“Baby, you know what I love most about you?” She pasted on a smile as she turned in her seat, light fading in and out of the car as they whirled past the streetlights. The light didn't dispel the shadows that constantly lingered, taunting her peripheral vision. She clasped her hands together in her lap, trying to stop their shaking as the voices started whispering to her again.
“What’s that?” She asked, hoping her voice was soft instead of yelling over the voices that only she could hear.
He smiled, taking his eyes off the road to look at her. She softened under his gaze, momentarily forgetting about everything. About the shadows and the constant whispering. About the fact that she was crazy.
She turned away at that thought, looking out the windshield. Her breath caught in her throat at the black mass that was heading right for them, its fathomless form soaking in the light from the headlights. “I love how you…”
“Michael! Look out!” The steering wheel jerked, sending their car careening on the slick pavement heading straight for the guard rail. A scream erupted in her throat as they went air-born, effortlessly flipping over and over again. Her horror filled eyes locked onto Michael’s right before her world shattered, sending her straight into the shadows embrace.
The tires crunched to a stop, yanking Emily out of her memory as she jerked gracelessly forward. Disorientated, she blinked back tears, focusing on the inside of the taxi cab. That’s right, she thought as she pulled out an ear bud to hear the taxi driver over the roar of the music, Just a month at the Ozark, and I can go home. She took a deep breath and tried to ignore the sounds of whispers that bombarded her, drowning out everything else. She shook her head, focusing on the driver’s bleary eyes in the rear view mirror.
Smiling tightly, she gave him an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, what?”
“Are you sure you’re in the right place?” He asked, his voice edged with concern.
Frowning, she looked down at the piece of paper clutched in her hands as the whispers faded in and out. “Are we at the Ozark Plantation?”
“Yeah, but this place…”
They became louder, screaming through her mind, drowning out whatever he was saying. Her breathing hitched as sweat beaded on her forehead. Why wouldn't they go away? She pinched the bridge of her nose, staving off the pounding that started to build in her head.
“Then it’s the right place.” She blurted, ending whatever he was still going on about. Shoving money his way, she jammed the ear bud back in, sighing as the music drowned out the voices. Slamming the door behind her, she grabbed her suitcase, pulling it as she made her way up the driveway. The battered wheels bounced along behind her, dragging through the dust in areas, making her pull forcefully to get it back on track. Almost there, she thought as she pushed her bangs out of her face. Blowing out a breath, she paused, looking at the mansion before her.
It was decrepid. A shiver ran through her body as a sick feeling began to burn in the pit of her stomach. She could tell it was once beautiful, but over the passing years it had fallen into ruin. Where once the marble pillars gleamed in the sunlight, they now were cracked, aged from a gleaming white to a dull grey. Its stately appeal seemed to whither, drooping like the hunched shoulders of a crone. She frowned as she looked over the once magnificent landscape, now overgrown with weeds and vines, seeming to swallow everything in its path. Shadows clung to the house, giving it a sense of evil, eternal darkness.
“It’s okay,” she whispered to herself as she gathered her courage, “it’s just a job. An easy one. No need to get freaked out. Just have to stick it out for a while, and you’ll be set. You need the money, Em. The shadows aren’t real. They can’t hurt you.” She almost rolled her eyes. She sounded like a mix between her therapist and her friend, Becky. With her chin up high, she grabbed the handle of her suitcase and marched forward, ignoring the sense of dread that seemed to multiply with each step she took. The mansion loomed before her, swallowing her in its shadows. Goosebumps rose on her arms as she stepped up onto the crumbling stairs. The skies darkened overhead, giving a chill to the air as raindrops started to fall steadily around her, almost to the beat of the music blasting in her ears. She quickened her pace, her suitcase thumping along behind her.
Large oak doors loomed before her, bending toward her as if to shelter her in their embrace. She shook her head, trying to dispel the images as the shadows danced toward her. A lump lodged in her throat, almost chocking her as the ever present fear raised its head. Her hand shook as she raised it, reaching for the bronze, aged handle.
