The ride home from the hospital was his first trip in a car in two days. He took a cab; not because he didn’t call someone for a ride, but because no one answered.
His cab ride, blowing yellow lights so close to being red he braced for impact more than once, wasn’t the worst part of the day.
Coming home was the worst part of the day. The house felt wrong, even though everything was in its place. The picture of the happy couple standing at the alter hung on the wall, the Persian rug Jenny took six months to decide on still sat under the leather living room set, the magnetic beer mug pinned the unfilled grocery list to the refrigerator; but the air was heavy and lifeless. Tommy felt like an intruder here. Their happy home was gone and it was just a house again; a property that needed to be maintained. He packed a bag and rented a room at a local motel.
From that room Tommy tried to make arraignments. Tommy called the mortuary to find out what he had to do, to choose, for the funeral; trying to get the arrangements set before talking to Jenny’s parents.
“Actually” the mortician said “her parents are here now. Would you like to discuss this with them?”
Bile caught in Tommy’s throat, and before he could say no, Gail’s voice filled his ears.
“Tommy? Hello Tommy? Are you there honey? It’s Gail.”
With all of his effort he whispered “I’m here”.
A moment of silence passed where he felt Gail judging him. She was comparing the pain in his voice to the scale in her head that measured such things.
“Listen honey, you just get some rest and tend to your other affairs. George and I will handle this.”
“No.” His voice was a whisper. “She’s my wife Gail. This is all my…” He had stopped before he said fault. “Obligation.”
Tommy heard Gail’s palm slip over the phone before she responded. “George is quite firm on this Tommy. Tend to your…ahem, other problems.”
A spark of fury lit in Tommy’s belly. This aging Betty Crocker and the know it all husband were pushing him out. They were keeping him from doing the right thing.
“Now wait a minute Gail. She’s my wife!”
“She was your wife Tommy! Was your wife! And look how that turned out!” The anger fled Tommy as he felt the cool waves of hate flowing from his phone. “Now I suggest you tend to your business and let us tend to ours. I’ll call you when everything is finalized.”
Stunned Tommy replied “Call my cell; I’m not at the house.”
With that the line clicked off. The next day Tommy read of the funeral plans in the local paper. His phone never rang.
The day of the funeral he took a cab back to the house. Tommy changed in to the single suit he owned, the one Jenny liked so much, and walked the half mile to the church.
Tommy’s shadow filled the rear of the church. Many of the mourners, Jenny’s coworkers, friends, and family, averted their eyes from his, they turned their backs to avoid him. In the front of the church Tommy could see the closed casket and his in-laws making up a receiving line. They were hugging, crying and receiving condolences from the mourners. Bobby, Jenny’s younger brother, noticed Tommy first. Tommy could see the whole line bristle with disapproval at his arrival. Tommy approached the casket and stroked the smooth metal lid. His eyes filled and his heart sank. A cold voice snapped him back to the moment.
“Are you planning on making a scene?” Tommy looked away from the casket and deep in to the eyes of his father in law. Somewhere in there, not to far from the surface, Tom could see a real smugness. George never liked Tommy, maybe because Tommy was a lawyer, maybe because of all the money Tommy made, either way, blue collar, pickup truck driving, George seemed ready to break out an “I told you so”.
“George!” Gail said.
“I just wanted to know.”
Tommy didn’t respond to either of them. He looked down at his feet and started in on an apology he had been working on all night.
“I just want you both to know” Tommy started, but Gail cut him off, clearing her throat, the sound echoing in the hushed church.
“Yes, yes that’s nice dear. Have you found a decent attorney yet? I mean you are going to plead guilty, aren’t you? After all, you were driving at twice the legal blood alcohol limit. But I’m sure you’ve suffered more than enough, you know, with your guilt.”
The whole speech, brimming with fake concern, was said loud enough for everyone to hear and with enough condensation to make Tommy choke on his attempted apology. God may forgive, but family doesn’t.
The rest of the mass went without incident. The priest was kind enough not to dwell on her unexpected passing. At the end of mass “Amazing Grace” played as the casket was carried to the hearse and the mourners filed to their cars to proceed to the cemetery.
Tommy waited in his pew until everyone else had walked outside. He was unsure of how, or even what, he would do at the cemetery. The others piled in to their cars and drove off following the hearse, leaving Tommy alone in the shadows of the church vestibule.
Tommy walked home considering his situation. When he thought of how everyone abandoned him, anger flushed his face. His minds eye showed him what he wanted to do: burst in to the grave side ceremony, declare his undying love for his wife and his regret and sorrow at what he did. He could see the rage from his in-laws fading in the heat of his heartfelt words.
