Receperint Angelus Mortis

Sooo…. I wrote a horror story. The above picture was my prompt for July, I clearly had no choice. I don’t like horror; I don’t watch it, I don’t read it. But, I do appreciate a good challenge. So, here is my honest-to-goodness attempt at writing horror. I tried to make this scary, so read at your own discretion.

—— —1— ——

Stephen Elwood Allen was almost three when his sister died. Abigail saw less than a year. The disease came soft and sudden, a stagnation of the effervescent life which was hers, and proved the only thing in all her days to keep her still. She died in his arms. Convulsing.

Stephen sobbed, holding her tight – praying to God, Jesus, and the Devil – but it was never going to be enough. He held her until the foam leaked from her mouth and soaked his sleeves, until her limp figure stiffened, but he didn’t tear his eyes from her glazed stare.

He wanted to, but he couldn’t. Not until his father came home from the factory and pried her cold flesh from his arms.

Infantile Paralysis. That’s what the doctors whispered, only looking up from their notes and clip boards to ask technical questions. He sat in that same wicker chair where Abigail had died, but he didn’t seem to exist. The doctors offered him little more than a pat on the shoulder after their first question – about the precise date and symptoms of the onset of Abigail’s symptoms – elicited no response. His father was back in the factory, and while his mother did nothing but cry, at least she managed to form words through her tears.

In the end the doctors left. They didn’t know what caused Abigail’s suffering or how to prevent it, but one thing they assured with near-certainty: it was non-contagious. 

Stephen Elwood Allen caught it the next day.

Three was a tender age to witness death, and a tender age still to contemplate his own. On the fourth day he could no longer move his legs. He sobbed that entire night – afraid to die, afraid to live when he’d let Abigail die before him – but the morning came and went. As did the one after, and the one after that.

He lived. The angel of death passed him over as swift and sudden as it had taken his sister. But it did leave scars.

After a year of therapy he managed to walk again, with a brace like a cage clamped around his left leg, and often with the assured weight of a crutch pressed into his armpit. But he was alive. Stephen Elwood Allen lived when eighteen others died, marked forever as one of the one hundred and thirty two whose fleshy vessels would lurch towards eternity with permanent paralysis.

Poliomyelitis eventuallybecame the disease’s official name. And 1894 in Rutland County, Vermont was only the beginning.

His mother never recovered. Some said she caught the disease, too, but Stephen was never sure. But she did lose her baby, a wrinkly red-skinned girl she named Elizabeth. The baby had no hair, and while her fragile chest heaved and her twig-like limbs moved once, she never opened her eyes. Stephen held her, too, but he didn’t cry. He wanted to. His mother did. But Elizabeth was such a little thing – hardly bigger than his hand – and she never smiled at him like Abigail had.

He never saw his mother smile again, either. She withered away, her limbs shrinking to the size of her bones, her shiny black hair turning stringy and matted. She did nothing but sit in a chair in the attic – sometimes singing softly and out of key, sometimes rocking back and forth with empty arms cradled against her chest – her haunted eyes staring out of a pale face as she watched the rain drip down the window pane. He couldn’t be sure she stared at the green fields beyond, or held the gaze of her own skeletal reflection in the glass.

When she died, it was the first time Stephen saw his father cry.

They buried her in the backyard, digging the hole together, beside the little stone in which he’d spelled Abigail with his favorite marbles. It was almost dark when they shoveled in the last bit of dirt, and his father leaned back to wipe his sweaty brow on his sleeve.

“Father,” Stephen said, scrubbing his dirty hands on his pants, “shouldn’t we say a prayer?” That’s of course what the priest did, in the service for the others, which saw the whole town of Fair Haven in attendance. It had been a proper funeral, one his father could not afford.

His father spat on the ground. “What good is prayer for the dead, boy? Or for the living, for that matter. Hold to yourself, and hold to your own. Because wait long enough and the whole goddamn world’s gonna fuck us all.”

Those words scared him, and he fell silent.

All the same, he came out the next morning – leaning on his crutch, bare feet plodding against cool grass in the light of the rising pink sun – and whispered his own prayer, on his knees beside his mother and two sisters. It was a silly little appeal, half childhood odes he learned from the curly-haired girl at school and half scripture verses he thought he remembered, but on the lips of a child it became a fearful thing.

Fortunately, it was the last time he prayed. His father died a year and a half later – an accident, in the factory. The other workers found his head, and his leg, but only half of one of his arms. Most of his blood stained that factory floor, but Stephen forced himself to meet his father’s dead gaze anyway. Even with the gnarled body, it didn’t scare him the way Abigail had.

It was easy to look away.

He dug the grave himself, beside his mother, beside his sisters. It took him all day, the setting sun stretching the shadow of the lone yellow birch until it fell across the shipping crate which was his father’s casket. He didn’t shed a single tear.

Once he filled the hole, he left the shovel and mattock at the graveside and walked – in the dark – to the train station. He didn’t even change out of his muddy clothes. There was a time he feared the dark, but not anymore; daylight had brought all the horrors his eight years witnessed. Once the sun rose, he met the ticket master at the gate and purchased a pass to the farthest destination he could afford. New York City, New York.

Stephen Elwood Allen, scarred by death and cursed by life, left Fair Haven with the intention to never return.

But we all knew, inevitably, one day he would.

—— —2— ——

Stephen leaned his head against the window and let his eyes fall closed. The lull of the train should have been enough to coax him to sleep, had his traveling companion ever learned to keep his mouth shut.

“Did you see this?” Matthew crinkled the newspaper as he pointed to the cover photo. “Fifty are believed to be dead, and another twenty-one hurt. The force of it shattered windows and even damaged the statue of liberty. They say the Germans did it.”

Stephen groaned and opened his eyes, then gave Matthew the satisfaction of a cursory glance over the title. It was printed in bold letters: BIG MUNITIONS EXPLOSION AT BLACK TOM. “So what?”

“So what?” Matthew’s face twisted into an entirely too self-assured frown. “I told you about what happened in San Francisco, right? The bombing at the Preparedness Day parade?”

Stephen grunted again. “You did.”

“They say the Germans did that, too.”

The silence lingered between them, the pause accented by the creak of the train cars over the tracks.

“Well?”

Stephen laughed, the sound anything but cheerful, and raked a hand through his blonde hair. “Well what?”

“Well, it means war! A world war. The Brits and the Germans are already at each other at Somme. And they say three hundred thousand died at Verdun. They sunk the Lusitania.”

“A British ship.”

“Carrying American citizens.” Matthew slapped the newspaper shut in his lap. “You really don’t care, do you?”

Stephen sighed and watched as the fog from his breath dissipated on the window pane. “What do you want from me, Matt? You think I should join the army? Fight and die for limeys and Frenchmen and Huns who are all set on fighting and killing each other?”

“No.” Matthew glanced down at his feet, almost remorseful. “I was just making small talk I guess. Current events and all.” He opened the paper, as though he were reading it, but he clearly wasn’t. “I was kind of surprised to hear you’d be coming to this.”

“Hm. Well, Father Harrison was good to the both of us.”

Matt grinned. “Maybe, after all this time, you don’t actually regret following me into St. Patrick’s Cathedral?”

Stephen shrugged. That cold, winter’s night many a year ago on the streets of New York it was either join the Micks or join the gangs. More than once Stephen wished he chose the gangs.

