It looked like you were pretending, like you could just open your eyes and get up off that table and come home with me. It didn’t show that your back was broken in three places and the rear of your skull was crushed. Get up, Tommy! Stop teasing. Don’t make this be real. Don’t let me hear what they’re trying to tell me. But you weren’t teasing and I did hear.
First minutes after they said you were gone, all I could think of was never ever laughing with you again, never again laying with my forehead pressed against yours, my arms around you, your hands traveling down, and me whispering, “Stop! What if Cammie or Jesse wake up?” Funny. First it’s parents we gotta be careful not to wake, then it’s kids.
But then other thoughts came creeping in. What do I do now? How’s my one job gonna keep a roof over me and the kids’ heads, when you and me couldn’t keep up when we had your job as well? Your two jobs.
Damn that second job. If you hadn’t of taken that job, maybe you’d still be here. Just until we get out of debt, you said. Then I’ll quit.
I love that about you, that you’re honorable like that. But nobody can work day and night and day and night without something giving. Just saying you can do it don’t make it so! Work evenings at Catalano’s and then go out roofing with Nick and Hatim in the morning? No problem, piece of cake! You smiled as you said that, but it wore you down, and being tired can be as bad as being drunk. It can make you misstep. Make you fall.
“What do I do now?”
I said the words out loud. They just kind of fell out of my mouth and into the emergency room.
“We’ll need to do an autopsy, and once that’s complete, we can give you a death certificate and you can contact a funeral home,” said the one nurse who was still in the room.
“A funeral home? I can’t even pay for the ambulance. How can I pay for a funeral?”
The tears started spilling out of my eyes again. You just can’t be dead, Tommy. It takes way more money to die than we have.
The lady gave me a thin blue box of tissues and patted me on the back. “I’m very sorry for your loss, Ms. Macy. You know, the county does have an indigent burial program, at the cemetery on Green Street, if you’re truly without means. You’d have to fill out some forms, and there’s an income check.” She said more stuff, but I wasn’t listening, just caught at the end that she’d be back with more information for me and some papers to sign. Then she left me alone with you.
You ever been by that cemetery on Green Street? It’s got a chain-link fence around it, and it’s all gravel and weeds in there. No gravestones or statues or nothing like that, just homemade crosses and fake flowers, like people put by the side of the road where somebody’s died in a car crash. All your hard work–and that’s what you come to in the end?
“Doesn’t seem right, does it.”
It was an older guy, all dressed up, shiny shoes and a suit jacket. He stuck out a hand.
“Everett Mear, Mear Funeral Parlor.”
I didn’t offer mine. He sure showed up fast, I was thinking. Does a bell go off in his office every time someone’s pronounced dead? I didn’t even have the death certificate yet.
“I heard what the nurse was saying to you,” he continued. He shook his head. “No one wants an indigent burial; it’s like throwing away the dead. I can tell by your face that you loved your husband; you don’t want him disposed of like so much rubbish. And it doesn’t have to be like that. Some funeral homes do pro bono work–I do, for instance. I can take care of burial costs for you and see your husband buried with dignity, Mrs. . .?”
“Macy. I’m Janelle Macy.” I did shake his hand, then.
“Well, Mrs. Macy, what would you say to burial for your husband in a mahogany casket, in the cemetery on Chestnut Hill, along with transportation from the house of worship of your choice to the burial site–or from my establishment, if you prefer a nonreligious memorial service?”
“All that? For free?”
“That’s right,” Mr. Mear said. “I can’t make the offer for every unknown decedent or abandoned body, but in the case of a young family in difficult financial circumstances, it seems like the right thing to do. It feels good to be able to bring at least this small comfort at such a hard time.”
I know I should of been wondering about the catch, but saving you from Green Street, seeing you laid to rest in a pretty place like Chestnut Hill, it seemed like the one thing, the only thing, that I could do for you.
Mr. Mear was all smiles when he had my answer, and he hurried off to make arrangements with the nurse, leaving me alone with you again. Soon Tommy’ll be gone from me for good. No seeing him ever again, no touching him. I couldn’t bear the thought. In the end, what I did was pull out some strands of my hair and some of yours, and I made them both into loops. I put yours on my finger and mine on yours. Just little wisps of hair, not even as much as we clipped from Cammie and Jesse for their baby books, but it was something of you that I could touch, and something of me to sleep with you, forever.
Couple of days later, Mr. Mear showed me a catalogue of coffins and caskets, and I chose you a fine casket, wood the color of fox fur, with sides as smooth as a mirror. And then it was time to lay you to rest.
Could you see us, that evening at Chestnut Hill? The place was beautiful, on a slope and facing west, so the shadows of the trees down below pointed right up at where we were gathered, getting longer and longer as the sun went down, like they were longing to touch you too.
