THE MONTHS THAT FOLLOWED
a short story by becky cloonan
I told him to burn the note. At the time it seemed like sound advice; the last thing we needed was for word to get out that she had killed herself. Dan listened to me without question, his sweaty hands fumbling with the matches in the moonlit room. My heart still goes out to him as I picture how he knelt on that creaky hardwood floor next to the fireplace. We stared transfixed, the light bouncing off our faces as the flames lapped at the paper, turning it quickly to a brittle ash.
To everyone's surprise, my gallery opening that night had been a rousing success. Nobody wanted to go dancing, but I had sold five paintings and was in the mood to celebrate. Dan and I (our heads foggy with wine) returned to his apartment for a smoke and some brandy. Neither of us had seen the shadow’s hand, or felt it’s viscous fingers clasp ‘round our throats as we spilled, laughing, into his den.
My rambunctious mood was immediately dampened after seeing Elizabeth's lavish fur coat, carelessly draped over the edge of the maroon ottoman. I exchanged a glance with Dan, who shrugged.
“She probably stopped in while we were at your show,” Dan said lazily, but I could hear the tremor in his voice. I was torn between a semblance of shock and dismay, so I allowed myself to feel both.
“You gave her keys?” For a moment I could almost see her pursing her lips into a frown as she wrapped the pelt tightly around her slim figure. "It's so late, Francis, and you're making too much damn noise. Dan and I are tired, aren't we sweetie?” She’d tilt her head and look at Dan with those piercing eyes that he always tried to avoid.
Dan’s hands were open as he tried to explain. “Elizabeth thought it’d be a good idea! She’s left so many of her clothes here already—“
I waved him away. Just the thought of her honeyed voice had spoiled my mood. Acting first, I was already on my way out, a halfhearted excuse and apology on my lips. Before I could go however, the half-open bedroom door at the end of the hall had caught my eye. To this day I don’t know what had compelled me; the sound of Dan’s voice and my footsteps slowly faded as I neared the door, leaving me with nothing but the sound of my breath.
In that moment through the crack in the door I saw a sleeping Elizabeth. She was sprawled out on the bed, still in her favorite evening dress. A sliver of light from the door illuminated the bright red silk, and pale pink skin. One shoe hung from her foot as it dangled over the side of the mattress. Elizabeth, asleep or…
With the tips of my fingers I gently pushed the creaking door open. Dan, now quiet, stood behind me. There was no denying the queer stillness in which her body rested. That same stillness clung to the air around as we moved towards the bed. Her lips, once red, now blue, were parted ever so slightly, and her thick, inky hair ran in wild waves over the pillows.
I stopped at the side of the bed. Heavily lidded eyes that in life had been so full of scorn, seemed to stare in defiance as Dan reached out a shaky hand to grab the note she clutched. It was a trick of the light, yet the corners of her mouth curled eerily upwards, reenforcing the feeling that she was mocking me one final time. I shut her eyes, and guided a stricken Dan back to the den.
In that moment next to the fireplace my anger with Elizabeth was limitless. I had always thought of her like a stray cat, needy and vicious, but Dan had taken her in and loved her unconditionally. Recklessly, even. So why did she make it her final act to inflict so much pain on him? For all I cared we could have dumped her body in the river, but for the sake of my dear friend I reassured him that we were doing the right thing. Now she could be buried in her family plot, and no shame would be brought on her memory— a memory I was more than eager to forget.
He handed me the note. “I can’t do it.”
Unfolding the paper, I tried to decipher the childish scrawl. Thankfully there wasn’t much of it, but one dreadful sentence still echoes in my memory:
love me lest your bones burn
The note she’d written read more like a curse. I’ve since wondered if burning it had been such a good idea, but what choice did we have? I tossed it in the flames without reciting a single word.
We stood, still as statues, watching the smoke wind listlessly out of the fire, the silence a spell neither of us wanted to break. As I caught the ashen scent of it, a sick sort of dread knotted in the pit of my stomach, like a snake curling around a mouse.
This was the start of a fear that has grown inside me for the past five months. On even the best days, I can feel it lurking right around the corner, just out of sight. As much as I try to distract myself, more and more I find my thoughts returning to that sticky summer night when we found her, the smoke still yawning lazily up from the fireplace, and her cold, unmoving body lying dormant in the bedroom, with staring eyes that I swear I had closed. On nights like tonight I swear I can still smell that paper burning.
