A Companion Of Fools
The breeze brought along leaves in golds, reds, and oranges, swirling about her feet. Not yet what you would consider cold, as it was October, and Georgia autumns had a way of being indecisive. The wind held a crispness to it in the evening that heralded the cool weather.
Melissa ran her finger over the softness of the bright and playful pink petals of the tulips and wondered what the hell she’d been thinking getting that color for him. “Wasn’t really your style,” She said. She sighed and looked around at the gray stones and the bright spots of flowers spread out at regular intervals. Solemn sentinels with flashy boutonnieres. Sighing again, she looked down at the gravesite and placed the flowers on the headstone. “Well, they’re cheerful, and as we know, cemeteries are awfully shitty places.”
A child’s screeching laughter in the distance interrupted her one-sided conversation, and she turned an exasperated glare on the children that were playing along the grassy hill just outside of the gravesites. “Heathens,” she huffed with a smile. The sound of the laughter tugged at her heartstrings, and memories of her own childhood swamped her. The town of Garfield’s Crossing had been her home for most of her 40 years, with the exception of her undergrad at Agnes Scott and medical school at Emory, and she loved it. It was also the spot of the most devastating knocks she’d experienced. Crouching down in front of the grave of an old friend, she let the memories come.
* * *
The trio of teenage girls flipped in unison onto their backs as the bell chimed. The bottle of baby oil slipped a bit in Melissa’s hands as she picked it up. Squeezing a stream in her hand, the trademark scent wafted up to her, and she reapplied it on her arms and legs. Feeling a sting, she used her forearm to wipe off her brow, stopping more sweat from dripping into her eye. She watched a bird land at the edge of the depleted pond they sunned next to, summer in the south having sucked the water from its edges.
It was sweltering. The season had reached its heat-exhaustive peak and coasted down a hellishly humid track to the more reasonable autumn in Garfield’s Crossing, Georgia.
“I still can’t believe ninth grade starts on Monday!” Lisbeth squealed, flicking her platinum hair off her shoulder. “Can you imagine? Our own lockers, study periods off-site, and driving. Oh my gosh, I’m so ready. It seems so cosmopolitan. We’re going to be like...women!”
Heather, sitting on the other side of Lisbeth, rolled her eyes. Not to be seen outside without a layer of makeup, her eyeliner had begun to run in the heat. “Ninth grade is not what makes you a woman, number one, and number two: high school boys are boring.” She was the leader of the pack and had a more worldly outlook of what was coming. Her brother John was a football hero for Garfield’s Crossing High School. He was a senior this term, so she had been in the midst of high school boys for years. He was also her ticket to easy popularity at school. She had moved on to being interested in even older boys and had recently lost her “V” card with one in the back of a 1987 Camaro Z71 (with a blue racing stripe, as she’d told them multiple times). Sometimes her confidence scared the shit out of Melissa. “What about you Melissa? You ready for school? We already know there’s only one high school boy for you.” Her smirk had a mean edge, but Melissa was used to it. They were all friends sure, but mostly they were only friends with her around the neighborhood. School seemed to change them into vague acquaintances.
“Oooooh, Mike, I love you so much!” Lisbeth giggled and made kissing noises.
“How very cosmopolitan of you, Lis. Not.” Melissa said with an unnoticed wit and ignored the bait. Everyone knew Mike Mitchell, quarterback of the Garfield’s Crossing Cavaliers was the object of an intense crush that Melissa had nursed all summer. She loved him, as ardently as only a 15-year-old girl could, and used any excuse she could find to spend time with him. He was best friends with Heather’s brother, so he hung around that summer and had flirted with Melissa ruthlessly. He was gorgeous. Tall, with a bushy lop of curly brown hair, and big blue eyes. She learned everything she could about football in an effort to impress him; basics like rules and teams, and more in-depth things like rushing, safeties, spread and option offenses, and defensive lines. By accident, she found that she enjoyed the game, and the strategy, which appealed to her analytical mind. “I’m so over Mike. Just a summer crush.” She lied through her teeth.
Heather glanced at Lisbeth, raised her perfectly sculpted eyebrows, and purred, “Oh, is that right? Then you won’t care that he’s going to be coming by tonight. I was going to ask you if you wanted to hang out with us, but since you don’t care anymore…..”
“Oh, stop, of course I want to hang out with you guys. Not because he’s going to be there.” Melissa stopped herself from saying anything else. She knew how to walk the line with these girls, and giving them too much protest would likely cause more taunting. They weren’t necessarily mean girls, but if she showed signs of blood, the sharks would begin to circle; and Melissa desperately wanted to belong. Her family had moved from apartments last year to the new trailer park on the outskirts of the city, and she had always had trouble making friends. She was shy and self-conscious. Having just turned 15, she was a very tall 5’6” and growing, with long pony legs, still in that gangly stage right before womanhood. With no money to buy the current styles and no guidance on what to wear or how to fix makeup and hair, she didn’t fit in with the current group of girls she had to befriend. Along with a love of reading and her twice a week classes in a gifted program at school, she made an easy target. She had a sweetness about her that spoke of a tender heart, and in the cutthroat world of teenage kids, she didn’t stand a chance.
