[media-credit name=”Hans” link=”https://pixabay.com/en/users/Hans-2/” align=”alignnone” width=”640″][/media-credit]Esme’s room was humid with the smell of sickness and rot. There was no air conditioning in any of the flats in the building, but her home’s walking-distance proximity to several cafés, as well as the metro that served the University, made the heat tolerable. Esme had availed herself of neither café nor classes since Rollins’ death. When the University marked her semester as incomplete, a concerned professor had contacted Esme’s parents. Too ill to make the intercontinental journey, they had sent Esme’s best friend Natalie to check on their daughter.
“It’s the middle of the day, why is it so dark in here?” Natalie asked. She fumbled across the room, feeling her way towards the tiniest crack of light that seeped from around the covered windows. “I’m going to open it up some in here, mostly because jet lag is a bitch and I’m about to fall asleep on my feet.”
Esme shifted on her bed, aware of Natalie, but listening to another familiar voice that followed her everywhere. It was Rollins, speaking to her in secret. His Texan accent was untouched by neither death nor his year in Australia, and his question cut through Natalie’s tired prattle. “Who?” he asked, this single word intimate as Esme’s own hand, cupping her naked breast.
She stayed completely still.
“Who did you think you were, to do what you did?” he pressed.
“I don’t know,” Esme replied in her own mind. “I can’t recall at this time.”
“You’ve covered the windows with tin foil,” Natalie said, stepping around the end of Esme’s bed. “Even if you’ve got them open, it blocks the air. And the light.”
She peeled a strip of tin foil from the window. Daylight flooded the room. Natalie blushed a little at the sight of her friend lying naked with her bony legs splayed. Then Natalie pulled down the rest of the foil, crumpling it into a metallic wad that she dropped onto the cluttered floor. Air drifted in through the window, which tilted outwards from the top of the frame. Natalie drew in a deep breath before turning to survey the room. Dirty clothes had been clumped together on the floor, and a takeaway box from a local Thai restaurant sat open on the dresser. Her back to her nude friend, Natalie crossed the room towards the closet.
“You should dress. The cab will be here soon,” Natalie said.
A fly dive-bombed Natalie’s head, and she shooed it. Esme saw the motion, and connected it to the crawling sensation of insects as they sipped at her sweat, but didn’t bother to move because Rollins spoke. Stay still, she thought. Stay still and he’ll leave.
“You understand,” Rollins said soundlessly, “Your refusal to admit who you were doesn’t change who you were to me.”
“I understand,” Esme replied.
Natalie covered her mouth and nose with her hand as she peeked into a takeaway box on Esme’s desk. Natalie slapped the top of the lid down. “Maggots! I might be sick!”
Esme sat up. Her hair hung around her face, sweat-tangled and limp. “I thought I’d taken care of those decaying prawns, rancid slurry.”
“There are flies everywhere,” Natalie scolded.
“They were quiet before you let in the light.”
“They were still here,” Natalie said.
“Were they?” Rollins asked without speaking.
Esme twitched, lowering her head to hide her fear from Natalie. His voice was louder now, aggravated by her movement. “I didn’t realize,” Esme apologized.
“Well, it’s all right. Nothing a little Lysol spray and a breeze won’t cure.” As Natalie spoke, she dropped the takeaway box into the tiny garbage can. It landed on several charred, round pieces of wood. Natalie gagged as she tied the bag closed. “Do they sell Lysol in Australia?” she asked. Esme and Rollins remained silent.
Pressing ahead with both the conversation and her search for something suitable for Esme to wear to the graveyard, Natalie said, “Your parents are looking forward to having you home.” She pulled a purple sundress from a hanger. “What about this?”
“I never liked that dress,” Rollins said, his voice finally less interrogatory.
“Perfect,” Esme said.
Natalie passed Esme the dress. “It’s going to be all right,” she said.
“Never right,” Esme replied to Natalie. In her mind, she spoke to Rollins. “But maybe over?”
“Are you ready to say who you thought you were?” Rollins pressed, his voice ruthless.
“It’s strange to feel the summer heat in the winter,” Natalie said. “Did you ever get used to the seasons being flipped?”
