Tag Archives: In Memoriam

In Memoriam: Part 7

© Linux87 | Dreamstime.com – Cemetery Night Photo

By Christopher Opyr

          Kyle sank his head into his hands breathing in the gravity of that which was to come. He looked back at the path that had brought him here, to this incredulous point, and he pondered how he had ever let himself come so far.

          For Charlotte.

          Yes, for Charlotte. Soon there would be order again, and his daughter would be returned. He lifted his head from his hands and met Anita’s gaze. He trembled contemplating his fate and sought an answer in her eyes.

          She nodded, a silent affirmation that Death would lay its hands upon him. In that moment, Kyle accepted his fate, though after a longing glance to the discarded remnants of his cigarettes, he wished he had one last smoke – one last calming of the nerves before his time came to an end.

          “Will it be quick?” he asked.

          “No.”

          So be it. What else should he have expected? He waited in that silence, so much more terrible than the baying of the dogs and the howling of the wind that had preceded it. He waited for the inevitable, and he pondered what would happen to his daughter.

          How would she return? Would she suffer or would she just be made whole? Would she see that which came to claim him and would it haunt her? Or would he die before she saw life once more? He so wanted to see her before he died.

          “When she’s here,” he started, pausing and thinking better of his words. “When she’s alive once more, I need you to be sure she gets to her mother. You haven’t lost the address?”

          “No, I have it.” She paused then, holding something back. Did she want to tell him goodbye and how she wished there was another way, or was she holding back her anger for what he had made her do. Kyle would never know. “She’ll see her mother, again,” Anita continued.

          “Good.” Kyle glanced away not wanting to see the pity in Anita’s eyes – a pity that he did not deserve – or worse, the hate that he did deserve. He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper – one of those refrigerator magnet to-do lists – and handed it over to Anita.

          “You’ve done your part. Your answer is here.”

          Anita glanced at the paper and smiled, though her eyes bore only sadness. Kyle had done wrong forcing her hand, and he knew that no matter what she said.


***

          After the doctors informed him of the cancer riddling his lungs, Kyle’s hesitance had gradually vanished. Before, when Anita had warned him of the line that they could not cross, he had known that it was because she could not bear his death on her hands. Once that sentence had been handed down, however, he could no longer accept her position. If death had chosen him, he’d rather have at it already and let his daughter know life. To perish without making that barter when he could have set the order right, that seemed a waste of life on a cosmic scale.

          Anita had not agreed, so he had taken Jonesy. With her husband long in the grave, her corgi was the dearest thing left to her and the only bargaining chip that Kyle could leverage. He regretted that it had come to that, to taking her dog. He was not a man of violence or coercion, but Anita had been unwilling to see sense. Even with his death only a matter of time as the cancer spread, she still insisted that his daughter’s resurrection was untenable.

          Though he regretted the way he had forced her hand, or having had to force it at all, Kyle did not feel a deep sympathy for Anita herself – his daughter came first, after all, and his life seemed already forfeit. Instead a deep loss clung to him, grieving for the destruction of the bond that they had formed. When he had come to her and forced her hand, he had seen the life break behind those glassy eyes. At that moment all compassion she had held for Kyle had ended.


***

          Of course there is no compassion left in the world, is there?

          Kyle ripped himself from his reverie. Anita looked at him, the crumpled note in her hand.

          “Your apartment? The one to which I have a spare key in case of emergency?”

          “Yeah, that’s the place. I didn’t really have an option on many places to keep a dog. I didn’t want him to get hurt or stolen.”

          “You’re a piece of work.”

          “Yeah.”

          The silence returned between them and Kyle looked across the cemetery to the gate as the iron pickets began to rattle and the doors strained against their chain.

          “Time?” he asked.

          Anita nodded.

          Kyle watched the dark roll in from that gate, fallen leaves riding it and tumbling before it like the foam on a wave crashing to shore. It spread up the hill past tombstone after tombstone, rattling among the roots of the trees and the low bushes, and toppling flowers left for loved ones long gone. The dark wave swept over a nearby vase, sending it crashing down and tearing the pink petals from the still fresh daisies that it had held. Those petals swirled and roiled in the tumultuous tide of encroaching dark, until they blew past caught on a new eddie and whisked away like the smoke of his cigarettes.

          What did you say when you knew death had come? What were you to do then? Fuck all, he thought. Ain’t shit left to do about nothing. He laughed struck by the absurdity of the profanity and the poor grammar that would constitute his last thoughts. Then the shadow hand reached from the dark and plunged itself into his chest.

          He writhed as the pain tore through him, an ambush of agony. It clawed at his flesh and burned at his insides. He tried to scream but another shadow hand choked him, shoving itself down his throat. The thing tasted of damp earth and chalk and he gagged upon its grit. His breath stolen from him and the pain searing through him, Kyle prayed for an end to come.

