© Linux87 | Dreamstime.com – Cemetery Night Photo
By Christopher Opyr
Breaching the gap in the fence, Kyle stood, brushing himself off. As he did, he noticed Anita hefting up a large black physician’s bag. It bore an old, split handle design, and she sealed it up at the center as she lifted it. For a moment he caught a glimpse of the contents: vials, candles, and a hint of decay wafting up from the interior. And movement? The bag seemed to writhe as if alive.
“Didn’t your momma ever teach you not to stare?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Kyle glanced away scanning over the grounds of the cemetery. Row after row of tombstones spread out before him. Here in the northern corner they were older, smoothed and worn by age, if not broken and savaged by teenage stupidity. His daughter’s grave wouldn’t be far. His family had a plot set aside nearby. Generations of Inghams had rotted in this soil. It was family tradition, after all.
And now his daughter had been confined under that soil as well. The thought sickened him, and that, mixed with the lingering image of the leather thrashing of its own accord, and he decided that he needed that third cigarette after all. Kyle flipped open the pack. The cigarettes had shifted, slanting to fill the void. He carefully straightened them, as if rearranging crayons in a Crayola box, then, satisfied, slipped out the third from the left on the top.
“Not feeling squeamish, are you?”
“Neither of us is backing out, now,” he said, lighting the cigarette and taking a good puff.
“Fine.” Anita hoisted herself straight as she could and shuffled forward. “Let’s get a move on, then.”
He exhaled a long stream of smoke, watching after Anita as she hobbled off among the graves. One more puff, one more brief moment of calm, and then he followed after her.
After that night outside the fraudulent cesspool with the neon Psychic sign, after Anita Shaw had held Kyle and calmed him soothing him ever so slightly for perhaps the first time since Charlotte had died, after that meeting Kyle had asked around about Anita. He’d returned to previous haunts, though few with whom she had spoken remained. Those that knew of her simply described her as a bitter skeptic, telling Kyle that she sought to turn people away from the occult, urging them to grieve and move on with their lives. What right did she have to tell them how to grieve? Why grieve at all if you could reach out beyond the curtain of death and still commune with those you loved? What if there was still hope? These individuals cursed Anita, though most did not know her name.
At first, Kyle found himself agreeing with this lot. He felt ashamed that he had allowed Anita to soothe his pain, even if only for a moment. His daughter was still dead and he was still to blame. He had looked away, he had lost sight of her, and in that moment he had also lost her forever. He’d been driven mad by the indecency of it, not just by the atrocity of her death, but also by the disorder of it.
Father before daughter. Not the other way. The world had an order to follow, as he had told himself many times.
As his anger mounted, it muddled forming a thick and righteous slop of grief and madness, and of anger and denial, until he found himself ready to burst. The seances and tarot readers, the fortune tellers and the psychics, they brought no peace. Their predictions and communions now rang hollow and Anita was to blame.
The search took some effort, but eventually he had tracked down an acquaintance from a seance he had attended shortly after his divorce – a Wilton Hendricks. Wilton had lost his husband and had attended hoping for one last conversation with his beloved. The medium that led the affair, however, had offered only vague words, hollow and easily interpreted in any direction desired. She had been a charlatan. Everyone attending knew it, even if they did not want to believe it. Anita had found Wilton that night, waiting outside the storefront for any that needed her.
Afterwards Wilton had stopped searching for his husband. When pressed on Anita, he told Kyle that she was a retired grief counselor, a good and lonely samaritan just looking to help those in need in a way that only she could. She had helped Wilton accept his husband’s death and to move on with his life. She had warned him against charlatans and had peeled back the curtain revealing the tricks of the trade.
A few cigarettes into the conversation and Kyle had gleaned the information that he really needed. He had learned where to find her. After that first encounter, Wilton had met frequently with Anita behind a cleaners off New Bern Avenue. There was a room in the back where she held informal group sessions. Her husband had run the cleaners prior to his death and she still owned it though she stayed out of the business for the most part. Still ownership granted her the room and privacy to hold her sessions.