“No,” Esme said, although she wasn’t sure to whom she had replied.
“I don’t think I would, either,” Natalie admitted.
She picked up a picture frame from the dresser. It had fallen facedown amongst used Kleenex and sympathy cards. A gasp escaped her. Esme glanced up, expecting to see another mass of maggots. All she saw was the framed photo of her with Rollins, his eyes scratched out with furious Xs, deep enough to puncture the paper. Natalie set the picture back as she found it. “I’ve said it before, Ess, but I’m so sorry Rollins is gone.”
“He’s not gone!”
“He’s been dead three months,” Natalie corrected.
“I didn’t say he wasn’t dead, but dead isn’t the same as gone.”
“You can’t really believe that.”
“I thought he would leave if I stayed still,” Esme said. “I thought my death-in-life would be penance enough, but he’s getting closer. Urging me.”
“Urging you?” Natalie waved her hand at a trio of flies buzzing around her hair. Esme stood before her, the purple sundress two sizes too big, hanging from her shoulders like a sagging, dark bruise on her pale skin. Natalie fished a brown belt from a pile of clothes. She handed it to her friend, who cinched it around her own waist. “Are you sure you feel well enough to visit his grave?”
“Isn’t that why she’s here?” Rollins asked Esme silently. “To help you pack up your grief and your memories? To absolve you of who you were?”
“You don’t look good,” Natalie said.
Esme grabbed Natalie by the shoulders. “I want to forget!” Just as suddenly as she snatched her up, Esme let go.
“You don’t really mean that.” Natalie swallowed hard and wiped a tear from her face. “You’re just in pain.”
Esme dropped to her knees, rooting through the detritus on her floor. She raised a tattered sweater with one hand. “Here’s one of those memories.”
“That’s the sweater from the winter in undergrad when you were too broke to buy a proper coat.” Natalie reached to touch it with her tear-moistened fingertips. “I can’t believe you still have it.”
“The first winter with Rollins,” Esme said. She stroked the nubby fabric and spoke in a low-pitched voice. “He recited Russian poetry to me while we sat at a picnic table on top of that hill near the Languages building. I put my legs over his lap, nestled my head on his collarbone, and listened to the Russian reverberate in his chest. I liked his voice. He liked the wooden buttons on my sweater.” She shoved a finger through the hole where a button should have been.
“All your poor buttons are gone,” Natalie said. She tilted her head, frowned. “Did I just see them in the garbage?”
“Find any nasty evidence?”
“Evidence? No. I saw them when I threw away the maggots.”
“Oh, it did smell bad,” Esme replied. She wriggled her finger through the rent fabric, like a white grub nosing its way through soil. “Rollins declared…”
Natalie raised one eyebrow. “Declared?”
“Declared, decreed. Rollins had an imperious attitude. He thought that more buttons should be wooden.” Esme dropped the sweater back onto the heap of rank items. “Do you remember?”
“Yes,” Rollins replied, his voice faux patient. “The question is: do you?”
“Fucking ridiculous,” Esme said.
“He had his moments,” Natalie said. Something like a smile faltered near her mouth. “Why did you burn the buttons?”
“He left me alone a week for each button.” Esme’s face flushed, and her smile was manic bright. “I think he’d like to see me burn, too.”
Natalie bit her lower lip. She shifted her weight on her feet, broke eye contact with Esme. Outside, the cab honked, and Natalie exhaled. “I’ll tell him we changed our mind,” she said.
Esme caught Natalie by the wrist. “I need to do this.” She used Natalie for balance as she pulled canvas sneakers onto her bare feet.
“Is there a dumpster outside your apartment?” Natalie asked.
“Yes,” Esme replied. “At least there was.”
“We need to take the garbage out. I swear I can hear maggots moving around in there,”
Natalie pulled the bag of garbage from the can, tied it closed, and followed Esme through the small living room. Her mouth pulled down in disgust, Natalie thrust the bag of garbage at Esme. “Take this outside. I’m going to check for more in the kitchen.”
Esme shrugged. She carried the plastic bag along the slightly canted walkway to the open stairwell. The cab idled at the far end of the building, chrome and glass reflecting the same heat that shimmered on the road.
