© Linux87 | Dreamstime.com – Cemetery Night Photo
By Christopher Opyr
The door smashed against the wall, then bounced back at Kyle, but he merely swatted it aside. His breath came in heavy gasps and he could feel himself weakening with the strain but he had forced himself to remain standing.
“Christ on a stick, Kyle. Have you lost your mind?” Anita rose from one of the many couches in the therapy room, confronting him. Jonesy yapped from behind her legs. “How’d you even get in?”
Kyle tossed a rock in the air, catching it and tossing it again. “I had a key.”
“You’re paying for that door.”
Kyle snickered, then coughed. Anita stepped forward, but Kyle righted himself quickly.
“No,” he said.
“Fine, Mr. Ingham, but if you don’t mind me saying,” Anita continued, “you don’t sound so well.”
“I reckon not.” Kyle wiped at his brow, then stood straight as he could. “You see, I heard a rumor about a family. A certain family that had lost a daughter.”
“That load of horse shit has been dragged across my carpet year after year, but you know what? End of the day, it’s still just shit on my carpet.”
“Colorful.” Kyle kneeled setting down his rock and grabbing a nearby tennis ball. “Here, Jonesy. Here boy.”
The corgi bounded over, the sight of the tennis ball wiping all perception of the animus in the room from its mind.
“Whatever you’re thinking, don’t.” Anita shuffled forward, her composure wavering.
Jonesy grabbed the tennis ball in his muzzle and shook it violently as Kyle kept his grip on the ball.
“I don’t mean any harm, ma’am. I just want the truth. See I didn’t believe that shit when I heard it either. Not at first. Then I did some digging of my own.”
“There’s nothing to dig up, Kyle. Christy Newsom came to me looking for a way to turn back time, to bring her daughter back. But that would have been news, Mr. Ingham. Rose Newsom never returned from that grave, no matter the rumors.”
“No. No, that’s what I thought, too,” Kyle said, scratching Jonesy’s head while the dog shook the tennis ball in either direction. “Then I noticed that the Newsoms, they disappeared,” he continued. “They just up and vanished from Raleigh shortly after they contacted you.”
“People move.” Anita stepped forward.
“No, Mrs. Shaw.” Kyle reached into his pocket sliding out a large Gerber knife and folding open its blade. He continued scratching Jonesy’s head. “Don’t.”
Anita came to an abrupt halt. This wasn’t the man that she had come to know. This was a man stretching at the end of his tether, a man who felt that he could suffer no further loss. In that, he didn’t know how wrong he was.
“You see, they didn’t move,” he continued. “They just ceased to exist. The whole family. I find that kind of odd, don’t you?”
Anita made to speak, but Kyle interrupted her.
“It’s a rhetorical question,” he said. He coughed into his sleeve, loosening his grip on Jonesy’s tennis ball. The ball flew from the corgi’s mouth and bounced under a distant couch. Delighted in the chase, the dog bounded after it. As he did, Kyle eased himself to his feet.
“I didn’t know what to make it of it at first,” he said, “but a little more digging and I found the record for the name change. The whole family just changed their names and moved. All of ‘em. Suddenly the Newsoms were the Mackies. Same ages, same socials, new names. You know what the kicker of it was, though?”
Anita slumped to the couch. The time for charades had ended.
“They had a daughter,” she said. Her voice came out weak, tainted by a rare tone of resignation.
“That’s right, they had a daughter. Adopted. So the papers say. One the same age as their dearly departed Rose had been six months prior, give or take. See she didn’t have the same social or nothing, but I know it was her.”
Jonesy ran over and lept into Anita’s lap, his tail wagging fiercely, the tennis ball clutched triumphantly in his mouth. Anita petted him absently, her eyes locked with Kyle.
“And you need the same for your daughter.”
“That’s right. Right on the nose.”
Anita brushed Jonesy from her lap, rising as her determination welled back up once more.
“So, rather than come ask me about what happened, rather than asking me for my help, you break into my place of business and you threaten me, you try to coerce me into helping you. Is that the gist of it? And please don’t bother answering. You appear to be well-versed in rhetorical questions. So if it pleases you or not, you can see yourself out right the fuck now you two-bit Judas.”
Kyle laughed, not a ha-ha laugh, but a light chortle at the absurdity of the situation. He traced the knife along a nearby doily sending it feathering to the floor.
“You speak your mind, Anita. Its honestly what I love most about you. Right now maybe the only thing. See, you want to talk about betrayal. You want to cast yourself as the betrayed. I can’t help but to find that all kinds of absurd. You bring the desperate here, the grieving, and you speak to us of healing and moving past the pain, applying a band-aid to an amputation when you could have returned the damn limb. That’s betrayal.”
“If it was that easy, don’t you think I would have? Don’t you think I would have returned your loved ones to every last one of you? I see your pain every night in this room. I see the pain of everyone in this group, but what I did that night, that wasn’t natural. It wasn’t right, and it didn’t come without cost. I can’t do it again.”
“I’m willing to pay, no matter the price.”
“This isn’t about you, Mr. Ingham, or a price that you can pay. You can’t make it worth my while. It’s about your daughter. It’s about me. It’s about the rift between the living and the dead. This isn’t a matter to be taken lightly or even at all, so let me be clear: I can’t help you.”
Kyle sighed, slumping ever so slightly, then straightened himself out, cracking his neck. It popped loudly. He shifted and cracked the other side, balancing it out, then confronted Anita once more.
“I want my daughter back,” Kyle said. “And you’re going to make that happen.”
“How’s that?” Anita called down. Kyle replied from within the grave beside her.
“I said I can’t lift her.”
