Aizaz is currently completing his IGCSEs from Aitchison College in Lahore, Pakistan. His favourite hobbies include playing the piano and lawn tennis. When writing, Aizaz likes to over-complicate his stories in a way that a reader might have to read twice to grab thoroughly, and while it might not always be a good habit, it makes him feel like one of the great masters of mystery.
FUNERAL MARCH A VIRAL HORROR Extracts from Lucius Lancaster’s journal
Lucius Lancaster’s Journal 3 May. Haland. Left Bartosz in the early afternoon. The train had arrived at the platform a couple of minutes early at 9:21. I had hoped to roam the surrounding areas a bit. The weather had cancelled any plans regarding that matter, however. The air was chilly, and the stirring storm made it colder. I spotted the entrance to the platform, and it seemed the only other passenger on Platform-13 had too. I can’t help but mention the obnoxious sign flashing in the middle of the platform, ‘Maintain a distance of 3ft at all times - No Physical Contact’, which I suppose had been put that way to be worth noticing in a crowd of passengers. This was clearly not the case today in the deserted train station. The strip of land at the platform was occupied by only a few workers who I recognized by their uniforms only, because other than that they were either sat on benches or moving around like a traveller would. Strangely, I didn’t remember seeing the other passenger even once on the train ride. I got a clear look only once she turned her face towards mine, and our eyes met... her eyes, I had to take one look at the pair of blue crystals and needed no other feature to recognize the face of my late sister. Her familiar cheesy smile vanished, though when she pointed above me. I turned, and by the stroke of her finger, a flock of birds above me took off in synchronized motion. The loud flapping of their wings startled me. I suppose the complete strangeness of the situation had left me so perplexed by it, that when my name was called out, I took no notice of it. Looking back at it, I am still unable to dismiss the vision as hallucination because the specificity of the image made it seem like nothing other than a warning. The man cleared his throat and repeated, “Lucius Lancaster?” I jolted my head towards the man whose dressing ironically reminded me of the raven. I nodded vigorously and saw the birds in the distance, their wings fluttered violently as they struggled to fly against the harsh wind and began to descend disorderly instead. The sight was quite bizarre. I finally brought my attention to the man in the black raincoat and realized he was the coachman, “You’re early “I said. “Considering the weather I found it appropriate that we leave early, it could be raining anytime now” he stood rigid like a mannequin and spoke as if he had his teeth clenched together. I nodded. The man’s excessive winter clothing forbade me any information regarding his facial and most physical features. This I found especially disturbing considering I sensed an untwisting smile behind that veiled mouth. Without another word, I was led to the carriage, which would take me to the actual reason for my journey. I took a final look back at the station and as expected, found no trace of another passenger. The booking office was unmanned; a single sign mentioned ‘Customers to contact the help desk for ticket scheduling’. On its left was the rail network map. I quickly spotted Bartosz, one of only four cities connecting to the red pointer ‘YOU ARE HERE’. I peeked inside the platform window and located a bakery by the name Hitch Café, the single worker present was the baker who was pulling out a fresh batch of bagels with a spatula from the brick oven. I suspect he and the rest of the little staff would likely have this for snacks. In that instant, I felt an urge to leave all this business and share the fresh batch with the rest of the staff. My heart was back in Haland and travelling alone was a burden, right now all I wanted was to postpone the reality of my responsibilities. The aroma and warm lights drew me closer. I paused and read the sign in bold ’Maintain a distance of 3ft please’ and made my way towards the waiting carriage. The ride was quiet; I enjoyed the nature, and open scenery of this barely touched town while the rumbling sky left no gaps for awkward silences. The background of serene hills developed slowly to plainer land, which was lined with Coniferous trees, although I’ve been told they are Alpine trees as you pass the snow line’. The crisp pine cones were hanging low on their towering branches, and they would soon fall to decorate the ground around with the intricately patterned fruit. The green lands were abundant in small poppies and daisies, but no other sort of plantation or settled agriculture could be seen. Quickly it turned dark, and I began to lose interest in the fading scenery around us. Even though the terrain was rugged, there was feverish haste to our journey. The coachman seemed to be in a particular hurry to get this ride over with, which made for a bumpy ride. ‘Considering he’s the one with the raincoat, this man seems a bit too scared of the rain’ I thought. Beyond the green mountains of Haland, I could sense the mass of weeping woods enveloping and blinding us with mist. As I attempt to recall what had happened, I realize that I must have fallen asleep. I remember being woken up by the coachman. He hurriedly informed me that I had arrived at my destination and without appropriately waiting for an answer, proceeded to lift down my baggage. The distant rumble was what thunder alerted me with a jolt. I could not grasp the situation in time and warily stepped down from the carriage to collect my baggage. I proceeded to ask the man if I owed him anything, but he paid no heed to my question. Without pausing, the cloaked man embarked the carriage and squeezed the reins on the horse which stood on its hind legs and shot forward into the darkness. My challenge, however, lay in the darkness behind me. 2 *** The cases in our city were considerably higher than the surrounding areas but little enough for essential and minimum wage workers to work. There were no travel restrictions yet, but people were still scared out of their wits; no one who could afford it was taking any chances. We couldn’t. Mother had always worked by ironing clothes, but recently some customers had withdrawn the service once the outbreak began and so she had to settle with what was left.; in concern of more loss mother worked extra hard. She never let grandfather or I help with the ironing or even folding the clothes, all I did was make the deliveries, which I didn’t mind. I went from house to house and even sometimes the Louise Suite, which was a fair distance away. Father and Lorraine went to the Publishing house daily, which was close by. Father would come home after the stall closed at noon and Lorraine worked the longest and would often come late at night. She had once inadvertently mentioned that she had made friends with a young aspiring author at the company, and we suspected she spent most nights in his company.
