It was simple. Without pretense. The headstone was still polished and gleaming, although the ground around it had settled and no longer appeared disturbed. I've read it over and over again, until the writing was burned into my mind. It haunted me when I closed my eyes, refusing to let me pretend or feign ignorance. Another stone sat beside mine, identical in dimensions and font, although fate had not yet dictated the final date.
The side-by-side plots were located in a cemetery minutes from our home. It was old, my grave separated by the next by over fifty years, and few visitors graced the grounds. The town had taken over responsibility and upkeep since the church it had once belonged to had long ago been claimed by weeds and a few raccoons. It was a vacant, lonely place. But that was what had drawn me here.
I've always loved cemeteries. Well, love isn't quite the right word for it. It was more...respect. There isn't anything to love about death, but there is certainly something to respect. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust...headstones become worn and illegible, footsteps trample over us, and we are left to nature's course. It is reliable, constant, dependable.
So many try to turn a blind eye to the inevitable. I used to, too, until I found that the more I tried to ignore it, the more it fought to be seen. Death infiltrated my thoughts, distracting and distressing me whenever it saw fit. It demanded to be seen, to be acknowledged, to be accepted.
So, I did. I embraced the unknown and choose to stare into the darkness. Where does one find the darkness, you ask? Anywhere, really, but my choice was cemeteries. I began wandering through the gravestones, staying on the well-worn paths, opening myself up to the unknown.
The atmosphere in cemeteries is unusual. I often felt the air become heavy and dense when I opened the gate. The temperature would drop, the wind picked up, and it would become quiet. A quiet that I had never experienced before. Have you ever seen the sound dampening things on the walls in recording studios or music rooms? It felt like those were floating around you, absorbing and dissipating any sound that tried to break through.
But what I noticed most were the emotions that flooded over me. Grief, fear, loss, sonder, serenity, peace...they swirled and blended together until they were indistinguishable on their own. There's no word to describe what they created. It washed over the world like water over sand. With each wave the world became smaller, compact, focused. It wiped away the fake, frivolous, and superficial; only truth and reality remained in its wake, pulling me down and holding me in their grasp.
It left me with a sense of duty while in the presence of the deceased. As if I had been charged with remembering them, acknowledging them. As if I needed to open myself up to feel what they felt. To let them know they were not alone. They were not forgotten. They mattered, and they were more than the worn letters and numbers serving as remnants of their time here.
Who was this person? Who did they love? Who loved them? What made them laugh? What made them cry? Were they ready to go? Did they go in peace? Or in horror? Are they still spoken about by family or friends? Or has their grave been forgotten, now seen only by me?
Mark hates graveyards. He refused to walk with me; he would wait in the car and play on his phone, listen to the radio, read a book...anything to avoid thinking about where he was. I tried to explain to him why I did this, why I needed to do this, but the confusion never cleared from his eyes. My words failed me and I ended up musing about life and death in a directionless ramble.
He's afraid of death. As I was. As we all are. It's such a personal fear that it's difficult to recognize it's universality. Yet we all have to find a way to face it on our own. We all chose different ways. I don't know if one is better than any other...but I suppose it doesn't really matter in the long run, does it?
I wish I could tell him that it's okay. That I'm okay. That he doesn't need to be afraid. It happens faster than you think. You probably won't remember any of it. At least, I don't. It was a car accident, I think...but death's kind of a funny thing. I knew it would happen to me someday. I even knew it would probably happen once I saw the lights. But I never felt like it would. Even while I watched the headlights speeding toward us, all I could think about were the streaks on the window. Those damn streaks...
There is one more thing that you should know. I never did believe in ghosts. I never saw one, never experienced anything that I would ascribe to one. The responsibility I felt, the need to be there and remember...that was for those who had passed, not those who may linger. As far as the emotions that weighed the air, I wasn't entirely convinced that they weren't merely my own emotions projected onto the dead. I never felt like it mattered one way or the other.
I was confident that death was the end. That once we were gone, our tethers to the physical world would be permanently and irrevocably broken. I was thoroughly content with this, too. I was never a big fan of ghost stories. I was content, that is, until I saw Mark for the first time.
I can't explain what happened. I don't claim to know how it works. Like I said, I saw the streaks on the window and then everything went black. When I woke up, I was already here. Had been for a while, if I had to guess. I was cold and confused, and I didn't know what to do. I couldn't go far, though, so that limited my options. I stared at my headstone until I heard him.
Mark visited me every night. He didn't talk or weep or bring flowers like everyone expects. He just came to be there, like I had done all those times before. I tried to reach out to him, to brush his hair out of his eyes or wipe a solitary tear off of his cheek, but he never reacted.
I counted every visit, every day. Eighty-six. I saw the toll this was taking on him. I saw his movements become more mechanical and stiff, like he was aging years instead of months. I saw his hair get longer and longer. I was the only one he had trusted to cut it for the past six years. He looked scruffy and disheveled and far older than his thirty years.
I tried everything to speak to him, to touch him, to let him know I was there. Nothing worked. The days grew colder and shorter and still he came, accompanied by a flashlight, thermos, and jacket. For my part, I spent the days trying to think of ways to communicate, or even better, be seen.
It happened on a dark, gray, cloudy day while I watched fog roll in. I stared at the fine mist coursing and weaving its way through the tombstones. It stretched forward, cloaking and secluding the entire cemetery and leaging dew drops on the grass and fading into the sky. In the midst of it, a soft whisper floated in the air.
Even now I cannot say for certain whether I heard the words or imagined them. But whether it was a forgotten memory brought to life or a hint from someone—or something—unknown, it sparked a flicker of hope inside me. The veil, the barrier between the living and the dead, the thing separating our worlds, was said to be thinnest one day every year.
Today is finally that day. The full moon looms overhead, casting shadows that exaggerate the size of the headstones. Soft chittering and chattering emits from the decrepit church where the raccoons prepare for their day. And the evening drags on, choruses of "Trick or Treat!" echoing in the distance.
The harsh snap of a twig shatters my anxious reverie. I whirl around to see Mark, eyes down, stepping softly, making his way toward me. Wind whips his hair across his face. The air around me is motionless. As he moves closer, his eyes lift and meet mine. He stops mid-stride and my breath catches. And he speaks the words I have been longing to hear:
"Sarah? Is it really you?"