I ran a hot bath when I was finally settled back into our hotel room and thought a lot about what transpired. I was on edge, yet I had no other thought than being again inside the Artist House’s garden.
I smiled to myself as I thought about the old brick that somehow always brought a smile to my mouth. I touched my skin while I lied in the bath, thinking of how glorious the place was. There was just something about it. There was something magical that I could not escape.
I heard a knock at the bathroom door, and I knew it was Neil. He broke the spell.
“Honey, are you almost done? I have to piss.”
“God damn it, Neil! I’ll be out in a minute.”
I knew I snapped, and I knew he’d be upset when I did finally open that door. It made me angry. Why couldn’t I just be alone? Alone in my bath, alone in my thoughts, alone in that house.
“I’m sorry, Tess.”
I stood wrapped my towel around me and unlocked the door.
I must have looked strange to Neil, who suddenly stopped in his tracks, forgetting he had to pee.
“What happened to you?”
“No, I’m not,” I looked at him, confused.
I looked down, and it wasn’t my leg that was bleeding. I blushed. I had started my period. There was so much blood that I closed the shower curtain.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t even feel it this month.”
Neil laughed, “It’s okay; it explains your mood.”
I heard him going, and I washed again with soap. When I was done, Neil was already back in bed with the television blaring.
I found my bag of feminine products and got ready for my day. Although I found myself weary and weak from my cycle, I always felt tired during, but this month seemed abnormally exhausting.
“Don’t forget, you have a meeting with my mother at one.”
“I know,” I said, rolling my eyes with my back to Neil. “Florist is meeting us in the hotel lobby. Hoping it will be a quick meeting.”
“Be nice, Tess, my mother, is going to a lot of trouble for us.”
I turned and faced Neil. “I’m sorry, you’re right.”
I went over and kissed his cheek. I had to act normal.
Neil left shortly after to meet a friend for golf. I decided to take a nap after being up all night at the Artist House. I dreamt strange dreams of the Artist House.
I saw Sylvia Stanton in her black gown, and she was hosting a party. There were so many faceless humans all hanging out around her, keeping her and the house away from me. I was growing impatient with them all and wanted them to leave so I could be alone with the Artist House. I felt something jar me awake.
I opened my eyes to an outraged Neil.
“What the fuck Tess?”
“What?” I sat up, confused.
“You didn’t show up for the damn meeting with my mother. She is beside herself of embarrassment. I can’t believe you forgot!”
“Well, why the fuck didn’t you go instead?” I snapped at him and then got off the bed, grabbing my purse and Neil’s keys.
“I have helped with every other preparation! All you have done is wander around like some teenager fawning over a stupid house!”
“I don’t want to look at you right now,” I barked and walked towards the hotel door.
“Where the hell are you going?”
I already knew the answer to that question. I no longer cared.
I walked out and down to the garage. I was speeding towards the Hills before I even realized I had not been wearing my seatbelt. I saw the sirens in my rearview window.
I signed and pulled over.
The cop seemed to be inspecting the car before he approached.
He was older and fat. I couldn’t see how someone with the size of the gut he had chasing down a criminal.
“Ma’am, may I see your license and registration?”
“I smiled demurely and opened up the glove compartment. I pulled it out and handed him the registration while I pulled out my license.”
“This isn’t your car.”
“My fiance’s car.”
He nodded. “Where are you off to this evening?”
“Oh, a friend’s house that lives in the Hills.” I was only half lying. Sylvia Stanton’s Artist House was my new friend now.
“Well, you weren’t wearing your seatbelt, so I had to pull you over.”
“OH, Christ on a cracker officer. I do realize that now. I was just in such a hurry I had forgotten. My friend called at the last minute, her boyfriend and she fought. I barely had time to think. I think it may be a domestic disturbance. Do you think that if I needed someone that an officer would be available?”
“Oh, well, yes, ma’am. Here’s my card, just ring the station, and if you think there may be some sort of harm to your friend, tell them Henry Dobbins asked you to call.”