24 April, Lorraine came back late in the night from the printing company. She had only managed to earn a spot as a retail assistant there, mainly because father had been working there as the stall handler back when assistants didn’t exist. Over time father kept the main job while youngsters were hired to do secondary tasks under him, so with time as things got harder with age, they were also made easier for father. Lorraine, on the other hand, was really just everyone’s assistant. Nonetheless, the poor soul found optimism in the encouraging words of the present typesetter, a good friend of our father who said that he too once served as the assistant retailer, excuse me…retail assistant. Every memory of the kindred soul brings tears to my eyes; however, I must face the burden of putting this onto paper. As usual, father had arrived at noon, I remember that day he had brought a book for me to read, along with the daily newspaper that went to grandfather. I’ve always been interested in father’s choice for me, in a long time of reading I have yet to be disappointed by the books he brings from the publishing house. Anyways, by the time Lorraine crept in, the rest of us had already had dinner. After finishing the leftovers, she felt discomfort in the back of her throat which constantly irritated her in the form of a persistent itch, but nothing serious – a possible symptom of acidity after a late meal. She slept comfortably, however, with enough worries of tomorrow’s work already on her mind. A morning’s glass of warm milk along with breakfast subdued her sore throat before leaving for work. Neither I nor any other person who had seen her could recall any signs of abnormality in her behaviour. - The matter went unnoticed in the Lancaster household. That morning I had gone to make a delivery for Mama in the Louise Suite, and the lady at the checkout counter had been kind enough to allow me to take the elevator up to the top floor to hand-deliver them to the service area. Maybe it was for her own convenience that she always assigned me this added task, but I was always glad to take time off her hands. I found curious things in the Suite Hotel, extensive displays of luxury and opulence soon became common, but what intrigued me most was the ever unique euphonious music playing in the elevator and throughout the corridors. Meanwhile, in the magnificent, massive halls in the heart of the Suite, entire concertos were arranged where instead of the soft music outside, orchestras of hundreds of instruments swarmed the room in mystical, sometimes chilling music that thrilled my mind. I may have disclosed that I ventured deeper into the hotel more than I should have, but the words I have used for the music can never truly describe the atmosphere. Oh, how I wish that I could play like those musicians...
My blood ran cold as my heart began to thump. The rain had yet not started, but the massive gusts of wind made the surrounding trees sway, and I was sure that any instant now it would begin to pouring like anything. I took a look around, and it took me a few frantic turns to make out the path at my feet. Anything farther than a meter away seemed invisible. Slowly and quite cautiously, I made my way forward using the twisting pathway illuminated only by the scant moonlight that escaped through the black clouds. Fortunately, the pathway followed one way only, and relatively quickly, I found myself at the end of it. I raised my head and found the residence of the Undertaker of Haland. I ran the rest of the way and gave three sharp knocks on the wooden door. My trembling hand reached to knock a fourth time when I was finally ushered inside by a deep voice. The door was violently shut, and I was seated down beside the fire. In a few moments, I collected myself and warmed the blood in my veins. I looked around the house and steadied my vision before drawing attention to my host. The house was a dilapidated square cabin that was filled irregularly with essential living items; the thatch roof itself was holding up well against the storm and kept the rain from leaking. The Undertaker was tall and built solidly but not bulky, he had black hair grown down till his shoulders and a stiff clean shaved face that showed pale skin and chiselled features, sharp eyes and plain black clothing. “You’re shivering, Lucius,” he said and offered me a hot towel that he had set beside the hearth. I received it gladly and noticed that strangely, his own hands were shaking which he promptly withdrew… I buried my face in the towel, and my host sat beside me on a separate chair. “Welcome to Haland, I hope you had a pleasant journey,” he said warmly. I nodded courteously. “I’m Damien Bates, the Undertaker. Call me Damien” he continued, “I haven’t had to use that introduction in quite a while now” he laughed heartily and paused. “I’ve been told the outbreak is much worse in Bartosz where you come from, but people are still scared witless, although no laws or restrictions have been imposed, our little population has decided to stay indoors.” “Oh it seems everyone is afraid of the outbreak, -only my fear is now turned into regret.” I sighed. “The doctors responsible for disease control at the terminal were quite vigorous with their testing. I trust the hospital would have informed you of the results.” I said. “No, the report was actually sent straight to