by Amber Milstead
The ghosts of home would be friendlier this time, Joanna told herself, despite not having slept for two days as she drove through the mountain passes and thick forests of West Virginia. Woods had scared her since she was a girl. Now, the long, darker stretches of bending trees still reached over the road toward their brethren as though they plotted to swallow the blacktop and potholes, but nothing felt as harrowing as it once had. She aimed her car at the large wrought iron gate located a few miles from the main road, entered another long stretch of trees, most of them oaks lining the unmarked road, then parked far enough from the entrance so that it was still small in the distance. Beyond the gate, she could just glimpse the grass sparkling with dew, a vast expanse of green on a steep grade of a hill that would have her calves aching by the time she reached the top. And beyond all that, she could barely see the spires of the once elegant house. She sat awhile longer, searching for a signal in vain on her phone, a hint of remembrance from the woman she’d left behind in the city. Nothing. If she squinted, she could just read the thick, metal sign with black paint chipped beside the gate. SLOW. SACRED GROUND. She laughed a little. If any ground in this place had ever been sacred, only the dead had ever had the privilege of occupying it. Dead. Her sister was dead, she reminded herself. Dead and already a ghost her own self. That was why Joanna was here, and she was tired before she’d even gotten there.
Parking in front of the closed gate secured with a padlock, Joanna silenced the engine. The pressure behind her eyes eased the moment the knocking spark plug stopped beneath the hood of her old Subaru. She leaned forward on the steering wheel and gazed up at the hill through the metal bars of the gate. She reached into the glove box, instead, and pulled out a large set of keys that clanged and clinked as she took them in a firm fist. Birds called out, announcing her presence as she stepped out of the car, and received responses from a distant tree. On the hill, a figure moved through the headstones, a thin young woman with dark hair and overalls and a red ball cap. Joanna thought she looked young enough that she should have been in school at this time. The sun crested the hill, and the figure disappeared. Joanna blinked, rubbed her eyes, but the young woman never reappeared. A trick of the light, she assured herself, and not enough sleep. Surely not a ghost. Cemeteries weren’t haunted, only the place where a person died.
Grace had died there.
She fumbled through the keys and found the two labeled ‘Master’ fit the lock but neither budged the tumblers inside. Joanna grabbed the gate with both hands and shook it. Birds scattered from nearby limbs, and the rattle of iron against iron echoed on the hillside. Leaning against the gate, Joanna pressed the cold, square bars into her spine and looked for the road she knew to be beyond the stretch of trees obscuring her view of it.
She had only visited her sister once in the last nine years, only once had she set foot upon this so-called sacred ground, three years ago when Mama had died. She figured Grace had been sick then but never breathed a word of it. Joanna had not come to Grace in the end. She had not attended the funeral, even though the cousins called begging for her to give the eulogy. She’d spent what felt like a lifetime running from these hills, running from West Virginia, clipping her Appalachian accent until no asked where she’d been born.
She’d spent almost the same amount of time trying to figure out how to come home.
When her cousin had called and said Grace was ready to meet the Lord, Joanna hadn’t wanted to ruin her peaceful death with the words she would have spoken in a neutral tone that had never really sounded like her voice. There was too much to say for a deathbed.
Joanna faced the gate, tried the keys again. The second key turned the lock this time. Hinges popped and groaned, and she leaned into the black bars, pushing the weight of it against the slope of the hill until it clicked into a latch attached to a pole a few feet from the ground. Joanna drove through it, stretching her neck to look for the young woman on the hill. Names etched into creamy red sandstone and sleek black marble moved by her – Bennett, Chenoweth, Halterman, Scott, Sparrow. They climbed in alphabetical order, greeting her as she edged the car along the paved road that wound around the giant hill. The house, she knew, had been built atop the highest hill, but the maze between fifty thousand souls interred in this land twisted her sense of direction. Not that her sense of direction had ever been praised, she was a West Virginia girl who never figured out North from South, got teased and left alone in the woods to find her way out until Grace came back for her. She spotted the gravel driveway of the house obstructed by strong pines to break the sharp wind atop the hill and turned onto it.
Grace had died a week ago at the age of 35 and willed Joanna home by leaving this cemetery and house to her. Grace was gone and Joanna had run out of time to come home.
