The word is soft, no more than a whisper on the wind. And yet it comes to me clear as day.
I’m running through the dark forest as thorny brambles reach out of the darkness to ensnare me.
“Just keep running, Everly. Just keep running to me.”
I’m not sure if the voice is coming from within my own head or from somewhere in the darkness around me.
But for some reason, it makes me feel safe. Protected.
As this feeling washes over me, I pick up the pace, my legs burning as my bare feet pound against the earth.
The wind roars all around, a cyclone of anger and pain. It’s as if I’m right in the center of it.
I hear the clap of thunder, and a flash of lightning illuminates the forest around me. Rain cascades from the heavens, falling mere inches behind me.
I chance a glance over my shoulder, and I’m shocked to see that the storm appears to be following me. Always on my heels, yet never overtaking.
“You’re almost there, Everly, I promise.”
I turn forward again and put on an extra spurt of speed, sprinting up a dangerous incline as I head for the top of the ridge looming in front of me.
Then, in a clap of lightning, I see him.
Somehow I know it’s a ‘him,’ even from a distance.
He’s a wolf. A massive, fearsome wolf standing atop the ridge, his long fur whipping about him in the frenzied wind.
He turns his glowing eyes to me, and I feel a shiver run down my spine.
I watch his teeth bare in a furious snarl.
I should be frightened. No, I should be terrified.
But instead, a feeling of calm I haven’t experienced in years washes over me.
The wind ceases as quickly as if somebody has closed a window.
The clouds part above my head, and the night is suddenly calm and relaxed.
I stop running, my eyes glued to the wolf, now mere feet away from me.
“Hello, little mate,” says his voice in my head.
And then, with a thrill of terror, I watch the beast jump right at me, claws flashing.
“Everly! Get your lazy ass up! I’m hungry!” my aunt’s loud, obnoxious voice calls up the stairs, waking me from my dream with a jolt.
I let out a tired groan as I throw back the thin, itchy cover before hurrying to get dressed.
It was that dream again. It’s always been the same dream for as long as I can remember.
When I was little, my parents told me that dreams are a vision of our future.
I shiver, imagining facing a beast like that in real life.
“Everly, now!” my aunt shouts up the stairs. I quickly pull on the faded brown dress that is folded on the chair in the corner.
It is one of three outfits I own, all hand-me-downs from my Aunt Lutessa.
She gets a monthly payment from the accounts that my parents left behind for me. The money is supposed to be used to buy me the things I need.
However, she claims that it is only enough for the food and bills to keep our water and electricity on and a roof over our heads.
I know she’s lying, though. Every time she gets paid, she comes home with bags of new clothes and jewelry for herself.
I look at myself in the cracked mirror that is propped against the wall and let out a sigh before pulling my long, dark hair into a ponytail.
I hurry down the steps and into the kitchen, where I find my aunt sitting at the table on her cell phone.
I’m not sure what she is doing, though I’m positive it’s nothing important.
From what I can tell, she is scrolling through one of her social media accounts.
“It’s about time, you useless, ungrateful brat,” she remarks as she spots me entering the room.
“I’m sorry, Aunt Tessa. I overslept,” I murmur as I bow my head in submission. I try my best to not get on her bad side, or should I say her worse side.
“I don’t want excuses, you little slut! Just make me some goddamn breakfast so I can get to work! Some of us actually need to make a living!”
“Yes, ma’am. Sorry ma’am,” I quickly respond as I begin pulling ingredients out of the refrigerator.
I take everything over to the stove as I begin to make her a ham and cheese omelette with tomato and spinach.
My stomach growls and my mouth waters as I watch the food cook on the stovetop. I wish I could have some.
My aunt only allows me to eat whatever is left on her plate, which isn’t usually much. I do my best to sneak what I can, but I have to be careful.
She once caught me eating some of her leftovers in the refrigerator, and I got a beating. I was sore and hardly able to move for days after that.
I hate my life now. I used to have a great one. My parents were amazing and loving.
They were always making me laugh and telling me how much they loved me. They would comfort me and hug me whenever I was hurt or sad.
We used to be so close. Then, six years ago, they were both killed in a car accident.
I was supposed to be with them but had ended up staying with a friend that night instead. Now, every day I regret not being with them. I miss them.
