STORM CLOUD RAIN, GRAVEYARD DIRT
Bob touched each marker and headstone with the toe of his shoe. He counted thirty-two of them in this row, same as the last time. He paused at the end of the row and glanced up at the egg yolk sun, the swimming pool sky, and at the surrounding fields that stretched to the horizon. He savored the lush aroma of mowed alfalfa as it drifted past him, delivered on the wind. Tufts of clouds assembled into fanciful shapes for his sole amusement.
The rural necropolis, Tilford Road Cemetery, had markers dating back to the turn of the century. The first time Bob had visited, he had noted with grim fascination the grave of Jane Chancy, Born August 1st, 1922. According to the marker, she had died exactly one week later. Adjacent nestled another stone of identical size and shape. It bore the inscription: Infant Chancy, born Sept. 19, 1923—Died Sept. 20, 1923. Bob had felt a lump in his throat at the significance of the second marker. The mother hadn’t wanted to risk picking out a name the second time. And her instinct had been right. Bob had searched the rest of the row for any more Chancys but had found none. Perhaps they’d moved away, headed back east, away from their pain.
Today marked his fourth visit to the cemetery. He’d finished his customary inventory of his favorite row of markers when something unexpected caught and kept his attention. He froze, still as any of the figures recumbent beneath him, staring. About twenty feet away, one row up and four markers down, a small black object marred the cemetery’s otherwise pristine and familiar grounds. Bob frowned, trying to process this unwelcome change. No new burials had taken place since Bob’s first visit to the cemetery. None of the markers boasted new flower arrangements—natural or plastic. He’d enjoyed the changeless aspect of the stones. But now this...
He took a hesitant step forward, keeping a wary eye on the oblong black intrusion. Another step and he recognized the plot. It belonged, if such a phrase could be employed, to Elizabeth Larke. Born in June of 1935 and, according to the inscription, she had died in 1958 at the age of 23. Bob had paused over her plot every previous visit. It was, Bob had noticed, one of several with holes pocking the earth around it. Rats, he had concluded. Perhaps shoddy craftsmanship of certain caskets, or a faulty embalming process was to blame. Bob didn’t know enough about the nesting habits of rats to draw any firm conclusions. Not that it mattered. There were stranger questions to consider. To wit: what, exactly, was the object that presented itself above one of the holes?
Bob crept forward and as he moved, the black shape shifted and skewed. His perspective changed and the truth became apparent. A black envelope protruded from a rat hole atop a corpse nearly sixty years in her grave. Assured that he hadn’t stumbled upon something requiring a more taxing decision on his part, he removed a handkerchief from his pocket and stooped to retrieve the refuse.
The flap, he found, had only been tucked, and, his curiosity getting the better of him, he opened the envelope. A small rectangle of yellowed paper flapped in the breeze. He unfolded it and read: I’ve still not found my One True Love.
He wheeled around expecting to spot a forlorn teen, likely dressed in black lace, stockings and boots, the predictable costume of the self-proclaimed Goth. He saw no one. The words had been delicately inscribed in pencil. They canted at an angle, sliding down the card as if the writer’s mood had darkened as she wrote. Bob nodded. The author, he felt sure, was definitely a she. He stuffed the envelope in his breast pocket and turned to leave. He touched the cold marble of each vertical monument that stood in his path as he made his way toward the cemetery gates.
"Stop off for a drink or three?" Mallory said when he’d finally arrived home. His wife’s tone was clipped, flat. "That’s not like you, Bob."
He shook his head. "No drinking. Just went for a drive to clear my head."
"Clear your head."
"Yes. Work was very stressful today." Bob straightened the place settings, putting everything just so. He felt his wife staring at him but feigned obliviousness. He seized on something he knew she’d accept. "I counted mile markers until I felt calm enough to come home."
Mallory grunted and returned to the stove where she used a fork to punish the from-a-box stuffing that only needed to be fluffed.
On his fifth visit, Bob glanced around, feeling like a Cold War spy who wished to defect, and stooped before Elizabeth Larke’s grave. He reached into his breast pocket and withdrew a small white envelope. He gazed at it, resting in his hand. Now that the moment was upon him, he felt foolish. Who left notes in little rural cemeteries--or any cemetery for that matter? Perhaps a picture drawn by a child, or an apology letter from someone with survivor’s guilt—one expected those from time to time. But a confession of profound loneliness; why would he take such an unnecessary risk? Bob had written a few stanzas of a poem written by one of the Bronte sisters which beautifully addressed the topic of loneliness. Now he wondered if he had addressed the other cemetery visitor’s concerns or his own. Bob took a deep breath and stuffed the envelope part way into one of the holes. Then he rose and calmed himself by counting the familiar stones.
Work continued, as did his life at home. Nothing terrible happened to him, but nothing delighted him either. His life had become habit, nothing more, nothing less. At the office he met the status quo and counted down the hours and minutes before he could return home. At home he thought about everything he needed to accomplish at work and wished he were there.
Bob imagined his life as film in a canister. If the Projectionist unwound it and held it up to the light, what would they see? Dark frame, light frame, dark frame, light frame, with no discernible variation. Thus night followed day, day followed night. The cycle repeated itself until at last it felt right to return to the cemetery.
Bob’s shoes crunched in the gravel as he exited his vehicle, straightened his jacket and strolled onto the grounds. In keeping with his new tradition, he walked toward the spot where he’d discovered the note. Another black envelope waited where the first had been. Bob produced his ever-present handkerchief and stooped to retrieve it. This time crusted smears of dried mud clung to the sides of the envelope, reminding him that a light rain had fallen two days prior. Bob made a mental note to try to return to the cemetery more often. Then he opened the envelope and withdrew the card. It still felt damp and if the words had been inscribed in pen, he doubted he’d be able to read the message. But the author had used pencil again. Thank you for writing me back. It means more to me than you know.
He felt his pulse quicken. Bob licked his lips and looked over his shoulder, this time wary of someone lurking nearby, waiting to film him with their Smart Phone. Could a sad, strange man pranked into leaving notes in a cemetery get enough web hits to go viral? Bob scanned the cemetery, memorized every detail. All was still. He scented the alfalfa on the breeze, felt the sunshine caress his skin. No one here, he decided at last.
She’d responded and that pleased him. He stood folding and unfolding the note, surprised at how much he was enjoying this unexpected development. Would she expect to meet? Bob bit his lip. No good would come of that. She’d find him as attractive as plain oatmeal and laugh in his face—if he got off easy. More likely she’d be a lunatic with a sharpened screwdriver stashed in her garter, or a gold-digger with blackmail in mind. Or extortion, betrayal, madness, murder…
Bob surprised himself; he flipped the card over and pulled a pen from his inside pocket.
How often do you come here?
He scrawled his question and returned the paper to the envelope. Bob leaned it against Elizabeth Larke’s memorial but then reconsidered. The wind might carry it away. He inserted it back into the hole where he’d found it.
"You’re going too slow."
Bob stopped mid-thrust and looked into his wife’s eyes. "Too slow?" A droplet of perspiration tickled its way down his spine.
"And too gentle. It’s just not doing anything for me."
Bob resumed his lovemaking with added vigor but she pressed his chest with her palms. "Just stop."
Bob meekly obeyed. His erection softening, he rolled onto his side of the bed. Mallory stood and shrugged into a robe. Escapist thoughts took Bob back to the cemetery and his heart began to beat faster. He wondered how soon before he could drive out there to see if another note had been left for him. These thoughts had replaced all of his other daydreams. The little cemetery, his refuge tucked away on a nondescript gravel road skirting the city, had become a safe haven. He imagined counting his footfalls from his vehicle to the cemetery’s wrought iron gates (why hadn’t he thought of that sooner?) and again from the gates to Elizabeth Larke’s marker.
Next time he visited, Bob decided, a woman lovelier than he had ever imagined would be awaiting his arrival. She would see him approaching and her face would light up with delight. A gleam in her caramel-colored eyes would convey her instant attraction to him. Her black cherry lips would part, revealing teeth as white as porcelain. Then they in turn would part, revealing an adorable pink tongue the color of Bob’s favorite grade school eraser. How he loved putting it to use, erasing an errant letter or number and then sweeping away the twisted pink leavings. This pink eraser tongue nestled behind perfect porcelain teeth would greet him by saying--
"It feels like a coffin in here."
The words yanked Bob from his reverie, and unceremoniously dropped him back into reality. Mallory had returned to their bedroom, loomed over him with hands on hips.
"What did you say?" Bob asked.
"This apartment. It’s tiny. You’re a neatnik, a clean freak. There’s no personality to this place." Mallory moved to the window and gazed outside. "This is supposed to be our home, but it’s stifling, devoid of life. Like a coffin."
Bob sat up, his eyes scanned the room. "We could repaint. Or buy a…" He struggled for ideas. "A lamp! Or a nice painting." Even as he said the words his mind recoiled at the thought.
