© Linux87 | Dreamstime.com – Cemetery Night Photo
By Christopher Opyr
Kyle plucked idly at the hairs on his arm just above his wrist – a nervous habit. His daughter used to pull at those same hairs, tugging softly just so with her little fingers as she drifted off to sleep. At the time that rhythmic picking had driven him insane. Kyle had touch issues. Always had.
Now he would have given anything for his daughter to be there fidgeting as she fell asleep, her nighttime sweaty head soaking into the shoulder of his shirt. He missed the smell of her silky baby hair and her lavender body wash all around him, as she lay there on top of his chest. Most of all he simply missed her.
Nothing can replace a parent’s love for their child. More, nothing could ease the loss of having that child ripped away, dead before her childhood could ever be lived.
The memory of his Charlotte clung to Kyle like a phantom limb, so deeply embedded that he could feel her pressed there, snuggling up against him. He could smell her, a faint scent dulled by memory, yet no less overpowering. His shoulder even sweated, as if sensing the heat of her head pressed against it. Yet when he reached to hold her, to let her know that she was safely in his arms, his hands met with only open air.
Daddy had always made everything okay back then. He had been her safety net, hovering on the edge of every playtime, there for each boo-boo and childhood disappointment. He had always been there for her…until that day that he wasn’t. The day he looked away.
Kyle pulled out a pack of Marlboro Reds, slapping the pack against his palm a few times, then peeled back the plastic wrap. He pulled out the first cigarette from the top left. That was the order of things – top to bottom, left to right, everything in its proper sequence. Order held importance, it held a sway over Kyle, and it acted as his guide. Without it, he was adrift.
That order had been dismantled with the death of Charlotte, and ever since then Kyle had come unmoored. Daughters didn’t die before their fathers. That was not the proper sequence.
He took a drag off the cigarette, unrolled his car window, and exhaled, the smoke catching on the evening breeze. The wisps shifted in gentle eddies, catching the unseen currents of the wind and dissipating into the night. Kyle focused on the dance of the smoke, not ready to look at what lay beyond. As it thinned, he lifted the cigarette back to his lips, breathed deep, then let out another puff of smoke, exhaling through his nostrils.
His nerves quieted. He knew that the habit was unwise, especially for someone with his health concerns. He knew all the data and had seen all the anti-smoking ads, but he just didn’t care. When Charlotte had been born he had made a promise to drop the habit, to make sure he would be there to watch her grow older, but the burden of that promise had ended with her death. What was the point of it now, anyway? He doubted that he would be long bound to this mortal coil, gone long before any cancer could ever come claim it’s due.
The cigarette half gone, a pillar of ash hanging precariously from its tip, Kyle finally allowed himself a glimpse beyond the smoke. Across the street stretched the Hillview Memorial Cemetery. Apparently every cemetery in Wake County seemed to have the words Memorial or Gardens shoved somewhere in its name. Maybe it was that way everywhere.
Order, Kyle thought. Don’t let yourself derail.
He tapped off the ash of his cigarette and glanced to his left. The low, pillared wall ran around the curve of the street and disappeared. To his right, it vanished among the trees dotting Morris Hill. The whole stretch had been built of red brick – a popular staple in Raleigh and the surrounding area. Here the red of the wall had muted with age, and in spots stained green from years of growth and decay, the wet seasons and lush woods taking their toll on the now crumbling structure. If it were not for the tall wrought iron pickets stabbing up through the brick into the sky, Kyle imagined the wall would have tumbled down decades past. As it was they presented a feeble skeletal structure holding the wall intact and provided the only line of defense against vandals – their sharpened pickets presenting an at least mildly imposing facade.
Kyle jolted from his reverie. Anita Shaw tapped at the passenger side window with her pale, knobby fingers. She stopped and made a rolling motion with her hand. Kyle shook his head and waved her around. Anita simply rolled her eyes, bundled into her shawl, which she wrapped about as a head scarf, and stepped around.
