I opened the apartment door performing my famous grocery juggling act, organic cotton bags of the heavier items in each hand with two more sacks containing lighter stuff dangling off my wrists. I could have pulled out the shopping cart and saved myself the hassle of lugging the load from the supermarket, true, but the building’s elevator was on the fritz yet again and I didn’t relish the thought of pulling my arms out of their sockets by dragging the cart up seven flights of stairs one agonizingly slow step at a time. Slamming the front door shut with my heel, I went to the kitchen and flicked the light switch with my nose—and nearly dropped the bags.
There was someone standing in the kitchen.
My husband was at work and Katy was watching my daughter so the apartment was supposed to be empty but there this stranger stood. Terror trapped the scream in my throat and locked my legs rigid. I walked in on a robbery and now there was a very distinct possibility that I was going to die. And even if the burglar didn’t kill me, I wouldn’t be able to identify him. I was born with a visual processing disorder where I wasn’t able to differentiate between certain shapes, letters, small details and facial features. Therapy helped me learn a unique way of processing visual information so it was manageable except during anxiety attacks or when I encountered a sudden visual shock.
The man in my kitchen–I assumed it was a man because the blob was taller and broader than me–appeared to me as nothing more than a silhouette, a thing that didn’t compute, that didn’t make sense because he wasn’t supposed to be here. Still rooted to the spot, unable to move, I tried to calm myself, to focus, so that if I managed to survive I could give the police some sort of description.
And slowly I began assembling and rearranging bits of visual fragments. It was a man. His back was to me. He was standing in front of the under-cabinet mounted microwave, his hands picking at something that sounded like plastic. Then the puzzle pieces fit into place and I knew this man by his brown comb-over with its deep part, the slump of his shoulders in the navy pea coat.
“Caleb! Oh, my friggin’ God! What the hell are you doing lurking in the kitchen in the dark like that? You almost scared the living daylights out of me!” The tension flooded from my body and I was suddenly aware of the weight of the groceries that nearly slipped from my hands as I stumbled to set them on the kitchen table.
“I thought you were a burglar about to kill me or something! What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at work?” I demanded.
“Sorry about that, babe, I should have called,” Caleb said. He was about to put a small bag of pork pot stickers in the microwave but set the plastic pouch back on the counter. He didn’t turn around.
“Honey, what’s wrong?”
“I have to tell you something,” he said and I didn’t like the sound of his voice.
“What something and why won’t you turn around and look at me?” I asked but my heart was hammering in my chest because all I could imagine was that he was going to admit he was cheating on me. All those long hours when he was supposed to be at work–
“It’s about the job.”
It almost didn’t register because I was preparing myself for the worst. When it finally sank in I let out a sigh of relief but caught myself. “Did you get fired?” That was something that absolutely positively could not happen now, not with Elizangela going back to school next month.
“Worse than that, I’m afraid.”
“What’s worse than getting fired?” I asked. After being frightened half to death, the needle on my patience gauge was swiftly approaching the big red E.
“I got–” Caleb swung around and smiled that fantastic smile of his, the one that made the butterflies flutter in my stomach. “Promoted!”
I could feel my eyes going wide. “No friggin’ way!”
“Yes friggin’ way,” said Caleb and he was on me before I knew it, sweeping me off my feet in that wonderfully secure bear hug of his. “And it comes with a hefty, hefty, hefty salary bump!”
I went rigid in his arms. “Wait a minute. Three hefties? Either you’re exaggerating or that’s a lot of money. Don’t get me wrong, honey, I’m not saying you don’t work hard and deserve every penny of it but what’s the catch?”
Caleb set me down gently. “It isn’t like that, babe, there’s no catch. Not really.”
“I knew it. Spill.”
“Built into the pay raise is an insane relocation fee–“
Caleb nodded and continued, “If I can manage to move house and start work by the fifteenth.”
“The fifteenth? That’s only a week away!”
“I know but we’ve always been the #ChallengeAccepted type,” he smiled again but I wasn’t having any of it this go-round.
“Relocate to where?”
“Fort Wayne, Indiana,” he said under his breath.
“Who-what-where? What the hell is in Fort Wayne, Indiana?”
