I scrunched up on the floor in an unused corridor, hoping that no one would think to look for me there. I craved quiet. Tiny creatures had been pawing at me all day - braiding flowers into my hair and trussing me up in elaborate gowns - trying to force some joy into my face. They meant well, but could not understand. Human emotions were sometimes too complex for them. The paper in my hands crinkled up at the edges, fading from so much recent use. I stared at the muted colors again, tracing their images with fingers that seemed thinner than before. Tears made their way down my face, discoloring the page as they dripped down. “Tomorrow,” I told the photograph, “I marry a king.”
Sobs ripped at me until I finally drifted off; hauntingly beautiful images chasing me through dreams. Calling, snatching, mine mine mine. The sound of footfalls jarred me awake much later, clacking slowly and getting closer. Him. I shivered and pushed further up against the wall, tucking my lacy skirt in around me. I all but stopped breathing, willing myself to become invisible. The footsteps stopped suddenly, hesitating, then picked up again, quicker and much louder. He rounded the corner, a dark shadow against the dusky light. Those perfect sapphire eyes found me immediately, and a small sob escaped from my throat.
He sighed, as if he could read my mind, or at least the fear on my face. I ached to find some trace of the love I had once imagined in his eyes, but a still place inside said to give up the hope. “Emma,” he whispered, lowering himself to meet my gaze. “I am afraid that we need to talk. It seems that I was wrong about you.” I whimpered. That horrible, beautiful monster.
The packed dirt path felt cool beneath my feet, and the night air still held all the sweet scents of summer. A warm breeze swirled my curls. There was a moment of desperate confusion as I tried to remember something, anything. Was there anything even worth remembering? Details crowded my head slowly. All present, no past. The woods around me swayed in the moonlight. There was nothing particularly wrong with that, except that it was probably late. The moon was already up, and stars shone like little beacons around it. Emma would notice I was gone, and she would worry like crazy. I groaned. I should have been home, if not asleep already. But instead, I was traipsing through the woods in the middle of the night like some sort of flower-child - what the hell? I looked down at the delicate lace covering my legs and bare feet. Wonderful. Lace? And even on my least sensible days, I knew better than to go tromping through the brush and brambles without flip-flops, at least. I suppressed a stream of curse words - Emma would be proud.
Was I sleepwalking? I looked around, really looking this time. The moon was brighter than I had ever seen it before, low and glowing silver in the sky. The path continued through a grove of oak trees on a hill ahead; wooden boards were set into the dirt like steps leading up. Sarcasm seeped away, and I became wary. I’d never been here before, and something inside told me I was too far from home.
You know where to go. Just keep on following the path, mon cher. It felt like someone poured ice water down my back. Lovely, just lovely. Voices in my head, in particular voices that do not belong to me, could not be a good sign. “Okay, breathe girl. Focus. We will figure this out.” My voice echoed in the silence. I tried to grab hold of something, some emotion or scrap of memory, but it was all fleeting and slipped away too easily. I was drifting apart, boundaries fading… I thought vaguely about being scared but never quite made it there. I was floating out of me. There was one feeling left more substantial than the others, a pull that I couldn’t quite understand. I clung to it, to find its source and maybe the rest of me, and it grew. It pulled toward the path, and I obliged easily. Was I up there, waiting for myself? My worries bit at the back of my neck, but I didn’t even know their foundations anymore. I climbed up the wooden steps, looking down almost absently at the sting of a splinter lodging itself in my right foot. It didn’t matter - there was something wonderful at the top of that hill. I wasn’t sure how I knew, but the knowledge was there. No reason to fight it.
There was a glowing up ahead, like concentrated sunlight; I couldn’t look directly at it. I did catch the outline of things: an oddly shaped tree; the faint hint of gates; and a man staring directly at me, his face hidden. It was his voice I had heard whispering across my mind, his voice I heard now. Take my hand. The stranger extended his arm, palm up, towards me. It was everything I wanted to do. Nothing could make me happier than to please him. Take my hand and follow me, mon cher. Come back with me. I almost did, almost reached out to clasp those mysterious fingers… when I remembered.
