The flashlight beam played over headstones as the two boys made their way toward Mary Evans’s grave. Hank hunched into his blue hoodie against the chill October wind. Up ahead he saw the smoke of Ponz’s breath in the flashlight beam.
“Come on,” Ponz called. “It’s this way.”
“What if the cops come around?” Hank said. He was 14 years old, like his best friend Ponz, short for Ponsonby, and they were both in violation of curfew.
“We hide,” Ponz said, as if it were obvious. The moon was only half-full, not more than a nightlight for the two after-hours visitors. Ponz shut off the flashlight and became a shadow. “See?” he said. He turned the flashlight back on, shining it on his face, the light glaring off his big owl-boy glasses.
“Cut it out,” Hank said, regretting that he hadn’t brought his own flashlight with him. He had to follow Brainiac’s light in the gloom, bumping into the unevenly laid stones and crosses and plaques jutting from the ground. Some of the stones had dates carved on them that began with 16—.
Their bikes were parked outside the stone wall that surrounded the burial grounds, hidden under a yew tree. The gates were locked after 10 p.m., so they had climbed over the wall.
Hank carried the sack. It was actually one of his mother’s pillowcases. Inside was everything the website — RiseAgain.com — said they’d need to perform the ritual.
Ponz was always finding new projects, and read everything from quantum physics to the stuff on necromancy on the weird website that told you how to raise the dead. He intended to “test the hypothesis.”
Traveler’s Rest Cemetery, the oldest in Baytown, overlooked the Atlantic at Lost Point, where ships had grounded on the shoals during storms in earlier days, before bell buoys were placed offshore to sound a warning to the steamers and clippers that passed. Modern buoys with flashing green lights had replaced the old ones. Hank heard the distant sound of the bells ringing as the buoys bobbed in the waves.
“This is it,” Ponz said, aiming his flashlight at a gray marble headstone. The grave was freshly dug, covered in dirt that still showed the marks of the shovels used to pat it down and smooth it over. Dozens of flowers rested at the base of the grave marker. They were turning brown.
He shined his light on Mary’s stone marker and read the inscription aloud: “Beloved daughter of Philip and Cindy Evans. Born September 12, 2006 — Died October 20, 2021. Rest in peace.”
Hank thought to say that they were about to disturb her rest, if there was anything to this stuff, but he let Ponz take the pillowcase from him and spread its contents onto the ground, next to Mary’s grave.
Mary had died from a heart seizure on the basketball court at Carl P. Sloan Junior High while cheering for her team, the Pirates. Hank was the center for the team, standing just short of six feet, with blond hair cut down to bristles. From all the cheerleaders on the line, he always picked out her voice shouting, “Go, Hank!” They hadn’t talked to each other; it was just him hustling and her cheering, even during rallies, occasionally stealing glances at each other. He’d had a major crush on Mary, but by the time he’d gotten up the nerve to ask her out, it was too late.
He didn’t know why Ponz had chosen her for his experiment; maybe because she had just passed on, if that made any difference. If he couldn’t talk to her while she was alive, Hank thought, what would he do if he saw her ghost?
From the pillowcase Ponz removed a silver candlestick holding a tapered white candle covered with dribbles of hardened wax, borrowed from his mother’s dining table; a brass dinner bell his mom liked to use when they had company; and one of Hank’s dad’s match boxes that he used for lighting his pipe, along with a folded piece of paper and some broken bits of chocolate chip cookies, popping them into his mouth.
“What time is it?” Ponz asked.
Hank checked his Michael Jordan sports watch.
“Eleven-fifty-five,” he said.
“Five minutes to go.”
You were supposed to conduct the ritual on the cusp of the night. The turning point during which dark and light were balanced. Well, there wasn’t much light, Hank thought. The stars were out, and the faint moon, and the flashlight beam, jumping around as Ponz searched through the pillowcase. He set the silver candlestick down on the middle of the earthen mound, and when midnight came, he struck a match and lit the white taper.
Ponz unfolded the paper and shook cookie crumbs off it. It was a facsimile of a page from a 300-year-old manuscript he had printed off the internet. At least, that’s what the website claimed. It was written in Latin. The procedure was what Ponz called a reverse exorcism. Bell, book, and candle, like the Roman Catholic Church used, only with different words, not to repel but to summon a spirit.
Hank held the flashlight on the paper while Ponz intoned, “Sepulcrum relinquo; resurgam …” — I leave the grave behind; I shall rise again — and then paused. There was a blank after the words. You were supposed to fill in the dead person’s name, so he called out: “Mary Evans.”
The clanging of the bell as Hank rang it echoed over the stones. Calling to the dead.
Ponz repeated the ancient words and shouted, “Mary, wake up!”
As if she was just resting her eyes.
The cemetery was still, deeply quiet. They’d come here since they were in grade school, playing among the gravestones, but never at night. Hank wished something would happen, and at the same time he didn’t. Most everyone wanted to see a miracle. But if she came back, what would she be like?
Mary, laughing, pom-poms shaking, long brown hair swinging as she danced; a happy girl with a pert nose and ivory skin, dressed in a short black skirt and a yellow sweater, the school colors, who had made his heart skip a beat. Her heart lay silent under a dirt mound in Traveler’s Rest.
