By K.L. Morris
Neil met her at the crest of the hill. She stood by the weeping willow reading Andy DeMuth’s grave.
“How did he die?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” said Neil.
She was holding her ballet flats in one hand, standing barefoot among the graves. He wanted to say ‘You’re beautiful,’ but he’d never said that, and this was the fifth time they’d done this.
“You think we’ll ever find out how he kicked it?” she asked, following him down the hill.
“No,” he said. “Because then we wouldn’t have a conversation starter.”
He thought about taking her hand, but even he knew that would be inappropriate. Pretending to make sure she wasn’t falling behind, he glanced over his shoulder. He liked her white skirt—it ended above her knees and swished when she walked.
“Your family’s staying until dinner?”
“Okay. I want to show you something.”
“Yeah?” she asked. “Show me what?”
Neil shrugged. “Just something.”
At the eastern end of the cemetery, there was a little shack where he kept all of his tools.
“I’ve seen this before,” Candy said. “You can’t show me something I’ve already seen before.”
“Good thing this isn’t what I’m showing you, then.”
He ducked through the door, and held it open for her as she came in. She stepped carefully around the machinery, holding her skirt down at her sides so it wouldn’t swish and pick up any dirt. He remembered the first time she had come here. She hadn’t cared about her clothes, she’d climbed over everything and gotten filthy, but she was only ten then, and that’s what ten year olds did.
“This is a secret,” he told her.
“Everything’s a secret with you,” she said.
“So you can’t tell.”
Half way through the shed, she stopped and he turned around to see what the matter was. She was a few feet from him, by the hedge clippers hanging on the wall.
“You’re not going to rape me, are you?”
He caught a laugh as it climbed up his throat and made a strange barking sound instead. “What?”
“I know, I know. I’ve known you like five years, blah blah blah, but I still have to ask. You know, I just—” she stopped and shrugged apologetically, then looked up at him. “You’re not, are you?”
“No,” he said. Then he stood up straight, shoulders back and arms stiff at his sides. “Candy Kent, I solemnly swear that I have no intention of raping you.”
She nodded, and smiled foolishly at him, twirling the wrist holding her shoes in a you-never-know-with-these-things gesture. “Now, you were going to show me something.”
He nodded and turned around for her to follow. “Nearly there,” he said over his shoulder.
“Good. It’s getting disgusting back here.”
He squatted on the floor, and Candy had just time enough to wonder why it looked less dusty on those boards before he wrenched the floor open. Candy yelped at the suddenness of the movement and the sheer physical impossibility. Neil glanced up at her to grin. Beside him, there was an opening into the ground. It’s a cellar, Candy realized.
“Candy,” he said and offered his hand. “This is what I wanted to show you.”
Glancing at the hole and then back at him, she tentatively reached out her hand, clutching his.
“We’re going down there?”
“There are spiders down there, aren’t there?”
“Probably.” He shrugged. “I got you.” He lead her a few steps closer to the hole in the ground.
“Wait,” she said suddenly. “My shoes. I should put my shoes on.” She dropped them on the ground and stepped into them, then took his hand in a firmer grip.
“Alright, Neil Allen. I’m ready.”
There were seven wooden steps leading down, and, with each step, it smelled damper and mustier. It was dark and wet, and when Candy walked through a cobweb, she shrieked. Neil squeezed her hand, and she quieted.
“Once we get to the bottom, I can turn on the light,” he said.
“Sort of booby trapped like that, huh?”
She felt him shrug, and then a light bulb began to glow filling the room with an old fashioned, orange light. There was a couch against one wall, a shabby orange couch with pulled threads all along it as if a few cats had used it as scratching post for a hundred years. There was a little foot rug in front of it, the colors darker in some spots where it was wet. The four walls were made of cinderblocks, and they dripped water.
“Neil,” she said, “you promised you wouldn’t rape me.”
Neil smiled at her. “I’m really not going to rape you.”
“Then please don’t tell me you live here.”
“I don’t live here.”
Candy paused and looked around again. There wasn’t much to see. The wall the couch was facing was still dark; there wasn’t enough light from the bulb. There was a small end table next to the couch with a camera on it.
“You want to sit down?” Neil asked.