Rollins said something in Russian.
“Don’t do that,” Esme said in her mind. “I hate it when I don’t understand.”
“I said,” Rollins replied, his voice steady if not a touch pedantic, “The road is an undulating river of black tar.”
“What does it matter?”
A woman in a ratty housecoat stood in the narrow bricked-in area for the communal garbage bins. She raised her eyebrows at Esme, expecting her to repeat whatever her question had been. A silent moment passed before the woman covered her nose and hurried away. Esme tossed the bag into the bin as the cabbie tapped his horn.
“Will you go over and tell him I’ll be right there?” Natalie stepped in behind Esme, the larger bag of kitchen garbage held at arm’s length. “We’ll need to empty your fridge later.”
Esme wandered to the cab. She let herself into the front passenger seat. “Natalie is coming.”
“Fine, love. Where to?”
“Waverly Cemetery,” Esme said, “Trafalgar Street entrance.”
Natalie slid into the backseat. The cab swayed like nothing so much as a boat.
“Natalie, I presume?” the cabbie asked.
“Yes,” Natalie replied. “Did she tell you where we’re headed?”
The cabbie started his meter. Esme formed a telescope with her hands, holding it up to her face and peering out the window. They passed a café and the driver pointed it out to Natalie saying, “Best cuppa, and you could walk to it.”
“You’d think that after more than seventeen hours on a plane, I’d be rested,” Natalie said. “But I could use a tanker of coffee right now.”
“Are you Canadian?”
Natalie’s answer was overridden by Esme’s sudden cry. The cabbie, startled, ran a stop sign. Cross-traffic careened towards the cab, the cars forward-leaning and blaring angry horns.
“Ess! What the hell?” Natalie asked.
“He looks so sad.”
The cabbie scrutinized Natalie in the rearview mirror. When she shrugged, he stared straight ahead, pulling his left arm closer to his torso as if what Esme had might be catching. Esme leaned against the passenger side window, her greasy hair slick against the glass.
“There’s no solitude, not even in the separation created by glass,” she said.
The driver turned on the radio. He tuned to a religious station, dialed it too loud to talk, so loud the cab reverberated with the consequence of sin. Natalie pointed an air conditioning vent at her face and closed her eyes.
At the gate to Waverly Cemetery, Natalie dropped three dollar pieces into the driver’s leathery palm. She took long, deep breaths. Esme was already out of the cab, but Natalie lingered.
“I’m going to start the meter again,” the cabbie said.
Esme tapped on Natalie’s window, unable to open the locked door from outside.
“I don’t know if this is a good idea,” Natalie said.
“Do you want me to drive you back? It’ll cost the same, but it’ll smell better.”
“She’s sick,” Natalie snapped.
Esme spun her ring on her finger, then intentionally rapped it on the window. “Come on, Nat. He’s waiting.”
“Stop her!” the cabbie said, and twisted in his seat to look at Natalie. “That ring is going to bust the glass.”
“No, it’s not,” Natalie said. “I’m getting out.”
She exited the cab. The driver twirled one finger in the air near his ear. Natalie slammed the door.
Esme put her hands out in front of her, palms upward to cup the light and heat. “Rollins could read palms,” she said. “He told me the left is the destiny you were born with, and the right is the one you make. Do you believe that?”
“I believe I’m getting a killer headache.”
“Be serious. Do you believe we can ever choose anything?”
“I know I don’t believe dead people choose for us.”
“Don’t be flip,” Esme said.
Natalie took Esme’s hands. They were the same color as the alabaster headstones. “Do you see that beautiful Celtic cross?”
Esme glanced in the direction of Natalie’s nod. “That’s not Rollins.”
“No, but I looked at the map, and it’s on the way. We can take our time. Let you decide if you’re really ready.”
“No one is ever ready for this,” Esme said. She pulled free of Natalie and stepped off the gravel walkway onto the grassy burial ground. Natalie followed her over the slight hills and furrows of graves until they reached the ornate Celtic cross.
“Even here,” Rollins said, intruding on the hallowed quiet of death, “Even here are you going to deny the truth?”
Esme pressed her hands against the cross, murmuring “No, no, no.”
