Paul Hamilton was quite sure that Boston was absolutely the best place to live in the entire world. He had moved there when he was awarded a scholarship to Boston College and had easily found work as a computer programmer. His father had died while he was still in high school and so his younger sister, Linda, simply continued living with their mother even after she had finished school and started work as a hairdresser.
Paul was one of the many thousands of professional workers who found himself working from home because of the Corona pandemic. He quickly discovered how much he liked the freedom to decide for himself when and how he would work and relax. His imagination had been captured by the Boston Marathon when it had been run the previous spring and he was intrigued with the prospect that this kind of freedom would allow him to try to qualify for the event the following year.
Paul was always one to get a bit carried away with new ideas and ambitious projects in the very moment he thought of them. He found freelance work that would start in January and so he had quit his job, intending to begin his marathon training.
Then fate intervened in the form of a phone call from Linda to tell him that their mother had died suddenly and that she desperately needed him to come home and help with all the arrangements and get the huge family house ready to sell.
After the funeral was over and the last condolences had been acknowledged, Paul explained that he couldn’t stay to help with all the house sale activities because he was intending to start training for the Boston marathon and he needed to get back. Linda, always the practical one in the family, observed that Paul had never run in a longer race than the 10K. She added that running a marathon would be like running 4.2 10K races one after the other. Linda was always pointing out unwanted details like that, so Paul had had a lot of practice ignoring her. Undeterred, Linda shifted tactics and pointed out a deserted road that turned off the main highway only a few hundred meters from their house where he could train as much as he wanted in the afternoons. Mornings could be used for all the house preparation.
“Mama always wanted the house painted a pale yellow with eggshell blue shutters. You can do that, can’t you? Just plan on staying until the end of the year. We can have a great Christmas together and you will still have a couple of months to finish your training when you get back to Boston.” Paul could find no reason to object to Linda’s plan, so he agreed.
He started running in the afternoons, trying to go a little farther each time. He knew how far he had gone before because the nearly deserted road had small, white kilometer markers. Broad expanses of fallow farmland seemed to extend forever on both sides, overgrown with weeds and sagebrush.
By mid-October he reached the 12K marker before turning around and running the same distance back. “Marathon, here I come”, he murmured, very pleased with himself. But the next day, as the 12K marker came into view, he knew he didn’t have enough in the tank to try for the 13K marker. “Tomorrow is another day,” he consoled himself, but the next day was no different – he just couldn’t bring himself to go on.
Paul took a day off from his training, made sure to eat lot of carbohydrates, and did a lot of stretching. The following morning was a beautiful, cool, fall day with bright sunshine. He felt great as he set off on his run, determined to make it to the 13K marker today.
Just before he turned onto the deserted road, he noticed a police car parked in front of a house. Two men in suits were talking to what appeared to be a very distressed lady on the front porch. “I wonder what that’s all about”, thought Paul, then promptly forgot about it.
He hadn’t run more than a couple of kilometers when a bicycle appeared, cresting over a small rise in the road ahead of him. Long, auburn hair streamed out behind the undeniably good-looking rider as she approached, then settled in soft curls around her shoulders as she stopped at short distance in front of him.
“Hey good looking, I’ve seen you several times out here running. What’s up?”
“I’m training for a long-distance race” said Paul, stopping as he reached her. He looked at her quizzically for a moment. “I don’t remember seeing you before. What are you doing out here on this lonely road?”
“You like to run here, I like to ride my bike here,” she grinned mischievously. “My name is Sarah.”
“I’m Paul. Strange that you’ve seen me but I haven’t seen you.”
Sarah stared at him intently for a moment. “You’re really focused on your running, aren’t you?” She flipped her auburn hair behind her shoulders, then grinned at him again. “Mind if I ride along with you for a bit?”
Paul grinned, then quipped, “Can’t imagine how any guy in his right mind would object to your company!” He started off again with Sarah riding next to him. With the chatting and distraction, Paul was shocked when he realized that the upcoming marker was the one for 13 Km. It had been the easiest run he could remember. He thanked Sarah for her company and reluctantly told her that he really need to head back home again. Sarah smiled shyly and, turning her bike around, continued to ride next to him almost all the way back to the main road.
“Well, I suppose I need to be getting back home as well,” said Sarah at that point, “but I really enjoyed this. What time will you be running tomorrow?”
“Not sure,” answered Paul with surprise, “maybe around 4 or so?”
“Great. See you then!”
And so it began. Sarah always seemed to be there at the junction with the main road when Paul got there on his run. She would ride next to him and they would talk about whatever occurred to them in the moment. When Paul would struggle with the run, Sarah would try to encourage him by saying she was exhausted trying to keep up with him because he ran so fast. Paul found the increasing daily kilometers that he could manage to be rewarding and had a sense that maybe the relationship was headed for something more.
Linda was quite skeptical of the whole business and kept asking Paul why Sarah never seemed to be around other than when he was training. She was also quite unimpressed with the time Paul required to complete his training runs and had no problem telling him that he would never get fast enough to even qualify. In early November Linda teased Paul about still not being able to manage more than a 35K run. Rather irritated, Paul told her what Sarah had said about not being able to keep up with him on her bike.
