Estimated reading time — 12 minutes
I hadn’t lived with my mother in quite some time. When I had left her in quests for education and love, a plucky twenty-five-year-old, she had lived with my aunt in a small house at the end of Dolphin Street. I say “lived with” but it was more a nurse-patient set-up more than anything else. My aunt suffered from a terrible case of COPD. The poor woman could barely rise from the couch to use the bathroom and the mere thought of going outside sent her into panic attacks that left her breathless. She was constantly gasping, the poor thing. It was somewhat a relief when she passed away. Even when I visited, I felt the weight of her impending death on the horizon—like the sword of Damocles swinging dangerously from above. At last, it had fallen.
Luckily, death never touched me the way it does most people. It’s not that I wasn’t sad that the person was gone. Far from it. But there came a point in my life (somewhere in my teens, I think. I can never really remember when the epiphany had stuck me) I came to see the problem with people’s perception of death. People always seem to think that death is a bad thing. I remember going to my grandmother’s funeral when I was seventeen where the preacher had said something like “death was unnatural and only through the guidance of the Lord can we find everlasting happiness.” What bullshit. Death is perfectly natural. In the entire history of the world, there has never been a person who hadn’t died. You live and then you die and that’s the end. Sure, miss the person, but at the end of the day don’t be sad because of the very fact that they died.
I know that sounds kind of harsh. I don’t mean it to be. Don’t get me wrong, I miss my aunt a lot. She was one of maybe a handful of family members who didn’t look at me like a nuisance when I was a kid. She’d always show up at family gatherings in her Jeep, blasting Kiss or Van Halen out of her stereo. She’d go out running every morning before her affliction took hold. I remember spending the night at her house and getting up at six to run with her. She was once a vibrant, active woman. At the end, she was reduced to a husk. To me, death sounded like a kinder fate.
Anyway, once my aunt’s funeral was said and done, and the house had been sold, my mom found a nice apartment closer to town. It wasn’t a bad place. A close community of identical little apartments spanning two streets. Inside was a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom. Basic stuff for a single woman over fifty. The first thing I noticed when I visited her was that Peaceful Meadows Cemetery was visible right through her kitchen window, separated from the apartment complex by a simple wooden fence.
It wasn’t the largest cemetery in the world—far smaller than the veteran’s graveyard off Colonial Avenue or the old Towers Cemetery off Fortieth. Gray headstones of varying sizes and shapes dotted the grassy field for at least two city blocks. It was bordered by a thicket of woods on one side and a bank on the other. All in all, a rather unassuming and unpretentious place to be laid to rest.
Each time I visited my mother, I made it a point to visit Peaceful Meadows. The first time I walked over, I noticed that even though Highway 19 ran at the cemetery’s front entrance, once you got in far enough you couldn’t hear the roar of traffic or the cacophony of nearby roadwork. Just the sound of birds singing. Or it was completely quiet. Not an eerie quiet that made the hairs on your arms stand on end, but a…well, a peaceful quiet. Walking amongst the headstones was like stepping into another world—one where humanity was removed and replaced with a memorial of what had been.
Reading the headstones, I noticed some dated back to the early 1900s. These people were just memories now. The living are complex. They can be good or evil, kind or cruel, happy or sad. They are a whirlwind of wants and needs and goals and yearnings. They always have something to say about one another, usually bad in my experience. It’s different with the dead. They’ve thrown away all of those earthly wants and needs and found true peace. No one dares speak ill of the dead—a little hypocritical, in my opinion.
It’s those things I would think as I wander. Brushing dirt and leaves off the face of weathered gravestones, running my finger in the etchings of names and dates etched onto their surfaces. I’d take a book there and read aloud beside the grave of a toddler. I always imagined they hadn’t had very many bedtime stories. It might be silly since the child couldn’t hear the story (let alone understand it, even if it was alive) but it still felt like a comforting thing to do. I even found my aunt buried there between my grandmother and my great grandparents.
