The Uninvited Guest
The trees were clustered so thickly now that Mischa could no longer pretend she wasn’t lost. She’d had to slow to a walk, too, not that it mattered much. When you’re not sure where you’re headed, a walk will get you there just as well as a run will.
She looked down at her Garmin. It’d been about half an hour since she’d left the trail, a little under three miles if you prefer to judge by distance rather than time. Mischa always did, for any run outside a meet. That about summed up her cross country philosophy: long, easy runs during training, but come race day it was run like wildfire and never look back.
Leaving the trail had been the right thing to do at the time, Mischa knew that. Even with the Mace she always carried in her pack, it was never smart to approach a bear if you didn’t have to. And there’d been four on the trail. Three cubs and an adult.
Detouring around the animals had seemed easy enough at the time. Head east for five minutes, south for five minutes, and west for five minutes, and she’d be right back on track, theoretically. The only problem was that she’d now been moving west, or what she thought was west, for a good twenty and hadn’t hit the trail again. She couldn’t be more than a mile or two away as the crow flies, but her chances of actually making it there were about as good as the chances of a limo pulling up and whisking her off to Hollywood.
The bramble on the forest floor had already done a pretty impressive job of scraping up her legs. She paused for a moment, wondering if it’d be smarter to try and find her own way home or to wait for someone to come find her.
She’d left her dad a note on the fridge like she always did before she went for a run by herself. “Gone running,” it said. “If I’m not back by 7, call the police!!” She’d drawn a winky face after the last word, but the idea didn’t seem so funny anymore.
The trouble was, she didn’t even know when her father would be back to see the note. He’d told her he would be going out to dinner with a friend, but Mischa knew, despite the different excuses he gave her every week, that Tuesday nights were reserved for his AA meetings. The funny thing was that she was actually really proud of him for going, and would have been able to tell him so if she wasn’t afraid of shattering the image of himself he’d erected for her. She figured he lied about his problem to protect her; he’d been doing a lot of that since the death of her mom six years before.
Mischa’s stomach growled and she ripped open the top of her last energy gel, sucking the red goo down her throat and tucking the wrapper back in her pack. She started moving again, figuring she would keep on going at least until the sun set in another half hour or so.
The effort it took for Mischa to make her way through the trees and underbrush had thus far kept her concentration away from the rising lump of panic in her throat, but she was so focused on the ground in front of her that she almost missed the trail of smoke rising from the trees to her left.
If her eyes had stayed on the path beneath her feet, things may have turned out very differently that evening. She lifted her gaze at just the right instant (or the wrong instant, depending on who you are and how you choose to see things), however, so the next moments found her stumbling through the trees into the company of a very amiable looking log cabin.
A soft light blushed through the windows on either side of the front door, which was painted a dull red that contrasted pleasantly with the soft tan color of the structure. A cloud of white-gray smoke puffed out of the chimney, making its way humbly into the vastness of the Massachusetts sky.
Mischa advanced to the front door, heart beating more quickly than usual. She never felt totally at ease meeting strangers, but doing so when she looked, for lack of a better string of words, like something the cat dragged in was high on the list of activities in which she preferred not to partake. She allowed herself one deep, steadying breath, then lifted a fist and knocked four times on the red front door.
Nothing. She waited half a minute and knocked again. Still nothing. Was it possible that nobody was home?
There was no keyhole in the doorknob, no lock that she could see. Much as she hated to be impolite, Mischa decided it might not be too terrible to enter the cabin uninvited. If they had a landline, she could call her dad and tell him what was going on. She would, at the very least, be safe from the creatures that roamed the woods at night.
She twisted the knob and pressed the door open an inch. A ray of light drifted through the crack, illuminating a sliver of the now-dark forest floor.
“Is anyone home? Hello? Okay, well, I’m, um, I’m coming in now.” There was no real way she could have been sure that there was no one there, but she was sure all the same. She pressed the door the rest of the way open.
The inside of the cabin reminded her of a childhood trip she had taken with her parents to Lake Tahoe shortly before her mother died. What had she been then, ten? Eleven? They’d stayed at a cozy place just like this, and gotten up with the sun each morning to ski on the beautiful frosty slopes. Mischa had been a terrible skier, but her mother and father stayed all day with her on the easiest run, not once showing any disappointment that she couldn’t quite get the hang of it.
The cabin seemed bigger from the inside than from the outside. The light that had spilled out into the forest emanated from the roaring fire in the grate beneath the mantle, as well as five or six pretty kerosene lamps scattered on tables throughout the living room. A number of leather bound volumes filled the bookshelf near the front door, and there was an ornately carved chess set standing between the easy chairs facing the fire. Most wonderfully, the rich smell of beef stew wafted from the kitchen to Mischa’s nose.
The stew rested in a delicate china bowl on top of the small dining table, surrounded by elegant place settings that suggested someone had been interrupted just before taking the first bite. Either that or the meal had been placed on the table especially for her.
