Carol Evers is a woman with a dark secret. She has died many times… but her many deaths are not final: They are comas, a waking slumber indistinguishable from death, each lasting days.
Only two people know of Carol’s eerie condition. One is her husband, Dwight, who married Carol for her fortune, and—when she lapses into another coma—plots to seize it by proclaiming her dead and quickly burying her… alive. The other is her lost love, the infamous outlaw James Moxie. When word of Carol’s dreadful fate reaches him, Moxie rides the Trail again to save his beloved from an early, unnatural grave.
And all the while, awake and aware, Carol fights to free herself from the crippling darkness that binds her—summoning her own fierce will to survive. As the players in this drama of life and death fight to decide her fate, Carol must in the end battle to save herself.
Josh Malerman’s twisted take on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, Unbury Carol is available now from Del Rey.
And the winds came at her. And the darkness was absolute.
Carol retained a vivid image of the back door’s threshold coming at her as she collapsed, felt the forever-sensation of falling. She knew it well. When she was a little girl the free fall was the scariest part. Now she’d try to heed her mother’s three-decade-old advice:
Think of it as flying. More fun than falling.
And John Bowie’s more abstract slant:
If you accept the falling as normal, it can become its own solid ground.
But John was drunk when he said it. And John had never been to Howltown.
Unless, Carol thought, Howltown is like being dead and being dead is like Howltown.
The feeling, the falling, would last until she woke, it always did, until her feet found solid ground in the form of opening her eyes, as her heart resumed its natural beat, as her lips parted and she could speak once again. But it was always a very long time till then.
Dwight’s the only one who knows.
Thoughts were indistinguishable from speech in the coma. Thoughts were as loud as the voices of others. And this particular thought wasn’t entirely true. James Moxie knew. It was why he’d run from her so long ago. And yet what good was it, Moxie knowing? How would he, a person glued firmly to her past, ever learn of her being in trouble, if into trouble she ever fell?
Stop worrying. Please. You’ll land in a few days. Like always.
She heard the familiar labored breathing, the hoarse wheeze Hattie told her must be her own. Carol had heard it faintly all day. But it was more definitive now. Just as the color black itself was more complete than her memory of it; as if a child had colored a whole piece of paper, colored it…
Carol thought of Farrah’s expression just as the last ripple hit, the anticipation of a secret about to be shared. Over the duration of Farrah’s employ, Carol had gone under twice, and with each turn Dwight had asked for privacy as his lady had taken ill. But as good a man as any of the staff thought him to be, they also knew he was no doctor. Farrah and the other employees of the house had their questions as to what was wrong with Carol Evers. And the rumor mills never pumped so furiously as they did in the kitchens and gardens of finer homes.
The hoarse breathing continued steadily, and Carol thought of John Bowie. As if, in death, he had access to the coma. As if she could hear his lifeless lungs continuing to pump air to his lifeless body.
John used to brainstorm solid surfaces Carol might be able to hang on to in the coma. Reach out, if you can, as you fall. If you sense anything against your fingertips, anything at all… grab it.
Over drinks in the parlor it was an exciting idea. And yet, once inside, once falling, Carol couldn’t move at all. The only motion she felt came from the falling itself.
The cold wind against her.
Still, Carol tried. The image of the threshold still vivid in her memory and mind’s eye.
The sound of breathing continued; the slow steady rumble that reminded Carol of her grandfather’s wheezing. And just beyond it, between inhales and exhales, Carol heard familiar voices: the vague distant syllables of Dwight and Farrah talking.
Carol always heard the external world while inside the coma. But it was an unstable version of that world, as if the individual tones and timbres of the voices were amplified. The emotions behind them, too.
Dwight must be explaining her secret to Farrah, Carol thought. Calming the girl down.
Yet as the words sharpened, at times clearer, at others distorted, Carol heard Dwight speaking like the grievers at Bowie’s funeral. His words came flat and final. There was resignation in his voice. As if Carol had in fact died this time.
Falling, Carol tried to listen harder, but the wind of falling wouldn’t let her.
Hattie used to simulate this very thing by flapping papers close to Carol’s ears as Carol sat in a chair in the workroom. Hattie would ask her to listen past the papers, to the other rooms of the house. At first it was difficult for an eight-year-old Carol to grasp. But one afternoon, through the crinkling, she heard the voice of a neighbor calling for the family dog, and Carol understood how it was done.
Three decades later Carol understood there were moments, while falling, that concentration could not penetrate. But there were also moments that it could.