After spending a few months visiting my mother at her new apartment and the graveyard out back, I grew an attachment to the residence. I’d make a habit of saying hello to Edna, 1924-1981 on the way in (the first gravestone I’d walk past on my way to Peaceful Meadows proper.), read a little bit of Harry Potter to Timmy, 1997-2000 (the toddler I mentioned earlier. His headstone came with a resin photo of a little boy with messy black hair and green eyes that reminded me of the titular character), and then usually finished my trip by wiping off the headstones of my family members, leaving flowers whenever I had the money to do so.
After a while, I knew most of the people closest to my mother’s apartment. There was an old pine tree, crooked and bent, that hung over a stone bench overlooking the back half of the graveyard. I could sit there for an hour, the cool Autumn breeze flowing through my hair, looking up some of the residents on my phone.
There was Howard Salinger. 1946-1988. Died in a car crash while coming home from vacation from Massachusetts.
Mary Ernest. 1987-2017. Choked to death on Birthday Cake.
Jonathan Ellis. 1904-1978. Died of congestive heart failure.
Each death macabre to anyone else. To me, it was just a different end to a story. The ultimate denouement.
That was until the night of September the fourth. I discovered how very wrong I was.
It had been a day like any other when I visited my mother. We had gone out to lunch and the local flea market. When we had returned to her apartment, she went for a nap and I walked over to Peaceful Meadows. I made my usual stops and read more Harry Potter to Timmy (we were near the end of Goblet of Fire where the ‘ghosts’ of Voldemort’s victims come to help Harry escape from the Dark Lord’s clutches). By the time I left for the evening, the sky had taken the violet-pink hue of dusk.
I took my shower and then lay on the recliner in the living room (where I usually slept when I visited). I must have slept for an hour when I heard a rustling in the bushes outside my mother’s apartment. At first, I thought it was just the remnant of a particularly loud dream. After a few moments, the sound persisted.
“Damn animals,” I muttered to myself. You get them all the time in Florida–Raccoons or Possums rattling around the hedges at night. You open the door and then BANG! They speed off in a gray blur into the night. I thrust the covers off, lowered the recliner, and made it halfway to the front door when I realized–
The door handle was jiggling.
I froze, watching the golden knob twist lightly to and fro. Had it not been locked, the door would have flown open and I was pretty sure that it wouldn’t have been nocturnal rodents flying in. The drapes were drawn over the window that overlooked the front door. Besides, I couldn’t bring myself to creep over and disturb them, to see the silhouettes that most likely resided right outside the door. Like if I looked at them, even through a sheet of glass, they would still be able to reach through and grab me. What else was I to do then? Get mom, I thought. Yet, she was in the other room, fast asleep. If I left the door for even a moment–turn my back on it–then the doorknob would break.
Don’t be stupid, I told myself.
The doorknob rattled harder. That sound felt like a slap across my face. I sprang forward, grabbed the switch beside the door, and flipped it. The outside light flickered on. Hurried whispers from the other side. Then, the handle stopped. I stood there, my hand still on the light switch.
I sighed, feeling the beginnings of a warm sweat dot my brow. The thought of waking my mother still crossed my mind, maybe even calling the police. I took a few steps toward her bedroom but then stopped. I was being stupid. Probably just some kids from a neighborhood over probably playing a prank, or maybe the lush from across the street got her apartment mixed up with my mother’s again. Didn’t Mom say something like that happened a couple weeks ago–where she woke up to get a glass of water and found the lush (Janet or Juliet or something beginning with a J) trying to unlock my Mom’s door with her keys? I chuckled, feeling the weight of my own stupidity fall on my shoulders.
I shut off the front light and crawled back under the covers on the recliner. Everything was quiet except for the gentle humming of my fan, though I kept tossing and turning. My mind kept going back and forth.
Maybe I should wake Mom and tell her.
Tell her what? That a drunk tried to unlock her door again?
