#1 The World Beneath Us
Before I met him, I think that life used to be a lot simpler.
I went out with friends and would drink with them. I went shopping for clothes on occasion and laughed more freely. I would go out to buy my groceries and eat the foods that I wanted to eat. But all of that completely changed when I met him.
Him. Also known as Markus Kinsington. Also known as my boyfriend. And also known as a golddigger.
I come from a wealthy family. Our company, Syleman Incorporated, is a large investing group that turns local businesses into bursting profit hubs. We’re famous for our ability to transform places and businesses so quickly and so efficiently. And with all of that popularity comes quite a lot of cash.
So I suppose that I was bound to have someone after my family. Or rather, me. And that person who was after me, in particular, happened to be Markus. I just simply didn’t know it.
When I met him, I considered him a boyfriend who would simply be a fun time to be around. But when he persuaded me to move in with him after only five months of dating, I knew that I had gone wrong.
You never suspect them. The ones that are nice to you so often, that never once snap at you and do whatever you want. And when it turns out how crooked and awful that person is, you can hardly believe it. “But how?” you wonder. “But when” is what you need to be thinking about.
When, when did they start acting like that? When, when did they decide to? When, when did they even want to manipulate you like that?
THE AIR AROUND ME was quiet and dense, and I let my eyes flutter shut in the humid morning air. I attempted to listen to the sounds around me–the noise of the wildlife growing around myself and the birds twittering somewhat anxiously. But, alas, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to listen to anything at all.
I sighed, letting my breath slip through my lips without any hitch. I wanted to be at least kind of calm today. Before he showed up. Before I got… hit.
If there was anything that I could hear, though, it was the sound of the Callison River nearby, bubbling and sweet. I heard the flutter of tiny wings. And, of course, the loud thud that resulted from a certain someone slamming the front door too hard.
We don’t precisely have neighbors, except for that old run-down looking house next door. But nobody had lived there in years. Except… I swore that earlier when I was outside checking the weather I saw a SOLD sign in front of it…
But none of that mattered right now. All that mattered was one word: Calm. I wanted to be peaceful. Structured. Stabilized, or at least slightly like it.
I think you already know that’s not going to happen.
His footsteps were all too familiar to me now: thundering, crashing. Those boots of his certainly added to the ominous effect. The sheer age of this house didn’t exactly help things, either.
He was here before I could even breathe again. I kept my eyes squeezed shut, my muscles immediately seizing up. Maybe, just maybe, if I keep still he will leave me alone…
But of course, that was merely a fantasy. As if he would do anything as ridiculous as that.
His footsteps slowed after he opened the screen door outside, shutting it with a slight bang. My eyes nearly flew open when I heard him enter, but I managed to wrench them shut in time. I couldn’t have him thinking that I was just staring off into the distant forest, now could I?
But then I felt it: those large, calloused hands of his spreading across the small of my back. They brushed my shoulders with an odd shiver, making me cringe. I kept my eyes closed.
Then suddenly, I heard the familiar noise that the chair made when you sat down in it too fast. I don’t know what it was called, but I just knew that I didn’t like it. He had sat down instead of touching my back any more. At that thought, I was slightly relieved, but also terrified at what could be coming next.
“Ramona.” I cringed and flinched at his voice. It repulsed me to my core. It was too normal, too rough for someone of his personality. Of who he was.
“Don’t you know exactly where your eyes should be right now?”
I held back a disappointed groan, biting my lip as I yanked my eyes open. The sun was right in my eyes too, which nearly blinded me. Why was the world so unnecessarily bright?
But I knew what he wanted. What I had to do. I hesitantly locked eyes with his, and I swore I saw his lips smirk very slightly when I did. He got what he wanted.
I kept my face blank. Just like he wanted. Without emotion, without thought. Kind of like a doll, I supposed. “I should be looking at you, dear. I’m very sorry. It will never happen again.” The phrase was like instinct now. It sounded so fake.
The glaring smirk on his face grew much wider. “Good job, Ramona. You did well. Just make sure,” his face turned so coy it made me want to scream, “it doesn’t happen again~”
The chair squeaked when he left it, those pounding footsteps of his growing quieter and quieter, signaling that he was leaving. I released the breath that I didn’t realize I’d been holding, the air slipping away.