Mallory lifted one shoulder in a half shrug and sighed. "Yeah, maybe." She tossed the robe aside and curled up on her side of the bed. After a few minutes, the waves-on-a-sandy-shore cadence of her breathing told Bob she had fallen asleep.
He lay back, lacing his fingers behind his head, and counted headstones and markers in his mind until the sky began to lighten from cavernous darkness to a hopeful gray. In a flight of fancy Bob imagined himself as a coal miner ascending an inky shaft but sleep took him before he could gaze upon the shocking brilliance of the surface world.
Another missive greeted him on his next visit. Bob read the words inscribed on the yellowed square. When you next visit, perhaps we shall meet.
Bob sighed. So she visited often and, as he both hoped and feared, she wanted to meet. He wiped his brow with a clean portion of his handkerchief. A pattern can be found even in a series of surprises, he reasoned. Seized by this sudden inspiration, Bob dug out his wallet. He flipped it open to his wedding photo. It had been taken eight years earlier, but it would serve. He tore the picture down the middle, doggedly separating his smiling face from that of his wife with a series of finger twists that left jagged white scars behind. Bob inserted his half of the photo into the recycled black envelope and returned it to its previous position in the hole.
After another uninspired attempt at lovemaking (at least Mallory had allowed him to finish this time) Bob straightened his pillow and drifted off into a troubled sleep.
Nightmares robbed him of his rest, choking his subconscious like a stifling shroud. He couldn’t see. Couldn’t move—God! How he tried. A figure reclined beside him. Not in repose—but in death. A corpse! He had to escape its loathsome presence. Something rustled, the corpse moved. Bob tried to cry out but only a weak whimper trickled from his mouth. He didn’t want to look, couldn’t bear the terror that washed over him. The rustling was agony.
And then a rat emerged from the mouth of the corpse, sleek, dark, and oily. Bob felt his eyes bulging with revulsion. He opened his mouth to scream and the rat leaped, tiny claws piercing his cheeks and gums as it wriggled its way down his throat. He gagged.
He lashed out, striking the moldering corpse even as his subconscious wondered if it was the body or the love that had died. The rat’s clammy tail curled against his cheek as it scuttled deeper, blocking all intake of oxygen. Everything faded to black. Then--
Bob exploded into wakefulness. The bed sheets pressed down on him like the lid of a casket. Mallory had slept through his struggles. He kicked free from the sheets and staggered to the bathroom. He splashed cold water on his face and then sat on the edge of the bathtub. He wept.
Bob tried not to panic as he entered the Tilford Road Cemetery gates. Even from this distance he could see that something wasn't right. Lips pressed firmly together, he selected another row, one he rarely visited now, and touched the toe of his shoe to each marker, each headstone. Here were Jane Chancy, and her unnamed sister. He trod past Ethel, Ruth, Marjorie, Paul. Then there came Jonathan, the World War I veteran, and Josiah, the "beloved husband and father, taken too soon." Here too, were Leonard, Eleanor, Meredith, and Mabel. Next was Lester; a good name for an old man, but not the seventeen-year-old boy who’d been buried here. Bob reached the end of the row and glanced into the next.
He didn’t see the expected envelope. He’d left a photo of himself and had scared her off, it seemed. Or perhaps she had taken one look and dismissed him. He ground his teeth in frustration. He’d double check, just to make sure. Bob strode toward Elizabeth Larke’s marker. No black envelope, no shred of yellowed paper.
Bob stopped short. No note, but there was something else. It glittered and winked at him from the darkness of one of the holes. A rat! One wet eye glowered at him, waiting for him to reach in with bumbling, unprotected fingers so it could pierce his skin with barbed-wire teeth, infecting him with an infusion not of electricity but of rabies.
Bob didn’t move; he only stared. The eye refused to blink. A sweat droplet broke through his eyebrow’s line of defense and stabbed his eyeball with a salty blade. Bob tried to stand, but his knees had stiffened, wouldn’t cooperate. He wobbled, overbalanced, and toppled toward the hole. He heard a rodent-like squeal and scrambled away like a crab dancing across a shoreline of still-cooling volcanic lava. The squeal, he realized, had come from his own lips.
And still the eye refused to blink. The eye… was not an eye at all.
Bob saw the glitter within the darkness from a different angle and his mouth hung open in astonishment. After several moments, he reached a trembling, hanky-ensconced hand into the small hole and carefully extracted his find.
A dazzling diamond brooch pin lay nestled in his open palm. He knew instantly that it belonged to Her, his prospective paramour, and that she had left it for him as a gift. A warm tingling sensation seemed to flow through the cloth barrier, infusing his body with desire and his soul with joy. He put away his handkerchief and examined his find. Bob pried open the brooch with his thumbnail to reveal a tiny black and white photograph of a woman even more beautiful than his imagination had dared to create.
