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Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
Faces are silly little things, as they can never stay the same. Observers may notice a fresh scar on the cheek, or a new wrinkle in the brow, but most noticeably a new person to emerge from change. Fate seems to always be the culprit behind life’s adjustments. However, I can’t help feeling like I never changed in these past years, watching the young women crossing Grey Street.
“Excuse me!” she yells while opening the rusty gate to the cemetery. I rest my shovel in the freshly-turned dirt, and look up to find the woman now hovering in front of me. I knew her face and name from the inky byline of the morning paper.
“Grave robbing is illegal,” she barks sternly.
“No need to call the cops, Miss Pierre. I’m not even digging on a grave,” I answer, drawing an invisible line around the circumference of the pit. Picking my head back up, I find her squinting into my eyes. In her puzzlement, I can see her searching for answers.
“Cold day it is,” I whisper, breaking the growing awkwardness. Around us silhouettes of trees and mailboxes call out underneath a grey sky. Dogs in the distance bane into frigid dark, and the hushed sweep of tires cry out only for a second. I watch Miss Pierre shiver a little, and pull the edges of her pink trench coat closer together. I can feel a slight simmer of concern radiate from her.
“What are you doing with a shovel if you're not robbing?” Miss Pierre utters. Lifting up my shovel, I aim the tip towards the grave next to the hole. The name on the grave is tricky to see under the sky’s veil, as well as blurry from the dirt my shovel upturned.
“I doubt I will ever see this grave again, so I came to spend what little time I have remaining.” I cough, feeling my lungs turn to frozen stones. My hand fiddles in my pocket, finding a rose-colored inhaler. Bringing it to my lips, I inhale the plastic-tasting cloud with a press on the grey button. My lungs relax and my breathing is calm.
“Cold air does that to ya,” I mutter, holding up the ‘L’ shaped device for Miss Pierre to see.
“Would you like to hear a story?” A sense of uneasiness covers Miss Pierre. She glances at the house behind her, that only ten minutes ago she had exited. A single light shines from within the empty house, pleading for Miss Pierre to come back and take a warm shower. I know she won’t listen to her yearning because as a reporter, she doesn’t understand when to let her sleeping dogs lie.
“Six years ago I’d probably laugh if you told me I would be digging a grave. Life was my own Eden.
“Years ago my wife, Katherine, had passed, leaving me with a healthy baby girl. However, at this point in my story that baby was now six, and I no longer lingered on the pain of my wife's passing. I never married after Katherine, though I could have married. Guess I just never considered it a priority at the time.
“I lived in a comfy home at the end of a long dirt driveway, hidden in the sharp smells of Oak Forest. My daughter Mary Mae always called our home ‘the secret cottage,’ and I guess you could call it that. It wasn’t a huge house, and being hidden in the forest gave it a sort of magical feeling. The stones were a grey carpet up to the door, with moss placed so perfectly a human could have done it. Gentle ivy crawled up the smoky chimney with elegant fingers. At night the soft glow from a fireplace emitted from a huge window, and danced on the clean-cut lawn. It truly was our secret home.
“I worked most days in a barbershop within the busiest part of town. A young girl we called ‘Blue’ babysat Mary everyday. She was like my older daughter. Sadly, Blue’s mom spent more time with a bottle than caring for her own daughter, so she spent most of her time at our house. So much time in fact that I eventually let Blue transform the guest bedroom into her own. Little Blue had been with our family since Mary took her first steps.
“We never fought. We just loved each other. At nights I would strum songs on the old guitar for the girls. In the morning I left pancakes with syrup smiles on the counter for them. Everything was perfect. Then one day on my way home from work … it wasn’t.
“That afternoon it had rained so hard that the shop lost power for 30 minutes. When I locked up around five, the afternoon rain had glazed the little town, leaving an orange streak of sun in the clouds. I took a left down Leary Lane and entered a narrow opening in the forest between two small homes.
“The path I had entered wasn’t new to me. I never had a car, so instead I used the path to get to town and back. When I had stepped onto the pooling brown river of forest path, I only made it a minute before seeing it. Covering the path in bold was a sign with the words, ‘Dangerous Conditions, No Trespassing.’ I believe Mr. Call must have put it their earlier, as he typically took his afternoon walks down the same route.