Not wanting to spoil anyone’s dinner, Mischa began to search the few lone cabinets beneath the kitchen counter for something to quiet her indignant stomach. There were two large burlap sacks in the first cupboard, one marked “FLOUR” in large letters and the other “SUGAR.” She moved to the next and found another mostly full burlap sack (“RICE”).
Peeking out from behind the bag of rice was a small window just above ground level. Strange place for a window, Mischa thought. Won’t get much light in the room through a cupboard. Stranger still were the metal bars lining the window from the inside, so rusty that some of them looked just about dissolved into nothing.
After considering briefly if it would be possible to digest a handful of uncooked rice, Mischa took a seat in front of the bowl of stew. Hands fumbling in her lap, she told herself that its proprietor would want her to eat it rather than sit there and go hungry. She picked up the spoon and brought a mouthful to her lips.
The stew was delicious. With the first spoonful, the warmth of the stuff passed through her throat and seemingly all the way down to her toes, which tingled in gratitude after being subjected to the forlorn chill of the forest. She set the spoon back on the table and brought the bowl to her lips, tipping the contents into her mouth and gulping quickly until nothing remained.
As she swallowed the last mouthful, she heard a hand on the doorknob. She rose hastily, readying herself to hurl apology after apology at the stranger whose home she had invaded.
As she swallowed the last mouthful, she heard a hand on the doorknob.
The boy who entered the cabin couldn’t have been more than a year or two older than Mischa, but there was a striking quality in his handsome face that suggested otherwise, the quiet sophistication that only comes from seeing much of the world or perhaps from having it unwittingly thrust upon you.
“I’m so sorry for barging in here like this, oh my gosh, I got lost in the woods and I saw your cabin and I just thought I should see if anyone was home, because I really need some help, and it was getting so dark, but no one was there and it was dark and I was so scared, and I, um, let myself in.” She said most of this very quickly.
He set down the buckets of water he was carrying in each hand.
“Sure have a lot to say, don’t you?” He smiled, sweeping a lock of light brown hair from his forehead.
“I’m Mischa, by the way. I think I ate your dinner,” she answered, still nervous but encouraged by his initial reaction.
“Teddy,” he replied. “So are you okay? Apart from being lost?” His eyes dropped to the scrapes on her legs.
“Oh yeah, those are nothing. Do you have a phone I could borrow?”
She thought she saw a darkness flit through his eyes at the question, but he answered amiably enough.
“No phones here, I’m afraid. No electricity either. Why don’t you take some water and clean your legs up in the washroom?”
“Thank you so much, but I know my dad’s probably getting worried. Is there any way you could point me back to the trail?”
“The path is only a mile west of here, but it’s not safe out there at night for a girl to go wandering on her own. How about you wash up and then we’ll figure out what to do with you?”
The question sounded more to Mischa like an order, but his expression remained friendly.
He shrugged off his traveling coat and Mischa saw that he was wearing a pair of brown trousers and a loose white tunic. A bit peculiar, like he had just been filming a scene from The Three Musketeers. But he didn’t offer an explanation, and she didn’t ask for one.
“The washroom’s through the bedroom, and you can use the rags on the shelf.”
He handed her the bucket and she carried it to the washroom as instructed. In the dim light afforded by the single small kerosene lamp, she dipped a rag in the bucket and washed her cuts.
On her way back to the living room, she noticed a simple blue-gray gown laying on the sleigh bed. It was there before, Mischa thought. I just didn’t notice it when I came in.
“Why aren’t you wearing the dress?” he asked as she reentered the living room, corners of his mouth turned down. “I picked it out especially for you.”
“Thank you so much for everything, seriously, but I really have to go. My dad’s gotta be freaking out by now and I’ve already taken advantage of your…hospitality,” she finished, edging toward the front door.
When she saw that he wasn’t going to try to stop her, she relaxed.
“Really, Teddy, thank you so much for everything,” she said, twisting the doorknob with her right hand. But when she pushed, nothing.
“What’s wrong with the door? How do you unlock it?” she asked.
“There is no lock,” he answered.
She moved to the closest window and shoved.
“No lock there either.”
“But then how am I supposed to leave? How did you get out?”
“I come and go as I please. This is my house.”
“You don’t mean…I’m not stuck here, am I? There has to be a way out.”
“There is a way out. But I think you ought to stay.”
“Teddy, please let me go. I really need to go,” she said, feeling the burning in her throat that always appeared just before a hot flood of tears.
His face darkened. “If you really want to leave, you’ll find the way. If not, I think you’ll find it’s not as bad here as you fear it might be.”
Mischa moved to the rest of the windows in the room, trying each even though she knew they wouldn’t give. He stood watching her with his arms crossed, an expression of patient indulgence on his face. Once done, she tried the windows in the bedroom and even the one in the bathroom, which looked too small to climb through even if it did end up being the only way out (it didn’t).
When she returned to the living room, he was exactly as she’d left him.
“Satisfied?” he asked.
“Of course not,” Mischa answered.
