In the middle-of-the-night darkness, my reluctant teenage friends and I walked up the steep sidewalk until we reached the cemetery’s wall. The tilting stones struggled to restrain the hillside and the century-old caskets it held. The rock barrier was ten feet tall, but as we climbed, it became shorter. A pointed, wrought iron rail stood on top. Neglected, the sections tilted back and forth with occasional missing balusters. Honeysuckle vines twisted around the spikes and clung to the crumbling mortar. The trumpet-shaped flowers should have blared warnings of the dangers ahead, but they folded their horns in silence. We arrived at the first step and halted.
“We’re here,” my brother, Marshal, said.
Two brick posts, one on each side, marked the entrance. A mason had carved a date into the cornerstone of one pillar.
“1827,” I read aloud.
Marshal said, “If it’s 1967 now, then they set it one-hundred-forty years ago.”
I pointed up the dozen, leaning limestone steps.
“It’s up there.”
A distant train moaned while cicadas argued. The hair on my neck raised, and a chill quivered my body. Pippy slipped her hand from mine.
“You go first.”
Cindy joined her sister behind we five boys. Then, Einstein tried to sneak back, but the girls refused to allow his cowardice.
I forced my fifty-pound feet to climb each weather-worn step. Though terrified, I feigned bravery to impress Pippy. With an enormous effort, I reached the top and stood under the iron arch. A cloud passed, and the moonlight fell upon the cursive letters above us, which spelled Hilltop. The word Cemetery was missing but lay on the ground where it had fallen. I stepped over the Civil War-era sign into the graveyard for my first time.
The others followed as I forced my heavy feet to inch forward. Thunder groaned in the distance, and a breeze from an approaching storm raised goosebumps on my arms.
“Might rain in Mattoon,” Marshal said.
“Still a long way from here,” I replied.
Most of the shadowy tombstones were two or three feet tall, but in the back, stood a spire taller than the others. The gray stone glittered in the broken-clouded moonlight. A lightning bug perched on top pulsating a lighthouse warning.
While I focused on the granite monument, I hadn’t seen a pair of prowling tomcats stalking one another. They’d tiptoed between the stones until both crouched before me. The feline confrontation erupted when eight legs launched, then met in a mid-air crash.
As extended claws swiped in a furious blur, I clenched my fingers and jerked my elbows back. I leaped airborne, hovered for a moment, then dropped. As the cats tussled, Einstein won for first-out-of-the-gate. He knocked Cindy down as he made his retreat and never glanced over his shoulder as he streaked away.
The cat eruption subsided as fast as it had started — a draw with the two opponents alive to fight another day. I exhaled, withdrew my fists from my armpits, and relaxed my fingers. Once everyone recovered, we regrouped and continued our trek further into the funereal unknown. In a few dozen paces, we reached the eight-foot-tall spire, and the epitaph read:
Beloved Husband and Father
Died September 28, 1864
43 yrs. 2 Months
“This is it,” Marshal said.
“John Jenkins’ grave,” I added.
I glanced over rows of tilting gravestones and waist-high pinnae plants. Planted years ago, the hardy perennials thrived without human care. A few of the fist-sized blooms lingered beyond their regular season. The deep-purple flowers appeared gray in the darkness, but the pleasant fragrance broadcasted their presence.
I squinted at my watch, which read one minute until midnight. An ash-white, full moon, crossing in the southern sky peeped through an opening in the clouds. A shadow from the monument pointed downhill, and the apex ended on the door of a mausoleum.
“It’s pointing toward the tomb,” I said.
“North as Grampa Tip predicted,” Marshal added.
We walked side-by-side past the drooping crown and slouching limbs of a weeping willow. We approached the small limestone building with trepidation.
Atop the peak was a lightning rod attached to a thick copper wire running to the ground. The stone door hung on four iron hinges and carved in the white gable was the word Postal. On each end of the inscription was an engraved angel blowing a trumpet. English ivy climbed the walls and covered most of the aging edifice.
Mounted on both sides of the entrance were two tarnished, brass plaques. Etched in the pitted plate on the top left, were the words, Julia – Died 1841. The sign below read, Ewan – Died 1833. The upper right panel was blank, but stamped in the one below was, Margaret – Infant Child.
“It’s a family — mother, father, and baby,” Marshal said.
“There are four chambers in the mausoleum, but only three contain bodies. What could it mean?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Out of the way, I’m going inside,” Butch screamed as he pushed me aside.
When he grabbed the tarnished doorknob, it turned in his hand. Butch stiffened, but he was the only teen who knew it moved. The handle slipped from Butch’s grasp as the door swung open, and a shadowy apparition appeared. I saw the dark phantom… after Butch fainted. My friend had slumped onto his back as if he melted. His eyelids were half-open, but only the whites showed.
Angel fled, and I didn’t talk to him again for weeks. The girls shrieked, but I couldn’t hear them because my twin and I were screaming louder. I’d have run had my feet obeyed the advice of my panicking mind.
Pippy and Cindy had no problem running in place, arms flailing. Marshal froze like the wooden Indian at Grandpa Tip’s tavern.
To my horror, the shadowy ghost emerged before four wide-eyed teens. We stopped squealing and stared at the tall figure in the doorway. With the full moonlight on him, I saw his thin face and gray, bushy eyebrows.
A voice rumbling like a kettle drum said, “I’ve been expecting you.”
We stood in stunned silence.
An owl broke the human silence and shouted, “Who?” But by then, I knew who.
“I know you,” I said.
Marshal added, “You’re Sparky.”
The pencil-thin, six-footer, stepped over the still unconscious Butch and tipped his wide-brimmed hat.
The mysterious man wore a black, leather duster, a knee-length coat, smudged with white dust. I hadn’t noticed it before, but he had squinty eyes.
“That’s right. My nickname is Sparky.”
“What’re you doing here?” I asked.
“I live here. Well, I should say I sleep here most nights. Soon I’ll sleep here every night.”
“Why?” I asked.
“They’re tearing down my old home, so I have to move.”
He stepped to the side and pointed toward the open door.
“It’s a perfect place, quiet.”
In the slanted light of the moon, I viewed an aisle. On the left side was a solid stone wall. Sparky tapped on the white partition.
“This side is full, two vaults, one on top of the other.”
I asked, “Full of what?”
I shivered, but not alone.
Sparky turned to the other side and pointed downward.
“There’s only one occupied burial chamber on this side.”
A quilt and pillow lay above the stone slab.
“Is this where you spend the night?” I asked.
“Yep, right here.”
Pippy gazed from a distance.
“I guess so, but I’m glad because no one bothers me here.”
“I know why,” Pippy remarked.
“It’s not so bad.”
He slipped his hands into the deep pockets of his oil-rubbed, cotton overcoat. Thunder rumbled in the distance as a storm approached. Sparky scanned the approaching clouds marching toward us.
A swooping bat from nowhere snapped a mosquito just inches from my nose. My friends were unaware of the dive bomber, so I shivered alone.
“This mausoleum is mine. These people are my family. Julia and Ewan are my grandparents, and baby Margaret is my aunt who died before I was born.”
He stepped outside and pointed at tombstones to the east.
“My great-grandparents are over there. I guess you could say it’s our neighborhood. Someday, they’ll bury me here too.”
Butch sat up and studied his surroundings as he struggled to get his bearings.
“Where?” Pippy asked.
“Right where I sleep, on top of Margaret. I suppose I’m practicing for the long snooze. It’s comfortable enough.”
She asked, “Are your parents buried nearby?”
“No, they’re in Lake Michigan. We were on vacation when lightning struck our sailboat.”
“Were you with them?” Marshal asked.
“Yep, I was a boy then. A sudden storm approached, and Mom and Dad sent me below as they tried to lower the sail. The bolt split the mast and blasted them into the water. It was my first lightning strike.”
“First?” Marshal asked.
“Yeah, it’s hit me three times, so I’m a human lightning rod. People say I attract it.”
“Geez,” I replied.
Sparky peered at the threatening sky, so I stepped back just in case.
“After my parents died, my grandparents raised me. When they died, I made it a practice to visit their graves every day. I could never leave them.”
“Seems you were close,” I said.
“Yes, and we still are. I come here to talk to them.”
“Grandpa is a good listener, and Grandma gives me advice. I need them.”
Then I tilted my head forward and curled my eyebrows as I tried to decide if he was crazy.
“When they died, I inherited this mausoleum. One day I came to visit my grandparents, and the caregiver gave me a key.”
“But, why do you sleep here; don’t you have a home?” Pippy asked.
“Not anymore, they’re tearing it down, so I’ve got nowhere else to go. Since I must move, I want to be close to my family. This way, Grandma can sing me to sleep at night. This is just right.”
Whew, this guy is crazy.
Even in the dim light, I could see my friends with tilted heads and squinting eyes reaching the same conclusion.
“My grandma thinks you’re a ghost,” Marshal interjected.
Butch rose and stared into the west. Occasional lightning flashes preceded the thunderclaps by several seconds.
Butch remarked, “Nasty weather is coming, should we leave?”
I examined the ominous clouds then turned back to my conversation.
“You said you’ve been expecting us?”
Our treasure hunt had led my teenage friends and me to this graveyard and the mysterious tomb-dweller. I wondered if he’d offer the solution to Dillinger’s stash of gold coins, or was this just another clue left by our murdered grandfather?
Our search had begun a few weeks ago, but the
mystery started years before— after Grandpa Tip overheard an unlawful
plot. The events that followed
transformed the lives of him and his cousin.
Would they change mine too?