Story art by Kat Otis.
From the author: Ann Amelia has made it her afterlife's work to protect humanity from her fellow undead residents of Highgate East Cemetery. But when a stubborn reporter begins prying into the cemetery's secrets, she'll have to decide how far she's willing to go to protect the truth.
Ann Amelia was skimming through a copy of the Evening Standard, waiting to start her last tour of the day, when she noticed the article. She read it through twice, hoping she’d misunderstood it the first time, then left the porter’s lodge to find David. The balding human porter was just on the other side of the cemetery’s wrought iron gates, handing out release forms to the waiting tourists.
She couldn’t go out to him – even just approaching the cemetery gates made gravelings relive their deaths – so Ann Amelia studied the tourists while she impatiently waited for David to come back inside. One of them had to be investigative reporter Eric Taylor. The idiot who’d written the article, declaring his intention to sneak away from his tour and spend the night in Highgate’s East Cemetery. The idiot who was going to get himself killed if she didn’t stop him.
Her bet was on the sandy-haired man chatting to the other tourists and writing their responses down in a notebook.
As soon as David came back through the gates, Ann Amelia hurried to his side. “That one – Eric Taylor – he can’t come in.”
“Why not?” David asked, turning to look back at the man.
“Didn’t you see his article?”
David shrugged. “He signed the release, the same as everyone else.”
“I don’t care. Cite health and safety, or whatever you have to say to get rid of him.”
“If he’s really a reporter, he’ll throw a fit. He’s over eighteen; we have no legal grounds to refuse him entrance–”
“David!” Ann Amelia snapped. “I’d rather him throw a fit over being denied access than the world throw a fit when he ends up dead.” David was old enough to remember the public outcry over the series of deaths four decades earlier that had nearly seen the cemetery closed. There had even been talk of disinterring the bodies and razing the cemetery to the ground.
David sighed. “All right, I’ll try to talk him out of it. But if I can’t, you’re just going to have to keep an eye on him.”
Ann Amelia watched, eyes narrowed, as David went out to talk to the reporter. Just. As if keeping an eye on any of them was that easy. There was a reason she took the last tour every day, and it wasn’t only because she, alone of all the gravelings, actually enjoyed interacting with humans. No, she didn’t trust the others to keep track of all their tourists. During the earlier hours, there was always time for her to gather up anyone who’d gone astray, but sunset came too close for comfort to the last tour. She had enough trouble keeping her tourists safe on a regular evening, without adding a suicidal reporter to the mix.
“So, that’s the fresh meat,” a voice behind her said.
Ann Amelia didn’t bother to turn around. “Not if I can help it, Liam.”
The other graveling took up a position on her right, studying the reporter. “You’re such a bleeding heart.”
“Does everyone else know, already?” Ann Amelia asked, ignoring the familiar insult.
“Of course. Katherine saw the paper before you did.”
And Katherine was the biggest gossip in the entire cemetery. Ann Amelia shook her head. “How are the ghosts?”
“Riled up,” Liam answered. “The underslabbers, too.”
The underslabbers had too much respect for her to openly attack a tour under her protection. The ghosts were another matter – the underslabbers only hated the living, but the ghosts hungered for flesh. “Riled up enough to manifest before dusk?”
Liam shrugged. “In the shadows, maybe. But most of them are too busy fighting over the Privilege to waste their strength manifesting.”
The Privilege. That wasn’t what Ann Amelia called it, but it had been decades since the ghosts had listened to anything she had to say. They saw her vigilance in protecting the humans as selfishness, and a betrayal. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. Ann Amelia only knew that she couldn’t stand aside and do nothing while the ghosts cut more lives tragically short.
David opened the gates and began ushering the tourists through. Eric Taylor didn’t so much as pause before stepping inside, his gaze fixed on Ann Amelia and Liam. The others milled through more slowly, not quite certain where they should be going, drifting along in Eric’s wake.
“Well, enjoy,” Liam said, touching the brim of an imaginary hat before turning and heading down the wide, paved avenue that led deeper into the cemetery.
“Can he just do that?” asked a grey-haired woman who looked like she’d be more at home surrounded by grandchildren than tramping through an overgrown cemetery.
“He’s a graveling, ma’am,” Ann Amelia said. “We live here – Highgate holds no secrets from us.”
