This story begins in a cemetery. A proper cemetery.
Nowadays, proper cemeteries are vanishingly rare. A proper cemetery is old enough to have been forgotten. At least, to a degree.
The last time you visited a cemetery, it was likely to pay respects to the recently deceased. Someone whose memory is still fresh enough to spark pain. You may have noticed, while you were there, that the cemetery was not entirely dissimilar from a suburban backyard. A neatly manicured, monocultured lawn, devoid of any weeds, or insects, or interest. Sterile, wasted space.
The only thing that set it apart were the grave markers. Little, x by x inch polished granite slabs that lie flush with the ground, and weigh so little you could pick them up and carry them away, if you were so inclined. Each one computer-engraved with a stock image chosen from a catalog. Some may have even been engraved with a customer-supplied digital photograph, as if they were some sort of mall kiosk knick-knack.
There’s a reason these grave markers lie flush with the ground. It’s so the groundskeeper can run a lawnmower over them. A matter of convenience. It’s easier, and therefore cheaper, to trim the grass when the stones that mark the graves are easy to ignore. Isn’t it something, that the lawn seems to take precedence over the dead?
Cemeteries like these serve their purpose I suppose, in a dull, soulless sort of way. But they hardly instill reverence.
This cemetery instilled reverence. It was overgrown. Unkempt. The tall, dried autumn grasses had gone to seed, forming not a lawn, but a meadow. The fallen leaves that littered the earth had already decayed down to the veins, reclaimed by detritivores and fungal mycelium, leaving the old, gnarled oaks that had shed them as skeletal silhouettes against an overcast sky.
None of this is what makes a cemetery a cemetery, of course. Only graves can do that, and this cemetery had no shortage.
This cemetery contained hundreds of graves, some older than the oaks themselves. A person could have spent a lifetime studying the lives of the people buried in that soil, and still barely have scratched the surface.
And save for a few that had crumbled to nothing over the centuries, each of these graves had a marker. Some were towering mausoleums, elaborate sculptural monuments to a life of privilege and means. Others were simple headstones, heartfelt labors of love, chiseled from whatever stone could be found.
Neither the rich nor the poor are immune to the rasp of time, however. Many of the older markers had been rendered nigh unreadable by lichens and erosion. Identities wiped away, leaving only death’s heads and other memento mori.
One of the deceased had chosen a more practical memorial. A dark, heavy, granite bench. Perhaps they themselves had once found comfort in visiting the cemetery, and wanted to make it easier for those that came after.
It was clear that their gesture did not go unappreciated, as there was someone sitting on the granite bench. A girl, with dusty, cornflower-blue hair, loosely braided into twin pigtails with white twine, and a short, feather-duster of a ponytail in the back.
She wore a thick, pale, turtleneck sweater just a few shades lighter than the color of her hair, and a pair of oversized, circular, white-rimmed glasses. The lenses were fake, for if they’d been prescription, they’d have been far too heavy to remain on her face. Secretly, her amber eyes functioned perfectly well.
And although the cemetery was old, this girl was not. Her birth date was decades more recent than any death date on the gravestones that surrounded her. She was not exceedingly young either, however. She was an adult by most definitions, though she rarely felt that way.
This girl was not there to pay her respects, but to surround herself with death. She had an affinity for the macabre. It might not have been immediately obvious from her appearance, but a peek inside her sketchbook would have left no doubt.
It was brimming with the Gothic. The romantic. Ghosts and phantoms, spirits and specters. Skeletons and apparitions. Wilted roses and tender, affectionate embraces. Why she drew such things was a mystery, for she was not the type to share her work with others. Her sketchbook was a place of privacy. A refuge for feelings and thoughts that would have otherwise been bottled up.
And yet, despite her efforts to keep her drawings hidden away, someone was admiring them now. Even as she sketched.
The girl shivered. There had been no wind, but the air around her suddenly felt cold. She shut her sketchbook and held it close to her chest.
If she had turned around in that moment, she might have seen something resembling a pair of eyes. Concave hemispheres, as if someone had dissected the tapeta lucida from behind an animal’s retinas and rendered them intangible. Each one, a reflection without a surface.
But she didn’t turn around, and they vanished as quietly as they had arrived.
The girl had just begun to reopen her sketchbook, when she felt a chill brush her cheek. Not a breeze, but a gentle caress. She let out a small yelp and staggered to her feet, glancing about nervously.
Her breathing became tense. She wasn’t the type to feel uneasy in an empty cemetery, but somehow this cemetery didn’t feel so empty anymore. Eventually, she turned to leave.
It was then that something seemed to tickle her earrings. The feeling of surgical steel against cartilage sent a violent shiver up her spine. She ran.
The girl scrambled her way down an old footpath, clutching her sketchbook tightly. She felt that if she could only reach the entrance gate, she’d be safe.
All of a sudden, she felt something shove her sternum with startling force. She staggered backward and began to lose her balance, only to be caught by unseen hands and tipped back upright. She stumbled forward, then swiveled around in a panic.
The girl took a moment to catch her breath.
Then, she felt a sudden, sharp jab at her side. Then another, and another. An incessant jabbing, at her kidneys, her rib cage, her spine. She recoiled, repeatedly and involuntarily. The jabbing became shoving, and the shoving became herding. She shut her eyes tightly and waited for the ordeal to be over.
And then... it was. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes.
UNKNOWN SKELETON 9-24-62
Those were the words on the headstone the girl found herself standing before, deeply engraved in crystal white granite.
It was a very plain stone. A simple, upright, rectangular slab, slightly wider than it was tall. No grass grew nearby. The ground was bare save for a few stunted weeds, as if the earth surrounding the stone had been salted.
The burial vault had collapsed long ago, leaving a hole in the ground near the base of the stone. The hole was dark, and deep, and just narrow enough to dissuade exploration.
The girl simply stared at the stone a moment, chest heaving.
A sound from behind. Like the snapping of fingers, echoing in a way her surroundings shouldn’t have allowed. She swiveled around and stared into the distance. Listening.
Behind her, something emerged from inside the collapsed burial vault. A snare on a swivel, fashioned from thin, braided steel cable. It flared open slowly, without even the faintest sound, and came to a rest on the ground.
The girl’s heart was racing. She could feel it in her chest. Hear it in her ears. She stood her ground.
But nothing came.
Her heartbeat began to slow. Her breathing, began to calm. Her muscles, loosened. Her jaw, unclenched. And for just a moment, she let herself relax.
Something blew a sudden puff of icy air into her face. She took a step backward.
Deep down in the darkness, bones assembled. The snare zipped tight around the girl’s ankle. With a sharp yank, she was flat on the ground. And with a steady pull, she was