of the Dead
Sunlight streamed into the foyer through the thick etched glass panes in the wooden doors, illuminating the dust as it danced and floated in the open space, bringing a smile to Joanna’s lips. Today was the day. She knew it. She had dreamt it.
The only thing left was the space separating her from the bank of mailboxes along the right side of the foyer and a few short moments of waiting. From the peephole in her apartment door on the second floor she watched the mailman filling each box with today’s post. Every muscle in her body vibrated with anticipation waiting the moment when he would leave. She danced from foot to foot counting down each of the nine mailboxes. Fleeting thoughts ran through her mind, never pausing long enough to fully form, only adding snippets to the deep pools of thoughts already pushed aside.
From the kitchen came a shallow cry bringing Joanna’s attention back into the quiet apartment. Up until then she had been so focused on the mailman’s hands she’d lost touch with the fabric of the world around her. In an instant the sound of Houdini’s cry and the feeling of the wooden door under her palms and against her body crashed into her. Gasping for breath she glanced over her shoulder and called out to Houdini, her 8 year old ginger tiger striped cat.
“Bugagoo! What’s up with you?” her voice sounded strange to her own ears, nothing like the normal sign song with which she usually spoke to him.
She was still standing on her tiptoes, hands pressed to either side of the peephole placed high on the door, watching as the chunky cat sauntered out of the kitchen, pausing to rub on the trim, a look of contentment on his face. Rolling her eyes she returned her attention to the world outside her door, her eye aligned with the tiny window now saw the foyer was empty; the only movement was the dancing dust. Her fingers slowly curled into loose fists as her breath caught deep in her throat.
The letter she has been waiting for now waits for her. Joanna stands frozen; her life will change as soon as she reads its contents. Is she ready? Will she be able to meet the demands? Her heart pounds against her ribs, her lungs feel starved for air and a cool sweat breaks out across her brow and top lip. Just then Houdini winds his way between her feet. Sliding his silky body against her cool skin before wandering off in search of a place to take a nap, leaving her with the faint tickle along the trail on her skin he had traced with his tail. As the sensation fades Joanna collects herself. Smoothing her hair back, wiping her face with the bottom of her faded Rolling Stones t-shirt and with a deep breath she grasps the glass door knob.
The movement is quick but it seems to Joanna to last hours, then before she knows it her apartment door stands open wide. Any other day she would have been through the doorway and down the stairs without a second thought but the fear of yet another rejection letter has glued her feet to the old hardwood floor. She mentally reprimands herself for being so silly and starts out the door. Before her foot touches the worn hallway carpet, her cell phone rings. Startled, Joanna yippee clutching her chest and automatically whirls around to glare into the living room, narrowing her sight in on the cell phone.
By the third ring Joanna had run through the apartment and now holds the phone in her hand. She doesn’t recognize the number on the display but swipes her finger across the screen to accept the call anyway.
“Joanna? Its Marlene, Marlene Toulouse, your Agent.” a female voice replies with a stiff professional air.
“Yeah, you got her, hay Marlene. What’s up?” Joanna asks winded when she notices she has left her door open. She tries to focus on what the woman is saying but is distracted by the open door. Joanna mumbles in agreement a couple times as she makes her way towards it and is only pulled back into the conversation at warp speed when the words “…wants to publish your novel.” crash through her brain.
“Wait! What?” she all but screams into the phone.
“Joanna.” The women replies with a pause then the sound of snapping fingers came across the line. “Did I get you at a bad time?” she asks.
“No, no. I uhh was just going to get the mail when you called.” Joanna stammers, finding herself now standing in the foyer with her mailbox key in her hand. Propping the phone with her shoulder she unlocks her mailbox, robotically reaches inside, pulls out the stack of mail and returns to her apartment.
“Ok. Well, I was saying that I have great news for you.” The woman said, her voice growing softer.
