My dearest Noah,
It is with a heavy heart that I write to you. Father has chosen my bride, but you will not be pleased. We are to be married soon. You will always own my heart, though we can never meet again, nor speak of our love.
Noah Cunningham crumpled the month-old battered paper in his fist and stared into the hearth fire. He no longer knew how many times he had read the letter, and Samuel’s words echoed in his mind a week after the marriage. Noah had known this time would come, but he had not prepared himself for it. His beloved Samuel. Noah tossed the missive into the flames and watched it burn. It had been one week, but it felt like a lifetime.
The words tasted like ash in Noah’s mouth. Had Samuel married a decent woman, perhaps the pain would have been bearable. There had been two possibilities for a bride, however, and Samuel’s letter had confirmed Noah’s fears. The new Mrs. Samuel Locke was a shrew who despised Noah’s very existence. Mary Bishop hated Noah, and Noah bore no love for her either.
Thunder shook the timber-and-stone house to its foundation. Noah did his best to ignore the storm raging outside his home. The weather seemed fitting for his current mood. Wind battered the windows, and rain pelted the roof. When the front door blew open, his dog, Elsa, whined. Noah reached down to pet her, and then he stood. He started to turn but froze when he heard scratching, like claws on wood. His heart in his throat, he faced the front of the house. Apprehension crawled up his spine as he approached the entry hall, cautious.
A robed, hooded figure rose from where it had been crouched before Noah’s door. Wind whipped the cloak on the figure’s back, but the hood did not move. Rain drenched the poor sod, but whoever it was did not seem to care.
“Who are you?” Noah shouted over the tempest raging outside.
Lightning flashed, illuminating a woman’s face. Noah stared into Mary Bishop’s crazed eyes. The woman seemed to look right through him.
“You stole him from me.”
Despite the truth being quite the opposite, Noah had no desire to argue over it. “Samuel is no longer mine.”
Mary flung off the cloak. Rust-colored stains covered the pale robe underneath. Bile rose in Noah’s throat. He shook his head and began backing away. Disbelief morphed into pure terror when Mary sneered, revealing elongated canines. Noah had heard of such creatures, but he had never encountered one. Seeing one of the undead, here on his doorstep, sent a fresh rush of fear through him.
“If I could not have him, even as his wife,” Mary spat, “no one
will have him.”
Noah opened his mouth to reply, but nothing came out. He could not tear his gaze from what he knew to be blood--Samuel’s blood. Mary drew a knife, its blade still bearing evidence of Samuel’s murder. She lifted the weapon and slit her other palm. Noah stumbled backward. Mary’s cursed blood dripped onto his threshold.
“Forever will you remain unseen, untouched,” she vowed. “As I was to my husband, so shall you be to the world for all eternity.”
Thunder cracked, and Mary vanished. Shocked, Noah could only stare in abject horror at the blood on his threshold. Elsa howled from the sitting room, but it took a moment before Noah could find the energy to move. He inched toward the door and stared beyond it, into the stormy night. Mary was gone.
Noah grabbed his rifle and whistled to Elsa. The dog joined him, and together they skirted the puddle of blood and headed down the front steps. The woods beyond his house were unnaturally still, even with the wind blowing. Lightning lit up the sky, and rain lashed through the trees, soaking Noah and Elsa to the bone. Noah ran down the road to the Locke family’s home. He pounded on the door.
“Samuel!” Swallowing back fresh fear, Noah slammed his fist against the door again. “Samuel!”
When he didn’t get an answer, Noah stepped back and kicked the wooden door open. The top hinge snapped, leaving the door to hang loose. Noah stormed into the house. He went from room to room, shouting Samuel’s name. He found no trace of Samuel, nor any blood. The house felt still, empty, like not even a rodent dared to breathe. There had been blood on Mary and her knife, but Noah saw none in the house.
Fury and fear renewed, Noah rushed to the nearest farmhouse. Surely the Anderses heard or saw something. A light burned inside, and Noah banged on the door.
“Jacob Anders! Elizabeth! Anyone!”
The door opened, and Noah started to explain that Samuel was missing, but then he realized Jacob Anders, a man he considered a good friend, was looking everywhere--except at him. Before Noah could say another word, Jacob stepped back inside and shut the door. Freezing rain had nothing on the ice that crept through Noah’s veins. He walked backward, never taking his gaze off of the farmhouse. Then he aimed his rifle upward and shot.
The farmhouse door jerked open once again.
“Who is out there?” Jacob stepped out the door and scanned the area, going right over Noah and Elsa like he didn’t even see them.
“Forever will you remain unseen...”
“No...” Noah shook his head, Mary’s words returning to him. “Mary, what have you done?”
Noah raced back to his home. He sidestepped the blood on the threshold, slammed the door shut, and locked it. Then he stepped away, not daring to turn his back on it. Despite the storm, the house felt as if an unearthly silence had settled over it, much like Samuel’s home. The fire in the hearth continued to crackle and burn, but its warmth failed to reach the entry hall. Noah shivered. He didn’t know what to make of Mary’s words. He was not sure he wanted to know exactly what she had meant, but the incident at the farmhouse made the uneasiness return with a vengeance.
Convinced the door would remain closed this time, Noah went into the kitchen for something to clean up the blood. He found the tattered remains of an old blanket and took it to the entry hall. When he spread it out on the floor, the blood seeped through the threadbare cloth within seconds. Noah felt sick, but he did his best to ignore it. He cleaned up the mess and tossed the bloody blanket out the front door. The wood had already become stained, forcing him to see it. The last thing he needed was a blood-soaked blanket to remind him of such a horrifying night.
When done, he returned to the sitting room. He gathered his coat and hat, then stopped. If Jacob had not seen him, would anyone else? Noah knew he had to try, for Samuel’s sake, at least. He rushed out the door, Elsa behind him. Instead of going to Jacob’s this time, he continued on to the town proper. A light burned in one of the lower windows of the Locke estate, the home of Samuel’s father. Noah took the steps two at a time and banged on the door.
“Aaron Locke! It is Noah Cunningham!” The door opened, and Noah breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank the Lord. Mr. Locke, I fear Samuel is--”
“Hello?” Aaron Locke, Samuel’s father, stared right at Noah but did not seem to see him at all. “Who is out here?”
“I am right here!” Noah shouted, waving his rifle in front of Aaron’s face.
“I will have none of your games,” Aaron announced. “Show yourself!”
Noah stumbled backward down the steps, lost his footing, and landed on the soaked grass. He watched as Samuel’s father shut the door with a huff. Samuel was missing, could very well be dying, and no one could hear him scream.