The cold air in the van nipped on my skin so I placed my unbuttoned cardigan’s vest on top of the other as I wet my drying lower lip with my tongue. Leaning against my chair, I watched the peaceful roadside of Wharton, Texas with a Pringles can in my hand.
Despite knowing that I’d be a fifth wheel in this vacation, I still came along when my friends insisted. It’s a long weekend so we chose to celebrate my friend Nikki’s birthday in her hometown. My friends came from wealthy families like mine so they’re really eager to escape from the pressure once in a while.
In front of me were Nikki and her boyfriend Von and in the passenger and driver’s seats were Katrin and Dwight, dating as well. We’re a circle of five so it really irked me when they dated each other.
Told you, fifth wheel.
“Oh please, I can feel that you’re into me!”
They all sang but only Katrin got the right tune and the rest were just shouting. I refused to sing along because my snack has got my almost undivided attention.
Nikki threw a glance at us. “I’ve got a plan for this weekend. I heard Mom and Dad had left some gowns and suits in the resthouse, do you know what I’m thinking?”
Von shrugged with his eyes glued on his phone. “Whatever that is, I don’t wanna think about it.”
Katrin burst in laughter while Nikki quickly slapped Von’s shoulder. “I’m serious! I want us to dress up!” she exclaimed.
I shook my head and picked another few pieces of chips. They proceeded to talk about Nikki’s plan until their voices faded and the van’s engine went off.
“What happened?” I asked.
Von and Nikki shrugged as we watched Dwight try to restart the engine. The car roared for a few seconds and eventually died down.
“What the?!” Nikki suddenly screamed. “Of all places? Oh, my God. Get out, guys. Hurry!”
She tried to open the door beside her but Von grabbed her arm. “Let Dwight fix the car first. Look at the sun, it’s scorching.”
Nikki shook her head as she grabbed her duffel bag on the floor. “The rest house is just a kilometer away. We can walk!” Then she pulled the door and hopped out. The others had followed her so I collected all my strength to lift my back off the seat.
My eyes roamed the area as I balanced my feet on the rocky road. We’re on the edge of a cliff, and below is a house on a riverside. Everything looks green because of the trees, plants and grasses around.
The cold wind ruffled my hair so I tied it into a bun. I looked at myself in the mirror to check, the sun made my natural brown hair shine like a copper. My nose still feels the cold air from the van so I pinched it twice and exhaled deeply before looking for the others.
“Look,” Nikki uttered in an undertone.
I walked to the front of the van to see them but I quickly cocked my head on a huge hill before us. My jaw dropped at the sight of a mansion on top of it and the spiral driveway around the hill. Unlit lamps, vintage-looking ones, stood on both sides of the driveway at an even distance.
The house’s style is like that of English castles, only with green vines and reddish flowers surrounding the mansion’s walls.
“Wow,” Katrin whispered in amusement.
Nikki nudged her. “Shh! Take whatever you can and we’ll just leave the van here. I’ll ask someone to tow that when we get there.”
Katrin rolled her eyes and pointed her pinky finger at the van. “Why won’t you let Dwight fix the car first?”
“Fine. You wait, but I’m leaving,” Nikki replied. She took a glance at the mansion before walking away. Von, being a good boyfriend, went with her.
Katrin, Dwight and I were left exchanging looks before we decided to get our bag and walk as well. No one bothered to bring an umbrella so we endured the heat of the 4 p.m. sun. I trailed behind them to give myself some time to admire the river below the cliff.
“Are you going to tell us now why we are walking?” Katrin asked.
Nikki fixed her black beanie and scanned the road with her eyes. “Can’t spend any more minutes around that mansion. It’s creepy.”
“The one on the hill, of course. That’s where Don lives.”
She cleared her throat and adjusted the strap of her bag on her shoulder. “Based on what I’ve heard, he’s been a resident here for almost six months now but no one has seen his face. Those who saw his figure said that he’s wearing a black mask and an all-black outfit, but only a few have seen him, so we’re not sure if they’re telling the truth.”
Dwight chuckled as he kicked a rock to the side. “You’re not even sure.”
“I am not sure, because he’s that creepy,” Nikki countered. “Why would a sane person live in a small town and wear a mask, refusing to let people see his face? Is he the Phantom of the Opera or something?”
We fell silent that the only noise around were the sounds of our shoes stomping on the rocks.
“Why is he like that?” I asked.
“How would I know? No one even knows why he’s here. But he has a caretaker for his house, the name’s Pablo, 54. He’s the one who informed the locals here of the name of his boss. He surely knows something.”
“Don’s an attention-seeker then?” Von asked.
