“They say these woods were haunted by the devil himself. Then Ryan Hazlitt put the highway through, now there’s all those crashes. Can’t see who’d want to live here.”
“Missy Hazlitt.” His whole expression changed. “My father put the highway through, and we don’t believe in Devils.”
The handyman mumbled some half-apology. She ignored it and him, going back to her list of things she wanted done before she moved into the old cottage.
The windows had been replaced, the floor sanded, and walls painted inside and out. The cottage barely resembled the hovel of a home it had been. Missy remembered the day her father threw the old woman out. She’d watched from the car. There’d been a brook then, babbling not too far from the house. When the sputtering old hag cursed her father Missy focused on its tumbling water. He got rid of the brook, just like the old woman, sent them both to concrete: one to a nursing home, the other to highway median.
She slept poorly those first nights, the highway noise intruding on her thoughts.
“Get a white noise machine. Take a pill. Get used to it.” Her father had no pity for her exhaustion-slowed movements. She stopped at the bed and bath store on her way home from the office. They offered fifty kinds of white noise machines. She chose one with nature sounds but picked up sleeping pills too.
The first night waves filled the cottage. They crashed against an imaginary beach, seagulls flying in the distance. It didn’t work. Instead of sleeping Missy stood up, annoyed with highway noise and beaches. On her way back from drugging herself she stubbed her toe on the bedside table. The waves stopped as the machine’s cord dangled. Too doped to do anything about it, she fell into a stupor.
The blood on her toe dried to a dark brown rust color. She groaned at the sight, still groggy the next morning. Everything else forgotten in a drugged haze, she made it to the office late. That night instead of waves she clicked the sound samples until she came to a stream. The noise began simply with water moving over rocks. It brought a wonderful calm, and just as she drifted to sleep she thought she heard birds.
She tore herself from bed the next morning. On time, but reluctant to leave her peaceful sleep, she made it to the office ready to face the day. The next project replaced an old church and school with a shopping mall. Her father intended it to be her first solo development. She struggled to keep the details straight, a thousand thoughts swirling in her mind. When she finally put her head on the pillow the noise of the stream emptied it immediately. After a few days, she learned to love the hypnotic effect of water and birds.
The shopping mall ran into problems. She spent her days putting out paperwork fires, looking forward to her bedtime mediation. She pictured the stream in her mind, painting the trees around it, filling the banks with green leafy trees. It became her place of solace.
Until the night she noticed she wasn’t alone. A man stood beside her, a menacing blur. She struggled to hit the machine’s switch, to go to another sound. Already half asleep she couldn’t mange the coordination. She dreamed of her stream, her woods, and the dark shape beside her. She woke up disturbed, and clicked through the noises, going back to the ocean.
That night the ocean waves came again, but as her arms grew heavy the noise changed. The stream returned, the trees, and now a great wind along with the man beside her. She could almost make out his voice. Without picking up on the words she knew he was telling her to do something, something awful. Her dreams were nightmares.
She woke up rested, but worried. The setting clearly read ocean waves. Had she imagined the whole thing? She picked the plastic machine up, examining it. The sharp end of the cord hit her legs. Unplugged? For how long? The memory of the stubbed toe filtered back to her. It must run on battery, she thought. But they were bulldozing the school in another hour, so she didn’t have time to look. Instead she went to work.
She didn’t turn the machine on, but somehow just when she was almost asleep she heard it again. Stream, birds, wind in the trees, and now the man, standing next to her, talking to her. She saw him in her dreams, except she must still be awake if she was hearing the machine. Saw him standing next to her with an old fashioned goatee and mustache, wearing all black. His dark eyes pulled to her. He stood next to the edge of the stream. He held his hand out, and she wanted to take it, even though he stood too close to the edge.
The school turned into rubble. The church would go next. She didn’t have time to linger on dreams and white noise machines. Construction delays, protesters, permit hassles, she fought them all. Her father told her she was his pride and joy. The nuns wept. A good day’s work.
The man held out his hand in her waking dreams. It looked smooth and firm, powerful. She was scared, but she wanted to take it. Each night she wanted it, and him, more. Each night her feet got closer to the edge. Each morning she promised herself she’d get rid of the damn machine.
The church finally went down, not in an explosion but a crumble, broken bricks and ancient masonry. Television crews filmed it. Her father interviewed how proud he was of her, finally standing on her own two feet, making the world better. Where there was once an aging, nearly empty building now there would be a bustling shopping mall with a Swedish furniture company. She glowed under his words.
That night she felt strong. When the man offered his hand she grabbed it. An electric thrill went through her as felt his other hand on the small of her back. She saw everything clearly now, the water tumbling over rocks in the babbling brook, the blue sky above her, the autumn trees reaching into the heavens with skeletal hands. Looking at her companion she smiled, but his eyes were dark, punishing.
She turned, looking around, suddenly scared. The old woman, the witch-woman who had lived in this house stood on the other bank, cackling. Missy’s heart beat fast, the bank of the brook was only sand and her bare feet fought for purchase. The man in black smiled at her, and the pressure on her back increased. She struggled, the noise of the brook growing louder as he pushed. Finally her feet left the earth and she fell. Falling and falling as the short distance expanded. Now the cold water soaked her night dress. She tried to stand but the rocks of the brook were slippery and green. She slipped, got purchase, slipped again. Cold water filled her nose, but she managed another lungful of air. Wake up, she told herself, wake up! Instead she coughed, the water tasting like minerals. Her lungs burned, frantic, drowning. Her vision swam with the two foot of silvery water above her head. The man in black nodded from the left bank, the old woman nodded from the right.
Ryan Hazlitt didn’t believe the police. Women simply didn’t drown in their own bed. He shook his head at the empty bedroom scene. They’d taken her body away, his precious daughter, gone forever. He sat down, missing her, lost, worried just a little about the meetings he was missing. During the day he could distract himself with work, he had a nursing home to demolish. But how was he going to sleep at night? His eyes fell on the white noise machine, the cord wrapped neatly around the plastic cube. He picked it up, doubting the cheaply made device. Still, it had worked for Missy. Maybe it would work for him.