She screamed as the door jerked open in front of her, tripping over her suitcase in her hasty retreat. A hand reached out from the shadows beyond the door, grabbing her arm as she started falling backwards. A scream tore from her throat again as she was jerked forward, falling into the arms of the shadow beyond the hand, embracing her within the darkness. Her heart beat fast and furious against her chest, lending pain to her panic. She shoved off, scrambling backwards, her ear buds falling out, making the whispers rush into her, through her.
“Are you okay?”
She blinked back fear soaked tears as she looked up. A man stood before her, his hands out in front of him in supplication. Her hand shook violently as she brushed the hair back from her face. Piercing blue eyes stared down at her, concern forming a frown between them.
“No, I’m not okay! You scared the shit out of me!” She gasped out between panicked breaths. She closed her eyes, trying to block out everything and still her racing heart.
“I’m sorry. I thought that you were one of the town’s kids. They like to come up here and mess with things.”
Blearily, she looked up at him. “Who are you? I was told no one else was supposed to be here.” He squatted down in front of her, his presence alone chasing back the shadows. Her muscles relaxed as they faded along with the whispers, bringing a clarity that not even the medications could provide. She looked up at him, really looked at him and her heart stopped. Blue wasn’t the right word for his eyes. They were a contrast of colors, going from an almost purple on the outer rim with aqua marine in the middle and flecks of gold near the irises. He was handsome, beyond handsome. Perfectly formed black eyebrows framed his startling eyes with lashes that women would kill for. A straight, aristocratic nose led down to almost full lips. He smirked, a dimple forming in his cheek that trapped her attention. She blew out a breath she didn’t know she was holding as he reached out a hand to help her up. Taking it, a warmth flushed through her system at the contact. A feeling of safety coated her raw nerves like a healing balm.
“I’m Anthony, and no one told me you were coming either.”
Her knees locked beneath her, making her steady as she extracted her hand from his, wiping it on her pants as if to get rid of the sensation his touch left.
“Well that makes two of us.”
She fidgeted, trying to look at anything else but at him. “So, are you here to be a caretaker too?”
He looked confused for a moment, then grinned again. “Yeah, you could say that. Is that why you’re here?”
She nodded, wrapping up her ear buds to keep her nervous fidgeting under control. “Yeah. My friend Becky left me a message about this place. I needed a job, so I took her up on it as a favor to a friend of hers.”
“Well, welcome to the Ozark Manor…” He trailed off, raising a brow at her.
Blushing, she reached out and took his hand, shaking it. “Emily. Emily Brewer.” His stare penetrated her, making her want to fidget again. She felt like a bug under a microscope.
“Emily Brewer. Nice to meet you.”
“Well, let’s get inside. No use standing out here in the storm.” He reached behind her and grabbed her suitcase, forgoing the handle as he tossed it over his shoulder. Without a backwards glance, he turned and headed inside, leaving her to follow.
The entryway echoed with the thud of their footsteps. She noticed the farther away he got from her, the more the shadows advanced. Swallowing hard, she quickened her steps, practically keeping herself glued to his back.
“This place is a mess, but it’s dry at least.” He told her over her shoulder. “I’ll show you the grand tour, if you’d like, then take you up to a room.”
Nausea stirred in her stomach the farther they walked in. Paling, she stopped behind him. “I’m not feeling very well. Do you think we could skip the tour? I’d really like to lay down.” He turned, looking her over.
“Sure. There’s a bedroom that’s clean on the second floor. I’ll show you the way.”
She nodded absently behind him, feeling sicker by the moment. A cold sweat racked out across her body as they ascended the stairs. Dust motes floated in the dim light, dancing before her eyes. She kept her eyes trained on Anthony’s broad back, continuously swallowing down the bile that kept rising in her throat.
Emily… Emily… Emily… She froze, blinking back confusion. She knew that voice.
