Cursed by Death
A Gravminder Novel
1 BYRON MONTGOMERY
OPENING THE TUNNEL TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD HADN’T BECOME any more appealing with time. If Byron Montgomery had his way, they’d seal the damn thing. He wasn’t fool enough to think he’d be getting his way any time soon, though. The contract he’d signed was binding until death, and knowing for certain what death actually held cured him of any urge to run full out toward it.
Or maybe the cure was that, because of the curse, his longtime on-and-off-again girlfriend, lover, one-that-almost-got-away was now tied to him, as he was to her, in a way that was more committed than matrimony .
Curses were forever; no divorce could dissolve them.
So, Byron had been back and forth between the lands of the living and the dead far too often. He hoped that they’d soon reach a calm pace, a normal life in Claysville, but they weren’t there yet. Honestly, he wasn’t sure that normal was still an option for him.
At the least, he hoped for fewer trips to the land of the dead; the thought of being there all the time made him want to be sure he took every possible vitamin, exercised in excess, anything to keep healthy and avoid dying. Of course, he also wanted to do those things so he was strong enough to protect Rebekkah from the dead things that woke in the living world. Protecting Bek had always been a part of his life. It was an irresistible impulse.
“You stay at my side,” he told Rebekkah. “No matter what you see or hear, you stay beside me.”
Rebekkah nodded, but she was already too far gone to hear him. Her eyes slid to silver, and her focus was on the dead who waited beyond the door. He suspected she’d stay among them if she could.
“Bek?” he urged.
She made an agreeing sound, but when the dead called to her, he was forgotten. He was a tether, but sometimes he wasn’t sure he was enough.
Byron slid his hand along the side of the faded cabinet that held the unused bottles of embalming supplies. It hid the doorway. Byron had the dubious honor of being the only one in the world who could travel through it at will. Rebekkah could go, but only at his side. Anyone but the Graveminder and Undertaker who crossed would stay there.
With a snick, the cabinet swung to the side. In front of him was a tunnel. The length of it varied depending on the whims of the bastard who ran the land of the dead. Far too much of Byron’s life seemed to hinge on said bastard’s whims.
“I’m sorry,” Rebekkah said.
She stood beside him now, clutching his arm too tightly. The way she gazed into the tunnel was in direct opposition to his reaction. While he hated the tunnel, the land of the dead, and Death himself, Rebekkah was thoroughly enamored.
Byron entwined his fingers with hers. “I know .”
“If I could go by myself—”
“I’d still go with you.” He didn’t think a time would come when the fear of losing Rebekkah would fade.
In both worlds, she was a target, vulnerable to the dead and somehow unable to stay angry with them despite their monstrosity. He didn’t have that problem—either of them really. He had anger
aplenty, and he could only be killed in this world. Over there, he could get shot repeatedly without dying. Even Death himself couldn’t kill Byron, but Rebekkah’s death there—or here—would mean Byron died as well.
With his free hand, he patted the gun at his hip, the bullets in his pocket, and the small parcel in his inside jacket pocket. Assured that he had everything, he reached out and took the torch from the wall of the tunnel.
To him, it appeared almost medieval. His tendency toward logic rebelled as the rag-wrapped wood flared to life in his hand. He wanted to believe there was science behind this and so many of the things that had no answer beyond magic. The laws that had made sense to him for all his life were the laws of man, not the laws that governed the life of the Undertaker. There was magic to it, and no amount of questioning made that change.
Together, he and Rebekkah stepped into the tunnel. Winds lashed at him almost instantly, ripping away any warmth and making him grit his teeth. He glanced at the woman holding his hand. Her eyes glowed silver in the dim light of the tunnel, and her face was tilted as if the cutting wind was pleasurable.
Maybe to her it was.
“It’s been too long,” she whispered, but he wasn’t sure if she spoke to him or the lost souls in the tunnel.
She’d had no luck figuring out how to help the lost ones to move over to the land of the dead, but she had told them of her intentions.
As if sharing her with the corporeal dead isn’t bad enough, I need to deal with ghosts, too.
