Call of the Siren
At first, she thinks he must be a mirage. Conjured by the longing of her imagination. The closer he draws, the stronger the feeling becomes that she is in a waking dream. Until he stands before her, in undeniable reality.
His hair is long and tangled, dark locks encrusted with sea salt. His deep blue eyes oceans of loss, sacrifice, and desire. His face, once handsome, is now marked with scars, his very flesh a map of each hard-won victory and cruel defeat.
“You… cannot be here.” Her voice is soft, musical, yet deafening in the torment it reveals.
He does not speak. Only reaches out his hand cautiously, as if to touch a fragile petal of the most delicate flower. Gently brushing her soft, thick hair aside with calloused fingers, he caresses the velvet smoothness of her cheek. As the roughness of his skin brushes against hers, her breath catches in her throat. She thinks she might expire from the sheer pleasure of his touch.
A million words of protest die on her lips. This cannot be, and yet.
What she has longed for, desperately dreamed of for so many years, has finally come to pass. He alone has succeeded,
where countless others had failed. He alone has persevered. Stolen through every boundary and obstacle and overcome. He alone is victorious.
In that moment, the world is desolate but for them. She feels the softness of the wet sand beneath her, and the solid heat of his weight upon her.
And the world turns.
1 CHAPTER ONE
A lifetime away, Thalia Harris walked alone through the gathering darkness of the dying year. Winter had always been her favourite season. Whilst others moaned and grumbled about the rain and snow, Thalia relished the frigid sting of the wind biting her cheeks. The cold searing through her like a white-hot blade made her feel alive. She wandered through dull grey afternoons, scattering leaves as she walked. Savouring the taste of disintegration in the air. And the way the naked branches of the trees evoked images in her mind of withered hands, grasping out for an eternity forever beyond their reach.
The world around her was smears of colour against the slate grey backdrop of November. The occasional stranger hurried past, wrapped up in their coats and scarves. Rushing their way in from the cold, eager to return to the safety of society. Thalia watched them hurry on by, but she took her time. There was nothing and no one for her to hurry home to. Even her adoptive parents, who had once welcomed and raised her as their own, had departed this world now. No matter how hard she tried to connect with others, somehow, she always ended up back on her own.
She soaked in the quiet stillness of the park as afternoon faded into wintery night. Ancient trees towered above her as she walked and she admired their resolute, unchanging strength. No matter the season, or how much they lost, the trees always found a way to carry on standing tall. She wished she had a way to tap into their strength.
Lost in her thoughts as she walked slowly home, something stirred in her subconscious. The prickle at the nape of her neck. The electric shiver dancing across her skin. A primitive warning system: you are not alone. Yet she dismissed the warning signs – walking alone through the rapidly darkening park is an easy way to make yourself feel paranoid, she reasoned.
Is this the reason I enjoy walking alone so much? The thrill of adrenaline when footsteps echo at my back. Stomach clenching and heartbeat quickening. The taste of fear, acidic on my tongue, and a hundred black possibilities racing through my mind as the footsteps grow louder, closer. Until they pass on by, just another anonymous stranger, scurrying back home to the warmth and the light.
Despite her yearning to be like one of those anonymous strangers, rushing back to loved ones and security, Thalia found herself drawn into the darkness. Away from the crowds, and into solitude. She couldn’t quite explain it, even to herself. Yet she had always felt out of place somehow, never truly fitting in with the crowd. And although she felt the same longing for connection and acceptance that surely resides within everyone, this failure to find true understanding from most other people had left Thalia lonely, isolated.
Finally, she was home, in her meagre flat. It was small, bare, and permanently freezing. She detested and at the same time loved it because it was hers, alone. The first snow of the year swirled down outside her window and began to settle, masking the grit and grime of the city with the empty promise of its purity. She wrapped herself in her thickest blanket and curled up on the sofa. Sometimes, when she was alone, the dark thoughts would crowd in. Fears about her lack of direction. The pain of loneliness. She wanted to find her way, her joy. To slip into the stream of life the way everyone else seemed to manage so effortlessly. Still, the darkness called to her. Pulling her back into isolation.