“Really? Well you have my attention now.” Joanna smiles, shutting her apartment door behind her as she heads to her favorite chair in the living room where she tosses the mail on the sideboard before sitting down.
“Good! Now Random House wants to publish your novel as part of their holiday releases. This means we only have six months to complete final edits, finalize on a cover, and get the book to press.” the woman states with authority.
“Wow! Do you really think there is enough time? You’ve gone through this with other writers before, right? I mean it just seems like everyone always tells me it takes a good two years to actually get from this point to the book being out.” Joanna asks with tension building in the pit of her stomach. This is everything she always wanted but six months to release is so much sooner than she ever expected or imagined.
“Yes. I have had a few writers actually survive being put under the scope like this in the past and am confident I can pull you through to the other side as well. Now grab a pen and paper because you need to take notes on what I am about to tell you. This is going to be a bumpy ride.” the woman laughs giving Joanna a chance to find something to write with.
Sitting back down Joanna laughs to herself and thinks how corny she is – a writer having to search for something to write with. Moments later her notes are running onto a second page as she scribbles to keep up with her agents list of tasks and ideas.
The next time she looks up dusk is creeping into the apartment, its shades of gray filling up the little niches while the sunset glows through the patio doors. Her stomach growls loudly as the two say goodbye. Houdini had curled up beside her earlier taking advantage of her inactivity for some cuddle time. Joanna gives him a scratch between the ears and under the chin then stand and they both stretched their stiff muscles, Houdini in his impressive downward dog and she the tree of life. Having gotten a call from her agent the urgency to read her mail was quickly forgotten, as had been the dream from last night. The letter she thought the dream predicted had instead come over the phone. The dream predicted a letter that would change her life. A letter that now sat on her sideboard, tucked in with bills and flyers, forgotten in the excitement. Joanna pads barefoot into the kitchen, Houdini running on ahead paces hopefully in front of his dish.
Opening the fridge Joanna took out cheese, mustard, turkey, and a tomato; she quickly assembled a thick sandwich then dropped a few chunks of meat and cheese into Houdini’s bowl before leaving the room. On her way back to her chair she paused only long enough to turn on a few lights here and there to chase away the growing darkness. Reclaiming her cozy seat she bites into her sandwich, grabs her cell and calls her best friend. Outside a storm is moving in.
As she chats she watches the storm grow and eventually falls asleep to the sound of the rain against her windows. It’s after three when she is woken by a crack of lightening that lit up every room of her apartment. Her body jerks with the shock causing Houdini to tear off over the back of the chair, skidding on the sideboard then running down the hall to hide under the bed. What she didn’t hear was the mail as it was sent scattering to the floor. The letter having fallen behind the sideboard will lay undiscovered until after the New Year, all the while Joanna’s dreams continue to be flooded with its mystery.
Night after night her dreams took her in search of the letter. Voices called out to her from the shadows growing more insistent as the months pass, until finally she thought she was hearing them while awake. Joanna knew she should have been more focused and excited about her novel’s release late last fall and that there were several little details she’d failed to hold on to. At first she thought the dreams were growing more intense due to the stress and anxiety she wasn’t feeling, she thought it was her way of coping with the new demands. Since spring her days had been filled with either editing or reviewing and then came the whirlwind book tour but now that her schedule has cleared and her time is momentarily her own again she feels greater pressure. She still connects the letter in the dream to finally getting published. What else could there be?
The sky outside her windows was again clouded and threatened to storm; with winter in full swing it promised more snow and biting wind. Joanna had been lying in bed, watching the clouds gather for a couple of hours. Blankets pulled tight to her chin, Houdini nestled on the pillow next to her as she struggled to fight off sleep. Outside snow begins to fall thick and heavy pulling her eyelids closed allowing sleep to finally claim her.
