By the Fire
It was night. Outside, the winter winds howled harsh warnings. But here, in the comfortable embrace of the Professor’s study, those icy screams were easy to ignore.
The fireplace roared and crackled with hunger as the Professor offered up another mammoth log in sacrifice. His tall frame, backlit by the blaze, cast long, flickering shadows upon the bookshelves. The earthy musk of leather-bound tomes mingled with the blistering of the cherry wood and the lingering tingle of her brandy.
Sharon took in these sounds and smells with disbelief. The Professor’s estate, buried deep inside a country forest, was no longer in the habit of receiving visitors. Its grand rooms, once brimming with music and conversation and laughter, now stood empty, the carefully-curated antiques resigned to a permanent layer of dust.
Since the Professor’s wife had passed, it was said he had lost his meaning. He’d become a very solitary man, indeed.
How strange, then, to witness him like this. The myths the other graduate students spread about him evaporated from her mind the moment he welcomed her at the door. This was not some recluse or eccentric hermit — The Professor was an engaging and charming host, clearly delighted to practice the art of conversation with someone in his field of study.
He turned, a wiry black shadow against the flames. For an unexpected moment, Sharon felt a sinking in her stomach, the brief rush of adrenaline through her fingertips. But then the Professor was next to her, inquiring about the religious implications of attitudinal choice established in her thesis while picking up her empty glass for a refill, and she just felt foolish.
It must be the house, she thought. Its high ceilings, its vintage decor, the way the moonlight pierced the lace curtains and illuminated them a haunting, pale blue. Way out here, deep in the woods, without proper cell reception, in the midst of a powerful nor’easter…
For the first time that evening, Sharon felt a chill.
As the Professor continued his analysis from behind the drink cart, Sharon rose from the overstuffed leather chair and walked toward the heat of the fireplace. She struggled to do so nonchalantly; the last thing she wanted was for the Professor to think less of her. She was here as...well, if not an equal, then at least a peer. She’d worked hard to earn her reputation within the department, and she wasn’t about to let some childish fear derail her image.
The heat of the fire felt wonderful. Sharon watched as the bark of the cherry wood glowed and dripped slowly into the embers below. She startled briefly at an eruption of sparks as the log popped loudly, then laughed as the embarrassment flooded her ears and cheeks.
“Is everything alright?” asked the Professor, once again at her side, holding a fresh glass of brandy out to her.
“Oh. Yes,” blushed Sharon. “The noise just startled me…” She trailed off as she lowered her head, humiliated. She stared into the fire.
It was then that she saw it. Amongst the ash and embers of the raging fire was something small and white. Its curved surface glinted softly among the hot tongues of flame lapping around it. Sharon’s eyes narrowed, blocking out the heat and the light and the smoke. At last she understood exactly what it was she was staring at: it was a tooth.
Sharon’s eyes grew wide.
“Water vapor,” said the Professor.
“W-wha–?” stammered Sharon, eyes fixed on the sickening white object. Rounded near the top and slimming through the body to a fine point, it resembled a clawed porcelain fingertip.
“It’s just the moisture in the wood, vaporizing,” explained the Professor. “Perfectly natural.”
Tears welled up in Sharon’s eyes as she realized it was not the ONLY tooth in the ash. Her body trembled at the Professor’s nearness. Her legs grew rubbery and weak. Her vision began to dim.
The Professor smiled as he saw the effects of the drug take hold.
Outside, the winds continued their wailing.