“I’m sure there’s plenty of stuff but the biggest attraction is the relocation fee could cover the cost of our first house. Our. First. House. Our dollar would go a long way and we could spend more of it on Liza to make sure she gets the best of everything, things we can’t afford to give her in New York. Where is she, by the way?”
“With my sister, it’s easier to do the shopping with her preoccupied.” Elizangela was at the Ooo, Mommy, can we please get this? stage in her development which was okay for the leisurely stroll through shops but not so great on the money-is-tight necessity runs.
I looked at him for a long moment. He’d have had to know about this for a while now but he kept it from me even though we made a no-secrets pact and if I brought this up he’d hand me some line about not wanting to jinx the promotion and I’d be upset but I’d know he was telling the truth because he was a big believer in the almighty jinx.
My first instinct was to say no, to fight him tooth and nail, all because he hadn’t consulted me on this enormously life-changing decision. But that would have been petty. Yeah, my feelings were hurt but it would be our first house, something we’d been talking about for years. And a better life for our daughter? I’d be a heinous-monster-worst-mother-on-the-planet if I didn’t set my wounded pride aside and at least consider it. So, I did.
“Okay?” he asked.
“Okay, let’s do it,” I shrugged.
“Are you serious? I can tell my boss yes?”
“You didn’t accept it already?”
“Of course not, not without checking with you first.”
I gave him a hug and a quick kiss on the cheek before leaning in to whisper in his ear, “You big, stupid idiot! I love you, sometimes, you know that?”
Thanks to the internet, finding a house, even one that was seven hundred and forty-seven miles driving distance away was a piece of cake. The hardest part? Ignoring the common sense warnings from our parents and friends who thought our decision was rash, something we’d done because we were bored. But in the end, it was our choice to make and if they still hadn’t liked it after we explained the situation to them, they could just go ahead and lump it.
Online, we managed to locate a real estate agent who understood our situation and was willing to work with us in finding a fixer-upper in our price range, getting the house appraised and coordinating the paperwork so we could close the sale in five days, skipping the entire mortgage credit process by paying in cash.
Elizangela was the biggest shock in the relocating process. I’d have bet my eyeteeth that she would have kicked up a storm having to leave Queens and all her friends behind but Caleb cleverly presented the idea using Duck Tales, her favorite tv show, as an analogy.
“We might solve a mystery?” Elizangela asked, face full of childish hope.
“Or rewrite history,” Caleb answered and joined her in singing the show’s catchy theme song.
And like that, our daughter was sold on the idea and helped pack all her things with nary a complaint. My only complaint? We decided it was cheaper to drive, though it added five hours or so to the trip which Caleb and I took turns behind the wheel of the rental so there was no problem there, it was Elizangela singing the once adorable but now monotonous Duck Tales theme song on a loop for most of the time she was awake that began grating on my nerves.
Our new home pretty much matched the virtual tour we took on the realtor’s website. It was indeed a fixer-upper and would probably take the better part of a year before all the repairs could be completed. The outside was another story entirely. The front lawn was a respectable size, enough for me to create a nice vegetable garden, but the backyard was massive and overgrown to the point I thought we’d have to buy a couple of machetes, like in those old safari films, to hack the tall grass down to a mowable size. The plan was to tame the savage land and maybe build a grilling deck for our eventual summer barbeques and a playset for Elizangela to go on her Duck Tales adventures in and maybe entice some of the neighborhood kids to come over so she could make some new friends. Those plans all changed the moment we came across the graveyard.
I was on Caleb the moment he stepped into the house after work. “Do you want to know why this house was so cheap?”
“It’s a fixer-upper,” he answered, confused and a little more than slightly uncomfortable at the proximity of my face to his own. “We both knew that going into this. Why is it a big deal all of a sudden?”
“It’s not the repairs, Caleb Allen Mitchell,” I whisper-screamed. Even though I was on the verge of hysteria I was mindful not to upset Elizangela who was upstairs playing in her room. “It’s the friggin graveyard sitting smack dab in the middle of our backyard!”
“Graveyard? Did the previous owner bury a pet or something?”
“Pet? There are twelve graves with headstones out back! That’s not a memorial for poor, dead Fluffy, it’s a creepy-as-hell-honest-to-goodness graveyard!”
“Okay, calm down. Let me check it out,” he said trying not to sound skeptical and doing a lousy job at it.