“But is that what Jenny would have wanted?” The words came at him from the darkness.
“No” he whispered back to the darkness. “What am I supposed to do then?”
Tommy didn’t expect an answer for the void, but one came anyway.
“Why don’t you spend first night?”
First night was an idea a high school friend, Joe, had when their mutual friend Frank was hit by a train. It was supposed to be some Gallic tradition, but Tommy didn’t know if that was true.
They wouldn’t let Tommy and his friends spend the night, Frank’s first night in the grave, with Frank back then. But now - now he was an adult. He withdrew a thousand dollars from the rainy day fund, called a cab, and paid a visit to the cemetery manager. It took most of his money, but it was a palm well greased. All Tommy had to do was show up at 3:30. The manager, Mike, would explain things to the groundskeeper.
At 3:30 Tommy pulled in to the driveway of the cemetery and along side of the main office. He stepped out of Jenny’s old VW Rabbit and walked to the main office. Standing on the side of the building he could see someone watching him. It looked like an old man, but he had the setting sun to his back, so Tommy couldn’t make out his features, and maybe Tommy imagined it, but he gave off an air of disapproval.
Inside an old house that was renovated to serve as the office. Tommy waited in the parlor. The secretary buzzed the manager to announce Tommy’s presence. When Mike arrived he took both of Tommy’s hands in his and expressed his condolences.
Since this greeting mimicked how Mike had greeted him earlier, Tommy wondered if the man gave his condolences every time he met someone. Mike put his arm around Tommy’s shoulder and led him to his office. As they passed the secretary, Mike said “I’ll see you tomorrow Mary.”
The secretary looked at him from her computer screen. “Oh I’m not going anywhere. I have to finish up the books for the month.”
Mike stopped at his door and let Tommy go in first. “It’ll keep until tomorrow. Go out and enjoy the rest of this nice day. I have some business to discuss with Tom and I’m getting out of here myself.”
Mary smiled at the surprise, saved her work, and gathered her things. Mike closed his office door, as he watched Mary leave.
“So you’re sure you want to do this?” Mike asked when he returned his attention to Tommy.
“I’m very sure” Tommy said as he slid the envelope fat with cash across the desk.
“Alright then, in that case, I want you to know I spoke to Sal our groundskeeper. Sal doesn’t like your being here. So I wouldn’t mention your donation. He may misunderstand.”
Tommy felt a twinge of fear. “I can stay right? Sal won’t throw me out or anything will he?”
Mike smiled the salesman smile and waved his hands. “Oh no, nothing like that; I’m sure he’ll lecture you on how this is inappropriate, but he won’t stop you.”
Mike led Tommy from his office to the parking lot where the old man continued to stand. Mike waved to the old timer and called “Sal, can you come here for a minute?”
Sal walked over faster than Tommy would have thought given his apparent age.
“Sal” Mike began “This is Tommy, the gentleman that we spoke about today.”
Tommy noticed how Sal’s his hands were folded in the small of his ramrod straight back. Tommy wouldn’t have been surprised to hear the old soldier bark out Sir Yes Sir, but he didn’t. The old man just glared at Mike then turned to Tommy as Mike explained.
“This has been a very stressful time in his life, so if spending the first night here with his wife will help the healing process, then he is welcome.”
“Is that your vehicle over there son?” Sal snapped at Tommy.
Tommy felt like a rat caught in a flashlight.
“It’s my wife’s, well, was my wife’s, so I guess its mine now, um, yeah.”
Tommy felt his face redden at the stammering. “Yes it’s mine.” He managed to crackle.
Sal considered him for a long minute, and then said “I’ll be in the golf cart. You can follow me to the plot.”
Sal made an about face and double-timed it to the cart. Tommy and Mike said hasty goodbyes and Tommy just got the old rabbit turned over as Sal puttered off in to the maze of cemetery road way.
Sal leads Tommy through a winding, round – a – bout way to the plot. Sal stopped the cart on a road that was just past the crest of a downhill slope. Tommy pulled in close to the curb on the passenger side and got out. From his vantage point he could see the back of the cemetery. It flowed down and away from him like the back of a large wave. He could see the head stones in this part of the cemetery were older that the rest.
“You’re looking at the beginning of the cemetery.” Sal said “The oldest plots are back here. We just past you’re wife’s plot, but I wanted to show you this.”
Sal turned and faced down the hill. Sal gestured towards the hillside of headstones rolling out in front of them and said.
