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
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.
Dark clouds had been gathering since sunrise, slowly blotting out the sky and draping the uniformed rows of grave markers with shadows. A biting wind transformed a scatter of dead leaves into a swirling mass that spiraled into a dance of death before falling back to the earth to wait for another gust to send them airborne. It was only the second day of November – All Souls’ Day – but the merciless chill of winter was already in the air.
A light drizzle began to descend from the heavens like weeping tears, darkening the mournful marble figures of religious icons and innocent lambs that stood in silent vigil over the final resting places of the dead. As the drops landed upon their heads and rolled down their cheeks, they gave the solemn stone faces the eerie appearance of crying.
Jerome Crippen paused for a moment to open his black, five hundred dollar, Maglia Francesco umbrella to shield himself from the rain. He then continued on his way until he arrived at the grave of his dearly departed wife, Leonora. He had nearly forgotten where her grave was located. He had only been to it once, and that was on the day of her burial. He stood as still as the statuary around him and stared down at the small bronze grave marker before him, which bore his wife’s name, along with the dates of her birth and death, the image of a cross, and the Biblical quote: WHITHER THOU GOEST, I WILL GO. He recalled that it was also raining on the day her body was laid to rest, and felt strangely amused by the coincidence of it.
Leonora Crippen had died exactly one year ago on this day, leaving Jerome an enormously wealthy widower, thanks to a hefty life insurance policy that he had taken out on her several years prior to her passing. According to her death certificate, the cause of death was cardiac arrest. Despite her demise occurring at such a young age, nobody questioned the certifying physician’s opinion, for Leonora was known to possess an enlarged heart resulting from years of untreated high blood pressure.
Jerome took a quick look around to determine if anyone else was in the cemetery with him. Confident that he was the sole person there – at least, the sole living person – he cracked a bit of a crooked grin.
“Wake up, Leonora,” he said softly, almost in a singing voice, to the bronze grave marker. “It’s Jerome, your loving husband. It’s been one whole year now since you’ve been gone. Time sure flies, doesn’t it, my dear? Do forgive me for not coming to visit you sooner, but you see, I’ve been rather busy enjoying that money your insurance policy paid out to me. I’m sure you’ll be pleased to hear that you left me well provided for. In fact…” he paused to snicker, “I’ve been living like a king and enjoying the finest of cars, clothes, restaurants and women. Mmmm, especially the women!”
Another gust of wind swept through the cemetery and a miniature tornado of brown leaves that had dropped from the branches of some nearby trees during the previous month sailed past Jerome’s Italian leather shoes. The rain felt like it had suddenly grown colder, almost icy to the touch, and was now falling harder than before, giving off a loud pitter-patter as it struck the grave marker.
“It’s a bit amusing, don’t you think,” Jerome continued, “that you always told me I could never do anything right. Not even poison a rat. Yet, I succeeded in poisoning you, Leonora, and I did it quite well and got away with it, if you don’t mind me touting my own horn. Nobody suspected a thing. With that bad ticker of yours, they all knew you had one foot in the grave.”
Jerome chuckled to himself as his mind rewound to that fateful day when, after months of careful plotting and indecision, he finally mustered up enough courage and greed to see his plan through and spike the whiskey sour drink of his unsuspecting wife with a tincture of aconite root. During his researching of poisons, he had read online that a fatal dose of this plant, which is also known as wolf’s bane, results in paralysis of the heart or respiratory center, with the only post mortem signs being those of asphyxia. It sounded to him like the ideal, and least messy, way to dispose of one’s unwanted spouse.
Jerome remembered, with what only can be described as a fiendish fondness, the agonized expressions on his dying wife’s face as the poisoning process inched her closer to death’s door, and him closer to a world of freedom made sweeter by a half-million dollar death benefit payout. Leonora had initially complained of a bad headache, followed by unpleasant bouts of nausea and diarrhea. In time, her mouth and face began to tingle and then grow numb, as did her arms and legs. A fiery sensation burned deep within her abdomen, causing her to double up in pain. Confused and sweating profusely, she struggled desperately to get a breath of air as her husband nonchalantly observed from the comfort of a tufted chair in the corner of their master bedroom, while leisurely savoring a glass of imported cognac.
And then, nearly three hours from the time that Leonora had unwittingly ingested the cleverly disguised poison, she let out one last loud and horrible gasp and her painful ordeal finally reached its deadly conclusion. Her body lay cold and still upon the heavy damask comforter of black and gold that draped the queen-size bed. Her pink peignoir was brown and sodden with vomit, and her lifeless eyes wide open and staring accusingly at her murderer.
A rumble of thunder sounded in the distance and Jerome looked up at the sky. It had formed into an ominous patchwork of gray, dark green and black, illuminated by random flashes of lightning.
“Well, my dear,” Jerome sighed as he returned his gaze to his deceased wife’s grave marker. “I believe the time has come for me to bid you farewell. Go back to sleep now, Leonora.”
He turned and started to walk away. But then, for some unexplainable reason, an odd urge overcame him. He stopped and bent down to snatch up a rain-soaked wreath from a nearby burial plot. He then made his way back to Leonora’s grave with the wreath in his hand and tossed it onto the grassy ground that covered her remains. After blowing her a mocking kiss, he uttered, “I’ll see you around.”