Heather stretched her toned arms, readjusted the golden band in her pixie cut dark hair, and looked over at the car turning into a driveway down the street. The new family that just moved in piled out and into their double wide. “I think I have an idea on what we should do tonight.” One side of her mouth curved up into a cat-gorged-on-cream smile. “The girl that just moved in, Rachel, we should invite her to hang out as well. I was thinking, my mom and dad are out on a date night, maybe we should all walk up to that deserted cemetery across the street, and check it out. We can get some of the boys to go as well. And maybe scare the new girl a little while we’re at it.”
Lisbeth squealed again, “Oooh, that’ll be so much fun! We have to make it happen. I’ll call my mom and tell her I’m staying at your place Heather, so we can stay out late.” Lisbeth was the only one that didn’t live in the neighborhood. Looking over at Melissa, she asked, “Do you think you can get out tonight?”
Melissa shrugged and said, “I can try. I’ll page you if they say no. I’ll go now, and try and butter them up.” Grabbing her stuff and folding her towel up, she waved a quick bye and started walking up the street home.
The afternoon sun began its descent into evening as she made her way through the trailer park. Being new and well-managed, its streets were still maintained, and yards were orderly. They had to be, or you could bet your ass you’d receive a pink letter in your mailbox describing the fine you’d receive if you didn’t get it cut. Melissa knew the stigma that came of living in a trailer park, so tried not to tell anyone at school where she lived, but secretly, she thought the place was nicer than anywhere she’d lived in in the past. Before her mom married her stepdad, the two of them had lived in a decrepit house outside of Garfield’s Crossing, yet still considered a part of it. It was a drafty old house, made out of cinderblocks. The back room, where the laundry was, had a hole in the side of it where one of the blocks had been knocked out years ago and never replaced, covered with a wooden board. That house had scared the crap out of her, with its age and disrepair preying on the over-imaginative young girl. Moving from there was one of the few things she’d been thankful to her stepdad for. Once he and her mom had hooked up, they could afford to save up to get the new trailer.
Reaching her driveway, she walked up the stairs and inside the house, and called out, “Mom, you here?”
“I’m back here, honey,” Melissa heard from her mom’s room. Crouching down, she gave their little dog a back rub and picked him up for a kiss. She carried Ziggy to the room and saw her mom folding laundry, watching tv. Melissa went over and kissed her as well. “Hey! How’s it going, how was the tanning? I’m jealous, I’d love to get out there and get some sun as well, but duty calls.” Her mom’s long and beautiful hair, caramel colored like Melissa’s, got tangled up in one of the shirts she was folding and she used a tie on her wrist to quickly throw it in a bun and continued.
“It was fine I guess. The girls want to have a slumber party tonight before school starts, would you mind if I stayed up at Heather’s? Her mom and dad will be there later tonight, they went on a date.” She asked, hoping her mom would give her a quick and easy yes.
“Let’s wait and see what Billy thinks when he gets home from work.” Her mom said, not taking her eyes from the TV set as she folded.
“Oh, Mom, come on! You know he’ll say ‘no’ He always does. He’s such a jerk!” Melissa whined, hating the tone of her voice, but also hating the need to ask her stepdad’s permission. One of his favorite pastimes seemed to be to make her life a living hell.
Her mother slapped a folded pair of scrubs down on the pile and huffed, “Fine, Melissa! You can stay over as long as her parents will be there. I’ll talk to him. I’ll take the heat if he gets upset. Just give me a break, okay?” she paused, folding a camisole, “You have to stop fighting with him. It’s getting on my nerves hearing you both snipe at each other like two children.”
“Mom, I actually am a kid and—” Melissa stopped herself, realizing she’d won. She didn’t want to start in on how it wasn’t her fault her mom had married a man ten years her junior, and the same her daughter’s senior, with the maturity of a six-month-old alley cat. She took a breath, then replied, “I’m sorry. I’m going to stop there, and just say thanks. Mind if I just grab a sandwich for dinner so I can go ahead over there?”
Her mom gave a little smile. “Sure honey. Be home tomorrow morning by 11, ok? I’m working a double shift at the hospital tomorrow night and would like to see you before I go. I love you.”
Melissa gave her mom a hug and kissed her cheek, “You’re the world’s best nurse. Love you too.”
She ran to her room, grabbed her clothes and toothbrush, then ran a brush through her hair. She kissed her fingertips to the yearbook photo of Mike Mitchell she had tucked into the corner of her dresser mirror. Wanting to get out of the house before having to deal with Billy-the-Buttface, she took a string cheese and an apple for her dinner. She called out, “Bye, Mom! Page me if you need me!” Then she ran out of the house and down the stairs, off to adventure with her friends.
As she hurried up the street, Mrs. Bridges, an elderly wheelchair bound neighbor, was trying to push herself and a load of groceries up her ramp. “Hey, Mrs. Bridges, hold on and I’ll help you!” She ran up to the old woman and grabbed a few of the bags from her relieved and aging lap.
“Oh, thank you, Melissa. You’re so sweet to help. I have a few cookies inside, and some lemonade if you want to come in and visit a spell.”
“I’d like that, but I’m on my way to Heather’s house for a sleepover.” She replied, opening the door for the little old lady and she rolled through.
Mrs. Bridges scowled at Melissa and sniffed in disapproval. “You know, Melissa, that crowd you’re hanging out with is just no good. Why, last year I went right to her mother and told her I’d caught Heather with some boys up at the playground smoking dope. She couldn’t have been more than 13, and with three boys that weren’t family!” Truly scandalized, Mrs. Bridges drew in another breath and continued her diatribe. “Do you know what her mom said to me? ‘Mind your own business, lady!’ That’s what she said. Well, I had never! I was just trying to help, making sure that young girl was safe. You promise me not to get involved in any of that, you hear?”
