She embodied perfection.
Innocent. Sheltered. Untouched.
Even as she stared out from her protective cage, my little flower secretly begged to be conquered.
But the only way to truly conquer an object that sacred, is to ruin every part of it.
So I ripped her from her stem. Plucked off every petal.
Destroyed her home and plunged her deep into mine.
And when her mother begged for her daughter back,
I took her daughter’s innocence instead.
Author’s Note: This book was previously titled The Art of Ruin Duet and contains both books; Cruelty & Fire and Innocence & Ashes. Furthermore, this book follows the romance between a grave-digging stalker and an innocent heroine. It contains disturbing content. Reader discretion is advised.
Triggers: stalking, destruction of property, murder, drugs, virginity, smothering parents, manipulation, disease (mother, brother), suicide (brother), graphic violence, car crash, dubious consent
Kinks: dubious consent, exhibitionism, knife play, mummification, necro play, virginity
three years earlier
I still wanted to burn the bastard. But eight feet deep into the ground, I ran through the motions: bury the man like he wanted, give him the respect he deserved. Like I had been taught. But as I stabbed my shovel into the dirt, the urge to ruin perfection simmered inside of me. To break and destroy all the fake virtue rising above us.
I grunted, leaning my weight on the metal to go deeper. The healing cuts on my palm ached and the plot was more than big enough, but I kept digging anyway. I don’t want to become a painting on your wall, my older brother had said. I don’t want to watch you live your life while I’m stuck on a canvas. He shoved my shoulder. Don’t you dare burn me, asshole.
You wouldn’t feel it, I said.
His lips pinched together. That’s not the point.
An unsettling sensation crawled in my gut. I couldn’t stop myself from digging. Wouldn’t let myself.
“Cops are here again,” a voice said.
My employee’s shadow hovered in my peripherals, watching from above. The employee was new; she had been at the funeral home for a few months now, but eventually, she would move on too. I kept digging; the dirt caking my face. At this depth, you had to toss it high over your shoulder, and if you weren’t careful, some of it rained back down on you. I threw another scoop up to the ground and she darted out of the way.
“What was that for?” she asked, as if I was trying to aim for her. I didn’t care that much.
The rectangular hole of blue sky had finally begun to darken. The sides of her head were shaved, the short gray dyed hairs glowing like peach fuzz in the dim light.
“I could get the excavator,” she said.
I sucked down a scowl. We had machinery that could do this, but I preferred to do it by hand. I liked keeping myself occupied.
“The sheriff?” I finally asked.
“Nah. The other one. White hair. I always forget his name.”
I touched up the grave with the back of my shovel, smoothing the edges. I should have hired a contractor to dig his grave. Should have needed to take time off. But I was removed from it. Guns. Overdose. Disease. It was all the same. I’d rather go with a knife, the blood leaking out of me. Or better yet, a fire so that I burned with every possible agony in those last seconds. But in the end, it didn’t matter how you went. Life continued on. I felt nothing, only an emptiness that I filled with work.
“I’ll stay here,” she said. “You need the time off. Go. Mourn. Take care of that officer. I’ll finish up here.”
“You’ll stay until sunrise?” I asked. She nodded. Not being around on Halloween—a night where the teenagers in Punica loved to vandalize the cemetery—was a reprieve I would not pass up. She could learn the hard way about Halloween. I climbed up the ladder.
“You want tomorrow off?” I asked.
“That’s a given.”
I muttered my thanks, then went inside the funeral home. A young officer in full blues waited in the lobby, his thumbs in his belt loops.
“Evening, Erickson,” he said. My scalp prickled; we weren’t on familiar terms, but he and his sheriff had been around a lot lately. He tipped the imaginary hat above his white hair. “The toxicology report came back. Heroin.”
“Doesn’t surprise me,” I said.
“Didn’t you have an incident a few years ago?”
I had been out at a bar when a fight broke out over some drugs. The charges were dropped, but that didn’t mean that there weren’t arrest records out there. The officer must have been digging around to find that.
“Almost a decade has passed,” I shrugged. “But yeah. There was an incident.”
The officer tilted his head. “Coincidental,” he said.
“Lots of people do drugs.” My jaw stiffened. “But you know that, don’t you? And we both know my brother did.”
He wrinkled his brow. “What are you saying?”
“What else is there to report?” My tone was biting; I had endured enough of law enforcement in the last week to cover a lifetime. “You could be serving the citizens who need you. Instead, you’re wasting your time investigating someone who OD’ed.”
“A bullet. Cuts. Drugs,” he sighed. “Why so many options?”
