This is the story of two travelers, Gabe Valentine and Violetta Talbot, who ride out into the untamed wilderness of the Old West, hunting ghosts for fun and profit, haunted by sinister forces, and always finding trouble, even when they don’t try. Gabe and Violetta are on their way now, having met a man who claimed his small town was being stalked by the forces of darkness, hoping to find danger and adventure. They don’t know what’s really waiting for them.
Maria Parish kneeled in front of her bed, setting her elbows apart, and bowed her head into her clasped hands. She said her prayers every night this way. She whispered the usual good blessings on her mother and father, and she prayed again that her younger brother would get well. His coughing rattled through the small wood house. They’d shared a room until last month, when his bedsheets had been covered in blood, and her parents and her aunt had taken him to the small room they’d used for storage. They argued if he needed to be hot or cold, or if he should only drink broth or a hearty meal, and when she sat with him he was cold and still until the cough shook his whole body. She wanted him to get better, because they’d lost her baby sister last year, and she wasn’t sure if her parents would be able to take it to lose another.
Her last prayer was different though. She glanced up at Heaven, in case it helped God to hear, and she whispered, “Please don’t let me dream tonight.”
She gave an amen and climbed under her covers. The late summer heat was unbearably still, but she left her window closed. It made her sleep fitful, and her brother’s coughing kept on through the night. She could hear her parents whisper through the wall beside her own. It was too much, they said. We need help.
Eventually she must’ve drifted, because the night noises had died down. Even her brother only gave ragged breaths. A gentle tapping at her window roused her. Maria squeezed her eyes shut and clutched the covers tighter, but it continued.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
She rolled over and stared out at the night. The darkness seemed to bleed in, and she could see the other houses of her neighbors, and the hill that crested beyond the town, where the dead were laid to rest.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
She stood slowly. The heat was too much anyway.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
She opened the window and let the night air in.
The flat land of the Arkansas delta had become unbearable for Violetta. Her eyes glazed over, and the steady rocking of her horse was leading her to sleep, which she would’ve gladly accepted if it meant she could block out Gabe’s singing. It was not that he could not sing. His voice was actually quite lovely, and there’d been many a night where they’d leaned back, watching the stars sparkle overhead, and he’d crooned her off to dreamland. But the past hour of him thinking up more and more elaborate verses to the same song was starting to grate her nerves.
“The wind did blow, the rain did flow, the hail did fall and blind me.” Gabe drummed on his saddle. “And I thought of that gal, that sweet gal, that gal I left behind me.”
He stopped a moment as he fumbled for the next verse. The relief Violetta felt was short-lived.
“She wrote ahead that place I said, I was glad to find it.” He hummed a few of the words. “She says, ‘I’m true, and when you get through, right back here you’ll find me.’”
“Isn’t there another song in your repertoire?” Violetta asked.
He grinned. “You don’t know this one?”
She gave him a look. “I’ve learned it intimately.”
“Go on,” he said.
She sighed and pursed her lips. He whistled the tune for her.
“I’ve sought one so fair and gay,” she sang. Her voice was not as smooth as his and cracked easily. “But find none that remind me, how sweet those hours I passed away, with the girl I left behind me.”
He laughed. “Not too bad.”
Her cheeks were turning red. “My mother used to beg me not to sing.”
“My father was the one who taught me.” He smiled at the memory. “He sang doing everything. I could sing before I could talk.”
“At least sing me something different.”
He held out his arms in a dramatic serenade. “Writing this letter, containing three lines. Answer my question, will you be mine?”
“Alright.” She urged her horse forward, though her smile betrayed her. “We should be there soon.”
Indeed, it didn’t take long for them to see the stilted wood houses of Bent Tree. The cluster of homes were gathered in a circle around the tree for which it was named. A thick trunked tree with black bark twisted a few feet above the ground it took a sharp turn at nearly ninety degrees, and its branches curled up into the air. Other buildings trailed away from it, shops and trading posts, and a distance away was a small hill with a white stoned church at its top, and a row of graves behind it.
Finding directions to the placed had been difficult. The town was far away from anything other than more rural towns and farmlands. The man at the inn a few days’ ride from here had been vague about the sort of trouble Bent Tree was in, but he’d used the words ‘dire peril,’ and Violetta had been intent. She’d bought the gentleman a few more drinks, and he’d sworn an unholy terror was stealing the lives of people in Bent Tree, and with their pastor buried in the ground, there was no one to protect them. They’d ridden out the next day.
The town was quiet as they approached. No one was out doing chores, no children played between the houses, no work songs rang out. Violetta shouted a greeting, and no one responded. Gabe nodded up towards the church on the hill. They could hear a faint murmur descending down from it.
