A flicker of movement caught my attention and I swung around, an explanation already forming on my tongue, and was met with an empty corridor. Not a thing was out of place. I waited a beat, breath held, certain that if someone had sneaked into an alcove, they’d surely make some sort of sound to alert me to their presence. Nothing.
I inhaled deeply, then exhaled, but it didn’t slow my rapid pulse. I was seeing things that didn’t exist again. I cursed myself for the hauntings of my past, despising myself for having such difficulty sorting fantasy from reality. No one was stalking me. No scientific experiments were being performed on slaughtered women. This wasn’t a gritty alley in Whitechapel filled with discordant music from nearby pubs. There was no cloaked figure gliding through the night.
If I kept repeating these assurances, I was bound to make them body memory. I heaved a great sigh. It had only been a few weeks since my world had shattered. I was still healing. I would make it through this. I simply needed time.
I turned around, half expecting to come face to face with whatever I had thought I’d seen, but the white corridor was still deadly silent, save for the sound of my own footsteps now hurrying along the wooden floors. I moved as swiftly as I dared, spurred on by the candelabra chandeliers, pointing fingers of light at me as if accusing me of wrongdoing.
I reached the end of the next hall and stood before a thick oak door marked with the sign morgă. There was no window or other way for me to peek inside and see if the morgue was occupied. I would have to take my chances. My breath sped faster as I reached for the knob, then snatched my fingers back as if I’d been stung. Remembered whispers of steam-powered machines taunted me. But there was no whirling or churning coming from behind this door. I listened again anyway. I needed to be sure.
Silence was suffocating; not a sound could be heard. I breathed in through my nose, exhaled through my mouth, allowing my chest to rise and fall in a steady rhythm. I was a student here. Surely if someone were in the morgue I could come up with a valid reason for entering this room. It wasn’t as if we’d been told we might enter only during the daytime accompanied by a professor.
With that thought, I drew myself up. This wasn’t my father’s house, where I’d had to tiptoe around forbidden rooms. It wasn’t as if I were going to perform an autopsy this moment.
I clamped my hand over the doorknob, feeling the bite of cold iron beyond the protection of my thin gloves. The sooner I got this over with, the sooner I could seek out Thomas, I reminded myself. With that thought, I twisted the knob and then stumbled forward as the door jerked open from the opposite side. My heart nearly stopped. I glanced at the floor, forgetting to hide my cringe as I prepared for the wrath of Headmaster Moldoveanu.
“I was only going to catalogue—” I began, then looked up and saw a wide-eyed Ileana. The headmaster was thankfully nowhere around. The lie on my tongue disintegrated. “What—I thought you were heading to the kitchens?”
“I—I have to leave. We’ll talk later?”
Without uttering another word, she ran down the hallway, not bothering to glance back. I stood there, hand against my chest, collecting myself. I hated Moldoveanu for forcing her to tend to a room full of cadavers when she was clearly uncomfortable with them. Ileana was raised in the village and likely grew up with their superstitions regarding the dead.
Pushing my anger at the headmaster away, I grabbed the knob again, refusing to leave after I’d come this far, and stepped inside.
Royal Free Hospital, London: the interior of the post-mortem room in the pathological block. Process print, 1913.
5 DECEMBER 1888
I looked about carefully. A wall of metal mortuary drawers and three long tables greeted me. Gas-powered sconces quietly hissed at the intrusion, though one was unlit. An examination table held a body, covered from head to toe in a canvas shroud. I ignored the prickle of fear along my spine. I could ill afford to have another spell of anxiety interfere with my mission.
I exhaled, puffs of breath clouding in the freezing air, relieved to see the room was empty of the living. I moved as quickly as my skirts allowed toward the cadaver. I hoped it was the victim from the train. It would make things infinitely easier to have found him so quickly.
I stood over the shroud, suddenly hesitant to unmask whoever lay there. A familiar feeling of dread weighted both my thoughts and arms. I could have sworn the sheet moved. Just once. Barely perceptible, but movement all the same. A memory started breaking through the barrier I’d constructed around it, but I pushed back. Not here. Not when the clock was working against me.
Jack the Ripper’s laboratory was destroyed. Corpses could not come back to life. One day my blasted mind would grasp that fact.
Without wasting another precious moment on nonsense, I yanked the cover away, and the world cracked beneath my slippered feet. My knees buckled as I took in the peaceful features. Long lashes reached toward defined cheekbones. Full lips lay slightly parted, void of their usual smirk.
Thomas lay still as an immovable statue.
