Something Strange and Deadly, p.1Susan Dennard
To Seb, for walking the dog, making the coffee, and listening to my stream-of-consciousness rambling—all without complaint. Je t’aime.
About the Author
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“Dead!” a woman screamed. “It’s the Dead!”
My heart shot into my throat, and shocked cries rippled through the station. The woman sounded nearby—as if she was also in line at the telegraph office.
But … this couldn’t be real, could it? The Dead? At the Centennial train depot?
The woman shrieked again, and I saw her, four customers behind me, her face white and eyes huge. A breath later, somber bells rang out, and I knew it was all very, very real. That was the Dead alarm.
I’d heard of corpses awakening—hungry and dangerous though still quite dead. The purpose of bells in coffins was, after all, to warn us; but if the word on the street was true, then in the last week more than a few bodies had escaped their graves.
My heart picked up speed, my veins throbbing in my neck. I did not want to be here when the Dead came. I’d never seen a walking corpse, and I saw no reason to change that.
“It’s the Dead!” screamed a scruffy boy beside me. His shrill voice was barely audible in the panicked crowds. “Get out—come on!”
But I couldn’t. Workers and passengers alike pushed and heaved to be the first out of the distant doors.
My breathing turned shallow. I backed up against the wall. The crowd was moving fast, tugging at my skirts and threatening to pull me away like a treacherous riptide.
I glanced around. The abandoned office told me I’d get no telegram today. For that matter, I wasn’t even sure I would escape today.
A woman’s parasol jabbed into my ribs, and my petticoats ripped beneath an old man’s boot. I pushed myself harder to the wall, frantically searching for a gap in the flow of bodies.
A thought flashed in my mind: I can go in the office. It was empty and an easy relief from the panic. I could wait inside for the crowds to thin, and then I could make my own escape.
I took a steeling breath and shoved off the wall, aiming for the office entrance. Once I reached the door, I pushed through and slammed it shut behind me. My muscles shook and I had to lean against the door, but I was safe. I could ride out the storm here.
I scanned the tiny cubicle. Before the clerk’s window was a desk with the telegraph machine and stacks of paper. One of those stacks was labeled NEW—where my brother’s telegram would be if he’d sent one.
He’d been three years abroad, and today was the day he was finally coming home.
Or it was supposed to be, but the blasted boy hadn’t appeared on the New York train. And now my wait in the telegraph line—a wait to find out if he’d sent a message or not—had been interrupted.
By the Dead.
Long moments passed. The screams and pelting footsteps didn’t fade. This could be a long wait, but at least I was protected from the stampede. Though not perhaps from the Dead.
What did the stories say? The Dead hunt endlessly until they’re laid to rest or their bodies are destroyed.
Shivers ran down my spine. Maybe it was best Elijah hadn’t come home—though I did want to know why he hadn’t been on the train. Of course … now that I was here, I could get Elijah’s message myself.
I shot a quick glance through the clerk’s window. The crowds were still packed outside, so I dropped my parasol to the floorboards and grabbed for the papers. After skimming the top message, I moved to the next, and then the next.
But I reached the end, and nothing was for me. When Elijah had missed the train a week ago, he’d instantly telegraphed. But now something was wrong. I could feel it. There should have been a message from him.
I threw the papers back on the desk. Where else can a telegram be?
My eyes caught on a crumpled sheet of paper nearby. I snatched it up, but it was only a newspaper page. The headline read: “Walking Dead Still Rise in Laurel Hill Cemetery.” I pushed the paper into my pocket to read later. I’d ignored the recent Dead reports, thinking they wouldn’t affect me. Foolish—the Dead were more than just specters to frighten unruly children. The Dead were very real.
And the Dead were here. I tried to swallow, my throat pinched tight. I needed to get out!
The frenzied cries of the crowd’s escape were fading. Now was my chance to run. I stooped down to retrieve my parasol.
That was when I noticed the smell. The stench of carrion.
My hands froze over the parasol. I lifted my gaze with deliberate caution and met the face that now waited outside the window, where only minutes ago I had waited. It was a corpse. One of the Dead.
Time stopped as my mind took in the creature before me. Lidless eyes with creamy, decomposed irises. Half a mouth revealing yellow teeth. The tatters of a brown, wool suit hanging loosely over waxy skin. Brittle, gray hair. And now the corpse lifting his arm.
I shrieked and clambered backward. My feet tangled in my petticoats, and I crashed to the floor in a flurry of skirts.
No, no, no!
Whimpers burst from my mouth as I struggled to stand, but my corset hampered my range of movement and balance. I couldn’t draw in a decent breath.
The corpse’s arm was now fully extended through the window, its rotten fist only inches from my head. It stiffly unfolded its fingers, and a sheet of paper fluttered to the counter. Then, in a slow, convulsive turn and with shambling footsteps, the corpse left.
Seconds passed and still I could not seem to breathe. Why hadn’t it attacked?
I watched the window. Was the corpse coming in the office? Were there more Dead? I listened closely but detected no sounds over the somber tolling of the alarm.
Was the corpse really gone?
The stink lingered, so perhaps it was waiting outside the window. A few flies had hitched a ride on the body, and they buzzed around me. I only gave them a cursory swat. I was trapped in here until—
I heard a loud crack like thunder.
My heart jolted, and my whole body jumped with it. What the devil was that?
Then, suddenly, the alarm stopped. I heard voices from within the depot. Living people.
The danger must have passed; I was all right. But I couldn’t stop the shaking in my hands. My whole body felt like jelly.
It took several minutes for my breathing to settle, for my heart to stop its frenzied pounding. It wasn’t until a full five minutes had passed and silence reigned in the depot that I trusted myself to try standing.
My legs wobbled, and I pushed my chin shakily forward. I didn’t want to approach the counter, but I ached to see what the Dead had left behind. A piece of pape
I inched closer, seeing it was a letter.
I inched closer again until the words of the letter were clear.
My breath hitched, and I grasped the counter for support.
The paper was for me, and it was from my brother.
When I got home, I went straight upstairs, locked myself in my bedroom, and leaned against the door. The fading, yellow stripes on the wallpaper made my eyes waver, so I stared hard at the floorboards.
I needed simplicity. Calm. And above all, I needed time alone before Mama hounded me. The words from Elijah’s letter rang in my mind over and over again. I had scanned the note a thousand times on the walk home and could recite it from memory now.
I can’t come. Trouble in New York has caught up with me. Don’t tell Mama—it will only worry her. And you shouldn’t worry either. If I do what he needs, I can come home.
And that was all it said, except for Elijah scrawled at the bottom. When I flipped it around, it was just dirt-covered blank.
I threw my parasol beside my oak wardrobe and crossed to the window opposite me, giving my bed a wide berth—its beige sheets beckoned to me with promises of protection and escape. I stoutly avoided looking at Elijah’s picture on my bedside table, and I pressed my forehead against the glass; it fogged with my breath.
This could not be happening. This had to be a joke. Or a mistake. Elijah would show up at any minute, his bony face laughing and his spectacles sliding down his nose.
I fingered the pale scar on my left wrist. A hard-earned reminder of our tree-climbing, game-playing days. Surely, surely this was a prank—like the time he convinced me it was a good idea to dress up as ghosts and scare Mama during tea.
My heart dropped into my stomach, and I twisted around to slide to the floor. This couldn’t be a joke. Elijah couldn’t manipulate a corpse.
The reference to trouble in New York—Elijah had mentioned problems in his earlier letters. He had said people were after his research, but I hadn’t understood what he meant. During his travels across Europe, he was always drifting from one museum to the next, and studying old books and ancient artifacts. But theology had never been a topic of much interest to me.
Oh, why hadn’t I paid better attention? I’d been so excited about his return, I’d completely ignored his trouble. And now it had caught up with him in the form of lidless, putrid eyes.
Despite the press of my corset, I hugged my knees to my chest and rolled my head back to the wall. Elijah was right—I couldn’t tell Mama.
My mother seemed tough, but it was all an act. When Father had died six years ago, the grief had almost killed her. The stress of a missing son—of a son who was likely taken by the Dead—would be too much.
I whimpered and squeezed my eyes shut. I had no idea what to do … no idea why this was happening to Elijah. Other than childhood stories and the occasional newspaper article, I had never paid much attention to the Dead. It had never been my problem before, never been my family affected by a ringing casket-bell and rising corpse.
From my pocket, I yanked the crumpled newspaper and roughly unfolded it.
WALKING DEAD STILL RISE IN LAUREL HILL CEMETERY
Today marks one week since the discovery of the corpse of Frederick Weathers, son of City Councilman Thomas Weathers. Frederick, who had disappeared two days before, was discovered at the International Centennial Exhibition as a walking corpse. His murderer is presumed to be the same person responsible for raising the Dead.
Murder? Oh God—I was going to be sick.
“Eleanor? Let me in!”
I whipped my head up. Mama.
I crushed the newspaper in my fist and shoved it back into my pocket. “Let me in!” she commanded.
“Coming. Coming.” I climbed to my feet and scrambled across the room.
“Why is this locked?” Mama demanded once the door was opened. She didn’t wait for an answer but sailed past me into the room. “Well, where is he?”
I stared wide-eyed. The truth boiled in my throat. I wanted—needed—to tell her, but I knew better.
So I blinked.
“Do not just stand there, Eleanor. I asked you a question.” Mama’s figure was all shoulders and angles, with a mass of curling gray hair on top. And right now she stood puffed up like a triangle, tapering to the ground and demanding authority as if she were President Grant himself.
“The Dead came,” I mumbled.
A crease folded down her forehead. “What do you mean, ‘the Dead came’? What is that for an answer? What Dead?”
I shrank back, fighting the urge to run past her through the open door. “Th-the walking corpses,” I stammered. “The ones people have been talking about. One came to the train depot, so everyone was evacuated.”
“What?” She threw her hands in the air. “But this is cause for alarm, Eleanor! If you were in danger—”
“No!” I lunged at her, my head shaking to keep her calm. “No, I’m fine. Elijah wasn’t there anyway.”
“He … he was not there?” Her eyebrows drooped, and she lowered her hands.
“No, but he left a message.”
“At the telegraph office.”
“I mean, where is the message? Give it to me.”
I licked my lips. “I don’t have it. I must have dropped it when the Dead alarm rang.”
“Hmph.” She folded her arms over her ample chest. “What did the note say? Will he be on the afternoon train?”
“No.” I shook my head as a story unfolded in my mind. “Not on the afternoon train. He ran into some friends in New York, so he’s going to stay. For a few days, or perhaps longer.”
She groaned and pressed her hands to her forehead. “Three years away with nary a letter, and now he changes his plans with no warning at all. We need him here—does he not realize this? You explained that in your last letter, did you not?”
“Of course, Mama.” I had written to Elijah of our financial trouble long before she had nagged me to. In every letter I had begged Elijah to hurry home and resume our dead father’s work. But Elijah never responded to those passages.
“And what of our party tonight?” Mama insisted. “What am I to do?”
“We could cancel,” I said hopefully.
She snorted. “Of course we cannot cancel. The walking Dead must have addled your brain, Eleanor. This is our first party in years—our chance to impress the Wilcoxes. The guests have accepted our invitations, and I will not squander this opportunity.”
I cringed. Merciful heavens, a party was the last thing I wanted to endure. To make polite chatter and pretend all was well? It seemed impossible.
After Father died, my family stopped receiving invitations to parties. I’d thought it was Mama’s grief that kept our calling card bowl empty. I’d thought it was our year-long mourning that kept us tied to the house. But as I’d gotten older, I’d realized that it was society’s decision to ignore us—not my mother’s—and I could conjure only one reason for this isolation: the raving paranoia my father had suffered from before his death. His babbling cries of enemies, sabotage, and revenge had frightened my family. I could see how it would frighten other families as well.
“Consider the expense of our party,” Mama continued. She began to pace. “All that money for nothing! We cannot waste such food and preparation. Although … the entire affair was meant for Elijah, which means we must offer our guests some other form of entertainment.”
“We must?” I squeaked.
“Yes, yes.” She drummed her fingers against her lips. “There are too few guests for a ball and too many guests for cards, and literary debates are so dreadfully dull.”
She continued her steps, muttering more solutions to herself.
I squeezed my eyes shut and took the moment to calm my nerves. I had to keep this brittle control in front of Mama or else I would blurt out everything.
“I have it,” she said.
I snapped my eyes open
I was not nearly so pleased with her solution. “Why?”
“Why not? We used to have them all the time.”
I swallowed and flicked my eyes around the room.
“What is wrong with a séance?” Mama pursed her lips and squinted at me.
“I-I’m still upset by the Dead at the depot. Contacting the spirits sounds …” I trailed off and shrugged.
“Ah.” She tapped the side of her nose. “I see. Well, you needn’t worry. The séances have never worked before, and we won’t have time to hire a medium for tonight. It will be quite casual. Purely entertainment, Eleanor.”
“All right.” She was correct, of course. She’d conducted dozens of séances, but even with a medium, she’d never been able to contact Father. Besides, my chest was starting to ache from my secrets. I needed her to leave before the truth came spilling out. “A séance will be perfect then.”
“Yes, I think so too.” She grinned. “It is cheap, and everyone loves the drama. People still talk of Mrs. Bradley’s séance.” She chuckled.
I tried to laugh with her, but it came out breathy and shrill.
“Are you all right, dear?” Mama asked. “Did the Dead truly disturb you? Did you actually see this walking corpse?” She inspected my face, and I had to fight to keep my body still. Why couldn’t she just leave already?
“N-no. I didn’t see it.” I licked my lips. “I’m fine, Mama. It’s just so … it’s so hot.”
“Yes, and you are sweating.” She stepped close to me and sniffed the air. “I’ll have Mary draw a bath. You smell like a guttersnipe.”
I merely nodded, no longer trusting myself to speak. Fortunately, Mama chose that moment to leave; and in three long strides, she was gone.
I sucked in a shaky breath and collapsed backward onto my bed. My fingers curled around the familiar beige linens.
How could I keep this a secret when I could barely deal with it myself? The Dead had delivered Elijah’s letter. The corpses had my brother!
And before I could stop it, another, much darker thought came. What if Elijah was a walking corpse himself?
Something Strange and Deadly by Susan Dennard / Fantasy / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes