No good deed goes unpunished
It had been another sleepless night, and since Norman Luft was used to working the late shift he thought that perhaps a midnight stroll would be just the thing. As he stepped out of his front door to the lower stoop of his apartment, the night sky looked bruised and torn, the stars hidden behind ominous black clouds that rolled toward the horizon.
Then there was the scream.
A terrible scream—blood-freezing—a shriek so loud it was as though someone was being wrenched limb from limb, slit open, or torn apart. The chill of it was the most penetrating cold Norman had ever known.
The scream came again, weaker this time, and as he raced toward the sound, the street lamps made his shadow appear to be fleeing ahead of him so that every step he took was into a darkness of his own making.
His mad dash to help led him to a small gate at the west end of a cemetery, where he stopped and listened again.
As he pushed open the gate, the hinges rasped like small whispering voices.
Norman felt the metronome beat of his heart as it pounded in his cage of ribs. Instinctively, he rubbed at his chest and the scar that lay beneath his shirt. He thought of his weak condition and how the new scar defined him. The Doc told him he had a bad ticker, that he had barely slipped past death’s door. Norman argued against it, but knew he was damaged and had no business trying to save anyone’s life but his own.
This is stupid, he thought. The voice in his head sounded weak and pitiful. Turn around, Norm, and just go back home. Back to where it’s safe—back to your miserable little life now that you're a washed-out cop.
But that’s not the way he rolled. When someone was in trouble, he was trained to help. That is what being an ex-policeman did for you, and Norman had everything a cop required—intelligence, courage, and street-smarts. What he didn't have was a strong physical heart.
Pushing his inner voice aside, he listened to the meaningless monologue of the wind, but the screaming was gone. There was nothing, and he began to believe that going home to a hot cup of coffee was sounding more and more like a pretty good idea.
As he turned to leave, a muffled cry reached him from somewhere out in the dead field of headstones.
He quickly moved toward it, hoping he wasn't too late.
Because his eyes were already adapted to the darkness, and cool moonlight began to shine between the torn and ragged clouds, Norman was able to see through the maze of gravestones. Though he was sweating profusely, he felt colder than ever. Even his scar was cold—the coldest part of him. His skin was ice, but his scar was frozen steel.
Then something cracked against the top of his skull.
Bright bolts of pain flashed behind his eyes, along his spine. Blood streamed down his face like scalding tears. His vision blurred and he dropped to his knees. He tried to stand, but the effort made him dizzy, and the prospect of passing out panicked him. He slumped against a gravestone, breathing hard and watched the world spin around like a carousel.
Desperately he held to consciousness. He knew if he fainted, he might never wake. Balancing on the edge of a swoon, irresistible darkness flowered behind his eyes. Then he passed out.
He might have been away for a minute or an hour. He didn’t know. He just went into a timeless dark. Then hundreds of gray dots appeared in the blackness, expanded into elaborate matrices of light and shadow until he could see again.
He tried to pull himself up, and again almost passed out. Consciousness spun away from him like a child’s ball rolling down a hillside. Gingerly, he touched his bleeding scalp. The wound seeped rather than gushed, not a mortal laceration, but his touch brought a new pain blossoming behind his eyes.
When he fully revived, cool air fluttered feebly across his brow, and wet, swirling mist dampened his face. Beside him lay a red brick, a small chunk of hair and scalp attached to one side.
He sat for awhile, his thoughts muddled. But what he really wanted was to lower his head, close his eyes, and let fate deal with him as it wished. Two weeks ago, he might have done just that, but now he struggled anxiously, surprised by the fierceness of his desire to survive. His whole life he had been a good man, an honest man. Since his open-heart surgery, he had expected nothing from life: only to keep a degree of dignity and to die without shame. At this moment he didn’t have either, and it made him wonder if God was paying attention.
Dense fog moved toward him, and through the haze he saw rows of white tombstones sticking out like teeth and bones from the carcass of the earth. Norman struggled to his feet, ignoring the woozy feeling that swam in the pit of his stomach, and faintly heard echoes of sinister voices.
They were wet sounding voices that grumbled, hissed and chuckled like water down a pipe. Then all around him, the night appeared to crawl with strange shapes and faces. In the fog there were faces.