“He must have been very determined.”
“What are you hiding, Erickson?” the officer asked, glaring at me. “You seem awfully reluctant to scrutinize your brother’s death. Apathetic, even.”
“Trust me, officer. We all mourn in different ways,” I said. I tipped my imaginary hat, mocking him. “Catie will be back in a few minutes. She can take care of anything else you might need.”
Without another word, I headed up the winding path between the grave markers to the trees that lined the edges of the property, separating my house from the funeral home. I unlocked the door to my house, then fixed dinner for the only housemates I had left. When it was ready, three rottweilers came trotting into the kitchen. I kneeled down to pet them. They sniffed at me, noticing the dirt on my clothes, and huffed away. I could have changed, but I wasn’t trying to impress anyone.
Restless, I drove to the downtown area, where children with holey sheets, witch hats, and superhero jumpsuits ran down the sidewalk, shouting trick-or-treat! to each shop owner. I parked down one of the side streets, then walked past the jack-o'-lanterns and stringy cobwebs decorating the storefronts. I crossed the street, to the scenic viewpoint; it was one of my favorite haunts. I leaned my back on the railing, observing. Directly across from the viewpoint, was Poppies & Wheat, the town’s only flower shop, with its typical wreath decorated with orange and red flowers, and a single giant pumpkin carved into a rose outside.
Three figures strode down the sidewalk. The sheriff wrapped his arm around his wife’s back, an older woman with her brown hair twisted into an elaborate updo. She owned the flower shop, and though my late brother used to do most of the business negotiations, I still spoke with her from time to time. But behind them was a young woman I had never seen before, the daughter everyone knew about, but few had seen. Wearing the same ankle-length black and orange dress as her mother, her hairstyle identical, she was her mother’s mini-me. But her leafy-green eyes gleamed in the light, full of longing that made her stand out, even as she hovered behind her parents.
“There’s something I wanted to ask you two about,” the young woman said.
The parents continued talking, and the daughter walked quicker, trying to catch up to them. The door to Poppies & Wheat jingled, opening and closing for them. In the window, the assistant manager moved to the side, letting the family take over. The daughter gave a small, timid speech, while the mother’s face contorted until she stormed out of the room. The sheriff’s eyes widened with each word he spoke. The daughter’s wrists shook as she tucked hair behind her ear. Her stare fevered, her eyes full of tears.
Part of me wanted to mock her; oh, how tragic, her paradise was ruined, all because mommy and daddy hadn’t given her everything she wanted. But a thought stopped me: the people she lived for, turned away from her. I knew what it was like to look at your family and know that they didn’t give a shit about you.
I stared down at the mouth of the stream pooling beneath the viewpoint, the water glimmering under the full moon. Part of me wished I could destroy their perfect family: a florist mother; the sheriff father; the sheltered, likely virginal, daughter. My brother and I had seen our parents die before we were teenagers. And when our uncle took us in, mentoring us to take over his business, it became even more clear that we were the anti-family. Two orphans, being raised by a mortician.
For a perfect family like theirs, it would be easy to pick them apart. To steal the heart that kept them together. To watch them crumble like ashes. Passion burned inside of me when perfection was destroyed like that.
A stream of trick-or-treaters trailed behind me, one whispering, “Is he a dirt monster?” My brother would have been amused by that. I had forgotten I was covered in dirt.
I turned to head back to my car when the jingle of the flower shop’s door carried over the street. Footsteps dashed across the asphalt, then two hands slammed into the railing. The young woman—the daughter—panted frantically, like she didn’t know what to do with the emotions boiling up inside of her.
I shouldn’t have given her a second thought. She wasn’t anything to me. But I didn’t care about what she wanted or needed, only that those tears on her face were delicious, wrought full of pain. I couldn’t stop myself from staring. Those full quivering lips. A thin, breakable neck. Thick, bushy eyebrows, so young and full of promise. Cheekbones blushing deeper the longer she endured my gaze.
She turned to me, wavering.
“Is that your costume?” she asked, her voice hesitant. A grin flitted across my face. I was in my thirties, and yet, she thought I was dressing up for Halloween. How innocent.
“I was working,” I said.
“What do you do?”
“I dig graves.”
She wrapped her arms around herself. Heat pumped through my veins. I loved rubbing that in people’s faces; it was a useful tool to intimidate others. Her dense brows furrowed, then her forest eyes searching me intently, the tears finally stopping. She shifted her weight, uncomfortable with the silence. I should have asked her a question, but I wanted to see what she did under the pressure to speak.