What about Emma? My steps faltered - I couldn’t leave her behind. The thought was barely formed when the pull was shattered, and the surreal sense of peace and acceptance crumbled. I felt all of me come rushing back so fast my stomach churned. I was already turning away, leaving that mysterious stranger reaching for me, that welcoming glowing light pulsing at my back. I had to get home. I had to get away from him. What the hell was this? How close had I just come to being kidnapped? Or worse? The sudden fear gave me an edge, made me run faster. Which was good, because I wasn’t much of a runner. I still felt him calling, but it was a frustrated sound without words. The shock of it radiated through my core, and I stumbled on the stairs, tilting dangerously down the hill. I closed my eyes, bracing as my stomach flew up into my throat and…
…I woke up flinging my tangled limbs in a fit, pillows far across the room and comforter nowhere to be seen. I panned my room frantically, looking for the silhouetted man. His frustrated cry reverberated in my mind. But he wasn’t there, and slowly the panic faded - it was only a dream. I clung to the explanation, despite the creepy feeling nudging at the back of my mind. As the adrenaline wore off, exhaustion crept back in, till my eyes closed and body relaxed. I faded off, thinking of that warm golden light and that irritated stranger, and was torn between fear and fascination. But when sleep came, no dreams followed.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Things had never been particularly bad at home. Lonely? Unfortunately, yes. Odd? Without a doubt. But I had always felt loved, almost too much. My mother, Emma, was overprotective - but it was an obsession borne of love for me and fear of things bigger than herself. But where Emma was skittish, jumping at the slightest noise, I was her opposite - bold and bright, contained only by her superstitions.
My childhood was plagued by her so-called “good luck charms.” Lines of salt on the windowsills, a daisy chain around my wrist, an iron nail in my pocket, a horse-shoe above every door; I had always endured all of her eccentricities with suppressed amusement. When I was little, I reveled in the chaos that ensued from hiding them. The older I got though, the more keeping Emma calm became my major focus. I grew up enough to control my impulsive side, wild at heart underneath the suppressed façade I showed Emma.
We live on the outskirts of an insignificant town, one that most of the world forgets unless they just happen to drive through it. Our tiny cottage was shoved in a corner of the ancient woods, a thin layer of harmless looking saplings separating us from the dark undergrowth and green canopy. Emma had always tried to tame that little bit of wilderness growing around us into a garden, without luck. It was too stubborn. Climbing ivy reached out and embraced the yellow walls, curling along the doorframes and twisting up the chimney in defiance. I loved it.
In south Georgia, the summer was a turbulent time, where the calmest, stillest days could turn to violent storms without warning. When I glanced out the window, I assumed it would be one of those days. But the wind was still calm, and the purple clouds were hanging back enough to show an expanse of periwinkle sky.
I pulled on an old pair of cut-off shorts and a faded tank-top, and smoothed my dark curls into a ponytail to help fight off the early afternoon heat. I splashed a little water on my face, then glanced up to meet my grey eyes in the mirror. Something was not right. It was a normal day, and I wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary, but still... I tried to shake it off, knowing it was just the lingering sensation from that stupid dream. I’d had the same one for nearly a week now, and that not-right-not-quite-wrong feeling had haunted me every day. It didn’t make sense, but I still heard him calling. I took a deep breath and squared my shoulders, determined to let it go. I grabbed my camera and music player and bounced out the door, situating the ear buds into place and blasting music while I walked.
I took turns at random, picking my way through the undergrowth. The tall fronds of grass tickled my bare legs and thorns grabbed my clothes, but it was mostly easy going. This place was home, despite its’ strangeness, and I could find my way no matter where I went. The trees grew denser, and the atmosphere more and more untamed. It didn’t take long before I felt like I was in another world - one where it was just me. I treasured that sense of freedom.
The green canopy overhead was scattered with the occasional blast of blue sky. Black-eyed Susans dotted the ground in cheery little bursts, randomly interspersed with other pretty wildflowers I’d never learned the name of. I hummed along with the music, blissfully content in my own wild little garden. I had been walking half an hour before I finally stopped and took in my new surroundings. I didn’t recognize anything. My lips pulled up in a silent smile.
