One dark, foggy night in autumn, Emily Van Lynden was waiting. It was a quarter to three in the morning. She stood beneath the great, handsome oak tree beside the cemetery, just as they'd agreed. Wanting this to be special, she'd dressed herself as best she could. A crown of flowers was all that held her flowing hair, and in her hand she carried a bouquet, both made from flowers which had been meant to be that night's dinner table centerpiece. Roses and lilies and baby's breath. In her other hand she had a satchel filled with gold coins. The money they would need to start their new life.
Charlie was going to meet her here. Any minute now. They would make haste to the next nearest village, and find the pastor that Charlie said he knew there. They were going to be married. A pleasurable shiver went through her. All the times she'd dreamed of her true love, all the lonely hours she'd spent wondering if she would ever marry, in all that time she'd never imagined Charlie.
Always, when she'd pictured a wedding, Emily had imagined being given away. Running away to wed, as romantic as it was, still felt...wrong. Not wrong enough to change her mind, though. The gold she'd taken was her fair share. Her dowry, that was all. It wasn't stealing. Nor was her taking Mother's jewels. As she'd dressed herself by candlelight earlier in the night, Emily had shed a few tears over the fact that Mother wasn't here to see her. Mother's wedding gown, smelling of mothballs, fit her perfectly. She shed a few more over the fact that she wouldn't get the storybook wedding party she'd always dreamed of. At least Emily would have the storybook romance she'd always wanted. The storybook life. Those comforting thoughts, coupled with the memory of Charlie's touch, his kiss, helped dry her tears.
Emily had replayed the memory of their meeting dozens of times over the past two days. She never wanted to forget it, not as long as she lived, no matter how many happy years the two of them were together. As she waited there in the stillness and chill of the wee hours, Emily let the memory warm her again.
The day before yesterday had dawned chilly, and then had mellowed into a slightly warmer afternoon. After nearly a solid week the rain had finally stopped. All of the leaves had fallen from the trees without changing color. Emily had lived in this village for five years and still couldn't get used to that. Here, the leaves on the trees went brown and then fell off, almost overnight. Still, she loved a ramble, and so she'd set off on her customary path across the bridge and past the church, skirting the cemetery and following the river into the forest.
Emily was used to the forest being quite empty. Most every other villager kept inside the walls. If they had business elsewhere, they took the carriage road which went through the woods on the other side of the church. Shame, really. The forest was full of charming little clearings and glades. Even if they were always a little chilly and gray, they were beautiful in their way. And the perfect place to really be alone. Emily did not enjoy solitude. But she did enjoy feeling free. Somehow it seemed she could never quite achieve the latter without the former. In the clearings and on the path she could dance if she wanted, sing if she cared to, and nobody could tell her it was unbecoming or too much.
But that day there was someone behind her on the path. As soon as she heard the footsteps crunching on the recently fallen leaves, she turned. There was a good-looking young man who looked a few years older than her, perhaps in his twenties, on the path behind her. He stopped when she did, leaving a polite distance between them.
"Good day," he'd said, touching the brim of his top hat. Emily liked the smooth, deep, cultured nature of his voice immediately. She liked the rest of him, too. A very large, distinctive chin, and luscious hair worn long for a man. And those positively smoldering eyes. Emily thought he looked just like a Romantic poet.
"Hello. My name is Emily Van Lynden," she'd replied, trying to be friendly and cover the fact that she'd been staring. "My father and I live in the village."
For a moment the man gave her an appraising sort of look. As if he recognized her from somewhere. In thinking it over later, Emily realized it had to have been the recognition of a soul mate. Then, a slow smile the like of which Emily had never seen lit up his face. It was almost like a panther was smiling at her. Rather than being frightened, Emily was intrigued, and unsettled in the best, most exciting possible way.
"Charles Bunting," he said, bowing deeply. "So very pleased to make your acquaintance."