“He’ll always be with you, Esme, you’re not going to lose him.”
Esme wheeled towards Natalie. “I want to lose him!”
“You can’t lose what can’t be killed,” Rollins said.
Esme blinked, pressed her fists into her own narrow belly. “I won’t let you use my hands to write your poetry,” she silently replied to Rollins.
“I’m trying hard to do the right thing here, but there’s no lifehack for helping your best friend deal with the tragedy of her fiancé’s death,” Natalie said. Esme stared past her, eyes unfocused. “I can’t even imagine how difficult it was to lose him during your happy wedding planning.”
“Happy wedding planning?” Esme turned her attention to Natalie. “He may have been happily planning.”
“I haven’t been happy in years, but he was so damn convenient. A soft place to rest when the hard edges of the others started to bruise me. I didn’t expect him to follow me to Australia.”
Natalie leaned against the cross, blinking. “Others? You cheated on him?”
“Do you remember the deal Rollins and I made?”
“The one where you would go your separate ways for three years after undergrad, and then see if the spark was still there?” Esme nodded. Natalie wiped the back of her hand across her brow, slumping against the tombstone. “I’d never met another couple brave enough to trust like that.”
“It wasn’t bravery,” Esme replied. She moved a few steps farther from Natalie. The low-scooped back of her dress exposed the knobs of her vertebrae.
“He deserved better,” Natalie said.
Esme continued to pick her way forward, moving her feet with care. She saw the ground as it was, apparently solid and covered in greenish brown grass going to straw in the summer sunlight. She saw through the illusion of solidity, saw the reality of the thin precipice upon which she walked. The edges dropped off sharply on either side of her feet. A misstep would send her into a dark chasm from which voices issued: Rollins on the left, Natalie on the right. She imagined them at the bottom, in the dark, crying to her to pull them up into the light. There was a shovel in her hand, and a pile of dirt. No, she would not pull them up. She would bury them, and they wouldn’t be able to speak with the dirt filling their mouths, their throats, their lungs. In her mind she searched for a stone to drop into the depths, and was startled to find a mausoleum instead. It stood before her in rude suddenness and ghastly solidity. She put one ear to the wall.
Natalie was a few graves away from Esme. “What are you doing?”
“Come here, listen!”
“Do you think this is a game?”
“Just come closer.”
“You’re standing in a flower bed.”
“He’s talking to me.” Esme turned her gray, unfocused eyes in Natalie’s direction. She swallowed, or tried to, but her mouth was dry from more than just heat. Her lungs felt constricted, as if psychological tension had the physical weight of dirt, six feet of dark Earth. She watched Natalie walk across the middle of a few graves, step over the low wrought-iron fence surrounding the mausoleum. “Listen,” Esme hissed. She cupped the back of Natalie’s head in one hand, pressing it towards the wall. Natalie resisted, but only for a second. Esme laid her cheek against the wall, her face very close to Natalie’s.
“I don’t hear anything,” Natalie said, standing upright. She ran her fingers through her hair, perhaps to straighten it where Esme mussed it, or maybe to wipe off her friend’s touch. She blinked her bleary eyes.
Esme moved around the side of the mausoleum, trampling flowers. “Try this spot,” she said. “He’s really loud here.”
Natalie leaned close, exactly where Esme indicated.
“You hear him, don’t you?”
“Esme, there’s no one in there, not anyone who can make a noise.”
“Come with me to the door.”
“I’ll show you,” Esme replied.
“No, I’ll show you,” Rollins said in Esme’s mind, his voice pitched as low as dark-bellied storm clouds. “I will write my poetry on your bones.”
“We should leave,” Natalie said. She touched Esme’s shoulder. “Let’s get you home.”
Esme grasped the oversized brass knocker on the crypt door. She dropped it like an executioners axe. “Ooh,” she moaned. “He’s crying. Listen to him cry!”
Natalie cupped Esme’s thin shoulder and used it to coerce her away from the door. Tears slid down her face. “You’re crying,” Natalie said. “You’re crying, sweetie.”
“He would like that,” Esme said, and grinned.