“Oh, thank you so much, officer. Look, I am so sorry about the seatbelt, but you know how things can sometimes be.”
“Look, I’ll just give you a warning for this. But next time, don’t forget.” He smiled at me, clearly smitten at my charms.
I made sure to pull away slowly and turn up a side road. He followed me halfway and then turned when I was about a mile down the road.
I pulled into the Artist House drive and grinned when I saw no one there. It was just after sunset, and the home had a glorious view of the hills and the valleys beneath the hills.
I pulled off towards the back so no one would see me and got out of the car, taking in the fresh air.
I walked around the back of the house towards the garden, and when I pulled on the garden gate, I was annoyed to find it was locked.
I could see no way in unless I climbed the wall around the garden. It was too tall for me, and there was no way up. A crow squawked in a tree nearby, and I could see he had a dead rat he was picking the flesh off of as it hung over a narrow tree branch. Blood was still dripping from its mouth. The blood seemed to run down towards the garden walls.
I saw it move as my eyes followed it towards the wall of the garden. Something told me to follow the blood, and then I went towards the wall and followed as it seemed to be running in a tiny stream towards the side of the house. From there, I could see a door that was swaying back and forth. It was an old thing blowing gently in the wind of the now brisk air. I followed it still, and the blood seemed to move towards the garden walls and seep into the dirt surrounding it. I opened the door and walked inside. The second I stepped inside, I felt my breath grow light, and I felt mildly dizzy. It was intoxicating to handle it.
I closed my eyes at the scent of what smelled like lilac and roses. There was something else, too, something I could not place. It was more like sweet sugar. It was coming from the kitchen. I had not realized that the kitchen was even being used. However, I could smell the sugary smell of what must have been cookies. I walked towards a small set of stairs and then opened a narrow door at the top of them, and I was inside the kitchen.
I looked around the small kitchen, not having focused on anything before now. I had taken the tour of the house, but I had not noticed much about the other parts of the house until now. A small dim light came from the kitchen wall, which showcased a small brown basket on the table. Inside were tiny cookies wrapped in a plastic wrapping of multiple colors. There was a sign on the basket that said: “TAKE ONE,” and so I was tempted, but then I heard something coming from inside the large room where Sylvia Stanton’s portraits all hung.
I walked in slowly as I realized there were small tea light candles placed on the faux stairway that went nowhere.
There was a stillness in the air, and it grew from chilly to very hot in seconds. I stared at the shadows as the candles bounced light up and down as candles do. I felt something touch my arm so gently that I barely noticed it at first.
I heard something then, although I was so focused on Sylvia Stanton’s portrait even to notice it.
It was soft, and the tickle of it on my neck should have given way to the warning, but I did not bother to turn around, I was so transfixed. I heard it then.
“It was my favorite dress,” said a voice.
“Mine too,” I answered absentmindedly and then felt a hand on my shoulder.
“You should see the rest of the house.” that voice said again.
I was in a fog. “I did.”
“I said the rest of the house.” that voice said again.
I turned without thinking then, and that is when I saw her. It was a woman she was naked and looked as though every ounce of her skin was peeled from her body. She bled something horrid all over the large mosaic floors. Her eyes were black, like holes in the sky, and her cheeks were skeletal and thin. Her nails were black and long like claws, and she stared at me with a serene grin upon her face.
She laughed then. I found myself screaming, although I had not known I was crying. How long had I screamed and how long had she or it been, laughed at me.
Within moments I could see it and feel every inch of that house as though it were alive. It sucked me inside its walls and hung me in mid-air as though I were nothing. I felt it then, my own body floating as I hung from the ceiling by unseen hands. The ghoul seemed to disappear as quickly as she had appeared, but my mind was now blank. I felt my body fall into another euphoria as before but ten times the tremors as before. I didn’t care that something was taking me on this ride. I only knew I was in heaven and never wanted this feeling to end.
I could see nothing except a rainbow of colors rushing through my mind as though I had taken a drug that made me feel nothing around me.
Soon I felt a gentle tug, and then my head wanted to explode. I woke to find myself half inside my car with my skirt up around my waist as though I had stumbled into my vehicle haphazardly.