Joanna no longer feels the comfort and warmth trapped within her bed covers instead she feels a chill as a light breeze danced across her bare arms and legs. She stands dressed only in her nightgown, wiggling her bare toes in damp leaves and dirt. The breeze swirls through the leaves overhead; off in the distance she sees moonlight reflecting off the surface of a lake. She knows this place. She has been coming here as long as she can remember but only ever in her dreams. If she follows the path in the direction she is facing, it will lead her to the lake. If she turns around and follows it back she will have a choice of walking into town or turning aside towards the graveyard.
Uncertain at first which direction to take, Joanna realizes something is different. Tonight the voices are quiet, none beckon her to follow or warn her away. The woods around her feel empty, void of all life and there is a scent on the breeze she can’t quite place. Turning to face the forest she stands with the lake on one side and town on the other.
She stands still for several moments then turning her head, she looks down the path leading to the lake, knowing each twist and bend, each root and gnarled tree. Tonight this is not the direction she wants to take; tonight there is something that needs to be taken care of. Without hesitation she turns her back to the lake, the soft sound of her feet as she walks over the damp leaves strewn about the path echoes in her ears heightening her senses. Never has she been in her dream world and been so in control of her actions so too has she never felt the need to be on guard as she does tonight.
The further she follows the path the colder the ground becomes beneath her feet and the heavier the air, dew begins to collect in her hair and eye lashes. After pausing only to wipe her face with her hands, Joanna notices a thick low fog has begun to creep along the forest floor. Curling around the roots of the trees it shrouds the weeds in a white haze. As the fog reaches her toes her skin begins to prickle and itch as if she has been out on a cold winter day for too long so she quickens her pace, almost running now. Moments later she suddenly stops. Straining her ears, she searches the night for any sound other than her own breathing. Still there is nothing. The urgency she felt earlier intensifies, she knows time is running out, she must find it tonight and there is only one place to look.
Joanna grabs the hem of her nightgown, pulling it up past her knees and breaks into a run at full speed. Minutes pass, finally the trail for the graveyard is in sight, she slows to a brisk walk. With her hands on her hips she paces at the start of the trail, glancing towards town and again towards the lake then back to the trail. She looks down at her feet, clean against the muddy leaves being tramped underneath, closes her eyes and takes a deep breath knowing the answers to her questions about the letter will only be answered by continuing what has already been set in motion. Yet fear has taken hold of her, her muscles refusing to follow commands, leaving her pacing with her hands in her hair until a strangled cry escapes her clenched teeth.
One hand still grasping wildly at her hair, the other slips to her lips and begins to tap rhythmically to the beat of her pacing. Behind her, Joanna can hear that the breeze is changing; she can hear a deep rustle moving through the branches as the wind pushes closer. Finally blowing her nightgown tight against her back and legs as it’s pulled straight out in front of her, her hair becomes a swirling tangle as it lashes at her face. Releasing the handful of hair she lowers her arm, shielding her face from the attack and begins to stagger forward, hesitating for a second more just inches from the graveyard trail. Without warning Joanna is slammed from behind by an unseen force, her head snaps back, her arms are thrown wide as her body is thrust forward. Her mind is racing with fear and panic, neither suggesting she turn to see what or who may have just pushed her. Thinking it better not to know, Joanna recovers her balance and quickly moves up the trail, the thick fog still hovering just above the ground, its tendrils reaching into the path retreat as she moves closer.
Moonlight breaks through the foliage giving a urethral glow to the woods around her; the trees stand tall and dark, rising like spires out of the swirling, writhing blanket of vapors. Wrapping her arms around her ribs, Joanna quickens her pace, keeping her eyes fixed on the trail a few feet ahead until her progress is blocked by an old iron gate. The gate is fixed into a tall stone wall, worn down by age, its mortar cracked by time and roots, its remaining rocks precariously stacked threaten to join those already scattered at its base. The wall stretches a couple hundred feet in either direction before, Joanna assumes, it bends framing in the sides of the graveyard. Looking up, Joanna scans the gate looking for a sign naming the cemetery, there is only a phrase written in iron vines delicately resting along the arched top of the gate. It reads, “All take my hand and in death my hand takes all”.
