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  • Writer's pictureNick Janicki

Hoppy Endings: Daisy Cutter

Inspired by Half Acre Beer Co.'s APA

I turn off my camera, double-check I’m on on mute, and take off to the kitchen. After popping another pod in the Keurig, I glance over at the clock on the oven. Nine-thirty, I consider. I’ve already been at it for a few hours. And it’ll keep going this way until well after five o’clock; that I know for certain.

Honestly, I shouldn’t complain. It’s a pretty fair deal. I always fantasized about getting paid without having to trek into an office, wasting the weekdays away making unproductive smalltalk with coworkers for the hell of it. It sounded like a dream. And now I’m living it, working from home five days a week.

That’s not to say I’m a complete hermit. I have a few friends I enjoy seeing (from time to time, at least). Plus, family’s a tad more than an hour drive away. Needless to say, I get my social fill through a select few when the tank’s running low. I can run on fumes longer than most, but the point remains: I’m not living life on an island.

But July was what you might call ‘social overkill.’ Countless birthdays stacked back-to-back, Independence Day, and the sheer chaos that’s synonymous summer. I need an extended break this month, and my apartment isn’t going to cut it. Which is why I pull open my MacBook at the end of the workday, open a browser, and start searching on Airbnb.

I’m looking for a place on the cheap, manipulating the search settings to weed out anything more than one bedroom, anything more than a hundred a night. The area I’m considering is about two hours away, a rural part of the state I’d more or less picked at random. Might as well have spun a wheel and went with wherever the little pointer landed. I have this mindset because I’m looking for the type of place I’d never have an actual reason to visit within a lifetime. A place no one will find me for a short while. No ‘Oh, I was just in the neighborhood.’ Not a chance of a ‘Well, maybe I’ll pop over for a visit to check it out.’ No out-of-town friends interested in a catchup.

A place of restful solitude for a full fortnight — to recharge while still managing to get work done. I’ll hop online for the expected nine to ten hours a day during the week, then retreat into a peaceful silo of my own for the remaining time. An idyllic balance (at least considering I can’t exactly afford to quit my job altogether).

My search narrows until there’s only one place on the map. A little red location pin, $55 / night typed within it. It’s the right price. A steal, even. The icing on the cake? Surrounding it is a ton of greenery, which tells me it’s nice and isolated. Plenty of space to go out and stretch my legs when I get some downtime during calls. The only other thing to check is . . .

“Yep!” I say, scrolling down on the listing to confirm the place offers Wi-Fi. ‘Recently Installed,’ it clarifies, meaning a quality connection shouldn’t be an issue. No room for His Highness Greg Raynor to put fifteen minutes on my calendar once a day, berating me for not being able to properly contribute on a given call. God forbid my boss actually has to speak up for once.

I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face if I tried as I go through the booking process, elated all the way until I hit that final ‘Confirm Reservation’ button. Before closing my laptop, I look at the confirmation once more, catching the name of the listing for the first time. “See you in a week, Daisy Cottage.”

“I’m starting to lose you, Mom,” I speak aloud in the car. “I’ll call you again when I’m checked in and under Wi-Fi.”

A lie, although her voice has begun to grow a touch staticky since I pulled off the highway. Really, I just need her to let me do this. Of course she’s cautioning me on a million one things, filling my head with outlandish situations I could find myself in. That’s why I only told her about the trip a day or two ago. I’m not foolish enough to go quasi-off-the-grid without telling a soul, but she didn’t need to know any sooner.

“I just wish you would’ve picked a place like Indianapolis,” she says through the car speakers. I can hear the worry in her voice, picture her wary expression as she paces around the living room. “Somewhere with people around.”

I roll my eyes, turning off a paved road onto a dirt one. The map says I’m only a few minutes away now. “I’m doing this so I don’t have to be somewhere with people, Mom. Going to a place like Indy is more of the same.”

She sighs. It comes in and out, as if she were taking short, shallow breaths; I actually am losing her a bit now. “I’ll pray for you to be safe then, Jess,” she says. “Since it seems there’s no getting you to turn that . . . Let me . . . sound . . .”

I end the call, not seeing a point in carrying it on. Besides, I think my Ford Edge has just made its final turn, onto an even narrower dirt road. Thousands of strings of long lemongrass hang over it, a welcome line of green fanning over for me. I can hear them gently brushing up against the side of the SUV. It sounds like I’m rolling through one of those car washes, the ones with the fans and brushes and towels that all swipe against the paint at one point or another.

The sound stops as the pathway ends, opening to a wide gravel (tiny grey and tan and black rocks form a flat surface) area that looks like it’s only recently been added. And there, in the center of it all, is the cottage. Daisy Cottage. Smaller than it looked in the pictures online, but otherwise a perfect representation of what I’d seen.

I pull forward on the gravel –– which I discover encircles the entire cottage –– until I’m right in front of the place. I put the Edge in park and allow myself to soak in the details of the cottage exterior. It has old bones, the fresh layer of ivory paint over each stacked piece of wooden cladding not enough to fully bury its history. While just a single story, there’s a purely aesthetic triangle arch in the roof, just above a front door residing at the very center of the cottage. Two small windows (decidedly not big enough for anyone to pull themselves in or out of –– Mom’s way of thinking reaching me) flank the door on either side, four-way wooden dividers painted a bright turquoise. There’s a small sign just in front of the slight, shallow concrete porch step, a wooden board stuck to the top of a thick stick firmly planted into the gravel. The words on it are painted a canary yellow.

“Welcome to Daisy Cottage,” I read the sign aloud.

I exit the car, walk to the trunk and open it. I stare at everything inside. It’s packed, more clothes, food, and bottled water than a family of three would need if spending two weeks here. That’s all right. It’s reassuring, and I know Mom would be proud of me for the over-preparation (even though she doesn’t seem to approve of my coming here in the first place).

With a duffel bag around my shoulder, a case of water in one hand and a bag of groceries in the other, I head for the cottage to begin unloading. As I do, I stop and pan around, standing in the middle of the gravel lot. Beyond the overgrown pathway I drove in from, the cottage is surrounded by a brigade of tall trees still lush from a rainy spring and summer, out of sight to anyone beyond someone gazing down from the clouds. As if placed here with that very intention: to hide it away from the world.

I find the hide-a-key left by the Airbnb host, just behind a potted plant holding nothing but soil. I take out the key, unlock the door, and step inside, eager to see if the interior lives up to the accuracy of the exterior based on the online images.

