It was hot out. Unnaturally hot for a spring day in England. At four in the afternoon, the midday sun was beating down relentlessly on my face, which forced me to squint as I walked up the long road in front of me. The intensity of the sun against my skin made me feel sticky and heavy. I almost wanted to throw off my black, long-sleeved school jacket in favor of the white tank-top beneath it, but I refrained despite the fact I was unbearably hot with it on. I knew that the sun would leave a nasty burn on my fair skin by the time I reached my destination.
My destination... thinking of it made my stomach clench a little bit in anticipation. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect when I arrived at the abandoned castle. The myths and legends would have had me believe that there was a soul sucking ghoul living there, but I didn't believe in any of that. I neither believed in God nor the Devil, let alone any of the creatures that were pawns beneath them. I had lost my faith in that sort of thing a long time ago. All that I knew I could expect from that night was that I would be spending it with someone that I could hardly stand to be around, but wanted so much to be accepted by.
Lillian. She was a small framed girl that was probably no taller then five feet and an inch. Long, wavy blonde hair tumbled down her shoulders to the middle of her back. Her sharp, ocean blue eyes are those of a vicious narcissist. Without even trying, they can cut you down until you feel like nothing. They are matched by a high pitched, whiny, but condescending voice. Somehow, she was the most popular girl at school. All of the other popular kids flocked around her like bees flocking to honey. Though, I'm not entirely sure how they could stand her, let alone hover around her like they do. Even with them, she was snobbish and arrogant.
I glanced at her from the corner of my eye and looked her over. She appeared to be just as tired as I was. She leaned forward a little bit, placing most of the weight of her backpack on her back. I wouldn't have been surprised if she was carrying twenty pounds of make up and hair supplies as well as a few of her school books. I couldn't say that I felt bad for her, though. She brought it on herself.
Just like I had brought all of this on myself. I still wasn't very sure as to why I was trekking through the vast countryside to get to a "haunted" castle. On the other hand… I did know. A strange spiral of events at lunch had resulted in me accepting a dare from a group of popular kids. It was very simple really. Spend an entire night in that place and I'd earn myself a little bit of respect from them. It probably wouldn't be all that much, but just enough to get them to leave me alone and stop playing pranks on me. It wouldn't matter, either way. I was only a year away from leaving for university. Soon, I wouldn't have to deal with them or anyone else. If I played my cards right, I could get accepted in prestigious foreign university where none of them would be. I could start all over.
I sighed a little bit to myself before re-adjusting the book bag that was slung over my shoulder. I continued trudging up the long, gravel road that wound through the countryside in front of me. I hadn't been walking that road for very long. In fact, I had just left the outskirts of town, which had given way to wide open farm land spotted with small cottages. Luckily for me, the further away from town I got, the more shaded the road became. Tall trees stretched out their limbs over the road as though they were purposefully shielding me from the irritating sun. I reached up and touched the leaves on one of the overhanging branches and felt a bit grateful that I wasn't still walking in town where there wasn't much shade at all except the small buildings that lined the cement streets.
Just as I was starting to feel a bit better about all of this, Lillian came up behind me, and in her usual condescending tone, demanded, "Are you listening to me, Julia? Have you even heard a word I said?"
I clenched my jaw, trying to ignore her tone. I've had to deal with her snide remarks ever since primary school; hers and everyone else's. Today, especially with the heat, I didn't feel like listening to her, but on the other hand, I wouldn't do anything about it either. I never had, and probably never could. Instead, I just gripped the strap of my bag tightly with one hand and replied as softly as I could possibly manage, "I heard you. Sorry, I was just a bit zoned out. You know… the heat and all."
Lillian squinted as she looked up to the blue sky, and then let out a haughty scoff, "I don't know why I had to come out here with you. Too much sun is bad for my complexion."
I smiled weakly at her, trying to hide my disinterest. Of course, that's the way things have always been. I'm not very popular at school. A lot of it has to do with my rather plain appearance, and my shy personality. I'm not like any of the other girls. I'm not exceptionally pretty or interesting. My hair is long, straight, and black and my eyes are a bland shade of teal green. I'm tall and thin with a medium size frame. I suppose that if I were to put more effort into my appearance, I could appear pretty. Maybe if I used some makeup to cover up the faint freckles that dot my nose and some of my cheeks, I'd look prettier. Even if I did that, I doubt I'd be anymore accepted into the popular groups that I already am. I've always been shy… and more interested in books then in people.