Joanna leans forward, her fingers gripping at the iron bars, she peers inside. The graveyard is smaller than she had expected, only a hundred or so headstones stand throughout yet their arrangement is unlike other graveyards. From this side of the gate, Joanna is unable to make out the design but is able to see those graves closest to the gate face away from it. Eager to explore inside she begins to examine the gate, searching for a latch but the ironwork is so intricate she must take a few steps back. Having been looking at the ground when she arrived at the gate Joanna missed the scene that now played out before her.
What she thought was one gate, actually split into two sides. From this distance she could now see the right also held a smaller door, just right for someone to walk through while the two sides together afforded many. A large skeleton stands in the center, his bones coming together from either side, he was not split down the middle as she expected making each side of the opening smooth but fitting together like a puzzle. The face of the skull unevenly divided while the jaw connected to the left side of the gate, the clavicles and breast bone attached to the right. The rest of his frame so artfully divided she would only know which sides the bones were attached to once she opened the gate. The skeleton stands with his arms slightly outstretched, elbows gently bent, hands welcoming you to him.
On either side of him, children gathered at his feet, some appeared to be laughing others cowered in fear; adults labored alongside of him until stooped with age where they gathered together, fighting for their chance to whisper into his ears begging to be released from life. Even from here she couldn’t figure out where the latch was to open the gate. Joanna moved in closer. She began running her hands over the gate, hoping to feel a trigger or knob set into the design. She started searching at waist high; grabbing, twisting and tugging on anything that looked like it stood out, nothing gave. Searching higher she moved from the far side of the left gate to the right, again nothing.
Looking up she focused on the skeleton’s face adamant he tell her the secret to open the gate. “So!” she demanded, “What do I need to do? Is there a hidden leaver on the wall or a stone to be stepped on that opens the gate?” her firm voice edged with sarcasm was swallowed up by the silence around her. Shaking her head in frustration she threw it back and turned her eyes to the branches overhead, catching brief glimpses of the stars beyond. Without straightening her neck she lowered her eyes, once again finding the phrase written along the arch. Reading it again she drops her eyes to the skeleton’s hands both are turned with the palms out, all of the bones are finely detailed. Stepping closer, Joanna knows now how to open the gate.
Running her fingers over the skeleton’s right hand she searches for something, anything that might give. Finding nothing she moves to his left hand. The left rests higher than the right, positioned just at the corner of the small door. Looking up at it she realizes the hand reaches out of the gate towards her. Reaching up she takes his hand in hers, again her fingers searching the bones. As her fingers begin to wrap around his hand she feels his fingers squeeze hers and just as suddenly she hears the click and the creaking of tired metal and realizes the index finger is now bent slightly back, as if pointing to the door. Her right hand drops to her side as she shifts her gaze, finding the door open.
A smile creeps over her lips, tugging at the corners of her eyes. There is more to that hand, she can feel it. There is no more time tonight to figure it out, she must get inside and find what she came for. Pushing the door open, Joanna gathers her nightgown close to her careful not to trip on the bottom of the doorway as she steps through. Letting her gown tumble to the ground she gingerly steps towards the first row of headstones, from the back they are all identical. Roughly three feet high and two feet wide, carved out of a rough unpolished stone, the tops curve sharply leaving very little purchase for moss to cling to. As she steps through the first row, she notices the headstones are actually square being as thick as they are wide. At the base of each sits another square block of the same thickness and roughly a foot and a half high.
Turning to face the first headstone, Joanna bends forward, reaching out her hand she begins to wipe at the grime on its face. The stone is cold and rough beneath her hand and covered with years of dirt that fails to yield. She wipes her hands on her nightgown, leaving dark hand prints smeared down her legs then presses harder on the stone as she slides into a squatting position she scratches with her nails trying to make the name of its owner legible. She succeeds only in tearing the skin around her nails and wearing them down to jagged edges. Pressing her palm to the stone she pushes herself up and begins to step away until a bright spot of red catches her eye. Caught off guard she stares at the redness of it, its stark contrast to the monochrome surrounding her holds her there.
