Andrew sighed in frustration, there was no way he could get back to sleep this time. As weary as he was, his eyes now were fully opened. He had been awoken three times that night, now the howl was getting louder, and to him, it seemed closer.
He kicked the thin blanket off to the floor and sat, listening. The wooden bed creaked as he shifted his weight to the edge, slipping his cold feet to his shoes. Wind blew the chill into the room through the opened window.
Strange, he thought.
He was quite sure he had closed it, he had even locked it. Hesitantly, he walked toward the window and closed it back. Just when he gripped the lock, he saw a glimpse of dark shadow at the back yard. He wiped the window glass with the soft curtain to see clearer. There was someone, standing far on the hill. And was looking at him.
He slapped the curtain over the small window and turned over, leaning against the wall, his heart went racing. He dared not look back through the window, afraid the man was still there. In the dark, Andrew could barely see his face, but he was unmistakably looking at him.
It was midnight, who would wander around at the hill at that hour? It was probably the inn keeper, he told himself. Andrew and his four friends were supposed to spend their holiday at his grandfather’s house, atop of the mountain. That’s where he and his family used to spend their weekend. The house was more like a hotel, with fifteen rooms and a big garden at the front.
The bridge was closed that day, for what reason, he didn’t know. But it had trapped him and his friends in that village, six kilometers away from his grandfather’s house. They had to spend their night in the small inn on the hill, Andrew only hoped they would be able to cross the bridge in the morning.
A knock on the door made his heart skip a beat. “Who is it?“ He asked cautiously. There was no answer.
Came another knock, and another.
“Who is it?“ He asked again, and waited. The knock came in a rush, demanding. Andrew gulped silently, the hair at the back of his neck stood on end. Someone, or something was waiting for him to open the door.
He took a deep breath, bracing himself. Whoever, or whatever that was, kept knocking so hard he thought the door might drop from its hinges. With that banging sound, he thought the whole house must have heard it, his friends must have been awakened too. But apart of that sound, he could hear nothing else. It was as if he was alone, with the thing that was banging on the door.
As frightened as he was, he knew he had no choice but to open the door and see what that was all about. Slowly, he stepped forward, reaching for the doorknob. Just as he turned the smooth round handle, the banging instantly ceased.
The door opened with a creak.
There was noone outside.
Came a soft whisper from the deep darkness, calling him. He stood at the door frame, looking around. His friends were clearly asleep, the inn was very quiet. The howl came again.
The shadow appeared before him.
It was a girl. A strikingly beautiful girl in a simple silky black dress, her long hair was as dark as midnight, her big brown eyes were hypnotizing, he thought he could lose himself in them. The voice at the back of his mind was reminding him that this wasn’t an ordinary girl, or wasn’t a girl at all.
She reached out with her ashen hand. She had a silver bracelet on her left wrist, with a red ruby in the middle. He had seen the bracelet before, but he couldn’t remember when and where.
He wanted to scream, he wanted so badly to run. Away from her, away from the nightmare. Tried as he might, he couldn’t. As if watching someone else doing it, he took the girl’s hand and walked with her. Her hand was icy cold, as he had expected.
She lead him through the small path down the hill, crossing a small river. He could hear a distant sound of a hooting owl, the wolf was still howling. After a long walk, he saw lights shining ahead, and heard the sounds of drums and music. They arrived in a village full of lanterns, sweet smells rubbed his nose and people came greeting him, shaking his hand with their cold ones.
The girl smiled at him, he thought she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. She pulled him to sit on the gazebo, decorated with flowers of all kinds.
And the party started.
She offered him a drink. He refused. He almost laughed at himself on how his mind still could work in such a situation. As much as he hated to admit, he knew now, that he was in another world.
The world of the dead.
Accepting any kind of food, would be the end of him. He would not be able to go back to his own world, the world of the living.
“I- I don’t even know your name.“ He forced himself to speak when she offered him an apple. He took the apple from her, but instead of taking a bite, he put it back on the table by his left.
She smiled a small smile. “Rose.“ She answered, her voice was as gentle as the breeze, the sweetness of her lingered in the air around him.
The party went on, people were cheering, singing, dancing before him. He had to keep reminding himself not to take any of the food, neither the drink, though they looked very appetizing. Still, he couldn’t take his eyes off Rose. She was beautiful, she was sweet, she was…dead, he thought, reminding himself for the hundredth time that night.
He knew he was trapped, he couldn’t run even if he wanted to. So he decided to play along. Everything should be gone by sunrise. He believed in it.
* * *
Voices, seemed like coming from a far distance, calling his name.
There was a foul smell of something burning. He breathed the smoke, and was coughing. Strong- wet arms grabbed him, shaking him until he was lifted from the ground. He thought he heard his grandfather, his voice was so close.
A bucket of cold water suddenly poured down onto his head. He released a long- loud gasp and his eyes snapped open.
“Grandpa? What are you doing here?“ He asked, bewildered.
The old man pulled him with one arm, he pointed one bony finger at him. “What are you doing? Are you tired of living already?!“
He stammered, looking around in awe. His three friends were also there, along with the inn keeper. There was no village, no house, no party, no… Rose. There were only trees, he realized, he had been in the woods.
"Where is this place?“ He asked around.
“Somewhere you’re not suppose to be.“ His grandfather answered.
Tommy helped him stand. “What happened to you man? We’ve been looking for you for days!“
Andrew blinked. “Few days? I’ve only been out for a night.“ He whispered.