It’s hot in here, I immediately think. The type of humidity that’s collected, gathered since the last occupant shut the door behind them. It engulfs me, enough to send me dropping what I’m carrying to go and find the two window A/C units the listing mentioned. I manage to find one of them; it’s within one of the cottage’s equally compact side windows. It’s unplugged, so I stick it into the nearest outlet and listen to the old machine begin to rattle. It’s an antique, but it’s giving all it’s got to pump out a cool breeze through the vents. And it’s welcoming enough.

I realize I haven’t let my other senses indulge in an initial impression of the interior, having went straight to fixing the summer heat issue without second thought. My nose picks up a mix of fresh linen and must, the former likely some sort of wall plug-in somewhere meant to mask the latter. They clash for control in the air, in some spots smelling more like one than the other. I imagine the must is a result of the cottage’s age, plus the unintentional heat entrapment.

The walls are painted a pale lilac, which like the exterior seem to have been blessed with an additional coat more recently than not (yet still somehow failing to hide the place’s age). The very top of the walls, touching the tip of the ceiling, has a strip of wallpaper wrapping around this larger central room. The paper has been here awhile, its repeating pattern of daisies having gone dull in color, presumably from sun exposure over the course of many years. It’s not how the designer intended, but they almost appear wilted now.

The wooden floor’s the original through and through, worn down in plenty of spots where furniture rested at a certain time, or where people’s shoes frequented (although, it’s difficult to imagine many people being here at once). There’s a desk against one of the walls, sitting beneath one of the small front windows. On the other side of the room, a newer tan loveseat with a rustic coffee table in front of it. Put the cottage in a more urban location and you’d find a television mounted on the wall across the couch. Not here — just the naked wall and the small side window (opposite the one with the A/C unit) to stare off at. A natural source of entertainment with only one channel.

I make my way around the rest of the cottage in the next two minutes. Off the main room, two doorways next to each other, the one on the right going off to the most-cramped bedroom you could ever imagine (barely able to fit the full-size bed that’s in there). The other open doorway leads to an equally small kitchen, although it seems to have the essentials: a sink, a decent-size fridge, a stove, and an oven. Single-level wooden planks span the length of the kitchen’s four walls, makeshift storage for whatever food and supplies a given guest might bring. Just off there, a tight bathroom with enough room for a stand-up shower and a toilet directly beside it. The sink in the kitchen is obviously supposed to double as a bathroom sink.

Back in the main room, the living room, I suppose I can call it, I pick up the water and grocery bag, pausing before going and putting everything away in the kitchen. My eyes pan around the room again, off at the bedroom, into the kitchen doorway. I can see nearly everything from this one spot.

This will do, I determine.

By the time I’ve brought all the bags in from the car and unpacked them, I notice the sun’s no longer visible above the circular wall of oak trees. It’s gone considerably lower, leaving the shadows and shade from this little cove to make it seem darker than it really is. My watch reads six-thirty p.m.; it should still be light out another few hours this time of year.

Back inside, I remember to search for the Wi-Fi. Mom will be wanting to confirm my arrival, to know Little Jess is safe and secure. For a second, I consider that the Airbnb listing could’ve lied to me; this doesn’t seem like the type of place deserving of Internet. But alas, I discover a handprinted note under a horse magnet on the fridge. The Wi-Fi network is the only one that shows up on my phone, ‘Daisy Cottage-Guest.’ I plug in the numbered passcode written on the sheet. I’m in.

My phone chimes a couple of times. Ding, ding, ding. A missed call from Mom. A text from her, too: What happened? Tell me you made it OK? Another text, this one from Greg, or as I’ve dubbed him, Grumbling Greg: Can’t make call with Kline tomorrow. Proceed without me.

I half wish to myself the listing had lied about the Wi-Fi situation. These messages bring me back to reality, back to knowing that even in this less-traveled part of the world, I’m unable to fully escape everyone and everything. I suppose I should be grateful: I need Wi-Fi to work remote, the only reason I’m able to be here in the first place. And Mom is just looking out for me.

I text her back: All fine and dandy. Settled in and going for a short walk soon to stretch my legs before it gets dark.

As for Greg, I don’t respond to him at all. He can wait until the weekend’s officially over tomorrow to hear back from me. He might control me from nine to five, Monday through Friday, but right now I’m still free.

Unpacked, connected, and feeling more or less set up within my new home-away-from-home, I swap the sandals on my feet for gym shoes, coat my legs in bug spray, and head out the front door. I consider leaving it unlocked, but Mom sticks around the back of my mind, convincing me otherwise. I lock it.

Standing on the gravel lot encircling the cottage, I spot the path I drove in from, figuring I can take a stroll down there without having to worry about another car coming through from the opposite end. The path strikes me as bland (I can remember nothing but the lemongrass throughout the drive in), so I instead make my way around the cottage, following the gravel from the front to the side, and finally to the back.

I eye a sizable water tank behind the house, plus a garbage and a recycling bin. Not much to do back here, but it’s good to know these things are here. I’m about to turn around, settle for the pathway at the front, when I catch an easily missable break in the tree-line behind the cottage. There’s an opening there, not bigger than the width of an average person, but I determine it must be another path since the rest of the tree fortress doesn’t have a gap like this.

I start down the path, immediately wishing I’d changed into pants but continuing on anyway. It’s a bit overgrown on the sides like the car path, but the real problem is what lays beneath my feet. A mix of grass and weeds grow upward, tickling my legs as I walk. I imagine there are ticks and other bugs perched up on some of the blades, waiting patiently for a victim to arrive. Equally concerning, and causing me to step with care each time I place a foot down, is the lack of visibility beneath the tops of the blades, which nearly reach my knees. There could be a rock, ditch, or some other hazard to catch me off-guard.

But I make it through all right. Not a trip, not even a stumble. When the path widens, leading to another opening, I quickly bend down and scan my legs for any sign of bugs or bites. They look unbothered, so I take that as a win, sighing with relief as I stand back up to check out where the short trail has taken me.

The path led to a sort of clearing, only unlike the one around the cottage, this one doesn’t have any gravel. It’s still overgrown with weeds and grass and other determined forces of nature, but I spot something over at the far end, touching where the tree line resumes. A bunch of white standing firm in contrast of the otherwise green (and occasionally brown) environment. There are splotches of yellow, too, another color I didn’t see during my journey back here. Up close, I see that it’s a bunch of individual things making up these masses of bright white and yellow.

“Daisies . . .” I say. It’s weird hearing my own voice; I didn’t realize it’s been more than awhile since I’ve spoken aloud. It makes me turn my head, scanning the clearing. I’m not looking for anything in particular — just a ridiculous reassurance that I’m still alone.

