LIFE AFTER REGRET

Kat Devitt

Minsbridge Chapel, England

1497


Dain's heart walked with the bride to the altar as her auburn hair gleamed in the moonlight. Her velvet red skirts fluttered behind her, and her sleeves, sewn with seed pearls, brushed against her lovely curves. She looked like an angel trumpeted from the heavens, stealing the breath of every man she passed, but it wasn’t Dain waiting beside the priest.

Dain stood at the church’s rear, leaning against the stone walls, sick with longing. He wanted to run up the aisle, grab her by the elbow, and twirl her around. If he had the courage, he’d say, “Estrilda, my love, you’re making a grave mistake.”

But cowardice filled his limbs like lead.

Rainard Franklin, Estrilda’s intended, beamed as she climbed the three steps to join him on the altar, but jealousy poisoned Dain’s mind. Rainard’s gaze never left her. Not for one moment. 

Not when the “hallelujahs” were sung.

Not when the priest started his prayer.

Not when the moment came—their vows.

Estrilda shared a look with Rainard as if they were the only two people standing in the church. Love flowed between them as the priest spoke, his words drifting over their heads. In her rich brown eyes, Dain saw the heartbreaking truth. She couldn’t wait to be Estrilda Franklin. 

Dain turned away. He couldn’t listen without hatred sneaking into his gut. He retreated to his solace, the one place in the world that belonged to him.

As Dain climbed the spiral staircase to the bell tower, the priest’s words followed him “May these words never grow bitter in your mouth…”

It’s what Dain never said to Estrilda that soured his memories.

****

Minsbridge Chapel, England

1839


If it wasn’t for Enoch's ill fortune at the card tables, he wouldn’t be standing in this godforsaken church—and in the dead of the night, no less.

Behind him, Jeffrey chuckled. “Your debt isn’t repaid until you’ve climbed the bell tower.”

Enoch whirled around on him. “Bastard. Why wouldn’t you just take my coin?”

“Because it wouldn’t be nearly as fun.” Jeffrey rocked back on his heels. “And how else am I to discover if the rumors are true?”

“Climb the damn tower yourself.”

Jeffrey tsked. “I’d rather not see a ghost. Might make me believe in God.”

“Coward.”

He shrugged. “At least I’m a winning one.”

Enoch’s hands itched to smack the grin off Jeffrey’s face. “Next time I win, I’ll make you sing outside Amy Hill’s window.”

“If you win,” Jeffrey said. “Wouldn't you like to see where your ancestors married?”

Moonlight bathed the stone floors beneath their feet, but further into the church, it was all darkness. In the distance, a shadowy altar loomed. Many generations of the Franklin family had stood there and recited their vows, and seldom had any of those marriages been happy.

"Not really.” Enoch sniffed. “Do you fear the altar?”

Jeffrey’s brows furrowed. “Why might I?”

“You’re an adamant bachelor.”

“As are you.”

“You won't be for long if Amy Hill has her way.”

“I wouldn't be caught dead outside that chit’s window.” Jeffrey shivered. “Now go find our ghost.”

“There is no plural possessive in this endeavor.”

“If it weren’t for my renowned card skills, you wouldn’t be here. This is our adventure. Now go.”

Jeffrey pulled the doors closed behind him. On the other side, he snickered. Once Enoch was finished with this ridiculous scheme, he intended to strangle Jeffrey on the church’s doorstep.

“Bloody, bloody bastard.” Enoch fumbled around in his coat pockets. “I’ll make his eyes bulge out of his sockets ...”

Enoch’s fingers brushed against a matchbook. He pulled it out and struck a match, illuminating the church’s nave. It looked like no one had sat in these pews in years. The ceiling was cracked, the walls bare, and the Mary statue close by was missing a hand.

“Devil take him.”

Enoch searched the room for a set of stairs. The sooner he climbed the bell tower, the sooner he could settle his debts—and strangle his friend. 

****

Minsbridge Chapel, England

1496


Dain lay beneath the shelter of an oak tree. His back pressed against the hard ground, padded with nothing but grass. He tore the blades up as branches swayed in the breeze.

Between the green fingers, Dain found the azure blue sky barren of clouds. He thought, If I just stretched my hand between the branches, I could touch the heavens ... and maybe, an angel. 