She could count the number of people she trusted, who understood and accepted her, on one hand. Hating herself a little for taking refuge in her weakness, she reached for the bourbon and poured anyway. Soon she would forget.
She awoke to the harsh light of morning glaring through the sitting room window. She’d fallen asleep on the sofa again, her neck stiff and her mouth coated in a disgusting fug from too many cigarettes and too much whiskey. She sat up and her head screamed in protest.
She showered as quickly as she dared, the creaking boiler failing to heat the water to a reasonable degree, as usual. By the time she was dry her teeth were chattering and her skin was covered in goosebumps. She glanced at her reflection in the mirror. Her long dark hair was a tangled mess, and the brightness of her topaz eyes seemed to make her pallid skin look even paler still. “Yeuch.” She turned away from the mirror. Enough self-examination for one day.
Soon, the strong smell of coffee filled her chilly flat with its mouth-watering scent, helping Thalia to wake up. She made her way over to the windowsill, savouring the dark bitter warmth of caffeine on her minty-fresh tongue. Then she noticed him, standing at the bus stop across the street. The road was unusually quiet, and he stood out against the snow coated surroundings like a smudge of ink on crisp white paper. Though he wore a long coat which looked thick and warm, his alabaster hands were bare. Despite the glacial temperatures, the scribble of his coal black hair was uncovered, no hat or scarf to keep the icy wind at bay.
Thalia’s stomach dropped. He was watching from across the street, his frigid stare fixated on her. A wave of anxiety and excitement pulsed through her. She wanted to turn away from the raw steel of his dark, penetrating gaze, but she felt trapped. As though the world had taken a deep breath inward then stopped, frozen in time. There was only him, in this moment, and the fluttering of her feverish heart.
A bus growled past, obscuring him from view and churning the soft white snow into a grimy brown sludge. The moment was gone. Thalia turned her back on the window, on him. He was probably waiting for the bus. And she was just a girl with an overactive imagination – maybe even high on her first caffeine hit of the day. She smiled at the thought and drank her coffee, savouring every sip. Resolutely keeping her back to the window and her wild fantasies.
The dark-haired man was probably sitting on the bus melting away into the confusion of rush hour traffic. Yet still she felt a prickling along her spine, a warning she was being watched. He had gone, but she was certain when she looked back, he would still be there. Watching. Waiting. Her stomach clenched at the thought of seeing him, inches away from her on the other side of the glass. His icy glare piercing through her. She became irritated with herself then, for being overtaken by a fantasy. She took a deep breath, gripping the handle of her mug until her knuckles became white. The feeling of his eyes boring into her back persisted, her neck tingling. She turned, prepared to meet his glacial stare once again.
But he was gone. The street was empty.
Thalia stared at the once-untainted ivory snow, now a muddy, beige mire. The relief that flooded through her was stained with disappointment.
Ever since she had seen the dark-haired man at the bus stop, Thalia couldn’t seem to get him out of her head. She walked to work as usual, her hands buried deep in the pockets of her favourite winter coat. As always, her gloves were nowhere to be found. Today, instead of ambling through the frosty streets, she hurried with the most purposeful stride she dared on the frozen pavement. The air smelled different, as if the dread, thick and dark in her stomach, was somehow infecting the atmosphere. Polluting the damp, misty air like a noxious gas, leaving a bitter metallic taste in her mouth. She tried to reason with herself, to calm down. Yet she was unable to shake the fear stinging down her spine.
It was a relief to gain the stifling warmth of the bookshop, and she collapsed onto the battered chair sagging against the wall behind the ancient register.