There must be hundreds of daisies, all seeming to be in remarkable condition. In full bloom, standing tall and proud. I bend down, run my hand along the tops of a bunch of them, feeling the light white leaves, occasionally brushing up against the more firm, spiky yellow centers. They smell earthy, not exactly a pleasant scent, but it’s their collective beauty that drew my initial attention, anyway. I snap one off while I’m down there and bring it with me as I head back to the cottage. A short adventure, albeit a sufficient chance to stretch my legs before nightfall.

Dusk seems to arrive quicker on my trip back, only the faintest of orange light now left in the sky to fend off the inevitable arrival of night. It makes me pick up my pace once I make it back to the gravel area. I’m power-walking. I don’t want to say it’s out of some nonsensical worry; it’s almost just instinctual, likely years of Mom badgering a youthful me to make it home before dark. A force of habit is all.

I’m staring down at the daisy in my hand with a soft smile as I head toward the front door. I step onto the concrete stoop leading to the door, take another step with an arm outstretched for the doorknob. There’s a crunch below me. My shoe’s landed on something, sounding like the snapping of a twig. Praying it’s not some poor animal that’d been scurrying away, I set my sights on my shoe.

“What?” I whisper. Again, the sound of my own voice takes me by surprise. Gives me chills.

I move my shoe to the side, take a step backward. My eyes weren’t deceiving me, nor were my ears. There’s a collection of daisies laying on the concrete. Their green stems, while all a bit cracked from where I landed on them, are held tight together. Bending down to get a closer look, I see they’re bound with one of the long blades of lemongrass from the path I drove in from.

My stomach sinks. There’s a golfball-size lump in my throat and I’m suddenly feeling flushed. I pick up the collection of flowers (I can’t bear to think of it as what I think it’s intended to be: a bouquet) and spin around with them in my grasp. Night has arrived, the path back to the nearest dirt road now barely discernible from the hard tree line in front of me.

What is this?

I want to rush back inside. Slam the door behind me, hit the doorknob lock and the chain-lock, then lean the desk chair up against the doorknob. But I can’t move. I’m frozen. Paralyzed. Awaiting the sight of approaching headlights or departing taillights. Hoping for someone’s voice to call out to me, asking me if I received the welcome present they’d left on the front stoop.

It stays silent, both audibly and visually. Not even a gust of wind to distract me. Everything is simply still, paused in time like a picture.

Eventually, I find enough energy to kick my shoes around and go for the front door. It’s still locked (reassuring). I unlock it, nearly leap inside, and close it behind me. After securing both locks, I lean back against the door, trying not to let adrenaline overtake me. I’m able to take in a deep breath, force myself to hold it, then let it go. It’s calming enough to awake the sensible side of me.

Mom’s instincts taking over again, I begin assessing every inch of the cottage interior. Fortunately, that doesn’t take long. The one closet (in the bedroom) is empty besides the clothes I already hung on a few hangers. The bathroom is vacant. While I’m quite certain the space beneath the bed couldn’t even fit a small child, I kneel and poke my head underneath, anyway.

Nothing. Nobody. Nowhere.

It tells me I’ll be all right. But the buzz in my system hasn’t left yet. I need to get myself under control if I’m going to move on, continue to enjoy my first night here. Naturally, I pull my phone out from my pocket, immediately going to Mom’s contact page. My finger is hovering over the call button, about to tap it. Something stops me just before I press it, a reminder.

She’ll only worry more if you call her, I consider. Not only that . . . you’ll somehow get talked into packing your bags here and now and driving the full two hours back to the city. Or worse yet, I think about Mom getting in her car and driving all the way out here, allowing me to stay only if she could accompany me on that full-size bed every night for the next two weeks. Neither possibility is appealing.

I put my phone back in my pocket. It’s good to know there’s a safety net there, the ability to phone her (or anyone else, god forbid) if absolutely necessary. But is a bundle of flowers worth freaking out over? Certainly not. Make it some bloodied animal left as a sign and I’d already be in the car, a lead foot on the gas until I’m all the way back home. And maybe not even letting up then.

Logic begins to flow, slowly replacing the unease that struck had me without warning. I consider the source of the flowers. For one, who’s to say they weren’t there before I showed up? Placed there by the Airbnb cleaning staff as a sprinkle of kindness; missed by me as I hurried inside. The cottage is advertised as ‘Daisy Cottage,’ after all. It makes sense. Even if they weren’t there all along, is it really out of the realm of possibility that their delivery had merely been delayed? That someone in association with the home (who likely lives not terribly far away) stopped by while I was wandering way out back? Maybe they knocked to greet me, figured I’d left to do something outdoorsy, and opted to leave them on the porch.

Any of those possibilities make more sense than whatever my mind was trying to put together outside. It automatically jumped to dark places—places created in part by an overly protective mother outspoken over the idea of her little girl venturing on a solo-trip.

While feeling a bit better after the self talk, I realize I still don’t have much of a stomach after what I put my body (and mind) through, so I hop on over to the kitchen and munch on a granola bar. A simple dinner to hold me over until morning. When I’m finished, I go directly to the sink, brushing my teeth and washing my face with water that smells a little like metal. I try not to swallow any, unsure if it’s fine or not.

After changing into pajamas, I turn off the several lights out in the main room. I go back and turn one on again moments later — just for good measure. The desk chair also finds itself propped up against the front doorknob before I find myself getting under the quilt in bed. The other A/C unit is stuck in the bedroom window, bolted into the wall next to it, so I turn that on before lying down and closing my eyes for the night. I do it as much for the white humming noise as for the cool air.

It quiets my thoughts enough, allowing me to drift off.

I awake to my phone’s alarm, that hazard ring reminding of an emergency building evacuation siren. It’s always what I need on Mondays, since the moment I remember it’s telling me to get up for work makes me want to bury my head back under the covers. It actually startles me today, which leaves me disoriented. For a moment, I can’t recall where I am.

But then my eyes shoot wide open, staring up at the cream ceiling above me, at a daisy-patterned strip of wallpaper outlining the tops of all four walls. The same wallpaper trim as out there in the living room. It reminds me of the gift left on the porch early last night, the bunch of daisies tied together with a thick blade of grass. I still try not to think of it as a bouquet.

I shiver, and yet the quilt remains draped over me.

My morning routine continues, although there’s a slight pep in my step after talking myself into sanity again. I remind myself where I am as I brush my teeth. I tell myself I can head out for a walk—get some fresh air—at a moment’s notice as I butter a piece of toast and slice up a banana for breakfast. I’d go through these motions blindly any other day within my less-than-glamorous apartment. They seem fresh here. Maybe even special.