A cool breeze rushed through the heavy oaken door of the tavern, and just like that my thoughts returned to the scene before. Dan had lost weight; I could see that even before he took off his overcoat. Too much time indoors had left his skin with a sickly sort of complexion, but even so it was good to see him outside of his apartment. We had agreed to meet at a cozy bar called The Cedar, an old haunt of ours. I hadn't seen the inside of the place since last New Years Eve, but the atmosphere was as inviting as ever. Voices bounced off the walls as the bar filled up, the smells of fall clinging to our clothes. Outside, reflections of the gas lamps shimmered on cobblestones still wet from the afternoon’s rain. The autumn night was crisp and chilly, a welcome change from the long, hot summer.
Tessa was the first to greet Dan as he neared our table.
“You made it!” Her golden hair shimmered as she jumped up to plant an enthusiastic kiss on each of Dan’s somewhat sunken cheeks. He smiled and pushed back a wisp of thin, dark hair as it fell in front of his eyes, a familiar gesture I hadn't seen in so long. I couldn't hold back my grin as I leaned over the heavy wooden table to shake his hand.
“Always good to see you,” Dan took the words out of my mouth as he sat across from me.
“Tessa was afraid you wouldn't come,” I said, as she swatted at my arm. In truth it was me who had been afraid, but Tessa nodded in agreement.
Dan shrugged. “I needed a new pack of cigarettes.” Then, after looking around, “Where’s Hank?”
Tessa rolled her big brown eyes. “Late! I swear, if he stands me up again…”
I wasn't fooled, even as she feigned her best exasperation. She always dressed a little nicer when Hank was supposed to join us, and smiled a little bigger when he actually decided to show up.
Leaning back into my chair, I ordered a bourbon. It was great to see Dan again, but hard to ignore the lingering lines of unease that traced their way across his face. His distress had become palpable- was he eating enough? His suit looked like he had slept in it, but somehow I doubted that he was doing much of that these days either. His hair fell into his eyes again.
Memories clouded my vision. While Elizabeth was alive we never saw them apart, but since that gruesome night five months ago we’ve hardly seen Dan at all. In life she glamoured everyone she met with flashy smiles and laughter that was a little too loud; she had been the life of the party, and a muse to every artist she met.
People told Dan how lucky he was, but I saw the truth of how her changing moods had affected him. He would stay up for nights on end wondering where she was, and when she finally stumbled home in the hour before dawn, she would cry and scream until he forgave her. I remember warning him not to fall in love with an actress, but they were engaged before snow had melted. And now, it was almost as if her grip on his heart had only tightened in death. He was spending more and more time alone in that room, the fireplace still full of ashes…
My thoughts were interrupted as the waiter set our drinks down, and my focus returned to the suddenly crowded bar, and Tessa as she finished an animated account of a fight that had broken out at The Aztec two nights ago.
“And then, WHAM!” She punched her hand for emphasis, “He flew into the bass player, then the whole band started fighting!” Her smile brightened up the room. “Oh, Dan! You really should join us next time. The music— I just know you’d love it!” Dan smiled politely, and not wanting to make a promise he wouldn’t keep, said nothing. A good thing, I reflected, as he was a gorilla on the dance floor.
No sooner had we raised our glasses in a toast to dangerous musicians, Hank burst through the door. Waving to a group of people I didn’t recognize, he deftly navigated a narrow path towards us, through the crowd and worn wooden tables.
Tessa and Dan leaned forward as Hank squeezed by them and took his seat next to me, throwing his hat on the table and running his fingers through his brown hair. Hank had started before us by the smell of it, and by the look of it he wasn’t about to slow down now.
“George! Whiskey!” He called to the waiter, slapping my back, and flashing us a big grin as he sat back in his seat. “Tessa, If I knew you’d be here I woulda worn somethin' nicer!”
It felt good to have the four of us together again. We talked, drank and joked like nothing had changed — but something had, and deep down in our guts we all knew it. Even Hank, with all of his bluster.
“I haven’t been here in ages,” Tessa mused as she looked around. “Not since that crazy New Years party…”
I groaned, not wanting to relive it. That night took a full week to recover from.
Hank was quick with a wink and added, “I was here just last week! George told me they still have the table you broke in the back.”
I squinted as I tried to recall the incident. Hank sure was was one to talk! He probably only knew about it because somebody had told him the next day. I looked away, feeling suddenly embarrassed for no real reason. Elizabeth had been there, hadn’t she? As I looked at the bar I could almost see her still dancing on it.
We emptied our glasses and ordered more, telling stories we'd almost forgotten and making plans we knew we’d never keep. Through my glass I saw Dan’s attention wane as he stared out the foggy window panes into the night. He didn't care what we were talking about, and as I rambled on about a new painting I started the week before, and my model’s intriguing jawline, I realized I didn't either.
Tessa was polite enough to act interested, but Hank wasn’t known for his manners, and God bless him for it. He bluntly interrupted with the question that I had been dancing around all night.
“Say, Dan! What are you working on these days? Have you written anything new?”
