I grew up in a graveyard. Yup, not in a church, but in a small stone building right slap bang in the middle of a graveyard. My grandfather was the caretaker. I lived with him all my life. My parents died when I was very young and I didn’t remember them, though there’s something so eerie about being able to say goodnight to your parents once they are dead. I could see their gravestones from my bedroom window. I’d wave to them as I laid down in bed. I’d hear them say goodnight back.
It wasn’t from outside. It was from within my room, as if my gesture to them was an invitation in. Sleep came difficult to me. As I dropped off, I’d feel cold pressure on my cheeks as one after the other, my parents kissed me goodnight.
A quirk in the centuries old deed to the house allowed my grandfather to live in it until he died. As he grew older, his work became harder, and I asked if I could help. After school, I’d do more and more of his duties, until, when I was fourteen, I was doing all of them. He had grown weak. He spent the days in his chair, reading. Sometimes, he’d watch the TV, but the signal at night was rarely stable.
One evening as I finished, I returned to the cottage to see him standing outside. He passed me a bag of salt.
“The spirits are restless tonight,” he said, gazing up at the full moon, “spread this on the graves.”
Somewhat anxiously, I took it from him and proceeded to do what I was told. When I returned, he was sitting inside, holding a glass of brandy.
“What do I do with mum and dad’s?”
“Same as the rest,” he said, not looking up.
“But they visit me at night,” I said, without even thinking how strange that sounded, it was normal for me.
“The salt, Sean,” he said with an air of annoyance in his voice.
I sighed and trudged through the graveyard, illuminated in an ashy grey by the bright moonlight. I stood over my parents graves.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “Grandad says I have to. I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
I returned to our house feeling upset, as if I’d betrayed them.
“All done,” I said.
“You’ve missed one.”
“I’m sorry, Grandad?”
“Daniel Carver, he’s buried under the oak tree, just outside the boundary.”
I never even knew that one existed. As I left for a second time, I heard the mumbles of Grandad talking.
I stopped in front of the oak tree. The grave appeared disturbed. You could tell by the mud that was churned up around the edges of the gravestone. The grass that grew over the coffin was broken and haphazard.
I sprinkled the salt. I heard my grandad shout. I dropped the bag and ran.
“Is everything okay?” I asked, seeing him hold his arm. Blood dripped onto the flagstone floor, “Let me get you something.”
Quickly, I rummaged in the medicine closet and pulled out a length of bandage.
“Here,” I said.
He snatched it from me and began to wind it around his forearm. The blood eagerly soaked through the linen fabric.
“Do I need to phone a doctor?”
“Don’t call. It’s just a burn. I’m fine,” he scowled.
I jumped, shocked at his anger. I rarely saw that side of him. And then it was usually directed to strangers.
When he was finished, he sat back down and drank his brandy. His breathing was laboured, but I knew better than to disturb him.
“Don’t trust the dead,” he said, “the living are beacons of light to them. They will do anything to trick you. To be close to you. To touch you. To become a part of you.”
From my room, I peered out into the graveyard. The headstones jutted at awkward angles, as the ground had settled slowly over the years. You could see the newer stones, the ones that were almost upright.
I didn’t wave to my parents. I got into bed and pulled the covers up and over my head, not wanting to be touched anymore. I missed our nightly routine. I wondered if it had only been in my head. That night though, I never heard my parents wish me goodnight, and neither did I feel their kiss.
In the morning I woke. I was late for school. That had never happened before. Grandad would wake me. I felt a peculiar sense of foreboding at the change in events. My anxiety was confirmed when I saw his lifeless body in the chair.
I picked up the phone and held it in my hand for the longest time. As I went to dial, I thought about the fact I would lose this place if my Grandad was dead. I didn’t want to have to move out and be away from my parents; they were all I had left.
Without thinking, I locked the front door and walked to school.
It was the slowest I’ve ever walked. I promised to phone the police when I got home, say I didn’t see Grandad dead, that I’d woken up late and ran.
I didn’t concentrate that day, who could. All I could think about was him sitting in his chair. I thought about the flies that would have started to gather, crawling up his nose, laying maggots in his brain. I shuddered at the thought.
I talked to no one at lunch and ate nothing. I pleaded with time for the final class to last forever, though it was over before I knew it and I was standing outside our cottage again.
I didn’t want to open the door and go inside. I still had time though. I could do that and call the police and this would all be over. I’d be sent sent to a foster home for the remainder of my teens and my grandfather would be given a burial in the graveyard he attended most of his life. I knew I wasn’t going to do that though.
I opened the door.
I sniffed, expecting the odour of rot to fill the house, though it didn’t. It was a combination of the smell of fresh meat and urine. That’s when I noticed the pool of liquid that had gathered under his chair.
I felt ashamed. I’d let the man who had looked after me all this time sit in his feculence for way too long.