Linda just looked at him for a moment in disbelief. “How can you possibly fit that much ego between your ears? Clearly you have no room left for brains. She is just feeding you a line of bull.”
“Maybe so, but she is encouraging and supporting me in training hard – unlike you!” raged Paul and stormed out of the room.
After he had calmed down a bit, he had to admit that Linda was at least right when she said he was still being a long ways away from managing the 42K distance of a marathon. Paul decided he needed to increase the intensity of his training program. He decided that his next run would be 40K – 20K out and 20K back, no matter what.
He rode his own bike along on the deserted road and noted exactly where the 20K marker was located. Looking around, he saw that there was an abandoned farm with a dilapidated, run-down house not far away. He could see it from the road at least 2K down the road, so that visual clue would also give him a little more incentive if he was feeling tired. All he would have to do to achieve his goal would be to keep running until he reached that house, then turn around and run home again. He would share his plan with Sarah and that additional encouragement would be an extra bonus.
Paul was so focused on his distance goal that he did not consider the fact that it was getting dark earlier and earlier – nor did he think about all the whispers about why that old, gray-sided farmhouse had remained empty for so long.
Linda did her best to talk Paul out of his plans. She pointed out that, this close to the end of daylight savings time, it would be getting dark quite early. She observed that, although there was enough daylight left to see that farmhouse in the distance, there would surely not be any daylight left at all for the return trip. Tiring of Paul’s total unwillingness to listen to any factual calculations she could offer, she finally just walked out of the room.
“Sarah will be there for me, even if you aren’t!” yelled Paul after her.
Sarah was indeed there for Paul the next day. “That’s wonderful, Paul! You can do this. Let’s go!”
As Paul crested the little hill at the 18K mark, the abandoned farmhouse appeared. “I’m going to do this, Sarah!” puffed Paul between labored breaths.
“Yes indeed, Paul. You’ve got it made now – just a little further. But look, you are really a fast runner and I’m exhausted from keeping up with you on this last hill. I’m going to head home now. Just keep going. You’ve got it made!” With that, Sarah turned her bike around and disappeared back down the hill.
That was an unexpected shock, but Paul didn’t have the energy left to argue or even think about anything other than putting one foot in front of the other. It was only when he finally got to the falling down farmhouse, full of self-congratulations on reaching his goal, that he turned around. No longer looking constantly at the fading light in the western sky, he suddenly realized just how pitch black it was looking eastward along the route where there were no street lights.
Some wise person once observed that experience was a great teacher but a fool learns in no other way. Paul was increasingly aware of this adage’s relevance as he approached the empty farmhouse to seek shelter while he figured out how to get home. The shutters banged noisily as the wind blew and the door seemed to open itself with a creaky groan as he touched the door handle. Linda might have asked why this farmhouse, sitting on this valuable land, had remained abandoned for so long. Was there some reason why no one wanted to be here? But she wasn’t with him and he didn’t ask. He stepped inside, looking at all the dirt, dust and black cobwebs everywhere.
Suddenly the door blew closed behind him with a loud bang. The room was suddenly almost completely dark. He fumbled his way back to the door, but when he tried to open it, the handle would not move.
“What the hell? It’s just rotted wood for god’s sake”. But there was no give at all when he tried a solid kick, nor when he put his shoulder and weight against it. “Crap, I’ll just crawl out one of those windows – they don’t even have any shutters.”
He stumbled toward the nearest window, constantly wiping the black, sticky cobwebs off his face as he ran into them. He could see the beady eyes of rats watching him from broken down tables and dusty bookshelves. He was in a near panic by the time he got to the nearest window – only to find heavy bars, completely invisible from the outside, would make it impossible to get out. Nothing was making any sense at all.
He turned back toward what had once been the living room and suddenly noticed a narrow slit of bright light coming from the space between the wall and the corner of the stone fireplace. He made his way toward the slit and put one eye up to the crack to try and see through it.
He felt as if he had totally lost his sanity. Through the crack he could see a beautifully furnished room, nice furniture, and expensive china and glassware. It was completely irrational, but in his panic Paul pulled on the stone corner of the fireplace as if he could pull the whole thing away from the wall and get a better view of the strange room.
The whole stone facade did, in fact, roll effortlessly away. He looked involuntarily, uncomprehendingly at the expensive, refined dining room that had been revealed. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the long, soft, auburn hair. “Hello, Paul. I have so been looking forward to this evening.”
It was almost noon when the police car pulled up in front of the newly painted house. Pale yellow with eggshell blue shutters. Two men in dress suits got out. One walked over to the mailbox to read the name. “Linda Hamilton. Yep, this is the right place. You know, Hal, this is so strange. This is the third missing person report we have had from this area just this year. Do you think we should make a report to the CI folks?”
Before Hal could answer, a weepy, distraught woman rushed out onto the porch. They hurried up the sidewalk to begin their investigation.