Down the block from Linda’s home, there was a cemetery. Its southern gate faced her street and stayed open daily until dusk. On afternoons when Linda’s mother lay down with one of her headaches, Linda took a sketchbook to the graves.
Most of the stones dated from decades ago. Some were over a hundred years old. Linda liked to sit in front of them, on tufts of grass, and sketch the dead. Not what they looked like now, skeletons in church clothes, but what she imagined they had looked like as children.
Bess Brown (1911 – 1970) was chubby with buckteeth; Linda sketched her holding a toy pony with a bow on its tail. Daniel Wiley (1905 – 1987) wasn’t a beloved husband and father in Linda’s sketchbook; he was the youngest in his family, stooped and teary-eyed from getting picked on all day. Karen Connelly (1962 – 1991), alive and young again, played with a jump rope on a meadow blanketed in dead grass.
Some of them Linda drew as babies. If the tombstone showed that they had died in childhood, she liked to draw them crawling around a huge house with ceilings that seemed to disappear into the sky. She drew some of the adult dead as babies too. When a grave struck her as neglected, as if no one had visited it even in the weeks after the death, she imagined the person inside as a baby smiling and peering out from a stroller.
On an afternoon in late spring, a few weeks before her tenth birthday, Linda was sitting cross-legged before a small, lopsided headstone. It struck her as lonely and untended, installed without care. It belonged to a Janice Ward (1954 – 1998). Nothing was said of Janice on the stone except the dates. Linda was drawing her as a baby who had just started to sit up on her own. She imagined Baby Janice with thin, dark hair and a splotchy birthmark on her neck. She was an energetic baby, smiling and reaching for something with her arms stretched all the way out.
Linda was just finishing up the sketch when a shadow touched her. She scooted back a few inches and hugged the sketchbook to her chest.
A girl around Linda’s age was leaning against Janice Ward’s headstone. She wore her thin, dark hair in braids. Her purple trainers were scuffed. “I need your help with something,” she said.
She had a heart-shaped face that turned dark pink as Linda continued to stare. “I wouldn’t be asking you if there was anyone else,” the girl said. She struck the headstone with her fist. “Come on, it’ll only take a few minutes. Please.”
Linda scrambled to her feet. She considered sprinting home; she could probably outrun the girl, especially with a head start. But what if the girl was the ghost of Janice Ward? Refusing to help the dead wasn’t a good idea, at least in stories Linda had read.
At Linda’s hesitant nod, the girl sighed and marched away, only looking back once to check that Linda was tagging along. Linda followed the girl across the cemetery and through the northern gate.
“I’m Rona,” the girl said, as they waited for a car to pass.
Linda glanced back at the cemetery. “Really?”
The girl gave her a cold look. “Something wrong with that?”
Linda shook her head. It had been silly to think that the girl was a ghost. She flinched when Rona’s hand closed around her wrist. Her pulse jumped under Rona’s fingers, as the girl pulled her across the street.
Rona lived in a one-story brick house that faced the cemetery. A magnolia tree in the front yard had shed its blossoms; they rotted sweetly in the grass. Rhododendrons lined the front walk and clustered around the door.
“I need help cleaning up,” Rona said. “My friends are coming over, and my mom promised she wouldn’t mess things up, but she always does.” Rona shrugged and turned to open the door. “I can’t pay you anything. Maybe a cupcake. But after you help.” She tugged at Linda’s sleeve. “Come on.”
Rona’s eyes were wide and bright with anxiety. Linda’s mother often had a similar look in her eyes, especially in the last couple of months when her headaches had gotten more frequent and painful.
Linda suddenly didn’t want to leave Rona alone. She let the other girl pull her inside.
To the right of the front door, the house opened onto a kitchen. A birthday balloon shot up from a chair. A puddle of dark brown liquid had expanded under the table, amid broken glass.
To the left of the door was a den. A few DVDs and magazines lay on the floor, and a flowerpot with yellow tulips had turned over. A woman was sprawled on the couch. She was small, with curly brown hair. She wore a t-shirt and pink underpants. Her mouth gaped. She was asleep, or dead.
“Kitchen first, then we’ll move her,” Rona said, shutting the door.
When Linda continued to stare, Rona snatched away the sketchbook and tossed it on the kitchen table. Linda’s hands clutched at the air, until Rona pushed a broom into them.
Rona mopped up the dark liquid, and Linda swept up the glass. They set the table with pink plastic cups and paper plates. Linda kept glancing at the den. The woman’s legs were pale and skinny. She didn’t move or give any other sign of hearing them.
In the den, Rona stacked the DVDs and magazines on the table. Linda righted the flowerpot and refilled it with the spilt dirt. The woman’s stomach rose and fell against her shirt. Not dead then.
“We have to get her off the couch,” Rona said.
Neither girl moved.
“Grab her ankles,” Rona said.
Linda took a deep breath and shook her head.
Rona’s face was suddenly close to hers. “It’s my birthday,” she hissed. “She can’t be here.”
