Natalie peered around the corner, wondering how much longer she would have to wait before the bird’s murky song echoed through the halls and set her free.
The wizard colonel in charge of the palace was unaware of her existence, and that was the only thing saving her ass right now. Natalie crossed her fingers that he wouldn’t find out about her before it was too late.
The first notes trickled through the corridor, and Natalie blew her advantage by stepping out at just the right moment, right into the path of Wizard-Colonel Larkspur. Their eyes met, and as he raised an eyebrow, the fear in her expression made him realize that this was a person he needed to know more about.
“Seize her!” he commanded, and the first three guards behind him grabbed Natalie by her arms and waist before she could turn and run in a desperate bid for freedom. “Bring her to me.”
The guards somehow managed to march Natalie the four feet between them, and the wizard colonel reached out a finger and tipped her chip up so he could look deep into her eyes. The puzzlement cleared from his face in an instant, to be replaced by a loathing that even the guards behind him could feel. Natalie cringed at the hurtful gaze, fearing the worst was about to happen.
“Take her to the dungeon at once!” His voice trembled the slightest bit on the last word, and Natalie was the only one who caught it. Her heart lifted anew with fresh hope, and she cooperated with the guards tugging her along.
She looked back over her shoulder just once, and her timing was perfect enough to catch Larkspur mid-shudder.
Natalie began to smile as she stood a little straighter. Maybe things weren’t as bad as they seemed after all.
She opened the double doors and the light flowed in like honey, confused dust motes drifting on the air currents stirred up. She smiled, and the day grew even brighter.
“I think this will do nicely,” she said to the emptiness before her. The realtor behind her breathed a small sigh of relief.
She turned and shook the realtor’s hand. “You can give me the tour, but I’m pretty sure I don’t need it at all.”
The realtor beamed and led the way through the empty rooms and hallways, up and down the stairs, pausing at nearly every nook and cranny. By the time they were back at the front door, the deed was done. She was in love with the house, and nothing was going to stand in her way.
She moved in only a few weeks later and proceeded to decorate in a monochrome style, shades of blacks and whites and grays throughout the house, with a single splash of a single color in each room. A flower here, a chandelier there.
When it was done she hosted a party, but her guests didn’t stay long; none of them could stand the subsonic tones she played on the recently installed sound system. She didn’t care. She liked it, and that’s what really mattered, right?
But she soon grew lonely and tired of only her own company. Finally she figured out that it was the house pushing everyone away; it couldn’t possibly be her personality.
She locked up for the last time and moved to an apartment in the city, where she let her interior decorator have his way with the new place. She hated it, but her parties were always the talk of the town, so she dealt with it.
He leaned against the stair railing, shoulders hunched, hands fisted in his blue jean pockets. The overhead light was busted; the empty socket stared from the middle of its broken glass face.
The girl ran up the stairs on a mission. Hey stepped back just enough to let her pass, but kept watch on her beneath lowered eyelids. She wasn’t going anywhere that he found interesting.
He strolled down the breezeway to give her access to the stairway again when she was leaving. She wouldn’t meet his eyes, but he was used to that.
Serene gathered her courage and pulled the knot a little bit tighter on the top of her polka-dotted bikini. She nodded decisively at her reflection and left the bathroom, slapping the light switch on her way out.
She paused dramatically at the top of the staircase, pointing her left foot and bending her knee.
“How do I look?” She called downstairs, startling her husband.
“What?” He rounded the corner and let out a wolf whistle. “You look…so good in that.” He smiled broadly. “I can’t wait for our vacation now,” he said, winking, as he climbed the stairs to wrap his arms around her.
She sat up in the hotel bed, the hotel sheet pooled in her lap, her bare breasts on display as she smoked her cigarette, every now and then reaching to tap her ashes into the hotel ash tray on the hotel bedside table.
She stared blankly at the hotel sconce on the hotel wall, her thoughts so very far away from the hotel room she shared with a man she hardly knew.
She could hear him now, showering brutishly. Her lips pursed in disgust as he grunted yet again, probably harshly rubbing the soap on a tender spot of his body. She wished he would be silent and let her hear only the sounds of the water hitting his body on its way to the drain. Then she could easily imagine that he was anyone, anyone at all, but as it stood, every time she tried, he would let loose another grunt or groan and ruin her daydream.
She rested her chin on her shoulder as she fiercely stubbed out her cigarette on top of all the other butts in the ashtray. She smiled softly as she imagined his body beneath the glowing ember, reddening and then blackening at its touch. It struck her what she was thinking about, and she dropped the butt, wiping her fingers on the hotel sheet. She pulled her knees up to her chest and hugged them to her body, and a tear slipped softly down her cheek.
The knob squealed a protest as he turned the water off in the bathroom.
She jerked her head upright and scrubbed frantically at her face to dry the single tear, then closed her eyes and took two deep breaths to calm her heart rate. She heard him step out of the hotel bathtub and caught herself wishing that he would fall and strike his head against the porcelain and bleed out, there on the floor, and she could claim innocence until the red pool crept out from under the bathroom door. She laughed, and clapped a hand against her mouth to hold back the rest of it.
He walked out of the hotel bathroom, beaming when he saw her, his body still dripping hotel water on the hotel carpet, a hotel towel tossed artlessly over his right shoulder. She didn’t meet his eyes, her gaze hovering instead on his unshaven upper lip.
“How about we order in some dinner?” he asked, and his voice grated on her ears.
She suppressed a cringe, and smiled brightly, reaching for her phone. “Sure, what’d you have in mind?”
He chuckled. “You.”
He threw the towel to the floor and leaped onto the bed, nearly crushing her left foot. His hands reached for her, and it took every bit of inner strength she had to let him fondle her nakedness.
She praised whatever gods there may be when her stomach grumbled, loudly, distracting him from his struggle with the sheet that covered her body.
“How about later?” she offered. “I’m starving.”
He raised an eyebrow, then acquiesced. “Later, then. I’m pretty hungry myself. Let’s get room service; they’d be the fastest.” He stood and pulled a pair of jeans from the duffel bag on the dresser before jamming his feet into the legs, one at a time.
He winked at her, and her stomach tied itself in another knot of disgust.
She sank down to her knees in the sand, and then fell to her left, reaching to hold her legs against her body, for steadiness or warmth or some unfathomable reason. The tears streamed down her cheeks as she looked up at the clouds sliding across the sky.
“I can’t remember what color his eyes were,” she sobbed.