It was overcast and early when Paul parted the creaky gate and entered the cemetery. The day after Halloween. The fake ghouls had departed, leaving behind orange streamers and the occasional condom. The cemetery was old and not without character–some ironist had awarded it four stars on Yelp–but the novelty had dulled over repeated visits. He had long plundered it for the earliest death, a tall gothic stone from deep inside the previous century. So different from the anodyne modern ones. He pondered the paradox: As death had been staved off more efficiently, it had perversely became a more modest affair.
Someone had hooked an incongruous pinwheel onto an infant’s ancient gravestone; it spun merrily in the wind that roiled the ominous rain-clouds above. Hooking a left at the Masonic obelisk, he headed toward the sprawling, spooky tree growing out of the stomach of some luckless 19th century citizen.
Here the foliage had thickened, the ground buckled with massive roots. The tree had spread far, dropping withered leaves all around his sister’s headstone. He replaced the beer can perched there with a small orange bag of Halloween-themed candy corn.
With some effort he squatted down and knelt at the familiar inscription.
Sara ____. January 12 1962 – November 1, 1971.
25 years ago to the day. He would have chiseled off the second name, the one he left blank in his mind, but it would look like desecration.
"I’m sorry I couldn’t save you, Sara." He remained hunched there, as if expecting a response. A couple of minutes later he said, "I hope you’re at peace now." Then he rose and sauntered back to the gate, feeling strangely light.
Something–even less than a noise–made him turn back around.
Sara, his twin sister, was perched airily on her headstone, faintly fluorescent, in the dress she’d been buried in, blond hair still arranged in the neat bow she’d been buried with. Someone else’s dress. Someone else’s bow.
"You took your time," Paul said.
"I didn’t hear you coming." She gestured dolefully to the bag of candy. "You know I can’t eat this. I don’t even like candy corn."
"No one likes candy corn. It’s just tradition. Our family’s Day-after-Halloween tradition." Paul felt like the annoying relative you see once a year that knows you by one single outdated detail. "And you did eat it, before you swallowed the fizzy candy."
"Of course I ate it. I was starving. We were always starving."
"We had lost our privileges that day. Also known as basic human needs."
"Yeah, our mean folks. That old chestnut." Sara rolled her eyes and they didn’t stop until they had circled all the way back around again. A quirk of being dead. "Let’s talk about something else. You look thinner."
"I’ve lost 18 pounds, but who’s counting. You’re looking pretty skinny yourself."
"Hush. You’re combing your hair too. Is there a girl in your life?" She strung out the word, putting her finger to her cheek and batted her eyes like she was a flirt off the TV they were never allowed to watch. It always made him smile, especially when he didn’t feel like it.
"You sound like an old woman."
"I meet lots of old women here. What’s your girlfriend’s name?"
"Kelly." He’d lied to Kelly about the reason for this trip, called it a job interview. Someday, if she hadn’t already, she would google his name, find his shocking family history on those websites with flashing skull borders. He was afraid to get into it. He still felt like the dog that caught the car. "Where are all your ghostie friends?"
"They’re not my friends. They’re just passing through."
"Still scared of us humans?"
She nodded. "They’re still in hiding from Halloween. They’re in the mausoleum now, it’s off the path and there’s a scary crying angel outside. I played chess with some old man there but he was creepy. So tell me about Kelly…."
"You do not want to know about-ow!"
"What’s wrong?"
"I just saw flashing colored lights. Is that what Heaven looks like?"
"I don’t know. I’m stuck here talking to you, remember?" Then her head tilted 90 degrees from her neck, the hollows of her eyes narrowing into a vertical pair of dark slits – a sight that would have terrified anyone else. "You feel alright, brother? You look different today."
"Am I white as a ghost? Actually, I almost died crossing the street getting over here. Some jerk ran a stop sign, knocked me down. Unfortunately, I survived."
"You said that last year. Now hush."
