“Think that one looks fresher than the others?” I flick my cigarette at a grave to my left. Both of us watch as the cherry fades into the yellowing sod.
“What’s the name?”
“Hughes, 1943 to 1987,” I say.
Nicholas gives the stone angel a kick. The priest at the bottom of the hill stops mid-eulogy and scolds us with a brief silence. A few black-laden mourners notice the pause and begin looking around strangely, unaware of the priest’s line of sight.
“Think he deserved it?” Nicholas asks after a moment, staring down at the crowd. A swarm of pigeons falls to some freshly strewn breadcrumbs nearby, their biological clocks telling them to get painfully fat before winter. I wonder suddenly why, after all this time, Nicholas had wanted to meet in a cemetery.
“You remember our Sylvia?”
“You’re leaning on her stone.”
The cold stamp of her name stays even after I pull away, reading Sylvia Lucia Gustave, originally etched in rose-pink marbled concrete. I’d never visited her grave. Seeing it, a long-forgotten part of me lays to rest knowing she’d perhaps found peace at last atop a sloping hill, surrounded by trees and smaller white stones standing guard against emptiness.
“Those white ones are kid-graves, you know.”
I let the thought rattle around my skull a moment before shoving it aside. For the first time since we’d arrived, I look closely at his large veins and loose skin, his bloodshot eyes with pupils as black as the squares of his ragged flannel. This was not the tall, dark stranger we’d welcomed to town so long ago, back when half of us were choosing whether to skip town, or life altogether.
It had been me who had volunteered to tell him what happened. That Sylvia’d been found in a cross-section of trees near his house, pale and clean like she’d only fallen asleep with a fever. When I said the words his face had crumpled into a thousand pieces. Each spoke of the shame we shared in coveting her. Until now, we had never spoken of her; we’d never had to.
“She would do things like come around every weekend for homework, you know?” His voice cracked. “Or come help me with prayers on Sundays. When I caught sick she broiled down some of her best herbs to make me well. You all thought we were going, but I didn’t want any of that, her virginity–like you boys always said.”
“That was Logan’s line, not mine.” I hear myself say the words, picturing at the same time a memory of mocking him for that very thing.
“So? So what? When she died, none of you even thought of her anymore.”
Reaching for another cigarette, I begin to protest when…
“I still have a piece of her…” I swear I’d heard him say. A sharp ringing starts in my ears, so sharp I’m forced to steady myself on Sylvia’s grave. Had I heard him right? Coolness from her headstone creeps up my arm but does little to clear my buzzing head.
“Just a piece. Like you’d cut from a newspaper article.” As if on cue a percussionist in the procession below begins a slow, rolling beat.
“She was alone in her room, like always, when I watched. Then she started swaying. At first, I thought it was a bad dream. But then…the look on her face…her…searching hands…” Against my will I feel a tightening at the thought of Sylvia, naked, staring up blindly, slick with pleasure, watched through a window.
“I couldn’t take that. I couldn’t take that.” Looking closer, I realize Nicholas is crying—crying, but smiling. Crying, like release.
“I caught her,” Nicholas continues in a whisper, tears blubbering on his lips. His words echo on a loop in my head as both of us look again to the slowly-filling grave below. Only a few darkly-clad bodies remain, saying a final word or two.
“Why?” I barely manage, “Why now?” This, too, echoes on a loop until he answers.
“To celebrate the freeing of a forever-kept secret,” he points to the grave below.
“They’re burying her killer.”
Pain punches up through my stomach, accompanied by an anger I hadn’t known could exist. Though the grass is slippery, I barrel down the hill, crashing into the fresh dirt and pulling at it, relishing the feel of it under my fingernails as if it were the actual blood of the buried man. From atop the hill I hear him laughing.
“They’ll never believe you.”
It isn’t until I realize it’s my own manic laughter echoing back at me that I become still, taking in each of the newly carved letters bored into the grave’s marker. Twisting in the mud, I curse the hilltop where the ghost of Nicholas Ludgate had stood moments before.
Somewhere in the background a head-phoned, acne-prone teen starts up the cemetery’s ancient riding mower and begins his route over each row of Valley View’s dead.