“It’s not Sunday, is it?” Violetta asked.
“I didn’t think so,” Gabe said.
They left their horses at the tree and trekked up the hill. There was indeed a congregation within the walls of the church, but it did not sound like prayer. Their eyes drew to the tombstones just behind the church. Three fresh dug graves were still dark with overturned dirt. Violetta stepped forward to read the names on the graves. Mercy Jones, 1872-1888, Andrew Templeton, 1858-1888, and Edward Parish, 1879-1888. Those were only the most recent names. Three more from the last month, and even more were from the last year.
A slight breeze touched her hair, and it carried with it a whisper, a sob, a prayer, “It’s all my fault.”
Violetta whirled around. A girl sat at the steps of the church, head buried in her dress. Her brown hair fell to one side, and her shoulders shook with sobs.
“Are you alright?” Violetta asked.
The girl jerked her head back, her bright blue eyes rimmed red. She wiped her face. “Who—who are you?”
Violetta gestured Gabe over. He passed an uneasy look at the graves.
“We want to help,” she said. “I’m Violetta. This is Gabe. What happened here?”
“I—“ She stared at them. “I—“
The door to the chapel opened, and they caught the glimpse of the inside. The townsfolk were inside, carrying people wrapped in white sheets. The coughing and the moaning of those carried in cloth were a low rumble in the air. A woman stood in front of them, staring at the travelers. Her hands were gloved, and a white apron covered her blue dress. She narrowed her eyes at the travelers as she pulled the girl to her feet.
“Maria,” she said, grip tightening. “Who is this?”
Maria gave them a fearful glance. “I—I don’t know.”
“I’m Violetta Talbot,” Violetta said. “We were told you were having some trouble of a supernatural nature by a gentleman a few towns over. He said something was stealing the lives of your people.”
The woman huffed. “That David Christchurch. Maria, go back to the house and find me some more linens.”
“But mother,” the girl protested.
“Go, now. We’re almost done here.”
She gave the travelers another look before running off. The woman removed her gloves and placed them in the pocket of her apron. Her hair was turning grey at its roots, and she pulled it back into a tight bun. She didn’t seem so old, but the weight of her duties was etched into her face.
“My name is Martha Parish,” she said. “We sent David Christchurch to find a doctor or a priest. Neither of you hold the title.”
“He was very clear there was some kind of demon here,” Violetta said.
She gave her a hard look. “He was mistaken.”
“There’s something happening,” Gabe said. “Those people aren’t well.”
Martha looked at the gravestones behind them. “We have sick. Our pastor was taken by the illness, and we’ve had no one to help care for the rest. Until we have another option, we’re keeping them here.”
“Martha!” a man shouted from within. Others were appearing at the door. “What’ve you found?”
“Travelers,” she said. “Passing through.”
“We were told of you supernatural malady,” Violetta said.
“They’ve come to help?” the man asked.
“David was supposed to bring us a doctor,” Martha said.
“It’s not a doctor we need,” another woman said. She peered at the travelers. “You know of spirits?”
“We’ve a passing knowledge,” Gabe said.
“It’s not what they need!” Martha insisted.
The man turned on her. “It’s your daughter that’s brought this on us.”
“Maria’s done nothing!”
“She’s the reason the revenant’s taken so many!”
“She’s just a girl! She didn’t know what she’d done!”
“Hi, hello.” Violetta waved her hands in front of them. “You said revenant.”
Martha curled her hands into fists, but she only turned and stormed away. The rest of the town spilled from the church. There weren’t many. It was a small community, barely thirty people in all. Gabe spied maybe ten people curled up within the church. Their faces were white and flushed red. Their chests racked with coughs, and they were thin and wasted away.
“We’ve been attacked each night,” a man said. “Something comes into our homes, wasted away our people. We’ve lost so many in the past year.”
“Not to state the obvious,” Gabe said as he spied inside the room. “But this is consumption.”
Violetta looked through the door and jumped back. Her gaze turned to the townsfolk. “They have the white plague?”
“We thought so too,” a woman said. “When the first girl died, Father Ben said it was consumption. Then the others started getting sick, so fast they didn’t even last a year. Even more having been getting sick, even faster as well.”
“We moved them to the church,” another said. “To keep the devil away.”
“This is,” Violetta said slowly, “quite a lot.”
Gabe caught her expression. It was not her usual gung-ho enthusiasm.
