, hitting me. When he stood, he stomped on my knee with his boot. It tore some tendons. Cracked my kneecap.”

Sarah cringed, her fingers tightening around mine. “Sounds like a real butthole.”

“Yeah.”

“So, what made you finally get up the courage to leave?”

I laughed bitterly. “I don’t know that it was courage, Sarah.”

“Of course it was.”

Her sharp tone took me aback. I continued talking without even thinking about it. “He hit me. And I don’t know why,” I said, pulling my ski cap from my head and running a hand back through my curls. “But it just made me so angry. Instead of being scared, like usual, I just got…pissed.

“I was making dinner. Frying bacon. It was almost done. I hate bacon—I don’t eat meat. But I always had to make it for his stupid ass. And when he hit me, it threw me into the counter next to the stove. Next to where my cast-iron skillet was sizzling.”

Sarah’s eyes were wide, prodding me to go on.

I took a shaky breath. “So, I grabbed the skillet. And I swung.”

She made a little eep sound and one tiny hand fluttered to cover her mouth. “Oh my God, you didn’t, Mena.”

I turned my eyes to the open window. The cold breeze was beginning to overpower the room. What I wouldn’t give for this to be my home; for that wood-burning stove to be mine. I’d pile it full and light it up. The kitchen would be warm in no time. I could use that gorgeous stove in ritual, tossing handfuls of dried herbs into the flames until the entire kitchen smelled divine… It would be my safe-haven.

“So, did it knock him out?” she asked after a minute. Her hand was still on mine. Her fingers were gripping so tight I was losing feeling in my own.

“It did.” I cleared my throat, shifting uncomfortably in the seat. “He was bleeding. While I packed my things.”

“Oh, God. Mena.”

Sliding my hand away from hers, I sat back in my seat. “I know.”

“Do you think…?”

“I don’t know. If he’s…” I couldn’t bring myself to say it. “If he’s alive, he doesn’t have any way of knowing where I am. If he’s…”

Sarah took a deep breath and drummed her fingers on the table. Dust arose from around her hands.

My heart pounded. I was waiting for her to tell me off. To yell at me to get off her property, to get out of her life.

I had maybe killed my husband.

Sarah smiled wanly. “Well. You’re here now. And I don’t care about him, I care about you. You’ll be safe here; Larson and I will take care of you. So, let’s take a walk around this old cottage and open some windows. Air it out. It’s got a new inhabitant.”

I burst into tears.

* * *

Sarah helped me clean the cottage over the course of a couple days. A bit of scrubbing here, sweeping there… For a house that had sat empty for who-knows-how-long, it sure shaped up nicely.

“Do you need anything right now?” Sarah stood beside the back door, buttoning her jacket. The crackle of the fire in the woodstove filled the room, dancing light across her face.

“You’ve already given me enough,” I told her, thinking of my closet full of clothes. I didn’t even want to think about how long it would take me to pay her back. My kitchen was filled with all the extra implements the Koenig’s didn’t need at the big house; my bathroom was stocked from the same. I couldn’t possibly imagine taking anything else from them.

“Alright.” She paused, eyeing me. “Are you going to be okay here by yourself?”

I laughed, giving her a gentle shove towards the door. “I’m going to have to get used to being by myself here, Sarah. Go home. There’s more snow coming, remember?”

She sighed, planting her heels in to the floor. She gazed longingly into the open door of the stove. The fire crackled merrily, as if it sensed her watching. “I’m already sick of snow.”

“It’s only the 20th of December.”

“Don’t remind me!” She swatted my hand away and leaned forward, wrapping me in a hug.

“Thank you. So much,” I said, a lump in my throat so big I could barely speak as I squeezed her tightly.

“I don’t like you being up here without some way to call me,” Sarah murmured into my hair.

“I’ll be fine. Go.”

I watched her disappear into the growing darkness, heading down the bare, back path towards the woods, and the tunnel through the forest that would lead her home.