Well. I supposed that I should be fixing things up for him. Cleaning and cooking for him. Doing everything for him.
When I woke from my dreams the next morning, I had to unplaster my eyelids from my cheeks. I’d been crying in the night. I sat up slowly, my comforter slipping off the side of the bed as I rubbed my eyes. Looking around me, I saw that the sun was practically flying into the room. Someone had left the curtains open.
I somehow managed to make my way downstairs and immediately noticed how brilliantly colored it was, shining and completely doused in the light of our sun.
The kitchen was bathed in sunlight. Too bright for my eyes. Sighing, I strolled over to the several windows there and pulled the curtains back. The room was dim and dull once more. Just how I liked it–or rather, how I deserved it.
The sun is beautiful, colorful. It is freedom. I’m not free. I am not flying away, like a bird. I am stuck here.
I don’t deserve the sun.
Maybe the sun was Markus’s way of tormenting me. And if it was, it was working. When all the curtains were closed, I settled into my routine once more: scrubbing at things that were already spotless. Silently, without a word of complaint to someone who wasn’t there, working my ass off to make some sort of surprising food.
Until… the beeping began.
It was when I was sipping my coffee at the dining table that I heard it. It was a high-pitched, annoying sound, and it made me want to throw my mug on the floor. It sounded oddly familiar though. I couldn’t quite place where I’d heard it, but that was most likely just a side effect of being here so long.
The noise continued for hours. While I was cleaning the bathroom, while I was planning dinner recipes, while I was taking a break at 3 o’clock. It just kept going. By then, I was about to bust out a window, it was so irritating. I had no idea why it made me so agitated. It was like I was trying to release all of my pent-up anger just because of something so small.
That was when I mustered up the courage to go look for the cause of the sound.
It was a smoldering day today at 3, even though the world was transitioning into fall and getting progressively cooler. I could already feel the sweat starting to bead at my neck when I started up the path. All around me were endless piles of trees and foliage, nearly drowning me in all the nature. I felt like I was suffocating as I walked.
The road leading up to our house was long and winding, which made it difficult for people to just drive on up. And looking back at it, through the trees, made you wonder why we even had such a path if we were so loaded.
Our house was huge. And no, it wasn’t like one of those enormous fancy mansions you see on TV. It was a huge log cabin, that came with two balconies and two porches. Two bathrooms, one wine cellar, and three bedrooms. So, yes. I guess that you could tell us off for the road. If we had such a big house, then what was the point of having such a bad way to get up here?
Markus was the one who insisted on it. He thought that he knew that I would be less likely to escape if the road was so terrible. Not to mention the awful amount of mangled trees surrounding the place.
You can’t leave even if you wanted to.
I crushed several fallen leaves on my way to the main road, the gravel beneath me crunching with my nonexistent weight. I pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose as I reached my destination, pulling myself over some, particularly large rocks on the end of the lane. And then I knew exactly where the beeping was coming from:
A moving truck, right smack in front of the road to our house.
And behind it, the old house nobody had lived in for years, with a large SOLD sign in front of it.
I gasped immediately, fighting the urge to bolt right back home. But something froze me in my spot. Someone was finally going to be here. Someone was finally moving in across from our house. I wonder if they had already tried coming down to our house today?
The moving truck was beeping incredibly loud for seemingly no reason, two red flashing lights going off as it backed up into the house’s driveway. The house was still exactly like I remembered it, even though I hadn’t been up there in quite some time. Several months, I think.
It was a large colonial home, opposite of our log cabin. One balcony out on the front, a small porch that even came with a swing. A large backyard, a patio. It was probably only half the size of my current house. Air left my lungs before I could even blink. I was going to have a neighbor. Was I going to have… a friend?
Before I could tell those silly fantasies off, I saw the screen door on the house blast open without warning. I flinched when I saw who was coming out:
My new neighbor, I assumed. Blonde hair, tall and slender. He was wearing a beanie, covering his head, (in summer?) so I couldn’t get a good look at his face. But one thing that I could see was a pair of unrimmed glasses that had slipped down to the edge of his nose, and he made no effort to pull them back up.
