Poor Aunt Maggie! How could someone disappear into thin air? When my sister, Trudi, called to tell me that Aunt Maggie had disappeared, I couldn’t believe it. Who could? She went to bed one night and by morning there was no trace of her. Nothing was stolen. Nothing was disturbed. Doors and windows were locked from inside. There was no sign of struggle. Nothing was out of the ordinary. The neighbors didn’t hear anything. And the bed seemed as if someone had slept in it. The police could not find any lead into her disappearance.
Aunt Maggie was a friendly old soul, although she was a bit of a loner. Never married and didn’t have any children. She lived in a small rented apartment and didn’t have much and what she had was mostly second-hand. She was a bargain-hunter and never bought anything new. She scoured the markets and second hand shops looking for good deal. I guess because she never had any money to buy anything new.
Three weeks after her disappearance, the landlord called Trudi and told her to clear the apartment. It was hard for us. Clearing her apartment meant we would never see Aunt Maggie again. She was gone. And we would never know what happened to her. So there wasn’t going to be any closure for us. This realization was very difficult for us to deal with. After all, Aunt Maggie was the only relative we had. She was our mother’s elder sister and when our parents died in a car accident a few years back, we formed an even closer bond with her.
But as upset as we were, we had no choice but to go to her apartment and collect all her belongings. Trudi decided to donate them to charity, except for one item: a painting on the wall over her bed. I took that. Trudi objected. Said the painting was crap. The canvas was badly cracked and the paint was so faded that it was as if I was looking at a ghost – the ghost of a man with wavy blond hair, wearing a nineteenth century outfit.
‘Why did Aunt Maggie buy this? When did she even buy it? Have you ever seen this before?’ Trudi kept asking.
‘I don’t know. I don’t know. And no,’ I kept answering.
The painting gave Trudi the creeps. But I didn’t mind it. In some strange way I was drawn to it. So this morning, two months after Aunt Maggie’s disappearance, I decided to hang it on the wall above my bed.
‘Good night, Aunt Maggie,’ I say, before turning my bed-lamp off.
I am sure I have forgotten something, but I just don’t remember what it is. All I know is that something is nagging at me that I shouldn’t be here, that this place is dangerous. But where is this place? I am in the middle of a windswept field. The sky above looks pretty bleak. Gosh! What am I doing here?
‘Good morning,’ says a man, breaking into my thoughts about my whereabouts.
I turn my head around to see a man wearing a tan suit. He looks vaguely familiar, though I can’t quite place him.
‘Good morning,’ I greet him back.
‘I am Ash. Ash Hartford,’ he introduces himself to me.
‘I am Emily. Emily Wilson.’
‘Would you like a tour of this place, Emily Wilson?’ Ash asks.
I wonder for a moment whether I should or not, but then I see no harm in touring the place. ‘Yes, that would be nice.’
We walk for a little while until a grand mansion comes into view.
‘Is that your place?’ I ask, pointing at the mansion.
‘Yes. This mansion and all the land that you see here belong to my family.’
‘Wow! Then you must be fabulously rich.’
He smiles. ‘I guess you could say that.’
I look at his face. He is very good-looking – piercing blue eyes and wavy blond hair. But there is something else too, though I don’t know what.
He loops an arm around mine as he guides me towards the front gates, but then suddenly something pulls me away.
At 6.30am the alarm clock goes off as usual and I wake up. I feel tired and have a slight headache. It is as if I haven’t slept at all, but I can’t do much about it. I have to get ready. I don’t think Mr Carson, the pharmacist, would appreciate if I arrive late to work. I yawn noisily and scramble out of the bed. Oh, how I wish I could go back to bed and sleep, but I can’t. After a quick shower, I go to the bedroom and put on my pharmacy-issued blue uniform, but as I do so I suddenly get the feeling that I am being watched. But by whom? I look around. There is no one in the room. And I am on the third floor, so no one would be loitering outside my window. I sigh nervously. It must be my imagination. Maybe I fear that what happened to Aunt Maggie would happen to me too.
