The Ghost and the Graveyard

Chapter 12


More Than I Wanted To Know
When he'd recovered, Rick retrieved a towel from his bedroom and cleaned me up. The connection faded gradually, and my logical mind brought me back to the reality of what just happened.
"I...I've never done anything like that before," I said. Heat crawled up my neck and settled in my cheeks.
His eyes widened and he blew a puff of air out his nose, tipping his head to the side. "You are very good at it, mi cielo."
"That was, I mean, it wasn't... You were in my head! What was that?"
"I think dinner is ready. Let me make you a plate."
He walked into the kitchen, but the more time I had to think about it, the louder every alarm in my head blared. "Rick, did you drug me?"
"No! I would never do such a thing," he snapped.
"Then tell me what that was!" I yelled. Something in me knew this wasn't normal. I had wanted it to happen. I'd enjoyed it. I didn't regret it. But something had lowered my inhibitions. What happened was almost beyond my control.
"I was hoping this conversation could wait a little longer," he said.
"So, you do have something to tell me! A secret."
"You know?"
"Logan told me."
"Who is Logan?"
"Never mind. Say it. What is it that you are supposed to tell me?"
"It is about you, Grateful. About who you are and where you come from."
"What?" I narrowed my eyes, feeling my entire face tense.
"Please, sit down." He waved his hand toward a chair at the table.
"I'm listening," I said, taking a seat. I was fully dressed. He was naked from the waist down.
Rick reached for his glass, draining the thick red liquid in two swallows. "Remember when I told you about Reverend Monk and the people of Red Grove? About how they were starving to death?"
"I remember." What did this have to do with the fact that he just mind-fucked me?
"Things were miserable. Children were dying. The congregation had prayed and prayed. No help came. Reverend Monk decided the drought was the work of a witch, and it so happened that there was a witch in Red Grove."
I rested my chin in my palm. "You mean a person who practices Wicca, right? There are a few nurses on my floor who are Wiccan."
"No. I mean a queen of the damned. A natural sorceress so strong that no practice could define her."
"Oh, come on." I rolled my eyes.
"I'm telling you the truth."
"You're saying there was a real, spell-casting witch in Red Grove? Don't insult my intelligence."
I tried to stand, but he stretched across the table and pressed me back into my seat. "Calling her a witch is an understatement. Her name was Isabella Lockhart, and she was more powerful than any to walk this earth. She was a sorceress of the dead and, although Monk didn't know it, she had been protecting the town of Red Grove for years from the supernatural beings passing through these woods."
I pursed my lips. "So, did Monk burn her at the stake or what?"
Rick grimaced. "Monk had a secret. One night he took a long walk in the forest behind the chapel, on the land that is now Monk's Hill cemetery. He was praying for a way to keep his parishioners alive, some source of food to help them through the winter. Reverend Monk would later tell his people that he met an angel in those woods. But the creature Monk met was no angel. Monk came face to face with a demon in disguise. The demon gave Monk a book, The Book of Flesh and Bone. Inside the book, dark spells were written, spells to bind death to life, spells to raise the dead.
"He brought the book back to his church believing it was a book of prayers. As Monk read the book, an idea came to him, a way to end his people's suffering. On October thirty-first, sixteen ninety-two, the townspeople, at the direction of Monk, marched with their torches to the home of Isabella Lockhart, chanting prayers from The Book of Flesh and Bone-prayers that were actually spells. They bound her to her human form, preventing her escape, making her vulnerable to the angry crowd."
Rick folded his hands across the table, eyes red around the edges. I knew he loved history, but the passion he infused into the legend seemed a little cray-cray. I squirmed in my seat under the intensity he was putting off and wished he'd just get to the point.
"They burned her alive, Grateful, at the center of what is now the cemetery, right in front of the church."
My hand went to my throat. I heard my breath rush into my lungs on a gasp. I didn't know why I was getting so wrapped up in the obviously made-up story, but the thought of someone being burned alive yards from where I was sitting left me riveted.
