by Carolyn Drake
After Cathy’s death, she found me in Hendriksville.
Hendriksville rots beside the Ohio River. The ‘Welcome’ sign reads Population: 5,000, but they must’ve been counting gravestones. The steel mills are two decades deceased, yet the mesothelioma remains, robbing the former workers and their progeny of health and life. Breathing the air in Hendriksville ravages your insides and leaves your throat ragged, cut up as though by shards of raw ore. Factory towers that once billowed stinking plumes stand abandoned; in the summer, the porous brick sweats until every humid lungful tastes like rust.
That copper stench clings to those born in Hendriksville. No matter how far we run, it cleaves to us. Haunting us. Marking us. Even after I fled to Philly, with a sleeping Cathy tucked into my arms and her cherry blossom scented hair splayed on a pillow beside me, I’d stare at the ceiling fan, and my skin would still stink of salt, and iron, and steam.
Steel is an alloy made of carbon and iron. That’s about all I learned before I dropped out of Eugene Grace High School and began my education with the Salerno Family. A kid with fast fists and broad shoulders can make a name for himself in dead-end towns like Hendriksville.
Like all errand boys, I started small, but my appetite for violence grew as I did. By the time my hand was big enough to wrap around a man’s neck, I’d fed the Ohio River so much of my work that the fish acquired a taste for meat. When someone needed to get gone, the Dons called me, and they paid well.
For the first time in my life, I wanted for nothing. I imagined myself content.
But then I met Cathy.
Cathy’s hair drew me to her first. My entire life spent in a grey husk of a town, deprived of color, Cathy’s golden waves mesmerized me. I watched her from across a crowded rooftop bar in Philadelphia as she laughed and turned from some timid suited mouse who only grimaced and stole a glance of her breasts. Cathy’s blue eyes were rapturous as they danced over the Camden skyline across the harbor. She tilted her head as she admired the view. Her slender fingers swirled rosy liquid in a stemmed glass. Under the swaying paper lamps, her curls beamed with captured sunlight.
Moving inside of her was like nothing else. My calloused hands are known and feared in roadhouses from Pittsburgh to Trenton, but never have I laid them on another person with such tenderness. Cathy never flinched from my touch, and I took pains to never let a bruise from my fingertips mar her blushed skin.
The first time she clutched my back and whispered in my ear that she loved me, I wept, and she kissed the salt from my skin.
For the first time, my eyes were opened to the iron chains the Dons had clasped around my wrists. Like the strings of a marionette, these chains could not only manipulate me to kill but also keep me prisoner, eternally trapped in the ashen hell of Hendriksville…and forever parted from Cathy’s warmth and light.
I won’t say leaving my old life was clean. The blood on my hands got pulpier over the weeks it took to dismember the Salerno Family, organization and bodies alike. Annihilating the only family I’d ever known evoked some guilt, but neither Cathy nor I were safe while the Dons breathed.
When the dust settled, I deserted Hendriksville. I cast everything but my first name into the Ohio River and bought a new identity. I fled to Philadelphia and found sanctuary in Cathy’s arms.
I took my first honest job loading shipping containers at the pier. We got an apartment in Queen Village. Cathy taught me how to salsa in our kitchen.
But in all of my bliss, I let myself disremember an important lesson, something my father taught me long before I began my education with Eugene Grace High School or the Salerno Family: I forgot a lesson about steel.
Steel is forged by heat and pressure, but that creates blowholes that weaken the beam, so some steelmakers add an agent that stops gases from bubbling as the steel cools. This makes the steel quietly solidify in the mold, silent as the grave; as such, it’s called “killed steel.”
Killed steel is stronger than regular steel, but it has one drawback: It can’t be reforged. No matter how much pressure or heat you apply, killed steel will always return to its original state.
Killed steel, you see, can never change.
The dregs of the Salerno family ended Cathy’s life.
Two eternal package boys I’d deemed not worth killing bummed to Philly looking for work, but instead stumbled upon me walking with Cathy along the harbor. Million to one chance they’d find me in a city that big…but deep down, I knew it was Hendriksville’s dark magic. I’d fed that town for years, after all. Maybe it missed the taste of my bloody work.
One of the cowards aimed at my back and fired. If he’d managed to murder me, he’d have proven his salt to the new Dons, the ones who filled the power vacuum left in the Salerno Family’s wake. But the hand that pulled the trigger was unsteady from liquid courage, and the bullet found Cathy’s heart instead.
She didn’t make a sound. She was dead before her body hit the pier. We didn’t say goodbye.
Just like that, Cathy became one of my kills.
I returned to Hendriksville.
Greenery was overtaking the steel mill. Vines coated the exterior walls and snaked their way through broken windowpanes. Every crevice and crack in the cement was bursting with wildflowers and crabgrass. Roots spread beneath the padlocked doors of the factory. Nature was reclaiming the forgotten relic of the steel boom a little more with every year. One day, its carcass will be gone.
There were no electric lights in that part of town. The moon illuminated the crooked path from my truck to the padlocked factory doors. No one was around to hear the chains fall and clatter to the ground, or to witness me hoisting two tarped bodies from the bed of my truck. I could not bring myself to dump the remains in Philadelphia. Desecrating the city that had been paradise for my three years with Cathy would have been sacrilege.
I forced my way through the rusted front doors. Pale moonlight streaked through the fallen factory roof. Wild creepers strangled the dirt-cloaked machinery. Dead leaves carpeted the poured cement floor.
