The still air was broken by the sounds of dogged pursuit. Bruised and battered, a woman pushed her way through the murky, dank swamp. The water fouled the air, but for her it did not matter. No, for her hope for retribution hung over her mind. A victim, she only knew where she needed to go, but not the way. She could sense her pursuer trailing not far behind, but she persisted, she endured. Each step closer to a moment of exaltation for freedom from nightmare. She could feel him behind her, but refused to look back. Leg over the other through the muck until her fleeing abruptly came to an end. She lamented her predicament and how she could be such a foolish girl to believe her dreams would come true. Exhaustion finally taking its toll, the haunting memories rushing back in uninvited.
Katherine “Kat” Cross wasn’t alone in her ambitions when she saw the ad on television, in fact, quite the contrary. Thousands of other beautiful women whose youthful vigor had carried them away from reality for a moment signed up to take part in an experiment in the matters of love and the intrinsic nature between a man and a woman. Except of course that observation would be viewed by millions on network television. Never in a lifetime did she believe that she could be picked. She had a lingering thirst for fame and television was the fast track. She scoured her phone looking for that sultry photo to perfectly accompany her bio she’d submit. What better way to attract a bachelor millionaire than with a little skin? The premise of the show to her seemed ridiculous, but captivated her desires nonetheless.
It was the perfect concoction of young lust, money and lonely success story that dragged the masses to the couch each and every day. Kat was no different, but the day she received her invitation from the show’s producers the young woman went from a small town nobody to a network television star. The leap into show business couldn’t have been easier in her eyes. Gone were the days of underpaid barista that routinely misspelled the names of her customers for a moment of respite from the stagnation of the work. Replacing her day to day doldrums with the flash of cameras and a social media presence sent a chill down her spine. The details of the show remained a mystery. A one-way plane ticket and a swag bag were all that clued her into the show’s background.
The flight took longer than she expected and being put aboard a private jet did little to enlighten her to the final location. When the plane landed, Kat was surprised to see that the show was not to take place in the glamour of Hollywood, but in the countryside of Wyoming. The sight was truly stunning, but not what she had hoped for. The snow capped mountains, rolling hills and endless forests engulfed her senses yet despite the majestic scene she wanted nothing more than the Hollywood hills, the walk of fame and the rows of studios. As she stepped off the plane with the other contestants, she realized that the paths to celebrity took many forms.
“Isn’t this place just the most beautiful place you’d ever seen?” Another one of the contestants said as she exited the plane. The rest of the group appeared to be excited or even feigned it at the sight of the cameras. Kat had to regroup and smile like the rest as they were ushered into a series of limousines. Her mood lightened a bit as they rolled through the countryside
The cobblestone driveway wound its way up the mountain path. Flashing phones, selfies and giddy laughter emanated from the back of the car. The festivities were lost on no one except her. Kat’s mood hid behind the smile she wore for the cameras. Her first taste at stardom whether she realized it or not.
Regret about her expectations sank into her core. Had she made a mistake? Was stardom filled with doing things that you wouldn’t normally do? She craved excitement and notoriety, but at what cost?
After what felt like a lifetime, the cars finally reached the top of the mountain and the millennial millionaire’s home. Finally arriving at the most luxurious home she’d ever gazed upon. The sight of such extravagance sent thoughts rushing back into her mind the hope to be a young starlet. A rag to riches story without the rags but all the riches. There was a man inside this home that carried no burden, but to be rich and full of youthful vigor. Play the game she must if she hoped to propel herself beyond her wildest imaginations and into a world she desperately wanted become a part of.
“My daddy has a home just like this back in Miami.” One of the other girls said. Her attitude reflective of someone who grew up in a similar environment. She could hardly blame the girl for seeking out the same. Once you’ve become accustomed to a way of life, it is difficult to be comfortable with the thought of being accosted by less than desirable finances.
The rest of the girls funneled into the foyer full of glee and excitement. The stunning artwork greeted the group with unknown masterpieces. Portraits, statues and vases all depicting beautiful woman filled the room in an almost gaudy attempt to overwhelm any visitors with a sense of the refined. The pieces were so lifelike, that she could swear they were photographs.
“Look at all this artwork.” She said suddenly realizing her thoughts were projected to anyone who would listen. She decided it was her chance to learn a little more about the bachelor off the camera and grabbed a nearby producer.
“So tell me, what kind of man is he? I think it is safe to safe he enjoys art at least.” She joked hoping to shake the mood from a sense of wonderment to informative. She was anxious to get started and get her name out there.
