“I was thinking about it. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I guess I had to work out for myself what I was doing and why. Now I know. I’m starting my own business because the longer you put off dreams, the less chance you have of making them real. I’m going into a partnership with two women I like a lot. Not only am I not going to let them down, but I’m not going to let me down either.”
She got to her feet, and with her hands planted on her hips, turned to look at the house. “I don’t know if I’m ready for this, but I’m ready to try. I don’t know if I’m going to find the key in the time I have left, but I know I’ve tried there, too.”
“I know what I think.” Zoe rose to join her. “If it weren’t for the key, you wouldn’t be with Flynn now. We wouldn’t be together, and we wouldn’t have this place. Because of that I’ve got a chance to make something special, for myself, for Simon. I wouldn’t have had that without the two of you.”
“Let me start off saying we can skip the group hug.” Still, Dana walked over to them. “But I feel the same way. I wouldn’t have had the chance for this without both of you. My idiot brother has a classy lady in love with him. All that starts with the key. I say you’re going to find it.”
She looked up as rain began to splatter. “Now let’s get the hell in out of the rain.”
Inside, they stood in a loose semicircle.
“Together or separate?” Malory asked.
“Together,” Zoe answered.
“Top or bottom?”
“Top.” Dana glanced over, got assenting nods. “You said Flynn was coming by?”
“Yeah, he’s going to slip over for an hour.”
“We can use him as a pack mule, then, for anything we want to haul out of the attic.”
“Some of the stuff up there is great.” Zoe’s face shone with enthusiasm as they started up. “I know it looks like junk at first glance, but I think once we get to it, we’ll be able to use some. There’s an old wicker chair that could be rewoven and painted. It’d look good on the porch. And there’s a couple of those pole lamps. The shades are trash, but the poles could be cleaned up and antiqued.”
Her voice faded away as Malory climbed the steps. The window at the top was wet with rain, dull with dust. And her heart began to thud like a fist against her ribs.
“This is the place,” she whispered.
“Yeah, it is. This is it.” Dana set her hands on her hips as she looked around the second floor. “It’ll be ours and the bank’s in a few weeks.”
“No, this is the place. From my dream. This is the house. How could I be so stupid not to realize, not to understand?” Excitement pitched into her voice, rushing the words out. “It wasn’t what was Flynn’s, but what was mine. I’m the key. Isn’t that what Rowena said?”
She whirled back to face them, her eyes brilliant and bright. “Beauty, knowledge, courage. That’s the three of us, that’s this place. And the dream, that was my fantasy, my idea of perfection. So it had to be my place.”
She pressed a hand to her heart as if to keep it from leaping free. “The key’s here. In this house.”
In the next instant she was alone. The staircase behind her filled with a thin blue light. Like a mist, it rolled toward her, crawled along the floor at her feet until she stood ankle-deep in the damp chill of it. Rooted in shock, she called out, but her voice rang hollow in a mocking echo.
With her heart drumming, she looked at the rooms on either side of her. The eerie blue fog snaked and twined its way up the walls, over the windows, blocking even the gloomy light of the storm.
Run! It was a frantic whisper in her mind. Run. Get out now, before it’s too late. This wasn’t her fight. She was an ordinary woman leading an ordinary life.
She gripped the banister, took the first step down. She could still see the door through that sheer blue curtain that so quickly ate the true light. Through the door was the real world. Her world. She had only to open that door and walk out for normalcy to click back into place.
That was what she wanted, wasn’t it? A normal life. Hadn’t her dream shown her that? Marriage and family. French toast for breakfast and flowers on the dresser. A pretty life of simple pleasures built on love and affection.
It was waiting for her, outside the door.
She walked down the steps like a woman in a trance. She could see beyond the door, somehow through the door, where the day was perfect with autumn. Trees a wash of color gilded by sunlight, air brisk and tart. And though her heart continued to gallop inside her chest, her lips curved in a dreamy smile as she reached for the door.
“This is wrong.” She heard her own voice, oddly flat and calm. “This is another trick.” A part of her shuddered in shock as she turned away from the door, turned from the perfect life waiting outside. “What’s out there isn’t real, but this is. This is our place now.”
Stunned that she’d nearly deserted her friends, she called out for Dana and Zoe again. Where had he put them? What illusion had separated them? Fear for them had her rushing back up the steps. Her flight tore the blue mists, only to have it gather back into nasty ribbons behind her.
To orient herself she went to the window at the top of the stairs and rubbed away those frigid mists. Her fingertips went numb, but she could see it was still storming. Rain whipped down out of a bruised sky. Her car was in the drive, just where she’d left it. Across the street a woman with a red umbrella and a bag of groceries dashed toward a house.
That was real, Malory told herself. That was life, messy and inconvenient. And she would get it back. She’d find her way back. But first she had a job to do.