“No ma’am, Mrs. Bridges. Heather isn’t all that bad, just a little misunderstood.” Melissa blushed. She herself had tried a hit of the disgusting stuff just last week, and all of the kids had just about peed themselves laughing at her coughing and gagging. She’d never touch it again.
Mrs. Bridges sniffed again. “If you say so. You have a good time, and call me if you ever need to talk or anything, okay?”
“Yes ma’am, I will. Can I do anything else for you?” Placing the grocery bags on the table, she made her way to the door to escape.
The old woman smiled up at her. “No, you go on ahead and have a good time. But you remember what I said, you’re too sweet and good a girl to get mixed up in all of that. I’d hate to see you get into any trouble.”
“I will, and I’ll stop by tomorrow to see if you need anything. See you then.” She opened the door and continued on to Heather’s house, a couple of trailers up.
Melissa’s heart raced when she saw the group of people on the porch, which included Mike leaning against a rail. He wore a Pearl Jam shirt, a black and white photo of a little girl playing with crayons next to a gun, with the word “Choices”’ underneath. Pearl Jam was one of her favorites, she loved Vedder’s voice. She and Mike had discussed the song Jeremy only last week. As she got closer, everyone started laughing, and her face heated into a flush.
They quieted as she came up the stairs, and Heather said, “Billy actually agreed? I’m amazed.”
“Yeah, Mom’s running interference. I need to be home by 11 tomorrow, but for now, Freedom!” She said in her best Braveheart impression.
Mike laughed, causing Melissa’s insides to glow.
“So, what are the plans for the night?” She didn’t want to spill the beans if they were still planning on playing a prank. Rachel was already there, swinging on their porch swing, flanked by Heather and Lisbeth. She was adorable, petite, and had dark hair cut in a short bob, dark skin, and beautiful chocolate eyes. She’d lived in the neighborhood a month and they’d hung out a time or two. Melissa’s stomach knotted with guilt with what they were doing. Rachel seemed like a really nice girl, and it seemed wrong to pick on her; however, she didn’t want to anger the other two girls. They had just started to include her this summer in some of their plans and she didn’t want to ruin that now. She squashed the guilty feeling. It was all harmless fun.
“Heather was telling me about the creepy little cemetery across from the trailer park, and we’re going to go check it out,” Rachel said and smiled at her. “We used to do stuff like that with my dad before he died. I love to be creeped out.”
Melissa returned the smile, and said, “Me too. I watch all the scary movies I can get my hands on, but walking through a cemetery in the dark is a little weird. But whatever, I’m down.” Casually, she asked, “Are you guys going?”
John came out of the house, wet hair curling from a recent shower, and took the question. “Can’t do it. We’re hitting a party at Mary Ellen Waite’s house. End of the summer shit, so it’ll be wild. No time for kids’ stuff, playing in cemeteries.”
Melissa’s heart sank, she was hoping so badly to spend a little time with Mike, but she was grateful they weren’t scaring Rachel. “Cool,” she replied, this time not nearly as casually as she wanted it to sound.
Heather laughed, “Don’t worry Mel, Mikey will be around this school year. We all know you’ll stalk him as much as possible.”
She blushed again as all three girls laughed. Mike whistled and said, “Damn, Heather, you act like you didn’t literally drool over my cousin Bart last year when he came for the summer. Melissa, you can stalk me anytime. At least you’re not showing up at my house two and three times a week. How many times did you come by the house, Heather? Remember when my mom yelled at you to stop?”
Heather narrowed her eyes at him, as the laughter redoubled and shifted direction towards her. “Fuck off,” she ground out to a grinning Mike through teeth clenched in anger.
Melissa gave Mike a little smile and opened the screen door to the house, going inside to stow her stuff in Heather’s room. She smelled the candy-coated scents of teenage girl perfume and hairspray from the hallway, before she walked through the door to the bedroom. Even the room itself was effortlessly cool, as she looked around in envy. A pink lava lamp sat on a dresser holding a beautiful white jewelry box. White Christmas lights were strung along the ceiling’s edges. Posters plastered the walls, Tom Petty, Bob Marley, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Melissa rolled her eyes. Heather was a Mariah Carey, TLC pop music lover, and she knew for a fact she couldn’t stand what she called, “Old Shit.” But guys sure loved it, and it made her seem older and more mature. Whatever. She turned to a creak in the hallway and Mike came in, leaning on the door jamb.
“Hey. Don’t let the barracuda get to you,” he said, “I’ve known her a long time. Heather has a mean streak a mile wide. Lisbeth would agree if Heather wanted to start eating her own farts.”
A surprised “Ha!” bubble of laughter escaped her, and Melissa said, “Thanks.”
He said, “No sweat. Um, I checked out that Koontz book you were talking about last week. The Watchers?”
“Oh yeah? Such a great read. What did you think?” She asked. Did Mike Mitchell seriously read a book I was talking about?!
“It was scary as hell. I loved it. Thanks for the recommendation. You have the same taste I do in reading. Uh, your hair looks great down like that,” and gave her a two-fingered salute, winking at her as he headed out the front door.
