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I headed straight for my car upon leaving the mausoleum.
I rarely left a cemetery with pictures of only two graves, especially Eternal Faith. With over forty thousand graves and only about three thousand memorials uploaded to Resting Place, the cemetery was practically virginal. Whenever I visited it, I always strolled up and down a few rows photographing every visible monument. It seemed like a waste of time and gasoline to leave here with only two graves to upload. However, the paranoid fear that grabbed a hold of me in the mausoleum robbed me of the sense of purpose I usually felt in the cemetery. I had to leave.
Normally, I would have gotten something to eat on my way home. My trusty Corolla, knowing my normal routine, found the slow-moving drive-thru lane of a McDonald’s near my one-bedroom apartment in a Towson high-rise without much conscious assistance from me. However the sight of the glossy pictures of the items on the menu, which usually looked more appetizing than the food itself, made me feel strangely nauseous. And I liked McDonald’s food. At least three or four times a week I stopped at this location for a super-sized Big Mac meal and a small hamburger. I always got a small hamburger to eat on the short drive home. Otherwise, I would eat all of the fries on the way home leaving me only with a sandwich. This time, however, the hamburger meat on the menu appeared sickly grey. Dead. As if it were tough with rigor mortis. Coughing, I felt the sharp sting of some bile at the back of my throat. That was all I needed. I pulled out of the lane and headed home.
I had no firm plans for the day. The Baltimore Orioles were playing the Cleveland Indians that afternoon. I enjoyed baseball and followed it avidly. It was the only team sport my mother deemed safe enough for me to play, especially since my general lack of ability relegated me to the undemanding role of late-inning replacement right fielder. Still, I enjoyed being part of a team and watching the games on television brought back good memories.
I planned to spend the afternoon creating dozens of memorials on Resting Place while watching the game. Since I left the cemetery with only two graves, I thought I could relax and watch the Orioles beat the Indians without distraction. I was wrong. I found myself strangely restless, shifting from my sofa to my chair. A few times, I found myself walking toward my desk, but I always stopped myself. I knew what I would do as soon as I sat down at the desk. I would take the memory card out of my camera and load it into the computer. Then I would upload the dark lady’s photograph.
The thought scared me. Not just because I did not want to look into her eyes again. No, I felt something deeper there, far beyond mere flesh and bone and even mind. I felt some inchoate fear that I was no longer in control of myself. That something, or someone, was manipulating me from shadows too deep to examine.
I tried to shake off the feeling. It was crazy. Irrational. There were no shadows lingering over me. I experienced my share of darkness; perhaps more than my share, with the deaths of my parents and my only brother by the time I was thirty-three-years-old. I certainly went through deep and profound moments of sadness, but nothing like the depression that killed my brother Lenny.
I secretly envied Lenny when we were younger. He possessed an easygoing charm equally effective with both parents and peers. Everybody liked him, especially the girls. I watched in amazement as he would walk up to pretty girls at the mall and have them smiling in no time. I, on the other hand, got better grades in school. It was not a fair trade. The grades got me into college, a life experience Lenny opted to ignore much to our mother’s consternation. He wanted to start living an adult life. On a whim he became a car salesman. I have to admit it was an excellent choice. He could sell anything when he was sane. The problem was that those sane periods became increasingly infrequent.
Lenny drifted into madness in his early twenties. We thought it was drugs at first, but after an arrest for disorderly conduct and a forced committal, we discovered the problem was in his mind. We never got his true diagnosis. Lenny never let his doctors discuss this condition with us. Lenny used the words manic depression, bipolar, paranoid and schizophrenic to describe himself during his lucid periods, which lasted for months provided he took his medication. When he was off his meds, Lenny quickly waded into the darkness of insanity again.