Matthew sighed and stuffed his newspaper under his arm. “You know, I just thought you’d have more to say? It’s been three years after all.”

Stephen grunted. It had been three years. Three long years, and Matt hadn’t changed a bit. He had the same bright, hazel eyes, the same short brown hair brushed back from his forehead. The neatly trimmed ginger beard on his cheeks was different, but it only made him look more the man he’d always been at heart.

“I see you put on Jesus’s dog collar, just like you said you would.”

Matt laughed, the wild ruckus nearly shaking the passenger car. Stephen would never tell him how much he’d missed that, but he couldn’t help but crack a smile.

“So you are still in there somewhere.” Matthew socked him in the shoulder. “What have you been getting yourself into? I take it your plan to jump one of those freighters in the harbor didn’t pan out?”

That was an understatement. “I’m a day laborer, mostly. I was a crane man for a while at the mill.”

“You got a girl?”

“I don’t know how to answer that question, coming from a soon-to-be man of the cloth.”

Matt laughed again, then gave him a look that said he’d better offer some kind of explanation or forever measure up inadequate.

“I’m not seeing anybody at the moment. I share a flat with a couple other guys, split the rent. I suppose I’m not too much different than you in that respect, although I hope seminarians bathe more and drink less.”

“Are you happy?”

Stephen chuckled. Happy? That was an odd question, one without any bearing on reality. He couldn’t say he’d ever really been happy, but why should he expect to be? One thing always lead to another, like stepping stones half submerged in brackish water, circling in an endless loop, and he was the idiot who kept jumping to the next one.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral led him to St. Joseph’s Seminary, and just when he’d managed to shake free of that place it’d dragged him back here, to Rutland County Vermont. To Fair Haven. The one place in the whole goddamn world he never wanted to see again. The painted town sign hung over the train station, all of it more worn and weathered than his mind’s eye remembered it, but a familiar dread settled into his gut as the engine came to a screeching halt.

Matthew gathered up his bag as the other passengers started to rise from their seats and make their way towards the door. “Didn’t you say you came from somewhere up here?”

Stephen grunted. The most he’d ever told anyone was that he’d come from the north, and that was as much as he ever planned on telling. He fumbled with his bag as he reached for his crutch.

“Let me get that.” Matthew caught the aged leather satchel before it toppled to the floor, and tore it out of Stephen’s hand even as he mumbled in protest.

Weakness was the touch of death on the streets, and thanks to his bum leg he already bore the mark more clearly than most. Matt was the only one who never seemed to notice.

Stephen stuffed his crutch under his arm, then hobbled down the walkway after Matthew. For a time he’d managed to move about without such support, but the past year his leg had been weaker than usual and, to his shame, that left him dependent on the shaft of wood jammed into his left armpit.

Father Bailey’s tremulous voice carried over the murmur of conversation as Stephen fumbled down the narrow stairs and into the platform. “Gather here, gather round.”

Matthew shouldered both his pack and Stephen’s – his broad shoulders and thick frame made it look easy – and took a place at the back edge of the ring of seminarians gathering around the Father. Aside from his height, Matt fit in naturally with the group. Each of them bright-eyed, each of them hopelessly naïve.

Stephen shuffled up beside Matthew, and stole a glance around the platform as Father Bailey continued to speak. “Now, we are to attend the service first, and then we shall all meet at the clinic where Sister Theresa is expecting us to…”

A white sign with block letters hung beside the ticket master’s booth:

CHILDREN UNDER 16 NOT ALLOWED TO ENTER THIS TOWN

He’d seen similar signs, posted on trees or on stakes by the railroad tracks, during the trip from New York. And he knew why all too well: it was because of the newest polio epidemic. He tried to tell himself otherwise but the disease still terrified him, caught hold of him deep in the marrow of his bones. Doctors knew more now than they had when he was young, but only how to quarantine the contagion and diagnose the disease using spinal taps and large needles. They didn’t know how to stop it, or how to cure it.

Polio was an angel of death which came for not just the pharaoh’s first born son but all the children, rich and poor alike. Thousands were sick in New York, and in some respects Stephen had been excited to leave it – even for this – at least for a time. But, of all places, Father Harrison had to have retired to Fair Haven.

“Stephen?” A woman’s voice rang out from the other side of the platform. Stephen realized that Father Bailey must have finished speaking, and he caught himself staring aimlessly into the crowd. “Stephen Elwood Allen?”

He squinted and had to take a step back as a young woman strode towards him with a bright smile and a hand raised to wave. A white nurse’s bonnet nestled into her cascading black curls – she’d clearly attempted to hold them back with pins, but was largely unsuccessful. A white apron, emblazoned on the chest with a simple red cross, overlaid her blue blouse and hung tight around her hips, accenting both her wide bosom and her narrow waist.

Stephen’s face flushed with heat as she pulled him into a hug.

“It is you! Oh, what has it been? At least fifteen years!” She stepped back and cupped his smooth cheek in her hand, and he fought to keep his face from turning any redder. He failed. “What happened to you? After your father died, well, we all just had to think you were dead. The city auctioned off your house.”

“I…” He was completely unprepared to speak. She was the curly-haired girl from school. They’d laughed together and read picture books together and jumped out of trees into the creek together and he didn’t have the decency to remember even her first name.

“Wait,” Matthew leaned forward and dropped his bag at his feet. “Stephen, you’re not from here, are you? I mean, right here?”

Stephen let a growl echo low in his throat, but the curly-haired girl turned her big smile on Matt and curtsied. “Bridget Campbell. And yes, Stevie is Fair Haven born and raised as true as I am.”

Matt nodded and flashed the smile that had all the girls in New York cursing God’s call. “Matthew Donnelly.” He glanced from Bridget to Stephen, then barked a laugh. “You left this beautiful countryside for New York City?” His gaze fell on Stephen’s braced leg and he stopped smiling. “Oh God, Stephen. The first outbreak was here, wasn’t it? And I always thought it was a wagon or an automobile accident…”

Stephen tried to shrug off his friend’s pity and did his best to keep Bridget from seeing how much he leaned on his crutch. “We’re only here for a day or two.” He kept his voice level and emotionless. He wasn’t sure why it was so difficult. “For Father Harrison.”

“Oh.” Bridget’s pretty smile vanished, leaving a ghost of her former cheer, and somehow that hurt him. “Well, I’ve been sent to fetch you, then.”

—— —3— ——

They had the viewing first, for three hours in Our Lady of Seven Dolors Catholic Church, followed by a mass. More than two dozen straight-back wood pews – a row on each side of the isle – nestled under red-stone arches in the high ceilinged room of that church, and most seats were filled with townspeople, sisters, priests, seminarians, or nurses. Father Harrison’s casket lay opened on the congregant’s side of the short, white railing which edged the altar stage. His face was deathly pale and his lips blue, but done up in his priestly garb with his hands folded over his stomach, he almost looked peaceful.

He was the first dead man for which Stephen could say that.

Stephen himself felt out of place – a wolf among sheep, a sinner among saints – but at least he didn’t have to sit with the rest in the pews. His place was the balcony in the rear of the church, on the bench before the organ. It was a magnificent instrument, painted white to match the church walls, edged in gold paint and topped with spires and crosses which reminded him of those old British castles he’d seen in postcards.

And it sounded beautiful.