Her heart fluttering, butterflies moshing in her stomach, she said a, “Um, ok, Bye!”
She walked outside just as the guys were getting into John’s old beater. With a loud rumble it cranked, and they backed out of the driveway and off to their party, leaving behind the smell of exhaust.
“Well, it’s just us, girls. You guys want to have a drink first before we go? My mom and dad are out seeing some dumb Indian movie, Last of the Mohawks or some shit.” Melissa held her tongue. She’d just read the Last of the Mohicans, and while it was old literature, she thought it was beautiful.
“Their liquor is ready and waiting. John showed me how to add water to the vodka, so they’ll never know.” Heather led the way back inside to the bottle on the counter. Two shot glasses were sitting out, a testament to the guys already having had some. She pulled out two more, one for each of the girls.
Melissa bit her lip in concern. She didn’t drink and knew her mom would kill her if she found out.
Heather looked at her and said, “You too Melissa, one shot isn’t going to hurt you.”
Caving to peer pressure, yet again, and hating herself for it, Melissa nodded.
Heather poured a shot into each glass and Lisbeth, Rachel, and Melissa each grabbed one. “Bottoms up!”
They all took their glasses and raised them to their lips. Heather and Lisbeth had no trouble, each throwing their shots back like pros. Rachel finished hers and coughed, eyes watering. Melissa held hers up to her mouth and took a small sip, and had to hold back a gag. The other girls laughed again, and Melissa took a deep breath for courage. Throwing her head back, the vodka sat in her mouth too long and the taste took her breath away. It took everything she had to swallow the vile liquid and felt it come right back up into her mouth. Swallowing again, she ran to the sink thinking she was going to throw up. Saliva pooled in her mouth and her stomach began to clench. She turned on the water and drank directly from the spout. She heard the other girls peals of laughter, but she exhaled in relief as the clear fire stayed down.
“Well done! I thought you were going to hurl there for a minute.” Heather wiped the tears of laughter from her eyes, and her smile glittered like hard diamonds. “We’ll make a party girl of you yet.”
Melissa shook her head and laughed at herself, glad she hadn’t embarrassed herself by puking all over Heather’s counter. She would never have lived it down. Grateful the deed was done, she handed the glass back to Heather, “That stuff is nasty!” Feeling a warmth in her cheeks and chest, she decided it wasn’t so bad after all. She could already feel a lightening in her head and grinned with glassy-eyed hilarity.
The girls chatted as they made ready to leave. They washed and put away the glasses and vodka bottle, then stepped into the dusk. They passed the playground and pool as they walked up the hill to the entrance of the trailer park. Laughing and carrying on, singing “Jump, Jump, the Mac Dad will make ya Jump, Jump,” they jumped across the street. The purples and pinks of a setting sun reflecting off of the wispy cirrus clouds to the west as a backdrop to their shenanigans.
Georgia mosquitoes attacked Melissa, the big Mothra-sized suckers were ferocious this time of night. She swatted at her arm, trying to fend them off in the twilight and slapped one that had landed on her thigh. It left a smudge of blood behind.
The sun had sank under the horizon and the white of the moon peeked over the trees. She followed the other girls up the side of the street until they came to an overgrown, grassy pathway. Two slight ruts in the ground were the only indication where a driveway used to be. The cemetery they were going to wasn’t the largest one in town, it was an old and private family cemetery that was on a large parcel of land that people were no longer sure who owned.
A weather-beaten and peeling “No Trespassing” sign hung from the middle of a rusted chain twenty yards up from the edge of the street. The overgrown drive disappeared into the woods around a curve. Cicadas buzzed their nighttime symphonies, and the smells of earth and heated grass were all around them.
Melissa looked around, “Are you sure you guys want to do this? Do you think we’ll get in trouble? It says ‘No Trespassing’.”
Heather looked at her, “Seriously, Melissa, look around you. No one comes out here, and they haven’t in forever. That chain is rusted as hell, and I’d be surprised if you could even unlock it without the whole thing breaking apart. Don’t be such a puss.”
Lisbeth and Rachel looked at each other, Lisbeth biting her lip with nerves, but she giggled forcibly and in her high and annoying voice, singsonged, “Melissa is trippin’!”
Irritated, and thinking to herself what an idiot Lisbeth was, Melissa said, “I’m not tripping, I just don’t want to be grounded the first few months of school. If we’re going, let’s go. I’d rather not be hanging around in here when it gets fully dark.”
Rachel nodded in agreement, and they stepped over the rusted chain, Heather in the lead.
The four girls trudged up the drive. Overgrowth scratched Melissa’s legs. Grasshoppers flew up from the vegetation and jumped ahead of them in kamikaze dives as they were disturbed by their walking. They reached the bend, and the pathway entered the trees. A wall of trees loomed ahead of them and crowded the side of the drive as it wound deeper. It was darker here, the green canopy of leaves blocking out the meager light of the setting sun, and the crickets and frogs sounded louder. Finally, they reached the end of the path and it opened up to a large clearing. A dozen stately pecan trees lined a drive that was still high with growth not tended in years. The path stretched on passed a sun-bleached and dilapidated fence. Up ahead she could see a surviving foundation, proof that once a house was located on the property. A few feet of standing brick that formed the outside walls, along with the remains of a chimney, was all that still stood. The ruins were a lonely remnant of something that had once been grand and beautiful.
