Grave Stones – Part 8

spring

Angela turned to Adam. He was sound asleep, a little drool sliding from the corner of his mouth. She elbowed him and looked back to the girl. She was gone. Impossible!

Angela put her hand on the pew, where the girl’s hand had been: it was still cold and wet. Beulah’s daughter looked over her shoulder at Angela and gave her a toothy grin. Adam touched Angela’s forearm, looking questioningly at her.

“What’s wrong?”

“She was right there!” Angela pointed to the spot next to Beulah Mae. “I felt the wet where she put her hand, and my feet…”

Angela looked down—the water was gone. The floor showed no sign of being wet nor did her sandals. All of it was gone, everything but the fact that she had seen the girl again, a third time.

“Are you sure you didn’t doze off?”

“I did, but the water was cold on my feet and woke me up.” Even as she said that, she realized how foolish it sounded. Angela stood up.

“I need some air.” Her words coincided with a lull in the loud preaching and the whole congregation—as many as were awake—heard her. With all eyes on her, she walked the aisle back to the door and out. Adam waited about three minutes and with whispered apologies, followed her.

Outside, Adam found Angela leaning against an oak tree, out of the line of sight of the Chapel front door and windows.

“Hey, I’m sorry,” Adam said. “I was half awake.”

“I know. But Adam, it was real! That was no dream! My foot and my hand were wet, cold wet, not sweat! And was crying, and asking for help! Adam what do I do?!”

“If it’s just a dream, you don’t have to do anything. If it’s real….”

“It’s REAL! Don’t doubt me!”

“Ok, well, what can you do? How do you help a, a… ghost?”

“I don’t know! I don’t even believe in ghosts. Except for this one. This is different!”

They both laughed at that, and they held each other.

“I’m so glad you at least try to believe me, honey!”

“Yeah, well, it’s my old ghosts that brought me back here anyhow. Speaking of which, let’s go see what’s new and different in the graveyard, see if any more stones are turned.”

The graveyard was on the opposite side of the building and as they rounded the corner Billy and an old woman were examining the straightened stones.

From where they stopped, they could hear him reading off names as he walked the old woman down the aisle, sometimes the family names, sometimes just the first name. Each time she nodded. Once in a while she would murmur a few words, once she stopped and pointed, as if stunned at what she saw.

“That’s the Pastor’s wife. I didn’t think she was still alive. She has to be ninety-something by now.”

Adam led Angela over to introduce her. Esther Morgan was a gaunt, silver-haired scarecrow in a shapeless cotton gingham dress. Piercing blue eyes and hawk nose warned you to keep your foolishness and your distance or pay a price. But she was fragile now, leaning heavily on a cane or on Billy’s arm. When she recognized Adam, she smiled.

“Adam Brown. It’s been too long.”

“It has. It’s good to see you, Miss Esther. Didn’t see you in church earlier.

“Last time I attended, I had to be carried back to the house.” She paused only for a moment. “Was it you who pointed out to Billy here that the gravestones have been turned around?”

“Yes’m. My mom’s is one of them.”

Miss Esther looked at Billy. He nodded. “We didn’t get that far yet, but yes, Adam pointed it out to me.”

“Hmph. And who is this?” Esther kept her eyes on Adam.

“This is my fiancée, Angela Williams.”

“When’s the date?”

Adam blushed. “We haven’t set that yet.”

“Well, do it. I’d like to be invited while I’m still alive.” A shadow of a smile crossed her face and Adam laughed an easy laugh.

“Yes Ma’am!”

Miss Ester turned to Billy. “I see what’s happening here, Billy. It’s about time. I’ll have something to say about this to the congregation tonight, before the hymn sing. Tell the deacons. Right now I’m wore out and I need to go back to the house.”

As she took Billy’s arm to go, she turned and looked Angela square in the eyes. “I understand you’ve been seeing someone here, young lady. Don’t let that spook you. Stick with that boy—he’s worth it. And we need him!”

Angela smiled, unsure of what to say.

“Remember that!” Esther’s voice was emphatic, almost angry.

“Yes Ma’am! Angela replied.

Miss Ester nodded and turned to Billy. “Let’s go. I’m tired and my bones ache. I feel a storm comin’.”

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Grave Stones – Part 7

spring

EXTRA PART TODAY!