Dain raised his hand, but instead of the sky, he found fingers. 

Estrilda’s fingers. 

He recognized her delicate hands, the milk white of her skin. 

“Why are you lying on the ground?” she asked. 

Dain turned to look at her smile. It warmed him like a hearth’s glow. 

“I was trying to touch heaven.”

She wriggled her nose. “You say the silliest things, Dain.” 

Her auburn hair fell in cascades, settling in her lap. She sat cross-legged, her boots peeking out from the hem of her emerald green dress. Her rich brown eyes roved over Dain with a happiness he couldn’t name. 

“Are you alone?” Dain asked. 

“My father is in the church speaking with the priest.” 

“About what?”

“Marriage.” She rolled her eyes. “He’s asking the priest for advice on how to guide me to the altar.”

Dain twinged at the thought of another marrying her. Why not him? Why not her childhood friend—The boy who knew her favorite hiding place in the moors and the scar she’d got on her knee from climbing a tree? 

But Dain said none of those things. 

“Has he found you a husband?”

Estrilda snorted. “Do you think I’d let him choose a man for me?”

“I can’t see you listening to anyone.” 

She batted him across the shoulder. “I do listen. When I want to.”

Estrilda’s fingers broke away from his. Her gaze lifted to the church, which had been built more than two hundred years ago. Its stones had witnessed hundreds of births, and deaths, and marriages. Someday it might witness Estrilda’s wedding—and perhaps Dain’s. 

“I’ll choose my own husband,” she said, her voice soft, sad. “I won’t let him bait suitors with my hand. If I marry, it’ll be for love.”

Estrilda’s words drifted away with the wind, a promise sealed. A tendril of her hair lifted to tickle her freckled nose, and Dain knew his soul belonged to her. He wanted no other, but he was an orphan who’d been raised at this church. He worked as the bell ringer here. He didn’t have anything to offer her besides his heart. 

“Estrilda …”

She glanced down. “Hmm?”

“I …”

“What is it?”

“I lo—”

Dain’s thoughts blew away. He couldn’t admit it to her. 

Instead, Dain reached up to brush the auburn strand from her nose. She caught his hand, her dark gaze searing him, and she turned his palm over and kissed it—more so with sisterly affection then passion. 

His breath hitched.

“You’re an angel,” Dain said. 

His gaze lingered on her lips, as red as ripe strawberries. Was her mouth as soft as velvet?  Or rough like chapped skin? He wanted to wrap his fingers in her hair, pull her lips to his, and find out. 

But he knew she’d box his ears if he tried. 

“Dain?” Estrilda broke away from him. Her blonde lashes fell against her cheeks as she blinked. “You’re brooding again.”

He swallowed. “Do you think…”

“Yes?”

“Do you think angels walk on the earth?”

Her smile faded. She thought of him as silly, so Dain said nothing more.

Estrilda shook her head, but as she leaned back and dug her palms into the grass, interest flickered in her eyes. Her brows creased, and slowly, she leaned forward, as if being reeled in like a fish on a line. 

“Who’s that over there?” she asked. 

Dain followed her gaze across the churchyard. Her father emerged with the priest and another man in tow. A tall, blonde fellow with piercing blue eyes and a glowing smile. He had a forceful but kindly energy about him, as if he’d chase after whatever—or whomever—he wanted. 

“That’s Rainard Franklin,” Dain said. “He comes for confession once a week. He bought a manor not far from here about six months ago.”

Estrilda’s eyes glittered. “I’ve never seen him before.”

She uncrossed her legs and pushed herself off the ground. As he watched her bound across the grass toward the church, Dain’s gut clenched. Somehow, he knew he’d lost his chance forever. 

****

Minsbridge Chapel, England

1839


Enoch’s light dwindled as he finally discovered the stairs. He flicked the burnt match to the floor, smoke sailing before it died on the cold stones. 

Bastard. “Jeffrey could’ve at least provided me with a lantern.”

Enoch plucked out another match and lit it. His gaze travelled up the steps cut into the church’s rear. It spiralled up into the darkness, its grayness reminiscent to a purgatory—if it even existed. 