          Then another hand, and another, and another, rose from the shadow tide and gripped and clawed him and pulled at him, clutching to him at random. As the shock overloaded his system his mind blotted out the pain leaving only the imbalance of it all – the randomness of the pressure. Those hands groped without order, and suddenly Kyle found himself shifting and squirming and tearing at his own self trying to balance the pain and touch, to provide some symmetry to the utter anarchy of the thing that tore at him.

          Yet no matter how much he clawed and scratched, no matter how he rolled and punched and ripped at himself, he could provide no balance and find no peace. The sensation erupted into madness and he could bear no more. He could feel himself dying and he welcomed it.

          That’s when he felt that other sensation, something familiar. Tiny fingers plucked at the hair of one wrist, their pull soft and tender, a slow and soothing repetition. He did not try to balance it. He did not try to even out the sensation or to resist it. Kyle welcomed it even more than he had death a moment prior.

          A soft exhalation of air sounded through the vacuous night, followed by a steadying rhythm as the breathing slowed and found its pattern. A damp sweat broke out on his shoulder as a warmth pressed down against it. Charlotte curled into her father’s arms.

          No, he thought. She shouldn’t be here for this. They can’t have her, not her, too!

          He opened his eyes against the pain, and struggled to his knees, clutching Charlotte tightly to his chest as he tried to rise. He had to get his daughter to Anita.

          Only as he made to move, he felt the shadow hands retreat. They did not accept him. He had been found wanting. One after the other they withdrew from him plummeting back into the shadow tide. He didn’t need to see it to know it. As they vacated a sense of peace had returned to him and his soul mended with every departure.

          Yet, a greater terror flooded over him. A life for a life. There was no other way to balance the scales. His daughter slept peacefully in his arms tugging upon the hairs of his wrist, but if she lived, and if he lived, then there was only one other possibility.

          “Please,” he said. “Take me. Not her.”

          Anita sagged into herself, resting against a tombstone. “You’ll give Jonesy a good home?” she asked. “I left instructions by my usual seat at group.”

          She had known. She had known from the moment he asked this of her, and yet she had never told him. She knew that death would reject him and take her instead, that his life so tenuous at best would not balance the scales. He tried to say something, anything, but no words came. Of course, as always, Anita understood.

          “There was always a chance of this with you so close to death’s door. Of course you’ll have to stop that habit now. You’ll have to fight.”

          Kyle nodded, watching helplessly as the shadows hands lunged from the tide and bore into Anita. She shrieked as the onslaught bombarded her and collapsed to her hands and knees. Again and again those shadow hands dug into her, the pallor fleeing from her face as her remaining years vanished in mere moments.

          “She’s waking,” she said, struggling to get out the words. Then her strength gave, her fight snuffed out. She writhed and screamed and kicked against the inescapable grasp of Death’s shadow.

          Kyle looked down then and noticed for the first time his daughter’s face, smooth and soft and still so full of innocence. Beads of sweat dripped from her hair, soaked from the nighttime sweats that had always stolen over her in her sleep. She squirmed, seeking comfort against his chest, and as she did her eyes fluttered open for the briefest of moments – those beautiful green eyes, so full of joy and wonder. He could not let the horror of this night be the first thing her new life witnessed.

          Kyle cast Anita one last desperate glance. She sunk against the earth, a desiccated husk, a nightmare version of her former self. Her lips dried and cracked and her skin shriveled and hardened like the leathery remnants that had clung to his daughter’s bones. All the while she screamed and struggled weighted down by that shadow-thing.

          There was nothing that Kyle could do for her. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, then rose to his feet and ran from the cemetery. Her screams echoed behind him as he shimmied through the hole in the fence, all the while clutching his daughter close and shielding her, praying that she would have no memory of this night.

          He would not be so lucky. He’d have to return to his promise now. He’d have to fight to live, to be there for Charlotte, and yet he knew that part of him had died in that cemetery with Anita. For every joy that Charlotte experienced, he’d know the sacrifice that he’d made to make that possible. He had killed Anita. He had exchanged her life for his daughter’s life and the part of that exchange that would haunt him, however, was not that he had made that sacrifice, but in knowing that in hindsight, had he known it would have been Anita asked to die in the barter, he would have made the same decision. Even there beside the shadow of Death, asking it to take him instead of her, Kyle had known it. He hadn’t wanted it to take him. No matter what mask he’d worn, he’d been relieved when it claimed Anita. He’d live watching his daughter grow up, fighting against the cancer, and hoping that Charlotte never came to know the darkness of his own soul, the darkness that had granted her new life.