“Thalia? Is that you?” Martin wandered in from the back room, his glasses perched precariously atop his greying hair. A jumbled expression of surprise, irritation, and amusement on his lined face. Martin owned the shop, and though he had been very clear when he employed Thalia, he needed help so he wouldn’t have to be there himself, he frequently turned up at the shop at random, almost as though he didn’t have anywhere else to go.
At first, Thalia suspected he was checking up on her to make sure she was at least attempting a vague impression of work. She soon came to realise, however, that he genuinely didn’t care whether she was doing any work or not. Sometimes she thought he seemed a little lonely, maybe he just needs some companionship, someone to talk to, she would think. But there was an edge of desperation that would occasionally seep through his demeanour, as if the empty rooms in his smart townhouse were closing in on him, compounding his isolation. Driving him to seek company in the warm safety of the aging bookshop.
Although they had become friends over time, and he had gradually earned her trust, there was still a distance, still so much Thalia didn’t know about Martin. A wall of silence guarded the depths of his secrets. She knew that there were things he never spoke of, things that had affected him deeply. Yet somehow it didn’t feel right to ask her boss questions that she knew he wouldn’t want to answer.
Once, she had asked whether he was married, and he seemed incapable of responding to the question. He fell into silence, a shadow of a memory flickering across his face. He was no longer there in the bookshop with Thalia, instead staring deep into a past no-one else could see. She never asked about his family or his personal life again. And despite his unusual quirks, and the huge blank spaces in her knowledge where much of his personal history might be, somehow, she felt close to him. They were two lonely little oddballs who didn’t want to talk about it, who ran from the fear of being alone, and found comfort in their mutual appreciation of quiet companionship. He understood her, and she never even had to speak a word about it. Plus, they both really loved books.
Thalia looked at him and tried to see him as a stranger might. The frayed cardigan with a rather sizeable hole under the armpit she had failed to notice before now. She supposed he must look like a traditional cliché of an eccentric; clever, mild-mannered, and endearingly strange. Yet she could no longer remember what she had thought on first encountering him. In fact, she had been so nervous in her interview that her memory of their initial meeting was now little more than a blur. She only remembered that he had been warm, and kind.
“Morning!” She tried for cheerful, and although she wasn’t entirely sure she had pulled it off, Martin didn’t seem to notice.
“You’re on time! Wonders will never cease.”
“Oh hilarious. You obviously missed your calling as a comedian.” Thalia relaxed into the exaggerated sarcasm, the customary routine of bad jokes putting her at ease. The idea of being watched and followed by a dark stranger seemed laughable, now that she was safe in the cluttered and stuffy sanctuary of the shop.
“Well, if you’re going to be cheeky, perhaps I won’t show you what I found at the auction yesterday.” Martin smiled then strolled into the back room, knowing she wouldn’t be able to resist.
She sat on her feet defiantly, trying to sit still and resist her curiosity. This worked for about two minutes, before she relented to the urge pushing her to know more.
“All right, you win. What did you find?” She called out.
“Ahhh, now you’re interested, are you?” Martin wandered back into the main shop area with a large cardboard box which he dumped onto the already cluttered desk. “There be treasure!” He grinned at her, in an awful imitation of what she supposed was meant to be a pirate.
“Oh, no. Not another box set of ‘Percival the Pirate and his Perilous Predicaments on the Pacific’, please!” She suppressed a giggle as she tried to pronounce the tongue-twisting title. Her eyes moved to those very same books which had mysteriously appeared on their shelves over a year ago, where they remained, gathering dust.
“Take a look.” Martin gave a small laugh, but the gleam in his eyes suggested he had unearthed something far more interesting on his latest book hunting quest.
Thalia peered inside, then decided to dive straight in, grabbing several books at once and pulling them out as carefully as she could manage. She was stunned to discover that several of the books, all of which were in good condition, were also first editions. One or two were highly sought after. She could only hazard a rough value for the boxes’ contents, eventually settling on ‘a lot’. This was without doubt one of the best hauls she had seen in a long time.
