I’m writing a horror story and that’s the only news I have. Here’s an excerpt of the draft.
Winter felt endless over the snowy northern peaks of the Catskill Mountains. The cold could reach to the bone of even the most hearty man or woman, but it was agreeable to a creature of the eternal dark. I no longer needed to explain my pallor, as so many of the workers were just as pale, sunless souls dedicated to the hustle and grind of the gravel industry.
To some, the prospect of gold remained. To others, they hid obscured within the anonymity of a revolving trade, entrusted with little but the tools of the miner, their contracts written so hastily that there was barely time for the ink to dry before they were shoved beneath the earth with their fellow men.
I fancied myself a jeweler in those days. The nineteenth century was nearing its end, swallowing the amassed wealth of the industrial revolution as fuel for further advancements. I sold baubles and trinkets to the poor, and jewels and gold to the rich. In between seasons, when no manner of tourist found their way to the foothills, I took residence in smaller towns with fewer distractions.
As you once told me, the dead find solace in death. A dead town was no different than a dead animal, no less calming to my predilections.
Blood was easy to come by in those days. No questions were asked when workers became anemic, their lethargy a sign of winter and the scarcity of excitement. I thrived without realizing it.
My business was transitory.
In the later evening hours, I roamed from house to house, readily accepted into modest homes I would describe as rustic. The floors were cheap timber, partially finished, and the roofs often sagged beneath the weight of fresh snow.
In almost every one of these households, I was met by men seeking specific items, engagement rings, or lockets of cheaper alloys, but the occasional realist preferred a knife engraving or accents for his firearm.
Only one instance struck me as unique. Only one instance found me willing to accept more than the usual orders of affection and convenience.
I rode into the courtyard of a man of great renown, one I had been encouraged to see since my arrival in New York. Though we were far and away from the city, it was there I had heard his name mentioned on the tongue of every wealthy investor, always followed by a string of praise.
“There’s no better,” one politician had said, mustache crinkling above bobbing cigar, smoke pluming without remorse. “If you have need of ideas and the money to afford them, he has no equal.”
Seeing his home for the first time, I admit I was in awe. This wasn’t the Europe you and I loved, this new world across the Atlantic, but I felt at home in every crumbling stone. It stood reminiscent of German castles, of Irish estates, of the lost treasures of Romanian lore. I had never considered myself superstitious despite what came of my unlife, yet I wore skepticism on my brow even as I approached the entrance with my wares strapped to my back.
A knock later, I was met by him, the man of the thousand hungry whispers leading all the way back to what became of New Amsterdam, and he smiled.
“Ms. Thomasine Harlow, as I live and breathe.”
I hummed, my lips softening into a smile to match his.
“In the flesh.” His arms spread wide before he motioned to his person, the height of which bared noting. He was taller than I expected. Better looking. Something in his gaze held weight, perhaps the knowledge of my reclusiveness coming to an end.
He stepped back to allow me inside, a simple, “Come in” following on the tails of a sweeping gesture.
Where cold had nipped at my heels for my journey, the home relieved me of what wished to linger, easily replaced by a heat unlike any I had felt in humbler residences. The ceilings were high, yet there was a hearth in nearly every room, embers faithfully burning as if Mr. Wilde expected a caravan of peddlers as opposed to only myself.
It felt extravagant. It also felt right.
I was at odds with the feeling as he led me from the foyer to the parlor, a collection of red chairs inlaid with gold positioned before the yawn of the fireplace. Once seated, he excused himself a moment, leaving my eyes the freedom of absorbing the many photos and paintings decorating the walls.
One stood out to me in a way I couldn’t describe, familiar beyond my general knowledge of artists and techniques.
Mr. Wilde returned with a tea tray, an arrangement of wafers and sweets circling the platter, ensuring the delicate tea set was properly framed by this offering of confectionaries. I haven’t had a stomach for human cuisine since the dark ages, but I could drink tea. It was bitter, as any good tea is, and hot as if to boast unparalleled freshness.
“I hope your trip was an easy one.”
Still, tangled in my thoughts, I nodded. Easy as any other, with little in the way of note.
“In this weather, I can hardly imagine a woman traveling alone, much less with so many pieces of value in her possession.”
“If you wish to hear otherwise, I could spin you a yarn.”
A rider sat tall and proud atop their steed, their armor impractical for the sake of appearing ornate. The painting was of the old world, from a time when I was hidden away to attend to my grieving and you were ash in an urn. I relinquished my staring, my mannerisms dismissive.