“I didn’t know they still dug graves by hand,” she finally said.
She let out a soft breath, then pulled out the ties and pins from her hair until it all fell down her back in long curls, past her hips, like strings of rope.
“Maybe I should just cut it all off,” she muttered.
“That will show them.”
She glared at me, and I lifted my brows. Caring about hair so much was ridiculous. Maybe if my brother hadn’t died a few days earlier, I wouldn’t have been so callous. But right then, I really didn’t care.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Kora,” she said. “Kora Nova. My mother owns the flower shop. You might know my father—he’s the sheriff?”
Telling me everything when she knew so little about me? What a trusting girl.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
The door to the flower shop rattled open, interrupting our conversation. The sheriff exited, heading toward his squad car parked a few shops down. Kora faced the stream below us again.
“Why were you crying?” I asked. I couldn’t help myself; I wanted to poke at her shallow pains.
“My parents,” she said. “They won’t let me go anywhere. This,” she smacked her hands into the railing, “This is the first time they’ve ever left me alone. Why did I think they would let me go to college? I’m just their precious little flower.” She turned to me, baring her teeth. “But you don’t help a flower grow by blocking out the sunlight.”
I grinned to myself. Poor little girl couldn’t go to college. But there was venom in her voice like she was holding back parts of herself, knowing they couldn’t escape. I wanted to mold that, to squeeze her until she erupted from the seams.
“Your life isn’t over because you can’t go to college.” I chuckled to myself. “You’re—what, eighteen? Your life has barely begun.”
“It’s not just that.” A cry rattled through her chest, the tears rushing back. “Even though I want to go, I can’t leave. No matter what I do, I’m stuck here.”
“And you always will be,” I said. She stiffened, and I turned to the moon’s reflection on the water. “This world traps all of us.”
And it always would, until we were rotting in the ground.
Those tears shuddered to a halt. The trails on her cheeks shined blue in the moonlight. I took another step forward, jasmine filling my nose, as if she steeped in its scent. I grabbed her chin; she flinched, but her round eyes widened, taking me in. Her lips parted. I must have been the first man to ever touch her like this.
“One day, you’ll wake up and you’ll realize none of this matters. Your dreams. Your failures. These tears.” I wiped the wet trails from her cheeks and her green eyes traced mine. “None of this will matter. I promise.”
Because one day, we’d all be dead too.
She blinked rapidly. “Who are you?” she stammered.
I bent down, kissing her forehead, the dirt on my cheeks smearing her skin. “I’m no one,” I said. Then I turned, heading across the street. A twitch of adrenaline surged through me, my steps lighter than before. I imagined breaking her apart, watching her cry until her eyes shriveled, until she was nothing but an empty husk of herself.
This was what I needed: to ruin Kora Nova and her family.
I headed back to the funeral home, letting the weight ease off of my shoulders. I knew what I had to do. Without acknowledging my employee, I moved my brother’s body to the crematory retort and immediately started the process. He had spoken his desires when he was alive, but now, he was dead. There was no one to check on his last wishes, except for me.
And what did I care what he thought?
As the cremation proceeded, my mind buzzed with thoughts of her. Kora’s laughter transforming into tears. Kora gasping for her last breath. Kora with her face down in the dirt. Kora on her back, her blank eyes staring up at me. Once the machinery beeped, signaling the process was complete, I went to the far end of the cemetery, finding a new plot that I would dig specifically for her. She was fascinating: she was stuck in her parents’ shadow because it meant pleasing them, even though she knew she would never be happy.
She shouldn’t have cared so much. No one was worth that kind of trouble. Not even family.
Ruining Kora’s innocence, then making her forsaken body into a painting drove me forward. I imagined creating a memorial painting in her cremains, delivering it by hand to her reluctant father. Then I pictured painting a bouquet, then giving it to her mother, watching her throw away my hideous art, not knowing exactly who it was. And as I made it past the first two feet of dirt for her grave, the energy I had longed for was back. I needed to paint now.
All because amusement had found its way into my life in the form of a precious little flower.
I rushed my brother’s ashes through the pulverizer. And once I mixed his ashes with paint, I dashed my brush across a blank canvas, staring at the work. In a few moments, the clear form of her swan’s neck, her pouting lips, her blushing cheekbones, her furiously childish eyebrows, all came to life. But something was off.
I dug through my drawers until I found blue pigment, then added it to a fresh bowl. I dragged the brush along her cheeks, fixing the canvas with tears and moonlight.
Living or dead, Kora would fuel my art.