"A sorceress as strong as Isabella could not be killed by natural means. But with the book's words repeated on the lips of the parishioners, the assault was supernatural. She was burned in demon fire."
"So the witch was killed. Let me guess, it didn't fix the drought."
A dark chuckle crossed his lips. "No. But it was not the drought that killed them all."
"The Book of Flesh and Bone demands a high price. All who chanted the spell died-and by their blood leaching into the ground and the death of the witch, the magic opened a gateway to hell. The earth shook and cracked open. All of the supernatural creatures Isabella had protected the townsfolk from for so many years emerged from the cracked ground and returned to the dark forest."
"Supernatural? What, like vampires?" I laughed. I wasn't sure where Rick was going with this. I suspected he was messing with me, trying to distract me from what was happening between us.
"Vampires, zombies, ghouls-all types of unholy beasts. Monk never told his people about the true source of the book and never warned them of the consequences. His people never asked. They didn't want to know. Innocent blood was spilled with an evil spell that robbed the town of the one person who could control the supernatural element here, cursing this land forever."
"Cursed? Is this the big secret? I'm living on cursed land?"
"Before she died, Isabella cast one last spell. Long before the day she burned, she had planted the seed, the foundation to execute the magic. There was a man, a lover. She was betrothed to be married." Rick stood and started unbuttoning his shirt. He turned his back to me. "He knew she was different but didn't suspect how different."
He tossed his shirt aside. The beautiful muscles of his back peaked and grooved under perfect tanned skin, a work of art. I was suddenly very aware that he was naked.
I shook my head. He still hadn't explained what had happened tonight. "What does this story have to do with me?"
Rick began again, but his voice sounded heavy, and he spoke toward the kitchen as if he didn't want to meet my eyes. "The night they burned her, the lover tried to stop them, but he was outnumbered. They made him watch while she burned. He would have gladly taken her place." He swallowed hard.
I stiffened. The way he told it sounded like he was there. It was creepy.
"The flames ate her body. All was lost. She was dead. But then her charred hand lifted from her side and pointed at him. With her last breath she uttered the words, 'Akmut ghut rae mud ed tyn.' A ray of light burst from her hand and cut into the man's chest, directly over his heart."
I swallowed and tucked my hair behind my ears. "What did it mean?"
"'Akmut ghut rae mud ed tyn' means roughly 'caretaker of the light, always.'" Slowly, he pivoted to face me and traced a finger over the scythe-shaped scar on his chest.
Pain sliced through my head, and I rubbed my temple. Goosebumps marched up my arms.
Rick continued in a rush. "At first, the man didn't understand what had happened to him, but he learned. Isabella had stored a piece of her soul inside his body, along with her magic. He used that magic to seal the cemetery and imprison the supernatural within its gates. And today he keeps the balance, policing the supernatural with her and in her absence."
"This is stupid. We were up there yesterday, and the cemetery was completely normal. Not a ghoulie in sight."
He ignored my comment and continued. "Whoever sent the demon to give Monk The Book of Flesh and Bone wanted Isabella dead. But what they didn't know was that by killing Isabella the way Monk did, he bound her eternally to this place. The Monk's Hill witch, as she came to call herself, oversees this hellmouth. No soul goes in or out without her knowledge. She is judge, jury, and executioner, but she is not immortal. So when she dies, her caretaker holds a piece of her soul until she returns. And she always returns to me. All I have to do is wait."
"To you? What are you talking about?"
His gray eyes settled on my face. "I am the caretaker, Grateful." His finger tapped the scar on his chest. "And you are the Monk's Hill witch. Your soul has returned to me again as it does each time you die. Your work awaits you. All you have to do is accept your role, and it will be done."
"This isn't funny."
"I assure you, I'm not trying to amuse."
The room spun. The walls pressed in around me. My head pounded like it might split open. I stood up and backed toward the door. "You're insane."