After they died, I was forced to come and live with Aunt Lutessa. That’s also when I first started dreaming about the wolf.
I miss my old life. I miss my big, beautiful home with the large garden out back where I would play. Back then I had friends, parents; I was happy.
“Stop daydreaming, you fat cow!” Aunt Tessa hollers, bringing me out of my thoughts.
I move the omelette to a plate and take it over to her before pouring her a cup of coffee with her creamer of choice and a dash of milk.
I begin to walk away to begin the rest of my chores for the day when she stops me.
“I have a guest this evening. The house better be spotless. And while he’s here, you better not leave your room. Don’t even make a sound,” she orders, pointing her finger threateningly in my face.
I quickly nod my head before rushing off.
She frequently has different men coming over and taking her out; they often come back and head to her bedroom.
All the while, I’m pretending like I don’t exist up in my so-called room, which is actually the small attic space above the living room.
The rest of the day is spent cleaning. I dust, sweep, mop, do the dishes and laundry, and clean the bathrooms and everything else.
I don’t need to give my aunt another reason to give me a beating. I’m just finishing up when I hear the doorbell.
Jumping in surprise, I look at the front door, debating whether or not I should open it.
She typically doesn’t want any of her “guests” to know I’m here, but I’m sure she’ll get mad at me if they leave because I didn’t let them in.
I stand there for a moment before letting out a sigh and going toward the door.
I open it to find a man standing in front of me with a dark goatee and mustache.
He has a receding hairline, and he’s only a few inches taller than me.
The only thing interesting about him is his eyes. They’re bright red and seem to glow, even in the daylight.
His eyes quickly narrow at me as they rake over my body, making me feel nauseous.
The corner of his thin mouth tilts up into a smirk, and my body instantly tenses.
I don’t feel comfortable with how this guy is looking at me, and now I’m regretting opening the door.
I close it slightly so that I’m ready to slam it in his face if necessary.
Drawing myself up to my full height and summoning as much confidence as I can, I ask, “May I help you?”
“I’m here for Lutessa. I didn’t know she had a maid…,” he begins as he takes a step closer, and I fight the urge to back away.
“She’s not home yet,” I reply before pausing, unsure of what else I should say. Should I ask him to leave a message? Or to come back?
Should I offer him something to drink? Should I let him wait in the living room?
I don’t like the idea of being alone with him, but I’m not sure what Lutessa will do if I send him away.
The man looks up and down my body and then licks his lips. When he opens his mouth, I notice that his teeth are all very sharp.
“That’s fine. I’ll wait,” he remarks as he shoves his way into the front room, causing me to stumble backward.
He catches me by the waist and pulls me close, making me cringe at the smell of stale cigarettes and something else I can’t place. Something sickly sweet.
He holds on longer than necessary, and I quickly squirm out of his grasp and step away.
“O—Okay, y—you can just wait in h—here, then,” I stutter as my nerves begin to get the better of me.
He smirks at me, seeming to enjoy the fact that he is making me nervous.
He saunters toward me as I continue to back away until I hit the wall.
His hands come up along either side of me, caging me in as he leans toward me and speaks softly near my ear.
“I can think of a few ways to pass the time…,” he begins as his hand begins to move up my thigh and under the hem of my dress.
I grab his wrist, stopping its progression, and his eyes meet mine.
“Stop,” I reply forcefully.
“You smell delicious,” he breathes before yanking his hand out of my tight grip.
“I’m just not i—interested,” I begin before taking a deep breath to regain my composure.
“Lutessa will be home soon, and you can wait on the sofa,” I sternly inform him before turning to walk away.
He grabs my wrist and pulls me toward him, and I instinctively strike at him with my free hand.
A loud smack resounds through the small house, followed by a tense moment of silence.
My eyes widen as his face grows serious and he turns to glare at me. “You little bitch!” He begins to advance on me again, and I turn to run.
My head is yanked backward as he grabs a handful of my hair. I let out a wail before he slams me into the wall.
Dark spots dance in my vision as I collapse to my knees.
Blindly, I reach my hands out, trying to force myself up, but his fist hits me in the face and I fall backward.
I let out a groan as I writhe on the floor from the pain. “Please!” I beg. “Stop!”
He doesn’t listen as he rolls me onto my back and climbs on top of me so that he is straddling my hips.
