Dance of the Dead

Jimmy Hollander watched alone as the pale wind danced a dirge with the skeleton trees. Together the elms and maples caressed the November sky.  The only other sound disturbing the stillness of the deserted gravel parking lot outside of Forest Grove Gardens was that of Jimmy’s wristwatch beeping a welcome to midnight.

Jimmy stared out the car window at the frozen darkness.  His thoughts raced back and forth from the weather to the handwritten note in his pants pocket and back.  He reached down and squeezed the denim.  The pants were new–bought for work not a week ago and still stiff to the touch–but he could still feel the crinkle of the square of paper inside the pocket.

While the woman on the radio droned on endlessly about a snow warning for the entire section of the state, the wind whirled and whistled outside–buffeting the car.  Jimmy’s breath escaped in visible puffs and, despite the lack of heat in the car, he wiped beads of moisture from his face.  With the same hand, he snatched a clear pint bottle from the top of the dash and guzzled, tilting it upward long after it ran dry.  He tossed the bottle on the floor–where it clinked against two others–and reached for the door handle.

The wind grabbed him, lashing at his exposed face, and immediately the sweat on his cheeks frosted over.  He quickly pulled the flashlight from his pocket and straightened his jacket collar, shielding his neck.  The night sky was gray, almost white, illuminating the cemetery like a muted spotlight.  His bare hands shook almost uncontrollably, the flashlight beam, split by the bars of the nine-foot fence, fluttering over the hard ground and frozen graves.  Somewhere, almost muffled by the whine of the wind, he heard a distant clanking–a dull sound echoing across the grounds, calling him, calling him.  He hesitated, tried to recognize the source fearing that he would, but failed.

Snow coming soon, he thought, gazing upward.

He touched a hand to the lopsided weight in his coat pocket and slowly approached the massive iron gates.  During visiting hours, the portal marked the cemetery’s main entrance and was always guarded by a groundskeeper; a short, roundish fellow with a bright red beard.  But, in the dark of the hour, the grounds were long closed, isolated and abandoned.

The liquor in Jimmy’s system was no match for the strength of the gusting storm.  His legs ached with every step.  His eyes and ears stung from the frigid blasts of wind.  He longed to rest, but the contents of the note in his pocket pushed him onward.  As he reached the gate, he was greeted by a rusty, fist-sized padlock banging loudly against the twin barriers.  It sounded like a bell tolling, warning the city of some unseen danger.

He rested for a moment, supporting himself against the bars, breathing hard and grimacing from the sudden shock of cold metal.  He rubbed his hands together, then walked toward a narrow opening, partly concealed by a clump of scruffy bushes, where the fence stopped just short of connecting with the gate’s left limestone column.  Squeezing his body through the tight space, jimmy felt the familiar tingle of excitement return.  He had been here many times before . . . many times on many nights.

But tonight was different.

Creeping among the headstones, Jimmy noticed for the first time that their placement seemed rather peculiar, as if they’d been dropped from the sky in some predetermined manner.  He wondered briefly if, seen from high above, they spelled out some cosmic message.

Glancing at the sky again, thinking: Big snow on the way, and soon.  He moved slower now, still confident, but careful not to pass the gravestone he looked for.

He had been there so many times before, of course, but he remembered the first time most vividly–fifteen years ago to the day.

Everyone had been there.  A grim Jimmy standing far behind Karen’s parents, hidden among his mourning classmates.  Her father, standing proudly, a strong hand on each son’s shoulder.  The mother, clad in customary black, standing next to her husband, choking back the tears.  The police had never even come close to solving Karen’s murder.

Immediately following the service, the crowd had left the cemetery to gather at her parent’s home, but Jimmy had stayed.  He had waited in the upper oak grove, hidden among the trees.  When the workers had finished the burial, he had crept down the hill and sat, talking with his love on the fresh grave.  And it had been magical, the first time Karen really talked to him, shared herself with him.  He’d felt her inside him that day and known that it had been right–her death, his killing, even the keeping of some of her clothes, a blessing.

High above the cemetery, a rotten tree limb snapped, crashed to the hard ground below.  Jimmy’s memory of Karen’s funeral vanished.  He stood motionless, watching the bare trees shake and bend in the wind, dead branches scraping and rattling against each other.  A hazy vision of dancing skeletons and demons surfaced in his mind.  “ . . . and things that go bump in the night,” he thought.  It’s called the Dance of the Dead, the demons announced, glistening worms squirming from their rotten, toothless mouths.  Come dance with us, Jimmy, they invited, waving long bony fingers.  Come.  And he wanted to go.  They sounded so inviting.  Come dance the Dance of the Dead.

He shook the thoughts away–too much liquor, that’s all it was–and walked into a small gully, dragging his feet through the thin blanket of fallen leaves.  He recognized the familiar row of stone markers ahead and slowed his pace.  Finally, he stopped, steadied the bright beam on the largest slab.

Karen was dead.  She was dead.  But the note . . .  He could still feel the piece of paper in his pocket.  It was there.

He hadn’t meant to kill her.  He hadn’t.  he didn’t even want to hurt her, just talk.  Then she was laughing.  She was laughing at him and then she was lying so still by the side of the path, her neck and head at that strange angle.  Karen would never let him touch her.  But now she was dead.  She was dead and there was no longer anything she could do if he chose to caress her.

The marker was clean and freshly cared for, the frozen grass around it still neatly trimmed.  There were two bundles of cut flowers leaning against it.  Jimmy recognized the fresh bouquet he’d left just yesterday during his lunch break.  He crept closer, bending to his knees.  Tossing the flashlight aside, he eased next to the granite stone, touching the deep grooves of the inscription, slowly caressing each letter, halting at her name.

 A subtle movement caught at the corner of his vision and time itself seemed to stop along with the wind.  Then she stood before him.

“Karen,” he whispered, the word swept away with the wind.  “I found it, love.”  He dug deep in his front pocket, pulled out a crumpled scrap of lined white paper.  “I couldn’t believe you came to me again after all these years.  I couldn’t believe it . . but I found your note on my pillow where you left it.”

Sudden tears streamed down his cheeks.  “I tried to make you notice me, but you wouldn’t.”

The cemetery came to life around him, breathing the breath of the dead.  The wind regained its strength, plastering leaves against tree trunks and headstones.  Jimmy gripped the paper tightly in his palm, protecting it from the night’s constant pull.

“I’m coming now, love,” he laughed with nervous relief.  “We can be together, forever.”  he tugged his hand from his coat pocket and looked skyward.  Snow coming, now.  Anytime.  A sudden gust of wind sent another branch crashing loudly to the ground where it shattered into hundreds of jagged dry, rotten splinters.

Two gravestones away from it, Jimmy collapsed hard to the earth, frozen fingers curled tightly around the pistol’s rubber handgrip, locked there now.  The single gunshot echoed across the cemetery until the storm swallowed it.  Bits of glistening brain tissue sprayed the air, and mixed with the wooden splinters, showering the corpse and gravestone.  His mangled head rocked once, then lolled to the side, spilling more shiny gray matter and skull fragments onto the grassy knoll.

For just one more slight moment the building wind calmed and was still.  Then the weather returned.  The crumpled scrap of paper–scrawled in Jimmy’s own handwriting–was lifted into the wind’s possession, the towering trees, once again, found their dancing partners.  And it began to snow.

 

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