I've never been to a party. I've never had a sleep over. Even if I had a friend to invite over, I wouldn't want them to stay with me. I'm ashamed of where I live and who I live with. A lot of it seems like one bad nightmare that I wish I could tear myself out of. I spend most of my time dreaming about moving onto something better. A lot of it is just that, though. It is just me dreaming about having friends, and having a better life. There are days where I wish I could just lie in bed and never wake up from those dreams. I wish I could fall into a deep sleep and never wake up.
A soft breeze swept past us, rustling the tree branches and sending stray leaves skittering down the gravel road. Lillian mumbled a soft curse as she stopped walking and tried to fix her hair. The wind just blew harder past us, lifting up our gray skirts and tugging on the loose edges of our jackets. I laughed like a child and danced around in it. Feeling the breeze whip through my hair and glide across my skin made me feel carefree. It made me feel like, at any moment, the wind would lift me up off my feet and sweep me off somewhere grand. I think that traveling with the wind would be interesting. I could just wander, like a vagrant, across the world. I'd skim across the surface of oceans and dance with the clouds. I would go to parts of the world people may never have been too. I could scale mountain peaks in the blink of an eye, or travel in the depths of gorges without the need of a harness to limit my explorations.
Lillian's voice pulled me from my thoughts once again, "You're acting stupid again, Julia."
I stopped twirling and waited for her to catch up. The wind had stopped blowing for the moment, and she was looking as flawless as ever. Which… I suppose I didn't understand. We were going to be staying the night in an old castle in the countryside. That was Lillian for you, though. She was always looking her very best, no matter what the circumstances were. I can't deny that a small part of me was envious of her, and another part of me felt disgusted by her. I couldn't help but feel disgusted at myself at what I was doing.
We continued up that lonely, gravel road for the better part of the next hour. I spent that time listening to Lillian complain about anything and everything. She whined about the intensity of the sun, which was starting to head for the horizon with the coming of twilight, as well as how dusty the road was, even though it was made of gravel. A small part of me wanted to just tell her to shut up and deal with it, but the other part of me, the part of me that wanted to be accepted by her and my other peers, just tolerated it and tried to sympathize with her.
After all, I'd already come too far to go back now. I realized that as I looked up from my feet and saw the castle that loomed in the distance. The sun was hovering behind one of the higher towers as it readied to fall behind the earth until morning came. It gave the castle a subtle, orange glow that somehow made the image seem very romantic. The idea of staying the night in that castle, however, made it seem foreboding and intimidating. Night would fall in the next two hours, and then there was definitely no going back. I had packed everything I would need for the night, but that still didn't make me feel any more prepared for a night in that haunted place.
The local council stopped allowing tours of that old castle several years ago when people from the tour groups started to disappear, never to be found again. A lot of the country folk believe that the ghost of the first lord of that castle still haunts the place, and that in order to feel human again, he eats the souls of those who enter his castle and steals their body. It's a laughable little tale, but it doesn't change the fact that people have disappeared in that castle and no one ever found them. People from the city, however, think that some of the out of country tourists get a little bit too curious for their own good and end up wandering off and getting hurt. It doesn't explain, though, why they were never found. It makes me uneasy, but… I want more then anything to be just slightly accepted by Lillian and her group of friends. That is the only reason I took their stupid dare to stay an entire night in that castle.
I paused for a moment when we neared the gate and looked the entire castle over. In some ways, it was enchanting, what with its tall towers and ancient presence, but it was, without a doubt, foreboding and dark. Knowing how many people must have lived there, as well as fought and died there, was a bit unsettling. A strange presence lingered around the walls like a warning to outsiders. Or perhaps that was just me letting the rumors and tall tales get the best of me. After all, ghosts and ghouls didn't exist. They were just figments of our imagination or little stories meant to scare children.
Then I paused.
Everything stopped for just one moment. Or maybe more.
My heart slowed as my eyes settled on the face of a man that looked like he had come right out of one of those silly stories about ghosts and demons. Pale face, deep, marble like eyes that were the hue of cobalt blue, and a strange, distant expression. I couldn't bring myself to blink, or even to move. This being had to be very far away from me, as I was looking at one of the towers, but his face was so close. I thought I could smell some sort of cologne, but it was so faint, I couldn't have been sure. A part of me wanted to break free from his intense stare, but every muscle in my body was frozen solid. At the very least, I wanted to blink to reassure myself that I was just day dreaming again and the soul sucking ghoul of the legends was all just a figment of my imagination. The more I tried, however, the more I realized that I was failing miserably.
"Julia!" Lillian barked as I felt her shove me to the side.
I stumbled, barely catching myself before I could face-plant into the gravel. My mind felt completely numb, like when you've sat on a part of your body so long that it fell asleep. My mind felt that way. My thoughts prickled in my brain like waking nerves beneath the skin. I could only pause to recall what had happened. When my eyes lifted to that tower window, I saw nothing but darkness and the silhouette of the tower against the dying sun. No mystical ghoul stood in the window, staring down at me with a flesh eating gaze. His generous lips weren't pursed, ready to sip at my soul. No. Nothing stood in that window but decrepit shadows.
Then Lillian nudged me in my ribs with one of her elbows as she snapped, "What's the matter with you? Stop acting all weird. You're freaking me out."
I paused for a moment to regain my composure. It still felt like my mind was waking up from a long, deep sleep. My mind felt coma numb. My train of thought was only beginning to take off again, but even so, I wasn't able to piece together what I had just seen. Had it just been an illusion? My paranoid mind starting to play tricks on me? That was the only logical explanation, because after all, I did not believe in the supernatural. I had to reaffirm that in my mind, however. I had to take a deep breath and mouth the words, Ghosts are not real. Demons don't exist. There is no God and there is no Devil.
Despite that, I couldn't help but feel a bit hesitant to draw closer to the castle's padlocked gate. A nagging part of my mind insisted that a quick retreat was in order, but how could I turn heel so quick? I'd already trekked out into the middle of no where, in the blistering hot heat, just to prove to everyone that I wasn't quite the introverted coward they made me out to be. Standing in front of that castle, however, made me feel diminutive and insignificant. Perhaps that is what I was. I was just another plain Jane that would never have any impact on the world around her. I had my chance though. All it took to get noticed was to spend a single night in that haunted castle with Lillian as my witness.
I finally straightened and stepped up to the tall, wooden gate that was held shut by a chain wrapped through the gate handles. However, I paused when I noticed that the thick padlock that held the chains together was already unlocked. My stomach squirmed, and I turned to Lillian as though to question her.
She was digging through her bag, and pulled out a long, black flashlight. After turning it on, she aimed the beam of white light at the lock. It was clearly smashed to pieces. The top arch was twisted away from the body of the lock, which was dented and bent. Slowly, Lillian lowered the beam of light away from the lock.
"Now that is just creepy. Come on, Julia, let's get in there and get this over with. I'm already getting the creeps, and it's not even completely dark yet," Lillian said as she set the flashlight down on the ground so that she could pull her thick mane of blonde hair back into a pony tail.
I nodded silently in agreement before digging into my own bag and drawing out the flashlight I had packed before leaving home. I also had packed a couple of candles and some extra batteries just in case. The last thing I wanted was to be stuck in that castle without any light. Whether or not I believed in the supernatural, I had an intense fear of the complete darkness. It's a silly phobia, but not even logic and reasoning could help me overcome it.
I took a deep breath as I pulled the chain away from the gate and tossed it on the ground. This was my very last opportunity to walk away and go home. Despite the eerie feeling I picked up from the castle, I couldn't bring myself to just walk away. I knew that if I did, aside from the ridicule I'd face at school come Monday, Lillian would goad me the entire walk back home. After everything that had happened that afternoon, I couldn't bring myself to turn away from the gate.
I closed my eyes as I pushed one of the gate's doors open just enough for me to slip past.