The producer turned his attention to her and smirked.
“You know we have no idea who this guy is. The network heads proposed the idea of a mystery guy and here we are. Got his money in some sort of technology start up. Something to do with flash imagery on objects. Quite unique stuff really.”
The group gathered at the bottom of the steps to await his triumphant arrival. She was decidedly impressed by the entrance way, but what kind of man was he? Not that it mattered to her. She was not here for the chance at love. Finding her way to stardom gave her freedom and independence. Being shackled to a prenuptial agreement based on falsified love was not the route she desired to take. Still, she had to wonder what it would take to stay on the show long enough to find the fame and fortune she wanted so badly. Of course she would have to kiss him on live TV, but would she need to go further? On the plane ride she had resigned herself to things she’d be willing to do to achieve her goals. The realization that her personal morals might be tested set in a disturbing fashion.
He appeared out of thin air before the crowd. Astonishment felt like the only way to describe his entrance. There was no music, no smoke and no mirrors. The man had come from nothing and materialized into form as far as she was concerned. She knew she should be amazed, but fear was all that came to her.
“Welcome my dear ladies, let me introduce myself before I get a chance to meet the woman that made it their mission to come and woo me. I am Baxter Baines. My parents had an affinity for alliteration and lexicon, but I have a much greater interest…. love.”
The line was cheesy, but the cameras rolled on capturing Baxter’s shining smile, boyish charm and wavy hair in all of his glory. Kat had to admit that everything about him intrigued her. Not in a falling hopelessly in love manner, but rather piqued curiosity. He gracefully maneuvered from woman to woman gently caressing their cheek and providing a gentle peck upon their hand. Before she knew it, Baxter stood before her.
“My goodness what lovely eyes you have…miss?” He asked peering up at her from her hand.
“Kat….my name is Kat.” She said completely overwhelmed by her nerves. She tried to rebound, but he moved along to the next contestant.
Kat began to panic. Did she ruin her chances of moving on? What did he see in her? She had so many questions and feared that she would not have the time to address them all. It dawned her that she desired his attention, almost craving it. A strange sense of hypnosis came over her as she watched him move through the crowd before reaching the front door. She found herself now willing to do anything to get his attention. Her hopes of being famous taking a backseat to her new found lust craving.
“Ladies, there is food and beverages in the ballroom. Please take the time to admire my art as well. They are of my creation. Throughout the evening I will come and speak with you. I will take you on a tour of my home and get to you know you better. Please I have spoken to some of you to join first. Come.”
Baxter signaled for a few of the women to join him outside and despite her best efforts to the contrary, Kat was ushered to the ballroom with the others. She again worried that perhaps she wasn’t what he had hoped for and that her time at the mansion would be short lived. Her dreams of being in his arms thwarted from a moment of lapsed personality.
She tried to calm herself as she took a seat at one of the long stretches of tables. For a millennial, Baxter had a taste for the old world. The ballroom almost resembled the pictures her cousin sent to her from Versailles in France. The theme of Baxter’s lifestyle bore the hallmarks of only extravagance matching the eloquence of the famed Sun King.
“He’s already making his decisions. What kind of show is this?” A girl asked Kat. The woman’s ebony skin looked silky smooth and he long following black hair ever so slightly curled caught Kat’s attention. She questioned why Baxter did not choose her like he did the others. She was gorgeous.
The night continued on and the girls had their fill of food and wine. Others perhaps too much wine and not enough food. Throughout the night Baxter would drop in and take a few more of the contestants, but none seemed to be returning. She searched around for a camera man or producer, but they too had been absconded away from the main group. A peculiar sensation washed over her that perhaps the show was not everything she thought it to be. Kat got up and went for the door, but it was locked. She remained uneasy as one by one the rest of the girls were taken from the ballroom only leaving her behind.
“I must assure you Kat that you are last, but not least.”
Baxter had returned to take her. She tried to refuse, but could not move except at his whim as she followed him into the house. The rooms had been darkened and the only sounds were the clicking of her heels as they came down upon the granite floors. Kat was more than a little freaked out and instinctively went for her phone.
“I’m sorry Kat, but there is no service here. I can’t risk industrial espionage now can I?” Baxter guided Kat to a long hallway. Darkened all but for the lights illuminated the portraits. Each one a different woman. The attire of each exhibiting a different era of fashion. The images of so many beautiful woman was as haunting as it was captivating for Kat.
“Who are all of these women?” Kat asked mustering up the courage to finally speak with Baxter.
Baxter stopped and admired one of the portraits for a moment.
“All of these portraits are the women I’ve had in my life. Some sexually, others from a far and some I barely knew. It is a passion of mine you see to keep them in my world. I hope that you too will find a place on my wall.”
The thought of her portrait sent a chill down her spine, but she persisted forward towards the end of the hallway and Baxter led her into a room. The room was decorated in the same manner as the rest of the house. Old Victorian with each detail finely crafted by hand.
“Please take a seat over there if you would. I’d like to get to you know you better.” Baxter said directed her to a small stool near the window. “You are more conservatively dressed the others. You have a classical feel about you much like my mother God rest her soul.”
When a woman was compared to a man’s mother it served no decent purpose, but you could not simply walk away from the situation. After all, she was a show or at least she still hoped she was. Not a camera or production worker was in sight. She scoured the ceilings and could not locate a single lens.
“What am I doing here Baxter? Where are the other girls?” Kat said deciding to try and take control of her situation. She was alone in a room with a stranger and for the first time since gazing upon him, despised Baxter.
“I must confess my dear something to you. You are not going to leave this room let alone this house. I am not who I appear to be and for you that knowledge will soon be inconsequential!” Baxter boomed from his seat and threw himself over Kat. She kicked and screamed in a fight to get away.
“Look at my eyes! I will have you!” Baxter commanded as he tried to pry her eyes open. Kat fought him off and raced for the door. She fought with the handle and could feel him approaching once again in silence. She turned and saw him…. levitating.
“What the hell are you?” Kat said as she managed to pry the door open. She tried to squeeze between the tiniest of cracks until finally she forced herself through. She could feel her ribcage crack as she struggled into the hallway. It was then you saw them. The others they had not left, but he had turned them into paintings. She turned and saw Baxter emerge from the room, the door providing a meager obstacle.
Kat raced down the hall kicking her heels off. She knew he was in hot pursuit, but it didn’t matter. She refused to look as she stumbled down the staircase to the front door. Next to the giant wooden door was the woman from the ballroom. Her perfect form forever entombed in a statue. Somehow he had turned these women into art.
“Come back Kat. I can make you immortal! You cannot escape from me. You will be a star. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted? Become one with me and your image will last forever!” Baxter’s voice carried throughout the entire house and followed Kat out into the courtyard.
The limos had long departed. She turned to race down the road, but was met with his gaze. Baxter seemed to grow in height and loomed above her.
“This charade must stop Kat. I have lived many lifetimes over and do you think you are the first to try and leave? No one leaves my estate. No one.”
Kat raced into the woods. Her dress tearing and her skin burned as she careened blindly into the brush. The thickets and thorns piercing her gentle skin. She bit her lip in pain but knew she needed to press on through the darkness. She turned to look for Baxter, but he was nowhere to be seen. Without hesitation she pushed through another bush, but did not see the ledge as she rolled into a shallow ravine. A murky swamp stood before her.
“Look at the mess you’ve made of yourself Kat. Why don’t we go back to my mansion and clean ourselves up? You wouldn’t want to be so distressed for your portrait now would you? Or would you rather become another piece of my collection? It is a rare day indeed that I give you the choice.”
She didn’t answer, instead she turned and took her chances in the swamp. She pushed on and she could hear the sounds of Baxter fighting through the mud. For a fleeting moment she wondered why he could not simply float above it, but as the moonlight pierced the darkness she realized that the swamp was full of the previous women.
“Kat, you must stop!” Baxter yelled. “You will be immortalized. Only your shell will be left here I promise. You cannot leave!”
He had become infuriated as he struggled through the swamp. Kat could see the end of the swamp before her and she forged ahead undeterred by Baxter’s hellish cries. The edge was difficult to climb, but she pulled herself up with all of her might and turned to look at Baxter.
Baxter had stopped moving as he could not lift an inch of his body.
“I told you not to leave.” Baxter said his mood now somber. The fire from his anger had been doused.
Kat watched in horror as the hands of the women in the swamp emerged one by one grasping frantically for Baxter’s immobile form. The hands of the women long gone pulling at him in the swamp. She could recognize some of the others from their dresses and sleeves as they pulled Baxter under the swamp his head was all that remained atop the blackened swamp.
“I always feared the day beauty would escape me. I knew when I saw you there was something different about you. You would not succumb to my gaze and now I will pay for my treachery. Farewell dear Kat.”
Kat fell to her knees and wept until suddenly her phone began to rang. It was her mother.
“Mom, I’m ready to come home.”