She stepped out into the cool spring morning again and lit a cigarette. The car hood warmed her thighs when she leaned on it and stared at the house. The cold air stung her throat, and she coughed, took another burning drag.
“Them things’ll kill ya,” said a deep voice with a thick drawl.
Joanna pushed up from the hood and turned in the direction of the voice. An old man in stained jeans and a thick tan Carhartt coat looked at her with eyes sunken into his skull beneath bushy white eyebrows. He stood at least a foot taller than her, even with his stooped shoulders and bowed back. He spat tobacco juice between his front teeth and wiped his mouth with the back of his large, leathery-looking hand. Joanna stared at the shiny glob of saliva on the ground between them beside the driver’s door and felt compelled to stamp out her cigarette, so she tossed it on the ground and squished it under the toe of her tennis shoe.
“You Miss Gracie’s sister?” he asked. It might have been the way he spoke or the slight upturn of his mouth beneath the flaps of his old sun-wrinkled skin or the fact she hadn’t spoken to another human since she’d left her apartment in Chicago the previous afternoon, but she trusted him.
“Joanna Blackwood. Jo,” she said and stepped around the spit with her hand outstretched.
He took it in a limp shake, almost like he’d turn it up to press those tobacco stained lips to the back of it. “Jeb. Been Miss Gracie’s hand for a few years now. She talked about you.”
“Probably nothing good,” Joanna joked, but Jeb’s face never changed.
“Need help?” His head fell to the side towards the car, and Joanna instinctively knew he meant taking her luggage into the house.
“No, I’m okay,” she said, but he already had a hand on the latch and raised the back hatch.
“Been keeping an eye on things since the funeral. I knowed you were up here because the gate was open,” Jeb explained and carried her large suitcase onto the porch and unlocked the door with his own set of keys.
She followed him into the house. The faint, stale scent of a woodstove swirled around her at the threshold, the way Grace’s hair smelled when she pressed her face into it for their last long hug. To the left, a sitting room was cluttered with the little glass figurines Grace loved – kittens and pigs and cows and even dragons and other mythical creatures Joanna hadn’t recognized last time she’d visited. The fireplace built into the original wall of the house stood cold in the corner, just visible from the doorway. Joanna looked at Jeb’s back as she passed the room and headed for the staircase perfectly aligned with the front door. The steps cracked and strained under their weight. Joanna trusted them and ran her palm along the smooth banister worn from a century of hands gliding over it. Grace had refinished all the hardwood floors a few years ago. She’d told Joanna about it in a written letter, their only form of communication. Grace hated the telephone, and though it took months before Joanna responded, she loved receiving those letters from her sister, archaic as it seemed in the age of cell phones and Internet. It was the only piece of personal mail she ever received since she’d moved away from West Virginia for college almost a decade ago, vowing the day she left never to return. Grace had said, You can’t come back because you won’t ever really leave.
“That’s Miss Gracie’s room,” Jeb said when they passed a closed door at the top of the stairs. Joanna knew this but said nothing and followed him into the room beside her sister’s. He set her suitcase on a chest of drawers at the foot of the four-poster bed. “She liked guests to stay in here.”
“Did she have many guests?”
“Don’t know she had any.”
Jeb put a hand on his hip, scratched the top of his thick grey hair with the bill of his cap, and looked around the room. It felt like disinfectant smelled. The duvet on the bed was a blue floral print, folded down at the top, making room for two crisp white pillows on either side. By the bed, a small table covered in a light blue cloth held a lamp and alarm clock. Joanna opened the closet door, found it empty except ten wooden hangers. A blue padded chair with a high back had been positioned in a way that, when Joanna sat in it, she looked out over the cemetery above the tree line. The bright sun made her squint, and she looked at the opposite side of the room where the beams cut a dusty path onto a simple wooden chair and desk situated beneath the other window. Writing in the morning, watching the colors change across the sky in the evening. The cushion on the chair dipped under Grace’s weight, and Joanna imaged how the tip of her pen scratched on the wood beneath the thin stationary. Everything was blue, Joanna’s favorite color. The room felt bare because perhaps Grace had been waiting for her to come home and claim it.