The townsfolk descended the hill back towards town. A few stayed behind to care for the ill. The sun was on its way down over the plain, and the air was warm and humid, but no one opened their windows to let in some air. A small building was marked as the town meeting hall, and they went in. Gabe caught a glimpse of Martha Parish leaning down and speaking quietly to her daughter. As the others passed, she held a protective hand over her, and sent her inside. The town hall was small, and thin benches were its only seating. Sawdust covered the floor, making the air thick to breathe.
“It seems best to start at the beginning,” Violetta said.
There was a murmur as to who would be the one to tell, and the man who’d argued with Martha stepped forward. His name was Matthew, and he was a tall man with a wide brimmed hat and soft wrinkles to his face that made him look sorrowful. He took his hat in his hand and told them the story of Lucy Golding.
“She was just a girl,” he said. “We all knew what it was the moment she had it, but for a long time she was fine. She worked and played with the other girls. When she finally died it was hard on all of us. Father Ben stayed up with her through the night, and she was coughing up a lot of blood. In the morning we all helped dig her grave, laid her in the ground, and let the family mourn.”
“And then the pastor got sick,” Gabe said.
He nodded. “Only it didn’t take so long for it to claim him. Two weeks after we buried Lucy, he started wasting away the same. In a month he was dead. We buried him too, sent word out, but other people were getting sick already. All of the Golding family caught it, from her youngest brother to her grandparents, and then other families. Martha Parish’s baby boy died a month ago after having the sickness for just a few weeks. Those in the church right now, they’re all wasting away faster than we can do anything about it.”
“You blamed that girl,” Violetta said.
There was some discontent here. A few of the townsfolk nodded eagerly, while others looked at Matthew with sharp eyes.
“Maria Parish was Lucy’s best friend,” a younger girl said. She tugged on her blond curls as everyone’s attention turned to her. “Everyone knew how close they were. After her brother died, she—“ She glanced at the others. “Well, she went a little mad, I suppose. She told everyone it was her fault, that she’d let Lucy in even though she knew she was dead.”
All eyes turned to Martha Parish, who was standing in the doorway. Her expression was cold.
“My daughter was sick with grief,” she said. “We all were.”
“You didn’t go around accusing the dead of coming back,” a woman said.
“What exactly do you think you have here?” Violetta asked.
No one wanted to say. Matthew looked down, and Martha sighed, crossing her arms, and said, “Lucy Golding’s a vampire.”
There was a long pause, and all eyes drew to the travelers. Violetta was wide eyed, her hand over her mouth. Gabe glanced at her.
“This may be a stupid question,” he said, “but has anyone actually seen the vampire?”
“Except for Maria?” Matthew said. “No.”
He looked at Martha. “Is it alright if we speak with Maria?”
She glanced at the others and shook her head. “Not here. I won’t drag her in here to be interrogated.”
They followed her out of the town hall. She walked briskly ahead of them, and Gabe looked again at his friend.
“You’re quiet,” he said.
She shook her head. “It’s consumption, Gabe. This is what it does. It wastes people away.”
“Thought you’d be excited about something like a vampire.”
“Vampires are for penny papers.” Her face was grim. “A girl died and everyone got sick, so it became easy to blame her.”
Martha led them into her home. It was a small space with a few rooms. Maria was in her room, staring out her window at the hill. She stood as her mother came in.
“Maria,” her mother said, her voice turning soft. “These two people want to know about your dreams.”
She stared at them with her big blue eyes. She’d been chewing on her bottom lip. It had started to bleed.
“You said I shouldn’t,” she said.
“I know, baby.” She held her daughter’s hand. “But once more won’t hurt anybody.”
She looked at the travelers. “They’re strangers.”
“Not so true,” Violetta said. “We met you up at the church.”
She gave an ashamed glance to her mother. “I didn’t mean to go there.”
“It’s alright. Go on. I promise nothing bad will happen.”
Maria gave her a look like she knew it was a lie, but she turned to the travelers and sucked in a breath. “It happens almost every night lately. I’m asleep in my bed. I started closing my windows because—after Lucy died. I’ll hear something tapping at it. When I go to the window to see what it is, Lucy is there. She still looks sick. She begs me to let her in. I tell her I can’t, that she died, but she says she misses me, and I have to let her in, that she’s scared. And I do.”
She looked at her mother again, whose face was like stone.
“She told me—she told me she didn’t want to hurt me.” Maria’s eyes watered with fresh tears. “She never tells me what she means, but she’ll touch my face and tell me that. Sometimes I’d wake up and she was standing over Edward, and when he got sick, I knew.”
“That she was a vampire,” Violetta said.
“Lucy always comes to your window?” Gabe asked.