“Can I offer you something more to eat?” He waved his left hand in the direction of the kitchen table and a number of dishes materialized on its surface. There was more beef stew, a pot of something that looked like dumplings, a steaming mug of hot chocolate, and a ramekin of delicious looking crème brûlée.
Her silence was answer enough.
“Very well,” he said with a sigh, clearing the table with another lazy wave of his hand.
A noise from outside drew Mischa to the window and she saw a group of people approaching, yelling and combing the area with their flashlights. Leading the group was her father, beating back the greenery with a frantic determination.
Mischa screamed his name and threw her fists against the glass, sure that she was only moments away from being rescued. But her father paused just on the other side of the window, looking almost directly at her, and there was no recognition in his eyes.
“Mischa!” he yelled again. His voice was strong but the tears coursing down his cheeks were not.
Despite her continued pounding, her father and the others soon disappeared back into the trees. She turned her back to the wall and slumped to the floor, cheeks streaming with silent tears of her own.
“We don’t exist to them, you know,” Teddy said.
“Please, can’t you let me go? Can’t you please just let me go?” she asked.
“You’ll be happy here, with me.” There was no remorse in the words. “Unless, of course, you persist with these silly requests to leave. Then you may find yourself very unhappy indeed.”
They stayed in that position for some time, Mischa sobbing quietly against the wall and Teddy watching her closely. Finally, he spoke.
“Would you like to play a game?” he asked, gesturing to the chess set.
Again, her silence was answer enough.
“Suit yourself,” he said. “But you will come sit by the fire, in any case. You look a mess there on the floor.”
Mischa obeyed, dropping into one of the twin easy chairs as he did the same in the other. The fire crackled cheerfully in the grate and she sat watching it, captivated by the dancing flames.
He said there’s a way out, and I don’t think he was lying, Mischa thought. What am I supposed to do, take an axe to the walls? I tried the door, I tried all the windows…
She had an idea.
“I do want to play a game, but I’m terrible at chess. Have you heard of hide and seek?” she asked.
“Yes, of course,” he answered, excited by her sudden interest. “Which do you want to do, hide or seek?”
“I’ll hide first,” she said. “But you have to count in the washroom so I know you’re not cheating. To 30 at least, so I have enough time.” She put forth her best attempt at a genuine smile.
“Okay,” he said, smiling back. “But I’m going to find you.”
But her father paused just on the other side of the window, looking almost directly at her, and there was no recognition in his eyes.
As soon as she heard the door shut, she grabbed the Mace out of her pack and opened the kitchen cupboard, moving the bag of rice aside as quietly as she could. It had to be the place. No other reason for a window in a cupboard, especially a barred one.
Placing her feet on either side of the window, she grabbed a rusty bar with both hands and yanked. It gave easier than she expected, and she moved on to the next. Only the last one refused to be pulled, but she wouldn’t be able to fit through the window unless she found a way to detach it.
“Ready or not, here I come,” Teddy yelled. She heard him open the door and begin searching the bedroom. How long until he realized she hadn’t chosen a spot there?
Heart beating with the ferocity of a speeding bullet, she drew back her leg and kicked hard at the bar with her heel. It disconnected from above the window with a clang.
“I heard you in there,” he said. “I’m coming for you!”
When Teddy entered the room, there was a moment in which he and Mischa simply stared at each other, motionless as statues. She saw a surprise in his eyes verging almost on a stupid innocence, and for that second she wondered how he came to be here, what had made him this way. But almost as soon as the look appeared, it was replaced by a flash of fury and he charged forward at her from the doorway.
Ready for the confrontation, Mischa grabbed the can of Mace and released a torrent into his face. He reeled, screeching and clutching at his eyes, and she turned back to the window.
She unfastened the latch and pushed on the glass, swinging the window open into the cool night air and diving through the newly created opening in the wall. It was much too small to get through easily, and too high from the ground to use her knees for leverage after her top half was through the opening.
She dug her hands into the forest floor and twisted her hips, inching the tops of her legs forward. Just as she was creating enough momentum to slide the rest of the way through, a pair of hands seized her legs just above each knee.
Teddy yanked and she was pulled backward, throwing her arms out to the sides of the house in an attempt to keep some of the ground she had gained. He yelled something at her, but the words blended together as a single guttural roar.
With her very last bit of determination, Mischa kicked back at him, hard. Her feet connected with his chest and he fell, releasing his grip. She scrambled through the opening, bruising nearly every square inch of her torso and legs but feeling not even a fragment of pain.
Once she was through, she pushed to her feet and took a few unsteady steps away from the house before looking back to see if Teddy was in pursuit. But when she turned, he was nowhere to be seen, and the house was no longer itself at all.
One of the cabin’s walls looked almost burned to bits, and every window she could see, including the one from which she had just escaped, were lined with broken glass. The front door hung askew on its hinges, red paint peeling like skin after a bad sunburn. The entire place lied in ruins, as if it hadn’t been inhabited in years.