Damp air clung to my dewy skin in an uncomfortable blanket as I stepped alongside Sarah through the long grass. The full moon’s light provided us with a less than sinister ambience, but it did little to ease my nerves.
“No dew yet,” said Sarah. “It will likely storm by the morning.”
“Fitting,” I muttered. “With all of the invisible doom hovering over this place.”
“You feel it, too?”
A choir of crickets and toads chirped at us as we approached a bog. We swiped at the hungry mosquitos as we stepped over to the edge of the swamp. The lunar illumination highlighted one of the bodies. Sarah covered her mouth and looked away.
“God, they really did just toss them in there,” I said in disbelief.
Hot tears streamed down my face as I walked the circumference of the small body of water. My eyes were fixed on what appeared to be a decaying man.
“I cannot believe they simply allowed him to lay there above water in this way!” cried Sarah.
I stood there, staring at the dead man’s tweed jacket and then my eyes travelled to the bones of his hands. His flesh had been left there out in the open as meat for insects and crows. I bent over and dry heaved.
“You know this man, I presume. When did he die?” I asked.
“He hanged himself around four months ago after his wife passed away from a laudanum overdose. Both were barely over thirty years old. Mr. and Mrs. Woodson. They were once a very happy couple. I used to envy them, but life can sometimes take such a cruel turn.”
“His wife is here, too?” I said, allowing my eyes to dart around the surface of the muggy pond.
“Somewhere in there, yes.”
“How did you know where they were taken after they were found?”
“Caleb is part of the group who does away with the suicides’ bodies. I overheard him once when he was intoxicated and attempting to frighten me.”
I could only shake my head. Sarah made her way to my side. She wiped her eyes and raised her gaze to the starry sky.
“Alfred, if you take them out of here and bury them, you must know that many of the townspeople might resort to violence against you. They do not believe that these dear people have a right to be buried. If you take this task into your own hands, they will see it as a further abomination to their loved ones’ bodies. I do not want to see you get hurt anymore.”
“I don’t care. No one comes out this way.”
Sarah sighed impatiently. “It was not enough for you to see where they now rest?”
Her rising annoyance surprised me. “Does it bother you so much that I am searching for ways to bring these people some justice?”
“That is not what bothers me. How could you accuse me of being so callous?”
She turned sharply and walked away.
“I want to go home. You have seen the site and you can return whenever you please.”
There was no point in staying there any longer. I would return with the tools to begin a proper graveyard in the morning. The idea of the project sent a wave of energy through me. I would have the time to write about all of them later.
“Sarah, I very much appreciate your help.”
“I hope it will inspire you enough to sit down and write. After some rest, you will rethink your idea of burying them.”
“Not a chance.”
“I strongly suggest that you only write about the injustice rather than start a task that will get you killed.”
“What about your writing?”
“You speak as though I have a choice in the matter. I’m not a college man, or a man at all. I do not have control over my life.”
I hated the finality of her words. How the idea of her being trapped with that bastard haunted me. Her tone was so much like another’s I knew not so long ago.
“You remind me much of a young lady who attended Brown last semester.”
“I remind you of another woman?”
Her dejection stung me. “I did not mean to take away from your own unique character, but sometimes it amazes me how similar you are to her.”
“Women study the same courses as men at Brown?”
“For the most part, yes. They learn at the women’s college after our classes are over.”
“How interesting. I had no idea.”
“Perhaps, one day, you could…”
“No,” she said, shaking her head.
“Why are you giving up on yourself, Sarah? You are still young and can start over. You have reason to leave Caleb.”
She stared at me for a long time before quickening her pace. I allowed her to walk ahead of me for a while.
“You just do not understand, do you?” she shouted out at last. “I do not have wealthy parents or a job where I can put myself through school somehow. This is my life.”
“Then at least allow me to help you write. It is obviously something you love.”
She exhaled loudly. “We will have to be very careful.”
“Caleb is a drunk. I am sure that you can sneak away every so often to write in the comfort of my aunt’s home.”
I smiled at her childlike hope as her eyes widened.
“That would mean the world to me.”
“It pleases me that this agrees with you.”
We walked at a leisurely pace. Memories of the swamp’s musty, decomposing odor and the dead man’s remains plagued me despite Sarah’s good company. Strange faces started to form as we strode into the dark woods. I needed to change the subject.
“Do you know where Jeremy can be found, Sarah? It seems like the two of you were friends. Please, tell me anything that you know.”
She shook her head. “If I knew, then I would have already told you. I doubt even Matthew would know with his family’s connections in the town.”
“Yes, he does, but even when he is drunk he will never mention it. Oh, dear Jeremy. This is all my fault. We need to find him and get him out of there.”
“You have helped me so much already. I will find him, Sarah.”
“It was more than the manuscript rejection that sent him over the edge, you know.” She stopped walking to gaze up at the dark sky. “He loved me and I broke his heart. I am the reason why he is where he is now.”
She collapsed with an inhuman wail. I watched in near shock as she writhed on the forest floor, weeping.
I stooped down next to her and wrapped an arm around her slender torso. “You had no idea that he would do anything so dangerous. This is not your fault.”
“It is!” she cried.
“I promise you that I will help you make peace with him. I will find him.”
“Yes, you must find him. He deserves to live even if I do not.”
“Please, do not speak in such a way, Sarah.”
I could not allow myself to cry with her. Not when she very much needed me to be the strong one. I choked back a sob and held her until her cries died down to sniffling.
“That was embarrassing,” she said quietly.
“Think nothing of it. I am glad you were able to tell me. Perhaps you will find some peace in that.”