Slowly she raises her hand, turning to gaze at the smeared blood and dirt. It doesn't register the blood is hers; there is no pain only cold. The cold has begun to spread out from the gash in her palm, making her fingers feel like ice, it moves through her veins with each beat of her heart draining the color from her flesh. It doesn't matter, the wound, the cold, the blood; none of it matters. Dropping her hand to her side she turns and walks further into the graveyard, blood dripping from her fingertips splatters the leaves on the ground and spreads in rich crimson stains each time her nightgown brushes against them.
Reaching the center of the graveyard, Joanna pauses. Her head feels thick; her concentration has grown fuzzy as the cold spreads through her abdomen and down her thighs. No longer aware of the blood she scratches her head then wipes her face with her hands, leaving a bloody mask curving from one cheek to the other. Closing her eyes she willed her head to clear, searching for the reason she was here but her strength was failing. Joanna fell to her knees, leaning to the left supported by her wounded hand she sat there until the feeling began to return to her limbs and her thoughts began to make sense. Images of a letter fluttered to the front of her thoughts.
Pushing herself to her feet she wondered where a letter would be hidden here. There were now urns or flower pots, the graveyard was too small to house any mausoleums and she hadn’t seen any above ground tombs. There weren’t even any statues. All around her were only the odd shaped headstones, the wall and the gate. But wait. There is an altar.
She hadn’t noticed it before she collapsed yet here is stood. The altar is a large round table carved of the same stone as the headstones. Again she wasn’t able to tell what may be written around its edge, whatever was etched into it had been covered years before. The top of the altar is polished smooth, the stone slick to the touch. There were four metal rings set into its top, between two there were two holes drilled through the table. The metal rings were set into swallowed out recesses, the two near the drilled holes each featured a stone spike set just to the outside of the ring. Each spike stood over two inches high. Leading from the recesses there were gutters gouged into the stone that intricately wound their way from the corners to the far end of the table where there was a deeper recess carved out. It was round and had a cork pressed from below into a hole in the bottom.
Stepping back from the altar Joanna needed no one to explain its purpose to her. What she didn’t understand was why. Could this have been what some of the voices were describing? It was important but something was off, this was far too old. She began looking through the headstones that sat in the first row around the altar, weaving in and out of the row, scanning deeper in to the rows. A smile pulled at her lips as it registered the gravestones and altar are set up as if in an arena. The altar was visible from every grave, each row of graves being offset from the previous. Looking again at the headstones she felt weak in the knees, not only were these graves, they were seats in the theater where death was dealt out on the stone stage. Instinctively, she reached out to steady herself on of the headstones, jerking her hand back with disgust when she felt its rough surface she tried to turn away, but everywhere she turned they leered at her making her head spin and her stomach churn.
Unable to stand being in the graveyard any longer, Joanna ran for the gate. She ran between the lines coming out way too far down the wall, she had forgotten the rows were offset. She hunched over, one hand on the wall one on her knee, gasping for breath and begging herself not to get sick. Her face and neck were covered in sweat and she could taste the blood on her lips, it having mixed with the sweat as it dripped down her face. Breathing in lungs full of air she sprinted for the gate; she could see the small door standing open, its dark metal looming out of the fog.
She was just feet from the gate when a man stepped through the door, slamming it closed behind him. Joanna gave a startled scream as she skidded to a stop. The man turned towards her, his face drawn and thin, his eyes full of fire. He moved towards her to fast for her to react, her mind was too startled by his appearance to be able to react. In a flash he grabbed her, pinning her arms behind her with one hand he punched her in the face with the other. She never felt the pain when his fist connected with her skull she only saw a streak of flesh then total blackness.