“A graveling?” The grandmotherly woman shook her head. “You both look human to me.”
The tourists began gathering around Ann Amelia, murmuring amongst themselves and gawking at the handful of proud mausoleums that crowded the cemetery’s entrance. The reporter was still scribbling away in his notebook. Ann Amelia craned her neck, trying to read the upside-down writing, then realized he was quoting her. Highgate holds no secrets from us. She grimaced, then remembered the rest of the tourists and hastily smoothed her expression.
“Welcome to Highgate East. My name is Ann Amelia and I’ll be your guide today. I ask you all to remember that, while every effort has been made to provide a safe environment for this tour, the cemetery is a dangerous place. Please remain with the tour at all times.” She gave Eric a pointed look; he affected not to notice.
“I’d also like to remind you that photography is strictly prohibited during the tour, with the exception of Marx’s monument.”
“Why’s that?” drawled a man in an unfamiliar accent – she might have spent the entire tour trying to analyse it, if it weren’t for the reporter.
Ann Amelia gave him her best chagrined smile. “Most of the cemetery’s residents lived and died before photography was widespread. We find the experience of being photographed rather disturbing. But Marx doesn’t mind, so we make an exception for him.” Complete rubbish, of course. Karl Marx had never risen – though none of them knew why – so there was no ghost to mind.
“So, if you’re a graveling, where exactly do you, ah...” the strangely accented man hesitated, obviously searching for the right words. “Live?”
“My grave is at the corner of Kirkaldy and the Opened Casket,” Ann Amelia said, watching Eric’s pen fly across the pages of his notebook.
“Opened casket?” That came from a younger woman, who looked delightedly scandalised as she clung to the arm of a bored young man.
Ann Amelia fell back on the safety of routine, projecting her voice so the whole group could hear. “There are many opened caskets and graves in Highgate East. The fence path by the north wall is full of them, but we won’t be going that way – there are too many underslabbers. They mostly stay underground during the day, but they’ll come out if they hear travellers on their paths.” As she spoke, she started walking backwards, guiding her tourists past a line of dirty stone angels and crosses, liberally covered with wildflowers.
“You mean there are paths where the underslabbers live?”
“The underslabbers do have physical bodies, so they create paths to and from the graves where they live. As do the gravelings,” Ann Amelia said, gesturing at some of the dirt paths that branched off the main avenue and disappeared into the shadows.
Her group looked around sceptically, and Ann Amelia didn’t blame them. The forest had grown wild in the six decades since the groundskeepers had left. The area around the gates was largely still intact, but the rest of the cemetery was in ruins. Trees grew through graves and pushed down headstones, ivy cracked the statues and choked the slabs that once covered crypts, and high grasses swallowed entire ranks of headstones. It was a wilderness of life and death intertwined.
“Is it true that underslabbers and gravelings are related?” Eric asked.
“There are some apparent similarities between us,” Ann Amelia side-stepped the dangerous question with the ease of long practice.
“Apparent but not actual?” Eric persisted.
“We’re both corporeal, as opposed to the ghosts of the dead buried here,” Ann Amelia said, then changed the subject before he could get in another follow-up question. “Speaking of which, if everyone will look to your right, we’re just approaching the monument to Karl Marx. If anyone would like to take photos, now’s your chance.”
Ann Amelia moved to the side of the group, so she wouldn’t be caught in their photos by accident. She kept watch as the tourists photographed the tall, boxy monument, decorated with an image of Marx’s head and his final exhortation: WORKERS OF ALL LANDS UNITE. Some of the tourists took turns posing by the monument, while others began stealthily photographing nearby graves. Ann Amelia let them – she was more concerned about the reporter than a few illicit photos.
Eric sidled up beside her. “So how well do you know Marx?”
Ann Amelia gave him a sharp look. “What do you mean?”
He smiled, innocently. “Gravelings can talk to ghosts, can’t they?”
“How well do you know all the staff who work for your newspaper?”
“I’ll answer your questions if you answer mine,” Eric offered.
“No, thank you.”
“Just think about it.”
“I really have no interest in knowing anything about you,” Ann Amelia lied. She would have loved to know what Eric thought he’d accomplish by sneaking away from the tour – and why he was doing it. She’d half-hoped he would make his move at Marx’s monument, when there was still time to get the others to safety and search the cemetery for him, but he obviously had no intention of obliging her.
Eric shrugged and started to move away.
“Ten minutes,” Ann Amelia said, impulsively. “I’ll give you ten minutes to interview me if you leave when the gates close tonight.”
He was quiet for a moment, considering her offer. “You’ll answer any question I ask?”
Ann Amelia hesitated.
“I won’t be difficult,” he said. “Easy questions only.”
“I’m not sure you and I agree on the definition of easy,” she said. The questions he’d already asked were dangerous enough to give lie to his reassurance.
“How about an example? Rumour has it that despite your youthful appearance, you’re actually the oldest of the gravelings. Can you confirm or deny?”
Confirm or deny? She could do neither and both. She was the oldest of the surviving gravelings, but she wasn’t the first. Ann Amelia had only to close her eyes to see Jonathan again. He’d taken flesh only moments before her and they’d spent a whole glorious summer together, learning the rules of their new existence.
Then he’d tried to step through the cemetery gates and she’d watched in horror as his body began to warp and decay around him. If he’d pulled back and given up, he would have at least survived as an underslabber – his body ruined even though his spirit still clung to it – but he was too stubborn for that. He’d pushed onward through the gates and left her behind. Alone.
“Everyone knows that no graveling’s record goes back as far as mine,” she said. The newspapers occasionally ran specials on Highgate at Halloween; they would put old photos of gravelings side-by-side with new, showing them unaging through the decades, and speculate on what they did or didn’t know about the cemetery’s undead residents.
“That’s not a real answer.”
“It’s the best I can give you.” She didn’t talk about Jonathon with anyone, especially not a human who could use the knowledge of how to kill a graveling against the rest of them.
“The best you’re willing to give me, maybe. No deal.”
Ann Amelia sighed, and Eric moved away to take his own photos. She gave her tourists a minute longer, until the bored young man turned and brazenly took a photo of her. For a second she couldn’t breathe and her mind reeled with panic, just as it had done in the last moments of her life. Then the feeling passed and she glared at the offending tourist. “If you’re all quite finished?”
At least his girlfriend had the grace to blush and snatch the camera out of his hands. The rest of the tourists didn’t seem to notice the exchange as they gathered around her again. Ann Amelia gave the young man one last Look, then started walking backwards again.
“Is there any chance we’ll see a ghost?” That came from a man near the rear of the group, who kept looking hopefully over his shoulder.
I pray to God not. Ann Amelia forced a smile to her face. “The ghosts only come out at night, if they come out at all. Some of them sulk in their graves and won’t speak to you no matter how often you visit.”
“Ghosts sulk?” A few of the tourists laughed.
“The newly dead tend to sulk for weeks, if not months, before they finally admit they’ve risen.” Ann Amelia waved a hand at some of the newer graves on her right. “The older ghosts – the ones whose headstones have sunk beneath the earth or whose inscriptions have worn away – those are the ones that sulk the most.”
It really was ridiculous. But some ghosts were content just to stay in their graves until they faded away into nothingness. The very thought sent shivers down Ann Amelia’s spine. That was true death.
“What about pre-World War Two, before the first ghost sightings here? Were all the ghosts sulking then?” Eric asked.
Ann Amelia chewed on her lower lip for a moment, trying to decide how to answer that. “No. Not sulking.” Would the truth help her or would it only encourage him? Any answer was treading a dangerous line; she risked giving out information that might be used against the cemetery. But the reporter was as stubborn as Jonathan had been; continuing to stone-wall him would not convince him to leave. “Pre-World War Two, there were still full-time groundskeepers here. Ghosts apparently don’t rise in well-tended cemeteries.”
The reporter’s pen began flying across his page. “Why?”
Ann Amelia shrugged. “God only knows.”
“And after the ghosts? Then came the gravelings and the underslabbers?”
“That’s how it happened here,” she allowed, glancing over her shoulder. They were nearing the old eastern gates, which gave her the perfect excuse to change the subject again before the reporter could pressure her for more. “Let’s stop here for a moment. I want to draw your attention to the inscription on this grave slab here. Resting where no shadows fall. Well, most of Highgate is wooded and lays in shadow year-round, which makes it easier for the ghosts to manifest. Exceptions to this are the areas around the gates – here, obviously, being one of them – and the field of flowers, which you’ll see as we make our way to Fireman’s Court.”
The tourists obediently peered around, looking at the inscriptions on the grave, a few wandering closer to the gates to inspect them. Ann Amelia let them for a minute, then said, “From here on out, the footing will get a little uneven, so please, everyone watch your step.”
She turned so that she was actually walking forward, though it made her shoulders itch to have her back to the tourists. This would be the perfect opportunity for Eric to slip away. But he fell in at her side and listened attentively, taking notes as she pointed out various landmarks to the group. She’d almost begun to relax when he jumped into one of her pauses, pointing at a side-path. “What’s down that way?”
“That’s not part of the regular tour,” she said, shortly. “If you want to investigate other parts of the cemetery, you can pay to have a tour specially designed for you.”
“Hmm, I haven’t had much luck arranging for a designer tour,” Eric said, his eyes crinkling in amusement.
Of course he hadn’t. Ann Amelia could just imagine the porters’ reactions when he had begun listing the places he wished to visit. She was certain that list included all the most dangerous spots in the cemetery – perpetually shady areas, where the underslabbers lurked and it was dark enough for the most strong-willed ghosts to manifest by day as well as night.
“Maybe I could help with that,” Ann Amelia said, slowly. Was this her way out? A private tour of wherever he wanted to go, but at least it would be in daylight? She could keep the underslabbers from him, so long as it was light out, but she wasn’t so certain about the ghosts, especially now that they’d gotten their hopes up.
The light was beginning to fade, twilight stealing over the cemetery. She looked over her shoulder to count her tourists. All there. But behind them, in the shadows, she could sense movement. None of the ghosts had manifested – yet – but they were all watching and eager for the chance to seize any unwary human who wandered too far away from her.
Eric still hadn’t responded to her offer. When she turned back to him, he was studying her with a thoughtful expression on his face. He was interested, but not convinced. Not yet.
“Look, what good is finding out the truth if you end up dead?” Ann Amelia asked.
“Death isn’t the end of everything – this cemetery is proof of that.” Eric shrugged, casually, but there was pain in his voice as he added, “Besides, I’m already dying. Pancreatic cancer. I’ve got three to six months, tops.”
Ann Amelia bit her lip. That would be a horrible death – fully as bad as her own had been, slowly suffocating as polio paralysed her. But letting the ghosts take him would be far worse. “Not all deaths are the same.”
The gleam returned to his eyes. “Yes, and this way I’ll die on my own terms.”
She’d lost him. Furious with herself, she lengthened her stride to put some space between her and the reporter, and raised her voice. “Now, to your left you’ll see we’re approaching Firemen’s Court. There’s not a lot of space in the court itself, so please wait at the benches and allow just a few people to go in at a time.”
Eric would have been one of the first to go out onto the paved square of the Firemen’s Court, but she caught hold of his arm.
“Yes?” He raised his eyebrows at her.
“If you sneak away now, you won’t be the only one to die.”
“If that’s supposed to scare me–”
“No. It’s the honest-to-God truth.” She let go of him and struggled to keep her voice down so she didn’t frighten the other tourists. “Stay with the tour.” It was hard to admit defeat, but she forced the words out. “Stay and I won’t let them throw you out when the gates close.”
He grinned. “Your word on it?”
“My word,” she spat.
“All right, then.” He turned towards Firemen’s Court. “That wasn’t so hard now, was it?”
Ann Amelia dug her fingernails into her palms. “I’m trying to save you.”
“I don’t need to be saved.”
“Then I’m going to save as many as I can,” she said, stepping away from him before she could lose control of her temper and say – or do – something she shouldn’t.
The shadows lengthened as her tourists took their turns investigating Firemen’s Court, lingering by the marble slab that commemorated London’s Fire Brigade and bending over to read the bronze plaques on the foot-high wall of stone that bordered the court. Ann Amelia wanted to shout at them to hurry, but she held her tongue and instead kept a wary eye out for manifesting ghosts. She could feel them all around her, hungering to have flesh once more.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, the last of her group took their turn. She gathered them all up, hoping she didn’t look as anxious as she felt. “That was the last stop on our tour. If everyone would please follow me in an orderly fashion, we’ll head back to Swain’s Lane.”