What if it wasn’t her? What if it was someone trying to break in?
Why would they want to break in?
This last question was reasonable enough. My family would never be considered anywhere in the ballpark of “having money.” With my mother being a waitress, a career path laid out by her mother and her mother before her, saying that my family lived a modest life was an understatement. The apartment complex followed that same aesthetic with its unadorned, white exteriors, and neatly combed hedges. Not at all trashy, but far from “boujee.” What if they weren’t after money? my restless mind retorted. Images of blood-soaked bed sheets, bodies slumped on the floor, and flashing red and blue lights shining through the blinds kept creeping into my thoughts. Eventually, I opened my eyes and grunted.
It was nearly one in the morning.
I threw the covers off and made my way to the kitchen for an early morning snack. I rounded the corner into the kitchen–
Two silhouettes with horrible twisted faces stood in the open doorway of the back door. I blinked, trying to determine if this was real or a byproduct of my exhausted imagination. Yet no matter how many times I wiped my eyes, they remained there in my blurry vision. They wore black from head to toe–black turtleneck, black jeans, black shoes. Now that I got a good look at them, I noticed that their faces weren’t twisted but were masks. One, the taller one in the front, wore what looked like a Donald Trump mask, painted white so that it looked like a bloated Micheal Myers. The other was a head shorter, more slender, and wore a plastic Dracula mask that tied in the back with a single string. Long auburn hair fell out behind and lay upon Dracula’s shoulders.
“What are you doing?” I asked. It sounded stupid, as though the correct response got lost on the way from my brain to my mouth. I’m dreaming, I thought. That was the only explanation for these two overgrown Trick-or-Treaters. A glint of silver caught my eye. Trump held a switchblade about two inches long. My body seemed two steps ahead of my brain. I leaped back and ran toward my mother’s door.
A hand grabbed my wrist but the grip was loose enough for me to slip out at the last minute. The figure swiped in my peripheral vision. I stumbled forward into my mother’s room and slammed the door behind me.
“Mom!” I said, locking the door behind me. No more had I done that did the door start shaking. “Mom! Call the cops.”
Something wet trickled down my arm. I brought my hand to it, feeling the stick substance run down. Bringing my fingers to the dim luminance coming from my mother’s nightlight, I found they were coated crimson. It lit up my mind like the fourth of July. I didn’t feel any pain, not yet anyway, but seeing my own blood on my hand seemed to scream, “you’re going to die.”
“Mom!” I called again. No answer. Not even a stir.
I glanced over to her. The only thing that convinced me she wasn’t dead was the gentle rising and falling of her breast.
The door thudded painfully against my head.
“What do you want?” I screamed. The banging stopped. My heart pounded against my chest and sweat clung to my brow, chilling my face. The blood dripping down my arm reached my fingers and fell in thick droplets from on the tips.
A voice whispered through the door. It didn’t even seem muffled–as though the speaker was right there beside me–
A bubble of air caught in my windpipe. The shaking of the door returned with renewed vigor. All I could think was this is it. The funny thing about death is that people never really think about how they are going to die. They push it to the back of their mind. Can’t be bothered to think about it, or too afraid. We all think that we are going to live forever until that final moment, myself included. So, when the moment comes, no matter how prepared you think you are, it blindsides you. That’s how I felt in that moment–blindsided. Death was something that happened when you were old. Now that I was confronted with my own mortality, my mind reeled. I couldn’t think a single coherent thought. My body pressed against the door out of pure instinct. Like an animal.
I glanced back to my mother. A figure leaned over her. I blinked, my rattled mind trying to comprehend the image before me. My eyes ached. Finally, I could see that the figure was a boy about three years old. His messy black hair fell over his face as he whispered in my mother’s ear. My brow furrowed.
He had a translucent quality, like if I shined a light directly on the boy, it would pass right through him.
“Who?” I whispered, my voice nearly swallowed by the banging on the door.