Dan turned his head from the window towards us, his pale eyes adjusting to the light inside. I knew the answer before he opened his mouth; I suppose we all did. Dan hadn’t written in five months, and hadn’t been published in almost a year. His last collection of poems had been well-received, but that had been almost a year ago. How was he going to keep supporting himself? Surely he had written a few lines in the meantime.
Dan made a face like he knew his answer would disappoint us. “I just haven’t felt up to it…” His voice trailed off.
Always supportive, Tessa put her hand on his arm to guide him back to the conversation. “Sweetie, it’s okay. You take as much time as you need.”
Hank was quick to disagree, but he spoke gently for once. “Maybe just start with a few lines each day. Think of it as poetry push-ups!” The ice in his glass clinked as he swirled it around.
Tessa pursed her lips as I lent my voice to Hank’s. “Do you have some old unpublished poems hidden away somewhere that you can collect?” I offered. “You know, to get you started.”
Hank snapped his fingers, his eyes lighting up. “That’s it! You won't even have to do anything new. Francis, you’re brilliant!”
I saw Dan’s eyes widen a little at this suggestion.
“I really don’t have anything.” He stammered the sentence out, as if he was trying to convince himself as much as us.
I gently pushed the point. I recalled how on New Years Eve in at this very table he had shown me a new book of poetry he had started.
"We were sitting right over there! You remember, the little black notebook tied closed with a piece of red string?" I wouldn't normally have prodded Dan like that, but I didn't know the next time I'd get the chance.
Talked into a corner by his three friends, Dan threw up his hands and relented. “Okay. Fine. Look, I did write. For a while I was so inspired that I wrote every day! I filled a book with lines and verses, but I made sure that nobody will ever see it.”
“Why? Where is it?” Hank asked impatiently. “Did you throw it out?”
Dan shook his head, and we all leaned in a little closer.
“Elizabeth. She has it.”
Her name rolled off his tongue, bringing with with it the smell of the thick, grey smoke. My stomach rolled over. Hank coughed in disbelief.
“Christ, Dan! What do you mean? Elizabeth is—“
“Dead, yes,” Dan hung his head. “I placed my notebook in her hands at the funeral.” He paused, and the silence hung over our table, the noise of the bar swirling all around but never touching us.
"I…" He faltered for a moment before continuing. "I thought it might keep her company, that somehow my words would find her and comfort her, wherever she had gone. I suppose it’s kind of silly now that I’m talking about it.” He ran his fingers through his hair, and then said with finality, “Those poems are gone forever.”
From across the table his eyes briefly met mine. The secret that bound us together tightened in my chest. I nodded in encouragement, and his chin stiffened in resolve.
Hank was the first to speak, and he did so matter-of-factly. “But they’re not. Not really.”
Tessa and I simultaneously turned our heads to look at him as he wiped his dark mustache with the back of a large hand and continued, “They’re not gone forever, I mean.”
Tessa scowled, and lowered her voice to chastise him. “Please, have some decency!”
Poor Hank though, he’d drank too much to stop his mouth from running. “We could get your notebook back, sorry Tess, but we could. It wouldn’t be the first time someone’s dug up a coffin. I mean, just think of all those mummies they’ve been unearthing over in Egypt!”
A look of anger crossed Tessa’s face, and she reached out swatting at Hank’s arm, her voice lowering to a hiss. “Dolt! You’re talking about desecrating a grave! Show a little sympathy for once in your life.”
Of course, her concern was more for Dan’s feelings than it was for Elizabeth’s remains. The last time the two women saw each other it had ended in a nasty row that was punctuated with a slap, Elizabeth on the receiving end. I looked to Dan and opened my mouth to steer the conversation away from the macabre, but to my surprise Dan seemed unfazed by Hank’s unorthodox suggestion.
He held out a hand and Tessa quieted down. His voice was steady and cool as he looked through us.
“I’d do the deed myself if I had the stomach for it.” He didn't wait for us to respond before continuing. “There were things I wrote in that notebook, things I didn't think I wanted to remember. Now, though… Maybe it's all a bunch of garbage, who knows? But you're right, if there's one thing I regret about all this, it's leaving my words with her.” And with that he emptied his glass, signed, and turned his head back towards the window.
I've often thought about painting Dan; his profile had always intrigued me. His nose hooked slightly, and his lips, a little too thin some might say, gave him the air of a bird of prey— a hawk or falcon. Except when he smiled. I always trusted his smile, for he never gave one falsely, and always wore it with true warmth and affection.
I pried my eyes away from him, but before they could reach my glass, I caught a glimpse of what looked like a bandage on his right wrist. His sleeve had been pushed up just enough so that the white wrapping poked out from beneath his cuff. I studied it closer, not really sure what I was seeing, and not caring if I was looking too long.