Back to Part 1

In Memoriam: Part 6

© Linux87 | Dreamstime.com – Cemetery Night Photo

By Christopher Opyr

          Kyle motioned threateningly with the knife, or, at least, he attempted to do so. His movements came across hesitant, and with that hesitance he might as well have shouted his utter inability to make good on his threats.

          “No, I won’t,” Anita said responding to Kyle’s insistence that she would return his daughter to him. Anita stepped towards him, while Jonesy rooted through the cushions of the therapy couch behind her. “I will do no such thing. Your daughter has passed, and I ain’t piercing the veil for you anymore than I would for myself when my own Charlie died. It’s high time we end this farce.”

          She held out her open hand and waited. At last, Kyle sighed, handed her the knife, and fell into a nearby armchair. He didn’t weep or apologize, nor did he hint at any emotion beyond resignation.

          Anita returned to the couch with Jonesy. Only ten feet separated her and Kyle, and yet a gulf existed between them, a great chasm of unease and distrust. Kyle had shattered the harmony of their relationship, leaving in his wake a great discord.

          Kyle cast his gaze about, avoiding eye contact with Anita, settling at last upon his own clasped hands resting upon his belly. He fidgeted idly with his thumbs, one pressed to the other, then glanced away looking over the empty couches. A lonely pallor hung over the room, settling upon it like dust with the ages.

          He wanted to speak. The words welled up in his throat and caught, burning, an acidic reflux, and he swallowed them back each time. Anita provided him no further respite from the silence, no proffered olive branch to bridge the rift that had formed. Whether she sat in silent judgement, simply grieved for the loss between them, or pondered some other course entirely, Kyle did not know. What he did know is that she had made no move to call for help, though by all rights she could have him arrested.

          “Why…” he started.

          “… don’t I call the police?” she finished.

          Kyle nodded.

          “Should, I s’pose. Might. But would you have done it, really?”

          “No.”

          “Of course not.”

          “But,” he started, “how… how can one…” He paused, his mind swirling in the eddies of possibility – the infinite might-have-beens that lay now just out of reach. His daughter, his Charlotte, was no longer a period full-stop, but a simmering question mark imbued with the potential of actuality, an existence beyond death.

          “How,” he continued, “can we know that death lacks finality and not seek to overturn it?”

          “Laws of nature, Kyle, and of something more. Life doesn’t come from nothing. You read the records. You know about the Mackies. You found Rose Newsom in the adoption files, but did you see her mother in the paperwork? Did you find any record of Christy Newsom?”

          “A death certificate.”

          “There you have it. A barter, not a gift. Christy hadn’t been long gone even. Your daughter, three times longer. What price must be paid? Would you have that on my conscience? On yours?”

          Yes, Kyle thought, but he did not reply. He had failed to face death in that morgue, and he knew that here too he would fail. His daughter should be returned. Order should be set right, and his life was a trifle to pay, but he could see the anguish in Anita’s weathered features and her half glances. She had lived with the guilt of that woman’s death for decades, had abandoned the use of her gifts because of it, and he had no right to force her to walk that path yet again. The damage this time could be irrevocable.

          “No,” he said, swallowing back his words once more.

          “Good.” Anita nodded at him, then rose, tapping her leg and sending Jonesy bounding to her side. “Well then, it’s been a long night. Kindly show yourself out.”

          Kyle rose, but before he reached the door, Anita stopped him once more.

          “I’ll see you on Thursday.”

          How she had the capacity to forgive him Kyle could not fathom. He faltered there in the light of that kindness.

          “After everything that I did?”

          “You’re a pacifist,” she replied. “It makes your threats idle at best. Bless you child, but you don’t have the heart to kill.”


***

          He slashed quick and deep, slitting the rabbit’s throat. The blood sprayed frantically and he lowered the dying creature swiftly to the urn, not expecting the arterial gush to send the blood so far. They needed as much of the blood as possible.

          The rabbit twitched struggling with its dying breaths, and bobbing as he held it by its ears and tail just above the urn collecting as much of its blood as he could. Inside himself he felt something tear with each diminishing shudder. He could see the confusion in the animal’s eyes as the vibrancy faded from them, slipping away into the nightlands beyond life.

          Anita had been right about him. Kyle Ingham lacked the capacity to kill. At least, he had lacked the capacity to kill. Something had changed since their conversation that night, and with this act, with his final commitment to action and his stand against death (with death?), Kyle felt his own sense of right and wrong dying within him, an internal parasite in its last throes.

          Anita reached into the urn, bathing her fingertips in the rabbit’s blood and running a streak in a line down her forehead and along the bridge of her nose. As she lifted her finger away the blood trickled in tiny rivulets, some concluding at the tip of her nose and dripping through the air, while other streams converged and pooled in the dip of the philtrum just above her lip. So adorned, she rose from her place by the urn and began to chant.

          “Vi supplico spiriti,” she began, “ascolta la mia chiamata.”

          Kyle could only focus on her words with great difficulty, and even then he did not speak the language, so he found the affair rather futile. Instead he focused on her person, her arms splayed out in supplication, and he did his best to imitate her posture per her instructions. As he attempted this he noticed that she had changed her attire, wearing now a long, thin, gown-like vestment. The material was a transparent black, with a golden trim, revealing her aged body beneath lined with the wrinkles and scars of a life well-lived. The exhibitionary nature of the dress made Kyle blush, and he felt ashamed both for finding any shame in her attire and also for being so easily distracted in the midst of such an arcane and solemn ceremony.

          “Ascolta la mia chiamata,” Anita intoned once more, her voice rising. A light breeze began to stir.

          Kyle refocused upon her vestment itself. The cloth appeared frayed and moth-ridden, as if stored for decades. Yet it also bore fresh dirt across its entire surface, so thoroughly stained that he couldn’t help but to imagine it as itself recently exhumed.

          “Ascolta la mia chiamata!” Her voice cracked, a tone of pleading piercing through the increased pitch. Kyle may not have been able to understand her words, but he knew her tone. Anita was begging. The breeze tickled at Kyle’s arms and he watched in dismay as the salt and ash began to shift ever so slightly.

          Anita’s chorus ended and her tone shifted again. A hint of pleading remained, but now her tone demanded obedience, as if chiding a petulant child. “Su questa ora, la sua, i morti, un’ultima stretta alla vita dare. Per lei il cui tempo è finito, lasciare che una volta di più il flusso del fiume del tempo.”

          Kyle felt a warmth emanate from the earth, the heat surging through the soles of his feet and up his legs, crisp and dry and pleasant, as if standing upon a furnace grate on a cool winter’s eve. He glanced down, his arms still spread, and his back suppliantly bowed, and noticed a hint of steam rising from the ash and salt runes. The smell of burnt leaves filled his nostrils calling forth images of bonfires spent with his parents as they cleared the first fall of autumn.

          Anita resumed her former pleading chorus, her voice beginning to rise to a crescendo. As it peaked, she began to shout into the black of the night.

          “Custode dei morti, una miseria offro per voi di sentire il mio appello. Su questa ora, la sua, i morti, un’ultima stretta alla vita dare. Ritorno a Charlotte la scintilla della vita, e di prendere da noi il debito che è dovuto.”

          With that she bent down, dumping Charlotte’s remains from their casement in the burlap sack spilling them upon the earth in the center of the pentagram. Kyle jolted at this, unable to look away from the gentle swaying of Charlotte’s cratered skull rocking to a slow stop at Anita’s feet.

          The steam turned to smoke, and the ash and salt seemed to boil, as Anita lifted the urn in her arms then emptied it upon Charlotte’s remains. The blood washed over the stained bones and leathered flesh, bathing all in a viscous crimson and Kyle stumbled, his feet hitting upon the inner circle. A shock of pain stole up his leg, buckling his knees and sending him to the earth between two points of the star. He could feel his flesh bubbling where the salt line had burned him even through the soles of his shoes.

          Still Anita never wavered. She ploughed on, her incantation still unfinished. As she continued the wind howled and in the distance an outcry of dogs rose to join in the morbid melody birthed of the mingling of the chanting and the wind tearing through the trees.

          “Accettare la nostra offerta, miseria prima, e poi con la mano preso in pieno.”

          The star and the circle and the runes burned into the grass and dirt, not with flame but with a scorching red-hot heat that branded the ground in its image.

          Anita returned to her original chant, this time Kyle joining with her having heard the words enough to stumble his way through the incantation. The summoning? “Ascolta la mia chiamata. Ascolta la mia chiamata.”

          Her voice burned at a fever pitch and in her final intonation of the chorus she shifted the language ever so slightly. “Ascoltate la nostra chiamata!”

          The wind tore through the cemetery casting aside the ash and the salt, leaving only the brand of their form behind. The baying of the dogs continued, escalating as more joined. At last, Anita knelt before the bloodied remains of Charlotte and ended her pleas with one final utterance, soft, at almost a lover’s whisper.

          “Verrà la morte in vita. Death will come alive.”

          The wind and the baying and the chanting, all of it, ceased instantly. A calm settled over the cemetery, leaves torn asunder in the previous gusts now falling gently from the sky, catching in Kyle’s hair and Anita’s wispy vestments. Kyle brushed the leaves from his head and shoulders, first with one hand and then the other, keeping the balance, then turned to Anita.

          Again he did not speak, the words forming but this time turning to ash in his mouth. Nothing that he could say bore any weight this eve, so he simply waited for the inevitable or for nothing, and unsure now of which he desired, or if the course chosen had even been just. If it worked, and all signs pointed to there being at least some truth to Anita’s talents and the rumors of her past, then Kyle knew that his time would soon be at an end. The exchange would be made. Death would come for him, taking his life for that of his daughter.

          Kyle stood, leaning on his right leg as pain surged up his left from his burnt foot. Determined, he hobbled over to Anita, and more importantly to Charlotte. At his feet rested her bloodied bones, yet no life pulsed through them.

          “She will come,” Anita said and he did not know if she meant Charlotte or Death.




Back to Part 1

In Memoriam: Part 5

© Linux87 | Dreamstime.com – Cemetery Night Photo

By Christopher Opyr

          Sequentiality dissolved. Time had no order – no model, only a tangled knot of moments intertwined beyond separation, infinitely looping back upon themselves. Kyle’s mind reeled with the onslaught as memory after memory burst like fireworks clouding out the present.


***

          “Mr. Ingham, Mrs. Ingham. Please take a seat.”

          The morgue attendant motioned to two simple chairs set before a normal office table. The room held no coldness, no metallic sterility, just the stale unoriginality of a run-of-the-mill office with slightly less decor. No nick-knacks graced the shelves and the walls were adorned with only the simplest and most pastel of images. Everything had been designed to offer no offense.

          In all of the room, the only thing out-of-place was a simple photograph placed face down at the center of the table. Yet that photograph cut Kyle deeper than any faux-pas of decor ever could. He had been told what to expect, but confronted with that photograph waiting to be turned, waiting for his acknowledgement, he felt dizzy.

          He stumbled grabbing at the back of nearest chair. The attendant stepped forward offering his hand in support, but Kyle waved him off. He sucked in a deep breath and prepared himself for the inevitable.


***

          His heart exploded, his chest pounding and his head throbbing. His breathing came rapid and panicked. No time to stop. He had to keep going. He had to.

          His shoulder jerked back on impact. He barely felt it as he ran straight into a large man wearing a John Deere cap. The diaper bag slid from Kyle’s shoulder and fell into the puddle at his feet. He paid it no mind.

          “Hey mister, your bag?” The man lifted it brushing off some of the muck and holding it out.

          Kyle kept going, ever forward. No time. His head snapped from side-to-side – looking every which way – but never finding her, never locking on his daughter.

          “Charlotte! Charlotte!”

          Strangers began to turn, pitiful glances locking on the stuffed pig in his hand and noticing his desperation. Parents knew that panic when they saw it.

          “Charlotte,” he shouted again. “CHARLOTTE!”


***

          “Daddy?”

          Charlotte curled against Kyle’s chest, the two lying on the living room couch. She snuggled close, her hair slick with sweat and her words muffled by the pacifier in her mouth. Her fingers pulled idly at the hair upon his wrist.

          “Yes, sweetie?” Kyle ran his hand comfortingly through Charlotte’s hair, easing her head against his shoulder and attempting to calm her back into her afternoon nap.

          “Bee-bee?” Her vocabulary had exploded recently, but Charlotte had always had her own names for things and those did not fade easily. Bee-bee was her term for blanket.

          “Here you go.” Kyle gently pulled up a cast-aside throw covering the two of them to Charlotte’s shoulders.

          “Better, sweetie?”


***

          “I’m fine,” Kyle said, being anything but.

          Officer Hansen patted him on the shoulder and eased into the bar-stool beside him. They sat in the kitchen, Jill pouring glasses of iced tea, focusing on anything but the horror show playing out before her. Kyle sat slouched before the island bar, Officer Hansen now beside him. Another officer, detective (Kyle couldn’t remember which), stood at the end of the bar speaking and turning from Jill to Kyle and back as he went on. His words came out calm and compassionate, but they rang hollow, as if forced with an undercurrent of restraint and constant self-checking undermining any warmth intended.

          Kyle couldn’t focus on the specifics, not the particular words, but he made out enough. A body had been discovered. In Sycamore Creek within Umstead Park. A young girl. Possibly Charlotte. Charlotte. Most likely Charlotte.

          Kyle blocked it out. He and Jill had known for some time. They had tried to hold out hope, but contrary to the immortal words of Alexander Pope, hope does not spring eternal. It hadn’t for them at any rate.

          “… if you’d like to speak with someone, there are groups, bereavement groups that we can put you in contact with.”

          “Where is she?” Kyle couldn’t care less about counseling. He needed his daughter.

          The officer, detective, mystery man with forced compassion, started to respond, then stutter-stopped. He took a breath and made a second attempt.

          “She’s with our chief medical examiner. We can drive you there, if you’d like.”

          Kyle nodded.

          “I don’t want to distress you any further,” Officer Compassion continued. “I realize how hard this must be on you – but we do need you to identify her. So when we go down an attendant will be showing you a photograph. I’m telling you this so that you will be prepared. You won’t see her, not directly, not unless you want to. Understood?

          Kyle nodded again.

          “Good. You can still ask to see her, but for your own sake, I recommend against it.”

          “Stop.” Jill. She’d had enough. She set down the pitcher of tea and took a seat herself. They sat in quiet for a moment, the emptiness of the house inescapable. At last Kyle spoke.

          “Can we go?” Kyle asked.

          “Of course. But you don’t have to both come, not if you don’t want to. We only need one of you for a positive ID.”

          Positive ID. What a load of shit. Positive had died the moment his daughter disappeared. Their daughter? Had he and Jill already begun to fracture even then?


***

          The vase shattered, a hail of glass and dead flowers raining down upon Kyle.

          “Out, out, out!” Jill screamed. “I want them all out.”

          Kyle flinched as another vase shattered, this one bursting against the wall off to his right. He felt the glass pepper against his skin and wondered absently if he’d been cut. He didn’t see any blood, but how many shards of glass were catching against his arm, caught in the thick hair that his daughter had once plucked as she drifted off to sleep?

          “Are you listening?” Jill shouted. “I told you to take these out. I can’t look at them anymore.”

          She stood beside an assortment of flowers and other care packages that had been delivered to them following the funeral. Before the funeral? Hell, they had been arriving since Charlotte disappeared. Now most of the flowers had wilted in waterless vases and the care packages all remained unopened. Breaking those seals would have meant accepting the truth of what had happened, the reason for their delivery.

          “Damn it, Kyle! I need you to wake up!”

          A third vase shattered behind him, this one just barely missing his face on its way to the wall. He felt the glass burst and sprinkle against his back. He couldn’t look his wife in the face, not if it meant confronting her grief and her anger, and he couldn’t make himself discard the flowers either. That act purported a finality for which he was not ready. Kyle averted his gaze and instead focused on the miniscule slivers of glass now bespeckling his arm. He reached down to brush them aside, tugging at one that would not be removed. As he did, his fingers pinched at his arm hairs.


***

          Kyle plucked them idly 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.

          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.


***

          “Before you look,” the attendant continued, “you need to know what you’re going to see. The photo is close-up on the right side of her face. Not much will be visible, but we’re confident it will be enough to identify your daughter.”

          Kyle sat mute, his head still spinning.

          Jill spoke up filling the vacuum that he left in his silence.

          “The officer said there was… was head trauma?”

          “It won’t be visible. Not in this photo. Not much. If you see anything it will be in her hairline. Everyone reacts differently, and you can look as long as you would like, but from previous experience I suggest a quick look. Just enough to ID her is usually best.”

          “Thank you.” Jill looked to Kyle.

          He nodded back and reached for the photo.


***

          His hands met with the soft, shoveled earth, slipping inside it, the dirt encasing them. His fists clenched and unclenched within as he rocked on his knees sending tiny avalanches pebbling down the surface.

          “You shouldn’t have seen that. Her. I’m sorry.” Anita stood above him now, reaching down for him. In her other hand she held the sealed bag containing Charlotte’s remains. Kyle shrank back scrambling towards the grave’s edge, putting any and all distance that he could between himself and this moment. Anita understood, nodded at him, and walked into the circle, setting the bag with Charlotte at the center of the pentagram.

          “We don’t have much time,” she said, “but I can finish the preparations.”

          Kyle pressed his face into his dirt-encrusted hands, then pushed evenly on both sides as if to pop his… skull. He could still see it, Charlotte’s shattered skull peeking out of Anita’s bag. He closed his eyes, pushed into their sockets with his palms, but the image could not be erased.

          “Fuck.”

          He fumbled about the ground searching for his cigarettes, finding them a moment later, the pack discarded in the grass. He lifted the pack with shaking hands and flipped it open. The cigarettes shook within as his hands continued their unstoppable tremor. The rows shifted and mixed, the middle row falling into the absence of the top, the bottom angling into the newly formed void, and everything jostling to form a new order: a wrong order. He tried to stop it, to fix it, but as he struggled to right it, the box slipped and the cigarettes spilled out upon the earth.

          It was all wrong. All completely wrong.

          “When I finish, however,” Anita continued as if no time had passed (and had it, had it really?), “I’ll need you to help with the ceremony.”

          Kyle looked up from the spilled cigarettes. Anita pulled some salts from the squirming leather bag, then walked out from the center of the pentagram towards the unfinished circle. As she did, Kyle focused upon her feet, unable to look her in the eye. Forgiveness… How could she forgive him? How could anyone forgive him? How dare they? He stared at her shoes, her simple, worn sneakers, and watched as they stepped over the lines of salt and ash forming the pentagram, past the physician’s bag and its manic, writhing form, and past the urn waiting to be filled.


***

          “It shouldn’t take long to finalize the paperwork,” the funeral director said. “You brought everything we spoke about over the phone, yes?”

          “Yes.” Kyle stared past the director to a set of urns on display amongst the numerous coffins, part of the most horrid sales floor he could possibly imagine.

          “From our previous conversations I gathered we would be going with a casket, correct, Mr. Ingham? Or are you and your wife considering cremation?”

          Kyle turned to the director, a balding man with a salesman’s paunch.

          “No,” he said. He lifted a bag carried at his side. In it the director could make a tiny polka-dotted dress. “She loved this dress. She should be wearing it.”

          “Of course. Absolutely.”

          Absolutely, Kyle thought. Why? There would be no viewing. No open casket. What had been done could not be undone.

          “It’s beautiful,” the director continued. “Lovely, really.” His words sounded nothing more than useless prattle, white noise, like raindrops on a tin roof pelting the metal. Hard and constant.


***

          A consistent knocking. It came from the front door. Kyle and Jill had dreaded that knock for weeks. Each sat apart, only lifting their gazes as that rapping disturbed the brutal silence between them. Once the interruption sounded, however, they could no longer hide.

          For a moment they looked at one another eye to eye, their locked gazes piercing the solemnity of the room and hinting at the intimacy that once existed within those walls. That moment passed quickly. Jill averted her eyes and Kyle rose beginning the long journey to that door, through the labyrinth of flowers and care packages. Every footfall slowed. Every moment sharpened. Even half grounded in that graveyard in that present that he denied, he could still hear the grandfather clock ticking away the seconds from the foyer.

          The wood flooring had felt rough beneath his feet, covered in grit and litter. He hadn’t been able to remember when last they had swept it. Perhaps two weeks prior? Three weeks? His mother had been down then, but she’d been gone for at least two weeks now. Tragedy can bring a family together, but waiting, waiting rips it apart. As the days passed the inevitable had grown too much to bear. Soon Jill and Kyle had lived alone in the house.

          At last Kyle arrived. The knocking sounded again, and he could see the silhouette of the man outside filtered through the kaleidoscopic oval of glass at the center of the door. He reached out and opened the door.


***

          “Charlotte,” Kyle screamed again! He tucked the diaper bag tight to his shoulder and stepped away from the concerned vendor at the food cart. “Charlotte, you come here right now!”

          No response. He turned back casting a questioning glance at the vendor.

          “I’m sorry. I didn’t see,” the man said.


***

          “But I have to see. I have to see her,” Kyle insisted. The attendant paced. “I can’t stop you, Mr. Ingham, but I do want to reiterate that I don’t recommend this. Your daughter’s wounds, her skull was severely fractured. Most parents, this is not the final memory that they want of their child. I know it isn’t proper, but I beg you both to reconsider.”

          Jill shook her head. “Not me. I’m staying here. I’ve seen enough. We both have, haven’t we Kyle?”

          Kyle set the photo back face down.

          “No. One last time. I have to hold her one last time.”


***

          “It’s never enough, is it,” Elsie said more than asked. She and Kyle leaned against the brick wall outside a medium’s place of business in Zebulon, Elsie chain-smoking and Kyle puffing lightly on the last cigarette in his pack: the proper one from the bottom right. They had just left from a group session with Miss Ava where Elsie had “spoken” with her dead husband, Edward. Charlotte had not been in attendance.

          “Never,” Kyle agreed.

          Elsie gestured with a flask at Kyle.

          “No thanks.”

          “Fine.” She took a swig. “Skeptic bitch is here, again.”

          “Who?”

          “The skeptic. Have you not seen her before? I thought you were a regular.”

          “I guess I missed her. If she doesn’t believe, why does she come see Miss Ava?”

          “Oh, it’s not just Miss Ava. She’s everywhere, everywhere except in session. Old bitch wants us nutters to see God or find inner harmony or some bullshit. Can’t accept that there might be more to life than quilting and spreading the word, or so I hear. See, there she is.”

          Elsie pointed at a stooped old lady across the street, a shawl draped around her neck, and a few wispy hairs blowing in the breeze accentuating her bald pate. She waited there watching the door to Miss Ava’s, Kyle and Elsie directly in her line of sight.

          “Yeah, I’m pointing at you, you old bitch,” Elsie shouted, flicking the woman off to mark her point. “Get your own damn life and let us be, you fucking Bible thumper!”

          Elsie continued to harass the lady as Kyle finished his cigarette. He didn’t like Elsie much (drunks usually got under his skin), but she was part of his new family, a family of mourners seeking answers. Still, as Elsie shouted profanities, Kyle felt a hint of admiration for the old woman standing across the way in the breeze, unflappable. She stood statuesque, despite her noticeable hunch, never registering the slightest emotion as Elsie unleashed on her. She simply waited, but for what Kyle did not know.


***

          No matter how much he wanted to, Kyle couldn’t look away. He stared at the photo of his daughter. He’d been staring at it for nearly ten minutes. Her last photo.

          The shot was dark and closely-framed. It held tightly to the right side of Charlotte’s face, where her hair had been brushed into bangs covering her forehead, something which was not normal for her. Her skin had purpled and her face seemed more full, bloated, but it was her. The longer he stared, the more Kyle felt himself drawn to her hairline and to those misplaced bangs. They just weren’t right somehow. Without looking away, he finally addressed the attendant.

          “Yes, that’s… that’s her,” Kyle said, his voice broken and soft. “It’s Charlotte.”


***

          His daughter was dead and Kyle had hit bottom. He was 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 – the skeptic. 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 and every foul utterance. At last, Kyle had collapsed, and Anita had caught him.

          As he had sobbed against her shoulder, she leaned in close and whispered in his ear.

          “You have to let her go.”

          He knew that she was right. In that moment he felt it and knew that it was time to move on. It was time to let Charlotte go.


***

          But he couldn’t. He couldn’t turn away.

          Her tiny body lay on a metal slab in the morgue covered up to her neck, but leaving revealed the worst of it. Her head was the pain point.

          Looking on her right side he saw the daughter he had known: his puddle-splashing angel with the boundless energy. Even through the bloat, of which the attendant had warned, and through the discoloration, he could see that fearless, wonderful little girl. Looking at her left side, however, Charlotte became unrecognizable. Her skull had collapsed inward like a crater. Her hair collapsed with it and her brow had been totally shattered, the depression seemingly elongating her eye socket. Even her cheek had caved in. Severe trauma to the face they had said. Severe put it lightly. Severe was a joke.

          He inched forward. He had come to hold his daughter one last time, yet every footfall carrying him towards her diminished her. Charlotte became more and more the body the closer he came to her. At last he stopped.

          “I can’t,” he said.

          “It’s okay,” the attendant replied, and as he did he pulled the cover back over Charlotte’s face.

          Kyle had come to say goodbye, but instead he had cracked in the face of death.


***

          “Now, Kyle. It’s time.”

          Kyle looked up. The broken remnants of his cigarettes fell between his fingers, shredded and ripped. He must have been tearing at them, but everything since catching a glimpse of his daughter’s skull had blanked, overwritten by a wash of jumbled memory.

          “Stay with me now,” Anita said.

          Kyle looked to her and to the pentagram in which she stood. The circles had been completed, with even more ash and salt runes etched in the void between the two circles. At each point of the star a candle burned, the red one flickering closest to the grave. The bag of bones (Charlotte, the body) rested dead center, Anita standing behind it over the urn. To her right sat her physician’s bag, still squirming and writhing. She plunged her hand inside and pulled out a small, panicked rabbit.

          “I need you within the circle, Kyle. Now. And do not disturb it in any way. Do you understand?”

          “Yes,” he said, as he crawled forward then rose to his feet. With every step closer he kept his gaze unwavering, focused on Anita and that rabbit.

          “Yes,” he repeated though he really didn’t understand at all. He knew that there was a cost to this ritual. He knew that there was sacrifice required, but this was not what he had expected. This was miniscule. Nothing.

          The cancer had come to claim him and he had come to deny it that right. Life requires death, or so he had learned from Anita. No one could be returned without that barter to balance the scales. So he had come this night to pay his due and see his daughter returned. That was sacrifice. That was the cost that needed be paid.

          He toed over the salt lines and entered the pentagram, still puzzling over the rabbit. His bewilderment did not go unnoticed.

          “Merely an appetizer,” Anita said, as she slipped a knife from her belt and handed both the rabbit and the blade to Kyle. “The price must still be paid in full.”




Back to Part 1

In Memoriam: Part 4

© 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.

          “It’s okay.”

          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.




Back to Part 1

In Memoriam: Part 3

© 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.


Séance. Sat. Mar 7. 7-11pm. Madam Shaw’s. 527 New Bern Ave. Limited seats. First come first serve. $30/person. 919-979-7429.


          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?”

          “The skeptic?”

          “Yeah.”

          “Why?”

          “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.”

          “Bullshit.”

          “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.

“May She Play Forever Among The Angels”

          “Not tonight.”

          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.




Back to Part 1

In Memoriam: Part 2

© 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.

          “Yes?”

          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:


In loving memory of
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.




Back to Part 1

On to Part 3

In Memoriam: Part 1

© 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.

          Tap. Tap.

          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.”

          “Even so.”

          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.

          “Nowhere.”

          “I know you’re lying.”

          “Nowhere good.”

          “Fine.”

          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.

          “No thanks.”

          “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.”

          Anita snorted.

          “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?”

          “What?”

          “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