Natalie recoiled, tripping over the wrought iron fence that never stood a chance of protecting the flowers. She flailed; caught nothing; landed on her tailbone on the other side of the trampled garden, one foot lodged between the two uprights of the tiny fence. Esme knelt, took Natalie’s ankle in her hand, and gently freed it. Natalie wrenched her leg towards herself. “What is wrong with you?”
Esme crossed over the fence. She extended her slender arm. “Let me help you up.”
“Have you been hearing voices?”
“It was your fault,” Rollins said in his silent voice. He was no longer playing hide and seek in the crypt.
“It was my fault,” Esme agreed.
“What was your fault?” Natalie asked.
Esme pressed her hands to her face, gibbering through her dirty hair. Rollins’ whispers were harsh, but unintelligible. Natalie swept her hair back from her face with two shaking hands.
“Are you saying…” she started. Esme fell silent. “Are you telling me you think Rollins – you think that was your fault?” Far below, the ocean battered against cliffs studded with corpses.
Esme raised her head, the motion quick and jerky. Her words came out hot with spittle. “I broke his heart.”
“You broke his heart?” Natalie aped.
“No one knows…” Esme started, only to be interrupted by Rollins. “I know,” he said. She amended her comment and continued, “No one but Rollins and I know that I broke up with him a week before the wedding. I called off the wedding, Nat.”
“You’re right. I didn’t know. I had no idea. But.” Natalie let out a deep breath. “You didn’t kill him, Esme. He died in a car accident.”
“I tried to give him back his ring, but he wouldn’t take it.”
“Maybe you should sit down, Ess, you don’t look good.”
Natalie reached to help guide Esme to the ground, but stopped short. Esme’s face was contorted, her fingers dug deep into her own hair, pulling. “I was in the car behind him when he drove off the road!”
“But he was missing for three days before those hikers discovered his car. If you were behind him…oh, God.”
“She begins to see,” Rollins intoned.
Esme covered her heart with her hands. Using her silent voice, she replied, proud of her clinical calm. “Now we will all know who I thought I was to do what I did.”
Natalie walked in tight little circles. Gravel crunched underfoot, the path making pronouncements. Guilty, guilty, guilty!
“Stop it, Nat, just stand still!”
“I’m thinking. I have to move when I think.”
“After the three-year break, he showed up with a copy of The Great Gatsby.” Esme took the length of her hair in her hands, twirling it all together in one thick twist like the start of a bun. “He told me I was his Daisy. I told him…”
“What did you tell me?” Rollins interjected. His tone was sardonic. It came from somewhere very far back in Esme’s mind, the place where she hid her fears.
“I told him it was too much, but he was insistent.”
“So insistent you agreed to be engaged? After another year of dating? That was bitchy.”
“I was weak.”
Natalie stopped pacing in circles. The gravel held its tongue. “Did you know his car went off the road, into a ravine?”
“You heard what I said.”
“Are you sure, Esme? This is very serious. Are you certain your memory isn’t playing tricks on you?”
“My memory doesn’t play tricks.”
“Yet you’re hearing Rollins in your mind. You said you saw him when we were in the cab. Those could be delusions, brought on by the strain of grief.”
“Don’t talk to me about delusion!” Esme pressed the flats of her hands just above Natalie’s breasts and shoved. Natalie stumbled backwards on the shocked gravel. “I wasn’t the one who believed in true love, the surest delusion.”
“Don’t push me again.”
“Don’t talk down to me again. I won’t let you control me with your care. I won’t be a prisoner of your friendship.”
Natalie raised one shaking hand to her own forehead. Pressed it there. “Shit, Esme, if you knew he went over the edge…”
“I’m telling you I knew.”
“Why didn’t you call the police?” Natalie blinked, shook her head as if warding off an awful thought. “Was he hurting you? Abusive?”
Esme clapped her hands together in shocking bravura. The sound ricocheted off the mausoleum, tore invisible paths through the mangled flowers, and troubled the sightless endeavors of worms at buffet. “He was a lover, not a fighter.”
“I’m going now,” Natalie said.
“We haven’t seen Rollins’ grave.”
“I don’t need to,” Natalie said. “I’ve seen his murderer.”
Esme waited until Natalie was two graves away before she spoke. “I’m going to be with Rollins. I’m his daisy, his lily, his sleep.”
