October 2021 Prompt: A unexpected party guest; “He Is” by Ghost
Balancing the seven pizza warmer bags precariously on top of her palm, Cirice attempted to persuade her car’s door to unlock. It did not matter how many times Tony looked at it for her, the damned thing always jammed. And always when she was juggling more pizza boxes than she should. She cursed under her breath as her keys slipped from her fingers, clattering to the ground with a sharp jangle. Nudging the warmer bags onto the roof of her car, Cirice knelt to retrieve her keys.
As she stood, she used her door handle to pull herself up. With a pop, the car door opened, nearly smacking her in the face. After all of that, she had not locked the stupid thing. She rolled her eyes at herself, loading the pizzas into the backseat.
What was it Tony was always saying to her? You’d forget your head if it wasn’t attached to your shoulders. Just like she had always been telling him she was done delivering pizzas.
And she was, truly. But Cirice could never resist Tony’s plea for extra hands on Halloween night. It was the best night of the year for delivery folks and Cirice could simply not pass up the promise of a little extra cash.
The first few deliveries were the typical Halloween deliveries: parents frantically trying to feed their offspring prior to Trick-Or-Treating. The fifth delivery address that popped up on her phone caused Cirice to do a double take. It was an address that did not sound anything close to familiar.
Was this even in their delivery radius?
She eyed the three remaining warmer bags as she slid her car into drive, Tony would not have approved the order if it were not.
Soon the landscaping of Cirice’s familiar suburb faded away, replaced by countryside. The paved road eventually disappeared, transforming into a dirt road instead. Her GPS had gone a long while without saying anything and Cirice was beginning to fear that not even it knew where she was.
These people better give one hell of a tip, she thought as her car nearly bottomed out on yet another pothole.
She glanced nervously at the remaining warmer bags that she had moved into the passenger seat beside her; there was no way those were still warm.
Suddenly the GPS chimed. “You’ve arrived,” it said in a chipper tone.
Cirice slammed her foot on the brake pedal. The pizzas slid off the front seat, crashing onto the floorboard.
“Shit,” she grumbled, smacking her steering wheel. No tip, then.
She looked around her in confusion; there were no structures in sight, let alone houses. Rolling down her window, Cirice reached for her small flashlight she stored in her glove compartment for just these occasions.
The trees had begun to thicken up a while back, and she was now in a proper forested area. The cone of warm white light from her flashlight scanned trees to her left as Cirice panned the woods around her. A glint of a mailbox, a fence, anything…
Finally, she saw it.
Set back into the trees, a fair distance from the road, was a glimmer of metal. She could not tell from this distance, but it appeared to be a tall metal fence. The gravel crunched beneath her tires as she pulled her car into the end of the drive and up to the massive gates that her headlights illuminated.
Cirice’s brows furrowed in frustration; in the delivery instructions there had been no mention of a gate. No gate code was given, no phone number listed. She glanced around for signs of a call box, nothing. This was becoming more inconvenient by the second. She did not even have cell service to give Tony a ring at the shop to get permission to bail on the delivery.
Grumbling to herself in annoyance, Cirice climbed out of her car. She eyed her surroundings as she made her way around her car to the gate; all she could see where leaf-bare trees and the greying evening sky above her. The sun had disappeared quickly on her drive out here, and the last rays were vanishing even quicker into the trees. Her skin was beginning to crawl, and it was not because of the chill in the air. She did not want to be out in these woods in the dark.
The metal gate loomed before Cirice, black wrought iron barely glinting in her headlights. It had to be nearly ten feet high. Gravel crunched beneath her black boots as she approached the towering gate. Cirice traced the shape of the gates with the beam of her flashlight as she searched for some sort of calling mechanism.
There was nothing to be found. No call box, no switch, no lever of any kind.
Cirice kicked at the gate, cursing everything she could think of. When she looked back up from her newly scuffed boot, she saw that the gate had opened a few inches.
Her heart stuttered a beat as she wondered if it had been open – like her stupid car door earlier – and she just had not thought to check. Or if something more… sinister… had opened it.
She laughed at herself, forcefully if she was being honest. It was Halloween, after all. There were no such things as monsters. There had to have just been a camera she had not noticed and the person in the house – wherever it was – had finally taken notice of her and popped the gate open.
Pushing the gate open the remainder of the way, Cirice returned to her car. There’s no such thing as monsters, she told herself again as she drove up the drive.