The air around him became a lightning storm of elation. The talisman clutched protectively in his hand, Bob sprinted to his car. On the road, some seven minutes later, he realized he’d forgotten to count the stones on his way out. Upon the heels of this came the realization that he didn’t care.
"That," Mallory said, "was amazing." Strands of tousled hair clung to her flushed cheeks and she breathed a contented sigh. Then she looked at Bob, clearly seeing him in a new light. "Where’s that guy been hiding all this time?"
Bob gave his wife a lopsided smile. "I’m glad you enjoyed it. I did too." The brooch had worked its magic on him, infused him with energy and excitement. He tried to remember another instance when he had reached such heights of passion and could not. Bob had felt the presence of the brooch’s owner channeling through him, raising goosebumps of excitement all over his body, as if caressing him from just beneath the surface of his own skin. Bob had placed the brooch beneath his pillow and had touched it whenever he could manage during their lovemaking.
Mallory snuggled up to him and traced her fingers through his chest hair. "You were a real tiger tonight, Bob." She bit her lip and then giggled. "I feel closer to you than ever."
Bob, lying on his back, eased his hand behind his head, beneath the pillow, and found the brooch again.
"What’s that?" Mallory sat up. Her arm shot out like a striking rattler. Her fingers gripped his wrist.
"It’s nothing. Let me go, please."
Mallory’s eyes narrowed, painting a picture of suspicion on her face. "What is it?" she pressed. "A bottle of those little blue pills? Is that your secret?"
Bob struggled to find the right words to get out of this jam. "It’s just something I found on the ground in the parking lot when I left work and I grabbed it and forgot about it until now." He felt his cheeks flush. Mallory, he could see, wasn’t buying any of his incoherent babble. She began working at his clenched fist with both hands, her strong nails prying open his fingers despite his protests.
The brooch fell onto his pillow and Mallory snatched it up and gasped. "It’s beautiful."
"It’s not yours!" The words tumbled from his mouth unchecked and she gazed at him shocked.
"Whose is it then?" Mallory asked her tone frosty.
"I don’t know. Like I said, I found it."
"Then why can’t I keep it? Where's the harm in that?"
Bob thought again about how the brooch had made him feel. For an hour and change he’d felt like Superman on Ecstasy. The idea of losing that, of passing on his admirer’s gift to his cajoling, and often ungrateful, wife rubbed at his soul like coarse sandpaper. Instead of responding, Bob made a grab for the brooch.
Their hands collided and the piece of jewelry fell into the folds of the sheets. Husband and wife fought over the object like starved cats competing for a morsel of food. Mallory was closer to the brooch but Bob, driven by a desperation only a junkie would have understood, found it first. He grabbed the brooch—and hissed in pain. It felt as if a hornet had buried its stinger in the meaty pad of flesh below his thumb. He held out his hand to look.
"The clasp fell open," Mallory observed. "Serves you right, you know."
Bob gingerly attempted to pluck the brooch from his palm, but the pin remained embedded in his flesh like a porcupine’s quill. He pulled the brooch, but fiery tendrils of pain shot through his arm. Bob fell back on his pillow, nursing his incapacitated limb.
Mallory, apparently in no mood to show any sympathy, grabbed the brooch and yanked. Bob’s arm plunged into a deep-fat fryer of pain. The agony lasted for an eternity—a full five seconds—before he lost consciousness.
A crack of thunder roused him. Bob lay still, listening to the rain pattering on his window. He scratched his palm which itched incessantly. He’d clutched the brooch and the pin had pierced him, that much he remembered. He wrinkled his nose at the odor of spoiled meat that permeated the room. He sat up and his head swam as if his brain were floating in stagnant water. The brooch, he realized, was gone, along with Mallory and most of her belongings.
Bob planted his feet on the floor beside the bed and rubbed his stubbly cheeks with his hands. His skin felt strange, as if too much pressure might cause it to slough off of his skull. The sheets appeared dark and oily. The answering machine for the phone on the end table was full but he didn’t bother playing back the messages.