I wanted a few minutes alone by your grave, so your mother took the kids and went on ahead to the reception. Mine shooed the people from Mr. Mear’s funeral parlor away and told them she’d drive me back. That was when the first strange thing happened. This woman came up to me, nobody I knew, a black woman maybe a couple years younger than me, I guess, with hair cut real close to her head. She wore a silver cross round her neck, lots of silver bracelets on her wrists, and an embroidered bag on a long strap hung from her shoulder. She looked at the rectangle of earth beside me and didn’t say nothing for a minute. Then,
“I’m sorry.” She took a deep breath, like she was about to say something else, but then she just pressed her lips together real tight and was quiet a while more. Finally, she sighed and said,
“If you . . . if you find yourself having trouble sleeping, maybe you want to call me.” She reached into her bag, pulled out a card and pen, scribbled something on the card, then handed it to me. “Fairchild School of Dance” was printed on the card, and underneath, “Laurette Sanon, junior instructor.” She’d written in a number under her name.
By now Ma was glancing at the car, and I knew I had to go.
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks.” Ma opened the passenger-side door, and I climbed in.
“You can call anytime,” Laurette called, as Ma started the engine and slowly pulled onto the cemetery road. In the rearview mirror I could see Laurette still standing there, getting smaller as the car picked up speed.
Trouble sleeping? Of course I’ll have trouble sleeping, now that Tommy’s gone, I thought, but I’m not gonna call a dance teacher about it. But I didn’t throw the card away. I stuck it to the fridge with the bluebird magnet you gave me last spring.
That night the second strange thing happened. But this part you already know, don’t you. I was laying in bed, just thinking, thinking, when I heard you calling, like you had locked yourself out and needed me to let you in. I turned off the window fan and listened, waiting to hear your voice again, but I didn’t hear nothing more.
Next night, same thing. I pulled the fan right out of the window, pushed the windowsill up as far as it would go, and stared out at the traffic light at the corner. Green . . . yellow . . . red . . . green. The street was empty. The traffic light was just talking to itself, and you didn’t call again.
Third night I didn’t go to bed. I took my pillow into the front room, propped it up next to the apartment door, and leaned back against it. I guess eventually I must of started to drift off, but then came your voice, calling. I jumped up, unbolted the door, and rushed down the stairs and out into the street.
“Where are you?” I shouted. And suddenly there you were, as real as life, right in front of me.
“Found you,” you whispered. You grabbed my left hand with a strong, cold grip, and my head started spinning and my breath came uneven, as if it was my neck and not my hand you squeezed. You ran your finger over the ring of your hair that I’d kept right by my wedding band.
“Why’d you do it?” you asked me. “Why?” The look in your eyes! It filled my stomach with ice cubes. Do what? What did I do? Before I could say a word, you looked over your shoulder, hearing something I couldn’t hear, and then the empty air just folded around you, and you were gone.
It was Cammie. I must of woken her when I ran out of the apartment, or maybe when I shouted. She was standing there at the front door blinking and squinting, a frown on her face.
“Hey sweetie. Let’s go back inside. I was just having trouble sleeping, that’s all…”
That moment, I decided I’d call Laurette after all. I went to her place after work. She sat me down and poured us both diet Cokes. There was a bowl of grapes on the table, and little statue of Our Lady holding baby Jesus, both dark skinned, like Laurette, and wearing golden crowns. On the wall was a calendar with a picture of flamingos standing in some water. It was sunset in the picture, and the water was as pink as the birds.
“It’s pretty,” I said.
“It’s L’étang Saumâtre,” Laurette said, sitting down across from me. “A lake, a large lake in Haiti. It’s where I come from.” She broke off a couple clusters of grapes and handed me one. “You been hearing your husband call to you, yeah?” she asked.
I nodded. “And he . . . he came to me.” Her eyebrows lifted when I said that. “He grabbed my hand real tight”–I grabbed hers, to show her–“and then he disappeared.”
Her eyes lit on the ring of your hair.
“His?” she asked.
I nodded and told her how I made them for both of us. She smiled at that.
“You’re smart,” she said. “Good instinct–makes things much easier. You can go directly to him; no need to deal with Mr. Mear at all.” The poison in her voice when she said his name!
“What’s Mr. Mear got to do with it?”
“Mr. Mear stole away your husband’s body. That grave at Chestnut Hill is empty. That’s why your husband’s calling you, coming to you–he has no place to rest.”
It was like a punch in the chest.
“He blames me,” I said, feeling sick. “But I didn’t know! How was I supposed to know? I just wanted- I just didn’t want Tommy to end up in Green Street.” I could feel tears starting to prick in my eyes, so I gulped down some of the Coke.
“What’s Mr. Mear want. . .” I couldn’t bring myself to finish the question. A person only steals dead bodies for horrible things.
“He heard ghosts make good workers,” Laurette said, voice still poison laced. “They can work from sundown to sunrise without stopping, and they don’t need no food, no water. What he want workers for, though, I don’t know.”