“I didn’t want to risk it, so instead I took a right down a stealthy path laden in green. Everyday I used the main path, as it got me to town faster. However, the untouched little path to the right slowly started disappearing back into the forest in those years. As result, I could hardly find the red smear painted on trees to mark where I was going. It took me about 15 minutes before I had realized that I was lost. By then the sky was teaming with a vibrant red, and the cold whispering night seeped into my lungs.”
“I’m not sure this has do anything right now,” Miss Pierre interrupts. I grin slightly at her impatience, and resume my story as if she never said anything.
“I came into a clear opening thinking it to be an exit, but finding something so much more unexpected and disturbing. The image still twists in my mind. Under the wine-stained sky stood a dark tree twisting its limbs upward. It looked as if all the other trees had ran away, leaving it to weep alone in a patch of dying grass. Strange that I had never encountered the ghostly figure before. As I approached the dark roots, I could feel the silhouette of a man watching me … waiting for me, but maybe it was just paranoia.
“In the chest of the tree I found a hollowed opening. I could have left and continued home, but a deep urge to reach down into its heart overcame my senses. My work case was laid next to my foot before I reached into the tree. I leaned slightly forward to feel a warm tingle from something vibrating at my fingertips. When I lifted the object from its depth, I found it to be a stone. A nervous flush had come over me when I saw the name ‘Jared Call.’
“Of course Mr. Call could have planted the stone there. Maybe even years before he let me start using the path, as the name could have been preserved in the untouched hollow somehow. I managed to convince myself of that when I returned the stone, and picked up my briefcase to head home. But when I finally found the marked path again and exited the overgrown trail, a weary fear was still planted in the bottom of my stomach. Almost as if the imaginary man I thought was watching me before, followed me home, and was waiting for me at the entrance of the little path.
“The next day I took the dry main trail to the shop. It was the afternoon, about the time when a steady stream of Friday’s customers started coming in. I had turned on the clinic TV, when a young reporter turned to the camera with breaking news. Jared Call had died.
“Though I was both sad and shocked, no emotion could compare to the terror that ripped through me. There was no way that a little stone in the woods could have predicted Mr. Call’s death. It didn’t take me long to decide it was a coincidence, but still my curious heart craved to see the stone again. To prove that the name on the stone would still be there … and the tree was just a tree.
“Around five I locked up the empty shop, ran down Leary, and just about dove into the forest entrance. When I got to the intersection, I swung right, and sprinted through clumps of blurred green. At one point a tree limb tore a gash in my left trouser, leaving a scarlet stain, which I wouldn’t notice until later that evening.
“I can’t tell if it was luck or fate that guided me through the mob of branches, but somehow I made it into the clearing. Sitting alone in the shadows was the same tree from yesterday. As I slithered toward the bellowing wood, birds nestled in leaves around me started singing quieter. By the time I was face to face with the hollow opening, I couldn't hear a single chirp. Everything went silent.
“When I reached into the darkness, it was then that I realized the man from the night before was still watching me. Quickly I pulled the rock from the tree and took a full 360-degree glance to find there wasn’t a person in sight. I brushed away the thought and casually flipped over the stone to find my daughter’s name, ‘Mary Mae Amare,’ in clear thin letters.
“Now I’m sure you’ve jumped to the conclusion that someone switched out the rocks. However, there was no mistaking the stone with my daughter's name from the one with Mr. Call’s. Even under the dimming red sunlight, I could feel the exact smoothness and shape of the rock from the night before. Almost like Mr. Call’s name was erased for a new sketch.
“I remember throwing the rock into the forest as far as I could with my trembling hands. Then I ran home without a second glance, and dashed through the back door. I tried to close its three locks, but my hands were shaking so violently that the only progress I made was grunting a few cusses. Eventually I managed to slide shut the last lock and flop down in the brown armchair. Blue had just put Mary to bed before she snuck downstairs to witness my struggle.
“I could see her concern, so naturally I spun a lie and told her about getting sidetracked on the way home and how the stress from work was making me sick. This, I think, helped both of us calm our nerves a little, and even allowed me enough control to get Blue a glass of water and tuck her into bed.
