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The cold was gnawing rather than biting: a slow, painful, rasping sensation. The lack of light in Linda’s drab bedsit – its’ one window faced a brick wall – meant it was marginally less warm than the street outside.
She had finally broken down and switched on a lamp, straining her eyes as she read her library book, concentrating furiously on the cool words, black ink on white paper. Eventually it became too cold and dismal inside to be ignored, even with Jane Austen as a distraction. Her stomach clenching in hunger and her eyes drooping with tiredness, Linda flung down the hapless library book and went for a walk.
Walking didn’t cost anything, hence why Linda did such a lot of it.
It was dark out, shadows pooling in-between yellow street lighting. The takeaways and cheap restaurants and betting shops stared at Linda with neon eyes as she stalked past. They soon gave way to blank, boarded up houses, a hopeful few still sporting To Let signs that that adorned them for months. Middleton was a pleasant enough town during the day, in the sunshine, but at night it looked rundown and dejected,
The walk had been intended as a distraction, but as Linda went further, faster, her mind stuck in the same tracks as her feet. Hundreds of job applications, a pathetic total of two interviews, one earlier today that had cost her half her jobseeker’s allowance in train and bus fares and which she knew from instinct had been hopeless, ever-growing rent arrears despite living off baked beans for weeks…
‘Mind out, love!’
Linda, jolted from morose musings, apologised to the harried-looking woman emerging from a florists. Despite the lateness of hour the florist’s lights were on. The florist had her arms round an immense funeral wreath. Linda watched her haul it over to a nearby van, and continued on. She flicked a glance at the shop window as she passed. Judging by the number of artfully arranged wreaths in the window, the florist was doing a roaring trade in funerals. No wonder she looked harassed.
Morbidly, Linda wondered if she were to die, who would pay for her funeral. If she didn’t find work soon, she’d either freeze or starve.
Linda lost track of how long she walked for, through the streets, alongside the meandering River Irk for a short while. She liked the river. Despite the name, it was a companionable body of water, not at all Irksome. It was always there, not making too much noise, going about its business, content in her company. She left it with some reluctance when it became too dark to walk beside without breaking her neck. The world was trying to drive her into her grave, but Linda wasn’t going to give it any assistance.
She became numb with cold, but the numbness was not unpleasant. It was preferable to her constant worrying, like a rat gnawing the skirting board. Linda could feel her mind becoming numb with tiredness too. Blank, unthinking and unmoving.
Linda stumbled over paving stones, discarded beer cans, her own feet. Exhaustion was a suit of chainmail, weighing her down, curving her spine. It took her some time to realise it was raining, if that wasn’t too strong a term for the feathery, clinging drizzle that was gently soaking the streets.
Without thought, she slipped sideways into a little alleyway, thickly carpeted with weeds and detritus. She sank down on a convenient upturned plastic crate that bore her weight, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes.
Perhaps she slept.
‘Nah, worse luck. Shall we tap her on the head, make a proper corpse out of her?’
Linda opened her eyes. There were three men surrounding her, though their attitude was speculative rather than threatening. They wore dark, tattered suits, collarless shirts and cloth caps. They each carried an old fashioned lantern that emitted flickering yellow light and one had a bundle of canvas tucked under his arm, the other a length of rope slung over his shoulder. Two of them were merely curious, but the third was… covetous. He had a nose that curved like a fishhook, a tarnished watch-chain hanging out of a waistcoat pocket and a pawnbroker’s stare.
‘Who are you?’ she croaked.
The hook-nosed man chuckled. There was no warmth in the sound. It was reminiscent of someone knocking on wood.
‘Me? I’m Kanky, and this is my ginnel, my alleyway,’ he said. ‘Haul her up, lads. We won’t finish her off. She’s our guest tonight. Could do with an extra pair o’ hands, anyhow.’
The two lackeys did as bid and helped Linda to her feet. She made no protest.
‘Come on, lass, let’s be having you,’ Kanky grunted as he shuffled down the ginnel.
‘Where are we going?’ Linda enquired.
‘St Leonard’s churchyard,’ he answered, voice echoing eerily off the brick walls and cobbled pavement.
It occurred to Linda as she meekly followed the three men that the streetlights had all mysteriously extinguished themselves. The streets around them had lost all definition and were vague smears of purple and grey and black. Nonetheless she kept following Kanky, made reckless by hunger and fear and ceaseless worry.
Linda knew St Leonard’s only as the church she passed every now and then on one of her endless, aimless walks. It was a long, low, grey building, with a modest square tower that squatted sturdily in the midst of the churchyard. Tonight, it loomed out of the dark, a faceless black hulk. The modest light of the three lanterns failed to penetrate its shadows. But the church wasn’t where they were headed.
They halted in the churchyard, in front of a tilted headstone, crumbled by the wind and the rain.
‘Grab the shovels,’ said Kanky. ‘That includes you, lass.’ He gestured roughly to the shovels propped conveniently against an opposing headstone. There were three of them, all made of wood and no metal.
‘Buried just this morning,’ he continued to no-one and everyone. ‘Earth hasn’t had time to settle, and there’s no mortsafe. He’ll be short work, digging up. I’ll keep an eye out for the bobbies.’
The two men set to work as bid. Linda hesitated.
‘I didn’t bring you here for the pleasure of your company, lass,’ Kanky said, voice shot through with venom.
Linda began digging.
‘What’s a mortsafe?’ she asked with idle curiosity.
‘An iron cage in t’grave,’ said one of her fellow diggers. ‘To keep the likes of us out. But nobody was bothered this time.’
Linda felt she ought to voice a protest, but no words came, and she carried on shoving her spade into the soil.
It was hard going, even with soft soil and three of them working in concert. Linda was soon sweating hard, despite the cold. The wood of the spade handle was rough and unpolished, and rubbed savagely against her bare hands. Until finally a large splinter broke loose and jabbed her viciously in the palm.
‘Ouch!’ she cried, dropping her spade. Kanky only grunted contemptuously and the other men ignored her, but Linda raised her hand and stared incredulously at the shard embedded in her hand, a drop of blood adorning her skin. She pulled the splinter free, hissing at the pain, and felt her mental fog lifting.
She wasn’t dreaming. Was this all imagined then? Had she gone mad, hallucinating some uncanny nocturnal goings-on?
‘Get back to work, lass,’ Kanky said, picking up the fallen spade and almost throwing it at her. Linda caught it, just, the action sending a fresh jolt of pain up her arm.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked baldly.
‘I’m keeping a lookout,’ he replied irritably. ‘You’re meant to be digging up a corpse.’
‘To sell, dimwit,’ said one of Linda’s fellow grave-robbers. ‘We’ll dig ‘im up, carry him back along t’ginnel to the canal, and then tek ‘him to one of the doctors in Manchester. They pay good money for bodies, like.’
‘You’re body-snatchers?’ Linda stammered, even as she cursed herself for an idiot. Of course they’re bloody body-snatchers, you wally!
But Kanky surprised her.
‘We prefer the term “resurrectionist,”’ he said, a reptile’s smile curling over his face. ‘Too late to get squeamish now, lass. Dig.’
‘Or what?’ Linda asked defiantly. Kanky’s smile widened.
‘Or I might change my mind about giving you a knock on the head,’ he answered, and though his tone was mild, the gleam in his eyes made Linda shudder. She turned back to the grave and dug with renewed vigour.
Fortunately or otherwise, Linda’s spade soon struck wood with a sound not unlike Kanky’s laugh. She and the two lackeys scraped away the remaining dirt, and one man leapt recklessly into the grave. Using the shovel’s blade, he pried up the lid and revealed the body they had come to steal.
Linda had never given much thought to the deceased as a subset of society. When she had been seven she had worn a black coat and an appropriately solemn expression at a great-aunt’s funeral. After her mother died far too young, she had gone through the service and cremation and wake burning-eyed and stony-faced, and drunk herself into oblivion once she was blessedly left alone. And she had avoided all attendance, mention, thought, of funerals since.
So when all she felt upon beholding the middle-aged man in the casket was a mild curiosity, her surprise at her lack of feeling far exceeded her interest. The dead man was wax-pale and grey-haired, with impressive whiskers and a disgruntled expression. With little ceremony, the lackeys grabbed him, one by the feet and one by the shoulders, and hefted him out of his cosy grave onto the cold ground.
Then they went through his pockets, uncovering a gold watch and a few stray coins. To Linda’s shock, they tossed the watch and the money back into the coffin.
‘You’re stealing the body but not the money?’ she asked in amazement.
Kanky glanced over at her, but for once his face was serious.
‘The penalty’s worse for grave-robbing than it is body-snatching,’ he explained. ‘We always go through the pockets before we take them away. Safety precaution.’ Then he turned his attention back to the indifferent corpse.
‘Wrap him up,’ said Kanky.
The men laid out the length of canvas they had brought with them and wrapped the dead man up in it, tying it up tightly with the rope.
‘Carry him back, lads,’ Kanky said laconically. ‘Me and the lass will bring the shovels. Hop to it.’
‘Why grave-robbing?’ Linda asked as they walked along Kanky’s ginnel, staggering slightly under the weight of the shovels.
‘Why not?’ Kanky grunted. Linda came to an abrupt halt, appalled by his careless manner.
‘Stealing people’s bodies? Upsetting their families, desecrating their graves – and you ask why not?’ she cried, miserably aware of the hysterical note in her voice.
‘Shut your pan, and keep walking,’ Kanky snarled, grabbing her by the arm and hauling her along. ‘Why not, indeed? These people are dead, and nothing will ever hurt them again. You think they give a damn what happens to their mortal remains? ‘Sides, it pays better than down the pits or in them factories.’
Linda tried to dig her heels in, but Kanky was having none of it, and both their progress through the ginnel and his remorseless logic continued.
‘You know that sometimes relatives will sit by the grave for a few days, to make sure their loved ones don’t get disinterred? Well, quiet your conscience, lass, nobody was bothered about this bloke. But I know a doctor in Manchester who’ll pay a bob or two for the chance to carve him up, see what he’s made of.’
Kanky looked Linda full in the eyes then. His eyes were so pale as to be almost colourless. Earlier he had appraised her mettle, her value out of habit – now he was genuinely interested. She felt much as the corpse on the dissecting table would feel, if it were still capable of sensation.