“Mr. Mear can make them work for him? Make Tommy work for him?”
“He can’t force them. But the restless dead, trapped between this world and the next? They got nothing but their longing, and they long for so many things. One sip of cool water? A ghost would slave for that. And they’ll work longer and harder for a taste of beer. In Haiti they crave rum. Here, some want whiskey and some want tequila and some want neat gin. And that’s just drink. So if Mr. Mear comes along, knowing just what to offer, how many do you think will turn him down?”
“He’s good with his offers, that’s for sure,” I muttered.
“Yes, he is,” Laurette said, and her tone made me look up.
“Did you- Did he offer- Did you lose someone?” I been so focused on me, and us, that I hadn’t stopped to think about Laurette’s story at all. She nodded.
“Like you. My husband. Mr. Mear’s daughter takes lessons at the studio where I work. When I started teaching, I told the students a little about myself, about where I come from, traditions in Haiti, about dancing . . . Well, some time after that, Mr. Mear come after class, asking to speak to me, asking roundabout questions, very roundabout, but I understood what he really wanted: he was hoping to learn about spirits, ghosts, magic, all that.
“And he says to me, ‘Anyone back home having trouble coming to the states? Maybe you need help with immigration?’ I don’t know how he knew. Maybe wicked people are just clever at finding weakness. Or maybe he figured that everyone who makes it here has someone they’d like to bring over. But that was our deal. I teach him what I know about ghosts and how to handle them, and he speak to his friends, get them to pull strings, move along on my husband’s application.
“I waited to hear from lawyers, waited for paperwork . . . finally I asked him, what’s happening? What’s the news? ‘Oh, bureaucracy, you know, the paperwork’s so complicated, it’s hard after the earthquake, documents lost, INS is incompetent,’ he says. ‘Tell you what, though: I know someone down south who’s got a boat—we’ll bring your husband here that way and sort out his status later.’” Laurette shook her head. “I knew that was a bad plan, but I was impatient, and Christophe was impatient too.”
“Christophe went to the dock on the arranged day. He had all his money on him, everything for starting a new life here, and thieves jumped him. Where was the man he was supposed to meet? Where was the boat? Delayed, Mr. Mear told me, later. Delayed! Too late for my husband. My mother-in-law called me from the hospital the next day. Christophe died from his injuries. At least he’s safely buried, though. Not a ghost slave for a wicked man.
“I wanted to kill Mr. Mear,” Laurette said, practically spitting out the words. “But he was quick and cunning. He took me to court, showed them letters he claimed I sent him, said I made threatening phone calls. The court granted him a restraining order. You see? So if anything happen to him, the police will come to me first. I would have taken revenge anyway,” she added in a low voice, “but too many depend on me back home. Without the money I send back . . .” She heaved a deep sigh.
“So I just watched and waited. Saw him so nobly help two families after car crashes. Another after a drowning, then another–a murder. And I suspect he steals bodies of others, ones who die young and strong, whose families ask for cremation. Easy to hand over ashes–any ashes, who will know?–and keep the bodies. I watched and saw what I saw, but there was never a person I thought I could speak to, until you.”
She looked straight at me, very serious. “If I help you put your husband to rest, will you bring down Mr. Mear for me?”
“Damn straight I will.”
“All right. First thing is for you to go to your husband, find out what Mr. Mear has set him to do, and where. But you can’t go to him as you are now; you need to go like a ghost yourself.”
“Really?” Doubt fluttered up in me.
“How else you think you’re going to find him? Say you call him and he come to you, like last night. But then he vanish. How will you follow if you’re not a spirit? Or say you call him, and he don’t answer? As a spirit, you can listen for the echo from your own self, wrapped around his finger.”
“How about I just go to Chestnut Hill and tell them Tommy’s grave’s empty, get them to dig it up for me? When they find out Mr. Mear’s burying empty caskets, that oughta get him in trouble fast enough.”
“And how you intend to make them believe you? You going to tell them your husband’s ghost been haunting you? ‘Poor woman, she’s mad with grief,’” Laurette said, making her voice sound just like the nurse’s at the hospital, like our landlady’s, like Krista and Sandy at work.
“Okay, then,” I said, swallowing. “How do I go as a spirit?” She left the room a minute and came back with a little wooden box.
“This has poisons in it,” Laurette said, opening it. There were dried bits and pieces inside, shriveled things, flakes of things. “Nightshade, wolfsbane, hemlock, destroying angel. Put a pinch in oil and rub it just below your nose before you go to sleep. The scent of the poisons will open the doors of death for your spirit, so it can fly out of your body. So long as you don’t swallow the ointment, the doors will stay open, so your spirit can return again.” Then she unfastened her silver cross and handed it to me.
“Sleep with this around your neck, with the cross right on your lips. When the light of morning hits it, it’ll call to your spirit, reminding it of the resurrection, and you’ll wake.”