"Think about it. Have you any other explanation for our connection? The physical and mental link we have is because we've already spent lifetimes together. We've been married. We could be married again."
"Married? I've barely known you a week!" I held the sides of my pounding head. "Besides, you took me to Monk's Hill. There were no vampires. We had lunch in front of the chapel. "
"They come at night. The sun seals the hellmouth, but after sunset, it opens again."
"I won't listen to this." I backed toward the door and placed my hand on the knob.
"Grateful, please-"
I couldn't take any more. I had to get out of there. Out the door and into the night I ran, but I did not go home. I ran straight across the street to the source of the lie, the cemetery. I was surprised to find the gate open. During our date, Rick had made a point of keeping it locked. Maybe he'd wanted me to enter. I cast the notion aside.
He was behind me the instant I crossed the threshold, closing and locking the gate from the inside. Great, now I was trapped inside the graveyard with a lunatic. This might not have been my wisest decision. I sprinted away from him the best I could in my high-heeled boots, up the steep gravel path toward Monk's Chapel. Somehow, with blister inducing effort, I made it to the top without breaking a heel.
I glanced back but didn't see Rick. Considering he could easily catch me with these patent leather torture devices zipped to my feet, I hoped he'd given up and gone home. Breath coming in huffs, my legs burned from the effort of the climb and I pitched forward, resting my hands on my knees while I caught my breath. The night was quiet except for the stones under my shifting feet and the persistent song of crickets.
Under the light of the full moon, the white walls of the chapel seemed to glow. Straightening, I moved toward it, thinking I'd have a rest inside. The door was locked. Crap. I pressed my back against the wood and looked out over the graveyard. All was quiet. Nothing. After this, Rick would have to drop his ludicrous story and tell me the truth, if I even cared to hear it. At the moment, I was leaning toward cutting the crazy man out of my life for good, although the thought made my chest feel heavy.
The hedges to my right rustled and two large yellow eyes blinked in my direction. A raccoon? The animal turned, and the moon reflected off silver skin. An opossum. A very large opossum. A loud snap to my left attracted my attention away from whatever slithered from the bushes. The looming silhouette of a man moved toward me, too far away for me to make out his face.
"Rick, is that you?" I called, but if it was Rick, he didn't answer.
"Excuse me, is there something I can help you with?" said a smooth voice from beside me. I whirled. A pale man with slicked-back red hair and luminescent blue eyes smiled at me.
"What are you doing in here?" I asked him.
"For what?" He was in the middle of a cemetery at night. What could he be waiting for? I hugged my chest.
"Something to eat."
"There's a soup kitchen downtown," I blurted, but even as the words came out I had the awful feeling there was something very wrong with this man. I was a nurse. I assessed people for a living. His skin was too pale, his eyes too large in his head, and his chest wasn't moving. Whatever was in front of me was not breathing.
"I won't be needing a soup kitchen," he said and peeled his lips back from razor-sharp incisors. He held out his hand. "Why don't you join me?"
Did he assume I couldn't see his fangs or just believe I'd be too frightened to run? I shuffled away from his hand and turned to bolt. My face smacked into someone.
"Oh, excuse me," I said automatically, then looked at what I'd hit.
Rotting flesh, swimming milky eyeballs, decomposing clothes, and a smell that I only recognized from my time working in the morgue. I was face to face with the walking dead.
I screamed, dodging left. The zombie's sluggish grasp brushed the top of my hair. Laughing, the vampire stepped toward me, slowly, deliberately. The silver animal rushed from the bushes, pursuing me with flashing claws and teeth. At the competition for my flesh, the vamp hissed and swiped the creature aside. I used the distraction to scurry down the pebble pathway, but the gate was too far off. I'd never outrun them. Worse, dark figures rose from the tombstones ahead, turning dead eyes in my direction. My heart fluttered in panic. Ice water filled my veins.
"Rick!" I screamed. "Riiiiick! I believe you. I believe you!"
