BY WESLINE ZOLFONOON
They’d long since fallen asleep but something wouldn’t allow her to quite shut her eyes. There was a strange feeling that she just couldn’t shake. Her eyes darted over at her hiking bag, the metallic zipper shined in the moonlight, taunting her. She walked over to it and slowly unzipped it, so as not to wake her sleeping friends. It had followed her again. An intimidating piece of crimson fabric with a mind of its own. She pulled it out swiftly and idly played with it. Since the day at the thrift store when it caught her eye she could never be rid of it. It brought with it terrible things, nightmares, and men with skin so pale. She was shaken from her thoughts by a knock on the door. She glanced around to see if anyone had been awoken by the loud knock, but all in the cabin were sound asleep. Perhaps Finn had finally returned with the beer he had promised them all. She stood from her seat on the cot and walked towards the wooden door. She opened it and was only met with the night sky. The bright moon stared back at her, the sound of an owl cooing in the distance was all that could be heard in the otherwise silent night. She turned to shut the door, only for a pale translucent hand to reach out and grab her small wrist, nails unforgivingly digging into her skin.
The day ahead of Ilsa was filled with a few meetings at her office to discuss the new submissions from hopeful authors and to get her most recent assignment. She walked in through the wooden double doors of Ericson and Co. A small publishing company owned by twin brothers James and Theodore Ericson. She walked by Emma, the receptionist, a small woman with long dark wavy hair. Emma glanced up and pushed her green cat eye glasses up the brim of her nose, smiling as she waved good morning. She was the kind of person who was happy at five in the morning. Always ready to take on the day as soon as the alarm went off, and never hit the snooze button for a few more precious minutes of sleep. Ilsa was on the opposite end of that spectrum, with blackout curtains to chase away any hint of the sun in the morning.
“James is looking for you.” She said as Ilsa walked past her desk. Ilsa thanked her and ducked into her office.
First things first was to check her email for any correspondence from any of her authors, any updates or revisions. Maybe one or two that she would have to bring up during her morning meeting, the thought of which made her ache for coffee. Ilsa made herself a cup and continued to work her way through her emails. She checked her watch, making sure she had enough time before the meeting to meet with James. She scooted out of her seat and walked the few steps to his office. Ilsa lightly knocked twice then peeked her head in.
James was standing by his floor length window staring out.
“Gotta love this view,” he said without turning around.
“Yes it's very beautiful,” Ilsa replied, taking this as her cue to enter.
Ilsa took a seat in one of the two black chairs that sat before his desk. She watched as he gazed at the horizon, his broad shoulders lifting and falling at each inhale and exhale, truly enjoying the skyline. Watching him here like this, she could truly see the difference between him and his brother. Although they both had the same build, the same salt and pepper hair and charming smiles. James was the one of the two that loved to stop and take in a moment, while Theo was always bustling about, worried about deadlines, and meetings.
James let out a heavy sigh and turned his attention to her. “Good Morning Ilsa, you look lovely today.”
She blushed under his attention, “Thank you, James, Emma said you wanted to see me?”
“Oh yes, the Fortright trilogy. Theo would never let me hear the end of it if I forgot to ask; would you like to do the read through? We're expecting the completion any day now and we'd like you to make sure everything is good to go for publishing.”
Ilsa nodded her agreement, “Not a problem, was that all?” she asked, glancing quickly at the exit. James nodded his head and returned to his spot by the large window and continued to take in the view.Ilsa rose quietly and exited the room.
She arrived at her office to find Gertrude rummaging through her desk drawer. She cleared her throat and was met with Gertrude’s intriguing eyes. The right iris a soft brown, the left a captivating blue. Gertrude quickly shut the drawer door.
“Oh there you are, I was just looking for you.”
“Well, there's no way I’d fit in there,” Ilsa stated sarcastically, motioning to the drawer. She made her way around her desk and sat down. This wasn’t the first time she had found Gertrude rummaging through her things for random items. A piece of gum; which Ilsa always kept a healthy stock of knowing full well she was the gum lady in her office, a stray bobby or safety pin. Or a pen, she was running low on those as of late as the pen ninjas constantly found a way to diminish her stash.