Emily… here… I’m here…
Her eyes jerked up, clashing with Anthony’s. “Fine. I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine.” He said, stepping closer to her.
She swept her gaze down, refusing to look at him. “Really, I just don’t feel well.” She could feel his eyes on her, almost branding her as he looked her over.
“Okay. The room’s just ahead.” She nodded, her eyes darting back and forth across the hallway. It can’t be him, she thought to herself as tears filled her eyes. I’m finally losing it. He’s dead. He’s not here. Her heart sank in her chest at that thought, choking her as a sob built in her throat. Anthony opened a door and walked inside a room, dropping her suitcase down in the middle of the floor.
”You can use this room. It isn’t much, but it’s cleaner than all the rest. I just changed the bedding so you’re good there, at least.”
“Thanks.” She muttered as she walked around him, her mind still on the voice that haunted her, called to her.
“Hey, are you sure you’re alright?”
“Look, thanks for your concern, but I’m fine. Really. Now if you don’t mind?” She gestured wearily behind her to the door. She didn’t like being rude, but the silenced voices was unnerving her more than what their constant presence did. She felt off, knowing that something was wrong. The hair rose on the back of her neck as she felt his gaze on her.
“Yeah, okay. If you need me, I’ll be downstairs. Just follow this hallway to…”
“I remember how to get to the staircase.”
“Alright then. I’ll leave you to get settled in.” She listened carefully at the sound of his retreating footsteps, finally relaxing as the door shut softly behind him. She breathed out a sigh of relief, her shoulders slumping as the tension left her.
She dug through her bag as the whispers started to fade in and out, growing louder with each passing second. Grabbing her pill bottle, she swallowed two, coughing a little as they temporarily caught in her throat. She reached for her iPod, her hands pausing over it. If she blared the music to drown out the voices, then she wouldn’t be able to hear him.
“He’s not here, Em. He’s never coming back!” She berated herself, forcing her hand to move. Forgoing the music, she grabbed her phone and flopped down onto the large canopy bed. Weariness lined every inch of her body as she dialed Becky’s number.
“Hey, this is Becky! I’m not here right now…” She frowned. Becky always answered her phone. Hearing the beep, she paused, for a moment not knowing what to say.
“Hey Beck, it’s me, Em.” She rolled her eyes. Of course Becky would know it was her. “Anyways, I’m just calling to let you know I made it to Ozark. Thanks for telling me there was going to be someone else here, by the way. Anyways, call me back, okay?”
Hanging up, she turned on her side and stared into space, letting her memories wash through her, fighting in her mind with the ever present shadows. Yawning, she closed her eyes and let her mind drift.
Darkness descended, coating the room in a swash of ebony. She stirred, feeling a draft flit across her hair, moving the strands around like a gentle caress. Goosebumps rose across her arms. She arched her neck as the phantom caress moved down, stroking the tender skin of her neck to dip below her collar bone. Hef breathing panted out in front of her, misting the air as her warm breath clashed with the cold.
She moaned softly as the caress played just above the swell of her breast, making her skin tighten. “Emily… Emily baby… do you know what I love most about you?” Her eyes fluttered open. That voice. She knew that voice. The caress eased its way up to her throat, the sensation soft like a butterfly’s wing.
She blinked, trying to see through the darkness. A mass eased closer to her, darker than the shadows. As she opened her mouth to scream, the butterfly caress changed to a fist colder than iron and twice as strong. It wrapped around her throat, choking her. Panicked, she clawed at it, her hands falling through the mass, touching nothing. She tore at her neck as the mass pushed her down.
“Do you know what I love most about you?” Tears burned her eyes, racing down her cheeks as she fought uselessly against it.
A putrid stench washed across her face as the mass paused inches before her. Bile rose in her throat, only to be blocked as she suffocated.
“I love how you let me die, baby. And I’ll love how sweet your tortured soul will taste.”