Looking back at Dan’s sullen expression, my heart suddenly sunk into my stomach along with the wretched truth I didn’t want to face. I couldn’t let him go the same way Elizabeth had gone. She had done enough damage to our friendship, did she have to take him too? Something had to be done. I shot Hank a glance, and his expression confirmed everything I was thinking.
We need to get Dan’s journal back.
Hank didn’t waste any time pointing out how simple the task would be. “You wouldn’t even have to be there. It’s basically just digging a little hole! We'd be like thieves in the night, and in a few hours— Abracadabra! You’d get your poems returned as if nothing ever even happened.”
Slowly, Dan turned his head slowly towards us, but said nothing.
Tessa piped in too, “I can’t say I agree with what you boys are scheming, but if this is really something you want…” She tilted her head to look Dan in the eyes, squinting as if to try and read his mind. “What the heck, I’ll help you check it for spelling errors if you decide to publish.”
Dan studied our faces one by one. My heart hardened as I heard myself speak. "If you need this, I will do whatever it takes to help you. I know the last few months haven't been easy, but if this will help put things behind you, help you move on, then by God you have an ally in me.”
The words came out easy enough, but would I still have said them had known at what cost they would come?
“Do it," he breathed. The strong liquor and our firm resolve and had steeled him to the dark task we had just sworn to commit. As focused as my thoughts were in that instant, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a surge of excitement rush through me.
After ordering another round, we leaned in close and discussed the logistics of what I suppose was essentially grave robbery. It was decided that Tessa would stay behind with Dan, as Hank and I set out to do some simple reconnaissance.
The plot where Elizabeth rested was a fifteen minute walk away. It was almost too convenient! We spent the last few minutes finishing our drinks and convincing each other that this would be a trip for biscuits— that Hank and I would return after having just a quick look around. This wasn’t something that had to be done tonight, after all. Still, a wave of uncertainty lapped at my ankles, rising inch by frigid inch as I threw on my coat and followed Hank out through the weathered door of The Cedar.
A few extra layers helped me feel more confident, and I wrapped my scarf tightly around my neck. This didn’t make the deed Hank and I were committed to any less foul however, and I waved a somber goodbye at Dan and Tessa through the warped glass windows before disappearing with Hank into the fog of Main Street.
“Shake a leg, Francis. Whoa— !” Hank stumbled on a loose cobblestone, but recovered with surprising finesse. “Look on the bright side. At least we’re not going to a graveyard to bury someone!”
I forced a laugh, but I only managed something that sounded like a nervous hiccup. This would be the first time Hank and I had spent any actual time together. He worked at a print shop as a typesetter, and I rarely saw him without a scrape or a black eye. Beyond that, and his penchant for drinking, I didn’t actually know much about him.
“That Elizabeth,” he went on, straightening his hat. “She was a piece of work, always picking on Tessa like that.”
I’ve never liked speaking ill of the dead, but I nodded in agreement. “Tess is a good person. She really likes you, you know.” It was hard not to notice. I’d grown quite fond of Tessa these last few months. She struggled to keep our small family together, making food to bring to Dan’s house, and trying to get us all to go out for drinks or dancing. We owed her a lot.
Tessa and I had been introduced by a mutual friend who found out I was in need of a new model. The woman was a godsend, and she became the subject of several of my paintings from the past few years. We grew to be fast friends, and even though she denies it, I could tell from the very instant she laid eyes on Hank that she was soft for him. She really was too good for him, but Hank, he was too thick to even notice that.
The two women were polar opposite in almost every way. Tessa, who held us all together, and Elizabeth, who seemed bent on destroying the happiness we had built for ourselves. Even now it seems we are still listening to her siren song. To be honest, I’d never met anyone quite like her, or have to this day. She, who had been so full of grace and charm, had hid a sinister side that Dan never saw. Or maybe he just never chose to see.
Hank shook his head, on the same train of thought as I was. “Dan is such an idiot. He had to know what kind of monster she was.” He said this, then grew strangely quiet. When I asked him what was on his mind, he looked at me with a sadness I never expected from him.
“I’ve known Dan since we were kids, see? We grew up on the same block. When things were bad at home, my old man had too much to drink, sometimes came home lookin’ to hit something, I was always welcome at his house, no questions asked. His mom would even make me dinner, even mend my clothes if they were ripped.”
The fog thickened as we turned, and made our way up a hill. Hank went on bravely. “I like you guys. I might not fit in that much— I’ve never had patience for art, you know? But you’ve been true friends to me these last few years, I mean it. And Dan, he’s always been there. Always,” Hank turned away. “So where was I when he needed me?”
