The narrow path led through the gathering night shades and shadowy tree groves to the distant sounds of blaring music accompanied by the rhythmic pulse of the tide. Beth trode carefully in the darkness, though her eyes became more accustomed to the night the longer she spent outdoors. The night was truly beautiful, the full moon was throwing a silver glow on the silhouettes of the bending tree branches, and the leaves seemed to whisper in the light sea breeze.
Beth was enjoying her small walk to the beach as much as she could, as it was supposed to be one of her last nights spent in this small coastal town where she was vacationing at her close friends’ apartment.
Now Beth was heading to the town’s local night beach party held regularly on summer Saturdays. For now, she wanted to enjoy life, savor the most cheerful moments, and keep them close whenever she got depressed.
The last summer had been hard on her. She discovered that she was ill and the disease was slowly eating her alive.
Also, Beth lost her job at the prestigious newspaper company and couldn’t keep renting her comfortable apartment anymore. She couldn’t afford to work overtime which was a necessity for any reporter at the start of his career.
Financial difficulties and the disease were only the beginning of one of the hardest times of her life. She couldn’t find a job for months. All the interviews ended disastrously when people learned that Beth got some rare form of heart pathology. No one wanted to hire her.
She was becoming more and more unsure of herself and had lost almost all of her self-esteem.
Then, unexpectedly, her childhood friend Sienna suddenly called and invited her out for a visit. The invitation extended for several weeks and the call couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. Beth, unable to pay rent, or even get her desperately needed heart treatment, had run out of money and couldn’t even afford a doctor.
Sienna’s invitation had been like a fresh breeze of clear air in a dusty locked up room. During her stay, she managed to contact an editor of a small local news site and was willing to work for them. The editor was also excited about finding the new and talented reporter, and paid generously for the freelance articles Beth wrote, so she finally got money for living, providing a bit of an income for living expenses.
Beth knew she had to return back to her problems soon, but on the other hand, maybe she had no home, for now, to go back to.
So Beth tried daily to live in the moment and not to think of going back to her previous life. As much as she wanted to stay with Sienna, she couldn’t risk her friend’s hospitality.
She needed to sort out her life circumstances alone, and she knew she just needed to start her life over in some other place. God knew she was running out of time.
This night had to be her little joyful moment to remember. Maybe her life wouldn’t be much fun tomorrow.
Strangely, Beth didn’t feel like partying anymore now that she was almost there. The gyrating sounds of the loud club music started to pulse in her head. She wanted to turn back but then spotted Sienna near the bar. Her friend looked around anxiously as if she had lost somebody in the crowd. Eventually, she was looking for Beth and was worried that her friend wasn’t coming by this time.
Beth entered the open beach club and shimmied through the crowd while smiling brightly at Sienna.
“Hi, I’m really sorry for being this late. Actually, at some point I got lost on the way,” but she noticed that Sienna didn’t stop throwing around worried looks, “Something’s wrong?”
“No. It’s nothing,” Sienna subconsciously removed her locks of dim golden hair from the face and smiled vaguely in response, “How do you feel tonight? What do you want to drink?”
“Sorry, I’m keeping my mind sober today,” Beth shook her head, “I’ll need to get up early tomorrow morning. But I’m good.” It was the truth. Beth was really experiencing a small relief in her state of disease. It depended a lot on the stress level, and currently, she was mostly calm and relaxed. Her heart wasn’t constantly hurting and laboring. The more time passed, the more Beth was sure that the disease wouldn’t become her undoing - at least not this month. People lived with this diagnosis for years, even decades, when getting the right treatment and leading a peaceful life.
“So you’ve decided to leave,” Sienna asked, as she took a sip from her glass filled with something quite vicious and colorful. “It’s a pity. I wanted you to stay a bit longer. I know that you have problems now and I want to help you as much as I...” but she broke off and her glance became glued to one of the party newcomers.
It was a handsome man dressed in faded jeans and a navy blue tee. He had an unruly brown mop of hair that hung in locks partly obscuring his vision.
“I know you genuinely want to help me, but I don’t want to hang my problems on your shoulders. I appreciate that you’ve asked me to stay, but…” Beth started to say, yet Sienna hushed her.
“See that guy?” she asked in a low voice. Her friend was whispering as if she feared that somehow the stranger she watched could overhear her through all the music and talking.
“Who is he?” Beth nearly jerked when at once she felt the impact of the stranger’s gaze on her. He couldn’t have heard her. She knew it logically. But either way, it seemed that the moment she spoke of him his attention was instantly drawn to her.
