Sunset struggled to breathe. She couldn't move. She couldn't even think straight. Her was mind awash of panic and fear, blaring in her mind like garbled white noise. Her hands gripped her elbows as she wrenched her body away, curling into a ball against the wall. For a brief moment, she considered that she might be dreaming again, yet the pain from her nails digging into her skin reminded her that she was indeed awake.
The other Sunset ambled towards her with an inhuman gait, bowlegged and shoulders slumped back, her faceless head lulled to one side and her arms hanging limply. Small embers sparked up from her feet with every step she took, the air around her filling with dots of flame. Her movements were strained, forced. As if every joint in her body were tangled up in an invisible string, directing her every move. Her neck straightened suddenly with a bony crack and her torso twisted, raising her right arm towards the cowering girl, her hand limp. Sunset shrieked.
She jerked to the left and scraped at the floor with all four limbs, struggling to get to her feet, grunting and screaming in a raspy voice. She knew what would happen if she touched her, and would give anything to never experience that kind of pain again. Sprinting down the darkened hall, she tripped over the drop off and fell, covering her entire front side with moist ash. Fortunately, she only let herself be down for half a second before clamoring to her feet and running again, slamming her hands into the wall at the end of the hall to stop herself. She looked left and right, feeling a sinking feeling in her gut.
“Where do I go, WHERE DO I GO?!”
She was trapped. No matter what hall she took, she would be taken back to the dead end. Back to the monster that wanted to burn her alive. It was as if the mansion itself was trying to kill her. Desperate and with no other options, Sunset bolted back into the burnt out room, hoping that she could escape through the windows there. Though she quickly found that they were also adorned with twisted metal bars as well, with an ill-red light shining through the cracks. She gripped the sides of her head as she blankly stared at the imprisoning shadows cast on the floor, the whispers in her mind becoming louder and louder. Flicking her head around wildly to find anything that could save her, she gasped at the sight of the broken door to her right. Gripping the handle and thrusting it open, she threw herself inside and pulled it shut, kicking up a cloud of dust and ash. She pulled the sleeve of her cardigan over her hand and covered her mouth, doing everything in her power not to cough and wheeze.
(“Please don't find me...please don't find me...!”)
The closet door's top hinge was broken and the bottom was bent, causing it to hang at a wide angle. Sunset pushed her body into the corner adjacent to the entrance and out of sight from the gaps, trying to quiet her violent gasping.
Her lungs burned with pain as she tried to catch her breath. Her heart beat wildly in her ears, making her feel like her tired body was giving away her hiding spot. Outside the door, she could only hear the creaks and groans of decaying wood. Her eyes scrunched shut as she strained her ears to hear anything else, yet the whispers in her head made it impossible focus.
As her breathing started to return to normal, Sunset slid a hand into her pocket and pulled out her compact, clicking it open. Whimpering, she forced an eye open and pointed the mirror towards one of the gaps in the door.
(Please, don't - )
Suddenly, the crescendo of whispers ceased. A deafening silence enveloped the room. Outside the closet, she still heard nothing. She held her breath.
Charred fingers peeked out from past the door frame, grasping it slowly and methodically. In the mirror, Sunset watched in silent horror as her double took a step into the room. Suddenly convulsing, her body slumped forward and fell, making a sickening and fleshy thud as she hit the ground. As she lay there face down, her elbows raised off the ground first, the rest of her body literally lifting itself back into her disjointed standing position.
Sunset wanted to throw up. This was the first time she could look at her with a steady eye. She could now clearly see just how pronounced her burns were, how tattered and filthy her nightgown was. She could see the bits of ash falling out of the massive hole in her head, and how inhumanly mechanical her motions were. Though as ghastly as her appearance was, the implications of it made her even sicker. This was a dead girl. And for whatever reason, this was how she was presenting herself. As a burned, shambling corpse.