Gentlemanly and kind, Charlie had led her to his little encampment in a clearing on the far end of the cemetery. As soon as they began to converse, it was as if they had known each other for years. For always. What a pleasure it had been to talk to someone! For hours they sat on a fallen log at Charlie's little camp, and they talked. And talked. Emily revealed things about herself she never had to anyone else. The best part was that Charlie listened. Nobody ever had paid her that kind of intent attention, as if drinking in her every word and acting as though pleased to just be next to her. They had so very much in common, too. Charlie had no parents at all, and his family money was gone. He'd been doing the best he could for himself in the wake of tragedy. A few tears came to Emily's eyes as she listened.
And when Charles finally took her hand...oh, she had never felt that way before. In all her life she'd never actually had a man touch her. It was exciting. Now she knew what all the fuss was about.
Charles. He was the One. Every novel she'd ever read, every ballad she'd ever sung or played, had made it clear that when the One came along, you would just know. In the space of an afternoon, Emily just knew. Simple as that. She wanted to marry him. She could happily spend the rest of her life with this man. He was the one she'd been waiting for. She decided right then and there that the moment she got home, she would talk to her father. After that, she was certain, she could deal with the formality of a proposal.
When they'd parted that first day, Charles had taken her hand and kissed it. No one had ever kissed her hand before. To have a handsome man's lips anywhere on her was dizzyingly exciting. He must have noticed her about to swoon, for he smiled a knowing sort of smile and brought a hand to her face. A gentleman's hand, soft and smelling of rosewater.
"Now I know why I was favored enough to avoid that dreadful train accident," he'd said, his dark eyes boring into hers in a knowing and somehow possessive way that flattered and entranced her. "I was brought here to find you, Emily."
Emily hugged herself, remembering his voice when he'd said that. He was so...so...intense. And passionate. One could just tell that he was a man of moods, and the stories he'd told her of his life proved that he was a man of adventurous spirit. So unlike anyone she'd ever met here.
Charlie couldn't have come along at a better time. More proof, Emily thought, that they were meant for one another. The village, never bright and cheery to begin with, had become more dour with each passing year. Villagers seemed less inclined to return smiles. Emily had quarreled with her friend Nell, and they'd not made up before Nell had married and more or less disappeared. Father had fallen deeper into the bottle and sometimes didn't even appear at mealtimes. Even the sky, never bright here to begin with, seemed darker.
And the deaths. One couldn't forget those. Emily set down the satchel of gold and rubbed her tired arm, glancing around again for any sign of Charlie. Dear old Miss Plum from the Tavern had died. Everyone from the Tavern had died. The building was shuttered and silent and cold, nearly a monument itself. Then, most recently, the loss of those two dear little children. Emily's eyes welled up. Poor little Evelyn and Adam. Poor old Mr. Weary, who had found them.
Emily was ready to leave all of this behind. This gloom. The
memories. Now she realized, a bit, what Father had felt after Mother
died. Why he'd uprooted them so completely, and moved them to this
village where they only had the remotest of ties. And while she
understood, now, Emily also had a hard time forgiving Father. She'd
hoped news of her engagement would make Father happy again, give him
new hope. But no, it had not.
"It is not a daughter's place to choose a husband," Father had insisted, over Emily's protests. "Particularly not some strange fellow you met in the woods. You know nothing about him!"
Emily knew she loved him. That was enough for her. Though she knew it was wicked and disrespectful, Emily felt that her father had no right to object. After Mother had died, after they'd moved to this place, Father hardly said two words to her. All these years! Emily was the one who took care of the house. Emily was the one who corresponded with creditors when Father was locked in his study, the smell of brandy strong enough to almost waft under the door. Emily was the one who had been the public face of the family in this village. Emily was the one who paid calls to neighbors. Ran all the errands. Employed all of the temporary help. Kept what was left of their family from falling apart. Emily should be the one to decide on her marriage.
Her happy plans swiftly unraveling, Emily turned to the next person she could think of: Mrs. Wadleigh next door. Of course Mrs. Wadleigh would understand! Why, hadn't she gone through the very same thing? Granted, Emily only knew bits and pieces, but she what she'd picked up was enough for her to believe Mrs. Wadleigh might be sympathetic. Emily had run next door and luckily found her neighbor in. Breathlessly she'd explained and begged for help. Wasn't there anything the Wadleighs could do to make Father see reason?
"It was a bit different for us. Mr. Wadleigh and I grew up together, dear," Mrs. Wadleigh had said in a gentle kind of way. She'd reached and taken a gobsmacked and hurt Emily's hand, and added, "Why not bring this young man round for your father to meet? He might feel more inclined to say yes."
Emily had pulled her hand away. That hadn't been the answer she'd been hoping for. Didn't anyone understand? Charlie was only here temporarily, and Emily was determined to go with him when he left. More was said, but Emily couldn't remember it all. She was sure she'd thanked a troubled-looking Mrs. Wadleigh, and then went out the door.
After all the time she'd spent with them. After sweet old Captain
Wadleigh had put her photograph in the newspaper for her eighteenth
birthday. However, she didn't leave the Wadleighs entirely
empty-handed. Emily left with an idea. She and Charlie could elope,
just as the Wadleighs had done. Goodness, they could leave that very
night! Why wait?
She'd gone immediately to his little camp by the river to share her idea. Charlie's eyes had widened, then narrowed, then widened again as he began to smile. Then he'd taken her hands and swung her about in a circle, laughing from deep in his throat.
"Why are you laughing like that?" Emily asked, giggling herself. Charlie just pulled her close and spoke right into her ear. She barely heard his next whispered words, so close was she to swooning.
"I'm so pleased, my dear," he murmured. Emily felt as if she was beginning to glow. "I'm so pleased that this is all so easy."
"Love should be," she told him. Then, mustering her courage, she kissed him. Right on the mouth. Emily had never kissed anyone before. And he'd kissed her back!
Now, standing beneath the oak where they'd made those plans, near where they'd first met, Emily touched her fingertips to her lips and giggled. Her cheeks grew warm. That kiss would be the first of many.
There was a rustle off to the left. Emily squinted. There, in the shadows, she thought she'd seen a figure. When she blinked, the shape was gone. Oh, Charlie, where are you? she thought.
He was very late. Emily bit her lip, nervous now. She fingered the diamond bracelet on her wrist. It was a bracelet Mother had often worn. As a little girl Emily had often played with it as she sat in Mother's lap. It had been in Mother's family for generations, and matched the earbobs now gracing Emily's ears. Another noise made her turn. There was a man standing there, at the edge of the trees.
Emily couldn't see the man's face. All she could make out through the fog and dark was a tall hat and a cape. Then he was gone again. Judging by the crunching of leaves he was coming around behind her. "Charlie?" she asked, her voice shaky. Her heart was beginning to beat uncomfortably hard and fast. Something wasn't right. Before the word was fully out of her mouth, a sharp pain exploded in the back of her head.
Everything went white before slowly coming back into focus. Through the haze of pain she realized she'd been struck with something. Dizzy, Emily stumbled away, trying to escape. She'd only managed a couple of difficult steps when she was jerked backward.
Her assailant had stepped on the train of her dress to stop her. Still Emily struggled, and still he held on. Something on the dress tore. Her skirt had a rip in it nearly from hem to hip. Emily lost her balance and stumbled to one knee, landing hard. Fresh pain filled her head upon impact. There was another ripping sound as her dress tore further. From behind her she could hear the man's labored breathing as he reached for her again.
Through the pain and through the fear Emily managed to scream her best hope out into the forest. When she felt rough hands grasp her upper arms, she screamed, "Charlie!"
But in the time it had taken her to cry out, her attacker had hauled her to her feet, and was restraining her from behind. An arm held her tightly around the middle, squeezing the air from her lungs, squeezing so hard Emily thought she felt sure her ribs would crack. Another hand was clamped over her mouth.