The bare trees suddenly gave way to an expanse of open space. Framed by the trees, stood an exceptionally large, and quite gorgeous, Victorian mansion. Cirice’s jaw dropped as she parked. She had never seen this place before; had no idea it had been out here.
It was an imposing structure with charcoal siding and black and white trim. The house was encircled by a larger-than-even-American-standard front porch that wrapped around all sides Cirice could see. The roofline extended far out over the porch, casting the windows of the main level in shadow.
As she climbed out of her car once more, grasping her pizza bag, a chill raked down Cirice’s spine. Not being one to normally find fault with colder temperature, Cirice was put off by the involuntary shiver that rattled through her. She glanced around the property – at least what she could see of it – for any signs of life before approaching the front steps. There were none; there were no other vehicles, no lights glowing from windows, no sounds at all. There were not even any birds chirping, an unusual thing for twilight.
The wooden steps of the porch’s front steps groaned under Cirice’s feet as she climbed them. There were no exterior lights, and the porch was cast in almost complete darkness. Only the pale reflection of twilight was reflected in the glasswork of the massive double front doors, beckoning Cirice forward. She listened to the call of the door and lifted its heavy iron knocker, the thud of it reverberating around the porch and in her ears.
One of the massive wooden doors swung slowly inward, creaking on its hinges. Cirice started in surprise. She was growing weary of things just opening tonight.
“Hello?” called Cirice, edging closer to the door opening. “Is anyone there?” She nudged at the door with the toe of her boot; it swung open wider.
A large, empty foyer stretched out before Cirice. The floor tile was a checkerboard of cream and charcoal marble, the walls trimmed in a dark, wooden wainscoting. The foyer was dark, with no visible lights lit, but there was a strange glow illuminating the space. Like the promise of light from just the next room over.
“Hello?” Cirice called again, leaning through a doorway into the next room. It was a massive, gorgeous library. “Anyone here?” she asked, moving further into the room. “Delivery from Tony’s Pizza.”
Her shoulders slumped, there was no one about.
“I’m… um… just going to leave your pizza on the desk in the library,” she called again. “Don’t worry about the tip,” she grumbled, half to herself.
Hastily, she slid the pizza from its warmer bag – nothing close to warm – and set it on the corner of the large, ornate desk. She glanced around at the walls full of built-in bookcases, each shelf filled with leatherbound volumes. She ran a finger along the spine of a book on the shelf closest to her, it was soft and supple. They looked positively ancient but felt well taken care of. She swore some of the titles were in Latin. As much as she wanted to stay and admire this impressive collection, Cirice desperately wanted to get the hell out of there.
As Cirice headed back into the foyer for the front door, she felt a strange sensation. Like the hairs on the back of one’s neck prickling, but in her brain. Cirice froze, her hand out-stretched for the brass doorknob, hanging in midair. Looking back through the library, she saw a pulsing glow of light and heard a strange thrumming of music that made her eardrums tingle.
She wandered back into the library, mesmerized by the sound and pulsing lights.
The library opened onto a parlor, which led to a sitting room, a dining room, a butler’s pantry, and on and on and on. Cirice found herself passing through more rooms than she had thought possible to make up the main level of even this massive house. Each new room remained vacant and unlit, but the promising warmth of light, company, and music called from the next room on.
As she began to ascend the first flight of stairs, Cirice paused.
“What are you doing?” she scolded herself, pausing on the steps and turning to descend once again. “You’re in a customer’s house; Tony will have your head for this!”
The thrumming of the strange brass and string music grew louder in her ears, the lights more dazzling at the top of the stairs.
It called to her…
Cirice turned back once more, continuing up the stairs. She followed the labyrinth the lights and music laid out for her: down corridors, up staircases, through rooms, down staircases. There was no way this was all still inside the mansion she had driven up to; no matter it monstrous size, the layout did not make any sense.
When she reached a small antechamber, empty save for a set of ornate double doors on the opposite wall, things shifted for Cirice. There was clear, visible light shining underneath the doors. The air chilled drastically and Cirice’s heart began to race. She could hear the music in the next room, as well as inside her.
As she reached for the knob of the door, the hair on the backs of her arms stood on end. It felt like the air was being sucked from the little room in which she stood, drawing her forward. The knob readily turned with a faint creak with the lightest of touches from Cirice – she had half expected it to be locked – and the door whisked open.