He didn’t agree with her plan, but understanding the dead wasn’t his job.
2 REBEKKAH BARROW
REBEKKAH WATCHED THE FLICKERS OF THE DEAD AS THEY TRIED TO curl closer, drawing her warmth like the chill of being caught between lands could be reduced by stealing her heat. And she wanted to give it to them, share whatever she could. Aside from her cat, Cherub, Rebekkah had never been responsible for another being—yet now, she was the caretaker of the Hungry Dead, those lost ones who weren’t properly tethered to the earth.
“Graveminder,” he whispered, voice like a rising wind ricocheting around the tunnel.
Rebekkah could tell the speaker was a man. That was new. One of the lost dead had grown stronger with each trip. It was him that she considered as she walked, his ability to connect to her so clearly. There was an anger there inside him, a rage, but she suspected it wasn’t at her specifically. Who knew how long they’d been caught between worlds like moths crashing into windows on all sides? Rebekkah would be angry , too.
The voices of the trapped dead rose, twisting into whispers and screams until Rebekkah was unable to move.
“I’m trying,” she swore to each and all of the spirits that lingered there.
“Keep moving,” Byron urged, pulling her forward.
“I need you, Graveminder.” It was him that she heard clearly. The man, the dead soul lost in the tunnel, responded more and more each passing. This time she could see the shape of a man, growing clearer each time she crossed.
Maybe she wasn’t strictly required to go to the land of the dead as often as she did, but she had a theory. If they drew strength from her, if that heat they pulled from her was nourishing to them, perhaps she could lead them to safety. One by one, she’d rescue them.
Rebekkah knew she ought to share her plan with Byron, but she also knew he wouldn’t approve. The heat she shared with the dead left her weakened. Their hunger stole her energy. As a result, lately, the crossing left her more tired than it ought to.
When she felt the touch, felt a man’s hand brush her hair back, she tensed. The more they were near her, the more they strengthened.
She had to tell Byron. She should’ve already warned him. “Byron?” “Right here, Bek.” He was at her side, hand in hers.
Rebekkah glanced over and saw that he held a gun in the other hand. Not him. She swallowed. A dead man was touching her. She’d made progress. It was as if she’d lured a wild creature to her. She didn’t want to spook him.
“They’re stronger,” she whispered.
“Great.” Byron’s voice said what he didn’t, that the idea of stronger spirits reaching out wasn’t one he relished.
“I can hear him. One voice. Clearer than the rest.” She leaned into the spirits, feeling the usual fleeting touches, but then one was differ- ent. “I can save him.”
The voices grew louder.
Rebekkah concentrated on him, trying to see him. Her vision shifted—or maybe he did. Either way, she saw a hand. A clear, defined hand as solid as her own body reaching out. The forearm appeared, muscular, scarred. The edge of a blue sleeve came clearer.
She reached out, brushed fingertips. She was pulling away from Byron in the process. She needed to grab him, the lost soul.
“So close,” a man whispered. “Save me, Graveminder.”
“I’m here,” she promised.
Byron glanced over. “What the fuck?”
Abruptly, Byron tugged her away, pulling her hand away from the spirit and spinning her to his opposite side. His gun was raised. His body was in front of her like a shield.
Within moments, he was all but shoving her through the gate on the other side of the tunnel and into the land of the dead--where she tumbled into Charles’ arms.
Mr. D, Death himself, held her readily, as if he’d been poised there waiting. He wore the guise of a 1930s era gangster, dapper and danger- ous. “Hello, my dear.”
Rebekkah was held against his chest with the sort of affection that bordered on inappropriate.
“Charlie,” Byron said, as he stepped out of the tunnel. “Release her.”
Rebekkah said nothing. Every time she arrived, even after a couple months of coming here, she had to pause to take it in.
She knew that Byron saw a world that was only in shades of gray. To him, the world was washed out, lacking vibrance, but she saw this world as the dead would—vibrant and rich, richer than the living world. Death called to her in every form. The land. The spirits in the tunnel.
