It isn’t raining outside Sullivan’s shop, but it looks as though it had been until only a few moments before. The blacktop dimly reflects the light which fell through the heavy dark clouds above, and the narrow sidewalk is layered in a thin sheet of water which still seems to ripple from the drops which had been crashing against it. Great trees line the road, tall and black against the gray sky, and their leaves hang heavy with moisture. Sullivan’s shop is the only building I can see on the street. Everything else in either direction is only trees, stretching into the distance before being lost in the shadowy light.
There are no cars on the road, neither in motion nor parked along the sides, but there are people here and there walking along the sidewalk, slumped over and with heads down, as though expecting the rain to begin falling again at any moment. The nearest one to me is a young woman in a white sleeveless dress, not at all clothed for the weather she is in. Her long black hair hangs heavy over her shoulders, caught in swirls against the pale skin of her arms, like ivy caressing pillars.
“Excuse me,” I say to her as she comes closer. “Can you help me?” She doesn’t acknowledge me, and walks past with no eye contact, her footsteps splashing against the sidewalk as she goes, moving down the sidewalk to my right.
I remember then what Sullivan had said to me inside his shop, before I took the pack holding my belongings and walked through the door: If you turn left and start walking, you’ll reach a white house with a wraparound porch, and a woman who will give you shelter. If you turn right instead, you’ll pass through a haunted place, full of pieces of things which shouldn’t be.
An easy decision. I turn left from his shop and begin to walk. I hear the low rumble of thunder in the distance, but see no flash of lightning. The clouds above do not open, and the rain continues to do no more than threaten to fall.
A second woman comes close on the sidewalk. She is wrapped in a black leather jacket two sizes too large for her and I try again to ask for help. “I’m sorry,” I say. “Could you tell me where I am?”
The woman doesn’t stop, but she slows her pace to a shuffle. I change direction and move along beside her. “What do you mean, where are you? You’re on the street, aren’t you?”
“No, what city is this?”
“Serastanov, of course,” the woman says. “Where do you think?”
“Serastanov? Is that in Russia?”
“Russia?” the woman replies. “Where’s Russia?”
“Never mind,” I say. I point back in the direction I’d been walking. “Where does this road go? Is there a white house this way?”
“Plenty of houses,” she says. “Some of them are white, sure. Some farms. Lots of sheep. Very scenic, if you’re into that sort of thing.”
“How far? The houses?”
“Mile or so.”
I take the backpack off my shoulders and pull the book of photographs out of it, then open to a random page and show the picture to the woman. “Do you know this person?” I ask. “Have you seen her before?”
The woman stops walking now, and looks at me, then down at the book, then at me again.
“Never seen her before. Who is she?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m just looking for her, I think.”
“You think? You don’t know?”
“I am,” I decide. “I’m looking for her.”
“Then keep walking the way you were going,” she says. “The sheriff’s office is on the other side of the farms. Maybe he can help you with that.”
“Really?” I say. “A sheriff?”
The woman nods. “If anybody can help, he can.”
The wind whips up suddenly, casting our hair into writhing Medusa snakes around our heads and threatening to pull the book of photos from my hand. I quickly close it and stuff it into the backpack again. “Thank you,” I say. “I appreciate it.”
“Better go quick,” she says, looking up at the cloudy sky. “This rain isn’t going to hold off much longer.” She looks at me again, and leans in a little closer. “You’re not from around here, right? So I’ll tell you: keep to the road. No matter what you see. You’re safe as long as you keep to the road.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“Go quick,” she says again, and then speeds up and walks away from me, while I slow further, and then stop, watching her as she continues on her way. Another rumble of thunder growls from the distance, and a drop of rain hits against my cheek. I reach up and wipe it away.
A mile or so, before I reach the houses, and there will be no escaping the rain before then.
I know that I am already in the belly of the storm.