Cora Gundersun walked through seething fire without being burned, nor did her white dress burst into flames. She was not afraid, but instead exhilarated, and the many admiring people witnessing this spectacle gaped in amazement, their expressions of astonishment flickering with reflections of the flames. They called out to her not in alarm, but in wonder, with a note of veneration in their voices, so that Cora felt equally thrilled and humbled that she had been made invulnerable.
Dixie, a long-haired dappled gold dachshund, woke Cora by licking her hand. The dog had no respect for dreams, not even for this one that her mistress had enjoyed three nights in a row and about which she had told Dixie in vivid detail. Dawn had come, time for breakfast and morning toilet, which were more important to Dixie than any dream.
Cora was forty years old, birdlike and spry. As the short dog toddled down the set of portable steps that allowed her to climb in and out of bed, Cora sprang up to meet the day. She slipped into fur-lined ankle-high boots that served as her wintertime slippers, and in her pajamas she followed the waddling dachshund through the house.
Just before she stepped into the kitchen, she was struck by the notion that a strange man would be sitting at the dinette table and that something terrible would happen.
Of course no man awaited her. She'd never been a fearful woman. She chastised herself for being spooked by nothing, nothing at all.
As she put out fresh water and kibble for her companion, the dog's feathery golden tail swept the floor in anticipation.
By the time Cora had prepared the coffeemaker and switched it on, Dixie had finished eating. Now standing at the back door, the dog barked politely, just once.
Cora snared a coat from a wall peg and shrugged into it. "Let's see if you can empty yourself as quick as you filled up. It's colder than the cellar of Hades out there, sweet thing, so don't dawdle."
As she left the warmth of the house for the porch, her breath smoked from her as if a covey of ghosts, long in possession of her body, were being exorcised. She stood at the head of the steps to watch over precious Dixie Belle, just in case there might be a nasty tempered raccoon lingering from its night of foraging.
More than a foot of late-winter snow had fallen the previous morning. In the absence of wind, the pine trees still wore ermine stoles on every bough. Cora had shoveled a clearing in the backyard so that Dixie wouldn't have to plow through deep powder.
Dachshunds had keen noses. Ignoring her mistress's plea not to dawdle, Dixie Belle wandered back and forth in the clearing, nose to the ground, curious about what animals had visited in the night.
Wednesday. A school day.
Although Cora had been off work for two weeks, she still felt as if she should hurry to prepare for school. Two years earlier, she had been named Minnesota's Teacher of the Year. She dearly loved—and missed—the children in her sixth-grade class.
Sudden-onset migraines, five and six hours long, sometimes accompanied by foul odors that only she could detect, had disabled her. The headaches seemed to be slowly responding to medications zolmitriptan and a muscle relaxant called Soma. Cora had never been a sickly person, and staying home bored her.
Dixie Belle finally peed and left two small logs, which Cora would pick up with a plastic bag later, after they froze solid.
When she followed the dachshund into the house, a strange man was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee that he had boldly poured for himself. He wore a knitted cap. He had unzipped his fleece-lined jacket. His face was long, his features sharp, his cold, blue stare direct.
Before Cora could cry out or turn to flee, the intruder said, "Play Manchurian with me."
"Yes, all right," she said, because he no longer seemed to be a threat. She knew him, after all. He was a nice man. He had visited her at least twice in the past week. He was a very nice man.
"Take off your coat and hang it up."
She did as he asked.
"Come here, Cora. Sit down."
She pulled out a chair and sat at the table.
Although a friend of everyone, Dixie retreated to a corner and settled there to watch warily with one light-blue eye and one brown.
"Did you dream last night?" the nice man asked.
"Was it the dream of fire?"
"Was it a good dream, Cora?"
She smiled and nodded. "It was lovely, a lovely walk through soothing fire, no fear at all."