The music took him away, and for just that moment he lost himself. He coaxed the intro from the highest set of keys, then merged into the main harmony of The Strife is O’er, his fingers dancing across the three levels to add a pep and complexity to an otherwise simple tune. The organ pipes thrummed overhead, the melody humming in his chest before it floated out among the congregation to blend with the impromptu choir of sisters and seminarians.

Death’s mightiest powers have done their worst,
and Jesus hath His foes dispersed;
let shouts of praise and joy outburst.
Alleluia!

His mother had taught him the piano, years – a lifetime – ago, before Abigail, before the façade cracked and everything good fell away to reveal the true, rotten core underneath. Young idle hands loose in St. Patrick’s had learned the organ between morning and Sunday masses, and even with a bum leg he could work the floor peddles as well as anyone.

It was rare moments like these where he might believe he was happy after all.

Father Bailey, Matthew, and a few of the other priests closed the casket and began the procession out of the church. A few of the sisters continued the vocals as the rest of the congregation followed the procession; some of the women dabbed the corner of their eyes with embroidered handkerchiefs. Stephen continued to play, repeating the first verse even as the final sister stepped out into the overcast summer afternoon.

The last thing he wanted to do was end the song.

Bridget leaned up against the side of the organ, and he missed his note. And the next. She wasn’t in her nurse’s uniform anymore, she wore a flowing, tri-tiered blue dress, belted around the waist, with tight sleeves and a dipping collar that was borderline immodest compared to the nun’s habits. His cheeks flushed with heat as he fumbled through the rest of the song, but Bridget bobbed her head to the tune anyway, her loose curls bouncing beneath her wide-brimmed Edwardian hat.

The final tones of the organ rang in the empty church, and Bridget flashed him a smile. “That was very beautiful.” She neither spoke nor sang, but her next words formed a flowing melody. “Come, thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace – do you know that one?”

“I…” Stephen rubbed at the back of his neck as the color flushed all the way to the tips of his ears. “I, yes I know that.”

Bridget’s smiled widened and she fiddled with an ugly bracelet on her wrist. It was almost as if she enjoyed watching him squirm. “You made this for me, you know.”

“Made?…for you?”

She slipped off the bracelet and held it out on her palm. It was a strip of baling twine decorated with a few loose sewing buttons and a small ring of wood, about twice the size of a quarter, which had a crude hole cut through the near center.

“There used to be a flower here,” she picked at a knot on the far side, “but it dried up and fell out. Do you remember it? We sat on the banks of the creek and I made you a necklace of wildflowers and you made me this.” She laughed, nearing a giggle, and tucked her hair behind her ear. “We said we were going to get married.”

He had no memory of anything like that. “I remember.”

She met his gaze, still smiling but now searching his face for something. She had green eyes, the size of emeralds with twice the depth and shine. Heat surged through him and he struggled with the urge to either move closer to her or look away. “I suppose you’re married now, though?”

Bridget laughed again, although this time it wasn’t cheerful. “I’m only twenty-five. I’ve got six whole months before I officially graduate from a spinster to a thornback.”

Stephen studied her, more thoughtful this time. Maybe he knew what she was searching for. He pushed himself to his feet, making sure to leave his crutch tucked up against the organ, and offered Bridget his elbow. “Everyone else’s gone to St. Mary’s. Walk with me?”

—— —4— ——

He shouldn’t have left his crutch at the church.

The cemetery was farther away than he remembered, across the street and down the sloping hill towards the creek, and Stephen ended up needing Bridget’s arm far more than she needed his. She noticed – he knew she noticed – but she didn’t say a word.

He almost wished she would.

By the time they reached the grave most of the townsfolk had gone home and Father Harrison’s casket sat at the bottom of that gaping chasm in the earth. Gravediggers, three of them, pushed shovels-full of black dirt into the hole as the sisters and seminarians whispered a decade of the rosary.

Stephen stopped several yards from the grave. He couldn’t make himself take another step. Father Harrison had been more of a father to him than anyone – at no fault to his true father, perhaps, but now the both of them were dead just the same. It hadn’t felt real before, back when he could hide behind Matt’s smile or the organ’s all-encompassing drone, but there was no escaping it now.

Good and bad, young and old alike, all dead, all withering and rotting corpses buried six feet under. Death was the only thing in all of his twenty four years he’d learned to rely on.

Bridget rubbed his arm, gently. “He talked about you, sometimes. Or well, a Stephen at least. A sullen orphan boy who hardly said a word, but who could play the piano or organ as well and easy as most men can walk. I never imagined it was you.”

His first instinct was to tear himself from her grip, and if it had been anyone else he would have, but something about her made him want to take hold of her hand instead and never let go.

As though anything he’d held onto before had ever stayed with him.

—— —5— ——

Once the gravediggers finished filling the hole and the mourners started towards home, Bridget made him ride in the hearse. In actuality all she did was jump up into the rear of the wagon with a smile and entice him to join her, and as much as he thought he wanted to Stephen couldn’t resist that. The horses plodded up the sloping dirt street back towards town, he let his feet dangle off the edge of the wagon, and the sisters’ Tin Lizzie sputtered along behind.  

Thanks to all that walking his leg ached, and he tried to rub under his brace without Bridget noticing. She took off her hat and spun it slowly in her hands, running her fingertips over the stitching at the edge. “…you don’t have to prove anything.”

He met her gaze, but she looked up only to study his brace.

“Polio does terrible things, I’ve seen the children at the hospital. Some have their face…” She motioned to her cheek and then shuddered. “Some never walk again. But you…you traveled the world, all on your own, even after…”

“Bridget, I’m leaving tomorrow.”

Those emerald eyes met his, then, and something caught in his chest. Her lip trembled and, in spite of herself, she appeared ready to cry. “You’ve found someone else already, haven’t you?” She smothered a sob and hurled her hat into the wagon. “And here I’ve been, practically throwing myself at you. At Father Harrison’s funeral of all places. I’m sorry, Stevie.” She laughed, a desperate attempt to cover her true emotions, and wiped a tear from her eye when she thought he wouldn’t notice. “Does anyone else even call you that?”

No one had ever called him Stevie, not even his mother. “Some people do.”

The lead horse whickered and the cart lurched to a stop; Stephen had to catch Bridget by the arm to keep her from tumbling out onto the street. The sisters’ automobile came to a screeching halt behind them.

“Watch yerself, now!” the hearse driver called out, shaking his fist.

A little girl, dressed in a white bonnet and a threadbare blue dress, stepped out of the way of the horses and darted along the road beside the picket fence. She took a few steps past Stephen’s seat in the hearse, then turned back as though that had been her intention all along. The sunset chased away the shadow under her bonnet; on the right her face was as normal as any brown-eyed child’s but her left side hung limp, her eye wrinkled shut, her jaw open and loose so that drool ran down her chin.

“For you.” Her words slurred, and it was a wonder she could even speak. She held out a brooch made from deep purple gladiolus flowers. “The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart. Merciful men are taken away, none considering that the righteous are taken away from the evil to come.”

Stephen pushed himself backwards into the wagon, fleeing the girl’s gift as though it were a burning coal she was about to place in his lap. He didn’t know why he was afraid, but he knew he should be.

 Bridget shot him a look, then jumped down and crouched at the girl’s side with a smile. “Those are lovely flowers. Are you lost, darling? You should be more careful in the street.”  

The girl pointed over the worn fence, across the waist-high stretch of weeds that may have once been a yard, and towards the white house which sat a hundred yards away beside the scraggly skeleton of a tall dead tree.