I look at the clock. It is nearly seven-thirty. Jeez! A whole hour?! I took a whole hour to shower and change! How did that happen? I must be out of sync with time today, I joke to myself. Well, there goes the breakfast. I tie my hair up in a bun quickly, put my coat and boots on, grab a muesli bar from the kitchen drawer and leave my apartment. As I run to the bus stop, a strange feeling comes over me. It is as if I have forgotten something, though for the life of me I don’t know what. I reach the bus stop and wait for the bus to come. Damn! I just missed my bus. I didn’t even see it coming. It just whizzed by me like a ghost train. I am going to be late for work now. The next bus won’t be here for at least half-an-hour.
A gasp escapes my mouth. It is a miracle. Another bus is approaching. Quickly I lift my hand up for it to stop. The bus stops and I get on it. I thank the heavens for its early arrival and give the bus driver a quick rundown of how I missed an earlier one. He looks at me as though I am crazy or something, then tells me that I couldn’t have possibly missed an earlier bus, not unless I was referring to the one that came half-an-hour ago. I am utterly miffed by his response, but I can’t see him being wrong. He must know what bus is running at what time. But then how do I go about explaining what I saw. Maybe I was hallucinating in the same way that I thought I had a quick shower, when in fact I didn’t.
It is 8.45pm and I am dead tired. I had a long day at work. The pharmacy was so busy today. With the flu season upon us, everyone was after some kind of medication to either hold the flu at bay or simply beat it. I sigh heavily as I get ready for bed. What happened this morning with the ghost bus is still weighing on me. Did I really see it or did I imagine it? Surely, I must have imagined it. It is the only logical explanation.
As I sit on my bed, I turn around and look at the painting. A shiver goes through me and I suddenly find myself frightened of the painting. A little voice inside my head says that I should get rid of it. Oh, this is ridiculous. It is just a painting. A lifeless object. To be afraid of it is like being afraid of your own bed. I dismiss the idea. Well, I am off to the land of nod.
I am running wildly across a windswept field, calling for Ash. Once again I feel that I have forgotten something, but for the life of me I can’t remember what.
‘Hello there,’ calls a man, waving at me.
‘Hello!’ It’s Ash. ‘Hello, Ash.’ I wave back at him.
‘Emily, you came back,’ he says, running towards me. ‘I wasn’t sure if you would.’
‘Of course I am back. Why would you think otherwise? You owe me a tour of your mansion, remember?’
‘I remember,’ he says, with a charming smile. ‘Shall we?’ He offers me the crook of his arm and I loop my arm around it.
‘By the way, what happened last time?’ I ask.
He frowns. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, you were about to show me the mansion when … when I don’t know, I left, but to where I don’t know. I don’t seem to remember. Do you by any chance know what happened?’
‘No. You just left in a hurry. To where? You didn’t tell me,’ he says, looking a bit uncomfortable.
I get the feeling that he knows more than he is saying, but for the moment I let the matter drop, mainly because my memory is so foggy.
‘Ah! Here we are,’ he says, just as we approach the front door of his mansion.
We enter the mansion and it is like nothing I have ever seen before. It takes my breath away, literally. It is spectacular. Victorian-style wine-red velvet couches, damask curtains, magnificent Persian carpets, delicately hand-carved mahogany furniture, huge crystal chandeliers, and paintings of various landscapes on the walls. And yet with all this beauty, something doesn’t feel right here.
I hear someone calling my name. It is a woman’s voice.
There it is again. I look at Ash. What is happening? It is as if he is fading.
‘Emily, Emily, wake up!’
‘What?’ I wake up, startled. ‘What’s happening?’
‘Mr Carson called to tell me that you didn’t turn up for work today,’ Trudi says to me.
‘What?’ My heart is pounding from waking up so suddenly.
‘Did you sleep all day?’
‘Stop saying what all the time. What happened to you? It’s nearly six o’clock in the evening. You don’t seem to have a fever,’ she says, touching my forehead with her hand.
‘I’m okay,’ I say with a scowl. ‘How long have you been here?’
‘Just got here. Given that Auntie Maggie disappeared, your boss called me to see what happened to you, since you didn’t show up to work and didn’t call in sick either.’
I rub my eyes and do my best to focus. The alarm mustn’t have gone off or if it did, then I didn’t hear it, which means I must have been really tired. ‘When did he ring?’ I ask with a big yawn.