“He’s more than that.” Nikki replied, with a voice and tone used for horror movies. “In six months, he was able to terrorize the locals here. He shows up in the middle of the road to scare some teenagers and there were girls who have gone missing since he got here. They believe that he took them.”
From the rocks, I turned my gaze at the hill behind us. It looks pretty, but it seems like the owner is not... welcoming.
“This way, Ginny.” Dwight poked my arm so I looked at him and saw them entering the woods. I followed them and gazed on the grassy pathway.
“That’s why I don’t wanna stay there for too long. They said that if Don takes an interest in you, he will have you, no matter what,” Nikki continued.
“No one told the cops about this?”
“My parents told me that even the cops were afraid of him. Plus, there was no evidence that it was Don who abducted those girls.”
Von picked a leaf from a plant beside him and sniffed on it. “If the locals believe that he’s the suspect, then the cops should just take him.”
Nikki chuckled and slapped his arm. “Silly. That’s not how it works. If you want to arrest someone, of course you need a warrant, unless he was caught in the act—which never happened.”
Katrin shrugged. “So everything is just a rumor?”
Nikki nodded repeatedly. “Yeah. Rumor. A bloody and possibly true rumor,” she answered sarcastically.
Past the woods, we saw a huge rice field with across were two houses and a cottage.
Nikki pointed at the larger house. “There it is.”
When we reached the lawn, I looked around and admired the house, it’s a classic Spanish house. It’s made of wood and the sliding windows were open, revealing a plain white curtain tucked to the side. The wind blew, so I ran my fingers through my hair as I enjoyed the nice scent of the plants and trees and the sound of the brushing leaves.
An old man, probably in his 50s, appeared from the back of the house. He’s wearing a pair of rubber boots, faded jeans, a black henley shirt and gray newsboy hat.
“Nikki!” he exclaimed, delighted to see her.
He welcomed Nikki with a hug and looked at us.
“Good afternoon,” we greeted in unison.
He smiled and extended his arm towards the porch. “Come inside, we’ve prepared snacks. Where’s your van?”
Nikki bit her lower lip and pointed her thumb behind her. “Shut off by the hill.”
“Hill?” The old man echoed as his smile slowly faded. “Fine. Benedict will pull it later.”
“Uh,” Dwight cut in. “It’s my father’s, so can you tell him to be extra careful? That van was-”
Katrin pulled her boyfriend’s shirt and glared at him. “They will. Shut up now.”
Andres nodded, his lips slowly forming back into a smile. “Duly noted, Sir Come on in. You might get sunburns.”
Inside the house was more Spanish-inspired. Two black vases stood on two corners of the sala. There’s a cushioned couch made of rattan by the window and a small wooden round table beside a door that seems to lead to the kitchen. In another corner is a classic organ and a huge abstract painting on the wall and on our right side is a wooden staircase that leads upstairs. The floor was made of wood but by how it shines in the sunlight coming from the windows, it looks properly waxed. They really maintained this house and this could actually pass as a historical place.
“Wow, it’s my first time at a house like this. This is a spitting image of a Spanish house,” Katrin murmured to herself as she stared at the huge abstract painting in front of her.
Nikki placed her stuff on the couch. “Mom didn’t want to sell this so she just employed the locals here—Andres’ family—to maintain the house.”
With arms crossed, I inched towards the couch and gaze outside the windows. The white see-through curtains shook as the wind blew in all directions. Even here, I can see the mansion atop the huge hill. Its walls are all-white but because of the vines and flowers, it looks... enchanting.
“Scary, isn’t’ it?” Nikki whispered beside me. I glanced at her, then at the rest of our friends who were now busy with the snacks on the table.
I held a steady gaze at the mansion and sighed. “It’s beautiful, actually.”
Nikki chuckled and slapped me on my arm. “Silly. You’re just hungry. Go eat.”
Nikki’s palms landed on the edge of the table’s end as I settled next to Von.
“After eating and unpacking, you may rest. I’ll talk to Olevia about dinner. She’s Andres’ wife,” she announced.
Katrin nodded, spreading a strawberry jam on her wheat bread. “So they’re the caretakers?”
“Yeah,” Nikki replied. “Since we don’t live here, we just gave them the lands. In exchange, they maintain the house and assist us when we visit here. I’ll be back before dinner. Rest well, amigos.”
I raised the pitcher and poured a glass of orange juice. The three talked about an upcoming concert in New Orleans but I just found myself staring at the mansion again. How can it be so enchanting? As I stared longer, it seems like someone’s whispering to my ear. Go there, knock and get to know the mysterious guy.
Damn. I sighed and slowly shook my head. He’s a stranger but with just a few rumors about him, I can’t get him off my mind. Am I sick?