Authors: Morgan Kelly
She certainly didn’t want to.
And that was dangerous.
She couldn’t risk ruining Alaric’s chance at living a normal life without her popping in on him every time the moon phase was auspicious, or the days darkened toward an Equinox, or All Hallows came back round again. She was a bloody fool to listen to Tess, who really didn’t know what she was talking about, any more than Laura herself knew what she was doing. It was like feeling her way in the dark, with occasional bursts of lightning that allowed her to see for moments in time the mess she was in. It was no way to live. It was no way for Alaric to live. She would end the cycle right here and now.
But could she really stop it? The fact that she found herself in Stonecross again, with everything exactly as she had left it, clearly meant that nothing had changed. She was more than a little surprised to wind up back in the house. She thought she would end up … where, exactly? She didn’t know. She had changed things in the past. Things had changed. Surely that should mean that the present was different, too. She just didn’t know how it was different. And how much different she could make it, so that it would stop happening.
The idea that Alaric had still willed his house to her after everything that happened was more than a possibility; he had to have done so, or else she would be back in her flat, trawling for shillings in the palms of people’s hands, never the wiser. She shoved the evidence of Alaric’s continued devotion to the back of her mind. It changed nothing. She could never go back to him, and she couldn’t stay at Stonecross, where the temptation might be too great. And the memories of the time she had spent in his arms would haunt her as surely as any specter. She preferred ghosts she could dispel. That was how she would treat herself, for Alaric’s sake, like a haunting that could be banished back to where it belonged.
Laura went from the room, turning back to the cat. “I’ll be back for you,” she told him. “Mind you don’t go wandering off, or I swear I’ll leave you behind to fend for yourself.”
The cat yawned, unconcerned, and went promptly back to sleep.
aura sped along the road to Cropton, and she really meant to go straight there. But when the mist blew away from the cemetery, clinging to the leaning monuments like a winding shroud, she was compelled to stop. It was All Hallows, after all. She couldn’t ignore the dead man she loved. She would visit him one last time, in the only place where she could do him no harm.
She flung the bicycle down among the crumbling tombstones, and followed the fingers of mist where they pointed. The many-chambered vault of the Storm family was as she had left it: row upon row of patriarchs, tier upon tier of their lesser relations. It was gloomy in the dawn light, and Laura wished she had thought to bring an electric torch with her to light her way. She wasn’t afraid. She just wanted to be able to see the place in which she would leave Alaric behind forever.
The scattered weeds she had left the day before clung in wilted clumps to the surface of the polished stone crypt, and Laura’s hand trembled as she brushed them away. She couldn’t read the epitaph—the light was still too dim to illuminate even such bold lettering.
While she waited for the day to brighten, Laura wandered over to the wall of lesser crypts, though she didn’t much want to honor Ellen’s grave, even on this day. She couldn’t feel much sorrow for the bones of the woman whose claim on Alaric vanquished her own. Laura had loved him for a few nights. Ellen had been married to him for decades. They still had no children, or at least no sons. But Ellen had Alaric, and no doubt he had learned to feel something for the woman who commanded his honor as a gentleman.
Laura steeled herself as she approached her rival’s grave.
And then frowned, peering into the gloom.
There was nothing there. The compartments were empty.
Alaric’s tomb stood alone in the vault, his bones unaccompanied in their final resting place.
He hadn’t married Ellen Wright after all. He couldn’t have. Unless she had managed to live far past her allotted three score and ten—but then, she would be living in Stonecross herself.
Laura’s heart leapt painfully as she whirled about to face the stone carapace that held the remains of the man to whom she had made love sixty years before. A shaft of light gathered strength as it wafted in through the stained glass window nearby, sending shards of colored light dancing across the epigraph. Laura leaned close, barely able now to make out the words.
ALARIC STORM III
VETERAN OF THE CRIMEA
31 OCTOBER 1835 –16 MAY 1891
HE WAITS FOR LAURA
Seeing her name inscribed in cold marble was like a punch in the heart. Laura had never felt such pain. It was excruciating. Alaric hadn’t married Ellen, though she had done everything she could to blackmail him into it. He had waited for Laura, and she never came. She had just left him there, to pick up the pieces. To wait, in a state of steadily decreasing hope, through all the long years that were for her nothing more than a moment. A step from one room to the next over an invisible threshold.
She thought she was being honorable. She thought she was saving him from a life of resentment and public scorn as the man who married the floozy he had taken to his bed. She thought his marriage to Ellen would save him in ways she never could. Instead, she had condemned him to a life of loneliness and pain. And even so, he had
left her his house, his fortune, in the hope that she would change her mind, that the waiting would stop.
Laura’s own waiting had only just begun. She would know intimately the torture he had undergone, for love of her. Because she would go through it herself.
Unless she had the courage to change her fate, and his.
Her spirits lifted at the thought. Could she? Was it possible? Could she really go to him forever that night, or was it only ever to be a yearly visitation, when the worlds were close, life and death overlapping enough to grant them passage? Would they grow old together that way, like but unlike any other couple? Would there be children? Laura’s mind whirred as she fled the crypt without a glance backward. She didn’t know what would happen. She didn’t understand any of it. But she had to go back. Alaric had never given up on her. He had spent his life waiting. She owed him something far more than she had given him.
She leapt onto the rickety bicycle and flew back to Stonecross as fast as she could pedal. The wind tore at her, and the eerie moorland reached toward her on all sides, as if claiming her as its own. She was mad to think she could stay at Stonecross. She had been even madder to think she could leave.
Peddling blindly, she nearly ran the old woman down as she crested the final rise. Tess was standing out in the road, in front of the lane that led to her small croft, her skinny legs stuffed like matchsticks into her requisite pair of battered old wellies. She looked like some sort of Bog Woman straight out of an Irish myth, bent on portending a sign of great evil.
“I saw you go by when I was out for my morning walk,” she said, eyeing Laura as the bicycle skidded to a stop, nearly toppling her over her handlebars.
“I didn’t see you,” Laura said. “And anyway, I wouldn’t have stopped.”
“You didn’t do it,” the old woman said reproachfully, ignoring Laura’s pointed comment. “You didn’t stay with him. He waited for you until the moment he died.”
“I know,” Laura said.
“You saw the inscription, then?” Tess nodded with satisfaction. “I chose it myself, after the master passed away and I was left to take care of the funeral arrangements. I was the housekeeper by then, and he trusted me with such matters. I knew it would pique your interest. Mayhap it changed your mind.”
“I didn’t have a choice. Ellen would have ruined him. And if she didn’t, I would have.”
“You did ruin him,” Tess said. “You’re ruining him still. It ain’t too late. It’s never too late. If you don’t do what you ought now, mayhap you’ll do it next time. Or the next.”
“I’m not listening to you,” Laura retorted. “I should never have listened to you.”
“And yet, here you are, peddling as mad as you can back home to Stonecross,” Tess cackled. “You know you got nowhere else to be.”
Laura scowled. “That’s my business. What I want to know is how you seem to know everything. Wherever I see you, whenever I find you, you know everything that has happened or might happen or will happen. How is that possible? You shouldn’t remember me. Everything keeps changing so much that every time you see me should be the first.”
Tess tapped her temple the way other people tapped their noses, in a knowing, smug sort of way. “It’s my gift. I see things all at once, layered together like cheesecloth. Time is so thin this time of year, I can see straight through, in every direction. Even when it changes, I still know what’s happened. And I can tell you, missy, I don’t much like the way it’s gone.”
Laura sighed, deflating, all of her obstinacy melting away. “Neither do I. And I’m not sure what I can do about it, if anything. No matter what I do, I’m going to have to leave him. It takes more concentration than I have just to stay with him for more than ten minutes, and I have to cling on to him the whole time like he’s a life preserver in an endless sea.”
“And you are the same for him,” Tess said mulishly. “If you cling on long enough, you’ll find the shore. Now, get on home. And do your best, young woman. I’ll help you if I can.”