When I thought of what had transpired, I didn’t even remember. When I looked into my car’s mirror, I realized I looked pale and gaunt as though something was sucking the life force from my body.
Strangely my first thought was I wanted to run back inside, but my cell phone was buzzing inside my purse. I moved my body, barely understanding what was going on around me.
I stood up straightening my skirt so that it fell beneath my knees.
I saw there had been twenty-four missed calls from Neil and one from my future mother in law that I knew was from yesterday when I missed our meeting with the florist.
I looked around and then took a deep breath and drove home. This time I remembered my seat belt.
When I got into our hotel suite, I was relieved to see Neil standing there, only when I realized he did not look happy I knew I was in deep shit.
“I’m glad to see you aren’t dead. Tell me where did you go last evening?”
“I drove around,” I said, knowing he would know I was lying.
“I can’t do this anymore, Tess, for the last few weeks it has become blatantly clear you are not ready for marriage. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life with someone that only cares about themselves. I called my mother last night and called off the wedding before she and my father spent any more money on something you don’t give a rat’s ass about. Bloody Hell! Can you say nothing to defend yourself or at least an apology? I was worried sick last night thinking you were in a ditch or worse!”
I looked at my fiance of two years, and I honestly didn’t care. I was glad I didn’t have to sneak around anymore. I just wanted to be at the Stanton House. I tried to figure out what it was that made me float every time I went there. I had to know more, to find out more. I saw he had his bags packed.
Neil handed me a wad of cash and was saying something to me, but I couldn’t hear him.
“Did you hear one fucking word I just said?”
I looked at him, puzzled.
“Jesus Christ, Tess, I am leaving you the car for now, and I paid for the room till the end of the month, then you are to be out. I am giving you a bit of cash to help you out. I hope you can make it back home, okay.”
“Okay,” I said flatly.
“Okay, is all you can manage? Four years and Okay is all she says. Wow!” He laughed to himself, walking out of our hotel room, slamming the door as he left me alone.
I should have cried. I should have chased him down the hall, but I didn’t move. Instead, I only wanted to sleep and to rest. Tonight I was going back to the Stanton House.
I pulled in again and realized that there was some sort of party. I noticed other cars as well, and then I saw a sign that there was some fundraiser. I hadn’t bothered to tidy up before I left. I only wanted to get to the house.
I saw women in gowns and men in tuxedos. Caterers were walking about the property, and I quickly realized I had come at the wrong time.
I smoothed the sundress I had thrown on and tossed my long red hair over my shoulder to smooth it down. I applied some pink lipstick and pinched my cheeks to look a bit more alive. I walked towards the house, and a woman quickly greeted me in a catering outfit, offering me champagne.
I took a glass from her metal tray and walked into the garden area of the house. There was something that struck me as odd immediately.
Everyone there was older than me. When I walked in two of the oldest looking ones there eyed me with grins upon their faces. One of the men stood walking towards me with a sweet smile.
“I’m Jacob Fitzgerald, and you are?”
“Hello, Tess, welcome to our annual old actor’s guild reunion. Everyone here has been around since the film industry began, I think. Are you one of the reporters?”
I no longer felt uneasy and eased myself into his good graces immediately.
“Um, you may say that. I’m a fan of this old place. Tell me, did you know Sylvia Stanton?”
“Know her? I was in love with her, but she never gave any of us the time of day. She was more into this old place. There is something about it. Then she disappeared one day with no trace.”
“I heard that, as well. Did she die?”
“Some say she is buried somewhere in this garden.”
“I had not heard that one.” I grinned while sipping the champagne.
“I wouldn’t suspect you would; she liked to have an air of mystery. Todd Chambers knew her better.” He said, pointing towards an older man who seemed as misplaced as I was sitting near the Koi pond in the center of the garden.
I looked at him, and when I did, he seemed to glare at me intensely. He wouldn’t take his eyes off me even for a second once he noticed me.
“If you will excuse me, dear, I must use the men’s room. This old bladder isn’t what it used to be.” He chuckled and walked off.