“What can I do for you today Gertrude?” she asked, she crossed her legs and folded her hands.
“ Well I just wanted to ask you a question,” she said straightening up, “ But first is that a new top it looks just excellent on you.”
“You know it’s not, what’s the question?”
Gertrude rolled her eyes, “The era of small talk has died I see, well to get on with it I know that James and Theo were expecting Fortright to drop a trilogy, I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind me taking that one on? I know how stressful trilogies can be, and the reading deadlines can be so tight. I have a lot of experience with them, and so wouldn’t mind taking it off your lap.”
Ilsa knew how important Fortright was to the company, and getting the trilogy under your belt would be the end all be all, possibly getting her a promotion to Editor if she did a good enough job on it. Gertrude knowing this, and no doubt wanting the promotion for herself had the gall to try and take it from her.
“ I think I can handle it, thanks for the offer though. Was there something else, perhaps in my desk?” Ilsa turned to her computer, shook her mouse and began to read the rest of her emails, fully dismissing Gertrude.
“No, I guess that was all.” Gertrude turned quickly to leave.
Ilsa only tolerated Gertrude. She had a way of putting herself into your personal space without truly being invited. She was devious, and intrusive, and did a lot of backbiting. Ilsa didn’t like that. But she was never one to try to stoop as low as others. And so she only would dismiss Gertrude and not allow her to get the better of her, or so she’d hoped. With just a few minutes to spare to get to the meeting, Ilsa grabbed her things and ran.
Ilsa decided to leave the office early today. She always found it hard to sit in her stuffy office, with phones ringing in the background, and her email continuously pinging. She could never really read anything when she was there and usually, would find a park bench to read on. Today she just felt like going home. She had those days when being around people could just be overwhelming, and so she would retreat to her home. The confines of her room could sometimes be quite soothing. She found herself there a lot these days. Curled up with a mountain of short stories that had been submitted, and some tea.
She decided to take in the nice warm fall weather and walk home instead of taking the train or calling a cab. This way she could get a few things done on her way home as well. She walked absent-mindedly until something caught her eye, pulling her from her thoughts.
It was the most vibrant of reds that Ilsa had ever seen. The color had caught her eye while she was a block away. She had noticed it long before the Yard Sale sign came into view. She was mesmerized by it. She left the path she was on and entered the yard almost in a daze. It wasn’t until she had walked up to the ribbon that she knew what it was, tt was such a sharp contrast against the dingy gray and brown recliner that it was carelessly strewn across. She picked up the silk ribbon which seemed to be in perfect condition. Not a thread out of place and perfectly smooth as if recently pressed. She turned the small piece of fabric over in her hands looking for a price tag and could not find one. She looked around for the owners and found a man pricing an old television a few feet away from her.
“Excuse me,” she said walking up to the man. He seemed to be in his fifties and had gray hair along his sideburns. His brown eyes immediately fell to the red ribbon in her hand
“I found this over there but it has no price tag, was that a mistake?”
“No mistake.” He said quickly, “That ribbon is free of charge.”
A woman poked her head from the garage and looked at Ilsa, her eyes dropping to the ribbon in her hand. She quickly made her way over to them wiping her hands on a dirty rag that hung from a loop on her jeans.
“Oh, I’m sorry my dear you must be mistaken this ribbon is not for sale.” She snatched the ribbon from Ilsa.
“One moment please,” her husband said and pulled her aside. They whispered harshly to each other. Their expressions indicating they were none too happy with one another. “But she’s too young.” was all she could hear from the woman. Her husband whispered a few more harsh words then turned and walked away. The woman defeated, walked to her and said “ I’m sorry, it was my mistake this ribbon is free, you may have it dear.” she reluctantly handed the red ribbon to Ilsa. And with some effort, Ilsa was able to free it from her tight grasp.
