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"That's Where they Burned Her Heart"

By Sarah L. Thomson

"That’s where they burned her heart.” Haley pointed toward a low stone wall that ran along the edge of the Chestnut Hill Cemetery. “Right there.”

Melanie twisted her mouth and made a noise that sounded like yurghch. “Burned her heart? Why?”

“Because that’s what you do with vampires.”

“I thought you drove a stake though their hearts,” Mel objected. “That’s what they always do on Buffy.”

Haley shrugged, getting out her camera. “Maybe vampires in Rhode Island are different. Anyway, that’s what they did.” She crouched down, holding the digital camera out, tilting it to try different angles. The pale slab of marble, leaning a little, centered itself in the screen and she took the photo—dirty white stone, faded grass shaggy at its feet, the late autumn sky, a chilly blue, distant behind it. The simple letters on the stone were sharp, in crisp focus. MERCY L. BROWN. DAUGHTER OF GEORGE T. & MARY E. BROWN. DIED JAN. 18, 1892. AGED 19 YEARS. Haley switched the camera over to black-and-white. Now the image in the viewscreen looked eerie. She stopped the exposure down to darken it a little. A scene from an old horror movie. All it needed was a werewolf to come around the corner.

“So why did they think she was a vampire? And dig her up and everything?” Mel had perched on another headstone to wait.

Haley took the second photo and then backed up to get a wider shot, including the stone wall, the old graves surrounding Mercy’s, a willow, bare of leaves, leaning as if it were cold, turning away from the wind.

“They didn’t dig her up. She wasn’t buried yet. She was in that crypt over there.” The crypt was against the far wall of the cemetery, a low stone building with brush hanging over the sloping roof. It looked as if it had been dug into a hill rather than built up from the ground. “And they did it because people were dying.” Haley clicked the shutter, took a step, clicked again. “Tuberculosis. Consumption, that’s what they called it.”

“Consumption. That sounds so romantic.” Mel laid the back of her hand across her forehead and sighed. “Beautiful ladies, wasting away, leaving their heartbroken lovers behind . . . ”

“Coughing up little bits of their lungs,” Haley said without looking up from the camera. She switched it back to color. She wanted a wide-angle shot. All those gravestones.

She heard the toughness in her own voice as she answered Mel. Like it didn’t bother her at all, the thought of somebody dying like that.

Nineteen. Mercy had only been five years older than Haley. Four years younger than . . .

All those gravestones. The picture in her viewscreen wobbled a little.

“It’s not romantic,” she said sharply, lowering the camera without taking the shot. “Mercy’s mom and her older sister died of it before she did.”

The graves of Mercy’s mother, Mary, and Mary’s oldest daughter, Grace, were close by. This spot in the cemetery was full of Browns. The headstones went back more than a century. None of them were big and elaborate. Elsewhere in the cemetery there were crypts, carved tombs, statues of angels, cherubs. But the Browns just had names and dates. The most you could say for Haley’s ancestors was that there were a lot of them. And that they stayed put. There had been Browns in Rhode Island for hundreds of years. “Yeah, I know.” Mel gave Haley an apologetic look. “I just—“ “And then her little brother got sick too.” Haley knew she shouldn’t snap at Mel. She tried to get some lightness back in her voice. “Of course, that was the problem.” “What was?” “That her brother got sick. Right after she died.” Haley turned off the camera and stuffed it back in the pocket of her red fleece jacket. “That’s why they took her out of the crypt. And cut her open.” Tough, Haley told herself. Like it doesn’t matter. Like you don’t care. Anything to make Mel stop with that look. That “I’m sorry,” look. That “I understand, you’re dealing with so much,” look. This time Mel made a sound like erck. “And when they found fresh blood in her heart, that was it. They decided she was a vampire.” “That’s really disgusting.” “Not as disgusting as what they did with the ashes of her heart.” “What?” “You don’t want to know. It’s too disgusting.” “Ha-ley!” “Okay, okay.” A joke. It’s all a joke. “They mixed the ashes with water or something and gave it to her little brother to drink.” “That is so disgusting!” “I told you.” With the camera back in her pocket, Haley began to feel nervousness creep over her. It started in her feet. Restless, they wanted to move. Then it began to sneak up her spine. Without the distraction of a picture to arrange—light and shadow, shape and angle, color and pattern aligning themselves in the viewscreen—the quiet of the cemetery began to press in on her. With all those trees and bushes and clumps of straggly grass, you’d think there would be crows cawing, squirrels chattering, little things rustling in the dry dead leaves. But there was nothing, not even traffic on the road that ran by the gate. “So did it work?” “Work?” Mel rolled her eyes. “The ashes. Did it work? Did her brother get better?” “Of course he didn’t.”

Mercy, by children's author Sarah L. Thomson, is inspired by a true New England story.When Mercy Brown's family members began to die in the late 1890s, fear struck deep in the hearts of the small community. In this excerpt from chapter two of the award-winning young adult novel, main character Haley learns of Mercy's legend. Thomson's gifts as a storyteller and writer make great use of this disquieting true story to weave a unique and exciting coming of age story as Haley learns to live with change, loss, and death.

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