In the middle-of-the-night darkness, my reluctant teenage friends and I shuffled 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. Had the trumpet-shaped flowers blared a warning, I may have fled.
We arrived at the first step and halted. I heard my heart pounding in my ears. “We’re here,” my brother, Marshal, said, but he didn’t move forward.
Two brick posts, one on each side, marked the entrance. I pointed up the dozen, leaning limestone steps. “Up there,” I said.
A distant train moaned. Cicadas argued. The hair on my neck raised, and a chill quivered my body. Pippy slipped her hand from mine. She said, “You go first.”
Cindy and her sister slipped behind five hesitant boys. When Einstein tried to sneak to the back, the girls refused to allow his cowardice and pushed him forward.
I forced my fifty-pound feet to climb each weather-worn step. 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.
Thunder groaned in the distance, and a breeze from an approaching storm raised goosebumps on my arms. 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.
Because I’d 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.
When the felines shrieked, I clenched my fingers and jerked my elbows back. I leaped airborne, hovered for a moment, then dropped in a crouch. As the cats tussled, Einstein won the prize for first-out-of-the-gate. He knocked Cindy down as he made his retreat and never glanced over his shoulder as he fled. Now there were six of us—four boys and two girls.
The cat eruption subsided as fast as it had started—a draw with the two bleeding opponents alive to fight another day. I exhaled, stood, withdrew my fists from my armpits, and relaxed my fingers. Once everyone recovered, we 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. John Jenkins grave,” I said. I glanced over rows of tilting gravestones and waist-high pinnae plants. A few of the fist-sized blooms lingered beyond their regular season. I closed my eyes and inhaled the calming scent. It was a brief respite to gather the courage to continue. We’ve come this far; I can’t stop now.
Trying to reassure my friends, I said, “Mom grew up down the hill from this cemetery. She said, ‘Don’t fear the dead. It’s the living ones who’ll hurt you.’” Pippy looked over both shoulders and said, “I’m afraid of both.”
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 the riddle predicted,” Marshal added.
Side-by-side, we passed the drooping crown and slouching limbs of a weeping willow. As we neared the small limestone building, I got a better view.
Atop the peak was a lightning rod attached to a thick copper wire snaking 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–LOVING WIFE. The sign below read, EWAN–FAITHFUL HUSBAND. 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.
I said, “There are four chambers in the mausoleum, but only three contain bodies.
“Out of the way, I’m going inside,” Butch squalled as he pushed me aside. When he grabbed the tarnished doorknob, it turned in his hand. Butch stiffened. 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’d melted. His eyelids were half-open, but only the whites showed.
Angel fled. Now there were five of us.
The girls shrieked, but I couldn’t hear them because I was screaming louder. I’d have run had my feet obeyed my panicking mind.
Pippy and Cindy had no problem running—in place, arms flailing. Marshal froze like the wooden Indian at Grandpa Tip’s diner.
The shadowy ghost emerged before four wide-eyed teens. Now silent, with gaping mouths, we 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.