“I saw a woman in the cemetery earlier. Did she also work for my sister?”
“Nope, just me and Miss Gracie until she couldn’t get out much. Might’ve been one of those damn kids. Come in here and drink and carry on,” Jeb said, twisting the cap in his hand. He shifted weight from one foot to the other.
“She didn’t look like she was causing trouble,” Joanna said and looked back over the thousands of tiny headstones.
“Well, I got to be getting to the grass before it gets miserable hot,” Jeb said and started to leave.
Joanna followed him. “Do you know the wi-fi password? I need to email some work.”
“Don’t know. Miss Gracie didn’t have a computer. What kind of work you do?”
Joanna followed him down the stairs and into the foyer and onto the front porch, striding long and quick to keep up with his surprising pace. “I’m a copy editor for a couple of online magazines and journals. I mostly fix science articles with bad grammar and brilliant research,” Joanna said. Her joke fell flat. “I could let you read some of my old work, if you wanted.”
“Never learnt, ma’am.” He smiled and tipped his head. “Miss Gracie used to read me some of her books after supper, but I never saw much use in learning when there was good, honest work to be done.”
Joanna tried to laugh at the insult to her work. She’d gone to college for it, after all, worked hard to learn all the rules the inadequate education system hadn’t taught her in high school. As Jeb left, she thought about the novel she wanted to write one day, Grace would have liked that. She had stayed awake many nights growing up, holding Joanna close to her side, reading to her from a book she’d swiped from school until the hunger pangs for a dinner her family couldn’t afford settled and she fell asleep on Grace’s chest. You’ve got stories inside of you, Grace had said. Maybe Joanna had never learned how to identify trees by sight because she’d been too busy looking at the ground, studying the colors of mushrooms, watching a squirrel bury his nuts, dreaming of worlds beyond the one surrounding her.
Joanna followed him outside and sat on the top step. As Jeb’s bent back disappear down the hill, she lit another cigarette. The step sagged a little, and Joanna saw that the nail in the back corner had come loose. Maybe Jeb would fix it if she asked.
No, she knew how to drive a nail.
Joanna went to her car and retrieved a small notebook where she kept thoughts and lists and book titles. She twisted her toe on the end of her burning cigarette, picked up the butt and took it into the house to throw away and to make coffee. It took a few minutes to locate everything she needed, relieved to find the half-and-half in the refrigerator hadn’t spoiled since her sister’s death. While the coffee percolated, she went out the back door in the kitchen and started inspecting the house, the way she and Grace had done after a bad storm rocked their little trailer all night when they were kids. A little patio faced the deep woods. A fawn with fading white spots stared at her, wide-eyed, and took off into the trees with its white tail waving. Joanna looked a little closer and saw that the deer had been munching on some old cantaloupe rind left in a pile about a hundred feet from the back door at the edge of the trees. A chill crept up her spine, raising the hair at the back of her neck, and she shivered. As she’d always done, Joanna glanced over her shoulders and scanned the forest but never found anything or anyone watching her. Them woods have spirits, Grace wrote often, but she never feared them, not like Joanna. She looked for the girl, for signs of life, wondering if the she had hidden in the darkness of the thick forest to watch her.
Joanna went back into the house, made coffee in a thermos and then a second one, and went back out the front door with the notebook and pen in the back pocket of her jeans. Somewhere on a lower hill, she heard the hum of the mower and followed the sound. She held up the thermos when Jeb spotted her in the distance. He steered the small mower in her direction and raised the blades as he neared her before killing the engine. Jeb spit on the other side, wiped his mouth.
“I made you some coffee. I didn’t know how you liked it, so I just added some cream,” Joanna explained and extended the scratched plastic thermos to him.
“Kind of ya,” he said and tucked the thermos between his thighs.
“I need to talk to you later. I want to make sure you’re getting paid,” Joanna said.
“Miss Gracie paid me through the end of May, didn’t figure you’d get here so quick.” He slurped from the thermos. They looked out over the steep hill towards the gate.
“You gonna sell ‘er?”