I wasn’t sure what he wanted me to say, if anything at all, so I decided just to listen. I said nothing, and he went on.
“For a while I blamed Elizabeth, you know? She’s easy to blame. I thought maybe it was her fault, you know, that Dan and me didn’t talk anymore. But now some time has passed, I guess I see it all a little different.” He paused as we waited for a car to drive by so we could cross the street.
“It had rained back then too, do you remember? On New Years? I’ve never told anyone this. After I left the party that night, she followed me. I hate myself for it, but I invited her in. Elizabeth came to my house and stayed the night, and now here I am tryin’ to be Dan’s friend, consoling him after she…” He let out an odd laugh and rubbed one of his eyes.
“What the hell does that make me, Francis? No matter how twisted she was, it was still me who drank too much that night. It was my bad decision. I knew better, and now she’s rotting in the ground and I’m left here tryin’ to cut away at all this guilt.” He made a strange gesture with his hands, almost as if he were pleading.
There was nothing I could do but offer Hank a pat on the back and a few words of fortitude. “Hank. Elizabeth is gone, isn’t she? But we all feel caught in her wake. She didn’t like any of us, and God knows I had my own problems with her.” An image of Dan’s sunken face and bandaged wrists flashed before me for a brief second, and I took a sharp breath.
“Something has to be done if we want to go on with our lives. I don’t know if things can ever be as they were, but one thing is certain: you and I are going to confront Elizabeth. Here. Tonight, goddamn it.”
I sounded so confident that I almost believed in myself. Make no mistake, there was truth in what I said; the four of us had been friends years before we’d met that woman, and that night, as Hank spilled his guts to me, I was willing to go to any lengths to try and salvage whatever remained. Hank seemed satisfied with my attempt to encourage him, and together we rounded a corner in stride.
All at once the cemetery crept up on us. We fell quiet at the sight of its rusted iron gate and knotted trees, the street lamps giving just enough light to make out the shapes of the tombstones floating within. It was there under the watchful glow of the full moon, I realized with dismay that I was completely and utterly sober.
“After you,” Hank gestured.
The ground was soft and supple, and the smell of wet grass hung in the air. We made our way through the older graves, with headstones faded and askew and soil sunken in several places. I tried not to imagine the bodies I was treading on, but the more I put it from my mind, the clearer their images became.
I walked gingerly over Grace Muller, a loving mother who died in 1843, and just about managed to avoid treading on her two children, Jacob and Sara. Their neighbor, Harris Middleton, was not so lucky. I hurriedly stepped off what I imagined was his chest, and feeling silly, I apologized under my breath anyway.
Hank called back at me, his gruff voice breaking the stillness. “You say somethin’?” It wasn’t anything, so I nodded towards Elizabeth’s final resting place at the top of a small hill by the lumbering yew tree.
“There she is,” I pointed. Making a concerted effort not to look down, we trudged in silence up the soggy grass towards her.
The fog seemed to dissipate as we reached the top of the hill. As I stood over her grave, arms folded tightly, Hank read off her inscription.
“Here lies Elizabeth Bell. A pill of a woman, if I ever met one.”
He reached his right hand into his jacket, took out a flask, and took a swig.
Grim reality finally set in. Now that we were finally here, all I wanted to do was retreat to the warm safety of The Cedar. Hank was however, as always, ready for action. Handing me his flask (he didn’t wait for me), he hopped a few yards down the other side of the hill towards a mound of dirt. I took a sip, swallowed, and followed. I was grateful at least for the liquid courage burning down my throat.
Next to the half-dug grave there lay two discarded shovels and an unlit a lantern. The hole was shallow, and slick with mud and pooling water, left over from the afternoon’s rain. Hank, his hands on his waist, looked up at the moon as it peeked out from behind an opaque cloud.
“Seeing as they won’t be back anytime soon, I don’t think they’ll mind us borrowing their equipment.” He scratched his forehead.
I didn’t like it. It was too convenient, almost like Dan’s notebook wanted to be found. “What are the chances?” I asked, my sardonic tone no doubt lost on Hank. I struck a match, lighting the lantern, and Hank shook the shovels in victory, one in each hand, as I lumbered behind him back up the hill.
The light gave life to the shadows as we moved through the cemetery as they danced to and fro. I placed it next to Elizabeth’s headstone, and turned to face Hank.
“Here,” he said, tossing the spade at me. His eyes burned with liquor and determination. “Now.”
I hesitated. “You know, there are legal channels we could explore to exhume a body properly. Talking about it is one thing, but we’re actually — ”
Hank wasn’t listening. He plunged his shovel into the earth, cutting me off mid-sentence. Not about to abandon him after he trusted me with his secret, I grimly resigned myself to being an accomplice. We started digging.
