She looked out over the Wilmington River. The setting sun had painted the early evening sky a blazing shade of orange as it began its descent behind the North hill. A subtle breeze caressed the Southern Live Oak Trees, prompting their contorted branches to sway gently back and forth. As the wind blew over their heavy wooden arms, thick tufts of Spanish moss danced around playfully. The picturesque setting served as her sanctuary, a much-needed escape from the planned monotony that was her life.
Closing her eyes, she exhaled deeply, dispelling the crashing waves of anxiety that wracked her body. She hated running away from her problems, but his biting response was shocking. The venom that had spewed from his lips…and that tone. She would go to her grave remembering the revulsion in his voice. Goosebumps pebbled her flesh and she shuddered at the memory.
The melodic chirping of nearby birds was disrupted by loud, screeching rock music. She opened her eyes and took sight of the black, 1970s Dodge Challenger barreling towards her. Sighing heavily, she climbed to her feet as the vehicle parked. Anxiety consumed her once more as she watched him approach.
His tall, lean frame exited the car, slamming the driver's door behind him. His cheeks were flushed, and his shoulder-length sandy blond hair was covered in sweat, partially concealed by the red bandana wrapped around his head. His light blue eyes conveyed his annoyance and his hands were clenched into fists at his sides. "What the hell, Genesis?" he yelled out over the music.
She rolled her eyes and stormed past him towards the car. He reached for her arm, but she wrenched away and leaned through the open driver's window to turn down the radio. Spinning the dial to OFF, she spun around to face him. "Just leave me alone, Sebastian. You’ve said enough.”
He threw his hands into the air. "Look, I overreacted okay? What do we do? How do we fix this?"
She scowled at him. "Fix this?" Fury coursed through her veins at his words, but her heart was too goddamn busy whipping that white flag around. She took a deep breath and looked at him in defeat. "I don't know what we do, Sebastian,” she admitted hoarsely. “We can't escape this. We both knew this could happen."
His face softened and he looked down, studying the weathered boards of the fishing dock. When he met her gaze again, his blue eyes held a sadness she had never seen. He approached slowly before reaching out and wrapping her in his arms. "I'm right here with you, Gen. I'll always be with you," he assured her, stroking her hair with one hand. "We'll figure this out. I promise."
Before it kills us?
But she said nothing, just leaned her cheek against his chest as they embraced, trying to shield their problems from the prying eyes of the world.
After a few moments, he laced her fingers through his and led her back to his car. They climbed in and he guided the vehicle back up the gravel road towards town. As she looked out the passenger window, Greenwich Cemetery came into view. The two red-brick columns at the front of the graveyard were dilapidated and crumbling, their once-pristine iron gates now weathered and rusted. The setting rays of sunshine glistened off the top of the headstones.
Sebastian leaned over, took her hand in his, and kissed it gently. A broad smile stretched across his face. "It's all going to be okay baby," he promised.
The lies they told themselves at that moment were unfathomable, constructed simply to ease the apprehension of what was to come. She nodded her head at his naïve declaration and looked away, knowing that nothing would be ‘okay’ anymore.
Genesis examined her reflection in the full-length mirror. Sighing, she readjusted the sweetheart neckline of her flowing dress. The light blue fabric matched her eyes perfectly. Her long brown hair flowed freely around her shoulders in large, loose curls. In the mirror, she could see her mother enter the room behind her, beaming with pride.
"You look beautiful, baby," Lilith Long said, her arms outstretched for a hug.
Genesis embraced her and then looked at herself again in the mirror. "Thanks, Mom. Do you think I should add a necklace?"
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that," Lilith said with a knowing grin. "You're going to have the time of your life tonight!"
The doorbell resonated through the plaster walls of the plantation home. Genesis smiled at her mom, then grabbed her clutch and headed down the curved staircase. Lilith opened the door and ushered Sebastian into the two-story foyer.
"Hi baby," he whispered, grabbing Genesis for a quick kiss. He took her hand, slipping a white rose corsage onto her right wrist. She then pinned the obligatory white matching boutonniere on his black tux.
"Oooh," cooed her mother, grabbing for the camera. She snapped a few quick pictures as they posed in front of the antique fireplace.
"We'd better get going," Genesis announced, putting a hand to Sebastian's chest.
"Hold on a sec," he said, reaching into his tux and presenting her with a silver, velvet box.
She glanced at him, a demure smile manipulating her peach-colored lips. "Are you just trying to get laid for Prom?" she whispered to him before lifting the lid.
His lips twitched slightly but otherwise, he remained vigilant as he watched her. "What's in there is worth so much more than a Prom night with you, Gen. It's eleven years of us.”
Inside the box laid a sleek, heart-shaped pendant necklace. She opened the keepsake to reveal a picture of herself at age 7 on one side with a corresponding picture of Sebastian on the other. Her breath caught in her throat and immediately, all her fears vanquished. The insurmountable tension of the past few weeks dissipated, replaced by affirmations of implacable devotion. Tears had already welled in her eyes by the time she looked up to meet his gaze, her lower lip trembling uncontrollably. "Sebastian," she whispered. Her eyes fell once more as she gently caressed the locket. "I-I don't even know what to say."
His blue eyes studied her with uncertainty, a flicker of disappointment crossing his features. "You don't like it?" he asked, his voice hoarse as he braced himself for her response.
Her head snapped up, a bright smile providing him the solace he so desperately sought at that moment. She threw her arms around him. "Of course, I do. It... rather, you, mean so much," she murmured in his ear.
He let out a deep breath. "You're unforgettable," he whispered, kissing her hand before fastening the chain around her neck.
She turned around to face him, running the pad of her thumb over the indentation of his lower lip. There was a small scar there, a reminder of the mischief they had sought out as children. Sighing heavily, she whispered, "Promise it'll always be this way with us."
His lips found hers for a brief kiss before pulling away and staring into her eyes. "I'll never let it be anything but."
Genesis smiled, then took his hand and quickly bid her mother good-bye. Heading to Sebastian's car, the evening held such promise, such allure. It was the night of their Senior Prom but by the time it ended, it would serve as a sick memory of the devastation that awaited them.
Her eyes opened slowly, the sensation of unrelenting pain searing throughout her body. Where was she? Why couldn't she remember what had happened? Her eyes flickered about, taking in the shattered glass strewn around her and the torn remnants of her prom dress. She quickly realized that she was in Sebastian's car, but most of the front windshield was missing, as was he. The vile pungent of blood was nauseating as it trickled over her nose and into her field of vision. She brought her hands up and discovered the incomprehensible mess that now served as her face. With cries of anguish, Genesis wiped the blood from her eyes.
Her breathing was rapid, coming in short bursts as she struggled to make sense of the situation. Panic seeped in when she attempted to shift her weight and found herself unable to move. Looking down, she noticed a thick, triangular-shaped piece of glass protruding from her abdomen. She took a deep breath and forcefully gripped the shard of glass around its jagged edge, blood streaming between her fingers and over the webbing by her thumb. That subtle prick of pain paled in comparison to what she knew would come next. Biting her lip, she quickly jerked the piece of glass from her body and dropped it on the car's blood-soaked floorboard.
Blurs of light zipped through her vision like lightning bugs across a deep night sky. She was weak, on the verge of slipping into oblivion once more when images of Sebastian consumed her, providing her with renewed strength. She had to find him, had to know that he was okay.
With one hand over the gaping hole in her stomach, she reached for the door handle with the other. Staggering out, she immediately fell to her knees and looked around wildly. As her eyes fell upon him, she broke down in hysterical sobs and covered her mouth with one bloody hand. Sebastian was lying face down in the middle of the road, about 50 feet in front of the car. His head was positioned at an unforgiving angle and was now just a concave mass.
Slowly, Genesis crawled over to him, leaving a trail of blood along the pavement as she went. The sickly-sweet red substance gurgled in her throat until she was forced to spit it from her mouth, causing the hole in her stomach to widen as she doubled over.
"Oh God no," she murmured hoarsely as she looked down at the red stream that flowed from the corset of her dress. Her head throbbed with debilitating pain and as she lifted a hand to push her hair out of her eyes, she felt a gaping hold on the side of her head and a loose, overlying flap of skin that fluttered like rice paper in the night breeze. Her fingers gingerly explored the area, realizing that the squishy, jello-like surface below was her brain. A scream resonated from deep within her throat, but no sound emerged when she opened her mouth.
Her eyes fell upon Sebastian's fallen form and with her last reserve of strength, she pulled herself next to his lifeless body before collapsing on top of him--exhausted, weak, defeated. Her vision started spinning and the beating of her heart slowed. Death rode in on his magnificent black steed, but she wouldn't accompany him just yet. She reached up and retrieved the locket from around her neck, clutching it in her hand as she brought it to her lips and made a solemn vow to her beloved. "I'll follow...wherever you go."
Soon, she couldn't discern between the stars in the sky and the stars that flashed before her eyes. Eventually, those twinkling lights transitioned into darkness, and everything faded to black.
"We're here!" my dad cheerfully announced to the passengers of the Yukon.
I begrudgingly opened my eyes and sat up in the backseat. I so wasn't ready for this. Nobody even cared how I felt about moving. My world was getting turned upside down because of some ridiculous job transfer my dad took. From the second row, my 6-year-old brother and 4-year-old sister squealed with excitement. I frowned and crossed my arms defiantly over my chest. My siblings wouldn't even notice any change—they were too young. But that wasn't my reality. My life had been centered around the hustle and bustle of the Windy City: goofy family pictures in front of the Bean at Millennium Park, taking in a Cubs game at Wrigley, fireworks on the Fourth of July at Navy Pier. Now all of it was being replaced with horse-drawn carriage rides and Trolley Tours through downtown Savannah! What a crock of shit!
I gazed down at my phone, smiling sadly as I scrolled through photos of my friends back home. This was what I knew! How could they just expect me to pack up everything I owned and move across the damn country?
"Oh Coco!" my mom exclaimed, her eyes sparkling as she took in the sights and sounds of the city. "Isn't this the best?"
"Oh, the very best," I replied, my voice dripping with sarcasm.
I gazed out the window, taking in the historical landmarks and painted Victorian houses with their well-manicured gardens. Ornately adorned horses guided antique carriages along the cobblestoned streets, click-clicking as they traveled through the square and past the boutique and souvenir shops with their period gas-lamps that lined both sides of the avenue.
"Horsee!" my sister Emerson shouted, clapping her hands happily.
Our Golden Retriever, Samson, put his paws up on her lap and wagged his tail at her excited outburst. "Samson, down," I commanded, snapping my fingers, and pointing at the floorboard. He obeyed, his large brown eyes looking to me for further guidance.
We passed by the stately Forsyth Fountain and its oak-shaded park, each tree branch stretching and twisting upward to create a darkened canopy. Tufts of Spanish moss strewn casually among the branches provided a macabre ambiance. My dad swung the car to the right, heading out of town. The beautiful scenery of numerous lakes and rivers greeted us as we traveled along an isolated stretch of drive named Greenwich Road. I read the sign aloud as we passed the entrance: "Greenwich Cemetery, established 1933." The oak trees swayed in the breeze, their winding branches overlapping to create a darkened canopy above the headstones. A rush of cold air swept over me, causing the hair on my arms to stand on end. I rubbed them furiously, trying to generate warmth.
At my feet, Samson lifted his head and started growling, uncharacteristically on edge. I frowned. "What's wrong, Sam?" He whimpered, trying to convey his nervousness.
I rolled my eyes and glanced back at the graveyard. That's when I saw her: standing by the road as the rusted iron gates swayed in the breeze. She raised her arm slowly and pointed a single bony finger at me. Her hair was matted against the side of her misshapen head, covered in blood that oozed over her face. Her long, ice-blue gown was torn and tattered, fluttering in the wind behind her. Patches of mottled skin hung from her face in chunks and a gaping abdominal wound gushed freely with darkened blood.
"Colette," a haunting voice called through the earbud lodged in my left ear.
I quickly yanked it and spun around in my seat, staring out the rear window of the Yukon. Somehow, she had disappeared without a trace. I shook my head in disbelief, uncertain of what I had just witnessed. Going on a mere four hours of sleep, surely my tired eyes had fabricated that!
My thoughts returned to the promising words my mother had just uttered. "Yeah, seems like a great place Mom," I mumbled.
The SUV took a sharp right turn into a gravel driveway. A wrought iron fence greeted us at the perimeter as rows of Live Oak Trees lined both sides of the drive, allowing slim beams of sunlight to peek through thick tufts of Spanish Moss. Our Yukon pulled up to an overgrown circle drive and came to a stop in front of a looming Greek-Revival style home. We climbed out of the vehicle and stood in front of the massive structure, taking in the Antebellum Architecture. The large covered front porch was supported by solid, Ionic pillars. The extravagant double-door entry served as the focal point of the structure and overlooked the expansive property and once-magnificent gardens. The large, floor-to-ceiling windows adorned the face of both the main porch and stately balcony above.
"Big house!" my brother Mason exclaimed, pointing. He released my dad's hand and raced toward the house.
The rest of us followed suit, ambling up the creaky steps of the front porch. Dad pushed open the front doors and we stepped inside, greeted by an enormous foyer, and a sweeping open staircase. Mom coughed as dust particles swarmed around us. She walked over to the adjoining dining room and opened a window.
"It's a bit musty. Let's air this place out."
I looked up at the antique, crystal chandelier that hung above us in the two-story foyer. The home's architecture was so vastly different than the Chicago loft I grew up in. Thick, plastered beams replaced Plexiglas walls and the industrial, metal spindles and floating steps of our former staircase lacked the grandeur of the intricately carved wooden balusters and continuous, curved handrail that lined our new, sweeping stairwell. I walked around the main floor and proceeded into the parlor, bedazzled by its prominent marble fireplace and tall, ceiling-to-floor windows with full-length curtains and swag valances. Proceeding through the Butler's pantry, I headed into the kitchen with its glass cabinets and single basin sink. Rounding the corner, I realized that I had made a complete circle and now stood in the rear of the two-story entry hall.
A row of pictures and an ornate, full-length mirror were tucked away behind the staircase. A large painted canvas beckoned to me. Prominently displayed, it featured a beautifully painted replica of our plantation home. I ran my fingers along its edge, admiring the artist's talent. My eyes traveled to the inscription scribbled in the lower right-hand corner: To Mom, Love Genesis. I surveyed the row of pictures, pausing briefly before each. About halfway down the row, I suddenly found myself frozen in place as I gazed at the picture: A young man and woman, standing in front of the very same antique fireplace I had just passed by in the parlor. Her pale blue eyes matched her long, flowing dress. She stared at the camera with a dazzling smile as the young man behind held onto her protectively, his long arms engulfing her small frame. I felt the blood drain from my face as I recognized her as the girl from the cemetery.
Coldness crept in, causing my breath to materialize and my teeth to chatter. I was helpless, unable to move when the hand clamped down on my shoulder, announcing its presence. I jumped, finally freed from my trance, and whirled around, fully expecting to come face-to-face with the apparition.
"Dad!" I cried out, clutching at my chest.
"Coco, you alright?" he asked, his face etched with concern.
My face contorted into a scowl. "Yeah, Dad. Everything's just perfect."
I stormed past him, heading for the staircase. The open second-story landing served as host to a single bedroom and bathroom. I crossed the landing and peered cautiously down the hallway that extended past the bathroom. A door on my right served as the second-story master bedroom while two doors on my left offered additional bedrooms. At the end of the hallway, isolated from the rest of the rooms, was another door, its purpose unknown.
Mom emerged from the master bedroom. "Coco, can you bring in some bags from the car? Oh, and you may want to pick out what room you want before Mason and Emerson pick out theirs."
I sighed and backtracked to the first room directly off the landing. It was large and welcoming with a pair of white bookshelves that framed the massive bay window. The room offered panoramic views of the expansive property and a glimmer of the nearby river. It wasn't my room from Chicago that had overlooked the busy downtown streets, but it would suffice.
I spun around and ran into a figure looming in front of me. It took a second, but the familiar scent of my dad's cologne stung my nostrils.
"Jesus, Dad! Do you have a daily quota on scaring the shit out of me?"
He ignored my dramatic outburst and dropped my bags onto the full-sized bed in the middle of the room. "You staking this as your room, Coco?"
I rolled my eyes. "Looks that way."
He glanced around briefly. "Well, wanna give me a hand with the rest of the bags?"
"Do I have a choice?" I asked dryly.
He smiled wistfully. "Not if you don't care about driving your Mustang to school."
"When are the movers supposed to be here with my car?"
"Later on, tonight. Now, help me with the bags, and then I need you to take Samson for a walk."
I groaned, submitting to the grunt work expected of the eldest child. "Fine," I muttered, reluctantly following him outside.
I opened the front door and Samson eagerly bounded down the porch steps, before glancing back to ensure I was following suit. Something within the house caught his attention and he lowered his belly to the ground and started barking uncontrollably.
"What is your problem today, Sam?" I leaned down and patted his head reassuringly before cupping his face in my hands. "This move is rough on you too, huh? We'll make it through this. It'll be okay." I rolled my eyes at the bullshit spewing from my very own lips.
Grabbing his leash, I let him lead us down the long gravel driveway towards the main road. Intermittent patches of sunlight streamed through the trees overhead, casting beams of warm Georgia sun upon us. As we neared the end of our driveway, a rabbit caught Samson's attention and he took off. I lost my grip on his leash and he made a mad dash into the middle of the country road. The low grumblings of an approaching vehicle made my heart drop into my stomach.
"Samson!" I screamed, the blood-curdling cry ripping from my throat.
I reached the road just as a 4X4 black pick-up truck careened around the corner. My flip-flops pounded against the blacktop, my feet burning as I thrust myself into the middle of the road. I scooped Samson up into my arms and braced myself for impact as the truck made a last-ditch effort to stop, its massive tires burning tread and squealing.
I closed my eyes and said a quick prayer.
The next thing I felt was the cold splatter of something across my face and shoulders. Blood. But I felt no pangs of excruciating pain that would have accompanied an otherwise mangled human body.
"Oh shit, are you okay?"
Good fucking question.
One I honestly didn't know how to answer at that exact moment. I eased my eyes open, wiping a hand over my face to clear the curtain of red that obscured my vision. When I turned around, my heart plummeted to my knees. Funny how that seemed to be a common occurrence lately. Only this time when it happened, it took my breath with it.
God's most perfect creation stood before me: A muscular, 6'3" frame of a man with the most intense green eyes I'd ever seen. Tall, dark, and dangerous, he exuded an air of cockiness that was daunting. His tanned skin glistened in the sun, causing my stomach to do flip-flops despite the current situation. I wanted to run my fingers through his glorious, midnight hair and play counselor to all his problems. He was the perfect blend of wicked charisma and sultry sex appeal—completely irresistible. I could physically feel myself being drawn into him, my knees growing weak as his eyes penetrated me, holding me captive and demanding my attention. Those piercing green beacons of light stared directly into my soul, provoking me to share my most vulnerable, erotic thoughts.
I still hadn't spoken, and that fact wasn't lost on him. He reached out to me tentatively, trying to ascertain my current state of mind.
Samson went crazy in my arms as he approached, baring his teeth as a deep growl vibrated through his body. The hair on his back stood up as he snapped his jaws in anger. Wriggling, he jumped from my arms and stood guard at my feet.
"Samson, stop!" I ordered, pushing blood-soaked strands of hair off my sweaty forehead. My fingertips were saturated in the sticky substance, snapping me back to reality as I realized that none of it was my own. I crouched down and frantically ran my hands through my dog's golden coat, searching for wounds.
"I, um...nailed the rabbit," Sexy Green Eyes called out to me, maintaining a safe distance as determined by my cock-blocking canine.
He hooked a thumb to the side, and I followed his gaze to the bloodied remains of the rabbit just feet away.
"Oh, thank God," I whispered, exhaling deeply with relief.
"So, are you?"
My brows furrowed in confusion. "Huh?"
"Are you okay?"
Samson was still growling at my feet. I nudged him away. "Knock it off," I ordered through clenched teeth. I raised my eyes, heat swarming my face as I took in just how aesthetically pleasing this guy before me was. Sweet Jesus, I was going to dream about those eyes.
Words, Colette. Words are good here.
"Umm...yeah, I think we're alright."
"I, uh, think I have a bottle of water in my truck if you want-" He started backpedaling towards his truck.
"Oh, thanks, but we live right up the drive here. I appreciate-"
The warm smile that lit up his features just moments before dissipated, his eyes widening in disbelief. "You what?"
"Yeah, we just moved in."
He brought a hand up and rubbed his forehead. "Christ."
I frowned. "Something wrong?"
He flashed a quick smile. "Nope. I, um...gotta get going. You sure you're alright?" His magnetizing green eyes emanated his concern, despite his sudden eagerness to depart.
I nodded. "Yep, nothing a hot shower can't cure."
A mischievousness I couldn't quite place flickered across his features. He cleared his throat. "Well, nice to meet you," he called over his shoulder as he retreated to his truck.
Had we actually met? I hadn't even gotten his name. I stood there dumbstruck as Sexy Green Eyes climbed into his 4X4 and pulled away. I knew that it would be an interaction I would replay at least a dozen times in my head.