“Plan to. I don’t have much use for a cemetery, and my life isn’t here anymore.” Joanna took a drink of coffee, sweet and milky, and missed the foamy lattes from the coffee shop a block from her apartment. The one with the pretty barista who flirted with her and had written her phone number on Joanna’s cup the day before her sister died. The one she’d left in her bed when she’d fled back to her home in the middle of the night.
She watched his old gray eyes move over the land in question, but his face remained still and placid. “I’ll keep you on until then. It might take a while, and I want everything kept nice while it’s in probate. I can’t do it by myself.”
Jeb took another pull from the thermos and pushed the cup between his legs. “Wel’nt,” he said, and Joanna understood the sound. He wanted to get back to work.
Joanna climbed the hill, puffing heavy breaths by the time she reached the top where the house was. She thought about taking a nap, refilled her cup, and returned to the task of listing repairs. She broke them up into columns: things she could do, things she needed help with, things for professionals. The sun breeched the line of trees surrounding the house, little patches of warmth and brightness on the damp, black earth that looked more like forest floor than yard. Grass wouldn’t have grown very well there. Sweat tickled the back of her neck, the dip between the muscles of her lower spine. Joanna scratched her back above the waist of her jeans riding low on her hips and reached up to the porch railing for her thermos. The mower still hummed somewhere in the large cemetery. She swallowed cold coffee with a grimace, took the thermos inside, and grabbed her keys.
The shirt clung to her sweaty body in the car, plastering to her back. She rolled down the windows and let the air cool her body and navigated the hill towards the gate, leaving it open for visitors. As she neared the main road, sounds of traffic came through the open windows and the air grew warmer, staler. The town looked almost the same as it had a decade earlier, a little more run down in places, a little brighter in others. They’d torn down the old Wilco building and left the lot empty save the cement foundation. In a letter a few years back, Grace had mentioned it caught fire. The owner had attempted to fix some wiring on his own because he couldn’t hire a professional. Money’s too tight. Folks are too desperate, Grace had said. Joanna never answered that letter, too ashamed to say the city wasn’t much better. For all her schooling and traveling and running, she still struggled to pay the bills. She never said if he’d gotten any insurance money out of it, but Joanna doubted it since he was at fault for the fire. She parked along the street, grateful the little coffee shop hadn’t burned up and disappeared.
Lifting the strap of her laptop bag over her head, Joanna went inside and tried to ignore the curious looks from the locals. She doubted any of them recognized her after so long. She’d been a quiet kid, stayed out of the spotlight as much as possible. Not to mention, anyone who remembered that kid wouldn’t have recognized her without the dark eye makeup and black clothes, not in her jeans and light blue t-shirt with her hair pulled back into a sloppy ponytail. She got the wi-fi password from the boy at the counter with a green beanie pushed down onto thick, black glasses and thin flannel shirt rolled up to his elbows and ordered a maple spice latte, a sandwich. The shop was dim, no lighting beyond the sun coming through the front windows, and Joanna took a table all the way to the front in the far corner away from the windows where the sun’s warmth couldn’t touch her or glare on the computer screen. She watched people enter and leave, but no one looked at the corner and she spread her things out over the table and put headphones into her ears to discourage any who might have thought about joining her. She needed to work and eat.
Grace had first introduced her to a latte in this coffee shop. Joanna opened a fresh page on her laptop and listed the flavors they’d tried. Making a second column, she tried to remember the sweets they used to eat there as girls – peanut butter fudge made by Mrs. Howes, chocolate chip cookies, cinnamon rolls… Joanna opened another document and started the list of summer things. One of the women from the Red Hats used to make homemade ice cream sometimes, the first week school ended in the summer time, early June when the fireflies returned, and the drive-in started playing movies, and pollen coated cars and bicycles in yellow dust. Grace pretended not to watch her from the bank of a river while she and Polly Chenoweth dunked each other and shared secret kisses beneath the water. She made a list of fall things, gathering up chestnuts and cracking them out of their prickly shells to roast on a cast iron skillet over an open fire in the back yard. She’d burnt the palm of her hand the first time Grace gave her the responsibility of stirring the crispy nuts. It’s just like mine, Grace said and held her palm beside Joanna’s. Grace’s scar had faded with time, but the faint outline of white skin somehow made the angry mark in her own hurt less. Joanna laid her hand on the table, palm up, and traced the barely-there loop where she’d grabbed the hot handle.