The steel mill folded up before I could follow my father and grandfather down the worn path of working it until the asbestos killed me, but I didn’t wander inside of the factory’s skeleton for long before I found the blast furnace. My boots crunched over the leaves as I crossed the room. I heaved my load into the furnace and soaked everything inside with gasoline. Petrol fumes overpowered the stench of death. Finally, I lit a book of gas station matches, chucked them inside, and slammed the furnace door home. I removed my hands from the oven’s metal surface. Grime and oil from a forgotten past stained them.
For a moment, there was silence. Then the fire caught.
As Cathy’s killers burned, I pressed my feverish forehead to the cold exterior of the oven. I listened to justice crackle through the furnace door. The stink of the factory would mask the putrid stench escaping the brick towers. Even if it didn’t, no one was left alive in town to give a damn.
“I’m sorry, love,” I murmured. I closed my eyes and pictured Cathy’s sweet face. I would never see it again. “I’m sorry.”
Wind sighed. Dead leaves whispered across the cement floor.
Then, there was a crunch.
My hand was on my Smith and Wesson tucked when I whirled around. I leveled the gun at the head of a silhouette standing across the empty refuge, shadowed by lifeless machinery.
My senses screamed for me to flee, but I couldn’t leave half-burned corpses in the furnace. I took pains to ensure that fingerprints and dental records could never identify them, but these assholes had priors and were still too recognizable.
I couldn’t make out my intruder’s features except that they were of slender build and did not appear to have a weapon in their hands, which hung relaxed at their side.
Could be some high school kid, I thought. My finger remained off the trigger.
“Walk towards me,” I ordered.
The shadowed being did nothing.
“Walk towards me into the light,” I repeated, “or I’ll shoot.”
The figure tilted its head in a jarringly familiar motion. My stomach clenched with sudden confusion and terror. The gun trembled in my hands.
I had no time to understand what a part of my primal brain had already figured out. The shadow moved one slim leg forward.
A sharp slash of moonlight danced across semi-transparent skin. The machinery and shattered windows behind her were still partially visible through her body, as though she were a whispered memory of a person. The sky-blue of her eyes was gone, replaced by a white gauzy curtain. I heard the clack of her bones as she moved. Dead leaves crushed beneath her shoeless feet.
Her golden waves… My heart broke seeing my love’s grey hair, a void of warmth and color. Death stole that sunlit gold I worshiped.
Her skin, too, was wrong. Once alabaster, its hue was now a ruddy bronze. Flakes of her rusted skin flecked off as she moved and fluttered down where they disintegrated upon impact with the ground. Whatever she touched stained with the red rust; the white dress she wore the night of her death was streaked bloody-bronze, and where her bare feet stepped on the broken concrete, crimson corrosion spider webbed outwards like an infection.
Chromium and rusted, semitransparent and yet somehow solid, my Cathy stopped her lifeless saunter a breath from me and surveyed the furnace with dead eyes.
I let the gun fall. My terrified and elated breaths drowned out the crackling flames.
Alive, Cathy knew what I was. She never asked me once, but she didn’t have to. She knew what my hands had done before they held her. She never held the bloodstains on my past against me.
Alive, Cathy was the kind of person I would have wanted to be, had I been capable of believing I could be anything but a violent, cynical, broken monster.
Dead, Cathy’s white bulbous eyes fixed on the working incinerator, and her blue lips inched upwards until they were drawn into a chilling smile.
I watched as those unblinking eyes slowly turned away from the incinerator, and then they were on mine.
My lover’s ghost gazed at me, her avenger, with brutal pride.
A sob escaped me. Tears of overwhelming love slid down my face under her approval.
Cathy’s spirit moved towards. My body tensed, but I allowed the specter to lift a hand up to my cheek.
Her touch was rigid. Cold. Mechanical.
Then her chilled lips closed on mine. Before she died, Cathy made love with gently passivity. Now her kiss was harsh and greedy. She stole the air from my lungs as she hungrily consumed my breath. I gasped for air between merciless kisses. Cathy did not. Frozen fingers crept beneath my shirt and skimmed along my goose-fleshed skin. There was no softness in the way shoved me to sit on a low cement half-wall beside the furnace. She climbed onto me, pinning me beneath her.
I could still see through her, but her body was solid and unyielding beneath my grasp. My grease-coated fingers splayed across her tarnished thighs like black oil on rusted chrome.
“Love me,” I murmured into her grey hair.
My lover’s ghost obliged.
Our bodies moved against each other in sync, like pistons. Perspiration streaked down my spine. Metal and fire filled the air. Heat boiled in my veins. Steam rose and scorched my lungs. My salted skin was red hot, scalding, but the ice of Cathy’s lips staved off combustion.
“This is what I want,” I panted, clutching at her. “Forever. Just this. Just you.”
The dead woman I held said nothing.
In that broken ghost town, encased by a façade of shattered glass and cracked cement choked by wild flora, with Cathy’s murderers burning beside us, we loved the moonlight away.
Dawn took her from me.
When I woke, I dragged my body from a soft patch of crabgrass and earth that had erupted through the cracked concrete foundation. My arms were streaked with rust and were empty.
I wandered the sunlit wreckage of the factory looking for Cathy, all the while knowing that she was no longer there.
The charred remains of my victims smoldered. I didn’t bother scraping their bones out of the oven. No one would discover them hidden in such a tomb for decades. By then, nature may have reclaimed that manmade curse once and for all.
Drifts of ash sparkled gold in the sunlight. Swaths of blue sky peeked through the fractured, blackened roof above.
My cheeks were wet. Sweat or tears?
I licked my lips, where Cathy’s last kiss lingered.
They tasted of salt.
Carolyn is a writer from the Jersey Shore currently living her best East-Coast-transplant life in Denver. She’s had a number of short fiction works published by small press publications and podcasts, including Mad Scientist Journal, Jersey Devil Press, and the NoSleep Podcast.