“You needn’t worry yourself, Mr. Wilde. I’m a woman of the world. I’ve seen enough and done enough to know how to travel alone safely.”
“Would I be wrong to call it fascinating? You, in particular, fascinating?” He chuckled as he prepared his tea. “I consider myself quite progressive in regard to women. Come and go as you please, wear trousers as you wish, and own the world for all I care; I only wish you safe.”
This kind of talk came with the trade. More often than not, I was asked where my husband was. Why was I, a woman, offering my services without a male chaperone along for the ride? It wasn’t offensive at the time, though things do certainly change quickly. Had it happened to me recently, perhaps I would have taken my leave.
I would have been better for it.
Instead, like a child enamored with a playful puppy, I joined in his banter. He had that kind of personality, Mr. Wilde did, his words stringing you along in whichever direction he hoped to take you. When he was happy, you felt happy. When he was anything else, you were burdened with the baggage of sentiment, and there would be no escaping his charm.
“Call it as you see it.” Taking measured sips of tea, I considered what exactly brought me to his palatial home in the middle of nowhere. I meant to ask but hadn’t. He did well to read my curiosity because just as I thought myself ready to hear the answer, Mr. Wilde began to speak.
“I am in need of something unlike anything else. Rather, I would say it is plenty like other things you’ve made, but with a very different purpose in mind.” He sat back against the high cushion of the chair, chestnut curls wrapping around the tops of his ears. Broad of build yet gentle in his movements, he commanded the room without dominating it. To say I found myself entranced by his person was an understatement.
“I come from a line of men seeking fame, and though fortune found us at every turn, the fame has been limited to myself. I have no doubt you have heard of me. Had you not, you wouldn’t have made this trip by yourself in the heart of winter.” He paused to give me an apologetic look. “I will not waste your time, Ms. Harlow. You will be well compensated whether or not you can assist me. Payment for your… discretion, shall we say.”
Nodding, I set down my tea and folded my hands across my lap.
“A man after my heart.” A spendthrift experience felt entirely outside of Mr. Wilde’s gravity. He had wealth and fame. The last thing he wished to be known for was being incapable of paying.
“Have you ever heard of the Fountain of Youth?”
I laughed. The mention of such a fairytale to a creature with youth eternal was, if nothing else, laughable.
“I have,” I remarked, my smile tugging my lips even while the words left my mouth. “What of it?”
“From now until you leave, what I say to you is to remain a secret. These details are not to leave this room.” Having gone from jovial to deathly serious proved effective because, as he told me this, I said no more. I only nodded with a sincerity anyone might recognize as authentic. I wished to know more at any cost, real or imagined.
“A decade ago, I considered myself something of an explorer. I booked passage to Peru and sailed for several months with a group of friends I had made at my father’s request. These were the sons of tycoons and diplomats, the future leaders of a world in a constant state of flux. To my credit, I was well and truly one of them, already chosen as my father’s sole successor when the time came for his retirement.”
Mr. Wilde sighed, his fondness for his travels adding levity to his tone. His wayward youth was reimagined, reshaped to serve as the story’s background.
“Our first weeks in South America were cautious ones. None of us had experience with the locals, and even after we had been given proper welcome by the missionaries and their flock, we were warned of the tribes we had yet to encounter. As the story went, they were cannibal butchers with a taste for foreigners. They had no interest in making peace nor did they consider outsiders anything more than a disturbance to their rainforest. My friends and I took the advice of the people we met and avoided the uncharted forests even after we hired guides.”
“By the sixth week, we had wandered great stretches of the country, our days humid while the nights left us at the mercy of the wildlife. Mostly, that meant mosquitos the likes of which I cannot exaggerate, but we had nets to sleep within and food aplenty; we hadn’t run out of vigor just yet.”
“We did, however, find ourselves closing in on ruins from the distant past. Our guides spoke little English, but the words ‘danger’ and ‘forever’ were easy to distinguish as they came up almost hourly during our approach.” Mr. Wilde fell silent where he sat, watching the wood crackle in the fireplace. “Local legends were vague, you see. It all fell under the umbrella of superstition. Monsters in the night, ghosts beneath the forest canopy. Occasionally, talk of demons would cross our path.”
“But we pressed on as only young men seem able to do, shirking the warnings because they would mean we traveled to the heart of the unknown only to end up emptyhanded. What I know now that I didn’t know then was how preferable emptyhanded was when compared to meeting true evil face to face.”
He glanced at me, the statue of my figure cast in the firelight, and he gave a grim nod.
“You may yet be new to me, but I can see a survivor in you just as you see it in me.”
“I’ve had… experiences in the past, Mr. Wilde. I fear they are one and the same as women of all manner find themselves facing. A monster need not be a monster to be deemed intolerably cruel.”
“How right you are, Ms. Harlow. Monsters come in all shapes and sizes, and I would remiss if I were to forget the monsters men fashion themselves to be when found most desperate.”
“But we needn’t linger on the nature of such things,” I explained softly, encouraging his words to continue. “All that matters is I am here, with you, and I wish to hear more of this trip to Peru.”
“Ah, yes. Back to the evil I dangled before you. Well, it came on very stealthily, this evil. We made a camp at the base of a crumbling ziggurat, something I had only heard of in academic lectures. They call the architecture something else, these step-sided temples, but I was informed long before my trip that explorers had yet to find one so far south. This particular pyramid wasn’t even on the map the locals provided, making it a once-in-a-lifetime discovery to claim as our own. To us, we had every reason to celebrate.”
“Would it bother you if I smoked?” From his breast pocket, Mr. Wilde produced a pipe and a small tin. When I shook my head, he set about lighting a pinch of tobacco, his fingers deftly striking a match to start the ritual.
“From a village we stopped late in the morning, we had taken with us a few women as well as a cache of supplies. One of my friends, a man by the name of Rutger, took out a fiddle and played while the rest of us drank and ate and eventually retired into our respective tents, as the journey left us tired and we wished to be up early to see just what we had found. I had a woman with me, a beautiful woman with the darkest eyes I had ever seen, but she spoke no English and only wished to… rush our union so she might take home a decent wage.”
“These sorts of situations were anything but rare, but she struck me as less patient than most of the women I had encountered in Peru, which left me irritable. Soon after she received her wages, she went from tent to tent to gather the other women, as well as one of our guides, and the group of them set back out toward the path we had used to arrive.”
“This left me with my friends, Rutger and Howard and Michael and Philip, as well as two of the guides from the start of our expedition. They were nameless to me, though Michael knew enough of their language to communicate with them as needed. Regardless of the language barrier, the six of us knew to be careful when it came to unknown places in the dark.”
“But Rutger, such a big lad, thought himself invincible. He barely said a word as he headed into the dark, likely to relieve himself, but Michael noticed his absence well into the night. Midnight, perhaps, he came to each of our tents and asked if we had seen Rutger, and when not a soul could attest to his whereabouts, we found ourselves creating a search party.”
“Now, at this point, I believed the poor sod had passed out drunk beneath the forest ferns. It wasn’t safe to do so, but he would live and we would have laughed about it for years to come. He had a tendency to admire himself and he was the best shot of our group, so he often bragged about his talents and the value of his company. His fiddle was his first love, but his gun was a close second.”
“We found Rutger’s gun sometime later, lying useless without its owner. The tracks were those of a sloppy drunk, footsteps heavy, dragging across the mud at times when we thought he stumbled forward. This was all within the scenario I had created in my mind, the blubbering idiot Rutger bounding through the bushes, cock out as he tried to stumble back the way he came. He must have found himself lost and, like any drunk fool might, he headed to the Pyramid because there was no other structure to speak of.”
“Not even the fires were enough?” I asked suddenly, my attention solely on Mr. Wilde and his account. “Wouldn’t he see them in the distance and know to go back the way he came?”
“A clever point, Ms. Harlow. Why didn’t he go back to the fire?” Mr. Wilde nodded to himself, letting the question hang heavy in the air.
“We should have considered this at the time, but we were tired and full of drink, our minds clouded by lateness and fatigue.” Mr. Wilde’s shoulders gave a shrug of defeat. “But we didn’t. Instead, keen to find Rutger, we followed his tracks.”
“Those tracks led us to the base of the great pyramid, which looked more like a shattered idol than any building I had ever seen. There were carvings on the steps leading to the entrance, as well as hieroglyphs on the walls in a language even the guides were unfamiliar with. It startled me, the complexity of the images. There were men and women in varying states of undress, praying to something I could only assume was the sun. An orb of some kind. Yet, where the colors used to dye the images were mostly comprised of red and brown and blue and yellow and white, the orb itself was smothered in black resin.”
“I was well and truly sober when our group crowded the crumbling entrance, met with more muddy footprints assuring us of Rutger’s presence. Michael suggested we go back. I also wanted to go back, but it felt like a betrayal of our comrade to leave him in the bowels of this ancient tomb. Unsettling though it may have been, we were five strong, and by morning, we vowed to be six once more.”