John Bowie was long fascinated by the fact that Carol could hear while inside the coma. Once she had shared her secret, he’d sit beside her and read, talk, joke, as Carol fell blind through the coma. Dwight didn’t like it. He said he was partial to her remaining calm and unbothered when she slipped into her deathlike trances. But Carol enjoyed it deeply when John’s comforting singsongy voice danced throughout her personal darkness. As he did magic tricks for her that she could not see.
She longed for his voice now. The words of that wonderful man.
But it was Dwight whom she heard instead.
“We must carry her upstairs.”
Carol imagined him kneeling beside her inert body, which must have been half in, half out of the house.
“Should I call a doctor?” Farrah asked, her voice bright, edged with hysteria.
“No,” Dwight said and Carol believed the explanation was coming. The revelation of her condition. But what Dwight said instead, what Carol thought she heard, turned the winds in the coma to ice. “She’s dead, Farrah.”
The words were so wrong to Carol, so untrue, that she imagined she’d heard them wrong. After all, how often had she truly heard the world beyond those crinkling papers?
“Dead?” Farrah asked, the single syllable erupting like thunder in Howltown.
Is there a difference? John once mused, folded upon that wicker chair on the porch. Between Howltown and Death? And if so, how would you know what it was?
Falling, Carol tried to remain calm. She must have heard Dwight wrong. Must have. Must.
Maybe it’s the space we all long for, John said. Everyone wants to get away. You actually get the chance to do it.
Dwight spoke. “It’s a terrible thing. But Carol has—”
“She was just about to tell me something,” Farrah said, her voice shaking.
Because both were breathing heavier (and in the coma their breathing sounded like gusts of dark wind), Carol believed they were carrying her now. They were most likely halfway up the stairs. Rising. And yet Carol continued to fall, deeper down.
“What did she tell you?” Dwight’s words were sharp. Harsh. As if he was trying to read the maid’s mind.
Have you read much about telekinesis? John once asked her. And his voice traveled through the gradations of darkness inside. An old question echoed. Because the rules don’t seem to apply in your coma. For starters, you appear dead when you’re not. Perhaps inside you can do things you can’t do out here? Like… for example… move objects with your mind.
Desperately, still denying the truth of what she was hearing beyond the winds of falling, Carol wanted to prove John’s theory true. If only she could move something. Anything. Let Dwight know she still lived.
“She hadn’t… told me yet…” Farrah said, and now Carol was close to certain that the girl and Dwight stood on opposite sides of the bed Carol must lie upon. Their voices came to Carol in such a way as to give the bedroom dimensions, and the blankets and pillows muted the harsher echoes that thundered through Howltown.
“But how much did she say?”
It was the way Dwight said this more than the words he chose. The way he sounded frightened that Farrah might know more than he wanted her to know.
If she could have moved, Carol would have shaken her head no. If she could have spoken, she would have cried, Tell her, Dwight! TELL HER I’M ALIVE!
But there was no parting of her lips, no cry for help.
“She said… she said…”
“Out with it!”
Carol felt as if she were falling through a cold patch, an area within the coma she had never been.
Fear was no stranger to Howltown, no traveler from the Trail, but the fear she felt now was shattering.
“She said she was feeling odd, Mister Evers!” Farrah blurted out. The horror in her voice, amplified in the coma, was deafening. “She said something about a… a… ripple coming. She—”
“She called it that?”
“Called what that?”
“A ripple, girl. She used that word?”
Carol tried hard to hear through the winds of the coma, through the papers Hattie used to crinkle by her ears.
“She used that word, yes. She told me she wanted to talk to me. Mister Evers… is she really dead?”
The hoarse breathing inhaled.
“Yes. She’s dead.”
Then the wind grew louder, as if Carol were falling faster.
“It’s very important that you tell me all you know, Farrah.”
Dwight’s voice was deeper and quieter than it was moments ago. Carol could imagine the expression he wore as he adopted this tone. It was the face Dwight made when he believed he could squeeze information out of someone he thought was less intelligent than himself.
But Farrah didn’t respond.
Silence from the bedroom.
Carol listened close.
“Farrah?” Dwight said.
A thud. Something heavy falling to the floor.
Then, as it sometimes, mercifully, occurred within the coma, the next words that were spoken told Carol exactly what had happened in the world she’d fallen from.
“She’s fainted,” Dwight said aloud, disbelieving. “The maid has fainted.”
Dwight’s breathing came loud, near, and Carol wondered if perhaps he was going to cry. But the steadiness of his exhalations told Carol that he was exerting energy instead.
He was carrying her again.
Every few steps she heard the clack of his dress shoes against solid ground. The first floor again. In the kitchen, the echo was unmistakable.
Dwight grunted, and Carol heard a door opening, and she tried to deny what she was hearing. What she knew to be true.
Dwight was carrying her to the cellar.
She could smell it now, too, the stuffiness that entombed her halfway down the stairs, the bitter stench of stored root vegetables. The dust of a cellar used primarily for stowing, with suitcases from past travels upon the Trail, dresses that had lost some of their appeal, and suits Dwight no longer fit into.
There was an urgency to the sudden word. But Carol could not speak it.
He’s hiding me, Carol thought, recalling their argument earlier this day. Could it be he was overreacting to her plea for further safety?
I don’t think he’s hiding you for your sake, angel. John’s voice in Howltown. I think he’s doing it for his own.
The sound of Dwight’s steps changed. He’d crossed from the solid concrete of the cellar to the gravelly floor of the storm room.
There, Carol knew, stood the morguelike slab she’d had installed herself, if ever she and Dwight had to dine below as a tornado tore through the Trail.
Dwight’s breathing changed pace. No longer the grunts of hard work; now the long exhalations of having completed a task. Carol knew she was on the slab.
And yet… still falling.
The hoarse breathing continued.
“Do not wake, dear,” Dwight said. And his voice was without reason. “You have no idea how dark it is, living in someone else’s shadow.”
Carol tried to understand, tried to process, but the singular idea that would not go away was simply too abhorrent to accept:
He wants you to stay this way.
“And for a man to go unseen, in the shadow of his wife… Oh, Carol. Do not wake. Do not deny me this triumph.”
Then Carol heard his shoes leaving the storm room, the creaking of the stairs leading up to the kitchen. Footfalls in the hallway, then foyer. The front door opened then closed.
The hooves of the horses came to fiery life in the drive.
The sound of the carriage evaporated into a night Carol could only imagine.
He wants you to stay this way.
But before Carol could ask another question, before she could attempt to make sense of the horrors upon her, the cellar door swung open again.
Through the wind, Carol heard.
Footsteps, again, on the creaking stairs.
Had she gotten it wrong? Was Dwight still here?
Bare feet on the stone floor and the quick shuffling of someone approaching.
A thief, perhaps. One of the many terrible men who stalked the Trail. Someone had been watching the house, waiting for the coach to leave.
As the bare feet reached the storm room, then entered, the many rough faces she’d seen on the Trail became one. It was a mask she’d known twenty years past, features not yet molded by life as an outlaw, and a name not yet legendary to those who heard it.
For the duration of one slowed beating of her heart, she imagined Moxie entering the storm room and removing her, undoing what Dwight had begun.
Dwight wants you this way.
But could this be true?
The shrieking sound of Farrah’s voice so close to her ear echoed like a golden eagle’s cracked call in Howltown.
“Carol! You look… you look…”
Farrah began sobbing again. Heavy rain in the coma. And to the beat of Farrah’s falling tears, Carol tried hard to defy the only explanation she could find, the answer to where Dwight must have gone.
Dwight said she was dead.
Dwight drove off in the carriage.
Don’t think it. Please don’t think it.
But it was too late to stop it from coming. And when it arrived, it was whole.
He drove to the funeral home.
But nobody could hear a silent plea sung from the storm room of a cellar in Harrows. Not even the girl who lamented beside her.
It’s my worst fear, Hattie once told a nine-year-old Carol, as Mom hammered at wooden boards in the workroom. My daughter buried alive.
But Carol was not buried. She was falling.
And the voices that accompanied her were the voices of memory, with no volume to tell a funeral home director she was alive, no hand to stop the gravediggers from shoveling, no fingers to lift the lid of a casket that might be coming soon.
Closing soon, too.
Stop it! Carol scolded herself. You’re afraid. That’s all. You heard him wrong.
But she’d never misheard anything in Howltown. The opposite, in fact. For as long as Carol could remember, the things she’d heard as she fell were beyond even the truth of the words themselves. There was the truth of the person behind them.
What had Dwight begun?
“Oh, Carol!” Farrah suddenly cried, and her voice was a banshee shriek. “You look alive!”
Excerpted from UNBURY CAROL by Josh Malerman. Copyright © 2018 by Josh Malerman. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, an imprint of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.