Something moved beside the table, and Joanna glanced up from her palm. The boy from behind the counter stood a few feet from her, broom in both hands, and looked at her until she took out the earbuds.
“We’re closing,” he said. His forehead scrunched against his wide eyes, and Joanna might have been more irritated if he hadn’t looked so scared.
“It’s three o’clock,” she blurted.
“We close early on Saturdays.” He gave a little shrug and went back to sweeping the hardwood floor with his back to her.
Joanna looked at her lists, packed up her things. In the car, she rolled down the window and reached into the smaller pouch of her bag. Her cell phone got service in town, but there were no messages to return. She’d not expected any after running out in the middle of the night from a woman she barely knew. Still, she hoped a little. No one missed her anymore. She started the car.
A quick trip to Kroger and Joanna headed back to the cemetery. She found the house easily the second time that day and put the groceries away and made a second pot of coffee. Her eyes burned in want of sleep, body heavy. She sat atop a stool at the little island and pressed her cheeks into both hands. Her skin hummed, floating but tethered to the cool linoleum under her elbows. The scent of chocolate chip cookies and fudge mingled with the tart aroma of coffee filling the kitchen. Their coffee shop no longer sold community baked goods. Her body drifted, and she tasted the sweetness of it on her tongue.
Need to put something on those bones. Get a cookie, too.
Joanna’s head slipped from her hands. Her body fell into itself, and she glanced around the kitchen – for cookies, for fudge, for Grace’s voice, for anything but the coffee pot that had already turned itself off. She had dozed at least two hours. Joanna touched the side, still hot so she made another thermos, using the last of Grace’s half-and-half. On a whim, she looked through the cabinets, looking for… something. Grace kept sweets around but hid them. Joanna opened all the cabinets and stepped back to see on the top shelves and smiled when she spotted a bag of chocolates. She climbed onto the counter and raised up on her knees, grinning. Grace’s habit of hiding chocolates on the top shelf came from hiding them from her, picking at her height and cackling at her struggle to retrieve the sweets. Maybe she left them up there hoping Joanna would come home one day. She tossed the bag on the counter and let a solid piece of chocolate melt on her tongue as she picked up the thermos and headed to the front door.
On a whim, she went back to the kitchen and took out two pieces of chocolate and put them in the front pocket of her jeans. She wanted to see Grace, and then she promised herself that she would sleep. An offering of chocolate might ease Grace anger that she’d not come home, that was what Joanna told herself.
When she stepped outside, purples and oranges stretched across the tops of the mountains and reached into the sky still bright at the dawn of twilight. She pulled a sketch pad and box of charcoal from the bag in her car and tucked them against her chest. She held the thermos of fresh coffee in the other hand and set off into the cemetery, listening for the sound of the mower but heard only birds. Jeb pulled up beside her in an old red and white Ford that had seen better days, arm holding the driver’s door. Joanna stepped off the paved path and onto the grass as the truck eased up next to her.
“I’m heading out, Miss Joanna,” he said. “I’ll shut the gate on my way.”
“You and your sister couldn’t be more different. That girl always had something to say.” He tapped the side of the truck with his thick thumbnail.
“Where is she buried?” Joanna asked.
Jeb raised a tanned finger. “Under that patch-a oaks at the top of the hill there. It was her favorite spot in the evenings.”
Joanna looked in the direction he pointed, spotting the mound of yellow shell and red clay atop a fresh grave. “You must have been close with her,” she said, still looking up the hill.
“Reckon,” he said. “Wel’nt, I best be going. G’night, Miss Joanna.”
“Night, Jeb.” Joanna watched his old truck shudder down the path until it rounded the hill and disappeared.
Joanna looked up at the mound. She just wanted to say goodnight, to say… that she missed the smell of a woodstove so much that she kept a large box of matches in her apartment and lit them sometimes when she got homesick. It wasn’t quite the same, but it eased the ache.