Adam pulled off the dirt driveway and parked on the grass, parallel with the other cars. Their shiny-new rental looked out of place in the lineup of mostly ten year old sedans and pickup trucks. There were a lot of cars—it was Sunday Morning, the climax of Home Coming. The weatherman was not cooperating, however. He warned of the possibility of a strong thunderstorm all day, maybe even a tornado that evening. He promised to keep everyone informed.

As they made their way to the door, the words of the hymn floated out through the open Chapel windows to Adam and Angela.

“…And the joy we share as we tarry there, None other has ever known!”

Every woman and half the men were fanning themselves as Adam and Angela stepped into the back of the meeting room. The congregation was sweaty, the pews crowded and the seats were hard. The final ‘A-a-a-men-n-n’ died in the thick air as a weather-beaten Deacon in a short-sleeved plaid shirt escorted the two of them to seats in the second row. In front of them, in the very front row, sat Beulah Mae, her unlucky daughter on one side of her and an empty space on the other. Beulah twisted around to see who was so late, and managed a nod of recognition. Adam smiled and she quickly turned back to the front.

The Preacher was new to the Congregation, according to the announcements. He was young and fresh out of school; his most prominent qualification seemed to be that he was loud. Angela was unimpressed and Adam more than once got elbowed for nodding off. The congregation, however, loved him and encouraged him with amen’s and applause. He was slowly stumbling his way through the Founding Pastor’s favorite sermon, ‘these memorial stones’, from Joshua chapter four. From the sound of it, he was almost reading the original sermon.

In the drowsy heat, Angela let her eyes close once. She shifted her sandaled feet and they touched water so cold it made her gasp. She looked down. Her feet were surrounded with a puddle of water that was spreading from under the pew ahead of her. She looked up. The girl, the one from the Spring, was sitting next to Beulah Mae in what had been the empty space. She wore the same cotton dress, the same wet, straggly long hair. She turned around, one wet hand on the back of the pew, and looked at Angela. Tears filled her eyes and she silently mouthed the words, “Help me!”

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Grave Stones – Part 6

springAngela whirled, ready to run and almost ran into Adam.

“What’s wrong?! Are you alright? What happened?”

“I saw her! The girl in the spring! She’s right here in the back!”

The three of them—Adam, Angela and Mary—rushed into the Chapel.

“Where?”

The back corner was empty, the floor dry. Light from the front window made a bright spot on the worn, painted floor boards.

“Right HERE!” Angela marched over to the spot of sunshine and stomped her feet. “She was standing here, wet and shivering, and crying! I swear to God!”

The tour guide walked in then. “Young lady, do not use the Lord’s name in vain! Especially not in His House! I must ask you all to leave right now!”

As if to emphasize her words, the bell on the Parsonage porch began to clang.

“It’s time for the noon meal, anyway. Please!” Her voice took on a note of pleading. “I have to close this door and get up to the kitchen.”

As they emerged from the Chapel, the whole crowd was moving toward the house for the noon meal.

“Would you be interested in lunch with me in town, rather than here?” asked Mary. “I think we have a lot to talk about, even more than before…” She didn’t finish the sentence. “And, to be honest, I’d rather not ride the church bus back to town this evening.”

* * *

It was just after the noon hour when the three of them got out of the car in front of Smitty’s Diner, the only diner in town.

“It’s not the Ritz but its wholesome food,” Mary said. “I had breakfast this morning, and I’m still alive!” She laughed.

As they reached the door, two women approached and greeted Mary.

“Why, Mary! Marydell Piersol! Is that you? ” One of them laid a hand on her forearm. It might have been a claw, for Marydell’s reaction.

“Is it still Piersol, Marydell? Or have you found yourself a willing man?” The venom in the second woman’s voice was unmistakable.

Marydell went almost white and seemed to shrink. Whatever enemies these two had been, nothing had changed in the intervening years, for Marydell.

She looked at Adam and Angela.

“I’m not feeling well. You go ahead and I’ll catch up with you later. It was good to meet you two.” She looked in the direction of the other two but didn’t meet their eyes. “Sorry, ladies. I’m not feeling well.”

“Oh Mary! We were just going to have lunch. We were hoping you’d sit with us and catch up on things. You’ve been gone so long. Why it was… what? Day after High School graduation when you left town so suddenly. So much to talk about…”

Without another word, Mary turned her back and walked away toward the Shady Rest Motel, also the only one in town. The two women looked at each other and smirked.

“She always was a queer duck!” They tittered, just like the movies, and then continued down the street, arms linked, each with a large purse on her free arm. After a few steps, one turned around.

“I hope we will we see you at the Hymn Sing tonight? It’s always such a good time!” It was more an inquiry than an invite.