Natalie stopped where she was. “Are you going to hurt yourself?”
“Leave me,” Esme said.
Natalie looked at the path back to the entrance, but turned to walk back to Esme. “You know I can’t do that, not really.” She gathered her friend in a hug.
“Remember that I said that, that I told you to go.”
“Come one, Ess, let’s get you back to your flat. A shower and some food will help. We’ll figure it out, whatever there is to figure out.”
“I need to see his grave.”
“And then you’ll leave with me?”
“Then I’ll leave.”
Natalie nodded, her chin digging into Esme’s neck. “Let’s visit Rollins. I want to say a proper goodbye, since I wasn’t here for the funeral.”
“Yes,” Esme said. “A proper goodbye.”
The women clasped each other, surrounded by a cemetery, and a secret between them. A crazed kookaburra guffawed. They began to walk.
Rollins’ grave, marked with a non-descript rectangle, stood in the middle of a row of more ornate headstones. It listed his name, date of birth, date of death and nothing else. Natalie wrapped her arms around her own waist.
Esme approached the stone. “Buried these three months, and every moment a Lazarus attempt.”
“That’s your guilt talking. He is at rest.”
“Ha!” Esme kicked the headstone with dispassionate cruelty. “He’s not at rest, and he makes sure I’m not, either.”
“Let’s go,” Natalie said. She took one of Esme’s hands, but she wrenched free. “I really think we should get out of here.”
Esme sat down on the mound of dirt covering her ex-fiancé. She leaned against his headstone, patted the ground next to her. “Have a seat, commune with the spirit of the not-so-dear or so departed.”
Natalie crouched, eye-level with Esme. “Let me take you home. Please.”
Odd scratching noises came from an indeterminate location. Natalie shifted on the balls of her feet, looking around her, while Esme’s eyes widened above the pale knobs of her knees. “Do you hear him reaching for me?” she whispered.
“It’s only the wind,” Natalie replied. The scratching stilled. “See?”
A split second later a thudding noise made them both jump. Natalie scurried next to Esme; they crouched together, the headstone at their backs. “He’s disturbing the worms for me,” Esme whispered.
“Nonsense,” Natalie said.
“You heard it, too, or you wouldn’t be next to me.”
“I’m in a graveyard, across the international dateline from my bed, and my best friend is acting like a lunatic. Hell, yeah, I’m jumpy.” Natalie slumped forward with her head in her hands.
Esme watched her friend’s body move with the rhythmic inflation of breath. She tried to imagine what it felt like to breathe, to have blood, to have a name and a bed. She reminded herself that she did have a bed, and that her name was Esme, but it was nothing compared to the wonder of Natalie, a recent time traveler. Natalie had slingshot forward, lost Tuesday to alight on the shores of a wretched Wednesday. Where did her Tuesday go? Esme wondered. Where had all the Tuesdays gone?
The scratching noise resumed, followed by an intermittent squeak. Natalie reached for Esme. They clutched hands. “He might send someone with instructions,” Esme whispered. “Maybe that is the messenger coming. A skeleton, you think, dragging dry bones?”
“You’re giving me the creeps,” Natalie said. The fine hairs on her arms were lifted.
A man pushed a wheelbarrow between rows of graves. He wore a hat with a floppy, wide brim that hid his face. Flattish tires flopped on an axle that squealed periodically, and the trajectory of the barrow skewed in a slight diagonal that put it on a collision course with a headstone. The metal barrel clanged against a marble angel. The man stopped, shuffled to the side closest to the stone, and grasped the handle. The wheelbarrow moved forward, squeaking. He was angled towards the girls now, the knotted end of his shirtsleeve bobbing at the shoulder where an arm should have been.
“The noise was him,” Natalie said. “Pushing that with one arm. Should we help him?”
“I don’t want to, he’s fine.”
“That’s absurd.” Natalie stood up, brushed off the bottom of her shorts. “Sir!” she called.
Esme crossed her arms over her thin chest.
“I’m going to see if he needs help.”
“Don’t leave me!” Esme clutched at the hem of Natalie’s shorts.
“Then come with me.”