Candy suppressed a little shudder, feeling squeamish despite her best efforts. She didn’t want to be one of those girls, but she couldn’t seem to help it, either. She walked slowly towards the couch, trying her best to look above it, at the walls, which were not much better. Then, pausing briefly when she reached it, she spun around, closed her eyes tight, and plopped down in the middle.
“I’m sitting,” she said with her eyes still closed.
“I’m proud,” said Neil. “Keep your eyes closed.”
“This is weird.”
“Just give me a second,” he said.
“You’re not doing gross stuff with the camera, are you?”
He sighed. A light flicked on in front of her. “Open your eyes.”
At first she saw only the wall illuminated by cheap track lighting, shadowing Neil’s face where he stood by the light switch. Then she realized she was looking at rows and rows of polaroids. They ran floor to ceiling, squeezed together with barely an inch between them, hanging from red yarn stretched so tight it didn’t even sag in the middle. Every picture looked almost the same, like there was an entire wall display of one item, but as Candy looked closer, she began to see differences.
“Oh God,” she said. “How many?”
“Two hundred and forty six.”
“Every one of them?”
Neil nodded. “Every one.”
“Wow,” she breathed, though she wasn’t sure what she meant. She stood up slowly, tentatively, and moved closer to them, her hands tight against her thighs.
“How long have you been doing this?”
Neil shrugged. “Since I started working here.”
Each photograph was a straight shot of a tombstone from the graveyard. All two hundred and forty six of them, lined up in front of her.
“Wow,” said Candy again. She was by the wall now, in front of it, her hand reaching out to touch a picture, but she stopped herself, strangely terrified that a single touch would bring all of the pictures crashing to the ground.
“How are they organized?” she asked.
“Birth date,” he said. “I was thinking about doing death date on the other wall.” He gestured to the wall behind the couch.
She turned half way to look. “Don’t—” Candy said, then cut herself off. “Just—don’t. I like it like this.”
Neil came to stand beside her. He wanted to ask her if she really liked them, but he couldn’t seem to phrase it right before she started talking again.
“So you just sit here, on the couch, and—and look at them all?”
“Makes you feel real small, huh?”
“I’ll say,” said Candy. “I feel like number two hundred and forty seven.”
“You’d be two hundred and forty eight. There’s an unveiling today.”
Candy was silent. She couldn’t look away from the pictures, from their even spacing. All together like that they ceased to mean anything. They were just slabs of granite arranged on a wall, a quarry reshaped.
“Where’s my grandma?” Candy asked suddenly.
“She’s there,” Neil said. “Somewhere.”
“She was born in… oh, I should know this! Like 1920-something.” Candy scanned the rows of pictures, looking for the start of the 1920s. She found them half way down the wall. She had to squat to get a good luck, and she was worried that the hem of her skirt might accidentally brush the ground and soak up the wetness there.
As she scanned the names, Neil watched her. She shuffled sideways along the lines, her knees bent so they were tucked against her small breasts, her fingers pressing the ground for balance. Her skirt hem did brush the ground, turning the white gray. Then, towards the end of a row, she found her Grandma, Lydia Evis-Kent 1927-2003.
Candy stared at it. It looked so different here, away from the soft breeze and cool ground, without her family spread around it, eating turkey sandwiches and telling stories. That was the only time she ever saw the stone. They celebrated Grandma Lydia’s life by visiting her annually, picnicking around her grave and telling stories that grew farther from the truth each year. Candy hated it.
“I wonder if they know I’m gone,” said Candy quietly. “You know, my grandpa always thinks I’m her. He calls me Lydia all the time.”
“Yeah?” said Neil. “And what do you say to him?”
“I tell him hi from six feet under.”
Candy nodded proudly, heading back to the couch. Neil followed her, draping his arm over the back. She sat carefully in front of his dangling hand, perched on the edge, not touching him.
“Neil,” she said, “how old are you?”
“Twenty-six,” he said.
“And you never went to college?”
“No,” he said, “I never went.”
“But you’re okay, right?”
Neil shrugged. “I’m okay. I think, in the end, everybody ends up okay. It’s the natural state of things.”
“I guess you don’t have a choice,” Candy said, looking at the pictures.
“You always have a choice,” he said.
“Maybe,” said Candy.