I marched–it was more of an angry stomp-walk that seemed to me at the time to be childish but I couldn’t help myself–him down the foyer, past the living room, through the kitchen and flung the back door wide.
“Tell me I’m overreacting,” I said gesturing at the tombstones.
Caleb trudged over the carpet of tall grass that I spent the better part of the day attacking with the weed wacker and knelt beside the closest headstone.
“These are pretty old,” he said, running his fingers over the cracked surface of the crumbling stone. “The inscriptions aren’t even legible anymore, most likely due to acid rain which means they’re probably made of calcite.”
“How do you know so much about headstones?”
“My dad,” Caleb answered. “My gran died when I was little and I was terrified of the cemetery when we buried her so my dad took me on walking tours of graveyards and told me the truth about what happens when we die and why funerals were important. Sometimes we’d just marvel at the tombstone designs and he could tell what they were made from just by looking at them. Some fathers and sons had sports, me and my dad had graveyards. That may seem pretty morbid to you, but those were some of the best memories of my dad. It was just us guys and he would talk to me like a man.”
“I think it’s kind of sweet in a weird way,” I said and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Yeah, Dad’s always been pretty unconventional,” Caleb patted my hand, stood and dug the cellphone from his pocket. He made several calls, the first being to the realtor who sold us the house. I had to admit, he was a good deal calmer and damn sure more polite than I would have been had the roles been reversed.
“No, this is not a crank call,” Caleb said into the phone. “Yes, there are twelve headstones. No, they’re really old, the information on them has been worn. No, I have not dug them up to confirm the existence of dead bodies. How do I know it is a graveyard? The headstones I just mentioned are giving me a strong indication that someone interred their dead beneath them. I can snap a couple of pics and send them to you if you’d like.”
Believe it or not, he had to repeat those answers several times to several different departments and organizations and what we learned was there was not going to be a swift resolution to our problem.
First, we had to contact the Historic Preservation Office to see if the land our house was built on was a former cemetery. Luckily for us, it wasn’t. Nor was there a family plot permit on record with the town Zoning Commission or approval from the state Department of Health.
We were informed there was a possibility the gravestones had been discarded. As creepy as it sounded, some people saw the value of the stones as building materials, but our stones–I didn’t like the fact that Caleb acknowledged ownership when speaking on the phone or that I had come to refer to them in the same manner–were out in the open and not used as part of our house’s foundation. The other suggestion offered was the previous owners might have thought they made for cool conversation pieces during backyard barbeques. Since the only way we could have verified this was to dig up one of the graves ourselves–and there was no way in hell we were going to do that–we contacted the police.
To make a long story short, let’s just say the grave markers weren’t for show. Each stone did indeed contain a coffin in which were human remains. When the medical examiners arrived with the local tv station reporters and camera crew, our internet-folly-first-house became a tabloid story and possible crime scene.
A forensic anthropologist was brought in to examine the human remains to establish the identity, or if that was not possible, at least the age, sex, number of individuals present, and other facts. Once it was established that the remains were not part of a crime scene they were turned over to a local cemetery for reburial.
Then we were contacted by the Registrar of Cemeteries and told about the Funeral Burial and Cremations Services Act, which made it our responsibility to fix the problem. Because some grieving or possibly idiotic person chose to bury their dead in the backyard and the realtors hadn’t bothered to check the tall grass behind the house, we had to foot the bill for either reinterring at another site or cremating the remains–hell, let’s just call them what they were, bones–at a price tag that ranged between $500 and $1,000 per body.
That was when I went lawyer shopping, even though the realtor assured us, “The situation can be worked out amicably.” Amicably meant they might accept partial financial responsibility for a clerical oversight. My aim was to make them pay entirely for their screw up with a little extra for the obvious emotional distress. I played that distress up on camera the day I discovered a newspaper reporter lurking outside my daughter’s school waiting to ambush the both of us for an interview.
During the entire ordeal, Elizangela was grace under fire. She got that from her dad. She was full of questions, though, and we answered them as truthfully as we could. The graveyard forced us to introduce the concept of death sooner than we wanted to and she struggled with the same concepts I struggled with when my parents had the talk with me.
“Death is permanent,” Caleb said. “Do you know what permanent means?”