I felt immediately drawn to Mr. Chambers, and I walked towards him, sitting down in a white metal chair that was open next to him.
“This place is fascinating,” I said, trying to make conversation.
“It is that,” he said, barely acknowledging me even though he had nearly jumped out of his chair when he first saw me walk into the garden.
“Did you know Sylvia Stanton well?” I asked.
“Once upon a time.”
“I can’t seem to stop coming here.”
He looked into my eyes and then took a deep breath.
“I think it is quite too late for you.” He laughed softly, looking at the sky. “Pretty full moon tonight, though. Too bad,” he said, standing up, walking away from me.
I looked up at the sky and then back at him, confused as to what that meant.
“What is too bad?” I asked, even though I think I knew without saying.
“It sucked me in, too.” he smiled gently. “It sucks everyone in.”
I looked at Mr. Chambers, and I had to know more.
“What happened to her?”
He looked at me and then at the ground. He took a deep breath. “Sylvia had told many of us she was moving to Japan. That was the last time anyone saw Sylvia. I don’t think she wanted ever to be found. She got old; she wanted everyone to remember her for who Sylvia was when she was young and beautiful, not what we all become. If you will excuse me.” he said, walking away from me and out of the garden. I went to sit by the pond. I don’t know how long I stayed, but soon I was the only one in the garden left.
I listened to the city beneath the hill. This old house sat on, and I stood feeling more tired than usual. I wanted to stay, but there was a feeling that I needed to go. I reluctantly walked out of the garden towards my car, noticing I was now the only person left. I thought of the house, and I thought of Neil. I should miss him, but standing where I stood looking back at that strange, bewitching block of stone and its beautiful garden; it made me realize I did not miss him. He was no longer a deterrent to my new found love affair. Inside myself, I wanted to disappear inside of it. I felt that just then. I heard an owl, and it caused me to stop staring at the house and refocus my energy on leaving. I opened my purse to pull out my car keys when I realized they were no longer there. I had to have dropped them when I was in the garden. I walked back towards the house, and when I got to the garden, I heard it then.
There was something in the air. It was heavy, humid, and not just because of the temperature overlooking LA. The city lights seemed dim to me now. My pull was being called to the garden. I opened the gate to enter the garden, and I felt it instantly. The oxygen seemed to have disappeared, causing me to take a deep breath as I walked towards the chair I had I had been sitting in earlier in the evening. I bent over to look on the grass for my lost keys.
A cooler gentler breeze was calling my name. It stroked my hair, and I felt my body get the chills. I was still bending over into the grass, but I was no longer looking for my car keys. I felt something touch my thigh.
Looking down, I saw a red bloodied hand creeping up out of the pond water touching me, caressing the inner workings of my thigh so gently I would have barely known it was doing it had I not seen it with my own eyes. It felt nice, but the terror I felt let me know it was a dangerous liaison I was now making a pact.
Then I felt a pinch of pain and realized a piece of my skin had been scraped off, and I began to bleed. This time the blood gushed from my leg into the pond in large streams that seemed never to end. I felt it scratch me again, this time on my shoulder by a more extended arm than my own. It seemed to grow outward like vines and wrapped its claws around my ankle, holding me in its grip.
What once were koi fish were now fanged creatures lapping up the blood that was now streaming from my thigh wound and into the pond. I saw eyes appear then as though they were glowing balls of light. Something dark slithered slowly out of that pond and stood above the water as I lay cowering beneath it all the while it kept me a prisoner in place by my ankles as it hung behind me.
Instead of the usual feeling of euphoria, I once felt I now felt sick to my stomach and horrified at this thing. A tongue appeared from nowhere and licked the back of my shoulders and neck. The bricks of the garden patio began to move beneath my body. The feeling was still causing me to feel good, and yet all at once, bad. There were so many feelings inside my body. It was like making love to the most amazing man on earth, but that he was a grotesque creature.