The man. It was a result of what she was, the Graveminder.
And Byron resented the dead for the way they lured her in. Most of all, he resented the man who currently looked like Rebekkah was his every dream come true.
“I wasn’t expecting you again so soon,” Mr. D said, holding her lightly so she could move away but not withdrawing despite Byron’s terse words. “I trust that you are well, Rebekkah?”
“I am.” Rebekkah stepped out of reach, barely glancing at the ruler of this odd world. Then she looked at Byron. “H e might not be.”
Charles grinned. “Trouble?”
“Stay out of it,” Rebekkah snapped.
Death held his hands up and took a step back from her.
“You. What was that?” she asked Byron. “He was so close and—” “And who was he, Bek? What do you know about him? They’re angry.” Byron’s voice grew louder by the moment. “They’re dead. They’re hungry. They’ve starved for God knows how long.”
“So?” Byron stepped closer. “Holding hands with things that want to eat your face seems more dangerous than wise, so I stopped you. That’s my job, Bek, I keep you alive. Protect you from”—he gestured out at the city that looked like an old mining town here—“them.”
“They’re lost,” she said quietly. “The spirits in there are just the dead who slipped away in the passage. I have to help them. I had his hand. Maybe I could’ve brought him here. Maybe he has answers on how to help them all. Maybe--”
“And maybe he’d have killed you,” Byron said.
They stood there, staring at each other. Tears slid down her cheeks. After a moment, she said, “Go see Alicia or something. I need to talk to Charles about this.”
Then Rebekkah Barrow looked at Death and said, “Would you answer a few questions?”
He shrugged. “Why not?”
“Truthfully, Charles.” Rebekkah smiled at him as if the being that had cursed them all was nothing more than the sweet, well-dressed man he pretended to be. He wasn’t, not a man and not sweet. Mr. D was capricious and deadly. He was cruel and patient. He was, in a word, Death.
3 BYRON MONTGOMERY
GUARDS SURROUNDED REBEKKAH, AND DESPITE EVERY OUNCE OF dislike that Byron felt for Charlie, he knew that no person—being—in either world would try as hard to keep her safe as Charlie would. As much as they didn’t like one another, Byron and Mr. D had this one thing and only this one thing in common: Rebekkah’s safety was everything.
Byron tucked his pistol back in its holster and headed deeper into the peculiar town that resided at the entrance to the land of the dead. It wasn’t always the same, seeming to flex and shift as if it were a living organism. It was, like the magic that made the dead walk here and allowed Byron and Rebekkah to visit, unsettling to him. Towns ought to stay the way you left them, but the land of the dead was not like that.
He walked, waiting for one of the few constants here. The center of the town was bisected by a space where the emptiness stretched into the distance in both directions.
Byron checked his watch, pausing along with various strangers.
One man was obviously new. He started to cross the invisible track, just as a train tore through the intersection. It was absolutely soundless; no tracks or rail lined the street; and in moments, it was just a speck in the distance.
The man was gone. His body carried off by the train. Byron had no idea where it went or began, but the trains that raced over it moved faster even than the high-speed trains of the living world.
All he knew was that the trains were as like as not to splatter bodies on their paths. Sometimes he thought the conductor sped or slowed in order to increase the odds of hitting bodies.
In the distance, past the part of the town where Byron typically stayed, was a tall city that jutted into the grey sky. Several towering sky-scrapers speared the sky, and a cloud of pollution lingered mid- way up around them. Lights flicked on and off as the inhabitants of that part of the world went about their un-lives.
To the left, currently, was a sea. On the sea, the masts of ships rolled off either to or from shores that might not exist. Despite the reasons he was here, the fact that he was bound to Rebekkah’s mission, the fleeting urge to board a ship—to take her and set to sea —came over him sometimes. Where would they go if they boarded such vessels? What strange things lived in that water? And was there, like old maps, a place where the sea simply spilled off the edge?
“Undertaker,” a woman in a fox stole—complete with fox head still attached—greeted as Byron crossed into Charlie’s preferred part of town.