“Probably not,” Adam answered.

Both women shrugged and continued their stroll.

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Grave Stones – Part 5

spring

The bell on the porch of the parsonage began clanging. A beefy, white-haired man in a long-sleeved shirt with a string tie announced that The Official Home Coming Grounds Tour was about to begin. The Spring, the Grove, the Chapel, then the Barn and ending up back here at the house for food. Angela wasn’t particularly interested: Adam had already shown her around, but there wasn’t anything else to do.

“Why are they so interested in our relationship? They were getting way too personal!”

“My mom was a single mom and around here—back then—it was big news. They want to know how bad I’ve turned out, to prove their point.”

“That’s it?!”

“There’s more.” He paused, embarrassed. “Mom never told me who my father was.”

“Did she know?”

“She did. She told me she couldn’t let that secret out, took it to her grave. She wouldn’t talk about him beyond saying he was a good man. She said ‘We made a mistake, he and I, and we paid for that mistake. After that, you came along, a gift from God to me, a sign that He still loved me.’

“And thirty years later they still haven’t forgiven YOU for her ‘mistake’?”

“Nope. Around here, it’s a life sentence.”

“That’s stupid!”

“That’s why I moved away. Let’s go see if they have anything to add to my tour!”

At the Spring, the tour guides—two older women with clipboards—droned on. Angela broke away from the crowd, walked up to where the pipe fed the spring, and looked down into the clear water.

“Anybody there?” Adam had walked up beside her.

“No. Not now, anyway.”

* * *

Just before they were all herded into the Chapel, a woman approached.

“Adam? Adam Brown?”

Adam held out a hand to shake. “Ma’am?”

“You don’t know me, but,” she looked over at Angela, “I’m Marydell Piersol. I was Adam’s Mom’s best friend.”

She looked back and saw the puzzled look on Adam’s face.

“You probably don’t remember me. I left town after high school, soon after you were born. I never came back until today.” She smiled nervously, now looking back and forth between the two of them.

“Well, you’re right, I don’t recall meeting you,” Adam smiled.

“I went by just plain Mary, back then.”

“Oh yeah. Ok. Mom talked about you. Good things,” he added.

“Nice to meet you, Mary…” Angela fumbled with her name.

“Marydell. You can call me Mary if you want. And your name is…?”

“Excuse me for not introducing you two,” Adam jumped in. “Marydell, this is my fiancée, Angela Williams.”

“Come along, stragglers! It would be a real shame to miss this!” The second tour guide stuck her head out of the chapel door and spotted them. Her too-cheery voice implied Divine Disfavor on anyone who missed even one word of the narrative.

“We need to talk, Adam. Later, though. And not here. Your mother and I… talked a lot about you.” As they walked in, Angela raised one eyebrow as Adam and Angela traded glances.

The notes on the clipboard were the very complete history of the chapel, the pastors, the absolute necessity of Baptist teaching and traditions, and more. The two tour guides took turns reading it, frequently stumbling over technical terms and correcting the other person’s pronunciation. A half hour later, after scattered applause, there was a rush for the door. Adam, Angela and Marydell stayed seated. The barn was only thing remaining on the tour and they weren’t interested.

“Come on, dearies! We’re running late! You’ll miss the Barn tour!” The one tour guide was impatiently waiting at the Chapel door.

“Sorry, I’m allergic!” Angela almost shouted.

“Well… I need to shut the door here!”

The three of them stood to oblige her. The tour guide held the door from the outside as Adam and Mary stepped into the late morning sunshine. Just before she stepped out, Angela heard a noise. She stopped and looked one more time around the Chapel.

There in the back corner a puddle of water lay on the floor. A girl with long blonde hair stood in the middle of it. She was silently crying, her dress and hair were dripping wet. With one hand she was holding her stomach and with the other, reached out to Angela.

Angela screamed.

“Adam! Mary! Oh my God! Come quick!”

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Grave Stones – Part 4

springAdam found Billy in the kitchen, working on a dripping faucet.

“Give me five minutes to finish this up,” he said, “but off-hand, I have no idea what you are talking about.”

Adam walked around the graveyard and took a couple of deep breaths trying to settle down. He left Angela in the kitchen; she had started talking with the women who were working there. When Billy showed up, Adam asked him what was going on with the grave stones.

“Nothing. Why? What are you seeing?”  He actually was concerned: his home depended on things going right.

“Some are facing the opposite way they used to.”