An involuntary gasp escaped her lips as the other Sunset turned her body in her direction. She bit back the gasp and continued holding her breath, trying to keep her quaking body as still as possible. In the mirror, she could see her amble to the center of the room, turning her torso to look around the room without moving her head. She hung her body forward and lifted her arms out to her sides, waving them slowly around like she was feeling the air. These jerky movements persisted for a moment as her body starting to slow. Eventually, she came to a complete stop, frozen in an unnatural state like a mannequin.
(...what is she doing?)
Sunset nearly gasped again as she suddenly flailed around in place, her body going back into the pose she was initially in when she was found in the hallway. The wraith took a single step backward, and the tension in her chest began to fade. Biting into her cardigan and feeling needles in her throat, she kept the air in her lungs and her eyes glued to the mirror, watching her back out one errant step at a time. The moment she was out of sight, she breathed out evenly through her nose and scrunched her eyes shut, now focusing on her footsteps in the dirt. In her head, there were no other noises other than the slapping of mud and ash becoming quieter. When they had finally vanished, her muscles relaxed and her hand fell away from her mouth.
“She's gone,” she breathed. “I'm safe. I'm...safe...”
Her body felt weak. The crash of adrenaline was hitting her like a freight train, her breath coming out in short gasps and her limbs feeling like noodles. The feeling of her muscles relaxing immediately after being tense for so long made her feel like she wasn't going to be moving for a while. Her vision started to become blurry as she stared at the filthy closet floor, a small yawn coming out of her mouth.
“Oh yeah, I...didn't get any sleep last night...”
Sunset pushed herself into the corner and rested her head against the wall, her eyelids falling against her will. In moments, consciousness left her.
Bright. Everything around her was bright, yet not uncomfortably so. The world swished around like a pastel watercolor, taking form, yet always just out of focus.
“Wha...what's going on? Where am I...?”
It was hard to make out or understand, yet she could feel herself seated at a desk. What were once ashen walls covered in scorches and burns was a simple room not unlike anyone else's. Blank sheets of paper lay strewn about in front of her, with pens and pencils neatly organized in a cup on the right side of the desk. Before she could make any sense of what was in front of her, Sunset felt herself scoot forward and take one of the pencils out of the cup, her hand applying it to one of the sheets against her will. She wasn't in control of her body.
“Huh...? I-I can't move...?”
In any other situation she would be panicking, yet she couldn't shake the haze out of her mind. She felt lucid, sluggish. It was as if she were wading through a pool of sweet pudding, the smell and touch assailing her senses, never letting her focus.
She felt a hand on her left shoulder. Her head craned upward, and she saw a woman smiling down at her. She wore a red, form fitting dress and a silken shawl, and her hair was done up in a formal bun. Sunset couldn't make out any of the features of her face, as the woman was just as blurred as everything else around her. All she could see was the bright, red lipstick she wore.
The woman's mouth moved as if she were speaking clearly, yet no sound came out. When she finished, Sunset's body paused for a few seconds before she returned her smile, her mouth also beginning to speak without a voice. However, something else began to well up inside her.
“Wha – I...”
With every soundless word she spoke, she could feel her heart becoming tighter. With every statement she made, an iron spike was slowly driving itself into her chest. And all the while, she could still feel herself calmly smiling at this woman. By the end, her hands were clammy and shaking.
“I – I don't get it...it hurts...”
The woman walked away, trailing her manicured fingernails across her shoulder as she left. As soon as she was gone, Sunset felt her arm shoot out and snatch a square sheet of paper from under the the one she originally was writing on. Her mouth crinkled and sputtered as she folded it in half.
Her eyes blinked open, warm tears spilling down the sides of her face. Wiping them away with a puzzled look on her face, Sunset stifled a groan, suddenly being reminded of the pain in her limbs and chest.
“What was all that? Could that have been...?”
(Boom, boom, boom...)
