Lightening cracked down in jagged points from the great tumble of soot-black clouds. A terrible rip in the air soon followed and the long fingers of light blinded Vera. She shrieked, bare feet colliding with an upturned stone, and thrust out her hands to break the fall. She sank into the mud coming off the graves. Cursing the old, mossy tombs that laid hidden in the weeds, Vera rolled onto her hip and sucked in the rich, damp air. She put a gentle pressure on her toes, checking for any break. Then looked for her shoes unsure if they'd slipped off in the fall or if they were sucked into the muck further away.
Days of horrendous rain shifted the hillside graveyard and the funding to keep tombstones and coffins in place didn't cross into unincorporated counties. A small, forgotten Pennsylvania village was not likely to receive any help by the government. That's why Vera came out in bad weather. She had to check on what her father lovingly referred to as 'new arrivals' and make sure they hadn't washed away in a mudslide. This used to be her father's job but an accident on a train ride home during the summer had left his leg twisted. He was lucky to be alive. Vera, who'd gone to the viewing car to look at the river as they passed over, made it out of the crash with a few bruised ribs and a general fog that lingered with her, as though she were always on the verge of sleeping. The least she could do was pick up the slack for her father now.
The skin around her mouth was sore and she pulled away bits of what felt like stringy roots. She could taste blood and cussed again, wondering how bad the cut was and what she's slammed her face. She groped around for her flashlight. Unable to find it, she began searching for the stakes used to keep coffins in place. This should have been done the first night before such a relentless storm and Vera couldn't think for a moment of why it hadn't been. She couldn't blame everything on her father's leg or her own brain fug. It was simply an act of laziness and the error needed to be fixed immediately. Lashing rain be damned. If she waited until daybreak, the 'new arrivals' would all find themselves at the bottom of the hill, popped open to reveal the gruesome innards to the whole town.
Vera pushed herself to her feet and shook the dead leaves and grass from the hem of her dress. Then raked the soaking hair, which hung over her face like dead snakes, away from her eyes. Lightening broke the tar black clouds into lattice patterns. She squinted through another flash and saw her equipment some yards away. As darkness enveloped the graveyard again, Vera had to work by memory to get to the stakes without breaking another toe.
Further down the hill, fractures of light winked out of the windows of the old stone church. Its red door opened, and Vera thought that it must be Father Brien taking in the drenched autumn evening and casting his wide, expectant eyes about for late night visitors. The shape that filled in the frame was much taller and Vera found herself halting, half crouched over her bundle.
“Hello?” A deep voice that trickled a warm down her cold spine called out between claps of thunder. The figure, a man she now knew, removed a flashlight from his pocket it and swept it over the grounds. It cast wide but fell just short of Vera. She tried to answer but the air caught like a sharp pebble in her lungs. She fished for a bit of tissue, stowed deep into the pockets of her dress, and it clung wetly to her fingers. She coughed into it, catching whatever dislodged from her throat, and hoped she wasn't catching a cold.
The man approached; flashlight lifted high. Water streamed off the bill of his hat and there were cracks in the leather of his bomber jacket. “Are you okay, miss?”
“Yes,” Vera found her voice at last and spoke over the sweeping hush of the rain. Her pale fingers tucked the ruined tissue back into the pocket. “Fine.”
“Let's get out of this awful weather.”
He took her over to the nearest mausoleum. It wasn't the only one in the graveyard, but the man entombed the elegant structure invented the zipper and was a tidbit of knowledge Vera's father was exceedingly proud of.
The stranger looked down at her, his thin mouth twisted in amusement but the skin around his dark eyes wrinkled in an unhappy sort of way that reminded her of all the old women who sat at funerals of people they had no kinship. He asked her, “What are you doing out here?”
“I'm the caretaker,” she said, pushing back her wet hair again. The stakes jumbled and clacked in her arms.
“You work in a dress and without shoes or a flashlight?” he asked, and doubt crowded around her. “During a torrential downpour?”
Vera puffed up her chest and said with more confidence than was reasonable because she was lying. “It's laundry day and my boots got stuck in the mud somewhere. My flashlight, too.”
“I see,” said the man. He turned his sharp face out and watched the storm beat down the old tombstones and the oak trees that fed off the bodies buried beneath them.
“What about you, mister?” Vera asked, insulted she had to be rescued and questioned on the very property she'd lived her whole life.
The man shrugged and leaned against the cold gray stone. “I was praying in the church. Lighting a candle for the people that died in that train accident a few months back.”
“Did you know anyone personally?” Vera softened ever so slightly but held onto the creeping suspicion that there was more to the stranger than he let on. He shook his head and she felt herself fizzle out. “That was kind of you.”
“People need a guiding light to help them onward. Sometimes the dead do, too.” Again, he reminded her of the old women who were entertained by displays of grief.
They stood in silence and Vera counted under her breath. The curtains of rain slowed into a drizzle, then a pathetic dribble. When it was three spaces between lightning and thunder, she collected her stakes and walked out into the rain. It didn't feel so cold or as hard, but her waterlogged dresses itched where it clung to her skin. The stranger followed, holding his flashlight and casting a broad circle around them.
“Let me help,” he said.
