Once the fraught first supper finally culminated, full from good food that sits uneasily in my stomach. They release us from the dining hall and Hilda escorts us back to our quarters. Because honestly, on our own, I would have to put on google maps just find my way back.
Eventually we arrive at our designated corridor. I enter my room and I collapse against the door, the wrought etchings poking into my back as the door glides back to a close.
Even though I’m alone, I feel… watched. Not literally, but the feeling resembles that disquiet. This unceasing discomfort clings to my chest, relentless. It’s neither the heat nor this awful dress that aggravates my skin. But something more. Something unexplainable.
Everything about this place, the Apions. It all just feels unnatural, like I was plucked from the world I knew and thrusted into this fictitious reality with servants and dressmakers. Fabricated by some kind of illusion of grandeur. I have watched many movies and series that led me to fantasize about how life would be if my family and I lived an unburdened life.
I never cared for castles, gowns or servants to do my bidding. Not stupid sports cars or extravagant, Instagram-worthy vacations. Just merely to be free and my father liberated from the stresses that sit heavy on him like perpetual weights tied around his neck.
The Apions’ life take my fantasies to a whole new realm.
I lift myself upright and saunter to the centre of the widespread wardrobes. My hands clutch onto the iron handles and I dramatically swing the doors open.
The vision before me shoves my qualms aside and grants me a fleeting sense of calm. I amble down the furry white carpet of the walk-in wardrobe. The recessed lights, silver-tinted, line the ceiling like a constellation of stars. My flank is surrounded by racks of hung custom-made dresses, most of which are concealed in black coverings. The ones that aren’t, are irrefutably glamorous with a plethora of colours, a vibrancy of fabrics, some with guipure lace and others, charmeuse satin.
The pathway widens to a narrow rectangle-shape section. The one side is brimming with layers of shoes, various types of high heels buffed to a shine. A wasted effort. The opposite flank is vacant, but at the centre of the veneered dark wood shelves, burrowed away at the bottom is my luggage. I walk forward, bend over and lug a suitcase out. The withered coat, chipped away at the edges, is an affront to the pristine, luxurious aesthetic of the room.
I kneel beside it and unzip it and the top unravels. I fish out my pyjamas and reel in my shorts and dad’s old shirt. I slap it close and eagerly strip off the dress and kick off my black pumps. I slip on my shorts and pour myself into the grey oversized shirt, slung over my one shoulder.
Deserting the dress on the lid of my suitcase. I swivel around and exit the wardrobe.
I emerge on the other side. My gaze wanders around the upholstered burgundy headboard with a mountain of crimson throw pillows that compliments the scarlet duvet. I set my eyes on the bedside table where my phone is. Before I can even take a step in its direction.
A sound seizes me to a standstill.
I freeze and incline my head, concentrating on the peculiar sounds. My eyes zoning into the distant, far-flung sounds that deeply echo into the bedroom. Loud in its volume, but the far-off resonance confirms its distance.
Suddenly Joshua and Atticus burst into my room. I clap a hand onto my chest to ensure that my heart remains in its cage. My jaw taut, I lower a frightened fist to my side.
“At least being here has one plus, you’re finally learning basic manners.” I lather my tone with mock. “Thanks for knocking.”
Joshua zooms to the bed like a quick blue flame, clothed in fresh pyjamas, matching top to bottom with a short sleeve top and three-quarter shorts. I have never seen it before, so it must be in courtesy of Miss Apion.
Josh springs up and seats himself at the foot of the bed.
Atticus shoves the door close and slides his hands into the pockets of his grey sweatpants.
“Oh, please… I never knock.”
So it wasn't him....
My eyebrows rumple but I shake off the comment with a shrug.
“Bro, what are you even doing here? Again.” I fold my arms. “Are you scared? Don’t want to sleep alone in the spooky manor?” I question in an infuriating baby voice and it immediately triggers him.
Atticus strolls over to me, easily dwarfing me. This kid is an overgrown sixteen year old. He mirrors my stance, crossing his burly arms, a tribute to his athleticism.
We both have dad’s tall genes, but his legs lengthen into manhood.
“Watch yourself, sis.”
I snort. “Or what? I’ve seen puppies more threatening than you.”
In a heartbeat, Atticus shoots his arm out and swiftly hooks it around my neck, heaving me to him, forcing me under his armpit. His taut arm tightening around my neck. And thank God he’s wearing a short-sleeved top. With his other hand, he playfully jumbles my hair with his rough fingers. I squirm and launch my fists into his steel-like oblique, and Atticus laughs at my futile attempts to break free.
“Or that.” I hear a smirk in his tone.
Satisfied. Atticus relinquishes his hold and I rush backwards, straightening, face flustered and hair dishevelled, straggling out of the bounds of my straight-back plait.
“Such a prick!” I bark and swipe a few dark strands from my face.
Atticus grins, casually slipping his hands back in his pockets.
“But I’m your prick.” He chuckles and his eyes gleam with malice. “Consider it payback for forcing me to suffer through that meal sober.”
I no longer feel guilty for that.
Plus, there’s not enough ounces of wine that can numb the discomfort of that ordeal.
“The real reason I’m here is that. One, Josh doesn’t want to sleep alone and there’s no way in hell he is sleeping with me. Two, well… we should wait for him to fall asleep first,” Atticus relays.
Straightaway, Joshua shoots up and stands on the bed and throws one of his infamous tantrums.
“Nah-uh! I want to hear as well! I’m big enough!” Joshua hollers.
I silence him by jabbing an index finger to my lips. To my luck, he surrenders without a fight. Joshua huffs and crosses his arms with an angry pout that makes him look even more adorable.
I look back at Atticus and arc a curious brow.
“What are you talking about?”
“I know you and I know your inner Betty Cooper is deafened by the alarm bells that this place gives off. Don’t bother lying or try to suppress it. You and I both know that there’s something… off about this place… about our distant aunt and uncle,” Atticus insinuates.
I hide my truth behind a stoic expression. “I don’t know what you mean?”
Attius interrogates me with a probing look. A sly smile crawls on his face. He saunters over and seats himself beside Joshua, the mattress dips beneath him.
“How many times has dad’s deadbeat brother asked for money that he didn’t have. Grandpa’s medical treatments that nearly bankrupted him before he died.” He sighs bitterly and runs a hand through his mussed, molten-brown hair, stylishly trimmed at the sides.
“Our family has gone through so much sh—” his gaze darts to Joshua beside him, “stuff. Just when everything’s at a breaking point, the heroic Apions swoop in and adopt us like we're a bunch of orphans.”
My shoulders rise and slump back down heavily. “What were they supposed to do? Reject us. Its clear to them, dad and us, that we’ve only been aware of each other’s existence, not that long ago,” I retort.
“Be that as it may. It doesn’t change the fact that this place is creepy as f. C’mon bro, you saw all the houses we drove past before we got here. No gates or fences. Then comes the Apions with iron gates and armed, call-of-duty, guards manning the property.”
“That’s because their filthy rich Atticus, they sort of need extra protection,” I defend, and I don’t know why.
Atticus frees an exasperated sound and throws a flippant hand at me.
“Defend all you want; I know you believe me.” He casts his gaze afar and his face grows serious. “There’s something wrong. I can’t call it out by name or prove it with evidence. But there’s something wrong with this place. With them.”
To my surprise, I find myself saying, “Then let’s find some.”
His oaken eyes draw back to me with a glimmer of interest.
“Let’s find some evidence, I have nothing better than to delve through conspiracy theories.” Silently hoping that it is just that. Conspiracies. Spun out of paranoia and inner aggression towards our relocation. “After, we can shut this down and move on. Deal?”
A deal struck because we both know my truth, our shared truth. There’s just too many things that don’t add up about our dear aunt or uncle and their home. And I’m willing to gather all the fragments until I can build the answer.
A part of me wishes the outcome disappoints and Mr. and Miss Apion are just old-fashioned, old money types that we’re just simply unaccustomed to.
But the other part, disbelief gnaws at me. Subliminal thoughts lurking in the shadowy recesses of my mind.
Atticus gives me a wane flicker of a smile.
“Deal,” he accepts.
“So let the sleuthing begin.”