“We have vets from the last big war to today’s middle east mess. You’re looking at some of the men who lived through D-Day. Men and women that have lived, loved, and died so you can enjoy your ice cream and video games. Remember that and show some respect tonight.”
Tommy removed his hat and stood for a long, silent moment next to Sal. When the moment passed Sal turned to Tommy and said “Put your ball cap back on son, no one is playing the anthem.”
Tommy fumbled his cap back on. Sal walked around the car and up the hill. Tommy followed him and as he crested the hill he could see the bulge of turned earth made over Jenny’s grave.
Tommy’s breath hitched in his throat. He wanted to scream “I can’t do this!” and run back to his car, but he couldn’t move; Tommy couldn’t scream, couldn’t even breathe. His eyes were fixed on the earthen mound.
Sal stepped in to his line of sight and broke Tommy’s thrall.
“Hav’n second thoughts son?” Sal sounded hopeful.
“No” Tommy said flat and determined.
“Have it your way.” Sal led him to the side of the grave. “I guess you’ll be mak’n camp here tonight. You should know that you are as far back in the cemetery as you can get. There’s nothing around you for a quarter mile in any direction. Did you bring your cell phone?”
Tommy dropped his gear and checked his pocket. “Yeah, I have it.”
“Good at least you can be of some help. If you see any of those kids that think its cool to drink in here, or any jack ass cruis’n through here trying to scare the panties off his girl, call the cops. Maybe that way you can earn your keep.”
“Sure” Tommy said with a shrug.
Sal’s eyes fixed on Tommy. “So, there’s no talking you outta this?”
Tommy shook his head no.
“All right then” Sal said “Be careful out here tonight.”
Tommy smiled and said “I think I can handle a few drunk kids”
Sal growled back at him “I ain’t talking about the kids; I’m talking about the ghosts.”
Tommy’s smile dropped for a second. “Are you trying to scare me in to going home? It’s not gonna work. I don’t believe in ghosts.”
Sal put his hands up in front of him. “Calm down son. There are ghosts everywhere. We let ‘em follow us around. I’ve got em, you’ve got em, and the cemetery director has defiantly got em. The only difference between us is that you’re planning on spending the night out here confronting yours.”
“I’m not planning on confronting anything out here tonight. I just want one more night with my wife.”
“Uh-Huh” was all Sal said as he turned and walked away.
Nervousness bloomed in Tommy’s gut.
“What should I do?” Tommy yelled at Sal’s back. “What should I do, if I see any ghosts?”
“Be honest” Sal yelled back over his shoulder.
Tommy stood at the foot of the grave for a long while after Sal drove off. There was no stone yet, but Tommy could imagine how the plot would look in the years to come. He could see the stone, worn by the weather, being surrounded by dandelions from the grass that would grow in the dirt mound that was there today. He could see himself tending to the grave and remembering the first night he spent out here with her. Tommy decided there would be no woman in his life. He would sell their house, get something smaller and use the proceeds to start a scholarship in Jenny’s name. He would visit her grave every day and tell her about his day. Maybe he would have dinner out here, with her, every night. Jenny was buried in her family’s plot so he would have to get permission to be buried next to her one day. But how would he convince her family?
The thought shook Tommy out of his daydream and he began to set up camp.
As the late summer sun set behind the tree line in the distance Tommy watched the advancing line of darkness march up the hill, shading everything orange as the sun’s last raise tinted the world. Tommy took off his sneakers and crawled into his tent. Lying on his belly, facing the fresh mound of dirt, Tommy tried to read his book. He only got a couple of pages read before the voice in the darkness challenged him.
“You’ve got to say something.”
Tommy flipped back a page trying to pick up where he was.
“You didn’t come out here to read.” Again the voice in his head derailed his concentration.
Tommy shut the book and rested his head in his hands. With his eyes closed he remembered Sal’s advice.
“I don’t know what to say. There’s nothing I can do. I don’t know… I’m just, I’m sorry. I should have listened to you, I should have stopped drinking, and I should have gotten a cab.”
“But you didn’t” came the voice from the darkness.
“But I didn’t.” Tommy agreed as he picked his head up and tears rolled down his face.
“I just wish I could fix this. I wish I could trade places with you.” He frowned at the quiet earthen mound before him, buried his head in his arms, and wept.
Later, Tommy woke up with a kink in his neck, a full bladder, and a realization that he didn’t plan for bathroom breaks. Climbing out of the tent he walked a couple of paces away and unzipped his fly, but there were graves everywhere and relieving himself here wasn’t an option. Tommy walked towards his car to look for an empty bottle to use when he saw the storm drain.