Suddenly, with a loud explosive boom, a jagged bolt of blinding lightning struck Leonora’s bronze marker and shook the ground. It instantly knocked Jerome off his feet and the costly umbrella from out of his hand. He flew backwards and landed on his backside atop the wet and sticky ground that had been turned to sludge by the rain. His dropped umbrella was lifted up by a howling gust of wind and carried off before he could grab onto its curved cherry wood handle.
“Damn it!” he cursed.
As he struggled to free himself from the grip of the earthy-smelling muck, the unthinkable happened.
Like a scene from out of a horror film, or perhaps from the darkest of nightmares, the ground in front of Leonora’s grave marker began to tremble until a small fissure appeared, and from out of it emerged the foul and rotting limb of a woman. Its purplish hand turned in Jerome’s direction and slowly opened like a blossoming nightshade.
Paralyzed by abysmal horror, Jerome recognized the gold rings on one of the corpse’s fingers. They were Leonora’s bridal set. He felt a scream rise up in his numb throat. But before it could exit his mouth, Leonora’s bony, claw-like hand wrapped itself around his right ankle and began dragging him toward her grave.
Jerome’s scream finally found its way out, but was drowned out by another deafening crash of thunder. He fought desperately to free himself from the dead woman’s powerful clutch, but her supernatural-infused strength won out.
The corpse had pulled Jerome’s leg calf-deep into the grave when, all at once, he felt the terrifying sensation of teeth chewing on his ankle. Deeper and deeper into his bone they gnawed. The pain was unbearable and unlike anything he had ever experienced. He continued to struggle, and he bellowed out a series of hair-raising man-shrieks that reverberated in all directions, ricocheting off of tombstones and statues and the walls of mausoleums. The pain was tantamount to the most horrendous of torture and Jerome found himself drifting in and out of consciousness until the agony was mercifully supplanted by a numbness that raced up the entire length of his leg.
At last he was able to free himself from the hellish hole that had swallowed him alive. He yanked his limb from the muddy grave, only to discover that his right foot was gone. It had been completely chewed off and a gory hemorrhage was pouring out from the ragged stump at the bottom of his partially devoured leg.
His mind reeled from the horrendous sight and his thoughts swirled inside his brain like the dead leaves whipping in the wind around him. Soon, his vision blurred and faded to black. His body violently convulsed. The rapid-fire beating of his heart ceased and Jerome Crippen lay lifeless at the foot of Leonora’s grave, his blood staining the wet blades of dormant grass a ruddy color that not even the November rain could wash away.
By Gerri R. Gray
Author bio: Gerri R. Gray is a poet with a dark soul, and the author of the bizarre adventure novel, “The Amnesia Girl” (HellBound Books, 2017). Her writing has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including “Beautiful Tragedies;” “Demons, Devils & Denizens of Hell 2;” and “Deadman’s Tome Cthulhu Christmas Special.” She has also contributed to the book,”Ghost Hunting the Mohawk Valley” by Lynda Lee Macken (Black Cat Press, 2012). Among her passions are cemetery photography, paranormal investigating, and watching reruns of Dark Shadows. She lives in Upstate New York. For more information, please visit Gerri’s website at: http://gerrigray.webs.com. Follow her on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorGerriGray
The cell phone rang.
Brittany did not move off the raft. She looked to where the phone sat and gingerly paddled across the green water, trying not to get more than her fingertips wet.
Avoiding the water as much as possible, she slid off the raft and grabbed the phone. There was silence, then hissing and finally a lifeless computer-generated voice saying, “Good-Day, we are taking a survey—“
Brittany flipped the phone shut and wiped the sweat off her forehead with the dirty towel on the lounge chair. She stared at the blue sky and knew that the thunderstorms would be rolling in soon, just like they did every afternoon. Her science teacher had explained last spring that the sudden climate changes that made New Jersey much like the tropics were a direct result of global warming and greenhouse gases. She so wanted to find him now and see how he’d wheedle out of being so wrong, but she was pretty sure he was dead or a ghost.
She looked back at the pool and wondered if she should ask her dad on his next foraging raid to look for some chemicals to turn the water clear again. She figured chlorine should be plentiful since the ghosts probably didn’t use pools.
Thunder rumbled in the distance. Brittany frowned, she hadn’t really been done working on her tan, not that she got a good one this late in October. Tears burned her eyes. There were so many things she missed, and she admitted to missing just about everything, including, to her total surprise, even school. All the tanning and nail salons sitting ready but totally empty. The spas, the multiplexes, the fast food restaurants, The mall! The mall was probably a war zone. And all her friends, all so far away, only reachable over lines haunted by ghosts of a dying world. How long, she wondered would the phones continue to ring with calls from dead computer-generated voices selling a world that no longer existed.
The afternoon storm wind began to build as clouds darkened the sky, The sickly green water darkened, She picked up her towel and headed inside when the cell rang again. She grabbed it, hesitated, looked to see who was calling, but all calls now read, Out- Of- Area, so she flipped it open.
A smile crossed her face, and it felt stiff and unnatural. Smiles were getting more and more rare. “Hi, I was sure it was another automated call. Thank God it’s you, Nikki.”
“Getting your tan?”
“Yeah, you too?”
“Who’d have thought we’d be spending the first two months of the school year sunning like it’s still summer. If the trees were alive, they’d have turned colors. Oh well, having the world end so slowly does have its up-side.”
Brittany grimaced at the idea that this was really the end, although she was almost sure it was. How could those awful people do this to the world, first the climate then the plague. Didn’t they know it was their world too?
