Fresh snow fell. Missy put on her backpack and purse and left the docks, stopping at the top of the path leading back to the cul-de-sac. To the right was an opening to the sewer. Beyond that was a creek leading into the lake and a small bridge connected the two sides on either side of the creek.
She crossed this bridge and up another path to a different part of the neighborhood. She followed the street until she reached a block of houses far larger than the others. She passed numerous three-story houses, gates surrounding the properties.
She stopped in front of the largest house in the neighborhood. It was four stories including a basement. On the second floor, a large balcony covered the porch and front door. The yard, usually a beautiful garden, reminded Missy of a cemetery in the winter night. Statues of angels normally surrounded by vibrantly colored flowers most of the year were instead covered in snow.
Winter was when Bixby Deshler moved into the house nearly thirteen years previously. The house remained empty and dark until Bixby moved in. Neighbors didn’t even know the house had been sold until the first moving truck arrived. They watched movers bring in the furniture noting how all of it was new, freshly brought pieces except for one. A large cabinet, the dark stained wood worn from years of use and wear, was carried carefully. It was old and clashed with the new furniture.
For his first year in the house no one saw a single person come and go. The only signs of life were lights inside and the care of the garden. If Bixby did ever leave the house no one knew when.
The children of the neighborhood hadn’t taken long to start rumors about the mysterious Mr. Deshler. Even his name sounded like a mystery. It always reminded Missy of the name of a character from an old cartoon.
They started out as common childish rumors. He was a crazy, old man who hated people. Then he became a widower who killed his family for the insurance money. Next he was called a devil worshipper who spent the days cursing those in the neighborhood. Finally, he was called an evil wizard, courtesy of a particular children’s series released the same year he moved in.
Around that time, Missy and a group of the neighborhood kids (not friends, merely the only children close by enough that their parents forced them to play and occasionally they pretended to like each other) decided to break into Bixby’s house. They wanted to find proof he was performing black magic.
Missy was eleven years old when she first entered Bixby Deshler’s house. She and the other children entered through an open window. They searched the house for anything possibly related to black magic, but to no avail. Before they knew it, they’d gotten lost in the immense house. When Bixby found them, several had broken down into sobs.
She’d been separated from the group early and was exploring the large living room. She remembered how she’d been drawn to the old cabinet there. Something about the dark, aged wood stood out in the room of clean, bright furniture. The dark glass preventing curious eyes from seeing its contents, reflected her curious face back at her and she only longed to open it more.
The other children’s sobs warned her of Bixby’s discovery of the young intruders and she managed to hide in a small coat closet as he led the group out of his house. She debated whether to sneak out while the other children distracted him or wait until he went to sleep.
She didn’t have time to make a decision before Bixby found her. It had actually been an accident and the surprise in his face almost made her giggle.
“What have we here? A clever child or a mischievous pixie?” His voice was gentle and far too kind for someone finding a group of children who broke into his home.
She remembered how she felt no fear when she met him. “I’m not a pixie. I’m a little girl and my name is Missy Harper.”
Bixby laughed at her rashness. “Well, Miss Harper, my name is Bixby Deshler.”
“Are you an evil wizard?”
“No, but I’m a pretty good cook. Would you like something to eat before I call your parents to come get you?”
“Spaghetti, but only if you don’t call my parents. I can make it home on my own.”
“All right, but if you try anything, I’ll turn you into a frog.”
It would be the first of many laughs. Missy found herself liking Bixby and wanting to talk with him more. The other children thought she’d been put under a spell, but Missy knew it was something else.
She didn’t have a name for it, but the closest word would be connection. She found herself visiting Bixby after school almost every day. Sometimes they would talk. Sometimes they would eat. Sometimes they would wander Bixby’s garden. And sometimes Missy would sit on the floor and do her homework whether or not Bixby was in the room.
On Missy’s thirteenth birthday, Bisby gave her a key to his house. He told her she was welcome any time and if he needed to leave town he wanted her to look after the place. She’d been very happy at his gift, but she gave him a condition. He had to meet her family. They’d been nervous and slightly disapproving of her friendship with a man in his early seventies.
Bixby invited her family over. Her grandmother, who’d been living with she and her father since her mother’s death, refused to meet him not out of disapproval, but because unbeknownst to Missy and her father, she knew she was going to die that night.
Missy’s father immediately took to Bixby after talking with him for only ten minutes. The two found common ground on the strangest things. She’d been surprised to learn her father was a closet antique lover. The two discussed at surprising length episodes of Antique Roadshow, boring the young Missy to tears.
When she and her father returned home they found her grandmother in her bed, having passed away silently in her sleep.
Bixby came to the funeral, keeping to himself and leaving a white flower on the grave. He offered any help he could to her father, but Missy stopped visiting him and they didn’t speak for six months.
Then she received a letter from him requesting her presence at his house. She almost ignored the letter, but he sent a second letter that contained a cryptic message.
Red Rover, Red Rover,
Send Missy Harper right over.
Missy made it to his house, though she couldn’t really remember how. She walked through the garden amazed at how, though he claimed to know nothing of gardening, his plants thrived unnaturally well.