Tommy watched the high arc of piss glitter in the moon light as instant gratification raced through him. He finished, zipped up, picked up his flashlight, and saw a hooded figure staring at him from a hundred feet away.
“Oh fuck!” Tommy cried and almost dropped the flash light. He remembered he had the light and shined it on the intruder. The figure was still too far away to see the face under the hood, but Tommy could see the man had a very realistic looking scythe in one hand and a lantern in the other.
“Nice scythe Sal. I know you don’t want me out here, but some half assed grim reaper costume won’t scare me off.”
Tommy’s words were left unanswered as the figure stood stock still, ramrod straight, and stared at Tommy. The prolonged silence began to spook Tommy and he slid his car keys out of his pocket without taking his eyes off the grim visitor. Tommy again looked at the scythe and decided that Sal may not be out here to scare him at all. Maybe Sal isn’t as balanced as he should be.
“Come on Sal this isn’t funny. Just put the scythe back in the tool shed and I’ll see you tomorrow. I won’t mention this to the boss.”
Again the figure failed to respond. Alarm bells were now ringing in Tommy’s head and despite what he had said he knew it was time to go. If it was Sal, he could move fast, but Tommy was sure he could cover the distance to the car. Tommy stole a glance back to his wife’s grave and when he turned back the figure was in front of him.
Now he was close enough for the light to show his face, and it was the face of death; skeletal, coated with blood, stained by grave dirt. Tommy’s heart stopped for a moment and before the shock could pass a voice boomed in the center of his head. “What do you want here? What do you seek?”
Tommy slammed his hands over his ears to protect himself from the voice even though he knew the figure hasn’t spoken a word. The voice seemed to erupt in the middle of Tommy’s head and threatened to rip it a part.
“I don’t seek anything. I just want to spend the first night here with my wife”
“Liar! Tell me what you seek.”
Tommy fell to his knees from the assault. He couldn’t feel his feet and he knew that the voice would drive him mad if he allowed it to continue. Tommy sucked in the night air in two hard swallows.
“I want forgiveness”
“No” came a reply that drove the air from Tommy’s lungs like a punch in the gut. “Forgiveness is given by others after your atonement. What do you seek here? What do you seek from me?”
Blood streamed from Tommy’s nose and was sprayed in to the night by his heaving breaths. Then Sal’s advice came to him again, and he knew the truth at once. Tommy’s eye’s pressed shut and his lips peeled back as he grunted one word at his tormenter.
The cloaked specter turned from Tommy’s curled up mass and raised his lantern in the air. From behind a tree at the top of the rise two things emerged from the darkness, running towards them on all fours. Pale and a grayish blue in the moon light, they were hairless, naked; the heads and bodies of men somehow twisted, molded in to the shapes of hounds. The specter looked down at the new arrivals and pointed to the fresh earth of Jenny’s grave. The thing’s voice softened to a feeling of ants crawling out from the center of Tommy’s mind.
“Bring her to me.” Tommy gasped in horror as he saw those condemned souls, for that is what they must be, scampering to the foot of the grave to dig with their bare paw like hands.
“No! Don’t…don’t touch her!” Tommy’s head swam as he tried to get to his feet. He dropped back to one knee and looked at the back of the hooded creature.
“Make them stop…please”. The thing turned back, his face hidden in the darkness of his hood.
“You want justice, so you must face the one who wronged you.” Tommy stood now, feeling sick to his stomach.
“No, you don’t understand, I wronged her. I screwed up and she had to pay. I am the guilty one here!”
“Silence!” Once more the hammer smashed in to Tommy’s brain and sent him reeling. The wraith grabbed the front of Tommy’s shirt and pulled him close enough to smell the dank odor of loss and death.
“You have asked for justice and justice will be served here tonight. I advise you to think about what justice means.” He let go of Tommy’s shirt and Tommy crumpled to the ground.
The two dammed creatures’ clawed at the earthen mound, and sometimes stole glances back at the specter and Tommy. They seem to want to say something to Tommy, some warning, but they dare not turn from their appointed task. Tommy wasn’t sure, but he guessed that the hooded wraith could do far worse things to the dammed than he did to Tommy. The dammed make quick work of removing the dirt and soon the yawing mouth of his wife’s grave lay open before him.
The two dammed souls stop and look back at their master for guidance and he made the slightest nod of his head. The dammed move to flank the opening and with the blood chilling sound of bones popping and ligaments tearing, they reached down in to the pit and raised the casket.
