So once again I’m back with a free short story. If you like it, love it, and more…comment. This is something I resurrected and dedicated to a very important person in my life. I hope you love the free read. And if you’re a nano (you know who you are, thank you!)
A Night Among The Graves
Dedicated to Cheyenne Alicia Thommarson
Chips of ice slid beneath his skin as a hollow gust of wind worked its way through the multiple layers of his clothing. It wormed through the canvas of his jacket, and slipped through the netted sweaters like cold grease. His muscles contracted from the chill. The bits of fingers not covered in the thin woolen gloves ached from the toothless gnawing of December wind. He peered down at his fingers and grimaced. Ashen webbing and cracks ran atop them. The cold made its way to his legs and knees forcing him to shamble forward. He brought his hands to his mouth and exhaled a warm breath of it. His fingers found no respite from the cold.
“’Scuse you,” he grumbled as a passerby brushed past, nearly jostling him.
The pedestrian didn’t acknowledge him. They moved down the sidewalk at a brisk pace.
Banishing the late night walker from his mind, he pulled his coat tight around him. He noticed a bench ahead and moved towards it, giving his regards to the stone wall on his left. It was a mosaic of gray and brown rock running around the block. It stood several feet higher than his head. He was thankful for that. Most people saw a wall. He saw a bulwark from the wind for when it came time to sleep.
The nearby bench brought back old memories of a shopping cart filled with clothes and supplies. A time when he had a cup of loose change. The days always ended with a meager collection of coins, but they always managed to fill his belly, if only for the night.
He debated if he should spend the night on the bench. Sandpaper like ridges brushed against his fingers as he rubbed the coarse hairs over his face. The bench was simple in construction. It wasn’t inviting. It was an ugly thing of metal varnished more by age and grime than paint. Slender bars ran between the bench. Bad to sit on, worse to sleep atop. Steel was hard, cold and unforgiving. No amount of rolling or contorting could bring you comfort.
But comfort was a luxury, sleep was a necessity. He couldn’t remember the last time he slept.
He eyed the bars again. They emanated a cold that would find its way past one’s clothing, straight to your bones and chill the marrow. A man would wake brittle and broken. You would be a frozen sculpture of glass waiting to shatter on the first touch.
Beggars can’t be choosers. There was no ceremony in preparing his bed. He didn’t bother to swipe his coat over the surface of the bench to clean it. Removing the weighty garment he laid it over the metal rails, keeping the side with the lining face up. He eased himself onto the bench and rolled to his side. His fingers creaked in protest as he pulled the jacket over him.
He sighed. Poor man’s blanket.
His fingers fumbled to find the lip of the thick woolen mess over his head. He pulled down. The hat slid over his eyes and nose, becoming a barrier to the warm what air passed through. A string of groans left his lungs as he squirmed to settle himself.
A sound echoed through the air, tugging him from his weariness. Soft and faint like the strumming of a guitar some distance away. It pulled at him, ears, heart and mind. He rose from the bench and snatched his coat to go search for the source.
His ears did the guiding as he cocked his head like a dog hearing a new and unfamiliar sound. He made it to the end of the block and turned the corner. The wall was his guide as he pursued the gentle echoes.
Not strings, he realized as the sound grew louder.
Stone ended and the wall transitioned into a row of vertical bars. It was like a jail cell, only they ended in an arc of elegant design. The gate resembled something that would have been fashionable in the Gothic Revival. He gazed through the bars and took note of the cresting. The humming came from it.
A tree dominated the view. It had paid winter’s price, stripped bare of leaves, and towered over the hill. Gnarled and twisted branches spread out like emaciated limbs belonging to creatures out of horror stories. Stone markers dotted the land like minute monoliths.
The wind changed direction, buffeting his back and grasping the exposed section of his neck like fingers of ice. Ahead, the wind stirred the slender finger-like branches of the tree.
His shiver had nothing to do with the cold.
The humming intensified. All the more he found himself being pulled forwards. An invisible hand tugged at the lobe of his right ear. The was large enough to serve as a better reprieve from the wind than anything else for the night. Besides, he always found wood more inviting than steel. He would be able to rest against the trunk. His coat would become a blanket to warm him and the humming—a soothing lullaby.
That settled the matter.
He ran his hands over his wrists and wrung them as he approached the gate. No signs barred entry. They didn’t need to. The taboo of entering a graveyard at night rang through his mind. His body tingled like a flurry of insects scuttling across his skin. He reached out to the gate. There were no chains, no lock to prevent him from slipping in. Comforting warmth filled his fingers as he pressed against the bar. The feeling of sleeping outdoors on a summer day rushed through his body. He didn’t question the sudden source of heat. He took at it as sign to enter. The gate opened with a weary metal sigh. A single shriek cried out from the hinges.