Instead, Bob stood and tottered across the floor into the apartment’s tiny living room and kitchenette area. Mallory seemed to have taken her things from here as well. The bananas on the kitchen counter were soggy and brown, the peaches had transformed into fuzzy white lumps. An envelope leaned on the keyboard of his desktop in the corner of the room and his heart leapt. Disappointment soon followed; he realized the standard white business-size envelope would be a letter from Mallory, not his mystery woman. He tore it open and read a hastily scribbled and rather uninspired Dear John letter:
I can’t take it anymore, Bob. I keep hoping you’ll change. Stupid me. Don’t look for the brooch that you were SO obsessed with—I sold it to pay part of my moving expenses. I tried to make us work, I really did, but you’re just not normal. You don’t know how hard you are to live with. Goodbye and good luck—you’ll need it.
Bob sank to the floor, aghast. A painful pre-cry lump in his throat swelled to what felt like goiter-size. His temples ached. Bob drew a shaky breath, clenching his fists. He couldn’t believe it; she’d thrown the brooch away.
The rain continued to fall—against the glass and on his spirit. Bob tried to phone work but his tongue felt thick in his mouth and he had trouble forming the necessary words. He ended the call and stood staring at the smear his thumb had left on his phone.
Bob showered, washing away hair and sloughing off skin until the drain plugged. He fled the tub and pulled the curtain closed so he couldn’t see the cloudy water that had backed up in the tub. Steam had covered the mirror and he glanced at the indistinct smear of his reflection with something akin to relief. He dressed in his Sunday best, hoping to shake off the despair and hopelessness that seemed to taint his every move. He felt no better, however, and the vile odor permeating the apartment forced him into action. He picked up his car keys and fled. Bob turned his ankle as he stepped into the hall. He heard the tendons and ligaments pop and winced, waiting for the burst of dull pain. When it didn’t come, he made his way gingerly down the stairs, gripping the handrail for support.
He drove through the rain. The dark shapes of buildings rose up, loomed, and fell away as he drove. At last he left the city behind. The rains had created a washboard across the familiar gravel road. Bob jounced and jolted along, headlights illuminating thousands of glistening diamonds, windshield wipers slapping them aside. He peered through the glass at the road, Ahab seeking the white whale.
At last the gates of Tilford Cemetery emerged from the mist and he pulled onto the sloping shoulder. Bob’s mood immediately improved. Even the itching in his injured palm had abated. Lightning illuminated the sky in the distance and the ominous rumble of thunder followed a few seconds later. It occurred to him that he had no idea what time it was. Afternoon? Evening? Dawn? Not that it mattered. Bob exited his vehicle, leaving an oily stain on the seat cover. He didn’t bother closing the door.
Though the rain should have chilled him, Bob felt fine—better than fine. He took in the familiar surroundings of his private refuge and moved up the row touching each marker and headstone with the toe of his rain-soaked shoe. He counted thirty-two in this row, the same as always.
He paused and glanced around at the man-made memorials, merging and diminishing with the ground and sky, all of them sliding away in shades of gray. He breathed deeply the complimentary scents of wet air and earth and admired the roiling clouds assembled overhead. Everything felt perfect. A sense of peace and reassurance washed over him, saturating him in a way that the rain could not.
At the next row, Bob turned and trudged to Elizabeth Larke’s grave. He traced the letters of her name with his fingers and watched with detached fascination as his nails snapped off one by one against the granite’s inscription. His mind was focused on letters of another sort; the ones he had received and given, the letters which had instilled in him a new-found sense of hope. Hope for something as-yet undiscovered. Rivulets of water washed into ovals of darkness beneath him. How the rat holes had enlarged! Bob first knelt then stretched out making believe that he lay alongside her. Bob felt the muddy ground beneath him give way. He looked down the length of his body and saw one leg had already been swallowed up by mud. Then Bob did something he never would have even considered before the brooch had cast its spell upon him; he pushed his left arm down into the hole that had contained all the letters, exploring the viscous combination of storm cloud rain and graveyard dirt. Bob mentally echoed the sentiment and longing of the original note and pushed his questing arm deeper. The ground shifted again and only his face and right arm remained exposed to the elements. No ashes or dust here, only faith and hope smoldering within his soul. Then an upward-reaching hand grasped his and pulled.
True love had found him at last.
Issue #6 CONTENTS
MAKE DO AND MAKE MEND
STORM CLOUD RAIN, GRAVEYARD DIRT
THE BLUE BOY
MURDER AND CRUELTY FREE
S Van Sickel
A PROPER FOUNDATION
Adrian Ludens is a short story author and radio announcer living in Rapid City, SD. You can find his work in: The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper Stories; The Beauty of Death; Dark Horizons; Now Playing in Theater B, and many others.
Visit Adrian at www.adrianludens.com for a cover gallery, blog, news, and more. Adrian is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association but writes in several genres. His newest collection, When Bedbugs Bite, is available on Amazon in a variety of formats.