The ground gave a little under each step, a nostalgic sensation that brought the scent of pine rosin from the forest to her nostrils. She climbed the grassy incline with heavy feet, the weight of her guilt attached to each toe until she stood at the edge of the mound. At the other end, a metal plaque with a piece of paper glued to it said, ‘Grace Blackwood. 1982-2017.’ Joanna hadn’t order a proper headstone yet, wasn’t sure what Grace would have wanted on it. She walked around the mound to what she assumed was the head since that was the end with the placard and sat on the ground, leaning against a giant oak tree. She saw the house from there, her bedroom window just visible above the tree line.
Joanna pulled her knees up and crossed her arms over them, looking over the trees to the brilliant bursts of colors beyond her reach. She dropped her forehead to her arms and let loose a ragged breath.
“You left me alone in the woods again,” she said.
Grace had always come back for her, laughing at her fear of the forest. She’d always bought Joanna a cookie after they found their way back to town, to assuage her guilt. She needed some way back from the last decade where she’d belonged nowhere, a ‘tween place of where she’d gone and where she’d come from. Out there, no one asked her to be anything. Out there, no one cared. Grace had attended her college graduation in jeans and a t-shirt. She’d felt ashamed, looking at the ground outside the auditorium after the ceremony. I’ll come back for ya. Go take pictures with your friends, Grace had said, walking away with her shoulders bent forward. Joanna kept none of those pictures, tossed her printed copies in the garbage, all except one. The one someone had snapped of her and another woman, foreheads pressed together. The unspoken promises in their eyes had gone unfulfilled, but in the background, Grace waited in the parking lot, leaning against her old pickup truck with hands shoved into front pockets, watching.
Grace wasn’t coming back for her.
There was no more time.
Joanna raised her head and swiped the back of her hand under her nose, sniffing. “I brought you chocolate.” She took the candy from her pocket and set them beneath the temporary placard.
Joanna looked at the two tinfoil-wrapped pieces and opened the sketchbook in her lap. Her flesh hummed and tingled from exhaustion. Her hand trembled gently as she worked. At first, she drew the sunset, blending the natural colors with different pieces of charcoal, brilliant purples and pinks and oranges, but her eyes drifted to the grave markers. Another row of stones lined the ground in front of her, some placed before her sister purchased the cemetery. Joanna failed to find any discernable organization of the markers on this hill. Cynthia Jones laid next to Gary Swecker, no relation she saw except they’d both been buried over fifty years ago. Cynthia was born in 1908, Gary in 1899. She had no real historical context for the fashion of the time, so she imagined her as a young woman in the 1920’s, black band around her head, fringes of her flapper dress in motion. Gary’s suit was a little easier to envision. They smiled at each other on the page, hand in hand as the unseen jazz band played in Joanna’s head. Joanna looked at them, flexed the need for rest from her aching hand.
She saw what Grace had seen every sunset. These tombstones kept her company. Joanna figured Grace talked to them, even though she couldn’t possibly have known them. The scent of fresh-cut grass hung in the air. Oak bark dug into her back when she leaned against the tree. She pressed her skin harder into it, biting her own flesh to keep herself awake. Still, her vision shimmered in the fading light, struggling to focus on any one thing, so she closed her eyes and thought of chestnuts and burnt palms and a mother who worked two jobs and drank herself into an early grave. And Grace. There in the quiet of the cemetery, sitting where Grace sat, feeling what she felt – the way the falling dew clung to her cheeks as twilight crept up the hill, the dirt still warm underneath her.
In this place… in this place, she felt Grace again. In this place, she felt the earth, the ghosts thrumming through these mountains. In this place, she felt small but not insignificant, the newest link in a line of people joined in a sacred bond to this land, the land that gave in abundance to people who ripped it apart for those black seams of rock beneath her, shaved the green from her peaks and left fields of broken nubs where trees once stood. Joanna almost heard the wailing of that ancient energy. Oh, what she would have given to hear the land the way Grace had.
“You flatter me, doll,” a woman’s voice said, soft and easy.
Joanna came to her feet, charcoal spilling out onto the ground, thermos tipping into the grass. She stumbled a little, lethargic muscles thick and weak with an ache for peace. Atop Cynthia’s headstone sat an image of the woman she’d just drawn in her book, but not completely flesh-like. A light blue glow emanated from around the willowy figure, and when the figure waved at her, the skin suspended for a moment in the place it had just been before following the motion of the limb. Joanna looked at the book in her hand, squinting in the fading light, looked at the woman. Beside her a man flickered into existence, dressed in trousers, vest, and white shirt with a few opened buttons at the top. Joanna rubbed her aching eyes with the back of her hand.
