I’ve always loved my neighbors, but living next door to them has done nothing to enhance my popularity in the fifth grade. In fact, I’ve lost many friends because of my neighbors. I guess I should explain. I live next door to a graveyard.
Fear of cemeteries, or coimetrophobia, is quite common among my friends. I never developed this fear because I was raised with a no-nonsense view of life and death. Everything lives and everything dies. Death is unavoidable and it’s best to be practical about such things, and being eleven is not an excuse to be unrealistic. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not anxious to join my neighbors on their property any time in the near future, but I’m not afraid of it, either. As far as I’m concerned, death is the next great adventure. Why fear the inevitable?
Not everyone feels the same way, especially my ex-best friend Emily and I’m partially responsible for that. I know what I did was wrong and I feel really bad about what happened. Well…mostly. Allow me to elucidate.
I spent months trying to persuade Emily to visit my house and she’d spent the equal amount of time dodging my requests because I live next to a cemetery. She finally agreed to come for an afternoon, the day before Halloween, but she absolutely refused to spend the night.
“Everyone knows spirits hang out around their graves. They’re probably in your house, too…maybe even in your room,” said Emily.
I giggled. “There are no spirits in my house and, for your information, they don’t hang out around their graves. Think about it. If you died, and had the ability to go anywhere in the world, are you seriously going to stay by your tombstone waiting for someone to visit you? No, you’re going to go someplace fabulous, like Buckingham Palace, or the Great Pyramids of Eygpt, or at the very least, Paris.”
“Take it or leave,” replied Emily.
“Fine.” I glowered. “Have it your way.”
The next day after school, Emily rode the bus home with me and we spent the most incredible afternoon playing games in my yard within sight of the cemetery.
“It’s really not as scary as I thought it would be here,” she said.
“I told you so,” I singsonged.
“I can’t believe you play in there, though.”
“I do not play in there. I wouldn’t disrespect the dead like that.”
“Then what do you in there?
I shrugged. I didn’t feel it wise to tell Emily about the old horse-drawn glass hearse in the carriage house on the grounds of the cemetery, where I frequently envisioned my own youthful demise and resplendent funeral procession. Sliding onto the coffin castors in the back of the hearse, I’d silently repose myself and imagine my body solemnly rolling through the village drawn by six magnificent black stallions as my distraught friends and neighbors openly wept and rent their garments in true biblical fashion.
“Did you hear me?” asked Emily.
“Of course, I heard you. All I do is walk around imagining how some of the people buried in the graveyard were in life and then I tell their stories. After all, everyone wants to be remembered, don’t you think?”
“You’re kind of creepy,” said Emily with a scowl.
“Come on, I’ll show you.” I started walking towards the cemetery.
Emily wrinkled her forehead. I could see her pulse throbbing in her neck, but she followed me anyway. Dried leaves crunched under our feet as we made our way along one of the dirt roads perusing the crumbling monuments.
To my surprise, Emily seemed fascinated. “Look. Tobias Strong. Died 1866. Age 4months. Aw, he was only a baby.”
“So what do you think happened to him, Em? Give him a story. Everyone needs a story.”
Emily wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. “Well…maybe he got pneumonia. His parents didn’t have access to a doctor, being so far out in the country like this, and he died. His parents were inconsolable.”
I smiled encouragingly and nodded. It was a good thing she couldn’t hear what I was thinking because my mind was staging a mini-riot. It was the lamest story I’d ever heard. I would have gone with a tragic kidnapping plot myself, but, in all fairness, Emily was new to the graveyard story game, I had to give her chance.
“How about this one?” I pointed to a monument of a tiny stone cherub with chipped wings.
“Patience Gunn. Loving wife. Born 1877. Died 1899.” said Emily, clasping her hands over her chest. “I believe Patience died while giving birth to her first child. Her husband never married again because she was his one true love and he was never the same after.”
I rolled my eyes behind my friend’s back. She obviously knew nothing about the art of storytelling. Patience Gunn had clearly been murdered. She had not died in childbirth.
I read the epitaph out loud. “Henry Clay. Died August 22, 1884. Age 120 years. I have reached the goal, where death leaves in its eternal rest my weary soul.”
Emily looked at me quizzically. “Is that true? He was actually one hundred and twenty?”
“That’s what the tombstone says and that’s why he needs a spectacular story.”
“He certainly does,” she agreed. “Henry Clay was a hardworking farmer married to an amazing woman who bore him ten sons. He passionately loved his family. His one regret in life was that he never had a daughter. He peacefully passed away in his sleep surrounded by his ten sons, fifty-six grandchildren and thirteen great-grandchildren.”
Frowning, I pressed a hand to my lips to hide it. It took every effort I could muster to keep from pulling the hair from my head. In my mind, Henry Clay was the slave of a wealthy Massachusetts family who righteously denounced slavery and freed Henry. He moved to Maine where he became a conductor on the underground railroad, traveling to plantations in the south pretending to be a slave in order to guide others to sweet freedom. In later years he became a fur trapper. Unfortunately, he contracted rabies from a fisher cat and died quite unexpectedly.
For the next fifteen minutes I watched Emily pause at various headstones and listened to her prattle on about love, romance and loss, until my head ached, my stomach churned and I slowly took leave of my senses.
“My turn.” I said, pointing to an ancient obelisk framed against the setting sun. It was time for Emily to experience the magic of a real storyteller. “This is the tale of Mehitable Brown told in her own words.”
Emily clapped her hands excitedly.
“My life was an ordeal of the most grievous kind, because I made a disastrous romantic match. I don’t remember a living moment that wasn’t filled with agony, struggle or suffering. Perhaps I was happy in my childhood, but I have no recollection of those times. In fact, I remember nothing before I met that monstrous man. He was a tyrant, a ruthless, loathsome coward. His spirit was so full of darkness, the demons lamented the day he left hell to be born on Earth. In life, there was no surviving his poisonous presence and I died long before they put my body in the ground at your feet.”
Emily gave a horrified cough, placed a fingernail in her mouth and began to chew. I could see her uneasiness lurking and the gooseflesh raising on her arms, but I didn’t care. I’d heard enough of her cutesy graveyard yarns to last a lifetime.
“I laughed ominously and flung my arms out towards Emily. “I deserve another chance at life and I shall have it. Come to me, my pretty child,” I whispered wickedly. My…pretty…little…Emily!”
Emily’s eyes widened in terror, but that only encouraged me. I took a menacing step towards the poor girl and lunged for her.
Emily bolted from the cemetery shrieking her lungs out.
What can I say? Halloween seems to bring out the devil in me. In hindsight, I should feel worse about losing my best friend, but it never would have worked out between us, anyway. Our creative differences were far too great for us to overcome.