Stephen’s stomach lurched. It was his house.

The new tenants had not been kind. Paint peeled from the wood siding, one corner of the front porch sagged behind the weeds, and most of the shutters hung on one hinge or were missing entirely.

Figures brushed past the screen door to stand on the porch. There were four adults, two women and two men, each dressed in similarly thread-bare clothes as the girl. Deep bonnets hid both the women’s faces and the men stood in the shadows, their features unclear.

They were silent. Watching. Waiting.

Matthew jogged up from behind the sisters’ automobile. “Is something wrong?” He caught sight of the girl beside Bridget and broke into a grin. “Well, hello there! What’s your name?”

The girl didn’t answer until Matt knelt down beside her, and even then her voice was a harsh whisper. “Abigail.”

Stephen flinched and had to fight the urge to call out.

The girl pinned the brooch on Matt’s chest, among the buttons of his black seminarian’s shirt. “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.”

Matthew laughed, although his grin strained. “That’s first Corinthians fifteen, but you’re missing the best part: but now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits-”

The girl bolted. A skinny thing, she slipped between the rungs of the fence and tore through the weeds until she reached the porch. The nearest woman held out her hand, the girl took it, then the five figures processed back into the house as slow and deliberate as they had appeared.  

Matt shrugged. “Strange girl.”

Bridget huffed as she hauled herself back into the wagon, glaring at Stephen. “What was she supposed to do when all someone sees is the scars and not the person underneath?” She plucked up her hat and brushed off the dust before plopping it on her head. “Really, you of all people…”

The hearse lurched to a start and Stephen scowled as he settled into the sway, the clop of the horses’ hooves, the air filled with the sputter of the old automobile trailing along in the wagon’s dust. Bridget’s scorn would have hurt him, but she had no right to be angry.

And, in the end, what did it matter? He was still taking the train tomorrow. Maybe this time he would head for Philadelphia – or Cleveland, or Detroit – and leave Fair Haven behind for good.

—— —6— ——

Stephen awoke to a scream.

He sat up with a lurch, fumbling in the dark for the matches and lantern on the bedside table, and with a shaking hand he managed to light the flame. “Matt?”

Silence lingered in the flickering, firelit shadows. Matthew thrashed under his blankets and clamped his teeth down over another shout. The room was small, one of just a few open in the convent, and Stephen stumbled across the open floor to the second bed, lantern raised.

“Matt?” Fear edged his voice as he placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder.

Matthew’s limbs went rigid; his eyes flew open wide and blood swirled in the whites of them. “The angels shall come forth and cast them into the furnace of fire…wailing and gnashing of teeth-!” His words merged into a cry and he caught hold of Stephen’s sleeve. “Gather the ones marked…gather the ones…”

Stephen pulled away, his hands wet with Matt’s sweat. The cover fell back, revealing Matt’s bare chest to the light – a burn mark ran across his sternum, a red and blistering mass the approximate height and shape of the gladiolus flowers the girl had pinned to his shirt.

 Stephen stumbled to the door. He didn’t have his crutch or his brace, but even after he fell he left the lantern on the floor and crawled until he could grasp the doorknob and haul himself up.

“Hey!” He threw the door open and hobbled into the pitch black hallway, his own shadow stretching twisted and gangly on the wall across from him. “I need help!”

—— —7— ——

It might have been morning when Stephen woke next, but this time it was to Bridget placing a warm mug of coffee in his hands. He sniffed, shaking the sleep from his mind, and caught hold of the mug as he straightened in his seat.

The smile she gave him was soft, devoid of the contempt she’d shot at him when they last parted. She wore her nurse’s uniform again, and – sleepily – he couldn’t decide which of her dresses he liked better.

“You shouldn’t sleep in a chair like that, you’ll get a crick in your neck.”

He nodded, slowly, and took a sip of the coffee. It was dark, and piping hot. “Is that your medical opinion?”

She blushed. “Maybe just a little advice between friends?”

Stephen let out a long sigh and tried to embrace the warmth of the coffee as it sank into his stomach. Surely he looked a mess – he hadn’t changed out of his bed clothes, which were merely the shirt and trousers he’d worn the whole day before. He smoothed his hair down with his hand, then set the coffee aside and pushed himself to his feet to join Bridget at Matt’s bedside.

The hospital ward itself was long, each side lined with metal beds, most of which sat empty as the polio patients were kept separate from the rest of the population. That left few nurses working this floor, and Stephen could only remember seeing one doctor, hours ago. The man tried his best to be confident and reassuring but Stephen had lived long enough on the streets to know when a person was lying about what he did and didn’t know.

Bridget ran her bare hand over Matthew’s sweaty brow. “Has he said anything?”

Stephen shook his head.

“Well, the fever’s broken at least. I still think he could have eaten something-”

“He was poisoned, Bridget.”

She sighed and shoved her hands into her apron pockets. “I’m a medical professional. We’re trained to go after the most reasonable and likely diagnosis first.”

“Look, you saw his chest-”

She pulled a pamphlet out of her pocket. “It took me a little while of asking around. Apparently only the girl ever comes out of that house to talk with anyone. Though, rumor has it one of the men is named Augustus Weaver.”

“Am I supposed to know him?”  

Bridget shrugged. “I do. He was a six year old boy who died here two months ago. Of polio.” She pressed the pamphlet into his hand. “Look at this. The girl was trying to hand them out a while back.”

The top ran bold letters, Receperint angelus mortis, followed by a single sentence: Dominus venit in iudicium, sed usque ignotum hora mortis regnat.

“It’s Latin, I can’t read it.”

Bridget scoffed and snatched the paper. “I’m a nurse and you’re friends with a Catholic priest, between the two of us we ought to be able to figure something out. Like here,” she pointed to the second word in the heading, “that has to be angel. And mortis ­– like rigor mortis. Maybe it means death.” She held the pamphlet out towards him. “You try.”

“Welcome.” He let out a shuddering breath and leaned a hand against the cold bedframe to steady himself. Bridget eyed him half concerned, half curious. “That’s the first word, they say it at mass sometimes. The heading reads welcome the angel of death.

—— —8— ——

            Stephen sat stiff-backed in his chair as the hour passed. Sleep did not come this time. Bridget had to continue on her rounds, so that left him alone at Matt’s beside, listening to the murmur of cries and voices in the ward. That is, until Father Bailey and the seminarians came pray. Stephen sat silent as they recited a mystery of the rosary, and then they only left once he’d promised not to leave Matt’s side until he was awake, or dead.

            Not that Stephen had any other intention. The priests needed to return to New York, but he had enough money in his pockets to get by for a while longer. His flat mates and the other day laborers wouldn’t miss him.

            The sun rose, and then sank again – its final rays burned orange on the opposite wall before Matt stirred. Stephen stood and shoved his crutch under his arm, guts churning with something too hopeful to really be fear, and he had to smile when Matt opened his eyes. They were still bloodshot but far less red than before.

            “…Stephen?”

            “I’m here Matt.”

            Matt shuddered and latched onto Stephen’s wrist. “Oh God… oh God I thought I was…” He clenched his eyes shut, tears dripped down his face and to wet the pillow. “There’s something evil about that place, something… I should have known it, I should have been able to fight it, I…”

Stephen grasped his hand. “You’re alright.”

Matt’s face broke into a smile, but it was a look of sorrow not mirth, a perversion of the edacious cheer that had always been his. “I’m not ready to die. Jesus, I should be, but I’m not.”

