This story is written for the LARP Dead Legends, which belongs to Pertho Productions. Thanks to Gene, Jessie, Frank, Brittany, Zach and Ericka and all those who allow me to use their likenesses and ideas to expand upon characters in the most tragic way.
(“you know I still like you the most//the best of the best and the worst of the worst/ well, you can never know/the places that I go/I still like you the most/you’ll always be my favorite ghost…. “
Florence and the Machine – Big God)
The blur of faces in a crowd – blurry from tears or disorientation? Voices – too many, too loud pressing on sensitive eardrums that ached as though they’d never heard sound before. Her heart hammered against her chest in a welcome distraction – the sheer joy just to feel it beating again. Grabbing broad shouldered men and whirling them around, seeking, seeking…
Then, a glimpse of a battered brown hat on a shirtless man in a weatherbeaten vest. A wild beard, and equally wild eyes swelled in laughter. Native tattoos decorated naked, muscled arms. She cried harder with relief as she ran to the figure.
“Turk! Turk!” She pulled at the edge of his vest. He was already drunk, and the alcohol wafted towards her on his breath. “Turk, come here.”
“All right, all right, what is it?” He was still laughing until he spotted her tears in the firelight and he seemed suddenly sober. “What’s wrong?”
“I can’t be here,” she hissed in a whisper. “I can’t stay. There’s… I’ll explain later.”
“Do I need to hurt someone?” he gripped her shoulder tightly. “Did someone hurt you?”
“No I – It was the seance – “
Turk shushed her and pulled her into a tight embrace. “You spooked yourself, woman, that’s all. Nothin’ to be scared of.”
“No. Turk. That’s not it. Please. I can’t stay here anymore…” She could still feel the ghostly hand of her grandfather squeezing her shoulder and she cried out, looking around them. “Please.”
“Okay. Okay… I see you’re scared. We can leave for my hideout. Meet me here by dawn.” He walked off and stumbled a little but righted himself as he went. His huge lumbering form was swallowed by the darkness before she made her way to her tent. The whole night seemed full of accusatory eyes and glares, and she packed haphazardly. She laughed off questions from Lufash, only saying she would be with Turk, and would see them soon. She couldn’t bear to tell them what had happened yet… only Jeb knew, his worried eyes watching her flit across the campsite. But she didn’t want to confide in the man that was like a brother to her, wasn’t ready to face the responsibilities of the promises she had made to him, or to force him to look out for her.
Dahlia was haunted by memories of the last time she’d packed like this, blinded by fear and desperation, the voice of her uncle harsh in her ear: get to the hideout in Colorado. Wait for me. We will follow soon. He never came. Her whole family was dead, ghosts, and those ghosts were real, near, and watching.
So Dahlia gave into her fear. She chose to run.
As the dim dawn light came over the hills, Turk was right where he said he would be, pack draped on his shoulders as he eyed her overbulging one disapprovingly. “You’re gonna slow us down.” But gentle, calloused hands guided her over rocks and through brambles.
They walked for half a day from the General’s camp at Paradiso, back towards Lazarus. If Turk hadn’t been with her, she would never have found her way. It was a winding path upward, towards the hills. He was right about her slowing him down and she could feel his growing irritation in the way he snapped directions to her as they went. He would wait a little ahead by a rock or a tree, and offer her water from the waterskin, his forehead creased all the while. By midafternoon, they broke a crest, and he sighed. “We’re here.”
“It’s beautiful,” she breathed.
“It was a gift.” The wind caught his phrase and made it echo almost ominously.
The cabin rested over the edge of a high valley, nestled in a plain of wheatgrass. The woods came up to the back of the building. It was a good place with very few surprises, and a cold stream ran nearby. She could see why he would choose it, even if there were plants taking root in the sod roof. She made herself at home as best she could in the dusty bedroom loft, and wandered around outside.
Two graves lay on the forest edge behind the cabin. They were well kept. A half-made pistol of wood rested on the smaller of the two graves. It was too small for an adult. She tried to ask Turk about them, but he deflected.
