I recognize him in an agonizing moment, and I scream, loud and long. That's a mistake, for it only spurs on the dead man. He picks up his terrible pace, and I can no longer back away. I must turn to run, turn my back on the abomination that pursues me. My good sense tells me it's the only way, but my fear holds me back. The former wins out, and I turn, propelled to the top of the stairs in my terror.
Still, I know the creature pursues me, and as I fly down the steps I can't resist a look over my shoulder. I impact with something, and though, I still see the dead hired man limping horribly behind me, my mind is certain I've been caught. I thrash and scream, and the thing holding me shakes me, hard.
Quill's voice cuts through the mania my fear has caused, but not the speechlessness. I point wordlessly up the stairs. As Quill shoves past me, I grip his shirtfront and hold on to him. If I let him go, he'll die. He'll die, and I'll be left alone. "Don't go! Don't go up there!"
Whether he goes or not doesn't matter; the dead man is upon us. His first step onto the stairs flips his broken foot up grotesquely. It slides from beneath him with a sickening crack and he tumbles face-first into Quill. The monster's gnashing teeth snap inches from Quill's face. He grabs the corpse's neck, slamming the horrible, mottled gray head face first into the stair railing until it splits apart wetly.
All the fight goes out of my body. I crumple against the wall, falling into an uncomfortable slump.
"Did he bite you?" Quill grips my arms too hard and shakes me, again. The force makes my jaw clench, and I become a ragdoll in his grip, to preserve myself. He stops himself. He's trembling.
With gore-spattered hands, he shoves up my sleeve, turning my limb this way and that. He repeats this on my other arm, and so shocked am I by the events that have just taken place that I don't feel his touch on my bare skin until all that remains is the memory of it. Then his hands are under my skirt, whisking along the length of my calf, and I do feel that. The world narrows to only the touch of John Quill's rough fingertips brushing over the backs of my calves, and the sight of the dead man beside us, his putrid blood dripping down the stairs.
"Oh, thank god," Quill says on a sharp breath of hope. His hands came up to his face, and he covers his eyes.
I don't know what to do. I edge around the corpse and kneel on the step below the one he sits upon. "I'm all right," I assure him, daring to put my hand on his drawn up knee. "Look at me, I'm all right."
He lowers his hands, at least, but he still will not meet my gaze. "I came as fast as I could."
"You knew where I was?" I study his face as he answers. Will he claim to have just been passing by when he heard my screams? I won't believe it, nor let him think I believe it. Not for a moment.
"I knew you weren't at the meeting house." He seems almost embarrassed. "I watched to see if you went with them. I worried that they left you alone."
My head jerks up. Sister Anne stands on the landing below us. Her face pales as she takes silent inventory of us. I am so enchanted by the macabre moment Quill and I have just shared, I forgot the world beyond the two of us and the dead hired man existed.
It takes only seconds for the rest of them to come running, to crowd into the door before Quill quickly hauls me to my feet and releases me.
"What is going on?" My cousin Benjamin's voice cuts through the shocked murmurs of the Shakers who now clog the staircase, wailing and praying.
The cluster barely parts for Benjamin, but he makes his way to us, recoiling at the blood and foulness spattered all over the stairs. He tugs at the front of his shirt and motions to me. "Evie, come away from that man."
YOU ARE READING
After her father’s death and her mother’s hasty remarriage, Evelyn Whitney is handed over to the Shaker commune of Bannock, New York, into a life she has little chance of escaping. When the dead become monsters and community loyalties fracture, Evel...