God, she missed everyone, especially Nikki. If only she could see her, but Nikki lived in that high rise building 3 miles toward Philly. Three miles—three hundred miles—what did it matter now? “Have you heard from Kaitlyn, she hasn’t called in over a week. Maybe her cell broke.”
“No, and I haven’t heard from Kelly or Shawn either. Brit, I think they’re gone,” Nikki said with a catch in her voice. “Even if their cells were broken, the land lines still work. I reached Tiffany a while ago. She told me her parents are gone, went out for supplies and either became ghosts or died.”
A ghost, Mom had become a ghost, one of the first, so they hadn’t sent her away. The tears fell, a shudder shook her from head to foot like a giant unpleasant rush and she tried to blank out the vision. Brittany still had nightmares from it, and sometimes started throwing up if she remembered it in living color. “I wonder how Dad deals,” she mumbled then remembered she’d been talking to Nikki about Tiffany. “Oh that’s awful. What will she do for food and stuff?”
“Here’s the really awful part, worse than being left totally alone, That old guy in the next condo came over and made her come live with him, at least, he said, until they find out if she’s really alone.”
“Yeww… that’s like totally disgusting.”
“No, wait, it gets even worse. He said if she’s an orphan, he’ll marry her and take care of her forever. Tiff says he licks his lips when he looks at her. Man, that guy’s so old he’ll be dead any day now. He’s got to be at least 40! Maybe she’ll be lucky and like he’ll become ED or something.”
Brittany thought about all the people left in her walled development and sighed. A few single woman, no one from her high school, no one even from middle school. Most of the houses were empty because anyone who looked the least bit pale was put out immediately. “At least someone’s there for her. Remember what happened to Mitch, Jess and Becky? Soon as their mom and dad started to turn, the neighbors threw both of them off the roof of the apartment house and the kids had to watch.”
“Really? I hadn’t heard that, how do you know?”
“Rachel told me before she… oh anyway… she said that the people in the building took all their supplies and tossed all three kids out onto the street. Mitch and Jess and Becky called everyone for help, but no one could convince their parents to let them into their enclave. After a day or so no one ever heard from them again.”
“Man, it’s like, getting really bad. I wonder how many enclaves are left?” Tiffany said, the fear traveling between their cells. “I wonder if we are all going to turn into ghosts?”
“I don’t know, I just want life to return to normal, I want a giant sweet sixteen party next summer, I want all our friends back, I want to hang out at the mall, I want a date, I want my mom!” Brittany started crying loudly. “I… I gotta go.”
Her tears fell and the storm raged outside, but it didn’t matter. Brittany knew that within the hour it would be gone and the summerlike heat would return. She turned on the TV and watched a few infomercials. She pretty well knew them all by heart, just like the cycling and recycling music on the radio, and the haunting phone calls selling to a public that didn’t exist. If the ghosts didn’t crave the light so much, everything would have shut down months ago.
Dad and Mr. Eggers next door had talked one afternoon about how the ghosts kept the power grid up because they needed the light so much. Mr. Eggers claimed the ghosts congregated in the stadiums with the night-lights on, that they couldn’t survive in the dark. Dad had said he was full off shit. Mr. Eggers also told everyone in the enclave that the ghosts skinned people and wore them to cover up their insides. Brittany smiled at the memory of Dad punching Mr. Eggers for saying that. Dad was still sensitive about Mom.
Mr. Eggers stormed out and on the next foraging raid, disappeared. Everyone said the ghosts probably got him. No one said it, but that was probably too bad for the ghosts.
The house phone rang and Brittany picked it up. “Need your carpets clea—.“
She slammed the receiver down and looked around the kitchen. The same and yet so different. Nothing was really clean; clear, fresh water had become a scarce commodity after the first few months.
Brittany saw the calendar and stared at the date, Mischief Night! God, how she always loved mischief night! She dialed her cell and heard Nikki pick up. “Hey, it’s October 30th. Wanna go to the mall and hang out? “
Nikki laughed. “Yeah, I do. I really do. Oh Brit, what’s the point of all this. We are all just waiting to become ghosts and die. Why’d those terrorists do this to the world? Didn’t they realize that they were killing everyone?”
Brittany didn’t say anything right away but finally found words, “I wish things were normal again… I wish I could see you again. I don’t want to die, but I don’t want to live like this!”
“Me either,” Nikki said and started to cry. They spent the next few minutes sobbing out all the frustrations of living through the end of the world as they knew it.
Finally, Brittany said, “Maybe I can go with Dad, they are going out foraging as soon as it gets good and dark. Maybe, you can get out and we could pick you up at least for a couple of days. I miss you so much!”
Nikki’s voice perked up. “Ya think so?” Then she dropped down to a hopeless tone, “Mom and Dad would never allow it. They’d be afraid you’re all ghosts trying to entice me out so you can wear my skin.”
“You’ve heard that story too?” Brittany asked, remembering Mr. Eggers’ words.
“Yeah, someone here actually saw a skinned body and a ghost wearing it, dripping blood as it walked in the sunlight.”
“So’s having your skin fade away, melt off a few cells at a time, until you’re clear and your guts just pulse, shine and glow in the light while they are still inside of you!” Nikki said.
Brittany gasped and choked back a sob. The memory couldn’t be stopped this time. Mom, pretty, olive skinned, black haired Mom, turning white, and then whiter, and finally transparent as her skin dissolved, layer by layer, until it dissolved completely and her insides splattered on the floor as she died. And through it all, she didn’t die right away. Her parts twitched and jerked until they finally stopped and her eyes, still attached to her skull, glazed over.