The field had an abundance of wildflowers, which she gathered. She fetched cold water from the stream and placed it inside a chipped cup she found inside the cabin. The flowers graced the otherwise gray, stark interior with a surprising amount of color and light. If she could paint, she would, but she had no materials with her. She merely stared, lost in its beauty for a time.
Turk came back from hunting with a perfectly cut steak and potatoes. When asked where the rest of the beast had gone, he went quiet and sullen and said, “You gonna fix it or not?”
She prepared it with fresh herbs she had gathered earlier. She knew a little about cooking from her time in Denver, and when he silently exchanged one of her choices for a different one she accepted it. These hills were his home, after all. He ate in silence with an occasional grunt of what she assumed was contentment, but could not be sure. He noticed the flowers and his chewing slowed. ”That’s my spittin’ cup,” he said between mouthfuls of venison.
She calmly ate another bite. “Bring me back a vase and I’ll replace it.”
“Nah…” he shrugged. “I’ll just get myself another one.”
The cabin had been acquired, but how, she wasn’t entirely sure. Either abandoned by one of the other mining expeditions, its owners missing to time or, perhaps … removed …. by Turk. The interior was small, decently furnished and sparse, the way that Turk liked it. The room was filled with pelts, clearly the man hunted or had found a relatively steady supply of pelts from somewhere. The room always seemed to be full of soft dusky light, dust motes rising into the air. More than once, Dahlia had the thought that if she were to have a house like this, it might even be a place she could call home.
They retired to the loft bedroom after the sun set, and for the first time since they’d met three years ago, he did not move to touch her. Instead, he stripped down to his red union suit, groaning, “I’m tired from the trek here.” He laid down and rolled over. While it was incredibly odd for the handsy Turk, she was grateful. After the seance she was too exhausted to even think about pleasures of a worldly nature. She fell into a heavy sleep, but was plagued by dreams of her mother lying bloody on the floor and her father shouting at her to run.
(“Oh, you and all your vibrant youth, how could anything bad ever happen to you? / You make a fool of death with your beauty and for a moment I forget to worry…”
Florence and the Machine – Hunger)
On the second morning, he stared at her behind him in the small cracked mirror hanging on one wall. He buttoned up his shirt over his union suit and gestured to her casually. “I gotta go tradin’ with the Natives. You comin’ with me?”
It was another twisting path to get there, but this time across the plains. If Turk hadn’t been there she would have been beguiled by the endless fields of wheat, lost like in labyrinths of old. She thought of Turk being like a Minotaur, and laughed to herself, but he did not laugh when she tried to explain it to him.
Arriving at the camp it was a bustle of noise, sound, color and smoke. Turk greeted a man that walked up to him and they clapped each other on the back in a friendly way and exchanged words in a tongue she did not know. The children examined her dress- now mudstained on the bottom hem, and poked at her parasol, and she marveled at the beadwork of the women there. It was a hot day, and some of them offered her skins of fresh cool water.
Turk spoke with them animatedly, his face wide in a smile, and the Natives spoke equally enthusiastically in turn. Dahlia had never seen him talk to a group of people like that. She hadn’t known it was possible for anyone to treat him normally. He waved her over and introduced her briefly to the man – Four Horns, she thought Turk said to her, although she heard so many names she could not be certain later. At more than one point she caught them looking at her and saying something to him, and he would fire back in a harsh tone that required no translation. When he waved her over to help him carry things from the packs, she finally got the courage to ask him what it was they were saying.
“They keep asking if you’re my wife.” He spoke, red-faced, to a nearby log, and refused to make eye contact. “And they want to know whether or not I need a wedding blanket. I told them you’re with me, and it don’t matter, and to drop it.” He softened a little and met her eyes. “But I did tell ‘em you might sing for ‘em later.”
He traded pelts for tobacco. He exchanged money for goods – money the Natives were in desperate need of for their own trade. He gave Dahlia a turquoise necklace and she spent a good hour teaching the children clapping games. When they gathered near sunfall to share tobacco and dinner, the Natives served a delicious stew of meat, potatoes and other root vegetables, with thick slabs of bread. After they were all full and happy by the fire, the small children who had grown attached to her during the day pressed her to sing for them.