Who in the world was ever ready to die? Stephen had the sense this was a moment someone else would say something comforting, but he had no comfort to give. Death simply was, and anyone sensible either respected it or feared it.

“Stephen, do you remember your parents?” Matt took in a deep breath and clenched his hand all the tighter. “I don’t remember mine. They died, that’s all I know. Influenza. They raised me, gave life to me, brought me here, but fuck me I don’t remember them. I don’t remember Ireland. I only remember you and me. The streets of New York. Just you and me.”

—— —9— ——

            The sun hung low and red on the horizon when Stephen finally made it to the gates of his house. Something burned within him, hot anger kindled from the coals that always smoldered and never really cooled. Matt was a good man. Matt was anything and everything he had left in the world.

            They would pay for what they’d done to him. They’d pay for everything.

            “Stephen!” Bridget’s voice carried over the rustle of the wind in the trees, and followed the thunder of hooves. She jumped from the horse’s bare back, leaving the animal on the road, and ran to his side. “Stephen, you can’t go in there.”

            Bridget. She’d lost her nurse’s apron and her hat. Her wild black hair hung like a mane down her shoulders, her cheeks flushed red with exertion. She was good, too. Better than he deserved. But she wasn’t his, wasn’t yet something he could lose.

            “Don’t follow me.” The gate creaked as he pushed it aside, and he strode towards the house with as much gusto as he could muster. The dry weeds which lay across the walkway crunched under his feet.

            “They’re dangerous.” Bridget ran beside him, easily. “We should get the police.”

            “Do that.” He reached the porch and she still kept at his heals. He whirled around, fists shaking. “Dammit, Bridget! I said don’t follow me!”

            She bit her lip but held his gaze. “Fine then. I’ll get the door for you.” She pulled back the screen, and all Stephen could do was hope she’d stay there.

            He studied the rusted knocker and considered using it, but strength flared within him and he threw his shoulder into the door. The lock busted and he tumbled, on his hands and knees, into the house. Bridget gave a cry and ran after him, but he latched onto his crutch and pulled himself to his feet.

            Inside, the interior sat as though nothing had been touched since he left it, seventeen years ago. The swoop-back couches in the living-room sagged under inches of dust, moths had eaten at his mother’s heavy valance curtains and the red light of the setting sun streamed through the tattered cloth. The damp air hung with the dank stench of mold and rot.

            Bridget coughed and Stephen pressed his sleeve against his nose.

“Hello!” His voice rang dully in the silence, the tone deeper than it ever had been when he ran through these halls as a child.

He pressed down the hallway, towards the kitchen, and the stench worsened. Bridget screamed as something crunched under her feet. He turned back, but she laughed – and stepped closer to him.

“It was a beetle.”

Hordes of them crawled along the baseboards, flat black insects not much larger than this thumbnails. Some came, some went, and all fled his footsteps.

The buzz of flies met them in the kitchen’s doorway. Bridget gagged and Stephen stopped to lean against the doorframe. The wood tables, the granite counters, and the tile floor were scattered with food – most of it rotten, half of it raw, and all of it squirming and crawling with maggots.

“A child lives here?” Bridget covered her nose with her hands. “This is… this is just unacceptable.”

A floorboard creaked in the living room. Stephen shoved Bridget behind him, placing his body between her and whatever was to come. She squeaked as more beetles crunched under her feet.

Pretty Bridget. Pretty Bridget. The voice echoed in the house, from everywhere and nowhere at once. Too stout for William Miller.

Bridget started to reply, but a figure split from the shadows. One of the men – same as Stephen had seen on the porch the day before – now stood in the living room, motionless except for the single step he’d taken to stand in front of the window. The setting sun rimmed his figure blazing red.  

Clever Bridget. Clever Bridget. Too headstrong for Lewis Young.

“Shut up!” she shrieked and Stephen whirled in front of her as another figure appeared in the kitchen. It was one of the women, her mouth moved as the voice spoke but the words themselves came from beyond her.

Kind Bridget. Kind Bridget. Too forward for Stephen Allen.

Bridget smothered a sob, and Stephen took hold of her hand. “What’s the game, mother fuckers? You’re all gonna answer for what you did!”

A third figure appeared at the base of the stairs, near the front door which still hung open. The second woman. Dying sunlight chased the shadows away from half her face.

Stephen flinched and Bridget screamed.

The woman was dead. The woman should have been dead. She had no eyes, just gaping shadows which oozed bloody liquid and puss. Deep purple marks indicated she’d either cut or clawed those eyes out herself. Stringy hair dripped from her pale scalp, her mouth dangled open, perpetually – like a skeleton – and nothing more than rotting flaps of flesh held her jaw in place.

Still, she could move it as the three figures spoke in one voice.

Stephen Elwood Allen.

Stephen Elwood Allen.

He gripped Bridget’s hand tighter, so that she wouldn’t notice his trembling. “What do you bastards want?”

The nearest woman stepped towards him, and the others followed after her. They hummed, low and gravely and rhythmic, the dense air trembling as dirty pots and pans shook and clattered in the kitchen.

Gather those with the mark. Welcome the angel of death.

The Lord comes in judgement, but until the unknown hour death reigns.

The man twitched, sputtering in his own voice strange words and phrases. They might have been Latin, or German, or nothing sensible at all. The woman in the kitchen began to sing, softly. The song was The Strife is O’er, but backwards – every word, every note exactly out of place. Snarling, the nearest woman raised a slender, pale hand and stretched it towards him.

Over all of it the voice echoed. Death is everlasting. Death is peace. Death denies no one. All will fall. Bend a knee to the angel of death.

Stephen whipped his crutch at the woman’s outstretched hand. The wood splintered against her pallid skin, but her arm didn’t move. She latched onto his throat and even as he clawed at her she tossed him aside as if he were nothing more than a child. He slammed into the wall in the hallway, the plaster buckling under his weight, then groaned as he pushed himself upright.

Bridget screamed as the two women merged towards her. “Get away!”

Stephen struggled to his feet, his bum leg weak but holding. The man appeared at his side, still twitching and muttering in eerie tongues – he reeked like a week-old corpse – and he kicked out Stephen’s left ankle.

Stephen fell face-first onto the musty carpet, and the man laughed.

“Get away!” Bridget flailed, but the first woman caught her by the arms and pushed her up against the wall. The second ran her dirty fingers over Bridget’s face, through her hair, across her chest, over her stomach. Bridget clenched her eyes shut and began to sob, muttering under her breath all the same. “…full of grace the Lord is with you…”

Stephen snarled. “Bitch! You-” As soon as he pushed himself to his feet the man kicked out his leg again. He tried to crawl, but the man picked up a splintered end of his crutch and jammed it through his calf and into the floor. “Oh, Jesus!” Pain surged through him, hot and agonizing, rippling in waves with his heartbeat. Blood leaked from the wound, thickening with the dirt on the carpet and sticking his own trouser leg to his skin. “Mary, mother of God-!”

The woman whipped around and the room fell into silence. She took hold of Stephen’s shirt and hauled him up to eye level with her sockets; he smothered a scream as it wrenched his injured leg. She was close enough to kiss him, had she any lips, and her noxious breath enveloped his senses.

Jesus I recognize. Mary I know. But, Stephen Elwood Allen, who are you?