There were still a couple hours until my usual bedtime, and I was full of energy, despite the long day of manual labor. Blame it on the fact that I was suddenly living in my dream house. I grabbed a book of matches from the silverware drawer and lit my oil lantern. It worked beautifully, lighting up the kitchen like an electric lamp.

I grasped the handle and drug it from the table, carrying it through the swinging door and into the den.

Not a lot had made the drive with me from Kentucky. Then again, I hadn’t really owned much to begin with. Anything that was my husband’s—or bought with my husband’s money—I wanted none of it.

What I did have were important things. A couple duffel bags of clothes now hanging in my closet. A few knick-knacks and stuffed animals from my mom. And a big box of ritual tools.

For three years, I had hidden my faith from Tyler. Why? Fear, maybe, of his reaction if he had ever known. Worry that he would destroy my magickal tools, yes. So my box of ritual items had sat beneath a stack of musty, dirty old blankets in our coat closet until I had packed it in my car and left.

I opened the box in the middle of my living room and breathed a deep sigh of relief when the oil lamp splashed light over items that were dusty but intact. I pulled out my small, black iron cauldron and set it gently on the coffee table. Then came my clay censer, still full of sand and with a holey lid that needed a good cleaning. My athame—a black-handled knife used to cast the circle and call the quarters. A box of wooden matches, a paper bag of small votive candles, and an assortment of glass and clay holders for said candles.

The last thing I pulled from the box was a small baggie that held the last sage bundle I’d made before moving in with my husband.

The herbs were old, but when I opened the bag the scent of sage assailed me. It reminded me of better times; of life before Tyler. I knew now why I never used that last bundle of sage.

It was meant for my cottage.

I struck a match and put it to the tip of the bundle. The leaves crackled to life and heady smoke filled the air. I grabbed the oil lamp—a great stand-in for a candle—and headed for the front door.

Holding the sage between my fingers, I traced the shape of pentacle before the heavy Dutch door. Into the silence of my new home, I murmured, “Goddess bless and protect this home from all negativity.”

Short, sweet, and to the point.

I slowly made my way through the house, using the sage to draw pentacles over every window and doorway, repeating my chant.

The atmosphere had shifted by the time I finished. The heavy emptiness that had suffused the house had been replaced by the smell of sage and an immense feeling of home.

I returned to the living room and smiled at my tools spread across the table. I felt accomplished.

A large window looked out over my snow-covered front yard. I set the lamp down and went to close the curtains: a set of lavender satin panels that Sarah had pulled from a dusty linen closet. That done, I turned and eyed the trunk.

It was the one item of furniture in the house that still held stuff. I didn’t know yet what all stuff was in there, but now was a great time to find out.

Larson’s wire cutters were waiting for me on the small coffee table. I snatched them up and went to kneel before the trunk. It reminded me of a pirate’s treasure chest: wooden sides and golden, metal hinges. Running my hands over the rough surface, I wondered who it had belonged to and what I was going to find inside.

The lock cracked beneath the cutters a lot easier than I was expecting. It only took most of my body weight and a little bit of grunting.

Sliding the padlock from the clasp, I tossed it aside. I moved the lamp closer and opened the lid.

I don’t know what I had been expecting. Maybe a trunk full of clothes or old magazines…

It was a book.

I frowned, reaching in with both hands to pull it out. It wasn’t a book; it was a photo album. And it was heavy.

I sat it beneath the fall of the lamp’s light. The cover cracked beneath my fingers as I opened it, revealing an album full-to-bursting. It was the kind I grew up with—single, stiff pages with a sticky layer for the pictures, covered by a sheet of plastic.

I flipped through slowly. The pictures were old—small, black and white or sepia. As I progressed, they became Polaroids, and then larger color photos.

What I was seeing was a family history from start to finish. The very first photo was a blurry, sepia image of a bride and her groom. She was young and beautiful; he was in military dress with his eyes firmly on her. From there, their life stretched before me. Pregnancy, babies, kids, parties, portraits, everything that the average American family documents over time.

At the end of the album was my cottage. The same bride and groom, though much, much older, stood before a younger, livelier version of my new home.

But after that… Nothing.