His hand smelled like rosewater.
Even as she recognized the scent, pain as she'd never known exploded in her side. She froze, and then writhed, moaning against the palm clamped over her mouth. A knife. It was a knife. There was a terrible scraping sound as the blade was pulled out again. Its exit caused worse pain than the entry had. A hot, wet pain that radiated from the wound to her entire body.
Weak, Emily slid toward the ground, unable even to try to cry out again when his hand left her mouth. The man loosed his grip and seemed to help ease her to the ground. Emily lay there on her back, fog obscuring her view up into the branches of the oak. Emily was cold. Strangely, she felt the cold more than the pain. The offally smell of her own blood was all around her. The edges of her vision were starting to go dark. When she tried to take a breath, a gush of blood, hot, thick, coppery, filled her throat and mouth. Emily opened her mouth and all that escaped was a gurgle and a trickle of blood.
Above her in the dark and fog, a figure loomed. He didn't speak, but his breath was ragged. Emily blinked slowly. She was so tired. Too tired to even raise her arms in defense when the man reached down and roughly tugged off her necklace. Then her rings. By the time he began working off her bracelet Emily's limbs had gone to ice. Once more she tried to speak. But her brain had gone hazy and dim. She couldn't find words. Another gurgle, more blood trickling from her mouth.
Charlie, she whispered. Or perhaps merely thought. Tired, cold, yet unafraid, Emily closed her eyes.
When she opened her eyes Emily found herself still lying beneath the oak tree. But something was wrong. Badly wrong. She wasn't on the ground. She was in it, flecked with dark dirt and her bouquet on her chest, as if it had been tossed there. Roots were all about her, poking out here and there in her clumsily dug, uneven, shallow hole.
Emily sat up and looked around. Soil tumbled from her hair. This tree was dead, its bark gone a purple gray. Instead of being at the edge of the cemetery, it was in the middle of a huge expanse of gravestones. Emily looked down at herself. With a gasp she took in the gaping wound in her side. One of her ribs was showing. But it didn't hurt anymore. She was no longer cold. She was simply...there. Not numb, as numb was a feeling. This was unsettling, this lack of any sort of sensation.
Upon further inspection Emily saw that her skin had turned blue. So had her flowers. She wasn't breathing. She didn't need to swallow. She was dead.
Emily sat back heavily, back braced against the dirt. Was this being dead? Where was heaven? Where was her mother? Emily hugged herself tightly. She'd like to see Mother again. More than anything in the world. This wasn't anything like what she thought being dead would be like. For all she'd thought about it, anyway. Death had always been something sad that happened to other people. Emily had never been able to make herself truly believe it would ever happen to her. She didn't want to think about it now.
What about all of her dreams? What about Charlie, who said he loved her and wanted to be with her always? What about her wedding, her home, the children she'd dreamed about? What about her life? She remembered his eyes, that knowing, possessive, flattering look he used to give her. He'd been so passionate, so debonair, so...Emily stopped there.
That hand had smelled like rosewater.
Emily pushed the thought away. She couldn't bear it. She wouldn't think about it anymore. It was a coincidence. Only a coincidence.
"Just a coincidence," she said out loud. Emily hugged her knees, trying to comfort herself. "Lots of men use scent."
"They do," said a voice. "And it tastes awful."
Emily looked all around, startled, before she noticed a little green worm poking its head out of the dirt to her right. He wasn't like any sort of bug she'd ever seen. He had big, weirdly human eyes, thick purple lips, and buck teeth. It was also odd that the worm could talk, but somehow it didn't bother her much. No odder than anything else, really. And it was so nice to hear another voice, to not be alone after the terrible thing that had happened.
"Who are you?" Emily asked. The worm blinked at her, and then, with some difficulty, wriggled his way out of the dirt and fell to the earth beside her with a tiny plop! He inched himself upright and shook the grave dirt off.