It looked like a Depression era city. Less poverty than the real depression, but the suits, cars, and clubs were the stuff of the early 1900s. That did not, of course, mean these residents were of the 1900s. The land of the death formed neighborhoods for residents, but they were more Disneyland or studio sets than real. It was as if the world here was made up of fantasy versions of time periods, and the dead could choose to reside wherever it was familiar or in the region modeled on an era they’d dreamed of in life.
There was a strange charm in it.
As he walked, Byron wondered if the land stretched forever and somewhere out there his parents were waiting. He wondered if Bek’s stepsister, Ella, had found a place here.
“If you’re out there,” he whispered, “I hope you found peace.”
He watched for Ella, but he hadn’t seen her or his parents here. Ever. The Graveminder couldn’t see her dead, but he wasn’t sure if he was limited, too. Charlie hadn’t answered. All Byron knew was that he hadn’t seen any of his loved ones, and that Bek couldn’t see her ancestors.
A woman with a Tommy gun slipped out of the door of a modern car, something sleek and curved.
When the car slid up beside him with the armed woman, Byron’s hand went to his gun.
“Psh. Not aiming for you, Undertaker.” The short-haired, flapper- dress-wearing woman grinned. “Watch this.”
She aimed at a building. As the double doors opened, she called out, “Hey, Henry!”
A man in a sharp suit looked up. “Now, Jules . . .”
When she started laughing, Byron took cover.
“Julie! I said she was just a f--” The man’s words ended as Julie mowed him, his friends, and the woman friend all gyrated like marionettes from Julie’s rain of bullets.
Once they were all down, Julie nodded. “Just a friend, my ass,” she muttered. “I’m not spending eternity as second fiddle.”
Byron said nothing as she walked out and collected all the men’s guns—as well as the woman’s ring and shoes. “Taking my man, and my ring! I ought to shoot you daily .”
Once they were disarmed, Julie sashayed back to her car and tossed her loot in the passenger seat. He couldn’t blame her. Once they all got up, they wouldn’t hesitate to shoot back. Life in the land of the dead was prone to shoot-first kind of mentality.
“You ought to look up Alicia Barrow, miss,” Byron told her. “She’s always looking for a good gun.”
Julie laughed. “Oh, I only shoot Henry, his fool friends and his trollops.”
Byron shook his head and left. When he reached the part of the land of the dead that he visited most often, he relaxed a bit, finding a familiar comfort at the shift to the 1800s. The world became a black and white Western town: wooden buildings, plank walkways, dancing girls, and worn cowboys.
He made his way to Alicia’s base of operations: General Goods. No one thought it was a store just for bolts of cloth or new boots, though. If they did, they weren’t paying attention to the group of gun-toting men who lingered outside the door.
Frankie Lee, one of Alicia’s most trusted, nodded. “Undertaker.”
“The boss is in a mood,” Milt added quietly. It wasn’t a judgment on Alicia. None of her men would judge her. To them, the former Graveminder had hung the moon, and at her word, they’d go to a permanent second death at her whim. No task was too far for them, not when it came to Alicia.
And Byron understood. He felt the pull to protect her, too. Some- thing about a Graveminder—living or dead—pulled at him. The same was true of the dead.
“Alicia?” he called, standing to the left of the door.
She was a shoot first, talk eventually kind of woman. “Undertaker.”
“Don’t shoot me,” he added, opening the door.
Her answering laugh eased his worry a little.
The sight of her never failed to make him appreciate her strength.
She was a fierce-looking woman in snug jeans and a half-buttoned man’s shirt. Today, she wore a vest over it. As usual, a gun holster hung around her lean hips, and a knife long enough to be a sword was strapped to her thigh. Being dead meant she didn’t look like she had over two hundred years of experience, but most of it came after her untimely death.
She smiled at him and said, “Come on in, Undertaker. I have things to tell you.”
And he knew well enough that something was wrong. Her voice was far kinder than normal. Friendly even. That didn’t bode well.