The ground accepted my shovel greedily, lifting the soil in dark, moist chunks. Hank hummed the new Cab Calloway tune in time as we worked, and I was happy for the distraction. I felt the minutes slip by as we dug uninterrupted, and further down than I would have expected. When I stopped to take a break, Hank just kept on shoveling. Feeling out of shape, I checked my pocket watch for the sake of something to do, and found to my surprise that it’d only been an hour since we left Dan and Tessa.
“No kidding? Feels like we’ve been digging for days!” Hank paused to blow into his hands. “Is it just me, or is it getting colder down here?” It wasn’t just Hank, I felt it too.
I stabbed at the earth again, but this time instead of giving way, my shovel was met with a loud THUMP that echoed through the hole and reverberated through my guts. I glanced up at Hank. His eyes twinkled in the lantern’s light.
“We found her,” He breathed, although in awe or in horror I couldn’t be sure.
As we paused to catch our breath before sweeping the excess dirt from the top of the pine coffin, it suddenly struck me as odd that such an extravagant woman would have such a simple burial. She had been adorned in the finest silks, anointed with French perfume, her neck dripping with jewels— presents no doubt from her many admirers. She was in stark contrast to Dan, who had always been so sensible, so practical. Shaking my head, I couldn’t the life of me figure out what about that woman had made him so emotionally destitute.
“You and me both.” Hank’s reply made me realize I’d been thinking out loud. Before I could say another word, Hank jammed his spade under the lid of the coffin, prying it up with a groan. The wooden planks strained as the iron tacks grew like fingernails from under it. A sickly smell, thick and sweet, broke the autumn air.
Then suddenly— was it my imagination? Tendrils of smoke lapped out from the casket, and in an instant I was back in Dan’s apartment, Elizabeth’s lifeless body staring at us from the bed, an empty vial of laudanum in her hand. The smoke was floating up from the fireplace in heavy grey circles, stinging my eyes and filling my lungs with soot as the temperature steadily rose. I started to sweat as the walls spun and Elizabeth’s chilling laughter echoed in my ears. But how was it possible? She was dead, the victim of her own melodrama! Still she cackled on, and the walls closed in on me.
It was the cold earth and roots of the yew tree that caught me as I fell backwards. With a start Dan’s spinning room was gone, and I was back in the grave with Hank and Elizabeth, the still-beautiful Elizabeth, whose red eyes burned like embers in the darkness, and whose crow black hair had grown to fill the entire coffin.
My hands clenched the damp soil into balls as I pressed my back against the wall of earth. The flickering light shown the casket lid leaning on one side, and Hank staring, unblinking, at she who lay inside. The creature- I say creature because I don’t believe it was human any longer- lay unmoving, eyes wide and fixed upon me; at the same time both Elizabeth and something much more terrible. Clutching Dan’s black notebook with bloated pink fingers, her twisted nails had grown so long that they curled through the leather cover, into the paper.
Hank was transfixed, his shovel poised to strike, yet he made no movement save for the steamy breath that escaped his lips as he exhaled. We stood like this for only a moment, yet the seconds seemed to stretch out before us, as if daring us to bask in the profane presence of this iniquitous creature.
A single drop of sweat ran down the small of my back, finally jolting time into motion again. I franticly yelled at Hank to get the book! Dropping the shovel, he plunged his hand into the casket, but for all his strength he couldn’t wrench the damned thing out of her grip.
Hair floated out of the coffin like a fine black mist, engulfing his arms as Elizabeth strained her veiny neck forward. Her cracked, crimson lips parted to reveal receded gums and a mouth full of pointed teeth. With a feline hiss she lunged, and Hank let out a wail as she tore into his forearm, dark blood pouring over her porcelain skin. Her eyes rolled back sickeningly into her head, finally releasing us from her gaze.
I leapt at her, cursing as Hank cried out in pain. Slamming my foot into the creature’s forehead again and again. After a sickening crack she finally let go, but not without taking a chunk of flesh from Hank’s arm with her.
“Damn you!” I heard Hank yell as I tried to move, realizing too late that my legs were tangled in that unholy mass of hair. To my horror I fell face-first into the casket, but I was happy (if a person can be happy about falling into a casket) that my head landed near the notebook we had set out to retrieve! Reaching for it, I saw Hank’s kicking legs next to me, and realized he had fallen too. Elizabeth’s hands were frigid, and chilled my fingers to the point of pain while I tried to pry them loose. No luck.
I twisted round to look for Hank. In the tangled, black mist of hair I saw him restraining the creature in a headlock, his muscles tense, blood spilling everywhere. I called to him as Elizabeth’s body thrashed under me, and Hank answered through clenched teeth.
“Francis! My knife!“ He drew in a sharp breath then grunted, “It’s on my calf!”