“I don’t know about using a cross for magic,” I said, but Laurette just folded her arms and looked at me like I was a kindergartener refusing to get on the school bus.
“The Good Lord wants you to rise up every day that’s given to you, and to rise up again at the end of days. You rather find some other way to call your spirit home?”
“I . . . I guess not.”
“Just remember two things,” Laurette said, pacing now. “One, keep your bedroom door shut when your spirit’s traveling. Your body will seem cold and dead, and it won’t do for your children or anyone else to see you like that. Two, if you meet up with Mr. Mear, don’t speak to him. He’s a snake; he’ll strike you. But once you find where he’s keeping the bodies of your husband and the others, then you can crush him with the law. The police won’t listen to me, but they’ll listen to you.”
For the rest of the day, half of me was trying to push the sun down and the kids into bed, so I could get started with finding you, and the other half was thinking things like Don’t do it and What the hell place am I rushing off to, anyway? But that was the thing: whatever the hell place it was, it was one I stuck you into. So now I’m gonna pull you out. When the strong part of me thought that, the weak part shut right up.
I locked our bedroom door and lay down on my back on the bed. Some of Laurette’s poison was soaking in cooking oil in a mug on the night table. I rested the cross on my lips, smeared some oily drops under my nose, and breathed deep.
It felt like someone had poured cement down my windpipe and filled up my lungs with it. I couldn’t take a breath, couldn’t scream, couldn’t lift a finger, though my heart was pounding fit to power a racecar. I struggled with all my might to get up–and then suddenly staggered forward, gasping. A knife blade pain moved from my shoulders down my arms and through my ribs. The marrow in every bone in my body had been replaced with hot coals. I guess you know the feeling; I guess you know it way better than me. I didn’t know it hurt so much to be caught between the land of the living and the sleep of the dead.
I ran my finger along the ring of your hair and called to you. I heard my own voice come back to me, from faraway, just like Laurette said.
I started walking in that direction, not out the door or through the window, but somehow into the space between wherever our bedroom is, in the whole wide universe, and where you were laboring.
First thing I was aware of was someone singing, chain-gang style:
Tired in my bones but I can’t rest long
How many my crimes that I still ain’t free?
Where’s the green pasture promised me?
Lord, what’s the devil done to me?
And then my eyes caught up with my ears, and I saw you all, looked to be about twenty of you, all told, ankle deep in mud, working with shovels. They sloshed when they sliced into the ground. I noticed other sounds, too–frogs, some chirping like birds and some with real deep voices, and also bugs, jinglebell crickets and maraca katydids. Behind you, inky black water snaked in and out between little spiky, grass-covered humps and lumps and the thin silhouettes of trees.
“Tommy!” I called again, and you turned.
There was joy in your face, but it disappeared in an eyeblink. “What happened to you? Why are you here?”
The others had stopped work too and were coming closer.
“She the one that put you here?” asked a big guy, fixing me with a stare that made me take a step backward. I was glad you came and stood between us. But the pain when you put your arm around me! I flinched and you recoiled.
“It’s not like huggin’ a living girl,” said a skinny guy, laughing a little. “Embracin’ the dead makes the death pains worse instead of better. But at least you can kiss her all you want without pullin’ the life outta her, seein’ as she’s already here. If you don’t mind the pain, that is. Go ahead. You gonna? I would, if I was you.”
I would of smacked the leer right off his face, but you were looking so sad, I knew I needed to reassure you, first.
“I’m not dead. It’s just temporary. It’s so I can rescue you from all this.” I waved an arm at wherever we were. Some miserable swamp. “Whatever Mr. Mear said, don’t believe it. You don’t gotta work for him.”
“Oh yes you do,” said the deep-voiced singer. “You don’t pull your weight, there’s no way we’ll get enough of this done for some gambling. No gambling, no winnings. No winnings, and I’ll spend the first hours of the next shift making you feel some real pain.”
“That’s Harrison,” you said. “He’s the foreman.”
You took up your shovel and started digging again. I looked around for an extra one, but there weren’t none spare, so I reached down and grabbed up some of that waterlogged mud with my hands and slapped it down where you all were putting what you dug up.
“Mr. Mear can’t really make you work for him,” I said, low, so Harrison and the others wouldn’t hear. “I’m gonna find out where he’s got your body, and then I’ll have you buried for real, and then you won’t be restless like this.”
“I gotta, Janelle; I signed a contract. He said you owed him six thousand dollars for my casket and funeral, and he could either chase after you with debt collectors or I could work it off.”
“He’s a cheating liar,” I said, flinging down another handful of muck. “He told me he was giving me those things for free.”
You straightened up, one of those teasing smiles on your face, and said,
“When’s anything like that ever free?”
“But he didn’t even really bury you! He stole you!” And then I nearly laughed, because were we actually bickering? Next thing I knew, we were in each other’s arms, clinging to each other, never mind the fire that flared down every nerve when we touched.