Linda’s heart thrummed in her ears and throat. Her hands slowly closed around the woman’s ankles. She forced herself to focus on small details, as if she were trying to get the scene right for a sketch. The woman’s stomach moved in an even rhythm. Her ankles were smooth and warm, the bones sharp.
Rona wriggled her hands under the woman’s armpits. Together, they tugged her off the sofa and onto the carpet. The woman gasped. The girls waited, their bodies rigid, until she sank back into her rhythm of slow, quiet breaths.
“She won’t wake up?” Linda heard herself say.
“No. Probably not.” Rona was breathing heavily. She extended the woman’s arms and grabbed the hands. Linda tightened her grip on the ankles. For a few moments they tried to drag the woman sideways, but she was heavier than she looked. Her body felt like slabs of concrete, loosely connected.
Rona dropped the woman’s hands. “You take one leg, I’ll take the other.”
They dragged the woman feet-first. Her body hissed along the carpeting. Her t-shirt bunched up around her, exposing a pale belly with puckered skin. She smelled sour. Her arms trailed against furniture and whispered on the tiles in the hallway that led to her bedroom.
The bed was unmade, and the blinds were drawn. The room smelled like old laundry. Porcelain angel figurines, blonde and doe-eyed, perched on the dresser and nightstand. Linda and Rona brought the woman to a stop by the foot of the bed. Rona lowered the leg she was holding to the floor, and Linda followed her lead.
“That should work,” Rona said. “She’ll be out for hours.”
The bedroom had a green shag carpet. At least the woman would be comfortable.
Rona pushed Linda out of the bedroom and shut the door behind her. “Grab a cupcake from the fridge if you want, and leave. I don’t want my friends seeing you.”
She disappeared into the bathroom. The shower came on, along with a radio playing a pop song Linda didn’t recognize. Linda padded into the kitchen and snatched up her sketchbook. She was relieved it was still there.
From the fridge she lifted a cupcake rich with reddish purple frosting. As she carried it out of the kitchen, she touched the tip of her tongue to it. She wanted to draw out its sweetness, enjoy it in small licks. She felt suddenly giddy with the thought that she had survived an ordeal. She had witnessed strange and terrible things and was still alive.
When she reached the front door, something moved at the edge of her vision.
The woman was at her bedroom door. She was leaning against the jamb and peering down the hall.
Linda’s heart crawled up her throat. She moved abruptly towards the front door but didn’t open it. She listened to the shower running and the faint thread of music from the bathroom. All of her efforts, all of their efforts, would be for nothing if she left now.
Cradling the cupcake and sketchbook to her chest, she trotted towards the woman.
“Rona,” the woman croaked.
“She’s in the shower,” Linda whispered. “Getting ready.”
“I’ve got to get the cake,” the woman muttered. She took a swaying step into the hall.
“How about getting dressed?” Linda said. When the woman only stared at her, she forced more strength into her voice. “Get dressed for the party.”
The woman looked down at herself and swiped a knuckle across her eye. She nodded, and with her hands pressed to the doorframe, she turned around and lurched back into the bedroom.
The woman staggered against the bed and sat down heavily. Linda shut the door and twisted the lock.
“What are you doing?” the woman said. “I need to get dressed.”
Linda stood in front of the doorknob, hoping that if she blocked it from sight the woman wouldn’t think of leaving. “Maybe you should lie down?”
The woman blinked at her. “Who are you?”
“Rona’s… I know Rona.”
“I don’t know any of her friends.”
“Don’t you want to lie down?” Linda said.
“I want water.”
Linda heard the shower turn off. “Maybe you should lie down,” she repeated, this time in a whisper.
“I’m thirsty.” The woman pressed her fingertips to her eyes.
The music from the bathroom faded away. Then the bathroom door opened. There were footsteps, which Linda could barely hear over the blood thrumming in her ears. Another door closed. Probably Rona’s bedroom.
Linda left her sketchbook and cupcake on the dresser, next to a Kewpie angel. She slipped out of the bedroom and closed the door behind her. Running to the kitchen would take her past Rona’s room. She darted into the bathroom. Her foot squelched on a damp towel. As she filled a green wash cup with water from the sink, the doorbell rang. She jerked the faucet shut. Rona’s bedroom door opened. “Just a sec!” Rona called.
Linda peeked around the edge of the bathroom door before hurrying back to the woman’s bedroom. She slipped inside and eased the door shut. With a shaking hand, she turned the lock.
The woman was still sitting on the edge of her bed, her fingertips pressed to her eyes.
The doorbell rang again. “I’m coming!” Rona bellowed.
Several seconds passed before new voices spilled into the house. Linda rested her forehead against the bedroom door.
“Water,” the woman croaked.
She snatched the wash cup Linda held out and tipped it against her mouth. Some of it trickled down her chin. The corners of her mouth were cracked, and she breathed heavily.
“I should go say ‘hi,’” she said. She dropped the cup and patted the bed until her hand closed on a pair of sweatpants. From the front of the house came faint laughter and excited voices.
