Enjoy an excerpt from D. Allen Crowley’s “The Unloved Dead” featured in our newest anthology ON TIME.
Autumn 1917 was warm, the warmest in memory, but the home where Claire had grown up was comfortably cool. Designed that way, the floor-to-ceiling windows of Claire’s bedroom admitted a continuous breeze that blew off of the green-blue expanse of Lake Erie. Claire turned her face from the windows and saw Eddie.
“We’ll be together forever, Claire,” Eddie said, “Death means nothing. Our love will transcend time.”
Fear and uncertainty warred with hope within her. Her thoughts muddled from her illness and the Laudanum she’d been given to ease her pain. She coughed again, a great, racking, harsh sound that brought another coppery-tasting gush of blood into her mouth.
He smiled tenderly, leaning forward in his high-backed wicker wheelchair. Wincing as he reached to hand her a linen from the stack on the end table, he wrapped his other arm around his stomach. As he tended to her, she could smell his own sickness: the sour, bilious smell of infection.
His thin, pallid, but still handsome face was filled with concern as she fell back to her pillow, exhausted.
“Yes,” she said, finally. She was just so weary. Anything would have been better than the endless pain and fatigue. It sounded silly, but he’d been so earnest about it.
He said he’d found the book in an old, bombed out house in France. Eddie had always been too smart for his own good, that’s why Claire had fallen in love with him. He might not have had her family connections and fortunes, but he was smart. He knew enough modern French to translate it, or at least enough to guess at the medieval French that the book was actually written in. He had spent almost all of his free time in the trenches doing just that.
He’d also found himself on the wrong end of a German bullet that, even now, was killing him. No matter what the doctors did, the wound would not heal. The young man, who had been so young and healthy when he’d first signed up to fight the Germans, was a shadow of himself.
She’d agreed to marry him before he left for Europe, despite the toll the consumption was taking on her own body. It seemed unfair. If he survived the war, he likely would have become a widower, but she thought she’d have much longer, that she might get better. Unfortunately, the consumption only worsened.
Claire and Eddie were both nineteen years old when they got engaged; and two years later, they were both on their deathbed—she from the curse of wet lungs, and he from the lingering wound of a war an ocean away.
“Claire,” Howie barked from the kitchen, “Order up.”
Claire jolted her head up and glanced around the diner nervously. She’d been so lost in thought she hadn’t heard him the first time.
As she hurried to get the food from the hot plate, she caught a glimpse of herself in the shiny glass of the cooler near the pickup window: flustered, but, as always, the face looking back still amazed her. Even after all these years, she was a young woman, pretty, full of life.
If only she felt as young inside.
She crossed the small diner to serve her only customer: an older man with a close-cut, steely-gray beard wearing a flannel shirt and jeans. Perched on his head was a camouflage hat that said Browning.
“Here you go,” she said, “Can I get you anything else?”
“Naw.” He looked up from his smartphone wolfishly. “I’m all good, pretty thing.”
Claire nodded and smiled again, a smile she’d spent years perfecting in countless diners. It was always the same. The world was populated by old men who couldn’t stop themselves from being creepy to young waitresses—the condescending smiles, the sly comments. An occupational hazard. Dirty diners and greasy spoons were the only work a woman on the run could get with little-to-no background check. There was always a waitress job waiting in the next town. When you’d been running as many years—as many decades—as Claire had, it was one of the few constants.
She went back to the counter and went back to mindlessly wrapping silverware in paper napkins.
The storm rolled across the lake before midnight; he wheeled into her room with his green canvas patrol bag perched on his lap. How unseemly for an engaged man to visit his fiancée late at night in her bedroom, but they were both beyond caring about propriety.
“Are you ready?” He opened the bag and reached for his supplies.
When he lay the black-bound book on a nearby end table and opened it to a lurid woodcut, a flurry of fear fluttered through her.
“Eddie.” The room filled with the flicker of candles and the occasional flash of distant lightning. Across Lake Erie came a distant thunder roll. “This is not Christian. What would my father say?”
“It’ll be fine, sweetheart.” He leaned close and kissed her gently. His breath laced with sickness and rot.
“I will perform the ritual, and we will be together forever.” He opened his shirt and pulled out a knife. Consulting the book, he carved a small symbol on his chest. He grunted with pain and was quickly finished. He turned to her, waiting as a wave of coughing shook her petite, wasted body.
“It will only hurt a moment, darling,” he said when she’d calmed. He unbuttoned the bodice of her nightgown.
She shivered as he exposed her breasts, but any thoughts of nascent desire, or belated modesty, was subsumed by pain as he quickly and efficiently carved the twin of his own wound upon her breast, over her own heart.
The storm broke upon the house, and the wind rose as thunder and lightning crashed.
Eddie chanted in a language she didn’t recognize.
The bell over the door rung—there was always a bell over the door—and a slim young man in a brown Highway Patrol uniform smiled at her.
“Hi, Claire,” Will said, removing his trooper hat.
Claire smiled back, yet again shocked at how handsome he was.
“Hello, Will. The usual?”
“You’ve got it. Coffee and pie, coming up.”
He sat at the counter, adjusting his duty belt and laying his hat on the seat next to him.
She got him a mug and poured the hot coffee before turning to the cooler. “Blackberry pie, okay?”
“Don’t you state troopers have fitness guidelines? You eat pie every time you come in here. You’re going to get as fat as a house,” she said as she set a piece of pie in front of him.
He laughed, patting a hand on the obviously flat stomach under his uniform shirt, “Probably, Claire. Probably.”
Claire flushed a little. What did his stomach look like with no shirt hiding it? Shame and self-recrimination made her swallow hard.
“The thing is.” Will ignored the pie. He was tall and blond, with broad shoulders and farm boy good looks. His earnest face was serious, “The only reason I come in and get pie is to see you.”
An almost overwhelming commingling of sadness and panic caused her to catch her breath.
He leaned toward her nervously.
Oh, why do you have to be so earnest, and sweet, and charming, and handsome, Will?
A desperate thought.
“I was wondering…maybe…” He swallowed hard. “Would you like to maybe go out sometime? That is, if you…”
“I have a boyfriend,” she said, her voice sounding far off and tiny. She hated the words as soon as she said them.
“Oh. I see. I understand.” Will’s smile turned fake. A brave front. She’d crushed him.
“I’m sorry,” Claire said, “I’ve been…that is…we’ve…”
Will held up a hand. “No, I put you on the spot. You’ve nothing to apologize for. I probably should have asked about that before I jumped in with both feet like the lunkhead I am. I imagine someone as nice, and as…beautiful…as you would of course have a boyfriend.”
Claire’s eyes grew moist.
Mercifully, his walkie-talkie crackled, interrupting any more awkwardness, and his dispatcher announced a radio call for an accident several exits up. Will reached up to respond, squeezing the mic button. “Copy that, 100. Highway Unit 223, responding. Advise, I have a ten-minute ETA.”
He nodded at her sadly and laid a ten on the counter. “Duty calls, ma’am.”
She smiled and waved goodbye as he left. Before the ding of the bell faded, she ran to the women’s restroom to cry.
“It’s done,” said Eddie.
Outside, the storm raged, and the wind howled like a caged animal.
Inside was not much different. At the height of Eddie’s chanting, something had happened. The room around them filled with a gloom that expanded and contracted like some strange membrane, and the air had filled with an awful odor.
Worse though was the feeling within Claire. A darkness, like something cold and scaly and alien, had taken up residence within her. Violated, she shuddered in horror at the way it had squirmed its way into her guts. Her disgust was mirrored in Eddie’s eyes.
Still, he soldiered on.
“Now the last part, Claire, just a little bit more, and we’ll be healthy and strong and together for all eternity.”
A wildness, a madness that she’d never seen before, danced in his eyes, “We need to close this life to begin our new one. I’ll use my pistol on myself, after I’ve helped you across.”
He removed his service pistol—a Colt 1911 .45—from his bag and laid it on the bed, heavy against her leg, like a coiled and dangerous viper.
Claire felt confusion and fear blossom within herslf. She didn’t, she couldn’t, understand what he was saying.
“To cheat death, we must first face it. To live forever, the book says, we must die once.”
“Eddie. This is all wrong. We need to stop.”
“It’s too late for that, Claire.” He wrapped his hands around her slender neck.
She was too weak from the consumption to fight him off.
Horror. Panic. Helplessness.
The light faded to blackness.
Later that night, after closing up the diner, she slipped on her coat and met Howie in the kitchen on the way out. He handed her a heavy paper to-go bag, a large package wrapped in plastic wrap and foil.
“Thanks, Howie,” Claire said. Howie might appear to be old and prickly, but she was grateful for his little kindnesses.
He grunted. “No problem, honey.”
The package was all of the day’s waste meat and fat scraps. She had told him it was for her dog. He knew how much she made as a waitress, and had, months ago, eagerly agreed to give her the daily scraps to save on dog food.
She left the diner and drove her beat-up car the ten minutes home. She lived in a neighborhood that hadn’t been a good one for at least fifty or so years. She pulled into the grassy, graveled driveway of her house, and with a grind of rusty car door hinges, got out of her car. Sighing, she slammed the door.
All she could afford was an old three-story house, with big dormers and a large front porch. It might have been nice if it hadn’t fallen into such a wretched state of disrepair. Truthfully, it resembled the rest of the neighborhood—tired, run down, and in need of demolition. The paint was chipped, the porch was tilted and unsafe, the yard was mostly weeds and dirt, and as much of the slate roof was on the ground as was on top of it. She had lost track of how many houses like it she’d lived in over the last hundred or so years, but this one was especially bad.
She missed the warmth and luxury of the home she’d grown up in. She missed the greenish-blue hue of the lake, and the manicured lawn that led to the small beach and jetty, and she missed her mother and father. Most of all, she missed the simpler time she had been born into.
She scowled at the desperate grayness and seemingly endless mud of late February in a landlocked, poverty-level Appalachian town. She had run to some amazingly awful places in the years, but this was the worst.
She made her way to the back, unlocked the metal security grate over the entrance, unbolted the door, and walked into the kitchen.
The overhead fluorescent light came on with a buzz and flicker. She laid the package of meat on the counter and stripped off her jacket, casting a frustrated glance at the basement door on the other side of the kitchen—it was still padlocked.
The ancient hardwood floors creaked and popped under her feet as she poured herself a glass of water before pulling a chair out from the small table near the kitchen’s only window and spinning it around to face the basement door.
Claire lingered longingly on what Will’d said earlier, what he’d asked her. Sweet, beautiful Will. Unfortunately, she could never have a normal life.
“Damn you, Eddie.”
She woke in darkness to claustrophobia and terror and the eye-rolling, frothing-mouthed madness of being buried alive.
In her panic, she pushed heavily at the stone above her, and with a strength born of horror and adrenaline, the marble lid of her sarcophagus fell with a thunderous crash to the floor. Even the rush of fresher air and light were not enough to make her fear subside. At least not right away. She clambered out of the tomb and dropped into a corner of the crypt, trying to not lose her mind to the madness of what she was experiencing.
It took another several hours before reason returned; she was in her family crypt. She’d really been dead. Dead enough for her family to bury her.
Sometime later, she managed to get to her feet, pulling down her dress from where it had bunched up around her hips, and padded barefoot from the crypt. She emerged in sunshine and cooler air. The trees in the cemetery were changing, their autumn-kissed leaves like fireworks. She breathed deep, and for the first time, her lungs actually worked. The chest-crushing weight of the consumption was gone. She luxuriated in the crisp, fall air. Her hands once again had color, no longer pale and oxygen-deprived. She laughed then, a throaty, deep, robust laugh of pure joy. She stretched and more of who she was returned from the dark place it had gone. She hadn’t been this strong and healthy since she was a child.
Eddie had been right, he…
Her thoughts ran cold.
She remembered her last moments. The betrayal. Tears rushed to her eyes, and she turned from the crypt…
A nearby plot, Eddie’s.
The disturbed earth, the remnants of wood from a coffin, the furrows in the soil around it could only have come from someone clawing their way out of a six-foot-deep hole. Her father must have paid to bury Eddie and had probably seen both of their deaths as a blessing. An end to their suffering. Her father, always so proud, could not, however, bear to inter his daughter’s killer in the family plot.
But where would Eddie have gone?
The feeling she’d had prior to dying hit her. The sorcerous parasite Eddie’s incantations had forced within her turned like a cold, slimy worm in freshly-spaded dirt, and Claire knew where Eddie was. She was drawn to him.
She walked the two miles back to her family home, managing to avoid the looks of passersby and anyone who might question a young woman walking barefoot in a dirty, soiled dress.
Arriving home revealed unimagined horrors.
She learned three things that day. First, she was forever linked to Eddie. The magic had joined them just as Eddie had promised. They always knew where one another was at any time. It was only later that she discovered that they couldn’t be more than four or five miles apart without it causing excruciating pain.
Second, they truly were together forever. Claire would always be a young, healthy, vibrant, twenty-year old woman; death was a thing of the past for both of them.
The third thing was the worst. Something had gone horribly, horribly wrong with Eddie.
She found him in the blood-smeared front foyer of her childhood home, crouched and hunched over the dead, half-eaten bodies of Claire’s mother and father.
D. Allen Crowley is a writer from historic Willoughby, Ohio, where he lives with his ridiculously tolerant wife, two insolent teenagers, and a clowder of cats of questionable breeding and intelligence.
He has published two novels: “North Coast Gothic: A Grim Fairy Tale” and “A Darkness Within”, as well as a collection of short stories entitled “Disturbed Graves: Tales of Terror and the Undead”. He has had several short stories and poetry published in both print and online magazines.
Additionally, he has a master’s and bachelor’s degrees in English Literature, and has published critical scholarly works on H.P. Lovecraft, weird fiction, and Modernism. He teaches English and Humanities at a small college in Cleveland, OH; and publishes a creative blog dedicated to horror, science fiction, and fantasy literature and film under the pseudonym of Doctor Zombie.