There was a stunned silence.

“You sure you remember right?”

“Very sure.”

“Let’s take a look, then,” Billy said. “I haven’t seen anything unusual, but I see them so often maybe I’m just not noticing something.”

The two of them did a quick survey. Sure enough, some of the stones were ‘backwards’ from what they originally were.

“See?”said Adam. “The moss on this one is on the south side—it should be on the other side, facing north. The sunlight is killing it.”

Billy scratched his head, puzzled. “Adam, I have no idea what’s going on here. It ain’t nothing I done to them. I got no time for it. I’ll say this: they sure look better! All straight and in a row. Maybe it’d be good to let it go!”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“I don’t see no harm in it. But in any case, it’s none of my doing, if that’s what you wanted to know. I don’t know who’s doing it, either, but it looks a helluva lot better where it got done.” He paused, tried to stare Adam down.

Adam spit on the ground.

“You’re a piece of work, Billy.”

“Oh?” Billy took a step toward Adam, then reconsidered as an ancient-looking church lady shuffled out of the kitchen onto the porch.

“Well, thanks for pointing this out to me, sir. I’ll be sure to look into it.” He turned on his heel and walked back onto the porch and into the kitchen. Angela was just coming out and he paused, blocking her way. He gave her his best smile before stepping out of her way.

“It was an ambush,” she said when she got to Adam. “It started out recipes but turned into a grilling about you and me.”

Adam was only half listening.

“Something’s going on here, Angie. Something weird.”

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Grave Stones – Part 3

springThe next morning, Adam and Angela made the turn off the county road to the Church driveway just after nine a.m. It was already hot and muggy, worse than yesterday. As they got out of the car, Adam looked over at Angela.

“Mind if I introduce you to my Mom?” he asked.

She looked at him, one eyebrow raised.

“Show you her grave, say hi, and show you some of my favorite stones?” he asked.

“Sure.”

The grave yard was laid out beside the Chapel on a gentle slope. The Pastor’s headstone was the closest to the church with the oldest stones ranging around it in a semi-circle. Celia Brown’s grave stone was small, almost flat, only her name and dates engraved on it.

“She died five years ago,” he said softly as he traced the last date with his finger. Angela knelt down beside him. “She was old, she was happy. Never left the County.” He smiled sadly. “Never needed to!” she would always say. “She always wanted to visit Knoxville. Or Lexington, or almost anywhere there was a big library.” He pause again. “She never said that without immediately denying that she really wanted to.’ Too much trouble’, she would say. ‘Too many people, too expensive. Too much sin!’

Adam and Angela continued wandering around the graveyard after that, and he introduced her to dead relatives and high school friends.

At one point, Angela commented. “I thought all gravestones are supposed to face east. Something about resurrection or something. Most of these face the Pastor’s Stone.”

“They all do. That’s the way Pastor wanted it.”

“No they don’t.  Some face the opposite way.”

“Where?”

“Well your mother’s for one. And here! Here’s another one.”

They were standing in front of  one of Adam’s favorites, an old stone about four feet high, a rounded top,  with a poem and a stylized willow tree carved on it. He had to look twice, to realize Angela was right —the carving was on the side away from the pastor’s stone and the church.

He was silent, and then said, “I used to clean the moss off the picture so I could see it better. But yeah… the moss is all on the other side now. Weird.”

He went back to his mother’s stone. “It slants the wrong way! It’s supposed to slant toward the Pastor’s stone not away. Damn! Who changed it around?!” He was getting angry. “Where’s Billy?! If he’s been fu— ”

“Adam! You’re in a graveyard! Have some decency!”

“What?!”

“Billy hasn’t got the brains or the time to do this stuff . Anyway, your mother’s stone isn’t the only one that is facing different.”

It was true. The more  the two of them looked, the more stones they found. Oddly, the stones that were ‘wrong’ were clean and standing straighter than many of the others.

“It’s time to find Billy,” Adam said. “Find out what’s going on here.”

 

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Part 2.1 Backstory for Grave Stones.

As we writers all do, as I write, I come up with more information about my characters than I can use in any one story. The following is such material. It’s good stuff, but to put all of this into the story would slow the pace too much. Or so is my opinion. I offer it here, in part to give me time to write and give a little polish to what will be Part 3, coming later this week. And partly because it’s good stuff! 

