Disappeared, presumed dead
‘A wonderful teacher and colleague’
He banged the last nail into the plaque, just as he had banged the last nail into the stronghold wall, all those years ago. One of his hands was clawed from an old burn injury, and clumsy, so a little unnoticed blood seeped from his finger as he had proclaimed, “This will be a safe settlement, no-one will ever leave it.” He certainly never did.
I was born many years later in that very stronghold that had now become a town. I was born in 1966 and I made it to the new millennium with all the dire warnings of disaster, none of which came about. Although disaster of a personal nature certainly came to me.
I was Unpleasantville born and bred, and for us natives it didn’t live up to its name, no, it’s a pretty town, the sun shines on well maintained gardens, the traffic is light, attractive architecture is plentiful, there is public art and we have every amenity. It’s lovely, and we are happy as long as we tow the line, follow the rules, stay nice and quiet…and stay put.
But, I didn’t you see, I had a hankering to get out and about, so I sent some snail-mail here and there. I was just going out to my oldskool mailbox, to see if I had gotten any answers to my various job applications. Honestly, I didn’t believe the stories about having to stay, the old wives tales of quick retribution, I didn’t even think anyone would notice.
How wrong can you be? But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I taught history at the local school, world history of course, but more importantly the history of our town. As a special treat, once a year before graduation, I’d take my various classes for a visit to the local graveyard. I liked to go there because it had an unusual addition, or a left over from sometime or other, or quirky affectation. It had a mailbox, for its inhabitants I joked to myself, I found it charming in a weird way, and liked laughing at the idea of ghostly letters arriving and being handed out, grave to grave.The kids on the other hand, liked the crypt and had all sorts of fun jumping out from behind it and frightening each other. It was the crypt of our founder, my namesake, Old Josiah Unpleasant himself.
The last time I took a class on a trip, we didn’t hang around, the crypt was open a little, and there was a strange burning smell. I hurried the kids back to school, and returned alone, to investigate. I discovered a heap of letters smoking below the lonely mailbox.
They were my letters, all my letters to other towns’ schools were there, a partially burned heap of hope. I tried to pick them up, but they burned my hand. All I had wanted was to go away for awhile, look around The World, I always planned to come home. But like that hotel in California, it seems you can never leave here.
How had my letters gotten there? The addresses were crossed out and replaced by The Graveyard. I didn’t know what to do, this was a strange turn of events, and I began to see the truth of the odd stories that hung around our town.
Darkness had fallen, and I still squatted in front of the burned papers, uncertain of my next move. I needn’t have worried, I felt a coldness on my shoulder, looking down I saw a clawed hand, then I looked up.
For awhile I thought I had fainted, but now I know I died. I became aware that I was inside the crypt, the door tightly closed, and I could hear whispering voices from the corners and the cracks, stories and more stories, the same stories, histories of every life that was ever led here in our town.
It seemed I had been appointed as the new custodian of stories, the new historian of the grinding boredom that was life in a small town, population 666,000, and always such, never more never less.
The whispers told me that the previous inhabitant of the crypt had secured my body and had walked it outside to check my mailbox, when a UPS truck hurtled around the corner, lost control, and killed it. Who that poor previous occupant of the crypt, and briefly my body was, I do not know, surely not old Josiah himself? All I know is that I was compelled to take out a ledger and an old fountain pen that worked, that I had found stuffed in a corner, and lodge one death, with my claw like hand, and wait for the news of one birth, to balance the book.
The rest of my time is spent transcribing the whispered stories, story after story, It seems to be a compulsion. I write on anything, myself, the clear spaces in the ledger, the walls, the floor, everything is written on, in a tiny script, telling the tales of the town I wanted to leave, tales of its inhabitants, recycled over and over, from death to birth. A never ending story of trapped souls, and the bodies they hulked around under somber skies.
I am dead so I needn’t eat or sleep, so every moment is written in.
Once in awhile a letter arrives in the mailbox outside, I can hear it, but the crypt door won’t open for me…not yet.
Melissa Miles was born in the US, but resides in NZ. She has had many professional iterations, acting, teaching, film-making, but she is now focusing on her writing, and caring for her aging menagerie.