I’ve always loved cemeteries, but my parents said I was tempting fate. Every time I cut through the graveyard to walk home from school, my mom would be waiting on the porch, hand covering her mouth as if she had held her breath since the bell rang. She somehow always knew the days I took the shortcut. Her pale face beckoned me inside quickly, lest a spirit should have followed me. I always laughed at her crazy superstitions.
My dad was worse. He always threw away the obituaries every morning when he picked up the papers. At the table, he’d dish me the comics I’ve been reading since I was seven. One time I asked him why he did that, if he was not curious about the lives that were lived and what last words they might have had.
He shushed me and studied the coffee grounds at the bottom of his mug with a grimace. “You’ll be the death of us all, Kaylyn,” he whispered, and it sounded more than just a saying.
A few weeks later, I had the urge to visit the graves again. I had memorized most of them: Rosalind 1828-1880, James 1870-1942, Edward 1815-1855. They were familiar etchings in my mind, almost a comfort to know that these souls once traced the same steps as me. In this way, they were almost like my silent friends. Though if I ever admitted such a thing, my parents would probably send for an exorcist.
Though I knew my mother would be waiting for me, I opened the iron gate that separated the dead from the living. The hinges had begun to rust so it took considerable effort to pull it towards me and slip through the crack. It shuddered under the pull then swung closed behind me with a protesting creak.
It felt nice to breathe in the fresh air, an early November chill that had set across the state. Some leaves were scattered across the cemetery, and a few squirrels bartered for acorns between them. I liked to see that contrast of the living animals next to our reminder of death, almost as striking as the marble tombstones still in one piece and the old, cracked stone ones hidden in the back, overgrown with weeds and grass that never gets mown. A murder of crows circled overhead.
Though the grass was green on this side of the fence, most of the flowers lying by the tombstones had begun to rot. I knelt towards what looked like the freshest, pink roses whose petals had begun to brown and wilt. They were at least a few months old. I frowned at them, trying to remember if I had seen any grievers. As an old graveyard, it hardly got any visitors anymore—most people chose to bury their loved ones in the church-sanctioned cemetery one town over. I had heard even my teachers whisper about how this graveyard was only for the damned. Still, I had never let their religious beliefs bother me; I was more than happy roaming this cemetery in peace.
The stone to whomever the grave belonged was newer looking and yet the words were chipped away, like a moth-eaten dress. I had once left my window open on a humid summer night, not caring what bugs crawled in for the sweet caress of air. I had accidentally then housed a pair of moths in my closets for weeks and had only found the holey dresses when Mom wanted stuff for the secondhand shop. When she found out, she had scolded me sternly. “You’re never caring about what you let in,” she had said, but her voice sounded more panicked then angry. I had been careful not to crack my window open since.
Shaking my head from the thoughts, I reached my thumb over to the cool stone, trying to trace what letters were left. There was just two letters AL and a birthdate, the same year as mine. The death date had been rubbed out. Just then a breeze billowed through the yard, sending a shiver to my spine. Though not one to be prone to startling, I retracted my thumb from the stone as if it had electrocuted me. But the only sign of anything amiss was the dirt left on my hand from the stone, a sure sign of where I was and how my mom was going to kill me. I grimaced and tried to wipe the black mark off on my jeans as I hurried home.
As predicted, Mom was waiting on the porch, grimacing. The skin on her face was pulled so taut from her tension that I could see her muscles. Her dark brown hair was pulled into a loose bun that revealed the greying streaks, streaks she once claimed I was causing with my behavior.
“Hello, Mother,” I said, humorously as I hopped up the porch steps. Another autumn breeze blasted through the front yard, causing her to wrap her dark shawl tighter around herself, all while never breaking her gaze from mine.
“You went there again,” she accused. I merely shrugged and tried to push past her in the door, but she grabbed my wrist so tightly that I cried out in pain. Her thumb pressed into my pulse as if to transfer energy to the already frantic heartbeat, her eyes remaining forever wide. For perhaps the first time in my life, I felt scared.
“Mom, let go!” The words came out squeakier than I’d intended. I could see red marks forming around my wrist where she cut off my blood pressure. She looked down.
“You have a black mark on your skin.”
Guess I didn’t get it all off. I sighed. “It’s nothing, Mom. Let go.”
She did so suddenly that I stumbled back into the entrance, barely able to catch myself on the doorframe. When I steadied myself, I could see that she was shaking and she sunk to her knees on the wooden floor, where dust and splinters were aplenty.
“You touched a grave,” she sobbed. “How will we be safe now?” Her shoulders were shaking violently with her silent cries as she crossed herself and looked into the pink twilight sky.
I knew I should probably be concerned about my mother’s sanity, but she had always been a bit weird to me. I rolled my eyes. “You’re so dramatic.”
Still, I went upstairs and immediately ran a bath. No matter how much I scrubbed and scrubbed, the black mark stayed on my thumb, a permanent tattoo.