The woman watched her leave. Once Ilsa was, what she thought was a sufficient distance away, she turned back to find that the woman had stepped out onto the sidewalk and continued to watch her. Ilsa quickly turned and continued to walk.
It had been a long day of errands for her. The post office, then some light grocery shopping and then the bookstore. Ilsa had finally gotten home and placed her belongings on her small dining room table. Her purse toppled over spilling its contents on the ground. She went to pick it up and noticed the ribbon. She had forgotten that she had gotten it earlier that morning. She looked it over once again, admiring its vibrant color. She left the rest of the purse’s contents on the floor, forgotten, she found the closest mirror. She gathered her thick head of curls at the top of her head and tied the silky fabric into a bow. The fabric seemed to make her strands appear darker causing the ribbon to be strikingly brighter. What a great find she thought to herself. She stared at herself in the mirror a moment longer. Something she never usually did. She’d always felt very plain and never gave herself a second look, only glanced to make sure everything was in place. But this ribbon caused her to stare at her reflection. Brought out the soft tones of her skin. It picked up the lighter parts of her hair causing them to become bolder. She stared for a little while longer, then swiftly pulled on the end of the fabric releasing the bow. She wrapped the fabric around her forefinger and middle finger, she slipped it from her finger and placed it on her dresser.
The next day, like any other Sunday, found her driving along the beach. Ilsa loved to take in the sites before she would meet her mother for brunch. She began to doze off when out of the corner of her eye she saw someone step out in front of her car. She slammed her foot on the brake pedal, lunging her body forward and stopping her just centimeters away from the man. His skin was so pale it seemed almost transparent. He stood there in front of her car and stared unblinkingly at her. Ilsa was so shocked she didn’t know what to make of it. But he continued to stare at her as if he found what he had been looking for. He went to move towards her but, Ilsa quickly stepped on the gas and sped around him . She Glanced in her rearview mirror. The man stood in the middle of the street and watched as she drove away.
She arrived breathlessly and quickly made her way to the table she and her mother usually frequented.
“My God you look like you’ve seen a ghost.” the older woman said, rising from her seat and gave her a tight hug. “Sweetie you’re shaking!”
“It's nothing really, just the strangest thing. A man stepped out in front of my car. I nearly hit him, and he just stood there looking at me. It scared me so much that I just got out of there.”
“Maybe he was just upset that he had almost been hit?”
“ No,” Ilsa said, “he had this look in his eye as if he knew me. It gave me chills.”
“Well don’t let him ruin our brunch.” her mother said patting her hand. “By the way, That is a lovely ribbon you’re wearing.”
Confused, Ilsa lifted her hand to the top of her head and when her fingertips came in contact with silk she quickly jerked them away. When had she put the ribbon on? she could not recollect the moment when she had stopped to tie the ribbon into her hair. But there it was in a neat little bow.
“That reminds me, I’m planning on planting a rose garden this summer if you’re free I would love the help. It would allow you to get out of your apartment more often instead of staying so cooped up.” Her mother said eyeing her menu, “What do you think?”
“Sure,” Ilsa replied absently, as her fingers curled the tail end of the ribbon.
Once she returned home from brunch she quickly undid her ribbon and stared at it curiously. How on earth had it ended up in her hair? she thought back to the almost accident, and the translucent man. Ilsa realized that when she had stared at him they had never actually made eye contact. In fact, his eyes never reached hers but seemed to be staring slightly above them. What if, she thought, what if… she quickly shook her head as if it would shake the thought free. “Don’t be so paranoid Ilsa,” she said to herself. She crumbled the fabric and placed the ribbon on her dresser. She got dressed for her afternoon workout and headed to the gym.
Ilsa walked into her neighborhood smoothie shop and asked for a protein shake. She was usually famished after a workout and a smoothie helped to tide her over until her next meal. At the register, she fumbled around in her bag in search of her wallet.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I know it’s in here somewhere.” The young lady behind the register smiled politely.
