LIFE AND "DEATH"
James shivered as he looked up at the tall, intricately wrought iron gate of the Morton Hills Cemetery. It wasn’t the autumn cold that sent a chill up his spine, but the twisted and knotted iron bars that called to mind a grizzly smile with bared metal teeth. But the five year old boy had to get past those teeth, into the mouth of the graveyard to bring back what he came for.
“You know, your mom’s in there,” his dad had told him earlier that day, referring to a black box resting next to a big hole in the ground.
They were at this same graveyard, James knew. It was the one down the street from his house, where his mom and dad would take him for walks every morning. But somehow, with the sun almost set, the place looked spookier than it ever did during the day.
“In the box?” James remembered asking his dad. He thought that was pretty cool. He’d seen clips of his mom get into a lot of boxes on the computer. He’d also seen her get stabbed with swords and swallow fire and get sawed in half. When James asked her why she did those things, she told the boy that she was a magician…and magicians did magic.
“Yeah,” James remembered his father answering sadly. “I really miss your mom Jimmy.”
“Don’t worry dad,” James had said. “Mom gets out of boxes real fast. She told me that’s the easiest magic she does.”
“Son,” his dad said, getting down on both knees. “Those were just tricks. Do you understand? There’s no such thing as magic. Your mom…she’s dead.”
The rest of that day had gone by in a blur for James. He didn’t understand what his dad meant. He’d heard the word “dead” before, but hadn’t seen anything be “dead.” It didn’t matter though, because for the rest of the day adults kept coming by their house to talk to James’s dad. He never got the chance to ask more about being “dead.” Finally, sitting on his front porch and watching the sun set, James had a great idea. He’d go back to the graveyard, wait for his mom to reappear and bring her home. Then everything could be normal again.
But faced with the looming gate and the coming dark, James felt scared. He timidly took a step forward. A breeze picked up some nearby red-yellow leaves and blew past. He took another step. He was on the eave of the graveyard.
“Who goes there?” James heard a whisper of a voice ask.
He looked around him; no one there. He looked up. On the keystone of the arch: at the very top of the gate: sat a stone gargoyle. It was in the shape of a crow with outstretched wings looking down on passersby. Nothing about it seemed lifelike, except for the eyes. They had a faint, orange glow.
“My name is James Mitchell,” the boy answered in an uneven voice. “I lost my mom.”
“The sun is setting,” the whisper said.
James looked to the sky and saw only a sliver of the sun still peeking over the tip of the horizon.
“The graveyard is dangerous after dark,” the gargoyle hissed. “And you are too afraid.”
“I’m not afraid,” James shouted back obstinately. He clenched his hands into fists to show his bravery, even as his arms and legs quaked with an internal dread.
“So be it,” the gargoyle acquiesced. “I can only warn you. Beware.”
Another gust of wind blew and the front gate slowly opened itself up. There was a loud CRRRREEEAAAK. James covered his ears. When the sound had stopped, he squeezed through an opening just big enough for him and entered the graveyard.
James took in a sharp breath. This graveyard was different from the one he knew. For the first time, he noticed a cobblestone path that stretched on endlessly into a sea of headstones. Little hills, littered with graves, seemed to have sprung up everywhere.
James was instantly nauseous. He walked forward slowly, and as he did it seemed a gloomy fog began to cover the ground. The further he went, the thicker it got. As he got to the top of the first hill, he heard a loud noise behind him.
James turned and saw that the front gate had swung shut. In the sky, the sun had set entirely and the moon was rising. There was no leaving now, even if he had wanted to. The only thing he could do, was find his mom.
He turned away from the gate and looked ahead down the cobblestone path. As he stared deep into the mouth of the graveyard, James was struck with a barrage of thoughts: what if his mother didn’t want to leave? What if she had left already and was waiting for him back at home? What if his father was right after all, and she really was “dead”?
He took two steps off the path onto a freshly filled grave. Suddenly, this mission felt too big for him; he was only one boy. One small boy. What was he thinking, coming here?
“Yes indeed,” a cold, high-pitched voice said from everywhere nearby.
“Hello?” James squeaked out.
A hand burst out of the grave that James was standing on. He jumped back onto the path in a seizing panic, and backed away to the headstone opposite the one he had been standing near.
The hand kept rising. It became an arm; then, a head emerged. Before long, a half-decayed corpse stood before James. Its skin and exposed organs were pallid and pale, glimmering sickly in the moonlight. Rotting eyes looked directly at James and a stiff mouth struggled to form a grim smile.
“What were you thinking coming here James?” the high-pitched voice of the zombie asked.