Anita knew that the girl couldn’t be that heavy, not this far gone, and Kyle’s cancer, bad as it was, hadn’t yet so far incapacitated him as to prevent his lifting his daughter from her grave. Still, she didn’t have to be psychic to know what he meant.
For that matter, she wasn’t psychic – merely a medium for the dead. She had dealt with death as far back as she could remember, since the first spirit appeared in her nursery singing her its macabre lullaby. She had seen ghosts, poltergeists, corpses and the like. Anita was well-versed in the reality of death, in all its aspects and had long since lost any squeamishness in its presence.
For Kyle, however, the corpse in that coffin was his daughter. By now Charlotte would be little more than bone and strips of dessicated flesh. Of course he couldn’t be the one to remove the remains.
Anita lowered herself onto her rear and swung her legs over the edge of the open grave. Her feet dangled there for a moment, kicking, like a child’s legs dipping into the waters at the edge of a pool.
“Give me a hand,” she said. “I’m coming down.”
Kyle reached up, grabbing her around the waist as she lurched into the pit. He tried to ease her down but another fit stole over him and as he coughed they tumbled back into the earthen wall. Dirt and mud and worms rained down as they tangled together slipping into the back of the open coffin.
Kyle heard a snap of bone beneath them as they landed and cringed. He knew that those remains were not Charlotte, that the bone breaking was a thing, a remnant and nothing more, but as it snapped he pictured her leg snapping, the bone shattering and piercing through the flesh. He could see his daughter collapsing grasping at the fracture, blood gushing between her fingers as she cried out in pain, a child too young to understand, too young to have to suffer so.
He bit his lip, fighting to restrain his emotions. A hand touched his shoulder, knobby, almost skeletal itself, but with a faint hint of warmth.
Kyle opened his eyes meeting Anita’s tender gaze. So much had fractured between them, yet now, as his pain came flooding back, as thoughts of Charlotte’s final hours bombarded him, forcing themselves out from the recesses to which he had banished them, she met him with kindness. She touched his cheek and he saw the warmth that she had always conveyed in their sessions. She forgave him, which made it all so much worse. He did not deserve her absolution.
She tilted her head, gesturing back towards the top of the grave. No words were needed. Kyle closed his eyes and nodded at her, thanking her. He sniffed, sucking the snot back up his nose, as he struggled against the flood of emotion battling to escape. Then, with no further acknowledgement, he grabbed the top of the open grave and scrambled up and out. He could feel the clods of earth ripping away from that wall as he did. He tried not to imagine them falling upon his daughter’s remains, but his imagination was less forgiving than Anita.
As at last he pulled himself free and knelt on the grass once more, face down, staring into the dirt as if perched over the edge of a toilet bowl, he shook, his arms trembling as they bore his weight both physical and emotional. His lip quivered and he winced his eyes shut. Fairy lights danced in the darkness, then images of Charlotte: laughing… crying… screaming!
His eyes shot open and he hauled his gaze from the wet grass searching for any sign of reality, any hint that this night was anything other than what it seemed. He sought any signal that this was some mad delusion. His fingers gripping into that muck, the tickle of the wet grass playing against his palms, it all hinted at the vacuum behind him – the chasm in which his daughter had been laid to rest – the truth of her death and the absurdity of what he had come to do. It couldn’t be done. It couldn’t be real.
Yet as he raised his eyes above that disturbed soil, he saw the earth marred by a mix of salt and ash laid out in a circle at the foot of the grave. A pentagram had been similarly etched within the circle, and at each point of the star rose a candle, as of yet unlit. The far points all bore black candles, but that closest to the grave had been adorned with a lone red candle.
The circle must have been ten feet or more in diameter for in the hollow at the center of that star rested Anita’s physician’s bag, an urn laid out beside it just back of center of the circle and enough empty space remaining for one to stand with room to spare. The bag itself writhed, once more seemingly alive. Kyle averted his gaze, glancing to the edges of the symbol.
In the gaps between the arms of the star and the enclosing circle various runes had been etched with the same mix of salt and ash, while beyond that circle could be seen the start of a second circle enclosing the first. Kyle must have interrupted Anita’s work. Staring at it, he couldn’t help but to think that one good gust of wind could destroy all of her preparation.
As that thought flitted through his head, the reality of what he was attempting hit home. Rather than stand, Kyle sank back to the ground and rolled onto his back. The wetness of the grass felt good soaking through his shirt, earthy and nostalgic dredging up hints of childish innocence that had no right to exist in this time or place. He stared up through the branches of the trees his eyes catching on the faint twinkling of the stars above – those not obscured by the lights of the nearby city. He stared at the majesty of that vast black and its peppering of stars, and he fumbled into his pocket, yanking out his pack of cigarettes.
He slipped out his fifth cigarette of the evening (fifth from the left on the top) and fumbled the lid closed, then thought better of it, and slipped out the sixth as well. He lit up the one and held the other aside in waiting.
He was still lying there on his back, staring up at the sky, puffing at his cigarettes when Anita slipped a bag over the lip of the grave and hauled herself up, crawling her way to the surface, covered in muck and looking as if she wouldn’t have been out of place on the reels of a Romero film. One hand before the other, reaching and clawing, she came, but as she hauled her head above the ground line, her furthest stretched arm jostled against the discarded bag. A clatter of bones could be heard, then the opening of the bag stretched and Kyle saw it, just a tiny dirt-streaked glimpse, but enough to know that bulging at the tip of that bag lay his daughter’s skull, a maze of fractures spider-webbing above the empty socket that once held her left eye.
He looked away, but it was already too late. The memories came flooding back.
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