Esme blinked rapidly and, instead of rising, she kicked her heels against the ground.
“A temper tantrum, really?” Natalie shook her head. She turned to go help the man, but he had closed the distance between them.
“G’day,” he said. He pulled the barrow even with Rollins grave and stopped. He wiped his brow with the back of his hand.
“Do you need help?” Natalie asked.
He chuckled. “Got a coldie?”
“Beer,” Esme said, without looking up from her own knees.
“Oh. We don’t even have water,” Natalie said.
He pulled a pack of gum out of his pocket. It was still wrapped in cellophane. “Would you mind?”
Natalie smiled, looking apologetically confused. Esme snatched the pack from the man. “I’ll do it.”
“Ta,” he said.
“That’s ‘thank you,’” Esme translated for Natalie. She handed the opened pack of gum back to the man, one stick jutting out to grasp. “I’m not unwrapping it for you.”
“No need.” He plucked the stick out, and then stripped it of the paper using his teeth. Natalie blushed, and took the pack of gum from Esme and gave it back to the gravedigger. “Visiting someone special?” he asked, the gum tripping around behind his teeth.
“As if you don’t know,” Esme said, apparently to her own knees.
“We’re visiting a friend’s grave,” Natalie said.
“She means we’re too busy to unwrap someone else’s gum.”
“Ess!” Natalie turned to the man, her face a brighter shade of red. “Sorry.”
“No worries.” The man lifted his wheelbarrow, grasping one handle. “You right?”
“That,” Esme said with pompous inflection, “means ‘do you need help?’”
“Stop doing that, I know what he means.”
“Only trying to help, matey.”
“Will you be able to get the wheelbarrow wherever you’re going?” Natalie asked, her back to Esme.
“I do it every day.”
“See you again sometime, when you haven’t got your friend.”
“Goodbye,” Natalie replied.
“Hooroo,” he said. Before Esme could pipe up, he added, “And that means goodbye.”
Natalie waited until the clanging of the wheelbarrow was some distance away before she turned to face Esme. One fist on either hip, she waited. When Esme merely looked up, blinking, Natalie said, “That was rude.”
“What does it matter? He’s only a prop. A person hired for verisimilitude.”
“Verisimilitude,” Natalie repeated, dropping to the ground.
“You look very tired.”
“Lay here with me.”
“We can’t sleep in the cemetery.”
“We’re not taking up any space that the eternally resting want. Come on.” Esme patted the dirt next to her, then moved until she could lay back with her legs crossed at the ankles.
Natalie stretched out on the ground, her head even with Esme’s. She shuddered. “It’s creepy to think Rollins is down there.”
After a moment, Natalie asked, “What did you mean, he was a prop?”
“They have to convince us that there is a world where people go to work, and people tend gravesites. It was a nice touch, him having one arm like a scene from that Shirley Jackson novel, what was it called?”
“Don’t you believe in reality?”
“That’s not what I said, Nat, you don’t listen. I said that it’s all orchestrated, not that it isn’t real.” She rolled on her side, close enough to Natalie that she could feel her own her fetid breath rebounding from her friend’s cheek. “I know what it’s about, this roleplaying. How difficult it is to imitate what they think we expect them to be.”
“You mean how it was being with Rollins.”
“I mean how it is being.”
A hot breeze stirred the dust and caused the leaves of the few palms standing sentinel near Rollins’ grave to tremble. Natalie covered her eyes with one arm. “What are we going to do, Ess? What are we going to do?”
“Wait until he summons me.”
“Why would he? You were so desperate to be rid of him, you left him to die.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Esme said.
“He didn’t die in a ditch, broken and suffering!”
“We really don’t know how much he suffered, do we? You didn’t call. Three days, Ess, three whole days he might have been waiting, praying, hoping.”
“No!” Esme sat up. “He lived on the dream of me as his. I took that from him when I broke off the engagement. If you want to argue that I killed him, it was then, not later.”
“No one lives on a dream,” Natalie said. “No one dies of one, either.”
Natalie remained where she was, eyes stubbornly covered. “Do you hear yourself? Do you know what a position you’ve put me in?”
“What position would that be?”