I tried to stand, but when I did, it was pinning me headfirst into the dirt. It lifted my body and tossed me on my back. The vines and the garden plants seemed to all wrap around me at once, taking me in their grasp. I could no longer see the sky, save for the moon. It hung above me as though it were mocking me. The entire house now seemed to vibrate, and bricks fell from the walls all around me. The dirt had worms that soon crawled from the earth entering my nasal passages, and with each invasion, I felt part of my body fade back into the darkness of the dirt and the ground beneath me.
I wanted to scream, but who would come for me? I realized very quickly I had been wrong all along about this place. It was a vampire seductive, and when it had me where it wanted me, it was now going to take what it wanted, my essence the very light in the soul that made me who I was. I managed to let out a muffled scream, and as I did, a swarm of black and gold moths choked me as they entered my mouth, causing me to gag.
In one sharp swoop, I felt the air go out of my lungs. It was replaced by dark black mist, and I could now feel that same euphoria, only this time it was sucking me in between this world and the nether. I felt my body lift slowly from the ground by vines that held me apart as I bled from multiple parts of my body. Each drop of blood, each breath, was no longer mine. I couldn’t even struggle to get away from it. I felt those same tremors come over my body like full-bodied orgasms. The only difference was that it was the trick it used to keep me from wishing to struggle. The feeling wouldn’t dissipate; it only grew worse. Whatever force hung me in the air now held me down like a rapist.
It was taking every good memory from my mind and eating them. It needed me, and I was using what little I had left to fight it from my heart. My heart now beat into my ears so loud that I knew I was dying.
Then I did.
The pain and euphoria had all but disappeared. All the life went out of my body, and I could see myself floating beneath me. My soul was hanging above my body, and it was as if I knew I only had seconds to disappear into the light that I now could feel engulfing me before this vampire saw me and devoured every inch of my body, and now my soul.
My soul floated above the house, and I could see the city. It was as if none of it had any meaning at all. I could feel a sense of the stars all around me and the galaxies all at once. The earth seemed to appear suddenly, and a warm rose-like smell engulfed me. As a passerby, I took it in the way you would a store window and let each thing go as quickly as it came and moved on.
Suddenly, I felt something else grab hold of me shocking my body to life, and the air returned to my lungs like a train wreck. I blacked out from the force of losing the connection to everything all at once.
I woke to the smell of Marlboro, and it reminded me of my grandmother, who would watch horror movies till the late night, smoking them frantically and biting her nails. It was comforting.
Todd Chambers’ car was vast and cold. It was still parked out by the main gate of the Stanton House next to my car. He sat next to me in the driver’s seat, smoking a cigarette. He kept the window down, and when I realized who I was looking at, I barely recognized him. The last time I had seen him, which I guessed was only a few hours before, and he was dressed in a tuxedo. Now he was wearing jeans and a beat-up brown leather jacket. He had a hat on and a gun at his side.
“Something told me you might come back here tonight. It’s at its most powerful during a full moon. This big old place got a taste of you. Once it does, it never lets you go till it consumes you. A lot like Sylvia.” He spoke so calmly for someone who had just saved someone else’s life.
“What happened to me?” I was trying to collect all of my thoughts at once.
“You asked me what happened to Sylvia earlier tonight.”
“Yes, I did.”
“Well,” he said, puffing on his cigarette and blowing it out the window. “That thing that tried to take you is what happened to her.”
I sat up in the car seat, looking at the man who sat before me. There was something in his then as he looked at me. I wasn’t sure how to read them.
“What was it?” I was still reeling from what had happened to me.
“Sylvia created it when she built that house. You could chalk it up to ancient land or something, but every single thing about that house was strategic as if she were creating a Chinese finger trap. You know those toys kids play with where the only way out is in?”
I nodded, trying to understand.
“Do you feel any different? Do you wish you could be back there now?”
I shook my head. For once in the years since I had first seen that house in my art history class, I didn’t want anything to do with it except to run as far away from it as possible.
“Well, good,” he said, patting my shoulder.
“Why does it feel different?”
“It has no use for you now. It got as much as it could take from you. It will move on to its next victim. Now that it has had its fill of you.”
