A tight, joyless expression.
The place looked perfect. A sanctuary. A haven away from the world and the people pursuing her.
She discovered the farm after hours spent poring over satellite images and a plat map of individual land parcels on a library computer.
Standing in the shade of an oak, the farmhouse was a silhouette beyond the dense brush. It was invisible from the road. Mischievous crows bickered somewhere nearby. Kat wrinkled her nose at a whiff of manure as the branches overhead creaked in the stiff south wind. It was hot but tolerable with the breeze.
The house was a half mile from the next farm in any direction and surrounded by untamed trees and shrubs. The driveway had disappeared beneath wild brush. On a little used road a mile from the nearest highway, it was too far from town to attract teens looking for a party shack. Kat had run a search on the property and learned only one detail. The owner, Adam Laskin, lived in California and paid the property taxes yearly in advance.
But how bad was the house? Was it truly empty?
Only one way to find out. Kat pushed her bike, an old Trek splattered with mud, deeper through the thick brush. One hundred feet in, she broke through into the open, standing amid long grass waving in the breeze. The surrounding fields had reverted to wild prairie with stands of second-growth trees, some over forty feet tall.
It looked sound. The roof was old and weathered but otherwise intact. The finish on the wood siding had mostly peeled, a rough grey surface flecked with remnants of white paint. That was fine. More surprising, the old double-hung windows looked undamaged. Not a broken pane anywhere in sight. How was that possible? Trees had fallen over the years, but somehow the house had been spared. The barn was less fortunate, a ruin that may have collapsed in a windstorm. No matter. She didn’t need it.
Kat scanned the yard for watchful eyes and pulled up to the porch, leaning the bike against the railing. Pushing her way through the tall grass, she circled the house, assessing the structure while keeping a wary eye open for hidden hazards in the grass. The house looked sturdy: the doors, the windows, the foundation. She saw no evidence of recent visitors or maintenance, nor an alarm system of any sort.
Kat marveled at her apparent good fortune.
This search could have taken weeks. Visits to dozens of potential sites. Miles and miles on the bike. Plenty of frustration. Instead, she found the house in two days after a painstaking search on Google Earth for places just like this: an old farmstead where the fields were no longer plowed or cultivated.
It seemed perfect in every respect. Maybe she should question that.
Until her recent parole, the previous five years had been difficult. When anything went well, she viewed it with suspicion. This seemed too easy. What was she missing? What were the hidden problems or dangers?
Clearly, the inside had to be a disaster.
After looping the house, she stepped gingerly onto the wood-framed porch. It felt solid. Not a wiggle or shudder. She opened the screen door, surprised to see only a residential-grade keyed doorknob. No deadbolt. She peered through the dirty glass but the interior was too dark to visualize.
On a whim, she gave the knob a twist. Locked of course. What did she expect?
She pulled a screwdriver from her backpack, shoved it between the jamb and door, then pried and shouldered the wood in a practiced move. The door popped opened with the whine of a creaky hinge.
The interior was funereal, the windows covered with heavy blinds. Her eyes took a moment to adjust.
It was still furnished. Old-fashioned stuff though. It looked a little like her grandmother’s house. A couple of recliners and a sofa. A bookshelf. Some kitschy decor. An old TV, console style, maybe a Zenith. To the left, a half bath and a narrow staircase running up the wall.
A thick but pristine blanket of dust covered everything, including the floor. Spider webs crisscrossed the room. Kat brushed them aside, unfazed. Her shoes left prints in the dust like a walk through freshly fallen snow. She walked toward the back into a dining room. The layout was basic with a dining table and sideboard.
Someone had set the table for three. The silverware lay in casual disarray. On the plates, clumps lay beneath the dust. Old food? Curious, she grabbed a fork, poked around, finding old bones from a steak or pork chops. Two wine glasses had a black residue. Remnants of red wine?
A family dinner with a peculiar twist. Almost like those stranger-than-fiction tales where the people fled and disappeared. But she sensed no urgency to leave—as if they finished dinner and just wandered off into the night. In the kitchen, two dirty kettles sat on the grates of an older gas range. Dirty dishes lay in the sink. An empty bottle of burgundy on the counter. No one had attempted to clean up.
But nothing more. She wasn’t superstitious. Didn’t believe in alien abductions. It was just odd. And there might be a rational explanation. Staged maybe? A prank to scare off intruders? An abandoned set from some low budget horror movie? Kat shook her head. It wasn’t important.
Walking full circle, she peered out the front door, her hypervigilance an ingrained trait. Still no evidence she had been observed or followed.
A creaky staircase led to the second floor. Kat found three bedrooms, all furnished. She saw no water damage on the ceilings. In two of the bedrooms, the beds were made and grey with dust. Identical tallboys stood in each room, one covered with toy cars and trucks—a boy’s room—the other a blank slate. A flag from Arizona State University hung next to it.
The third bedroom looked like the master. The furniture was dark, heavy, and old. Dated, but not yet retro. A suitcase lay open on the unmade bed. Here she sensed urgency, a scramble to flee.
The closet stood open, half-filled with clothes in drab greys and blacks. The dresser drawers were open and partially emptied. Clothes lay scattered across the floor, covered by the ubiquitous layers of dust, mostly work clothes in denim and flannel. Someone left in a hurry and didn’t return. The mystery deepened. Kat couldn’t imagine a scenario that fit the situation. Unless they left for some mundane reason and were killed in an accident. Still, why no clean up?
Did it matter? They were gone now.
She walked downstairs and peeked out the window again.
Kat shook off her unease. Despite the eerie presentation, the house was perfect for her needs. A place to escape Harven and his henchmen.
Here, hidden from the world, she could relax. Feel safe again.