I’ve lived here a long time and have never had the least problem with friends, neighbors, or even the folks in the community I’ve never met. We go about our business, nod politely, inquire about the weather. And if anyone has an opinion about why a single middle-aged man lives alone in a rather imposing old house on the hill, they wisely keep it to themselves. I, in turn, withhold garrulous commentary on the state of contemporary architecture and the planning of suburban ‘neighborhoods’.
I relish the cooling of the air and gathering moisture of autumn. I sit in front of my fire, one of the old classics in one hand and my pipe in the other. I stopped smoking the pipe years ago, but force of habit keeps it at hand when I read as I orchestrate the words with gestures or clench the stem in my mouth when things get tense. I had two fingers of whiskey with a splash at hand and would empty it before slumber claimed me.
It was this in which I was engaged late one evening, Dumas in my left and a briar in my right when a prickle up my spine disturbed my peace. I exchanged book for glass as I looked carefully around the room. I could not quench the feeling of being observed. Yet nothing met my eyes. I returned to The Count of Monte Cristo, chanting the names Mondego, Danglars, De Villafort along with Dantès as he dug his way from the island prison. Yet the feeling of being watched persisted.
A bit of green wood popped loudly, startling me from the page and I looked up to see a young woman sitting in the chair opposite me. I sought to rebuke her and ask what she was doing in my home, but my throat was closed with a most peculiar sensation as if I had been numbed.
The poor girl looked as surprised as I was and perhaps a bit frightened. She looked around at the room as if seeing it for the first time, though she must have observed where she was going when she arrived. A flash of lightning and roll of thunder shook the windows and sparked a new round of shivers in my visitor.
She was a lovely thing, though I felt she was a tad underdressed to have come in from the weather. A filmy nightgown covered her from neck to toe, but did nothing to hide the obvious charms of her lovely body. Had she been a ghost, she could not have shocked me more, but my manhood responded without my volition. The nightgown was a translucent sheath through which I easily discerned ripe and rampant nipples on full firm mounds. Only her seated position and curled legs prevented me from spying out her womanhood. She became aware of my persistent gaze and pulled an afghan round her shoulders, covering the delicacies of her body.
My eyes, therefore, were drawn upward to her somewhat wan visage. A thin face, but not gaunt nor angular, topped by hair so blonde it was almost white. High cheekbones accented deep-set eyes that from the distance of the hearthrug between us, I felt were gray. Her bee-stung lips, the only splash of color on her pale face, trembled as she met my stare openly.
“Who are you?” Her voice wavered and barely reached my ears though there were no more than five feet that separated us. Again, I wondered how she had slipped in without my noticing. That chair had not been occupied in more years than I cared to recount. She had such an aura of fear around her, though, that my humanity sought a way to cheer her and I replied lightly.
“Who would you like me to be?” Perhaps she had been sent as some college prank to spend the night in a haunted old mansion—though I could readily tell her those stories were fables. She was confused by my response and, taking pity, I continued. “My friends and guests know me as Edward. Since you are welcome at my fire, I count you as a guest. I must warn you, however, that I prefer not to be called Teddy. It makes me think I’ve grown soft and gained weight.” At that, an involuntary chuckle escaped her lips.
“Edward. I ... I am Mercy. How did you come to be in front of my fire?” I wondered at how long she had been under the illusion that she was home. The poor dear must be a bit off in the head. I tried to be soothing.
“I’ve truthfully no idea how we came to be sitting together,” I sighed. “But you look chilled. Perhaps we should move closer to the fire.” She smiled softly at me and slid gracefully from her chair to kneel on the rug. I joined her there. She had no drink so I offered a sip of mine which she took daintily.
“Fantasy,” she whispered. “Yet the whiskey burned in my throat as if it were real. You would not try to take advantage of a giddy girl, now would you?”