“You’ve been gone for three days, buddy. I saw you when you went out. You were sleepwalking, I called you, I ran after you, but you were suddenly gone out of sight.“ Tommy explained. Andrew shook his head, he felt dizzy. Had he been gone that long? It felt like only a night.
His grandfather took him by the arm and yanked his face close, glaring. “Tell me what happened, Andrew, tell me what you saw, all of it, don’t miss a thing. I want to know everything that happened out here!“
He had never seen his grandfather this angry before, he had always been kind to him. The way he looked at him now, Andrew wished he could hide from him. From his sharp old eyes.
“Tell me, Andrew!“
“I- I don’t know. There was a girl. She took me to a village.“ He swallowed before continue. “There was a party, I saw lots of people in fine clothes.“
“The seventh day of the seventh month.“ His grandfather muttered to himself. His eyes slowly widened in fright. “The day for the wedding.“ He added, his voice wavering.
He cupped Andrew’s face in both hands. “Did you eat or drink anything?“ He asked, his eyes boring into his.
“Good.“ He let go of him, with his bony finger, he stroked the thin- white beard on his chin, thinking.
“You must give back what you have taken to free yourself.“ He held out his hand. “Show me the thing. “
Andrew was in a daze, he wasn’t sure he understood what his grandfather was talking about. When he didn’t answer, the old man yelled angrily at him. “You have definitely stopped somewhere and took something that doesn’t belong to you. Where is the thing?!“
“I didn’t take anything!“
“Yes, you did. You gave it to me, Andrew, but you have touched it first.“ Tommy pulled out something from his jeans pocket. Everyone looked at it as he held it in his palm.
Andrew’s mouth fell open.
It was a silver bracelet with red ruby in the middle. The same one on Rose’s wrist. He remembered now, he had stopped halfway before he reached the bridge to take a pee under the shade of a big tree. That was where he saw the bracelet among the grass. He didn’t want to have it, so he gave it to his friend, Tommy, who seemed to be interested in it. He was the first to touch the bracelet, that was why Rose came to him, not to Tommy.
“I knew I saw ghosts.“ Andrew whispered to himself.
His grandfather took the bracelet from Tommy’s hand and handed it over to Andrew. A deep frown formed on his old face. “They aren’t ghosts, Andrew. They are far worse than that. You’ve been in the world between. You’ve been with the djinns.“
The way his grandfather said it gave him gooseflesh. He saw his friends were scared too. The inn keeper seemed to know about the matter, but he kept quiet. He was also afraid of what might happen. Again, his grandfather spoke.
“You were right not to eat or drink anything there, Andrew. If you did, you would never be able to get back. Forever. But before the seventh day of the party, you must give back what you took from them, and you must offer an apology. In blood.“
Andrew gulped soundly. “In… blood?“
His grandfather nodded. “Yes, in blood. Your blood. But first you need a bath.“
“Wait, grandpa. Does it really have to be my blood? How? Please tell me there’s another way.“ He begged, his voice wavering.
His grandfather paused and turned at his hip, looking at him. “ There is another way.“
A spark of hope lifted his mood. Andrew found himself smiling.
“There is? What is it then?“
“Go back in time and undo what happened.“
Andrew slumped to his knees, his hope shattered. What's done cannot be undone.
His grandfather stood tall before him, appraising him with a haunting look. “I’ve told you to never take the shortcut and not to take anything you find, Andrew. Anything at all. Why couldn’t you do as I told you?”
* * *
Andrew stood before the enormous tree at the opening of the woods. He had bathed with seven kind of flowers and did the ritual. His friends were waiting far behind, he had to do this one on his own. He put the bracelet on the ground, and pulled out a knife from his belt.
He had to do this, he told himself.
He drew the knife onto his left palm, and with a little squeeze, he made a shallow cut. He bit back a cry, it hurt more than he had imagined before.
“I offer you my apology, and with this, let me be free.“ He whispered the words his grandfather had told him, and let his blood drip onto the bracelet on the ground. A sharp wind prickled his face, he nearly stumbled and tripped off on a root.
With a jolt, he ran.
Without looking back, he ran into his friends and went back to his grandfather’s house. He had done everything, he should be safe now. He couldn’t believe he married to a Djin, or whatever supernatural creature it was. He didn’t want to think about it. About his beautiful bride who came from another world. He was safe now. The union will break after the seventh day of the ceremony, as long as he didn’t go to that world again, and didn’t consume their food.
There was no way he was going to do that. Now he was having fun with his friends in his grandfather’s house. It was safe there.
After dinner, he and his friends went to bed. Joe and David took different rooms, while Tommy slept with him in the same room. Tommy would know if he ever left the room, which he would never do. And so he slept. Safe and sound.
When he opened his eyes, the sun was breaching through the window. It was quite late, he wondered how long he had been asleep, it seemed to him only a few minutes ago. Tommy was not on the bed, he was probably bathing. Andrew glanced at the bathroom at the far corner of the big room. He heard noises from inside, Tommy was definitely taking a bath, he told himself.
There was a glass of orange juice and an apple on the table. He always liked to have orange juice in the morning. His grandfather must had asked the maidservant to prepare it for him. With a smile on his face, he took two gulps of the juice, and set the glass down. He frowned, it tasted like a dirty water.
When he turned back, he saw the one thing he had never expected.