“Sorry,” Kyle said. “No automatic windows.”
Kyle’s first car had come with automatic windows. After a particularly bad rainstorm the electrical system had shorted, and the automatic windows and locks had stopped working. Whether this actually had anything to do with the rainstorm or not, Kyle didn’t care. He had opted for manual everything on his cars after that. Kyle had many issues, and all of them clung to him tenaciously.
Anita brushed a stray tuft of gray hair out of her eyes. Thin and wispy as the smoke still trailing from his cigarette, her hair was almost transparent. Beneath her shawl Anita covered her balding crown, though normally it would be on full display. The shawl was more windbreaker than an act of concealment. Anita never hid herself. If someone had a problem with her she’d be the first to tell them exactly where to shove it.
“You just gonna stay in there all night, or we gonna get on with this business?”
Kyle rubbed at his eyes, avoiding Anita’s gaze. “Well…”
“Christ on a stick! I weren’t the one wanted to be out here to start with. Haul your ass out or I’m hauling mine home.” Anita paused, not so much for effect, but more catching on another train of thought. “Come to think of it, Mr. Ingham, I ain’t want to be here, and I made that clear, so I’m just fine turning back.”
“No.” Kyle shook his head, dropped his cigarette to the wet asphalt, and stepped out of the car. “No, I need to do this.”
The car door slammed shut behind him and he wrapped his arms around his chest for warmth.
“You ought wear a coat. You’ll catch cold.”
Kyle laughed and the laugh ripped into a hoarse, throaty cough. He doubled over letting the cough seize him, deep and mucusy, ending at last with a phlegm-filled spit.
“I don’t think that matters now.”
Anita pushed herself under one arm, propping Kyle up despite being his senior once over. He had to fight the urge to pull away, the pressure of her under one arm throwing off his sense of balance. He felt uneven and scratched beneath his other arm in a feeble attempt to balance out the sensation.
“You’re batshit, you know that?”
“So Jill always told me.”
Jill had been his wife. Their marriage had dissolved within a year of Charlotte’s death. She blamed Kyle, and he couldn’t say he didn’t deserve that blame. He didn’t kill Charlotte, but if he had just not turned away…
They had been at the North Carolina State Fair. There must have been tens of thousands of people crowded on those grounds. The earth had been spongy beneath their feet, still wet from a morning shower. That day Kyle had been properly attired, both he and his daughter in matching hoodies. He had a stuffed pig under one arm, a diaper bag on the opposite shoulder, and Charlotte by that hand. She wasn’t quite two, but she had a strong independent streak and he’d had to hold on tight to keep her from losing herself in the crowd. She feared nothing and no one – something that had always both worried Kyle and his wife and made them both very proud.
They’d been stopped at a food vendor to pick up some funnel cake and a polish sausage dog for Kyle. He’d set the stuffed pig on the counter ledge while he rummaged for his wallet. The rain had just started back and he’d let go of Charlotte’s hand to pull up her hoodie. As he did, the plush had fallen, and he’d turned to catch it, the diaper bag coming down with the sudden shift. It had only taken a moment to gather his things and right himself, but when he’d turned back Charlotte had been gone.
“Where’d you go there?” Anita asked, rousing Kyle. She had a bad habit of waking him from his thoughts.
“I know you’re lying.”
Anita stopped, catching her breath. Kyle took a moment to do the same and extricated himself from her shoulder while he did. He leaned against the bricks and stared up at the wrought iron gate. A padlock and a rusted chain barred the entryway.
“Don’t think we’re getting in here.” The words came out in a light rasp. Kyle wasn’t quite used to the new strain in his voice. He didn’t like it.
“No shit.” Anita righted herself. “I didn’t tell you to park by the front entrance. I parked up the hill tucked out of the way like any reasonable person up to no good.”
“Point taken. So where to?”
Anita nodded up the road to where the trees hung over the perimeter of the cemetery.
“Just up here a ways.”