“I thought tours were longer,” complained the man who’d hoped to see a ghost.
“During the summer we sometimes close later, but you can see the light’s failing,” Ann Amelia said. “It is absolutely critical that all humans be out of the cemetery before dark.”
“It wasn’t always forbidden,” Eric said loudly enough that the whole group could hear.
“True, before the Friends of Highgate Cemetery acquired the freehold, all sorts of people were in and out at night.” Ann Amelia shrugged with a casualness she didn’t feel. “More came in than ever made it back out. Hence we no longer admit anyone except on guided tours.”
“Well, I felt safe the entire time,” the grandmotherly old woman declared.
“Why thank you, ma’am,” Ann Amelia said, dredging up a smile. “I’m glad that you felt like you were in good hands with me. Please tell your friends. Or even better, make a donation to the Friends of Highgate Cemetery on your way out.”
Though she was alert to the possibility of trouble, none of the ghosts manifested before she got her group back to the gates. David was waiting in the porter’s lodge and relief crossed his face when he came out to see the reporter was still with her. The tourists all filed out, except Eric, who stayed planted by her side. David frowned and opened his mouth to say something.
Ann Amelia shook her head.
David’s frown deepened. “I’ll just lock up for the night, shall I?”
“Unless you’ve changed your mind?” Ann Amelia asked Eric.
“Not unless you’ve changed yours? I want the truth – I don’t care how I get it.”
She wished she could. She wished she dared. But to give Eric the answers he sought would be as dangerous as letting him disappear – more so, maybe. “Close the gates, David.” When he looked like he might protest, she added, “Hurry, please. The ghosts are restless tonight.”
David hesitated a little longer, then bowed his head and locked the gate behind him. He looked back several times as he left.
“So, what’s next?” Eric asked, for all the world as if she was still playing the part of his tour guide.
Ann Amelia glanced around at the ghosts, shimmering on the edge of manifestation. “This is a complete and utter waste.”
“What are you talking about?” Eric demanded.
“Your death.” Liam said as he emerged from behind the porter’s lodge, the other gravelings trailing in his wake.
“Not just his,” Ann Amelia said, regarding the group warily. Most of them shared Liam’s amusement at her squeamishness, as they called it. They deferred to her because she was the eldest, but there were so many things they disagreed on that the gulf between them was unbridgeable. She and Jonathan had taken flesh accidentally, drawn to a pair of teenagers exploring one another’s bodies under the light of the moon, but the other gravelings had all taken flesh with the full knowledge that they were committing murder. “Who won?”
“Christopher,” Liam said.
Christopher. He wasn’t strong-willed enough to oust Eric from his flesh. “We’ll lose them both.”
Liam shrugged. “I know. But the ghosts don’t care – they won’t let an opportunity like this slip away.”
Eric yelped, grabbing for her arm. Ann Amelia spun, heart pounding, then relaxed when she realised that none of the ghosts had manifested.
No, he had been frightened by the appearance of the underslabbers.
They were terrible to look at – a hideous mockery of human form, features twitching and sliding across their faces, never quite settling on one visage. Flesh dripped from their limbs, mostly hidden by the rags of their clothing. Few if any were capable of human speech anymore. The older they got, the more they disintegrated, until they fell to living pieces – eternally caught between life and death.
“What happened to them?” Eric whispered.
Ann Amelia sighed. There was no reason to lie to him – it was far too late for him to escape. “Ghosts aren’t always able to properly possess a human body; sometimes the original inhabitants are just too strong to completely subdue. So now their bodies decay by daylight, when their hold is the weakest. We call them underslabbers because hiding underground helps, but it’s not enough to save them.”
“Possess?” Eric looked her up and down. “You’re a ghost, possessing someone’s body?”
She nodded. “When spirit is stronger than flesh, we can reshape the bodies to look as we did during our lives.”
Ann Amelia waited, expectantly, for Eric’s nerve to break. Everyone tried to run once they realised what was about to happen. The ghosts were expecting it, too – they began closing in around the gravelings in a tight circle. A few even manifested, translucent images shimmering into existence in a pale mockery of the forms they had worn during life.
Eric took a step backwards, then planted his feet in the grass and flipped to a new page in his notebook. “So it began with the ghosts rising?” His voice shook a little, but strengthened as he continued. “Then possessing human bodies, with varying degrees of success?”
Ann Amelia stared at him, unable to understand why he wasn’t trying to save himself. “Yes. And tonight one of those ghosts is going to possess your body.”
“Good luck with that, by the way,” Eric said. “So, were you the one who figured out how to possess people? Since no graveling’s record goes back as far as yours?”
“You know no one is going to ever see your notebook, don’t you?” Ann Amelia asked, looking around to see the other gravelings had pressed in closer to the reporter, curious now. The ghosts maintained their distance, apparently willing to wait for the night to deepen –so long as their prey showed no sign of trying to escape. Possessions done during twilight hours had less chance of succeeding than those done after full dark.
“So why not answer my questions?”
“She was the second,” Liam said, and Eric’s gaze snapped to him. “Jonathon was the first, but he’s long gone – he tried to leave the cemetery and neither flesh nor spirit survived.”
The other gravelings murmured their disgust and Ann Amelia found herself defending Jonathon, as she always did. “Don’t you judge him! All of you made a choice to take flesh again, but we just wanted to feel again – to try something we weren’t old enough to do in life – we didn’t know we were killing them!”
“Bleeding heart,” Liam said, smirking.
“So you possessed someone by accident?” Eric asked. “And afterwards found yourself trapped?”
“Jonathon found a way to undo it, at least in part,” Ann Amelia whispered, mesmerised by the movement of Eric’s pen. “But it didn’t save the boy, like we hoped it would. His spirit was already gone; there was nothing left to reclaim the flesh. And then they were both gone.” Leaving her alone for fifty long years. Yes, other ghosts had followed her example and taken flesh, but for all that they had defied death, none of them were interested in living. It was as if, having already lived full lives, they were now contemptuous of all things human.
“A waste,” Liam said, shaking his head. “Jonathon was given immortality and he just threw it away.”
“There’s more than one kind of immortality,” Eric said as he closed his notebook and tucked his pen into its spiral binding. Then, to Ann Amelia’s surprise, he turned to her and held out his notebook. “I want you to have this.”
“Why me?” Ann Amelia demanded, taking the notebook.
“Because you tried to save me – you wanted to make a difference.” Eric turned towards the ghosts and pulled his camera out of the pocket of his pea coat. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Ghosts began manifesting by the dozens as Eric lifted up his camera. The flash went off and Ann Amelia flinched backwards, dropping the notebook as she raised her arms to protect her eyes. When there were no more flashes, she cautiously lowered her arms and blinked away the afterimages. The ghosts had scattered, but Eric’s reprieve only lasted a few moments. They manifested again and Christopher surged forward into Eric’s body.
Eric fell to the ground, thrashing about and trying to scream, but no sound emerged from his tortured throat. Ann Amelia approached him carefully and used her foot to nudge him over onto his back, so she could watch the battle as it raged across his face. Her stomach lurched as his features fought – and failed – to rearrange themselves into Christopher’s form.
“It’s not too late,” she told them. “One of you must yield, so the other can survive. One of you. Either of you. Don’t be stubborn – don’t let yourself be stuck in-between like this forever.”
“They won’t listen to you,” Liam said. “They never do.”
“This time is different.” Ann Amelia clenched her hands into fists again and struggled against the urge to kick the body writhing on the ground before her. She wasn’t sure who she was angrier with – Christopher, who didn’t care what happened to the rest of them so long as he got flesh, or Eric, who wouldn’t let her save him. “He’s famous, people will notice.” She turned to the manifested ghosts. “You’re going to destroy us all!”
“You all,” the ghosts said, their voices the whisper of the wind. “It matters not to us.”
“There will be no more bodies for you,” Ann Amelia snapped. “No more possessions, no more chances, no more Privileges!”
“There will always be fools,” the ghosts said. One by one, they began to fade away, flitting back to their graves now that the entertainment was over.
The underslabber that had been Eric, that had been Christopher, groaned in pain.
“Damn you,” Ann Amelia whispered. “Damn you all.”
“Ann Amelia–” Liam began, putting a hand on her arm.
“Leave me alone,” she said, throwing him off.
The other gravelings and underslabbers scattered. Two of the latter paused only long enough to drag their newest companion away with them.
Eric’s camera and notebook still lay on the ground. Ann Amelia picked them up, retreated to the nearest wooden bench, and opened the notebook.
Highgate holds no secrets from us.The words were scrawled across the first page. Above it were two questions, circled repeatedly: Why no cameras? What are they hiding?
She should have saved him. All she’d had to do was answer his questions with the truth. Maybe he was right – maybe she wanted to make a difference – but, unlike him, she’d been too afraid to. It would have doomed her and the other gravelings. But in a way, they’d already doomed themselves by taking flesh that wasn’t theirs. She and Jonathan might have done it by accident, but the others had known exactly what they were doing when they’d seized the bodies they now held.
Life and death, entwined forever, unchanging, incorruptible...and unnatural.
To distract herself, Ann Amelia set the notebook down in her lap and picked up the camera. It seemed okay, turning on when she hit the power button. Curious, she switched modes and began to scroll through his photos. He hadn’t cleared the memory card in a while – there were dozens of old photos of a smiling woman who she assumed must be his wife. Then she found a few of the cemetery gates, David, and the other tourists. He’d only taken one of Marx’s monument before moving on to the surrounding area. Then there was his last photo – most of the ghosts had shimmered away in the split second between the flash and the photo, but a half dozen of them hadn’t been quick enough.
She started to turn the camera off, then hesitated and looked at the last photo again. Six ghosts. Had she spotted any of them afterwards? She closed her eyes, trying to remember what she’d seen as she argued with the ghosts. No, they hadn’t been among the ghosts who’d come back after Eric took his photo.
Was it because they couldn’t come back?
Her breath caught in her throat and her hands shook as she hit the power button. It made perfect sense. But it didn’t matter. Even if she was right, no humans would ever know enough about Eric’s death to come to the same conclusion.
Unless she told them.
Ann Amelia hugged the camera to her chest, horrified with herself for even considering the notion. But then she looked back down at the notebook in her lap and Eric’s questions seemed to leap off the page at her. She could still answer those questions. It might be too late to save Eric, but how many others could she save with her answers?
Slowly, Ann Amelia pulled out Eric’s pen and began to write.
Afterwards, Ann Amelia sat on the bench until dawn began to colour the horizon and she heard the motor of an approaching car. The other gravelings must still have been trying to give her space, because none of them were close enough to notice when she rose and walked over to the cemetery gates.
It wasn’t long before the woman from the photos appeared on the other side of the iron bars.
“Mrs. Taylor?” Ann Amelia asked.
The woman nodded, her eyes fixed on the camera and notebook in Ann Amelia’s hands.
“I am sorry for your loss,” Ann Amelia said, stepping closer to the gate. Her heart began hammering her in her chest, her lungs struggling to inflate, black sparks dancing in front of her eyes. She fought down the memory of her death. There was nothing wrong with her – not yet. She could still run back to her grave and pretend nothing had changed.
Or she could die again – on her own terms this time – and maybe make a difference.
Holding the notebook by its edge, Ann Amelia slipped it through the bars. Mrs. Taylor’s eyes watered, but she remained silent as she took it. The camera went through next, and then it was done. Done past all undoing.
They stood there, staring at each other, as the sun rose. It wasn’t quite fully light when David arrived, keys in hand. He froze when he saw the two of them and all colour drained out of his face.
“Open the gates, David,” she said. “Please?”
“He’s dead, then?” David asked, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed. Mrs. Taylor made a soft sobbing sound and finally turned away.
“Everything you need to know to stop the ghosts is in the notebook.” Ann Amelia nodded her head in Mrs. Taylor’s direction. “His story – the one he died for – it’s in there. Please, open the gates before I lose my nerve.”
“Why?” David asked, but he fumbled out the keys.
“Mrs. Taylor,” Ann Amelia added. “If his camera has a video mode, you need to film this.”
“What are you doing?” David hesitated, one hand on the gate, but he’d already turned the key in the lock.
Ann Amelia gave the gate a gentle push and it swung open. “Something I should have done a long time ago. Something Jonathan had the courage to do, but I did not.”
She closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. “It’s time for me to make a difference.”
Then Ann Amelia opened her eyes and stepped forward out of darkness, into the light.
This story originally appeared in Bloodstones.