He made no effort to close up behind. Aches filled his body as he strained it to traverse the grounds. The tree was his marker, and he was resolved to reach it. The humming grew, growing clearer, washing away the fatigue and chills. Navigating past the headstones with equal parts caution and reservation, he made his way up the hill. Upon reaching it, the tree morphed from monumental, to terrifying.
It loomed over him as if the branches would contort themselves and reach for him at any moment. The arms of a gargantuan scarecrow ready to do their duty and ward off the unwelcome. The branches twitched in the night air and he mirrored the gesture.
The humming stopped.
Frowning, he placed a hand on the tree as he paced around it. He made it to the other side when his body seized like being dumped in a pool of ice water.
She sat atop a gravestone, watching him intently. The edge of her mouth quirked in a small smile. She was beautiful, hauntingly so. There was something about her that reminded him of a bird. Her features were pointed and hawkish with the body of a ballerina. He could see the slender grace her body held. The dress was a relic from a time long since past. A thing of countless frills, rumpled with its hem frayed. What stole his attention was her midsection. A fistful was missing. It was like it had been savagely torn away. The area was matted with a discolored fluid.
The sole though preoccupying his mind was the color of her appearance. He couldn’t tell what she was, only that she wasn’t wholly there. She couldn’t have been. The wind stirred the edges of her figure, deforming them like smoke under a breath of air. She was the white of a winter morning’s chilled breath. Her skin and clothing did not seem intent to remain that color. They shifted through countless hues of pale greens and whites.
She watched his reaction and smiled when he came to the obvious realization. Arching an eyebrow, she tilted her head to regard him.
He blinked, understanding why she had stopped humming—why the silence. She was waiting for him to speak. He swallowed again and steeled himself as best he could. “You’re…” he trailed off, fumbling for words.
She leaned forward on the stone, propping her chin atop her hands. Her smile grew.
Licking his lips, he tried again. “You’re a ghost.” He didn’t know what shook more, voice or body.
She threw her head back and let out a delightful peal of laughter. It was musical, making the December cold grow a littler further from his body. His rigid joints easer and his body loosened as the tension fled. The laughter ended as abruptly as the humming had.
“Yes. Yes, I am.” She thrust her chin up, beaming.
His mouth worked in silence as he searched for the proper response. “You hum…nicely.” He managed to match her smile.
Her eyes widened and she hopped from the stone. She landed straight. “Thank you.” She gave him an elaborate stage bow. “I am a singer you know? And you?” Enthusiasm colored her voice. “What are you, who are you?”
“Tired,” he said. “Cold. Sleepy. Hungry.”
“Then rest,” she urged. “Let me sing you a song.” And she did.
He let his back fall against the tree, sliding down until he was slumped against it. Placing the song was more than difficult. It was like being blindfolded and mired in fog trying to find your way out. He felt reminded of old nursery rhymes his mother san. He heard unnamed songs from past decades. In between it all, he heard the humming that had brought him here.
He felt renewed. Thirty years younger. He blinked. “How’d you do that?”
Her smile grew. “I am a singer.” Her tone implied it was answer enough.
“My name is Miriam, and you are?”
He frowned. It had been years since he had heard his own name aloud. It was like fishing for something that had fallen into murky water. “Harris.” It felt odd recalling his name and hearing it aloud. “Harris.” Saying it the second time felt good.
“Nice to meet you, Harris.” She curtsied.
“You too.” His gaze dropped to the gash in her dress. Harris recognized the stains. She caught his look.
Miriam picked at the damaged material surrounding the wound. She ran it through her hands. “Oh this?” Her smiled became something bitter. “Jealousy is an awful thing.”
Harris nodded as if it made sense.
“It’s hard being a performer, you know?” She gave him a look as if he was expected to understand.
He nodded in silence.
“People get jealous of your success, when you have what they want. Some well…” she shrugged. “They find that if they can’t take it, they will make sure you can’t have it either.” Her eyes fell to the gash. She shook her head as she looked at it.
“You were…” Harris found it hard to finish the question.
“Sorry.” His voice could have scoured stone.
She waved him off. “Oh, no matter. It has been long since. Much time, much singing to let it all go.” She threw her head back and laughed.
He looked away, wishing that she would leave now that the singing was over. It was clear she was a tad unstable.
“Oh don’t look at me like that,” she chided. “We all are a bit touched here.”
Harris eyed her askance. “We?”
She rolled her eyes and gesture to her side.
He stole a quick breath that dried what little moisture was left in his throat. The winter air turned his esophagus raw.
The newcomer was six foot and dressed in overalls speckled with dirt. He stood there, staring at Harris, haggard from what looked like years of hard work. The man ran a hand through his pronounced widows peak. He was just as translucent as the singing Miriam.