‘So am I any worse than this doctor?’ Kanky asked, voice as cool as the air and gentle mist swirling round them. ‘I’m supplying a demand, lass. I’d soon move on to summat else if no-one wanted bodies. But they do. I’m a businessman, I am. This hurts no-one. Not like them poor sods shipped across the Atlantic to pick cotton.’
They had nearly reached the end of the ginnel. Kanky’s two accomplices had vanished into the shadows, together with their ill-gotten gain. Kanky took the spades from Linda, flicking her one last glance.
‘You can profit from death, lass. Hard but true. Bear it in mind. And do us both a favour – forget I was here, and forget you was here tonight.’
Kanky winked at her, and was gone.
Linda came to in the half-light between the dead of night and dawn. She was so cold her fingers had turned an alarming shade of blue and even breathing hurt. She managed to get to her feet, and staggered home. It took her five attempts to get her key into the lock. Once she was inside, she collapsed on her bed and slept for twelve hours.
When she woke, the first thing she saw was her hand on the pillow beside her head. The gash on her palm was jagged, red and angry-looking.
Scraped it on the alley wall, cut it on the crate, Linda told herself, and resolutely did not think about it any longer.
But she thought about something else.
She visited the florist a day later. It was very unlike Linda to be so bold, but after a night in Kanky’s company, she wasn’t frightened of even the fiercest florist.
‘Hmm, I wouldn’t mind a bit of help,’ the woman said, her appraising gaze not unlike Kanky’s. ‘Normally I’d ask me niece, but she’s on holiday at the moment. Minimum wage, mind. Can you start tomorrow?’
It was only for a few hours a week, for peanuts, but it was something. The florists was indeed doing a roaring trade in wreaths and bouquets for winter funerals, and the proprietor kept Linda on even after her niece’s return. It helped that the niece had a pronounced skiving habit and was employed due to family connections rather than any real aptitude or desire to work.
Linda soon learned the names and addresses of all the funeral homes in town, after a few weeks of delivering wreaths. It took months of sending letters, banging on doors and doing whatever scraps of paid employment came her way before she finally found herself in an interview for a job at an undertaker’s.
‘Why do you want to work in this business?’ the man in the sombre black suit behind the desk asked her.
‘It would be steady employment,’ Linda answered frankly. ‘Besides, I – know someone who works in the business. He sparked my interest.’
‘It wasn’t Kanky, was it?’ the man asked jovially, his happy smile an odd contrast to the rest of him.
Linda’s breath left her in one sharp exhale, as though a cannonball had rammed her in the gut.
‘Sorry – who?’ she stammered.
‘Oh, just a local legend round these parts,’ the man explained easily. ‘He was a body-snatcher, like Burke and Hare. Took bodies from a churchyard, and down the River Irk to be sold to medical practitioners in Manchester. There’s an alleyway around here somewhere that’s still known as Kanky’s ginnel.’
‘I see,’ Linda breathed.
‘Probably never existed,’ the man continued blithely. ‘There’s not a scrap of evidence to say he did. But it’s a good story.’
‘It is,’ she agreed. ‘I remember it, now that you mention it. I think Kanky did exist. I think he saw a steady living to be made, too.’
Perhaps fortunately, the interviewer didn’t register that remark. Linda left to await his decision, but for once she had a good feeling about it.
On her way back home, Linda paused by the entrance to Kanky’s ginnel. In the gilded light of a summer evening, it was just another alleyway. The ghosts traipsing up and down it had retired for the time being. They worked the night shift, after all.
Linda stared down the ginnel and toyed with the idea of telling people, staking out the alleyway, taking photographs, obtaining proof, calling in the ghost-hunters.
But no. Kanky had asked for one favour – to forget he had been there, and to forget she had been there. He had weighed up her, decided what she was made of and where her value was, and had decided she was worth more alive than dead. It was a conclusion that few others had ever drawn, including Linda herself.
She’d make a profit for someone once she ceased breathing, Linda reflected. But for now, she was worth more alive.
She walked on.
By Carys Crossen
Carys Crossen has lived, studied and worked in Manchester UK for the past fifteen years. She has published several non-fiction articles about horror and the Gothic, and her fiction has been published by Mother’s Milk Books, Three Drops Press and The First Line journal. She doesn’t approve of body-snatching but thinks Kanky would be an interesting dinner guest.
E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @academicwannabe
The sun shines like polished gold: still bright, but tarnishing around the edges, with the certainty that it will fade until no light remains. Late-season hydrangeas struggle to preserve their stately white blooms but they are browning around the edges. Maple leaves that recently blazed red now darken and dry on the ground, like the exposed hearts of small creatures.
The breeze is cooler by the minute and carries away the last gasps of sacred summer, leaving no defense against gloom. Leaves litter the long drive, disrupted by no horse or foot traffic. One not paying heed could veer off the lane and find themselves shivering in the growing darkness.
Outside the reaches of the waning sun is the mansion. It hunches there, cracked and peeling, moldering, moss-covered, soot-stained. Its once-stately columns lean at odd angles, too close together, like prison bars. The house looks like it may have poked up from the earth itself and stands aloof, chastised, shamed. The perfect backdrop for sin. Sunlight slips into twilight.
Closer to the house, birdsong bursts forth and dies off abruptly, as if the air itself cannot tolerate any outside presence. The atmosphere thins and one would find it hard to breathe now. Closer still, blooms lose their heavy scents and die, leaves refuse to hang on the trees. A long fissure cuts the bare lawn in two, running straight to the front door. There the sun disappears completely, gives way to this place of perpetual darkness: the absence of light, the presence of evil.
Flora lies inside. They have placed her on a bare wooden slab. It is not sacred enough to be considered an altar; she is not dead enough to use it as a pyre. She is elevated so her gown flows to the ground, where it puddles like cold autumn rain. She is a beautiful, albeit haunted, figure dressed in silver and gold but she cannot shine in this twilight place. There is nothing illuminated that could reflect from her fabric or beauty.
She cannot move her body, just her eyes. She looks straight up. Spectral guards hang there, looking like spider and web rolled into one creature – leggy, airy things that blink at her. Below them, there is a singed staircase that goes nowhere. She wishes she could climb it and plummet to her death. She wouldn’t hesitate to step off. But therein lies the problem. He won’t let her die.
Her sleeves have small slits cut into them as does her flesh, to allow the clumsy insertion of clear tubing. Blood drips slowly down the tube from one arm into a crock placed on the floor. They may drink her blood, she doesn’t know, but that is not the purpose. The purpose is to make her into something she is not.
Because he won’t let her live, either. Not as herself, anyway. With each warm drop that leaves her body, a tube in her other arm pumps in something cold and biting. She feels more lifeless by the minute, feels her mind go fuzzy around the edges. Memory and the gravity of her present situation lose their crispness and urgency.
Pockets of hot and cold air wash over her. Fingers dent her skin but there is no one there. Water drips. Whiffs of old, cold smoke clog her nostrils. There are no interior walls, no rooms, nothing to hold the structure together, yet it stands. Sometimes a door slams. There is no glass in the windows, just gaping black holes, but no fresh air comes in nor stale air out. The spirit of the house has left, as if an exorcism has gone awry and taken the soul but left behind the demon.
Above her is a jagged, charred hole, open to the outside, where the sky is always black as midnight, though no stars dare shine there. Late in the day, no golden light will bleed onto the dull wooden floor through the western windows. No natural shadows will fall upon the peeling, blackened wallpaper. No dust motes will be suspended in amber somber. The light inside never changes. It is always just on the side of darkness where one can see, but cannot see well, cannot distinguish what is fantasy from what is horrible reality.
She entered the house willingly, she bitterly recalls that much. Time existed then, as did light, air, love. The invitation arrived out of nowhere; it was suddenly there in her room. The thought of his being back from the war and still pursuing her had filled her with giddy madness and she could think of nothing else. Anticipation firmly quashed caution and she didn’t even consider declining the odd summons. Her father and brothers couldn’t forbid her attending alone. They were dead, crushed into the dirt under Sherman’s army. Her mother shook out the best gown she could scavenge, laced it as tightly as her weak fingers allowed, and told her daughter to not return unless it was as the soon-to-be Mrs. Bartholomew Carrington.
The mansion had looked respectable enough when his carriage had borne her to it. The house looked surprisingly good, in fact, compared to the ruins en route. Though it suffered what looked like smoke damage, it had been complete when she looked at it from outside. Or so she thought. She can’t quite remember. When was it that she arrived? Perhaps time did not actually still exist then. She thinks now that the edges of the house were blurred and wavy, like a mirage, maybe floating, ever so slightly.
She had hurried up the path, head down, eyes on the treacherous dead branches that littered the frosty lawn, as the wind swept leaves against her ankles in the darkness. She’d rushed to the front door to escape the sudden and unusually intense chill and the feeling that something untoward lurked just out of sight. She’d thought she would be safe indoors, with him.
The door opened on its own. There was no ball, no other guests. Bartholomew Carrington waited, standing alone, like a column of smoke. Right away, she could tell he was not the same boy who had left his beloved to fight the Yankees. He was darker than a person should be, appearing mist like, soft, blurred, with moving edges, like a cloud of gnats. She almost smiled at the ingenuity of this mysterious party trick. Almost. But when she looked up through her lashes at his face, a cold shiver of fear swept over her. She sensed something was badly off, and wanted to run, but she could not. Her body lost its life force and seemed to root itself in place.
“Flora, my love. You came. But of course you did.” His words dissolved and were replaced by screeches that echoed into silence. The room spun. The candles extinguished themselves and vanished, leaving their smoke to choke her. She was bound, not by any tethers, but by his mind.
She found herself mute, and had thought, Bartholomew, sir, what has become of you? You practice the dark arts.
He had answered her in her own mind. Certainly not, my dear. I am no magician. I am from a place well beyond the need of magic. He smiled and spread his hands, humble or threatening, she couldn’t be sure. His skin was ashen, barely showing in the darkness that surrounded him. Did he hover? She knew then that she must learn to question everything and not rely on her senses.