I questioned myself then, wondering if Markus would even want me to befriend a strange man across the street. But then again… did I even have to listen to him?
Oh, wait, of course, I did. What was I thinking?
Just then, I felt incredibly uncomfortable with something. Eyes that were watching me. I knew the feeling well. My eyes flew upwards, wondering furiously who it was.
The neighbor was staring at me.
Those eyes of his bored into mine, emerald and bright with something I didn’t know. They seemed to be surveying my very soul.
My entire body shivered as my face flushed from humiliation. What kind of person watches their neighbor oddly from the woods without a single word? My feet slipped behind me as if I was already trying to run away, just in the wrong direction.
A rush of hot, sticky air filled my already-parched throat as I flew back down the road. It seemed like my legs couldn’t move fast enough for my body, and that just made me want to go even faster. Some vague part of me wondered if I should stop, as my body wasn’t quite fit enough to be doing these types of activities. But when my mind flashed back to seeing my new neighbor…
I never wanted to come out here again.
By the time I had run back home, I was so exhausted that I slumped down the side of the front door. It made me wonder if I should get out more often, but I knew that that would make Markus angry.
I rubbed my sore feet, which had been a bit cut up by a few rocks on the pathway. Crimson oozed out of them now, red and uninviting. Ugh, that’s just another thing for me to have to deal with later. Annoying…
I pulled myself off the floor, huffing as I stumbled over to the couch. I sighed heavily, glad to be away from that. My face red, I gripped the edge of the couch for support. I seriously needed to sit down for a bit after running practically a mile back up here. My fingers then slipped over the thermostat in the living room, setting it down to only 65 degrees.
I nearly shuddered when I thought about the embarrassment that had just occurred, and mildly hoped that I wouldn’t have to run into that neighbor again. But as my mind wandered and my eyes caught on my palms, I heard the unfamiliar sound of the doorbell ringing. It was loud and exuberant, which brought me out of my sudden slump.
It couldn’t possibly be Markus. Unless he decided to come home early? But that wouldn’t be the case–he wouldn’t come back home for no reason. But there were also some other options as to who it could be. Kendall, the gardener for my courtyard in the back? Or if Markus ordered something…
I sighed once more, agitated. Walking over to the door, I opened it slowly and cautiously, as if I was afraid of what might be there.
I was afraid for good reason, because low and behold the person standing there was my neighbor. Without a beanie, with quite possibly the most amazing hairstyle I’d ever seen, and those glasses still on the edge of his nose.
Those incredibly green and bright eyes of his still stared right into me. I wondered for a second if he was wearing contacts (because how could those eyes possibly be natural??) and then he spoke.
His voice was soft, calculated. Not scratchy or rough like Markus’s. It was kind of… lovely, I realized. But his voice made every muscle in my body freeze in its spot. I wasn’t expecting this at all. I seriously thought that I’d never had to even look at him again. But here he was, speaking in that voice and looking through my very being.
It was a simple hello. I willed myself to act normal and give a slight nod in acknowledgment. I could feel the familiar feeling of sweat falling down my neck already. I made myself speak, too.
“Hello.” I nearly choked on one word. It made me concerned about whether or not I’d even be able to carry out an entire conversation. I was able to talk to Markus a lot more easily, and he was the guy I was stuck herewith. The person who was hurting me. The man who was essentially imprisoning me here.
My eyes watered slightly as a harsh, warm wind whipped against my cheeks. The stranger scratched the back of his head for a couple of seconds, his gaze falling flat to the ground beneath us. But just as suddenly, his eyes slid up to meet mine, and I felt myself flinching before I could stop it.
Let me say something about his hair first, though.
With that beanie off of him, the one that he was wearing before in this awful weather, he looked like some sort of Greek god. I’m not kidding. Up close, I could see that he was probably about 6′ 1″, which was 5 inches taller than me. I kicked myself a lot for being shorter than Markus, but with someone even taller than Markus I wanted to kick myself even harder. There was no chance of me growing anymore, but one had to hope…
His hair came down to the nape of his neck, falling in completely mismanaged wisps of gold. The color of it wasn’t an obnoxious yellow color, but natural and like he’d just bathed in sunshine. Of freedom.