4 AMITY BLUE
CLAYSVILLE WAS TYPICALLY RELAXED, AND TODAY, GALLAGHER’S bar was quiet and dim, just the way Amity Blue wanted. It wasn’t open yet, and technically, she didn't need to be there. There was nowhere else she’d rather be, though. Quiet and calm, dark and alone, it was the mood she sought.
“Home sweet home,” Amity muttered, closing the door behind her and throwing the lock. “Boss?”
Silence was her only answer—and with these damned headaches, she was extra happy for the quiet. Daniel Greeley, her boss and owner of Gallagher’s, was a good guy, more or less old enough to be her dad. He was hard to beat throwing darts, and his sense of humor floated between “dad jokes” and dry wit.
Grateful for the solitude, Amity walked behind the bar. The place seemed eerie when it was closed. Chairs up, and stools stacked. More than once after a long shift, she’d mistaken the thin frame of chairs or stools for people.
She tossed her coat and bag onto a steel cooler behind the bar.
Then she poured herself a glass of plain soda with a bunch of fruit. Sweet, cold, and refreshing, it was her bartender’s special. More than a few patrons had thought they had vodka soda but ended up with her non-alcoholic drink because hydration matters when drinking excessively .
And Claysville residents drank. There were more bars than churches and synagogues, and that was saying something here. This was a town that ran on prayer and liquor.
The bar was her home, more than her actual home—especially the last few weeks since her sister, Bonnie Jean, had died. Her lover, Byron, had left her. Her best friend, Bek, was now dating the man who had been in Amity’s bed.
Despite her mood, she shook her head. “I’m living a damn country song.”
Admittedly, Amity hadn’t been in love with Byron Montgomery, but it still stung to be left. And he’d been in her bed long enough that she’d missed talking to him. Of course, he was the sort of man she wouldn’t have looked twice at if she was outside Claysville, but leaving wasn’t an option.
No one born here left, not for good. A few left for a while, but everyone born here died here.
And although Amity hadn’t been super-close with Bonnie Jean, her death was hard. Her sister was the responsible one, the civic-minded, devoted to the town kind of person. Her skirts were pressed, and her smiles were tight. They were likely only friends because they shared blood, but they were sisters.
Everything had changed.
But Amity still spent her evenings gathering stray bottles, emptying ashtrays, and swishing crumbs onto the floor. She didn’t change, but everything felt different now. She felt like she knew things that didn’t match what used to make sense. It wasn’t in a what- am-I-doing-with-my-life way. Amity liked being a bartender, and until now, she’d really liked the fact that in her entire life, she’d never once met anyone who was an alcoholic.
Amity went through the motions of setting up the bar. She filled the garnish trays with olives, cocktail onions, cherries, lemon and lime wedges, and a few twists. Cutting and organizing was the sort of rote activity that she could handle fine.
Why didn’t people get sick?
She felt like red-hot coals poured into the space behind her eyes.
Her stomach started threatening to throw up last week’s meals, and Amity Blue dropped to her knees.
Whimpering, she crawled over to the humming beer cooler and pressed her face to the cold steel.
“Please please please,” she prayed.
The stabbing sensation in her head didn’t let up.
“Fuck,” she whispered, vaguely aware that she was sliding down the cooler to the floor.
Then her eyes stopped focusing and she lost consciousness.
WHEN SHE OPENED HER EYES, DANIEL WAS THERE. HER BOSS WAS crouched down at her side. “ Amity!”
She blinked up at him. “Hey .”
“What are you doing?”
“Napping?” A forced smile was the best she could do.
Her boss scooped her up, lifting her and carrying her to a table.
He lowered her to a chair and asked, “Do you need me to call some- one? The doctor or Byron or . . .”
“Hmmm. Ex or maybe my dead sister or dead friend? Hard call, right?” Amity stared at her boss. Her attitude ought to get her a lecture, but Daniel sighed.
“I’m not your enemy.” He looked at her head, feeling carefully for a bump. “What happened?”
“Another headache.” She shrugged and then pointed. “Purse.”