“Where did you find these? All at the same auction?” She could hardly believe he had managed to bring back such a fantastic find from only one expedition.
“Now, now, you know better than that,” Martin smiled, tapping the end of his nose in an exaggerated manner “I couldn’t possibly reveal my source.”
“I thought it was only journalists who said things like that. Or the police.”
“Well, you know what I mean. I can’t give away all my trade secrets now, can I?”
“Hmm… If you say so.” She was still rummaging around in the box, and Martin had wandered off in search of the pricing gun. “Hey, what’s this?” She pulled out a book from the bottom of the pile; it looked more battered and worn than the rest. It was coated in a thick, sticky layer of dust. There was no title on the front cover, and the lettering on the spine was so faded it was impossible to decipher.
The front cover creaked open slowly, the pages within thick, heavy, and yellowing with age. The title on the first page was written in a small, italicised type face which made it difficult to read. Thalia squinted at the two tiny words until she was eventually able to make out what they said:
Martin slouched back into view, peering at the old pricing gun in his hand. Heart pounding, Thalia was seized by a sudden compulsion to take the book, to have it all to herself. It was more than just the urge to read it, as if the very pages themselves were calling out to her. Demanding to be read by her, to belong to her. Snapping the book closed Thalia hurriedly shoved it into her bag, the siren song of its call urging her to claim it, to make it hers, and devour every page as soon as she was in solitude.
“Sorry, did you say something?”
“Nope. No. You must be hearing things in your old age!” She joked, speaking without thinking. What am I doing? Martin had always been kind towards her. She had no idea why she would choose to deceive him by pinching a book which was probably worth little, compared to the others in the box. But she was overwhelmed with the powerful instinct to read the book. Alone. At home, where she wouldn’t be disturbed. Then she would return it. No harm in that.
Her palms were clammy with sweat and her heart beat erratically at the deception, she hated to deceive one of the few people she actually trusted. Yet Martin merely smiled and sat in the squishy armchair opposite her, oblivious to the fact that she had done anything wrong. And she couldn’t resist.
She could hardly wait to get home, eager to take a proper look at her stolen prize. The day seemed to drag by as her mind kept drifting back to the book and the bizarre pull she felt towards it. She tried to keep her mind occupied sorting through stock in the back room, hoping that the therapeutic action of bringing order where there once had been chaos would keep her from fixating on the strange volume. Again, and again however, she found herself checking the clock. Wishing Martin would decide to leave early as he sometimes did and give her the chance to be alone with the mysterious, alluring tome.
Finally, the grey sky began to darken as the afternoon wore on. Martin told her to leave half an hour early as another snowfall was predicted, and he was worried about her walking home on the icy streets alone in the dark. On any other day Thalia would have laughed away his concern, but today she snatched the opportunity to leave. She shoved her coat on and grabbed her bag with shaking hands. She’d even tried to convince herself to put the book back when Martin had disappeared for a while out the back, but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to do it. Not yet.
Now she was leaving with it still in her bag, she wouldn’t be able to replace it so easily without him noticing. Last chance, she thought to herself as she reached for the door handle. But all she said aloud was; “Night Martin.”
He mumbled something from behind an oversized encyclopaedia but she was already out the door, into the gathering evening. A bitter wind slapped her face as she walked away from the heat of the shop. A strange excitement pulsed through her, adrenaline and guilt colliding within. It made her heartbeat race and her cheeks burn, despite the frosty gale.
On her way home she stopped to grab a frozen pizza and a cheap bottle of red wine; she didn’t want to be distracted from her reading by having to cook. Instead, she wanted to hurry home and curl up with the cheesy pizza delight to warm her belly and a big glass of wine to ease the tension in her stiff body.
As Thalia reached the door of her building, large, soft flakes of snow began to fall, plopping against the concrete step and melting into her hair. Her hand shook as shivers raced across her body, the cold air forcing its way through her inadequate coat as she struggled with the key which refused to fit into the lock. By the time she had managed to open the door the tips of her fingers had turned from white to blue. She felt a wave of gratitude at not having to climb the steeply perilous narrow stairs, and half fell into her ground-floor flat. Although it was not much warmer than outside, at least she was home.