Harris folded his lips and chewed on them. He was sick. His insides knotted, going tight. He couldn’t tell if he had eaten too much, or not enough. That was it. Hunger, nausea, the cold, any one of those could cause the mind to see things.
“You tell him yet?” barked the ghost in overalls.
“No.” She turned and scowled at him. “I was being gentle. You can’t knock someone over the head with this sort of thing, you lout!”
“Women,” he grumbled below his voice. It wasn’t as quiet as he had thought.
Miriam rounded on him, her fists balled and on her hips. “What?”
Her male friend appeared to shrink. His posture loosened and he mumbled something under his that sounded like an apology. He gave Harris a hapless look.
Harris debated the safety of intervening.
The two ghosts bickered for a handful of minutes before Harris had had enough. He cleared his throat, drawing their attention.
Miriam flushed. Harris found it quite the feat to watch a ghost manage that. Bowing, she apologized for their heated display. “My husband,” she said, drawing out the word with dangerous undertones, “is uncouth. Cotton-headed—”
“Hardworking,” her husband interjected.
She shot him a withering glare causing him to recoil.
Harris laughed. It was weighty and full thing. The sort that shook his ribcage and took the air from his lungs. It felt good. The pair of ghosts noticed his laugh. Their smiles didn’t quite make it up to their eyes. They remained hollow—pained.
Before he could ask what the matter was, the ghostly man stepped forward. “Oliver.” He extended a hand.
Harris glanced at the hand quizzically, then Oliver.
“Go on.” Oliver inched his hand forward. “It’s only polite. You’re not going to catch anything from this old ghost.”
Harris suppressed a cringe and reached out to meet Oliver’s hand. An electric jolt, one more imagined than actual, rushed up his arm as he shook hands.
Oliver grinned. “See.”
Harris fought hard to catch his breath. “How?”
Oliver’s grin faded. His wife stepped beside him, thumping him across the back of his head. “Oi!” He rubbed the area.
“Cotton-headed,” she said under her breath.
“Why could I feel hi hand? You’re both ghosts.” Harris gave them an owlish stare.
Miriam and Oliver frowned in unison.
“What is it?” Harris took a step forward, pressing them. “What aren’t you telling me?”
Instead of answering, Oliver turned around and revealed the back of his skull.
Harris leapt back. His skull was deformed. It looked like someone had scooped a portion of it out. Harris was thankful for not having been able to eat.
Oliver pointed to Miriam’s injury. “My wife was stabbed. I was shot. An unlucky pair of circumstances if I ever saw them. Too bad I didn’t see the bullet, or the sunuva-gun who pulled the trigger.”
Harris folded his lips, unsure of what to say.
“Do you know how ghosts are made?” Miriam gave him a weak smile.
Harris shook his head to the side.
Oliver inhaled like a man about to give a lengthy speech. “Right then, short of it. Ghost’s are born when someone dies in a terrible manner without closure. They can’t let go, so something has to cling on, doesn’t it?”
“The body, well that’s not sticking around. Not well at any rate. Bodies don’t hold up once they’re dead. Go figure, hmm? That us then,” he pointed between his wife and himself. “We can’t let go. Trust me, we’ve tried. Easier said than done, yeah?”
Miriam placed a hand on Oliver’s shoulder and took over. “Ghosts are stuck, not just here, Harris, but reliving things. There are times where I am replaying the moment I have been stabbed. Oliver remembers and has to go through being shot on occasion. Mostly though, we’ve been around long enough that we can roam freely here.” She waved at their surroundings. “Where we are buried.”
Harris licked his lips but said nothing.
Miriam beckoned him. She left Oliver behind and walked towards another row of gravestone. She came to rest against a solitary grave, dozen yards or more away from the nearest one. Miriam rapped her knuckles on it.
Harris leaned to look past the grave. The source of the noise came from behind.
A man came into clarity from nothing. He was well bronzed and looked like he should have been attending college. Dark featured with quick eyes. He tugged at a thin checkered shirt.
Miriam waved to get his attention. “How are Marco?”
He stretched and yawn. “S’okay.” With a balled fist he rubbed his eye. He nodded to Harris, then turned eye Miriam askance.
Miriam shook her head as an answer.
“Oh, this again. Sorry, Harris. You’ll get used to this.” Marco titled his head, revealing a horribly bruised neck. “If you could see my head, you’d see the bruise there too. You know those commercials have it right, don’t drink and drive, huh.”
“I’m sorry.” It seemed the appropriate thing for Harris to say.
Marco waved him off. “Don’t. I wasn’t driving drunk. Idiōtās coming down the other way. Necks are soft, yeah? Mine didn’t take the accident well. My head was smacked around. I died in the ambulance.” He exhaled, giving Harris a weary look. “Go on, see the rest. You need to stop doing this to us. I’m tired.”