“My Aunt Bertie works at the historical society,” Lisbeth offered into the catacomb still of the clearing. “I overheard her tell my mom that the house used to belong to the Wheeler family. And that one of the servants poisoned the whole family and set fire to it in the thirties. Even the babies! She said one of the little kids got out and they found his body out in the field. His mouth all foaming and stuff.” Lisbeth shivered as she whispered the story to the girls.
“Ok, we just went through the town history last year in class, and they never said anything about any of that, and we learned about the Wheeler family. That’s just BS.” Shut up with the creepy stuff already Lisbeth! Melissa’s shoulders rose in a deep breath, and she felt her heart accelerate.
Heather snorted, “Like they were going to tell that story to a bunch of kids, Melissa. Why would Lisbeth’s aunt just lie? As if. And for fuck’s sake, doesn’t that look like a house used to be there and burned down? Stop wiggin’.”
Surprising herself, Melissa had to snatch back “kiss my ass” before it burst from her mouth. Shaking her head, she looked at the ruins in a mixture of curiosity and sadness. Heather had a point. They had been cleared from ages of rain, but portions of the low wall and chimney were black, what just had to be moss or algae, surely. They looking scorched black from fire. She could tell the house must have been huge. The foundation took up an immense area. The thought of the family that was murdered there filled Melissa with melancholy. She wanted to be back at the trailer park having the sleepover she told her mom they were having.
“The cemetery is behind the house, next to the woods. Come on, let’s go.” Heather took the lead again. They walked single file passed the old fence, interned under the ceiling of pecan tree branches. The pecans that had fallen to the ground over the years crunched under their feet. An owl hooted in the distance.
Heather shrieked and recoiled, flailing with her hands over her head. “What the hell?! There are bats! One just came right at me!”
Melissa held in a laugh, the whites of Heather’s eyes rolled as she searched the darkening skies. She looked over at Lisbeth and Rachel,both of whom too casually looked down, lips tightened against escaping laughter. Looking up, the little flying rats flitted everywhere through the trees. There were dozens of them.
Rachel spoke up, “They won’t hurt you, just checking us out. If we’re going to the cemetery, we need to go, it’s getting dark and I don’t want to be here after dark.”
They kept walking, skirting the foundation of the old house, and moving closer to the tree line on the right side of it. They passed the house, and ahead of them on a hill they could see a wrought iron fence that was partially fallen on one side. Inside the fence, headstones could be seen and a couple of large oak trees shaded the cemetery. The woods on the other side were impenetrable.
“Ok, I’ve seen it, let’s get back,” Melissa said.
Heather replied, “Nah, let’s go in, just for a second. I want to show you guys something.”
Gritting her teeth, Melissa followed as they all moved through an opening in the fence.
There were perhaps twenty headstones, some that were on their sides having fallen over, some so aged that they crumbled in places. Very few that had legible markings on them, a hundred years of rain and frost effacing the words in the limestone, but what she could make out were very old.
Beloved Father Lost to the War 1916
Michael Nathaniel Wheeler – Born 1908 Died 1909, Blessed Son, Lost too soon
Mac McDouglas – Trusted Servant RIP 1913
The girls walked along the lanes of graves, huddled closer together now, and read those that they could in the failing light. Melissa felt a sweaty hand take hers. Rachel gave her a little eek of a smile, and Melissa squeezed her hand in reply. She said to the group, “Ok, I’m out. I’ve seen enough.”
“Wait, it’s right down here.” Heather walked to the edge of the woods. On a small incline, behind the headstones, she could see an upraised dais on which a stone box rested. It was an altar tomb, and looked like a cement coffin.
“Oh, hell no. It’s a coffin!” Lisbeth croaked.
Lisbeth grabbed Heather’s hand, but she shook her off. “Look on the other side of it.”
They walked around, and when they got to the other side, they could see that the limestone had cracked and was falling in some places leaving behind fist-sized holes. The space inside the stone box was abyssal black, and Melissa sighed in relief that they hadn’t brought a light. Making a fool of that introspection, Heather pulled a pink keychain flashlight from the back pocket of her Bongo shorts. She turned it on and crept closer to the altar.
Melissa held her breath, and Rachel’s grip began to hurt. Lisbeth moved to her other hand and grabbed it, the three of them watching in morbid fascination as Heather stooped and craned her neck to look into the inside of the altar. The tension in Melissa’s jaw hurt as she clenched her teeth.
Heather got within a few inches of the crack in the side, the flashlight just shining inside the largest of the crumbled holes in the side of the vault. Suddenly, they heard rustling through the trees in the woods, and a noise like metal being dragged across cement towards the house. Another sound came from the trees, a bare hint of words and a sinister laugh whispered on the wind.
“What was that? What the hell was that?!” Rachel’s voice trembled.
Melissa looked around in all directions to see what was making the noises. A mad and wicked laughter, louder and closer this time, but she couldn’t pinpoint where it originated. “That sounds like someone is out here,” Melissa said to the others and tugged Rachel and Lisbeth down. All four girls went into a crouch, hiding behind the altar now, and searched for the source of the deranged cackle. Melissa’s breathing was coming in short bursts, and her knees were beginning to shake. Almost fully dark, she couldn’t see much but shadow near the house. There was now a rhythmic clanging in the distance, metal on concrete.