“Let’s see the spade moving, loverboy,” said Harrison, and back to work we went.
“What is this work, anyway?” I asked. I couldn’t do much without a shovel—more stuff slipped through my fingers than made it to the mound of dirt.
“Draining a swamp,” you said with a grunt.
“‘Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low,’” said Harrison.
“And every stinking swamp’ll become prime real estate,” said one of the others. After that no one talked much; there was just the sound of the shovels and the frogs, and sometimes Harrison, singing, until much later, when the skinny one shouted and pointed. A pale-bright light, like fireflies make, shone in the distance.
“Mr. Mear’s callin’! Let’s go!” All the shovels fell with wet thuds.
“They gamble with Mr. Mear,” you said, following after. “He puts in whiskey shots and they put in time. Everyone loses more than they win. They’ll end up working for him forever, but they don’t care. They think it’s worth it.”
“You look like you do, too.”
“I’m telling you, Janelle, if I gotta exist like this, it might be. A drink takes the phantom pain away, like the touch of the living does. But he said he’d release me once I paid off the funeral costs, and I don’t want to be stuck here forever. So far I only played once, and that was to win time to see you.”
We’d come to an open door, a rectangle glowing with the softest light I ever seen. At one end of the room through the door, behind a table, was a shimmering man, beautiful and a little frightening, like I always imagined an angel would be. Two frowning figures, white as chalk, stood on either side of him, arms crossed.
“That’s Mr. Mear,” you said.
I thought I would choke.
“That? That’s Mr. Mear? No!”
But when you said it, I could see it. It was Mr. Mear, but transformed, as if all the power and glory of heaven had dropped down onto his shoulders.
“It’s not right! He’s a wicked man, an evil man. How’d he get to be so, so. . . ”
“It’s just cause he’s alive, Janelle. That’s all. All the living look that way. You looked like that, when I saw you by the apartment, only better. You looked a thousand times better than him.”
“Tonight’s game is roulette, boys,” Mr. Mear was saying. “Each chip’s worth an hour, and I’ll pay out in bourbon–Keep back, Grady; that’s close enough.”
Grady–I recognized him as the menacing big guy–had leaned a little too far forward over the table, and the figure on Mr. Mear’s left thrust a bone-white arm between Mr. Mear and him. It glinted in Mr. Mear’s glow, and Grady shrank back.
“He won’t let us get too near him,” you whispered. “Doesn’t want us to pull him down to join us. Those bodyguards he got, they’re made of salt. No dead thing can cross them.”
“Macy, you in?” Mr. Mear asked. “You want to win another visit with your sweet wife?”
“Nah, I don’t think I’ll be doing that again,” you said, and I did a double take, cause your voice sounded as bitter as on the night you came to the apartment.
“Then come play to forget about her,” Mr. Mear coaxed.
“S’okay Mr. Mear. I’m good,” you said, and Mr. Mear’s bright face darkened a little.
Seemed like no more than three spins of the wheel later that Mr. Mear was clapping his hands and saying it was time to call it a night. He took a step to the left, and I could see a thick, ugly door of rough boards there behind him.
“Sun’ll be up soon,” Mr. Mear said. “Time to rest.” He threw open that door, and out came a horrible smell of spoiled meat so strong I thought I’d puke. And you all started walking toward it.
“Don’t go!” I cried, not even thinking of Mr. Mear and whether he would see or hear me. “Not into that!”
“I have to,” you said, but your voice was so thin, it was barely there. You were barely there.
And I was barely there. There was a cold blade against my lips. No, not a blade. My eyes opened. The first light of morning was shining through our window, onto Laurette’s cross.
“Mom? Mom?” Jesse’s anxious voice on the other side of the bedroom door. I swung my feet to the floor and stumbled over, opened it.
“Cammie came into my bed,” he said. “She had bad dreams and called for you, but you didn’t come.” He looked up at me. “Are you okay? You won’t get sick, will you? You look like maybe you’re getting sick.”
I wrapped my arms around him.
“I won’t get sick, buddy. I’m here for you.” I squeezed him tight.
After work, I headed straight to city hall, to the Conservation Commission. Think you can make a fortune off some drained swampland, Mr. Mear? Cause I don’t think so. Tommy’s told me how the developers and contractors gripe about wetlands laws. Those would be the laws you’re breaking, with the labor of my husband and the rest of your ghost slaves. You just wait till I find what wetlands you own. I’ll go straight to the police, and I’ll have not one, but two things to get you for: keeping dead bodies on your property without burying them, and destroying wetlands. What a fierce pleasure it was to think on that. You feel it coming, Mr. Mear? It’s your punishment.
It was hard to settle the kids that night. Cammie kept saying she wanted to sleep in my bed, and I ended up snapping at her, saying I needed peace and quiet. She gave me a look that just tore my heart, but what could I do?
“You let her come sleep with you again if she’s fretful, okay?” I said to Jesse, and he nodded.
