Unknown events have robbed Ellis Harkington of her memory. Concerned individuals, who claim to be friends and loved ones, insist that she simply needs to recuperate, and that her memories may return in time. But, for her own sake—so they claim—they refuse to divulge what has brought her to this state.
Ellis finds herself adrift in a town of ominous mysteries, cryptic hints, and disturbingly familiar strangers. The Nightbirds, a clique of fashionable young men and women, claim her as one of their own, but who can she truly trust? And what of the phantom suitor who visits her in her dreams? Is he a memory, a figment of her imagination, or a living nightmare beyond rational explanation?
Unwept, the first installment in a spellbinding new trilogy by Tracy and Laura Hickman, is available now from Tor Books. Read an excerpt below!
A cold, damp darkness greeted Ellis as her consciousness collected within her. She had been resting peacefully on her back. A sweet fluttering against her cheek brought her back from sleep. She raised a hand to touch her face and her wrist clacked against a solid surface inches in front of her.
Panic rose in her as the strangeness of being in a place she didn’t recall brought her sharply awake in the midst of utter darkness.
She shifted and felt her shoulder blades slide along a slick hardness at her back. Her fingers ran along the surface too close overhead. It, too, was very smooth. The experience was an odd feeling—or, rather, non-feeling—for she couldn’t perceive the weave of cloth or wood or of any subtle texture, only the hardness of the walls all about her. She jerked her elbows out in an effort to determine the width of the place she was in. They cracked dully against the sides of the lightless void in which she lay.
Darkness pressed down on her. A tightness in her chest made breathing impossible. Confusion filled her mind. She didn’t know where she was or how she had gotten here. She moved awkwardly trying to fold her arms across her chest, as though to ward off the cold. Her arms clattered against her breastbone. She raised her head, her eyes trying to pry open the inky blackness. Nothing. She could see nothing. Terror gripped her as she shifted her head upward and her skull thumped loudly against the top of her tiny chamber. She lay back trying to quell the panic that made her mind race and her frame nearly immobile.
I can’t be here, she thought. Where am I? How do I get out?
This last question became paramount. She wriggled about and found that she was so tightly enclosed that she could not even turn on her side. She stretched her stiffened legs out and stretched her arms above her measuring both ends of the damp darkness in which she lay. She slid her fingers about looking for a way out.
A latch, a knob, anything. She struggled and shook against the silkiness of her strange cocoon. She tried to cry out, but only a faint whistle of dry, brittle air escaped her stiff jaw. She raised her fists and began pounding on the slick surface above. Her fists made a strange clinking noise against the top of her confine. She jerked them back to her chest, where they clattered noisily. Bone met exposed bone.
Stone-hard fingers skittered up over her dry chest. Her bare ribs encased no beating heart, no lungs to fill with desperately wanted air. Her fingers skimmed upward, where they easily closed around the vertebrae of her brittle neck. She slid her skeletal hands up farther along her gaping jaw, where she could detect no flesh, no lips, only the constant and hideous smile of exposed teeth.
Fear engulfed her as her boney digits explored the rim of the hole where her nose once was and finally found a resting place deep in her eye sockets. She arched her neck and opened her maw wide in scream after silent scream.
She lay back numbly. My coffin. Dead… Buried…
Bitter sorrow overwhelmed her terror and she tried to weep, but no moisture escaped the charcoal blackness of the empty eye sockets. She lay dazed and horror filled.
Is this death? Trapped forever in a box?
Silence rushed in, around and through Ellis. It was consuming in its totality. No breath rattled her chest; no breeze stirred; no bird sang. She lay in repose waiting to escape.
A sound, faint and almost inaudible, drifted down into her claustrophobic space. She became aware of the muffled cries of an infant in the distance far beyond the cold, damp earth above her.
A sudden, squealing sound of metal startled her. It scraped against the wood of her coffin directly overhead.
Help me! Please! She tried to call out, yet only managed to clatter her jaw awkwardly. She stopped moving and felt more than heard the rather rhythmic sound of scraping, followed by a dull thud, which caused her coffin to quake slightly. Someone or something was working directly above her.
They realize their mistake? They know I’m alive!
