How Many Come Back?

Stanley Konoval

She had been dead for how long? I had no idea, but I still wanted her. Her skin was a faint gray, with the slightest traces of an electric green. Crooked lines-thin black ribbons-trailed up and down her body; I fancied them traces of sweet oblivion. Her eyes were large, completely black. Her cheekbones were well defined and her lips were full, they were pale from lack of blood flow, but they had lost none of their allure; I could stare at them for hours. Her raven hair fell almost to her shoulders, it was wavy and seemed to be so only in rebellion. The white-lace gown she was wearing was just revealing enough to make me want her more. Suddenly, it dawned on me that her beauty not only echoed that which she possessed in life, but surpassed it. Where death tends to work to decay, here has only enriched.

“Will you stop staring at me, Jack?” She turned back to the mirror before her. Sitting there, I felt as if I had stepped back in time. How old that house was, I cannot say; I’ll suffice to say it was old (whether or not it satisfies you). It was abandoned and alone, that is, the owners, Elizabeth’s family, had long since fled, deserting the house. The nearest neighbors were miles away. You may expect a haunted house to be deep in some secluded copse-not so much in this case. It sat alone on a hill overlooking the city. It projected an invitation to the right explorer; “Come inside,” she whispered to me. The house itself, though vacant and dilapidated, could not be ominous enough to repel me. She drew me in.

I rode my horse round the house, taking great care in my observations. The white paint had been chipped at, wiped away by the rain and snow, leaving only traces of its existence upon the faded wood. The windows were all boarded up, as were the front and back doors. The house seemed to pierce the sky-defiance. It refused to crumble, even after so many years. I admired its resilience; I was impressed.

My horse, I tied him to a post in front of the house, and I began to approach. I expected the steps leading to the door-I expected them to creak under my weight, to threaten to collapse, they looked so worn. But the only noise, as I came to stand before the door, was the shuffling of my own feet. I felt the cold breeze pick up as I ran my hand across the first piece of wood barring my entrance. I turned about; not a soul around, not a cloud in sight-but the sun provided me with no warmth.

I pulled at the plank, slowly ripping it from the door-frame. Pulling it closer for examination, I noted the bent, rusty nails. I lowered it gently, reverently, to the ground, and set about clearing the barricade before me. When I finished, I wasted no time gently twisting the doorknob. Green flakes of oxidized gold chipped off as I forced my way in.

Faint streams of light filtered into the room through the cracks between the boarded up windows. Looking about, dust floated around, and I felt as if in the midst of a thick fog. I could make out the shapes of a sofa and some chairs, all covered by white sheets. There were a few small, gas lanterns scattered about, some shattered; all of them rendered useless by the thick layer of debris that coated the glass. Slowly, I took a step forward. The sound of my boot colliding with the hard wood floor echoed throughout the house, the sound reverberating back to me, forcing me to pause for a moment. I found my gaze drawn to the chandelier, hovering there in the darkness, devilish decor. I began to proceed anew.

I climbed the staircase and was immediately drawn to a room on my left. I wrapped my hand around the cool knob, caressing it, salivating at the thought of what might await me on the other side. Why anticipation seized me so mercilessly, I cannot know. I can only declare that its grip on me was absolute.

I twisted the doorknob and pushed-nothing. Setting my jaw and clenching my teeth, my resolve hardened. I pushed again, leaning with all of my weight against the door. Standing back, I threw myself against it; repeated. Once more, I slammed my shoulder against the door, stumbling and falling to the floor as it gave way with surprising ease. I wanted to rest, to lay there for a while longer with my cheek resting against the cold floor.

Collecting my resolve, I found the strength to stand. Nearest to me, on my right, was a large wooden wardrobe, to my left, a matching dresser. Directly before me was a bed styled nearly the same as the other I had so recently discovered; that is, it possessed the same black iron frame and boasted the same proportions. The difference lay in the fact that this one had not been laid bare; it still retained the thick quilt which I am sure had long adorned it.