“I’m getting out of here, right now.” Rachel said and yanked on Melissa’s hand, dragging her along. They ran through the headstones, and took flight towards the house, moving headlong as fast as they could towards the road and safety. As they arrived at the fallen wrought iron fence, Rachel reached down and pried off one of the vertical spires that hung on by crumbling rust. Straightening, Rachel took off, the iron held out in front of her like a poker, and dragging Melissa along. Just then, they heard another banging and cackle from the woods, getting closer. Putting on speed, they ran through the field towards the back of the house. Melissa turned her head and looked back to make sure Heather and Lisbeth were behind her, and could see that they were now running after them. Suddenly, as Melissa and Rachel reached the side of the house closest to the woods, Melissa tripped on a loose brick, hidden in the weeds on the ground, sending her sprawled out face first. The ferocity of the fall yanked Rachel down with her and sent the rod from the fence rolling away from them.
Adrenaline coursing through her veins dampened the pain of two busted and bleeding knees. Melissa scrambled up and helped Rachel to her feet. “Are you ok?!” Melissa asked her.
Rachel grimaced, cradling her arm, and replied, “I’m fine! Go. Go. Go!.”
Something came crashing through the woods. Melissa reached down and snatched the jagged iron fence post and held it in front of her, business end pointed out. They took off again, rounding the side of the house, and out to the front. Her feet pounded the foundation, and her heart thudded in her chest as tears blurred her vision. As they closed in on the edge of the pecan trees, Melissa checked to make sure her friends were still following and saw tears streaked Rachel’s face as well.They were almost to the old wooden fence in front of the property. The pathway out of the clearing, and towards the road was just up ahead, fifty yards away. She could see it. Abruptly, something dark and laughing murderously lunged out in front of them from around the last tree trunk. The years of pecan shells slipped and slid beneath Melissa’s feet as she struggled to change course, she was going so fast. She felt the fence spire she’d been holding out in front of her hit something hard, then give as it slid right into what was ahead of her at waist height. She lost her grip on it. In a panic now, she let go of the weapon and raced on, dragging Rachel by her good arm.
They were fifteen feet off when she heard her name, “Melissa. Melissa.,” and she skidded to a halt. Looking back at what was on the ground, she heard her name being uttered again in a husky wheeze and an indrawn breath on a groan. Everything in her mind and heart froze, her body shook as she was gripped with a different, bowel-loosening terror.
“Melissa, wait! Oh my God.” Rachel cried out then jerked her hand free and turned back. Melissa turned slowly, her mind and body in a fog. Nothing existed but what waited for her on the ground in the darkness. She walked to Rachel who now crouched on the ground. Melissa’s eyes and nose streamed as the other girls ran up and began screaming.
John burst out of the treeline and came up at a run.
She knew what she’d heard, and shook her head in denial of what she knew she was going to see.
Down on the ground, eyes glazed with pain, was Mike Mitchell, the love of her young heart, blood leaking through his fingers as he clutched his stomach.
Standing above the girls as they tried to help stem the flow of blood, hands on top of his head pulling at his hair, John yelled “What the fuck just happened? Mike! Dude! Oh my God! Oh man!” He reached down and tore at Melissa where she sobbed, jerking her up to her feet from under her armpits. Screaming an inch from her face, his spittle flecking her cheeks to mix with her tears, “What the hell did you do!? What the fuck did you do to him?”
Breath heaving between sobs, she answered, choking out, “I didn’t know it was him. I didn’t know. He was just there. We were being chased and there was something laughing in the woods, and I didn’t know it was him. He jumped out right at us, and I couldn’t stop, the post just went right into him!” She wailed, and gaped down at Mike.
Rachel was telling him to “stay with us.”
Melissa, hysterical, cried, “Oh, God, Mike. I’m so sorry. Please don’t die, please don’t die.”
“You stupid bitch! What did you think, there were monsters out here trying to get you?” John’s lips curled in disgust as he threw her to the ground, then advanced on her, fists clenched.
Rachel screamed, “John, stop! We need to get him out of here. John! Help us pick him up. You grab under his arms, and we’ll get his legs and feet.” John bent to reach under Mike while Rachel and Melissa each grabbed under his sides. Heather and Lisbeth stared on in horror, clutching one another. “Grab his feet, dammit. We need to get him help.” Rachel yelled at them.
Lisbeth flinched as if struck, then she and Heather reached down and each of them grabbed a foot.
“On three. One. Two. Three!” Pulling Mike up a foot off the ground, he began to scream and blood gushed from his wound.
“Stop. Please, stop! It hurts. Put me down.”
They placed him gently back on the ground, Melissa fell to her knees and put pressure on the wound. She closed her eyes and took a couple of deep breaths, speaking to herself, “Okay. Okay.” Feeling a shaky calm settle over her, she thought quickly about what needed to be done.
“We can’t move him, it’s making the bleeding worse.” Melissa kept her hand pressed firmly to his stomach. “John, you have to get help. You’re the fastest, you have to go now and call an ambulance. Understand? He needs help. Now! RUN!” John took off immediately, putting his running-back speed on the field to good use.
“We need to keep him still and warm, and keep pressure on the wound,” Melissa said to the girls around her.
Heather screamed, “You did this, why the fuck should we listen to you? You tried to kill him!”
Rachel yelled back, “Her mom’s a nurse, we need to listen to her!”
