He’s been there every night for years. Ana Kazak doesn’t remember just when the bone mask of his face first appeared to her. It’s like he’s always been there, lodged in her heart, nestled like a baby dragon. He glowed in the dim light that flowed through Ana’s bedroom window, from the shadows, and his gaze made the moths in her belly take flight. When she wakes at 2 am, he is there, staring at with his dead eyes into her too wide ones. 5 am, when she lays here lonely as hell and ready to scream in the silence. He is here at 9 pm when her home is so glaringly bereft of voices that she could go crazy from it. There is no respite.
The monsters under the bed are never any help either. All they do is jeer, giggle raucously and cough out humorously derogatory statements like a bunch of drunken frat boys. On occasion, they may reach out to caress the length of her calf as Ana stands shivering, locked in his attention. She’s not afraid, precisely, but certainly wary, lest his hand touch her as she passes. The adamant tone of her raving thoughts always causes the idiots under the bed to start giggling again.
“You’re afraid,” their words send shivers up her spine. The monsters voices remind her of rattling autumn leaves in the wind. “Naughty, naughty, you like it,” they giggled like teenage boys just discovering where they are supposed to insert their appendages. Embarrassed, Ana spat curses like daggers, inviting the bastards to shut up before storming past where he stood, silent, to lock herself in the bathroom.
It doesn’t help to shut them out. They are forever arguing redundancies as though they matter, while she takes her customary seat on the edge of the tub, wishing for a way to banish them from her. No dice. Lord knows she’s tried for decades, in so many damned ways and to the point of taking her own life. All it did was earn her a trip to the nuthouse down in Moonlight Hollow. Ana would have given anything to rid her mind, if not at least the bedroom, of these assholes. All that relieves the pressure is continuously telling herself that she’d settle for a few hours alone, rather than having to hear never ending-lewd comments.
For the first time, tonight, her monsters are silent, and conspicuously so. Ana hangs her head over the edge of the bed to try to catch a peek at them, and sees only dust bunnies and the diamond ring that she has been searching for. No sign of her profane friends. Her phone chirps that annoying text tone she keep meaning to change and always forgets. Her attention drawn away from the mission, Ana reminds herself, yet again, to change it and glances at the screen in disbelief. Her date cancelled, again. It never fails.
This was a prime reason to snigger and snicker at her bad fortune but there is nothing but silence from the Land of Snark. By and large quite unlike them. Outside the wind moans along the edges of the window frames, breezy fingers scrabbling trying to find some way in. It’s snowing again, great white flakes that look like cotton and must taste like blue heaven. It’s become colder, here by the window. Ana can see her breath in in the air as she exhales, and breaks out in goosebumps, starting at the nape of her neck and spreading like wildfire.
Fear is palpable in the noiseless space, but Ana has no reason to fear anything in her home. The glass close to her shoulder is covered in a lacy frost that hadn’t been there a moment ago. She hears nothing but her own heartbeat racing, pounding like timpani drums in her ears, and a rattle, a rustle, all nearly inaudible noises that set her nerve endings jangling. Her back hits the door and she panics; Ana doesn’t remember backing away from the window and the winter wonderland that lay below. She runs towards the window again, screaming and determined to throw herself from it, and hopefully find her peace on the bed of new fallen show that would certainly be stained by her release. Anything but stand here staring at the snow with her back against the wall.
“They can’t win, Ana. You fight and you live your life, because to take it lets them win at their game. Those demons, child, they don’t deserve a gift such as that. So fight!” Ana stops short, with her hands up before her in fists, and hangs her head. She knows that Mama was right and drops her arms. She also knows she isn’t alone.
So what to do? Stand here watching the world turn while some stranger sneaks up behind her, presumably with a dull as shit so it hurts more kind of weapon? Of course he’d be masked with an ice-pick poised to puncture her brainstem or something equally as gory. But Ana is unable to anything more than stand frozen while an Icy finger traces the line of her spine, from neck to the small of her back, slowly and deliberately.
Ana takes stock of what she knows for sure: “I am alone,” she blurts out loud, then softer, “I was alone, except for the dust bunnies and memories. Now I’m not.” It is true. She’d been divorced of her husband for nearly a decade, and her betrothed had lit out for more heavenly pastures just a year ago. She doesn’t miss her ex, and desperately yearns for her love.
That frigid finger is now a hand, slipping deftly along the outcrop of her hip, and up the slender side of her rib-cage. Ana shivers, chilled, and she is unsure of whether the was a shiver was in fear or in arousal. “I’m afraid,” she thinks, terrified as a pale appendage snakes up her body to grab her throat, and she stiffens, her back frozen against a hard torso.
A flicker of movement in her peripheral bubble and she flicks her eyes to another hand holding the presumably lost diamond ring, last seen in the dust under the bed. The hand, as white as alabaster, and perfectly smooth holds this sparkling found treasure in front of Ana’s face. How it gleams in the light filtering in from the half-moon in the sky. It is still as eye-catching as it was the day he slipped it on her finger.
The hand on her throat tightens, the fingers digging into the soft the skin of her throat. “You took it off.” A familiar voice and not the dulcet tones of her betrothed; this she knows without doubt. He would never harm her in this way. Ana is held tight, her sinus pounding with the scent of burnt wood. Her mind twists away, refuting the plausibility even as she begins to burn. It can’t be.
There was another, heavier smell that reminded Ana of barbecued steak, and it was filling her throat, coating her mouth with its oily fragrance. She wants to vomit, and tries but her nausea is forgotten when she is slammed hard against the big bay window, and her teeth smash against her lips.
“You aren’t real,” she rasps through mangled lips, each word spraying droplets of blood on the glass. Real enough that he could throw her like that. She feels her stomach constrict and that familiar burning in her throat as he laughs. “I told you I’ll never let you go,” his fetid breath whispers in her ear, “you’re mine.” He had let her go, however, right before she had struck the match. Ana had chained his left arm to the oh-shit handle above his window, and his right to the steering wheel. There is a ring of bubbled flesh around the wrist of the arm holding her throat. This was happening.
Ana’s stomach wretches violently and her last meal spatters on the window pane.
“You are wrong. She is mine.”
In her delirium, that soft, steely voice was the igniter and she threw her head back to crack her captor directly in the face. It didn’t break his nose, exactly, but made a wet crunch that made him stagger backwards. The hand on her throat was gone and she could hear a frustrated moan that made her turn slightly.
“Don’t turn around, please,” the lightly accented voice spoke, and she remembered the cadence, “I will be just a moment.” Ana wipes her forearm across her lips, grimacing at the disgusting taste in her mouth, and watches the snow fall. The night was bright and ice blue in the moonlight, and the silence felt comfortable instead of awkward. Ana was relaxing until the bargaining and screams started. They lasted forever.
Ana is no longer afraid of the shadows. Her betrothed, though changed, still watches over her. His stare holds her rapt in fascination rather than fear, now that she knows. In fact, she relishes the sensation of his eyes following her, keeping her safe from harm. In return, Ana brings him special treats, every half-moon, as she did when he drew breath. Death changes nothing.
Cover Model: Jessika Dillard