She began beating wildly against the lid of the coffin, ignoring the sound of her bones against the wood. She pounded forcefully and began to feel the lid give as she struck it. Air, fresh air, whispered through her restless resting place. Her need to breathe became sudden and immediate. The lid was giving way under her blows. She arched her spine and shoved.
Bones cracked and clattered. The clasp on the lid snapped under the force of her pushing. Air, mingled with the pungent smell of damp, fresh, mossy earth, rushed into her coffin as she slid one skeletal hand out around the edge of the lid.
“No!” A male voice rang out from above.
She sensed the weight of his boot as he stepped on the lid of her coffin and the clanging of a shovel against her boneclad hand.
Help! Stop! I’m alive. Still no sound escaped between her teeth. She was desperate to cry out and knew it was impossible.
She jerked back her talon-like digits from the lid for fear of pain as they caught against the rim under the lid. She suddenly grasped that her bones were rock hard, indestructible. She felt nothing.
Bright anger mingled with the terror of being trapped again; she shoved mightily. Bones creaked; gaping jaw clenched; shoulder blades bit into the slippery satin lining.
The lid sprang open. Air! Ellis longed to breathe. She wheezed in determinedly between her whistling teeth.
I will breathe this air! she promised herself.
The dust rose up around her. Organs, muscles, sinew, cartilage, all gathered to her bones, forming around her writhing framework. Her beating heart pumped blood painfully through veins and arteries in a red liquid haze. And finally a soft downy covering of pink and cream skin covered all—cheeks, neck, breasts, stomach, back, hips, legs, feet and hands. Her hair caressed her form. She breathed in deeply, her lungs on fire with the rich oxygen around her. Ellis’s body was awash in pain as her reunited parts regained life.
A groan, increasing to a full shriek, escaped her lips and her liquid eyes focused. She feebly pulled the flimsy coffin shroud around her weak and vulnerable form. More clearly now, she heard the soft cry of an infant in the distance.
A tall man stood directly above her exposed grave, a lantern in one hand and a shovel in the other. He held the lantern low by his side. He remained dark and faceless. Ellis was illuminated completely by the lantern and felt almost as though she could somehow slip into the light and away from here.
Questions raced through her head. But only a weak “thank you” escaped her parched lips. She lifted a frail arm, expectant of assistance from her rescuer.
“That body! It’s an obscenity. How can I possibly help you now?” he said, biting off the words. He turned on his heel and threw down the shovel. The lamplight gleamed off the buckle of his tall, shiny boots. Ellis heard the digger speaking to someone in the blackness and heard an indistinct female voice in response. He retreated into the night, carrying the lantern and cruelly leaving Ellis again in the darkness.
“Wait! I’m alive!” she called out pleadingly. The figure did not or would not hear her. Ellis climbed from her coffin and out of the grave of fresh earth, which was moist, rich and oddly comforting, crumbling coolly under her aching hands.
She stood on a vast landscape of ruined buildings, scorched earth and desolation. The battleground stretched to the horizon under a leaden sky.
She stared back into the dark confines of her little coffin. Relief and revulsion swelled in her and she felt light-headed. She pulled the silken shroud about her newly re-formed, delicate body. Tears poured over her cheeks, her eyes rolled back in her head and a moan escaped her lips. The distant crying became more distinct and closer.
The dark figure wrapped cold fingers around her wrist and started leading her away.…
Ellis! Wake up!
Ellis started and gasped awake. In the dizzy free fall out of sleep she gripped the arm of the cushioned bench. The train swayed and rumbled noisily beneath her. The Pullman car in which she rode was as much of a shock to her now as the dream had been. She took in the rich paneling of the walls, the gentle curve of the cream-colored ceiling, the maroon carpeting and the brass fittings in an instant. It was all very familiar and yet disquieting, as she could not remember boarding the train or, for that matter, the cushioned bench on which she sat.
She inspected her gloved hands. Their shape was familiar and unchanged by the ravages of her dream. She breathed in deeply, fully, and released it. The need for air was with her still. The last binding ribbons of sleep slipped away.
The only remnant of the nightmare was the persistent crying of a baby. Ellis straightened up on her bench and looked about the small train compartment. A large basket with a squirming bundle rested on the facing bench across from her and was being studiously ignored by the thin, pinched-faced woman in a boater hat and nurse’s uniform sitting next to it. The woman had set aside the paper she was reading and was now staring at Ellis with annoyance. The once-opulent railcar was otherwise devoid of any occupants.
