Nicholas P Anthony
The Boy and the Mausoleum
It was morning when we arrived. My family walked through the doors of the chapel, which were held open by two ushers dressed in black suits. My father stood tall, he never slouched, with the brim of his bowler hat drawn low over his eyes. His clean-shaven cheeks were pale and marred by a collection of cuts that were still moist with blood that threatened to trickle down his chin. As we walked down the crimson carpet of the center aisle, the people on each side of us stood. They bowed their heads and muttered condolences as we passed. Some gently touched my father's arm as if physical contact would make their words hold more weight or seem sincere. I looked up at these faces from a distance but so unbearably close. They were foreign and yet all together similar: businessmen with thin mustaches, double chins and dumpy wives. My father ignored them and walked towards the empty row of chairs placed paces away from the little mahogany coffin.
I remember holding my mother's hand. I gripped it tightly, desperately, as we navigated to the front. I could feel her knuckles fold on top of one another and yet it never responded. There was no warmth, no moisture or sweat, no reassuring squeeze. Her hand had been cold, dry and limp, and I wondered if there had even been a pulse.
The seats were hard and uncomfortable, and the wood ground painfully into my back. When my father had been asked about the arrangements, his response was for it to be "simple". He made no other request or demand. To him, it didn't matter which way you dressed it, there would always be a body in that box.
The priest was a portly man with a toupee. His robe trailed in folds of white behind him, and dragged across the floor when he walked over to us. He shook my father's hand and muttered something in his ear. My father nodded once in reply but said nothing. The priest then made his way over to me. He extended his pudgy little hand towards me like he had my father. I didn't want to touch it. In fact, I was determined not to, but a quick look from my father and I relented. I touched the man's hand and his fingers engulfed mine. His hand felt far too soft and moist for my liking, and the gold rings he wore were frigid and scraped my skin when I pulled away.
The priest smiled sympathetically at me. "She's a pretty girl, your daughter," he told my father. He shuffled back to the altar and the casket, and turned to face the congregation. He had not even looked at my mother. She had not seemed to notice. Her eyes stared vacantly at the cuticles of her toenails that peeked out from the tips of her black heels. She looked like a marionette whose strings had been cut. I feared that any moment she would collapse onto the floor in a pile of folded limbs and tangled twine.
I don't remember when the service started. I was busy watching Jesus: an oversized cross of flaked gold that leant forward, tottering precariously on the edge of his nailed feet. I was fearful lest he fall off his wire hanger and come crashing down upon the priest. Did I say fearful?
The priest was a fine actor. He smiled often and frowned when needed. After a few minutes his voice faded out all together. The mouth kept moving but no sound issued from it; the motion of his lips flapping up and down made him look remarkably like a guppy fish. What I could hear was a high-pitched drone that buzzed angrily inside my ear. It made my head ache and my stomach turn.
Soon we were standing and they were singing. The noise was horrible, lethargic and terribly sad. As we stood, I ran my fingers along the groove of the chair. I followed the grain of the wood as it climbed up the arms and around the bend of the back. It wasn't smooth like the chairs back in our dining room, but coarse and riddled with dents and scratches. I had not been the first grieving family member to sit on it. I would not be the last.
The singing stopped but we continued to stand. I allowed my eyes to wander amongst the crowd, and I became lost in their singular expression. Each one was a mask, practiced and polished to be absent of any real feeling. Even their eyes seemed devoid of life. I had this odd fantasy that I was at a gathering of corpses, and imagined that they had come from the graveyard outside but had forgotten how to act or even look human in the process. I wondered why they had all come. Maybe it was to welcome the newest member of their ever-increasing family. Then again, maybe they were just bored.
I had begun to turn away when I was stopped by the sensation of eyes fixating on me. I traced the gaze back to the owner: a boy seated three rows behind me next to a woman that was too old to be his mother. The boy had black hair that was smooth and flat, and bangs that draped over one eye like a set of ragged curtains. He wore a dusty brown suit and a maroon tie that was hole-punched with moth bites. His eyes were light blue and cold, watery although he wasn't crying.
I waved to the boy. It felt foolish but I didn't know how else to respond. He tilted his head to one side and seemed to examine me as though I was a peculiar animal at the zoo. I blushed and turned my eyes from his. The priest had now lifted his hands high above his head, gesturing to the heavens and raising his voice to dramatic levels. I could still feel the boy's eyes on the nape of my neck.
My knees had begun to shake by the time we sat down. I was thankful for the hard chair against my back, and the cool wood upon my thighs. I rubbed my legs to bring some feeling back to them, but stopped when my governess, who was seated behind me, pinched my ear.
"Shht," her voice hissed between her teeth. I could feel the spittle fly from her mouth and land in my ear.
I wanted to turn around, scream at my governess—her name was Ellie—and spit in her ear, but I didn't. I ignored the sting of her pinch and kept my eyes focused straight ahead, switching between gold-flaked Jesus and the little mahogany coffin which rested below his nailed feet. I was staring at the coffin when I saw something that made my eyes widen and my throat constrict.
The box moved. It wasn't a trick of the light or even the angle I was looking from. I was not tired or sick or delusional. The casket moved. It rocked as if its inhabitant had shifted or rolled over in its bed.
I looked around to see if anyone else had noticed. The congregation was silent and solemn, and stared unmoving at the countenance of the priest. The boy wasn't staring at the priest, but he wasn't looking at the casket either. He was looking at me.
I tugged at my father's sleeve. "Father," I whispered.
He did not look down. I tugged harder. "Father," I said.
The box rocked once again. The wooden frame shuddered when it fell back into place. "Father," I said, "it's moving. Look, it's moving." A note of desperation had snuck into my voice, but my father did not divert his gaze. He was too far away.
I turned to my mother whose vacant stare had shifted from her cuticles to a stain on the carpet. "Mother," I tore at the overcoat she wore, "Can't you see? It's moving? Please, it's moving."
The rocking of the coffin had become more pronounced. Back and forth, back and forth, teetering on the edge each time, coming closer and closer to tipping over and dumping its inhabitant onto the floor. I could imagine that little body tumbling down the steps and collapsing onto the center aisle, glassy eyes rolling around its eye sockets like loose marbles.
"Mother," I wanted to scream. "He's still alive. Look. He's not gone. Please, he's there. Please."
My mother looked up. "My boy?" she said. Her eyes were dead, and her face was white washed and stretched tight over her jutting cheekbones. "My boy?" she said again. "Where? Where is my boy?" A note of panic entered her voice. "Charlie?" her voice crescendoed. "Charlie!"
Eyes began to gravitate towards the scene that was developing in the front row. The coffin was still rocking, but everyone was focused on my mother. She grabbed hold of my arm and dug her nails painfully into my skin. The priest halted the service.
"Charlie!" Her voice was shrill. "Where is he? Where is my boy?" she was sobbing. She turned towards me and, still holding on to my arm, began to shake it in desperation. "Where is he? Where is my boy?"
I felt as though my arm would be ripped off at the shoulder. "It's moving," I said. "The box. It's moving."
My mother leapt to her feet, marionette strings moving in a flurry of motion. She knocked the priest to the floor and fell against the small wooden box. She began to claw at the lid. "My boy," she sobbed. "My boy."
My father walked over to the altar, past the priest who sat upon his tail of white cloth, and lifted my mother from the box. She kicked and bit and scratched, but his face was set and he held her tightly in his arms. She was screaming now, a terrible shrieking that reverberated against my eardrums and raised gooseflesh on my arms and legs. My father set her down on his chair and he, along with some others, restrained her.
Everyone was quiet except for my mother. She kept muttering the same thing over and over again like some sick ritualistic chant. "My boy. My boy. My boy. My boy. My boy." Each word spoken on the wings of a breath. Her eyes did not move from the box. The box was closed and had stopped its rocking.
I tried to pull the men off of her. "She isn't lying," I said. "He's in there. He's alive and he's in there." My mother surged forward, and my father threw her back into the chair.
I felt a pair of sharp nails snap painfully onto my earlobe. "You horrid little girl," my governess spat. "Look at what you did." She pulled me away and led me down the aisle, away from the quiet wooden box and my mother who was breathing like a sedated beast. I tried to fight her but her hold was strong, and she pinched harder every time I struggled.
"Get off of me," I said. "He's alive. It moved. Didn't you see? It moved." I pleaded with them to believe me, but every face I turned to was full of pity or embarrassment. I saw the blue eyes of the boy that had been staring at me. "Don't you believe me?" I said as I was dragged past him to the door. He watched as the double doors of the chapel swung shut behind me.
Ms. Ellie deposited me at the bottom of the steps. "I can't believe this," she said. "Even of you." she pinched me again and put her rouged lips next to my ear. "You will wait outside until the service is over. If you move..." her sentence trailed off. She then stood up, composed herself, and walked back into the chapel, leaving me standing at the bottom of its steps with twin tracks of tears rolling down my cheeks.
I began to walk. I didn't know where, and I didn't care. I just let my shoes take me from that arched steeple and those imposing double doors that stood guard before it.
I walked past the dirt lot, and through an iron gate that was open and creaking in the morning breeze. I walked down a path that crept parallel to rows of carefully arranged stones that stretched on into the distance. They were of various shapes and sizes, and had names carved into them. Soon my feet left the path and the ground changed in quick succession from dirt to grass.
The grass had been recently cut. The smell tickled my nostrils and made me think of my lawn back at home. The lawn where we had played with Lucy. Where we had tossed peaches down the hill to the tree line and watched as she bound after it, returning moments later biting down on a half-eaten peach or peach pit. We had sat there every Sunday afternoon after mass, dressed in our Sunday best. I was still dressed in my Sunday best, but today was Tuesday and Lucy had died two years ago.
I lay down in front of a stone that read NEIL in big, block lettering. I stretched out my arms and legs, and felt the grass against the soft skin of my legs. The sun was slowly ascending, balancing precariously over the treetops that lined the edge of the field. I dropped my hands to the grass and gripped my fingers into a fist, clenching the shorn blades of grass together. I let go and looked at my fingers. They were stained green. I smiled and wiped them off on my dress.
The smell of the fresh grass still tickled my nose. I furrowed my brow and wrinkled my nose, and fought what was a losing battle. I sneezed.
I opened my eyes and saw the boy with the blue eyes from the funeral. He leaned up against NEIL's stone with a wide schoolboy grin across his face.
"It's usually polite to say thank you," he said.
"Thank you." I said.
"Is that your brother in there?" he gestured toward the distant steeple.
"Thought so." He said it matter-of-factly, as if he had just asked the time. "Say, what's your name?"
"Like the one everyone prays to?"
I nodded again.
"It's nice to meet you."
I nervously played with a clover I had picked from the ground. I twisted its stem between my thumb and my index finger, and watched as the leaves twirled around and around.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
"Yes," I said.
"May I sit down?"
I didn't reply. The boy took it as a yes and gracefully walked over to where I sat. He sat uncomfortably close and straighter than any boy I had ever seen. He crossed his legs Indian style and rocked gently back and forth as if in time with the breeze.
"You don't talk much do you." he said.
He brushed aside his bangs and smiled. His teeth were very white and perfectly arranged.
"I like your hair," he said.
I blushed. My hair was plaited with blue ribbon into two perfectly symmetrical braids that hung just behind my ears. "Ellie braided them."
"Oh," the boy said.
"I don't like them." I said.
"Then why do you wear them?"
"I just do."
"That's silly. Take out your braids. No one will care. Not really."
"I don't think so."
"Are you afraid?"
"I'm not afraid," I glared at him. "I just don't want to."
"Suit yourself," he smiled his wide, boyish grin again. He continued to sway back and forth with the wind, as though he didn't have enough body mass to stay firmly grounded.
Without warning his hand darted out and pulled at one of my braids. I yelped as his bony fingers ripped braid and hair from my head. He held the torn ribbon and a clump of hair tightly in his hand. The right side of my hair was now loose and being tossed about by the wind.
"Sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to pull your hair too."
"I don't think I like you." I wanted to cry.
"That's not a very nice thing to say."
"Well, you're not a very nice person."
He looked genuinely harmed by that. He gave me back my ribbon and looked down sullenly at his socks. His rocking stopped and he sat utterly still for the first time.
My hair was a complete mess and my scalp stung fiercely. I unbraided the other plait and let my hair flow down. To give him credit, it did feel nice to be free from the braids. I combed out my hair with my fingers and tied the blue ribbon around my wrist.
The boy looked up. The smile had returned to his face and his blue eyes glinted like pennies at the bottom of a wishing well. "Say," he said. "Want to play a game?"
I really didn't want to but I had a feeling that he wasn't going to leave me alone if I didn't. Besides, it would give me an opportunity to sneak away.
"Alright, but I get to choose," I said.
"Ok," he said. "What game?"
"Hide and seek."
His eyes practically bulged with excitement. "I'll hide first," he said. The boy leapt to his feet and darted away, weaving in between the stones before I could react. "No cheating," he yelled over his shoulder.
I closed my eyes and began counting. I didn't know to what number I was supposed to count, but Ellie had taught me just my thirties, so I stopped after that. I repeated them once more to make certain that he was good and far away, and then I opened my eyes. The boy was no where to be seen. The only sound I could hear was the wind in the leaves and a mockingbird's shrieking imitation of a raven. I smiled and stood up.
Just to be sure that the boy would not guess my intention, I dutifully checked behind a couple of stones nearby. I stopped after every few paces to listen, but it was quiet. After the first few stones, I stopped checking and began to distance myself as far as possible from the NEIL stone where I had met the boy.
The field was large and rolling, and divided by an enclave of trees and rosebushes that congregated around a pair of benches that the caretakers affectionately deemed: the "Waiting Room". I paused here for a moment to admire the roses and to balance upon the narrow benches. At one point I thought I felt eyes watching me, but when I scanned the field there was nothing but stones and green grass and oak trees.
In the center of the clearing was a sundial. Perched on top of it was the mockingbird that I had heard earlier. Its plumage was dark grey, and its chest puffed out before it like a proud businessman. It was larger than the birds that liked to nest among the peach trees back at home.
When I approached the sundial the bird did not fly away. Instead it cocked its head to one side and hopped back and forth from one foot to the other. I held out my hand and it jumped back, letting loose its raven-like shriek. I whistled and it grew quiet. The bird hopped back to the edge of the sundial and eyed me curiously. The song I whistled was one that my mother had taught me when I was younger, before she had hired Ellie. She only ever sang it when she tucked me into bed, and only when I was afraid. The song was "Brahm's Lullaby".
The mockingbird's beak opened and closed but no sounds came from it. I whistled the song again, but the bird only hopped from leg to leg and continued to open and close its mouth. When I reached out my hand to stroke its head, the bird ruffled up its feathers and flew away. Its wings grazed my cheek as it passed.
I watched the bird as it flew into the field. I could just make it out against the sun that shone bright because the wind had blown the clouds away. The mockingbird came to rest on the eve of a large stone house in the middle of the field on the opposite side from where the boy with blue eyes was hopefully hiding. I shaded my eyes and licked the corner of my lips that were beginning to chap. I heard the distant whistle of a bird in the field, a whistle that sounded familiar. I smiled and left the clearing and began to walk through the field. I walked past the mossy stones and towards the stone house and the mockingbird that stood perched upon its roof.
I stopped in front of the shadow of the house. It towered over the plots surrounding it, diminishing the crooked namestones so that they looked like toothpicks. The grass around the house was yellow and brown, and a spiked fence surrounded it. Steps led up to the entrance where two pillars stood guard on either side of the door. The door was wooden and shut. Carved onto the stone above the door was a name, but the sun was behind the house and the carving was too faded to make out what it said. A single birch tree, stark white and stunted, cast shadows on the dying lawn.
The fence was easy to hop. There was no path to the house, and the dead grass crunched beneath my shoes when I landed on the other side. I kicked off my shoes and left them near the iron gate that was closed and locked with a chain and padlock. As I walked across the lawn, the dry grass stuck into the soles of my feet like jagged nails. Once I reached the steps I looked up at the house.
Now that I was closer it loomed larger. The morning sun emboldened the outline of the building and made its entrance seem darker by contrast. The pillars looked worn, and I could see scratches and chips in the stone from where the birds had cracked snails and nuts against it. The wooden door was unpolished and fashioned from a dark wood that looked like rosewood but wasn't. Attached to the door was an antique knocker that was fashioned into the likeness of a gaping maw. The mockingbird that had called me from the clearing was gone. The only sound I heard was the wind whispering through the birch leaves.
I walked up the steps. They were cold and my skin seemed to stick to the stone each time I lifted a foot as if I was walking on ice instead of stone. I paused before the dark, wooden door and its screaming knocker. I ran my fingers down the grain of the wood, which ran downwards like scratch marks left on the bark of a tree. My hand hovered over the knocker. I could feel the cold emanating from the metal, and I imagined that it would suck the warmth from my hand when I touched it, leaving it blue and lifeless. When I touched the knocker I was surprised to find that the metal was warm. It seemed to pulse with a steady rhythm, like that of a slow heartbeat. I pulled the ring.
The door remained closed. I frowned and tried again, this time leaning back and applying more force. Still no luck. The door must have been locked because it did not budge. Or perhaps it had remained closed for so long that the wood had warped and expanded until it was stuck in its frame. Defeated, I retreated to the steps. The moment my right foot touched that first cold step, I heard it. The soft whine of a door opening. I turned and saw a large black void where the door had been.
I was immediately struck by the horror of what I was seeing. Like a gaunt face, the mausoleum stood before me: sightless eyes staring, bent tongue lolling, mouth open in a silent and toothless scream. I let out a scream of my own. The hideous mouth swallowed it and spat it back out, a shrill mimicry that crescendoed into an ungodly pitch. I turned and ran. My dress ripped as I vaulted over the fence.
I don't remember where I ran to or how far, I just remember falling upon an open patch of mercifully soft and green grass. I hugged my knees to my chest and rocked back and forth, trying to forget that awful sight and that awful scream.
"What happened?" The boy had found me. His hair was ruffled from the wind and his shirt had come untucked. He did not smile and his blue eyes looked cloudy.
I shook my head back and forth. I bit my bottom lip until I tasted blood on my tongue. I shook my head back and forth again.
"Why are you crying?"
I had not realized I was. I touched my cheek and looked at my fingers. They were stained dark black from my bleeding mascara.
The boy rushed over to me and pulled me close, my chin bumping against the back of his shoulder painfully. The embrace was cold and stiff, and I felt at once comforted and repelled by it. "No," I said. "No." I pulled away.
The boy frowned. At that moment, with his brown suit and untucked shirt, he no longer looked like a boy but a man. A man who didn't smile and whose eyes hinted at the loneliness that I often saw in men who had seen enough of life. Those eyes seemed far too old for his round chin and dimpled cheeks.
He sat down beside me, his chin tucked against his chest and his bangs hanging over his eyes. His hands tore at the grass by his feet.
"I hate this place," I said.
He looked up at me with those eyes of his. His mouth worked around a bit as if he was going to say something, but he thought better of it or he could not find the words because he remained silent. He looked back down at his hands and I saw that they were trembling.
I could feel the warmth of my cheeks as the blood rushed to my face. I felt bad and I did not know why. He looked so tired and worn, and yet so innocent and childish all at the same time. And it broke my heart to see him frown.
"It's... it's not so bad." I said.
"You like it?" He looked up at me.
"Yes," I said. "It's alright."
"It's alright," he repeated. "It's quiet and it can get lonely," he looked around, "but not always. Sometimes it's like a big party. And everyone is happy and laughing and sometimes they even sing."
"And, besides, it's kind of pretty don't you think?" he smiled at me, but it lacked the same enthusiasm as before. "Don't you think its pretty?"
The image of the stone house with its door open and screaming came to my mind in startling clarity. I wanted to shudder; I wanted to keep crying; I wanted to run as far away from there as I could, letting my bare feet carry me past the grass and the dirt, onto the road, and then farther still. I wanted to do all of these things, but the only thing I did was smile. It felt stiff and my lips cracked when I did, but the boy smiled back all the same.
"Here," he said. "You can wipe your face."
The boy handed me the handkerchief from his jacket pocket. It was checkered red and smelled musty, but it was clean and soft. I wiped the trail of mascara off of my face. After, I looked at the handkerchief and saw that it was stained with dark, black splotches. It made me want to cry again.
"Oh, whatever will Miss Ellie say now that I've ruined my face," I said.
"Hush. You've ruined nothing," he said.
"I'm afraid I've ruined your handkerchief as well."
"No, I can't. That's very nice of you. But I can't."
"I insist. It's only a handkerchief anyway," he said. "Would you like to go for a walk?"
"I don't think so. I probably should be back."
"Please? It will only be a minute or two. I don't get many visitors. And it'll take your mind off of things."
I didn't know what to make of this, but I agreed. He was an odd boy, but he seemed genuinely concerned about me.
The moment I agreed the boy jumped to his feet, the boyish grin once more in full force on his face. "Come on," he said as he pulled me up. "I want to introduce you to everyone."
I would have hesitated at this, but he gave me no time to react. He held onto my arm tightly and began to lead me down different rows of stones. He would occasionally stop at one of these stones and read the inscription there, adding bits and pieces of information as if he knew the occupants intimately.
"Here," he said. "This is Charles Buck. Military man, colonel, full stars and stripes and medals like you wouldn't believe. He's alright. Bit of a stiff.
"And here is Emily Blythe," he pointed to a small stone cross. "She's a character. Ripped straight out of a Dicken's novel. You like Dickens? Her family were devout Christians, all of them. Believed in God, but she never did. The cross doesn't bother her. She finds it funny."
I smiled. I couldn't help it. The situation I found myself in was definitely strange, but the boy was sincere and his smile was wide and I couldn't help it. It was like he was introducing me to his family.
The boy next stopped in front of a large plot of stones of various sizes that all had the same name carved into them. "These are the Huxleys," he said. "Dour lot. They don't talk much, and when they do they just prattle on about the state of things. Of course the state they remember is not the one still around. As you can imagine, its no fun discussing politics when you already know what happens next."
He never let go of my arm. I didn't mind. He held on tightly, but not uncomfortably. And my arm seemed to rest naturally in the crook of his elbow.
As we continued down each new row or plot of stones, I began to realize just how expansive the field was. Just when I thought I had met everyone, I was pulled along in an entirely new direction, and always with the same amount of enthusiasm. The boy was quite lively and it made the time speed by.
He seemed to be tiring when we reached the other side of the field. He was leading me down yet another row, when I stopped dead in the ground. There, right before me, was the stone house. It stood out as plainly as it had before. I had not noticed it immediately because my attention was constantly shifting with the direction the boy's feet led me, but there it was. Sloped roof, hanging eves, stone pillars, arching steps. Thankfully, or even more eerily, the mouth had closed. The wooden door was shut and the knocker rested heavily against it. My black shoes were still on the other side of the gate. The tissue of fabric that had torn from my dress fluttered weakly on one of the fence spikes.
"What is it?" the boy asked.
"Who's in there," I pointed to the stone house.
The boy looked to where I was pointing. When he saw the house, he frowned and his eyes dropped. Once again he no longer looked like the enthusiastic boy that had so recently been introducing me to his friends.
"It's nobody," he said.
He started to pull my arm again but I didn't move. My feet stuck firmly in the ground like one of the stone pillars on either side of the door.
The boy kept looking from my face to the house. He tried to smile, to believe that I was joking and that we could resume the tour, but the smile flittered and faded on his lips. His eyes clouded over and he looked tired. Tired and old; so very old.
"Don't you know?" he said. His voice was hushed but it was deeper and feebler, and he grimaced as if it tasted sour to his tongue.
I didn't respond. The house looked less frightening. The sun had risen past the eves and the roof, and lit the grass with shades of orange and bright yellow.
I let go of the boy's arm and began walking once more towards that spiked fence. I put my hand on the cool, iron gate. The chain and the padlock were gone, I just had to gently push against the gate and I knew that it would open.
"Come off it," the boy said. "There's nothing there."
I pushed opened the gate. It creaked open on hinges that desperately needed oil. A gust of wind came through the birch leaves and blew my hair in a flurry. The wind picked up the piece of fabric that had torn from my dress earlier, and carried it into the seemingly distant field that was checkered with stones that looked like toothpicks.
I walked past my shoes and felt the dead grass crunch beneath my feet. I curled my toes and dug them into the soil of the lawn. The sun was behind me. The bark of the birch shone brilliantly white, and the light from the sun cast my shadow upon the roots of the tree. There was only the one shadow, and I imagined that it turned its head and looked up at the house. I walked across the lawn.
When I reached the steps I stopped. The house seemed to radiate cold and I shivered despite the heat from the sun. I looked at the door and dared the mouth to open. It remained closed. The boy put his hand on my shoulder.
"We should leave," he said.
The carving above the antique door was still faded, but the light from the afternoon sun had defined the edges. The block lettering spelled out a name that I knew. One that was all too familiar to me.
"This is where they'll bury him." I said.
"Yes," the boy said. He let go of my shoulder. "And you. When it's your time."
I stood before the stone house. It didn't frighten me like it had before. It made me sad.
I turned to look at the boy. There were wrinkles at the corner of his eyes and his lips. The adolescent roundness of his cheeks was gone, and his cheekbones were high and prominent. His dimples had hallowed out and I could see the outline of his jawbone. While he was still pale, his skin seemed dry and looked like it would crack in too much sun. I saw all of this and yet none of it. I was too distracted by his eyes and how exhausted they were, and how lonely.
"Am I mad?" I asked.
The boy shook his head. "No," he said. "The world is mad."
I turned back to the stone house that had my family's name carved above its door. I remembered the razor cuts on my father's cheeks, and his black bowler hat and his measured gait. I remembered my mother's limp hand, and the way she screamed and tore at the little mahogany box. I remembered the box shaking, rocking back and forth on its stand, threatening to fall and open.
"Is he dead?" I asked.
"Yes," the boy said. "He is."
"Oh," I said.
The boy slipped his hand into mine. It was soft and calloused, and when I looked down I saw that it was wrinkled and tinged blue. When the boy saw my expression, his eyes grew cloudier and he looked so very sad.
"I'm sorry," I said.
He let go of my hand. My palms felt cold from his touch.
The box was still rocking in my mind. Violent tremors that knocked against the wood, threatening to unhinge the lid. My mother screaming, "Where's my boy? Where's my Charlie?" in some distant room. And still the rocking mahogany box, and the sound of scratch marks coming from inside.
I turned once more to look at the boy. His hair was grey now and his back was hunched. "Will you watch over him?" I asked.
The boy hesitated. He looked down at the grass and his scuffed leather shoes and then back up at me. "I will try," he said.
I untied the blue hair ribbon that was tied around my wrist and gave it to him. "Will you give this to him," I said. "When you see him."
The boy nodded. He accepted the ribbon and folded it into a little square and placed it in the pocket of his jacket where he had kept his handkerchief. His hands trembled when they moved.
I took a few steps up the stairs to the door. The stone felt cold and sticky against the soles of my feet just like before. I imagined how the knocker would feel in my hands, and how it would dig into my palms when I pulled. I had a feeling that the door would open this time. It was more than a feeling. I knew that it would.
I took another step up the stairs, and heard the birch leaves whispering and felt the breeze lick my cheeks. The sun on the back of my neck felt warm. The door creaked but did not open. I was halfway up the stairs and could smell the mustiness of the tomb and imagined how the dust that sprinkled from the ceiling would taste. I took a few more steps and was standing before the door. I reached out my hand, ready to grasp the iron knocker, but stopped and let my arm fall back to my side. I did not want to go in there. Not yet. Not ever.
"Mary," a voice yelled. "What in heaven's name are you doing?"
Ms. Ellie stood by the gate entrance; her thick eyebrows were set and her lips and cheeks were heavy with rouge. She raised a pudgy finger and jabbed it in my direction and then at the ground beside her. "You come here this instant."
I looked around. I was alone.
"Did you hear me, girl?"
I frowned and felt lonely for the first time that day.
"Mary," she practically shrieked. She had her hands on her hips, and her eyes squinted and hid behind her cheeks and her brow. "Don't make me come get you."
I knew there was no danger of that. Ms. Ellie stood at the gate a safe distance away from the house. Still, it would only be worse the longer I waited. I let out a sigh. I collected my shoes once I reached the fence and left the gate swinging behind me.
The moment I was in range, her hand swooped down and yanked angrily at my ear. "What were you thinking?" she said, "Coming here. Of all places."
She clucked at me. Her eyes continued to squint angrily as she surveyed my appearance. "And just look at you. Look what you did, you horrid girl," she tugged at my hair and my ripped dress. "You should be ashamed of yourself. When your father..."
She began to lead me past the rows of stones, away from the iron fence and the stone house. I heard the high-pitched whistling of a bird singing. It swooped down low and skimmed the top of Ms. Ellie's hair with its feet. She swiped angrily at the bird and cursed under her breath. I smiled and watched as the bird flew to the stone house. It alighted upon a branch from the birch tree and began to sing. I knew the song quite well. Whistling an octave or two below the bird was another voice. It was as pretty as any bird and floated on the breeze and stayed there. I shaded my eyes and fancied that I saw a boy sitting on top of the steps, sitting with his legs over the side, swinging them back and forth. I waved to him and he waved back. The blue ribbon shone in the sunlight. "Brahm's Lullaby" played in the afternoon.
Nicholas Anthony writes: "I am a fourth year student at Santa Clara University, where I am studying English and Communications. I have been published in Danse Macabre, and have recently received the McCann Short Story award from my university."