me…because I would be the only one to have direct contact with you, it was appropriate for me to get it right? Yes, that means you are prohibited by law not to meet anyone during your stay at Haland, which also means you can’t leave these premises” Damien spoke in a decisive tone. “It’s for your safety as much as it is for others.” I was slightly taken aback by this sudden statement. “Well, I don’t know what I expected - Maybe a heads-up or something.” “You must be starving,” he said more like a statement than a question. “Supper is prepared and set on the table, eat it and feel free to bed whenever you want.” He bowed. “And what about you?” “I have already dined and shall sleep in my quarters at the back,” saying this he then grabbed an umbrella from the otherwise empty closet and made his way outside. “Tomorrow, my friend!” he departed. I must say I am astonished by the character of my host, whom I find pleasantly enjoyable: his manners, upright posture and way of speech compliment his physical features. While I found the soup laid for me quite bland and even the bread gave me no appetite, I gulped it down out of respect to my host. I then settled down near the fire that comforted my aching body. I wrote for a little while but felt no real interest in doing so. Instead, I spent the time casually pacing around the room and finding absolutely nothing of interest, the only topic I could manage was the reason I was here. I hoped to get this business over with as soon as possible and go back home to set things right.
4 May. I woke up on my own accord, judging by the warm sunlight in my room I guessed that it was midday and later than I would have wanted to get up. I stepped outside onto the wet ground and got my first clear view of the premises, which was a vast open ground amid this dense forest. Birds could be seen inhabiting the thick forest trees, but none had even flown over the Undertaker’s premises. Instead, the grounds surrounding the graves were settled by black crows that were scattered throughout the area. I did not, however, find Damien anywhere in the fields. The lights of his cabin were not turned on, and I considered the possibility that Damien might not have yet woken up. Inside I took my time emptying my luggage which I had not found the energy to do last night. I set my journal and books aside on the bedside table for my easy access at night and carefully stacked the clothing I had brought along, careful not to mess the folds of Mama’s neat ironing. I found it odd that Damien had not yet awoken and the possibility that he had gone on some personal matters crossed my mind, although I found no note mentioning it. I decided to investigate and made my way to the cabin in a slightly hurried manner. As I reached the door, I realized that I should not be roaming around without Damien knowing and was about to call out to him. At that moment, I heard the faint sound of hinges and the clear thumping of loud footsteps behind the door. I cautiously pushed on the frame to reveal Damien knelt down on the stone floor and collecting a stack of hardback books. He flicked his hair back, and I noticed that strangely he was out of breath and his face and eyes were bloodshot, “Lucius. You should learn to knock” he showed no sign of vexation; instead, looked slightly alarmed. Naturally, I apologized for my unannounced entrance and explained myself. “Come, we’ll talk in your room”, Damien rose sharply and led the way back, making sure to close the door behind him which shut soundlessly. He wiped his face quite vigorously with a handkerchief he had pulled from his back pocket.
Damien was the first to engage in conversation while I was still disconcerted by the strange confrontation. “So how did you sleep? I hope you find my humble residence comfortable.” he clapped his hands. “Yes. The location is serene and definitely comfortable;-I didn’t want to wake up.” He nodded and pursed his lips before saying, “I see that you are still overwrought with emotion over losing a loved one. I’ve seen many people who never managed to recover. It’s important not to feel guilt or any regret, sadness fades over time, guilt stays.” “Wise words.” I said dully. He paused before saying, “I’d like to show you something if you’d allow me. I was once more led by Damien, but this time he took me to the graveyard. I followed him with curiosity as we walked through the fence, or remains of one which looked as if it had been destroyed over years of renovation. Damien stopped in front of two gravestones, one significantly older than the other, ‘Romero Bates’ and ‘Clarice Bates’. “My parents. Mother died when I was seven, my father and I dug her grave together, till last year when I buried him beside mother, alone. My father taught me everything I know to this day, and when I lost him, it felt as if I had lost that exactly: everything. All we had were each other in this desolate place. When he wasn’t there for me anymore, I found refuge in music instead, one of his passions that I remember him by.” I pitied the gentle Undertaker and chose not to intervene while he spoke. I realized that this may have been his first time talking about his loss, and in that way maybe this was therapeutic for him. We shared a comfortable silence like two friends, connected by our grief, the single most potent binding force between people living in a dystopia.
5 *** 28 April In the short periods of our confrontations the rest of the family had with Lorraine, we began to often overhear her coughing excessively in her room. When asked about it, she confessed that she had contacted a common cough, but she assured that it was nothing serious. She continued her work at the company. “The worst that could happen is if one of you were to catch it from me.” she would say. It would be the very next day, the fifth that we would realize that it was more than just a cough and medical assistance would have to be alerted.
As usual, father had arrived at noon, and by the time Lorraine crept through the door, we had already had dinner. After finishing the leftovers, she sensed a lack of taste in her food and couldn’t bring herself to finish it. Along with hypogeusia, she felt a burning sensation on her forehead, accompanied by cold sweats throughout the body. Considering her state, the only place she found comfort was by the hearth, where she eventually went to sleep. The next morning no particular attention was brought to her condition as everyone went on with their daily routine. She was reassured by the fact that her temperature had stabilized, but her cough, however, was worse than ever. She had a single, tasteless sip of her tea and left for the publishing house. A quarter of the way through her shift, she couldn’t ignore the muscular pains throughout her body anymore. Only once her sickness was intolerable did she muster up the courage to inform the retail manager that she wasn’t feeling well, and would need the day off. Lorraine said she recalled the manager pointing to the chief editor, but she was too unsteady to be sure and paid no attention to the gesture. At this point in Lorraine’s report the doctor at her bedside- who had obviously heard it all before irritably intervened saying we had exerted her enough and that she had to rest. He proceeded to wrap her in multiple blankets, carefully using his protective gear to do so. The rest of the story was resumed outside the quarantined room by grandfather, who was home when the episode took place. He had either by valid caution or by pure coincidence, dodged catching the virus by choosing to get help rather than provide it. The doctor who examined Lorraine confirmed our fears and gave the necessary precautions which we painfully followed till his next arrival. Excuse my hasty writing as I am unable to endure these painful memories any longer and feel like I must put my mind to something else to escape the agonies of death. I might write a letter for home…
5 May, I woke up to the unpleasant sound of the loud crows around the cabin, but I was glad to note that it was still early in the morning. I lazily got dressed and stepped outside through the heavy door. I felt badly in need of a hot beverage. I found Damien outside, a fair distance away from the cabin where it seemed he was digging a grave. As I neared the graveyard, Damien had his back towards me and so did not notice me. I entered the through a fence -or remains of one that once surrounded these graves. Damien took notice of my presence and spoke in his friendly tone, “Morning.” “Too polite to ask for help?” I asked, and he chuckled. “I don’t have a second spade, besides the soil is wet because of yesterday’s rain, so it’s not much of a problem.” “Well you’ve got to be cold” “I took off my coat in my quarters, back-” “I’ll get it for you!” I cut in. Damien stammered for a second and gave me a strange sceptical look before saying, “Alright.” I was happy to return one of his many favours that came with my stay. I took my first look inside of the brick quarter which was illuminated only by sunlight. Quite similar to the room provided to me, it was dully decorated with equipment or plain wooden cabinets and closets. Spread on the bed was Damien’s black coat which I had seen him wearing last night. The only accessory I found was a full size, polished, Grand Piano with the fall turned down and the lid propped up to reveal the intricate pattern of strings inside. I was interested in putting the top up as well and inspecting the keys but decided otherwise. The instrument stood out like the only colourful object in the otherwise dull room. Turning back with the coat in arm, I caught from the corner of my eye the familiar black raincoat lain untidily on an armchair… wait, but Damien had not worn that. Or had he?! “Lucius, you alright in there?” the bold voice of Damien reached me; I had only enough time to piece together the raincoat and scarf beside it before turning back. Leaving the coat behind, I found Damien with a look of uncertainty on his face. I had no time to rehearse my lines, and I blurted out my impossible assumption straight out. “You were the coach-driver at the station.” “Yes.” “What…” I cleared my throat. “So it’s true you wore the disguise that is in your quarters right now?” “It’s true, Lucius.” “But why the secrecy… weird behaviour and then worst of all leaving me in the bloody storm. Then lying all about it!” “I’m not lying to you Lucius, I apologize if you feel betrayed, but it was all just for convenience.” “What is that supposed to mean? Is that supposed to exonerate you or something?!” “Coach Drivers aren’t essential workers Lucius; I had to bring you myself. The disguise was just for making it seem normal and making the actual meeting genuine. I hope you understand” he spoke in a controlled manner and smiled. I found no way to respond to these senseless words, but my anger which was received so calmly by Damien seemed so misplaced that I withdrew the argument myself. I spent a few moments in silence before turning back to my quarters, not looking back behind me but still feeling the stinging of Damien’s stare. Whether this was simply a childish play or some weird enjoyment for Damien, one thing was obvious, he hadn’t intended for me to find out. Whatever the case I am suddenly mistrustful of the Undertaker and sceptical of his friendly manner wondering if that too is a show.
Lucius’s letter to his family back in Bartosz Dear everyone!- Forgive me for not writing on the day of my arrival, but I shall summarize my journey in this letter quickly. The train ride here was comfortable, at my arrival the weather was quite stormy, but it’s much better now. I was lucky, however, and I made it to the Undertaker’s home just before rain. Damien Bates is a very hospitable man, and he’s taken great care of me. I hope everyone is doing well at home; Mama, father and grandfather take good care of each other. I hope to get the burial done as soon as possible and shall see you shortly after. -Lucius
8 *** After just a week, Lorraine had started to present significant symptoms that showed no sign of recovery. Family members were strictly forbidden verbal or physical contact with Lorraine. This meant the only updates we received were from the visiting doctors and the level of fitful coughing that we heard coming from her room. Once the fits turned so severe that we felt like Lorraine was actually choking, just hearing it was enough for us to break-down. Mama had her own fits of crying while grandfather consoled her, with empty words of reassurance. Meanwhile, father and I alerted the doctors at the municipal dispensary who had told us to do so in an emergency. We rushed and fortunately they managed to examine her in time. In what was their second check-up of the day, they reported that the virus was attacking her lungs quite vigorously. She had to be immediately shifted to neighbouring city Haland where they used negative pressure ventilators that would mechanically supply the oxygen her body was unable to. The travel charges alone were unmanageable, and so we were forced to ask for early pension and even donations to fill the hospital charges. The thought of giving up on Lorraine was never an option, but that didn’t stop the effects of sacrifice from being a constant worry for all of us. The day Lorraine left was when we really lost her. All of us wrote to her and hoped that the nurses at Haland would be kind enough to read to a dying soul. That was it; there was nothing else we could do. Right?
My mind was made up. I would give the letter to Damien for it to be delivered no sooner than tomorrow. Then I would discuss the proceedings of the burial before politely returning back to my apartment. I swung the wooden door open and stepped outside onto the wet grass with a wavering sense of confidence. The eerie silence accompanied by the black night sky gave me chills, and I suddenly wanted to retreat to my quarter. I didn’t realize my palms were sweating until the enveloped paper in my hand began to dampen. I began walking ahead. As I neared the dimly lit cabin, however, I heard the unmistakable warm sound of a piano. The quick three-note chords progression drew me closer till the piece passionately descended into the main theme itself, multiple notes played in a rapid and loud suspenseful tone that sent chills down the spine. In that instant, I remembered the story behind the piece: The composer dreams that he is at a funeral in which there is a coffin in the distance. When the music builds up faster, he begins to run more quickly towards the coffin, and at the climax of the piece, he reaches the coffin to find himself in it. “Rachmaninoff- Prelude” I whispered loud enough for Damien to hear it. His body was shrivelled up as he turned around on the bench and I saw that he had tears in his eyes and that he had an unfamiliar expression of melancholy on his face. He quickly hid his tears, although he knew I had already seen them. “You play very well” I managed to say, and he sniffled. Damien didn’t respond immediately, but when he spoke, his voice was as calm and collected as ever. “Thank you” he managed in a raspy voice, without turning his face towards me. “You knew the piece, I assume you must play.” “Oh- I realized long ago that I was not meant to play, I enjoy listening very much, however.” Damien turned towards me with an expression of joy, “Well allow me to play for you then!” His expression showed eagerness as if he was a child, and I couldn’t bring myself to get to the refuse, I smiled and nodded. He played a slower melody unfamiliar to me and continued playing, swaying with the music and soon it seemed like he had forgotten my presence. I would have lied if I had said that I did not enjoy his performance, in truth I imagined myself in Damien’s place; playing, alone or in concerts like the one in the Suite along with all other imaginary situations. I gently put my hand on his shoulder, and he kept playing. I was shocked to find he was trembling, I withdrew my hand, and he slowed his pace on the piano. Finally, he stopped and suddenly jolted sideways. I snapped backwards, and Damien looked slightly embarrassed. “I got carried away there,” he chuckled. Choosing not to stretch the meeting any further, I decided to bring up my letter rather than his trembling. “I have written for my family. They must want word of my safe arrival. Will you have it sent out for me tomorrow?” “It would be my pleasure” I left the envelope on the armchair I had been sitting on and made my way outside, back to my room.
Once I had taken only a few steps away from the cabin, I heard sounds which I could not distinguish between howls of cough or weeping. I stopped for a moment, and the noise stopped, I began to question my ears but feared that if I was any more inquisitive, I wouldn’t like the outcome. Either way, I had dubious assumptions to make from the unnatural behaviour of the meeting.
10 *** 1 May Lorraine didn’t make it to the hospital. The coroner report explained that she had suffered her final, fatal fit in the train carriage. As a doctor had not been sent along, there was no one to care for her, and no one dared approach her while her body contained a virus. She lay strapped in her chair, reaching for breath, screaming for help. At the platform, she was confirmed dead after her lungs failed and her heart in a state of total cessation of electrical activity. The information reached us the next morning. More than anything guilt was what we felt. How couldn’t we? Lorraine never complained, never once showed anger for our pitiful societal position. That we never once cared to tell her to not work long hours but rest at home and that the elders would take care of everything. We blinded ourselves with lies that we couldn’t afford to stay home, reassuring ourselves with false beliefs that we would somehow stay safe from the deadly spread. I could blame every other person in the household for this, but the fact is that I curse myself for not going with Lorraine on that train to accompany her to Bartosz. She must have lost all will to live, suffocating and dying would have been her escape. I realize that our letters were never read to Lorraine and final goodbyes were never said. What good were our worries and efforts if they all came to nothing? In any case, ill fate and irony have brought me to this place and poison me with the knowledge I had concealed for so long. It was unanimously agreed that a proper burial was necessary customary to our family tradition. I was sent to arrange the performance of the funeral and say a posthumous prayer, for Lorraine’s mercy as well as ours.
7 May On this day, I learned that Damien was a man of words as well as music. His character seems to surprise me with every meeting. After having breakfast alone in my cabin, I took some time to relax my burnt-out mind. I found the morning dew under my feet to be calming and utterly refreshing. Accompanied by the light breeze that circulated the premises, it was all just about enough to make me forget the real reason for my visiting Haland. A walk in the park had become a sort of luxury for not only me but all isolating individuals during the outbreak. The tranquillity, however, was short-lasted as the crows were adamant about destroying any peace. Right on cue, Damien stepped out through the door. He nodded towards me and began approaching me slowly. Once we were seated in my room the first thing I noticed was that Damien seemed much thinner than before, almost delicate, much like he had last night on the piano, though I hadn’t realized it then. “I see we share a liking for books” he motioned to the pile beside my bed. “You found me organizing my books the other day” he smiled. “I might have startled you by my response, and you were too polite to complain” he said. “I’m deeply embarrassed by my behaviour and would like to make it up to you by showing you my collection. I’m sure you’ll be surprised by some of the contents you’ll find, and if you find any of interest, please feel free to take it back with you.” he smiled courteously, and all I could think of was to bow my head in gratitude. I assumed he would take me once more to his room, but instead, he weakly stood up and knelt down beside one of the drawers in my room. With some effort, the drawer budged open to reveal a line of books arranged vertically. The authors were not familiar to me. However, the topics of the books which were the size of Russian novels were written on such unique and intriguing issues that ranged from biology to philosophy. The collection of books was not plenty, but it was unique, and it definitely surprised me. “You’ve read these?” I asked in an astonished manner which I instantly regretted. The Undertaker did not seem to take any offence, however. “Well my knowledge of these books does need brushing up, but yes I have intermittently read every one of these old books.” The amazement on my face was as apparent then as it is in my heart now. All Damien did was smile and say “If you’ll excuse me, I have some matters to tend to; I’ll meet you at supper.” He exited swiftly and before exiting, produced a handkerchief from his pocket. I heard his loud coughing from the other side of the door, unmistakable this time. Suspicions inevitably grew inside my head, and while every other aspect of Damien’s character seemed perfectly normal, a mysterious side of him appeared peculiar and odd, as if he had something to hide from me. The books in the drawer were highly advanced, and the knowledge used in them required a separate dictionary for medical and philosophical jargons to fully understand. The intricate diagrams and words kept my attention for a while, but it was soon apparent that I preferred fiction over knowledge-based books on topics I never pursued. I chose to write in my diary till supper time. We dined in my room. We had set the meal on the small table beside the bed and chatted as we ate. I brought up the topic of the burial, and I finally received some good news. Damien assured me that the grave was ready and the complete burial was to take place tomorrow morning if all went well. He also mentioned that he would also arrange for my departure ticket as soon as possible. Strangely Damien had barely touched his roasted potatoes and acted completely natural about it while we spoke; instead, he had drunk most of the water from the jug. When I brought the matter up, he accepted that he had been the victim of a bad cough in the early winters. He waved it off and assured me that it was a seasonal thing. At the mention of his condition, he began suffering one of those fits of coughing and proceeded to pour himself another glass. “You should get that examined, Damien.” I said uneasily as memories of Lorraine resurfaced. Damien got up and began searching for his coat. “Rest...rest” Damien banged the table with his fist before urgently leaving the cabin. I felt it inappropriate for me to follow him outside and let him go on his own. This much more apparent mysterious side of Damien made agitated me and recently had made speculations grow in my mind. If I’m being honest I didn’t buy his explanation, but I took comfort in the fact that this would be over tomorrow.
8 May I woke up at midday, filling in for all the lost sleep the past few days. The cawing had finally disappeared, which may have been the reason for my oversleeping. Recalling last night’s events, I prepared to have my final meeting with Damien. Even before getting up, I caught sight of the note propped up against my pile of books on my bedside.
Dear Lucius, I could not explain to you yesterday, but unfortunately, trains don’t run on schedules anymore, hardly a single person takes them. Instead, periodic routes are being made to accommodate everyone travelling in the same week. I’ve been told that this week’s journey happens to take place on the 10th when you’ll be going with four other individuals. I’m on my way to book the ticket! I will not be able to join you this morning and shall return home late in the night as I have some other business to tend to as well. I would like to apologize for leaving so suddenly, but I did not wish to wake you up. I have tried to make it to you; however, by completing the burial of Lorraine in the graveyard. Go pray for her if it brings comfort to your soul. -Damien
I took a second to process the ridiculous letter. He’d buried Lorraine on his own?! The very reason I had come was to ensure proper burial, and now he’d done it without me? The plot stunk of foul play! I crumpled the paper and raced outside to the graveyard. I did not find Damien immediately but intuitively searched thoroughly to make sure. I burst open through the cabin door, half expecting Damien to be engaged in some sort of activity and revealing that this was some sort of sick plot. I became even more distressed when I realized he was not. I recognized the freshly dug grave from afar. I stood above the fresh soil and thought hard; a flurry of fear and aggression flooded my mind. ‘What has that madman done?’ The gravestone had not been placed yet and the damp soil crumbled as slid my hands over it. I considered my options, nothing seemed plausible. ’Should I let it be?’ I asked myself. I was going to do something horrible, but it was necessary. I stomped towards Damien’s room and snatched the spade from the corner. I approached the grave slowly with total precaution; all rational thinking evaporated from my mind. I frantically approached the grave and started digging on one part until my sweat trickled down and hit the wooden surface of a casket and not the damp soil. The cold was getting intolerable, but I stood over the slightly visible casket and asked myself whether I was satisfied. I was not. I dug with craziness pumping through my veins. The process was painfully slow, but I did not stop, the casket slowly began to reveal itself. When the wooden coffin was finally able to move freely, I dug my nails into the wood and heaved it open with my fatigued arms. I wiped the beads of sweat blurring my vision and found the casket burying wooden logs and straw—no Lorraine, not anybody. The clarity hit my senses. I stood covered in filth, aghast by the situation I was in. I screamed up to the sky like a banshee and only then noticed how dark it had gotten. I wondered if all the graves were like this, I felt like digging out every single one. No, the Undertaker would be coming any time now; today would be an end to this savagery. The path to the cabin is a blur, inside I looked for a place to hide, but as I madly rummaged through the room, I found stairs concealed by tall wooden shelves. The few thick steps descended underneath the cabin. The wooden gate leading to the basement was locked. My mind had been burnt and in sheer frustration, and I realized I was losing time. I surged all my anger and kicked the wooden part of the door with my heel. ‘There goes my plan on hiding’ I thought. God knows how old the thing was that it collapsed on the first stroke. I pushed the metal door open, and its ancient hinges creaked with the motion of the gate. A colony of bats had been aroused by the break-in and began squealing. Eventually, the bats found their way out the single, small block sized window in the basement, which was also the only form of ventilation in the area. A combined, unearthly stench of sewage and faeces clogged my nostrils and instantly made me nauseous. The window and the light from the single bulb above made it barely visible in the basement although it might have been easier to see in the day. There was only enough light for me to make out that this was an abandoned basement of sorts. Tools and other equipment were set here and there, but the majority of the area was empty. A few stone pillars supported the structure above from collapsing on it. The basement looked tight and congested, and I was sure that even if I stood in the middle of the vacant space, I would still be hard to make out. I approached a stash of gardening tools and found a contraption revealing an entry into a separate area. A terrible stench of rotting flesh escaped the opening, and I spontaneously stepped away. I wanted to retreat, but instead, I decided to inspect. I held my breath and comfortably slid through to the other side, but immediately regretted doing so. Inside the nearly totally dark room I gagged at the fetid smell. I was wholly committed, however, to cracking the mystery of this sadistic maniac Undertaker. I located a few candles on the floor, and fortunately, there were matches set beside it. I relit the recently extinguished candles and picked one up. Using candlelight as the only guiding source I took a few steps forward and somehow the stench got even worse, it burned the inside of my throat, but I thought I had finally reached the source. As the image at my feet became clearer, utter horror rushed to my brain, I stood in disbelief at the rotting figure that was once my sister -Lorraine. Completely unrecognizable, except for her open eyes, the two blue crystals that were now devoid of any emotion; the eyes that left no shadow of a doubt that this was her. I attempted to pick her up, but her empty, eaten body just arched backwards lifelessly. I raised my head and let the realization hit me, this entire basement was filled with mutilated corpses. The candle slid from my hand, and I wailed “You Monster! Not caring that it made the stench suffocate me even more. My brain had endured enough misery and shock and now all I felt was anger, a burning rage that drove me insane. I considered equipping one of the tools for my confrontation with the Undertaker, but all of the devices looked old and useless. Behind me, the door heaved open and in entered Damien. He approached the contraption but stayed a fair distance away and began weeping. “Yes, I did this, all this.” He gasped between cries and continued “They’re all patients of the virus; all I ever did was extract the organs they no longer had any use for! I never killed anyone!” he wept. “Actually, my business today was selling a pair” he began to chuckle, even though it clearly caused him pain to do so. “What do you want from me?” I asked desperately, not knowing what else to do. Damien gasped in excitement and continued, “This needs to be explained in full. “Lucius, you are my miracle. You see, handling bodies of virus patients is a dangerous job, and even with protective material, there’s a chance you can get infected. I believe I got infected by your sister, and so when I received this request from you to come to me, my initial plan was to have my revenge from your family. And when the test results came in for your virus test, they came back positive! You must have been infected by your sister even before me! Aha-So I decided to give you a chance, you could be the one to cure me, all I needed was confirmation that you had healed and guess what; YOU are immune to the virus, look at you and look at me! I’ve been reduced to a pile of rattling bones, but! Your blood has the cure, and I will use your blood to cure the infection your sister gave me. How ironic! When I’m done there will be no proof of communication between you and your family, and it’ll be like you never existed in Haland.” he laughed with pride with no hint of the grief he had expressed earlier. “I’ll spare you the understanding in what I meant in the last part, you’ve already suffered enough.” My mind was racing, and in that position, all I could think of was keep him speaking, he seemed interested in that. “The driver, not being able to see anyone - I suspect that law was also just a part of your plot. You’ve caged me in a jail only you and I know of!” Damien cackled even though it clearly caused him pain. “I’m so glad you see now! I would have gone mad if no one recognized the genius of this plan. But unfortunately, it will once again only have to be me with this information.” Damien’s lean figure slowly stepped back and said, “The virus has had its effects on me and made me weak. Nonetheless- I am prepared.” I could faintly see the silhouette of a handgun being pulled out of his coat, as he raised it towards me; I realized how weak he had become by his limping movements and massively reduced body size. Yet, he seemed even frightening as a malnutrition figure cloaked by an oversized hood. His already pale skin was now white and covered in scars, nothing about it appeared human at all. As Damien attempted to take aim and keep balance, it almost seemed as if he would stumble and fall. Just before he released the safety from the firearm, my feet left the floor, and I propelled myself towards the once muscular Undertaker and brought him down against the angles of the stairs and hearing the cracking of a fractured bone. I took no time to get up once again and disarmed the gun, which was now practically useless and proceeded to rain down, fists upon his face and body. I had got his infected blood on my clothes, but it didn’t matter, I was Immune.
The Undertaker had not been lying about the trains running periodically; among the many other things he had brought back, he had also got one legitimate ticket back to Bartosz. I realized I must write a letter immediately to be sent out to my family in Bartosz and went upstairs to the drawers. I found an empty pen and clean paper on a bedside table and managed to find an inkpot in the last drawer, along with some… letters, stuffed away hastily. I recognized my handwriting on top of the first one. My letter had never been sent. The other few pages were parts of two separate letters posted on the 4th and 5th. 4 May Dear Lucius, We were waiting anxiously for your letter which still hasn’t arrived. Write to us the first chance you get and tell us that you are safe. Love, Mrs Lancaster
Guilt swarmed my heart as I realized the worry I had caused my family. I unfolded the next letter and noticed the unfamiliar writing it was in, yet it was sent to my name.
5 May Dear Lucius, We had decided not to write this letter until your arrival back home, but a lot of time has been wasted already. A friend writes this letter as I dictate this in my deathbed. All of us have contacted the virus and are now isolated in the house. Come home, Lucius! Leave Haland, come back, and we will arrange matters for you to live separately. I need to see my son one last time before I die.
5 May, what date was it today? How long had it passed since I stepped foot onto this cursed place? How had I been blinded for so long, fed on lies and empty promises? The familiar feeling of guilt filled my body; it surged through the veins filled with blood that I was being kept like an animal for slaughter for. The blood that could have been used to cure my family! What had I done? This place suffocated me. I could not spend a second longer here. I closed my eyes and convinced myself that the world had stopped, just for a moment, a moment of peace. I walked away, away from this hallucination, I walked into the oblivion.
Epilogue: Why are tears so powerful? Is it because we don’t cry very often? But what if sadness and sorrow become regular, what happens when tears become meaningless. Do we become cold to these emotions? Does being hardened by grief help, is it an escape, or is it a plunge into something worse?