Jeremy hung his head, the jacket's hood offering meager protection from the driving rain. The gravel and mud clung to his hiking boots, weighing them down a little more with each step. He abandoned the highway days ago, in favor of less noise, less traffic, more solitude. Who knew an endless storm would glide in and cover the entire world? On the first day, gray clouds blanketed the sky as far as he could see. On the second, they lingered into mid-morning, threatening, until finally unleashing a quiet fury. Only a shimmer of orange between sky and earth lit the distant horizon when the sun fell. Now, no lightning bolts lit the sky, no glimpse of the moon or stars to orient himself, just the blackness of night and relentless rain. He could walk past a house, he feared, or at least a tree with sheltering branches, and never see it. Even in the daytime, it had been hard to tell which direction was which, but at night, it was impossible. He blew out a rain sopped sigh, longing for the noisy highway. At least it offered a chance to huddle under a gas station overhang or an overpass. How had he gotten so lost?
He was in South Dakota. Or had he crossed into Nebraska? It was impossible to tell, but it didn't really matter. The important thing was finding shelter from the rain. He hoped the contents of his backpack were dry. He didn't have much, another set of clothes, a journal he occasionally wrote in, a toothbrush, and a little food. He ran out of soap days ago but planned to buy more soon. The idea of money was a challenge for him, though, as were stores and shopping. Civilization was something to be avoided at all costs, unless one direly needs soap, and even then, the smell had to become unbearable before acting. Or the food had to run out.
There was a hint of chill in the wind and rain that suggested fall was coming early. Maybe it always came early in this part of the country. He had no idea. This was the farthest north he had ever traveled. The easy climates of the southwest suited him fine for the past four years. He preferred locations in the high desert. His usual strategy was to find a cave in Utah or New Mexico and stay in it until someone else showed up. They were usually climbers or tourists on backcountry hikes. Even if they didn't set up camp, Jeremy liked to move on. The thought of someone knowing where he slept was unsettling to him.
Even in winter, in those southwestern climates, it was warm during the day, and at night a light sleeping bag was all he needed. To ensure his supplies were stocked, he always tried to stay within walking distance of a small town. Large bags of rice kept well for months, and he usually managed to forage for food or trap and kill what he needed beyond that. When the food ran out, he forced himself to wash dishes or bus tables at a local diner. He never begged. Finding local work was only possible in the small towns where they didn't ask for online forms or applications to get a job. This summer, though, his feet took him farther north than usual and getting back to the temperate desert climates was proving to be a challenge.
He stopped walking and pulled his hood back, the driving rain stinging his cheeks as he squinted into the surrounding darkness. An outline in the distance sent a shiver of hope through him, and he picked up his pace. He hoped it was a gas station, but a house would do in a pinch like this. Either way, he was going to find shelter. If it was a house, he would wait the storm out under a carport or barn. With luck, the homeowners would never know he was there, and he wouldn't have to talk to anyone. If it was a gas station, an overhang would be paradise. As he approached the shape, the shadowy outline transformed into a cabin.
There were no lights shining through the windows and no smoke from the chimney that he could make out through the pouring rain. He trudged up a few steps to the front door, a tremendous sigh of relief escaping his lips as he passed under the front porch’s roof. The rain flowed over the edge behind him, splashing into deepening pools in the grass and mud, but he was finally free from it. The antique wooden siding was old, with flaking white paint, and there were no signs of life. Peeking in the window, which was still intact, he could make out a few shadowy forms inside, but the place felt abandoned. Maybe it was a hunting cabin, only used seasonally.
Jeremy pushed down his excitement at the thought of riding the storm out indoors, safe and dry. He had to be sure it was abandoned, though, which meant he had to knock, which meant he might have to talk to a person. He curled his toes and felt the squish of his drenched socks. Looking around the small porch and imagining himself huddled to the side, hoping nobody was home, sent a shiver down his spine. Knocking was worth the risk. Taking a deep breath, he tentatively wrapped his knuckles on the door. No sound came from inside. He stood for a moment, listening to the rain pounding the roof and splashing over the sides in a steady stream. He slid his backpack off and rummaged through the pockets, searching for his flashlight. It was the only technology he carried, besides his old mobile phone, which had been dead for a month or so.
He finally found the old light, but nothing happened when he pressed the button. It was a wind-up model, like an emergency radio, so he flipped the handle out and started cranking. It wasn't terribly bright, but he would never need batteries or money to buy them. After a moment, the feeble blue hue showed him the wood-slat door. Normally, he would be satisfied with riding out a storm under a porch or overhang, but he was soaked through, exhausted, and starting to shiver. He knocked one more time for good measure before trying the doorknob. It turned, but the door was not nearly as cooperative. He put his shoulder to it and gently shoved, swinging the door open with a scrapping sound as it slid over the wooden floorboards.
In the beam of his light, he saw the inside of a two-room cabin. Across the room, there was an old wood stove with a single straight legged wooden chair in front of it. To his right, there was an antique dining table and several more chairs. Ramshackle cabinets with sagging doors and a porcelain sink lined the wall. The wood slat floor groaned as he stepped inside. Shining his light into the other room, he discovered an old chest of drawers and an ancient brass bed. The tubing of the bed seemed to match the elegant porcelain sink and ornate kitchen table and chairs, while the chest was probably just as plain one hundred years ago as it was today.