Maria looked her hands. “Sometimes she wouldn’t. I’d see her walking between houses, knocking on other people’s homes. Those people got sick too. It’s all my fault. If I hadn’t let her in, Edward would still be here, and all those other people too.”
Martha shushed her daughter. “People get sick. It’s not your fault when it happens.”
“But it is! And even after I knew it was wrong, I still did it. Every night she’s there, and I can’t stop myself.”
Maria was crying now. Martha hugged her daughter tight and gave a hard look to the travelers.
“It’s been a difficult year for everyone,” she said. “We’ll speak outside.”
Violetta and Gabe stood outside the house while Martha calmed her daughter. The townsfolk had returned to their regular duties, and a few glanced at them as they went on with their work.
“Something tells me you aren’t excited about this,” Gabe said.
Violetta watched the people pass. “They found out consumption is contagious.”
“My mother used to tell me people only got it because they had bad blood. Turns out anyone can get it.” She played with her sleeve. “I knew girls who read these romance novels and were desperate to get it. They wanted to be pale and bone thin. But I’d seen people who could not stand because it’d traveled so far, and their bedsheets were covered in blood they’d coughed up. It wastes you away until your insides are coming out of you, and there’s not a thing you can do one you catch it except die.”
“I knew lots of folk who had it,” Gabe said. “They kept working all the same. We don’t get to fall on fainting couches and stop working just because our lungs wheeze a little.”
She smiled. “What is it you think I did in London?”
He ignored her. “People can live a long time with it. There’s those hotels for it. I’ve been to one.”
“You have not.”
“Helped a friend who was too sick to travel alone. It was a swanky place.”
“My point is,” she said, “these are a lot of sick people. Of course the pastor was the first to get ill. He stayed up with the girl all night. And then it was her family, and then it’d be Maria and her family. They spent a lot of time together.”
“It is happening fast.” Gabe glanced at the hill of graves. “People can live for years with it. This isn’t even galloping, it’s taking weeks for people to die. It’s a wonder they’re looking for something strange.”
“I don’t think there is.” She listened to the conversation within the house. The words were only a distant hum, but the distress was clear. “What do you think?”
He shrugged. “Telling them honest we don’t think it’s a vampire would be a start. I don’t know if there’s a way we can convince them.”
“Hm.” She stood away from the door as Martha stepped out. “I suppose the least we can do is try.”
“Thank you for upsetting my daughter again,” Martha said. “It’s not enough that she’s hounded by these people every day, now I must deal with strangers who want to dredge up painful things.”
“It’ll please you to know there’s nothing concrete here,” Violetta said, offering her a sweet smile. “I’d isolate the sick anyway. Consumption’s contagious.”
Martha stared at them. She had the same blue eyes as her daughter. “You don’t think there’s anything?”
“Just good old fashioned tuberculosis.”
“Oh.” She held her hands together. “That’s fine then.”
Gabe frowned. “You don’t sound pleased.”
She steeled her eyes to him. “All I want is my family left in peace.”
“Do you think there’s any truth to what your daughter’s saying?”
She stuttered just a moment, but it was a moment too long.
“You did say back at the church,” Violetta said, “’She didn’t know what she’d done.’”
“Because she didn’t.” Martha’s voice grew softer. “She’s just a girl.”
“What do you think is happening?” Violetta asked.
She didn’t look at them. She lowered her voice and said, “I think I saw her.”
“You think?” Gabe asked.
“I thought I was dreaming as well. We’d moved Edward, we had to. He was crying in the night, and I got up to bring him some water. Someone was standing over him. She was in all white, and she reached over him, and his crying stopped. I dropped the water, and when she turned around it was Lucy. She fled in an instant. I held Edward, but he was already asleep, and when I looked outside there was no one. I even went to her grave the next day, but it seemed undisturbed. I thought it was a nightmare, until Maria started talking about her dreams.”
“You could’ve said something,” Violetta mumbled.
“No. These people want to blame my daughter for letting in a vampire, but she hasn’t done anything wrong. I don’t blame her for Edward any more than I’d blame God for letting our last child die. These things happen. It’s part of life.”
“I don’t know if vampires count as a natural cause,” Gabe said.
“Alright.” Violetta gave a displeased sigh but straightened her spine as she got down to business. “We should at least see her grave.”
A few people followed them back up the hill, keeping back a pace in case any ghouls jumped out at them. A number of the younger kids were following. It was still a game to them, a horror story to tell.
There were a number of fresh and new graves. Martha’s hand brushed her son’s as she led them past the newest row. Lucy lay between her parents, her headstone simple as all the others. The grass was growing back over it. No one had disturbed it, certainly not from beneath.