“H…h…how do you know my name?” James whispered in terror.
“We know everything here,” the zombie sneered. “We’re dead; and getting to know everything is the gift, and the curse, of being dead.”
“Where’s my mom?” James pleaded through tears.
“Oh no. The dead don’t help the living,” the corpse chided, taking a step towards the boy. “You wouldn’t help me, after all.”
“I would,” James whimpered, trying to be as emphatic as he could.
“LIES!” the zombie’s high-pitched wail pierced the air.
James fell backward. His head slammed against the headstone directly behind him. He tried shaking it off, but the zombie was on top of him.
“But you do have something I want James,” it said calmly. “Your warm, healthy, skin.”
The monster bore its putrid teeth and that grim smile returned. It leaned forward with outstretched arms to grab the boy.
James acted fast. Without looking, he grabbed one side of the headstone he was up against and pulled himself off to the side.
Just in time too. The zombie’s lunge forced it to lose balance, and the monster’s own head hurtled toward the headstone, connecting with a sickening thud.
James got to his feet quickly and ran down the cobblestone path; deeper into the graveyard.
“BOY!” the high-pitched voice of the zombie raged.
James didn’t turn back. He kept running, his eyes only focused on what was straight ahead. He was breathing hard and sweating profusely. But he didn’t stop.
An inkling to slow down began to worm its way into the boy’s mind when he suddenly felt no ground beneath his feet. He toppled forward, falling into darkness.
He landed face-first in dirt. Water, mucus, soil and a little blood all came together in his mouth. James spit it out immediately. He got onto his hands and knees and instantly he felt a sting in his left knee.
James looked around to get a sense of where he was, but all he saw was blackness. He put a hand out in front of him and felt a wall of soft, moist dirt. He put his other hand to his left and felt the same thing. Then he felt to his right: more dirt. His eyes went wide with realization. He turned over on his back and saw the full moon, bright in the sky. The edges of the rectangular opening he had fallen into stood three feet in the air all around him. James had tumbled into an open grave.
“EEEEYAHAHAHAHA!” a female cackle echoed as a black shadow flew over the boy, blocking out his view of the moon.
James quickly got up and ran to the farthest end of the grave. Above him hovered what looked like the bristles of a broom. But James turned his attention to the plot edge. He jumped three times reaching for it; each jump a more frantic attempt to climb out. He couldn’t reach it.
He turned back to look at the black shape that was flying overhead. It had circled around to face him and was now fully illuminated by the moonlight. For a moment, James stopped breathing; shocked at the horror of this new monster.
She wore no clothes; she didn’t need them. The witch flying overhead was nothing but a skeleton, although not an an entirely human skeleton. She had a beak on her face, and on top of her skull sat two horns that curved into themselves at the ends. Her hands had only three fingers that looked more like claws, and her feet were hooves.
Then James noticed her broom. It too was made of bone. The handle was several femurs tied together with living snakes that lunged for a James perpetually out of reach in the grave below. The bristles; what James had thought were bristles; were human phalanges.
“Hello James,” the witch sneered. “Lost your mommy?”
James couldn’t answer. He just stood there, with his back to a moist dirt wall: worms, beetles and ants crawled onto his neck and down his shirt. But he couldn’t feel them. All he could feel was the cold grip of terror, and the warm sting of tears.
“I can take you to your mommy,” the witch hissed.
“Really?” James asked weakly.
“Yes. But I need something in return,” the witch’s register dropped low. “Your bones.”
James closed his eyes. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t get out of this grave on his own. He wanted his mom: his dad: anyone. An adult would know what to do. They always knew what to do.
But there was no adult here now. There was only him. And he was so small.
James opened his eyes slowly. He let his arms fall to his sides and took a small step forward.
“Ok,” the little boy said meekly.
“EEEEYAHAHAHAHA!” the witch shrieked in cruel delight. “Grab hold of the tip of my broom.”
The witch lowered the front half of her broom into the grave. James reached up with one hand and grabbed it.
“Hold tight. I want those lovely bones intact,” the witch said.
She lifted off and settled in the air only a few feet above the ground. Then, the witch turned them north and flew straight. James saw they were making for a headstone at the top of a hill not far off.
“Is that where my mom is?” James asked.
“Your mommy’s grave you mean? Yes, that’s it,” the witch mocked.
“Thanks for the directions,” James said. He didn’t know where it came from, but instantly an idea popped into his head. He let go.
James fell onto some grass beneath two headstones. He flattened his body out to keep himself under the fog before the witch could reposition her broom to look down and see where he landed.
“EEEEAAAAHHH!” the witch’s scream of rage echoed throughout the graveyard.
