~Happy Halloween! In honour of the holiday, please enjoy this: the titular story from my short horror story collection Dead Elise & Other Stories, which you can download an e-copy of for free ~
It’s easy to grow familiar with the dead. They have become such a ubiquitous part of our culture. Death is cheap these days. It has lost its power to command our fear. Our grief, sure—but our horror? Rarely that.
Some even romanticize the dead, and all things Death. At least, they romanticize their own conception of Death, though it is seldom an accurate one.
Elise did that. My poor Elise. How she loved her notion of the dead.
She was fourteen then, the ideal age to love Death. Too old to fear it, too young to have known it other than in fiction. I was fifteen, no more experienced.
Fourteen and fifteen. Those were our ages when we met, and our ages when we parted.
Poor, Dead Elise.
I saw her, one night—the first—leaning on a wall outside a cinema. Smoking, in both senses of the word. She was beautiful, by the standards of our teenage years, glowing golden as she cupped her lighter, re-lighting her cigarette.
I stood and looked at her a while, enthralled. I think it was the first time I knew that I could love other girls. Then she glanced up, her pale eyes finding mine, her soft lips curling up into a slightly puzzled smile.
I looked away, down at my sneakers, and started walking. My path was past her, but I tried to pass her at a distance of five feet. She stepped away from the wall, right as I walked by, and touched me on the shoulder.
I turned and looked at her. She smiled again, and that was that.
Our first “date”, though we never called it that, saw us walking through a graveyard. It might seem disrespectful, and I suppose it was. Elise made it no less weird when she confessed her fascination with the dead. It bordered on morbid, though I never cared.
‘Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to die,’ she said. ‘What it’s like to be dead.’
‘You probably shouldn’t.’
‘Not like that.’ She looked at me, her face both serious and honest and a little amused. Or so it appeared then, though I could never quite be sure what she was feeling. ‘I don’t want to kill myself or anything. I just wonder what it would be like.’
To this day, I cannot say how true that was. Already on our second date, on the next day, she showed me the scars on her arms. She said she only cut herself because she sometimes felt she had to hurt herself, not because she wanted to do serious harm. She just had an urge, on some days, to cause herself pain. She saw someone about it, she said, and she was getting better. I accepted that.
Still, you never could be sure with her, especially when she got it in her to talk about Death, and her fantasies. Her imagined versions of what it must be like. She had just finished describing one of them, the first time we kissed.
‘I’d like to kiss you,’ I’d said then, not really apropos anything she’d told me.
To my surprise, that made her smile. ‘I’d like that,’ she said.
It was her first kiss, I think. Mine too. Our first proper kiss, at least, with tongues—for all the fumbling it entailed. We were in the park then, and a few people walked by and stared. Not with malice, I think, just with morbid fascination. Like her fascination with the dead.
We met nearly daily, and usually ended up in each other’s arms. Limbs and lips all intertwined. Then one day we were supposed to meet, but Elise never showed. It took a week before I learned the reason why.
My Elise was dead. Killed by her own father, in an alcoholic rage. He’d broken her neck. Maybe because he learned she’d kissed a girl, maybe for some other reason entirely. I never knew.
He killed himself soon after, either because of guilt, or shame, or because he didn’t want to go on trial. I never learned that reason either. All I knew was what everyone else knew, and that was only what was in the news.
I learned grief then, for the first time, as I grieved my Dead Elise. The grief of Death, but not yet the horror.
The horror came later—much later—when I was in my second year of university.
There had been other girls by then. Only a few, but they had each meant something to me, in their own way. Of course, none of them erased my memories of Dead Elise. How could they? Nor did I want them to. That wouldn’t have been fair for them or for me. Or for Elise.
But then, she came into my life again.
The night of a bad breakup, I visited Elise’s grave. I don’t know why; I wasn’t in a rational state. But I hunched beside her tombstone and I wept, and I suppose if anyone saw they must have thought I wept for Dead Elise. I did; but more-so, selfishly, I wept over myself.
It was late then, and September—the same month as I first met Elise—and the sky grew dark before I’d finished weeping.
By then, it was late enough that I knew the cemetery would be closed, but nobody had come to usher me away. Probably whoever was responsible for locking the gate had simply missed me, or maybe they just never checked if people were inside. Few enough visited the place as it was, and potential vandals had plenty of other places to haunt—nor would they be stopped by a locked gate. Like them, I knew I’d have to climb the wall when I wanted to leave.
But I wasn’t done at the grave. Nor was I alone there. As I wiped at my tears and my snot with my sleeve, I felt, in my bones, that I wasn’t alone. I felt her in my bones, and at my neck. Just behind me, she whispered my name.
The voice sent shivers through my ear into my skin and spine. I had forgotten it, over the years, but knew it instantly by sound.
‘Elise?’ I said, or tried to say. My mouth formed the word, but I had lost my voice somewhere inside my chest. My lungs compressed.
Whether she heard or not, Dead Elise did not reply.
At last I turned my head, but there was no one there.