She chose an old ballad she’d known since childhood. When she finished, Turk clapped loudest of all and beamed at her, but it was likely because he was already drunk. “Nah, I just thought it was better than some of that other highfalutin stuff you usually sing,” he said, and kissed her hard on the cheek.
The Natives sang some of their songs for her in turn. The music brought tears to her eyes with its sheer beauty. Whenever she heard new music, it stirred her. It brought back times of concert halls and frantically moving musicians in Baltimore, and her heart warmed to remember it. The Natives had whirling, beautiful dances that entranced her, and when the women got up and danced alone, beckoning to her, she danced with them. Turk tried to explain to her what its significance meant, but she was too distracted to focus, too enthralled by the fabric and beads and firelight.
An old woman asked her in broken English whether Turk had brought her father any horses before that night. Dahlia didn’t understand what the woman meant and said no, her father was dead. The woman asked her if they lived together now, and she tried to explain she was staying with him in a cabin. The woman smiled widely and patted her gently on the hand. “Every woman needs to be taken care of. We women need men to survive.” Then the dancing stirred up again and the old woman started clapping, and a bewildered Dahlia clapped with her. Turk grilled her for answers later, but she left out the last part. She didn’t think his ego needed it, and the music was too beautiful.
She didn’t know why, but beautiful things made her more and more withdrawn lately. If Turk noticed, he said nothing. It had been a lovely night, and she told them all that as she left.
They offered, with much hooping and hollering, to put them up in one of the teepees for the night, and the men laughed heartily and said things that Dahlia again did not need translation for thanks to Turk’s increasingly red face. But Turk insisted they return back to the cabin, because he knew they would be safe. The Natives seemed put out, but let them go, waving them off.
On the way back, there were glowing red eyes somewhere in the distance of the forest, perhaps an owl or… something else. Dahlia didn’t know wildlife very well, although the memory of the mutants in the woods still troubled her. But whatever it really was, Turk grabbed her by the arm and moved them along faster, muttering under his breath all the while.
She could just make out the words. “Those damn GEUFs… gotta kill them all… gotta kill them…” Sweaty-faced and red, whatever the problem was, he didn’t seem to get any better after they got back to the cabin and he slammed the wooden bar in place. He paced for a long time. She knew better than to touch him and searched the cabinets, drawing out a bottle of whiskey and two glasses, setting it before him. His pacing slowed, and he eventually sat across from her.
(“But I must confess
I did it all for myself
I gathered you here
To hide from some vast unnameable fear
But the loneliness never left me
I always took it with me
But I can put it down in the pleasure of your company”
Florence and the Machine – No Choir)
Three glasses in, he settled down. She joined him, out of habit more than anything else. She started slowly, making a few ribald jokes until his face cracked into its easy smile. And only after they both had a comfortable glow did they tumble upstairs to the loft.
The night was unusually chilly for the season- some wind off the mountain made it through cracks in the sod ceiling, and as Turk undid the bonds of her corset, she shivered. He paused. From under the bed he fetched and unwrapped a bundle of cloth. Over her naked form he draped a stunning blue and white blanket. Small black elk frolicked on the bottom hem and white fringe graced the edges. She marveled at it, and looked at him. Whether he was cold or not, she opened the edges of the blanket to him, welcoming him in, and wrapped them in it together. They kissed and kissed until they couldn’t stand anymore.
When they made love, they were like animals, barely even human, but that suited Dahlia just fine because it meant she couldn’t remember the faces in the dark, accusing and angry, that haunted her. She was a skilled whore and proud. She’d known Turk for a long time, probably a good year and a half if she pressed their time together like the edges of a page. She was no stranger to his habits and his bedroom manner. So why did this time seem so unusual?
Maybe it was how afterwards they stayed up until the wee hours talking about their childhood sweethearts and the silly dreams they’d left behind – (Dahlia had them, Turk didn’t.) Whatever it was, it gave her a feeling of peace she hadn’t had since the seance.
The next morning she stood and hummed, holding the blanket around her shoulders, pinning her hair back up, and he regarded her cooly from the bed. “What’s this blanket for?” She toyed with some of the fringe. “It’s beautiful.”