And the star of the show, of course… was the baby pink hair of his that seemed to be quite literally sprouting out the top of his head.
No, I am not kidding. He was blonde all around his head except for a few large tufts of baby pink.
So yes, he looked like a Greek god. And maybe a little bit of an odd one, at that. One with pink and blonde hair.
I stood there gaping at his hairstyle for about three full seconds without stopping until I realized how messed up I probably looked while doing that. I felt strangely sub-par to this guy.
“Might I ask what your name is? I came by to say hello.” Oh, God. He came all this way, down that terrible road just to say hi to the random stranger in the woods? Which happened to be me?
I stared at the ground long and hard before I remembered that I was in a human verbal conversation. “Um… my name is Ramona. Ramona Syleman.”
My voice came out broken and shaky, and I felt my face flushing. But the stranger didn’t seem to notice it. “Hi there, Ramona. My name is Liam Milsken. Pleased to meet you.”
He was so polite and formal while I was like some country hick. God, this was a weird situation I was in. Or at least I felt like it. The stranger, no, Liam, gave me a small smile. And before I knew it, he was excusing himself with a mumble and strutting off down the god-awful road again. His tufts of pink hair seeming to bounce off his back as he went along.
Jesus, what just happened?
“Did you meet the new neighbor, sweetie?”
I was startled out of my reverie later that day, as Markus and I were settled down at the dinner table. “Um… yes.” I managed to stutter out. I could almost hear his eyes narrowing as he observed me.
“Oh really? What were they like?” His voice sounded so coy all of a sudden–he probably thought that I was hiding something. I wanted to give an exasperated sigh at Markus, though. I obviously wasn’t, but if there was a chance for Markus to “catch me in the act”, Markus wasn’t going to let the opportunity slide by.
“There was only one person, dear. A man named Liam.” Markus’s eyebrows hitched upwards at that. That had piqued his interest. He didn’t say anything about it, though, and began running his hands through his tousled midnight hair.
I continued. I knew he would ask more if I just stopped. “He’s fine. Looks like an okay dude.”
I said the lie with no emotion. It was a lie because I thought that Liam looked like a really interesting person to hang out with, but what would I know? I was the person who was in the middle of nowhere in a log cabin with her so-called boyfriend. My eyes drifted to the plate of food I’d prepared with no real appetite, some part of me thinking about if I’d ever get my sense of taste back.
“Huh” was the only real response that Markus offered. After that, he dumped his plate in the sink for me to clean and headed to the living room without another word. It was normal like this. He usually didn’t talk much to me anyway, unless he was ************ something.
I sighed, exhausted from the weight of the world. My eyes drifted from the dim lighting in the kitchen to the windowed back door leading to the garden. My garden. My solace. It was too dark out to go into now, but I pushed myself off my seat to go observe there anyway.
I flipped the light switch next to the door, sliding it open just as the light flickered on. And then I saw it. My creation (with the help of a particular gardener named Kendall). Rows and rows of well-preserved lilies, daffodils, and tulips rose into the air. Several rose bushes and rhododendrons were busy growing around the side of the stone fountain, which you could easily walk up to using the brick path all around the area. In the mornings I would occasionally go out for a stroll here, to soak in the scent of my flowers and to feel the sun. To feel what meant to me freedom.
I was so lost in the view of my solace I didn’t even hear the familiar footsteps falling in place behind me. But what I did feel, however, was the brush of two rough hands around my shoulders, gentle at first. But as I kept staring, still as a statue with surprise, those hands began to tighten around my shoulders. Soon their nails dug into my skin, and the pressure made me flinch with the pain.
I had made him angry. Something made my eyes water deeply and heavily as he spoke. “You know where you’re supposed to be, don’t you…?”
I cringed, but his nails just kept slicing into my skin. I could feel blood beginning to trickle down the sleeves of my sweatshirt, but I knew that I couldn’t move. I couldn’t, because that would make him angrier. So with only one word I gave him the answer he truly desired: