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I work seven days a week. My job is to look after graves and mourn for the dead on behalf of the bereaved. Every morning I start out at daybreak. Always in suit and tie, carrying a folding chair in one hand and in the other, a custom-made briefcase that holds what I need to maintain a presentable gravesite.
While visiting the dead I always have something to read. Some of my clients prefer I spend time quietly with their buried. Others hand me prayers and personal messages to recite; and most of them tell me what kind of flowers to buy.
Saturdays and Sundays are my busiest, from sunup to sundown. Done at noon on weekdays I go to the Toluca Tavern, where I have lunch with Joey. He is of good character, with a childlike sense of wonder. Years ago Joey had taken a spill on his motorcycle. The brain injury had left him not quite right. He works at an office building as a gofer. He is unhappy with it, but knows it is about the best he can get.
During lunch, we talk of simple things, all of which helps pass the time in a congenial way. He is the only person I don't mind seeing so often. When done, Joey goes back to work, and I go to the bar. It quiets down after lunch. No drunks around to bend my ear.
I'm a slow drinker; I never drink too much. I need to keep a clear mind for the dead.
If I had not taken my work so seriously, the unearthly events that took hold might never have happened.
It began nearly six months ago, on a Sunday, during my last visit at Hillsdale. I was graveside in my chair, mesmerized by the sunlight that angled into the chiseled letters of the decedent's name: Barry Martin Burke.
It had been a long day and I was tired. Leaning back, my eyes fell shut and the name stayed in my thoughts. For some reason, I don't know why, I pictured the chiseled letters one at a time while repeating the full name to myself. When done I heard: "Feet…gangrene..."
I told myself I had fallen asleep and dreamed the voice. Tried it again and heard, "Damn tubes—get 'em out!"
With this second try I knew it was not a dream, the sound of the voice unfamiliar, different from my inner voice.
I decided to check on Barry Burke's last days. He had died a week earlier, his brother Samuel a new client.
That same evening I was with Samuel Burke on his porch. He said his brother had been a diabetic who did not heed the advice of his doctor, refusing to change his diet and all. The result was deterioration of the heart and kidneys; along with gangrene of the feet, both amputated.
Since then I have called on more of the dead. Some have a word, a phrase, a sentence or two. Three of them speak what amounts to full pages.
Echoes of their last thoughts, the last desperate push of the brain; the electricity, the transmission of sound waves that linger in the air. I had somehow become their receiver. I don't think about how or why anymore. I am willing to accept my ignorance of such things.
One afternoon, at my usual seat at the bar, I was entertaining myself with the paper's crossword. I glanced up to see Nick restocking the shelves for the night crowd, and there she was, at the other end of the bar.
I had seen her here before, once or twice a week, late-afternoons, coming in as I was leaving; always dressed fashionably, midnight hair and blue eyes making her all the more attractive.
She caught my stare, returned it with a smile and came down to my end of the bar. Her hand reached for the stool next to me.
"Do you mind?" she asked.
"Not at all," I said.
Nick set her drink down in front of her. "You two deserve a formal introduction." Then said, "Mary Miller, I'd like you to meet Mister Bones."
"You're kidding," she laughed.
"Kind of," Nick said with his boyish smile. "That's what I call him, because of his occupation." Nick turned to me. "Last time Mary was here I told her what you do, but didn't mention your name. So let me start over." He said, "Mary Miller, like you to meet Jack Turner," and Nick went back to restocking the shelves.
"Mister Bones," she snickered as she offered her hand. I took hold of it. When we broke the clasp I was left wanting more of her.
"Yesterday," Mary began, "Nick asked why I was crying in my drink. I told him, and he thought we ought to meet."
"That's why you're here earlier than usual?"
"I'll take that as a compliment," she said. "You've noticed me coming in while you're leaving."
"And a compliment for me, you remembering our paths crossing."
Mary gazed at her vodka tonic and took a sip. Good sign, I thought. If she were a hard drinker, she would have been nearly done with it by now.
Setting her glass down, she telegraphed a touch of sadness. I said, "Would you like to tell me about it?"
"Karen, my sister..." Mary took a deep breath. "Karen died young, from respiratory failure," she told me. "I don't visit her grave anymore because..." Unable to go on, she turned to me with moist eyes.
"I understand," I said.
Mary smiled a little. "I thought maybe if you had the time to care for her. Sundays, if possible? You don't have to decide now," she added as she wrote her number down.
Another good sign; considerate people are hard to find these days.
Soon as I got home, I went over my books and rearranged things. It was not easy fitting her sister in on Sundays. When finished I called Mary. She asked if we could meet for lunch tomorrow and go over the details.
I hesitated. It would be a weekday and not fair to Joey, cancelling our usual lunch.
"You still there?" Mary asked.
"Sorry—yes," and I went on to tell her about Joey's condition. How disappointed he would be if I cancelled. "Why not dinner instead?"
"No, I think I'd like to meet this friend of yours. Let's make it a threesome."
Yet another good sign of character.
After we disconnected I called Joey and explained what had happened. He was happy to hear we would be a threesome.
The next day I was at the Toluca Tavern a little before noon. Mary arrived soon after. We waited for Joey before ordering. I took the opportunity to tell Mary my going rate for representing the bereaved.
"Sounds reasonable," she said.
It was an unusual response coming from a prospective client. Not a single question about what she was going to get for her money. I then proceeded to give her the details. During this, I became aware of the other men in the room, their glances and stares. Being with such an attractive woman lifted my spirits.
Joey appeared. He stood by his chair and gazed down at Mary with his childlike smile. I introduced them. Joey gave her a bow, and then sat. During our meal, Mary chatted with him, seemingly not bothered by his pauses as he searched for the right words. Overall, we had a nice time.
Afterward the three of us stood outside the tavern. Mary and I said goodbye to Joey, and he again gave her a smile and bow. Then he walked off toward the building he worked at.
"Nice man," Mary said. "Such a shame… those little bows were kind of cute."
I walked her to her car. The Bentley convertible and her clothes reflected rich but she herself did not. Maybe it is just me, but I have learned that people with a lot of money are more trouble than they are worth.
The next morning we woke at my place in bed together. For me, it had been one of the best nights ever. Maybe for her too, possibly.
I cooked breakfast for us. While eating we agreed to take both cars. That way Mary could show me her sister's grave, then leave me to go about my regular visits.
The sky over Woodgate was clear. Mary's midnight hair glittered in the sunlight. She carried the flowers she had bought on the way. The sheen of their crimson petals turned her blue eyes into the color of daybreak.
She took my hand in hers. We walked up the hillside and came to Karen's grave. Mary placed the flowers against the headstone; the chiseled dates telling me Karen had died at twenty-two.
"Almost a year," Mary sighed. "The stone has lost its shine, and the grass looks terrible. Woodgate," she sneered. "Must be cutting back to please their parent company's stockholders."
Her comment surprised me, coming from someone with money. Not in the mood to discuss the rights and wrongs of big business, I said, "No problem for me to get the stone like new. And fixing up the grass wouldn't be any trouble." Then asked Mary if she would like me to say anything during my visits, something on her behalf.
"No, I don't think so," she answered despondently, grieving eyes on the headstone. "It's more important that you care for the grave... take the time to sit with Karen."
It was then I wanted to tell her about the voices. That if I felt like it, right here and now, I could call on Karen and hear her last thoughts. Last thoughts that would return to replay in my mind from time to time.
She would not have believed it, so I let it go. No one would have believed it.
Mary never demanded too much of my time. I was free to listen to the voices when they came. If they came while with Mary or Joey, neither of them seemed to mind my distraction. They accepted what they believed to be my quiet nature.
Mary again joined Joey and me for lunch. During the meal, the moisture in Joey's eyes became apparent.
"Is there something wrong?" she asked him.
He choked up and said, "I been, been laid off."
Mary placed a comforting hand over his.
That was when I came up with something.
"Joey, you know I like my weekday afternoons off. I could teach you what I do, get some new clients and let you handle weekday afternoons." Then added, "I'll take a twenty percent commission and we'll both be happy."
"Com…mission?" Joey muttered.
"In other words, you'll get most of the money the client pays me."
I had never seen him so elated.
Mary sent me a warm smile.
Teaching him at first was a struggle, but then with patience on my part he became more proficient. Joey took pride in the custom-made briefcase I had purchased for him. When I presented him with a folding chair he laughed and said, "Take bus, always have seat."
I put flowers down on Karen's grave every Sunday, and told Mary I had gotten the headstone as good as new, and had turned the soil and planted grass seed that was coming up a solid green.
I had never called on her sister. It did not seem to be the right thing to do. Until last Sunday, when I thought it might bring me closer to Mary. In my chair at Karen's grave, I closed my eyes, the headstone took form and I began.
"Karen Patricia Miller..." repeating it while picturing each letter of her name. Then it happened, the gasps for air between the words and phrases "Can't breathe—sister—do this—poisoned."
It went on like that for a while. It was not too difficult to put together. Mary had killed her sister.
Damn it! It was not grief Mary had felt weeks ago when she had shown me Karen's grave. That was why I had been hired, Mary too guilt-ridden to visit Karen on her own.
Confused about what to do I left Woodgate and went to a different bar so I would not run into her. I got drunk for the first time in years.
The next morning I woke in the stench of my vomit. I soaked my clothes in the kitchen sink, and then got into the shower. The warmth and steady sound of the water was a relief.
Then the voice came, gasping same as yesterday, clearer now: "My sister — poisoned me — can't breathe — someone — help me..."
I called Mary and said I missed her, told her I overslept and would take the rest of the morning off if she would come over.
We hugged and kissed, undressed and got into bed. Before getting started, I asked her about Karen, saying that I would like to know more about her. Mary shut her eyes and lay quietly. I did the same and waited.
"I gave my parents a lot of trouble," she said at last. "It was because of Karen. She always got what she wanted. I hated her for that." Then said, "Our Mom and Dad were a lot older than most parents. They died a year apart and just about everything was left to Karen." Mary rolled over against me and whispered, "When Karen died I got every penny of it, and I don't hate her anymore. Funny, isn't it?"
"Very," was all I could say.
One thing led to another. I spread her legs and drove into her with a hard passion. I was angry about what she had done. It meant that I would lose her.
We lay there afterward, both done-in, and then I could not help it: "Your sister was murdered," I said. "Poisoned."
Mary propped herself up. "Why did you say that? Who told you that?"
"There's something you should know," I said. "It'll be the strangest thing you've ever heard, but it's the truth."
I told her all of it. When finished, she denied her guilt and said I either had made up the whole thing or was downright crazy. That did not surprise me. What did was the way she said it, with a coldness I had never gotten from her before.
I said I could prove my ability to hear the dead. Turning on my computer, I showed her the cemetery list and asked her to choose one for us to visit. Mary thought the trip was going to be a ridiculous waste of time.
We dressed and ate in virtual silence, got into her Bentley and headed out to Fairmount. While driving she had a change of mood, seemingly unconcerned about what I had told her, going on about what a nice day it was, then telling me about a movie she would like us to see.
At the cemetery I had Mary pick two graves, opened my appointment book and showed her they were not under my care.
After calling on each, Mary wrote down what I had heard. It took all day to verify their last thoughts. While driving Mary home she still doubted me, but then answered herself: "No, I was the one who picked the graves."
A moment later she said, "Okay, Jack, let's go on the theory Karen was poisoned but didn't know who did it. Since it was no secret how I felt about her, she would've figured it was me—wouldn't she?"
"Suppose so," I said. The notion of someone else having done it grew more plausible as the seconds ticked by.
"It doesn't matter how I felt about Karen," she said. "I want to get whoever killed her." Parking at Mary's building, she looked me straight in the eye. "You'll help me, won't you?"
I was in love with her. I had to give it a chance.
Soon as we got into her condo, Mary opened the foyer closet and parted the hanging coats. "Karen's old papers," she told me, sliding out two boxes.
We carried them to the kitchen table. Mary pulled the papers from them and made two stacks. "We'll each make our own list," she said. "Names, addresses, phone numbers of everyone Karen had come in contact with." She then poured us some wine and began to prepare dinner.
Busy at the stove she asked me to get two pads and pens from her office desk: "Right-hand top drawer."
I left the kitchen and returned with pads and pens. I sat at the table and started on my stack of papers. Before I knew it, dinner was ready. We fed ourselves while we each worked on our own list.
When done, Mary put Karen's papers back in the boxes. We moved into the living room and sat on the sofa, where we rewrote our two lists into one, beginning with the people she thought to be likely suspects.
Mary was obviously tired, yawning and soon asleep against me, midnight hair splayed over my shoulder. I stood and gently repositioned her. As I did, I had a flash of dizziness.
Turning off most of the lights, I went to the boxes in the kitchen. Carrying them into the closet, the dizziness hit me again, harder this time. So hard, I lost my balance, dropped the boxes and fell to my knees.
I sat back and had trouble breathing. That was when I saw the vial that had fallen out of one of the boxes. I picked it up and looked at the label. I had seen the name before, and then remembered it from a book I had read.
No trace poison... left the kitchen for the pads and pens…
Mary stood in the near-darkness, blue eyes on me as if she were standing over my grave.
I'm a San Quentin prison guard. I felt compelled to write down what you have just read, just as Joey had told it to me, exactly as he hears it in his mind. Seeing him go through the struggle of writing it down himself brought out my better nature, I suppose.
What follows is what Joey would like to add, as written by me. I tried to clean up the grammar, along with his choice of words.
I hear my friend in my mind, saying over and over what you have read. That is why I killed Mary at her sister's grave. I stabbed her many times with my gardener's trowel. No one believes why I had to do it. The doctors say the voice I hear in my mind is playing tricks, or that I am making it up to avoid execution.
I killed her for him. He was my only friend.
Phillip Frey's history includes professional actor, produced screenwriter and writer/director of three short films, one of which showed at the New York Film Festival. He is now devoted only to writing prose. He currently has the privilege of his short stories appearing in various literary journals and anthologies.
Published to the Kaidankai on January 18, 2022.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.