She took him to the group of 'new arrivals'. There were eight total that had died in the train accident but only three came from Vera's town. Their permanent headstones hadn't arrived from the engraver and so the only markers were pieces of poorly laminated paper on sticks. Their names were no longer legible because the ink had spilled down, puddling at the corners of the metal clamps. Vera showed the man how to find the end of the coffins. All three had shifted several inches and she drove a few stakes in front of each of them. With the man's help and the softness of the ground, the job was done in a few minutes.
“You live in the cottage behind the church?” The man held out his hand for her. “I'll walk you back.”
“With my father,” Vera said, suddenly very afraid of him and unsure of why his presence made it so difficult to breathe. “Don't try anything funny. We have a gun.”
“I won't,” said the man and he didn't.
They walked together on a designated path. The great sopping puddles splashed around her bare ankles and stained the edges of her wool dress. Twice, she stopped to remove a prickling leaf from the ball of her foot.
The porch light was on and when they got close enough to it, the man dropped his flashlight to his side. “Thank you,” Vera said, shivering. She was ready to tug on her fuzzy pajamas and sleep away whatever illness threatened to creep into her throat. “For your help and for lighting the candle for those people.”
He touched the edge of his hat with two knuckles. “Have a goodnight.”
He remained in the drizzle as she stepped inside and slid the chain bolt into place. She leaned against the door, attempting to hear him. The storm passed over, slapping the tin roof with rhythmic, bony fingers. Minutes passed and Vera took up the courage to peek through the curtain of the door's half-moon window. There was no one outside. She left the porch light on.
A static glow off the television was the only light she had guiding her through the ground floor of the house. Her father fell asleep in front of it every night, for as long as she'd been alive, stirring only when the national anthem played. Then he drifted again. She couldn't remember the last time he slept in his own bed. Frumpy and a bit shaggy around the ears, he was curled in the best chair. A tartan blanket drawn up to his chin. His mouth sagged open and short, hard wheezes sneaked around coffee-stained teeth.
Vera turned off the television and went to bed. Exhaustion swept over her so fast that she didn't have the energy to change out of her dress. She collapsed onto the mattress, hands folded across her middle, and studied the ache in her bones until she drifted.
Several hours later she woke to the sting of hot water against her face, and she brought her hands up to protect her eyes from being burned.
“Get out of my daughter you creature!” her father shouted. The priest was beside him, lashing a silver topped vial at her and muttering in Latin. Both held wooden crosses and stumbled backward when Vera sat up.
Vera yelled back, confused and disoriented. She had a headache, and the scalding water didn't help at all. “Father Brien? “Dad? What the hell?”
The sharp pain in her throat released as curling, white grubs tumbled out of her mouth. Vera shrieked and clutched her throat as she stumbled off the bed, and the grubs dropped from the damp dress and onto the floor.
“Don't evoke our names, you devil come up from the pit!” Father Brien hissed before falling back into Latin.
Vera couldn't think of what to do. It all felt like a horrible nightmare, and she began to cry. She held out her arms to her father for the comforting smell of his aftershave and protection of the big arms that she so longed have squeezed around her shoulders. Instead, Father Brien stepped between them and continued to douse her with water and shake his miserable face into hers.
“It's touching me!” her father gasped when Vera grabbed for his hand, pleading. He yanked free, fell against the floral-patterned wallpaper and Father Brien tore at Vera's dress in an attempt to force her back into bed.
She sprinted out of her bedroom and toppled down the stairs. Her feet didn't want to work with her. Her fingers, stiff from the cold, refused to work around the doorknob. Father Brien thundered after her. His heavy boots slapped against the steps two at a time. The look of his fluttering black cassock made Vera sick.
Again, she fumbled at the door until it swung open, and she dragged herself through the tombstones, searching for a place to hide. She refused to look behind her until she was unable to run any further. Vera felt so heavy and bogged down and senseless. She slipped in the fresh mud and the new rain and rolled down the hill. No one followed and she laid there, rain catching her eyes and soothing the burns caused by Father Brien's holy water.
“Any minute,” she told herself, tasting the sores around her mouth, which hadn't healed. The roots she'd touched last night were something more. Something she didn't want to admit to herself: sewing thread. “I'll wake up.”
“I'm sorry but you won't.” That deep soothing voice rose out of the fine mist that dappled the grounds. “Vera.”
She blinked up at his blurry shape and wiped at her face. He helped her into a seated position and took a seat beside her. Like her, he was soaked to the bone, but untroubled by it.
“How do you know my name?” she asked.
Instead of answering, he asked a question of his own. “Why are you in your Sunday dress without your shoes?”
Vera curled her feet under her and stared at the black lines of mud caught beneath the nails. It was an old tradition to bury the dead without shoes. She sniffed and pushed the water off her face and hair. “What happened?”
“You fell in the river when the train turned over,” the stranger said simply. He stood and held out his hand for her. Vera slipped her pale fingers into his and he guided her to one of the graves they'd fixed during the night. Mud and sludge covered most of it but she could see the casket hadn't been buried deep enough. It was empty and the pearl satin lining was stained and streaked. Clods of dirt, twigs, and rocks filled the empty space that should hold a person. Her.
Vera glanced at the man, terrified. “I don't like the small spaces.”
“It's okay. You won't notice after a while. Just close your eyes.” he smiled and helped her into the casket. “I'm sorry about your father but don't hold it against him.”
“I don't,” said Vera and then, she could say no more.
The bleak rain stopped at last and the low, dark clouds shifted like gossamer curtains in a lazy, autumn breeze.