Laura frowned. “How?”
Tess waved her gnarled hand, and turned away back up the lane. “Just ask me, when it’s time.”
Laura stared after her for a moment, and then got back on her bicycle. She rode home, looking for all the world like some kind of woman knight on a quest for something holy, her hair blowing back in the wind, her brother’s ratty sweater her only armor against the fray.
he house was waiting for her, as it had been from the moment she was born. The lichen-encrusted stone cross leaned like a wanderer in the wind, as though lurching toward her with its arms outstretched. Laura felt a strange compulsion to wrap her own arms around it, but she managed to turn away and make her way up the drive. She mounted the crumbling steps, and threw open the door, which sagged on its hinges as if exhausted with all of her coming and going.
Laura walked back in, surveying her moldering kingdom. All the while she had been half waiting for a glimpse of Miss Havisham in the shadows, and now she may well become her. It was a better life than any she could think of outside of Stonecross.
She skated across the layer of leaves and dust that coated the once-gleaming marble floor, and came to stand before the one object in Stonecross she had avoided examining: the great marble figure swathed in rotten white sheets. Laura was drawn to it as if to a touchstone, and she obeyed her instinct. She didn’t remember it being present in Alaric’s day. At least, not the part of his time that she had shared with him. Clearly, it had been erected sometime later, in the interim years between when she had abandoned him and when he had gone to wait for her in some less earthly realm. The thought of him still existing somewhere, watching over her and waiting for the day when she would inevitably join him was oddly comforting. She had never really thought of her own dead that way, though she often urged other people to do so, in order to lessen the burden of their grief. Now that she was one of her own bereaved patients, she too needed to believe what she was telling herself, in case she never saw Alaric again.
Her hand trembling, Laura reached out to touch the cold flesh of the statue’s exposed ankle. The plinth on which it stood was breast-level, and she could very easily catch hold of the billowing tatters of cotton that obscured it from her gaze. It looked so much like a stiffened corpse stood on its feet that Laura shivered. It was the things that people made, more than the ghosts that lingered behind them, that frightened Laura. Steeling herself, she tore the sheeting away. It came down with a horrible tearing sound, a rotted cocoon in her arms that she quickly flung away. She stood and looked up at what emerged, still pale and shining after standing in protected layers for so many years.
It was of a woman, standing with arm upraised to cradle her head against her own shoulder, a cropped tangle of curls partially obscuring one of her eyes while the other looked boldly out. It didn’t have the dead look Laura normally attributed to statues of its kind. Not that there had ever been anything like it. It was a statue like no other she had seen of nineteenth-century provenance. Though it had elements of Art Nouveau aesthetic, it was much more modern—the lines cleaner, the composition spare and very Art Deco—with distinct elements of the Grecian.
The dress was simple. A scrap of silk the color of skin. One strap slid down the pale arm, exposing the breast, which was a breathtaking replica of a breast she knew very well. The thighs beneath were delightfully curved and seemed supple, despite the immoveable material from which they had been carved. Laura slid her hand from one dainty foot over the ankle and up the back of the slender calf. It would have been very daring. As daring as Laura herself.
Laura. She looked up the towering length of the statue and into her own smiling face. That smile she wore only for Alaric. The smile he must have wanted to remember for the rest of his life.
She knew then what she should have known the night before, when Alaric tried to make her stay. Nothing she was, nothing she would ever be, could make him ashamed to call her his wife. Not even if she could only be his wife for a few hours on one night of the year and spend the rest of it as a ghost in his hallway. There were worse ways to live, and Alaric had already lived them. It was time to try for something more.
She went up the stairs two at a time, and burst back into her room. Their room. The room she would share with Alaric even when they couldn’t be in it together. The cat sprang up and took off, sorely offended at the abruptness of her entrance. Laura stooped to dig under the bed, where she had stored her luggage, and dragged out a valise. She opened it, and began tossing her clothing about. What did one wear to a nineteenth-century birthday party? Especially when one had barely been born when the nineteenth century ended. Everything she owned was scandalous.