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A swollen moon bulged in the sky, pouring soft tones over the garden. As I weaved between the flower beds, my bare feet patted against the bricks. I listened as fireworks clapped in the distance and watched as the booms of color flashed over the horizon. In between the explosions, I could hear crickets chirping amidst the blades of grass, water splashing in the fountain, and wolves howling deep in the thick wood surrounding our estate.
I tiptoed passed a flowering shrub that flaunted my favorite blossom. My eyes scanned the waxy leaves of the angel trumpet. The fragile white chalices soaked up the moonlight every evening, then set it free as the sun began to rise. I pinched a velvet bloom between my fingertips. Mom cursed me for picking them, but I did it anyway. I plucked the blossom and tucked it behind my ear.
"What are you doing here?"
My heart jumped in my chest, skimming the back of my throat. My body jerked towards the unfamiliar voice. The movement stirred the fabric of my dress around my knees. A man stood a few paces away, naked except for a pair of grubby pants. His pale skin glowed like the white flowers. He pressed his lips in a grim line. His dark and calculating eyes focused on my newest hair accessory.
"I live here. What are you doing here?" I snapped back, with the brashness of any seven-year-old.
"I just happen to be enjoying a nighttime stroll."
"Well, you better enjoy it somewhere else, Mister. If my dad comes home—"
"Your dad is not coming home." He folded his arms and called my bluff. "Not tonight anyways."
I mimicked the gesture and stared up at him, all seven feet of him. "What makes you say that?" I asked, though the stranger was right. Dad had left that morning on an overnight business trip.
"I saw him leave."
"Have you been here all day?"
"No." A smirk stole across his lips, creasing the corners of his mouth. His white teeth glistened under the moonlight. "Tell me little girl, what is your name?"
"Arianna Preston, but my friends call me Aria." I raked dirty fingers through my tangled blond hair, forgetting about the flower. It plummeted in a downward spiral, landing on the red bricks.
Before I could react, the stranger reached down. Bending elegantly at the waist, like a prince bowing to his fair maiden. He pinched the bloom between his fingers and offered it to me like a twinkling diamond ring. "May I call you Aria?"
"No, you may not." The voice startled me.
I turned around, surprised to discover my brother standing beside the fountain.
"You need to leave." He moved towards us in a heartbeat, positioning himself between me and the stranger. I peered around him, watching the man straighten his posture. He pulled back his shoulders, locked his knees, and pushed out his naked chest. He towered over my brother. He towered over the wormwood shrubs and sculpted topiaries.
As he glared down at Stephen, his eyes seemed to darken to a sinister shade. "You better watch it, boy." He stepped towards us. The charming and playful tone had vanished from his voice, growing cold and chilling me to the core. He clenched his fists, crushing my flower in his grip. My eyes dropped to his filthy feet, which left muddy footprints across the ground.
Retreating backwards, I pressed myself against the fountain wall. The rush of water filled my ears and the jagged rocks stabbed into the back of my thighs. "Stephen?" My voice shook. I stared at the ground, watching another grimy foot move closer.
My brother clasped my forearm, keeping his eyes locked on the stranger. Come on, Aria. His mental command stole through my thoughts. My brain accommodated the prompt with a twinge. My legs propelled me towards the manor. I focused on taking one step at a time, moving in the direction of the gaping doors. Yellow light spilled onto the patio and the rush of central air fanned my hair, beckoning us to safety.
"Aria?" The stranger spoke my name, drilling the fear deeper into my bones.
My entire frame began to shake. I refused to look up, refused to confront the tall man for a second time. Instead, my eyes skimmed the edge of the forest. White saucers littered the darkness—pale faces staring after us. The figures began to emerge, one by one. They drifted over the lawn with an ethereal grace, parting through the sea of fireflies. All of them were tall, skeleton skinny in flowing garments.
"Aria, come play with us." The stranger called after me, still standing amidst the moon flowers.
Ignore him. Stephen towed me towards the mansion, his fingernails biting into my wrist. I murmured a cry, but it seized in my chest with another panicked breath.
"Jesus Christ, Arianna." Mom cursed, appearing as a silhouette in the doorway. "Hurry up." She shouted, her voice hitching on a note of hysteria as she motioned us forward. Releasing my wrist, Stephen shoved me the last couple feet towards the door. Mom grabbed my arm, tugging me into the manor with a desperate force that cracked in my shoulder socket. I stumbled into the dining room, tears welling in my eyes. "What the hell were you thinking?"
I tuned her out, my attention flickering back towards the door. Stephen stood on the patio, his arms crossed over his chest. The crowd of phantoms surrounded him, amusement glinting in their pale eyes. Stephen spoke, but his voice was drowned out by the hum of the air conditioning and my mother shouting. "Mom, shut up!" I finally yelled. Her mouth snapped shut, but her angry expression made up for the unspoken words.
"You stay away from our family." I could hear Stephen then, hear the confidence resonating in his voice. He took a step back from the gathering, planting his sneaker over the threshold. "Or I swear to God…" He cleared the doorway, joining Mom and I under the brilliant glow of the chandelier. "I will burn down your whole forest." He spat the words, striking a nerve.
The stranger lunged at him with a snarl, stopping short of entering our home. "You be careful." The anger leaked through his voice and his gaze flashed to me. Bringing the crushed flower to his mouth, he pursed his lips and blew on the bloom. It sailed into the manor, settling on the floor at my feet. "Aria will be mine." He beamed, his green eyes locking on me. A cold fist seized my heart, turning my blood to ice.
Stephen slammed the door in objection, but the man refused to retreat. He lingered outside on the patio, a familiar smirk tugging at the corner of his lips. Mouthing my name, he slammed his hand against the glass. The sound reverberated through me, starting a tremor in my knees. I blinked and tears trailed over my cheeks.
"Aria, you know better than to go outside during a full moon." Stephen growled, grabbing my arm and pulling me out of the dining room. I followed without protest, more than willing to escape the curious phantoms peering in at us. Leading me into the dim library, he directed me towards a sofa. "Sit," he ordered.
I obeyed, sinking into the cushions. The rush of adrenalin started wearing thin, leaving me shaken and drained.
Mom shuffled in behind us and closed the door. I recognized the sadness in her features.
"We should wait here until dad gets home." Stephen stalked across the room and collapsed into an arm chair. "He'll fix this."
"What if they get inside?" I hugged my knees to my chest, staring at the empty fireplace. The stone walls were blackened with soot; the iron cradle hosted a few charred logs from the previous winter. During the summer, the library never saw much activity. It was gloomy and depressing, with heavy curtains over the massive windows. "What if they come for me?" I squeaked, emotion choking off my voice.
The question hung in the air, answered by a sudden patter against the hidden windows. It sounded like rain, but I knew better. They were outside. They were coming for me.
"They won't," Mom attempted to reassure me. She drew a deep breath into her lungs and shook her head. "They can't." She closed the space between us, settling onto the sofa and wrapping me in her arms.
A sob heaved in my throat, dissolving into another wave of tears. I squeezed my eyes shut, inhaling the scent of her perfume and curling onto her lap.
"Everything will be fine, sweetheart." She whispered into my untamed hair, smoothing it out of my face. "Everything will be fine."
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