“I traded for it yesterday.”
She stopped, a pin in her mouth. A curl slid back down her cheek, and she turned to him with a sly grin. “Is it the wedding blanket they kept teasing you about?”
“You look cold there on that chair.” Turk grunted as he stretched across the bed to grab her by the waist. “Come here and let me warm you.”
“It’s summer!” She screeched and giggled, but he ignored her and she ended up having to repin her hair, anyway.
(Florence and the Machine – 100 Years, start at 2:01)
That afternoon, while fetching more water, she caught sight of a figure in the trees and stopped dead. Wearing a bloodstained blouse, body almost see-through as it caught strands of sunlight, stood the ghost of Dahlia’s mother.
Her voice was just as Dahlia remembered, although stern. Disapproving. Somehow more hollow than it has been in life. “Dahlia. This is exactly the kind of man I did not want you to marry.”
Was it because of the seance she could see her? She spoke back to her, still in disbelief. It all felt like a dream. “I’m not married, mama, I’m not really with him – I mean I am, but not- “
“Dahlia, what would your father have said? This is not what we pictured for you.”
And then she was gone in a blink. But she would be back.
Out here, away from Lazarus, life was simple. The rigid timepieces of the town were forgotten, replaced by the cycle of sun and moon, and her days and nights blurred together. She and Turk spent a lazy afternoon in a warm rain that sprung up from low clouds and danced in the damp earth, kicking up loam and laughing like idiots. Covered in mud, they bathed in a nearby stream and lost time just floating, staring into the trees. They cooked good, hearty meals of fish, venison, beans, foraged berries and corn, and chased each other around the cabin and yard like fools. He helped her hone her skills with a knife and she tried to teach him to sing.
The vastness of the stars, and Neptune, and the galaxies and whatever else lay up there, was laid out for her every night above the cabin. She stared up at the sky and felt small and childlike and lost. Maybe that was why over the time she spent with Turk she argued with the ghost of her mother more often than not.
She read books to herself, distracted by beautiful passages and imagery that sent her reeling for hours. Ancient mythology, strange occult texts, weird Native tales she found particularly interesting. She felt like she was reaching for something behind a thin veil, and with one more push of her hand, she would understand. She couldn’t share it with Turk. “You shouldn’t read books,” he’d said to her on more than one occasion. “It’ll poison your mind.”
One time, after one of the long periods Turk was gone (as he was wont to do,) he suddenly came around the corner and startled her as she was mid-conversation with her mother.
“Who are you talking to?” His voice was rough as he gripped his axe handle tighter and looked all around the forest edge.
“No one,” Dahlia said shortly. “Myself. It’s nothing.”
“Sure didn’t sound like nothing,” he muttered. “You all right?” His eyes narrowed at her.
“Fine. I’m fine.” She couldn’t tell him, couldn’t be honest.
The first time she had tried to tell him what happened with the seance, his eyes had gotten as wide as teacup saucers and he’d started muttering quietly before he shot out, “I have to go-” and disappeared into the woods for almost a whole night. He came back at dawn, and wouldn’t speak to her when he came to bed. She’d woken up about an hour later, his knife to her throat, him barely recognizing her, a nightmare still in his wild face. His expression cleared after a moment, and he backed down, resheathing the knife. He pressed her to him beneath his chin like a child holds a favorite doll. He fell asleep quickly and snored directly in her ear. She didn’t sleep at all that night, and not because of the snoring.
She wanted so badly to be able to tell him what it had been like to die, and then not really die. The dreamlike state of between. But she knew, somehow, he would never – could never understand, and like the books and the magic and the sweet soft things of this world, it was something they would never share.
She thought she caught glimpses of the ghost of her father walking through the trees. There were other ghosts here, and secrets. A dutch teacup on the top shelf, dusty and forgotten. A wooden spoon behind the stove. Someone had shored up the outside of the cabin with enough wood to last the winter, but only a bit of it had been used. Who had brought these things and left them here?
Turk turned to her suddenly over dinner and said, “I’d bring my mule up, over that hill.” He waved his glass in a direction out the window and she turned to see the edge of the high valley in the setting sun. “And they’d give me food, sometimes. Conversation.”
