Heartless in New Orleans
Helen’s three days met their end. The feeble ticking of her heart slowed further, and she clenched her teeth, willing it to continue its clockwork beat. She looked through the rusty, wrought iron bars of Holt Cemetery, longing for the key which lay on the other side. The key to her freedom.
Sweat beaded on her forehead, and she wiped her palms on her black trousers. She pushed a loose tendril of her auburn hair under the tweed cap of her disguise. Any passerby might be fooled into thinking a boy rather than a woman stood before the graveyard fence. But it was unlikely that anyone would come. She could hear the continued revel of festivities on Bourbon Street, even though several blocks separated her from the crowd. The clock tower struck midnight.
A dim, nearly burnt-out gaslight kept her in shadow. She removed her camel coat and draped it over the spikes atop the wrought iron, and tossed over a shovel. With a muffled clank the blade hit the sharp finials of the fence beneath her jacket before stabbing the crisp autumn grass on the other side.
“Helen…” A familiar, disembodied voice carried on the breeze through the few dry leaves which clung to otherwise bare branches. The wind picked up the flyaway hairs on her neck and dried her sweat, leaving her chilled.
No. She would not let him have control of her now. Part of her wished she’d never let Milton have control of her, ever. She refused to join him, now. She blinked hard and shook him from her thoughts. Although the memories whispered to her audibly, they receded if she concentrated on the task at hand.
Reaching as high as she could, Helen gripped the sharp finials padded by the coat and pulled herself over. She landed in a heap next to the shovel in the tawny, tangled undergrowth. Moisture penetrated her clothing at the knees and elbows. Flakes of rust stuck to her palm as she pulled on an iron bar to help herself stand. Her body required more blood than her weakened heart pumped into her veins. It should have been racing. Her hands and feet tingled from the restricted flow. She listened to its sluggish ticks with her teeth clenched.
The metallic scraping of brass joints and the clip-clop of iron hooves sounded the approach of an automaton-driven coach. The gaslight flickered and lit the circle of graveyard she occupied. She gasped in horror and searched the area for a hiding place.
The shadowed mouth of a nearby crypt offered a recessed entrance. It would have to do. She gripped the arms of her camel coat and yanked, but the inside pocket caught on a spike. Her jaw tensed as she leaned against the jacket until the beige satin ripped cleanly.
Laughter carried over the metallic sounds of the carriage, belonging to obvious party-goers searching for a bit of seclusion. She backed into the shadow of the crypt’s entrance and pressed against the iron door. The cold metal felt like a block of ice against her back. A chill rushed through her body, causing a shiver. It was then she noticed the shovel still stood where she’d left it in the light.
The ticking of her heart stopped, and dread gripped her stronger than the thought of being caught. She clutched her chest. Black spots crowded her vision. She felt the shadowy touch of demon hands on her wrists and ankles. Rough, feverish hands that threatened to seize her and pull her back down to hell.
Her heart lurched in her chest once more, and its faint ticking resumed, forcing the demons to recede.
The steel horse, smelling of grease and oil instead of sweat and hay, passed the wrought iron fence, walking with grace that mimicked its flesh and blood counterparts. A brass automaton with unnecessary leather reins in its hands played coachman. She held her breath as the black lacquered coach shone in the gaslight. The curtain was drawn in its window, and she sighed in relief.
Once the coach passed, Helen stepped cautiously into the light and grasped the shovel. She needed to find Milton, so she’d never have to look at him again. Distaste coated her tongue at the unwelcome thought of him. She only wanted that key.
A full moon washed away half the stars in the clear sky and lit her way through the yard. She passed several stone markers without reading them. Her goal was a fresh grave at the top of the rise. She stumbled as she climbed the slick hill, and her hand fought for purchase in the thick mud. The black muck oozed between her fingers. Her head swam when she finally stood at the top of the hill.
“I couldn’t let you go, Helen…” The memory of his words brought an assault to her senses. She felt again the searing pain of hellfire on her skin and smelled her burning flesh.
She bit her muddy knuckle to stifle a scream. As long as she got the key in time, she’d never have to endure the smell of her flesh burning again. Her hands gripped the shovel as she fought to remain standing. She spat the mud from her lips, shook her head, and started the trek again. Particles of sand lodged between her teeth. Two fresh mounds of grassless mud lay ahead, marking the fresh graves.
She shuddered as she read the epitaph. “Milton Bennett, Inventor & Alchemist. Survived by his wife, Morgan, and two sons, Gregor and Malcom.”
Helen’s name would never have been included. She was his dark secret. His unwilling tryst. His slave.
That very morning, she’d watched his funeral procession from the street. She wished she’d killed him privately, but she couldn’t risk being caught for murder if she stayed in New Orleans. Instead, she spooked the flesh horses that pulled the driverless coach waiting to pick up Mr. Shelby at the Gentleman’s Club. She needed to wait three days for them to bury the body. Three days before she could take possession of the key she needed in order to live.
The measured ticking of her heart reminded her to hurry. Tears streamed her cheek. Her freedom drew so near, it called to her. Through the lightheadedness, she pierced the mud with her shovel.
Over an hour later, and walled in by earth on all sides, her shovel struck the lid of Milton’s pine box. The whispers around her grew and moaning joined them. After a moment she realized the moaning was her own. She couldn’t drown out the memories, the babbling, and the demons who desired to reclaim her.
“I loved you enough to bring you back. Don’t worry, Helen. As long as you have me, you’ll never die again.”
Could she go on without him?
She strained against the nailed-down lid of the coffin until one of her fingernails broke. Her auburn hair fell from the cap and cascaded down her shoulders. Tendrils stuck to the sweat on her face. Blood trickled from her middle fingernail. Tears of pain sprung in her eyes. Why hadn’t she thought to bring a pry bar?
In desperation, she seized the shovel and stabbed the top of the box with all her strength. The pine splintered on her fourth attempt, and she redoubled her efforts. The ticking of her heart wavered and the harsh whispers gained strength. She felt the icy hands of death reaching for her throat. With a scream and a final thwack, she punctured the coffin.
The moonlight sat directly overhead and shone through the top of the grave onto Milton’s pale, bluish face. Helen leaned down and touched his chest. Part of her recoiled at the loving look of the gesture, but she needed to see if it was there. Tossing the shovel aside, she yanked the buttons of his waistcoat open and smiled. The brass key sat on the end of a thin gold chain, just as she’d last seen it.
“You’ll never wander very far from me. You’ll need me at least every third day in order to keep it beating.”
“Not anymore,” she answered the memory through clenched teeth.
She gripped the brass key and yanked the chain from Milton’s neck. The head jerked back as his neck pulled upward, and an eyelid fell open. An unseeing black eye peeked at her. She scrambled backward, panting.
The ticking of her heart became so weak she could almost count to three between each click. Her fingers grew numb. She had no time to lose. She ripped open the khaki boy’s shirt she wore. Just above her corset, a brass keyhole was sewn into her skin and soldered in her flesh. She shoved in the key and turned. The tumblers wound the gears with each successive rotation.
As her heart’s ticking grew stronger, relief washed over her. The ghostly whispers fled, sucked back into the hell she’d never return to if she could help it. Laughter broke free from her throat, unbidden. She threw herself back on the pile of dirt packed at the foot of the pine box and made herself a promise. No one would ever hold the key to her heart again.