Brittany saw the whole thing, and since then, often watched her dad for signs of fading. She worked on her tan every day making sure she wouldn’t fade, ever. She wondered every night as she drifted off to sleep how anyone could have purposely created such an awful disease and she hoped that they were still alive to watch everyone they loved fade away and splash out their life onto a dirty floor.
She caught her breath then let it out, long and slow. “I’m OK, Nik.”
“I’m sorry,” Nikki said. “Look I have an idea. I don’t want to live like this anymore.”
“Don’t talk that way!”
“No, I’m serious, it’s Mischief Night and I’m going to call everyone I know and tell them I’ll be at the mall just like every year and they should join us. If enough of us show up, the ghosts will stay away.”
“If there are enough of us left,” Brittany muttered.
“I’m serious, we can’t go on like this, waiting to die or starve. Let’s all meet at the mall and make it our own enclave. Then we can call our parents and have them join us.”
“Wow!” Brittany breathed. “That’s a great idea, a giant enclave instead of a bunch of little sheltered forts, gated communities, and apartment buildings. Why didn’t someone think of that before?”
“Look, we will wait till dark and sneak into the mall through the loading dock, remember that door with the broken lock? Anyway, once inside, we will knock out most of the lights and it will be safe. Once we get everyone in, we’ll just barricade the whole place up. There’s plenty to eat and do, and we might even get the cinema working again and actually watch something besides those forever spooling infomercials.”
Hope, a feeling almost dead, suddenly reemerged from the deep place it had been hidden. This was going to work! She knew it. At last, hope, an end to despair and that awful loneliness. Brittany hung up and spent the next hour on the phone, most of the time calling numbers with no answer, but occasionally hitting a live friend or acquaintance.
She made dinner, canned soup, for her dad and tried to pretend everything was normal. Luckily, her dad rarely noticed her moods anymore. Life had become too serious to pay attention to anyone normal. She fought off the jittery feeling in her belly, the weakness in her knees. This was a great plan, a hope for the future! There was nothing to be afraid of, her friends would protect themselves and they start life over in her favorite place in the world. Dad wouldn’t even be mad once she called him from the mall.
Darkness fell early as usual, as autumn slowly moved toward winter. Her dad kissed her cheek. “Lock up, Baby, and I’ll be home in a few hours.”
As soon as he left to go on the foraging raid with the other remaining men, she dressed for the mall. It was the first time she’d had real clothes on in weeks and it felt so good. She took half an hour with her hair and make-up.
At the door, she had one last look at herself in the mirror and noted with relief that she still had a healthy tan. She went outside, shimmied up the dead tree next to the wall and jumped over it.
It felt funny, free for the first time in what seemed forever and yet she was so scared. Her stomach fluttered and clenched as she tried to tiptoe the mile and a half to the mall. She avoided all the streetlights and hugged the shadows. After what seemed like hours, even though she knew it was less than one, she saw the mall loom up. The ghosts were shimmering under the huge parking lot floodlights and she gasped. This was the first time she’d really been around them since… since Mom. She wondered if they were contagious, if they really killed the healthy-skinned. She wondered how they could live huddled together watching each other die hideously and knowing that they were next. A part of her half wanted to go up to them and offer comfort, but she turned and ran silently to the loading dock and into the silent mall.
The fountain was quiet and filled with algae covered water. Brittany sat beside it and waited for Nikki and the gang. She felt such relief that she and her friends had found a solution to the loneliness, and as everyone knows, there is strength in numbers. Yet here she was, alone. Noises echoed down the empty halls. She knew it had to be just random sounds. She tried to feel brave , she got up and walked to the store across the way. The fashions were old, last season, but she realized with a semi-hysterical laugh, that fashion would always be last season. Maybe this was a dumb idea after all. She looked at another storefront and went in to try on a pair of shoes. Some of the lights were on and Brittany wished that Nikki would hurry and show up so they could dim them more, just to be on the safe side.
She heard a loud noise and ducked down. Could it be ghosts? She stayed hunched behind a rack and panicked. What if the place was full of ghosts? What if it were her friends?
No matter, she had to get out, either find Nikki or run home. She tiptoed out in her new sandals and looked down the long corridor to the right. Nothing!
The sounds were coming from the left. She prepared to run, as she looked over her shoulder and heaved a shaky sigh of relief. A group of figures were coming toward her in the low light and the leader was wearing Nikki’s favorite hat. Nikki never went to the mall without it, it was her signature. Brittany had always been jealous that Nikki thought of the hat first.
She waved and Nikki waved back. See, everything was going to be fine, she thought, berating herself for any doubts she’d had. But all the same, a tickle of fear run up her back as she noticed that the group coming toward her was getting larger as more people joined in from the stores. Chilled, in the hot building, she started to back away.
The overhead lights snapped off completely. Brittany stood in the total dark, a wave of relief covering her with a comforting weakness. Her heart struggled to return to a normal rhythm. The crowd couldn’t be ghosts after all, not in the dark. They hated the dark.
Just as suddenly as they’d gone off, all the lights flashed on, momentarily blinding her.
As her eyes adjusted, she wished they hadn’t. She stared at the ghost standing directly in front of her, the ghost wearing Nikki’s hat and, of course, Nikki’s skin. The other ghosts were similarly attired. They all appeared to be holding large, sharp knives.
Brittany stood frozen. A hopeless giggle bubbled up her throat and she came to the inane and random realization she was obviously a night off, when the Nikki garbed ghost whispered, “Trick Or Treat,” and closed in on her.
By Diane Arrelle
Diane Arrelle, the pen name of South Jersey writer Dina Leacock, has sold more than 250 short stories and has two published books including Just A Drop In The Cup, a collection of short-short stories. She has a new collection of horror stories, Season’s Of Fear, due out in late 2017.
She is a founding member and past-president of the Garden State Horror Writers and past president of the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference.
A recently retired director of a municipal senior citizen center, she is co-owner of a small publishing company, Jersey Pines Ink LLC. She resides with her husband the edge of the Pine Barrens (home of the Jersey Devil).
Amelinda and Jurian sat by the hearth in silence. He looked at her, searching for a glimpse of the fräulein he had courted and married twenty years ago. Tightly braided, blonde hair, fading to white, crowned her head. Dull, grey eyes glared at him. Her lips were tightly pursed. “If you believe that Perchta will come” he said, “you deceive yourself.”
“Are you sure this Frau Verena is coming?” she asked, ignoring his statement. Her brusque voice betrayed her impatience. “Perhaps she has deceived you.”
“No, she will come.” he said, rising from his chair and stoking the fire. Standing up, he brushed back the thinning hair from his forehead. “But this would have been easier had you let me go to her and bring the wool back with me instead of insisting she bring it for your inspection.”
Amelinda fixed a cold stare on her husband, a tall lanky man, slightly stooped from the constant burden of farm life. “I do not know of this Frau Verena and can ill afford another foolish decision at this time. Did you not say it was the manservant who came to you?”
“Yes, I was asking in the village where anyone could be found who had extra wool and Rolf, Frau Verena’s farmhand, approached me offering a trade. He said she is a Wohlgeboren noblewoman who lives to the north in the Shatten Forest.”
“An unusual place for a farm, I would think. And how strange that a noblewoman, even a Wohlgeboren of low station, would engage in barter with common folk.”
“Who can understand the follies and whims of the rich?” asked Jurian. “And what does it matter to you as long as she brings good wool? The sample Rolf showed me was of exceptional quality.”
“Who are you to judge wool? If you were deceived, once in hand it could not be returned. No, if she wants to trade, then she must come and I will determine its quality.”
Some time passed before they heard collar bells approaching. Jurian stood up and crossed to the window. “This must be Frau Verena’s sledge. I see Rolf at the reigns.“
“Go and help them,” she ordered. Jurian wrapped a long woolen shawl around his neck and stepped outside.
He waited at the gate while Rolf guided the horses up to the cottage. Even though he had just come from the comfort of his hearth, the bitter wind stung his ruddy cheeks. A passenger wrapped in a white cloak, face hidden by a large hood, sat beside Rolf. He pulled back on the reigns, stopping the sledge. “Welcome,” Jurian said, “and thank you for coming out on such a bitter day.” He could not see the passenger’s face. “Is this Frau . . .”
“Please,” said Rolf, cutting Jurian short, “a favor for an old man, fetch the wolle sack if you will while I help Frau Verena down. ” A little gnome of a man, he nimbly hopped out of the sledge.
“Yes, of course, go on to the door,” said Jurian, walking to the rear of the sledge. He peeled back the cover and slung the large burlap sack over his shoulder. He caught up with Frau Verena and Rolf as they reached the door. He pushed it open with his free hand. “Please, go inside Frau Verena, and make yourself welcome at my hearth.” He still had not seen her face.
Inside, Amelinda rose from her chair, waiting as the cloaked figure walked toward her. Rolf remained just inside the door. The figure held an ebony cane which tapped on the wooden floor with each step. “Welcome, Frau Verena. Jurian says you have brought wool to trade.”
“Indeed,” Frau Verena replied. She drew back the hood of her cloak, revealing a finely featured face, skin the color of alabaster. Her flowing grey hair was gathered at the nape of her slender neck. She motioned for Jurian, keeping her eyes, the color of rust and gold, fixed on Amelinda. He quickly came forward, placing the wolle sack on the floor at her feet.
“How many?” asked Amelinda.
“Twenty fleeces,” said Frau Verena, “washed and ready for the wheel.”
“Like I said, it’s fine wool.” Jurian pulled a handful from the sack. He offered it to his wife. She took it to the window, holding it up to the light that filtered through the dingy glass.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” she said, rubbing the wool between her bony fingers. She brought it close to her eyes. “Average at best,” she said, tossing it back to him. She turned a dour face toward Frau Verena. “Jurian says you are willing to trade the wool for five klafters of wood, to be cut and split before Christmas. I think you get more wood than we get wool in this trade.”
“For fine wool, as your husband has acknowledged, it is a fair trade. However, if it does not suit you, Jurian can put the wolle sack back in the sledge and we will be off.”
Amelinda scowled at the woman, then turned to Jurian, “It’s your back to be traded, take it to her.”
He hefted the sack on his shoulder. “Her name is Ute.”
Frau Verena touched his arm, holding him still. She focused her eyes on Amelinda. “Jurian told Rolf you had brought a child into this house to do the spinning.”
Amelinda stiffened. “Just an orphan from the waisenhaus at the Abby in Melk, brought here as a servant of this household. The nuns were not sad to see her go. Most likely a Jüdisch mongrel, one less mouth for them to feed.”