Elizangela shook her head and her bangs danced in front of her eyes.
“It means forever, honey,” I said, taking her tiny hand in mine. “It means once you die, you go away and never come back.”
“You mean move? Like we did from our old home to our new home?”
Calen shook his head slowly. “No, Liza, when a person dies, that means their body stops working. Their heart doesn’t beat anymore, they don’t need to eat or sleep, and they don’t feel any pain ever again. They leave their body because they don’t need it anymore.”
“But that’s other people, not us, right?” Elizangela asked.
What followed was a very long, extremely exhausting everything that is alive eventually dies conversation that ended with our baby saying, “Oh.” No tears, no hysterics, no subsequent nightmares or follow up questions. Just, “Oh.”
After a month or so of avoiding the backyard after the police concluded their business and things in the neighborhood began returning to normal, Caleb and I revisited plans to spruce up the area behind the house. The first order of business was filling in the former graves.
The problem was they wouldn’t stay filled.
The dirt shoveled into the holes the day before appeared by the graves the very next day. Not all the dirt, mind you, but enough to make noticeable piles. I didn’t want to worry Caleb about it, he had too much on his plate as it was with the new position and following up on our lawsuit with the realtor and tracking down the previous owners of the house, so I shoveled the dirt back in and never mentioned a word to my husband. But the following morning, sure as bread fell butter-side down, there the dirt would be in neat little piles.
We had gotten to know all our neighbors pretty well, especially after the tv news coverage put our area in the spotlight longer than most of the residents were comfortable with, but the neighbors to our immediate left, Hannelore and Sean Bogatz were two of the kindest people that ever set foot on God’s green earth. I spotted Hannelore–Hannie, to her friends–one morning when we were both retrieving the morning paper from our front lawns. During casual conversation, I mentioned the grave issue.
“It just boggles the mind why anyone would sneak onto our property and dig up the graves after we fill them? I’d write it off as an animal or something but the dirt is always piled up so neatly.”
“Well,” Hannie shrugged. “It could be kids up to a little mischief they consider to be fun or funny and if you’re leaning toward that way of thinking, I’d take a good look at those Woods boys, always up to no good. Sean and I had a run in with them a little while back that ended the moment we spoke to their parents. Strict as Irish priests in the seminary, Michael and Ella are.”
I had half a mind to pay Michael and Ella Woods a visit but what would that accomplish, accusing their sons with no real evidence? Which meant I needed to gather some. So, later on, after I put the day’s affairs in order, I took a midday nap before I needed to pick Elizangela up from school and while she was up in her room, I quickly refilled the holes in the backyard–more scraping dirt into the open former graves than actual shoveling.
It was hard concentrating on conversations during dinner and the board game during family time because I wanted nothing more than to go out back and patrol the yard. But that had to wait until Elizangela had been put to bed and Caleb’s deep breathing turned into a light snore.
Sliding out of bed slowly and lifting my smartphone off the nightstand, I stepped as silent as I could manage, trying to remember where the creaking boards were located on the hardwood floor, and crept out of the bedroom and downstairs to the kitchen.
The casement window gave me the perfect vantage point to see out over the entire garden and one of the backless saddle stools we used for the kitchen island was the perfect sitting height for me to rest my elbows on the counter beside the sink. Earlier today I downloaded a night vision app–that was actually capable of capturing images at night, not the fake ones that simply inverted daylight images with a green overlay–on my phone in preparation for the stakeout. Not only was I determined to catch the culprit, I was also willing to sit up all night if need be.
I activated the night vision and turned the phone’s camera lens slowly, sweeping the yard. There was movement! Not a body, but dirt flying out of the hole nearest the house! I hopped off the stool, made a beeline to the kitchen door that led to the backyard–and it was unlocked? Had Caleb missed it when he made his nightly rounds securing the windows and doors? It hadn’t seemed likely. We were both native New Yorkers, Caleb represented Queens and I was raised out in Brooklyn, just like the lyrics of that LL Cool J song, and we never went to bed without making sure the house was secured.
Never mind, I would deal with that later. Now, I was racing across the cool grass and ignoring the pain in the soles of my feet as I pushed pebbles and pointy stones into the earth, on my way to gather evidence I could show Michael and Ella about their boys.