The boy’s head snapped up and he placed a finger to his mouth. My voice caught in my throat. Then, the boy turned back to my mother and whispered in her ear. He’s telling her a story, I thought. One of those random thoughts you think when your world is turned upside down. Then, I remembered why the boy looked so familiar.
It was Timmy, lifted right off his tombstone photo. Breath caught in my chest. I turned around, wrench opened the door, and rushed back through. As soon as I crossed the threshold, I realized the mistake I made.
A scream. The sound sent me convulsing away, as though the sound actually pushed me. I frantically searched in the dark. A tall figure in the dim light. It was a man with his back to me. He wore overalls and a cap, though the thing that struck me even more odd was that I saw through him. Just like I had Timmy.
Dracula pressed themselves against the wall, their mask askew. The mysterious, translucent man’s hands wrapped around Dracula’s throat. Dracula struggled, inadvertently pushing more of their mask off and revealing the darkening face beneath.
The shadows shifted to the left. Trump stabbed into a translucent woman wearing a baggy shirt and jeans. The blade found purchase, burying it to the hilt in her breast. It was surreal seeing the blade glisten within the misty veil of the woman’s body. The woman wrenched it out of herself, approaching Trump.
Trump pleaded, hands out. He tripped over his feet and landed with a grown on the tiled kitchen floor. My eyes traveled with the switchblade in the ghostly hand. Then, the translucent woman turned, her long blonde hair swirling around her face.
It was my aunt.
A faint smile crossed her face as if she were saying ‘hello,’ before nodding back in the direction of my mother’s bedroom. I lingered for a moment, watching her round back on Trump cowering on the floor. I only nodded, walked back into my mom’s room, and shut the door.
When I woke the next morning, I found myself laying on the recliner in the living room. I threw off the covers, half expecting to see the corpses of Dracula and Trump in the kitchen. I turned the corner.
And there was nothing.
The kitchen was as clean as the evening before. Sunlight streamed in through the kitchen window, giving a clear view of the fence and Peaceful Meadows just beyond. A dull pain came from my arm. Upon closer inspection, a shallow scratch ran the length of my forearm–puckered and white on the edges.
I felt a chuckle rising. It had all been a dream after all and I just scratched myself in my sleep.
When my mother woke, I asked her if she noticed anything odd last night–just to be sure. A loud noise or a general disturbance. She said no, that she “slept like a baby.” A shiver ran down my back as I recalled Timmy sitting at her bedside, whispering in her ear.
As the day wore on, the dream faded away. It was a breezy Autumn day, one of those days where you can feel winter coming. After my mother and I went out to lunch, we returned to her house and I made my daily trip to Pleasant Meadows. I took in a deep breath, letting in the chill air and feeling the sun warm my skin.
I made my usual stops–saying hello to Mr. Ellis and then cleared any debris from Mrs. Jensen’s headstone. I stopped at Timmy’s grave and said hi but I couldn’t look at it for too long. The dream bubbled to the surface and looking at the headstone for too long was like looking into the sun. I still didn’t want to disappoint him (Jesus…I remember telling myself I was being stupid thinking that. He was dead), so I told him that I would be back with Harry Potter later.
By the time I finished my rounds in the cemetery, the sun was high in the clear afternoon sky. My neck felt warm from the rays bearing down on it.
As I walked toward my last stop–my aunt’s grave–I noticed that there was something different. Two things hung from it, both of them white. Someone must have dropped by, placed flowers, or some other offering. It wasn’t unheard of. My aunt was a fairly well-liked person and I heard from my mother how people often stopped by her grave to pay their respects.
The closer I drew and the more defined the objects became. The colder I became. My gait slowed but I kept drawing nearer, as though some gravitational force pulled me closer. All breath seemed forced from my lungs. The hairs on my arms stood on end.
On either side of the gray tombstone hung a Trump mask, painted white, and a plastic Dracula mask.
Credit : Steven Winters
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