Bixby opened the door before she even finished climbing up the porch steps. He beamed at her, a secret glistening in her eyes. He quickly led her to the kitchen and sitting on the counter in a large black and white doggy bed were two Doberman puppies.
He told Missy they were gifts for her, but he understood her father was allergic to dogs. Therefore he’d keep them at his house, but she had to promise to visit them as often as possible.
Missy immediately fell in love with the excitable puppies and asked their names. He told her he wanted her to name them. She named them Zelda and Link in honor of her favorite video game.
Bixby asked if she was doing all right since her grandmother’s passing. She told him she cried enough tears. Now sh only looked back with smiles. She showed Bixby her grandmother’s necklace.
He’d been very impressed by it, a mysterious twinkle in his eyes.
The hoot of an owl brought Missy back from her memories, her hands resting on the locked gate surrounding Bixby’s house.
She used her key to open the gate and walked into the garden. She crossed it quickly to the front door. She opened it and entered the warm house. Taking a deep breath, she sighed as the familiar scents filled her nostrils.
The sound of eight paws running on wooden floors brought a smile to her lips. She kneeled down to the floor and opened her arms.
Two Dobermans turned the corner and jumped onto Missy. Merry and Pippin were the sons of Zelda and Link who passed away just before she’d left for college. They were trained to only bark at strangers, but they could always tell when it was Missy at the door.
She laughed as the two dogs licked every inch of her face. She hugged them and scratched their necks. “I missed you guys, too.”
She stood and closed the door behind her. The house was dark and silent, but it was so familiar to her. The day she arrived back home she had immediately gone to visit Bixby Deshler, after calling to let her dad know she landed safely.
When Bixby opened the door and saw her, his familiar kind smile appeared on his lips. “Miss Harper, it’s simply wonderful to see you. I hope California is treating you well?”
Missy hadn’t answered him. She wrapped her arms around him in a tight hug. She hadn’t realized until she saw him how much she missed him.
Bixby had trouble understanding Missy’s reaction, but he easily raised his arms around her. They stood in silence before he cleared his throat.
“Why don’t you come inside? This cold is doing neither of us any good.”
After making it into the living room and after a long game of catch-up, Bixby told Missy why he had her father call her.
“I’m going out of town for a little while, but just house sitting isn’t why I asked you to drop everything and come back.”
“You know I would have done it for that reason alone, but since my dad called me at 4 in the morning I imagined there was more to it.”
Bixby smiled. “I did ask him to call you as soon as possible. Anyway, back to the task at hand. I received a request from a very dear friend of mine. Well, to be more exact, my nephew.”
Missy started. “Nephew? That means you have a brother or a sister.”
“A sister if you must know. But that’s beside the point. My nephew is travelling and unfortunately has become very ill. He’s asked to spend several nights here, but I can’t postpone my trip. I need you to be here when he arrives and assist in any way you can.”
“You want me to play nurse?”
“No, nothing of that nature. He’s travelling with a friend and he’ll be taking care of him. I just need you to escort them to the master bedroom and keep Merry and Pippin away.”
Missy smiled. “That shouldn’t be too difficult.”
Bixby’s eyes darkened slightly, but his smile remained unchanged. “There is one other thing. If anyone comes to see my nephew please don’t let them in. My nephew is very private.”
“He isn’t really famous is he?”
“No. It’s a complicated story. If you need anything my friend can help. He should be arriving in a few days.”
Missy opened her eyes. The fire in the living room fireplace was slowly dying, but she felt hot air on her face. She lifted her head from the couch and saw Pippin had crawled onto the couch with her. His head was on her chest and at each breath she felt warmth. Merry was on the floor asleep, his back leg twitching now and then. He was probably chasing something in his dreams.
She hadn’t meant to fall asleep after starting the fire, but it was welcomed. Sunlight filled the room and Missy slowly sat up, stirring Pippin. He yawned and then hopped down to the floor, shaking his entire body. Merry lifted his head and watched his brother curiously. Pippin sat and stared at Missy.
She put her feet on the floor and rubbed her eyes. Her bags lay by the door to the living room and she debated whether to take them upstairs.
Loud knocking came from the front door. Merry and Pippin stood and growled. Missy stood. The knocking came again and Merry and Pippin backed away.
Missy slowly walked to the front door. She could see a shadow through the tiny window on the door. It moved slowly and Missy’s heart pounded loudly in her chest.
She opened the door quickly, blinding herself with the sunlight. After her eyes adjusted she realized there was no one outside. She took a few steps out and looked around. No one. The only footprints in the snow were her own from the night before.
“It’s a little early for ding-dong-ditch, isn’t it?” she yelled. She turned and walked back into the house. She closed the door and locked it.
She leaned back on the door and closed her eyes. She saw somebody through the tiny window. Or was she just seeing and hearing things?
Merry and Pippin walked to Missy and whined softly. She couldn’t have mistaken it. Both of the dogs reacted to the strange knocker.
She leaned down and scratched them behind their ears. She’d worry about it later. First she needed to feed these two.