I’m the talk of the cemetery before I’m even in the ground. I don’t know it in the moment, being busy with other things, but it makes a certain sense. My story is all over. My body, tied up in the closet, missed in the first three searches. My mother on the 911 call at five in the morning, reporting me kidnapped. My modeling photos, coy and cute all at once, too adult for a young lady of only thirteen, how could my parents allow it. None of the dead buried there can turn on the evening news or pick up the Sunday paper, but they hear my story all the same. It blares from cars driving through, taking shortcuts from one highway to another. Mourners whisper about it as they trek from the parking lot to gravesites.
“Did you hear?” they ask.
“What a tragedy,” they sigh.
Wonder if we’ll get her, the dead muse.
It’s always so sad when the young ones come, old ladies lament.
Her father played ball with my boy, several of the dead old men declare.
Everyone always has something to say. I learned that as a living girl. It doesn’t surprise me that it’s true about dead girls, too.
The day they bury me is a loud one. Forty-six broadcast networks show up with cameras and crews and correspondents. So many classmates and neighbors and straight-up strangers pack St. Stanislaus for my funeral that the church sets up an overflow location with live TV in the Catholic high school gym next door. Afterwards, a vehicle procession roars out for miles to the graveyard, filmed from above by two whirring helicopters. There’s the pulley lowering me down, click, click, click. There’s the thud of the dirt that my father and brother throw onto the lid of my fancy white coffin. There’s my mother’s wail, like a siren, unceasing in the growing distance between us.
I expect it to be silent beneath the earth. I’ve been looking forward to a few moments of peace. For days, I’ve been flung—from bed—to death (sudden)—to zipped-up body bag, black and dark and uncomfortable—to exam table (cold, searing, exposed)—to morgue drawer, blacker and darker and more uncomfortable—to mortician (creepy)—to casket, closed—to casket, open—to casket, closed again, bumping along the old road to my grave. Death is supposed to be like sleeping, a soft pillow, white noise tumbling over me like a quilt. I want it. I need it. But, no, here they are: the dead, thousands of them. They chatter on, with no need to take a breath or pause.
What a day! they exclaim.
I told you she’d end up here, they gloat.
Hush, dead old ladies admonish. Let her get her bearings.
How’s your father? old men call out. He used to be friends with my boy.
They keep going and they won’t stop. Days and days and weeks and weeks. They can talk for an eternity. There’s no reason why not.
From the sound of it, I’m the most exciting thing to happen to this cemetery in years. Before I got here, I learn, the gossip mainly revolved around whose monuments are the ugliest. No one can top Enver’s tombstone, which is six feet tall and features a carving of the burning World Trade Center towers, where he died with ten other members of his firehouse on September 11th. Even Enver agrees that it’s a bit much. Mine is boring: name, lifespan, in our hearts. No one can be bothered to talk about that, though. They have other things to discuss when it comes to me.
My girls were saying that it was her brother who did it, some say. Hit her on the head with a flashlight.
A few dissent. It was her father who found her, they say. Probably he was diddling her and had to cover it up.
What a thing to say, old ladies gasp. It was likely a stranger. Maybe one who saw those pictures.
A few plots over from me lies another teen, a seventeen-year-old who died when a man who kept a handle of vodka in his glove compartment slammed his car into hers. I don’t know why they don’t just ask you, she says. Who was it, really?
The truth is, I don’t know. One second I was filling up a glass of water in the kitchen and then bam—someone behind me swung something hard at the back of my head. After that, it was all blurry, just sensations of being dragged, something itching around my throat.
I bring a lot of foot traffic to this place. All those reporters, updating the public on the non-developments in my case. People swinging by to look at my name in stone after putting flowers on parents’ graves. Podcasters. Cyber sleuths. Friends from school, murmuring about how I was so beautiful.
The dead over on the far side of the cemetery, the ones buried here way back when it opened in the 1850s, aren’t pleased. All this hubbub when we’re trying to rest, they complain.
I was the first woman to join the army in this state, and no one gave me half the attention they’re giving her just for kicking the bucket, Ida in section 32 grumbles.
If she wasn’t pretty and blonde and white, one guy says, she’d be forgotten.