“Don’t rouse yourself, dearie,” the stick of a woman said, reaching across to pat Ellis’s hands. Ellis recoiled a little at the stranger’s gesture.
The nurse’s eyes were as cold as the glass of her spectacles. “Poor thing, just be calm. Hush now; we’ll be there soon.”
Ellis felt confused, wondering why the nurse was saying to her what she should be saying to the infant. “I’m sorry, have we been introduced?”
The woman turned her bespectacled gaze on Ellis and spoke in flat tones. “In fact, we have and we’ve been through that already. I’m Nurse Finny Disir.”
Ellis knew she should nod in recognition of the woman’s introduction, but urgent, necessary questions filled her and spilled out into the compartment over the whimpering infant. “I’m sorry.… Where, where am I?” Spoken aloud, it was such a strange question that it fell thickly from her lips.
“Oh dear. I was concerned when you boarded the train that you were not quite yourself.” Ellis doubted from the nurse’s tone that the woman had been concerned at all. “Young lady, do you know your name?”
The baby’s wails became insistent.
“I’m Ellis. Ellis…” Her voice trailed off as her tongue searched for a second name.
She could not recall. Ellis did not remember boarding the train or any details of their journey beyond awakening in the Pullman car. She strained to recall any little details about herself that one should easily know. She looked down at the green skirt she was wearing, its pleats falling to the floor over her high-topped kid boots.
I’m wearing these clothes, but this shade of green, would I choose it for traveling? She shifted a bit across the velvet cushion at her back. Such a mundane, but odd, question, she observed. The thought continued to spin in the air before her until once again her eyes fell to her gloved hands, which she greeted with familiar relief.
The dull green of her skirt gave rise to an inner certainty that she hadn’t chosen it. “I don’t remember this skirt. I feel certain I wouldn’t choose it. It’s ugly.”
The nurse allowed herself a clipped smile. “Tosh, girl, what a thing to concern yourself with now. Your choice of travel clothing is unimportant. Please don’t distress yourself over it. However, you were working through an introduction and having no name is of no use to anyone. What is your name, child? Of what family?”
Finny looked expectantly at Ellis, her eyes absurdly large behind her glasses.
The family name, I know it; I must. Ellis turned and sat blindly staring out of the window. A thick fog swirled past as the train rushed onward, affording only occasional glimpses of the trees, the brightness of their autumn colors muted by the dim light, rushing by. She focused on her reflection in the glass and studied her image, which to her relief was familiar. She saw a handsome young woman of about eighteen. Surely not so young as seventeen. Nineteen? Nineteen… Her hand flew to her hair beneath her bonnet. Short. How long has it been like this? She withdrew from this thought to concentrate on the question at hand, the rest of her name.
The name did not come, nor did a scrap of any other detail of her life. She struggled to remember anything before this moment. Panic rising in her throat, her tight corset lacings bit into her waist through her chemise, making it hard to breathe. Her interior architecture was all empty rooms and closed doors. She felt certain she should know—did know—but all that came were tears blurring the edge of her vision.
Ellis looked up with pleading eyes at the nurse. The nurse met her gaze over her glasses with what Ellis felt was more scrutiny than sympathy.
The baby’s cries continued.
“The name you’re looking for is Harkington. You’ve had a bad time of it. Don’t strain; it will all come back.”
Harkington. At least it seemed right. She’d been ill. They had cut her hair. She felt heartsick. Demands from an unknown life flooded Ellis. Past and present merged into question marks.
“Where are we going?” Eliis asked.
“You’ve been put in my care for a short journey to a place where you can recuperate.”
“What hap… where… how?” As she found it impossible to form a single question with so many pressing against her mind, her voice trailed off.
“Land sakes, child,” the nurse huffed in exasperation. “You cannot ask every question at once!”
A simple query formed that demanded an answer: “Where is my family? My mother… father?”
The baby wailed.