Melissa glared up at Heather, with new tears in her eyes, these of rage. Her voice was low, pure hatred causing it to roughen. “We wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for you wanting to prank Rachel. I never wanted to come, and I wish I would have just told you to screw off. You’ve always thought you were all that and a bag of chips, and I’m sick of it. Now, shut your face!” She held the girl’s eyes for a moment, Heather’s wide with the shock of being spoken to like that.
Melissa tore her gaze and thoughts away from the girl, and focused down into Mike’s eyes, which were now staring up into her own.
“Booyah,” he said weakly, with a grimace.
Sobbing a small laugh, she wiped snot from her nose. “Mike, you’re gonna be ok. I promise you’re gonna be ok. John’s running for help now, someone will be here soon. I promise. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” Melissa began to cry softly and held his hand as he closed his eyes once more. She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up at Rachel.
“I’m so sorry Rachel, this is all my fault. I should have told Heather no. I was so glad when the guys had a party to go to.”
Lisbeth confessed, “We asked them to leave early and then come back, so we could scare you both. They were going to the party after.”
Heather elbowed her, and hissed “Shut up!”
Rachel whispered, “you bitch,” under her breath and slowly shook her head. “Just forget it. Is he going to be okay?”
“I really don’t know, it’s good that he’s been awake, and it looks like his bleeding has slowed down. He’s breathing ok. We just really need a doctor.” Melissa didn’t let go of his hand.
The girls quieted as they waited, the chirping of crickets and croaks of frogs the only background noise. Lisbeth and Heather sat a few feet away, for once in silence. Every few minutes, Mike’s eyes would flutter, but he did not wake.
Ten more minutes passed in relative quiet when another sound rode the night breeze. The distant and shrill siren of help arriving soon made them all cry in relief. As it got louder, and became stationary, they could hear the distant yelling of men through the trees.
“Here. We’re here! Hurry, we’re over here!” The girls’ cries filled the night. A flashlight bobbed and winked in the direction of the sirens, leading someone through the trees. Then another bright light, and another. As the lights came closer, she realized it was John carrying the lead flashlight, leading a group of uniformed paramedics. Two carried large bags and flashlights as well and another pair a stretcher.
“Move back everyone, let us get in there with him.” One of the men said, dropping his red bag and pulled it open , taking out the strange tools needed to save lives: plastic-covered tubes, gauze, bags of clear liquid.
Melissa listened as the paramedics spoke in a strange language all their own, a staccato burst of medical jargon that was delivered in urgency. The men surrounded Mike. Even upset, Melissa was fascinated, watching each man with their own part, hands and arms moving in an economy of motion, even grace, reminding her of a ballet.
They hooked him up to a machine that monitored his heart and one man called out information that Melissa couldn’t make sense of, while another wrote with marker on the palm of his powder blue gloves. As a fog of exhaustion enveloped her, Melissa watched it all.
More sirens arrived, the strobes burned through the woods with flickers of red and blue, and firemen and police officers emerged in a steady stream from the path through the woods. An older man in uniform came over to the four kids. “I’m Sheriff Herman Bacon. Anyone else hurt?”
Rachel responded, “Yessir, I fell and hurt my arm.”
“Odom!” A firefighter looked over from the group of paramedics. “Come check this one out, hurt her arm.” Odom walked over and led Rachel a couple feet from the group, speaking to her gently and reaching for her arm.
The sheriff took the attention back, “You kids been drinking tonight?” John and Heather immediately responded “No.” Lisbeth glanced at them, then shook her head.
Melissa, looked at the sibling pair, then back to the sheriff, shaking her head. Taking a breath, she exhaled “Yessir. We had a shot of vodka before we left Heather’s.”
John exploded, “That’s bullsh—”
“Quiet!” Sheriff Bacon whipped out, instantly commanding silence. Another policeman walked up. “Hop, take the kids to the cars. We’ll speak to them all separately, see what’s what. What’s your name?”
“Melissa, sir. Melissa Wright.”
“Melissa, you come with me.” She glanced back at Mike. The paramedics had loaded him on a stretcher, one holding the bag of liquid up in the air above the young man. They lifted him and moved smoothly past her and the sheriff. As they proceeded by, her eyes locked with Mike’s open ones, and then she lost them as they moved on towards the woods. She and the sheriff followed. As the two of them reached the roadside, they watched as the paramedics quickly loaded the stretcher carrying Mike into the back and closed the doors. The men ran around to each side and jumped into the cab, and it raced into the night, sirens blaring.
“We’re going to get you to your parents, but I want to hear your version of what happened tonight. Sit here, in the front seat. Can you keep yourself calm?” She nodded. He opened his car door, reached in and turned off the red and blue pulsing lights. She sat in the front seat, and he crouched in front of her, looking at her with kind eyes.
Almost losing it, Melissa swallowed her tears, gulped a breath and raised her head bravely. “I did it. I stabbed Mike.”
His eyebrows rose, two bushy caterpillars of surprise. “You don’t say? Were you mad at him or something?”
Tears ran down her face. She knew she was going to jail, understood that she deserved it, but couldn’t stand the thought of people believing she hurt Mike out of anger. “No sir, I would never hurt him on purpose. They were there to scare us, and he jumped out from behind the tree! The fence thing just went into him, I couldn’t stop! I didn’t even know it was him until he started calling out for me.”
“Why couldn’t you stop?” The old man asked.
