Short Stories

Small Choices

Charles’ silhouette sat motionless in the dim car. His black Lexus was unnoticeable in the gloom. Across the road, a pale streetlight cast a faint glow through the mist that hovered over the decrepit entrance. Dark branches covered in Spanish moss intertwined above the cracked asphalt of the old driveway. Charles squinted but could not see the house hidden away behind the overgrown forest.

He flipped on his cellphone. The light lit up Charles’ face as he read, “Darling, the Halloween party tonight is for employees only. Such a bore, but I’m the manager. I promise to make it up to you this weekend. xoxo”

Charles’ mouth curved down, and his brow wrinkled. He called Bethany’s phone, but it rolled to voicemail. He double-checked the time and cursed.

Charles yelled at his dashboard, “Eight pm. What is she doing that she can’t pick up the phone for me at eight pm? I thought we had something. Three years, engagement ring shopping, and for what? She won’t even answer my call.”

He flipped through his messages. Maria’s perfect smile, dark eyes, and flowing hair looked at him from her avatar. The message balloon read, “You said if I needed to talk, you would help me. I need a friend tonight. Please come quickly.”

Maria’s address sat below in another balloon. Charles tapped out a reply. “I know it’s late. I had some personal commitments. Do you still need someone to talk with?”

An immediate reply appeared. “Please, are you near?”

Charles responded, “In the neighborhood. I’ll be there soon.”

His trembling hand put down the phone. Two children skipping up the sidewalk caught his attention. One was dressed as a pumpkin and looked to be about ten years old. His younger sister was a princess. She was doing her best to keep up. The little princess started to walk up the driveway when her brother jerked her back. He bent over and said something. The two kids turned and ran away.

Charles understood their apprehension. The dilapidated entrance looked uninviting. Still, this was the correct address. He eased his car between two brick posts that held the opened iron gates. The forest enveloped him in darkness. Charles flipped on his high beams. The tunnel of trees soon ended, and his headlights lit up a large, dry fountain that sat in the center of a circular driveway. Judging by the decay, it had not worked in decades.

Charles pulled around to the front. He checked his phone for messages from Bethany, but there was no response of any type. Charles turned off his phone, tossed it in the glove box, and got out of his car. The palatial chateau and manicured lawn glowed in the moonlight.

He rubbed his palms on his pants and pressed the doorbell. Chimes echoed within. A few moments later Maria appeared. She wore a white chiffon dress. Her shiny, raven hair flowed over her shoulders and accentuated her pale cheeks. Maria’s shining black eyes sent a shiver down Charles’ back.

“Hi. I had no idea when we met at the park that you lived in a place like this. You’re all alone?”

Maria nodded, “I’m afraid so. Most of my relatives live in Mexico City. I came to Houston after my children died. There are too many bad memories there.”

“What about your husband?”

Maria frowned, “He was a treacherous man. I’m afraid my wealth is soaked in blood, including my own.”

“He beat you?”

Maria grunted.

“Where is he now?”

Maria shrugged, “Oh, he disappeared a long time ago. I think the devil took him. That’s why I want company tonight. I’ve never been fond of All Hallows Eve and Dia De Los Muertos.”

Maria took a step back, and Charles started to walk in but then stopped and pointed past the circular driveway. “So, does the fountain work?”

Maria stepped around him and looked out. “Of course, why do you ask?”

Charles stepped beside her. The fountain gleamed in the moonlight, and the water danced and played before falling back into the pool. His brow furrowed.

“Is something wrong?” asked Maria.

“Um, well, I’m not sure. It’s nothing. I’ve just never seen this place.”

Maria laughed as the two of them walked into the home. “Yes, well, it is a well-kept secret, and I am a woman who likes her privacy.”

They meandered through the expansive entryway. Charles noticed his shoes echoed on the marble tile, but Maria did not seem to make a sound. She led them to the parlor. An antique velvet red couch, an antique cabinet, and two overstuffed black leather chairs filled the room.

Maria sat down on the couch, “Please, join me.”

Charles sat down and looked around the room. Candlelight accentuated a punched copper ceiling 10 feet above.

Maria’s cold hand touched the top of Charles’. “I’m so glad you’re here. I get very lonely. Inside this house, there are unfamiliar sounds and shadows. I know I’m silly, but on a night like tonight, they frighten me.”

Charles turned and looked at Maria. Her eyes danced, and he leaned in closer. “Don’t you have any staff? Your home is quite large. I can’t imagine trying to manage it alone or even with a spouse.”

Maria broke their visual embrace and sat back. She looked around the room and swept her arm in front of her. “This is the only room I live in besides the kitchen and bedroom. I’m afraid the rest of the house is still covered in sheets and cobwebs.”

“I don’t understand. Why purchase such a large home if it’s so much trouble?”

“I don’t plan to be alone forever. I have family and staff I want to bring to the U.S. I also have funds that must be transferred, but there is so much government red tape to work through. So, tell me, Charles, how are you still single? You seem like an attractive gentleman.”

Charles puffed his cheeks and let out a slow breath. He could feel the blood rushing into his face. “Well, I’m not alone.”

Maria’s bottom lip stuck out slightly, “You’re married?”