“I see, perhaps, a tainted soul in the eyes of the princes of Rome. No less tainted in your eyes by her misfortune of birth and circumstance. I shall see this child before I leave.”
“Why? Who I choose to bring to this house is no concern of yours.”
“That of course is true, but you shall not have the wool until I have seen the child.” She turned to Rolf. “Go turn the sledge around.”
Amelinda stared at the woman for a few moments, then said, “Go on, if it is your wish, but be quick about it, she has much to do and little time to do it. There will be a price to pay if her work is not finished.” She nodded to Jurian.
“This way,” he said, leading Frau Verena into a narrow hallway. At the end, past the regular rooms, he drew aside a rough curtain revealing a small alcove. He motioned for her to enter. Too far from the hearth for warmth to find its way there, he could see his breath as he followed her in. The cramped space was just big enough to hold a spinning wheel and a straw tick. He felt sorry for the young girl. During the summer, she had been able to venture outside the cottage to perform her chores. Then, she could at least see the sun. As winter descended, however, Amelinda confined her to this tiny room, spinning wool with only an oil lamp for light and heat. The only time she was allowed to leave it was to perform her kitchen chores.
A delicate girl with dark wavy hair looked up from her spinning as he set the wolle sack down. “More wool?” she asked.
“Yes, this is Frau Verena, Ute. She is a noblewoman and has asked to see you. The wool comes from her.“
“Jurian, I would have a word with Ute in private,” Frau Verena said.
“But Amelinda. . .” stammered Jurian, looking toward the curtain.
“I shall deal with her when the time comes. Now go,” said Frau Verena. Jurian hesitated. She pointed to the curtain, “Go!” and waited until he disappeared before she moved. She reached into a pocket in her cloak, retrieving a pair of leggings. She held them out. “These are for you. They will keep you nice and warm.” Ute paused, looking toward the curtain. “Don’t worry about her. These cost nothing; they are a gift.”
Smiling, Ute took the leggings, quickly placing them under the tick. “Thank you,” she said, turning her deep brown eyes toward the floor, “but I must get back to my work. If I am not finished when Perchta comes, the mistress says I will be punished.”
“Ah,” she paused looking into Ute’s eyes. “Perchta. What do you know of Perchta?”
“Amelinda says she is coming and if my spinning is not done when she arrives then she will be angry and I will be punished. I think maybe she is a noblewoman. Do you know her?”
“A noblewoman, perhaps. And yet there also is the Perchta of the Alpine legends. But, how would you know of those legends? The nuns at the waisenhaus surely would never speak of that Perchta. Not Christian enough to suit their purposes I would think. Shall I tell you?”
“Yes,” said Ute.
“The legends say that during midwinter, Perchta comes in her sledge made of ice, drawn by four white wolves. She wears a crimson cloak and carries an oak branch. It is said she rewards with wealth and abundance those who have behaved well and worked hard.”
Ute frowned, thinking of the wolle sack in front of her. “What becomes of those who don’t get their work done?”
“That is a different matter altogether. Perchta deals harshly with the idle and greedy.” Frau Verena lifted Ute’s chin with gentle fingers and looked into her eyes. “But after all, it is but a legend. For you, Perchta will most likely be a noblewoman. Have faith my little Ute, things will be better. I have one more gift for you before I take leave,” she said, reaching into the pocket of her cloak. She pulled out a small parcel wrapped in parchment. It was tied with a bit of yarn. She handed it to Ute. “Open it.”
Ute placed it in her lap and untied the yarn, peeling back the paper. A broad smile appeared on her lips. Inside was a small poppy seed stollen. “Oh, thank you Frau,” whispered Ute. She carefully wrapped it back up and retied the yarn. “I shall save it for later, once my work is finished.”
“Good mein kind. Now, I am afraid I must go.”
“Auf Wiedersehen Frau.”
Jurian was waiting just outside the curtain when Frau Verena came out. He looked at her, but she gave no indication of what had transpired between she and Ute. She followed Jurian back down the hall and into the main room of the cottage. She stopped in front of Amelinda. “Ute says you await Perchta.”
“What of it? This house has worked hard, and I am well overdue for my reward,” said Amelinda.
“Perhaps you confuse Perchta with Sinterklaas, the bearded buffoon, handing out gifts from a sack. Not so for Perchta who, the legends say, spins the fates of human beings.” Turning away, Frau Verena pulled up the hood of her cloak and left.
It was suppertime of the second day since Frau Verena’s visit. Ute set the table, laying out the sausage and cabbage soup, then returned to the spinning room. Earlier, Amelinda had ordered her to set out samples of the yarn by the hearth, believing Perchta would now come that the spinning had been completed. Jurian came in with wood for the fire. He laid a log on the embers and sat down at the table with Amelinda. “Ute has finished spinning the wool that Frau Verena brought. Perhaps she could come and sit with us to take her supper.”
“You are a fool to treat a foundling from the waisenhaus, and Jüdisch besides, as if she were your own flesh and blood,” said Amelinda. Her brow furrowed as it always did when she was angry.
“But surely she’s deserving of some small kindness. She’s but a child and I had hoped that since we have no children she might. . .”
“Might what?” Amelinda snapped. “She is a servant, bought and paid for. She can sup on leftovers while she washes the dishes. If you desire to eat with her, take your food to the spinning room.” She turned her face away from Jurian, signaling the conversation was over.
