“You look scared. Why are you scared?"
“Yes you are. Tell me why.”
“Because ... ”
“Because you’re supposed to be dead.”
They were in the graveyard, just the two of them, Jimmy standing to the side as the man dug into the cold earth. Around them the wind picked up, stirring leaves and dead flowers.
How long had they been here? Jimmy wasn’t sure. An hour, maybe two. It didn’t seem to matter here in this place. The dead did not keep time.
The pile of dirt beside the grave was getting high. Almost as high as last year, and the year before, and the year before that.
“I’m supposed to be dead?”
“I don’t feel dead.”
“You always say that.”
“I do?” Pause. “What else do I say?”
The man dusted dirt off the aged wood of the coffin, cleared around the latches. He paused, glanced up at Jimmy, and smiled.
“This time,” he said. “This time it will work.”
As the man went about opening the coffin, Jimmy closed his eyes. He tried to imagine himself in a different place, a different time. He tried to imagine himself as a different person.
Earlier tonight the town had been awake with life, with the colors and sounds of children running through the streets. The sweet scent of innocence followed them like their own shadows. Dressed in costumes, carrying buckets and bags, they traveled to each house, from one doorway to the next, ringing doorbells, reciting chants.
Jimmy had never experienced any of it. He had never dressed as a cowboy or spaceman or wore a white sheet over his body with two holes cut out for eyes. He had never gone into the SaveMart and bought one of those brightly-colored outfits taken from Saturday morning cartoons. He was only thirteen years old, and though he had never done any of that, he knew deep down he wouldn’t change a thing.
“Well? I must have said something before.”
“Then why am I here?”
“You know why.”
Another pause. Then, “Yes, I guess I do.”
“You always wait until he leaves.”
“That’s right. I just can’t forgive him for what he did to me.”
Her body had decayed worse than they’d hoped. She was barely recognizable lying there between the white satin, dressed in a long black gown.
The man wiped at his eyes. “It has to work this time. It has to, because next year I don’t think ... ” He shook his head.
He turned to the backpack they’d brought, knelt down, and withdrew the ancient book. Jimmy had no idea where it had come from. Neither did the man. But it had fallen into the man’s possession -- this old thing that smelled of dust and was filled with strange words -- it was the man’s now and this was the only time of year he ever opened its pages.
The man fell to his knees at the side of the grave. He waited for Jimmy to do the same. Then he opened the book, and from the wan light of the moon, he began to read aloud in a tongue Jimmy could never understand.
“Let’s not talk about him, okay?”
“Then what would you like to talk about?”
“Me. How about we talk about me?”
They waited. The man was done saying the words — the words he had said so many times before — and now they waited. The wind died down. A few more leaves skittered into the grave. The smell of grass and soil was strong.
Then almost an hour.
“No,” the man said. He struck the cold earth with his fists. “No, no, no!”
Jimmy kept staring down into the grave. He knew not to watch the man. Every year it was the same. The man would throw his tantrum, he would throw the book into the backpack, and then he would stalk away, a shadow among ghosts, mumbling under his breath how he just wanted one more chance, just one simple chance, to say all the things he never got to say.
Then he was gone.
Tonight she will come back, the man had told Jimmy on their walk out here, the same thing he’d said for the past seven years. Tonight the veil between the living and the dead is at its weakest. She’ll be able to slip through. I know it.
But she never did slip through. Jimmy barely remembered spending time with her, he had been so young. But he knew what had happened. Or at least what he believed had happened. And somehow that was all that mattered.
“Okay, we can talk about you. It’s just ... ”
“You’re still thinking about him, aren’t you?”
“I can’t seem to help myself.”
“But you hate him.”
“You have to hate him. You must.”
“No it’s not. It’s very simple. He murdered you.”
“But — ”
The man had walked away and left Jimmy by himself. Late at night, a few more hours and the sun would begin to rise. The older kids, the ones who went to the high school, they were still up, probably drinking or smoking or causing some kind of trouble. Jimmy wasn’t afraid, not of them, though he did wonder what he’d be doing when he was that age, whether he’d be among friends or out here in the graveyard.