‘Around three. I rang your cellphone several times, but I kept getting your voicemail. So, as soon as I finished work and settled the kids I headed for your place to check if my baby sister was okay.’
‘Yeah, I’m okay,’ I say, somewhat, groggily.
‘You want something to eat?’
‘Not hungry … just wanna sleep. I’m so tired.’
‘Maybe you’re coming down with the flu. You want me to stay with you tonight? Jeff can handle the twins by himself for one night.’
‘No, no, I’m sure by tomorrow morning I’ll be fine.’
‘This is strange,’ Trudi says, looking at the painting.
‘The painting! It’s changed.’
‘Changed? Changed how?’ I ask, twisting my head to take a look at the painting.
‘Well, the color is not so faded. And then…’ her voice drifts away, as she gets up to her feet to take a closer look at the painting. ‘Look at the grassy field! And in the distance there is … some kind of a structure … like a mansion.’
‘You’re right. The painting seems to have changed,’ I admit.
‘But … but how could an inanimate object change?’ Trudi murmurs.
Something about the painting nags at me. Something about my memory nags at me. I want to tell Trudi about it, but I don’t know what it is that I want to say. And I don’t want to worry her needlessly. She has enough on her plate. Her husband is in between jobs right now and it is the first year of school for the twins.
‘Maybe we should take it to an art-dealer,’ Trudi suggests.
‘An art dealer?’
‘Yeah. I wonder…’ her voice drifts away once more.
‘Wonder about what?’
‘I wonder who painted it? There is no name.’
‘Well, maybe it’s faded.’
‘Maybe! Listen, you gonna be alright tonight?’
‘Yeah, I’ll be alright.’
‘Call me if you need anything. Take tomorrow off and rest. You look pale. I’ll tell Mr Carson that you’re a bit under the weather. I’m sure he’ll understand.’
With a kiss on my cheek, Trudi leaves. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I want to call her back. Because somewhere in the back of my mind I am terrified of something, but I don’t know what that is. It could very well be the trauma of losing Aunt Maggie so mysteriously. I mean, people just don’t disappear into thin air. Something happened to her and there is someone out here who knows what that something is.
‘Emily,’ calls a man.
‘Ash,’ I call out as soon as he comes into view.
‘I have been waiting for you,’ Ash says.
‘I have been waiting for you too,’ I say, somewhat, breathlessly and then wonder briefly if I have been.
‘Come, I want to take you somewhere.’
‘There is a lovely river nearby. I have prepared us a picnic.’
‘Oh, I love picnics,’ I say and then I look at the sky and wonder why it is always so dull.
‘Every time you leave, I worry if you’d return again.’
I frown incredulously. ‘Every time I leave?’
‘But where do I go, do you know? I don’t remember being anywhere but here, and yet here is so … so unknown to me…’
‘You think too much.’
‘On the contrary, I don’t think enough, because I can’t seem to remember much about anything and I know I have forgotten something.’
‘All you need to know is that you belong here.’
Belong here?! I blink in confusion. What does that even mean? All I know is that I feel lost. But before my thoughts can go any further, we approach the river and I see a small bridge made of dove grey bricks just like painted bridges in fairytale books. I glance around. Everything is so beautiful. Flowers everywhere. Trees. The only gloomy view is the grey sky. If I don’t look up, then everything looks perfect.
‘Here it is,’ Ash says, pointing at a red carpet with a picnic basket on it.
‘What’s in the picnic basket?’ I ask.
‘Let’s see,’ he says, sitting down and opening it.
I sit across from him and though I am quite charmed by him, I am also aware that something is not quite right with this picture.
‘Well, we have red wine, crusty white bread rolls, cheese, olives, ham, two bowls of salad and some chocolate cakes.’
‘Did you make this picnic basket yourself?’ I ask.
He laughs. ‘I wish I could say yes, but no, I am not much good at these things. Jenkins organised it all.’
‘Jenkins? Who is Jenkins?’
‘Valet? Of course! What was I thinking?’ I remark, as I burst into laughter.
We start eating. Well, at least I am. He just plays with his food.
‘Aren’t you eating?’
