It was evening. Abby liked it when everything darkened. It was like the world was putting on its pajamas. Closing the backdoor silently behind her, she slipped into the backyard. It was bare except for a swing set and a red lawn chair with a Budweiser can kicked beneath it. She glanced over her shoulder at the Victorian house. She wasn’t allowed to be out after seven, which was an outrage, considering that she had been eight years old for two weeks and three days. She was safe, as her parents were not looking outside. She could see them clearly through the kitchen window, both red-faced, making rapid gestures with their hands, as their mouths moved angrily.
She felt guilty thinking of her little sister up in her room, silently moving Barbie and Midge around the Dream House, as downstairs, their parents screamed words that would have earned Abby or Mandie a mouthful of soap if they had dared to use them. Still, she couldn’t take her sister where she was going. Mandie still wore sneakers that had Velcro straps, so she knew better than to expect any bravery from her.
The cemetery was behind her house. Like her house, it was old. Some of the gravestones were from the 1800s. Her mother called it creepy and had forbidden Abby and Mandie to play there. Abby liked it. It was as quiet and shadowy as a bird’s nest. Whenever she stepped into it, especially at night, she felt goosebumpy and brave, like she had just begun an adventure. She climbed the fence easily in her sneakers, landing cat-like in the cemetery.
She walked amid the waist high gravestones, running her hand against the granite. It felt rough, almost like sandpaper, and she thought she felt some energy there. She liked the people here because they were quiet, and if they were only quiet because they were dead, she wasn’t about to like them any less for it. A body couldn’t help being dead, she told herself. She navigated through the various sections of the cemetery as if they were city streets familiar to her. There were no arguments here, no crashing of the apple-patterned everyday plates, no apologies for bad behavior the morning after. The only sound was the rustling of leaves on the sturdy oaks.
Recently, Mom had begun using the D-word when she and Daddy argued. Mandie had asked her yesterday where they would live if Mom divorced Daddy. Abby had hushed her, saying that it was bad luck to say the D-word. Also, hearing it always made Daddy very angry, and he might hit Mandie if he heard her saying it, the way he hit Mom. Of course, Mandie couldn’t be expected to know these things since she was only six years old, and therefore, not very smart yet. That’s why she needed a big sister.
Abby hummed as the leaves crunched beneath her sneakered feet. She always felt peaceful here, once the initial rush of bravery passed, and she didn’t know why. She liked visiting here, thinking about the people who lived before the days of CDs, video games, and the internet. She knew all the names that were carved into the stones; she’d traced all the letters with her fingers. Their names were as familiar as the names of the kids in her class. Like in her classroom, there was a Sally, an Andrea, a Steven, and a Mark. These weren’t the most interesting as they had all died as grown-ups. The stones that fascinated her the most were those belonging to people who had died before they turned ten. If any of them could become ghosts, it would be these. People who died at ninety didn’t become ghosts; that was just common sense.
She knew not only all of the names on the gravestones, but the inscriptions as well. Emily Wallace, 1810-1900, Beloved Mother. Jonathan Hart, 1950-1971, Son and Brother. Emily, she thought, would have been a small woman who had favored pale blue dresses and who had liked to bake apple pies with extra cinnamon. Jonathan would have been a handsome man, very tall with dark blond hair, who had liked to flirt with the ladies. He’d had a way with animals, Abby was certain, and his dog Rex had followed him wherever he went.
She liked to imagine that the souls of the dead met her when she visited, and she would tell them the events of her life. She would then imagine the appropriate responses. As for the old ladies with names like Stella or Gertrude whose resting places were marked with stern squat monuments, she could practically hear them respond to her stories about her teacher with, “Is that so, Miss Abigail? In my day, girls didn’t talk that way to their teachers.” The ladies and men with taller, more delicate gravestones probably had more of a sense of humor, Abby figured. She felt certain they would respond to her stories of recess misadventures with, “The girl on the playground said what to you? Abby, you must tell me more.”
A movement startled her. It was only a cat, an orange one, as far as Abby could tell in the semi-darkness. Orange cats didn’t belong in the cemetery, only black ones. She felt silly, scaring like a big baby, but really, it was the fault of the cat who didn’t even have the sense to be the right color. She’d had scares before. There were times when she was convinced that she had seen shapes, silvery transparent ones, out of the corner of her eye, but once she turned, they vanished. She didn’t think these were real, but if they were, they didn’t like to have living girls face them, of that she was certain. Maybe they were a bit pouty about being dead and liked to have an attitude about it.
Determined to prove that she was brave, she went deeper into the cemetery even as night cloaked the gravestones, making them impossible to read. She didn’t need to read them; she knew them all. She sat down in front of one: Lindsay Finch, 1925-1931. Not for the first time, she talked to Lindsay as she sat in front of her gravestone. She asked her how she had died, if she had liked peas while she was alive or if her mother had to force her to eat them, and if her father had ever become scary when he was angry, or if he had ever given Lindsay’s mother black eyes. Lindsay wasn’t feeling communicative, and for a moment, Abby was disappointed. “Blow the grass left for yes, move it right for no,” she whispered to the grave. Nothing. Some dead girl, who had nothing better to do than to talk to her, was snubbing her. It was not like girls came to her grave every day, wanting to know the details of her life.
Maybe she was asking the wrong questions. Maybe Lindsay wanted to talk about what it was like to be dead. She had been dead for an awfully long time and alive for only six years. Most likely, she’d forgotten what it was like to be alive.
She was about to ask Lindsay what it was like to be dead, but the words wouldn’t come out. She was a curious girl, always wanting to know every little thing about everything as her mother said, but just then she knew there were some things she just did not want to learn.
She thought she heard her mother calling her name. Had she been gone for so long? She was now so far away from her house, she didn’t know how she was able to hear her mother’s voice unless Mom was actually in the cemetery searching for her.
“I’m gonna be in trooouuble,” she said as she stood up. ” ‘Bye Lindsay. Sleep well.” She thought that was a polite sort of a thing to say to a dead person.
Abby ran swiftly between the gravestones. It was darker than she had realized, with everything in shades of gray and black, and there were no stars visible behind the dark clouds. It was no longer a place for pretend. The gravestones seemed like jagged teeth emerging hungrily from the blackened grass. Even the trees seemed unfriendly with their dark leafy branches seeming to bend towards her like so many arms.
Breathing quickly became painful as Abby ran. She stayed as far away from the gravestones as possible, having a conviction that they might have some magical power to suck her into the grave. She stopped for a moment, disoriented. Was she going in the right direction? Suddenly everything seemed foreign and unfamiliar. Ahead, she spotted the statues of cherubs she knew to be close to her home, and she ran towards them in relief.
Nearing the cherub statues, she found herself stopping. Protect me, she thought, staring at the statues with their blank marble gazes. Cherubs were a bit like angels, and angels always looked out for people. She’d always liked the cherubs and thought of them as her friends.
Though she had calmed down for a moment, Abby found that her heart began racing again. Maybe the cherubs weren’t good after all. They were like children who would never grow up. Maybe they would want her to die young so she would never grow up either, and she would keep them company forever. There was something hungry about their gaping mouths. Surely they would want to keep her.
She was running again. Fast. For a moment, she caught sight of her mother, a tall pale figure, framed between two large oaks. Then Mom glided gracefully through the cemetery, headed towards the house. She descended a hill, leaving Abby’s range of vision. Abby tried to call out to her, but no sound would come out.
Where had her mother gone? She knew everything would be all right if she could just see her mother or hear her voice. She would have even welcomed a lecture about flossing or sharing her crayons with Mandie. As she ran, Abby realized with dismay that she must have been imagining things. Even though her mother had the long legs of a grown up, she couldn’t walk any faster than Abby could run.
Abby reached her yard, gasping for breath. Light. There was light everywhere. Not the warm golden light of a lit-up house, but red light, powerful and flashing. Ambulances were there and police cars too. Her neighbor, Mrs. Simmons, was holding a tearful Mandie, as if Mandie was two instead of six. Daddy was surrounded by stern looking policemen; it looked as though he might have been crying too. Slowly, slowly, two paramedics wheeled a stretcher out of the house.
Stacy Wennstrom is a senior nonfiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2006, Stacy Wennstrom