Between one blink and another, as smooth and greasy as the marbling fat in a slab of meat, the faces oozed forward. Their features were distorted, not so much by the fog, but by terror. Screaming, pleading, agonized, wrenched and suffering, warped by fear and pain beyond measure, the hideous faces moved toward him. Norman was certain it was not his imagination. The ghostly apparitions were there, all around him, their expressions unbearable to look upon.
In desperation, he shouted, “Leave me alone!”
In response, the faces rushed him. They each entered his body one by one, shrieking in whispers, and then pushed through him and out the other side. To Norman it felt as if a snake of ice lay at the center of his chest, its sinuous body radiating cold like the coils of a freezer. He screamed and flapped his arms through the air as if he could shield himself from the attack, then stumbled forward, and tried to get away.
As they harried him, Norman’s fear metamorphosed into unknown terror, and he ran. He had never run from anything in his life, but this was different, this was unexplained horror.
The ghosts followed, their voices taunting him--mocking him. He ran without looking back, he knew they were right behind him, close, so very close. He ran until his heart felt as if it would burst in his chest, as if it were being squeezed by the devil himself. The voices grew louder, closer. As he crested a small hill in the center of the cemetery, he saw her.
She was a young woman with pale yellow hair and even paler skin and wide set eyes. She wore jeans and a T-shirt, and her dark nipples were prominent against the thin white material. Her hands were in her lap, her fingers at war with one another. Norman found he couldn’t take his eyes from her.
“You’ve come,” she said flatly. “You’ve finally come.”
Norman was stunned. “Uh, I…I heard screaming.”
“What took you so long? Is this how you save people? What happened, did you stop off for some doughnuts?”
Norman felt unsure of himself, looked over his shoulder for some trace of his ghostly pursuers. “I…uh…I…was attacked—knocked unconscious.” He tried to pull himself together, shake off the fear that still drained him of all reason. “Who are you? Why are you out here?”
“Who? Why? Not...are you hurt? Are you okay? What kind of a cop are you, anyway?”
He pointed behind him at the fog bank that hung just below the hill. “I was being chased. It…it was weird. There were faces…voices…”
She stood then, her hands behind her back as if hiding a surprise present. “Oh, you mean the ghosts, the spirits that live here.” She stepped closer to him.
“Ghosts? Yeah, well, I guess that's what they were. So, you’ve seen them too, the faces in the fog?”
She took another step closer. “Sure, they’re my friends. We all live here.”
“Live here? What do you mean? You live here by yourself? In a graveyard?”
“I’m not by myself, silly. I told you, my friends are here.”
This time she stepped within an arms length of him, reached out and took his hand. Her skin was like ice. Norman, now the cop again, bent down, dropped to one knee, and then cupped her little hand in both of his. “Just how long have you been out here, sweetheart?”
She frowned. “You’re not listening. I told you, I live here. I’ve lived here for ever-so-long—years, in fact.”
“But that’s not possible. Where do you sleep? What do you eat?”
“Oh, that," she laughed. "Well, I sleep over there in the mausoleum,” she said, pointing to the only burial chamber in the entire cemetery. “And as for eating . . . well, that’s why you’re here.”
“Me? What do you mean?”
“All my friends that were screaming at you down there, all those faces?”
“Well, they were trying to warn you, trying to scare you off.”
Norman’s ‘street-smart’ alarms started going off in his head. “Warn me about what?”
The hand that she held behind her so coyly, suddenly whipped around. The blade she was holding gave off a fierce light, as if it were made of neon.
“Me . . . ” she said, “warn you about me.”
She rammed the butcher knife down into his chest, straight into his cold, cold scar.
Norman felt the razor tip puncture his skin, rip muscle and tissue, release the reservoir of blood waiting there, and then open the dark places where pain was stored. He swooned and fell to both knees now while the young girl continued to stab him. His body shuddered with each impact of the foreign implement, rejecting its intrusion, and then his life began to fly away.
Looking over her shoulder, the approaching dawn appeared as a thin red line on the eastern horizon, as if a razor-sharp knife had been drawn lightly across the skin of the night.
“And now I get to eat,” she said triumphantly reaching in for his beating heart. "A girl's gotta eat, right?"