In truth, climbing the tower frightened him. Generations of the Franklin family’s firstborn had died from falling off heights. His father’s older brother had fallen from a tree, and his grandfather’s oldest sister from atop her pony. Balconies, rooftops, and even bridges had claimed the Franklin’s eldest—and always by accident. 

From an early age, Enoch’s parents cautioned him about heights. Being their first and only child, their protection suffocated Enoch as a boy, but as he grew—and never died—his parents slackened their warnings. Maybe the curse had skipped him?

Enoch had always listened to these tales with a note of skepticism. No one knew where the curse originated. Was it only a familial myth? He was inclined to think so. 

But still, as he stared up those steps, dread chilled him. 

Enoch gave himself a mental shake. There was nothing to fear. ExceptJeffrey’s taunts if he proved unsuccessful. 

“Let’s get this over with,” Enoch muttered as he took the first step. 

His feet struck the stones, each step echoing through the tower. A draft swept over him, prickling at his flesh. 

Enoch paused by a slit window. He listened to the night, but all he heard was his breathing—short, heavy, anticipatory. But what was he waiting for?

Enoch glanced out the window, and his eyes found an oak tree. Its shadow stretched across the churchyard as it eclipsed the moon. It must’ve stood there for nearly a thousand years, its branches reaching toward the heavens but never touching.

He shivered. It looked like something out of a penny dreadful. 

And then he heard it—a sigh. 

Enoch’s gaze shot up the steps, and at the very top, he saw a glow fade into the tower’s top floor. As if it had walked out into the night air. As if it had feet and thoughts … Enoch swallowed back a scream.

Goddamnit, Jeffrey, he thought. This is the worst trouble you’ve placed me in. Worse than the time I woke chained to your mother’s pig or was nearly toppled over by your runaway horse. 

But a bet was a bet. 

So, Enoch dashed his fear, and he took the tower two steps at a time. 

****

Minsbridge Chapel, England

1497


Tolls rumbled through the hillside as Dain tugged on the rope. His heart crumbled with each ring, signaling an end to his hope. But was there anything left to hope for? Was there any chance for him?

He’d never find another woman to love. Estrilda had stolen his heart, his breath, his soul. He’d never find another like her, for she’d been his angel. And how often did a man find an angel?

Maybe once in a lifetime, if he was lucky. 

Dain wasn’t lucky. He hadn’t been since his parents died. 

Dain strode toward the tower’s ledge and glanced up at the night sky. He shook his head, trying to keep his chest from swelling with sadness. But there was no use. Not anymore. 

“Will you send me another?” Dain asked. 

A few stars twinkled. A cloud drifted over the moon. Somewhere below, a wolf howled. But nothing miraculous answered his prayer. Nothing fell from the sky, and the moon didn’t split apart. 

Dain reached up to the sky. “Will I ever love again?”

Nothing. 

Regret ripped through him, and he knew he couldn’t stay. 

Dain stepped up onto the ledge. “Will you at least let me touch heaven, God?”

Dain stretched out his fingers, and then he slipped. He clawed at the stone, but it broke away from the wall. They fell together, and his last thoughts were of her but also of life. 

I never wanted to die, God. Dain saw it hurling toward him. His end.  I didn’t want this to be your answer. 

But it was. And his love stayed with her, even after his skull hit stone. 

****

Minsbridge Chapel, England

1839


It looked like an angel had thrown flecks of silver across the sky. In the moonlight, the brass bell gleamed, it’s rope worn and beaten. Loose stones lay scattered on the floor, but other than this, Enoch saw nothing but nighttime.  

Enoch blinked. “Did I imagine it?”

His hoarse whisper cut through the stillness, but no answer came. 

Enoch picked his way through the stones and walked over to the bell. He pressed a hand against it, its metal frigid. Unfeeling. 

How many hands have rung this bell? Enoch wondered. And were the rumors of its ghost true? 

Enoch shook his head. He must’ve drank too much wine at the inn. It’d explain his loss at cards and his being in this crumbling, desolate place—and seeing that, well, light.

His second match diminished. He tossed it aside and struck a new one, finding comfort in its flicker. 

“Well, I’ve fulfilled my end of this bet.” 