She listens now to his servants, his dark, rat-faced ghouls, scurrying in the corners like the vermin they are. They prepare for his return.
She smells him first, sweet and dull and heavy like rot, black and red like oak moss and wet embers. Next come the bugs. Gnats and flies precede him and alight on her. She hears him descend the staircase, the one attached to nothing, as if the house is still intact and he makes his grand entrance. An enormous black cat pads along next to him, shifting, wavy. From the corner of her eye, he looks as large as a panther, with sinister yellow eyes, mere slits for pupils. She hears the cat’s claws clicking, sharp and strong, hears him lick his tight, black lips.
The floor creaks as Bartholomew approaches, though she doesn’t hear his heels strike the hardwood. Deranged gentleman, lunatic, phantom: whatever monster he is, his feet don’t make any sound when he moves. He glides, noiseless, elegant, horrible. The cat crouches nearby, tail rolling back and forth like a snake.
Too soon, Bartholomew is beside her, dressed in his finery. He gazes down at her. “You look just the same. The war hasn’t touched your beauty. How easy it must have been for you, to stay here, to move on without me.” His smile is sardonic.
Every day was agony, she thinks to him. How could I go on, with my beloved, my betrothed out there, fighting, who knows where? I had no word about what was happening. I don’t know who you are, but I died the day my Bartholomew rode away.
“I am your beloved Bartholomew. Just in another form.”
Another form? She sees his words float around her like falling leaves, but she cannot quite grasp them.
“Must I spell it out, darling? I didn’t survive the war. I didn’t come back alive. But I came back.”
Slowly, savoring the moment, he extends a hand to touch her, to caress her face. His black, satin-edged sleeve slides on a muscled arm but no bodily warmth issues from within. One cold finger slides up and across her cheek, down her nose, over her mouth. His mouth turns down in disappointment when she gags.
“Flora, Flora. My love,” he coos, in a voice one would use to sooth a child, that would only confirm for her the truth of her nightmares. “Don’t you understand, we are finally together. For all eternity.” He frowns in thought. “It will take some getting used to, but with the system I’ve devised, soon you too will be free from the horrors of this world. In the meantime, we can live very happily together.”
He removes his hand from her face, checks the blood spigot in her arm, adjusts it.
“Fools.” His voice rises in anger. “They are draining too much life out of you.” He softens, turns to her. “We can’t have that.” Again the finger on her skin, the sad smile. “Ah, I should not blame them, these hired idiots. It is a very intricate, experimental system.”
At her confused look, he sighs, then continues. “Do try to pay attention, darling. You must remember how I was to be a doctor before the accursed war came and ruined everything. After we wed, I was to start my practice.” He trails off and looks away. “Well. That was not meant to be, was it. And yet, the idea of what could have been haunts me. I couldn’t leave you and that promised life, not after a lifetime of being betrothed and working toward it. We are meant to be together, and have been since infancy. The bond was too strong. So I returned here and started working on a solution post-haste.”
A solution? To death? Despite her fear, Flora’s thoughts reach him clearly.
“In short, yes. True, the first attempts killed several young women outright, but I am quite close to discovering how to make the human body immortal. Once I perfect that, you will live forever, and we will finally be together. Always.” He speaks casually, conversationally, tenting his fingers in thought.
Sir, you are mad!
“Perhaps.” He leans in closer to check her pulse but she cannot see his face clearly. “But think of it!” He leans back suddenly, overcome with the joy that comes with hope. “We will live out the lives that were meant for us. Together, in perfect peace and bliss. No war, no suffering, no death.” He scoots a chair and rests close to her, hands casually idle on her waist, lost in his fantasies.
Flora’s eyes struggle to focus on him and are drawn to an object around his neck. Tucked beneath his black vest of velvet brocade is a chain. On it are bones of alternating length: long, short, long, short. Finger, toe, finger, toe. She tries to turn her head away and cannot. Her eyes roll back, like those of a horse headed to slaughter.
He responds to her unspoken thoughts. “This?” He runs his fingers across his ghastly necklace. “This is a reminder of my mistakes. One from each failure. Yes, there have been several. Like I said, it is all very experimental. One must expect it to take time to achieve success in achieving immortality. But I’ve brought you here now because I can wait no longer to have you. I am quite certain of success this time.”
She thinks, Sir, you mistreat me.
“Sweetheart, please, you know my name. What do you mean mistreat you?” He answers aloud, surprised by her thought. “Darling, I give you the greatest gift one could ever dream of. Eternal life.” He motions to the fluid dripping into her, replacing the blood that should run through her veins.
If this is how I must live, I would rather die.
“You know not of what you speak. As usual, you sound like a dolt. What do you know of death? Of untimely, violent death? Ignorant fool!” He shouts at her. His hands fly to his face. “Speak to me when you’ve experienced your family burned alive in their beds by Yankee dogs, when you’ve survived months of the miserable war just to take a blade in the gut, to watch your promising life destroyed, your beloved mistrustful and hateful toward you. It is nothing short of hell.” The last is uttered in a terrible, growled whisper. “Believe me when I tell you I am giving you the greatest gift, that of escaping death.”
Truly, sir, I would prefer death to … this.
He glares at her, and says through gritted teeth, “As I said, it is the greatest gift. Can’t you be appreciative of my generosity, for once? Nothing was ever good enough for you. I offer you life everlasting. Life! Trust me, ignorant girl. I know what is best for you.”
She closes her eyes against this new anger, because it is all she can do. She tries in vain to turn her head away from him. You’ve changed.
“War will do that to a person. Like I said, I’ve been through hell.” He sighs and recovers his genial manner. “Besides, you don’t have a choice.” He says it without concern and rubs his hands together, as if he can warm them. “Now let’s get you cleaned up. You don’t look good.”
He snaps his fingers, the sound of dry twigs cracking. A sharp-nosed servant appears with a bone-handled hair brush. The whiskered peon lingers, stands on his toes and leers at her.
“Away!” Bartholomew yells, and the underling drifts away under the squinting glare of the cat.
His cold hands release her hair from its pins easily. She feels the chill through to her bones. Her hair cascades toward the floor and he begins to brush, each stroke cold and quick, like ice sliding off a roof. With each pass, the hair before her eyes fades a little toward white.
He smiles, as one would when preparing for a celebration. “Tonight, my love, we shall celebrate our sacred union.”
If it is the same night she arrived, a year hence, or a hundred, she doesn’t know. But she is sure there is nothing holy going on here.
He digs through her hair and she feels the dry scrape of his fingers inching back and forth on her scalp as if he were playing an organ. He piles her hair up so it hangs like Spanish moss around her face and secures it with a large scarab. The beetle wraps its sharp, prickly claws around the strands of hair. “Now, let’s see about your dress.”
Again she tries to struggle and can move only her eyes. Against her will, her thoughts go to his hands on her exposed body.
“Please do not worry,” he says. “Of course I respect your modesty.” Gently, he closes the blood spigot and unhooks the tubes running in and out of her body. He snaps his brittle fingers again and a toothless hag appears. Bartholomew exits to the shadows. The cat stays, narrows his sulfur eyes and exposes his claws.
The hag brings a dress. She begins to remove the gown of gold and exchange it for one of black velvet. Inch by inch, heavy, prickly midnight-colored fabric replaces golden silk on Flora’s body until the last bit of color and light is gone. Now it is just shadow and deeper shadow.
Flora tries to use her eyes to convey to the old woman her fear, to plead for help. The woman, gnarled and ancient and perhaps insane, ignores her and hums while she works. The old hag shifts Flora onto her side and works surprisingly nimbly at a long row of buttons running up the back of the gown.
When the ancient one is done she places the young woman again on her back, arranges her hands on her stomach like a corpse in a coffin, and scuttles away, cackling.
Bartholomew returns with a wooden jewelry box, the top of which is mother-of-pearl inlay in the shape of a skull. He opens it, lifts her hands, and places rings on her fingers. Blood red rubies drip down her knuckles and pool into bracelets around her wrists. Spiders wrap hairy legs around her fingers and bow their tiny heads until they rest against warm flesh. He hooks his finger in the low neck of her gown and tugs, exposing more flesh above her bosom. He traces the shape of a necklace there. The flies regroup, making a buzzing chain around her neck. He dabs perfume behind her ears as she draws in her breath in aversion to the scent of ancient rose dust and ash. Finally, he places a bouquet of dried roses in her hand. They are in a small vase of finger bones and she feels the knuckles when she clutches it. Then he steps back and sighs at the beauty of his handiwork.
He takes up her hand in his cold, meaty one and, involuntarily, her warm flesh grasps back. He lifts her and pulls her to her feet to lean her body against his own. She is enveloped in his cold black mist, that presence around him that she has begun to identify as the tangible representation of evil. It is very much like leaning into a bare, ice-coated tree that will never leaf out again. She begins to shake as music starts to play. It is unlike anything she has heard before, a low, terrifying thrumming made of squeaks and clicks. She raises her eyes. Bats. Her teeth knock together.
“Ah,” he says. “Of course, where are my manners. You are chill.” He snaps his fingers and flames spring to life inside the empty window frames. She is surrounded by small squares of fire, as cold and useless as God in this hell. Bartholomew startles and shies away from the flame.
His arms encircle her and he lowers his head to her shoulder. “Flora,” he whispers. “My love.”
She smells blood – spoiled and devoid of life – and feels a wet coldness where his belly gash oozes into her gown. She leans there, against him, as he sways and moves her around the sooty floor, dimly lit by the flames, a cacophony of bat sound in her ears, until from sheer terror her body finally gives out and she becomes one with the darkness.
She recites her story relentlessly from within the insane asylum where he’s put her. She persists, and insists upon the truth of it. They tell her it’s all in her mind.
“How can you not remember, you stupid girl. A kindly acquaintance brought you here for your own safety. You were hysterical. You should be grateful.” They try to convince her.
The pinkie finger of her left hand is gone. “He failed,” Flora whispers on those days that she can find lucidity and her own voice. “His experiment failed.” She could not open her eyes by that point, but she felt the dull, pulling, gnawing of the serrated knife as he hacked away at her for what seemed an undue length of time to separate that one small digit. She doesn’t feel pain now; she doesn’t feel a thing. Occasionally, she smells the blood that has soaked through a rough bandage around her hand. No one seems particularly interested in the origin or sanitation of the wound.
“Bah. He saved you. You should know by now that the most dangerous place in the world is within a woman’s mind.”
They will not believe he is no friend of hers. They bleed her, apply leeches, dunk her in hot, then cold, water. They scold, yell, blame her. It was all in my mind, she sputters, half-drowned. She looks down at the space on her left hand where the little finger should be. Proof, she says. Frostbite, they answer. You really should be more careful. She lies on her back while flies buzz and rats scurry in that dark and filthy institution. She lies there and smell things rotting.
Once a day the doctor comes, touches her face, sometimes a breast, sometimes more. He smiles sadly and says she used to be a real beauty, he can tell. She must have done something to turn her hair as white and wild as December, to render her occasionally mute, to destroy her spirit. He raises the sheet and looks under, comments nonchalantly that the deep scars make her arms look like tree bark. What a shame. But she retains her fine figure. And her face, he says. Look at how young and beautiful and unlined it is. It’s as if she doesn’t age.
Over the months, with the drugs and the torment, the memories fade. Flora begins to believe it is, in fact, all in her mind. Then she looks over and sees the black velvet dress in her room. On the front is a dark blood spot, stiff and crushing the fabric. At these times, she loses all semblance of sanity, and screams into the faces of those around her until they strap her down and abuse her.
The only thought to comfort her becomes, Soon I will die. I must. She will sigh in relief. Death. Release. Soon it’s all she can think about.
Then his voice booms in her head, making her wince and shut tight her eyes. Death? No. I have given you a gift. You will live on, here, forever.
“Like this?” She whispers it.
She hears his voice, loud and nearby. Like this. Unfortunately, love, it seems the contraption wasn’t quite ready.
You’ve destroyed me and abandoned me. My body … My mind …
Both compromised, I’m afraid. I’ll keep at it. I will fetch you if ever I am successful. Honestly, darling, I do need someone with at least half a mind. You’re just … a little off. It seems a bit impossible now. But, remember, we have forever. Nothing but time. Then he is gone, not to return.
Flora’s face collapses in horror and her poisoned mind spirits her away, back to the burned-out mansion, back to the ballroom, back to that world between worlds.
She shuts her eyes tightly and wills herself to fade into the darkness. It is all she can do.
By Jill Kiesow
Our apologies, but there was a scheduling issue this last week. We will publish the remaining Ghouls, Ghosts, and Grave Robbers stories this week. Swords, Socercery, and Subway Cars will start the following week. The Ghouls contest will be pushed back a week.
STAY TUNED BECAUSE WE HAVE A BIG ANNOUNCEMENT REGARDING FUTURE SUBMISSIONS.
By Colin S. Bradley
It is rumored that in the waning days of summer in 1993, famed Oceanic explorer Pierre Lamont visited the California side of the Sierra Mountains for the purpose of assisting the United States Geographical Administration in their quest to finally map the bottom of Lake Tahoe.
During Lamont’s first and only dive, attempting 1,000 feet beneath the surface in his famed submersible “Midas”, all communications were lost for approximately 30 minutes.
When a visibly shaken Lamont surfaced, he greeted his support staff with silence, immediately canceled all further dives and retreated to his hotel room alone.
When asked repeatedly about what happened to him below the freezing blue of Tahoe he finally stated simply; “The world isn’t ready for what’s at the bottom of that lake.”
No video or data from his lone dive was ever released.
June 12, 1993
“All clear for launch” The tinny radio voice blared giving Lamont the go-ahead to dive. “Good luck sir, we’ll be here when you’re all finished showing the world your sack.”
“Thank you control” He chuckled into his microphone, “I do believe that you have successfully re-named our mission.”
“Just make sure you keep an eye on the back-up batteries, I’m sure I caught the leak in time and they’re holding a charge” His assistant Joe Padilla commanded, “For now at least.”
He had wanted to scrap the whole dive but Pierre wouldn’t change his mind. He had committed to the job and his word was his bond.
“Relax control, just a walk in the park.” He said confidently, “Be back before you know it.”
“Copy direct,” Joe replied professionally, switching to his game face.
The interior of the mini-sub was small and a little cramped, but he never felt more at home anywhere on the Earth than in the cramped, single seat cockpit of his baby. The myriad of controls, gauges, pipes and display screens always comforted him and he felt, as always, an enormous amount of pride as her twin screws engaged and she began to pull away from the dock with just a minute push of its joystick.
Unlike most mini-sub’s that were equipped with tiny round portals in which the pilot could view the undersea world, Midas was retro-fitted with a large Plexiglas window for more shallow missions. It was deemed safe at 1400 feet but hadn’t been tested at further depths and what he saw now delighted him. A deep blue world opened up beneath the surface of the mountain lake. Sandy bottom littered with boulders both jagged and rounded by time. Tiny minnows were being chased by a large Rainbow trout and the diminutive fish were giving their bigger brother a run for his money, darting around rocks and in between the sparse green aquatic vegetation that swayed in time with the slight current. Visibility was at 100 percent and it felt to Lamont as if he were floating through air instead of a clear, icy lake.
His mission was two-fold. He was to dive to a depth of 900 feet into the area of the lake called the “Petrified Forest” and retrieve a lost data/seismic sensor owned by the government. The USGA had strategically placed twenty of these high tech sensors at various points in the lake in order to gauge the terrain, depth and any strange seismic anomalies that could provide further information on the fault line that ran directly through the deep mountain lake. All but one had been retrieved and it was his job to rescue the little lost lamb and bring her home. He was also tasked with photographing everything he and Midas saw during their time below. Including, he hoped, the wreck of the paddleboat “Sierra glory”, scuttled in 1892 after being damaged beyond repair in a storm. Tales of the petrified forest of trees also piqued his curiosity.
Then there were the bodies.
Supposedly, a fisherman snagged his line while angling for trout near a deep part of the lake just off of emerald bay; when the line suddenly sprung free he reeled in a portion of a human ear. When the story made the rounds at the local watering holes, all sorts of rumors took flight and stories of an underwater graveyard were born. Tales of the perfectly preserved bodies of people who for one reason or another, were thrown into the Tahoe’s icy waters, of course all in period dress. Flapper girls from the 20’s, mobsters and Native American warriors stood on the bottom in an endless state of near perfect preservation, swaying in time with the currents as the lack of flesh eating organisms and the freezing temperatures of the water didn’t allow the bodies to decompose and in fact caused them to stand as if at attention. Lamont had read this “fact” during his research and since no photographic evidence existed of the graveyard, he dismissed it as drivel brought about by the fantasies of whiskey fueled tavern-talk.
He also remembered the Washoe Indian legend of the Water Babies, or the Paakniwut. It was known that in ancient times, when a native child died, its body was entrusted to the lake in an elaborate ceremony and its spirit became a tribal protector from the unseen world, terrifying were the tales of these infant sized, vicious creatures dragging the unwary to the icy, black depths.
Out of his viewfinder, Lamont gazed in awe at the unspoiled beauty of the lake’s bottom. Different shades of blue surrounded him, the deeper he went, the darker the hue.
After a solid thirty minutes, his depth gauge read 920 feet and the marvelous scenery he’d begun to really enjoy had faded quite rapidly. The bright, cerulean blue deepened and darkened with every minute of descent until nothing could be seen from the viewfinder but inky blackness and a familiar spark of apprehension blossomed quietly in his chest. Lamont was used to this feeling and welcomed it heartily as he considered the adrenaline flow useful in keeping himself awake and alert. He flipped a series of switches and the exterior halogen lights blazed into life.
The normally clean feeling of nervous energy and excitement was slowly being replaced with a deep sense of apprehension and a spreading wave of darkness despite the glow of the lighting array. It was normal for a man in an alien environment to feel out of place, an intrusion into a world in which he didn’t belong and Lamont was no stranger to it. He felt it on every dive he’d ever made. He liked to think that any ghosts in the black abyss would look to his heart and see that his only desire was to learn, to not harm or interrupt. That, hopefully, if they saw the purity of his intent; maybe they’d leave him alone.
This was different.
He felt his apprehension transform into a slow and steady fear, a fear that wasn’t rational and a fear that caused a droplet of perspiration to sting his eye.
He performed an early radio check simply to hear another voice.
He drifted slowly, a single source of light in an empty, black void.
Seconds later, the first of the sunken trees slowly manifested through his window, ghostly and pale the figure solidifying in his viewfinder. Dead for eons, the lifeless branches, sharp as razors and solid as stone seemed to reach for him, like thin arms, stretching, beckoning for him. Then more appeared, an entire forest of dead petrified trees, just as the report he’d read described them.
It was, without a doubt, the spookiest thing he’d ever seen and it did nothing to quell the unusual dread that grew deeper by the moment. He’d been on hundreds of dives, deep into every ocean on the planet and had never felt the pulse quickening fear that was now causing a slow rivulet of sweat to drip off his chin.
Oceans were scary, deep lakes were just fucking creepy.
“Jesus, get ahold of yourself,” He whispered to himself as he briefly considered another radio check.
The radar unit beeped and brought him out of his thoughts. It was pre-programmed to alert him when he was approaching his target area and that the sensor he came to retrieve was just ahead. Lamont carefully guided the sub through the arm-like branches of the ancient trees that were illuminated brightly by Midas’s powerful exterior light array. The ghastly forest closed in around him and he cringed when he heard the stony branches scrape against the hull of Midas. He slowly maneuvered the sub through the dense and terrible forest. Twice he had to backtrack and approach the still unseen sensor from a different angle. Gentle manipulations of the joystick allowed the diminutive submarine to drift elegantly, until at last, he saw that he was almost on top of the target but still couldn’t see it through the window. As he drifted further and deeper into the dark forest, he felt as though something were out there in the darkness, watching his every move and his nervousness increased ten-fold.
Looking through the Plexiglas window, as far as his sight could reach stood dead tree after dead tree, thicker and thicker the further he drifted. The radar unit gave a loud, steady beep and he felt a heart-freeing relief when finally, the black boxed sensory unit drifted into sight. It lay atop the pale sand and a red blinking light on its side pulsed with a steady rhythm. It lent a small feeling of comfort to see a modern, man-made device down here in the dark and it somehow gave him a sense of company, that he wasn’t the last man on earth.
He set Midas down gently on the bottom and prepared to engage the robotic arms that he would manipulate with a second joystick. He would simply grasp the object, place it into a cage that he’d affixed on the outer frame of the mini-sub and then he’d get the hell out of this creepy place.
“Midas to surface, I have located sensor and have bottomed the boat. Preparing to recover,” He stated into the radio.
“Preparing to recover, copy,” was the reply. “Take it slow and easy, that’s some seriously expensive equipment you’re handling there.”
“Copy that surface,” Lamont replied steadily. “Should have it on board in a minute or two.”
He flexed his hand and grabbed the joystick manipulator and watched the long robotic arm extend towards the black box. His focus wasn’t as intense as it normally was and right before the arm settled above the target, he glanced up and saw a shape in the darkness just passed the object. It was a gray blot against a velvet black background.
He adjusted his eyes to try and see what it was but it floated just out of the glare from the lights that where pointing at the equipment and the task at hand. Lamont grabbed the toggle and twisted the aiming device on his upper lights and when the glare hit the object the fear exploded in his belly and his muscles clenched in primal and unexpected terror.
The beam of his light exposed the still body of a woman. She floated a foot above the sandy bottom and Lamont saw that a thick rusted chain was affixed to a leg and the other end was wrapped securely around a large concrete brick. Her long blond hair and the hem of her thin white dress moved languidly with the gentle current. One arm hung lifelessly to her side and Lamont placed his shaking hand on the sub’s window as he realized that her other arm clutched a small bundle to her lifeless chest.
He wiped the slight condensation that fogged his window and squinted to get a better look.
“Ok, you knew you might see this old man,” he whispered to himself, “Just a body, a dead floating fucking body, nothing to be afraid of.”
As he peered through the darkness, his heart sank as he saw a tiny head of dark hair atop the white mass the woman held.
His heart dropped as he realized with sickening clarity that the lady in white held an infant. Someone, at some unknown point in history had consigned a woman and a baby to a cold and terrifying death. His incredulity at the scene before him was being replaced with a hot, pulsing anger and heartbreaking sadness.
The sensor he’d been hired to retrieve had been forgotten as Lamont pushed the joystick forward. The sub moved slowly and he pulled back as he approached the tragic scene. The sub bottomed again a few feet away from the bodies and he looked closer. The small current caused by the sub hit the two and caused them to wave slightly, back and forth as if in slow motion. The silent waves caused her dress to billow and it exposed one of the woman’s breasts and Lamont cringed as he saw that it bore four long, jagged gashes. The high beamed lights now fully engulfed the pair and exposed the woman’s face. It was beautiful; the flesh was smooth and her pale pink lips were slightly open. Her crystalline, colorless eyes stared directly at him, unblinking and still. The only exception of her perfect visage was, like her breast, four long, bloodless gashes that adorned both of her pale cheeks. The infant, he saw, was naked and he couldn’t see its face as it was held tightly in her left arm, facing her. A lump swelled in his throat as he surmised that this mother’s final act of love was simply to hold her child to her heart as they were consigned to an icy death. She couldn’t offer life but she could, at least, offer the comfort of togetherness as the water closed over their heads.
Lamont offered a silent prayer to pray for the souls of the woman and the child, in the slim hope that they didn’t suffer, that the spark of life and awareness fled quickly and they didn’t feel the crushing pressure of the deep as they died. He thanked God that at least they were together and finally prayed for heavenly justice that the person who killed them would pay.
Prayer finished, he opened his eyes and prepared to get back to the job he was hired to complete, but first he grabbed the camera controls to document what he’d seen. Maybe someone somewhere could identify the mother and child with a photo and could at least give them a name.
As the camera’s light flashed, he noticed that one of the child’s chubby hands, a hand previously tucked between it and its mother now clutched the thin lapel of the dress.
“What the…,” He began, when all of the sudden he saw, to his dismay, the tiny hand open.
He also saw, with terrifying clarity that each diminutive finger was adorned with a long thick claw.
Slowly, the infant’s head turned from the woman in white and to his horror, the subs piercing light reflected the bright glow of two infinitesimal eyes.
He watched in frozen fear as the baby disengage from the woman and give a kick of its legs and tiny webbed feet pushing it towards the Midas.
Lamont never felt real terror before, he felt an incredible thick pulsing in his veins and as though his belly was about to burst open. All he could do was gasp in disbelief and the hand that still clutched the propulsion stick responded and the sub lurched violently to the right. He jerked the toggle back and forth to get Midas under control but it was too late and it came to a crashing halt when it struck the side of a large boulder and the world went black as it settled to the bottom.
He felt around the controls and found the control and despite rapid hand movements, it wouldn’t budge. He felt for the knob that would engage emergency power and flipped it on.
He grabbed the radio and brought it to his mouth while frantically looking out the Plexiglas window, searching for what he couldn’t quite believe he saw.
“Midas to surface come in,” He almost screamed.
Silence was the response.
“Come on,” He stammered. “Please help me, this can’t be happening. COME IN SURFACE!”
A scratchy static was the only reply.
He was silent as he awaited radio response and in the quiet he heard a soft mewling permeate the stillness of the sub.
“Oh, Jesus” he whispered.
Jesus didn’t respond but the sub’s control board beeped. He grasped the emergency toggle again and flipped it up and down rapidly. The interior lights faded in and bathed the cockpit in a low green light. He glanced up at the window and gasped in terror when he saw the infant’s face pressed against the Plexiglas, looking at him. Tiny webbed fingers splayed out and a horrible grin on its little face. Its black hair waved silently across its face. He heard a scratching sound and saw the black claws scratch small furrows in the inch thick plastic as the fingers clenched and unclenched.
It was trying to get in.
It grinned horribly, pure white eyes excited as the scratching and scraping intensified. The baby’s grin faltered as it floated and scratched, its eyes shifted. They became angry.
“Come in surface Goddam it!” He shouted into the hand held unit, his other hand twisting and pulling the main power control of the still motionless sub, never breaking eye contact with the creature.
He heard a quiet but high pitched wail and ceased his frantic hand movements. Lamont looked again at the infant who had stopped scratching on the window. It stared at him and opened its mouth in a cry exposing small, needle sharp teeth that lined its black gums. He gazed into its tiny eyes that now took on a look of sadness, not otherworldly rage. He tried to look away, to wish himself away from this terror but couldn’t. Their eyes were locked onto each other and Lamont felt his mind begin to slip. He felt the absence of time and the blackness of the deep enveloped his mind completely.
He began to travel.
He was transported to another time. His consciousness was abruptly returned and he saw that he stood on the lakeshore. He saw the small Indian village. He saw the excitement of the villagers at the impending birth. He smelled pine smoke in the air and saw the doeskin lodge. He saw the bloody delivery and felt its mother’s pain and joy. He felt the young Squaw’s unconditional love as she held her newborn to her breast for the first time.
Then he beheld the baby’s father, a warrior held in great honor amongst the people, but he also held a countenance of darkness. Lamont felt his anger and jealous rage. He saw that the father had come from his brother’s lodge and his hands were covered in dark blood. He saw the father force his way into the lodge past the birthing aides and tear the nursing baby from its mother’s arms and walk rapidly towards the shore. He saw the great warrior scream as he threw the squirming, squalling bundle into the icy water.
He looked across the small cove and saw the tribe’s elderly medicine man, hiding behind a great boulder and speaking the sacred words.
Then Lamont cried as he felt the fierce numbing cold.
He saw and felt the child’s confusion, its anguish and pain, he saw it cry for its mother, alone and afraid unable to return to the village of its birth. He saw it drift and swim for time eternal.
The years passed.
Lamont felt what the small creature felt, an immense and never ending aloneness that transcended mere tears.
Through the little swimmers eyes he saw the eventual discovery of the lady in white, frozen in time and chained to stone, drifting in silent darkness. He saw her beauty and felt the nervousness as he swam around and around, waiting for the courage to approach.
Then he saw his tiny arm reach up and caress her white cheek and dart away as his claw tore open her fragile skin. He saw that it didn’t anger her and he swam close again. Then he saw, at last, a cold embrace and it was no longer alone.
Lamont’s mind violently sparked and he returned to the present with an inarticulate shout.
He raised his head as he wiped away the wetness on his cheek.
The infant was gone.
The interior lights turned on and power was restored.
The sensor forgotten, he pulled back on the joystick and felt immense relief as the sub lifted slowly out of the sand. With agonizing slowness, Lamont manipulated the toggle and within a few minutes rose clear from the stony dead trees.
His radio crackled and Padilla’s concerned voice broke through, “ surface to Midas, come in.”
“I’m here Joe, had to abort.” He replied.
“Copy that Midas, see you soon.”
“10-4” was the reply as Pierre gazed out the portal where the inky blackness was slowly being replaced with deep hues of icy blue.
By Colin S. Bradley
Merry Christmas, Mary
In the dark, the white snow fell gently, flashing like flares through the pathway of the streetlamps. The snow piled on the sides of roads, turning to black slush as inexhaustible cars came and went. Bundled in a heavy black coat, her breath streaming from her lips like smoke from some inhuman factory, she passed into the graveyard.
The moment that she passed from the street with its traffic and its cars and its lights to the graveyard, the sounds hushed, muted. Few lights illuminated the crumbling stone of the graves, packed into this small plot of city land. The old church beside the graveyard existed now only as a relic, as a museum piece for the quaint and foolish beliefs of stupid primitive man. No services took place within it these days. Disparate caretakers moved in and out, no one staying for very long as the church and its accompanying graveyard fell deeper and deeper into disrepair.
She often wondered what would become of the church and its cemetery when the world stopped with even the pretense of concern for human dignity and the dignity of the dead. The church would be bulldozed, the cemetery with its dead churned amidst the steel teeth of mighty man’s mighty machine-dogs. In their place, a new church would be erected, a church of business perhaps, a mall or a soaring skyscraper to be populated by various and sundry enterprises. And soon, all would be forgotten with the church and its graves.
But for now, she remembered.
For now, the name etched into the stone, worn down by the continual current of seconds and minutes, remained alive within her.
The name belonged to a woman. The woman had been called Mary Corey. Perhaps there had once been a set of dates below that name, but time had taken them long ago.
The woman in the cemetery bent down and wiped cold snow from the stone, feeling the wet through the cotton of her gloves.
She spared a glance for the road, and then she stood up again. Moving neither casually nor quickly, she strode across the graveyard to the church. Into the mouth of the door, she inserted a key. The lock gave way, and inside, she found the unheated space nearly as cold. Her fingers found the switch that she sought, and she flipped it.
The few lights left on in the graveyard went out.
She stood for a moment in the doorway of the cold church, letting her eyes adjust to darkness. The spell of the old church and its graveyard deepened then. Without the staccato interruption of the electric lights, an older time reared its head with all its ghosts and glories. Although she could still see the street lights beyond and, if she strained, hear the rumbling growl of the city’s traffic, it was beyond the bounds of the enchantment. It could neither break the enchantment, nor penetrate it.
From beside the door, she took the shovel. It belonged to the gardener. There was no gardener these days. For many years, years that sound unending to a modern American ear, maybe even a hundred or two hundred years, there had been flowers on these graves, and a gardener to tend the beds of the dead.
But now, there was no gardener. The grass, so close to dead in the height of summer, was either long or gone beneath the snow.
The woman returned to Mary Corey’s grave.
The winter is not the best time for digging, but some things are worth the effort. This was a truth that everyone who intends to survive in a vacuum must learn. And this particular woman had longed survived a vacuum.
The earth gave way after much effort, and she began to make headway into the ground.
At times, she felt the stir of eyes upon her neck, but she was a grown-up woman. She knew that the fears and imaginings of childhood never quite leave us, that such intuitions and feelings are merely the vestigial remains of a past state from which she’d evolved. Such things were best ignored.
And so she went on digging until the end of the shovel rang out against the side of a wooden casket.
The woman exhaled a breath of smoke.
Her pace increasing now, sweat mingling with the sop of snow, she redoubled her efforts until she could see enough of the wood to do what needed doing.
She stared at what lay at her sodden black snow boots. The wood of the casket was very old and very frail, but within the dirt, it had lasted all these many years. It had been here when there was only a church of stone nestled far away from the noise and clatter of the nearest large town. It had been here below the earth as the town became a city, as the city became the City, as the City became a Concrete Jungle of steel and spires and blood that soaked the earth from end to end. This wood had laid over Mary Corey’s head.
And now, the woman lifted her shovel high and brought it stabbing down, down, down. It splintered through the aged wood, and the entire casket lurched. She stumbled, but she kept herself upright.
Kneeling down, she cleared the wood and ignited the end of a flashlight. Turning the light into the shadows, Mary Corey stared up at her.
“Hello, Mary,” she said.
The desiccated skull looked up at her with her eyeless sockets. There was so little of the human left about Mary Corey now.
Tenderly, gently, the woman reached down and pulled off the head. There was a little snap as the head detached from the spinal column. The head was all the woman wanted. She stood up, placed the head next to the hole, and then she set about her task of restoring the dirt. This was accomplished more quickly than she’d expected.
When she was done, she picked up the head, and she placed it in the case she’d brought for just this purpose.
Next, she restored the shovel to its place, turned on the three meager lights above the graveyard, sending the past skittering back into the past.
She relocked the church door and strode across the graveyard to the gate.
As she passed out of the graveyard, she passed beyond the enchantment back into the roar and the blaze of modernity with all its dashing lights and carnivorous, hungry roars of cars.
As the woman strode down the concrete, she thought longingly of a hot shower. She thought very little, in fact, about the graveyard and even less about the head of Mary Corey. All she really felt was a vague sort of satisfaction with a job well done.
On the corner of the street, standing in a bold spray of light, she got into a cab. The driver talked about his life and asked her a few questions to which she gave polite replies.
At one point, the driver went so far as to ask, “What’s in the case?”
“A Christmas gift,” she said, “for a very, very old friend.”
“Lovely,” he said before regaling her with what he was buying for his own friends and family for Christmas.
When she arrived in her apartment, she knew she wasn’t alone. Standing silhouetted in the neon bath of city light that poured in from the floor to ceiling windows of her penthouse apartment, she recognized the back of him.
“Couldn’t wait?” she asked as she shut and locked the door behind her.
“You got it, then?” asked the man.
“I got her, yes,” she said, unzipping her wet boots and placing them beside the door.
The man still looked out the window.
“Anyone see?” he asked.
She unbuttoned her coat and hung it on the coat stand. “No,” she said. “No one saw.”
The woman picked up the case from where she’d set it down when she first walked in. Then she strode across the apartment to the man, placing her hand upon his back as she offered him the case.
“Merry Christmas, John,” she said, looking up at the face that she knew so well and so deeply, those dark brown irises in whose dark pathways she’d spent years walking. The light from the City beyond cast a green mask over his pale face as he took the case from her, his hands trembling.
He walked with the case to a glass table and set it down.
Then he leaned over, the long fingers of both hands sprawling outward from where he placed them on the glass. They would leave the print of his hands so clearly that a good palm reader could tell him that his long days were about to come short and that a woman was to blame as women always were for John Corey.
The woman watched him, a look of pain upon her face. It was a pain that a stranger would find difficult to read. The look upon her face spoke of longing, of desire, and of concern. And of fear. A strange medley of emotions all rendered clear the slim dimples around her mouth and the tight set of her pale jaw.
“I’ll give you a moment,” she said.
And with that, the woman went to take that hot shower she’d dreamed about all the way back from the graveyard.
The woman thought little as she showered and dressed.
She blew her hair dry, and when she was done, she went out to see if John Corey was still in her apartment.
He was exactly as she’d left him, bent over the case, still closed.
She poured herself a glass of champagne.
Then she walked over to him, placing her hand on his shoulder. “John,” she said. “I thought this was what you needed?”
“It is,” he said, his voice full of rock and dirt.
“Then why not open the case?” she asked.
He looked at her then. He really looked at her for the first time that night. He took in the woman who had robbed a grave for him. This woman of money and means with her blonde hair and her noose of diamonds around her neck. The dark gown she wore showed little of her skin, but it had a certain way of provoking the question: what lay beneath?
But here tonight, the question didn’t seem as safe as it once had. And although he kissed the question onto the ruby of her lips, she knew that those lips were not hers.
“It’s okay, John,” she said. “I don’t expect anything from you. Especially not your love. Just open my present, John. It’s just what you asked for.”
Her voice bore that tender inflection of Golden age starlets, a siren’s voice. And even as he turned away, he wondered if he were about to be dashed upon the rocks.
She removed her hand from his shoulder, gave the scruff of his face a delicate touch, and then stepped back.
John took a deep breath, and he stood up, his hands coming away from the glass of the table.
Bumbling in a way those fingers never bumbled, he unclasped the latches of the case.
The woman took her drink.
And John Corey opened the case.
The skull of Mary Corey gazed up at him insensibly. A tiny sob escaped the grown man’s lips.
A funny thing happened then to the woman turned grave robber. A funny thing indeed.
At the back of her neck, exposed as she wore her hair pulled up on top of her head, she felt those tiny hairs stand on end. And the sense that eyes were boring into the back of her seized her with the same rigor as when she’d stood in that grave.
In the grave, she had expected such a feeling. She’d been ready, and she dismissed it for the foolishness she knew it to be.
Such a feeling did not belong in the penthouse of a skyscraper with a view of the greatest city on earth. Such a feeling did not belong here.
And the woman, Emma Donaghue, shuddered. What remained of the champagne in her glass she downed in one.
“Oh, Mary,” John Corey said.
“John,” Emma began. She cast her gaze around the apartment, unable to dismiss the feeling. “John, I think…”
“Mary,” he sobbed, and he went down on his knees, his arms clasping the case, his head resting against the glass table.
Emma bit her lip.
The next several things happened in quick succession.
“Mary,” John cried one final time, and he made to bring his hands down to his face so that he could bury it.
As he did, he knocked the case from the glass table. The case landed on its side, and the skull rolled out onto the hardwood floor.
And as it rolled, Emma saw the reflection in the glass windows.
Standing where she now saw the skull, she saw a woman. The woman had dark hair and fine features, but her eyes. Her eyes wore all the darkness of those empty sockets.
John Corey looked first to Emma, and then to the glass.
“Mary!” he yelled.
Emma’s hands found the pistol where she’d left it in the pocket of her coat.
She aimed it steadily at the glass. Mary Corey smirked.
John Corey rose to his feet and stumbled toward his wife. As he did, he stepped on the skull. It smashed beneath his leather shoe.
And as it smashed, the reflection of Mary Corey vanished.
Where the skull lay in pieces, a cold wind blew up from the floor. A wind that took the broken shards of bone and danced with them and a green smoke into the air.
Emma fired her pistol.
The shot shattered the glass of her windows, and a great torrent of snow and cold swept into the apartment. But along with the sound of shattering glass, there came the wicked laugh of a wicked witch.
And there she stood.
Mary Corey. In the flesh.
Emma’s apartment lay embedded in snow, and Mary Corey stood there, her pale skin alight with some ghastly light.
John Corey staggered to her.
“John, no!” Emma said.
“My wife,” he said.
And Mary Corey, dead woman that she was, kissed John Corey’s lips for the first time in two hundred years.
Emma Donaghue’s pistol remained pointed at the dead woman.
“Put that thing down, you silly thing,” said Mary Corey.
Emma did not.
Mary stepped out of John’s rapturous arms and walked briskly toward Emma. Blood ran cold.
She did not hesitate. She put a bullet in Mary’s brain. In Mary’s heart. In Mary’s stomach. And when none of those bullets had an effect. When those bullets simply disappeared, showing no signs of damage, she poured the rest wherever they might strike until Mary Corey stood with her forehead pressed to the end of the barrel.
Emma pulled the trigger one last time. It clicked. Empty.
Mary grabbed the gun, yanked it out of the other woman’s hands, and turned it on Emma.
Mary smiled. “I should thank you, Grave Robber,” she said, “for reuniting me with my dear husband.”
