Sammy Dunn tapped at the piano keys seeking the right combination, trying to match the sounds in his head to the pattern beneath his fingers. The music drove him. It whispered in his ear a steady, insistent chatter he tried to write down before it vanished. Sometimes the sounds overwhelmed him, and he had to stop, close his eyes, and take deep breaths until he could focus on one note of music at a time.
He pulled one more string of sound from his head and scribbled down the marks in a furious rush of motion. His pencil broke, and he almost cried. The tune spun dizzily around in his brain.
“Shh, boy, calm down. It’ll be fine. You’ll get it.”
Sammy glanced over his shoulder. Mr. Strassford, his mother’s boss, stood behind him. Age wrinkled the skin around his eyes and deep grooves lined his mouth, but his eyes held a kind light.
“Sorry, sir, I didn’t mean to disturb you.” His hands shook and rustled his music sheets. He’d been given permission to use the piano while his mother cleaned, but maybe Strassford didn’t approve after all.
“You should be in a music school. You’re very talented.” Mr. Strassford tapped a piano key as he spoke.
Sammy bit his lip and hunched his shoulders. “We can’t afford it.”
He’d begged his mother to send him to a boarding school on the East Coast. They had the best music school in the United States. She’d cried for two days after she had to admit she couldn’t afford to send him.
He never brought it up again.
“I hate to see talent wasted. I will pay for your schooling if you promise to come back and visit me on your twenty-first birthday.”
“Why then?” Although his heart sped up at the opportunity, his instincts twanged warily at the strange request. No one gave away anything for free. His mother taught him that with her hard work.
“Because that is the price of understanding your gift. Everything has a cost, my boy. Everything.”
Sammy didn’t trust Strassford. Although the offer appeared good on the surface, the price might prove too high. He only knew of one person he could trust unconditionally. “I’ll talk to my mom.”
Two days later, he was off to school.
Eight years later
Sammy groaned at the announcement. His flight had been delayed again. If this kept up, he’d end up breaking his promise. After eight years of musical training paid for by Strassford, Sammy owed it to the man to show up.
If he didn’t keep his vow, then his fight with Jonah would’ve been pointless. He hoped Jonah would forgive him for not letting him come along. There hadn’t been very many stipulations in his agreement with Mr. Strassford other than Sammy had to come back when he was twenty-one. His boyfriend hadn’t appreciated the brush off. Their fight had been brutal with words spoken they could never take back. When he’d talked to Strassford on the phone, his benefactor had insisted he come alone.
Sammy closed his eyes and relived the fight, wishing things could’ve gone differently.
“I can’t believe you’re leaving me.” Jonah paced back and forth, waving his hands as he ranted.
“I’m not leaving you, Jo. I’m keeping a promise. You won’t even miss me while I’m gone.” Sammy shoved a few more shirts into his suitcase. He figured he’d need at least two outfits. Strassford hadn’t been detailed about how many days he expected Sammy to stay.
“Why can’t I come?” Jonah stopped to scowl at his lover.
“He requested me alone. That was our arrangement. I told you.” Several times.
Jonah grabbed Sammy’s arm as he walked past. “I don’t like this. What if this guy turns out to be a psychopath? Why does he need to see you?”
Sammy gripped the ball of socks in his hand and hurled it at his luggage. He watched as it bounced off the side and tumbled to the floor. “I don’t know why he wants me alone, okay. But it doesn’t matter. I owe him. I agreed to see him; I’m not backing out now.”
“And you always keep your promises.” The bitterness in Jonah’s voice drew Sammy’s attention more than Jonah’s raving before.
“Yes, I do. Oddly enough some people consider that a good trait.”
Jonah rolled his eyes. “You take it too far.”
“Because I won’t let you take care of me?” The same argument popped up every few weeks. Jonah wanted to take care of him so Sammy could concentrate on his music. Jonah didn’t see a problem with paying all of Sammy’s bills, and he found Sammy’s pride infuriating.
Sammy needed to stand on his own feet. Depending on people only led to sorrow. His mother was a perfect example. She’d trusted his father, and the bastard had left her pregnant and poor. She’d fought hard to get on her feet only to fall for the same type of jerk a few years after Sammy went off to school Luckily her relationships never lasted long.
He couldn’t allow himself to be put in the same situation. He owed it to his mother’s memory.
“I can’t be your boy toy. I need to stand on my own feet.”
“Why?” Jonah shouted, his patience snapping like one of Sammy’s guitar strings.
“Because we’ve only been dating for six months.” He refused to go over the same fight again. His heart hurt. “I can’t put my life in your hands, Jo, I just can’t.”
“Okay.” Jonah nodded and walked away. A minute later, Sammy heard his front door open and close.
He brushed away tears as he finished packing his bag. Jonah hadn’t returned before Sammy had to leave.
The announcement of his flight boarding broke Sammy out of his memories. He grabbed the handle of his carry-on suitcase and got in line to board.
Five miles from his destination the rental car broke down.
“Goddamn, fuck!” Sammy pulled the rattling rental car to the side of the road. They must’ve given him the clankiest car on the lot. Still cursing, Sammy got out of the car and slammed the door shut behind him. He popped the hood of the steaming car and peered inside. He stared for several minutes before admitting defeat. “I don’t know what the hell I’m looking at.”
He’d studied music not mechanics. Obviously something had overheated; what, he didn’t know. No streetlights broke the inky darkness. Instead the blackness surrounded him like a magician’s cloak, blocking every bit of light.
Sammy pulled his phone out of his pocket, then tapped his flashlight app. The sudden brightness of the screen in his eyes almost had him dropping the device.
“Fuck.” He turned the screen toward the engine, but clearer vision didn’t instill a sudden understanding of auto mechanics.
He turned off the app, ready to call the rental agency only to discover he had no signal. Clenching his fists, he resisted the urge to throw his phone against the pavement. It might still come in handy. Maybe if he walked a bit down the road, he could pick up a signal.
A sudden, desperate urge for his lover twisted his heart. If Jonah were there, everything would’ve worked out fine, or at least he wouldn’t care if it didn’t. With Jonah’s calm presence beside him, this would’ve been an adventure rather than a trial. He doubted he had anyone to go back to now. Maybe he’d extend his trip to sort out his life. It might be time to switch cities if Jonah had dumped him. He didn’t want to accidentally run into his ex, it would be too painful.
Headlights broke the darkness. Sammy didn’t know if he should flag the car down or hide behind his piece of shit rental. He didn’t have time to decide before the strange car rolled to a halt beside him.
The driver’s door opened, revealing a dark-haired man with cold eyes. He examined Sammy like he was trying to decide if he were a bug in need of extermination.
“What are you doing out here?” His tone demanded more than asked.
“Who are you?” He didn’t appreciate an impromptu interrogation by a stranger.
“I’m Rance Harton. I live down the street. I haven’t seen you around here before.”
“I’m Samson Dunn. I’m just visiting.”
“Where are you going?” Rance’s tone still had a hard edge.
“I’m heading to fourteen twenty Traxton Avenue. Or I was before this piece of junk broke down.”
“Stay away from that place. It’s dangerous.”
“What do you mean dangerous?”
“There are all kinds of rumors about old man Strassford. It’d be best if you stayed away.”
“That’s not an option. I have to go. I promised.” He glanced at his phone. “And I need to get there in twenty minutes.”
“I told you, I promised. I always keep my promises.” He’d lost the most important person in his life to keep this one, and he refused to fail now. If he didn’t get to Strassford’s house when he said, he’d let down the one person besides his mother who’d believed in him.
He received a long measuring look before Rance answered. “I’ll give you a ride.”
“I thought you wanted me to stay away?” Rance gave off a bad vibe, and all those old warnings from his mother about getting into cars with strangers shouted in his head.
“If you’re determined to go there, I’d rather drive you there safely. This road is dark, and pedestrians aren’t easily seen.”
Sammy relaxed. The guy wasn’t threatening him. “Thank you.”
“If you’re going to come, get in. You won’t get good enough reception here to call the auto club.”
“What about my rental car?”
“Call them in the morning.” The stranger’s indifferent tone didn’t encourage Sammy to think he’d get any further help.
“I appreciate the ride. Let me get my bag.” At least one thing was working out that night. He fetched his suitcase. When he approached Rance’s car, the trunk popped open. After setting his luggage inside, he shut the hatch, then walked to the passenger side of the car. He groaned when the car’s interior heat wrapped around him. He hadn’t realized how cold he’d been.
They drove down the road a bit before Rance spoke again. “I hope you know what you’re getting into.”
Sammy shrugged. “I made a promise.”
“You’re a good boy, aren’t you?” The words might have been approval if not for the contempt dripping from the Rance’s voice.
“I’m not an asshole if that’s what you mean.” The words escaped before Sammy could stop them. He froze, waiting for Rance to pull over and make him walk.
Rance laughed. “At least you have some teeth. I hate wimps.”
Sammy stared out the window and didn’t bother to try to make further conversation. Rance was the type of person Sammy disliked the most. The kind who enjoyed taunting others to feel superior.
In no time at all, they reached the mansion. Instead of the gates standing open as he remembered, a thick padlock connected a length of chain around the metal rods holding the gate together.
“Does anyone still live here?” Maybe Strassford had moved and forgot to tell Sammy when he called him last week.
“That depends on who you ask.” A smirk curved Rance’s lips. “I’ll let you decide for yourself.”
“Thank you for the ride.” He kept his voice polite, if not a bit cold. The man’s condescending manner rubbed him wrong. Despite the satisfaction slamming the car door would’ve given him, Sammy shut it with care. The guy had done him a favor after all. Sammy barely cleared his suitcase from the trunk before Rance drove away in a squeal of tires.
“Asshole,” Sammy muttered.
Sammy rattled the padlock, but it remained firmly attached. A quick search of the area didn’t reveal an intercom or any other method of communication. Last time he was there, the gate was still shiny and new. Now it appeared as if fifty years had passed instead of only eight.
After a brief walk around the property, Sammy discovered a small side gate, propped open by a rock. Gripping his suitcase handle tighter, Sammy walked through the side entrance. The trek up the driveway took longer than he remembered, but maybe his steps were just heavy from the weight of his heart. He hadn’t wanted to leave Jonah, but he kept his promises…always.
His steps were the only sounds in the dark night. No animals scurried through the leaves, and the wind didn’t cause any noise, almost as if a large tarp covered the area and muffled all sound.
Swallowing to try to bring moisture to his dry throat, Sammy continued up the drive. Lights glowed sporadically throughout the mansion, illuminating only a few windows before going out. Someone was home. Memories of the entire building glowing with golden light flickered through Sammy’s mind. What had changed? What had happened after his mother’s death a year ago?
Sammy had lost touch with the people who’d worked with his mother after her passing. Did anyone still work there at all?
Reluctance slowed his steps. He took a deep breath and forced his feet to continue toward the front door. Weeds sprung up everywhere, and vines wrapped around the weird statuary that decorated the path with silent replicas of strange animals and people poised in odd positions. Had they been there when he was younger and he’d just forgotten the mansion’s high creep factor? Sucking in a calming breath, he continued his trek to the door.
A lion’s head held a doorknocker in its mouth. Sammy grabbed the ring. After taking a bracing breath, he rapped the knocker against the strike plate and waited on the doorstep as a swarm of moths flew formations in his stomach. He shoved one shaking hand into his pocket, while he clenched the other white-knuckled hand around his suitcase handle.
Time stopped while he shivered on the doorstep, his knees getting in on the trembling act. Before he could decide to be smart and make a run for it, the door swung open. No person appeared to greet him and no footsteps echoed on the marble floors to indicate the presence of another living being.
“Hello?” His voice echoed inside. The instinct to run grew. “This is the last time I make stupid promises,” he mumbled.
He pushed the door open farther, his movements slow and cautious. Ax murderers probably didn’t welcome people into their homes, but Sammy didn’t have enough experience to be certain.
After five steps inside, Sammy paused to look around. The outside neglect hadn’t spread to the interior. Marble glowed beneath the dim lighting while wood furniture gleamed bright and newly polished. A hint of lemon cleaner hung in the air as if a staff had just finished up their duties for the day.
The door slammed shut behind him. Sammy spun around only to find no one there. He bit his lip, then turned back to the room and let out a startled yelp.
“Sorry to frighten you.” Mr. Strassford stood before him; his wrinkles looked even deeper in the shadowy light; his back, curved like a question mark, added to the air of great age. He leaned on a long wooden walking stick, possibly the only thing keeping him upright.
Strassford’s rheumy blue gaze slid across Sammy before he offered a slow smile. “I’m pleased you remembered your promise to an old man. I wasn’t certain you would.”
Sammy brushed away his fears. Mere gratitude didn’t begin to cover the appreciation he had for all the assistance he’d received over the years.
“If you hadn’t helped me, I never would’ve been able to study music. Of course I kept my promise.”
The cane tapped dully on the shiny floor as Strassford stepped closer. “I know it’s late, but would you mind playing me a song?” He waved a shaky hand toward the doorway to the right, the music room if Sammy’s memory held true.
Sammy resisted the urge to take Strassford’s arm and help him walk. The old man appeared thirty years older instead of a mere eight.
“Of course I’ll play you something.” Pleased to be able to give something back to the older man, Sammy headed to the music room.
The same grand piano he remembered from his childhood stood in the center of a hand-loomed Turkish carpet. Since dating Jonah, Sammy had learned to spot quality goods.