Now he was starting to feel like he was at a funeral. This was just a Halloween goof he’d gone along with because Ponz was the coolest, and smartest, kid he’d ever met, but he was tiring of it. Even so, he continued to ring the brass bell and listen to his friend attempt to rouse the spirit of Mary Evans, without success.
“Mary, wake up!” Ponz implored her, following with more Latin phrases.
Out at sea there was a roll of thunder. Lightning flared in the distance. Roiling black clouds were moving over the Atlantic toward the cliff at Lost Point, the wind rising, scattering the flowers on the grave.
The candle blew out.
Is he supposed to relight it? Hank thought, then jumped and spun around when he heard a flapping noise.
He looked up and saw a barn owl land on the branch of a buttonwood tree. It stared at Hank with luminous yellow eyes. He knew that owls hunted out here, but he’d been startled to the point of goosebumps and wanted to find a rock and chuck it at the bird. The raptor seemed to watch him with intent.
Then someone called his name.
It wasn’t Ponz, still busy with his incantation. He had heard a feminine voice, and it had come from the buttonwood tree.
Dumbfounded, Hank stared at the barn owl. “Hank,” it said again.
He couldn’t find his voice, but Ponz would josh him anyway if he told him what he’d just heard. After another five fruitless, ghostless minutes, Ponz stopped his recitation and crumpled the paper with the spell on it.
“This is bogus,” he said and called it quits.
Still speechless, Hank wanted to say, “No, it’s not.” Mary was perched in the buttonwood tree.
The boys climbed over the stone wall, lined with clothes-tearing iron finials, fetched their bikes from under the yew tree, and raced for home before the storm hit land.
* * *
The rain started shortly after they left Traveler’s Rest. It began as a cold drizzle, then became sheets of water that slapped against Hank’s bedroom window. The radiator hissed and clanked as the boiler came on, and he heard the flush of a toilet as someone got up to use the bathroom.
Covers pulled up to his chest, Hank lay in bed, his bedside lamp on, re-reading the bit about owls in the folklore book he’d gotten from his English teacher, Mrs. DeYoung. If an owl called your name, the book said, you were destined to die within three days.
He didn’t question if the folklore about owls was true. Owls don’t talk, but the bird in the buttonwood tree had addressed him quite clearly. It was the spirit of Mary Evans. He hadn’t seen her again, but she might be out there in the wet, waiting for him. If the old legend was true, his lifespan could now be measured by the first week of the current calendar month.
Ponz had summoned her, so Hank didn’t think Mary had come for him specifically. She recognized him from school, from the basketball games.
Though they had never dated, there was a thread between them that tied them together. Mary might have had a crush on him, too, he thought, a spark that never got a chance to ignite. And never would. He had to stay away from her.
November 4th would be the fourth day since Ponz performed the graveyard ritual. The only thing he could think to do was stay holed up in his bedroom until the time was up.
He should call Ponz, he thought. It was better than just sitting here alone, watching the short days go by. Ponz would find something to send Mary back to wherever she’d come from. It was 2:30 in the morning, but Hank called his friend anyway, and left a message on his voicemail. Ponz was no doubt conked out after a night of trying to raise the dead, ironically not even knowing he’d succeeded.
His mom and dad and his little brother Kevin were asleep. He listened to the hiss of the radiator, thought about what excuse he was going to make to his parents in the morning about why he couldn’t go to school this week. Mom might bring him his meals, if he could convince her he was ill, but she might want to take him to the doctor if he lingered more than a day.
Well, he had his books, TV, and his own bathroom. He could wait out the three days. He was warm, sheltered. Drowsy.
Struggling against sleep, drained from the strange incident in the graveyard, Hank tried to stay awake. His eyelids drooped, his body sagged. His breath came softly. He dreamed. A few minutes later he began to toss and turn.
“I can’t go, Mary,” he murmured, thrashing his covers.
Something crashed against his bedroom window, jarring him to a sitting position. The oak tree outside his window easily reached the second story of the house. But the noise wasn’t scratchy sounding, like from a branch; it had been a solid thump, as of a small body hitting glass, followed by a screech.
Hank ran to the window and peeked through the curtains.
Through the spraying rain lashing the glass he saw a girl lying on the asphalt in the middle of the road, one arm bent like a broken wing, brown hair matted and covering her face, trying to crawl to the sidewalk.
Not thinking to call 911, Hank bolted downstairs and out onto busy Groton Street to pull the girl out of the way of traffic before someone ran over her; but when he reached the street, reached her, she was suddenly gone, just as blinding lights came toward him, the sound of skidding tires screeching on a rain-slick road.
* * *
Watching from the oak tree, Hank wondered who the body was sprawled in front of the white Toyota, the car’s emergency lights flashing. A frantic woman was shouting into a cellphone, hugging herself with one arm, pacing on the sidewalk in front of his house. Spreading his wings, Hank flew over the body and glided off to the cemetery, the stones appearing and fading between flickers of flash lightning as he searched for her.
“Mary…” he called over the wind.
“Hank,” she called back, both of them flying out toward the Atlantic, vanishing into the storm.
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A short and atmospheric tale, perfect for the spooky season. Nicely done!
I like the way in which this story was told. Whether Mary was really awakened from beyond isn’t certain, but something supernatural definitely seemed to have occurred here.