Click here to read Chapter One.
E L I S A B E T T A
Eternal Faith Memorial Gardens was a perfect example of the kind of cookie-cutter cemetery I grew to despise over the years. It gave me no comfort to know I would be buried there one day myself.
To preserve the so-called natural appearance of the landscape, the management only permitted flat markers, dull rectangles of granite topped with bronze nameplates and the occasional ceramic photograph. Spare me. A person will rest under their monument for a long time. They should be entitled to choose one indicative of their unique personality. Throughout our entire lives, society forces us unceasingly into conformity. Shouldn’t we have the freedom to express ourselves in death? I suppose a philosopher could argue that the cemetery policy satisfied some equalitarian impulse. The graves of the rich and the poor and the famous and the common are indistinguishable at Eternal Faith. Whatever. I suspect the real reason for the policy involved cost. It is cheaper to cut the grass with these flat monuments.
When I turned my trusty red Toyota Corolla into the cemetery, my eyes turned toward our family plot without any mental prodding. The graves laid near the top of a small rise about a hundred-and-fifty-yards from the service road. A sheltering willow tree standing nearby made the spot extremely easy to find. Now you would think someone as obsessed with cemeteries as I was would take this opportunity to visit the graves of his immediate family but you would be wrong. I couldn’t. Sorry.
While I often felt a strange mystical connection to my distant ancestors when I stood at their graves, that sensation was never repeated at the graves of people I actually knew in real life. All I felt when I stood at their graves was their absence. Their loss. I didn’t want to feel that today. It was too bright and sunny. Life was still too alluring. I preferred to think about Andrea, a girl who had asked me to dance three times last night. She was somebody I could see myself asking out for a date. Then again, so was Rita Falstaff. At least on the days she tolerated me.
Rita was the receptionist slash secretary slash sales representative at the cemetery office. She seemed to be about thirty-two-years old, which would make her five years younger than me, a perfectly acceptable age difference. She was a little heavy, but she wore it well. Her hair was blonde, but her roots made a lie of that on occasion. She possessed a friendly smile, and she always seemed relieved to talk to someone who was not in mourning, unless said person was a genealogist. Genealogists were the bane of her existence. Our questions always sent her to a wall of black filing cabinets in the unventilated back room. She despised rummaging through those file cabinets, especially since her predecessor only appeared to have a passing knowledge of the alphabet.
“No, I don’t have time for you, Rick,” she said, groaning audibly when I stepped through the door. “We’ve got three interments today.”
“Only one name, Rita,” I said. “Please.”
“Is it a relative?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Are you going to make me go back there for that stupid website?”
“I’m doing a favor for someone.”
“I’m the one who’s doing the favor,” she sighed as she picked up her pen. “What’s the name?”
She didn’t even bother writing it down. “She’s in the mausoleum. Third tier, on the left.”
Forty thousand people buried at Eternal Faith, and she knew the one I wanted right off the top of her head? I was understandably skeptical. “Are you sending me on a wild goose chase?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Somebody was just in asking about her.”
Oh, no. “Was it Tombstone Teri?”
“Who’s Tombstone Teri?”
“White. Mid-thirties. Kinda stiff -- like a high school math teacher,” Rita replied. “Is that her?”
“Don’t know. I never met her.”
“Then why did you ask me to describe her?” She replied, pointing to the door. “Get out, and don’t come back this week.”
“Thanks, I owe you.”
“I know you do!”
I jumped into my car and drove over to the mausoleum. There weren’t any other cars parked out front. That meant Tombstone Teri probably already got her picture, but I could still beat her to the punch. If I uploaded my picture to the website before she did, I could still get the credit for fulfilling the request. Talk about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. The day was getting better by the moment.
I opened one of the heavy glass double doors of the mausoleum and stepped inside, shivering instinctively. It was eighty-five degrees outside, but it felt like sixty-five degrees inside. The white marble walls and floor sucked the heat right out of the air, leaving only a cool, clammy humidity. If I had a sweater, I knew I would have wrapped it around me. Not simply for the warmth, but also for protection. Yes, protection. My sudden realization that I was afraid shocked me. I was actually afraid.
I couldn’t believe it. My genealogical journeys had taken me into catacombs and crypts. I have seen exposed human remains on numerous occasions, but I had never been afraid. There were no such things as zombies or vampires or ghosts. The dead were simply dead: unmoving, uncaring, and unknowing. They were worthy of respect for who they once were, not for what they have become. The dead could not hurt you, aside perhaps from some living disease brewing in their decay. I knew all of that, but I was still afraid. It was crazy. I had been in this mausoleum many times before and I had never felt this way. It had to be the cold. The sudden shock to my system sought a supernatural cause where none was necessary.
I quickly found the vault housing Mrs. Matilda Ritter’s casket. The third tier was slightly above eye level, but the camera angle would not be too awkward. I just had to brush away the brittle, dead flowers in the bronze vase partially blocking her name. When I touched the flowers, they disintegrated as if they were a thousand years old. The tiny fragments fluttered slowly to the marble floor. My eyes followed them. That was when I noticed the other flower fragments. They littered the floor.
I turned to the nearby vaults. Dead stalks rose up out of the vases. Their petals lay brown and crinkly on the floor. The sight surprised me. This wasn’t like Eternal Faith at all. The cemetery was young and viable with thousands of empty plots for sale and dozens of new burials a week. They had the money and staff to police the grounds properly. The grass was always cut. The trees and bushes were neatly trimmed. The dead flowers were always discreetly discarded.
This was sloppy. Creepy, too.
Once again, a strange supernatural fear tugged at me. I immediately pushed it out of my mind. Why would dead flowers frighten me? Over the course of two months, I documented a large, abandoned African-American cemetery. Every time I visited it, I found human bones and coffins exposed by decades of unchecked erosion. Those sights never scared me. Instead, they angered me enough to shame the absentee owners by exposing them on the Internet. And I did. So why did these flowers scare me? It was irrational.
At first I theorized that the unnatural cold of the mausoleum killed the flowers, but that didn’t make any sense either. You refrigerated flowers to maintain their freshness. They should have thrived near the clammy marble. Nevertheless, they were dead, all of them in the building.
Well, no. Not all of them.
A veritable forest of flowers bloomed near a vault at the other end of the building. There were so many flowers that I thought it was a new interment of a much beloved individual. After snapping a quick photo of the Ritter grave for the webpage, I found myself walking toward the vault, but the colorful array of flowers brought me no joy. If anything, each echoing footstep shouted a warning into my head.
Don’t do it.
I have no idea why I failed to listen. At the time, I would say it was probably my unwillingness to give into superstitious fear. Looking back now, I do not believe I really had a choice. My steps were pre-arranged and pre-determined. I was a chess piece being moved into position by forces beyond my control.
As I neared the grave, I noticed that there was a picture of the deceased. I smiled briefly despite my growing dread. I really appreciated it when people included a ceramic photo of the deceased on their monument. The photos gave you a definite feel for the dead person. This black and white photograph revealed an attractive woman in her mid-to-late forties. Her dark hair and dark eyes did not surprise me. My long years of walking through cemeteries taught me that Italians, Jews and Eastern Europeans were the people most likely to memorialize their loved ones with photos. Therefore, I expected her to have stereotypical dark features.
I could have confirmed my assumptions about her ethnicity by looking down at her name, but her eyes would not release mine. They grabbed a hold of mine and pulled me forward. They were not inherently intimidating or scary. The eyes, much like the half-smile lingering beneath them, hinted at a world-weary wisdom. They possessed the power to seduce, but without the power to love. It was as if she knew a cynical secret that empowered her, but at a terrible price. People have spent centuries speculating on the meaning of the Mona Lisa’s smile, but I did not want to know the reason behind this dark woman’s smile. I knew instinctively it would terrify me.
Still, I walked forward until we were practically face-to-face. Only the wall of flowers stopped me. The smell of flowers could charm me in the wild, but their scent in enclosed areas often sickened me. They reminded me of all of the funerals I dutifully attended. Now, however, I was not thinking of the emotionally neutral funerals of my many aged cousins who contributed mightily to my family tree. I found myself instead at Rucks Funeral Home staring down at the white, powdered face of my dead mother Alice Ann Bakos, nee Sullivan. Eyes shut. Jaws wired tightly. Lips twisted into a smile she never made naturally. Blinking, I found that I had somehow travelled three more years back in time to the closed casket funeral of my poor, doomed brother Lenny. My mother’s mournful wailing filled my ears.
I shut my eyes, hoping the self-imposed darkness would break the spell. It did. Soon the dark woman was gone, as were my brother and my mother’s grief. I rested in the soothing darkness for a moment, my heart still thumping, before I finally opened my eyes again. I resolved not to meet the woman’s eyes again, but I was too curious to turn away. I had to know more about her. I turned to the inscription. It read:
Elisabetta A. Kostek
September 19, 1942 – November 15, 2014
The date of death surprised me. From the overflowing abundance of flowers, I assumed she had newly died, or, at the very least, experienced a recent anniversary of some sort. Perhaps a wedding anniversary, but no husband was listed. These vaults generally housed two caskets. The names of surviving spouses were usually listed in neat bronze letters on the marble, waiting only the inevitable date of death. Maybe she was single, but then who left the flowers?
And, more importantly, why were her flowers so fresh when every other one in the mausoleum was dead.
I took a step back, and then another and another. I thought I was leaving, but that was not the case. Instead I found myself raising my camera to photograph the grave for the website, as I had done literally thousands of times before. First, I took a wide shot capturing the entire front of the vault. Then, with some trepidation, I zoomed in on the photograph of Elisabetta A. Kostek until her face filled my viewfinder. I half-expected her eyes to hook me again as they did previously, but this time she simply stared blankly. Still, call me crazy, but it seemed like the corners of her lips crept up a little bit.
Once the camera found the proper focus, I snapped the shutter and turned away. At first, I walked briskly toward the exit, but my speed increased the closer I got. I was practically running by the time I reached the looming glass doors. An irrational fear suddenly overwhelmed me that the doors would not open when I pushed them, but they did. Still, I did not slow down until I was out of the shadow of the building and bathed entirely in the purifying light of the sun. I sucked in the fresh air as if I had been drowning.
In a moment, the chill of the mausoleum left me.
Or so I thought.