The room that stretched before Cirice was unlike any of the others in the mansion. Instead of the typical dark, brooding heaviness common in Victorian structures, this room was bright and airy. The dark wood was replaced by glistening white marble, the room was flanked by white Corinthian columns, and the ceiling was gilded in gold leaf, reflecting the warmth of the firelight from the torches along the walls back down into the room. In the center of the room stood a tall, elaborate fountain, water burbling merrily.
Cirice felt positively transported through time.
It was then that Cirice noticed the room was full of people. And they were all watching her, some with more interest than others. None of them seemed perturbed by her sudden appearance into their party, however.
Gathering? It was not quite so lively to be called a party.
After a few more minutes of studying Cirice in a group silence, the others went back to what they had been doing prior to Cirice’s awkward entrance. Which turned out to be nothing but talking quietly in small groups while sipping out of crystal goblets.
Feeling a bit more at ease now that no one was looking in her direction, Cirice looked around the crowd that was gathered a but more. Some were in fancy dress – Cirice could not turn without seeing a stunning ballgown – and others looked straight off a fashion runway. It was truly a feast for the sense.
It was then that Cirice realized there was no live music, as she had previously assumed due to how it had sounded and how it had carried throughout the house.
Her heart stuttered alarmingly in her chest. What was she doing in a customer’s house? Had someone invited her in? It did not matter; this was never allowed.
Panic began to rise inside her as she turned for the door.
And then there was the music again. It pulled at her heartstrings, agonizingly. She felt on the verge of something; on the cliff, looking down at her long-sought after…
Cirice’s eyes locked on him as she turned back towards the marbled room. How had she not noticed him before? He was a striking thing, and he was staring at her as well.
It felt as though the floor were tipping beneath her; she looked down to make certain that it was not. The bottom dropped out of her stomach, and she felt as though she were falling. Everything else in the room fell into shadow, and all Cirice could see was his pale face across the chamber.
She felt her feet moving, gliding down the handful of steps into the room and across the marble floor. Cirice heard the conversations she passed abate briefly as she passed, causing a wave of volume shifts across the room. But her eyes were focused ahead, on him. His gaze remained upon her as she approached.
A twinkle of amusement sparked in his deep set, dark eyes. One full brow arched as she climbed the few steps to where he sat. His cheekbones were sharp, his nose straight, his jaw square. His skin porcelain and smooth. His dark hair was swept back in a style that Cirice could not decide was old-fashioned or in style. Either way, he was stunning.
He said something under his breath to three women – Cirice had not noticed before – who flanked him. They filed away from him, casting curious looks at Cirice.
Cirice watched them go. They were some of the most gorgeous women she had ever seen. They wore identical, floor-length silk gowns with slits up to their hips, in black, red, and white. Each had a sweetheart neckline and draping, off the shoulder straps. The woman with a cloud of red curls that floated around her face like frame, dazzled in the white gown. The woman with raven hair that fell in waves past her waist, commanded attention in the red gown. And the woman with the short, sleek blonde bob, stunned in the black gown.
“They didn’t need to leave,” Cirice said, mesmerized as she watched their retreating forms.
He scoffed, waving his hand dismissively. “I do not wish for competition,” he said, his voice velvety, yet gravely all at once. “After all, you have finally arrived.” He smiled, showing his pearly white teeth.
Cirice’s brow furrowed; that comment seemed… wrong… somehow.
“Come,” he said, his eyes twinkling as he rose from his chair and extended a hand to Cirice, “let us go out onto the balcony.”
She took the pale hand he offered her and followed him towards one of the pair of French doors that lined the room. He paused briefly at a table, selecting two crystal goblets of red wine from the lines of goblets on the table. As he handed one to Cirice, she shook her head. His head inclined slightly as he gazed quizzically at her. She felt lightheaded, giddy even, beneath his gaze; she had not felt this flustered by a man since her college days.
“Oh, I don’t really like red wine,” said Cirice, blushing. Why was she blushing?
He smiled then. “I can guarantee you have never had one like mine,” he said, pressing the glass into her hand. “Just one sip, I’ll take it off you if you still don’t like it.”
Cirice held his gaze as she took a sip. She licked her lips as she waited for that dry, medicinal taste to overwhelm her tastebuds. It never came.
“Did you make it yourself?” she asked skeptically.