“I saw him several nights before. I don’t know him, but his gaze… it disturbs me,” Sienna confessed. “I wanted you to come here with me ’cause I knew he would be here as well. He gives me creeps, and he’s somehow different. I can’t even explain to you, how, but... ” She laughed, but there was no humor in her eyes.
“I don’t see anything different in him,” Beth murmured, trying to lower her voice as much as possible in the loud atmosphere of the club, “You saw him and then your imagination did its work, that’s what happened... Was he trying to approach you? What exactly did you see?”
“Actually, it’s the way he holds himself and acts around people. And when he looks in my direction I actually feel strange,” Sienna swallowed her drink as if it was pure water. She was obviously nervous and alcohol clearly wasn’t helping her relax. Just the opposite.
“He’s staring at you now,” she added in a whisper.
Beth looked back to the place where she had seen the man before. The spot was already empty. She searched through the crowd, trying to make out the tall guy with brown hair among the dancing people, but it was nearly impossible. Stroboscope lights were highlighting chaotically the swaying bodies of men and women. The music was a living and breathing thing with a pulse of its own.
“Maybe he wasn’t watching us after all. Just his head was turned our way,” Beth guessed.
“I don’t know,’” Sienna shrugged, delving into her own thoughts, “I just felt his gaze, and then my mind felt like an open book. I swear I felt him somehow in my head, scanning my thoughts... He’s at the table with some stunner girl now, just on your left.”
“He must have been looking at us because he noticed you staring at him,” explained Beth calmly. But even though she wasn’t looking at the stranger, she felt a sudden rush of goosebumps along her spine. She felt uncomfortable. Watched. Hunted.
Anyway, what is this guy thinking, sitting at the table with some other girl and continuing glaring at my friend, and now at me? His gaze was palpable.
“I want to find a place to sit and rest,” Beth told her friend cautiously, “It seems too hot there, don’t you think?”
“I haven’t noticed. But, sure, let’s do it. I know a place where the sea breeze will cool you down,” Sienna offered. As the music became less energetic and more relaxing the two of them went to the furthest place in the nightclub they could find where the crowd wasn’t as dense.
They slowed near a free booth with several comfortable armchairs and a small round wooden table covered with an elegant satin cloth.
Sienna plunged into the free armchair and gestured for Beth to do the same. From here the view of the seaside was perfect: all these waves crashing and retreating slowly to claim what was theirs step by step. An old wooden pier stood solidly not far away.
Beth took a seat in the armchair facing the light breeze, which blew tenderly onto her heated face. She pulled up her unruly strands of dark wavy chestnut hair and tried to relax. She was exhausted from the heat of the day. Even now, at night, the hot weather was still prominent.
“So have you decided what you’ll be doing next?” Sienna asked Beth curiously. “Do you want to return home, or are you heading some other place now?”
“I’ve already booked a ticket to NY, but I don’t think that I want to go back there anymore. Maybe some smaller city will do - I’ll make the final decision at the bus station,” Beth shrugged.
“Then it is my responsibility to try to convince you to stay here,” Sienna laughed lightly and smiled, “Seriously, Beth! This editor you spoke of is so going to offer you a job. If you don’t want to stay with me, there are some places for rent that you’ll definitely like. Think it through. I’d love to be neighbors with you. I don’t have many friends, and you’re the only one I can talk to if anything. Just think about it.” Her long stance was suddenly interrupted by a newcomer. A long, dark shadow fell over the beautiful tablecloth, and Beth suddenly shivered as if feeling something was very wrong in the stranger.
In the dim purple lights that the stroboscope was throwing, she could finally discern the tall slender woman dressed in a delicate and extremely expensive dress that sparkled with crystals, and a pair of high-heeled shoes with straps.
Her face was extraordinarily beautiful. She had stunning dark eyes that reminded Beth of a large exotic cat. They seemed to have a strange feral glow to them. The small straight nose and high cheekbones added to the sophisticated looks of a stranger.
However, that girl wasn’t a total stranger after all. It was also the same woman with whom Sienna’s observer was sitting at a table.
The woman smiled delicately and started to introduce herself.
“Hello, I’m Rita,” she glanced around, “I’d like to ask you both to join my brother and me at our table. We’re new here, and want to make friends with the locals. We’ve seen you both before, so it seems you are regulars here,” she looked at Sienna in question.
“Well, my friend Beth and I, we are…” Sienna sighed, “Beth, what do you think?”
“It’s alright, but my friend and I are having what might be our last evening together. If you would excuse us, we won’t accept your invitation. I’m really sorry.” She felt a curious prickle of unease when refusing Rita. She knew she was being watched again, and now she had no doubts who was causing this feeling.
“Nevermind. I apologize for disturbing you. Well...,” she paused, “...maybe we’ll meet another time?”
“Sure,” Sienna smiled politely.
“I have to return to my brother now. It was a pleasure to talk to you both. Beth…” Rita sighed, it seemed she wanted to add something, but changed her mind just now.
She turned away and made her way back to the opposite side of the beach club. Her heels were like tiny stilettos, her walk graceful, ethereal.
“Did you see that?” Sienna asked in awe.
“She is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous. Beauty incarnate,” Beth shook her head in disbelief, stunned, “But I still don’t understand what she wanted with us...”
“She looked at you as if she wanted to tell you something important. And this man she’s with, he’s apparently her brother. Wouldn’t think it in million years…,” Sienna laughed nervously, “Kind of a strange coincidence that she asked us to join when he clearly observed us.”
“If a coincidence at all,” Beth added calmly, “I had a strange feeling while we were talking to her. Like she was trying to put me under some strange enthrallment...” she bit her lip. “Now you think I’m crazy. I’m not sure what I feel anymore. Maybe it’s only my mind playing tricks...”
“No, Beth, I understand,” confirmed Sienna. “This girl, Rita… There is something strange in her voice and eyes. I felt a strong compulsion to join her and go meet her brother when she spoke to me. When you refused her offer I was relieved.”
“I don’t want to stay here anymore,” confessed Beth. “Let’s go home. Honestly, I am tired.”
“Alright. You need to rest, and what I need is to calm down and be as far away from this place as I can be. These people really scare me,” Sienna agreed.
The girls were making their way to the exit when Beth suddenly realized that the road leading to Sienna’s home now felt dangerous. She couldn’t put her finger on what exactly made her nervous about this path, but something felt definitely off.
It was like a premonition, an unexplainable feeling when you experience sudden shivers of unease brought on not only by the sudden cool burst of evening sea breeze but something else.
Beth could just tell that something was very wrong. What - she couldn’t tell.
“Maybe we should call a taxi,” she ventured awkwardly.
“If you’re feeling unwell, we’ll do it immediately,” Sienna misunderstood her friend, and perhaps it was for the best.
Beth made a cautious look around, and spotted a man exiting the club and coming their way. It was paranoia - she couldn’t see that well in the dark - but instinctively she knew it was the very man she had seen earlier at the table. The one who had sent his sister to talk to them.
As he approached, all doubt was gone - he was definitely heading toward Elizabeth. His sister was only a few steps behind him, her heels clicking on the pavement.
“Hey...,” Beth elbowed her friend lightly, drawing her attention to the approaching pair. The dull moonlight shone through the vast canopies of trees making the distant sea glint like it was a blanket of pure silver. The stranger’s eyes matched the sea-silver waters of the evening, leaving Beth breathless. Earlier she haven’t noticed his unusually colored eyes
He was looking directly at her and his gaze felt heavy with reprimand, even aggressive.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked Beth without preambles. Elizabeth took a step back.
“Sorry, we are in a hurry and have to go… we don’t have time to stay and chat,” said Sienna who had suddenly found her voice, though it sounded weak and unsure.
“I asked you a question, not your friend,” the stranger insisted, paying no attention at all to Sienna. His eyes were glued to Elizabeth, their strange silver alive with intensity.
“Jack, stop it!” Rita put her small delicate hand on her brother’s shoulder, “Can’t you see you’re scaring them? Just stop!” She threw a guilty smile at the girls, “So sorry about this…”
“I need to know,” the stranger persisted, as he shook his sister’s restraining hand off him, “Just tell me.” His gaze never wavered from Beth‘s.
“We have to go,” Beth addressed Rita, trying her best to ignore the presence of the man that was now looming over her.
He was really tal. She had noticed it the first moment she saw him in the club. But this close, his height was extremely menacing. He practically dwarfed her. The man was scary-looking, with a face chiseled from stone, his mouth firm and confident. His eyes of piercing silver mesmerized her for a moment. But she managed to shake off the effect he had on her.
Elizabeth just turned and ran. She knew she wasn’t a great runner, and frankly, her heart could react to this kind of activity at any moment. Already it was beating erratically, struggling to work harder.
The next thing Beth would feel would be a sea of excruciating pain she would be drowning in. She would be short of the air and in severe pain. But she ran, heedless of the consequences, right into the darkness of the lightless alley that brought her to the beach earlier in the evening - the very place she was so reluctant to go into not so long ago.
When she finally stopped, her lungs burned like fire. The pulse was irregular and fast - too fast for her liking.
Elizabeth made an attempt to calm her breathing, repeatedly checking there was nobody to pursue her. She had lost her friend, the stranger and his sister somewhere behind.
She tried to relax and only then noticed how alone she was in this dark, silent place. She could clearly hear her own breathing and heartbeat, but they were the only sounds. There were no cicadas, no usual whispering murmur of the leaves touched by the wind.
The cold bony fingers of fear painfully squeezed at Beth’s heart.
What had she been thinking, leaving her friend and running from a relatively safe place where people were around? Now she felt uneasy as the silver moon hid in the murky clouds and the darkness around her became impenetrable.
Beth gathered her courage and took a careful step ahead. Through the soles of her sandals, her feet felt the solid surface of polished rock which shaped a narrow path that led further into the deep darkness - but Beth knew this very path eventually will lead to the street where Sienna lived. If she was going to make her way to Sienna’s house alone, she just needed to follow this road of polished stones. It was supposed to have no turns or forks that could throw her off in this darkness.
Elizabeth laughed at herself and her stupid fears, walking ahead more confidently. The way would take no more than fifteen minutes. Beth suddenly felt silly for thinking she needed a taxi.
Slowly her ability to see at night returned. Now she could easily discern the beauty of an old park surrounding her. The branches of the trees were entwined and formed a sort of unusual tunnel which she hadn’t noticed when walking this path an hour before.
As she approached further and time went by, she began to doubt if she had taken the right way at all. The scenery had changed completely, and she found herself standing amidst a little area surrounded by beds of fragrant star-like night flowers. Not far away she could make out a silver-sparkling pond that she hadn’t noticed before. Her vision whas becoming accustomed to the dim lighting again, and she could see better now. Where in the world was she?..
Suddenly, in the complete silence of the all-consuming night, Beth heard the distant sounds of child laughter as if there were kids playing nearby. The air drifted to her, carrying the strange out-of-place sounds. Beth looked around watching her surroundings carefully. Why did this laughter make her so nervous? Maybe she was already on edge from the very beginning of the evening, however now the feeling of something being wrong increased significantly. And it had nothing to do with the strange man that observed her and her friend.
Elizabeth caught a subtle movement near the pond; something light and weightless appearing for just a second and then dissolving into the shadows again.
“Hey!” Beth called at the top of her lungs. She couldn’t find the courage to go and check, but she needed to know that the child was safe and well. “Come here! Where are your parents? You shouldn’t be playing in the park at night.”
She noticed a small movement right beside her, just a few steps into the darkness. A little girl emerged out of a tree‘s shadow right next to her. She couldn’t have been more than five years old and was very fragile-looking. She was all alone but seemed unconcerned about it.
“Hi,” she said with a smile, “My parents are at home. I live not far from here. What about you? What are you doing here tonight?”
“I was on my way home when I heard you,” Elizabeth returned the girl’s smile, but the restlessness she felt never truly left her. “It can be dangerous at night to be all alone here. You should return home.”
“Why? I’m perfectly safe where I am,” the girl looked around, “It’s so peaceful and beautiful tonight. I enjoy being alone. Why don’t you take a walk with me and admire this place a bit longer?”
“I never liked to be alone at night. My favorite time of day is early morning when the first rays of sun break the darkness and bring color to the world,” Beth answered. She laughed nervously at how stupid it was to feel uneasy while talking to a child.
Seriously, what could harm me? A large tree shadow looking like some giant ugly ghost, or what?
“You’re lost,” guessed the girl, “That’s why you’re here, in the valley of shadows. You’re not like me…” she couldn’t hide the sound of speculation in her voice.
“Valley of shadows?” repeated Elizabeth, “What kind of name is that? It’s more like a valley of flowers. Why shadows? Who told you that?”
“Nobody. That’s just its name. Can’t you see that you’re not in the real world?” asked the girl, “Just try to cover your face from the moonlight with your hands, and you’ll see.”
Beth suddenly felt uneasy again. Something was not right with this girl. She seemed to be quite normal, but her dress was too warm to wear in summer, and her face was somehow too pale, translucent even. Her eyes appeared too adult for a child’s face; too shrewd and calm.
“Everything you see around is fake. The flowers,” the girl explained, pointing at the white star-shaped blossoms, “the pond, the alley… everything. The night rules here for all eternity, and if you want to see the morning light again you’d better hurry.”
“I don’t understand…” Elizabeth was becoming really agitated now as a thin veil of white mist began to envelop the distant trees and pond. It was becoming colder with each breath she took. She could feel pulsation in her head and ears, and it drummed faster than her heart could afford.
“Hurry,” the girl repeated. Then Elizabeth’s vision blurred as if she was about to faint.