There was a thick layer of dust on everything. If it was a hunting cabin, no one had used it for a very long time. There was nothing in the cabinets, no blankets, and no wood piled next to the old stove. No supplies at all that he could see. He collapsed into the wooden chair by the stove with a sloshing sound. He dropped his pack and shivered. The temperature must be dropping. He shrugged out of his wet coat but regretted it instantly. The temperature was definitely dropping. He leaned forward, pulling the heavy door to the old iron stove open. No logs or kindling, just a bed of ashes. He stared into the empty stove for a moment, imagining flames, warmth, and light. His legs ached.
Pulling his gaze away, his eyes rested on a chair at the dining table. It would have to do. He pushed himself up and grabbed the back of the chair, laying it sideways on the floor. He raised his foot and stomped down onto one leg. It felt almost sacrilegious to destroy something that had survived so long, but he had to get warm. And with a fire, he could heat what little food he had. It wasn't much, but sometimes half a can of warm black beans was enough to lift your spirits. The simple things mattered. He brought his boot down on the chair leg again and it snapped off.
As it snapped, he imagined a scream in the storm as lightning lit the room. Rain pounded on the roof and smacked against the windows in a sudden, frantic rhythm. An uncontrollable shiver ran through him, and the hair stood up on the back of his neck. He swung the beam of his flashlight around the empty room. Dust and antique furniture. Still, he suddenly felt like he was in a library or a museum, or maybe a crypt? He didn't like that last thought at all and pushed it from his mind. Exhaustion was causing his mind to play tricks on him.
He was in an old cabin, in the middle of nowhere, in a massive downpour. Of course, he would have spooky thoughts. He tossed the chair leg into the stove and broke off the other three as quietly and gently as possible. As he worked, he noticed that the rain sounded like a conversation he couldn't quite understand. His imagination. Maybe he was delirious. Light the fire and everything would be fine. He hoped the stove pipe was clear so the smoke would escape into the night and not fill the cabin. Escape, now, escape this cabin. No, his thoughts were running away again. He would start a fire with this chair and dry off, get warm, eat, and clear his thoughts.
After stacking the chair legs in the stove, he pulled a few old food wrappers out of his pack, along with his lighter. He flipped the wheel on the lighter and ignited the paper, shoving it under the wooden legs. He hated to destroy anything, even if it was abandoned, but this was an emergency, and he chided himself for feeling guilty about an old chair. Even after years of reflection, he still couldn't shake the guilt he carried. Sometimes it seemed as though he felt guilty for being alive.
Be perfect, respectful, but don't trust people, or the government. Especially the government. His mother's voice slid into his mind, along with the memory of his father's anger. A quiet fury, just below the surface, always present. The cognitive dissonance that twisted through his thoughts only settled down when he was alone. When he walked away from his house one night, never to return, he didn't truly believe he would find good people in the world. People who didn't follow his family's faith weren't capable of anything but wickedness. But he had to see for himself. He had to know what was out there beyond his family's fence line. And after four years, he knew there were good things out in the world along with the wicked. Even so, he didn't want to get too close. It was better to observe from a distance, to figure out what was inside of him. It didn't matter what was outside of him.
Flames slowly crept up the old dry chair legs and his thoughts settled as the flickering light worked its way into the room. He didn't think about his mother's lessons or the voices in the rain as he finished his half-eaten can of beans, warmed by the fire. His thoughts drifted to thankfulness and his eyes grew heavy. Stretching out on the floor beside the woodstove, he used his backpack as a pillow. Tomorrow, he would figure out where he was. His sense of direction was usually reliable, but something felt odd about this night. Like he wasn't where he thought he should be. As sleep took him, he dreamed of small, angry gray men flailing their arms around him.
"That's my chair! Do you know how long it took to get that matching set over here? Years!" Adelia registered the rising siren quality of Pinta's voice and knew he was serious. She had to make sure he didn't lose control and hurt the seer.
"Pinta, I know. I'm sorry, but there was no other way," Adelia said. She clutched his small gray shoulder, holding him back from the sleeping human, while another smaller green creature, that was mostly human shaped, except for the enormous nose and tiny eyes, held his arm. "We'll get you a new one. We have a seer, Pinta! Maybe, when I find the missing coins, you can get something from the Worthington house. Not just a chair, but the headboard, too, imagine that." Her voice slid from alarm into gentle assurance. She cupped the little creature's face and looked into his large, dark, liquid eyes. "It's okay, Pinta, we're, okay. We called him here. It cost us so much to guide him. Poor Sinta is still unconscious. A chair with only a little energy in it is well worth it." Pinta glared up at her and she hurried on. "When we can get so much more, just think of it." Pinta sagged beneath her touch and the other creature released his arm. Adelia stood up, satisfied that Pinta would not assault the sleeping seer. The small creatures stood no taller than her waist.
"What are we going to do next?" Pinta asked, still glowering at the man stretched out on the floor in front of him.
"I'm going to take a look inside, and then we're going to let him sleep. I'll talk to him in the morning." She tried to sound confident as she knelt beside him. It was just a peek inside, a quick look around to figure out who she was working with. In and out before anything bad could happen. Seers were dangerous, even when they didn't know they were seers.
She shivered as her fingers glided across his forehead, remembering a time before. A seer named Deugan, who took her for a brief time, warped her into something perverse, stole her away from Kenneth's cabin to be an enforcer in his illegal schemes. Adelia grimaced at the thought of what he did to her, of what she did to other people while under his control, and at what she did to Deugan to save herself and her companions. No one would ever take her again. She would never lose her dignity or freedom, forced to perform terrible acts… she shook her head and focused on Jeremy. He was not Deugan. She had sensed him from far away and brought him here on purpose, guiding his travel through the charmed storm. It had not been easy. She hoped Sinta recovered.