Distant, thundering footsteps rang in her ears, causing her body to spasm, reminding her of the filthy closet she had shoved herself into. Sunset threw her palm over her mouth and pushed against the corner again as the sounds grew louder and closer.
(“Did she come back?! What does she want with me?! Leave me ALONE!!!”)
She curled back into a ball, her eyes fixated on the crack in the door. The paneling and door frame shook with every step it took, rustling dust and ash free into the air. Whatever was approaching felt like it was much larger than before. Pulling her knees close, she steeled herself for whatever horror walked through next.
Her spasms loosened upon briefly seeing a flash of bright yellow. She leaned forward, ever so slightly, and caught a glimpse of a large man in the center of the room. The same man she had spoke to just over an hour ago.
(“Golden Ardor? What's he doing here?”)
He had taken the folding chair resting against the wall and set it up in the middle, sitting himself down and resting his elbows on his knees. Sunset found herself edging closer to get a better look, leaning left uncomfortably as she watched him wring his hands together, pressing his forehead against them.
“I...I'm sorry I haven't come to visit in a while,” he said in an unsteady voice. “You would figure that six years is long enough to move on, but...” His hands clenched tighter and began to shake. “...that girl. She had your face. Your eyes. Looking back at me after all these years, so bright and...alive. It's impossible...”
Sunset gulped, dryness creeping up from her throat.
“...and I know it's impossible. I was there when the fire raged. I watched your coffin lower into that forsaken grave. I watched the woman I love slowly lose her mind, coddling those cranes, never letting go of your memory, I...!” He made a fist and pressed his palm against his head, visibly trembling now. “I can't let go either, it seems. I lost everything that night. All I ever wanted was the best for you, and now I will never have the chance. Am I starting to go mad as well? Is that why I saw you smiling up at me, because it was something I simply wanted to see again?” He drew a long, slow breath and exhaled, crossing his arms over his knees and hunched forward. “I don't know what to do with myself anymore...”
Sunset leaned back into the corner, her eyes drifting off to the side.
“I have to be better than this. For the both of us. I don't know whether or not Silver will ever come back to us, but I have to be there when she does. Just know that I miss you. Always.”
Ardor remained in that same position, not moving a muscle. Inside the closet, Sunset whimpered to herself under her breath.
(“There's no way he was the one that killed her...I can't believe I thought about accusing him.”) She huffed softly through her nose. (“But if he really didn't murder her, then how did she die? Why? What did I even come here for...?”)
Her eyes wandered out the door again, only to widen in terror. The other Sunset was standing directly behind Ardor, standing upright with her head lowered. The wraith reached out with a hand towards the back of his head as she let out an involuntary scream.
Sunset burst forth from the closet tackled him, knocking the man over and kicking up a massive cloud of soot. Immediately clamoring to her feet, she pressed her back against the wall, ready to circle around and run away at a moment's notice. However, the ghostly double of herself was nowhere to be found.
“Wh-what?! Where did she - ”
“WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS?!”
She froze, bunching her hands up near her chest and clenching her teeth. Ardor slowly rose, dusting himself off and looking down at the scared girl in front of him with fury in his eyes.
“You?!” He bellowed. “I thought I made it perfectly clear that I did not want to speak with you! Have you been here the whole time?! What did you see?! Answer me!” He began to take steps towards her as Sunset stumbled over her words, turning her head away like she was about to be struck.
“Do you have any idea how many laws you've broken?! I'll see to it that you'll...”
Ardor trailed off, stopping in his tracks, his arms dropping languidly to his sides. She carefully turned her head back to face him, only to see him staring at her face with confused eyes. They looked into each other's faces for a brief, deafening moment before she realized that he wasn't looking at her face. He was looking at the top of her head.
Before she could say another word, Ardor's hand shot out and grabbed her wrist, pulling her forward as his other hand ripped the wig off of her head. Sunset's head snapped back up, seeing the most despondent gaze she had ever witnessed staring back at her.