“That night I had terrible dreams of the stone under the red sky, and watching Mary die over and over. At one point in my dreams, the invisible man emerged from the woods, and started taping on the back door whispering Mary...Mary...Mary. The knocking got louder and quicker with each word, until it became violent slamming. I ran around trying to escape, but the exits were gone. Then the chaos became a dead silence. I turned to the door and watched a white hand slide around the edge, nudging it open. Before the dream door could open, I woke up in a cold sweat, and spent the rest of my night listening for knocking of the white hand. It never came.
“The next day I called into work sick. I spent the morning making smiley pancakes for Blue and Mary. It was nice talking to the girls. Just being with them made the whole stone situation seem just like a dream. After breakfast Blue ran upstairs to get her books, while I helped Mary put on her purple backpack. She was wearing a pink polka dot dress, and a sparkly headband that morning. I hugged the girls, and waved good-bye as they raced up the long dirt driveway.
“The steady sprinkle of morning rain started increasing. By mid afternoon the house was being drenched. The lights began flickering, so I made a fire in the fireplace and picked up a book. It was around three when I got the call. I couldn’t believe it at first when the man on the other end of the line told me. Mary Mae Amare was pronounced dead.
“At first I felt so exposed to all the old pain I worked so hard to bury after Katherine. Then all I could do was drop to the floor, and feel caged by my thoughts. No more would I make my daughter smiley pancakes in the morning. No more would I help put her purple backpack on. No more would I watch her curly brown hair descend down the staircase, behind Blue, on Christmas. And what would I do every time I walked past her pink room or found a princess dress laying around? What would I tell myself when I call her name and she doesn’t come … if I can’t tell her how much I love her?
“It took a while, but I managed to put on my jacket and call a cab. I waited in the dark house for a while until a horn beeped outside the front door. My shoes slipped on easily since I didn't bother to untie them the night before. I opened the front door, but focused my last glance at the back one. The locks were still closed.
“Later I would find out the details of Mary’s death. Apparently the wind and rain got too extreme on the way back from a field trip. The bus spun out of control and smashed sideways into a tree. Everyone survived except Mary, whose head was found smashed through a glass window.”
“The years that followed weren’t that exciting really. I stopped working, and let the old guitar turn to dust. The next time I visited the tree, I was unsurprised to find the stone back in the hollow with a new name. At this point I was too broken to be surprised. I got into a cycle of visiting the tree, having nightmares of the white hand, and spending my days in paranoia looking for the man outside my window.
“Blue eventually left in fear of the man I had become, and honestly I don’t blame her. Within a month the constant fear had turned me from 40 to 60. My hair turned grey, there were constant bags under my eyes, I became underweight, plus my shoulders started caving, and my skin turned a ghostly white. Today I’m still afraid of the face fate has given me. At least Blue made the right choice, and left before the darkness could get to her too. In fact, last I heard, she graduated college as a writer. I only wish I could’ve told her how proud I am.”
I stare at Grey Street, unaware Miss Pierre is watching me. A forced cough from her, urges my brain away from distraction. Pulling my thoughts away from the street, I bring my focus back to Miss Pierre.
“Right … anyways, I went to the tree this morning and was shocked to see the name on today's stone. By now I’m used to reading a random name or two, and finding it in the obituary section the next day. However, when I read this name I knew there wasn’t much time. I came to this graveyard, Miss Pierre, not to rob a grave, but rather to dig one next my daughter. After all, this is where her family is meant to go … by her side”.
I look up into Miss Pierre’s quiet blue eyes, and I see that she has caught on to the truth by now. Is she brave enough to ask the question? Cupping her hands around her mouth, a thin layer of water starts forming at the bottom of her lids. I listen to the howling dogs off in the distance go off again, as I wait for Miss Pierre to decide.
“Whose name will go on this grave?” she inquires, pointing a shaking hand at my work. I smile a little, and take my inhaler out of my pocket for the last time.
“The man who has followed me down that path and knocked on my back door hasn’t blessed me with death yet Miss Pierre.” I chuckle, taking a loud puff of medicated inhaler. Two coughs erupt from my chest, as I return the device.
“He still wants me to suffer for not letting the sleeping dogs lie.” By now the howling in the distance became sharper in the black air.
“If it isn’t your name that was found on the stone, then whose was it?” She shivers. With a sly grin, I let her stare at me with tearing eyes.
“Oh, I think we both know whose name is going here Miss Pierre … or would you still let me call you Blue?”