Don’t listen to them, my fellow dead teenage friend on the row tells me. She had her share of chaos after her death, when the drunk driver went on trial and then later, when he got out of jail. They’ll get bored and move on eventually, she says.
My mom visits a lot, too. Sometimes with my dad and my brother, sometimes with a cameraman, sometimes just alone with flowers. Every time, she’s crying.
Will she move on too? I ask my friend. She doesn’t have an answer. Her mom lives in a nursing home and stopped visiting years ago.
My mom’s tears on television don’t go unnoticed. A few years in, they’re all the sleuths above ground talked about as they tour my grave. “She always did want to be famous,” one of them says authoritatively. “Makes you wonder why she pushed her daughter so hard into modeling. Maybe she got jealous that her kid was having some success.”
“Or maybe she wanted out, and mom couldn’t handle it,” another suggests.
It wasn’t like that, I protest. I wanted to model. My mom modeled when she was my age, and I always wanted to be just like her. It was our special thing. Sometimes we argued—we didn’t always like the same outfits or the same shots. She had her opinions, that’s for sure. But she was proud of me. She always looked out for me. If I’d wanted to quit, she wouldn’t have cared, if it was what I wanted.
You know, the old ladies in my section say, these kids are making sense.
Only some kind of degenerate would let their baby girl dress up like that for strangers, the women in section 21 agree.
I was thirteen! I exclaim. Not a baby girl!
Where was her father during all this, is what I want to know, the old men in section 6 say.
Shame. I always thought he’d grow up to be a stand-up guy, say the men who allegedly remember him from little league.
You’re sure you don’t remember anything? Don’t you want to? my friend presses.
What good would that do? I say. It makes me tired just thinking about it. Not like they could hear me tell them up there if I did anyway.
My daughter is a medium! shout two hundred and thirty-six Sicilian ladies throughout the cemetery.
Don’t fall for it, Mrs. Raskin in the next plot whispers. That shit does not work.
It might be nice to have closure, my friend says. Maybe you should try it.
You know who killed you, I point out. Do you have closure?
I imagine her rolling her eyes, if she had them. If there was such a thing as closure, none of us would be saying a thing.
When some men from the cemetery bring their backhoes over to my plot, my neighbors speculate that I’m being exhumed. There must have been a break in the case, the old ladies all assert.
But that’s not it. A crane pulls back the dirt, and then they’re staring down: the priest from St. Stanislaus; my dad, greyer; my brother, taller. They lower another white coffin down next to me. It lines up snug.
Hi, sweetie, my mother says. I’m glad to see you. I know it’s been a while.
It has been. Month and months and weeks and weeks. What happened? I ask.
I got sick, she replies. I hadn’t had any idea. I had thought she was getting on with her life. I was a little sad, then, but mostly relieved. There’s something wrong with living people spending as much time in graveyards as she did.
Did you do it? the old ladies ask her.
Shut it, my friend scolds.
Sweetie, I’m so sorry, my mom says. I’m so sorry all this happened. Are you mad at me? You deserved better.
That sounds like a confession, the dead say.
You should have gotten to grow up, she laments. Get married. Have kids. Walk around up there like your dad and big brother.
Up there. It’s strange how little it comes to mind, really. When I first died, I thought I would be seething with a righteous vengeance at it all being taken away so early. Sometimes I do miss feeling the sun on my face. Having a face at all. Lipstick and eyeshadow: they were fun. But it is what it is. My place is here now, and there’s no need for makeup anymore. And from what I can tell, husbands and kids are mostly a nuisance. A few visit this place, but most dump their families in the ground and then forget about them until they end up getting dumped here too. No need for that, either.
Are you mad at me? my mom asks again, her voice very small.
She definitely did it, the dead all agree.
I thought I told you all to shut it, my friend says.
I ignore them all. Don’t worry, Mom, I say. I’m not mad. None of that stuff matters now. Everyone goes quiet. They all listen, waiting for what we’re going to say next. I hold onto it as long as I can and I don’t speak one little bit. Finally, I think: finally, peace.
Caelyn Cobb’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Passages North, X-R-A-Y, WAS Quarterly, and elsewhere. She lives in Queens, NY. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @caelyncobb.
photo by Julia Kadel (via unsplash)