“Who-” Dahlia started, but he continued,
“She was kind to me, and her son died last winter. Her husband had already went off and never came back. I came by sometimes to trade with them, and they never said a harsh word to me. Weren’t it you that said you make your own family where you can?” Dahlia nodded. “Well. Like that. I don’t wanna talk about it no more. Don’t ask.” He stood up and left the table to pour himself a cup of whiskey by the fire. She joined him after cleaning their plates, and he rested his head on her lap. She quietly stroked his hair as they watched the fire slowly dying.
A lost figure from a lost life. Like her mother, always coming in when she wasn’t wanted. The next morning, almost as soon as Turk had left for the day, she was back. “Why didn’t you go back to school and finish your studyin’ like you were supposed to? You weren’t supposed to be like us, this wasn’t supposed to be the way it was.”
Dahlia straightened up around the cabin, keeping her back to her mother, although the ghost followed along at a quick pace. “I know mama, but the war happened. I couldn’t stay there. Just wasn’t – Wasn’t meant to be.”
“Really. Talking about the way things are supposed to be as if destiny really matters. You make your own destiny.”
“Mama, let me do this. I know what I’m doin .”
The ghost was right in front of her and Dahlia struggled not to look at the torn flesh of her neck, struggled not to be dragged back to the memory of her mother lying in a pool of blood in her childhood home. “You don’t belong in this town. This place is not right for you. It’s not right, period. And this man, you really think you have a future with him?”
Dahlia scrubbed the table furiously with a rag. “Mama, I don’t care if I have a future with him or not. I love him, and I don’t care.”
“He’s vicious! He’s meaner than a kicked wolf.”
“And does that mean he doesn’t deserve to be loved? Does that mean he should be ignored and kicked more? Everyone deserves to feel like somebody cares about them and loves them. Even him. And don’t act like you didn’t know daddy was a cold-blooded murderer when you married him, because you knew good and well where his family came from. You killed quite a few people yourself. I’ve been surrounded by nothing but thieves and killers since I was a baby, and you think I’m gonna pretend I’m better than them? They’re all just human, like me. No. I love him, and I’m gonna keep loving him, and you can’t stop me.”
The shattering of glass made her stir, and she realized that somehow she had knocked the cup from the table. Blood welled on her hand, and she held a cracked edge of the glass in her palm. She released it, confused by the water and the blood and the flowers now strewn on the cabin floor. She cleaned it up with the old rag and wept for a long time. “I don’t know why you’re comin to me now, mama,” Dahlia whispered to herself. “I don’t know why it took me being even a little happy for you to show.”
(“You were broken-hearted and the world was, too
And I was beginning to lose my grip
And I always held it loosely
But this time I admit
I felt it really start to slip“
Florence and the Machine – June)
Turk was not sleeping. At least not as much as he used to. There was something wrong, although she could not place what it was. He’d always been a very light sleeper, always on guard or plagued by nightmares, but there was something different this time.
One morning over the daily coffee he swore he had bought, she realized there was something of madness about him. She kept her voice light. “Turk. Turk, sit down and talk with me for a while before you go out hunting.” Hunting, she realized at this point, meant anything from stealing to actually hunting, which he was very good at, but that was always the second choice.
“Why?” He was brusque. “Why do I need to sit down? I don’t wanna talk. Got things to do. You know that, woman.”
She did know. She did. She was still almost a little surprised when that night he brought her back a strip of silk fabric from somewhere, like an unspoken apology. She put it up in the window that always shone too hot in the sun. He grumbled about it for a while, but stopped.
His little cabin was no longer quite so stark. Between the flowers and the herbs now hanging from the ceiling to dry, and the makeshift curtain, it was starting to look a little too homey. She didn’t know if it frightened him or not, because he said nothing. It frightened her more than him, if anything, and she got lost in the curtain’s blue shadows on the floor of the cabin. She could stare for almost hours, lost in it. There was something about it that reminded her of that moment when she had almost understood everything. Had been so close and had understood how small everyone was in the world. Something about the beauty just reminded her of that.