James didn’t move. He kept perfectly still. He could hear the witch huff and puff as she looked all over. He could hear her cursing when she couldn’t spot him.
It took some time, but eventually the witch’s search led her far enough away that James couldn’t hear her anymore. He didn’t hesitate; he got up and ran in the direction she had been flying him in.
Headstones flew by as he raced down the cobblestone path, until he came to a pair of trees that made an arch over the stone. But James couldn’t see what lay beyond them. It looked like a curtain of night was draped in that archway. Anything could lie waiting for him through there.
James sped up. He had come too far to turn back, and he was too close to give up. He raced under the arch, through the night curtain and came to a dead stop. There, just on the other side, was his mother’s grave.
James slowly walked up to the headstone. Like the graveyard, it looked so different now than it had earlier that day. It seemed bigger, more imposing; it reminded him of a ship’s anchor.
His eyes found the inscription on the stone. James couldn’t read all of the writing, but he could make out his mother’s first and last name.
“Jasmine Mitchell,” he whispered to himself.
James put a hand over his mother’s first name. He bowed his head and closed his eyes; and he thought of his mother.
“Mom?” he called.
“I’m here,” he heard her answer.
A warm light washed over the boy then. James stepped backward, as if to make room for it. He smiled, but he didn’t open his eyes. He was scared to. Scared that if he did, whatever was happening would stop.
“Honey, open your eyes,” he heard his mom say, as if in answer to his thoughts.
And there she was. His mom; sitting on top of her own headstone. James could see right through her, but at the same time the light he felt was flowing out of her: like gentle waves spilling onto the coast. She smiled at him; that full-faced smile that only she had. James could never help it when she did that; he had to smile back.
“Mom…I found you,” the boy said.
“You did,” his mother replied gently. “James, what are you doing here after dark?”
“Dad said you were gone for good; that you couldn’t come home anymore. He doesn’t believe in magic,” James explained. “But I’ve seen your magic, and I knew…I knew you’d come back. So I came to bring you home.”
“Oh, my boy…” the ghost seemed to get emotional: like it might cry if it had any tears.
“So let’s go,” James said matter-of-factly. “It’s gonna be hard. I had to get past a zombie and a witch to make it here. They’re probably waiting for us…”
“James,” the ghost of his mom interrupted. “Do you know what it means to be de...no. Honey, do you know what it means to be alive?”
“I know that I’m alive,” the boy answered.
“Yes! Very good, you ARE alive,” Jasmine enthused. “And one of the things about being alive is…well…life is unpredictable.”
James stared at her blankly.
“Ok,” Jasmine made a backwards, arching motion with her transparent hands. “Let me back up. Do you remember when I tried to get you to eat broccoli?”
“I hate broccoli,” James said reflexively.
“Haha,” the ghost laughed quietly. “I know. But mommy likes…mommy used to like broccoli.”
“Because I thought it tasted good,” she answered. “It wasn’t always like that. When I was a kid I hated broccoli too. But I got older and things changed.”
“I’ll never like broccoli,” James said emphatically.
“You might sweetheart,” his mom’s ghost said with a sad smile. “Because being alive means what’s true today, might not be true tomorrow. But for mommy…now…nothing can change.”
That all-too familiar dread came on James again. But it was worse this time than it had been when he faced the zombie or the witch. It was like there was one more monster coming for him: an invisible monster. And James was stuck waiting for it on an island with nowhere to run.
“Can you come home?” James asked, bracing himself.
“No honey,” his mom answered. “Do you know why?”
“Because…” he didn’t want to say it.
“I need you to say it James,” his mother quietly pleaded. “It’s not fair that you have to learn this now, but I need you to.”
Nowhere to run.
“You’re not alive,” James whispered.
“Yes,” his mother assured.
Neither one of them said anything for some time. They just stood there in silence, together.
“I’m scared mom,” James finally said.
“I know,” she said sympathetically. “But you know the good thing about me not being alive?”
“I can help you stop being scared. Because now, I can be with you all the time. Wherever you go,” his mom said giving him that big, full-faced smile of hers.
“Magic,” she said.
“But magic isn’t real,” James said.
“Oh yeah?” his mother asked sarcastically. “James, what does a fisherman do?”
“He fishes,” James answered quickly.
“And what does a fireman do?” she went on.
“Fights fires,” the boy replied.
“Ok then. I was a magician. How can a magician exist without magic?” she asked seriously.
James thought about this. The logic was perfectly sound to him. But he could still hear his dad’s voice in his head, telling him that magic wasn’t real.
