One of These Things Doesn’t Belong Here
Clark stared at Rose with dumbfounded confusion, his focus trained on the red band on her finger, on the implied meaning of her words. “You’ll find you are no longer super while in here… in life and in death, you will be mine.” His stomach twisted uncomfortably, anger and frustration and shock churning around acid. Suddenly his stomach rumbled, giving him the first pangs of hunger. It was poor timing to realize he felt hungry and he ignored his body’s grumbling. He was staring at Rose, his gaze finally traveling away from her ringed finger and over toward her cruel, triumphant grin. The young girl she had been moments ago seemed to have evaporated. He was looking now at a young woman with shrewd, calculating green eyes and a solid, opaque body that was no longer transparent.
For the moment, he wanted to ignore the ghost’s insinuation toward his dual identity. That was one can of worms unto itself, but her other insinuation . . .
You will be mine?
“We aren’t. . . married,” Clark said slowly.
Rose’s eyes sparkled. “You are bound to me, though. Body and soul.” She wiggled her ringed finger for emphasis.
Clark looked down suspiciously at the identical band on his right hand, feeling like he was spiraling down the white rabbit hole into Alice’s strange wonderland. Nothing was making sense and any explanation thus far was confounding the situation.
Anger abated as Clark’s curiosity grew. After several long seconds with his brain whirring in confusion, he settled simply on one question. “What?”
Rose laughed softly, not at all the girlish giggle he’d been hearing earlier for what had felt like hours, but rather a young woman laughing at something witty. Clark wasn’t privy on the joke.
“Each of you all ask that when I say those words,” Rose explained without prompt, although it didn’t really help explain anything.
Clark raised an eyebrow, again feeling like he was falling further down the rabbit hole. Rose just wasn’t making sense. “What on earth are you talking about?” he demanded with exasperation.
“You are the twentieth man to have worn my ring, and all twenty of you have given me that response when I have told you that you are bound to me.” Rose smiled coyly. “It’s funny.”
It felt like a tap had opened within Clark’s veins and cold water was pouring inside. “Twenty men?”
Rose nodded, her red curls swaying. “Yes.”
“Have they all worn this ring?”
Rose tilted her head to the side, regarding him. “Identical to it, yes, but you each have your own.”
Clark was dimly aware that his hands were balling into loose fists. “Where are the other men?”
Rose’s smile turned secretive. “They’re . . . here.”
“Where?” Clark demanded.
“Don’t worry,” said Rose in a falsely sweet tone. “You’ll meet them eventually. After you get settled in a bit. I always allow them to introduce themselves then.”
Clark let out a frustrated sigh. “I’m not staying here, Rose. You can’t force me to live here.”
Rose’s smile continued to be mysterious. “The house takes care of its own. It takes care of me. And I want you here, so you can try all you’d like to leave, but it won’t happen unless I will it.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “And believe me, I don’t.”
Clark stared into those green eyes, cold and shrewdly intelligent. “Why?” he asked quietly. “Why do you want me here?”
“You fulfill the curse.”
Rose said nothing, but continued to stare at him, her expression hardening. “My curse,” she answered with a low growl. Her green eyes flashed.
Clark couldn’t quite believe he was looking at the same Rose that had been in his dreams. There wasn’t a trace of the distressed, heart-broken girl that had pulled at him to help her. Here she was now, staring at him with eyes that burned daggers of cold fury into his being as if he had somehow been the cause of whatever seemed to eat at her.
“What happened to you?” he asked with genuine bewilderment. “Where’s the sad girl that begged me to help her in my dreams? Where is this sudden anger coming from?”
Rose pointed to the portrait above her, to the man standing behind her as she posed in the chair. “Ask Levi to tell you the story sometime. He still finds his infidelity to be quite amusing.”
Clark stared up into Levi’s resolute face, staring forward out of the painting and almost feeling those brown eyes shifting to stare back at him. Unnerved, Clark blinked. They had returned to their original position.
“He cheated on you,” Clark mumbled.
“Yes,” Rose replied harshly.
Clark looked down and met her defiant, angry stare. A few things were beginning to click into the puzzle of this strange wonderland. “There’s some kind of a curse on this place because your husband cheated on you?”
Rose smirked in answer.
More thoughts trickled into the reporter’s mind. “You said it was your curse. Did you create it?”
“Are you a . . . I mean, when you were alive, were you a—a witch?” Clark asked tentatively.
Rose’s smirk broadened. “You’re quick. It took the others longer to make that connection.”
