by Gwendolyn Kiste
Among the ruins of the castle, he waited for her. He was always waiting, alone atop a barren hill, veiled beneath the smoke-stained turrets that had fallen in the fire.
Lanterns from the tavern and the quiet homes in the valley reflected up to his hideaway. Grimacing, he turned away. He hated the light. Even the gossamer haze of the moon made him feel too exposed.
He didn’t want to remember.
His scars glinting beneath constellations of Hercules and Aquila made him remember.
The wire stitches had long ago come unknotted, yet his skin, like a withered papyrus map, told of how he was created, as an amalgam of men—the hands of a blacksmith, the legs of a quarryman, the lungs of a miner. Only his mind was his own.
His mind and his heart. That was what he told himself as he watched the lone path to the castle, the one she took each year to reach him.
The moon traversed the sky, counting the minutes that passed without sight of her. He struggled to catch his breath. Was this the moment he’d feared? The time he would wait for her in vain? Illness or a new love—true love—would find her, and she would no longer have need of him. He would wait for her this night, but she wouldn’t arrive.
The dirt road unfurled like a spool of black lace before him. The last lights of the village winked off, one at a time like fireflies retiring for the summer, and it was as though the whole world slumbered. Midnight waned yet still he was alone. If he hadn’t been born into madness, the waiting alone would have driven him to it.
An hour before dawn, long after the final embers of hope had dimmed inside him, a figure materialized along the road. He knew at once it was her. No one else would brave this cursed path.
As she drew nearer, he could see a single red rose clutched between her fingers.
His heart rapped against the sagging prison of his bones. “You made it,” he whispered.
“Always.” She embraced him. “After all, I couldn’t miss our anniversary.”
He held her close, inhaling her sweet scent thinking of how it wasn’t really their anniversary. It was the anniversary of the fire. Twenty-five years among the fire-scorched rubble.
She shivered against his chest. “Shall we visit the ashes?”
At the far end of the estate, he heaved a stone, exposing the remnants of a room. This was where the blaze had started—inside the laboratory. Lingering silently in the dark was the stone slab, mostly crumbled to dust, where he’d been built. Unlike a natural-born child, he remembered coming into this world, how the shadows had snaked away and the light had found him.
He remembered her. With a complexion the color of moonstone, hers was the first face he’d seen upon wakening. She alone shielded him from the light.
And she tried to shield him from something else too—from the one who’d made him, who’d prodded him, who was now no more than a pile of char in a darkened corner.
She stared at the ash for a long time, never speaking, never stirring. He could no longer bring himself to look into the place where he’d been born, and so he watched her instead and imagined the tale people told about her. The would-be wife of a doctor, she helped her fiancé cobble together a monster. But then the monster awoke, and the castle fell, leaving her less than a widow.
“Do the villagers know you visit this place?” he asked.
She nodded, her gaze still set on the ash. “They think I come here to honor him. That’s why they never follow. They want to let me mourn in peace.”
Peace. As though what lived in this castle had ever known peace. If not for the fire, the doctor with his metal implements and rusted needles and serums in beakers would never have let his creation know peace.
“Monster,” she said and dropped the rose into the tomb.
Together, they turned away, arms intertwined, her fingers tracing the weathered lines on his skin where she herself had stitched the thread.
“You’re different every time I see you,” she said, peering into his wrinkled face. “It’s strange. I thought you would stay young forever.”
He touched her silver hair. “I thought the same of you.”
Smiling, she pulled him in, and her lips met his. It felt as new as their first kiss. But tonight was better. There was no doctor to catch them, no chains to imprison the monster, no scalpels to embed in a lovelorn heart.
“Come back with me,” she said. “They’ve mostly forgotten you. And even those who do remember wouldn’t recognize you now.”
He studied the village below as it flickered to life once more. The valley with its glossy stone streets and lamplights at every corner was her home, but it was not his. He belonged in the darkness. Perhaps someday, he would brave the light for her, the same way she braved the shadows for him. But not today.
“Maybe next year,” he said and caressed her hand, that elegant hand, the hand that had saved him. The villagers always assumed he, a monster, had been the one to ignite the flames. They never guessed it was her lithe fingers, soft as satin, that had lit the match.
“I won’t let him hurt you again,” she’d said and kept her promise.
With the dawn creeping closer, he escorted her back to the road and watched as she slowly vanished into the distance, ethereal as morning mist.
“Same night next year?” he called after her.
Like a ghost, she turned back and smiled. “Always.”
Gwendolyn Kiste is a speculative fiction writer based in Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, LampLight, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye Magazine as well as Flame Tree Publishing’s Chilling Horror Short Stories anthology. As a regular contributor, she writes for multiple travel and entertainment sites including Horror-Movies.ca, Wanderlust and Lipstick, and her own 60 Days of Halloween, a collection of humorous essays chronicling her autumnal misadventures. She currently resides on an abandoned horse farm with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. You can find her online at http://www.gwendolynkiste.com and on Twitter (@GwendolynKiste).