It took Kyle two weeks to work up the nerve to confront her. Then finally he had found himself standing outside the cleaners, watching as a late night session ended and one after the other Anita’s “patients” trickled out into the parking lot. He had waited until only one car remained, then ran up to the door, his face concealed by the same hoodie he had been wearing the day of Charlotte’s abduction. He tapped on the glass.
A small hamster of a dog bounded towards the door yapping at the stranger. Then slowly Anita shuffled up behind him.
“Shut your trap, Jonesy,” she shouted, then cracked the door open, pushing Jonesy back with her foot.
Kyle looked her in the eyes and immediately he could see the flash of recognition as she stared back at him.
“I’m afraid you missed the meeting. Every Thursday at 7.”
She had made to shut the door, but Kyle blocked it, slipping his arm in at the last moment.
“I just want to talk, Ma’am.”
Anita had scoffed. “That’s the point of the meetings. 7pm. Thursdays.”
“No. Just you. You and I.”
Anita had eyed him up and down, her corgi barking incessantly. At last she turned away from Kyle, stooping over and grabbing a tennis ball from the floor. She threw it towards the back of the therapy room, which looked itself like little more than a large living room decades out of style with a few too many couches and doilies. Jonesy dashed off after his prize, no longer caring about the stranger at the door. Anita straightened up and, one hand on her back, made her way to the nearest couch.
Kyle waited in the doorway, inching it open and now massaging his palms, trying to balance out the pressure from where he had caught the door with one hand. The other hand lacked balance. He stood there, kneading his palms, not knowing how to proceed.
“Well, come in. It’s already after nine. I don’t have all night.”
Kyle had stepped inside ready to confront Anita, and yet finding instead that his anger had washed away. Entering into the therapy room he noticed small runes drawn on the walls, mixed and hidden among family portraits, blue glass decor, and candy trays.
“Who are you?” Kyle had asked.
“Anita Shaw. We’ve been over this.” She motioned for Kyle to sit.
Instead Kyle walked to the nearest rune trying to make sense of it.
“But I thought you didn’t believe in all of this.”
“When you assume, you make an ass out of yourself.”
“That’s not the phrase.”
“It is when you make assumptions in my place of business.”
Kyle turned towards her, studying her aged face and her balding head. Her usual shawl had been draped over the back of a nearby recliner. She set there, defiant and somehow noble – an unbreakable woman.
“But if you believe,” he asked, “then why do you turn us away before we find answers?”
“Answers?” She laugh-snorted. “Honey, you ain’t ever gonna find answers in a place like you’ve been searching. All the shiny lights and giant signs might as well scream con artist.”
“But…” Kyle started.
“Look,” she said, motioning once more for him to sit. This time he did. “Those who believe, those of us who know there’s more, we also know what’s good for us. Death is a not a barrier to be crossed, no matter how much you may want to fling those gates open. Nothing good can come of that path.”
“Are you sure?” Kyle asked.
“Yes. We have to move fast. It’s nearly midnight.”
David looked down at the tiny grave marker at his feet. It had a smooth marble finish, with roughly textured edges and would have seemed quite normal if not for the brightly colored cartoon image of a winged Peppa Pig splashing in a puddle. The edges of the marker shaped around the contours of the character, giving it an off balance feel that always set Kyle’s nerves on edge.
He had thought that the cartoon image was a bit much, but Charlotte had loved Peppa, and she’d loved the rain, and splashing in the puddles. He could hear her laughing running from one puddle to the next jumping in her oversized galoshes through the driveway. Behind him Jill shouted for the two of them to come in, but Charlotte was having so much fun. Jill had been right to add the embellishment. Looking at it now Kyle couldn’t hold back the tears. It perfectly embodied their daughter.
Below the cartoon image the marker read:
Charlotte Rose Ingham
Jan. 6, 1996
Oct. 20, 1997
Our Precious Daughter
May She Play Forever Among The Angels
“Now!” Anita shouted. “This ain’t no time for crying. We have to hurry.”
She was right. Kyle glanced away from his daughter’s marker. He couldn’t look at it a second more, not and do what he must. Cheeks still wet, he turned his gaze away, hoisted up the shovel, and plunged it into the earth.
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On to Part 3