“As you would have it!” said Jurian. He went to the cupboard and retrieved another plate. “You believe that if you have worked us hard enough, Perchta will come and bestow gifts or good luck upon you. A cache of silver coins perhaps? But you do not see that in the process you have enslaved poor Ute and forsaken me. What will your Perchta think of that?”
“It is you that have forsaken me by resisting my efforts. As for the child, she is no worse off than being a slave to the nuns in the waisenhaus. I have been poor my entire life. Why can’t I live in a fine house with servants? Why must I dig in the earth every day to eat? Why should I be poor? I have no reason to apologize for my actions.”
“There is nothing wrong with working hard to improve one’s status. But to gain it at the expense of others? To fail to recognize the blessings you already have and could have can only lead to woe.” Stuffing some utensils in his pocket, he stacked sausage on the plates, dipped some cabbage soup in the bowl and set off down the hall.
Amelinda finished her supper. She waited for Jurian to return. As the evening wore on, the fire burned down into a small mound of coals covered in grey ash, and her mind drifted, imagining the wealth that would be hers when Perchta came.
Amelinda roused from her dreams to find Jurian had not returned to stoke the fire and it was in danger of dying. Perturbed, she rose from her chair to get some wood. She had just taken a small branch from the kindling box when, she heard the soft crunch of sledge runners in the snow followed by the panting of large animals. As she moved to the window to look, there was a sharp rap at the door.
Before she could react, the door burst open. Gusting, bitter night air swirled snow around the room. Amelinda shivered. A woman, cloaked in crimson, entered. Her face was pale as frost. Raven hair floated about her shoulders in the midwinter’s wind. Her fierce eyes, the color of rust and gold, fixed on Amelinda. “I am Perchta and have come for reckoning.” She struck the floor with her ebony staff. Immediately, The door behind her closed and the swirling snow fell still. The staff, long and straight, twisted into a gnarled oak branch.
Amelinda studied the woman. There was something familiar in her fine, chiseled features. She gazed into the woman’s fierce eyes. “I know you!” cried Amelinda. “Frau Verena? This can not be, but I fear it is. What manner of deception is this?” She looked toward the hall, ready to call for Jurian. Perchta clenched her free hand and Amelinda immediately felt fingers gently tighten around her throat.
“Leave them be. ‘Tis you and I that have accounts to settle. And as for Frau Verena, I take whatever form suits my purpose, raven, grey haired, noblewoman, or she who stands before you. Perhaps it is you who seeks to deceive.”
“Forgive me, Perchta. I was startled and spoke foolishly. I seek not to deceive you,” Amelinda pleaded. “See here,’ she said pointing toward the yarn that Ute had set by the hearth. “I have laid out these samples of the handiwork of this house so that you will recognize the work that has been performed in your honor.”
Perchta looked toward the hearth. “The bounty of this house has been wrought as a result of your tyranny and not of your industry.”
“Fine work, nonetheless, I think you would agree,” said Amelinda. “And would it have been accomplished had I not made it so?”
“Indeed, and as such, you believe it demands a fitting reward?”
“Then you shall have it.”
“Praise your kindness, Perchta,” said Amelinda, smiling. “And could you find it in your grace to provide some small reward for Jurian and the girl? I think it fitting they should have some small token.”
“But do you not think they will see your reward as their reward?”
“Yes, of course. You are indeed wise.”
“Then it is settled. Come with me,” said Perchta. She waved her hand, opening the door. Amelinda followed her into the bitter night. A great sledge made of ice rested before the cottage. Four white wolves, big as draft horses, waited in the traces. They snuffled as Amelinda approached. Behind the sledge, a rabble of specters stretched into the darkness.
Perchta climbed into the sledge. She took the reigns, looking at Amelinda. Using the oak branch, she pointed to the rabble. “They are my Perchten,” she said, “the spirits and souls whose reward is to follow me ever in the midwinter night, as so shall you.” Amelinda started to protest, but her mouth filled with twigs. Perchta raised her staff. It immediately transformed into a fiery whip which she cracked over the heads of her wolves. They bolted and the sledge lunged forward into the darkness. Amelinda watched as the specters followed, churning along like so many dead leaves in a storm. As the last one passed, Amelinda was drawn in behind and disappeared into the night.
In the morning, Jurian awoke to find a fragment of a twisted oak branch on the hearth. A single set of footprints, leading from the door, disappeared in the freshly fallen snow. In the years to come, he would raise and love Ute as his own daughter, but search as he might, he never found any trace of Amelinda.
By Paul Stansbury
Paul Stansbury is a lifelong native of Kentucky. He is the author of Down By the Creek – Ripples and Reflections and a novelette: Little Green Men? His speculative fiction stories have appeared in a number of print anthologies as well as a variety of online publications. Now retired, he lives in Danville, Kentucky.
The gravel is unforgiving on your bruised, shoeless foot. The sneaker was a small price to pay for escape from the metal that had twisted around your right leg. Luckily, your undamaged left leg carries your weight for the hobble into town. Another small blessing: the accident happened close to someplace, and not in the middle of nowhere. You didn’t see a name, nor had Mary—
Don’t think about it.
Focus on finding a phone. Call the police. Report the accident.
Must Get help.
Keep moving or the blackness at the edges of your vision will win.
Your hope slips away when you see no lighted businesses. The town must roll up their sidewalks at eight. You reach a corner and just as you’re about to collapse, you hear music.
An alley two blocks away. Again, your left leg pulls you on, the right feeling more like dead meat with each step taken.