Alone in the bedroom, I rubbed the poison ointment on and waited for the pangs of death to take hold. Then I went through the between space to where you and the others were. I wrapped my arms around you and you pulled me close, a white-hot razor wire hug. Then we staggered apart, and I showed you the spade that I bought on my way back from city hall and the police station.
“I’m gonna help you,” I said. “We’ll work side by side, every night, till the police come and shut Mr. Mear down–which won’t be too long, after what I told them today.”
“Janelle . . .”
Why’d you look so sad? It was worse than the look Cammie gave me.
“I don’t want you to come here.”
You don’t mean that. Didn’t you just hold me as tight as I held you?
“I’m worried you’re gonna wear yourself out. I don’t know how you found a way to be here like this, but it can’t be good for you. And I don’t like seeing you like, like . . .” you waved your hand at the others, at yourself. “I’d rather see you alive.”
“What, is she back again?” It was Grady, slouching over with narrowed eyes and a sneer.
“What’s it to you? I brought a shovel; I’ll help you dig your stupid ditch,” I said.
“The more workers, the more progress, and the more time we’ll get to play,” piped up someone else, and Harrison just gave me a silent nod. So we worked, side by side, until Mr. Mear’s light called from what the maps in the Conservation Commission offices said was a hunting cabin.
This time it was blackjack, and Mr. Mear invited you to play again, and he peered back in our direction when you didn’t come forward.
“What’re you hiding back there, Macy?” he asked. “Or who?” And he actually stepped out from behind his table, the salt guards flanking him.
“Nothing. Nobody. I’ll play,” you said, pushing me out the cabin door.
“Don’t you come back here tomorrow,” you said to me, voice low and words quick. “I’ll win some time tonight and I’ll come to you. It’ll work out; odds are good with blackjack.” You shut the door and left me to keep the frogs and mosquitoes company until the sun on Laurette’s silver cross called me back to the living.
“Why do you lock the bedroom door?” Jesse asked me in the morning, though I couldn’t hardly make out the words–he had his face pressed against my stomach and arms wrapped tight around me.
“I won’t lock it tonight,” I said, and I didn’t: I let the kids climb into bed with me, and when they were asleep, I slipped out to sleep on the couch, to wait for you. But the hours went by, and first the birds started singing and then the early-morning trucks started rumbling past, and you still didn’t come, and then the sun came up and there wasn’t no point in waiting no more.
I left a message at the police station before going in to work that morning. I wanted to hear if they had investigated that cabin and found you and the others. I wanted to hear if they seen the ditches you all were digging to draw the water out of the swamp.
All morning I was jumpy and distracted, hoping for a call back. I got a talking to from the manager after lunch break, but still I couldn’t focus on work. Two thoughts kept chasing around in my head: why haven’t the police called back, and why didn’t you come last night? Maybe Mr. Mear found out I been to the police, and he took it out on Tommy. But how? What could Mr. Mear do to you? Can a living man harm a dead one? Laurette would know. I texted her, but she didn’t answer.
Maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe Tommy just didn’t get a winning hand, and that’s why he couldn’t come. And that was the way the day crawled by, my thoughts tumbling over each other, and that was why, after dinner, I told the kids I needed to sleep alone again.
But before I lay down and locked the door, a idea came to me. If it was drink Mr. Mear was using as a lure and a chain, what if I brought everyone some? Maybe I could launch a ghost strike, give Mr. Mear some grief in the spirit world, until the police caught up with him in the waking one. At least I could take away everybody’s phantom pain. I grabbed a couple bottles of vodka from our sin cupboard, then shut myself up in the bedroom. I smeared on the poison, let the cement fill my lungs. Soon I was at your side, but you weren’t in the mood for hugs.
“Janelle, you shouldn’t be here; you gotta get outta here,” you said, casting glances at the others. Grady was watching us, arms crossed, and the rest were staring too. You pulled me away from the ditch and behind a swamp maple.
“Yesterday, when Mr. Mear was dealing the cards, Grady told him about you coming here. Harrison stuck up for you, said you took up a spade alongside the rest of us, but Mr. Mear didn’t even hear him, just turned to me and said, ‘It’s your wife, then, that’s been trying to make trouble for me. I can’t have that.’ He was steamed. You gotta leave–I don’t want him to find you here.”
“So he’s steamed, so what? What’s he gonna do to me? Or you, or any of the others here? If he tries to touch you, it’s him that gets hurt, right? That’s what he’s got those bodyguards for, I thought.”
A deep laugh interrupted me. It was Harrison. Him and the others had come over; they were standing in a half circle around the swamp maple.
“It’s not what he might do; it’s what he might not do. He might decide never to let them rest,” Harrison said, with a nod toward everyone else. “He might just let’m rot out here, leave them stranded here. Forever.”
“Them? What do you mean them? You different?” Just asking the question filled me with dread.
