© Linux87 | Dreamstime.com – Cemetery Night Photo
By Christopher Opyr
After that night behind the cleaners, Kyle had stopped looking for Anita and started looking to understand her. He had begun to attend the Thursday meetings, to grieve with Wilton and the others that had fallen under Anita Shaw’s wing, but, even then he had stayed wary. He’d watched Anita, listened to her, and waited for any sign of her past.
In the evenings after work – those evenings in which he wasn’t at the meetings or deep in a bottle – Kyle scoured the local libraries. About a month into this stop-and-go research he came across the first classified ad in the archives at D.H. Hill. It had been embedded in The News & Observer deep in a back issue from ‘81.
She had been just one more fraud in a long line of fakes. The thought had revolted him. Sure, he had attended her sessions leery of her motives, but at the same time he had felt himself slipping under her spell, beginning to believe, as all the rest had, that she truly cared about him; that she wanted to help her group through their grief. Then he realized she was just one more cheat playing a long con. She gained their trust, but at what point did she plan to tip her hand and reel them in?
He had arrived at group two hours early that Thursday finding Anita’s Volkswagen already parked outside the laundromat. As he stepped to the back entrance, he could hear Jonesy bounding through the therapy room, likely chasing after that same damn tennis ball.
Kyle had pounded upon the door, a constant unending knock. He hadn’t even realized he was rapping on the glass without pause until he had heard Anita cry out from inside.
“For heaven’s sake! One knock will do. I’m old, not deaf.”
Anita unlocked the door and cracked it open, holding Jonesy back with her foot.
“Crap, Jonesy. I’m fixin to lock your ass up, you don’t settle down.” Anita looked up at Kyle. “Come in, just help me with him will ya?”
“Sure.” That had been all Kyle could manage to mutter. He had wanted to scream at her, to yell, ‘con!’ and rip into her, but as she set there holding back her corgi between her ankles and pulling the door ajar in invite, he had felt that affinity bubbling once again to the surface. Anita always seemed nothing if not genuine.
Kyle had pushed Jonesy back scratching behind his ears, then, grabbing and throwing that tennis ball, had sent him bounding back into the therapy room. Anita had made to follow after, but Kyle stopped her, pulling the adjoining door closed and leaving them in the employee hall separating the back room from the laundromat.
A lump formed in his throat and he remained there motionless.
“Out with it already,” Anita said, never much with patience. “Obviously you got something rattling around up there.”
He tried to speak, finding that lump still constraining him. At last he had managed to out the accusation. Anita had simply shaken her head in response, but let him plow through it nonetheless.
His allegation complete, Anita had gestured Kyle into the therapy room. Yes, she had performed séances in the past she had explained, though she had insisted hers to be genuine. She had communed with the dead for a price, but it had taken her years to realize that her wages were earned not in dollars but in tears. Even if successful in dredging the spirits back for one final goodbye, the living could never leave it at that. Their grief would drag out, the same customers returning week after week, year after year, never letting go.
Finally Anita had closed her doors, unwilling to continue to profit off a pain that she could not end. The Triangle area was rife with universities and she had returned to school eventually earning a MA in psychology. A few years at Holy Hill and she’d left and become a grief counselor. That, however, had officially ended shortly after her Charlie’s death.
Her tale done, she had offered Kyle a glass of sweet tea, and asked that he stay for the evening’s session. The conversation had allayed his suspicions at the time, so he had accepted her offer and passed the evening with his fellow bereaved, and he had continued to do so over the next few months. It had been a peaceful time, a time of healing for Kyle, until a rumor finally reached him – a rumor of the returned.
Kyle wheezed, his breath rattling in his throat, then shifting, converting into a deep, hacking cough. He paused, leaning against the shovel, now five feet deep in his daughter’s grave, and struggled to hold himself together as the fit tore through him wracking his body in tumultuous heaves.
“Kyle?” Anita asked, peering down into the open pit.
Kyle wiped a dirt-crusted hand across his lips, then cracked his back. “I’m fine.”
“My wrinkled, white ass.”
“Let it be. It won’t matter long, anyway.”
Kyle opened up his Reds taking out the fourth cig, straightening up the pack as he did. Shielding the flame from the wind, he lit the cigarette and leaned back against the earthen wall of the grave.
“What about you?”
Anita shook her head in her usual disapproving way. “It’s coming along. Though I’ll need her soon.”
“Of course.” Kyle glanced to the soft earth beneath his feet. He had to be close, so close. Soon, he’d hear the clink of metal on wood, and there’d be nothing but the coffin between him and Charlotte. Daddy was here, and this time he wouldn’t turn away. This time there’d be no losing her. At last he’d come to find her, to find his Charlotte and bring her home.
“Hey,” Kyle shouted softly.
Anita peered back over the edge. “Yes?”
“I really am sorry, Mrs. Shaw. To… to make you do this.”
She harrumphed and made to turn.
“Wait,” Kyle said. “When we’re done here, when it’s all over,” he tapped his jacket pocket, “well, everything you need is right here. Okay?”
“Yeah. I hear ya.”
Anita turned and walked away. Kyle had killed most of the amity that had once existed between them, no matter how she tried to disguise it. Now she had too little time to waste with his confessions; she had her own preparations to finish.