Trying not to gag, I felt through the hair for Hank’s legs. One was planted on a plank of wood, but as I felt for the blade I heard him yell again.
“No- The other one!” Quickly I wrenched one of my arms free, and after groping blindly at his right leg for a few seconds, yanked the knife from it’s scabbard.
I don’t believe in God, and after this event I certainly never will again, but it doesn’t embarrass me to tell you that I called on him in the pit that night for strength. Lifting the blade above my head, I stabbed down at Elizabeth’s body with all of my might. I stabbed her for Dan, for the friendships she had ruined, for all the hurt she had caused Tessa and Hank. Over and over, ten, twenty times, until my breath came in frenzied gasps and acid rose in my stomach. It was all in vain; I was revolted to find her body didn’t even bleed!
“Just get the damn book!” Hank shouted at me. Elizabeth now resembled a rabid animal as she jerked, her mouth frothed with blood and bile as she fought against him.
I turned my attention to those little fingers that in life had been so delicate. Now, one by one, I lopped them off like pink sausages. Elizabeth’s body shook violently, convulsing in Hank’s arms. He was yelling again, this time more desperately, but his words were lost as I focused. Calling on a strength I didn’t know I had, I ripped the book free from her remaining fingers.
And just like that, her eyes deadened, her body went limp. My breath came in labored gasps, and my heart and thoughts pounded a furious cadence in the still night air. With white knuckles, I clutched the knife in one hand, Dan’s journal in the other.
My eyes wild, I looked to Hank. A spiteful “I never liked her,” was all that I could manage (a noble effort, all things considered).
Hank hastily pushed the husk back into the coffin, her head rolling grotesquely to one side. A wisp of smoke escaped through her lips and dissolved into the cool night air. Elizabeth’s twisted body was as it should be: lifeless and decomposed. I threw the lid back on her coffin, and hoisted the two shovels up onto the grass.
For a moment I was tempted to pretend that we had imagined this whole ordeal. That the whole night had just been one sick joke taken five steps too far, a product of drink, and stress, and friendship, and failure. However, one look at Hank as he sat cradling his arm told me otherwise.
I stepped towards him, and reaching down to help him up, gasped as I saw how mangled his arm was. The flesh around the wound was ragged, as if he’d been attacked by an animal.
She might as well have been an animal, I thought. I wrapped my scarf tightly around Hank’s arm to try and stem the bleeding, and after helping him out of that god-forsaken hole, eased him down on a big root of the old yew tree. I left him there staring at the ground, while I mechanically shoveled the dirt back into the grave.
With each movement I imagined that I was undoing the events of the night, one small pile of earth at a time. I breathed in through my nose and out through my mouth, trying to steady my my heart. I repeated comforting phrases in my head as I worked.
We have the notebook. The smell of smoke is gone. We have Dan’s book. Elizabeth is gone.
Neither of us spoke for a while. Hank pulled out two bent cigarettes, giving one to me. I don’t usually smoke, but if this wasn’t the occasion, then tell me— what was? I lit his first, than mine, and after a long moment I nodded at the book.
“So… Do you want to take a look inside?”
He chuckled sourly at that. “What, you think Dan’s shitty poetry will make me feel better after what just happened?” He had a point. “I tell you what might help though,” he said, pulling out his flask again.
We enjoyed the silence as we finished the last of Hank’s whiskey, and after another moment I suggested going back to the tavern.
“After all, it’s been a few hours. They’re probably wondering what happened to us.” That was the real question though. What had happened to us?
“Nothing I’d like more than to see Tessa’s smile right now, but Francis…” He winced as he drew in a breath. “I think I need a doctor.”
Tucking Dan’s notebook in my jacket’s inside pocket, I helped steady him as we walked slowly down the hill, through the gate, and across the street. We could go back the way we came, but we would never be the same two people who’s footsteps we were retracing.
“Just get me to Main, I can go the rest of the way. It’s only a few blocks.” Hank would need stitches, no doubt about that. We settled on a story about a stray dog that had attacked us as we was walking home. The actual events of that night were to remain a secret between Hank and myself, and we swore a solemn oath under the cemetery gate to honor it. I believe we both saw each other differently from that night on. I had gained a new respect for him, saw him in a different light, and now we shouldered the weight of this new pact together. Looking back, I’m surprised at how calm we both had been directly after the incident. It would take a few days for the shock of it all to settle in.
We parted at the corner, and I watched him walk down Main Street, his shoulders hunched but walking steadily more or less. People might just think he’s drunk, I thought before realizing that he might actually still be. Somehow this thought comforted me, that idea that perhaps he wouldn’t remember all of tonight’s events in total clarity. I had asked if he needed me to go with him, but Hank had just shook his head sadly.