“We were running away. We heard crazy laughing and banging all over the place. It was dark and I thought someone was chasing us. Then he was on the ground and John was yelling at me, and Lisbeth said how the boys had come back to scare us! I’m so sorry, I killed him!” Overwhelmed, the night finally catching up to her, she burst into sobs, unable to continue.
Quiet for a moment, the sheriff made an “oomph” as he stood. He placed his hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. “I’ll be right back. You try and calm down.”
Melissa continued to cry, until her sobs slowed and she had purged herself for the moment of her guilt, heartache, and terror of the night. She felt hollowed out inside, and exhausted. Barely able to keep a thought in her head, those that flit in and out were of Mike Mitchell. His beautiful smile, how he had always been so nice to her. Each time they were together, he’d brush at her hair or her face, run a hand down her arm, and the hugs. Oh, the hugs he gave nearly swallowed you whole, his scent surrounding her. She would never forget those hugs. Wrecked, she closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the headrest, and just let herself go. Sleep carried her to that comforting place where memories could no longer hurt her.
She woke from her brief doze to the sound of someone softly calling her name, “Melissa. Melissa, wake up now.” Groggy, she squinted open her eyes. A jerking shot of adrenaline hit her, all that had happened striking her as she realized she stared into the kind eyes of the sheriff. His face resembled a peach having been too long in the sun, ruddy and wrinkled. Smiling he said to her, “I just spoke with Doc Houser, who just saw to Mike. Looks like no major organs were hit, and he’s stable.”
Melissa looked up at him in confusion, her exhaustion causing a slowness to her wit. Mike was stable. Did that mean…?
“You hear me, Melissa? Mike’s going to be just fine.”
Finally catching on, waves of relief crashed into her, drowning the fear she’d felt since he’d been hurt. Mike was going to be okay. She hadn’t killed him. He was okay...
Her eyes felt raw and tender, but she still had some tears left to give, and a few slid down her cheeks.
“I also talked to the rest of the kids and I’ve pieced together what happened here tonight. Your family go to church?” At her shake of a no, he said to her, “Proverbs 13:20. Walk with the wise, and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm. Know what that means?”
Melissa shook in the negative again. She had no idea what he meant.
“It means you, dear child, need to pick your friends better. The only one that corroborated what you said was the young lady who hurt her arm. The other three had a different version altogether of what went on tonight. Three different versions, in fact. That is, until I reminded the mayor’s niece, your friend Lisbeth, how the mayor and I fish together on Sundays after church. She changed her tune right quick like, and sang a story matching yours. Listen here, you’re not in trouble with me young lady.”
Melissa looked at him, shaking, understanding dawning behind her eyes.
“Legally, I could charge you with trespass and some underage drinking, which you can be sure I’ll be letting your mama know about. But Lord willing, and the creek don’t rise, I reckon she’ll take into account what’s happened here tonight as punishment enough. Now I know your stepdaddy and his penchant for having a dyin’ duck fit. I’ll speak to him too. But you listen to me girl. In the future, I expect better of you.”
“I saw you win last year’s science fair at the elementary school, and go on to win the state science competition. We were right proud of you at the station, put the newspaper clipping up and everything. You’re better than those two troublemakers over there.”
“Hell, I’ve had run-ins with John since he turned 13, he’s slicker’n owl shit, and if he don’t make some changes won’t amount to a thing. “
My point being, you have a life ahead of you, made easier by decent morals and a helluva mind. Take better care of it.”
No one had spoken to her like that before. No one. Melissa felt ashamed, knowing that the group she had been hanging with had never been her friends. Knowing she had purposely made herself blind to it. Contrasting, she felt something glowing in her chest that the people in her town knew her and had been proud of her. Someone had been paying attention. Someone thought she was smart and good.
Melissa looked up at the sheriff, a new determination in her eyes. “Sir, I know they didn’t care about me. They’ve never been very nice. I won’t be hanging out with them anymore, I promise you. Rachel is a sweet girl, but the others. Well, they just suck sideways.”
With that, the old sheriff’s smile lit up, wreathed in wrinkles. “Atta girl. Let’s get you home.”
He walked around and opened the driver’s door, settling his robust body into the seat with another “oomph.”
Melissa breathed in. And out. A cleansing. She wanted more for herself than some trailer in a small town, trusting people that didn’t care about her.
* * *
Another shriek pulled her from her reverie. Looking again at the kids playing, she saw that one was on the ground crying now. A very tall and handsome man, with a messy mop of brown hair streaked by the sun and graying at temples, bent to pick her up and snuggled her in. Their little girl was soon squealing in laughter.
“I miss you, old man. I miss our debates, our mornings fishing before school, your ridiculous jokes about being a cop named Bacon. Hell, even when you called me out on my bullshit. Mike and the girls miss you too, and we talk about you often.”
She stood up and glanced back at the sound of her husband: “Team Mitchell is starving over here, honey! Let’s get some pizza and ice cream. Tell the old man we’ll be back soon.”
Her two daughters chiming in, “Pizza, pizza, pizza!”
Smiling, she yelled, “Coming!”
Looking back down at the grave she traced the letters on the stone.:
1936 - 2018
Father, Friend, Servant
“You’re not forgotten. I’ll see you next time. No pink flowers, I promise.” She turned around and made her way through the gravestones, away from the resting place of a man who helped make her, and back towards her family.