TRIGGER WARNING: Suicidal thoughts
The dark and loud raining thunderstorm outside the glass window contrasted with the quiet reflection of the burning amber from the candle-light dinner inside the Marianne Hotel's solemn but cosy dining area.
The wind escaped into the room from the open door, disrupting the already flickering candle and casted a sweet orange shade on the faces of the pair of a man and a woman seated closest to the window.
"Why are you following me? Who sent you?"
"Miss. I'm your new bodyguard. Your father hired me to look after you on this trip."
"Then why were you sneaking around? Why not come up front and introduce yourself?"
"The order states to guard you in secret."
"Father really does care about me."
"Of course, Miss."
"Shut up!" Her voice severely distorting with the screech of "up" before breaking into a series of mind numbing coughs which hurt her already sore throat more.
Everyone in the city of Valle knew about the sick illegitimate daughter of the CEO of Steel Industries. Born of a broke college girl after her(mother) brief affair with her father, she never knew her mother. At last she was abandoned by her on the steps leading to the Steel Manor. And the newborn laid there unnoticed until the next morning whereby a cleaner spotted her. But the damage was already done, she was to carry this sick shell until the day she died.
Looking at the man opposite her who's chest muscles bulged out of his black shirt, seemingly stuffed with cotton bales to look more intimidating, she felt disgusted.
Outside the trees suffering the merciless slaps of rain and thunder almost kneeled in defeat. One of the trees near their window suddenly leaned towards them as if attempting a breaking and entering forcefully to escape the torment of nature outside.
Unfazed, she slowly got up from the table and gave him her last parting words,"I'm afraid I won't be able to entertain you anymore tonight and shall retire for the night. You should follow your orders properly and not let me see you again." Her face half glowing orange and half dark black couldn't cover up her pair of sharp eyes glaring at him.
The bodyguard could only see her straight back walk away before he could affirm or deny the latest order. Returning to his unfinished plate of salad, he mused on his first impression of this young, rich illegitimate miss being very different from his imagination. Sure, she was arrogant and looked down at his job but the way she stared without blinking at the ferocious wind bellowing outside and the threatening trees willing to topple on them but unable to; she was fearless.
Her personality was just like her white dress: unaffected and unadorned. He remembered the warning from the CEO: the old countryside house was filled with shadows. He was beginning to look forward to an interesting trip.
When the small car carrying her and her luggage worth two months reached the step-mother's family's old countryside house, Lea was still playing with the idea of whether to replace her long-time dear servant, Pal. Nobody knew his real name and no one bothered to ask. A pal to everyone, he was stuck being called this while being ordered to do miscellaneous tasks around the manor. He has been taking care of her since she was ten.
The four hour journey in this cramped car, with restricted legs which had turned numb already in the midst of irritating humidity had long tested her patience. Gingerly climbing out of the car, she almost fell disgracefully as shooting pin-pricks of pain travelled down her legs.
"Here, miss." Leaning sideways under the open trunk, his porcupine straight hair came into view before his round face. His face scrunched up in confusion and exhaustion.
"Tomorrow bring with you a roomier car. Understood?"
"Miss the narrow country roads are unsuitable for large cars."
A tantrum wasted, Lea could only pick up her dead legs and walk towards the gate leading to the house inside.
This old house stood under the big tree of Royal Poinciana. The front porch and ground littered with red flowers made Lea pause. This was her home for the next two months.
The arrival of a new step-mother the previous year had distanced her already emotionally distant father to now physically distant today, the day her newborn step-brother stepped into this world. The saccharine smile of her step-mother as she had sat her down in her room while holding her hand in a vice-like grip, explaining how she couldn't focus on two children at once and needed Lea to shift 300 km away from them to raise their son properly, still caused a pounding headache to her.
Lea agreed of course, an empty house with no one to pretend to and a relief from backstabbing relatives was better for her.
The house was cleaned from tip to foot a week before her arrival but she couldn't shake off the sudden gloominess enveloping her body as she stepped on the porch. The hallway was dark even if it was daylight outside and the sun was just above them. She shrugged it off thinking maybe it was because it belonged to the maiden family of her stepmother, it radiated the same hostility to her.
Pal behind her dragged the suitcase and carried it into the house passing by her. Following him inside she gazed at the low planked wood ceiling above to the marble flooring below. The living room opened to the backyard and she could see herself sitting on that chunky sofa, reading a book and enjoying the view of the garden outside.
"Pal, can you buy a few lamps and change the bulbs to a brighter light. It's too dark to read in here. And please open all the curtains to let the fresh air in."
Then she laid down at the chunky sofa she was eyeing before and decided to take a nap before dinner time.
The simple dinner of pasta perked up her mood. Deciding to take a tour around she bid goodnight to a sleepy Pal heading to his own room. The house had one master bathroom, two guest rooms (one of which now occupied by Pal), three washrooms, a living space and last a kitchen.
Not many choices left, she headed off to the other guest room. It was a small library filled with random things like old toys, vintage clocks and embroidered tapestries with strange drawings.