            The room swirled in a blur of light and shadow; he was drowning in the smell of blood and the stench of death. He fought for consciousness with all that he had left, but the last thing he heard was Bridget scream, the sound echoing on forever as the darkness dragged him under.  

—— —10— ——

            A buzzing like a thousand bees rang in his ears.

Stephen opened his eyes to white sunlight, but he couldn’t move. He gasped for air, but it caught in his lungs. Weight pressed on his sternum, but he could see no one – see nothing beyond the rusted frame of the bed on which he lay.

            It was his bed. The bed in which he’d spent nearly eight years of his first nights.

            He tried to move his arms, his legs – his left calf ached, he could feel pain – but only his eyes responded to commands. His body lay in slumber but his mind was awake.

The ceiling, it was pointed and wood-paneled. So they’d taken him to the attic. He should have known that first by the wide-pane window through which the sunrise streamed. His mother withered and died sitting in front of that window.

            “Is the nice man gone?”

            Stephen flinched – he tried to scream, tried to move, but remained a helpless captive in his own body. Feet shuffled on the floor, and then the girl’s face appeared beside his mattress. She watched him, her one good eye staring, unblinking, as the other half of her face hung flaccid, and her drool, which already wet her dress, puddled on the sheets.

            “Is the nice man gone?”

            Stephen tried to answer, but he couldn’t speak. Words hummed in his throat but made it no farther. The girl reached out and placed her cold, clammy hand on his neck. He didn’t know if she wanted to strangle him or was trying to listen, to understand.

            “They say, give the flowers to you. They say, repeat these things. But the nice man deserved more. Is the nice man gone? The nice girl is gone.”

            We told you no, Abigail.

            The girl shrank back against the wall and folded her little hands against the front of her dress. She wasn’t wearing her bonnet anymore, and her blonde hair – stringy and dirty, like a body dug up from the grave – hung down to her shoulders.

            One of the women strode forward, her legs swishing beneath her floor-length dress. She had the longest, fullest hair of all of them, which wasn’t saying much, and her dress had a vest and two tiers to its lower ruffles. A Sunday’s best, in 1850. The cloth should have been a mix of greys and whites but fresh blood stained the bottom edges and sleeves, gleaming red like a beacon against otherwise drab surroundings.

            She smiled – at least, her decaying cheeks pulled back to bare more of her rotten teeth – and with her frigid hand she caressed Stephen’s cheek. He tried to move, tried to shout curses, but the most he managed was a twitch of his head and a choking gasp in the back of his throat. Her fingers drifted down his neck to his chest, then she grasped a side of his collar with each hand and tore his button shirt open down the middle. He shivered as the mix of damp air and warm sunlight fell across his bare skin.

            You are one of the marked.

            She felt along his left leg, pinching his weakened muscles with a sense of admiration and expectation. Stephen grimaced as she neared his wound – they’d removed his weaponized crutch but hadn’t the decency to bandage the hole it’d left in his flesh. Congealed and dried blood caked his trousers and a puddle of red stained the white sheets by his leg.

            She drove her fingers into the wound, cold flesh scraping against muscle and bone, and he bit down on a scream. No emotion breached that decaying face.

            We apologize for the damage.

            The woman snapped her fingers and the girl ran from the room. Silence hung like a weight around his neck, and in the lull the woman only stared, her head cocked to one side as though pensive, her empty sockets fixed on his face as though she really could see him. But the girl returned, carrying a tin bucket which was nearly as tall as she was. She fumbled with it, spilling its contents down the sides and all over her dress.

            It was blood. She left little maroon footprints of it in the dust on the floor.

            The woman took the bucket with ease, then turned the puss-filled orifices that should have been her eyes on Stephen’s bare chest.

            Nos praeparare. Receperint angelus mortis.

            She dunked her hand into the bucket, then with dripping fingers began to trace intricate patterns on his chest. Stephen clenched his eyes shut, it was the only thing he had left to do. He could only imagine where the blood had come from. It was warm, but dried cold on his skin.

            Oh God Bridget. Goddamn it. He told her not to follow him.

            The woman snapped her fingers again and Stephen opened his eyes. The girl ran to her side, carrying in one hand a soiled, wet rag and in the other a fire-poker, smoldering red hot at the tip. The woman took the poker and the girl placed the rag over his face. The scent was faintly sweet, with an overbearing undertone of something like hospital antiseptics.

He struggled – he could slightly move his head now – but the girl pressed a hand down over both his mouth and nose. Weakness rippled through him; his head spun and his vision danced, but he could still see the woman as she raised the glowing red metal and pointed it at his chest.

She began to chant, low and unintelligible, but the girl joined with her and the tune kept in beat with his heart. His head throbbed like a drum. Whatever was on that cloth pulled him back into unconsciousness, but it didn’t work fast enough. He screamed – out loud maybe, or just in his head – as over and over again that burning iron seared his bare flesh.

—— —11— ——

            It is time.

            Stephen cried out, his throat hoarse from the same, then winced as he landed with a thump on the floor. He was still in the attic but now lay in a crumpled heap beside the bed, and his trembling limbs could barely hold his own weight as he pushed himself upright. The sun still burned white in the windows and he didn’t know how much time he’d lost – it could have been minutes, could have been days.

            It is time.

            All four corpses stood in the room, surrounding him, staring down at him with demur hands folded. One of the men even held a hat. Of all things, a piano sat in the center of the dusty floor – for a moment he thought it was his, but his father had sold that old upright a few months before he died.

The girl stood near his head, studying him curiously.

You must dress.

She held out a folded white shirt, on top of which lay a black vest. They were sun-bleached with age, but crisp and clean from lack of use. Stephen nearly laughed. They were his father’s Sunday bests, he could almost smell the cologne on them, but the air hung too heavy with the stench of rot and his own burnt flesh.

            Under the company’s watchful gaze, he shucked off his ruined shirt, his chest throbbing. They’d burned an image into his pale skin, to the left and center of his sternum: a downwards pointing triangle, each line marked twice, an upside down cross, each bar marked three times, all rimmed by six circles, three on each side. His flesh around the wound already blistered and oozed, but at least the raised marks themselves didn’t bleed even as it ached to move them.

The sleeves of his father’s shirt were an inch too short for him, and the vest tight around the chest. He’d always remembered his father as such a tall man.

It is time.

The corpses moved towards him, their tone no longer patient. He tried to stand but yelped in pain as he moved his leg, and he couldn’t push himself any farther than his knees. The girl grabbed his arm and tried to help, but it did little good. Finally, one of the women – with the shorter hair, the one dressed in a peasant’s dress and a mother’s apron – grasped his vest with one hand and hauled him to his feet.

You will complete the ceremony, and then we shall be six.

Stephen laughed, bitterly, and spat in the direction of the nearest corpse. “Fuck you. Fuck all of you.”

The woman snarled and threw him down on the piano bench. The force jarred his leg, but he caught hold of the piano and managed to keep from falling to the floor again.

You will complete the ceremony. You are marked by death. You do not live life, you wait for death to take you, just as we wait. To welcome the angel of death.

Those words sobered him more than he’d ever admit. “What did death take from you?”

The echoing voice hissed, but for the first time the corpses spoke on their own.

“My daughter,” the first man said.

“My son,” came the woman. The two others gave similar answers.

Stephen nodded, slowly. “Polio?”

The voice shrieked, but the corpses answered in unison. “Yes. The angel of death.”

We will be six. The voice screeched in his ears, grating like microphone feedback. Complete the ceremony.

One of the corpses snapped their fingers, then the girl ran to a shelf on the back wall. It held mostly cobwebs alongside a few books, and she choose the largest tome which was bound in aged red leather. She returned to him, holding the book outstretched.

The woman in the peasant dress draped her crooked hands over his shoulders and leaned down until her noxious breath tickled his ear.

Give what you have and we will share what we are.

Jaw set, Stephen reached out and took the book. For all its pages, only six bore ink. He flipped to the first one, two live beetles falling out from among the paper, then set the book on the music desk. His hands shook so terribly that at first it was hard to play, but the melody was simple and he fell into the broken rhythm. The piano rang only slightly out of tune but as a whole the song remained discordant.

Humming along, the echoing voice was less in tune than the piano; the damp air tensed and the corpses swayed with the music. Stephen’s skin crawled and a chill ran down his spine. He thought he could hear whispers, of what was and what could be, quiet promises of uncertain peace, spoken by no one and meant only for him.

Some part of him, the broken and lonely child he’d never left behind despite the years, wanted to believe every word of it.

He neared the middle of what was likely the chorus before he recognized the song. It was a hymn, backwards. A hymn he knew by heart, thanks to the sheer number of times Father Harrison had chosen it to close a weekday mass.

Stephen laughed, and the whispers fell silent.

He shut his eyes to block out the twisted sheet music before him, then transitioned seamlessly into the proper melody. The few who ever heard him said he could sing, so he didn’t do it often – and never in the presence of company – because one caught with such a talent ended up in front of the congregation instead of behind. But now he sang anyway, starting with the second verse as though he’d been playing the tune properly the entire time.

“Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
let this blest assurance control,
that Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
and hath shed His own blood for my soul.”

The voice screamed, shattering the windows and shaking the foundations of the old house, the corpses snarled, but he moved into the chorus, adding a flair to the melody even though the out of tune piano wasn’t ready to support it. “It is well.”

The girl joined him, placing her hand on his knee as she harmonized. “It is well.”
“With my soul.”

“With my soul.” She was young, but matched his voice better than the piano.
The last verse they sang together. “It is well, it is well with my soul.”

With an inhuman growl, the woman grabbed him by the back of the neck and smashed his face into the piano keys. Light flashed, the room echoed with an incongruous clang, then she dragged him back and slammed him up against the wall, her hand clamped around his neck. Stephen laughed, though it ended up as more of a gag, and he grimaced as blood seeped from his surely broken nose.

We will be six. You have not the power to deny.

Stephen spit a mouthful of blood in her face; the speckles contrasted with her pallid skin like color on snow. “Bitch,” he had to choke out the words, “I already said, f-”

She threw him to the ground. Something creaked – maybe the floor, maybe his ribs – and pain shot through his arm as he pushed himself to his side.

“No!” The girl ran to his side, then stood between him and the corpses, her little hand on his shoulder as she faced the nearest corpse. “I don’t want to do this anymore!”

The voice hissed, but the corpses stepped back. We are already a part of you.

“No!” The girl began to sob and pressed her hands over her ears. “No! I won’t listen!”

Stephen smothered a groan as he pushed himself upright. There wasn’t much he had the strength to do, but one thing: he gently took the girl into his arms. “It’s alright…Abigail.” She clung to his neck; she stunk, her congested sobs filled his ear, her sputum drippled down his collar, but he didn’t let go.

He wouldn’t let go.

The woman in the peasant dress snarled, then took hold of the girl’s arm and wrenched her from his grip. It was a sudden pain, sharp and familiar; the girl tumbled to the floor, then curled into a ball, still crying.

Stephen gave a growl of his own and tried to force himself up, but the woman grasped him by the chin and titled his face to look at hers.

You are an empty vessel built with hate. Let us fill you.

Men’s shouts echoed up the attic stairs and through the broken windows, followed by the pounding of fists on the front door. The voice hissed, then three of the corpses vanished, all but the one woman. She held Stephen to the ground, her hand over his mouth, her head raised as though she were a cat listening for prey. He struggled, but his strength wouldn’t have been enough to match hers on his best day. And this was one of his worst.

The woman didn’t move, even as unearthly screams rang out in that house – two, each after the other – along with gunfire. There came another shot, a third scream; the woman hissed, grabbed him by the collar, and dragged him to his feet.

We do not perish so easily. We serve the lord of the dead, and come to welcome the angel of death.

She pulled him close – for a horrible moment he thought she was going to kiss him – but she breathed on him instead, her moist breath putrid with the stench of decay. He gagged, but the echoing voice spoke all the louder.

Let us in, Stephen Elwood Allen. You have not the power to deny.

He tried to fight, he tried to resist, but he’d carried death with him all his life. He’d let the idea rot and fester in the depths of his soul, and so when he took in the scent of it he could not drive it out. It already had a home.

A gun fired, too close and yet so far away. The woman’s head exploded – splattering him with blood and brains, washing him over with the stench of singed flesh – and her form collapsed in a heap of tangled limbs. He fell, his leg surged with pain as it struck the floor, but even that sensation remained distant. A man’s voice called out to him, might have said his name, but he could hear nothing above the voice.

We are here, Stephen Elwood Allen. We are home.

A figure crouched beside him as others moved into the room.

Matt? Stephen tried to talk, but the words snagged in his thoughts as his body moved on its own accord. He snarled, and his hands hung less than a foot from his friend’s neck before he – in horror – managed to pull them away.

Do not fight us. Your battle is already lost. The voice reverberated in his soul, overbearing and yet almost a comfort, like a hot summer day. He felt strength, peace. He was whole in ways he never had been before.

He lurched towards Matt, hands raised and teeth barred, then the pain returned. It was agony – his body spasmed, as though every vein within was on the verse of bursting. His hands shook and fought to ball themselves into fists, his neck crooked his head to one side, and even as he tried to breathe foam poured from his mouth. He wanted to fight it, but he had nowhere to stand; he clung to the edge, cast out of his own body.

When he spoke, the voice was not his own. There will be no escape this time. We serve the lord of the dead.

The other figures pulled away, shouting – they were police officers, Stephen recognized their uniforms now, and they took the girl with them – but Matt knelt down at his side and put a hand on his shoulder.

“Stephen.” Matt’s voice drifted through the screams. “Stephen, look at me.”

He tried, but the voices wouldn’t let him.

“There is only one Lord of the dead. He conquered death, and builds his kingdom among the living.” Matt dipped his thumb into a clear jar – a chrism jar – he pulled from his pocket, then marked Stephen’s forehead with the sign of the cross.

The mark burned. Stephen bit back a scream, but the voices couldn’t manage the same.

“Through this holy anointing,” Matt drew the cross on Stephen’s right hand, “may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit.” He drew a third cross on Stephen’s left hand. “May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.”

The voices shrieked; it was their agony this time, even as Stephen’s body felt racked with fire. It was a cleansing flame, too hot to be welcoming but under the circumstances he embraced it all the same. He wanted to hope. He wanted to live. The fire assured he could do all that, even more, and for the first time in his life he listened.  

Something shattered deep in the depths of his soul, and then they were gone. All of them. Gone. Silence covered the room for the first time in what felt like ages.

He threw up. And then he threw up again, over and over until surely there was nothing left, and then once more. When it finally stopped and he could take in a painful, rasping breath, Matt pulled him into a hug.

