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Jay stared at the stranger’s back until it vanished between the trees, unwilling to move until he was sure they were gone. If he’d left right away, he might have been able to catch up to them—but he was pretty sure that he didn’t want to do that.
Maybe whoever it was was just a curious gawker. Maybe they hadn’t been wearing a mask—now that he was no longer looking, he wasn’t sure that it hadn’t just been a pale face with very little expression. Still, if it was just a neighbor who’d come by out of curiosity, he could meet them tomorrow in broad daylight. Whoever it was, he did not want to meet them in the woods at night.
What if the person hadn’t left? What if they’d only pretended to leave, to try to get in later?
The thought struck him with stomach-turning terror, and he abruptly couldn’t remember whether he’d locked the door. Hands numb, he rushed down the stairs dangerously fast, actually slamming into the front door with both palms out before he could grab the knob and jiggle.
Locked after all.
From there, he rushed around to check the back door, cursing himself a little for that being far enough away, through the kitchen, that he had to check it second, but it too was locked—hadn’t been unlocked since he came in, so there was that. A bit calmer, knowing that the doors were secured, he checked the first floor windows. Most of them didn’t open—God, he needed to get curtains for the living room, he’d do that tomorrow as soon as stores were open again—and those that did had latches that were already thrown.
“Just a little paranoid here, Jay?” he muttered to himself, and was embarrassed to hear his voice shaky.
Still, he didn’t want to go back outside tonight, not now that he’d confirmed he was secure inside. He hadn’t brought his blankets in from the car yet, but that was fine. He’d rather sleep with dusty blankets for just one night than go out and put his back to the woods as he dug his own bedding out.
On his way back through, he turned on the front porch light, just to be sure that any would-be robbers would have a harder time knowing if he was still awake or not. It might attract more gawkers, sure, but he’d rather answer questions the next day than not be around to.
“Chill out, already,” he told himself, drawing a deep breath and letting it out again. What had he been doing?
Right. Keys. Her desk keys were missing. It wasn’t a huge deal, and maybe shouldn’t be a priority compared to all the cleaning… but still, he wanted to find them if he could. They hadn’t been with her house keys, he knew that much—her purse had been left behind when she’d vanished, which was part of how her disappearance had been classified as under suspicious circumstances. So either she’d left them around the house, or they’d vanished with her.
Finding them would make him feel a lot better about being alone in the place, he decided. Who knew if she’d had spare house keys on her desk key ring, and if someone else had access to the house? If he found them, he could at least reassure himself that it wasn’t the case. Besides, if the desk had been locked, other places around the house might be too; it could be a useful find.
The key rack by the door had some jewelry and sunglasses, but no keys. The kitchen ‘thing drawer’ was full of all kinds of junk, but no keys there either. From there, he headed back upstairs—if not in the obvious places, he decided, her office was the most likely place for it to be, but hidden somewhere. After all, she’d want them to be convenient to her desk.
Still, searching on and around the desk itself turned up nothing; checking between the books and the bookcases turned up some pens and coins, but no keys.
Finally, he turned to the books themselves. It wasn’t impossible that she had a book-box—either a book that had been hollowed out to hide things, or a box designed to look like a book. He had to go through them soon anyway, he justified, if he planned to donate them; he could at least start with some hardcovers to see if they weren’t what they seemed to be.
He’d made a small pile of leather-bound books to take in to get assessed by the time his gaze fell back on the gold snakeskin book again. It would make sense, he decided; it would be easy for her to spot wherever she put it back. He pulled it off the shelf, running his fingers over the cover, then flipped it open.
Just a play, he realized as he flipped gently through the pages. He skipped to the front; it was called The King in Yellow, with no noted author. It had been published in the 1890s, so it was probably valuable—though he wasn’t entirely sure if it was a first printing or not—but didn’t hide any keys away in its pages. Disappointed, he put it on the top of the pile.
“Might as well stop there for now,” he muttered, a bit dejected. He’d looked through the most likely candidates, and he didn’t have time tonight to check all the books. Besides, it was more likely that he’d find keys in one of her pockets in a closet somewhere than anywhere in here, he supposed.
Jay turned the light off and headed to the bedroom, taking a little time to tidy off the bed—or at least, dump the belongings that had been scattered on it on her dresser or in her closet. A quick check of the bedside table turned up no keys there, either. He shook out the blankets—they were dusty, and smelled faintly of perfume, but they’d do—then stripped down to his boxers and tank top and, feeling somewhat intrusive about it, slid under the sheets.
Then he lay there, unable to sleep, but knowing he needed to if he wanted to have the energy to make this place livable. The room’s smell, shape, sounds were unfamiliar. The curtains were drawn across the window, but the moon cast shadows through them that left him uneasy.
When he’d been much younger, Aunt Grace used to say, “Focus on what you want to dream about, and maybe you’ll go on a dream adventure too.” Jay had never successfully done so, but thinking about strange vistas and adventures had at least distracted him from his daily worries enough to let him drift off. Maybe that’s what the notes on Aunt Grace’s desk had meant. Sea Dream, Library Dream, Sand Dream…
Clutching Grace’s blankets under his chin, he tried to decide what to do. He could get up and go on his computer, though the light always woke him up more after long years of overtime into the early hours, and he’d likely regret not sleeping tomorrow. Find some book in her office to read until he was tired enough to get a few hours in. Try to focus on something to dream about.
Or maybe something else, anything else that would help him pass this first night in the house that his great-aunt disappeared from.
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