“Oh, shut up, you little whore. Just give me what I want,” he demands before grabbing the neck of my dress and tearing the front open, exposing the plain bra that I’m wearing underneath.
He bends over me and takes hold of my head, pushing it to one side to expose my neck. I feel his cool breath right over my neck.
What the hell is he doing?
My hands reach in front of me as I try to push him away, and I finally manage to get my hand on a heavy ceramic ashtray that is sitting on the entry table.
I smash it over his head and he falls off of me.
I quickly get up to run away, but his hand darts out and grabs me by the ankle, causing me to fall on my face.
Just then, I can hear the sound of the front door as the knob is turned and it is opened. Aunt Tessa walks in and immediately freezes as she spots us.
“What the hell is going on here?!” she yells as she marches toward us while the man scrambles to get up to his feet.
As I’m struggling to get onto my own, my aunt yanks me up by the arm.
“Are you coming on to Dean, you worthless tramp?!” she shrieks as she shakes me roughly.
“N—NO! H—he tried to rape me!”
“LIAR!” she screams as she shakes me again.
“What man would go after a fat, no-good whore like yourself?! You are nothing! And it’s time you learn that!”
She raises me up in front of her before smacking me across the face.
The sting is instantaneous. My hand flies up to cover my cheek and tears fill my eyes.
Her face calms slightly before she turns to the filth that is just standing there watching the scene unfold.
“Dean, wait for me in the car. I need to teach this slut a lesson before our date. I’ll be right out.”
He shoots me a dangerous look and nods before turning to leave.
I wipe at my wet cheeks as I hear the door close. My aunt goes over to the coat closet and comes back with a belt.
“Please, Aunt Tessa,” I plead with her. “I’m n—not lying! He f—forced his way in. H—he hit me…”
“Why are you always ruining my life?!” she hollers over me as she brings the belt down on me like a whip.
I instinctively hold my arms up to protect myself, and the belt bites into my forearms.
She grabs me and throws me onto the floor, and I land on my stomach before she hits me with the belt again.
She hits me over and over as I curl up on the floor, trying my best to protect my head and neck against her assault.
When she finally grows tired, she drops the belt on the floor and leans over me.
“When I get back, this mess better be cleaned up! You hear me, you lazy slut?!”
I begin to sob, only managing to give her a slight nod.
She turns on her heel and leaves me lying in a heap on the floor with bruises and cuts now covering my body.
I remain there as my body is racked with heart-wrenching cries. My whole body is slick and sticky from blood.
It aches to move, but I don’t want another beating.
After what seems like forever, I manage to get myself up and clean the mess before crawling into the shower to rinse off.
Eventually I’m collapsing in my bed, which is an old, dirty mattress lying on the floor. I curl up in a ball and pull my itchy blanket over me.
All of my movements are slow and painful, and if it weren’t for the pure exhaustion that I’m feeling right now, I’m not sure if I would be able to fall asleep.
Fortunately for me, I’m too tired, and darkness soon takes me.
I don’t know how long I’m asleep before my aunt’s voice fills the room.
“Get up, Everly! Get dressed! We’ve got to get going!” she demands.
My eyes flutter open and I look around, confused. It’s still dark out.
“What’s going on? Going where?” I ask sleepily, still trying to make sense of what is happening.
“Just hurry up and do as I say, you worthless brat!” she responds before slamming the door and marching back downstairs.
My body is screaming as I force myself up and get into a dingy white dress.
I slide on my shoes and go downstairs, where I find Aunt Tessa waiting by the door with her coat on.
Her foot is tapping on the floor impatiently, and she looks up at me as I begin to descend the stairs from the attic.
“It’s about damn time! Hurry up! We don’t have all night!”
She opens the front door and gestures outside to her car that is parked out front. “Aun—”
“Shut up! Just come on! Get in!” I shake my head and get into the passenger seat before buckling up.
I lean my forehead against the window as my aunt comes around and gets into the driver seat.
The cold glass feels good to my skin, and I close my eyes, taking in a deep breath.
“You know, Dean is a very important man,” Aunt Tessa says as she pulls out of the driveway.
I nod numbly.
“He’s very well connected. Foreign, too. He comes from Eastern Europe.”