With a steaming mug of coffee next to me (instant, but beggars can’t be choosers), I flip open my MacBook while seated at the desk against the front wall in the main room. While connecting to the Wi-Fi, I catch that email icon — a devil in disguise — staring at me, calling to me from the desktop. I let it sweat a second longer as I reach up, unlock, and pull open the small square window above the desk. There’s a refreshing breeze in the air this early in the morning, still immune to the summer heat for a few more hours. Not as cold as the A/C unit, but it helps with that musty smell that hasn’t disappeared fully yet.

I open my email. It’s quiet at first, displaying the last email I recall reading at the very top. This is always the worst part: the buildup. The hope that no one’s burdened my inbox with so much as a personal schedule update. Wishful thinking, of course. The inbox feed floods at once, shooting the last read email downward and burying it until it’s at least a scroll or two away.

“Goddammit,” I say through my teeth. But what’d I expect?

My attention is swallowed by one email chain after the next for the next two hours. I only break my gaze from the surely eye-burning screen twice, once for the bathroom and another time for a refill on the instant coffee. Then, I’m caught up on email, and only had to sit and plaster on a smile for two quick client calls (Greg didn’t attend either, which again makes me wonder what he does all day other than remind me to work harder).

I’m about to make a sandwich for lunch, but stop myself halfway from getting up, gripping tight the arms of the wooden desk chair. A curiosity’s popped to mind, wanting me to pull open a new browser tab and locate my Airbnb booking again. It’s like the way my email inbox flooded: the wonders I’ve been putting off coming to the frontline and swarming me. I give in, locating the personal email with my booking confirmation and clicking on the official listing for Daisy Cottage. I read through everything, from top to bottom. From the gorgeous photos taken of the front on the top of the page all the way to Airbnb’s footer at the bottom.

Nothing, I determine. No mention of any welcome bouquet. It’s not even present in any photos of the place, for staged purposes or otherwise.

An idea. This is far from my first Airbnb rental. Every listing has reviews from prior occupants, an opportunity to leave a rating out of five stars as well as a written review. I’m more interested in the latter, true words left behind from honest guests of Daisy Cottage. Back to the top of the listing, scrolling and scrolling until I’m there. My eyes scan the screen for the reviews, locating that star symbol.

☆ 0 Reviews

“What?” I shake my head, blink a bunch, hoping the count will change. It doesn’t.

Refresh the page, figure it’s an error. Still nothing.

I fall back into the desk chair, my spine and limbs turned to jelly. I can’t look away from the screen.

This place has zero reviews. Every other listing I’ve seen has had at least a few. I question whether it’s even allowed to show a listing without any feedback . . . but then I suppose every new listing has to get their first review at one point or another. Their first guest. For Daisy Cottage, that’s apparently me.

The longer I sit there, the more I try to force some sense into it. Into myself. The rate is ridiculously low, a measly fifty-five dollars a night. Cheaper than the cheapest crappy motel these days, I imagine. It’s in such a remote location, too; there are no other listings within at least a five-mile radius. Even in rural settings like this, there tend to at least be a few spots around (at least from my own experience). Maybe these factors led to the owners listing it for next to nothing in a last-ditch effort to see if they could reel in a guest. And they finally caught someone.

That’s enough for now. I’ve got some life back in my body, once again rationalizing the situation into something realistic. I head to the kitchen to make lunch. A simple turkey-and-cheese sandwich, a handful of Cheez-Its, a couple halved cherry tomatoes on the side. Assembling a plate is enough of a distraction, both from work and the other matter on my mind.

I take the plate over to the sofa, a nice change of pace from the desk while I eat. I sink into the cushion and begin eating, staring out the window in between bites. Studying the tops of the trees waving in the summer wind, coming in and out of view. Thinking about how the tops of the trees are already starting to shed some leaves (maybe due to the wind alone). Give it another few months and they’ll be bare branches, nothing else left. The thought of emptiness reminds me of the zero reviews on the Daisy Cottage listing, that I’m perhaps the first guest to sit on the this couch.

The first one to find a bunch of daisies delicately placed on the front porch at dusk.

I push my half-full plate away on the rustic coffee table. I’m losing my appetite, lingering on this. It’s frustrating more than anything; there’s not a part about what’s happened since I arrived that’s worth wasting mental energy on. Both were black-and-white occurrences simply prone to a free-roaming imagination.

You’re letting impossibilities simmer, I muse. Allowing them to develop into more. If you don’t stop, you’ll drive yourself crazy.

Another source of escape calls to me. I push myself off the sunken couch cushion, head to the front and slip on my gym shoes. A brisk walk out front should do the trick, clear my mind of this silly stuff. With a hand on the front door, I force myself to glance back at the cottage behind me. My little workspace; the cozy area where I’ve just eaten lunch; the kitchen with its surrounding shelves packed with food to last well over fourteen days; and the bedroom, the soft quilt unmade, inviting me back for a nap sometime this afternoon. I’ve only just gotten settled here. I can’t give into the make-believe.

I unlock the front chain-lock, the lock on the doorknob next. A twist of the handle and a little pressure and the door flies open, the sunlight immediately finding and latching onto me. It feels good, warm and inviting, as does a deep breath of the clean air (much fresher than the city’s, like it’s been through a filter). I take a step onto the cement stoop, eyes squinting through the sunlight to lock onto the front pathway some five yards away.

Snap. Like the bones of an animal crushing under the pressure of a landed foot.

I’m startled, yet this somehow feels familiar at the same time. Like I’ve been through this before—this exact scenario. I jump back into the doorway and study where my gym shoe had just been. It’s still tough to see past the beaming light from the sun, but what’s down in front of me is undeniable. It’s impossible, yet my eyes aren’t playing tricks on me. A trick, only it’d be one I’m playing on myself. There, as if waiting for me, another bunch of daisies, wrapped with a strand of lemongrass with as much care as the collection from last night. Nearly identical.

“What the hell?” I mumble at first. Then, I can’t help but let my words run wild, disturbing the far-and-wide peace outside. “What the hell!” I step out fully onto the stoop, both arms held in front of me, pointing out at the trees. But I figure I’m pointing to someone as well. My call escalates into a full-on yell: “You think this is cute? Charming? Dropping flowers on the porch once a day as if it isn’t creepy as shit!”

I stop myself. That was impulsive, yelling out like that, pointing my fingers. But I realize I didn’t do it because I was upset at the gesture. Even I don’t believe someone dropped these flowers off in a friendly gesture, perhaps someone a bit oblivious to social norms. My shouting stemmed from somewhere else, somewhere I don’t want to acknowledge. The sight of those few flowers bundled together on the ground rattles my core. It sends that wave of adrenaline returning, crashing onto and into me and sending me deep under water, reaching for a breath of air to no avail.

The brief sobering moment sends me back inside, slamming the door behind me quicker and harder than I did yesterday evening. For a second, I’m even relieved at the honesty toward myself, the realization that perhaps the situation isn’t exactly what I’ve been making it out to be. I lock the doorknob. Lock the chain-lock. I turn around and fall backward against the door, breath still out of control, heart still pounding. My mind still spinning a web of possibilities.

My hands scramble down onto my jean-shorts. I feel around, giving myself a pat-down until I land on my phone, tucked into a back pocket. I yank it out and bring it in front of me. Once again, I pull up Mom’s contact page. Her phone number’s right there, telling me it’s all right if I just tap it and get a little reassurance from the woman who only wants the best for me. What’s the harm in that?

You’ve already texted her today, I remind myself. She asked you how it was going. You told her it was great. No, you used ‘a dream,’ didn’t you? Now, an hour or so later, you’re going to call her going on about some flowers left on the porch?

I again decide it’s not going to happen, letting the phone drop with my hand to my side. It’s not that I’m making up rationalities again; I’ve thought of another idea, and it sends me right back to my open laptop. I sit down at the desk and shake the touchpad of my MacBook to wake it, glancing briefly at the front window above me, feeling for a second like someone was just peeking into the cottage.

I shake my head, set my focus back on my laptop. Quit it. Focus.

Once I’m back in my personal email, I pull up my Airbnb booking confirmation. I scroll to the bottom, where I see a prompt for contacting the owner. There’s an email and a phone number listed, and I can’t imagine maintaining my composure long enough to wait for an email reply. I go from the screen to my phone and back, typing out the phone number. I hit dial.

It rings. It rings again. Eventually, it jumps to voicemail. I know the owner’s first name, posted on the rental listing (and the confirmation email) as Stuart. The voicemail gives me a little bit more, a man’s voice with an accent more appropriate for the deep south than here comes on: “Hey there, this is Stu Walters. I’m not able to hop on a call right now, but leave your name and number and I’ll get back in a jiffy.”

He sounds friendly enough. Normal enough, I suppose. In fact, just hearing someone else’s voice (other than my clients’ this morning, that is) is welcoming. I have no idea who this guy is, yet I tell myself I’d be glad to speak with him. Someone to tell all this to — someone who would ultimately reassure me everything is as good as gold. Because it is.

The other side of me, the Mom side, chimes in. The lack of reviews on the listing bubbles back to mind. The dirt-cheap rate for the Daisy Cottage, too. Could it be possible that, despite his welcoming tone, it’s all just a front? That Stu Walters is psychotic, a man who somehow slipped by any sort of vetting criteria from Airbnb? A creep, maybe. A rapist. A murderer.

I don’t have the patience in me to leap back on over to my laptop for this one. As well, I know my inbox has grown with unreads once more. Probably, I have a missed video call on there from Greg, asking me why I haven’t responded to any of the countless emails addressed to him. No, I don’t have time for distractions. I need to gather answers before I’m to work again, much less spend another night in here, as much as it pains me to even consider.

I’m back on the couch now, but have no intention of finishing what’s left on my plate. I glance over at the front door again. Still locked, twice over. With this faint reassurance, my eyes become glued to my phone. I begin with a simple Google search: Stuart Walters, Oakensen, Michigan. He has to live somewhat close by, and there’s no chance in hell any search result isn’t related to the guy speaking on the voicemail I just heard. Oakensen is decidedly smaller than small-town, a place (if memory serves from a town populous sign) of no more than a few hundred residents.

The search brings back several results. Some are sensible, including an expected Yellowbook result teasing some of his personal information. There’s an obituary result, too, mentioning his name, one for his father, a Chester Walters, who died a few years ago. A third one about some hot-rod show a town over, the type a bunch of collectors roll up to sit parked at, drink beers, and compliment each other’s rides. I’d know how that stuff goes, with Dad having been the type to take his charcoal ‘69 Mustang Boss to every show in the area when I was younger.

There’s something else, though. Another search result, one much more unusual than the others: an arrest record from two years ago: Stuart Walters was arrested for breaking into and entering a neighbor’s home. I click into the search result, begin reading up on the report. He’d been hammered, trashed after a night at a local dive bar in Oakensen. Instead of going home at the end of the night, he hopped a fence and broke into his neighbor’s place. The couple living there was home at the time. The husband woke up and held a gun to Walters until local police arrived.

I go down a rabbit-hole of searches, not only on Stuart Walters’s arrest a few years ago, but on seemingly all recent crime in the Oakensen area. I can’t help myself, tweaking my searches until new results pop up. Every time I come across a new article and click on it, I find myself sinking farther into the sofa cushion beneath me. And yet I continue, searching until it feels as though the well of content satisfying my hunger has run dry. By that time, I can swear I’ve worn out all layers of stuffing beneath me. It’s no longer comfortable. Like I’ve been sitting here for years, an unmoving stone.

I lift my head, stare over and up at the small window across from the couch. The sky is different from when I last saw it, noticeably darker. Grey, more like, as if a storm’s been brewing and growing overhead. The tips of the trees are waving more rapidly than before, not dancing in a light breeze but flailing around as if asking for help.

I leap off the couch, dart over to my laptop once more. The screensaver’s gone on, which tells me I was lost in my phone for thirty minutes. Probably longer. I shake the trackpad awake. My inbox is a mess again, one new email climbing onto the next. Then, a bouncing Microsoft Teams icon grabs my attention. It’s Grumbling Greg, wondering why I wasn’t on the Swanson client call. He tells me he had to cover it, and leaves me with a final message:

If you cannot meet professional obligations at that cottage, you’ll have to head home. Covering you like this for two weeks is out of the question.

I think about Greg knowing I’m here — about who else knows. Just him and Mom, unless one of them told someone. My colleagues and friends were left out of the loop intentionally, the though being that one of them would suggest the wild idea of joining me on my little getaway. I deduce it can’t be someone playing a prank on me, which doesn’t exactly do anything to put me at ease. If anything, it worsens my mental state.

The desk begins to vibrate, humming. It nearly sends me jumping out of my skin, but then the sound follows and I realize it’s only my phone ringing. I pick it up, expecting it to either be Mom or Greg, both adamant about checking in with me. It’s a number I don’t recognize, which ties a knot in my stomach. I hit the green answer button and hold it up to my ear, trying not to overthink it.

