I'm a modern city girl. The kind who expects lush grasses and cultured flowerbeds, sidewalk cafes and gleaming malls. I never imagined plunking myself in the middle of nowhere. Never pictured purchasing a ghost town. Actually, "ghost town" glamorizes the place, makes one think of those tourists' traps. This was the real thing, even if all that remained was a layout of rotting floors where houses once stood, the town graveyard, and the original homestead farmhouse—which we were trying to reconstruct.
Other than that, the lanes were thick with mud, and we'd plowed the fields under. Around the house, weekend construction so overran our yard that I couldn't set my daughter down in it. She hadn't left her myriad of playpens since we started renovating. I didn't know how she'd truly learn to walk.
I paced to the window. My gaze strayed down the lane toward the graveyard—the grassy, green graveyard.
Jessie struggled to climb from her playpen.
"No, no, honey." I scooped her up, looking askew at the sawdust-covered and nail-strewn floor as she squirmed for her freedom. I couldn't put her down and let her scrape her chubby hands and knees on raw plywood.
I faced the window again. The main road twisted far down the valley, like a black ribbon long ago discarded and grown dusty. Not one car passed all morning. I'd been watching, as if each passing vehicle gave me a moment's connection with the rest of the world.
The Safeway truck was late. It always drove by around eleven-thirty. After that, I'd be alone until John returned from work. We knew reviving the Svenson homestead would take effort. I just never imagined how alone I'd feel way out here. Out here where an entire town died. Where every other pioneer had finally fled. I knew how they felt. No cell phone service, no internet, no cable, no friends.
I hoped nothing had happened to the Safeway truck.
Jessie kicked and wiggled.
Sunlight pooled around us. Such a beautiful spring day. The first one in months.
Jessie started to cry.
I gazed down the lonely lane toward the cemetery. Jessie wouldn't know it was a cemetery. It wasn't really. Even it died when the town gave up the ghost. Not a soul had visited it or been laid to rest there since I'd moved here—except last fall, when the Jenson boy gassed himself digging a well.
"We're going for a walk," I told Jessie. I'd miss the Safeway truck's passing, but I couldn't wait any longer. So we stepped outside. Warm air wafted over us. Swallows swooped down the valley. There wasn't a human sound, as if the whole world had gone on without us.
As I walked, the lane dipped into the meadow and damp shadow surrounded us. Mud suctioned my shoes with each step. The cemetery rested further from the house than it appeared through the wavy window glass, but we reached it eventually.
Its gate sagged into thick grass. I untangled it and set Jessie in a private playground. She couldn't know that those tilting stones weren't slides. She pulled herself upright using an angel wing to steady her legs, wavered, and plopped back on her bottom. I laughed and perched upon a long forgotten headstone so deeply encrusted with moss that I couldn't read the inscription.
Jessie pulled herself up again. Her legs looked too chubby to move. She took a few steps then dropped and crawled toward me.
I accepted a gooey kiss and set her toddling again.
Cheery meadowlarks and teeny chickadees popped around me. If I was lucky, my husband promised I'd see an elusive bluebird in our meadows. But maybe not so early in the season.
"Mom. Look. Me." Jessie crawled atop a gravestone and rode the little lamb. She started to wobble. I grabbed her before she fell. Jessie laughed and spread her arms for me to make her fly, and I complied. We danced through headstones until I nearly tripped into an open grave.
The Jenson boy's. His casket open. Empty. The dry upturned ground showed no sign of last night's rain.
My feet rooted. My gaze followed a trail of broken grass past the sagging fence, into the deep woods. My lungs stopped working while I listened. I couldn't hear anything, but I felt something watching us. And no one was around.
My husband would never know what happened to us.
"Mom-me!" Jessie planted her hands on either side of my face and turned my attention toward her, as was her wont.
Leaves rustled behind us.
I couldn't feel any wind.
"Me down, Mom-me."
I clutched Jessie tighter and backed away...away from the grave, away from the woods, away...
The gate latch required more dexterity than my shaking fingers possessed. I shifted Jessie against my shoulder and jiggled it with both hands, while scanning the dark tree line. Impossible to see into those woods. Anything could lurk in such dense shadows.
The gate gave way, and my knees sagged with relief. I stiffened them and hurried down the lane, careful not to run: running attracted predators.
Mud clutched my shoes. I stumbled and righted myself before it mired me.
Wind howled through the trees. Clouds chased away the sun.
The Jenson boy...the poor Jensons.
I hugged Jessie tighter. We crested the hill, into the sunlight.
Fields spread wide on both sides of us, and our house, a blue tarp draped over the open side, stood before me. I sprinted across the two-by-four and glass-ridden lawn, stepped inside, and latched the door tight behind me. Common sense shouted that the tarp couldn't keep anything out.
Jessie protested when I planted her in her playpen.
I ignored her and called the cemetery keeper.
He said that new graves sunk over the winter. It was normal, he said.
He was wrong. I knew it and convinced him to check.
Just before my husband came home, the keeper showed on my doorstep. His face was as ashen as I'm sure mine had been.
"You were right. It was open."
"I followed the trail. Found something. I'm not sure what." He rubbed his hairline the wrong way. "I resealed the empty coffin and planted it. I have fresh sod coming in the morning. They won't notice. No one but you and I will know."
"Will know what?" I asked, needing to be sure myself.
"That he's gone. A bear got him. I think." His hand shook as it put his hair back in place. "It's lucky you were there. Memorial Day is this weekend. His family would have been there. They would've seen it. We couldn't have known. We haven't buried anyone at your cemetery since the old town. Never thought this would happen though."
I shivered all over again.
"You can't tell anyone. The community's too small. Gossip will reach the Jenson family. They can't know. It'd kill them."
With Jessie at my feet, I knew he was right. I never said a word. Not even to my husband.
I never went back down Cemetery Lane.
BIO: DEIRDRE ERIN LOCKHART is a Canadian author with stories regularly appearing in Joyful! Magazine.