I nod again, wondering why she’s telling me this.
“The moment he met you, he knew you were no good. So last night on our date, he proposed a solution to make everyone happy.”
I look over at Aunt Tessa, nerves bubbling in my stomach.
The pleased expression on her pudgy face doesn’t bode well; I know that much.
“Wh- what do you mean?” I ask, trying to keep the tremble out of my voice.
But she doesn’t respond, only smiles an evil smile.
We are driving for a while, and my aunt refuses to tell me anything else about this so-called plan. All I know is that it’s probably bad for me. Very bad.
I drift into an uneasy sleep full of wolves and whispers and men with glowing red eyes.
When I wake up I have no idea where we are, but I see it’s been three hours since we left the house. Where is she taking me? What is going on?
My nerves instantly return. I sit up straighter and begin looking around, trying to figure out if there are any signs or landmarks that I recognize.
Soon, we are coming into a big city, and she is winding through roads.
My anxiety continues to grow, and I keep trying to find out where we are going. Each time, she tells me to shut up or to leave her alone.
My stomach is churning. The buildings around us seem to get more and more run-down the farther we go.
Finally, we stop in front of a plain brick warehouse-looking building with a solid, black door. My aunt drags me up to it and rings the doorbell.
A large man in a tight black T-shirt and jeans answers with his arms crossed against his chest. “State your name and business,” he says gruffly.
“Lutessa Andrews. I have a meeting with Lord Vlad Lacroix. Dean Feratu sent me with a new one for him, ” she states as she keeps a tight grip on my arm.
The guard nods and steps back, allowing us through before leading us down a dark hallway.
It seems just like any old warehouse except for all of the sounds I can hear from rooms I can’t see.
Loud music blares through the walls as though there is a club on the other side.
As we walk, I can hear moans and screams from various rooms. With each step, my sense of dread grows. Where the hell are we?
We are led through a set of double doors, and suddenly the space is transformed; there’s a thick, luxurious deep red carpet and white and black walls.
Once we reach a door at the end of the hallway, the man knocks on it, and a voice from within calls out, “Enter.”
The guard opens the door and gestures for us to go in before closing it behind us.
Another man is sitting at a massive mahogany desk in a high-back chair.
His skin is deathly pale and his black hair is slicked back. He’s attractive with his tall, lean build and his gray eyes, but he is also very…eerie.
The corners of his mouth twist upward into an evil grin as we come in, and he stands from his desk and comes around to meet us.
My aunt shoves me forward, and the man begins to circle me as his eyes trace over every inch of my body.
“So, this is the girl?” he asks softly, and I wonder if it’s meant to be a rhetorical question.
“Yes. This is the one Brother Feratu told you about,” she answers.
He nods as he comes around to the front of me again.
“Good. She’ll do nicely.” He turns and walks toward his desk as he picks up a small brown bag and brings it to my aunt, dropping it into her hand.
“And your payment. Just as we discussed.”
“Thank you, sir,” Aunt Tessa replies.
I turn to her with confusion. “Payment for what?”
“He’ll tell you. You’re not my problem anymore.” With that, my aunt turns and walks away from me, leaving me alone with the strange man.
I look at him, waiting for an explanation.
“Is it not obvious, my dear?” he asks in a mocking tone. My eyebrows furrow as I try to piece everything together, but I’m not sure.
If I didn’t know any better, I would say that it seems as though my aunt just sold me to this man. But that can’t be right. Can it?
The man smiles. “Very good, little one. You would be right.” My eyes widen as my attention turns back to him. I didn’t say that out loud.
Did he just read my mind?
“Right again,” he says with an evil smile.
“B—But h—how? Why? This is illegal! It’s—” I begin, trying to make sense of everything.
“Human laws don’t concern me,” he remarks as his wicked smile spreads across his face, revealing his two sharp fangs.
And then I notice his eyes. They’re glowing red, just like Aunt Tessa’s date.
He can’t… they can’t be human.
“Oh, you have no idea,” says Lord Lacroix, stalking towards me like a predator about to devour its prey.
“There are all sorts of creatures in the big bad woods. Creatures that will drink from you, eat you, tear you limb from limb. Monsters you’ve only dreamed of, my dear.”
His eyes glow brighter, and a surprised gasp slips through my lips before everything goes black.
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