“She ain’t running yet, Gary,” the woman said to the man who was looking at his clothing. A boyish smirk turned upward on his lips.
“Well, you haven’t given me a reason to run yet,” Joanna said. Her heart settled in her chest. The woman smiled at her, and Joanna knelt to collect the little charcoal pieces on the ground. She’d conjured these images, a product of exhaustion and too much caffeine, and grief.
“I’m Cynthia, love,” the woman said and extended her hand. Joanna looked at it but refrained from shaking it. The woman dropped it back to the top of the headstone and crossed her slender ankles as she leaned forward. “Never been so pretty before, have I, Gary?” She sounded the way Joanna had imaged, a little louder than a lady should have been but refined in her own way.
“I’m very confused,” Joanna said and stood up from the ground, charcoal pieces in both hands, smearing a rainbow of colors upon her palms. “I’m talking to my hallucinations.”
“We come when we’re called, dear. Our ghosts, anyway. When someone thinks about us, we can come over for a little while,” Cynthia explained and smacked Gary on the arm like he might have fallen asleep. He smiled at her but remained silent.
“Aren’t ghosts supposed to stay in the place they died?” Joanna asked. She took a step closer. You done went off the rails, girl, Grace would have said. Still, she was curious. The edge of Cynthia’s blue glow prickled the skin of her arms and belly and chests, raising goose pimples and exciting her nipples through her clothes. Joanna shivered and moved a little closer into the light.
“We stay for a while, dearie, but we only come when those on your side think of us. After a while, no one thinks of us in the places we died, only in the place our bodies are decaying until everyone we knew joins us on this side.”
“What is it like on your side?” Joanna asked. She reached out and touched a piece of Cynthia’s short, black hair. It crackled between her thumb and forefinger, and Joanna pulled her fingers back, tasting charcoal when she put them in her mouth. Cynthia chuckled.
“Different for everyone.”
“Is my sister there? Grace.” Blood thrummed behind Joanna’s eyes, from exhaustion, want, ache. Too many things to be said on a deathbed, too little in death.
Cynthia looked beyond her to the fresh mound and clicked her tongue and crossed herself. She must have been Catholic. Her face pinched, eyes closed, and Joanna wondered if ghosts were able to cry. She wanted to touch her again but squeezed her fists around the charcoal, feeling the pieces crack and crumble under the pressure. An ache crawled up her throat, and she swallowed the unshed tears. She turned away from Cynthia and stomped back to the charcoal on the ground and shoved pieces into the box.
“I’ve been thinking about Grace all day,” Joanna said. The words scraped over the ache in her throat. “You’re not real. Leave me alone.”
“Being stubborn, is she? She always was, that one. I feel like I know you already, Joanna. She was mighty proud.” Cynthia let loose a high-pitched giggle that startled Joanna. “You’re as skinny as she said.”
Joanna put her hands on her thin hips and glared at the ghost. The statement wasn’t untrue. She’d always been short and tiny, fast but not strong. Grace never ran, but she stood stout as a brick wall, often between Joanna and bullies coming after her. Boys wanted to cure her affliction, and girls wanted to publicly denounce her. So many of those girls kissed the lips they’d busted the previous day. In the privacy of the school bathroom, like pungent, smelly human waste, only the chipped tile and lemon-scented disinfectant witnessed these affections. They had brushed their thumbs over the split on her lips, covered it with kisses, and whispered their apologies with their heads hung in shame for they knew none of them were going to intervene the next time it happened.
“Are you alright, child?” Gary asked.
His voice floated in the space between them and washed over her, gentle – the way Daddy’s was before he’d been killed cutting timber for the sawmill. She had been six at the time, Grace barely a teenager. She thought he might have made peace with her affliction, given the time to adjust. Mama hadn’t minded so much as long as she never spoke about it or brought girls, even friends, home.
“Grace and I weren’t close, not really. We wrote letters,” Joanna said. She wanted to explain herself to someone, anyone, even these supernatural imaginings. “I wanted to come home, but I was afraid.”