‘Elise?’ I asked again, this time mustering sound. No answer.
The next day, I learned someone had desecrated her grave. Had dug it open, and removed her corpse. Her photograph was in the news, the same they’d shown when she first died. Staring at it, and at the headlines, I felt a building dread. My first taste of the horror.
They had no leads to who had taken Dead Elise. Some witness mentioned seeing me at her grave that day—a fact the tabloids couldn’t stop repeating—but there was no one who knew that I had known Elise. No one to connect myself with my description. It boiled down to a brunette with a grey coat; there were bound to be hundreds of those.
Her disappearance was quite the sensation for a couple of days, but with no news from the police, people moved on. I continued to hear her mentioned, here or there, among my friends and classmates, or from nearby tables at a pub, but more and more the topic was replaced by other news.
I didn’t forget it though. I remembered hearing her voice, that night—the very same night she had allegedly been taken. I didn’t know what to believe, whether she’d been dug up by some fucked-up pervert or. . . or whatever else. All I knew was that I couldn’t just forget, like everyone else seemed willing, even eager, to do.
Of course, everyone else soon had a new sensation to obsess about. A boy of five had disappeared, a mere five days after Elise’s body had. When that was picked up by the news, it was the thing everyone talked about. Either to express their horror and concern, or their contempt for his neglectful parents, stupid enough to let a child so young go out and play completely unattended.
Another day, and then they’d found his body, dumped into a pond in the botanical garden. It had been torn apart, and though it had already bloated to the point where it was nearly past all recognition, there were rumours that it had been partially consumed.
A few pictures were leaked online, god knows by whom. I never saw them, but a couple of my classmates did, and I couldn’t help hearing their whispered discussion right before a lecture.
Nor could I avoid the general panic that quickly filled all walks of life, happily fuelled by the news and tabloids. Everyone had a theory, or had heard some rumour, each more gruesome than the last. Some even tried to connect the boy’s death with the disappearance of Elise.
Only a few days later, there was another murder. Another victim violently torn apart, though that was where the similarities ended. This had been a grown man, single, and he’d been killed inside of his apartment, and been robbed.
Some tabloids soon began to print accusations—true or false—about him. About how his neighbours had suspected him of various vices and perversions. Drugs and gambling and prostitution. It had all caught up with him, the headlines claimed, in a tone that suggested that society was better off. Others, of course, tried to connect him to the murder of the child. And sometimes to Elise.
I lived in a student corridor in those days. As I came home one evening, I met one of the other residents—Michael—in our shared kitchen.
‘I met your sister,’ he said when he saw me.
‘My. . . sister?’ I asked him, wondering if my tired brain had mistaken his words. I didn’t have a sister. Still don’t.
‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘she came looking for you.’
‘I don’t know, like half an hour ago? I let her in.’ He smiled, half-confused, half-apologetic. ‘She’s still in your room, I think.’
I was already turning away from him, muttering a hollow thanks.
Outside my door, the smell of cologne pricked my nostrils. It only grew stronger as I entered the room, and there was another scent as well. Sickly-sweet, like rotted peaches.
A person sat cross-legged on my bed, clad in an oversized grey hoodie. The hood was up, and their—her—face was turned away, studying one of my piles of textbooks.
She turned as I closed the door. She hadn’t needed to. I had already known who she would be.
My sweet, young, Dead Elise stared at me with pale greenish-blue eyes. As always, her expression was a mystery.
She was exactly as I remembered her. Exactly as her photo in the news. No sign at all, no blemish on her pale and perfect skin, suggested that she had been dead for half a decade.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said on seeing my expression. ‘Should I not have come?’ As at the cemetery, I couldn’t help but recognize her voice.
‘How?’ I mouthed. As then, my voice had left me.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said again. ‘I thought. . . I thought you wanted me to come.’
Unexpectedly, tears filled my eyes. She stood and crossed the tiny room and hugged me. I was a head taller than her now. Perhaps I always had been, but that night I noticed it. Her nose dug into my shoulder.
She was so cold. It had rained outside, and I was soaking wet, and yet I was the warmer of the two. Even through her hoodie and my jacket, she was ice.
In our embrace, the stench of mingled rot and cologne was overpowering. Still I struggled to let go of her.
When I did, she spoke again. Her voice was weak and wavering, though her eyes showed no signs of tears. Probably she couldn’t cry.
‘I didn’t mean to,’ she said, staring up into my eyes. ‘The boy. I didn’t mean to!’
I didn’t want to hear that. Not about the boy—because of course I knew which boy she meant. I wanted to tell her to be quiet, but I couldn’t form the words. She pressed on.
‘I was so hungry,’ she sobbed, ‘and so cold. At first, I just ate worms, and birds—pigeons—but they’re so hard to catch, and have so little blood.’
‘Stop it,’ I said. She didn’t hear.
‘I needed blood! Not just for the hunger. I didn’t want you to see me like. . . like I was!’ Her voice was rising in volume, and she shook with every forced-out word. ‘And then. . . I found him, all alone! And I couldn’t—’
‘Stop!’ I screamed. But she didn’t stop. Couldn’t stop.