“I’m still pretty certain it’s consumption,” Violetta said.
“I don’t actually know anything about vampires,” Gabe said.
She shrugged. “Neither do I. I read Carmilla some time ago. I suppose the usual way of dispatching one is to dig up its corpse and remove its head.”
He grimaced. “Not the most respectful end.”
“Neither is death by vampire, I imagine.”
Matthew was coming up the hill towards them. Martha was already turning away, and she gave him a glare as she did so. He strode up to them, shaking his head.
“Martha Parish was never the happiest soul,” he said, “but she’s become a lot harder. Two children lost, and another cavorting with the undead. She’s taken it hard.”
“Cavorting’s not the word I’d use,” Violetta said.
He ignored her. “None of us have seen this much death in a while.”
“You still blame Maria,” Gabe said.
Matthew looked at him from under his hat. “Suppose it is a little hard to put so much weight on a young thing’s shoulders. But she’s the one who invited the revenant in, and even then, she’s kept her health while everyone around her dies.”
Gabe and Violetta had the same thought, but they kept their heads on the grave.
“It wouldn’t hurt to camp out here tonight. See what rises,” Gabe said.
She turned to the sky, which blushed with sunset. “No, I suppose not.”
They broke bread with some of the townsfolk, who listened intently as Gabe told them stories, but Violetta was in a sour mood. They held up outside, and as the moon rose high into the sky, they watched over the gravestones that dotted the hill.
A few kids had given Gabe a bowl full of apples, and he sliced one with his knife, offering Violetta the pieces.
“You’re usually all about throwing yourself in dangerous situations,” he said.
“Being sick—being around the sick—it makes me nervous.”
“You get nervous? I saw you stab a tailypo once.”
“Well I’m not scared of tailypos, or Tall Men, or blood-sipping lizard monsters.”
He grinned as he started skinning a second apple. “I’m amazed to find something that actually gives you pause.”
“I pause.” She pouted. “I pause all the time. What about you? You don’t seem to mind at all that people are dropping like flies from a sickness.”
He shrugged. “I spent a few years looking after cows and livestock. They get sick all the time. After a while it stops phasing you.”
“Didn’t your father die from some disease?”
He frowned a little and wiped the juice from the apple on his pants. “He was just sick.”
She chewed on her apple, feeling badly for bringing it up. “All I mean is we ought to be cautious.”
“Those are words I never expected to hear out of your mouth.”
She took another apple slice and watched the hill. She’d read a few penny dreadfuls in her time, though her mother had chided her for unladylike reading habits, and they usually involved castles up on dark hills, or dark squalid streets of the city. Ethereal ladies cascading down from graveyard hills to wreak havoc upon an unsuspecting town did seem in line with how those books suggested vampire attacks usually happened, but she didn’t trust much the salacious writers who were only trying to thrill.
Something flickered at the top of the hill.
“Gabe,” she said.
He looked up as well. There was no movement now. The moon curved around the earth, starting its descent down. The hill was cast in shadows, and the only light burned from within the church. A square of light spread across the gravestones, and then a shadow passed through it. They saw no one.
They walked up the hill. The people within the church were quiet with sleep, or as quiet as they could be with blood seeping from their lungs. Their wheezing was a low whistle in the night. Their footsteps crunched on the dirt, but there was no other sound. Gabe grabbed her and pointed to the door of the church, left open. It cast long light that cut through the darkness. Within it the people slept, heads curled into blankets, relief from the late summer heat sending a sigh through the wind.
Gabe’s grip tightened on her, and she looked over the gravestones. Something fluttered at the edge of light, and Violetta realized there was a figure standing there. They stood unmoving as the wind caught the white linens. Their head was turned away from them, but thick hair fell back over their shoulders. The sleeves of the gown were stained red, and the figure lifted their hands to their face.
Violetta took a step forward, and her foot stepped on Lucy Golding’s grave. The figure lifted their head, and in a moment they were running, passing through the gravestones as if they couldn’t be touched, and Gabe and Violetta were scrambling after them. The figure disappeared past the hill, and when they came to the other side, they saw the white cloaked stranger curled at the bottom of the hill. Gabe reached down to help the person up, and Violetta stopped short.
Gabe lifted up the person. The woman’s face was gaunt, and her breath rasped in her chest. Blood poured down the front of her nightgown, and she wrapped the linens tighter to hide it.
“Are you alright?” Gabe asked.
She looked at him with bleary eyes. “Wha—why did I come outside?”
“You don’t remember?” He helped her up the hill.