I stopped at the edge of the hole and snapped a picture. “I’ve got you now, you little shi–” It wasn’t the Woods boys.
Elizangela knelt in the center of the hole, nightgown pulled up above her knees, dirt cupped in her small hands.
“Liza, why are you playing in the–” I nearly said grave but caught myself and changed it to, “hole? It’s the middle of the night, honey!” Elizangela became upset and started to cry. Was it because I startled her, or made her feel she had been caught doing a bad thing?
I climbed into the (grave) hole and wrapped my arms around my daughter. I held her in silence until sobs waned to tears that quieted down to the occasional shudder.
“It’s okay, sweetheart. I just want to know what you’re doing and why you felt you had to sneak around at nighttime instead of just telling me?”
I thought Elizangela was so distraught that she couldn’t answer my question but after a long silence, she said, “Because you and Daddy said we shouldn’t tell secrets.”
“Secrets? Whose secrets are you keeping? Did your daddy tell you a secret?” I became suddenly afraid of what her answer might be, but she shook her head.
“I can’t tell you. I’m so sorry, Mommy,” Elizangela paused and asked, “Do you still love me?”
I was floored by the question. I cupped her small face in my hands and wanted desperately to say something definitive, something that would stick within her always so she never felt the need to ask that question ever again.
“Of course I do,” I answered. “I’ll always love you, Liza, no matter what.” And I meant it but it came out too quickly, sounded too rehearsed, too much like a pat answer.
“Maybe,” Elizangela started, careful not to look at me. “Maybe it’d be okay to tell if I asked them.”
I was about to ask her who they were but she began talking out loud in a funny voice, one I would never have recognized as coming from my daughter. At first, I thought she was talking to herself then I realized she was asking questions to the dirt walls surrounding us, reasoning with them, before she made her request.
My daughter smiled, finally making eye contact. “They said okay.”
“Who said–” I started and then a door opened in my vision, a door that has been hidden in plain sight, most likely for the entirety of my life. A door that could have been responsible for my visual processing disorder. From the doorway emerged ghosts of all ages shapes and sizes. Some of the older spirits carried the essences of babies that perhaps weren’t alive long enough to develop physical bodies.
They spoke to me but not in words. Images flooded my mind, of light and darkness, of peace and violence, each of them a history being forced into my mind, faster and faster until they became a subliminal blur.
Out the corner of my eye, I saw black ink bleed from the grave walls and swirl around me and I was suddenly caught up in a tornado of black. I lost sight of Elizangela and tried to call out to her but my jaw was clamped tight as if it had been wired shut. Electrical pulses shot through my body and deadened my nerve endings. I couldn’t catch my breath as my vision started to slowly fade out.
I found myself in that ethereal realm that occupied the space between dreaming and consciousness and in that space I wasn’t me. Though I couldn’t see myself, I knew that I was in another body, or better yet, bodies, twelve to be exact. The same as the number of graves. I was in twelve different places as twelve different people living twelve different lives at the same time. The histories that had been forced upon me in moments? days? years? ago now made sense. I understood these people. I knew who they were, knew their struggles, their loves, their pain, their inevitable fates and more to the point, I knew their names.
The information burned itself into my memory as I lost my footing in the intangible nirvana and slipped toward the harsh reality of the waking world. When I came to my senses, my head was resting on my daughter’s lap and she was stroking my hair the very same way I’d done to her so many times before.
“It’s only like that the first time, Mommy,” she said, smiling in that way that always reminded me of Caleb.
I sat up in the grave. There was no escaping the cold that seeped into my bones and settled in the marrow. Everything felt wrong, not just the cold. There were foreign sounds in my head, voices that weren’t my own, too loud, too busy when all I wanted was a bit of silence, some time to sort things out. And there would be time but it would come later.
I focused on Elizangela with a desperation I hadn’t felt since the day she was born, when I was afraid I knew nothing about being a mother. But my daughter’s eyes were calm and wise. Without saying a word, she told me she knew.
And now I knew, too. The bodies belonged here, it was their land first. They needed to be returned, needed to have their grave markers restored with their names and information to mark their forgotten existence on the planet. Once that was done, they could finally move on.
Now all I had to do was convince Caleb which meant I’d have to give my father-in-law a call for some pointers.
Text and Audio ©2018 & 2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys