We hear the screams as soon as the group exits the church.
“I think this one’s for you, Robert,” Clothilde says. She’s sitting on top of her tombstone, the plainest slab of stone in the whole graveyard, with only her first name and a date of death. No birthday, no last name, no citation or drawings of angels. She’s one of the greatest mysteries this place has, but she won’t let me investigate. Every attempt I’ve made to ask her about her life has been rebuffed, sometimes nicely, sometimes not so much. She’s been dead for twenty-five years, but she’ll always be a teenager at heart.
Today she’s wearing high-waisted jeans that stop just above her ankle and a white top that would have shown the straps of her bra if she’d been wearing one. Her dangling feet are covered in a pair of Converse, worn on the heel and one of the laces torn on her right foot. There’s no telling the color—the dead only wear shades of gray.
We haven’t had many new arrivals lately. The only people to die were old ladies with no reason to hang around after the funeral. When you’ve known for years that your time is almost up, you get your shit together and make sure there are no loose ends.
It’s those of us who are taken by surprise who linger.
Of course, it’s a good thing when someone goes straight to the afterlife. None of us wish suffering on another human being—or human ghost in this case—but it does get a little dull at times. There’s only so much you can do to occupy your time when you’re stuck within the confines of your cemetery, and it’s the middle of winter so the number of visitors is at a minimum.
Today, though, we have a new arrival.
It’s not easy coming to grips with being dead when you didn’t expect it, didn’t see it coming. It’s a bit of a shock, to put it mildly.
Personally, I pounded on my casket for a week before realizing my fists didn’t have any effect on the sturdy wood. Nor did they make any sound. My voice didn’t echo like it should have.
Only when I calmed down—if I can really call it that—did I look around in the small space I occupied. And realize I was lying next to my own dead body.
I was laid out on white sheets, wearing my next best suit—the best one would be full of holes to match the ones on my body—my hands folded over my stomach and my expression relaxed in a way I’d never seen it before.
I’m not particularly bright, so it took me another day to accept the fact that I was dead and had apparently become a ghost.
That’s when the coffin released me. The cemetery has been my home ever since.
As the funeral procession advances down the path from the church, my fellow ghosts gather next to me. We always wait for the new arrivals by the hole in the ground that will be their last resting place. We could have listened in at the church door and followed the procession, but whenever a ghost touches a human, there can be a form of interaction, and we don’t want to freak out the bereaved any more than they already are.
So we observe the funerals from behind the priest, in the trees, from the top of the tombs, watch the coffin lowered into the ground, and settle in to wait to see if a new companion would join us.
There isn’t really any doubt about this one being a keeper.
The screams are so loud it would have been impossible for us to hear each other speak. The banging on the coffin is strong, panicked, and unrelenting. I can’t make out any words, only pure, unadulterated panic.
I want to go over and calm her down, tell her it’s going to be okay.
But as long as she hasn’t been released from the coffin, there’s nothing I can do. She won’t hear me.
And it’s not going to be okay.
She’s dead and she wasn’t ready.
A lot of people have come to see her off. I’m guessing close to a hundred, which for a little town like this, is quite impressive. At the front are a couple in their forties who I’m going to assume are her parents. A couple of grandparents. Two boys who might be brothers. Behind them, a group I’m going to qualify as family. There’s a large majority of blondes, with strong jaws and wide shoulders. The darker-haired or darker-skinned ones have probably married in.
Slightly to the side, a mass of young people. Probably early twenties, and about eighty percent female. The friends.
Some are crying, some seem to not understand what’s going on. Probably the first time they’re burying someone they know that’s not a grandparent. One guy at the back leans close to the guy next to him to say something and receives an extremely stern and accusing stare in return. Not the time for a joke, my man.
I don’t listen to what the priest says. It’s all to soothe the family and friends and won’t have any interesting information for me.
I’m studying the mourners.
More than half of all murders are done by a family member. Add in the large group of friends and the probability of the murderer being in view is pretty darn high.
Judging by the screams coming from the coffin, the probability of her being a murder victim is also pretty darn high.
I sidle over to eavesdrop on a whispered conversation on the family side of the group. I’m going to guess cousins. One blond woman in her twenties is speaking into the ear of a second even blonder one.
“I can’t believe her mom made such a big deal out of keeping it hidden that she killed herself,” she whispers. “I mean, come on, is her image really that important? She can’t own up to her daughter taking her own life?”
I glance in direction of the coffin with a frown. Suicide?
“It’s not just the image thing,” the second woman whispers back. “Julie has always been very involved in the church. If it’s suicide, her daughter can’t be buried in the cemetery.”
Which is exactly why we have so few suicides in here. Could a ghost be that panicked after waking up from her own suicide? Shouldn’t the situation be a tad more expected?
People who are aware that they are in mortal danger don’t usually need much time to accept what happened and move on. A couple of years ago, we had a soldier who was killed in Afghanistan. He only lingered long enough to say goodbye to his girlfriend then disappeared in a puff of smoke.
“Well,” says the first one, “luckily, falling off a bridge with no witnesses isn’t automatically ruled as a suicide. So here we are.”
I move on, listening to people saying they don’t understand how it’s possible, the service was beautiful, the mother had made an excellent choice for the casket, the soccer game starts in an hour and a half, will they be able to watch it?
That last one is from the guy making the inappropriate comment or joke earlier, and it earns him the same look from his neighbor. “Seriously, Joss. I know this isn’t your scene, but can you at least just shut up?”
Joss the jokester shuts up, clamping his lips shut as if he wishes they could be glued together. Despite the cold, a bead of sweat trickles down along his hairline, past his ear, and into his shirt.
If he’s a talker, I’m guessing we’ll see him again. Possibly for a confession.
As the casket is lowered into the ground, I stand next to the guy I’m assuming is the husband or boyfriend. He’s part of the friend group, but also right next to the parents. His eyes are red and a sob escapes on each breath. Arms hanging limply by his sides, twitching now and then.
He seems genuinely upset.
At least he doesn’t have to hear the screams.
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