Turk called her a hopeless romantic, but she didn’t know if that was all it was. She couldn’t get him to sit down, or get him to stop long enough for her to try and help him. Not that she knew if she could help him, but, whatever madness plagued him she wanted to help.
At night, as they were walking in the woods, they both heard voices, clear as day. He pushed them both back inside and bolted the door, and stood guard almost all night with an axe. When she broke down in tears from the sheer fear of it, he shook her, and yelled, “Woman, you’re hysterical. Pull yourself together!” He was just as mad with fear, although he wouldn’t admit it, ever.
The fever pitch of the night was so high they thought it would never end. He vanished into the blackness of the night and she wept until the fire was only embers. She knew then she would have to go back to Lazarus soon, because the madness was too much for her to fix, and the line between sanity and the love she had for Turk was quickly fading.
He returned the next morning, waking her with his casual perusal of the bedroom, and when she came down to breakfast she saw there was a blue vase on the table, full of wildflowers she hadn’t picked. But he said nothing and neither did she. They stood in a silent embrace, and eventually went upstairs to the bed and the blanket and the comfort of each other’s arms.
If their lovemaking seemed at all more prolonged or passionate than it had been in previous days, neither of them pointed it out to the other.
“I finished my last book,” she whispered to the ceiling where some of the sod was starting to come apart and she considered if he would climb up and fix it before the weather changed, or whether he would leave it, ever a man of sleeping under stars and open sky and careless to the idea of Home.
He rolled over and ran a hand along her arm. “I reckon you should head back to Lazarus then. Might wanna leave some books here. They’ll weigh you down.”
She took his hand in hers. “Of course. I’ll leave only my least favorite ones behind.”
He squeezed her hand. “Woman, you love all books whether I understand it or not.” Her answering smile was to the wall.
The next morning, he directed her to a path, where she would eventually run into trading Natives he trusted, and the way back to Lazarus. He nodded to her, she to him, and they both went their separate ways. In her pack, he tucked the blanket.
She arrived by dinnertime. Sam, Nellie, Jeb and all the rest welcomed her back warmly. The only one that did not jump up to greet her was Davenport. He was staring at her oddly and she did not like it. She ignored him and was successful until the next morning when she stepped outside with a steaming cup of coffee, wrapping the blanket around her chemise. And he was already there, reading and sipping tea.
She sat quietly, apart from him, reading her book, him his, when suddenly he slammed his book shut, making her jump. “Miss Dahlia,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to speak with you about our arrangement. R.E., the book?”
The aging British gentleman always managed to ruffle her feathers with just a few words. Not even a simple “Good Morning!”, or “How did your sleep?” or “How was your visit?” Just right to business as if nothing was wrong a-tall.
“We have things to discuss too, about that seance,” he quipped.
“You’ll be wanting payment for my portion of the book too, I suppose,” she drawled calmly, sipping her coffee as nonchalantly as she could manage.
“Yes…” he brushed a finger against the teacup handle. “Everything comes with a price, Miss Dahlia.”
“I suppose you mean not just merely monetarily,” Dahlia said, “Although I know for certain what you are not asking from me.”
“Please,” he scoffed. “Don’t insult me.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, darling,” she said, all Southern charm.
He continued as if he hadn’t noticed the slight. “I’ll be needing a favor or two from you. You’ll know. I’ll come to you when the time is right.”
Her voice was hard and cold at this. “The Blackwood family is not in the habit of owing nameless favors.”
“Well then I shall name them. Do you have time?”
She sighed, set her coffee down on the table, and folded her hands neatly on the tablecloth. Everything has a price, hmm? She’d see about that. “What do you want, Mr. Davenport?”
“It’s Doctor Davenport.” He was staring, not at her, but at the blanket wrapped around her shoulders. “I apologize, I was distracted by such fine craftsmanship. But – you should be careful walking around with a Sioux wedding blanket. People might get the wrong idea. They’ll think you married a Native.”
Dahlia, still gripping the edges of the blanket around her shoulders, felt her fingers tighten as her face drained of all its warmth.
“I’m sorry, what?”