Her boss grabbed her oversized satchel and carried it like it might explode or bite. Amity rolled her eyes, only to discover that it hurt too much to do that again. She dug around in the bag, pulling out a small handgun, just a .22, and a tube of lipstick. A few tampons, a bag of tissues, and a bright green rabbit’s foot joined the rest on the table.
“A-ha!” She held up a bottle of pills, honestly she probably had enough in her system, but the headaches weren’t getting any better. She shook out another pill, dry swallowed it, and asked, “Drink?”
Her boss poured a glass of house white. “Here.”
Amity raised her brows at that, but she’d try that, too.
“No better then?”
“Not really,” she hedged. The headaches were starting to become so nonstop that she was beginning to think she ought to be alarmed. What if it was an aneurism or something? N o one in Claysville had any diseases. There was no liver failure, no cancer, no heart disease, or even rare diseases. People in Claysville never got sick with anything that could kill them. In Claysville, people either died of old age, accidents, or from the random mountain lion attacks that plagued the town from time to time.
Amity had never thought about how fucking weird that was until right around when the mountain lion attacks stopped. Shouldn't someone notice that there were no sick people in Claysville? It wasn't like folks were health conscious. People ate fatty foods, smoked, and drank a lot. There ought to be consequences. There were elsewhere.
“You should’ve told me,” Daniel accused.
Amity said nothing. She wasn’t missing work, and he was her boss not her bestie. Why should she tell him? She’d been at work one night about three weeks prior and collapsed with the worst migraine of her life. The doctor claimed that she was fine, and really everyone in Claysville got bad migraines, so it wasn’t a big deal. That was the only health issue they all had, fierce headaches.
His advice was dismissive at best: “A day off, a good long bubble bath, maybe a night out with friends, and you’ll be right as rain.”
The problem was that since that night she’d developed all of these crazy memories-that-weren’t. Things she knew that made absolutely perfect sense had been replaced with mental “home movie clips” of things that were impossible.
A man levitating just off the ground, passing through town with Maylene Barrow .
Troy attacking Amity, trying to bite her. Rebekkah Barrow arriving a"erwards.
A teen girl in ratty jeans and a black hoodie vanishing like smoke.
Rebekkah and Byron leading T roy into the funeral home.
Bonnie Jean’s dead body as Mayor Whittaker talked about “killing the monster that did this.”
Amity wiped her hand over the table, drumming her fingers absently .
The constant detail at the center of so many of her memories—if that’s what they really were—was that the Barrow family and the undertaker, Byron, were involved in the odd things in her mind.
“Amity? Did you hear me?”
She looked up at the sound of the voice. “What?”
Daniel stood beside her. She’d been half-out-of-it a lot since her monster migraine.
“I said, ‘Do you need me to walk you home?’” Daniel repeated. “I’m good,” she lied. “I could still work—”
“No.” He looked at her for a moment, studying her with the same intensity her physician had, and Amity thought—not for the first time—that it was a shame he was old enough to be her father. Daniel was one of the kindest men she’d met in her twenty-four years. He didn’t judge her for the skeleton’s hand barrettes in her hair, her slogan covered tee-shirts, or the wide range of music she played in the hours when the bar was quiet.
If he wasn’t so old, he’d be irresistible.
Bonnie Jean had a thing for older men.
Used to have a thing for them, she corrected herself.
Thinking of her sister in the past tense seemed wrong, but Bonnie
Jean was dead. She was killed by a mountain lion. Even as Amity thought it, she knew something was off about that explanation.
“I’m good, boss. Right as rain.” She met his gaze. “But if you’re not going to let me work—”
“I’m not,” he injected.
“Then I’m going home,” she continued. “Maybe I just need more sleep.”
Amity knew that wasn’t it, and she was fairly sure he did, too. She had a theory forming, though, and telling her boss that she thought there was a conspiracy seemed like a bad idea. Of course, she was also suspecting that he was in on it, along with her former friend, her ex, and who knows how many other people.
But how could they all be in on it? And why did it make her head ache?
Copyright © 2020 by Melissa Marr All rights reserved.