Last year he may have even meant it.
Absently she jabbed a pale finger at the bag of candy corn; shockingly, it moved. "Well, I’ll be darned." Sara tested a piece in her mouth, chewed solemnly, all the while watching him.
"You don’t like it," he sighed. "After all the build-up."
"No, it’s wonderful, Paul, it’s just–" she shrugged. "What do I know about anything. I swallowed the powdered candy, remember?"
"You were nine, how could you have known?"
"You were nine and you knew," she said, and though there wasn’t a hint of accusation, the words made his stomach lurch.
"I suspected." He thought of the Father and Mother rushing them around door to door on their first and last Halloween, he in a last-on-the-shelf clown mask, Sara in a garbage-bag witch, managing not even a single block before rushing back home.
Then the Father had dipped his hand into their trick-or-treat bags and come out with items he didn’t remember being put in there, forcing upon them the little satchels of powdered candy, opened and refastened with staples. The Father’s jowly face set in a toothsome rictus as the Mother watched with wordless glassy-eyed avidity, the same way she watched them being belted for no reason. Paul had tilted the packet into his mouth, for the only thing scarier than angry Father was Father becoming angry, but had not swallowed. Still, he’d absorbed enough to land him in the hospital until the day of Sara’s funeral, attended by no immediate family but many curious strangers, including two cops with matching mustaches who gave them the saddest looks.
"Remember when our cousins came around by surprise and looked all worried?" He said. "Father said we were going vegetarian."
"Teachers too. Remember Mrs. McBride, who made us write down what we’d had for breakfast?"
"She didn’t believe us when we left it blank. So we copied off the other kids."
The Father had written everything down on a legal pad kept under his sterling collection of leather belts. The pouches of powdered candy were laced with potassium cyanide — a crude, desperate plot to cash in two life juvenile insurance policies, to save their own skins from vengeful heroin dealers. The M and F executed without much fuss, a month apart, in the same electric chair, before being interred in a miserable cemetery elsewhere in that godforsaken state. All according to news archives, and those flashing skull websites.
Sirens approached: Sara’s eyes widened. With visible strain she hovered a foot or so off her headstone, then plopped back down inelegantly but soundlessly. "Paul," she said, smiling stiffly, "I don’t want to freak you out….but that car that hit you?"
"What about it?"
She pointed a vaporous finger. "You’re not actually here with me, in body. You’re lying in the middle of the road right now. That’s why I didn’t hear you coming–your feet didn’t crunch the leaves."
"Is this a ghost joke?" But even then he felt lighter, his voice fainter and less substantial in his throat.
"I thought something was different. It’s why I could eat the candy corn. It’s not really candy corn. The real bag is still out there. You just brought it in on your thoughts. And those lights in your head, red and blue?" She gestured toward the road.
Finally, Paul turned, saw the ambulance and the cop car parked outside the cemetery gates, red and blue lights flashing. He ambled over, oddly calm, to see himself lying face-up on the pavement, his chest slowly rising. Like a big sleeping baby in the road. "What’s happening, Sara?"
"You’re fading out," she said with a hint of excitement. "You’re being pulled back into your body."
"I don’t get it."
"You’ve always wondered if you wanted to live. But you do. You’ve been saved twice. Maybe God has a–"
"I don’t believe in God." He could hardly hear himself; and the graveyard was losing its clarity.
"Do you believe in this?" She wiped her ghostly hand straight through her ghostly head. More gently she added, "You believe in life. Otherwise you wouldn’t be fighting to stay alive."
He looked at himself in the street again. Time to grow up, big baby. "Sara?
"Am I forgiven?"
A merry laugh, lighter than mercy, as she began to fade from his vision along with the cemetery. "You always were, silly. You don’t have to haunt me anymore."
She put her finger to her cheek, batted her eyes. Her smile was the last to go.
Then he was lying in the road once more, staring up at the sky. Things were starting to clear up.
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