“Stephen, you idiot.” The words didn’t match his tone, and tears nearly stole the end of the sentence. “Bridget told me what you two did, I-”

“Bridget?” Stephen couldn’t think or see straight, but at least his voice was his own.

“She’s worried sick about you.” Matt drew in a sharp breath when he saw Stephen’s leg, then slipped an arm under his shoulder and gathered him up. “You’ll be alright, Lord willing.”

—— —12— ——

            Stephen woke up in a hospital for the second time in two days, although this time he was in a bed. His nose ached and his leg ached and someone had wrapped bandages around the burn on his chest, but he recognized the main ward. He never knew he’d be so happy to see the place.

 Matt paced at the foot of the bed, striding through a cloud of smoke as he pressed the cigarette to his lips, his gaze fixed on the floor.

“Matt, I thought you quit those.”

            His face jerked up, then broke into a grin. “I did. Well, for Lent. Look, it’s been a stressful…” He looked shamefully at the smoldering stub in his hand, then dropped it and ground it under his heel.

With a deep sigh, Matt settled into the seat beside the bed. He looked a little pale maybe, a little worse for wear, but nothing like when he’d been the patient and Stephen had been the one keeping vigil. “Stephen, if you ever want to…” he frowned and scratched the back of his head. “Well, if you ever want someone to sit there while you brood and never talk about it, then, I’ll be here.”

            Stephen cracked a smile; it went against his instincts, but he even chuckled. Matt raised an eyebrow in silent judgement and somehow it didn’t irk him like it should have. Maybe someday he would talk about it, but he wasn’t ready. Not now. He’d left something of himself behind in that old house, and this time he didn’t miss it.

Matt let out another sigh and slouched in his chair. “Maybe I just need to talk about it. The, the…” He shook himself, then clenched his fists. “I’ll call them for what they are: the demons, they… I can’t help thinking about the war in Europe. About the polio outbreak. About, about the darkness. It’s stretching towards us like, I don’t know, a shadow of death…”

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me.”

Matt burst into ruckus laughter, which earned him a sharp ‘Hush!’ from one of the passing nurses. “Stephen Allen, did you just quote scripture to me?”

He cracked smile. It felt a bit much, another so soon, but he let it stay there on his face anyway. “I’ve been hanging around with you so long, I’m not sure I don’t know the whole goddamn bible.”

Matt laughed again, and this time the nurses didn’t bother trying to stop him.

“Well, you were easy enough to find thanks to-”

Bridget. Stephen tried to throw back the covers, tried to get out of bed, but she let out a cry of protest, ran to his side and held him back. She tucked the blanket in around him – methodically, as she’d certainly done it thousands of times before for a thousand different patients – but her green eyes welled with tears even as she smiled.

“Your nose…”

Dark bags marred her complexion and gaunt cheeks, but she was standing there, in a simple, worn dress that matched her eyes, and he knew without a doubt that outfit was his favorite. His gaze fell to the bandage wrapped around her left arm. He took her hand in his and she let him run his fingers across the small, dark bloodstains. It must have been a deep cut, all along her vein from her wrist to her elbow.

“Once they got what they wanted, they didn’t care about me. They were more interested in you.” She swallowed. “I ran, but passed out by the road. Deputy Reed found me, and they-”

Stephen pulled Bridget into his lap. She squeaked and started to say something about his injured leg, but when he pressed his lips to hers she melted in his arms. Heat surged through him, and it only made him want to hold her closer. They finally had to break apart to breathe, and she met his gaze with a smile and wide eyes.

“Bridget Campbell, I apologize. I don’t think I’ve done one thing right by you since I stepped off that train.”

She blushed furiously. “That last one wasn’t so bad.”

—— —13— ——

            We lost Stephen Elwood Allen. He should have been ours, a child so marked by death, and yet he cast the pall aside. But the way is narrow, life’s end inevitable, eternity looms over all the living, and Hell’s unquenchable fire may still lick his soul.

The angel of death has come. Its hand, once outstretched, cannot be withdrawn, and still the world writhes in the throes of agony. Cut off one finger, nine more remain. This even Stephen Elwood Allen knows. Receprerint Angelus Mortis.

            Steven Elwood Allen, organist of Our Lady of Seven Dolors Catholic Church in Fair Haven Vermont, stood with his hands in his pockets under the misty light of the pale morning sun. His leg ached more than it used to and he had no choice but to rely on his crutch, but the few months since the incident had his wound healing well enough.

There was nothing to be done with the burns on his chest. Although the occasions when he woke up in the middle of the night – drenched in his own sweat, on the verge of screaming – he was tempted to tear them off with his own blunt fingernails. A reminder of darkness, though he stood in the light of better days.

It had taken until October for him to work up the nerve to return.

            The house was condemned, as it should be. He let the dark structure remain a shadow in his periphery, and instead took care not to tread over the graves at his feet. The groundskeeper from St. Mary’s had cut the grass and set up a headstone for his mother and father. They offered to replace Abigail’s as well, and while most of his colored marbles had long since fallen from the concrete it didn’t seem right to remove it.

            Footsteps crunched behind him and Stephen turned back to find Bridget picking her way through the tall grass. She gave him a soft smile as she clenched a newspaper in one hand and held her dress out of the morning dew with the other. A braid struggled to hold her hair out of her face, and she was quite simply the only beautiful thing to be seen for miles.

            “I didn’t think you’d be here.” Bridget stepped into the mowed grass, then let her dress fall and took hold of his hand. “I would have come with you, if you’d told me.”

            He squeezed her hand, cherishing the warmth of it. “I know.”  

            A crisp breeze rustled through the dead birch, forcing its bare branches to clack together.

            Bridget let her newspaper flap open and revealed a yellowed, rectangular paper she held in place with her thumb. “Well, there was nothing for me but you’ve got a telegram from New York. Matt says the little girl is doing well in her treatments, and she might be ready for adoption in the next couple months.”

            Stephen nodded, his gaze fixed on the glistening grey stone before him, and then he snapped to Bridget’s face. He couldn’t tell if she meant to imply anything, but her smile certainly widened when she caught him staring.

            “Don’t get any ideas, mister.” She pulled her hand from his, making a point to flare her empty left ring finger. “Oh,” her smile faded as she looked back at the telegram. “Matt said something else, too. Wanted us to look an article in the paper.” Bridget unfolded her copy of the New York Times and pointed to an interior article. “I read it, it says there was this woman arrested in Brooklyn-”

            Stephen laughed. “It’s New York, Bridget, not Fair Haven. I’m sure there were plenty of women arrested. Men too.”

            She gave him a look. “Well, this one tried to open some kind of clinic-”

            “What’s her name?”

            “Margaret Sanger.”

            Stephen shook his head. “Never heard of her.”

            The breeze whipped into a gust; it tugged at the peaks of the dead tree and slammed the lose shutters on the old shadow of a house. Bridget squeaked and jumped forward to latch onto Stephen’s arm, then laughed sheepishly.

            “Careful.” He gently pulled her from the edge of his mother’s grave, and then – with a start – he had to take a step away as well. There was another grave here. Stiffly, and with a tight grip on his crutch, he lowered himself to his knees.

            Bridget reached, tentatively, for his shoulder. “What is it?”

            Stephen placed a hand on the wet grass. He’d forgotten about Elizabeth. 

“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”

– 1 Corinthians 15:26

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