“Can it be stopped?” I asked sincerely.
Todd Chambers let out a laugh. “No, Sylvia Stanton created it to sacrifice lives. She used to joke about practicing dark witchcraft. Then she started making new friends and taking up painting and traveling all over the world. Her favorite place was Japan. Sylvia used to talk about expanding the house. She had spent a lot of time in Osaka, Japan. That is where the koi came from. They were her final addition before she up and left.”
“What was the purpose of the house?”
“She used to have these elegant parties up here. People would go missing or become obsessed with her, and the next thing is they would go missing. and you would never see them again.”
“Didn’t people talk?”
“They did, but everyone loved her. She had power over people. I can’t explain it. We were once engaged.”
“You?” I was amazed.
“Yeah, then she got too obsessed with her new weird friends. She would have these people staying with us, and they were people that helped her understand geometry, magic, and alchemy. Next thing you know, she’s buying this old place. She did some strange things back then. I wish I had stayed; maybe I could have saved her from whatever it was that she did after I left.”
“That wasn’t your fault,” I said, now patting him.
“The last thing she told me was I could run and hide, but she would be everywhere someday. She’d be like a god. Well, she is something, let’s hope her darkness stays in this house.”
“You mean, that thing is – Sylvia?”
“It is some part of her, but the Sylvia I knew liked to picnic on the beach, bake cookies, and just take on the beach on the weekend. Then Hollywood came calling.”
I thought of those cookies that night in the kitchen and the bloody woman.
There was a dullness in me now. I couldn’t lie to myself because I felt empty when I thought of it. It was like breaking up with a lover. Sylvia Stanton of the famous artist house no longer wanted me.
I let Todd walk me to my car, and I promised to call him when I got back to my hotel, so he knew I made it back okay. He helped me locate my keys, which were miraculously in my purse the entire time.
Todd Chambers made me promise never to return to that house again.
I didn’t go back. I wanted to. God knows I did. The feeling of needing to had passed, and I soon put Sylvia Stanton of Artist House behind me.
I called Neil a week later, and we worked out our differences. He chalked it up to wedding jitters. If he had known what was going on, he and his mother might have had me committed.
It wasn’t until a year later; I was with Neil in an airport flying to our honeymoon destination after eloping in upstate New York. I picked up a magazine on art history to read our airplane to Hawaii when I saw something peculiar. There was an article celebrating unknown artists from the last century. It was a photo of a portrait of a woman wearing a black dress standing overlooking a Koi Pond in a beautiful Japanese Garden near a little house on a riverbank. I froze.
The second I saw the artist photo, I knew without a shadow of a doubt who the artist was. I knew it was Sylvia Stanton’s handiwork. There was an article on the mysterious artist. One of the caretakers died tending to the property in an accident where a giant statue of a deity, Izanami, the goddess of creation and death.
There was something about the article about how the caretaker bled to death, which had been a great scandal. The strangest thing of all was how all of the caretakers of the property treated it as a sacred.
I put the magazine down, feeling a bit sick to my stomach.
I sat, holding Neil’s hand to comfort my fears. He kissed my head, grinning as he closed his eyes. I looked at the front of the plane, staring into space. The stewardess at the front was handing out drinks, and from behind, I could see it was her black uniform. There was something about the way her hair curled at the nape of her neck. The way her body was so statuesque.
I sat up in a panic as she turned slowly to greet me with a wide grin.
“Miss, is there anything I can get you?”
I let out a sigh. “No, thank you,” I said.
I looked back at the magazine and then put it away in the seat next to me.
I wanted to forget Sylvia Stanton and her beautiful Artist House. I tried to ignore those decorative mosaic tiles, the majestic artwork that hung all over it. I wanted to do anything to forget that garden of euphoria. But like a lover, it haunted my dreams and held itself in my fears.
I knew I’d never return to Artist House, but I could never deny there was always going to be a part of me a little bit in love with it. I’d watch it over and over again in my mind replaying those good memories like an old-time movie starring the great, mysterious, and glamorous Sylvia Stanton.