The man always told Jimmy he wanted one more chance to say goodbye, one more chance to say everything he never had a chance to say, and that would be it. That was why they came out here every year. On the night she died, the night her soul passed from this world into the next. They would come here and the man would call back her soul, would command it to return to her body, so she could live again, so that they could be together, if just for a few hours.
Jimmy feared that the most. He feared that if the man and the woman did actually spend time together, the man would never come out here again. They would not kneel down beside the opened grave, the man would not read from the book, and the woman would not come back. Ever again.
That was why Jimmy lied to himself, and to the woman. He knew the truth. He knew it had been a car that hit the woman, that she had not been murdered in cold blood. Still, this was what Jimmy told her, and somehow she had believed him the first time and continued to believe the lie.
It was what kept her from coming back when the man was there, that hatred for what he’d done to her, which caused her delayed awakening. But she would slip through, oh yes she would, and then she and Jimmy would be together. He was always happy when it happened, never scared. The only thing he didn’t like was that the woman asked about the man. Why couldn’t she be content and talk to him, ask him questions, and forget the man completely? Why couldn’t she just accept the fact that she hated him for what he’d done to her, wanted nothing to do with him at all, and simply ask about Jimmy? But it never failed. She always persisted, so much so that eventually it got too much for him, and when he couldn’t take it anymore he would shout —
“No fucking buts! He murdered you and you hate him!”
“How — How dare you speak to me like that. You know better than to — ”
“But I don’t. That’s the thing — I don’t know better. I’m different from everyone else at school. I have no friends, nobody to talk to. And do you know why I’m different? Do you?”
The woman is silent.
“Because of you. You had to leave. You had to turn my life to shit.”
“But — ”
He jumps into the grave, wraps his hands around the woman’s neck. The sky is no longer dark, but starting to brighten. Soon the sun will rise. The woman’s soul cannot stay when the sun shows itself, or else it will be lost forever. So Jimmy must release it, send it back to the other world. He hates doing it, but the anger in him is so strong that when he squeezes the dead skin he doesn’t feel sorrow or revulsion but even more anger, even more rage. He blames the woman for everything — for every bully that’s picked on him, for every test he’s failed, for every girl that’s laughed at him behind his back. For every time the man brings him to this graveyard.
And next year it will be the same: they will come out here again, and Jimmy will feel happy, excited, glad to be here, because somehow he will make himself believe that what had happened the year before never took place. The woman will never remember either, she will never know, so she awakens, as if opening her eyes for the first time.
And someday Jimmy hopes the woman will forget about the man altogether. They will spend a more pleasant time talking, instead of him jumping into the grave and strangling a neck he’s touched one too many times. He will cry and cry and cry, and in the end he will climb out of the grave, dig it back in, then go home. He will feel miserable until he sees the man, sees how miserable the man is, and that will lift his spirits, make him feel better, that knowledge that he has done the one thing the man could not, the last thing in the world the man thinks possible. And it’s all because —
— he sat and waited. The moon touched the horizon. The wind rose, then fell, rose, then fell.
In the grave, the woman opened her eyes. She stared straight up at the cloudless sky. She moved her eyes ... found his.
And staring into those blank eyes, Jimmy thought back to when he’d been six and she took him trick-or-treating. He told himself he had never gone, but it was a lie, just like everything else.
She’d been walking with him, holding his hand and his bag, and talking to him as they crossed the street. She hadn’t seen the car as it swerved around the corner. The teens inside hadn’t seen her either, they’d been too high, but that didn’t stop the car from smashing into her.
Only Jimmy had seen what was about to happen. He had seen it, and he had been scared and speechless, only listened her to words, until it was too late and he let go of her hand and jumped out of the way.
That was how she really died, this woman in the long black gown, how she had been taken from this world into the next. But Jimmy told himself it didn’t happen, that it was all a lie, until when he was out here by himself and she awoke, and for a moment, a single instant, he thought he saw it in her eyes, the knowledge of what really happened, how he hadn’t said a word. And deep down inside himself, in his soul, he became afraid.
“Hi, Mom,” he whispered.
She only stared back at him, those dark blank eyes showing little sign of life, and that phantom knowledge Jimmy had been so sure he’d seen was now gone. Then she opened her mouth. Nothing came out at first, but then, softly, she asked, “What’s wrong?”