The cough overtook her, and she buried her head in her sheet. Violetta took a few steps back.
“I was—I was asleep.” The woman held onto his arm as though she’d fall over. “I thought I heard…”
She stopped as they came to the graves. Her hands shook, and she squeezed them tighter around her blanket.
“There was a girl,” she said in a quiet voice. “I heard her. She asked me to open the door.”
“Did she hurt you?” Violetta asked.
“I think I ran from her. It feels like such a strange dream.”
They carried her back into the church. No one else had woken. The woman thanked Gabe as he helped her back into her bedding. He returned to Violetta’s side, and they walked around the church together. No more ghostly figures haunted them, and they stood at the grave of Lucy Golding, shining a light on the dirt.
“She’s feverish,” Violetta said.
Gabe kicked some of the dirt. “You think she’s the same woman who was running away.”
He didn’t say anything.
“Alright,” she said, throwing out her arms. “Let’s say vampires are real and people are dying because of that. What do we do?”
“Dig up the body, I guess.”
They stared at the grave. Violetta sighed and started back down the hill.
“Whatever gets us out of here fastest,” she said.
He stared out over the graves a moment longer before turning to follow her.
In the morning, they gathered up a few of the men, and they set to work unearthing the grave. Maria watched from a distance, and Martha Parish stared them down the whole time.
“It’s not right,” she said. “The dead should be left in peace.”
“Not if they refuse to leave us in peace first,” Matthew said.
“It’s crude,” Violetta said. “But you said you wanted your family left alone.”
Martha turned away, taking Maria’s hand, and they walked back to the town together.
“You’re sure about this?” Matthew asked.
“You wanted to stop a vampire.” Violetta shrugged. “This is how you do it.”
She wasn’t actually sure. Vampires had been contained within the pages of fiction, and the only reason she had a glimmer of an idea was a story she’d been told in Connecticut after a few drinks in a superstitious town. She had little doubt the sick would make a miracle recovery, but if it could offer some peace of mind, they could move on.
Gabe was among the men digging up the grave. They struck the coffin beneath and heaved it up together. The simple wood was flat, barely in the tapered shape of a coffin. Dirt blackened its surface, and a liquid dripped from a bottom slat. One of the men took a crowbar and pried open the lid, and nearly everyone watching took a step back. The stench poured out, smothering precious oxygen, filling their lungs with the rancid gasp of the long dead. Violetta brought her hands to her nose, but beside her Matthew stumbled back as though the stench had slapped him. The other men reacted the same, but a few peered into the coffin to see the girl one more time. Gabe pulled his shirt over his face, but she could see the frown twist into concern. Violetta stepped forward and looked within.
Lucy Golding had been pretty. Her soft face was bone white, blond hair had turned stringy and clumped, her cheekbones had sunken in, and her arms crossed over her chest showed black welts. The white gown they’d buried her in had taken on dirt and grime, but worst of all was the clear streak of red down her mouth and dress. It hadn’t even started to brown, not where it poured from her lips, not where it stained her neck, not where it streaked from her eyes like tears. It was fresh.
Violetta looked at Gabe. He gestured to another man, who handed him a handkerchief, and he reached into the coffin. He brushed it to her mouth gently, and then he jerked away. He gave the corpse a discerning look before inspecting the blood.
“It could be normal decomposition,” Violetta said through her hand.
He looked again at the body. Lucy slept as peacefully as the day they’d laid her inside.
There was a quiet shuffle as one of the men brought forth the axe. They each looked to the other to take it. Gabe took it for them, and relief touched their faces. They all stepped back as he raised the axe and brought it down on her neck. The sound of the blade hitting bone cracked in the air like lightning. He raised it again, and again the sound made them jump. It took two, three more strikes, and the head was removed. He handed the axe to Matthew, who held it out as though it would come alive. Gabe lifted the head, and the jaw opened, vomiting blood like a river. Surprise dropped the head from his hands, and Lucy landed on her own body with ugly wet splat. He backed away, wringing his bloodstained hands in the handkerchief.
Those who’d come for the macabre show were quickly dispersing. They were happy to let the strangers handle it. Matthew remained, though he looked less and less certain. Violetta leaned over the coffin and gazed at the young girl, her white flesh, the once gold hair, the empty face staring up, lips slightly apart, blood still fresh.
“What would a vampire look like?” she murmured.
Gabe shrugged. “A lot like this, I’d imagine.”
“No one’s disturbed the grave. She’s been untouched.”
“For a moment…” He pulled his lips together.
“What?” Violetta asked.
“It’s a trick, probably. The way people seem to move after their dead.”
She peered into the coffin in case Lucy gave the slightest twitch. “I used to read about people being buried alive. I had a friend who was terrified of it. She wanted those little bells built into her grave in case.”
“I knew some folk like that. An old man in the town I grew up would take naps with a sign around his neck that said ‘I ain’t dead.’”
“Do you ever think about what happens after you die?”
“Since I met you?” He smiled. “Every single day.”
They finished the dirty job together. Lucy’s head rested at her feet now, and they debated momentarily about taking off her arms as well before deciding to let it rest. With some help, they guided the coffin back into its resting spot, pushed the dirt back over it, and finished before noon. Violetta had asked after the woman they’d helped last night, and a red haired woman told her Darcy Little had gotten worse overnight. In the humid day, they’d opened up the church doors to let the air circulate, and the groans from within laid as heavy as the air itself. Once the dirt was patted down and they’d cleaned away the blood, Gabe and Victoria stood beneath the tree in the center of town and watched as people pretended it had been a normal start to the day.
“I can’t believe you want to stay,” Violetta said. She’d crossed her arms over her chest and was working up a pout. “The vampire’s dealt with. Vampires don’t rise when they’re bones are out of order.”
“It’s just a feeling is all.” Gabe was looking at the Parish house, where Martha, Maria’s father, and Maria’s aunt were arguing on the porch.
“Well.” She followed his gaze. “You’ve trusted me on less.”
The town seemed in good spirit at least.Now that the gruesome task was done, they could move on, pretend this was only a rough patch in the town’s history. They thought the ill should be getting better immediately, as soon as the vampire could no longer feed on them. No one noticed as Maria Parish ran up the hill and stooped over her best friend’s grave. She pushed her fingers into the newly turned dirt and cried thick tears. She started to cough.
Violetta found herself unable to sleep. It wasn’t an unusual occurrence. Her dreams haunted her more than the ghosts they chased, and often while Gabe slept, murmuring Marie’s name, which always made her smile, she would sit awake and occupy herself. Tonight she held the letter in her hand, and even in the darkness she could read it from memory. She held the envelope to her lips and closed her eyes. She wondered if Philomena came to her in her dreams, even as a ghastly figure covered in blood, if she could resist letting her in through her bedroom window.
A noise pulled her from her musings, and she glanced up the hill. It wasn’t a shadow that moved, but a young girl. Maria Parish had snuck from her home to her best friend’s grave, and Violetta didn’t blame her. She glanced at Gabe, dead asleep, and she followed behind, leaving her things where they were.
Lucy Golding’s grave had been returned to how it was, more or less. The mound of dirt remained, and the tombstone was muddied for their work. Maria sat at the foot of the church steps, watching the grave as though she believed the dead would rise one more time. Two lanterns hung around the door, casting a soft light. Maria looked as she heard Violetta approach, but this time she didn’t show fear or worry. Her face was resigned, and she clutched a handkerchief tightly wadded in her fist.
“Everything that’s happened is my fault,” she said.
Violetta sat beside her. “I felt that way often at your age. It was rarely true.”
“Lucy didn’t deserve to die. I wished her back so hard it came true.” She hung her head. “And then everyone else got punished for it. She doesn’t deserve any of the things that happened to her.”
Violetta sucked in a breath, but she didn’t have an answer. There were many unfair things in this lifetime, and she wasn’t sure if that extended to the next.
“I had a friend,” Violetta said, “who didn’t deserve what happened to her either. I’ll probably never see her again, and I feel constantly that it’s all my fault. But being guilty won’t fix anything. All that matters is what you do with it.”
“I know.” She loosened her grip on the handkerchief, and as it unfolded it revealed its bloody contents. “And I know what I have to do.”
Violetta looked up at the figure above her and started back. The young girl could be no older than Maria, blond hair falling over her shoulders, her pale face sunken and hollow, eyes pitch black. The white gown she wore was marred with dirt and blood, her nails were broken and black. Her lips were nearly white, but from her mouth streamed blood. She opened her jaw, revealing the bloodstained teeth, the black tongue, the long, sharp teeth.
Maria only looked at her sadly. She held out a hand, and the dead girl took it. Her touch was hesitant, and she tilted her head as though she were trying to remember.
“I know who you want,” Maria said. “I’m ready.”
Violetta rose, reaching for her knife, which was still missing, and her gun, left down the hill. The vampire looked at her, and a jolt struck her chest, and her vision blurred as her head started to spin. Lucy closed a hand over her friend, and then Violetta crumpled to the dirt.
Gabe woke to a commotion. He hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but several nights staying up until dawn had made sleep a tempting offer.
He glanced beside him where Violetta was spread across the ground. She clutched in one hand the letter she hid in her bag. He shook her shoulder, and she started awake, staring at him with wide eyes. It took her a moment to register her surroundings and the shouts from the town. They both stood, following the sounds of the heated argument.
They rounded the houses to see the Parish family in front of their home. Matthew stood in front of them with a crowd of people. In the arms of Maria’s father was Maria herself, limp and pale, struggling gently to sit up.
“This has gone on long enough!” Matthew was shouting.
Martha had one hand on her husband’s arm, and she braced herself to the crowd. Calmly, she looked at the mob that was forming in front of their home and said, “She’s only a girl.”
“She’ll die like the others.”
Her hands curled. The family’s eyes locked.
“She grew ill so fast,” Martha’s husband said. He held his limp daughter as though she would shatter.
Gabe and Violetta moved past the crowd. “What happened?” Gabe called.
Matthew and Martha turned on them. Violetta’s hand flew to her mouth when she saw Maria, and she grabbed Gabe’s arm.
They were interrupted again by the thudding of a coffin on the ground. Several men had carried it down the hill, and they didn’t meet the eyes of the Parish family. They could see, peeking through the crack of the broken lid, the strange form of Lucy Golding. Her head was no longer rested beneath her feet. There was the smell of fire somewhere distant, and they could see the smoke drifting up behind the town hall.
“It’s the only thing left,” Matthew said.
Maria lifted her head as weak as she was. Her eyes locked on the coffin, and her pale lips moved with thin words that could not be heard.
“What are you going to do?” Violetta asked, her own voice weak, and her eyes were also locked on the coffin as though Lucy may spring from it at any moment.
“She’s been taken by the vampire,” Matthew said. “Maria will die, unless–”
“Unless they burn the heart,” Martha finished, her blue eyes cold. “And she ingests it.”
The crowd quieted with the full breadth of what they planned to do. The Parish family looked at the coffin. Maria was crying, even as her body started to convulse, and her lungs hacked blood onto her nightgown.
“That’s cannibalism,” Gabe said.
“She’s a monster.” Matthew looked at Martha. “And it’s the only cure.”
The smell of smoke was thick. The dead body lay there. A man held an axe in his hands.
Martha looked at her husband and her daughter, whose lips were stained with blood. She closed her eyes and stepped aside. Matthew nodded to the man, and he raised the axe.
No one shouted or shook their fists. The town watched on as the men went about their work. They felt every heavy thwack of the axe, and they turned their head as they raised the heart from her body. Maria wept, curled in the embrace of her family. Gabe moved to stop them, but Violetta held his arm tight, shaking her head. She couldn’t voice what had happened, but he trusted the fear in her eyes.
They brought the ashes to Maria, mixing it with water. She screamed as they brought it to her lips and kicked against her parents. Her wails was enough to turn even Matthew’s face, and she screamed Lucy’s name. She flailed violently, slamming her fists against her father’s chest, but her mother pushed a hand through her hair. Martha was the one who fed it to her, and when she finally took the medicine, she held her daughter’s face and cried. They took what was left to those in the church, and the Parish family carried her back inside.
The crowd dispersed. Matthew and a few of the other men brought the rest of the body to the fire, and the horrid scent of her body turning to ash bloomed in the air. The town did not look at each other as they took away the last of the coffin, and the men returned the dirt to the earth.
Violetta and Gabe went to the grave after the men had left. Those inside the church still coughed and moaned, and the stench of the fire below was still thick. Martha Parish came up the hill as well, pausing as she saw them.
“How is Maria?” Violetta asked.
She shook her head. “I don’t know. She’s so sick.”
“She wasn’t last night,” Gabe said.
Violetta looked down at the grave. “Do you think she was taken by a vampire?”
“I don’t know if it matters.” She sighed as she looked down at the town.
“We’re sorry we weren’t more helpful,” Gabe said.
“There wasn’t much you could do,” she said. “I lost our youngest before all of this. She was only a baby. At the time, I–I could barely hold it together, but I didn’t blame anyone for it. Not God, not myself, not anyone. People are taken from us. We can only mourn.”
“If Maria is taken from you?” Gabe asked.
She touched her sleeves. “I don’t know.”
They gathered their things. They didn’t bother saying farewells.
“You sure you’re alright?” Gabe asked as they were away from the town.
Violetta shook her head. “Bad dreams is all. Sing me something, will you?”
He grinned at her. “Now I know you’re feeling worse.”
But he sang something anyway, and she never bothered to complain.