“An omen,” I heard my father whisper to Mom when they thought I was asleep.
In truth, I barely slept that night. Not even when I heard my parents turn off the kitchen lights and pad tiredly to their own bedroom. Some sort of chill had taken over me, as if I were freezing from the inside. I could feel each goosebump raised on my arms pressing roughly against the sheets that pressed heavily on my chest. For a moment, it felt like a coffin lid pressing in on me and I had to flip the bedding off my legs despite the draft. Yet, with the blankets not over me, I felt too exposed. The echoes of my father’s whisper resounded through my head, and it felt like too many spirits were on me at once. I grabbed for the sheets again, trying to make what lame barrier I could between my body and the cool, night air.
Trying to ignore the sheets’ heaviness and the shivers in my skin, I squeezed my eyes shut, determined to block this world out and sleep. Yet in my dreams I continued to hear my parents’ voices, though I knew they were long asleep.
“It’s an omen,” my father whispered harshly in my ear.
“You’ll never know what you’re letting in,” Mom warned, her voice trembling.
“You’ll be the death of us.” They said this together, drawing the syllables long and monotone. Without the exasperation in their voices, these words I’d heard many times before sounded more like a foreshadowing than a simple grievance. That’s when I heard the girl laughing.
My eyes shot open, and my upper body darted upwards, spine stiff straight and tense. It was still dark in my room, no hope of sunshine yet to come through the blinds. I knew I was dreaming, perhaps even still, but the laughter did not stop.
If anything, the ghoulish giggles got louder, resounding against the dark, hollow walls until I had to press my palms to my ears so all I could hear were the echoes in my head. I huffed a sigh of relief as the laughter faded away, and I could only focus on the pressure against my eardrums and scattered thoughts buzzing around my brain. Keeping my hands carefully guarded against my ear canals, I had sunk back into my mattress and let my eyelids rest, trying to drown myself in sleep.
As soon as my eyelashes tickled my cheek, the laughter started again, and this time it was in my head. With my hands against my ears, the sound made painful reverberations, the bass of the cackles thrumming against my skin. I yanked my hands back, unsurprised to see blood circling my fingernails from the piercing pain in my ears.
Determined to make the sound stop, I jumped from my bed, my feet feeling the cold surface of our old, wooden floors. I could see no one in the shadows of my room and even as I pushed my closet doors open with a creak, I still couldn’t find the culprit. The more I searched, the more it seemed the laughter was getting further away, as if coming from outside.
By now, my pajamas were soaked with perspiration, and I felt the sweat stick to me as I made my way to the window and pulled down the blind’s strings. The pale moonlight flooded into my room, casting shadows onto the walls. The dirty clothes I’d left on my desk chair cast a particularly gruesome shape in the sudden light that made me turn back to the window with a sickness heaving through my chest. I swallowed the acid that had started to rise, and my gaze met another pair of eyes between the blind openings.
The scream froze in my throat, and I forced myself to blink as if to convince myself it was only my vivid imagination. I kept my eyes closed longer than necessary as the giggles faded before an exhale of cold breath met the back of my neck. A soft laugh tickled the nape, and cold lips met my bottom ear lobe.
I gasped and opened my eyes, swinging my arms backwards with as much force as possible as I learned in one PE self-defense class. My elbows only met with thin air, and I stumbled into the opening, falling hard onto the floor. A splinter from the wooden floorboard poked through the skin on my back thigh, but I was too startled to notice the pain. Too scared as a girl’s face appeared again in the window, her harrumphs muffled by the glass.
The girl was so pale she was almost translucent and wispy; it was hard to see her against the black sky. In contrast, her hair was a raven blue, falling in tangles around bare shoulders, exposed where there were holes and tatters in her once white, now yellowing cotton dress. But what was scariest about this girl was her face. Instead of colored irises, her eyes were milky white, as if her vision had long since been clouded, and yet I could feel her gaze directly on me. When she laughed, she exposed two rows of rotting teeth and I could have sworn something crawled across them.
I was frozen on the floorboards as she stared at me, my limbs completely locked from my control, forced to listen to the melody of her voice going up and down in pitch. The laughter began to fade away as the girl stepped back from my window and turned around. When her eyes left mine, I found I could move again, and I realized one thing.
I could not let her get away, lest I repeat this routine every night.
I skidded into the hallway and out the front door, my thighs already burning from the sudden burst of energy. The midnight air was colder than I imagined it would have been, and my makeshift pajamas of a T-shirt and shorts did little to shield me from the wind. But I didn’t dare turn around.
I could see the remnants of the tattered dress floating ahead, faster than any ghost or demon should move. I sprinted after her, trying to yell, but my voice was hoarse and how does one even summon a ghost?