I raise my brow. ‘Doesn’t look it!’
‘Emily, I am eating. Look!’ he says, pointing at the food.
I can’t help but gasp. The food is nearly gone, and I know that I couldn’t have eaten it all. Even the wine bottle is nearly empty, and I know that my lips never touched it. Something is not right here. But what is it?
‘Let’s go,’ Ash says, wiping his lips with a napkin.
‘Go? Go where?’
I want to ask where home is, but I never get the chance.
The sun coming through the window is too harsh. I look at the clock by my bedside. It is 9.22am. Oh, shit! I am late for work. But then I remember that Trudi was going to call Mr Carson to tell him that I was taking the day off. I feel hungry, but as I try to get up, my body collapses like jelly. What on earth is wrong with me? I must be coming down with something. Then I notice something from the corner of my eye. I look up at the painting. The painting has changed. I can clearly see a mansion in the distance and a bridge over a river. Trudi was right. We have to take this painting to an art dealer. I am distracted when my cellphone rings. It is Trudi.
‘How are you feeling?’
‘Very tired. I feel as if I haven’t slept in days.’
‘You wanna see a doctor?’
‘If I don’t get any better by tomorrow, then I’ll go and see a doctor.’
‘You don’t wanna go today?’
‘No, I think I just wanna rest today.’
‘Well, okay then. But call me if you need anything,’ Trudi says.
After our phone conversation, I lie in bed and try to gather my thoughts. I feel strange. I don’t feel sick, but I feel weak … kind of out of whack. And I feel like that I must remember something, but I don’t know what. I haven’t forgotten anything. I am sure Trudi would’ve noticed if something was wrong with my memory.
I turn around. It is Ash.
‘I’ve been waiting for you,’ Ash says eagerly, reaching to hold my hands. I flinch at his touch. It is the first time that I have touched his hands and they are colder than ice. I can’t help but withdraw my hands from his.
‘You are so cold,’ I say.
‘As cold as this sky.’
I look up at the sky. Jeez! It is even bleaker than before. ‘Well, I hope you are warm on the inside?’
‘I am. I am as warm as that blood that courses through your veins.’
‘I am more concerned about the temperature of your blood.’
He smiles. ‘Come. I have a guest at the house.’
‘I think you will be pleasantly surprised when you see her.’
‘Who is she?’
‘You’ll soon find out,’ he says.
Upon reaching the mansion, a young woman with long wavy black hair, wearing a white lacy blouse and a long black skirt appears by the door. She is a stunning-looking woman, but there is something familiar about her. It is as if I know her. Or maybe I have seen her somewhere before. But where, I wonder?
‘This is Lady Margaret, Emily,’ Ash introduces her to me.
I know this face, or I think I know. I squint at her.
‘Hello, my dear,’ Margaret says.
There is something familiar about her voice too. Where have I heard it before? Then I gasp in horror and disbelief. I know both the voice and the face. Now the fog lifts and I remember everything.
‘Aunt … Maggie?’ I utter the words slowly and fearfully. I love Aunt Maggie, but this new version of Aunt Maggie is totally freaking me out. She looks about the same age as me – twenty. But how could that be? She is seventy-two years old. It can’t be her. ‘I … I … am sorry,’ I stammer, ‘you reminded me of my aunt.’
‘But I am your aunt, darling.’
I am completely struck mute. This is not real. It can’t be. This is just a dream. I have to wake up.
‘This is not a dream, darling. I assure you,’ Margaret says, as if reading my thoughts.
My heart sinks into the pit of my stomach when I think of Trudi. She would go right out of her mind if something were to happen to me. And I have a bad feeling that that something has already happened to me. Then I notice that the sky has gone from bleak to black, with a pale moon and even paler stars. Hardly any light anywhere except for what is emanating through the open doorway of the mansion. ‘I have to go,’ I say, with a voice trembling with fear.
‘Go? But you can’t go anywhere,’ Margaret says calmly.
‘Trudi will miss me,’ I cry.
‘She’ll get over it,’ Margaret says.
‘No, she won’t,’ I protest. ‘If you were truly our aunt, then you’d know this. And you’d never do that to her or to me. We grieved for you when you went missing. We thought you were dead.’