Clark wasn’t flattered. His blood continued to grow colder. “So just because your husband was unfaithful to you, you created a curse to . . . do what, exactly?”
Rose’s smile fell, her expression turning hard and cold. “He swore himself to me. He promised never to lay lustful eyes on another woman again. He broke his vow, more than once,” she seethed, lightning flashing in her green eyes. “He was mine, though. I didn’t want him to belong to anyone else. So, I cursed him. He couldn’t ever leave the house again.” Her gaze travelled fondly around the room, and her voice quieted. “I was powerful enough that this place listened to me. It obeyed my will, and mine alone. It has since taken good care of us, and even in death, Levi remains here. He is mine.”
“So why have nineteen other men been involved?” Clark asked. “Why am I involved?”
Rose stared at her portrait, her eyes losing focus; it was as if she had retreated into some part of her mind. “Levi promised he would build us a mansion,” she muttered softly. “He bought the farmland with the intention of making this place fit for royalty. To him, I was his Queen. He promised.”
She looked away from the portrait and began to walk slowly, passing Clark who made sure to steer plenty clear of her, but she paid him no heed. Although she remained solid, he couldn’t help the tingling on the back of his neck as the reporter watched Rose walk through the nearest couch.
“Typhoid fever hit,” Rose continued, talking more to herself than to Clark. “It consumed him, and then me. Although I had tried to take measures to prevent my death, I couldn’t. . .” the young woman’s unfinished thought trailed away, but when she spoke next, there was fire in her words. “My life had been cheated from me! All my dreams for this place went to ash, and my marriage . . .” Rose’s hands balled into fists. “He knew all I wanted was to be a good wife, to be a good mother. But he took those things away from me when he. . .” again her words trailed away. A long moment passed before she started back up, forming a new thought entirely. “My hope was renewed when Elizabeth moved in. She and her husband were different from the other people who tried to invade my home. John Wingham had ambition and money and that rifle business, and Elizabeth . . . she reminded me of me. She had so much potential. And her husband was treating her terribly, beating her all the time. She wanted an escape, she wanted a better life, she wanted to find fulfillment. So I helped her. I showed her how. And look at where she is today? Look at the magnificence of this mansion! With my help, she made it happen. We brought each other’s dreams to reality.”
A cold thread of suspicion raked down Clark’s spine. Look at where she is today? “Elizabeth . . . is she Miss Wingham?”
Rose turned and looked at him, coming out of her reverie. She nodded silently.
Ice began to crystalize in Clark’s veins. “She’s got to be over one hundred years old. How could she. . .?”
Rose’s eyes lit up with cold mirth. “New souls rejuvenate her health. They sustain my power.”
It felt like an invisible fist punched itself right into Clark’s gut. “New souls?” he ground out.
Rose smiled cruelly. “Like you.”
Clark scowled. “Miss Wingham has lured twenty people here so she can live longer and you can . . . what, have power over the living?”
“She’s lured men here, yes. Men I have found who need to be taught a lesson, who deserve to learn what Levi still refuses to pay full penance for.”
“I have never cheated on my wife!” Clark cried indignantly.
Rose tilted her head to the side. “No, you haven’t,” she agreed. “You’re different. You’re special. I chose you because your power will increase my own. Already I am stronger than I have ever been. You’ll help me go further.”
“What do you mean go further?” Clark asked through gritted teeth.
“You will help me attain life again.”
“No,” Clark said emphatically. “I won’t.”
Rose shrugged indifferently. “You wear the ring. You are bound to me. Refuse all you like, but once Elizabeth gathers all that I need, it will happen.”
Hot anger diffused the icy cold that had pervaded Clark’s veins. Rational thought fled his mind as he advanced on Rose, walking swiftly around the couch and coming face to face with her. She had manipulated not only him, but nineteen other innocent men. Their lives had been unwillingly sacrificed, but all be damned if he was going to let this woman do the same thing to him.
He fueled that emotion as he raised his arm to grab at her pallid white neck. Clark saw his fingers wrap around seemingly solid flesh, but his fist closed onto air, curled in a tight ball that rested at a frigid cold place in the middle of Rose’s throat. He stared dumbly at his hand, reminded in an embarrassing way that although Rose looked solid, he was dealing with a ghost. What was he going to do, strangle a non-existent airway?
Rose stared at him, her green eyes twinkling with humor. She laughed softly and looked down at his fist that was still uselessly sticking through the middle of her throat. “That was fun. I’ll try it on you, now.”
