There was no dancing at the reception, because of poor Hal. Nor did they offer music or wine. No one reproached the newlyweds, but Sebastian could well imagine how the villagers complained to each other. Most of them disapproved of the proceedings in general- yet they’d all come to eat the wedding feast.
But he didn’t care what anyone said or thought as long as Lilja cleaved to his side, her long golden hair shining and her wide eyes gazing up at him. She’d looked at Hal the same way once, but Sebastian held no jealousy or resentment. He only felt grateful that her gaze was now fixed on him.
Sebastian had left the best man’s chair empty, in the dark-paneled tavern where the reception was held. Lilja’s sister, the maid of honor, had processed up the church aisle alone.
When they were twelve and girls had begun to seem more mysterious than annoying, Hal had asked him, “When I get married, will you stand up for me?”
His bright blue eyes had been earnest. Maybe he was even thinking of Lilja back then, though at that time she’d been angular and shy. Sebastian nodded. “And you’ll stand for me, won’t you?”
“Of course!” Hal had shown his teeth in a laugh, which always made Sebastian laugh too. They’d been born two days apart on adjacent farms. Neither had any siblings, but everyone said it didn’t matter, for Hal and Sebastian were closer than any brothers.
“Congratulations!” Some bearded relative of Lilja’s lumbered toward Sebastian. His breath smelled sour- someone must have brought a few bottles to share in the alley between the tavern and the tailor’s. The disrespect to their wishes- to Hal- lit a flame of anger in Sebastian. He opened his mouth to snap at the man.
But Lilja suddenly appeared at his side, slipping her hand into his. Sebastian ran his thumb over the unfamiliar but welcome gold ring encircling one slender finger. He looked down at Lilja, her small round face sprinkled with freckles. Her lips curled into a smile.
“I’m sorry, Uncle,” she said, never looking away from Sebastian’s face. “I require my husband.”
She led him to the tavern’s double doors. The pegs lining the walls to either side were sparsely occupied- the summer had been wet and cool, but this day was warm and bright, perfect for a wedding. Sebastian lifted Lilja’s thin white shawl and draped it over her shoulders, his fingers lingering on the soft skin of her neck. Lilja tilted her head and smiled at him, then lowered her gaze modestly. But the smile remained.
“Should we say goodbye to our guests?” he asked his wife.
She shook her head. “I told my mother we were leaving. No one else will care.”
Sebastian glanced around the long room. The villagers chatted, or picked at the remains of the wedding feast. None of them paid the bride and groom any mind. Sebastian took Lilja’s hand and they slipped out the door.
The hired carriage waited in the yard, decorated all over with ivy and white flowers. Flowers had also been woven into the horse’s mane. The driver slumped in his seat, snoring. Sebastian reached up to shake him, but Lilja stopped him.
“Let him sleep,” she laughed. “We’ll walk.”
Sebastian plucked a flower from the horse’s mane and offered it to her. Lilja took it and together they started down the lane to the cottage that was now theirs.
The summer sun had sunk low, staining the sky pink. The air smelled of night flowers, heady and sweet. Crickets chirped in the hedges. Lilja hummed under her breath as they walked side by side.
It was very different from the winter night that proved to be Hal’s last. He had died only eight months before in the very cottage where they were now going.
Hal’s illness was sudden and crippling; everyone knew but didn’t say it would be fatal. Sebastian had stayed with his best friend every moment that Hal’s fiancee Lilja couldn’t be with him. That evening he’d arrived as soon as he could lay off work. Lilja had been sitting by Hal’s bed, her golden head drooping and shadows clinging to her eyes. Hal was asleep. Sebastian had ushered Lilja out with comforting words that sounded as barren and cold as the ground outside. Back then she hadn’t so much as glanced at Sebastian, but kept turning back to Hal with every step until the door finally closed behind her and she went back to her mother’s house.