“All will be explained in time. They know where you are. You have been put in my care. I have strict orders from the doctor not to overtax you.” The nurse sighed and offered a small comfort to the young woman. “I suppose it won’t hurt to say we are going someplace you’ve been before—to your cousin Jenny’s home, in Gamin, Maine. Why, she’s just your age.”
Jenny. This name called up a warm feeling of relief that wasn’t quite a memory but felt as though it could become one.
“Jenny. Gamin. Yes, I think… well, I don’t remember quite, but I will be happy to see her.”
“Well, that’s enough for now.” The nurse snapped open her newspaper, closing off the conversation. The baby’s pleas subsided into tiny hiccups and quiet breathing.
Ellis was surprised by Nurse Disir’s abruptness. She found herself with a waking life that was almost as strange as the dream she had escaped. Finny, though dressed in the broadbrimmed hat and blue cape of a nurse, seemed anything but nurturing or helpful.
Glancing at the paper wall between her and her traveling companion, Ellis furtively read headlines wondering if something from the everyday would bring back her memory. The tall words spouted the terrors of war in Europe. She took in a picture of people wearing gas masks and she tilted her head slightly to read the caption just as the nurse said, “If you truly wish to read it, Miss Harkington, I’ll give it to you when we arrive later. Please just settle back and try to shut your eyes. I can’t deliver you to Uncle Lucian in a state of nervous exhaustion.”
“Yes, Dr. Lucian Carmichael.”
My uncle is a doctor. I must remember.…
“Miss, get some rest, now.” This was not a suggestion but a command.
Ellis leaned back and closed her eyes against the brightness of the compartment, the strangeness of her situation and the rocking of the train. She was exhausted and queasy.
Left to her thoughts, she found panic-driven tears welling up under her eyelids and her throat constricted tightly. She swallowed hard and tried to breathe. An unbidden and jumbled cascade of questions began to tumble in her head. She bridled them and began to sort her thoughts into some order.
What do I know? My name is Ellis. I am on a train. I have a cousin named Jenny. I have an uncle, a doctor. I am going to Gamin, a place I have been before. Traveling with me is Finny Disir, a nurse. I have been ill. Ellis shook her head at this; she did not know any of these things really, except that she was Ellis and she must have been, no, must still be ill. She sighed inwardly, exhausted by the enormity of the small questions she could not answer. They flooded over her and swirled away any sense of reality. Where is home? Who do I belong to? Where is my mother? What happened to me? Am I going to be well? When will I remember? Remember… Remember…
The crying began again, and seeing that the nurse was totally absorbed in her paper, Ellis stood in the gently rocking train and stepped around her to look at their third traveling companion. Blue ribbons fringed the basket. A boy. The baby’s fists beat wildly at the air. A small patchwork quilt of blue and yellow lay in disarray around his tiny form. Ellis reached forward to touch his palm. His tiny hand closed about her finger. Ellis made cooing noises to soothe the infant and reached her free arm around the baby and swept him from the basket. The crying stopped. Relief and silence filled Ellis as she cradled the child. The baby looked wide-eyed at her and she wiped his wet cheeks. Ellis smiled and sang softly:
“Over there, over there
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming…”
“Put that down this instant! You shouldn’t be holding an infant.”
Ellis froze in place with the child, a feeling of defensiveness stole over her and she straightened and came to her full height in the train compartment.
“I don’t feel weak. Besides, he’s more content being held.” She smiled down at the baby, who smiled back. Peace settled in her chest for the first time since she’d awakened. She plucked and smoothed the quilt around his form and made certain her grasp was firm but gentle. “He’s fine. What are you doing here, little fella?”
The train shifted and lurched across the tracks, causing Ellis to almost lose her footing. She staggered and swayed with her bundle, dropping back safely into her seat.
Finny stood, folding her paper abruptly, bending toward Ellis and the baby. “Young woman, until you are turned over to Dr. Carmichael, you must do as I say. You’ve been placed in my care and for now I know what is best.”
She scooped the child from Ellis’s arms and with a deft motion deposited him lightly back in his basket. He chuffed in protest, inhaled deeply and let out a protesting wail in response.
“But I’m sitting now. Please just let me—”
“No, it wouldn’t be safe for either of you.”
Ellis could not fathom the implications of Finny’s words. Either of us? It made no sense.