“Hello?” A quaver in my voice.

“Hi there,” a man answers. Something familiar about it, a southern drawl. Stuart Walters, I remember. I heard him speak through his voicemail greeting not long ago. “This is Stu. I got a call from this number . . . who’ve I got here?”

I consider hanging up, blocking him. But then, I’m standing in his place. If I block him, there’s a chance he’ll put it together and determine his first Airbnb houseguest is playing games with him. And then he’d show up here and I’d have to confront him in person. An assumption, but I determine it’s best to get to the bottom of things over the phone.

“This is Jess—” I stop myself before giving him my last name. “I’m staying at your Airbnb listing, Daisy Cottage.”

“Oh . . .” he sounds surprised. “Almost forgot that was now. But I s’pose that’s why the cleaning lady got ahold of me yesterday mornin’. Everything good, Jess?”

Hearing my name come over the phone like that gives me the willies. It sounds all wrong. It sends images of the Google search results coming back — especially the one about him attempting to rob his neighbors. If he could do that to the people next door, what’s he capable of doing to a stranger?

“Everything’s fine,” I lie. “The place is nice and I’m settling in.” I consider telling him another lie, that I’m calling with a question. There’s not enough time to conjure up anything, though, so I settle with a bended truth: “Question for you: do you know if your housekeeper leaves flowers for your guests?” (As if I don’t know that I’m his first occupant.) “I just wanted to thank them, is all. A nice gesture.”

He hesitates to reply, as if considering a lie himself. “Hmm. I wouldn’t know. That’s not at any sort of instruction by me, anyway. You can leave that in the review, you know?” He bites into something on the other end, a crunch and a sloshing. Probably an apple. “Helps my listing, which gives that kind cleanin’ lady you speak of s’more work awhile longer.”

“Do you mind asking her if she left them?” I realize the question is dumb, reveals my eagerness. But it’s already out there, so I don’t try to backpedal.

“Who else would’ve left them?” he says, taking another bite of whatever he’s eating.

I keep myself distracted by putting my attention on my computer as I catch up on emails. Every now and then, I reach for my phone to make sure I didn’t miss a call from Stuart. And every time, it’s free of notifications. At the end of our call, Stuart Walters promised me he’d get in touch with the housekeeper; I can’t rest until he confirms my hunch about her.

The storm that’d been growing and darkening the sky eventually can’t contain itself. Like an inevitable sneeze, it lets loose sometime while I’m trying to stay busy with work. It doesn’t let up, either. The longer it goes on, the more it calls for my attention. It knocks incessantly at the roof of the cottage. The trees surrounding the place whistle as the wind whips through them. As if this place doesn’t want me to rest.

Impatience grows like a hungry cancer. Combined with a storm I can’t deny any longer, former distractions soon prove useless. I check my phone once more: no missed calls from Stuart. It’s been a couple hours, and a quick glance out the window in front of the desk suggests more than the storm is contributing to the darkness in the sky. The sun is giving up, giving way to a deeper darkness, one I’m not sure I can elbow my way through for another night. Not without some sort of confirmation from the man who owns this cottage. The one with an arrest record, I remind myself.

I head to the compact bedroom, pull out my backpack, and dig deep until I grab the rain poncho I’ve been hanging onto for — well, a rainy day, while on the move. I throw it over myself and toss up the hood, listening to it rustle as I swing my arms briskly while headed to the front door. Once there, I put on my gym shoes, stand up, and place a hand on the door lock in front of me.

You’ve been looking forward to this, I remind myself. A sort of pep talk. Just head to the back pathway and take a look at the daisy patch over in the next clearing. You’ll see some of the flowers have been clipped and it’ll be a visual reassurance of the effort the housekeeper went through to do something nice for a guest. Count the stems and you’ll see there’ll be more than enough to make up two bouquets. You probably missed it the first time you were there.

A silly way to reassurance, but it’s all I can think to do. The opposite of what Mom would tell me. She’d instruct me to get in the car and drive, maybe even leave all my belongings behind, driving far and fast enough until I reach a police station. But worrying is what she does, and all this is nonsense. Games I’m playing in my head, surely. I figure I can sort this out on my own, without a call from Stuart Walters.

I turn open the deadbolt. Thunk. The chain lock is next. Without giving myself a chance to think (and with the deepest breath I can recall), I turn the doorknob and swing it open. No stepping forward yet; I remain in the doorway and lock my eyes on the cement stoop just outside: the place where the two daisy bundles once rested. It’s empty, nothing but a puddle of rain collected from the dripping arched roof above the entryway.

This is a relief, a good start. Enough to knock down a sizable wall of fear, pushing me forward. It sends me onto the stoop, then down the two steps leading to the gravel. Feeling all right enough still, I continue around my car, toward the back of the cottage. The back pathway awaits.

Raindrops splash down onto the clear hood of the poncho, making it difficult to hear so much as the gravel I’m kicking up beneath my gym shoes as I power-walk. Funny how rain tends to make you pick up the pace (whether you’re already filled with a little fear or otherwise). A look to the side to eye the tree line to my left and I find my breath has left the hood of the poncho foggy. The peripheral blindness makes me walk faster yet, now swinging my arms and moving my feet just a pace away from a jog.

I’m close enough where the down-pouring rain no longer obstructs the tree line at the back of the cottage. I can see the pathway, a hole in the tree line both asking me to approach and telling me to stay away. The bare front stoop comes back to mind, again providing some consolation that the double delivery was just a coincidence. An absurd, slightly disturbing coincidence.

A chill arrives at the back of my head. It’s the same one that’s greeted me with each step forward, only this is the first time it’s catching my attention from behind. It’s enough to make me freeze in my tracks. More than a rip of wind from the storm; more than a heavier fall of rain splashing down onto the gravel.

Like someone is there. Their eyes set on me.

Their footsteps closing in, up until now masked by the sound of thousands of crashing of raindrops.

I spin around, sending back a fist to greet the figure I’m sure is awaiting me. And I’m pretty sure I see someone — or something — only the hood of the poncho flies over my face. I must’ve spun too fast, too, because suddenly I’ve lost my balance. My top-half is off from the bottom. I’m leaning backward, farther and farther, until I’m falling. My gym shoes are somehow now above my head, and I realize my skull is a millisecond away from impact on the gravel.

As my head makes contact — a wave of pain accompanying the collision — a clear-enough view of the figure comes into frame. They’re standing before me, staring down at me.

And I’m helpless.

I feel hungover, only I can’t remember drinking anything. I let my eyes rest while warming up my mind, allowing that to wake up first. I’m lying down, somewhere soft. Probably my bed. But I must’ve shaken off the covers because I can feel the cool air flowing around the room, brushing up against my skin. I outstretch a hand to collect the comforter I’m assuming I’ve tossed to the side. It doesn’t hit anything, sinking below the surface on which I’m lying down. This isn’t my bed, I discern. It’s a couch, one my core has sunk into.

My eyelids shoot open. I stare at the ceiling above me, the edges where it meets the wall going from a cream color to a strip of wallpaper with faded flowers. Daisies, I remember. It all comes back to me. As it does, I push myself up off the couch within the living room of Daisy Cottage.

I try to remember what happened. I was outside, walking on the gravel in nothing short of a monsoon. At some point, I stopped, turning and losing my balance and falling and—

I rub the back of my head. Ow. I fell, hit the ground hard. But the pain subsides, giving way to a memory. There was someone there, a silhouette, shadowed by the dark clouds above and blurry with the pouring rain in between us. They were standing above me as I fell, and were the last thing I saw before losing consciousness.

How did I get here, then? My brain is fully awake, aware and filling with alarm. I don’t remember coming in, putting myself to rest on the couch. So, I spin around the room (a few times), searching for the someone who undoubtedly dragged me back inside. Only, they left me on the couch, fully clothed and free to move about as I please.

The scan of the room reveals nothing, everything exactly the same as I left it. Except the worn wooden floor, I notice. Small puddles of water trail from the front door across the room. I reposition myself to get a better view of the trail. It guides my gaze over to the back of the cottage, toward the kitchen and small bedroom.

I hear an answer to my burning question before I see it. “Are you all right?” a man’s voice says from the kitchen. It’s familiar. I don’t respond, feeling like my mouth is sewn shut. This is when the figure emerges, poking his head out into the doorway (the rest of him stays out of view). “Jess, is it? You took a nasty ‘lil tumble out there.”

I’m not sure which gives it away first: listening to his voice again or being able to study his face. Both are so fresh in my mind, one from a voicemail and another from countless Google searches. Still, it feels as though my senses are playing tricks on me. Maybe I hit my head harder than I thought. And yet there’s no denying it: it’s Stuart Walters, thin strands of charcoal hair hanging onto a shedding head, wet and dangling onto his face. And those eyes — I saw them staring back at me through my phone screen a few times, but in person they seem to stab into me. A completely different sensation.

My hands move about, searching for something in my peripheral. Any object to grab onto, to hold as a weapon. They don’t come in contact with anything, so I begin stepping backward, toward the front door. Flight (versus fight) seems the only remaining option.

Stuart steps into the center of the doorframe. His clothes are drenched, a short-sleeve plaid button-down and torn-up jeans sticking to his skin. I squint a little as I notice something in his hands. He must see me do this because he lifts both hands, shrugging as he does so.

“Woah, woah . . .” He tries on a grin, raising his hands a little higher. I determine he’s holding mugs. “It’s only tea. Figured you could use some, seein’ as you’re set to catch a cold from being out there.”

Remembering his arrest — breaking and entering paired with attempted robbery — the front door beckons me over. It’s like Mom is standing on the other side, shouting at me to get out of here. But I also again recall that I just woke up safe on the couch. And eyeing the mugs in either of Stuart’s hands, my guard goes down a bit further. That might end up being a mistake, but there’s this overwhelming desire to speak with him. Like he has something to tell me. His expression across the room tells me he’s here for a reason. He wants to tell me something.

I sit over at the desk, near my laptop and with my phone in front of me. 9-1-1 is typed out into the keypad and my hand rests a mere few inches away from the call button. Meanwhile, Stuart stands just beyond the coffee table. He’s holding just one mug of tea now, sipping on it and audibly ahh-ing afterward in delight.

“You sure you don’t want something to warm you up, ma’am?” he asks.

I tell him no. “Why are you here, Stuart?” It comes off as accusatory, so I correct my tone. “I mean, why’d you show up this evening? Is everything fine with the place?”

He sips from the mug, then flicks a wet strand of hair from his face back onto the top of his head. “You called me a few hours back about the cleaning lady, askin’ questions about flowers you think she left behind.”

I called him, I remind myself. I must’ve forgotten, allowed paranoia to take the driver’s seat for awhile. “The bunch of daisies left on the porch, that’s right. Two of them, actually. On separate occasions.”

Still in the room, Stuart goes somewhere else, staring off at the faded daisy wallpaper encircling the living room. It’s like he’s reliving a memory, playing something back prompted by my comment just now. Eventually, he comes back to the now, locking eyes with me with a newfound, subtle smile. I don’t like it.

“What is it?” I ask. My hand moves an inch closer to my phone.

He chuckles, shaking his head as he does. He puts out his arms and moves them around the room. “This place . . .” he begins. He starts to pace. I stay where I am, as curious as I am afraid. “My parents built it back in the seventies. I always hated the wallpaper, but Mother loved it so I didn’t have the heart to strip it away or paint over it.” He goes away again, somewhere else. “They built it as a getaway place, a destination they could head to for a few days here and there. The land was dirt cheap. Still is, matter of fact.” He swings a hand and grabs his tea off the table, takes a sip. “That didn’t last all too long. Once I moved out, they packed up their things and came here full time.”

He’s still there, I muse. Stuck in a memory. But why can’t he get out of it? I rack my brain for all I’ve learned about Stuart Walters (through the Internet, but still). The story on his arrest, just your average town’s police roundup, remains close. Its the reason my finger’s less than an inch away from my phone. I dig a little deeper into my research, though, pulling back the curtain beyond his crime of the past. There were some light town roundups, something about him partaking in car shows. I remember another piece, too: an obituary, posted online by a local church from a few years back. It was for his father, a Chester Walters.

“And where are your parents now?” I say, playing dumb.

He stops in his tracks, directing his attention on me. I watch his leather-like face, rough and aged, sink as he speaks: “Gone. Mom and Dad are gone now.”

“They died?” The way he said it gets to me, strikes an honest chord. “I’m so sorry to hear that. My dad passed away when I was younger, so I can relate.”

“Not Mom,” he clarifies. “She stopped bein’ able to take care of herself last year.” He knocks his head toward the front door. The still-wet locks of thin hair hanging over his face sway in that direction, too. “She’s in a home a town over. I visit her . . . but her mind’s mostly gone. That’s what I meant when I said she’s gone.”

He’s about to slip back into old times, apparently back when his parents were still around this place, judging by the way he’s reflecting on them. I don’t give him the chance; I both want him out of here and an answer to the initial question that prompted me to reach out in the first place. “Stuart, why’d you come all this way? I don’t mean to be rude, but you could’ve called me with a response.”

He sighs, and suddenly he doesn’t scare me at all. In fact, he’s defeated. “Cynthia, the cleaning lady for this place, confirmed she didn’t leave those flowers out front. But I think I already knew that.” The comment makes me feel cold, like a gust of wind flew in through the closed windows. It washes away any pity I had for the guy.

Stuart walks over to the kitchen, disappearing into it. There’s some rustling, then he returns with a handful of smushed daisies. The ones left out front. I couldn’t bear to see them, so I tossed them in the trash — both bundles. It’s uncomfortable seeing them in his hands, even more so that he’s lowered his head to study them. As if feeling bad for them — which would in turn suggest that I caused his pain.

“I’m sorry, I just couldn’t keep them in my sight without—”

“They used to call him the Daisy Cutter,” he cuts me off. He speaks low, as if telling a secret. “He’d spend most all his spare time tendin’ to his patch each summer. And he wasn’t selfish with them, neither. He’d give ‘em out to people all around town, sometimes spending an afternoon standing in front of the convenience store, surprising people with a single daisy as they went on their way.”

I don’t like where he’s going with this. Because I think I know who he’s talking about. Still, I feel the need to confirm: “Who did they call the Daisy Cutter?”

He tilts his head up, just enough to catch my gaze. “Dad.”

Once again, I don’t like where this is going. And yet I feel silence will only worsen matters now. “So it’s his patch out in the back?” I say, trying to keep him talking. “That’s helpful to know, but I can’t say it tells me who put them on the porch for me. Not once, but twice.”

“Yes it does,” he says, raising his voice just shy of a yell. Like a kid on the verge of a tantrum. He’s cradling the flowers now, eyes piercing all the way through me. “Dad left them.”

I open my mouth to speak. Nothing comes out. Every red flag inside me has been raised with his last three words. The worst part? I led him to this, saw it coming. I don’t feel well, like I’m going to be sick. I don’t know if it’s because I have a madman standing in front of me — or if he’s of a clear mind, believing this to be the truth (ridiculous as I realize it is).

“Stuart . . .” All I manage to get out.

He lifts a finger, telling me not to interrupt him. “I didn’t tell you the final part of the Daisy Cutter story.” He takes the daisies with both hands and huddles them together, holding them in front of him in a bundle of his own making. A bouquet, as haunting as that description is to admit. “Dad always put together a bouquet for Mom, leaving it somewhere around the cottage for her to stumble upon. A surprise.”

Everything about this now seems wrong, twisted. I wonder why I called him in the first place, how I could be so halfwitted. Whatever logic I tried to build up for his being here has vanished, bringing me to a truth of my own: I’m alone in a secluded cottage with a middle-aged man I’ve never met before. Vulnerable, exposed.

Mom takes the wheel, forcing me to stand up, grab my phone and hold it out in front of me. My other hand is held out as well, pointing at the device. I’m trying to be threatening.

“I need you to leave Stuart,” I tell him, voice trembling. “I realize this place belongs to you, but I feel uncomfortable. Please, I’ll pack my things and be out of here in no time at all.”

“I think he’s confused,” he whispers. He takes a step toward me. “He thinks you’re her, don’t you see?”

“I mean it!” I cry. I pull my phone closer, show him I have 9-1-1 dialed, queued up and a tap of the screen away.

He steps forward once more, holding the bunch of daisies farther in front of him, toward me. Inviting me to accept them, a gift from him. Or maybe he believes it’s a present from his father.

That’s it, I tell myself.

I hit the call button and bring the phone to my ear. It’s ringing. It’s enough to force him away. He bolts for the front door, water going everywhere from him the way a wet dog might run through a house after being outside. He swings the door open and runs out.

I cautiously walk to the open doorway, watching as he sprints through the tireless rain until he’s reached his car. He gets in, starts it up, and puts it in drive. He’s gunning for the front path, sending gravel flying up behind him like bursts of bland fireworks. A moment later, he’s gone, the red glow of his taillights having faded into the distance, leaving the night to swallow me whole.

“Hello?” the 9-1-1 operator says, catching my attention for the first time just now. “Is someone there? Who am I speaking with?”

I manage to pack up my things in a mere ten minutes. I don’t bother with the food I bought, leaving that in the fridge and on the shelves of the kitchen. With the car packed, I floor it out of there just as Stuart Walters did, not so much as glancing in the rearview mirror at the gloomy, lonely Daisy Cottage behind me. Good riddance, it pains me to say.

My trip’s ruined. But at least I’m safe, no longer left to wonder if another mysterious bouquet of daisies will be left at the front door. I try to remember this for the duration of the two-hour drive back. Every now and then, I think to look for Stuart’s car behind or beside me: a black sedan. Every time, there isn’t one in sight. It provides a recurring wave of relief. At the same time, it makes me wonder some more: if Stuart Walters were a madman, wouldn’t he want to follow me, convince me to go back to the cottage for his own crooked pleasure (whatever his true intention entails)?

And if he isn’t following me, it again begs the same question, tapping me on the shoulder to keep my attention: is there any truth to what he told me? A ridiculous idea, yet my mind wonders.

I’m home later that night. I didn’t tell Mom about this, nor inform the police about it. Not yet, at least. I also quickly make up some excuse for my absence to message Grumbling Greg. Really, I don’t want anyone to know about this. I just want to bury it, forget about it. It’s frustrating that I couldn’t get away for a full two weeks (not even a few days). I try to remain hopeful as I settle back into my place that night; maybe I can get a break from people while in the comfort of my own home, allowing them to believe I’m still somewhere else.

Somewhere I want to be, somewhere that was supposed to be a quaint place called Daisy Cottage.

I head out to my building’s parking garage once more to grab a bag I missed from the car earlier. After this, I can put the trip in the past. The last memory of it, wiped away. I can pretend it never happened so as not to disappoint myself (nor send my mind wandering into strange places).

With the last bag over my shoulder, I shut the trunk. Something grabs my attention as I turn to head back in the building. I spot something I don’t remember seeing while I was grabbing the rest of my stuff. It makes me jump backward. A light gasp, but it echoes in the spacious parking garage. My hand is over my open mouth. Again, I feel a wave of cold come over me, like that impossible breeze from inside the cottage.

There’s a single daisy stuck between the back windshield and the small wiper blade atop it.

One final reminder of the Daisy Cutter.

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