Kyle had been downtown hopping bars, when he’d run across an acquaintance from his time searching for answers from psychics: Elsie, a chain-smoking widower with a tendency to drink too deeply from the bottle. He had spotted her while he had been waving down the bartender and had immediately lowered his hand preparing to leave before Elsie spotted him back. For once, however, the woman behind the bar had actually noticed his hand and had approached for his order. Before he could brush the bartender aside, Elsie and he had locked eyes. Trapped, Kyle had ordered his beer and joined Elsie for a drink.
A couple beers in, and they were both out on the balcony smoking and staring out across the city. Kyle had reached near the end of his Reds, with four remaining on the bottom right. The cigarettes had tipped in the box, and he had been frantically trying to realign them. He’d straighten them out, then convinced the order was wrong, he’d shuffle them. They needed to be right. They needed to be in sequence.
“Here,” Elsie said, tucking a cigarette between Kyle’s lips and flicking her Bic beneath the tip. He puffed, the cigarette lighting, and tucked his own pack into his pocket. He brushed at his hands trying to calm down.
“Tough night?” Elsie asked. “I see you haven’t changed.”
“Nah.” Kyle exhaled and leaned on the balcony, careful to balance his arms symmetrically against the railing – the pressure of the metal rail equal on both. “To be honest, I was this way before Charlotte passed. Can’t imagine I’ll grow out of it now.”
“I suppose not. We’re all fucked in our own way.” Elsie took a swig from a personal flask hidden in her jacket pocket. “You want some?”
Kyle waved aside the offer.
“Your loss.” Elise pocketed the flask, then leaned against the rail beside Kyle. She lit her own cigarette and began to fidget with the cuff of her jacket. She had something to say, but she couldn’t quite get on with it. Kyle didn’t want to be pulled back into that circle – he’d made progress with Anita – so he left Elsie to her silence and tapped out the ash from his cigarette.
At last she spoke.
“Did you ever find that lady? The one that hangs out outside the psychics and whatnot? The skeptic?”
“Yeah.” He didn’t know why he had told her the truth, but he also hadn’t seen any reason not to do so.
“Huh.” Elsie pulled out a fresh cigarette, lighting it from the tip of her first, which she then stamped out in the ashtray. “I heard she’s more than a skeptic.”
“You don’t say…” Kyle really didn’t want to get into this.
“I do. Another?” She offered him a second smoke, but he hadn’t finished his first. He shook his head.
“Fine. Well, yeah, I heard about this family, this mother who’d been trying to contact her daughter. You know, contact, contact?”
“Yeah, I get it.” Kyle hadn’t liked where this had been heading.
“Anyway…” Elsie stopped. “Look it doesn’t matter. Just, can you tell me where I can find her?”
“Come on Kyle. For an old friend?”
He couldn’t help but to think that Elsie was throwing the term friend around awfully loosely. He tapped his cigarette again and leaned deeper against the rail. Then he asked her. He didn’t know if he had done it out of genuine curiosity, or merely to derail Elsie so that he could avoid giving her Anita’s info. Elsie was still searching, but Anita she worked cleanup. Your search had to be done before she could sweep up the pieces. Either way, Kyle had asked.
“What happened with this mother?”
“Well,” Elsie started, “they say she wasn’t satisfied with communing.”
“Okay. Your point?”
“My point is that she didn’t want to talk to her daughter. She wanted her daughter.”
“She wanted to see her, you mean?”
“No. Not exactly.” Elsie lit a third cigarette. “You sure you don’t want another?”
“Fine.” Kyle grabbed a cigarette from Elsie and placed it on the edge of his lips as he smashed out his other one. He didn’t, however, bother lighting it. “You were saying?”
“She didn’t want to see her daughter. She wanted her back.”
“We all want that.”
“Yeah, but she meant it. And she got it.”
“Probably. But word is our skeptic might be the real deal. More than. This lady, her family up and changed their names and disappeared, but when they left, well, they had a daughter again. So what do you say? Can you tell me how I can reach her?”
Kyle snatched Elsie’s lighter and lit his cigarette. He sat there smoking, but he did not answer. He’d seen the runes in the therapy room. He knew that Anita had once been Madam Shaw, psychic extraordinaire and leader of many a séance. Could she have been more? Could Elsie’s bullshit be real? He peered over the Raleigh skyline, ignoring Elsie’s further entreaties, and he made a decision.
Clink. The shovel hit wood. Kyle dropped to his knees and began to frantically brush the dirt aside. With every handful, he could see more and more of the coffin, its laquer faded, but the casing still strong.
“I’ve found her,” he shouted, raising his voice a little too far.
“Shhh.” Anita said, then peered down. “So you have.”
She twirled a stray hair with her finger as she watched Kyle brush away the earth. He had found his daughter. He had come this far. She plucked the hair from her scalp and let it fall to the dirt. She was afraid. Afraid of what was to come. Afraid of Kyle. Just afraid.
“We don’t have to do this,” she said. “You can still turn back.”
“No.” Sean coughed, grabbing and yanking a handful of dirt and roots from the grave wall as he fought to maintain his balance. “No,” he continued, as the cough subsided. “I’m not turning back. And neither are you.”
He stared down at the tiny coffin. It measured no more than three feet from end to end. So small, he thought, trying not to imagine his Charlotte inside. She had been so young. He glanced back up to her tombstone with the cartoon mud puddles and pig, and he locked on the last line.
Kyle grabbed the shovel, jammed it into the crack on the underside of the coffin lid and pushed down with all of his might. He strained against the handle, his face reddening and his veins popping against his too thin frame. He coughed, his whole body quivering as he did, but still he pushed, throwing everything he had left behind that shovel. A splintering sounded, the coffin cracked, and the lid flew open.
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