“Honey,” his mom chimed in sounding irritated, as though she were arguing with the inaudible voice of his dad. “What did you see tonight?”
“A zombie and a witch,” her son said. “Ok, you’re right.”
“BOY!” James jumped in his skin at the scream that came from behind. It sounded like two voices…two voices James had heard before.
“Mom?” James turned back to her in a panic.
“I know sweetheart. Listen to me, you just have to stay on the path, ok? It’ll take you out of here. And if you see something or hear something that makes you feel scared, I want you to think about you and me going for a walk,” his mother began.
“We’re coming for you little one,” the hideous voice of the witch called out.
“You’re in the middle,” his mom raced on. “And on one side of you is the scary thing. But on the other side, it’s me, holding your hand. And we keep walking. Faster and faster. Until finally, the scary thing gets left behind…and it’s just the two of us. Think you can do that?”
“I think so,” James said.
A cold wind blew. James closed his eyes, scrunched his body up and pulled his jacket in as close as he could. It passed by in an instant, and when James opened his eyes again he saw that his mom had disappeared. He was alone in front of her grave.
James took one last look at the headstone. He kissed a hand and placed it over his mother’s first name. Then, he turned back the way he had come and got onto the cobblestone path.
Once he passed back through the curtain of night, he was surprised to see he wasn’t as far from the entrance as he thought. Getting to his mother’s grave felt like it had taken hours. But within minutes, James was halfway to the front gate of the cemetery. But all the while, he knew trouble was close.
As he walked between two headstones, the earth beneath his feet began to shake. A grave on his left exploded into the sky and the zombie he met before was climbing out of the ground. A shadow fell on the headstone to his right, and as he looked up he saw the bone witch hovering over another empty plot.
James stopped walking and fell to his knees in terror.
“Found you James,” the high-pitched voice of the zombie rang out. “And you’ve kept us waiting a long time.”
“Yes, that was awfully rude of you,” the witch sneered. “Didn’t mommy teach you any manners?”
“If she had, you would know it’s also rude to come into someone’s home without a gift,” the zombie laughed evilly. “So I’ll be taking your skin now, if you please.”
“Or if you don’t please,” the witch retorted. “Either way, I’ll have your bones.”
The zombie began slowly moving in on James from the left while the witch inched closer from the right. James closed his eyes and buried his head into his thighs, covering the back of it with his arms. He didn’t know what to do.
So he thought of his mother. Whether his mind took him there of its own volition or she popped in to help at the last minute, James never knew. But suddenly, he was walking down a forest path. Trees lined either side, and to his left he felt the firm hand of his mom as she walked with him. To his right, he saw a pair of yellow, glowing eyes keeping pace with the both of them. He was sure the yellow eyes belonged to some hideous creature of the forest, but he couldn’t tell what it was.
He looked up at his mom then, terrified, to warn her. But before he could, she looked down at him and gave him one of those full-faced smiles of hers. He couldn’t help it. He had to smile back.
James opened his eyes. The monsters were almost on him, but he slowly stood up and began walking forward.
He walked purposefully; toward the gate. The zombie was on him first. It got on the path between him and the gate and raised its hands, ready to strike.
James calmly walked up to it, got on his hands and knees, and crawled forward between the monster’s open legs. Then the boy got up and continued walking.
The witch was there next. She flew to position herself between James and the gate. She extended a hand toward the boy.
“Molto, enerva, tonati, kachem…” the witch began. A sickly green was glowing around her hand.
James never stopped. He just kept walking. He was below the tip of her broom. He heard the witch trip up on a word he didn’t understand and be forced to start over.
James was halfway under the broom. The snakes snapped at him. He simply bent his knees and got low to the ground. They couldn’t reach him.
At the phalange bristles, James straightened up and continued walking. The witch never got to the end of her incantation.
James made it to the gate. He put a hand to the latch, but before he touched it he turned to look back at his foes.
There was nothing on the path. The zombie and bone witch had vanished, and the graveyard looked very much like it had when James was there during the day: solemn, peaceful, and small.
He turned back and lifted the latch. He opened the gate just enough so he could squeeze through, and then closed it behind him.
“I take it you found your mother,” a familiar whisper came.
James looked up at the gargoyle crow. Its eyes had that faint orange glow that was now mirrored by the sun, just beginning to rise.
“Where was she?” the whisper asked.
James smiled as he thought about the question. Then his mom was there, in his thoughts. She was smiling that smile of hers, and suddenly there was only one answer that seemed to make any sense.
“With me,” the boy said to the stone crow.
James turned and continued on down the street; walking all the way home. And all the while, his mother was with him.