Part 2.1

Sarah Williams was Billy’s only daughter, as precious to him as another human springcould be. She was born premature and not without complications. The doctors were useless, in his opinion, and his wife died in the birthing process. Not his daughter’s fault in the least. Her freckled face, button nose and long blonde hair showed a picture of health to the world and when she saw her father her face lit up with a smile brighter than the sun itself. But she was allergic to sunlight, deathly allergic. He wasn’t about to expose her to the a public—much less a public school!—that would either treat her like a freak or ignore his warnings and kill her. Billy kept her indoors, at home and with his sister’s advice, home schooled her. He often simply denied she existed rather than try to explain her.

“Who was that?” she asked again. New people were always a curiosity and those two had looked more interesting than most. Their clothes and haircuts shouted ‘city folk’.

“He’s a jerk I went to high school with, showing off his girlfriend. They’re here for Home Coming. Answer me now: schoolwork done?”

“Yessir. You want to check it?”

“I trust you.” His voice and face softened. “You know I trust you.” As they stood inside the door, he put his big arms around her and hugged her close. She snuggled in.

“So who is he, this show-off jerk? Sounds to me like a story.” She smiled and looked up at him.

“Well, you remember Miss Celia?”  She nodded. “That was his momma. But he had no Poppa, or so the story went back in high school. That should have been enough to get him beat up every day, but Miss Celia was such a good church lady that nobody seemed to mind.”

“So why is he a jerk? Did he beat you up and take your lunch money?” She grinned.

“What would you know about that? I never had nobody beat me up! And I wasn’t about to buy my lunch: the cookin’ wasn’t very good and they never served enough!”

“Did he try to steal Momma from you, when you were going steady?”

“What in the world has your aunt been letting you read? Some trashy romances?” His voice was severe but he was smiling. “He stole every other girl he ever wanted, but once your Momma and I got together there was nobody coming between us.” His voice hitched, and he looked away. “Now, speaking of food, it’s supper time! Who’s turn is it to cook?”

* * *

The Caretaker’s Place  was not part of the Church property. It was a small two bedroom house with a kitchen and living room and a garage big enough to double as a workshop. It sat on a half-acre of land, and it had been on a separate deed from the beginning, when Pastor came back from the Great War, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom.

It was 1918, and he knew his congregation would need someone to take care of the Church property, someone concerned about the Congregation but who was not actually part of it. So the Church paid the mortgage and taxes on the Caretakers Place, but it was deeded to the Caretaker. The Caretaker made sure the property was kept up to snuff and he was free to work elsewhere for his living. Keeping his home, however, depended on the congregation being big enough to pay his mortgage. This made him somewhat of an evangelist for them, as well as their all-around carpenter, plumber and grounds-keeper. It was a mutual obligation and it had worked well for three generations.

The original caretaker was also in the Great War. Unlike the Pastor who had a desk job in England, the caretaker had been in the trenches and suffered what they called ‘shell shock’. Today we know it as PTSD. He never recovered completely and relied on alcohol, his wife, and the admiration of their young son to cope with the haunting horrors of that wartime experience. When he finally succumbed to the alcohol, his son took over parts of the job he wasn’t already doing for his father. The church agreed to continue the arrangement. It was now the Great Depression and there were few alternatives for either party.

Church property was 30 acres, most of it woods now, although at one time it had been a working farm, mostly fields and pasture.  The Meeting House sat in the middle of the property, not far from the house and barn. Up a hill was a spring and a swampy woods where the ground was too wet to plant. And of course, there was the Graveyard.  The founding preacher’s grave is the main stone, a large square of granite, with the other stones arranged around it, in a circular pattern.A grassy dirt and white stone driveway encircling the original area, with newer headstones spreading beyond it. The pastor  had his headstone bought and paid for long before he died. His rationale was that the Congregation would need a reminder of their original purpose, why they were there. He spoke often of the memorial stones that the Israelites piled up on each side of the Jordan.

“We have to be reminded of our purpose here on earth!” he would preach. “The distractions of the big cities, of the worldly entertainment, of the flesh, the devil and the whole world system! All of them want to distract you from your purpose here on earth, but don’t let them! This stone, our Stone of Remembrance, our Ebenezer! Let this one be your reminder! Every time you look at it, be reminded there was—there IS!—a reason to continue the Good Fight of Faith!”

He put his name on it, and his wife’s. He expected each pastor after him would do the same and be buried around it. He even specified that they would be laid with their heads toward the stone. On the stone was carved a relief of the Good Shepherd. “Our True Stone,” he often repeated. But the only name on the stone was his own, with the inscription, “Founding Pastor”.

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