“Happens to me all the time, I swear large bags are like tiny trash cans that women carry around with them.” She laughed.
Ilsa searched in another pocket and swiftly pulled her hand back as if she had just placed it on a hot stove top. She slowly placed her hand back into her bag and pulled out a long piece of fabric.
“Wow what a gorgeous red ribbon,” The woman said seemingly entranced by it.
“Yeah, isn’t it?” Ilsa said nervously. She quickly stuffed it into her bag. Finally able to procure her wallet she paid for her smoothie and left the shop. She walked slowly up the side street that led to her apartment. Her mind was racing, she pulled the ribbon out of her bag once more and studied it. As she stared at it, she seemed to grow increasingly colder. A chill crawled its way up her spine, leaving every vertebra rigid and standing at attention. Ilsa walked up to a nearby trash disposal and held the ribbon over it. she let it go and watched as it slowly fluttered onto the heap of trash. It clung to a brown banana peel delicately as if it were caressing it. Without a final glance, she walked away.
The week had been a blur as it flew by. The Forsight Trilogy occupied most of her time. Some days she wouldn’t even leave her apartment. It wasn’t until Friday afternoon that she was finally able to breathe. This calls for a bottle of wine and a pizza she said to herself. She figured she’d pick up the wine on her way back from the pizza place since it was so far. But the distance was worth it. Everything was homemade down to the ricotta that was so rich, sweet and creamy it was worth the drive.
Wine carefully tucked under one arm and the pizza box under the other, she used her free hand to open the door to her building. Ilsa almost walked by her mailbox but knew that the amount of mail in there from a week of being a hermit would be drastic. She unlocked the small box and dislodged the enormous amount of mail that piled up during the week. Once inside her apartment she placed the mail on top of the pizza box and brought the wine into her kitchen. She uncorked the wine and poured a liberal amount into a wine glass. Sipping it, she walked over to her mail. She sorted them out, one pile for her bills, and another for junk mail. There was one envelope, however, that she didn’t know how to sort. It was a small pink envelope, with no return address, and with only her name written on the front, scrawled in thin cursive letters. She grasped her letter opener, and in one swift motion, she tore the letter open. She peeked inside.
Her heart began to beat quickly. The temperature in the room seemed to rise instantaneously. A bead of sweat trickled down from her temple. She dropped the envelope and it landed on the floor, the tail end of a red ribbon peeking through the opening.
Ilsa furiously drove. the sun setting behind her. She drove up to the house where she had acquired the ribbon, which was now carelessly stuffed in the back pocket of her jeans. She stalked up to the house which had only the light in the foyer on. The name Stilson was written on the mailbox next to the blue door. Ilsa knocked none too gently, she was met with silence , and so she banged on the door continuously until finally the door was jerked open.
“Can I help…” The older woman stopped mid-sentence. She stared at Ilsa and shook her head. “I can’t say I wasn’t expecting you." she motioned her forward. Ilsa reluctantly stepped through the doorway. The woman quickly glanced past Ilsa, as if she were expecting something to jump out from behind her, then shut the door.
“This way please,” she said quietly as she shuffled past her down a long hallway. The walls were filled with photos of flowers in various states of bloom. Some photos were of the older woman with the man from the yard sale who Ilsa assumed was her husband. There was also a younger woman with Blonde hair who looked a lot like the older woman. They took a right and entered a small sitting room, furnished with quilts and porcelain dolls. She motioned for Ilsa to take a seat on the wicker seat across from her.
“What is this?” Ilsa shouted, presenting the crumbled ribbon from her pocket, she was in no mood for pleasantries.
“I’m so sorry,” the woman said gravely.
“What is it?” Ilsa questioned once more.
“I’m not quite sure,” the woman replied, “but it brings danger.”
“I threw it away, it was in the trash one day and the next…”
“It finds its way back to its owner.”
“But wouldn’t that be you? I never actually purchased this.”