“I don’t know, exactly. Accessory after the fact? Is that a thing?”
“Accessory to what?”
“Homicide, manslaughter, something awful.”
“You don’t understand,” Esme said. She stood, the belt that had been cinching her dress now held taut between her hands. One foot on either side of Natalie’s hips, she straddled her friend’s supine form.
“Why did you even tell me? How could you put this on me?” Natalie flung her arm away from her face. She was looking where Esme had been, but then slowly rolled her head, giving a yelp when she saw Esme standing over her.
Natalie scrabbled backwards, hitting her head on the gravestone. Esme pounced. Her knees pressed into Natalie’s soft belly. A whoosh of expelled breath was followed by a sharp crack. Esme wobbled, her balance thrown by the fierce slap – the whip-crack noise she had heard before she felt it.
“I didn’t ask you to come!” Esme shouted. She grabbed Natalie by the hair, lifting and slamming her onto the ground until she lay still. Far below, the ocean chittered in eternal loneliness. Even the kookaburra had fled.
“Can’t breathe,” Natalie gasped.
“Hush,” Esme said. She smoothed Natalie’s hair back from her sweaty brow. “Remember we used to play In the Future?”
“Well, go on, start.” Esme touched her fingers to Natalie’s cheek. They came away damp with tears.
“I… don’t… want… to,” Natalie gasped.
“Fine, I’ll start.” Esme said. “In the future, we will live in an Italian villa.” As she spoke, she looped the belt around her hands until it was a taut line between them. Then she leaned forward until her fists, and the belt, were pressed to the ground above Natalie’s head. Her face hovered just inches away from Natalie, who stared, unblinking. “We will drink lemonade on our terrazza overlooking our vineyard. Our bedrooms will be painted complementary shades of aubergine and teal, and we will spend our evenings reading to each other, one night in your purple room, one night in my blue one and we won’t worry about the ghost that haunts the halls. We will pay it no mind because we know who it is. We’ll know he wrote my name in your blood.”
Natalie squirmed, her mouth open so wide that the gold crown of her farthest molar was visible. She clawed at Esme’s sides and back. Esme planted both knees more firmly in her friend’s gut before adjusting her position and sliding the belt under Natalie’s neck.
“Or, if you’d prefer,” Esme continued, “in the future we can breathe under water. Far down, where all silly noises and words are swallowed by the immense density, and tiny fish will tickle as they swim through the coral reefs of our immortal bodies. Light from a perpetual full moon will bathe us in broken shards, and we’ll be the most beautiful beings in all the silence.”
Natalie struggled. “Off. Me!”
“Shh, Nat, the future is coming.”
Natalie shook her head, eyes widening as Esme slipped the end of the belt through the buckle and pulled. The worn band of leather tightened around Natalie’s neck, the buckle digging into pale skin. Natalie shoved and bucked. Esme fell onto her side, but maintained her grip on the belt. When Natalie tried to crawl away, Esme pulled with enough force to send her sprawling. Esme’s fingers went numb, and the joints in her hand ached where she had wrapped the tightening belt around them, but she pulled harder. Natalie kicked backwards. A metallic taste, salty warmth. Esme spit blood.
Natalie pried the makeshift noose from her neck. Her breathing was harsh, gulping. She crawled first, then staggered, and didn’t stop until she came upon a stranger’s grave. A large marble obelisk separated her from Esme.
“Stay?” Esme asked.
Natalie turned away, tripping over her own feet in her haste.
“Stay here with me, please?”
A marble angel on a pedestal blocked Natalie from Esme’s view. The angel, all of the angels, watched Esme with bald eyes. Esme hesitated, leaning a bit towards the path Natalie took, before going the opposite way. She was not welcome amongst the dead, and was found wanting amongst the living. Who did she think she was, to do what she did? Esme walked through the cemetery to the far gate. The gravedigger sat at the bus stop. Esme sat next to him, and he regarded at her for a long moment.
“Where’s your girlfriend?”
“Lovers spat,” he said, nodding. “Is it over, then?”
“No,” Esme replied. A sob caught her by surprise. She quaked, trying to keep it all in.
More of Aniko Carmean’s work can be found at Odd Sky Books. Do it.