Charles let out a nervous laugh. “Um, well, not exactly. I mean, I’ve been seeing this woman, Bethany, for a couple of years. We’ve considered marriage, but we haven’t made any commitments yet.”

Maria’s fingernail trailed down the outside of Charles’ arm. “I think Bethany is making a mistake. If I had a man like you, I wouldn’t let him visit some strange woman on All Hollows Eve. I would make him stay home, and we would snuggle close so he could protect me.”

Charles cleared his throat. “Bethany is at an office party.”

Maria’s eyes stretched wide. “What?”

A shadow passed over Charles’ face. “Exactly. She said it was for employees only and would make it up to me, but when I tried to call her and tell her I was coming to see you, I only got her voicemail.”

Maria’s grip felt like a vice around his bicep. She pulled him in close, and her breath smelled like roses. “You deserve better. You need a woman who will make you feel like a man.”

The room seemed to tilt, and Charles found himself falling towards Maria until their lips met. Electricity tingled throughout his body. He tried to steady himself but found both his arms wrapped around her with his hands grasping her dress. Her mouth was warm and tasted sweet, but her face felt ice cold.

The room seemed to turn dark and then light again. His vision blurred, and Charles closed his eyes. When he opened them, Maria was sitting with her back against the couch smiling, and he was sitting on the edge of the seat facing her, slack-jawed.

Maria asked, “Would you like some tea?”

“What? Oh, yeah, sure.”

Maria disappeared. Charles got up and looked around the room. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, and he decided to walk towards the kitchen. As he turned the corner into the foyer, he found Maria standing there with a silver tea set.

“Miss me already?”

Charles stammered, “Uh, yea. I thought maybe I could help.”

Maria shrugged and gracefully walked past him.

He followed her back into the parlor, and the two sipped their tea. Charles told Maria he was between jobs since the software company he worked for was bought out. Maria emphasized his need for a woman who could take care of him.

They finished their tea, and Charles stood, “It’s getting late. I should probably be going.”

Maria looked up with her glistening black eyes, “You’re not staying the night? I have plenty of guest rooms.”

Charles tilted his head, “I wasn’t planning on it. I mean, when we met at the park, I thought you wanted company for a couple of hours because you don’t know anyone. I don’t have an overnight bag.”

Maria stuck out her bottom lip for a moment and then smiled. “Come with me. I’ll show you something that will change your mind.”

Charles hesitated, Maria took his hand, and he followed her through the house. True to her word, most rooms were dark, dusty, and had various items covered in sheets. She led him through the French doors to the back of the house. The full moon lit up the pool deck. The swimming pool’s surface shimmered like diamonds, and its shallows were pitch black.

Maria turned, put her arms around Charles, and leaned in towards his ear. Her whisper sounded like birdsong, “Let’s go swimming.”

Charles’ self-control felt as weak as his body. He whispered back in her ear, “But I don’t have a bathing suit.”

Maria’s giggle sent a thrill through his body. She replied, “Neither do I.”

She gently bit his earlobe and released his waist. Charles heard the rustling of chiffon and felt her dress brush against his pants as it fell to the concrete. He could hear his heart beating. She pulled his body against her cold skin.

Charles spoke softly, “You’re freezing.”

Maria giggled, “Then you should keep me warm.”

She stepped back. Charles looked at the ground and tried to catch his breath. He looked up to find her standing on the edge of the pool. Her body seemed to glow in the moonlight. Charles’ vision blurred. He blinked and squinted, trying to make out details, but it was no use.

While he fought with his eyes, he heard a splash. Maria appeared to sparkle in the water. She laughed and splashed about and then stopped and looked at Charles. Although he was still standing on the deck, it felt like she was right next to him.

Maria’s voice floated on the breeze, “Join me.”

Charles tore at his clothes. His shoes flew into the shrubbery. His pants landed partly in the water, and his shirt landed somewhere behind him. He ran and jumped into the water next to Maria. She laughed and went under the surface. Charles watched her body dance beneath the waves. She swam underneath his feet, and he felt a tug on his foot.

A second tug pulled him just under the waves and released him. Charles surfaced and laughed, but Maria didn’t appear. He looked around the pool and did not see her. The moon’s light darkened.

Claws dug into his leg, and white-hot pain shot through his calf muscle and pulled him under the surface. Charles looked down, but all he could see was darkness. He groped and fought. Reaching down, a familiar cold hand met his, but it was not soft, only cold and hard. Charles bent and turned his body until he found an arm and bit down on it.

The claws released their grip, and he scrambled for the surface in the blackness. His head hit the concrete, and he flipped around and pushed himself up for all he was worth. Charles broke the water’s surface, coughing and sputtering. He got his bearings and began to swim for the edge.

Pain pierced both legs, and Charles cried out as he disappeared into the hostile waters once more. He writhed and fought for all he was worth. His body turned this way and that attempting to find a way to break the clutches of the unknown beast. Smaller claws grabbed each hand, and something yanked his hair. He struggled but descended into the inky blackness.

Charles’ body impacted the concrete at the bottom of the pool. Maria’s familiar voice filled his head, “Don’t fight us, my love. Soon we will be together for eternity.”

Charles screamed, and bubbles tickled his tortured face. He gasped, and foul water filled his lungs. Panic filled his mind. His chest ached and then burned. His body convulsed, and then everything became still.

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