Next to the dresser sat a type of desk; a large vanity mirror claimed most of the surface. I walked past the dresser and desk, inexplicably drawn to the window above the head of the bed. I pushed the white mesh curtains aside and glanced out, marveling at how there seemed to be nothing in the distance except for rolling green hills and the imminent sunset on the horizon that had just begun. The way the sun’s orange and violet rays played upon the scenery seemed spectacular to me; I was rendered breathless. It occurs to me that perhaps this was a dream, all of it. But try as I might, I cannot justify it to myself. For never had I ever dreamed ambitiously enough to see before me what I saw; never had I deigned it apt to dream of things I could never hope to see. And so I find myself accepting of the fact that that house-and that view; that sunset fading behind those pristine hills-was not the product of my fancy.

I turned ever so slightly, when I saw it. I started, clumsily stepping backwards, nearly collapsing upon the wooden chair half tucked under the desk. Propping myself up, I felt my hands pushing things off of the desktop; among them, I was faintly conscious, was a hairbrush.

I could not tear my eyes away from the rib-cage resting upon the gray reclining chair which resided in the corner of the room. I was tempted to flee. And I was drawn closer.

I slowly approached it, staring all the while. There could be no doubt that the small cage before me was formerly that of a person. Inside of the rib-cage was a jumble of bones, the most easily identifiable being the skull. I made eye contact with the empty black eye-sockets first, and slowly trailed along with my eyes. I traced a route along the vertebrae and lost track; identified the arms and legs, the hands and feet-the hipbone.

I ran my hand along the bones of the cage. It felt ancient and rough-splintery, as twigs we would find strewn across the ground in the woods. And then something which I did not immediately notice began to occur. The bones grew smooth to the touch. I felt a macabre fascination, a strange connection.

My breath caught in my throat as I felt the bones begin to vibrate. Suddenly I drew my hand away, and I nearly cried out in terror. The bones had begun to disentangle themselves. As the mess before me slowly morphed into a recognizable skeleton, I watched mute; a dumb silence. The tears welled up in my eyes, for I could will no part of my body to move, though I’d have given anything in this world at that moment, to have been able to run.

It was only when the strings of flesh began to materialize before my eyes, and wrap themselves around the bones; only when the organs began to sprout-to bloom, as if I was watching the growth of an apple upon the branch; it was only as the lungs unfurled like the gradual spreading of a crumpled ball of paper made square again, and inflated; only as the gray hair sprouting from the skull darkened and thickened, did my sight begin to fail me.

Everything went dark in my eyes as the recreation of-of something commenced. I lost consciousness when it looked at me.

* * *

I came to a while before I opened my eyes. I tried to keep my breathing steady; I controlled the fluttering of my eyelids. If I could only keep my eyes shut-

“You may as well sit up.”

I froze. Steady. This was not real.

“Come on. Sit up.”

Acknowledging my defeat, I slowly opened my eyes. A faint orange light danced across the black ceiling. Breathing became a chore as I pushed myself up against the cold headboard. I scanned the room, resting my eyes on the flickering fire in the lamp for a moment. Slowly, I turned a bit to meet my sprite.

My entire being froze at the sight of her. The words stuck in my throat. Her beauty remains unparalleled with anything I have yet to see. My eyes ate and drank of her. I felt as if physically bound to this unworldly sight – I could not look away. She said nothing as I stared; at her eyes, her lips, her breasts. As if exiting from a fog, I began suddenly to color and grin awkwardly.

“I don’t mean to stare,” I murmured. She only crossed her legs in response, leaning back in the chair. I made a conscious effort not to contemplate the pure white-almost transparent-gown which she wore, let alone dare to look at her again. I was afraid I had made an offense.

The relative darkness of the room lent to the illusory quality of it all. I was half inclined to believe I was dreaming. In any case, I felt my fear melt away.

“What are you?” I could not resist asking. Her eyes betrayed her as baffled.

“Who, I assume you mean.” Her voice was smooth and thick; the mark of a seductress, I thought. And yet, I would have given anything I possessed simply to sit and to listen to her speak.

“Well,” I said, treading lightly, “I meant who and what…It seems clear to me that you’re not as I.”

She cocked her head, a queer expression on her face.

“And how am I not as you?”

“It seems that you are not among the living,” I said, cringing in anticipation of her response.

“Can it be?” She whispered, guarding her mouth with her hand.

“I’m afraid so,” I said gently. “I’m sorry.” The tears began to well up in her eyes.

“I can’t-Remember,” she sobbed. As her cries grew louder, I rushed to her, kneeling before her. I took her hands in my own before wrapping my arms around her. I pulled her close, and we rocked back and forth to the rhythm of her sobs-of her despair.

It must have been hours. Somewhere along the line we had both managed to occupy the chair. I held her all the while, in silence.

“Do you have a name?” I ventured to ask.

“Elizabeth.”

As much as it pained me, I disengaged from her, sat on the edge of the bed.

“Can you remember nothing before tonight?” She paused; closed her eyes.

“I can remember everything; my childhood, family-” She gasped.

“What?”

“Can we not talk about this right now? Will you tell me of yourself…”

“Jack,” I said, smiling. She reciprocated, faintly. It was then that I noticed the beams of sunshine filtering in; our smiles faded.

As her flesh began to darken, she opened her mouth in an expression of horror – but no sound escaped. Her eyes froze; hardened as if into a shell. Her hair grayed and her nose crumbled into her skull. Slowly at first, the decaying flesh fell off of her body, small flakes. As if a summer breeze had picked up, she slowly disappeared, the wind blowing away the dust that merely moments ago had been her.

I lunged over to the chair, trying to piece her together again, her dust slipping through my hands. I grabbed her neck, attempting with all of my strength to keep it from collapsing, from folding and enveloping itself inside of the ribcage. Her legs folded up on one another as did her arms. In the end, I failed. All that remained of her was neatly folded within the skeletal cage.

* * *

I could not bear to tear my stare away; not for a second. I seemed to have become disembodied, for I felt not the slightest inclination to eat or relieve myself. I sat on the edge of that bed for so long…Consciousness eventually deserted me.

Floating there on the surface of that deep black sea, I waited. The only thing keeping me afloat was the desire to see her, to hear her voice again. And so I slept lightly, the faintest sound being jarring enough, each sound being the potential ship which would prove to be my salvation.

“Jack,” she said. And there she was, as if she had never left, in the same spot she had occupied the night previous.

“Elizabeth…” I knelt before her again. I kissed her bare feet before wrapping my arms around her legs. I rested my head against her knee.

“Why do you embrace me so?”

“Because you may have only been a dream.”

“It’s funny; the same could be said of you.”

“Then let us both be either as the pleasant dream which fades upon waking or two beings which must ultimately fade unto death. Let us just be together.”

“Jack…You speak of ‘us’ and ‘together’ as if we knew one another.”

I gently caressed her cheek.

“Then let us know one another.”

* * *

“What of your family?”

“They’re gone.”

“But where, where have they gone?”

“Jack…Can you imagine my situation? I should think it obvious that I knew not where they’ve gone.”

“Then were have you gone?”

“Away, Jack…Just away.”

“Can you remember nothing then?”

“Why do you hound me so?”

I allowed my gaze to drop to the floor.

“I only wish to know you,” I said quietly. “But if I can spare you pain by ending this conversation, then consider it done.” She bit her lip, her eyes focusing on anything but me. The light danced across her features.

“Jack…At every dawn, I die. Can you imagine how it must feel, to watch as your body decays and you begin to depart?”

We sat in silence until I finally dared to speak again.

“Can you remember nothing of the other world? Is there another world?”

“I don’t know, Jack. Upon my resurrection it is just as awaking from a deep slumber; a dreamless sleep.” I reached over, grabbed her hand and massaged it.

“I can feel the sunrise coming. My body begins to tingle. I feel weak.”

She turned away from me as the tears began to run down her cheeks. I climbed into the chair with her; held her.

“You must be here for a reason, Elizabeth -“

“You can call me Beth.”

I brushed the hair out of her face, wiping her tears away with my fingers. I rubbed her back, tracing small concentric circles. I first kissed the crown of her head; kissed her forehead, the tip of her nose; her lips, her thick, colorless lips; her sweet lips rendered sour with tears.

As she began to decay, her lips turned to ashes and crumbled into my mouth. For the briefest moment, I nearly yielded to instinct-to spit out the ashes. Instead, I savored them; I turned them over with my tongue and pushed them around my mouth. I swallowed.

I jumped out of the way so as to not interrupt the process. As Beth faded away, I watched her skeleton twist and fold onto itself. The day was upon us.

* * *

I could feel my body growing weaker. Since I had entered that house, I had not dared to leave – I was afraid that if I left, she would disappear forever. I could feel my body dehydrating. That was the worst of it though, for I had long ago passed that threshold which marks the end of hunger-pangs.

Soon after Elizabeth had departed, I crawled into her bed; it took no effort to fall asleep, for I imagined that she waited for me, either in my dreams, or when I awoke. Through the heavy blankets weighed down upon me somewhat uncomfortably; I found it pleasant, cathartic. I pulled it up to my chin and I allowed my eyelids to gently close-and open.

“Jack.”

“It feels like I’ve only just closed my eyes.”

“It’s because you’re drained. You need to eat; to drink.”

“Beth, you know why I’m afraid to leave.”

Her eyes glittered in the darkness.

“I won’t have you sitting here and dying, Jack.”

I kissed her, led her to the bed.

“Then we’ll just have to figure something out.”

As we laid down, she rested her head against my chest. Try as I might, I could not by any stretch of will, imagine my dear as a pile of lifeless bones. I wanted to believe that she had always been as she was, wanted to believe that I had never seen her fall apart. I almost succeeded. She was just so warm…As the sweet scent of her hair reached my nostrils, it dawned upon me, the question that I had never dared to ask.

“What have you done to warrant such a fate?”

She pulled away from me.

“What do you mean?”

“What have you done to warrant such a fate? You die and are reborn within a single day – everyday. Cursed to live only at night. There must be a reason.”

She sat up, locking eyes with mine. She pressed her lips together, cocked her head.

“Why must it be only a curse, Jack? Why not a blessing?”

“A strange blessing you’d bestow, dear.”

“How many come back-“

“To an empty home? To a lonely life? Can this even be called life? How long were you held captive in this room before I stumbled about?”

I sat up, she turned away. I grabbed at her hand.

“You must tell me of your past.”

She sighed, moved to stand. I placed either hand on her shoulders, pulling her down. A cold breeze had earlier blown in and blown out the lamp. Neither of us had moved to re-light it. The moon was full in the sky; it provided enough light. Pale illumination lent to the shiver I felt run through my body. It was in anticipation of what I knew I would wrestle out of her eventually. I knew her story could not end well.

“Jack…I’ve been to the other side, but I can’t remember it. My story is not yet complete. But when it is, I’ll return to where and whence I belong. I will fade away and disappear.”

She buried her face between my neck and shoulder, breathing lightly. We still had some time until dawn.

“Beth; wherever you go, I will follow. Know that. And whatever it is that keeps you bound to this world; a blessing it must be, for were it not so, I’d not have known you. We’d not be together. You, who I have desired and waited and searched for. Whatever evil has befallen you, speak of it; breathe life into it with your speech, so that we may do away with it.”

How alluring she looked then and there, the black ribbons trailing across her face, her shoulders; I felt myself unabashedly staring again. As she opened her mouth, I contemplated her nature, praised it, for she was neither wholly of this world nor the next. She was a refreshing novelty. Even in life she had been such, I knew. She kissed my lips, sat back in her chair-in that chair in which I had first discovered her remains.

“Then let us begin.”