She stumbled into the kitchen, the wine and book in her bag weighing her down. She planned to dump everything onto the scratched pine table and shove the pizza directly into the oven. Her stomach rumbled its eager agreement to this idea but before she could put it into action, she heard the whisper of a noise coming from somewhere inside the flat. She froze, standing as still as she could in the silent darkness. She hadn’t even bothered to turn on the light yet.
She held her breath, listening for the noise again. Her stomach felt tight and hard. Her heartbeat seemed to have migrated to her throat and was thumping out a tattoo of fear so loud she was certain it would give her away. She heard nothing but silence.
Just as she was starting to breathe once more, thinking she must have imagined the noise, she heard it again. A creaking of the floorboards. Somewhere in the sitting room, a soft footstep. Fear swamped her as the truth sank in; there really was someone else in the flat. She tried to stay calm, but panic was setting in as she thought about all the noise she’d made, opening the door, and heaving her bag into the kitchen. Whoever it was must already know she was there. She had to get out of there, but first she needed some kind of weapon to defend herself. The longer she stood there thinking, the more chance there was of him cornering her there in the kitchen, defenceless. In her mind he was already a seven-foot, brawny monster, set to pounce on her at the first opportunity.
She saw the block of knives on the counter, but her stomach turned at the thought of having to use one on another person. She was definitely more of a long-range weapon kind of girl. If only I had a baseball bat or golf club to smack him in the face with! She had neither of these items. The knives were starting to look a lot more attractive.
She crouched, trying to put the bag down as with as little noise as possible, and saw that she had left one of the kitchen cupboards ajar. Through the small gap she glimpsed the old, heavy iron that the previous tenant had left behind. It was no fire poker or crowbar, but options were thin on the ground.
She heard another creak, this time a lot closer than before. She grabbed the iron and stood up in panic. Her stomach gave a sickening lurch. She was wasting time in here, she had to leave. She turned around, half expecting to see a shadowy figure in the doorway. Still there was only empty darkness.
On impulse, she slipped her shoes off and stepped towards the hallway, praying her socks would muffle the sound of her steps. It sounded as though the intruder was in the sitting room. Maybe he was already watching her, waiting in the shadows. She would just have to run for it.
She edged forwards towards the kitchen door, hands trembling. She felt the bile rising in her throat and gripped the door frame with her free hand. Tears stung her eyes. Even with the iron to defend herself, she was in serious trouble. She was only five-foot-tall and no weightlifter, she would be easy to overpower. Her body seemed to be running on autopilot, moving closer and closer to the empty blankness of the open doorway without any conscious decision to do so.
What she wanted to do was curl up into a pathetic ball on the floor and just wait for the whole horrid situation to go away. She tried to find something within herself, some reserve of courage that would make her take those final steps into the hallway. She found, under the many suffocating layers of fear, a glimmer, a shard of anger. She concentrated on it with all her energy. How dare this unknown person break into my home? How dare they defile my sanctuary? The fury filled her with a sickly heat that made her skin prickle. Without thinking she stepped into the hallway and turned, not towards the front door and her possible escape, but the open space of the sitting room.
It was a dim jumble of shadows. The sofa, a table, a pot plant that was slowly dying as she could never remember to water it. All awash with a pale orange glow from the streetlamp outside her window. There, amongst all her familiar and reassuring belongings, he stood. Lounging against the windowsill. Still and silent. She couldn’t see his face. He was only a silhouette of darkness against the faint glow of the streetlight. She opened her mouth to speak, or scream. Before she could make a sound, he said: “Thalia. I’ve been waiting for you.”
I hope you enjoyed this sneak peek. If you want to read more, subscribe below to keep reading for free!