As I was digging the grave, I had done this many times before. I kept telling myself I could still call the police. They’d not known I had done this. As the sun set and the moon rose, I told myself again. I told myself one final time as I had dragged his bloated body out of the house and next to Daniel Carver’s grave. When I’d opened the coffin, it had been empty. The headstone said he’d been laid to rest in 1843. I rolled Grandad’s body into the hole. As his stomach hit the bottom and the gas exploded out, I heaved and knew that any chance at redemption had now gone. I closed the coffin and backfilled the hole.
I stood in the living room, alone for the first time in my life that I could remember. I cleaned the chair and the flagstones as best I could, and opened the windows to air out the smell that lingered.
As I went to bed that night, I’d knew I wouldn’t sleep, so I did the only thing I knew I could. I waved to my parents grave.
I laid down on the bed and closed my eyes.
“Goodnight son,” I heard from within the room.
I wished I heard it so much, I couldn’t be sure if it was real or not. I cried. I couldn’t tell anymore.
Sleep gripped me tighter than I expected it would, and on my cheek, I felt a cold embrace that I had come to know and love. I smiled as I drifted off.
I was woken hours later, by what I do not know. The room was frigid. I checked the window and saw it was closed.
I heard the sounds of footsteps outside my room. In my daze, I was worried Grandad was upset with me again. I got out of bed and shivered.
I opened the door to silence. Slowly my memories began to click together, ending in a shiver that ran down my spine. No one would be here.
The full moon illuminated the house through the curtain-less window. The footsteps returned. They were coming from my grandad’s room. There was no way in hell I was going in there.
A draft crept through the hallway, beckoning me to go to the living room. I heard the mumbling of voices as I turned the corner and entered the ice cold space.
The curtains billowed in the breeze. All the windows were open, as I’d left them. A glass of brandy sat on the table next to my grandad’s chair. The chair was empty.
Frantically I closed the windows. I shivered again. It was uncannily cold.
“Go back to bed, sweetie,” I heard from behind me.
I turned on my heels, seeing nothing there.
“Son, you’re cold, go to bed,” another voice, it was my Dad’s.
“Dad?” I asked, my hands shaking.
“Go to bed,” he said again.
There was no direction to the sound, it was as if it came from within my head.
I was beginning to panic, wishing my grandad was still here to help me.
There was a knock at the door. A single, heavy thump. I jumped.
“Honey, go back to bed,” a woman’s voice this time, my mother.
I remembered what I needed to do. I searched in the kitchen and then the parlour for the bag of salt. It wasn’t there. I stared through the kitchen window, the graves illuminated ash-grey by the moonlight.
In the distance, a man stood on top of a grave. He beckoned to me. I couldn’t make him out from within the house.
A second knock thumped against the door. Followed by another and another. Until all I could hear was the knocking, like a heavy storm, raining down on the house.
“Don’t trust the dead,” my grandad said, “the living are beacons of light to them. They will do anything to trick you. To be close to you. To touch you. To become a part of you.”
I knew where the salt was. I opened the kitchen window and climbed out, running towards the oak tree.
“Go back to bed!” a voice I didn’t recognise commanded from behind me.
I could feel myself being chased. My shoulders quivered at the unseen things in my wake. I swiped the bag from on top of Mr Carver’s grave.
Without respect for the dead, I ran over the graves, almost feeling the occupants shudder, as I left behind me handfuls of salt.
“Bed!” another voice boomed.
Desperate advances were made on me. Tendril-like fingers gripped at my arms and body. It was as if I were wading through treacle. The bindings became less and less as more of the graves were covered. Until I was left with only two. My parents.
“Honey, please go back to bed,” my mother soothed.
“Listen to your mother, son.”
“Sorry Dad, I need to do this. Grandad said.”
Before I cleansed them, I knelt down. I hadn’t done this in all the times I’d visited them. I wanted to apologise before I banished them back to their eternal waiting.
“Sorry, mum. Sorry, dad. I’ve really appreciated you visiting and comforting me. But, as grandad said, the spirits are restless tonight.”
I threw a handful of salt and hung my head. I made my way up to the one headstone that crossed both graves and read.
Here lies the bodies of Mr Alan Carver and Mrs Elizabeth Carver, inseparable in life, laid to rest together July 10, 1894.
Huh, I thought to myself. Either I was over one hundred years old, or these were not my parents.
My granddad would be ninety-six today. It’s only a matter of time before they know he’s no longer with us. Though the church has closed, so maybe if I kept the place tidy they won’t say anything. I do a good job of that, if I say so myself.
I’ve been trying to find out who my real parents were. A copy of my birth certificate arrived earlier this week. My parents were a Mr and Mrs Alan Carver. The dates on their graves must be wrong. I’m still waiting for their death certificates.
I learnt a lot from my granddad. The most important thing being, when salt has been spread on all the graves, it’s safe to sleep.