“But your ancient,” she said. “You’re…you’re his ancestor. You were hanged as a witch.”
“I am a witch,” she said. “And I did hang. And I gave my dear John eternal life. And what did he do with it? You.”
And Mary pulled the trigger.
Emma Donaghue had time to think that there were no bullets in that gun. She knew that for a fact. But then a bullet went through her brain after all. And Emma Donaghue was dead.
Mary Corey turned and ran over to her husband. She kissed him passionately, reverently, joyously.
And he kissed her back.
He threw himself wholly into that kiss until he was unaware of anything else.
John Corey did not realize how close they were to the broken glass that looked out upon the skyline, that great cliff hundreds of feet in the air.
No, John Corey was not aware of how close they were into Mary Corey pushed him off it.
It was a long way down, and he had time to hear her speak.
“That’s what you get, John Corey,” she said. “It was you turned me in, and when you regretted it, you got some harlot you bedded who didn’t believe in anything to dig me up. Go to Hell, John Corey, and meet the master you’ve been so long in avoiding.”
And then John Corey landed.
That left Mary Corey.
She stood at the top of that skyscraper, looking out over a Concrete Jungle of neon flame and roaring machines.
“My, my,” she said to herself. “I feel as if I’m home.”
And Mary Corey smiled wildly.
“Merry Christmas, Mary,” she said to herself softly. “Merry Christmas, indeed.”
By Josh Dygert
Josh Dygert grew up amid the cornfields of Indiana, went to college amid the cornfields of Michigan, tried life amid the skyscrapers of Manhattan, and now teaches middle school English back amid the original cornfields.He writes fantasy novels and short stories.
There was no dancing at the reception, because of poor Hal. Nor did they offer music or wine. No one reproached the newlyweds, but Sebastian could well imagine how the villagers complained to each other. Most of them disapproved of the proceedings in general- yet they’d all come to eat the wedding feast.
But he didn’t care what anyone said or thought as long as Lilja cleaved to his side, her long golden hair shining and her wide eyes gazing up at him. She’d looked at Hal the same way once, but Sebastian held no jealousy or resentment. He only felt grateful that her gaze was now fixed on him.
Sebastian had left the best man’s chair empty, in the dark-paneled tavern where the reception was held. Lilja’s sister, the maid of honor, had processed up the church aisle alone.
When they were twelve and girls had begun to seem more mysterious than annoying, Hal had asked him, “When I get married, will you stand up for me?”
His bright blue eyes had been earnest. Maybe he was even thinking of Lilja back then, though at that time she’d been angular and shy. Sebastian nodded. “And you’ll stand for me, won’t you?”
“Of course!” Hal had shown his teeth in a laugh, which always made Sebastian laugh too. They’d been born two days apart on adjacent farms. Neither had any siblings, but everyone said it didn’t matter, for Hal and Sebastian were closer than any brothers.
“Congratulations!” Some bearded relative of Lilja’s lumbered toward Sebastian. His breath smelled sour- someone must have brought a few bottles to share in the alley between the tavern and the tailor’s. The disrespect to their wishes- to Hal- lit a flame of anger in Sebastian. He opened his mouth to snap at the man.
But Lilja suddenly appeared at his side, slipping her hand into his. Sebastian ran his thumb over the unfamiliar but welcome gold ring encircling one slender finger. He looked down at Lilja, her small round face sprinkled with freckles. Her lips curled into a smile.
“I’m sorry, Uncle,” she said, never looking away from Sebastian’s face. “I require my husband.”
She led him to the tavern’s double doors. The pegs lining the walls to either side were sparsely occupied- the summer had been wet and cool, but this day was warm and bright, perfect for a wedding. Sebastian lifted Lilja’s thin white shawl and draped it over her shoulders, his fingers lingering on the soft skin of her neck. Lilja tilted her head and smiled at him, then lowered her gaze modestly. But the smile remained.
“Should we say goodbye to our guests?” he asked his wife.
She shook her head. “I told my mother we were leaving. No one else will care.”
Sebastian glanced around the long room. The villagers chatted, or picked at the remains of the wedding feast. None of them paid the bride and groom any mind. Sebastian took Lilja’s hand and they slipped out the door.
The hired carriage waited in the yard, decorated all over with ivy and white flowers. Flowers had also been woven into the horse’s mane. The driver slumped in his seat, snoring. Sebastian reached up to shake him, but Lilja stopped him.
“Let him sleep,” she laughed. “We’ll walk.”
Sebastian plucked a flower from the horse’s mane and offered it to her. Lilja took it and together they started down the lane to the cottage that was now theirs.
The summer sun had sunk low, staining the sky pink. The air smelled of night flowers, heady and sweet. Crickets chirped in the hedges. Lilja hummed under her breath as they walked side by side.
It was very different from the winter night that proved to be Hal’s last. He had died only eight months before in the very cottage where they were now going.
Hal’s illness was sudden and crippling; everyone knew but didn’t say it would be fatal. Sebastian had stayed with his best friend every moment that Hal’s fiancee Lilja couldn’t be with him. That evening he’d arrived as soon as he could lay off work. Lilja had been sitting by Hal’s bed, her golden head drooping and shadows clinging to her eyes. Hal was asleep. Sebastian had ushered Lilja out with comforting words that sounded as barren and cold as the ground outside. Back then she hadn’t so much as glanced at Sebastian, but kept turning back to Hal with every step until the door finally closed behind her and she went back to her mother’s house.
The fire roared, making the room uncomfortably hot, but Hal’s hand had been icy in his. Sebastian thought he slept, but as soon as the door clicked shut Hal’s eyes flew open. They were huge in his wasted face, burning with fever and more vibrantly blue than ever. Only his eyes still belonged to him, Sebastian had thought. The rest of his gaunt, gray body was a stranger. Hal gripped his hand with a strength that seemed impossible for one in his state.
“Brother!” he rasped. “Closer than brothers, we’ve always been. I’m dying- no, don’t tell me otherwise, I can feel it- and I must ask you something. A favor. More like a lifelong obligation, to be honest.”
“Lilja?” Sebastian guessed.
Hal’s shrunken lips lifted in a weak smile at her name. “My will is in the top drawer of the desk- I wrote it once we got engaged…maybe I had a premonition.” His eyes slid shut and he was silent for long minutes. Sebastian waited. When Hal spoke again, his voice was brittle. “All the money and land I inherited from my parents, and this house. She can live here the rest of her life. But I need you to help her, when she needs it. Look after her. I couldn’t bear for her to be lonely after I’m gone. Even after you marry and have a family, maybe your wife can be her friend…”
“Of course,” Sebastian had promised, gently squeezing Hal’s waxy hand. His friend had never spoken again.
In the morning he’d trudged to Lilja’s mother’s house, snow crumbling over the tops of his boots to numb his feet. He told Hal’s fiance that he had died in the night, and they wept in each other’s arms. In those moments Sebastian felt only his own misery. Love came later. After the funeral Lilja sought him out, to talk about Hal, to laugh over memories and to cry. It came when, eventually, their talk turned to other matters. When Sebastian realized that he didn’t need a story about Hal to make her laugh. When she smiled at him, not at Hal’s friend. It came quickly, and Sebastian, who had never been in love, let it. Hal had been in the churchyard only six months when he proposed. And to his amazement Lilja had accepted.
The little cottage that was now their home looked cheerful now, with lamps glowing in the windows and a wreath of white flowers on the door. They ambled through the gate and up the walk, Lilja casting nervous glances at him, suddenly shy. Sebastian opened the door and kissed her there on the threshold, lingering, promising. When he drew back they were both breathing hard.
“Go inside, love.” He lifted her hand to his lips. “I’ll return in just a bit.”
“Tell him how happy we are,” she said softly. “And give him this.” She held out the flower Sebastian had plucked from the horse’s mane. He took it.
“I love you!” he called, backing down the walk. His heel caught on a tilted flagstone and he stumbled, wheeling his arms comically to make his wife laugh. He continued to walk backwards, watching her in the doorway, her dim figure surrounded by a halo of light cast off by the lamps within. He didn’t turn around until he’d latched the gate behind him. The cottage door closed, and Sebastian set off for the church.
The tall gate of the churchyard was locked, but Sebastian didn’t hesitate. He clenched the flower between his teeth, placed his foot on the lowest crossbar and hauled himself up. He swung his leg over the second crossbar and gingerly maneuvered over the spikes that adorned the top of the fence, careful of his new suit. He hopped down into the long summer grass, ruefully thinking how much easier this had been when he had been a lanky boy, climbing this fence with Hal to whisper ghost stories in the moonlight, among the worn stones.
The night was clear, the sky scattered with stars, the moon a crescent that layered everything with silver light. The gravestones rose up like sentinels. His steps were silent in the soft grass as he approached Hal’s resting place by the fence. His stone was the newest, the edges sharp, his name- Harald Larsson- still easily read. Grass had grown over the mound of dark earth. Sebastian realized with a touch of guilt that he hadn’t been here in almost two months, when he’d come to share news of his engagement with his best friend.
Now he crouched on the freshly-grown grass, breathing in the smell of stone and green things, and lay the white flower on the granite, pausing to run his fingers over Hal’s birth and death dates.
“Hal, my brother.” He spoke softly, though the little cemetery was deserted save for him. “It’s done. Lilja’s my wife.” A grin split his face, he couldn’t help it. “I’m keeping my promise. I’ll take care of her, Hal. She’ll never be lonely. I love her.”
Sebastian paused and breathed deeply of the cooling night air. Then he frowned. He’d caught a strong scent of earth, moist and freshly dug. A new grave nearby? No, no one in the village had died since Hal. He shook off the oddness of it. His wife was waiting.
Sebastian touched Hal’s headstone once more, then braced his other hand in the grass to push himself out of his crouch. His fingers struck something damp and yielding. Startled, he looked down and saw what he hadn’t before- the grass over Hal’s grave had been torn up, leaving a streak of mud a little bigger than his palm. The dirt looked black in the moonlight, oozing up around his fingers as if trying to swallow them. A shiver of unease ran up Sebastian’s spine. An animal must have been digging here. He just hadn’t noticed. Surely the grass had not quietly torn itself up while he talked to Hal! He tried to lift his muddy hand, but something closed around it- something below the ground- and held him fast.