"I'm a maggot," said the worm. He sighed. "And I just lost my home. Two graves over. I'd been living in her for ages. Nice little old lady. She went and disintegrated. One minute she was there, the next-poof!"
Emily hated the idea of rotting, of having worms eat her, and said so. The worm just blinked up at her. "You'll have to get used to it," he said, not unkindly.
There was a pause. Emily leaned back and stared up into the branches of the dead oak. Past them was only darkness. Earth, she supposed.
"I'll still sit with you," he said in a tone which suggested he was doing her a favor. He inched his way up her leg, and sat upon her knee. In life, that would have tickled. Emily didn't know whether to giggle or sob.
"My flowers are dead," Emily offered, picking up her bouquet and plucking out the most wilted lily. "Can you eat this?"
"Salads are fine for starters, I guess," said the maggot. He crunched the lily between his big buck teeth.
"Maybe you could give me a lift to the pub?" the maggot asked after swallowing noisily. "There's always someone's ear to chew on there."
"A pub?" Emily asked in return. She'd never been to one before, not ever.
"Piano and everything," the maggot told her.
How dearly Emily would like to play the piano! Her fingers, though unfeeling, fairly itched at the thought. And think of all of the dead people she could see again! Maybe, maybe, her mother would be there, at a table sipping wine like she did when she'd been alive. Emily very nearly began to stand up before she caught herself and stopped to consider.
What if Charlie, poor thing, ended up here? Suppose that horrible man had attacked Charlie, too? She needed to be here to comfort him. Besides, on second thought, she didn't want to face the other dead people just yet. She'd have to explain what had happened. With a blue hand Emily touched the wound in her side. Some people might think it was her own fault. Everyone in her life, except for a select few, probably would have thought so. Oh, what would Captain Wadleigh think, to see her? Mrs. Wadleigh?
"No," she said carefully. Looking at her hand she found it splotched with drying purplish blood. Not wanting to spoil her veil or dress any more than they already were she rubbed her palm on the ground. "I think I'd better stay here. At least for now."
"If you want to sit around and wait for Judgment Day, be my guest," the maggot told her. "Lots of corpses do. But you can at least do it where there's some food and drink and a band. And company."
"There's only one bit of company I want," Emily said miserably. The maggot shrugged as well as a worm without shoulders could, and set in munching on a rose.
"All I wanted was to be a bride," she went on, mostly to herself. "I thought about my wedding day ever since I was little. And I've dreamed of my true love for nearly as long. And now..."
Much to her own surprise, a tear dropped down her face and plopped onto her dress. She'd not felt it. Of course not, being dead. Emily thought the words over and over in an attempt to make them stick. I'm dead. I am dead. A man stabbed me and robbed me. I died. I am dead. Such a terrible, terrible thing to happen to her.
But, oddly, Emily found that she wasn't all that sad or scared about being dead. She was still herself. Existing. In her beautiful dress with her bouquet. She could talk and she could move and she had her memories. Why dwell? The worst was over, after all. What else could happen to her? That thought gave her a definite sense of freedom.
"I'm going to wait here," she decided aloud. The ideas and the conviction behind them came as she spoke. "Real love, true love, waits. Charlie will be back for me. Alive or dead. And we'll get married. Just like he said we would. I won't be in the darkness forever. I'll be a bride."
Emily, much calmer now, smiled down at the maggot. The worm blinked those enormous eyes of his, and then sighed heavily. Shaking his head, he inched onto her outstretched hand. Emily set him on her shoulder, where he curled himself about so that he could sit.
"Whatever you say," Maggot said, mouth still full of dead flowers. Together they sat in silence, there in the shallow grave beneath the dead oak tree, apart from the rest of the land of the dead. Happier sounds came from behind them. Chatter and laughter, music. It was faint, though. Here, it was quiet. Much like the clearings and glens of the forest in the world above, the world Emily had been forcibly removed from. She hadn't been ready to go.
She'd wait for her second chance. No matter how long it took.
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