What happened to him frightened me. It was horrifying to watch a dark fluke of internal chemistry send a decent, good-natured guy with prospects spiraling into a tortuous world of his own creation, buffeted by voices and images only he could see or hear. I would not have survived as long as he did. No way. The way I looked at it, we are our minds. Period. The human mind is our only window to the world, and our only means by which to process it. If we lose control of it, we are left with nothing but the derision or pity of those around us. I valued my dignity too much. I could never accept that fate. In the end, neither could Lenny.
One night he leapt from a six-story balcony at a hotel in Ocean City, Maryland where we had once stayed with our family as children. He landed head first on the concrete about two and half feet away from the edge of the swimming pool. Some of Lenny’s more optimistic friends chose to believe this death was a crazy stunt gone awry. They thought he was aiming for the pool, but I knew the truth. It was suicide, pure and simple. Poor Lenny was doomed. It was only a matter of time.
I shuddered with the memory of my brother, and I could not fathom what sent my mind reeling in that direction. I was not that kind of guy. Despite being half-Irish, I was not prone to prolonged bouts of melancholy. When Lenny died, I genuinely mourned him, but I moved on. That’s what strong people did, and, in my own way, I considered myself very strong.
I knew the visit to the cemetery was not responsible for my strange mood either. I had visited Eternal Faith dozens of times without experiencing any inordinate sorrow. It might have been different if I actually visited the family graves, but I was not there to mourn my family. I was there for another family.
The dark woman, I thought.
“No,” I said aloud as I immediately dismissed the thought.
It was just a strange day, I told myself. Things would improve if reliever Darren O’Day held onto the Orioles’ one run lead through the top of Cleveland’s order. I got up from the sofa and headed into the kitchen for a beer. When I opened the refrigerator door the smell of spoiled, rancid meat overwhelmed me. Cupping my nose and mouth with my hand, I quickly slammed the door shut. I was stunned. What could have gone that bad that fast?
I cautiously opened the door again. The smell was gone. I couldn’t believe it. Had I just imagined it? Hearing the commercial end in the other room, I decided to grab a beer and forget about it. But, as I reached for the beer, the mere thought of drinking it made me nauseous.
What was going on? Was I going crazy? Closing the refrigerator door, I headed back to the living room to watch the game.
I headed for the sofa, but I found myself sitting down at the computer. The screensaver slowly rolled through the family photographs I had scanned during my genealogical quest. The parade of images usually calmed and reassured me of my place in the universe, but I found myself becoming unnerved instead. I didn’t intend to go to the desk. Why did I? Angry, I wanted to stand up but I became defiant instead. Walking away now would be giving into this absurd fear. It was better just to get my work out of the way now so I could enjoy the rest of the game in peace. Plus, I still had a chance to beat Tombstone Teri to the punch with the Ritter grave.
I took the memory chip from my trusty Nikon camera and plugged it into my USB adapter. I opened a browser and went to the Resting Place webpage. The photo request for Matilda Ritter was still listed. I smiled. I could still beat Tombstone Teri. I transferred the photos from my memory card to the cemetery folder on my computer. I found my photo of the Ritter grave and dropped it on the add photo icon.
After the photo uploaded, the memorial for Matilda Ritter refreshed. The photograph looked fine, but I didn’t care for the memorial itself that only listed her name and the dates of her birth and death. Not even her maiden name. If I created the memorial, I would have gone to the newspaper and copied the death notice. I would have also gone to the webpage of the funeral home, too. They often featured photographs of the deceased. Pictures of the dead gave a memorial life.
And, speaking of photographs, I still had two more to deal with.
I brought the cursor to the wide shot of the Kostek grave, but something told me to delete the Kostek files instead. That impulse was countered by another force pushing me to create a memorial for Elisabetta Kostek for the whole world to see. This conflict made no sense to me. I had posted literally thousands of photographs of graves and their inhabitants on the website and I never before felt like I was making a moral choice. I certainly felt sad at times, but only if I was creating a memorial for a child or a suicide victim.