‘Once I saw him, I couldn’t stop myself. He was all alone. The hunger was too much! And then that man. . . I needed more, and I needed new clothes. He was drunk, and it was dark, and he invited me to his apartment. Then he saw. . . me. He panicked, and I killed him, and I took his blood.’
As she’d told her story, her hood had fallen back. What hair she had fell from her scalp in dirty tufts, and the side of her neck was missing flesh.
She saw my stare and turned away, fumbling to pull on her hood. ‘I shouldn’t have come!’ she babbled. ‘Don’t look at me! I still need so much more. I shouldn’t have come!’
Despite her words, I looked. I couldn’t help but look. In her distress, she was unable to pull on her hood, and her neck was perfectly exposed. From the front, her throat had been as flawless as her face, but not so from behind.
Her neck was a mingling of raw and rotted tissue; new muscles grown among old worm-eaten mulch; a new spine among fragmented bone.
Her father had broken her neck, I remembered. Apparently, it had reformed around the old fracture, leaving the redundant bone in place.
‘Jesus fucking Christ!’ It was Michael’s voice. He’d probably come in to investigate the shouting. I don’t know if he’d knocked first and I hadn’t heard or if he’d simply barged in without caring for my privacy. ‘What the fuck is that?’
Elise turned violently around at the sound of his voice. There was a crack as the brittle reconstructed bone snapped with the motion. Suddenly her head was no longer upright, but flopped down onto her chest, attached only by a flap of skin and meat and recently-made muscle.
She fell, and screamed, though how she managed that I cannot say. I screamed as well, as did Michael. Even as he screamed, he rushed into the room, shoving me aside. Before I could prevent him, he brought his foot down on the neck, and again on the head.
There was a squelching sound, and one of cracking, and the smell of fresh blood rose over the rot and the cologne. Michael staggered back and vomited onto my carpet.
By now everyone who lived in the corridor had gathered at my door, and were staring at the sights within. Before they could speak, my Dead Elise moved.
Pushing herself up with one arm, which buckled unnaturally under her weight, she used her other hand to grab a tuft of hair and lift her head.
Michael had done quite a number on it. Part of the skull was fully caved in, and one side of the jaw was no longer attached. It had ripped open the tender new-formed skin and hung away from the rest of the face.
Still her eyes shone, staring at me, and from her throat she made a gargled sound that had to have been my name.
Her hoodie—it was one with a zipper—had come open somewhat, and I could see part of her chest. Only a few inches beneath the throat, her skin gave way to rot and withered ribs.
The whole time she’d been inside my room, she had been hands, and a throat, and a face, and little else. Now not even a face. S
he crawled towards me, leaving a trail of blood—far too little blood for her injuries—across my floor. Nobody made to stop her.
She reached my feet, and stared up at my face. Had she a hand free, she might have reached it out to me. Might have touched me. Instead she simply stared.
‘Hannah’, she gargled again, and maybe something more. I couldn’t tell. Even had she not been gargling, I don’t think I could have heard, could have comprehended her words.
Then Michael was recovered from his sickness, and stamping on her spine. There seemed, at least to my eyes, to be more animal wrath in that attack than any human notion of heroics. After all, what could Elise do, injured as her body was, except stare?
Soon, as her years-in-the-grave bones gave way to his assault, her eyes went glassy. A moment later, her arm went limp, and her head flopped down onto the floor.
Only then, I think, did the full horror of the sight break through into my mind. Not only of the sight, but of what Elise had told me she had done. Not only of that, but of the fact that she’d done those things for me, come here to see me. I never learned how, but I knew the why, and I was it.
I screamed, and wept, and even when my voice grew hoarse, my very being took over the scream. I grew unconscious, long before it ended, and it continued even when I was awake. For days, my world was horror, and a single long scream, quelled only by exhaustion, and even then continuing to echo in my sleep.
I couldn’t even tell you anything that happened next. The questions, the police, the news; all of it passed me in a blur. It couldn’t be important. Not to me, not after Elise.
She was buried again, eventually, on the same spot as last. The very cemetery she and I had crossed on our first date, though I don’t think that we ever called our dates ‘dates’.
I still visit her sometimes. I rarely weep. Possibly never. She never wept when I knew her, in life or in death. After her death, neither do I.
But I do grieve my Dead Elise. Despite all that she did. Because, as I first realized then, and still know to this day—will never not know, for as long as I live—she did all that for me. Came out of her grave, for me.
Only for me.
Sometimes I dream of her, but never as she was on that last night. I did have some dreams of the night, in the initial months after it happened, but those ceased. Now when I dream, I dream she is fourteen, and I fifteen, and both alive. Kissing in a park or standing right outside a cinema, and for the first-time locking eyes. And though my life continues to move on—and I am each day further from fifteen—I know that there will always be a spot somewhere deep inside my heart, reserved for my Elise.