The woman pushed off the edge of the bed and stood swaying. After tugging up the waistband of her sweatpants, she staggered to the door.
Linda stuck her foot out.
It hurt when the woman tripped on her. The pain stabbed through Linda’s ankle. The woman stumbled into the door and fell to her knees. Her head struck the doorknob.
For several moments, the woman’s fingers opened and closed against the shag carpet. Then her arm flailed towards Linda.
Linda scooted away from her.
“I need to lie down,” the woman said. She reached for Linda again.
The woman’s heavy breaths were overlaid by faint birthday party sounds. High voices, giggling. Linda inched closer to the woman and knelt.
The woman clamped a hand on Linda’s shoulder. Linda gritted her teeth against a cry.
Leaning on Linda, the woman turned until she was facing the bed. Then she fell on all fours. She crawled past Linda and pushed herself up onto the mattress with a grunt. A few graceless wriggles, and her head met the edge of the pillow.
“Better,” she sighed.
Linda didn’t like the sight of her thin body on the bed, even now when she had pants on. She shook a blanket out over the woman. It covered her up to her chin.
The woman closed her eyes. “You’re a good girl,” she said. She took a deep, noisy breath, then a quieter one.
Linda gathered her sketchbook and cupcake and pressed her ear to the bedroom door. To leave the house meant that Rona and her friends would see her. She would have to wait for an opportunity to sneak out.
She settled on the floor by the dresser and nibbled on the cupcake. A faint dread pulsed in her stomach.
To distract herself from the fear, Linda considered what the woman had looked like as a child. She settled for sketching her as a toddler, curly-haired and smiling, reaching for a doorknob and wondering what she’d find on the other side. The woman had to have been happy once. Linda didn’t understand why it was so much easier to imagine the people in the cemetery as happy, but she did her best with this woman. The toddler looked like she was full of energy and joy.
Once she finished the sketch, Linda savored the rest of the cupcake. From the front of the house she heard the TV, but couldn’t make out what kind of movie or show Rona and her friends were watching. As she strained to listen, it struck her that there was an unnatural quiet in the bedroom.
Linda pushed herself to her feet. She could hear nothing from the bed. The woman was still lying on her back, her eyes closed, her mouth parted. Linda wasn’t sure what was wrong, until she realized that nothing was moving. Not the blanket or anything else. She crept towards the bed, the dread mounting in her. She drew the blanket back. Perfect stillness.
“Ma’am,” she whispered. “Ma’am,” in a louder voice.
She braced herself, expecting the woman to jerk upright like a puppet.
The woman continued to lie there.
Linda leaned over and touched the woman’s arm. It was cool. She tapped the woman on her stomach and shook her leg by the ankle, each time leaping back in case the woman moved.
The woman didn’t move.
She pressed a hand to the woman’s chest. She held her hand over the woman’s slack mouth. The air didn’t stir.
Linda’s breaths were harsh, the only sound in the room. From what seemed like miles away, she heard the TV, and the kids laughing.
Linda ran to the bedroom door but no, she couldn’t face Rona. She darted to the window and tried to push it up. It didn’t give. She fumbled with the latch, her hands shaking. The window creaked as she strained against it, until it slid up half way. She had one leg over the sill, before she remembered her sketchbook, on the floor by the dresser. She jumped back into the room without looking at the bed. She threw the sketchbook out the window and followed, landing in shrubs that nicked her arms and legs.
She ran around the house, through a gate and across the front lawn, her feet skidding on the magnolia blossoms. She crossed the street at a sprint and cut through the cemetery. Like solemn gray eyes, the headstones watched her.
When she got home, breathless and with tears crowding in her eyes, a part of her hoped her mother would be awake. Linda had been out of the house for longer than she’d planned, and it was possible her mother would be panicking. Linda would be screamed at and fretted over. Maybe she would get a hug.
But her mother was still in bed. The lines on her face had melted away, and her mouth was slack, thanks to the pill that helped her sleep.
She was breathing. The sheet she was lying under stirred with each breath. The air in her room was stale and tainted with sickness, but she was alive.
The phone on the nightstand caught Linda’s eye with its acid green display. Had there been a phone in the other woman’s bedroom? Linda couldn’t remember. Maybe she should have called 911. But hadn’t the woman been dead, past all help?
Already, the details were smudgy, as if she’d made a quick pass over them with an eraser. Her only clear memories were the warmth of the woman’s ankles, and the hiss of her body on the carpet.
Linda suddenly realized her hands were empty. She looked around wildly, before spotting her sketchbook on the floor at the foot of her mother’s bed.
She scooped it up and flipped through it. The dead in their youthful forms went by in a wave. When she reached the last sketch, she returned to the beginning of the book. In ones and twos, she ripped the sketches out and cast them, each dead person, into the wastepaper basket by the nightstand. Rona’s mom was last to go, her head of curls, her smile, her hand reaching for the door.
Hila Katz is a writer living in NYC. She has a background in psych research, and in her spare time likes to walk for miles in cities and forests. Her longest running blog is The Sill of the World.
© 2015, Hila Katz