“These hills won’t hurt ya,” Cynthia said. “The squirrels might if you have a sandwich they want.”
Joanna smiled as she felt the first tear roll down her cheek. A coyote howled in the distance. Cynthia and Gary looked at the forest surrounding the cemetery and then at each other.
“Best be getting in the house, love,” Cynthia said.
“Wait,” Joanna said.
The coyote howled, closer. Joanna started forward from where she leaned against the oak. She looked around for Cynthia and Gary, but found nothing in the darkness. On her lap, the sketchbook displayed a picture of how she’d imagined the two in their 1920’s attire. The thermos lay on its side, leaking into the ground beneath her bottom and soaking her jeans. The coyote loosed another sound, and Joanna gathered the charcoal and sketchpad and thermos. She trekked carefully until she reached the paved path and sprinted on the more even ground, climbing higher by moonlight, spinning in gravel of the driveway past her car, leaping the three steps onto the porch, and slamming the door behind her. She fumbled for the light switch and locked the door once she saw it. She left the things in her arms on the small table in the kitchen and, one by one, locked all of the windows downstairs. Leaving all the lights on, she went up to her room and stripped out of the wet jeans and panties and then her t-shirt and bra, leaving them all on the floor in a heap by the chair near the window.
Them boogers ain’t gonna hurt you. There’s nothing in the dark that ain’t there in the light. Grace admonished, easing the fear in her own way. Joanna felt the pounding in her chest slow.
She stood naked, looking out over the cemetery. She spotted the patch of oak trees and the fresh mound of dirt beneath them easily in the moonlight. A figure sat atop the mound, a young woman, healthy and strong the way Joanna had remembered her. Cynthia and Gary sat atop their respective headstones, and Grace threw her head back and laughed as she had when she was a girl. Maybe she’d laughed as a woman, too, but Joanna hadn’t been around to see that. The woman who looked like her sister the day Joanna had left for college raised her face towards the window. Even at that distance, Joanna saw that her eyes sparkled with joy. Joanna raised a hand, and the figures faded into darkness.
Joanna turned her gaze to the mountains in the distance, always more mountains in this place, even if she stood atop one. The moonlight cast silver on the canopy of conifers and sycamores and maples and locusts and oaks. She knew them not by sight but by a feeling deep in her belly. Joanna left the window, showered without lingering, and went to bed bare-bodied. When she woke, her legs burned a little from climbing around the hills. She dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and work boots she’d not worn in years. For breakfast, she ate an egg sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise and cheese.
The charcoal sketch of Cynthia and Gary kept her company atop the table as she finished her thick, tart coffee. She added more sugar to the next cup and flipped to a fresh page in the pad. In simple black and white, Grace’s body and face appeared atop the mound, smiling up at her. Joanna left the image open on the table and filled a jug with ice and water. She flipped to a fresh page and sketched a bathroom, herself, and the first girl she’d kissed. Joanna had wanted her kiss, pretended that Polly had loved her, that she’d waited for her to come home. Maybe she had.
Joanna pulled on an old red ball cap and tugged her ponytail through the hole in the back and headed out the door. It took a few minutes to find the shed where Jeb kept the equipment. The second ‘Master’ key on the ring opened the lock that secured it. It was clean and organized, everything in its place. She filled the weed eater from a stained, red plastic gas jug labeled in black Sharpie in Grace’s handwriting. Attaching the straps to her shoulders, she carried it and the water to the front gate. She reached through the bars, opened the padlock, and tugged, grunting a little as the weight came up in her hands. She pressed her slight body against it until the latch on the little pole clicked and secured the heavy frame.
When she looked up the hill, Grace smiled down at her. Dark hair lifted from her shoulders in the light breeze, the way she remembered it, wild and free. Joanna smiled back and yanked at the string of the weed eater. It puttered to life on the second tug, and she fiddled with the choke before it died. Joanna glanced at the hill, sharing this small triumph with her sister, but saw only grey stones popping up from the earth.
A smile pulled her lips, and she set to her task. The hills cared little about why she had left, only that she had returned to love them. In time, she prayed, Grace might also welcome her home.