She reached her arm out toward Clark’s throat, and it felt like a solid wall of ice curved itself around his esophagus and squeezed. Her green eyes widened in delighted surprise. She let out an exultant cry and raised her arm. Clark felt his feet lift from the ground. Reflexively, he reached for her arms in an attempt to stop Rose, but he found his hands grasping uselessly at frigid cold air, his fingers disappearing through solid arms that yielded no solid matter. His eyes widened in shock as he realized there wasn’t anything he could do to fight her as she raised him up from the ground. He kicked out at her as he began gasping for air, the freezing vice around his throat sending a bolt of shock toward his lungs. His legs passed in and out of her body, feeling as if he was flailing through a thick wintry fog.
“I can touch you!” Rose cried exuberantly, laughing. “I had forgotten the feeling! Ohhh, the power you have given to me, you have no idea what this feels like! It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to being alive!”
“Air!” Clark gasped out, unable to stop his vain attempts at grasping for her arms. He could feel the pressure increase on his neck from his inability to hold onto anything for balance. He wasn’t sure if he would make it all the way to asphyxiation before his neck snapped and he died from the angle in which he was being hoisted into the air with nothing to grab onto.
Rose continued in her gleeful laugh, seeming not to have heard his plea for air. How could he fight against a ghost he couldn’t touch? His Kryptonian blood that had helped him defeat so many criminals was proving fruitless against a non-corporeal being.
Just then, her laughter died abruptly, her face instantly sharpening with attention. “They’re here,” she said, and released Clark.
The reporter fell to the floor, coughing and gasping. He drew in fresh, luxurious warm air that stung his throat, but he gulped it in with gratefulness. Glancing up, he saw her cross to the elegant French windows, looking out.
“Who’s here?” Clark rasped out.
Rose didn’t respond.
Standing up, Clark made his way over to the windows, still coughing slightly and wheezing in fresh oxygen. Outside was the long curving driveway up to the estate. On its path drove a familiar black Mercedes-Benz Clark recognized as the vehicle he himself had ridden in. Mr. Keplin was behind the wheel, but what caught the reporter’s attention was the silver Subaru following from behind. Clark drew in a sharp breath, ignoring the way his throat chafed at the sensation.
No. . .
Clark’s heart lodged painfully into his ribs when Lois’ features became clearer through the windshield as the vehicles drove steadily nearer.
He wanted to feel joy at seeing his wife, but the emotion was vacant. Had hers been the only vehicle on the pavement, Clark would have assumed this was Mad Dog Lane on the chase to track him down, but the black Mercedes Lois was following screamed a loud warning to Clark that a second mouse was being lured into its trap.
Anger swelled within Clark. He pounded on the window with as much force as he could muster. “Lois!” he shouted, so close to the window that his breath fogged the glass. She was turning up the pathway and would soon be driving past the window, yet her gaze was turned upward, staring at the behemoth architecture of the estate. Clark waved his hands and pounded again on the window, hoping to cause enough movement to attract her attention. For a moment he thought he had succeeded. Lois lowered her gaze, but her eyes never focused on the window Clark was jumping and waving frantically behind. Soon her vehicle and the black Mercedes were driving past the front entrance.
Clark raced out of the receiving room, running past Rose who stood placidly by. As he rounded toward the entrance’s front door, he gave the knob a great tug, but the door remained sealed shut, once again proving the absence of his strength. Instead of dawdling over precious seconds of time in trying to prove he could in fact open an ordinary door, Clark moved frantically toward the windows that dotted the hallway to his right, running past them. He trailed Lois’ car, waving his arms in wild motions, but Lois’ gaze was focused back on the Mercedes. She drove on without any sign of having seen him at all. Clark kept running until he reached the end of the hallway, where a door was stationed at the end. He opened it in hopes of finding more hallways and windows, but it was only a small bathroom with a toilet and sink. He groaned inwardly. Dead end.
His only option at this point was turning around and bargaining for information from Rose. As he rounded sharply, intending to march promptly back to the receiving room, he stopped short. Rose was standing two feet away from him, smiling.
“She wouldn’t have seen you anyway. The house—” she began, but Clark cut her off.
“Whatever you’re planning to do, let her go. Now,” he demanded. “You have me. You want me. So let her go.”
Rose laughed softly. “She’s here for a different reason than you think, but that’s so kind of you to sacrifice yourself. I accept.”
Clark’s expression turned wary. “What is she here for?”
Rose tilted her head to the side, regarding him with amusement. “Well, to be told that you’re dead, of course.”