Right before graduation, I had decided to take pictures of the woods around home. I wanted to be able to take this place with me in some small way when I left, to wherever that might be. I didn’t tell Emma. If there was one thing she was more uncomfortable with than me wandering around in the woods, it was the idea of me going away for school. She wanted to keep me close, and safe. But all I ever felt was smothered.
I circled the clearing, trying to decide where to start. There were boulders scattered around, covered with moss in patches. An oak tree had fallen over in one of the recent storms, and it was propped over on a boulder like a giant see-saw. I considered climbing up to see if it would rock back and forth. Instead, I took out my camera, aimed, and shot. I fell into a rhythm with my music and had photographed the giant rock garden within the length of a few songs.
The music pounded in my ears. I hummed along, smiling as I crawled and climbed to get better shots. Clambering up one of the rocks, I noticed a thrumming noise underneath my music. Bee swarm? Maybe. I stopped and sat silently, perched on the boulder, alert. The noise got louder and that same uneasy feeling from this morning perked up. The tiny hairs on the back of my neck prickled, and the droning got louder still, drowning out the music. And all of a sudden, it wasn’t just uneasiness, I felt…watched. Someone was out there. I could feel him behind me, silently staring. The stranger from the dream? I could barely hear my heart thudding in my own ears. I sucked in a breath and prepared to confront him, and turned, snatching the buds out of my ears. The noise died mid-spin, leaving behind only the harmless quiet of the trees around me. I was giddy with relief and feeling more than a little foolish. Of course I was alone. I laughed shakily, and chided myself for being nearly as jumpy as Emma.
I jumped down from my rock and - wait, had something moved? There it was again, that flutter in my chest I couldn’t control that told me to run fast but had me too scared to move. I scanned the trees for movement. I strained my ears, listening for a twig snapping, the soft crunch of pine straw, heavy breathing. All I heard was my own. The uneasy feeling ebbed again when I didn’t see or hear anything, and another chuckle bubbled up from some hysterical place inside me. “I swear, I’m becoming more and more like my mother everyday.” The trees swayed in response, remaining neutral.
I put my camera back in it’s case and shoved the music player in my pocket. It might have been nothing, but I just wasn’t in a music mood anymore. The woods out here were a rare unclaimed property, which was why I could roam freely. But that also meant everyone else could too. I trudged on, trying to pretend I was still as carefree as ever, but every tiny noise had me looking over my shoulder the whole way home.
Finding the way back was simple. There was a small tug in my stomach that led home. It was constant but not uncomfortable, a talent I developed over years of wandering, then having to rush back before my mother worried. The one time I had ever mentioned it to Emma she had practically sprayed me down with holy water. I had learned better than to confide in her with things like that.
I stopped on the other side of the tree line from the house, picking blackberries from the brambles. The thorns were a pain, but they were my favorite. When my fingers were purple and I had blackberries spilling from my arms I followed the path to where the trees cleared a bit - to where home sat, patiently waiting. Wisteria hung from trellises that Emma had attached at random to different walls - to combat the ivy she hated so much. The hanging purple flowers released a soft, sweet smell, and a little of the tension in my shoulders eased when I breathed the heady scent in.
I was almost inside when the trees rustled, murmuring. I tried to block it out, but I shuddered against my will, thinking of the silhouetted man whispering to me. Mon cher… The hairs at the back of my neck lifted, and I bounded inside, completely foolish but unable to stop myself.
I headed into the kitchen and dumped the blackberries carelessly in an old chipped mixing bowl, running a little water over them before popping a few in my mouth. I stalked through the house, desperate for something to do. Distractions, I desperately needed distractions. Going to the beach crossed my mind, but Emma would be home soon, and didn’t like to be left behind. I finally settled onto the faded blue fish-patterned sofa, clicking on the television.
There wasn’t much on really, but a special on exotic vacation sites convinced me to stop. I wanted to see these places, to make a wish at the Trevi Fountain, eat something disgusting in Scotland, spend too much money in Paris, explore the Hill of Tara… but the impossibility of it all wore me out. I closed my eyes and let myself wonder about all the what-if’s I could muster. Post-card perfect pictures blended together with fairy-tale images as I drifted off to sleep, exhausted from too many nights filled with that same bizarre dream.