The fire roared, making the room uncomfortably hot, but Hal’s hand had been icy in his. Sebastian thought he slept, but as soon as the door clicked shut Hal’s eyes flew open. They were huge in his wasted face, burning with fever and more vibrantly blue than ever. Only his eyes still belonged to him, Sebastian had thought. The rest of his gaunt, gray body was a stranger. Hal gripped his hand with a strength that seemed impossible for one in his state.
“Brother!” he rasped. “Closer than brothers, we’ve always been. I’m dying- no, don’t tell me otherwise, I can feel it- and I must ask you something. A favor. More like a lifelong obligation, to be honest.”
“Lilja?” Sebastian guessed.
Hal’s shrunken lips lifted in a weak smile at her name. “My will is in the top drawer of the desk- I wrote it once we got engaged…maybe I had a premonition.” His eyes slid shut and he was silent for long minutes. Sebastian waited. When Hal spoke again, his voice was brittle. “All the money and land I inherited from my parents, and this house. She can live here the rest of her life. But I need you to help her, when she needs it. Look after her. I couldn’t bear for her to be lonely after I’m gone. Even after you marry and have a family, maybe your wife can be her friend…”
“Of course,” Sebastian had promised, gently squeezing Hal’s waxy hand. His friend had never spoken again.
In the morning he’d trudged to Lilja’s mother’s house, snow crumbling over the tops of his boots to numb his feet. He told Hal’s fiance that he had died in the night, and they wept in each other’s arms. In those moments Sebastian felt only his own misery. Love came later. After the funeral Lilja sought him out, to talk about Hal, to laugh over memories and to cry. It came when, eventually, their talk turned to other matters. When Sebastian realized that he didn’t need a story about Hal to make her laugh. When she smiled at him, not at Hal’s friend. It came quickly, and Sebastian, who had never been in love, let it. Hal had been in the churchyard only six months when he proposed. And to his amazement Lilja had accepted.
The little cottage that was now their home looked cheerful now, with lamps glowing in the windows and a wreath of white flowers on the door. They ambled through the gate and up the walk, Lilja casting nervous glances at him, suddenly shy. Sebastian opened the door and kissed her there on the threshold, lingering, promising. When he drew back they were both breathing hard.
“Go inside, love.” He lifted her hand to his lips. “I’ll return in just a bit.”
“Tell him how happy we are,” she said softly. “And give him this.” She held out the flower Sebastian had plucked from the horse’s mane. He took it.
“I love you!” he called, backing down the walk. His heel caught on a tilted flagstone and he stumbled, wheeling his arms comically to make his wife laugh. He continued to walk backwards, watching her in the doorway, her dim figure surrounded by a halo of light cast off by the lamps within. He didn’t turn around until he’d latched the gate behind him. The cottage door closed, and Sebastian set off for the church.
The tall gate of the churchyard was locked, but Sebastian didn’t hesitate. He clenched the flower between his teeth, placed his foot on the lowest crossbar and hauled himself up. He swung his leg over the second crossbar and gingerly maneuvered over the spikes that adorned the top of the fence, careful of his new suit. He hopped down into the long summer grass, ruefully thinking how much easier this had been when he had been a lanky boy, climbing this fence with Hal to whisper ghost stories in the moonlight, among the worn stones.
The night was clear, the sky scattered with stars, the moon a crescent that layered everything with silver light. The gravestones rose up like sentinels. His steps were silent in the soft grass as he approached Hal’s resting place by the fence. His stone was the newest, the edges sharp, his name- Harald Larsson- still easily read. Grass had grown over the mound of dark earth. Sebastian realized with a touch of guilt that he hadn’t been here in almost two months, when he’d come to share news of his engagement with his best friend.
Now he crouched on the freshly-grown grass, breathing in the smell of stone and green things, and lay the white flower on the granite, pausing to run his fingers over Hal’s birth and death dates.
“Hal, my brother.” He spoke softly, though the little cemetery was deserted save for him. “It’s done. Lilja’s my wife.” A grin split his face, he couldn’t help it. “I’m keeping my promise. I’ll take care of her, Hal. She’ll never be lonely. I love her.”
Sebastian paused and breathed deeply of the cooling night air. Then he frowned. He’d caught a strong scent of earth, moist and freshly dug. A new grave nearby? No, no one in the village had died since Hal. He shook off the oddness of it. His wife was waiting.
Sebastian touched Hal’s headstone once more, then braced his other hand in the grass to push himself out of his crouch. His fingers struck something damp and yielding. Startled, he looked down and saw what he hadn’t before- the grass over Hal’s grave had been torn up, leaving a streak of mud a little bigger than his palm. The dirt looked black in the moonlight, oozing up around his fingers as if trying to swallow them. A shiver of unease ran up Sebastian’s spine. An animal must have been digging here. He just hadn’t noticed. Surely the grass had not quietly torn itself up while he talked to Hal! He tried to lift his muddy hand, but something closed around it- something below the ground- and held him fast.
He yanked his arm up, but the sudden rush of panic made him unsteady and he fell to his knees. He hit the ground heavily, and as he did he felt the mounded soil crumble beneath him. For a hideous moment Sebastian was seized by vertigo. Then he was lying on something hard, with the loose soil crumbling into his hair, his eyes. He tried to breathe and spat out dirt. His hands closed convulsively into fists, his nails scraping the slick surface below him. With a stab of horror Sebastian realized it was the polished lid of Hal’s coffin. He scrambled to get his legs under him and climb out of the grave, but fear made him clumsy. Before he could gain his feet the coffin lid splintered, spikes of oak flying upward. Tiny bits lodged themselves in his hands and face, stinging like tiny fangs. Sebastian cried out hoarsely, a strangled sound between a yelp and a scream, as he looked into the face of his dead best friend.
Sebastian had thought Hal wasted and strange as he neared the end of his life, but the face he confronted now was far worse. Hal’s skin had seemingly melted to his skull, and patches had peeled off to expose yellowed bone. His dark hair fell brittle over his forehead. The front of his grave suit was stained with fluids Sebastian didn’t want to think about. The sweetish-sick smell of mold and rot struck him full in the face, making his eyes water.
It’s not Hal it’s not Hal it’s not Hal, Sebastian’s mind howled. But the bright blue eyes sunk far into their sockets insisted otherwise.
“Lilja.” Her name shuddered from the dead thing’s lips in a cracked whisper. Two dry, bony arms grasped his shoulders with startling strength. Sebastian opened his mouth to scream, to sob, to say whatever Hal wanted of him, but the loose dirt of Hal’s gave suddenly collapsed, driving the air from his lungs and filling his mouth and nose with wet soil.
Lilja sat in the rocking chair before the fire, her hands folded in her lap, in the white expanse of her wedding dress. She’d removed her gloves and jewelry, but thought it her husband’s right to undress his wife on their wedding night. She hadn’t made a dress for her wedding to Hal that never happened. There had been no time; they’d been engaged only three weeks when Hal fell ill. As always the thought of her former fiance pricked at her, but now it was affectionate nostalgia and not grief that she felt. Tonight memories of Hal were quickly lost in the nervous-excited butterfly flapping of her heart.
Sebastian had been gone a while, or maybe it just seemed that way. Lilja had risen before dawn to prepare for the celebration, and she was tired. Finally she dozed off in the rocking chair.
The sound of the door opening snapped Lilja awake. She jumped to her feet, smoothing the front of her dress. The door had closed. Sebastian stood in the shadows, an indistinct dark figure.
“Welcome home.” Lilja’s voice trembled with anticipation.
Sebastian shuffled forward. When the firelight caught his eyes and showed that they weren’t warm and brown, but a feverish bright blue, she began to scream. But by then it was already too late.
by Patricia Correll