The road to the country cemetery hadn’t been in use for decades. Just to make sure, the current owners put up a barrier and wrecked portion of the roadway, leaving jagged asphalt blocks in front of the barricade. I parked the jeep. We’d walk in.
“This is crazy,” Jolene told me as we made our way past the barrier. “
You and your stupid dreams, Danny.”
For the last month, I’d been dreaming about a dead woman, a Victorian in an alluring satin nightgown sure to entice her Confederate colonel into their bed when he returned from the war. Every night at exactly 3 o’clock she’d tiptoe to my bed and beseeched me to save her. Always, the same words: “I can’t get out. Come to me. Open the lid.”
“Maybe the dreams will go away if I open the darned grave.” I hefted the shovel so it lay on my shoulder, like a Civil War musket. “I’m glad I’m not doing this alone. Scary stuff. Thanks for going, Jolene.”
“Hey, we’re friends. If there’s a ghost somewhere out here, I’m not going to let her have you.” She reached into a coat pocket and showed me a tiny liquor bottle, similar to what stewardesses hand out to passengers. “Holy water. From the spigot in the First Baptist Church kitchen.” She chuckled. “I’ve even memorized some exorcism sentences I found online.”
The trouble started when Jolene, Pete McKinney, Diane Schilling and me partied at Morning Glory Cemetery. Diane and I had shared a bottle of wine and begun kissing. We ended up making out atop the woman’s grave. I guess we roused her spirit.
“The dreams were never nightmares.” I sidled closer to her, as if her presence provided a measure of safety. “She seems like a nice woman. Just terrified.”
“I hope you’re right. I’d be extremely mad if a couple fondled each other on top of my grave.”
Jolene wasn’t jealous… she liked earthy humor. We’d always been friends, except at one party, Pete’s Christmas bash. Both of us had imbibed too much Syrah wine. Not exactly sure how it happened. We were sitting side by side on the couch, and suddenly we slobbered an open-mouth kiss. She crawled onto my lap and we made out as if alone in the room. Not for long, though. She passed out. In the morning, she scolded me for taking advantage of her drunkenness. It took months to repair the damage. Nowadays I’m very careful not to allow a repeat.
“That nightgown she wore in the dream… she might be Victorian, but she was no prude.” I looked for the break in the ancient iron rod fence we’d used to enter the graveyard. The fence had been repaired by the new owners who’d closed the road. After a long legal battle, they’d won ownership and made the cemetery off limits to everyone. But I habitually ignored no-trespassing signs.
“Not even real sex brought her out of the grave. Just a bit of petting.” Jolene rolled her eyes. “Let’s find the gate before it gets darker.”
The sun hugged the tree-studded horizon beyond the graveyard. Sunset colors would paint the sky in less than thirty minutes. We needed to hurry before darkness made it impossible to read tombstone inscriptions. Our flashlights would help, but their muted beams would slow us down. They’d provide the light we’d need to exit the boneyard on a dark night where a sliver of the moon shined. First, though, we needed to find her grave. Some headstones were crowned with angels, praying hands or a dove, but the woman’s was nondescript, like most.
A modern lock sealed the gate. I gazed skyward. Broad brushes of pink and orange colored the horizon. “Climb over?”
“Unless we want to stand here all evening and night.” Crossing her arms, she pressed them against her chest.
It was growing colder and windier, like most October nights. I wanted to get moving before the shivering started. I handed the shovel to Jolene, grabbed a post spike and scrambled over it. Once on the cemetery side, I retrieved the shovel and caught my friend as she dropped to the ground. Her body felt way too nice pressed against me. I held her for a delectable moment, then pushed her away.
We headed for the hazy spot of our month-ago party, stopped every few tombstones and checked surroundings against our memories. Frustration left Jolene sputtering curses. Civil War era gravestones all look alike, and the four of us had been too drunk and too horny to pay any attention to inscriptions.
After Diane stripped off my shirt, she’d draped it over the headstone. Later, after scooping up the shirt, I’d taken a blurred glance at a nearby monument – a broken column. “There!” I exclaimed to Jolene, gesturing toward the only broken column in the section. “That’s where we partied.”
I took one long stride toward the broken column and stopped mid-step. The roar of an engine reverberated up the abandoned road, growing louder by the second.
Jolene grabbed my belt and jerked me toward a weeping angel scrunched over a tombstone. “God! Your jeep’s been seen.”
We lay prostrate behind the angel, both of us wishing we could cast invisibility spells like we did when playing Dungeons & Dragons on Saturday nights when still in high school. A circa 1970 blue pickup emerged out of a copse of trees and beamed its headlights into the cemetery. The truck jerked to a stop, and a man dressed in hunter’s fatigues leaped from the cab.
“Sweet Jesus!” I squeezed her arm so forcefully she slashed my hand with her nails to make me let go. “He’s got a shotgun!”
“Shush! Just stay out of sight. He won’t check every stone.”
“You just as well come out.” He pointed back toward the road. “I’m having your jeep towed.”
“Shut!” I fisted my hand and smacked the ground.
“Let him tow it. He’ll think the driver and passengers are in the woods somewhere, not the graveyard. We’ll walk back to town.” She patted my back. “I’ll help you pay to get it released.”
The driver climbed into the cab, turned the pickup around and headed back the way he’d come. I released a slow, satisfying breath as the headlight beams swung away, leaving the angel in muted twilight colors.
“Once we know it’s not a trick, we can start digging.” I rose to my knees, but made sure not to nudge my head above the angel. “Fine mess we’ve made for ourselves.” I pointed a finger skyward. “Do you hear me, Spirit? The guy had a gun! You want us to help you, not join you, right?” I didn’t expect to hear anything – and I didn’t, not even a moan.
The motor’s roar faded until a purr and then was gone. Unless the driver dropped off a passenger who planned to double back, we were safe. Time to trust my instincts. I stood and helped Jolene to her feet.
At the headstone next to the broken column, I knelt for a closer look at the inscription. Jolene hovered over me and shined the flashlight’s beam at the gravestone. The words were worn, but legible. Adelia Franks, wife of CSA Colonel Fletcher Franks, mother of Sarah and John. Born: March 12, 1839. Died: December 14, 1863.
Jolene perched her elbow on my shoulder and maneuvered the flashlight closer to the epitaph. She sighed. “Darn! It’s almost worn away. Too bad.”
Her jasmine perfume proved a distraction as I ran my fingers over Adelia’s legend. “I think I have it. ‘Snatched away in bloom of life. And here she lies in a bed of clay. Until the Resurrection Day.’ I knocked on the stone as if knocking on a door. “Adelia, are you the woman who haunts my dreams? We’ve come to help you.” I began digging.
When the pile of dirt reached Jolene’s waist, I collapsed in the hole and puffed for air. My fingers brushed against the shovel beside me. I pushed it away. “I feel like one of Dickens’ grave robbers.”
“Giving up?” Jolene snorted, then reached out a helping hand. “We’ll fill it in, and you can wait for more dreams, more ghostly visits.”
I slapped her hand away, rose stiffly and heaved the shovel into the dirt. It clanged. “Paydirt! I should be rejoicing, but I’m scared shitless.”
“Wow! A metal casket.” She clapped. “I was afraid we’d find a rotting coffin.”
I sighed. “Or a metal vault, lid too heavy to lift.”
“Don’t think so. I did some online reading. They didn’t start using vaults until the late 1870s and she died in 1864. Had vaults been use in the 1860s, I’d have tried to talk you out of coming out here, Danny. Would have been a waste of time.”
“No vaults until the ‘70s, eh? Let’s hope your source is correct.” I resumed digging, this time with more care. I didn’t want to scratch the lid, maybe ruin an engraving.
Soon, the lid was clear of dirt –a casket lid, not a vault. I grinned and rubbed along the top, felt engravings and latches, then flicked on my cellphone light. “Too dim. Hand me the flashlight.”
“Here it is. Could it still be airtight?”
“We’ll know soon enough.” Phone back in its holder, flashlight clenched in my hand, I shined the beam from one end to the other. The engraver had crafted flowers, and an artist colored them. “Looks like it’s still airtight.” I glanced to the far end and gasped. A glass plate. A miracle I hadn’t broken it. I crawled closer. “Oh, sweet Jesus!” I scooped away clumps of dirt as tears drenched my face. “Her eyes! They’re open – and swollen. Her head’s battered and scratched. Dried blood all over her. Veil over her hair torn to pieces. She was still alive, Jolene.”
“No wonder she came to you in your dreams, Danny.”
“What do we do? Find out who her descendants are? Tell them?”
Jolene shined phone light at Adelia’s gravestone. “There’s probably a biography of her colonel in one of the county histories. The library genealogist could probably tell us about her. She’ll know if any of Adelia’s great-grandchildren are still alive.” Jolene groaned. “On the other hand, we’ve just dug up her grave. That’s a crime. And if you tell them about her visitations, they’ll lock you up in the nuthouse.”
I brushed a sleeve across my face, wiping away tears. “You’re right. We need to fill in the grave and walk home, since my jeep was probably towed. “I turned off the flashlight and looked at the sky alit with stars and the sliver of a moon. “I tried, Adelia. You came too late. One hundred and fifty-one years too late.”
My phone rang. I glanced at Jolene. Her eyes were wide with surprise. “Well, are you going to answer?”
“Sure.” I touched the SEND button and held the phone to my ear. A woman’s voice. I turned the phone to audio so Jolene could hear. “Thank you. I just wanted someone to know. Someone to care. Lordy be! I hear the Colonel calling. I’ll soon be nanty-narking with my man. Bye, Danny. You did well.”
# # #
Michael Staton is the author of a fantasy trilogy. The first two novels, The Emperor’s Mistress and Thief’s Coin, can be purchased via Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Hopefully, the third book, Assassins’ Lair, will be published soon. It’s being looked at by the trilogy’s publisher.