‘I am sorry for that, but as you can see, I am perfectly fine. In fact, I am better than fine. I am great,’ Margaret says, as she traces my jaw with the tip of her icy cold finger.
‘Let’s go inside,’ Ash says, gripping my arm.
‘No,’ I cry. ‘I have to go back.’
‘You can’t go back, my dear. You can never go back,’ Margaret says. ‘The portal is closed.’
‘Portal? What portal? How did I get here?’
‘You got my painting, didn’t you?’
‘You mean that cheap painting?’
Margaret laughs. ‘That cheap painting was a portal.’
‘Portal to where?’
‘Portal to here.’
‘And where is here?’
‘Let’s go inside and we will tell you,’ Ash says, his eyes darting around, looking fearful.
‘No, I want to go back,’ I cry.
‘You can’t. Now, let’s go inside,’ Ash insists. ‘It is dangerous to stay out here at night.’
‘Why? What’s going to happen at night?’
‘The wolves,’ Ash says, firming his grip on my arm.
‘What do you mean?’ I ask, wincing in pain from Ash’s grip on my arm.
‘We have the day and they have the night.’
‘I don’t understand any of this,’ I cry. ‘Wolves! Where is this place? Let me go.’ I struggle in vain against Ash’s iron grip. ‘I want to go back … to go back to the life I had before.’
‘Trust me, my dear, this life is so much better,’ Margaret says, though with less composure. She, too, seems frightened of something.
‘Abandon yourself to this life, Emily, I urge you,’ Ash says.
‘And I urge you to let me go,’ I scream.
‘Hush, be quiet,’ Ash hisses. ‘They will hear you and they will come for you.’
‘The wolves? The only wolves are you two. Let me go,’ I scream again.
‘I said be quiet,’ Ash warns through clenched teeth.
Tears fill my eyes and I look at Margaret. ‘How did you become young again?’
‘It is the magic of this place, darling. No one ever grows old.’
‘But you were already old,’ I shout.
‘Be quiet, Emily. They’ll hear you,’ Ash warns me again.
‘I don’t care. Let them hear me.’
‘You don’t know what you are saying,’ Ash says angrily.
‘And you have no right to keep me here against my will,’ I shout.’
‘You can’t go back. We already told you that. The portal is closed. And you came here on your own free will—’
‘Free will? I can’t even remember how I got here?’
‘Through your dreams.’
‘The painting was a portal to another dimension, but the fact that you took it and then dreamt this place—’
‘Stop,’ I shout.
‘No, you stop. Stop shouting or the wolves will come for you and if they do, then you will become one of them,’ Ash says.
‘One of them? What do you mean one of them?’
‘You will become a wolf,’ Margaret says.
‘A wolf?! Why are you doing this, Aunt Maggie?’ I ask, bawling my eyes out. ‘Why are you holding me here against my will? Why are you exposing me to the danger of turning into a wolf? Have you gone mad? You used to be so nice, so loving. What happened to you?’
‘She became one of us,’ Ash says, his face close to mine, his lips next to my neck.
‘One of you? And what is that?’
Trudi stood in her sister’s apartment, completely grief-stricken and in total shock. People just don’t disappear into thin air. Someone must have seen something or heard something. But no one had. Trudi wiped her tears with a tissue paper. She had come to collect Emily’s belongings. Emily didn’t have a lot of stuff. She rented her apartment fully furnished, so aside from her clothes, some sheets and towels, she had nothing else for Trudi to pack. Only the painting. But the painting didn’t worth anything. It was cracked and the color had faded. She now wondered what did she see in the painting a week ago when she said to Emily that the cracks had disappeared and the color was sharper.
‘Excuse me, Ma’am,’ said a man.
‘Yes,’ Trudi responded, turning to face a short pudgy man with thick grey hair.
‘My name is Jenkins. I have come to clean the apartment.’
‘I am very sorry for your loss.’
‘Thank you,’ Trudi said, with a sniffle.
‘Would you like me to get rid of that painting for you?’ Jenkins asked, gesturing at the painting on the floor.
‘Yes, if it is not too much of a bother.’
‘Not at all, Ma’am. It is all part of a day’s work,’ Jenkins said politely.