I clicked on the file. The image of Elisabetta Kostek’s grave appeared on my computer monitor. Nothing on it should have triggered such an emotional response in me. She wasn’t a child. The late Miss Kostek was seventy-two-years-old, which was more than enough time for anyone. Nothing indicated she died by her own hand either. My misgivings seemed groundless, except that there seemed to be something strange about her face.
I clicked on the next file and the close-up of Elisabetta Kostek filled my monitor. She didn’t creep me out quite as much this time. Her dark eyes looked strangely satisfied. The smile now appeared to be a tiny gloat of victory, as if she knew I would perform as instructed.
I went to the main page for Eternal Faith. I typed in her name. It didn’t show up, which meant the grave was unlisted. I clicked on “add memorial” and typed in her name, then stopped. I needed more information. Was she married? If so, what was her maiden name?
I opened another tab on my browser and went to the death notices section of the Baltimore Sun. I typed in her name but nothing came up. That was surprising. But maybe she wasn’t local. I opened up Ancestry.com with the hope of finding an obituary there. No such luck. They had absolutely nothing about her. Opening another tab, I googled her name. Nothing came up. Not even those find-a-person pay websites you’d get when you type any name into the search engine.
What the hell? You’d think a woman who earned such a wall of flowers two years after her death would have left some sort of Internet trail.
I returned my attention to Resting Place. The cursor blinked in the slot to add her date of birth. The fear that engulfed me in the mausoleum returned. Except this time, I knew I couldn’t escape by running outside into the sun. Some wordless voice beyond the realm of logic and reason assured me that the only way to dispel the fear was to finish the memorial. Another voice, much quieter, warned me that I was making a dangerous mistake.
“Delete the files,” said the voice.
I highlighted the two Kostek files in the folder. My finger actually went to the delete key, but I couldn’t do it. Deleting those files would be giving in to superstition. I always considered myself a rationalist. I was an accountant. I lived in a world of numbers. One plus one equals two, even if a black cat walks by or someone breaks a mirror.
No. I would not delete the Kostek files out of fear. That was absurd. With newfound resolve, I typed Elisabetta’s dates of birth and death into Resting Place using the brass plaque as my sole source. Then I went to my photo directory and grabbed the wide shot of the Kostek grave and dropped it on the add photo icon. I felt no misgiving as it quickly uploaded onto the webpage. That was not true when it came time to add the close-up of Elisabetta’s face.
I grabbed the photo from the directory and held it over the “add photograph” icon. Once again, I felt I was making a choice between good and evil. Once again, rationality rose up in me. There are no voices, I told myself. There are no forces. It’s just a photograph. I found my logic reassuring, but not entirely convincing. It placated my concerns, but I knew deep in my heart I was acting out of fear. I was afraid that something dark had a hold of me, and that it wouldn’t release me until I put the photograph on the Internet.
I dropped the file onto the icon and the haunting photograph of Elisabetta Kostek was added to her memorial for the world to see. I gave her one last look before I closed the browser. Her smile now seemed to reflect some happiness, as if I had freed her. And, if I did, she freed me, too. I felt better than I had all day. Hungrier, too. I was famished.
I went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door again. I barely remembered the horrible stench that greeted me a few minutes ago as I pulled out some containers of leftover Chinese food. I heated it up in the microwave and took it back into the living room to eat during the last few outs of the game. Happily, the Orioles won and, despite my plans to take the salsa dance lessons that night downtown on the thirteenth floor of the Belvedere Hotel, I found myself drifting off to sleep.
Prologue - My Mother
Chapter 1 - RestingPlace.com
Chapter 2 - Elisabetta
Chapter 3 - The Upload
Chapter 4 - The Kobayashi Maru
Chapter 5 - Gina
Chapter 6 - Tombstone Teri
Chapter 7 - The Holy Redeemer Lonely Hearts Club
Chapter 8 - A Mourner
Chapter 9 - War Is Declared
Chapter 10 - The Motorcycle
Chapter 11 - Suspended
Chapter 12 - The Harbor
Chapter 13 - Bad News Betty
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