I tried to think of anything I learned about monsters, but they were only spoken of in hushed whispers. My father denied their existence, denied the very existence of death, his fear crumpled into the obituaries and thrown right into the recycling bin. My mother would grip the Holy Bible and pray. I don’t think any amount of Hail Mary’s could save me now. Even my teacher at the schoolhouse would condemn and abandon me. She had always preached prevention—don’t go into cemeteries, don’t invoke the devil’s name. I scorned the caution, never learning what to do after, never believing their stories. But if tonight was any indication, the stories of our elders were true. Even if they remained unspoken, only communicated through their paranoia.
I was so caught up in these thoughts, I didn’t pay attention to where the spirit was taking me. My thighs continued to protest the run as I zoomed past the weeping willow where we prayed for souls, the mucky creek I could never play in, and across the whispering bridge that many held their breath when they walked over. Before I knew it, I was at the iron gate I had only crossed hours earlier. The girl was on the other side, and she turned, her blurry eyes staring expectantly at me.
I could turn. I could go back home and hope that she didn’t follow me. But I knew better. “You never realize what you’re letting in,” my mother scolded the day she sealed my window frame. “Once you invite them in, they’re there with you forever.”
Taking a shaky breath as if the cold night air could fill me with courage, I wrapped my palms around the iron bars and pulled the gate open. The horrible squeak of the rusting hinges made me grimace, but the spirit didn’t move. Didn’t so much as flinch. Not until I slipped through the smallest gap and was on her side of the cemetery once again.
Once I was inside, the spirit beckoned me with her pale hand. It was missing a finger and whether from some terrible accident or because it had simply rotted away, I couldn’t be sure. Even so, the sour taste of bile filled my mouth and I spat at the soil.
When I felt I could breathe again, I tried to ask, throat sore from the strain, “What do you want?”
But the ghost girl was gone. I could only see the ending tatters of her dress in the distance. She didn’t leave me alone, though. I could feel a presence all around me, as if hundreds of spirits were pushing me forward. I stumbled along the stone path between graves, past familiar tombstones, letting the night’s cold soak into my bones.
Rosalind, 1828-1880. Was she here beside me, the one whispering dangerous thoughts into my ears?
James, 1870-1942. Was he behind me, pushing me forward at a such a pace that made me trip over the gnarled roots that grew between the stones’ cracks?
Edward, 1815-1855. Was he ahead of me, making the wind swirl madly so that all the autumn leaves flew haphazardly, blurring my vision?
I didn’t know. Still, I moved. I couldn’t stop. I didn’t dare stop. Not until I felt a gentle shove that pushed me to my knees where the dampness of the grass-soaked skin and my joints fell into the mush. I was kneeling at the half-marked grave. The one marked AL, the one with the same birthday. Leaning atop the stone was my demon, the girl with white eyes and rotting teeth. She smiled creepily at me now and when I looked away, I saw that the grave had been dug.
There was no coffin here. But there were bones. Loads and loads of bones, some white, some yellow, some brown and decaying. More bones than just one person could have. And that’s when I realized what the spirits wanted me to do.
I imagined what it would be like, lying amongst all those bones. They wouldn’t poke me with their sharp angle but welcome me in, and eventually I’d be like them, a welcoming community.
The image dissipated with a shudder as I found myself crawling into the hole. No. I felt everything then, my cold, soaked pajamas that clung too heavy on my goose-pricked skin, the fear that made my heart stammer, the sharp bone shards digging into my ankles. The dead couldn’t feel, but I could, and I refused to become one of them.
I fought the pressure that was above me, forcing me to lie low. I had to crawl out of the hole somehow, even as the air closed in around me. I held my breath and jumped for the grass, clinging on to the ledge with more arm strength then I knew I had. I felt my nail break against the rocky dirt and stifled the pain, for now. Not now, I told myself. I’ll feel it later. With every muscle burning in my body, I pushed myself up.
Once safe on the grass, the pressure in the air relented. It was like a sweet sigh of relief, but it only lasted a minute. A sharp, high-pitched scream suddenly erupted through the graveyard, and my ears wished they could curl in on themselves. My blood felt frozen, but I forced my legs to move. I’d roamed this cemetery so many times I knew the way back to the gate with my eyes closed—the leaves didn’t bother me nor did the twisting roots, not this time. I let the screams chase me back to the iron bars and pushed.
I threw all my force into the gate, breaking whatever useless lock it had, and then it swung effortlessly forward so that I stumbled onto the ground. I caught myself on my elbows in the mud. Despite the pink wounds appearing on my skin and the fire on my knees, I knew I had to keep going. I had to keep sprinting.
The screams followed me all the way home, up the rickety porch steps, past my parents’ bedroom where they slept as soundlessly as corpses, into my bed, where I fell muddy, bloody, and exhausted. I fell into the scream.
My lungs are still burning, my vocal cords straining. But I see them, the kids outside the iron gates who think it’d be funny to cross a graveyard. I see the couple who know nothing of the town’s history, who have come to bury their grandfather. The young historian who wants to make tombstone rubbings.
I scream and I scream, but none of them hear me.
But if you listen closely, you may be able to. I’m still screaming.