He yanked his arm up, but the sudden rush of panic made him unsteady and he fell to his knees. He hit the ground heavily, and as he did he felt the mounded soil crumble beneath him. For a hideous moment Sebastian was seized by vertigo. Then he was lying on something hard, with the loose soil crumbling into his hair, his eyes. He tried to breathe and spat out dirt. His hands closed convulsively into fists, his nails scraping the slick surface below him. With a stab of horror Sebastian realized it was the polished lid of Hal’s coffin. He scrambled to get his legs under him and climb out of the grave, but fear made him clumsy. Before he could gain his feet the coffin lid splintered, spikes of oak flying upward. Tiny bits lodged themselves in his hands and face, stinging like tiny fangs. Sebastian cried out hoarsely, a strangled sound between a yelp and a scream, as he looked into the face of his dead best friend.
Sebastian had thought Hal wasted and strange as he neared the end of his life, but the face he confronted now was far worse. Hal’s skin had seemingly melted to his skull, and patches had peeled off to expose yellowed bone. His dark hair fell brittle over his forehead. The front of his grave suit was stained with fluids Sebastian didn’t want to think about. The sweetish-sick smell of mold and rot struck him full in the face, making his eyes water.
It’s not Hal it’s not Hal it’s not Hal, Sebastian’s mind howled. But the bright blue eyes sunk far into their sockets insisted otherwise.
“Lilja.” Her name shuddered from the dead thing’s lips in a cracked whisper. Two dry, bony arms grasped his shoulders with startling strength. Sebastian opened his mouth to scream, to sob, to say whatever Hal wanted of him, but the loose dirt of Hal’s gave suddenly collapsed, driving the air from his lungs and filling his mouth and nose with wet soil.
Lilja sat in the rocking chair before the fire, her hands folded in her lap, in the white expanse of her wedding dress. She’d removed her gloves and jewelry, but thought it her husband’s right to undress his wife on their wedding night. She hadn’t made a dress for her wedding to Hal that never happened. There had been no time; they’d been engaged only three weeks when Hal fell ill. As always the thought of her former fiance pricked at her, but now it was affectionate nostalgia and not grief that she felt. Tonight memories of Hal were quickly lost in the nervous-excited butterfly flapping of her heart.
Sebastian had been gone a while, or maybe it just seemed that way. Lilja had risen before dawn to prepare for the celebration, and she was tired. Finally she dozed off in the rocking chair.
The sound of the door opening snapped Lilja awake. She jumped to her feet, smoothing the front of her dress. The door had closed. Sebastian stood in the shadows, an indistinct dark figure.
“Welcome home.” Lilja’s voice trembled with anticipation.
Sebastian shuffled forward. When the firelight caught his eyes and showed that they weren’t warm and brown, but a feverish bright blue, she began to scream. But by then it was already too late.
by Patricia Correll
A scorpion with a death wish skittered onto my boot. I stomped the ground until it fell off and squashed it flat. Orange goop oozed from its body like nothing I’d witnessed before in my entire sixty years. Thousands of the darn pests had emerged since the mine collapse, filled with slime and running around like crazy. They seemed to be fleeing Winthrop like everyone else. With the silver long gone, the mine was as good as dead to everyone. It was the reason we’d all come to the middle of nowhere. Although most men packed up and rode off, some just disappeared. Those who remained had been acting as mad as hatters. Many nights, I regretted not leaving, too, before the horses ran off.
I wasn’t a hundred yards from the mine tunnel entrance when folks commenced to running and shouting toward Main Street. All the hubbub was over two horses thundering into Winthrop at a full gallop, spurred on by their riders. The swift-moving figures could be spotted a mile away on the desolate plain. The dusty cloud behind them spun high in the breeze like a swirling dirt devil and seemed to swallow up the sparse vegetation in its wake.
The riders were silhouetted against the sunset, so I hobbled down the road as fast as I could to get a better look. When they stormed past Winthrop’s welcome sign, the mayor’s squat form was easy to identify. The other man, a stranger, sat tall in the saddle. White foam bubbled from his horse’s mouth. With each snort, clumps of the gooey substance splattered on the animal’s sweaty coat.
The riders slowed their horses to a trot on Winthrop’s only street, gathering the few remaining residents. I hoped the mayor brought good news because our town was in trouble. They dismounted in front of the sheriff’s office, but before they tied the horses down, the crazed animals reared up. The crowd, me included, gasped in surprise. The whites of the horses’ eyes were as wide as could be, and they screamed like a horse fight had broken out. Before anyone could calm the animals, they galloped away as if a pack of hungry coyotes was after them.
It sent a shiver down my spine that Mayor Stout didn’t have more of a reaction to losing the last horses in town. We were stranded now without any way to get help. He stepped up on the boardwalk and removed his dusty hat, dabbing his forehead with a handkerchief. “Residents of Winthrop. In the wake of the tragedy that befell Sheriff Reading, I have appointed a new sheriff. Boyd Blue will be taking over immediately.”
Winthrop didn’t need a sheriff or a mayor to contain the twenty residents, we needed a means to leave. The broad-shouldered stranger opened his fancy coat to reveal the sheriff’s badge. Raising the brim of his hat, he stared over the crowd. He had dark pits for eyes. Trouble always followed men with eyes that cold. When his hollow gaze found mine, my mouth turned as dry as the desert wasteland beneath my boots. I could tell he didn’t plan on helping us leave.
The mayor motioned toward the square-jawed man. “Sheriff Blue’s priority is the mine collapse.” Townsfolk shouted out questions, but the mayor waved them off. “We will have answers for you later. We’ve had a long ride as was apparent from the behavior of our horses. Please, just go home.”
With all the strange happenings in town over the last month, Mayor Stout looked like he was breathing his last. His fingers gnarled like claws, and the skin on his cheeks drooped. His weathered face had changed from tan to ashen gray. He hadn’t been acting like himself neither. He used to bid everyone the time of day, but of late, he hadn’t given townsfolk more than an empty glance. It was like a stranger wore his face.
As the lawmen closed the office door behind them, the crowd broke up and headed about their business. Townsfolk grumbled, but I didn’t blame them. I was afraid, too. Without more than a shovel for a weapon, I took refuge in the mine after dark. Something was released when the ground cracked open and spread evil over Winthrop. It couldn’t be seen, but it lurked about and left death in its wake.
The faint orange glow was sinking behind the mountains. I lit my lantern and limped down the hill to the wooden door that led to the southernmost tunnel entrance. I yanked it open, and a painful tingling shot through my finger. I flicked a scorpion off my knuckle. Darn it. Third sting in a week.
The lantern illuminated a glistening trail of blood dotted across the rodent feces, roaches, and guano on the ground. I followed the red drops, which led to long smudges farther up.
Whirring and buzzing echoed through the tunnel like a million bees swarmed about. My first instinct was to run, but the blood made me pause. Someone could’ve been hurt up there and needed help. The whirring grew louder and mixed with cracking and popping. My body stiffened at the noise, and goose bumps raised across my bony arms. I’d never heard such commotion when the mine was active.
My heart raced with each step. My boot skidded in something slick. I shined the light on the sole. Pieces of flesh were ground into it. A rancid odor pierced my nostrils. My head spun, and the stench made me heave. I should’ve turned back, but I pressed on, needing to know what made the horrid noise.
Up ahead, light flickered off the reddish walls and cast shadows of two figures. I dimmed my lantern and peered around a protruding boulder. A naked woman was balanced upright by her arm. Little remained of her. Her legs were gone and part of her torso. I shuddered, almost dropping my lantern. Bile rose in my throat, but I couldn’t stop watching. A creature that resembled a woman but had a mouth larger than a carp was eating the corpse. The creature’s cavernous mouth, lined with rows of sharp teeth, ground through the woman’s flesh and bones, making the awful sounds. The whirring continued. When the woman’s arm snapped off, blood splattered everywhere. I turned away, but just for a second.
The whirring pulsed in my head, and my knees buckled, but I dared another look. I cupped a hand over my mouth to hold back upchucking. The creature ground up the arm in its giant mouth while blood gurgled over its bloated lips. I turned and ran.
I had to warn the others. We needed to leave Winthrop by foot and take our chances. I struggled on, stumbling over the cacti and scrub brush that tore through my trousers. I gulped breaths of dust and creosote hanging in the hot air, but the rancid stench of death remained in my nostrils.
The general store’s lantern glowed in the window. The owners were good people. They’d believe me. They’d help. I rushed inside. The shop was empty. “Cal, Emma! Are you here? It’s Willie!” My body quivered in pain. Sweat burned into my scratches, and the scorpion venom pulsed through my finger. I thrust open the back door. “Emma!” My heart was relieved. Emma gazed out over the desert. “Emma, where’s Cal?”
She turned to face me, clutching a rat’s lifeless body in her bloody hands. Her lips glistened red in the moonlight. The rat had chunks missing, and its innards hung in a long, stringy mass. Clumps of crimson fur stuck to the front of her dress. She gazed at me with foggy eyes, and the breath was sucked from my lungs. I stumbled through the doorway and ran through town.
Screams erupted from every building and poured into the street. My escape from Winthrop became more urgent, but each labored step seemed to take me nowhere. My chest heaved with pain, and I crumpled to the dust. I lay in a heap, unable to move. Boots crunched into the gravel next to my head.
“You can never leave.” His voice chilled me to the bone.
I raised my head with my last bit of strength. Sheriff Blue stared down at me with orange flames flickering in his eyes. Coldness swept through my body until I was numb. Since that night, the summer sun hadn’t burned my skin, nor had the winter breeze numbed my nose. It seemed like ages that I’d wanted to leave but couldn’t. The evil in Winthrop had a face, and he never left anyone leave town again.
By T.W. Kirchner
Although writing is her passion, her first loves are her husband, two children, and furry menagerie known as the Kirchner Zoo. She wishes she had more time to paint, draw and play tennis. If she could, she’d spend all my time outdoors. Anything wolf, pirate, or zombie-related will grab her attention.
Her latest published series is the YA supernatural horror Dagger & Brimstone. She also has two middle grade series published through Short on Time Books.