Above me, an eerie wind blew my hair forward. Wump-wump-wump. The sound of beating wings closed in. I wrestled my hair back from my eyes, while my feet continued their forward pursuit, and turned my face to the sky. A monstrous, leathery wing passed over me.
Shit! Things in here could fly? I waved my hands above my head as if I could shoo the flying beast away and wailed loud enough to wake any dead who weren't already chasing me.
Crack. My right heel snapped off my boot, sending me flying. Ass over teacup, I somersaulted down the pebble path. I landed on my back with a clear view of the source of the flapping. Like nothing I'd ever seen before, the thing had fur and scales, with a barbed tail. The beast descended from above and landed on the path. Dragon-like, the huge creature flapped its leathery wings between Monk's Chapel and me.
The giant, silver opossum-thing pounced, ducking around the dragon-beast in pursuit of my fallen body. I covered my head with my arms. The strike never came. Instead, an eerie shriek filled the night. I lowered my arms to see the dragon scoop the silver beast into its reptilian jaws and swallow it whole. Sobbing, I crab-walked toward the gate. A dead hand landed on my shoulder. Zombie!. Before I could scream, the dragon's jaws clamped around the zombie's body. Black blood sprayed across my torso.
I scrambled to my feet, desperate not to be the dragon's next victim. I wasn't fast enough.
Talons closed around my torso. I pounded on the paws and yanked on the fur to no avail. The monster took to the sky, me screaming beneath it. Where was it taking me? Would I become a meal for some baby dragon creature?
Ugg. I wished more than anything that I could just pass out, that the fear would kill me before this creature or its offspring ripped me apart. But before I could process what was happening, it dropped me on the grass in front of Rick's cottage and landed on the road a few feet away.
When I realized sharp teeth weren't impaling me, I stopped screaming and pushed myself up in the grass. Dots of black blood speckled my arms and the front of my dress, but I was otherwise unharmed.
The monster sniffed me from the road. Close up, the face was more like a dog's than a dragon's, with glossy black eyes, a leathery snout, and tufts of black hair sprouting from the tops of its ears. More hair grew between its scales, which ran from the jowls all the way back to the tip of the beast's barbed tail. It plopped down on the pavement. I scrambled backward toward Rick's porch.
With a flap of its leather wings, the beast's skin started to bubble, its blood boiling under the surface. The thing folded in on itself, the head tucking into the middle and the tail wrapping around the body. Under the skin, bones cracked and organs rearranged. To my amazement, when this process was done, what was left looked exactly like a naked man bent at the waist.
When the man stood up, everything I knew about the world crumbled to dust. From his black, wavy hair to the sickle-shaped scar on his chest, there was no denying who it was.
"Rick, oh my God! Oh my God," I yelled. "What the hell are you?" I struggled to my feet, limping on my broken heel.
"I told you, Grateful. I am your caretaker. If you would step inside, I will explain further. I realize this may come as somewhat of a shock." He positioned himself between my house and me.
"You kissed me. You touched me. We did...things together! You're not human, are you?" I was near panic again. My heart was threatening to explode out of my chest.
"No. I am immortal and you, mi cielo, are eternal."
Rick tried to take a step toward me. I jumped in the opposite direction. "Don't touch me. Don't ever touch me."
He halted his pursuit, but I could see the hurt in his eyes, the absolute pain. I didn't care. He'd led me to believe he was human. Why hadn't he told me this on day one? Why the long talk at my place? The picnic? I thought about his hands on me, his lips, the feel of him in my mouth. I'd done those things with a shape-shifter, a monster.
I limped across the bridge toward my house, moving around him in a wide arc. I wished I could wake up from all of this, to open my eyes and know that I lived in a world without ghosts or zombies. My head hurt. My brain couldn't process everything I'd just learned. One thought kept irking me above all the others; Michelle was right.
Like every other man in my life, Rick had turned out to be a total nightmare.