Someone had continued to take care of the instrument since he’d seen it last, the black lacquer shone like a pair of newly polished dress shoes. Sammy froze in front of the piano to run his fingers across the lid to the keys. It was still the most beautiful instrument he’d ever seen.
“I’ve had it for more years than you’ve been alive,” Strassford said as if reading Sammy’s mind.
A laugh escaped Sammy. “You probably have a lot of things older than I’ve been alive.”
“I do indeed,” Strassford chuckled, a painful rusty sound.
Pushing back the bench, Sammy sat down. He lifted the cover, anticipation shivered through his soul. Every time, right before he played, there was that one minute of absolute anticipation. He tested the piano’s tuning by tapping a few keys.
“It’s in tune!” He couldn’t hide his surprise. Considering the obvious neglect of the mansion grounds, he hadn’t expected the piano’s beautiful sound. Memories swept through him of his mother flitting around the mansion, working while Sammy played. He blinked back the tears and shoved the emotions beneath the surface. He refused to break down. After months of crying over his mother’s death, he refused to spiral back into depression.
He’d been unable to attend her funeral. It had been a rushed affair that occurred while Sammy was recovering from pneumonia and unable to fly. Maybe if he’d been there, he’d have accepted her passing with more grace.
“Of course it’s tuned. I wouldn’t want it to be any other way for your return.”
He didn’t understand the sly smile Strassford gave him. Sammy ruthlessly pushed away his suspicions. Nothing would happen to him. Everything was fine.
Closing his eyes, he found his center and began to play. Long hours spent hunched over keys of one kind or another flickered through his muscle memory as he let the music sweep him away. Tapping out the melody with rapid motions, he played the song he’d only recently finished.
“I wrote this as a thank you for your help.”
“I appreciate that.” Strassford’s quiet voice barely reached Sammy’s ears as he danced his fingers across the keys.
Time and place vanished beneath his music as Sammy played. No other sound broke his concentration until he finished the song with a fast flourish of fingers. Clapping pulled him out of his daze. Jonah had more than once yanked him out of his inner musings with a kiss or a touch. Now the sound of Strassford’s applause snapped him from his contemplation. Blinking, he refocused his attention to the man standing beside him.
“Did you like it?”
A tear dripped down Strassford’s cheek. “It was the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. Here, I picked you a flower.”
Strassford held out a white rose. Where he’d been keeping it, Sammy didn’t know. The old man hadn’t had time to run out to the garden then back to Sammy’s side while he played. The purity of the color pulled at Sammy.
Entranced, he grabbed the stem. Thorns pierced his skin. “Ow, fuck.”
He dropped the flower, glaring at Strassford as blood dripped from his hand.
“I’m so sorry, but I needed your blood and I didn’t think you’d let me cut you with a knife.” Strassford clamped his hand over Sammy’s wrist. Words Sammy didn’t recognize spilled from Strassford’s mouth, a sibilant combination of sounds.
“What are you doing?” Sammy tugged, but couldn’t break Strassford’s hold. “Why do you need my blood?”
“I need your essence for the curse. I’m sorry, my dear boy, but it’s the only way.” Strassford’s sad expression did little to soothe Sammy’s fear.
“Curse me?” Curses weren’t real, were they? “What kind of curse?”
“I’m not a bad man, despite what some might say. I’ll do my best to find a cure. I just can’t do it in this house.” His apologetic tone didn’t make Sammy feel any better.
Terror twisted him up into swirly knots as he fought with a man who shouldn’t have been able to strong-arm him. He opened his mouth to argue that nice guys didn’t curse others, but his muscles began to ache and his bones crackled menacingly. Screams burst from his throat, and he tumbled off the bench and onto the ground. Vision blurring, he could barely make out the warped sight of Strassford standing beside him.
“Embrace your beast. He can save you!” Strassford shouted.
“What beast!” Sammy tried to speak, but his mouth had too many teeth and his tongue lay heavy in his mouth.
What the fuck happened to me?
Strassford crouched down beside him, but instead of an old man, he grew younger and younger through Sammy’s watery gaze. He blinked again to see if the vision would change.
“I need to leave and find the witch who cursed me. I studied for years to reverse the process, but haven’t been able to discover the cure. Just stay here, and I will return. It might take years, but eventually I will free you. Sorry, dear boy.”
The rest of the words became a jumbled combination of vowels and syllables. Pain ripped through him, making comprehension impossible. His body crackled. Bones broke and reshaped. Gold fur rippled across his skin like one of those fast-forwarded nature shows, and a loud roar ripped through his throat, echoed off the walls.
“Remember, you can’t leave,” Strassford said, before vanishing in a puff of smoke.
Sammy roared out his distress.
I should’ve listened to Jonah.