“Yes, I am different, little girl. I met my death in this swamp long before you was born. Been wandering here ever since. I ain’t never gonna rest now–who knows where my bones lie? Not even me. But you know who’s offered me relief? Mr. Mear. I came up to him when he set the first three boys to work. Asked him to take me too, said I’d keep the boys in line if he’d share a couple sips of that bright fire water.”
“I got some of that stuff,” I said, seizing my chance. “And I’ll share it with you. With everyone. Here.” I held out the bottles, and the others drew nearer, moths to a flame. Harrison took a swig from one and sighed a sigh like chains falling to the ground.
“That’s not all,” I continued, talking fast, “I know where Mr. Mear’s got everyone’s bodies, in the waking world. I’m gonna make sure everyone’s buried the way they should be, so they can rest in peace. So you see, no one needs to do nothing for Mr. Mear if they don’t want to.”
Cheers went up, but I couldn’t tell whether it was for the promise of getting free of Mr. Mear or just for the drink. Harrison still looked long faced, though. Of course: what’s one night’s celebration to him? What happens after this? Everyone else laid to rest, and him still left wandering here.
“I’ll make the police search the swamp for your body, too,” I said to him. “And if they can’t find it, I’ll save up money until I can buy a stone for you, and even though it’s trespassing, I’ll find a way to put it here. I won’t let you be forgotten.” It was all I could offer, but it was enough to make Harrison smile.
“You have a fine wife, Macy,” he said. He started humming a tune, then singing the words, and soon everyone was joining in for the chorus.
Come swift the hour of freedom and release
Delight my aching heart, my joy increase.
With a swallow of vodka I could kiss you and there was no pain at all. We could touch like we did in the living world; we could dance. It was better than my wildest hope–I never thought I was gonna bring you back to the living, but for those hours, it was like I had. And it wasn’t just you. The others seemed this close to alive again, too, as if even the rising sun couldn’t force you all back to the prisons of your rotting bodies.
But if drink was all it took to raise the dead, there wouldn’t be nobody left sleeping in graveyards. There came a moment when the carousing stopped and everyone’s smiles faded.
“Janelle . . .” Your voice was a choked whisper, and your eyes looked right past me.
I turned round. It was Mr. Mear, coming toward us from the hunting cabin, a bodyguard on either side.
“Mrs. Macy. I thought I might find you here. You sure do have your heart set on plaguing me, don’t you,” he said. “And this after the nice funeral I gave your husband. I guess it’s like they always say: no good deed goes unpunished. Here, Alvarez, I’ll take that.”
The guy holding the remaining bottle of vodka handed it to him. Mr. Mear took a sip and made a face.
“This is garbage; is this what you’re offering?” He emptied what was left onto the ground. “Don’t fret, boys. I have much better stuff for you. You stick by me; I’ll stick by you. Hell, I’ll even offer you some, Mrs. Macy, if you apologize for the headache you caused me and ask nicely.”
“Hell to you too, Mr. Mear. I hope I give you more than headaches; I hope I give you jail time.”
“So I gathered from Dick at the Conservation Commission. ‘Everett,’ he says to me, ‘You’re not thinking of tampering with that land of yours, are you? You know it’s illegal to drain wetlands.’
“‘Come on, Dick, what do you take me for?’ I said. ‘Even if I were fool enough to entertain the idea, have you seen the road to the hunting cabin? It’s barely more than a track for quads. You couldn’t get equipment up there without some serious clearing–or do you imagine I’d try tackling the job with my bare hands?’ We both had a good laugh.” He paused, and his eyes lingered on the ditches you guys been working on, and the mounds of earth.
“When I get done here,” he said softly, “and I finally do call people in to do a field survey, they’ll realize that the old assessments must have been mistaken.” He glanced my way.
“Dick told me some woman had been by, saying I was breaking the law. ‘Who, that Haitian girl? Cause she’s just crazy,’ I said. And he said no, and described you. And all I can say is, it’s a shame you came to this end. Your poor children.”
“Save your sympathy. I’m not dead just yet, thank you very much. I’ll be rising up at first light.”
He shook his head.
“Oh, I don’t think so. I took the liberty of dropping by your place this evening, before coming here. I wanted to chat with you about your visit to the Conservation Commission. Your little boy buzzed me in. Such solemn eyes on someone so young! He said you’d locked your bedroom door, and that you didn’t answer, even when he banged real hard on it. I got the door open and we found you, still and cold, a mug of something nasty on the night table beside you. We called the ambulance, but it was too late.”
Panic whirlwinded up in me, fanning the phantom pain to white hot; I could barely stand.
“No. No, you’re wrong. It’s only temporary. I–”
“Sure looked permanent to me, and to the paramedics. In any case, if it’s not now, it will be when the medical examiner gets in and takes a knife to you for the autopsy.”
“I’ll wake up before that.” So hard for me to get the words out, with fear constricting my heart and turning my tongue to sand in my mouth. “At dawn–the light on the silver cross’ll–”
“This silver cross?” He pulled Laurette’s cross from his pocket.
My legs gave out on me. I was down on my knees in the mud, tears rising in my eyes and a sob rising in my throat–for our babies, for you and me, for how wrong it is that the Mr. Mears of the world prosper while the Tommys and Laurettes and Janelles are left to struggle and weep. Guess it was all too much for you, too: I heard you roar, felt you rush past me, trying to get your hands on Mr. Mear, but of course those salt guards pushed you away, and right back against the swamp maple, pinning you there with their crystal hands, and at their touch you writhed and screamed. All the other guys shrank well back–scared, helpless ghosts.
“Try something like that again, Macy, and I’ll dump your stinking corpse someplace so godforsaken that you’ll never find another soul to haunt,” Mr. Mear said.
I pulled myself to my feet, feeling nothing but flames and fire.
Mr. Mear turned his radiance my way.
“I want you both to understand something,” he said. “You can try my patience to the breaking point, but you can’t actually do anything to me, whereas I have the power to make your waking hours torture, or”–he waved the bodyguards back, and you crumpled down at the base of the swamp maple–“if you promise to behave, I can be generous. I won’t hold a grudge. I’ll let you work here, both of you, so long as you stay in line. Once I feel confident you won’t act up, I can let you play for time to look in on your kids. How’s that sound?”
I couldn’t let him win. Even if he had.
“Sounds like empty promises, seeing as you’ll be as dead as us pretty soon, if you don’t call 911,” I said–a desperate lie.
He just laughed. It was kerosene for my rage.
“The vodka. You said it was garbage, but it’s worse’n that. It’s poison. I put some of Laurette’s special mixture in, cause I was hoping a greedy bastard like you might steal a swig. And see, the way that stuff works is, if you keep it on the outside of you, it won’t kill you, but if you drink it, you’re definitely gonna die.”
How I wished it was true! I wished so hard, I could almost remember pouring the oily mix into the mouths of the bottles.
“I spilled some on the bed,” I said, “but most of it went in. That’s why you found the mug nearly empty. That’s why there’s grease marks on the bottle labels.”
“I don’t remember the mug being nearly empty,” Mr. Mear muttered, turning the bottle round and squinting at the label. When his eyes met mine again, I could see a little seed of fear had sprouted in him.
“Maybe if you call an ambulance, they can pump your stomach or something,” I said. “Of course, then they’ll find the bodies you got stashed here.”
He flung the bottle down.
“I won’t do that,” he said though gritted teeth, but his hand strayed toward his pocket.
The sky was getting pale, and the leaves of the trees were turning from shades and shadows to green, and you and the others started drifting toward the cabin. Me, I could feel myself tugged in a different direction.
But something was flashing down beyond the cabin, blue and white lights, so bright, coming nearer. The police, after all? How?
“Guess you been found out anyway,” I said to Mr. Mear, but I didn’t have a chance to gloat. I was moving through nowhere space, back to where my body lay, and I knew without Laurette’s cross to call me to waking, I’d slip right into death, for permanent.
So what’s this thin, cold weight here on my lips? How are my eyes opening?
Above me, I saw Laurette’s face; behind her, the bags, tubes, and displays of hospital stuff. My hand went to my mouth, and my fingers closed round a silver cross.
“But Mr. Mear had it,” I whispered.
“You think I have just one? I got your text yesterday, but by the time I was free to call, it was very late. Your mother answered. I could barely catch her words through her tears, but when I understood what happened, I called the police. They had to act–too strange for a woman who accuses a man of a crime to be found dead by him. Then I came here, and when I saw the cross been taken from you, I replaced it with the one I was wearing.”
“But the light of morning? There’s no windows in here.”
She smiled and held out a compact mirror.
“I brought that, too. Every Sunday I catch the first light in my mirror. It’s good medicine. Open up the compact, and the light shines out.”
I took a deep breath. Slowly in, slowly out. I pushed myself to sitting, felt my heart beating.
“I’d be dead if it wasn’t for you. My babies would be orphans.”
“I was the one who put you in harm’s way in the first place.”
I shook my head. “You helped me rescue my husband and the others.” Harrison too, I thought. I gotta tell the police about Harrison. “Mr. Mear will go to jail, and the dead will rest in peace.”
My heart ached as I said that. No more meeting you, Tommy, not till my time really does come. I just gotta bear it. And maybe Green Street’ll be your resting place, after all, but if it is, I gotta bear that, too. I’ll plant flowers there, real ones, and water them. I’ll make your patch of ground prettier than a garden, and I’ll go there and sit in among the flowers, to be near to you.
Laurette offered me a hand, and I hopped down from the table. She put an arm around my shoulders–so warm.
“Let’s go show the doctors this miracle, and then take you home to your mother and your children,” she said. I wiped my eyes and nodded, and we headed out into the new day.