“Well—” David took my hand and led me away, “—he’s been around a while. He’s old-fashioned.” When we stopped in front of the next two headstones, David smiled, rocking back on his heels. “These two are the best.”
“Jason Gabriel Knight. Nineteen-sixteen,” I read, but it was the second one that grabbed my attention straight away; my heart jumped into my chest when I saw his name written there, even though I was standing right beside him;
“There was an explosion. A bomb.” His tight smile caged laughter. “There was no way anyone could’ve survived it. Pertinent to our laws, I had no choice but to move on and become somebody else.”
“Were you the only one killed?”
“Thankfully, yes. But, I had established quite a good life for myself; had plenty of money in the bank, a house, friends—but no will. So, with my brother and only kin supposedly dead, my estate became ward of the government, and I had to start all over again.” He laughed; I covered my mouth. “Talk about learning from your mistakes.”
“Well, what good would mistakes be if you didn’t get to learn from them?” I shrugged, then looked down at the next headstone in the plot. The name didn’t match the others though; hers was Deveraux.
“She was my mother—” David answered my thought, “—my aunt by blood, but mother by choice.” He stepped away and drew the dried brown vine hugging the stone top away, revealing a name and an inscription on the bronze plate:
Lies beneath, sent to the earth with child in arms.
Safe for eternity in the embrace of the Lord. 1908.
My skin tightened with little bumps. “Child?”
“Yes,” David whispered. “She died the second the child was born.” He focused on his toe as he scuffed up a chunk of grass. “We buried them together.”
“Nineteen-oh-eight? So you were only...” I counted in my head for a second.
“I turned fourteen a few months after she died,” David said.
I watched the grief trickle across his brow before he contained it. “After all these years, you still feel it? You still feel her loss so strongly?”
He bit his lip. “There are some things you can never move on from, Ara.”
“So, she died in childbirth—like your mother?”
“No.” The way he said that, his voice laden with detest, made my blood run cold.
“Will you tell me what happened?” I asked cautiously.
David looked up at me quickly, then, leaving my words alone behind him, walked over and sunk down on the grass with his back against her stone—as if he’d sat there a thousand times before. “You look like her,” he said.
He nodded. “Her hair was long, like yours, but as gold as the sun. And her eyes—” he closed his, dropping his head as a slight smile lifted his lips, “—as blue as the ocean. She would have loved you.” He patted the spot next to him; I sat down, my back against the stone, too, my legs crossed. “She would have been proud of me to have found such a sweet girl.”
“I’m sure she knows—somehow.” I wanted to take his hand, but there was an air of tension around him—threatening, like he’d explode if I touched him.
“So you believe in the afterlife—believe they’re watching over us?”
I shrugged. “I guess I have to. Otherwise it all just feels too final.”
“It is final,” he said coldly, obviously not realising how deep that hurt. His gaze frosted the distant horizon, his hands tight in his lap. “Ever since the day she came to retrieve us from the orphanage after my father passed away, she treated Jason and I as if we were her own sons.”
“Why were you in an orphanage?” I cut in.
“It was temporary—while they waited for her to arrive from England.” He seemed to watch a memory on the grass between his feet. “But we were treated kindly there.”
David laughed once. “No. Nothing like that.”
“What about your uncle? Why didn’t he take you?”
“Oh.” Of course, silly me.
“Well, in Arthur’s defence, when Arietta passed, he managed to have many rules bent in order to have Jason and I in his charge. It’s never been done before, or again.”
“Oh,” I said, and something in the brevity of his words made my curiosity on that subject flee. “So, how did Arietta die?”
He picked up an orange, star-shaped leaf, scratching the veins with his thumbnail. “I knew you couldn’t resist asking me that again.”
“Sorry. You don’t have to tell me.” I folded my hands into my lap and looked up at the tree above us; the leaves rustled lightly in the breeze, and despite this being a place the dead rested, I felt comfortable here, like it was just some pleasant picnic spot—somewhere to sit and think about the past.
“She always wanted children,” he said out of the blue; I sat still, holding my breath in case he should change his mind. “She loved my brother and I, but wanted a daughter. She used to play hopscotch with the little girls on the sidewalk outside our house.”
David smiled at me. “The summer after my father’s passing, Arietta was walking to the market when a sailor stopped her on the roadside. He asked if she was okay, and she asked why he would inquire such an odd question to a stranger who showed no signs of distress. When he said he was concerned for her pain—since it must have hurt when she fell from Heaven, she fell completely and unconditionally in love with him.”
“He was charming and kind. He treated Jason and I as if we were his own sons. Victor Stronghold was his name, and soon, became Arietta’s. And we were happy.” He nodded. “Victor took us fishing and camping, taught us how to play baseball and showed us maps of the world. But happiness was short lived. They had tried for so long to have a child, and when the days of waiting for the stork to arrive became years—we all lost hope.
“I was nearly thirteen when Uncle Arthur came to visit. He and my aunt became close. Victor was called away to duty in the Navy for six months and—” David scratched his brow, “—when he returned, Arietta was pregnant.”
“So it was your uncle’s baby?” I asked, my eyes wide.
“Yes. Victor was devastated and humiliated. He left town for a few months, but returned later and begged her to stay with him—despite her indiscretions.”
“He must have really loved her.”
“Apparently. But she refused—repeatedly. I remember them fighting about it…at night…while we cowered in our beds, frightened Victor would hurt our aunt. One night she announced to him that she’d be marrying Arthur. So he left, and life went on.”
“Wait. So, just to be clear. Arthur was a vampire then?”
He nodded. “He was. He planned to change Arietta after the child was born.”
David plucked the dry edges of the leaf in hand and flicked the debris onto the wind. “The doctor predicted the child would arrive in spring, but the snow had started to melt and the days turn warm and still, nothing happened. I stayed home from school for more than a fortnight to watch over her until, one day, she packed my lunch and sent me out the door—told me she would be fine.” He rested the back of his head against the stone. “I remember it all like it was yesterday. So many things aligned to allow tragedy to upturn our lives that day.”
“Uncle Arthur was running errands on the other side of the Port—a day’s travel by foot—” He straightened his leg, “—and Jason and I would not be home until sunset, at the earliest.”
“So…” I waited, but he’d obviously continued living the story inside his mind, forgetting to share. “What happened then?”
“I—” He rolled his head sideways to look at me. “I just don’t know if I can talk about this, Ara. It’s too…” I watched his flat palm smooth circles over the left side of his chest. “It’s too painful.”
“But, I—” He sat up more and reached for my face. “I could show you—if you would let me.”
“I can share memories,” he said, his voice trickling with hope. “It’s…it won’t be very clear, since I haven’t mastered this technique yet, but it will save me the lengthy monologue.” His lip quirked on one side.
“Okay.” I grabbed his hand, rolling my cheek against it. “Show me.”
“Close your eyes.” He shuffled closer and rested his other hand on my cheek. “Try not to fight it when you see memories that don’t belong to you. Just watch—like a movie.”
A faint image, like a photo taken on a sunny day then placed in a dark room at a perpendicular angle, appeared on the backs of my eyelids. I drew a deep breath and watched the slanted image, kind of squinting a little, even with my eyes closed.
“Sorry. I’m not too good at this.” David’s breath brushed softly against my ear. “Does it hurt?”
“I’m fine,” I said and settled back internally to watch the movie.
The evening sky hugged the ground in the distance, red bleeding into night, and as far as the eye could see, the undisturbed horizon ran off into hills, tan roads snaking inward and disappearing among them. The last dregs of light turned the grass orange where it lined the dirt road under a boy’s feet. He whistled and waved to his neighbours as he passed, but in his green eyes, the depths of his worries flared. He walked with an edge to his step, half hurrying, half skipping, as if to pretend he felt no concern. But when he looked up to a house at the end of the street, the open front door seemed to stop his heart.
Silence seized the sound of children laughing, dogs barking, and his own quiet thoughts. I couldn’t understand why, but I could sense something was off. So could the boy.
Two breaths passed before the thump of his knapsack hitting the ground brought all life, all sound, back.
The movie played in slow motion, making the distance between the picket gate and the porch steps seem like a hundred yards as he ran, his heels kicking up clouds of dust behind him. But everything stopped, the colour draining from the day, shadowing out the warmth as no one greeted the boy’s call. He stood in the frame of the door, his eyes tracing the raw pine staircase, the archway to the left, and finally falling over a table knocked to its side; shattered blue pottery lay among twelve rose stems, the red petals crumpled and torn, smudged into the hardwood floors all around his feet.
“Arietta?” he called again, expecting to hear her reply. He held his breath, this boy with gold-brown hair and fair skin, and bravely entered, though he could feel the grip of tragedy climbing the walls. He toed the edge of the table, shifting it away, seeing four curled fingers, tipped red with blood, the rest of the arm slightly hidden by the gate of the stairs.
“Aunty?” He ran to her side, falling to his knees at the sight of her fragile, slender body, twisted awkwardly, as if she had fallen from something impossibly high and landed without bones in her body. Stringy tendrils mocked what was once hair of gold, and as the boy reached forward and stroked it from her cheek, he turned her face toward him and let out a shallow, empty cry, falling back on his heels.
A face unrecognisably human stared back at him; eyes swollen shut, a deep void where the other half of her skull should be—her lip torn up to her nose, several teeth missing.
My heart, which had been steady the whole time, suddenly beat faster.
The boy got to his knees again and, swiping tears from his youthful cheeks, lifted the bodice of her dress and fell heavily upon her blackened belly. He felt helplessly around the dome of skin, searching for the feel of life within, and while his body shook from the fear of truth, he turned his head to read something inscribed on the wall beside him. The memory blanked out the words, leaving only the feeling that followed, and I knew they were a passage from the Bible, condemning infidelity.
David covered the belly of his aunt and sat up suddenly, his ears pricked, his shoulders tense, eyes wide. Then, he launched to his feet and extended his hand toward the door. “Jason. Don’t come in!”
A boy, an exact copy of David, stopped dead in the doorway—his boisterous smile slipping away at the sight of his blood-covered brother.
“Get Uncle, Jason. Get Uncle!” David yelled his command, but Jason was already gone. Swift and graceful, he tore down the street, his lanky limbs blurring with speed until he disappeared from David’s sight.
David turned back to his aunt and fell to his knees, weeping. “I’m so sorry, Aunty. I should...I should have been here—” His body submitted to grief, but stopped suddenly as the deathly figure beneath him groaned. “Aunty!” He held his breath. “Aunty!”
“Da-v-id—” She moved her hand to reach for him, her soft gaze suddenly slipping past him to a white look of terror. Like a tidal wave preparing itself for slaughter, the silence drew in around them, then cracked apart, like a shattering vile of terror; the woman clutched her belly and rolled upward, screeching for all the pain Hell had summoned.