Enoch turned away … and found the glow in front of him. 

Fear stole his breath. He stumbled into the bell, eliciting a dull ring. It was perhaps the first time in decades, maybe a century, that it’d tolled. 

The figure of a man stood in the glow. His features weren’t defined, but he seemed to turn his head to look toward Enoch. 

“I-I’m sorry,” Enoch managed to say. 

He stood there, staring. His skin seemed to emit a silvery light like the moon and stars above. And about him hung a sadness … the unknown. 

“W-well, it was a pleasure meeting you.” Enoch swallowed. “I’ll s-show myself out.”   

Enoch started for the staircase when a voice drifted across the tower floor. It curled around him, filling him. “You look just like her.”

Enoch’s feet froze. His jaw dropped. It wasn’t every day a ghost spoke to a fellow, and he hadn’t a clue what to say to this lost soul … Or if there was even anything to say. 

“My darling Estrilda.” Sobbing noises came from the glow. “All I could have had … All I wanted ...”

Enoch shook himself. This man—this ghost—was in pain. His mother had never taught him how to console a phantom, granted, but she’d taught him one or two things about comforting the living. 

“Here, ol’ chap.” Enoch pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. “Come downstairs with me, and we’ll have a chat …”

Enoch started for the ghost, his hands shaking, but the light quivered as the ghostsaid, “Don’t come closer. You might fall. I couldn’t stand to live if another of her kin died.”

Enoch wasn’t about to point out that he was no longer a part of the living. It’d be the height of rudeness to correct him, especially when he had to live in this bell tower all alone. 

“What do you mean if another of her kin died?” Enoch asked. 

“The curse.” The ghost walked—or more like floated—over to the tower’s ledge. “It dies right now, for one of her blood has finally visited me.”

Enoch blinked. “What are you driveling on about?”

“I’m free. At last.”

“You aren’t making any sense here, my friend. I grew up being told about a family curse, but I never understood how it worked.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore. It’s finished, and I’m late for my appointment at heaven’s pearly gates.”

“If you weren’t a glowing specter, I’d think you a madman.” Enoch ran a hand through his hair. “Or maybe I am one for talking to ghosts …”

The ghost said nothing more. He reached a hand to the heavens. Enoch watched, dumbfounded, as he appeared to step onto the ledge … and then he was gone. 

“No!” 

Enoch ran over to the edge, his mind spinning with what he’d witnessed. He’d just seen a man jump … Jump! Of all things! 

Enoch’s heart jumped to his throat as he peeked over the ledge. He spotted a small, white light twinkling on the ground. Like a fallen star kicked out of the heavens. 

Finally, He has taken me home ...

The ghost’s voice drifted through Enoch’s mind as his light faded, like a match, burnt and discarded. 

I’m free… Free of her love ...

Behind Enoch, the bell tolled, as if invisible hands tugged on the rope. As if to fill the countryside with the ghost’s loss and regret in the hopes his beloved would hear his soul’s pain from beyond the grave. 

Enoch stood there, aghast at what had just happened. At the state of his sanity. At what Jeffrey might say if Enoch told him he’d held a lengthy conversation with the bell tower’s ghost, only to have resolved his family curse … and freed the ghost. 

He started for the tower’s staircase. “Well, I won’t be strangling Jeffrey tonight.”

Enoch made it down the steps without cracking open his skull. He glanced at the altar masked in shadows. Maybe that’s where the curse had begun. Or maybe in the ghost’s heart, when it had been a beating one. 

“I need a drink.” Enoch walked over to the church’s door, his hand on the knob. “Maybe three.”

Enoch pulled it open. Jeffrey stood outside with a grin on his face as he rocked on his heels. 

“What did you find?” he asked. 

Enoch bloody well wasn’t answering that question.

 

Kat Devitt

 Kat Devitt’s work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Books ‘N Pieces Magazine, TWJ Magazine, Squawk Back, Suspense Magazine, and other venues. Kat is a Puschart Prize nominee, Best of the Net nominee, and placed as a runner-up in OPQ Press’s 2019 Spooky Samhain Contest. She also acts as the fiction editor for Bold + Italic. If you'd like to learn more about Kat or her writing, please visit https://katdevitt.com/.

 

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