“You need to get rid of that thing,” he had motioned to the book in my jacket with a nod of his head. “You need to give it to Dan as soon as you can. Just find me afterwords, deal?” I promised him, and away he walked.
Outside The Cedar, I passed a noisy group of students going home for the night. Their strange glances and hushed words made me aware of how disheveled I must have looked, so I peered into a window to catch my reflection. I spit on my hands, wiping off the dirt off my face and smoothing out my hair like my mother had done when I was a child. Satisfied, I kicked my feet on the ground to dislodge any loose soil, and pushed the door open.
Warmth flowed over my skin, but my insides remained icy. The bar had emptied out; only a few small groups of people remained. Dan and Tessa sat at the same table we had left them at, sharing a bowl of peanuts and looking like they had emptied a few more drinks in our absence. Tessa was smiling when first she saw me, but her expression slowly changed as I drew closer, her face dropping and her pretty eyes widening in shock. As Dan turned around in his chair to look up at me his mouth opened as if he were going to say something, but no words came out and he closed it again. I had nothing to say either, so I simply pulled his notebook out from my jacket and tossed it lightly on the table.
Tessa’s spoke first, her voice shaking like a leaf. “Francis, w- what happened to you!” It sounded like more of an exclamation than a question. “Where’s Hank? Oh my God, is that blood?!”
I appreciated her concern, but my nerves just couldn’t handle the excitement. Holding up my hands, I waited until they were quiet, then I told them about the dog in the calmest voice I could muster. I told them how it tried to attack me, but Hank bravely got in it’s way. I told them how the animal had torn up his arm, and how he’d gone to the hospital for stitches. It all sounded so courageous, hell, even I believed it. Maybe if I gave them enough details about the dog, th’ey’d forget to ask about the dig.
“I’ll settle up at the bar, then we’ll go after him,” Dan said after a moment, picking up his notebook as if it were made of broken glass. Standing, he wiped a few smudges of what I knew to be Hank’s blood off the spine. His brow furrowed then, and he looked up from the book, straight into my eyes. “Francis, I never expected you to go to such lengths for me.”
And I’d have done it again, had he needed me to. Maybe it was just my happiness at seeing him after such a grotesque ordeal, but his cheeks seemed flushed with color, and his eyes bright even in the low light of the tavern. Even his voice rang with more life than I can recall hearing from him in months. I could have cried, but the sudden thought of the pit we had dug, and what we had uncovered there stopped me.
“It was nothing,” I said, with finality.
Dan put some money down on the bar, and waved goodnight to the George. He sighed, and his lips tightened. “I hope Hank’s alright. I wouldn’t have let you go if I’d known it would turn out like this.”
Dan couldn’t have known. Nobody could ever have known. And nobody ever will.
He flipped casually through the pages of his notebook, his fingers tracing over the holes left by Elizabeth’s nails. I explained that they must have been made by grave worms, and he pulled a face, the corners of his mouth turning down.
Closing the cover with a snap, he slipped the book inside his jacket pocket, and there it went. Finally out of sight. The book had been returned to it’s owner; the job was finally done.
Since then I’ve always wondered if the innocent verses in Dan’s notebook were so potent that they had awoken Elizabeth’s corpse from its sour slumber. Had she been feeding on his words for all these months? Suspended in time, lurking in her subterranean abode, sucking the life from each of us in turn.
Maybe it was something altogether more sinister. The power of a terrible note, desperate to be read, but burned instead. Or perhaps it was just the product of too much talk, too much guilt, and too much drink on a chilly, autumn night…
I shook my head and turned to go. I was anxious get to the hospital for Hank’s sake, that much was true, but it was more than that. The horror of what I had seen would surely be visible on my face, and that was something I was desperate to hide. Tessa and Dan could never understand— and I would never wish that dark knowledge upon them.
It was as if a thin veil had been lowered between us, my punishment for peering beyond this world into the abysmal void of terror. There were far worse things awaiting man than death. I’ve seen them, and a part of me will forever remain in that darkness with Elizabeth’s putrified body, her red eyes unblinking, tangled in that mass of hair, thrashing, thrashing in the darkness…
I jumped as the sound of Dan’s voice, his hand catching me by my shoulder. He brought his face close to mine, and I reluctantly turned to meet his gaze. Tessa was buttoning her coat behind us, and Dan lowered his voice to a hush. “I’m sorry, I just have to know. You have to tell me. Elizabeth, what did she look like?”
It was there, standing in the threshold to The Cedar, that I decided that my trade-off was worth it; a small part of my soul for Dan’s peace of mind. And so I offered him the only truth anyone would ever get from me about that night:
“She was beautiful. And her hair… Her hair had grown to fill the entire coffin.”