Gravely Dead

PROLOG

 

Myra Huggard’s weather-beaten Colonial had sat by the water’s edge for nearly two centuries, and the passing years swayed its back as though time itself was trying to press the structure back into the ground. The still January night spirited away what little heat remained in the building, causing a roof beam to shift in the cold with a heavy thud.
    Myra’s eyes fluttered open and her arthritic fingers picked at the blankets, trying to bring them closer against the icy air. The old woman listened for another sound, but all she could hear was the beating of her heart.
    The Russians were back. Myra knew they were Russians because she had seen them one evening as they prowled around her back yard in their furry Russian hats and black coats. They had looked like bears in the uncertain light. Or maybe like a pair of deer, her eyes not being so good anymore.
    Myra took Evan's ancient, double-barreled shotgun to the heathens one night when she caught them poking at her abandoned chicken coop. She'd stood in the doorway and yelled at them to go away, but they just stared back, eyes glittering in the moonlight, until their silence made her so mad that she took a shot at one. She would have fired the other barrel too if the recoil hadn't knocked her off balance and stove in her shoulder so bad it took weeks to straighten out. Later, Myra wondered if they had known what she was saying, being Russians and all. In the end, she figured the shotgun spoke their language well enough.
    Tonight was different. Tonight, they were inside. She took grim satisfaction in knowing the damn foreigners wouldn’t find what they were looking for.
    Unless they were looking for her.
    An occasional creak marked their progress as they crept around downstairs. Or maybe it was just the house shifting in the night. Cathy said she imagined things.
    Myra fumbled in the darkness for the bedside lamp, but the damn thing wasn’t where it belonged, and she knocked it onto the floor with a crash. They would know she was awake now, and that made her afraid, because the shotgun was downstairs, propped in a corner beside the front door. She would have to remember to put it under her bed at night from now on.
    If there was a now on. Myra’s ninety-four years and failing health didn’t promise much of a future in any event, but she'd survived this long by confronting adversity head-on, not by giving in to negative thoughts, like some she knew.
    It occurred to her that she could even keep the shotgun under the covers. She smiled grimly at the idea of blasting the Russians to bits from the warmth of her bed, with scraps of comforter flying in all directions. That would give them a surprise.
    The noises seemed to be coming from the kitchen, and Myra decided she might be able to sneak downstairs in the dark and grab the shotgun from the front hall. Bruised shoulder or not, she’d to put a stop to their prowling once and for all.
    The old woman swung her legs slowly, painfully, out from under the covers and into the frigid air of the room. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she eased her feet into the fleece-lined L. L. Bean slippers that Cathy had given her for Christmas. Myra thought fondly of Cathy for a moment as her feet enjoyed the cozy warmth of the slippers.
    The fondness faded when she remembered what Cathy had said
about the Russians.
    “You know perfectly well there aren’t any Russians sneaking around here,” Cathy had told her. “It was just an old movie. Why would they come prowling around anyhow? Besides, they’re our friends now.”
    “Not any more,” Myra retorted. “I took a shot at one last week.”
    Cathy gave her a worried look. “God, not the shotgun again. You’ll hurt someone if you aren’t careful.”
    “Damn right, and they’ll holler in Russian when I put the lead to them. Just wait and see.”
    “Don’t ask me to buy you any ammunition,” Cathy replied tartly.
    Myra frowned at this, trying to remember how many shells were left in the box  Myra hunched on the edge of the bed a while longer, until the dizziness of sitting up had passed. Cathy’s slippers were warming her feet, but the rest of her was beginning to freeze.
    Cathy would believe in the Russians now. In fact, if worse came to worse, she’d have to deal with them. Myra had given her careful instructions about what to do if things went wrong, and she hoped the girl was up to the job, what with being so damned honest and prissy.
    It was reassuring that Sarah Cassidy would be here in a few months. The fact that she hadn’t clapped eyes on Sarah in almost forty years didn’t enter into Myra’s thinking. The girl had shown she knew how to keep a secret, and she was sensible enough to stop Cathy from being too much of a wuss. Besides, Sarah was from Boston, where there must be lots of Russians, and she would know how to deal with them.
    Another noise from downstairs made Myra wonder if the events that she had set in motion would cause trouble for Cathy or Sarah. Normally, the old woman wasn’t burdened with feelings of guilt, preferring to put the blame for her actions where it belonged—on the other person. Even so, the Russians, with their strange ways, made her nervous.
    Myra’s dressing gown lay on the covers. She worked her arms into the sleeves and shuffled along the edge of the bed, using the mattress for support. Launching herself from the corner of the bedstead, she staggered across the narrow room, guided by the faint, cold glow of moonlight filtering through the window curtains. Myra opened the door cautiously and crossed the hall. Breathing heavily, she paused at the top of the stairs, her hand on the newel post.
    The staircase dropped precipitously to face the front door across a small, cramped hallway. To the left lay the parlor, where Myra had wintered over hens and started pullets, years ago when she still had a flock. A door at the right led to the dining room and beyond it, the kitchen.
    A faint, quivering red glow outlined the dining room door. What could that be? Then it hit her. Of course, the Russians would have candles so they could see.
    Or perhaps she had forgotten to close the firebox door to the kitchen stove when she filled it with wood last evening. It was getting harder and harder to remember these things, though she didn’t admit it to anyone for fear they’d shut her up somewhere, like they did to poor Hazel Gartley. It hadn’t taken that devilish nursing home six months to steal all Hazel’s money and kill her off.
    Myra stood and breathed a while longer. The last two months had made her keenly aware of the grey area that lay between being alive and being dead. She had seen Hazel pass through that strange land, a place where people—like that sniveling Gerry Gartley—made decisions “for her own good,” without listening to what Hazel wanted. Myra wasn’t going to let that happen to her.
    The edges of the stair treads looked like a row of writhing orange snakes in the flickering candlelight. She blinked a few times to clear her eyes, but the snakes were still there.
    Myra hated snakes. Trying not to step on them, she started down slowly, her hand clutching the banister. Suddenly, she was pushed from behind. Or perhaps she just lost her balance.
    She felt herself pin-wheeling down the stairs, bones snapping like dry twigs. The momentum threw her across the narrow hall, fetching her up against the front door.
    There was no pain yet, but her legs wouldn’t move, and her left arm was crumpled under her. Myra’s head was jammed up against the door, where an icy draft swept through the door sill’s crack and sliced into her face.
    The butt of the shotgun was inches from her nose, but her right arm wouldn’t work properly. With her last strength, Myra made her fingers climb up the stock and lock around the trigger. The gun went off with a roar, dropping a blizzard of plaster onto her motionless body. Overhead, flames roared through the house.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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© Lawrence Rotch