Harris blinked and apologized. He didn’t know what Marco meant, but it seemed smart to play along.
Miriam led him toward another grave, set near the middle of a row of twelve.
Harris’ heart fell into his stomach. A child sat atop the grave, kicking their legs at the edge. They couldn’t have been taller than his own knees. She had the bearings of someone from the east, and a country Harris couldn’t finger. A bright yellow book grabbed his attention. The child flipped through it with speed and intensity enough to nearly damage the pages.
Miriam leaned forward. “Sweet-pea.”
The child stopped and turned. “Oh, hi.” She beamed, waving a pudgy hand at Harris.
He returned the gesture before turning to Miriam. “I don’t want to know. Please, don’t tell me.”
Miriam didn’t abide by his request. “Poor thing got Pneumonia. It can be lethal at her age, did you know that?”
He didn’t. He didn’t want to hear it either.
“Come on.” Miriam gestured for him to follow. She led him along another path markers until she settled in front of another stone.
Harris froze when he saw it. Something about the name clawed at his stomach, making it feel like his insides were removed. The hollowness made its way to his heart. “I know that name.”
Miriam said nothing.
A young man appeared. He looked much like Harris would have thirty years ago. Dark skinned and clean shaven. The man’s hair was cropped short. He could have modeled if he had chosen to. Harris knew that instead the boy had decided to attend an ivy league college on scholarship. He remembered when he received the acceptance letter. Harris was filled with pride, a far cry from the emptiness wracking his heart now.
He was dressed as he was then. Simple jeans, and a fresh ironed shirt. Harris always thought the boy handsome.
Harris broke. The air left him as did the words. He fumbled for a moment, looking away to the ground, then his ashen fingers. “Curtis…”
“I remember.” Harris blinked away the moisture.
“I’m sorry dad. I screwed up.” Curtis looked away like Harris had. First to the ground, then the back of his fingers.
“It’s okay. We both did. I should’ve… I don’t know what I should’ve, but I should have done something.”
“It’s okay pops. Been waiting for you.”
Harris blinked and rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. “I couldn’t come here. I was scared. Not since the funeral.” His son had passed away listening to the wrong people. People who abused his trust and beat him until they couldn’t beat him any further.
“I’m glad you came back again, dad.”
“I don’t understand, Curtis, again?”
Curtis’ expression sank. “Dad…you don’t remember after my funeral?”
Harris shook his head. “I don’t remember much of anything these days. It feels like I’m a VHS stuck on loop.”
His son cracked a smile. “No one uses those things anymore dad. You always were a bit behind the times.”
“Dad…after I died you…quit work.”
“You just left everything. Went through the money. You started drinking. You wound up on the streets. Then one night you went to bed on a street bench on a night you should’ve found a shelter. It was cold, dad, really cold. You shouldn’t have been out there.”
Oliver came by Curtis’ side. “Do you know why you came here today, Harris?” He asked.
“I was cold, tired, and I heard humming.”
“No.” Oliver shook his head. “That’s not it at all. Not most of it anyways. Not the right of it. You used to sleep around these parts for many years—a long time in fact.”
“I still do,” Harris chimed. He looked to Miriam whose gaze was fixated on the distant sky.
“The humming’s part of it. You like music, always have.” Oliver gave him a weak smile. “You told us the first time?”
Harris blinked. “The first time?” Then it came crashing back. The cold bench. The passerby ignoring him. Miriam’s singing.
“The first time you came here dad. We’ve been trying to bring you back.” Curtis waved to a grave beside his. Harris recognized his name. How nice to always be so close to his son. “We’ve been going through this for a while now. You haven’t adjusted well. New ghosts normally don’t, dad.”
A lead balloon formed in Harris’ stomach.
Oliver took over. “See, someone like you, doesn’t have anywhere to go. You don’t have a place to call home. As far are you’re concerned, the graveyard’s the closest thing you have to one. So, where do you cling to? What can’t you let go of? What are you repeating?”
The lead balloon rose to the base of his throat.
Miriam and Curtis reached out, placing a hand on each of his shoulders.
“You’re stuck in a loop Harris, we’ve tried to help. This isn’t the first night you’ve come wandering to us and it probably won’t be the last. It’s how Miriam here knew what to sing to you. Trial and error. She’s just trying to soothe you, put you at ease. Maybe give you a bit of what we can’t have.” Oliver said.
Harris’ throat constricted as the balloon wedged itself higher up in his throat. No amount of swallowing would put the balloon back down into his gut.
Curtis stepped up and wrapped his arms around Harris. “Welcome back dad. You’re one of us, you’re a ghost.”