The sign says “Coffee” in blue and crimson neon letters. Neighboring shop windows indicate they’re the local team’s colors. Why you notice this, you’re not sure. Maybe your brain needs something to focus on other than …
You misstep when you lean against the door, falling forward. A half-wall catches you before another injury. The establishment is empty. No customers. No staff. Did a bell ring when you entered?
You recognize the song blaring from hidden speakers as the one Mary sang when she first appeared in your life. Your semi-charmed kinda life started with that song. You two would’ve made it your song, only the subject matter; crystal meth, wouldn’t made a good wedding dance number.
It’s comes out as a croak. You push yourself further in, making it to the counter.
A curtain of beads separates the main room and back room. A young woman pokes her head out.
“Sorry, didn’t hear you …” the words die in her throat when she sees the shape you’re in. “OMG! Are you okay?”
“Accident. Up the road. My wife.”
Message delivered, you slump to the floor, letting the black take you.
Consciousness comes with a price as throbbing agony returns with it. You’re in an overstuffed chair. The girl leans across your vision, a wet cloth in her hand wiping blood from your temple. It reddens with each dab. She sprays anti-bacterial on the spot, and then applies a bandage.
“I’ve called the Sheriff. Unfortunately, we share him with another county.” She shrugs. “Times are tough, y’know. Would you like something? Coffee? Water?”
She fetches you a glass. As you look up, your brain takes in another piece of unwanted information. The light bulb above you isn’t lit. You scan the ceiling and none of them are, but the room is as bright as day.
“How long was I out? Is it morning?”
“No, you were only unconscious for ten minutes.”
“Is there an ambulance …?”
She shrugs apologetically. Her eyes are the same color as Mary’s, but her nose looks like your mom’s, perky with an upturned tip.
“Eventually, but it’s coming from even farther. They said to keep you comfortable.” She won’t look at you. “You mentioned your wife. Is she, y’know, still in the car?”
You acknowledge the reality by the words. “She’s dead.” The shock keeps you from crying.
The admission visibly upsets the young lady. Her shoulders shake and she hugs them. “I’m … I’m sorry for your loss.” Pulling herself together, the girl tries a smile; tear streaks glisten on her cheeks. “Let me make you something.”
You nod. She bounces away jubilantly. “Bagel with cream cheese and peach marmalade, right?”
The food selection confuses you. That’s what Mary makes when you start off the day running. In fact, she had made it that very morning before you two set out on your vacation. One last road trip before the …
“Do you mind me asking what happened?” she calls out from the back.
Tired of just sitting, you stand. The right leg isn’t giving you as much trouble. You decide to talk about it, especially to her. Who does she remind you of? You rack your crash-addled mind.
“Elk. I swerved to avoid it. I didn’t avoid the tree.”
“That’s horrible. Especially since it was going to be awhile before you two could get away again.”
You stop cold.
“How could you know that?”
A mirror on the wall shows your marred face. One eye is bloody and your jaw is an ugly shade of purple. The girl returns and the realization hits you that you both share the same shade of dirty-blonde hair.
“You need strength,” she continues, “There’s a lot to do.”
“What’s your name?”
Ignoring the question, she arranges a shelf, instead. “You’ll recover, but not before too many questions by doctors and cops. Oh, and those gut-wrenching calls you’ll have to make.”
You step closer, but she avoids your gaze.
“Plus the funerals. If it’s any consolation, they can be done at the same time.”
You’re directly across the counter from her.
“What. Is. Your. Name!”
She turns, tears flowing like time. The answer comes in sobs.
Mary’s grandmother’s name.
The name you agreed to call your unborn daughter—cooling in Mary’s lifeless womb—the passenger door crushing them both. No chance to save either.
You back away from the impossible. Blood drips from a newly-formed gash in the young girl’s forehead; the side of her skull bashed in. She crosses her arms across her abdomen. “I’m so sorry, daddy,” she mouths as you flee from the coffee shop.
It’s still night. You reel, getting your bearings. The coffee shop is gone. You’re on the corner of town where you entered. A police car appears from an alley. Blue and crimson lights flash. You stumble. An officer is by your side. An ambulance arrives.
Was it all delusion?
The E.M.T. pulls the patch from your forehead to look under it.
The officer questions, “Where’d you get the bandage?”
You answer truthfully.
by David Boop
David Boop is a Denver-based speculative fiction author. He’s also an award-winning essayist, and screenwriter. Before turning to fiction, David worked as a DJ, film critic, journalist, and actor. As Editor-in-Chief at IntraDenver.net, David’s team was on the ground at Columbine making them the first internet only newspaper to cover such an event. That year, they won an award for excellence from the Colorado Press Association for their design and coverage.
His debut novel, the sci-fi/noir She Murdered Me with Science, returned to print from WordFire Press. In 2017, he edited the bestselling weird western anthology, Straight Outta Tombstone, for Baen. Dave is prolific in short fiction with over fifty short stories and two short films to his credit. He’s published across several genres including weird westerns, horror, fantasy, and media tie-ins for titles such as Predator, The Green Hornet, The Black Bat and Veronica Mars. His RPG work includes Flash Gordon, Rippers Resurrected and Deadlands: Noir for Savage Worlds.
He’s a single dad, Summa Cum Laude creative writing graduate, part-time temp worker and believer. His hobbies include film noir, anime, the Blues and Mayan History. You can find out more at Davidboop.com, Facebook.com/dboop.updates or Twitter @david_boop.