“This isn’t real.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. This was not real. I wasn’t sure what it was, a delusion brought on by severe hysteria, perhaps, but it was impossible that I was seeing the truth. I would count to five, then this corpse would be gone, replaced by the body of some other young man who’d lost his life too soon.
This was fantasy. Perhaps I truly was like one of Poe’s unfortunate characters—driven to madness by months of loss and worry. This body only looked like Thomas. When I opened my eyes I’d see who it truly was. And then I would rush to his chamber and fight with my best friend. I’d grab him by the lapels and press my lips against his, not caring an ounce about being untoward. I’d tell him over and over how much I adored him, even when I wished to strangle him.
As I counted, new images splayed their fingers across my mind.
I saw Thomas giving me a hundred different smiles. Each one a gift granted only to me. I saw all of our bickering. All of our flirtations that masked feelings neither one of us was quite ready to confront. A tear slid down my cheek, but I left it. There was a hollowness radiating from my core, growing more consuming with each breath that caught in its abyss.
“Please.” I crumpled onto his chest as if my tears could pour my life force into him. “Please do not take him from me, too. Bring him back! I would do anything…” Anything at all—ethical or not—to fight with him again.
My heart stopped. I drew away from the body, ready to lash out at the intruder when arms folded like expansive wings around me. I gasped, jerking back as bile seared up my throat. This couldn’t be happening. The dead didn’t come back—
Thomas twisted his mouth into that damnable grin, and everything inside me went numb. The temperature seemed to drop several more degrees. I clamped my mouth shut to keep my teeth from chattering, though my body trembled violently.
“If I’d known the way to your heart was through dying, I’d have done this ages ago, Wadsworth.”
I groped at my collar, fingers fumbling over the material as I tried tugging it away from my neck. If I could only take a deeper breath…
“You’re… you’re not…”
I staggered aside, hands clutching my center. The room spun in vicious circles. I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment, but that was worse; I kept seeing images I couldn’t escape from. Thomas bolted upright, knocking the shroud off his perfectly intact body, his brow creased with concern. I watched him sweep his limbs across then over the examination table and stand.
He was fine. Not dead. Never dead. The room suddenly wasn’t cold at all, but scalding. I swore that the ceiling was lowering, swore that the walls were herding me into the corner, where I was sure to suffocate in this damned tomb. I dragged in gulps of air, but it wasn’t enough. I thought of all the bodies that were already in those closed drawers. All waiting for me to join them.
My chest heaved. Thomas was not dead. Not like my mother and brother. He had not come back as an undead monster. He was no strigoi. I bent, putting my head between my knees, cursing the air for being too thick to breathe properly, as blood throbbed. I kept my eyes shut, and those hauntings persisted against my will. My mind was trying to kill me. Vampires and immortal beings were myth, not reality.
No one could cross the boundary of death and return. Not even Mr. Thomas Cresswell.
“Audrey Rose, I’m so sorry.” Thomas held his hands out toward me, placating, gentle. “It was a horrible ruse to get you to speak to me. Nothing more. I—I’m a rotten excuse for a friend. I never meant to—You need air. Let’s go outside. Please. It’s—I begged Ileana to somehow get you here so we could talk. Alone. Then I saw the table and thought—please let me help you get some air. I apologize. I didn’t think…”
“You… you scoundrel!”
I stumbled into the corner, face blazing, tears leaking from my shut eyes. That void at my core was no longer empty, but filling with emotions too furious and too searing to be quelled. Thomas had been there that night—he’d witnessed it all. For him to lie there, playing dead, as if the mere thought of him crossing into death wouldn’t be my final undoing. I clenched my fists. I realized there were quite possibly a hundred thousand things I could scream about. But only one I needed an answer to.
“How could you lie on that table and fake death?” I demanded. “You know. You know what happened in that laboratory. I cannot…”
I stood there, hands shaking, breathing loud enough to be heard. Thomas dropped his head into his hands and didn’t utter a word. He scarcely moved. Enough seconds passed that my anger began writhing up again, searching for something to strike out at.
“Speak now, or do not ever seek me out again, Cresswell. How could you do that? Knowing that’s what haunts me day and night. My mother lying on that table. That electricity.”
I sobbed harder then, tears streaming down my face as I relived the horror of that night. This, this memory was what I could not get past. Could not stop seeing each time I stood over another body. My once beautiful and utterly broken mother. Marred by death. Tubes entering her partly decayed body. The twitch of her fingers, the same hands that had once held me, rotten and partially skeletal. Chunks of her long raven hair littered about the ground.