“I could never,” she said, shaking her head.
She strode just ahead of me. I followed behind her with a terrible smorgasbord of thoughts. At the forefront of my worries was the fact that I would always be an outsider to her. I would always be nothing more than a spectator to her tragic life.
Thunder cracked through the air. I met her panicked eyes as the lightning flashed for a split second. Just behind her, the shadowy form of a man with a rifle stepped toward us.
Keeping my eyes fixed on the gunman, who was too short and stocky to be Caleb, I called, “Who is there?”
The shadowy man raised his rifle while the ominous sound of someone else rustling the ground behind him caused my muscles to stiffen. A second man stood next to his comrade with the stock of his infamous Springfield Model resting against his chest. The handgun that Matthew lent me sat uselessly in my pocket. I was the worst fool to have ever breathed in Sunny Harbor.
Of course Caleb would have asked his friends to watch over Sarah while he self-medicated for the next few days. I had taken a terrible risk.
“Run after they shoot me,” I hissed at Sarah. “Hide yourself in the brush until you are sure they’re gone.”
“Where would I go after that?” she murmured. “I will stay with you.”
There was no sentiment in her tone. Only fear.
My temples throbbed as I waited for bullets to tear into my flesh. Fire flickered just to my right for only a moment before a second, monstrous boom shattered the silence. One of the men roared and fell. The third, unknown shooter fired another shot from somewhere in the shadows. The second gunman doubled over.
“What the devil?” I called.
Sharp breathing intensified the horror of the moment and sent chills over my entire body.
“We mean no harm by being here!” I called out.
For all I knew, we were the shooter’s next targets.
“She already knows who we are,” said Sarah in a voice too calm to possibly be real.
I stared into her eyes, which appeared to be gaping holes in the inky darkness.
“There is nothing I hate more than Caleb and his cronies,” sounded a familiarly scratchy female voice.
“Mrs. Thomas,” I breathed. “Forgive me. I have caused you so much-“
“Hush. I did this for Sarah, not for you, y’hear?”
“You are as mesmerizing as you are formidable, Mrs. Thomas.”
I stared at her in the gloom, still afraid to move. She reloaded, looking from me to Sarah, who stood next to me.
“We need to go, Alfred,” said Sarah.
She pulled me by the hand and I followed her.
We jogged for the next half hour until we left the nightmarish forest behind.
“I am so tired,” Sarah muttered, leaning over to catch her breath.
“I know, but we cannot stop just yet. We don’t know who else might be following us.”
“If there were anyone else out there, Mrs. Thomas would find them.”
“Is she going to kill those men?”
“She might. I am not involved in her affairs, but she protects me when I go exploring.”
“Forgive me, but that seems strange. Why?”
“You already know too much about me. Come on, let us continue our walk.”
“I know next to nothing about you.”
We traveled the rest of the way in excruciating silence. The eerie heaviness surrounding me seemed to worsen as we neared the town. Our dire little adventure ended.
“I think that you should stay with my aunt and I.”
“Now you are being ridiculous.”
If she had stabbed my chest, it would have felt no different than the effect that her voice’s inflection had on me.
“How could you go back to him now? After he sent two armed men to follow you and presumably kill both of us?”
Sarah stood stiff as a statue, staring down the street that led to her homely prison. “I warned you, Alfred. We need to pretend that this night never happened. You should leave Sunny Harbor and go back where you belong.”
“Where I belong? What a cruel reminder that I never fit in anywhere. Why else do you think I really came to be here for the summer?”
I was unsure if I was imagining that she had placed her hand on my shoulder.
“Oh, Alfred. If you stay here, they will probably kill you. Let tonight be a sign from God that you must leave.”
She stepped away from me without looking back.
“Please allow me to walk you home.”
“No. He will have friends waiting for me on the way.”
“But he will hurt you, won’t he? Once he finds out. You need to go to someone. I can speak with Matthew and we can both take you to Mrs. Thomas. She would care for you.”
“They would find me there, my dear, silly boy,” she sighed. “You need to let me go.”
The fact that Caleb already knew Sarah would meet me was dangerous enough. There was nothing that my aunt or I could do to protect her if a gang of men came to collect her. She was right and I hated it. I had to let her go.
“Sarah, please forgive me for this.”
She halted at the sound of my voice and peered over her shoulder at me. I met the sincerity of her wistful smile.
“There is nothing to forgive. Keep writing, but do not write here.”
Her voice carried a bizarre mixture of morose and winsome tones. In one fluid motion, she turned back in the direction of her homely prison. As her graceful form melted into the darkness, emptiness burned a hole in my being. She was too amazing to be real. Surely, such a woman in the real world would never risk her reputation and safety to assist one college boy’s curiosity. To her, I was most certainly no better than a goblin sent from the darkest parts of the realm. No true man would put any woman in the danger that I put her in that night.
I reached my aunt’s house and punched the hard wood siding so hard that red coated my knuckles. The anger at myself intensified and I punched it again, gritting my teeth at the pain that I deserved. I jumped at the sound of a creaking door.
My aunt stood in the doorway with a thin blanket wrapped about her shoulders. She stared at me in the way one might stare at an abandoned baby animal. I was so much more pathetic than that.
“I hate myself,” I said, shaking my head. “I have ruined Sarah’s life.”
“Sarah? What do you mean? Come inside, boy. What on earth are you doing out here at this hour?”
“She showed me where their bodies had been tossed. That is where we just came from.”
“So, will you finally sit still during the day and work on this so-called story of yours?”
“Not a chance. Not yet.”