Neil shrugged, then took his arm from the back of the couch and placed it snugly in his lap.
“Neil, do you believe in fate?”
He was quiet before he said, “Yes, I believe in fate.”
“What about God? Do you believe in God?”
He was quiet again, looking at her looking at him. He didn’t want to kiss her, he thought, because fifteen was so young and twenty-six was so old, but thinking something didn’t make it true. “I believe in something,” he said. He was carefully not looking at her lips.
“But not God?”
“It might be God.”
Candy frowned, thinking. “You don’t know?”
“I don’t know.”
As if he couldn’t help it, Neil looked down at Candy’s legs, poking out from her swishy white skirt. Just below the hem resting halfway up her thigh was a small, brown spider.
“Neil,” said Candy, “I don’t know if I believe in God.”
But Neil wasn’t listening. He was trying to think past her, think past the tan line half way up her thigh, the hairs that needed to be shaved dotting her like pen scratches. He tried to think past her to the spider, to the spider that was fiddle shaped.
“Candy,” he said, “Candy,” he said again, calmly, because he knew she was afraid of spiders. Little girls are afraid of spiders. “Stay still,” he said gently, reaching out his hand.
“Neil,” she said, her voice catching in her throat, but she didn’t know what it was catching on. There was a feeling rising up in her, ballooning in her chest like helium as she watched his hand move towards her thigh. “Neil,” she tried again, but all she could manage was a short breath. She couldn’t remind him that he’d promised not to rape her, she couldn’t remember if she wanted to be raped or not. The veins on his hand stood out like an old man’s, and there was dirt under his fingernails.
Don’t move… She tried not to flinch as he flicked the hem of her skirt back, but then she saw the spider, and the scream caught in her throat because she’d seen a picture of one just like that in her Bio book, brown and fiddle shaped, and underneath it said important facts for tests and also, as an afterthought, that the Brown Recluse bite was fatal to humans. She watched the spider’s long legs step up her thigh. It was higher now, higher so that it tickled her because she was still sensitive there, on the inside of her leg. Neil’s hand came closer, so close his fingers were touching the hairs on her skin.
For a moment, she was caught in a blooming bubble of warmth rising from his touch on her, flushing across her lower belly and the V between her legs. Then his fingernail scraped her thigh as he flicked the spider away, and the warmth was sucked out of her until she felt empty, cold, and confused.
Neil watched the spider’s arc as it flew into the air. It landed on the floor, beneath the pictures. He was stomping on it before he realized he was moving, stomping down harder and harder, his chest heaving with breath. He stomped until his sole stung with the impact, until his knee felt light and rubbery, until there was no question the spider was dead, and the warmth in his stomach that shouldn’t be there, that couldn’t be there, had been sucked away.
He became aware of himself standing in the center of the room, of Candy behind him. His arms were tingling with the rush of adrenaline; there was a light film of sweat along his hairline, his neck felt hot. He remembered that he was Neil the amateur photographer, grave digger, landscaper, not Neil the Spider Killer, Little Girl Saver. Inside himself, he felt the roles clashing, making him nauseous and sweaty. He stood perfectly still, concentrating carefully on the twitching in his back where he was clenching his muscles too tightly, ignoring the small sounds Candy made as she caught her breath, the soft rustling of her skirt as she pulled it back down to cover her thighs, her breathy whisper as she said,
“Neil, I bet they’re looking for me. I—I better go.” She thought she had peed her pants from fear, she didn’t know about being wet and now, suddenly, very badly, she wanted her mother.
Neil listened to her step lightly back up the stairs, and he tried not to remember that she hated wearing shoes, tried not to wonder if she’d walk barefoot through the cemetery back to her grandmother’s grave, tried not to think about the way her thigh had felt when he’d flicked the little spider away.
Issue #5 CONTENTS
Keeping it Necroreal
David Van Gough
The Quick and the Dead
The Potters' Field
Shed Shed Shed
Rachel Ann Girty
The Shivering Girls
The Monarch of the Sill Shenoa Carroll-Bradd
The Puzzle Box
Pink Afternoon, Reconstruction
Reflections of a Pissed Off Killown
K. L. Morris has been writing stories since before she could spell, which she still can't always do. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University in 2013.
She blogs (infrequently) at www.thewritinggeek.com.