The casket reflected the moonlight and looked like a found artifact from some other, earlier race.
The servant hounds settled the casket on its foot and faced it to Tommy. The creature’s hooded head tilted and the hounds turned to leave. The one on Tommy’s right locked eyes with Tommy for a moment
“Run” the eyes said “Run as fast and as far as you can, while you can!”
The cursed thing’s head jerked forward and it clutched its head with his front paws /hands before running in to the darkness. As soon as they were gone the hooded thing turned back to Tommy.
“Are you ready?” was all it asked and Tommy answered with a nod.
The creature turned back to the coffin. The lid, now more like a door, swung open.
Her eyes flitted for a moment; then opened. She looked beautiful; Tommy saw her as she was on their wedding day four years ago, happy, beautiful, whole. Then reality set in as the pancake makeup that the undertaker used to cover the gaping hole in her throat fell away exposing her cause of death. Tommy remembered holding her almost severed head in the front seat after the crash.
He remembered the tears that felt like they would never end, he remembered the feeling of her flesh growing colder, and he remembered seeing through the flood of blood that her neck was almost cut through. He felt her die in his hands and begged God to take it back, to take him instead, this was his fault; he was drunk, he was stubborn, he wouldn’t listen, he couldn’t be alive, shouldn’t be alive! It wasn’t right! He drew a deep breath to steady himself and met her gaze.
As she looked at him he was ready for anger, or sorrow, or maybe relief, but what he saw was pity.
“What have you done?” She uncrossed her hands from her chest and stepped out of the coffin.
“I’m here to save you. I screwed up. I’m sorry. I know that doesn’t cover it, not by a long shot, but it’s all I have; well, that and this.”
Tommy leaned in and kissed her cheek.
“Live well. Find a better man than me, someone who earns your love, deserves your love.” Tommy whispered in to her ear.
Tommy turned from her and walked to the upturned casket. Looking at the casket as if it’s a new car he’s thinking of buying he said over his shoulder.
“OK. I’m ready death. What do I do just get in and you’ll do the rest?”
There was no answer from the figure so Tommy turned to face him. He saw it turn to his wife. She spoke for it.
“That’s mine Hon, not yours. You won’t be going anywhere.”
“No, you don’t get it.” Tommy said trying to explain. “I’m here to trade places with you. I came here tonight to get justice, to take your place.”
Jenny smiled ”You don’t understand. You have justice. What happened to me is your fault so you will have to live through it. You need to learn from this, to grow from this, and to help others with this. That is your justice, your path to redemption.”
Real fear twisted Tommy’s face.
“No, no, you can’t be serious. I can’t do that. It’s too much.” He turned from his wife and reached for the creature.
“You promised me justice you son of a ..”
The hammer smashed on to the frontal lobe of his brain.
“You do not dictate what justice is, I told you to think about your decision. Your fear brought you here, brought you to the truth.”
Tommy’s legs had gone out again and now Jenny was crouched down beside him. Jenny took both of Tommy’s hands in hers and pulled his attention back to her.
“I have to go now, our time is running out. You may be scared, but I know you can do it. I believe in you”
He looked at her through teary eyes
“But… what about you?”
Tommy felt the intense cold as she put a finger over his lips. “There are other worlds than this, and I have to move on to them now.”
She kissed him hard on the lips, stood and returned to her eternal resting place. As the casket door closed Tommy felt the blackness descend.
Tommy screamed at the sound of the whistle that woke him. He looked out of the tent to see Sal the groundskeeper staring down at him.
“Well ya made it through the night kid. I’ll give ya that.”
Tommy said nothing as he crawled out of his tent in to the cool morning air. He couldn’t take his eyes off the earthen mound. It didn’t look like anything had touched it. Last night couldn’t have been a dream. Could it?
“No” he decided in a murmur.
“Come again?” said Sal “I couldn’t make out the last.”
Tommy looked at Sal like he just realized the man was there.
“I said thanks, for the wake up call that is.”
“Well I had to make sure that your outta here by nine sharp. There’s an interment this morning and it wouldn’t due to have the mourners see you breaking camp like some kind of half assed frontiersman.”
Tommy turned to begin packing up his gear.
“Did you face your ghosts last night?”
Tommy turned around and gave him a thoughtful look “You don’t know the half of it.”
Sal gave him the thumbs up
“Then I guess last night was a mission accomplished. Oorah! Can you find your way out of here son? It’s a long road back.”
Tommy looked down at the mound of dirt and said “Yeah, I’ll figure it out.”