“Nurse Disir, isn’t he in your care, too? Shouldn’t you be holding him?” Ellis felt sympathy for the infant with his renewed cries and her indignation overthrew politeness. Ellis’s frayed nerves were jangling. Her “nurse” didn’t seem to understand what either of her charges needed.
“Really, it’s not to be borne… my patients telling me what to do,” Finny muttered, and grappled with her nowrumpled newspaper. She readjusted her boater hat firmly on her head, and as she squared her high-necked cape on her shoulders she met and locked with Ellis’s level, sober gray gaze.
“Nurse, I may have to mention to the doctor how distressed I was about the baby’s weeping.” The continued gaze lasted until the nurse broke it off, looking into her lap.
“Fine. Please don’t mention the baby to the doctor.” Finny shook her head ruefully. “You were never one to be trifled with, miss. ”
She felt the pleasure of winning a victory for her tiny companion. Then Ellis inhaled an “Oh” of surprise as she suddenly understood from Finny’s comment that she and the nurse had known each other for some time.
“Oh, stop looking like a fish; we are old acquaintances! Don’t think they’d trust you to just anybody? Here, if I’m not going to finish the paper then you might amuse yourself with it for a while.” She shoved the newspaper into Ellis’s gloved hands and leaned over the baby boy, clumsily caressing and clucking him into a tearstained silence. Ellis opened the newspaper and stole glimpses over the paper’s edge, thinking how very peculiar the whole scene was.
“Please don’t stare at my back, young woman; I wouldn’t want to report your odd behavior to the doctor, either.”
Ellis shivered in the heat of the train compartment, wondering at the uncanny perceptiveness of the nurse. She leaned into the faded red velvet cushion of her seat wishing she could disappear into it. She allowed her eyes to drop down the page of headlines.
War. War in Europe. Yes, she thought. I know that. France and England fending off Germany. Our soldier boys are over there. But the fighting isn’t here, not yet. News of the everyday world was both comforting and disquieting.
She read about the picture of the people in gas masks. It was from Boston. High-society matrons modeled them to raise awareness of the need for donations of walnut shells and peach pits to make charcoal for the masks’ filters.
She turned the page and found a long article detailing two recent murders in a string of murders in Halifax. Ellis glanced furtively above the top edge of the page to be certain the nurse was still busily engaged with the child. She glanced down again at the article and knew that this was what had kept the nurse’s rapt attention against the crying of the baby. Ellis also knew that it was inappropriate reading for a young woman such as herself. She dove into forbidden territory.
The illustration accompanying the article showed the body of a woman lying in an alley, her face obscured by a military coat. Two policemen were lifting up the coat to examine the face of the victim and both were in apparent shock at the visage. The headline read:
THIRD MAIDEN MURDERED IN NEW BRUNSWICK
Citizens in Grip of Fear
Ellis read down the lurid column through the sketchy details of the death of a young woman. The killer was unknown, but it was thought that this case related to others. Wondering just how close she and her companions were on the map to these murders, Ellis shivered, and the vague feeling that she had known the victim slipped into her thoughts. It’s impossible.
The squeal of the coach brakes filled the air. Ellis’s head snapped up, jolted away from the story as the train perceptibly slowed. Outside the window she could see the hats of people on a train platform sliding into view. The fog outside appeared to be retreating, though the pall still remained.
“Finally!” Nurse Disir stood adjusting her clothing and scooping up the basket. “Your baggage claim check is in the right pocket of your jacket, miss. I’ll take my leave of you here, as I have a pressing errand.”
The nurse hoisted the basket elbow height in emphasis and turned on her heel to leave just as the train came to a stop.
“Wait! Aren’t you going to introduce me to the doctor? How will I know him?” Ellis half-stood trying to get her footing on the still-lurching Pullman to follow the nurse.
“Don’t be a silly goose. He’s Uncle Lucian; he’ll know you.” Finny’s words were tossed over her shoulder as she disappeared out of the train door.
The abandonment of her nurse shocked Ellis into uncertain silence. She glanced about the empty train compartment and filled with trepidation she stepped quickly through the door into the vestibule. She moved at once down the coach’s stairs and onto the station platform.
The nurse had already vanished into the crowd.
Unwept © Tracy Hickman and Laura Hickman, 2014