She lodged herself back under Kyle’s arm permitting no argument, though he lacked the energy for one himself. So they hobbled up the moonlit street, clinging as best they could to the shadows beneath the trees, a fierce septuagenarian that could have been anyone’s hard ass grandmother and a hollowed out man that should have been in the prime of his life.
A few minutes later, the pair found themselves hidden in the shade of a large oak on the northern edge of the cemetery. Anita had stopped, catching her breath once more. As she did, she rolled a joint, took a long drag, then offered it to Kyle.
“Shit did wonders for my Charlie when he had his chemo.”
“I’m not in chemo,” Kyle said, eyeing Anita. She never ceased to amaze him. “Besides, it’s illegal.”
“You’re a strange man, Mr. Ingham. What you have in mind and you’re worried about a little pot?”
“What we’re doing isn’t illegal.”
“Not by man’s laws, I spose.”
“You live by your rules.” Kyle paused. “So what are you taking it for?”
“The marijuana. You said your husband used it during his chemo. What about you? What are you using it for?”
“To get high, dipshit.” She shook her head and finished off the rest of her joint in silence.
Kyle pressed back against a rusted picket and lit another cigarette. Second from the left on the top. All in order.
He’d met Anita shortly after his divorce, though it took him months to really notice her. They had circled on the edges of the same crowds, flirting through throngs of the bereaved and the desperate. Kyle had been seeking answers, losing his wallet to charlatans that prayed on grief. Anita had been there to catch those that fell. She never approached anyone, never offered any services, but if you sought her out she made herself available. When you stumbled she lifted you back to your feet.
Once he noticed her, Kyle had begun to see her everywhere. She could be found outside every seance and every fortune teller, a miniscule lady, barely standing over five feet, with deeply hunched shoulders and always wrapped in her shawl. And every time he saw her she had been consoling those that had finally lost hope.
That’s when she and Kyle had finally met – when he’d hit bottom, alone, broke, and angry… so angry. At everyone and everything. That anger had consumed him even quicker than the cancer. He’d been stumbling out of a shithole with a neon Psychic sign, and she’d been watching from across the street. He’d cursed and sweared and yelled at her, but she’d just stood there. So he had marched over full of hate and ready to unleash on someone, anyone. When he’d finally reached her, however, she weathered every curse, every foul utterance, unflappable. At last, Kyle had collapsed, and Anita had caught him.
“It’s time,” she said.
Kyle finished his cigarette, then followed after Anita as she shuffled over to a large sheet of plywood propped on top of the bricks against a stretch of wrought iron. She stopped and knocked on the plywood.
“So?” Kyle asked.
“So move it. Can’t expect me to do all the heavy-lifting.”
Kyle reached over Anita and took hold of the plywood as best he could. He slid it across the top of the bricks, pushing it back about three feet, revealing a gap in the fence.
“These bars rusted out years ago. Why fix ‘em if you can hide ‘em?” Anita said. “If there’s one thing you can trust in, it’s that we’re all lazy bastards when we think we can get away with it.”
Kyle grabbed at his back staring at the hole in the cemetery fence and letting the gravity of what they were planning to sink in. His nerves tensed, his throat constricted, and he had the sudden urge to draw out the third cigarette from the pack.
“We can always turn back,” Anita said. “There’s no shame in it. Hell, you know I’d prefer it that way.”
“No,” Kyle said. “I came here to set things right.”
“There’s nothing right about this Mr. Ingham. Need I remind you, I’m acting under duress.”
“You help me out, and everything will be just fine, Mrs. Shaw.”
Anita snorted once more.
“Well, if that ain’t a damned lie. You know, sometimes I wish I’d never met you.”
“I do. I wish the same, but here we are.” Kyle motioned towards the hole in the fence.
Anita took the hint and hauled herself over the wall and on through. Kyle followed after her. He had come here to restore order to the world. Things had a proper sequence, a linear model to follow. A daughter ought never die before her father. There would be no backing down. He’d come to set that order straight.
On to Part 2