“Not any longer, you chose the ribbon… well, really, it chooses you. It chose my daughter as well.”
“What do you mean?”
“Our daughter, Lorraine, had found it one day at a thrift store. We’d told her to go into town. She never liked to go anywhere really. Always locked herself in her room fiddling with one thing or another. We were worried about her and told her to get some fresh air. She didn’t want to at first, she said she had a few more projects to finish. She liked to quilt and was working on a large one. I told her I’d give her extra money for some fabric and that’s all it took.
I think she was drawn to the ribbon just as you were. It is quite gorgeous, the red brought out a light in her we hadn’t seen since she was a child. She’d wear it in her hair every now and then, and I’d find it odd when I’d bring it to her attention that she was wearing it, that she would quickly pull it from her hair.”
The woman was no longer staring at Ilsa but at a picture of her daughter on the mantle across from them. The red ribbon shining brightly in her hair.
“And a few days later they came.”
“I don’t know, she only spoke of them once. She said she felt as if she were being followed. Everywhere she went she swore she would see these men with skin that was abnormally pale and translucent. She said that she had tried to get rid of it as well, but she would find it in the strangest places as if she had absentmindedly put it there herself. She had gone camping with some friends for a weekend, just to get away, somewhere secluded, but never returned.” The woman held back a sob. “She’s dead.”
“Why would you give this to me!” Ilsa shouted, rage filling every limb. “Knowing what this does, how could you just give it away to someone?”
“Please, keep your voice down.” the woman whispered as she glanced towards the door.
“I tried not to, but my husband, he was afraid they’d come for us next. We received the ribbon a week ago after our daughter's belongings had been released to us. We started seeing them here and there just as she’d described. Tall pale men. We hadn’t believed her at first. Told her she was being paranoid. We got her help, thinking that if she just spoke to someone they could find out where her delusions were coming from, but she never stopped seeing them.
Then they came for us, first my husband saw them, he didn’t believe it at first, just believed his grief had finally gotten the best of him, then I saw them. When I told him he decided it was time to get rid of it. My husband was terrified, he was sure it was the same men who’d taken our daughter. I didn’t want to sell it, I didn’t want to curse someone else as we’d been.”
“Barbara, is someone there?” came a deep voice from another room.
The woman looked at Ilsa, fear written on her face. “I’m sorry," she said, “but you must leave, Trevor will be so angry if he sees that I let you in here, especially with that ribbon.”
Barbara rushed Ilsa towards the front door, “I’m so sorry,” she said once more, then shut the door behind her.
Ilsa left quietly, no further words to be spoken to the woman. Her mind went back to that man she’d almost hit. He had been looking at her, he found her driving that day so he would find her again. She walked back to her car in a daze.
Stopping at a red light, Ilsa stared blankly at it no longer aware of anything. At that very moment, a hand rose from beneath her feet and grabbed at her ankle. She screamed and floored it, trying but failing to get away from this hand that had to be connected to a body. Ilsa swerved along the road. The horns of angry drivers a distant sound. Another hand emerged from above her head and grabbed blindly at her face. Up close she could see small red, and blue veins in the hand like cobwebs. The hand obscured her vision. It grabbed and scratched at her face. The hand at her ankle dug into it. Ilsa jerked the wheel harshly sending the car flipping over into a ditch.
It was a warm spring morning when Heather decided to go for a run. She had just moved into the neighborhood and thought that a jog would be a great way to get to know the neighborhood. She crossed the street to take a left at a corner near a smoothie shop that she would have to try soon when something caught her eye. She couldn’t tell what it was exactly because she was a distance away from it. The wind picked up and tossed the dainty fabric beautifully in the air, the vibrant red of it was mesmerizing. She walked up to it, and picked it up, caressing the soft fabric.
“Well who would just leave you here?” she said to herself.
Wesline Zolfonoon is currently a first year graduate student at Emerson College, and she is working towards her MFA in creative writing. She has previously been published in Route 2.