This room had weak lighting too and Lea made a mental note to have them changed the day after. Swiping her fingers on the hardback stuck in the cupboard she debated what to read and took them out one by one to read the titles.
Seeing the familiar title of Dr. Faustus, she found a chair and settled herself down comfortably to read in the yellow dim light of the antique lamp and fully absorbed herself in the morbidity created by the book and the darkness around her.
As her eyes became drier and tighter around the edges she decided to quit and head back to sleep. She massaged her eyes and looked up and saw a man. No, a shadow. She blinked her eyes twice and focused. It..it's a shadow! The shadow was standing still, melding with the darkness as if observing her.
The light board that was just 6 inches away may as well have been 60 miles. Achingly slow so as to not disturb the shadow she reached to switch on all the lights.
"Click~" the room washed itself in a brighter shade of yellow and the shadow disappeared. Blaming the devil book and the trick of having a dry eye, she walked out of the library subconsciously avoiding the place the shadow stood on.
The next day she caught a cold and laid in bed with a high fever; the curse of having a sick body. Pal bustled around her feeding her her medicine, fetching hot soup for her sore throat and he closed the curtain to preserve the heating.
After two days the excessive heat left her body with only coughing fits to accompany in its place. Her 18 years of life had only consisted of two types of days: sick days and slightly sick days.
On slightly sick days she wandered outside to soak in the fresh air and the vibrant colours of the world and on sick days she contemplated how long she should live.
Today, this session had proceeded again: What if I died here? It's a good place to die. Maybe at the end of two months I can choose the most peaceful way and depart silently.
No. No. I should wait to go back. It's that vicious woman's family home. She won't even let me go in peace and call my soul back for reimbursement. Tch!
But what if...I'm never called back to home? What if they ask me to live here forever? Should I live? Or Should I die?
Her eyes opened in the darkness only to catch a movement in her peripheral sight. In the blind spot devoid of light from her bedside lamp she could again feel it staring her. It's empty eyes in the faceless features reminded her of the caricatures of the devil in a book she had read before.
Is it Mephistopheles? Here to drag me to hell? Should I sign a deal with the devil too to gain a healthy body and magic to summon a spirit to be my friend. Either way my life will be more amusing than the current bedridden one even if it ends in tragedy. Sigh!
The thoughts became more and more chaotic with passing time before she fell asleep under the watchful eyes of the shadows.
The fluorescent red sun dyed her hands and the book held in it with it's lovely colour as she sat underneath the Royal Poinciana tree to read. Her mind had been feverish for a few days before she finally recovered. She'd see a shadow beside her watching her, observing her and maybe accompanying her. The comfort of the last thought made her fear her sanity.
So except for sleeping at night she chose to stay outside: basking in the light and avoiding the shadows.
Her mind not on her book, she could hear loud whispers and giggling of a pair of girls from next door. Pal had encouraged her to approach them when they had sent over some home-made cake yesterday.
Lea felt irritated. There was nothing fascinating about her. She just read some books and stayed bedridden for most of the year. What will she be able to converse about?
Something rustled the bottom of her skirt and she jumped away in fright. The bodyguard started to jump out of the corner but he saw a ball had fallen near her feet, thrown above the wall separating her house from next door.
Surprisingly a few minutes later she found herself listening to the fascinating stories from the two girls she had heard giggling minutes before. The twins were a year younger than her and both bubbly and talkative.
"Lea, do you like it here?" One with the white ribbon in her hair asked her.
"It's nice. It's quieter than the city and less people but I like it here."
"Of course. We have the sweetest fruits and people here. You'd love it here." The one with violet ribbon in her hair shook her arm in excitement.
"Let's again meet here under this beautiful tree tomorrow for tea and snacks." The white-ribboned twin proposed.
"Sure." Lea felt warmth in the arms held by the twins.
She wanted to be interesting. Wanted to share something. And this desperate thought led to the ever present darkness in her house.
"Have you heard anything about shadows in my house?" She asked the twins hesitantly.
"Ah! Yes. Have they caused any harm?" Not really worried the violet-ribboned twin reached for a piece of apple pie served silently by Pal.
"No. They just stand still. How do you know about the shadows? Are they dangerous?"
"They are not. They are harmless. What they only do is to observe us humans to figure out how we live." The violet-ribboned twin explained.
"How do you know so much? Does your house have shadows in it too?"
"No. It's only yours. The old folks believe they are in some way attached to the land, particularly this tree near which your house is built." Lea followed them to look at the flamboyant red flowers decorated on thin branches above them :Royal Poinciana.
"They are guardians of this tree. They lurk in shadows guarding over its flowers and the residents within the house."
Relieved she could finally sleep in peace without worrying about the shadow taking her away, she let out a happy laugh.
The twins laughed with her when she told them how she feared they were devils here to capture her and take her to Lucifer. The bodyguard laughed too as he saw the brittles around the edges of Lea was softening with each laugh from the twins. A good news to report finally but he turned his wary eyes again to the darkened window of the living room.
The shadow standing near the window had grown fainter with the setting sun.