“I did. It’s a recipe my father passed down to me.” He smiled, his face glowing with confidence. “You like it, don’t you?” His thumb traced Cirice’s cheekbone. “I can see it in your eyes.”
She felt her cheeks burning once again.
He held open the glass door for Cirice and she was grateful to duck ahead of him and get herself under control again. The chill night air was a balm on her burning cheeks. Leaning her arms against the cool stone of the balcony railing, she took another drink of the wine.
He leaned beside her, his back against the balustrade, facing the house, and her.
“What made you come tonight?” he asked after a while of watching her drinking his wine. “I’ve tried to get you to come to one of my soirées the last few years, but to no avail.”
Cirice took another drink of the wine as she considered his question. The wine was sweet as it rolled over tongue. She could not remember why she had come, but she could not tell him that.
“It just felt… right,” she said finally.
“What did?” he pressed. He wanted specifics. Of course, he did.
He had moved closer; she would be able to feel his body heat if she had not already been frozen solid. She looked down at her bare arms; goose flesh paired with an elegant silver evening gown, how regal.
Hadn’t she been wearing… boots… earlier?
She snorted in confusion.
“Take another drink,” he said gently, commandingly, “you look a bit peckish.”
Nodding, trying not to be obvious she was checking her feet, Cirice took a long drink of her wine. How refreshing it was!
No shoes at all, how curious.
“The music,” said Cirice. “The music is what finally made me come tonight.”
He smiled again, this time triumphantly. “Ah yes, I thought that might do it.”
His hand was resting on her arm, but Cirice was so cold that she could not feel the warmth from it. His dark eyes sparkled with delight as he watched a shiver rattle over Cirice.
“Here,” said, a tone of chivalry lightening his voice, “allow me to warm you.”
He stood behind Cirice, his arms encircling her waist.
She waited for the wash of warmth of his body heat to wash over her. But nothing happened. Cirice looked over her shoulder at him, about to mention she was still freezing, but his arms tightened around her waist, and he began to hum, resting his chin upon her shoulder. It was that strange music that had drawn her in, but it was him making it. She felt herself relaxing; relaxing into him behind her, even as her mind grappled with the realization that was dawning within her.
Something was not right.
Something was not…
He began to kiss her neck as Cirice finished the rest of her wine. It tasted even sweeter than it had before. She felt at ease, whole even, for the first time in a long, long while. It felt as though she could stay forever in this moment.
Cirice felt his lips pull into a smile against her neck.
As she stepped out onto the front porch, Cirice double checked that no one had followed her. Gingerly, she hopped down the steps and across the gravel drive to her car. The rocks cutting into her bare feet, no matter how quick and light she attempted to be. She had been unable to locate her boots. Or any of her clothing from the night before.
She had no idea how she was going to explain her disappearance to Tony, let alone her new silver, silk evening gown. He would sack her for sure this time. Although surely her tale would hold some weight. She did not even know where she was, nor how she had gotten here.
Trying the door handle of her car, Cirice was surprised – and yet not – to find it unlocked. Who knew what state she had arrived here in last night? Now, as long as the keys were still inside the car…
Sliding into the driver’s seat, Cirice saw her keys dangling from the ignition, as well as her phone in the cup holder. Seventeen missed calls from Tony, dozens of missed text messages, but now no service. It did not matter, she just wanted out of this place.
Cirice reached for her keys and turned them in the ignition as the eastern sky began to lighten. The ignition did not turn. Cirice’s heart sunk.
Had she left it running?
She turned the ignition back towards her before saying a little prayer to whatever gods may be listening and attempted to turn the ignition again. As the rays of sunlight began moving through the tree branches, her car made a sad whining followed by a kathunk.
She slammed her palms against the steering wheel, cursing loudly.
Resting her head against the headrest, she watched the sun appearing over the horizon and immediately getting veiled by a cloud. Tears of frustration trickled down her cheeks as beads of sweat accumulated along her hairline and dribbled down her forehead. She wiped them all away, massaging her temples.
What as she going to do? And why was it so bloody hot?
A cloud moved aside, bathing Cirice in the full morning sun. In the cup holder, her phone rang: Tony. As Cirice reached for the device, she burst into flames.
From the tower window, he watched as the girl – his newest price – burned in her car below.
He sighed. “How disappointing,” he growled, turning away and letting the curtain fall.