by James Patrick Focarile
This story was first published in Mystery Tribune Magazine.
I arrive at my usual time, my hand clasped around the stem a single lily. An offering, a tribute to her cherished life.
A light breeze sweeps my cheek. The leaves of a towering oak rustle, clapping a gentle rhythm, like soothing windchimes. There’s a calm in this sacred place, in its history, in the routine of my daily visits. In how the well-trimmed grass frames the edge of the footpath I take. In the familiarity of the surrounding graves, reaching like wanting arms for the heavens. Their gray stone markers scarred and tarnished by unrelenting time, some no longer even legible, but still dressed in loving flowers and verdant wreaths of remembrance.
Their loved ones haven’t forgotten them. Why should I be any different?
Thank God for her gravesite. Thank God for the family crypt. My purpose and salvation. Ancient granite covered in ivy, two ionic columns standing guard, watching, protecting all entombed from the cold of night. The site’s been in my family for generations: a repository for all that’s come before. As one of Boston’s founding families, this place connects me to my lineage, old and new. The only road still accessible to my departed wife.
But the girls say I’m being obsessive. That I visit here too much. Just yesterday at the house, they hounded me about it.
“We all cope with the pain of it,” said Jennie. “But it’s not healthy, Dad.”
“You’ve lost weight,” added Mags. “You’re smoking for Christ’s sake.”
“I’m not smoking,” I said. “A drag once in a blue moon. Stop exaggerating.”
“Dad, I can smell it on you,” said Jennie. “You don’t look well.”
I shrugged. Anything to shut it down. “O.K. I need to take better care of myself.”
“This week will be a year,” said Mags.
“I know how long it’s been. Trust me.”
“You can’t just work at the hospital and go to the cemetery,” said Mags.
Jennie grabbed my arm, the care in her eyes evident. “Dad, you’ve got to take a breath.”
I looked down at her hand. A glittering diamond graced her left ring finger.
“Michael gave it to me last night,” she whispered, her grin as wide as the sea. “We’re engaged.”
“Oh my God. That’s wonderful, Jennie.” I looked over at her sister. “Did you know about this?”
“Jennie told me last night,” said Mags. “We wanted to surprise you.”
“I am that.” My face went flush. “Wow, I wish your mom was here to see this.”
“So do I,” said Jennie.
“This ring looks like the one I gave your mother.”
“I told Michael I wanted something similar,” said Jennie.
“It’s beautiful. She’d be so proud of you.”
“So, you see Dad, we need you more than ever. ‘Heart and soul’ as you always say. We have a wedding to prepare. Mom would want you to live again.”
My Theresa, my angel. The days without her seem like one. The only solace I have is visiting this grave each day and being with her, chatting with her.
Over twenty years of history, that’s a lot of memories. And all the good times: making sourdough pancakes from scratch on Christmas Day; losing at Gin Rummy, hand after hand, at the dining room table; slow dancing to crooners around the kitchen island; tracing my finger along the curve of her supple spine…
But the girls are right. I need to find hope in the present. I need to be strong for them. Try to make a new life for myself. Invest in my children and their lives and the hope of grandchildren.
Still, I feel cheated. Like she was robbed from me. Taken. Such a crazy accident. The car was well-maintained. Just a light rain. Such an arbitrary occurrence.
She was happy. We were happy. We deserved better. We deserved—
I look over to my right a few yards away. The woman is there again. We seem to be on the same grieving schedule. It’s uncanny, day after day, month after month. She and I seem attached to this graveyard, unable to separate from our respective losses.
She’s nodded and smiled a few times and I’ve nodded back. My thoughts betray me and Theresa’s memory. I won’t lie, I feel guilty. It’s just that she’s breathtaking, her skin like glass. The dress is always the same, long and flowing. She’s statuesque, with black hair pulled back tight in a bun. And dark penetrating eyes.
She turns without warning and catches me staring. She smiles. Stiff and awkward, I smile back. She’s heading this way. Like a figure etched in ice, I stand frozen to the spot.
“Hello,” she says, the tone of her voice soothing. Hypnotic.
“Hello.” She’s never been so close and now I can fully take her in. The distance didn’t do her justice.
“Sorry for your loss,” she says.
“Sorry for yours as well.
“I see it weighs on you.”
“Yes, it does,” I say. “You’re here as often as me.”
“Maybe more,” she says.
“I’ve visited this graveyard my entire life. For one reason or another.”
“It holds many memories.”
“It certainly does,” I say.
She places her hand to her chest. “Anna. Nice to meet you.”
“I’m John. It’s nice to finally meet you as well.”
But I’m not ready to speak with another woman. Not this woman.
“I’m sorry to be so short, but I have to run and—”
And what? Think fast John.
“And meet my daughters for dinner.” I start to go. “I’m sure I’ll see you again.”
“Yes,” she says, her voice trailing off. “I am certain of it.”
With the arrival of fall, the sun hangs low in the sky by the time I arrive at the cemetery the following day. Leaves sprinkle the ground, their reds, browns, and tans creating a quilt-like patchwork on the sidewalk. I find a free space of cement and toss what’s left of my cigarette to the ground and step it out with my shoe. My daughters are right, I’m smoking. Small pleasures are all that’s left.
The iron gate at the entrance is black, paint flaking off, and decorated with fleur-de-lis. I enter the cemetery and head up the winding cobblestone path to the crypt that holds my parents, and their parents, and their parents before them. And Theresa’s adjacent grave.
Anna is there again. Just a few graves over in her usual spot. It’s the only thing I’ve looked forward to in almost a year. My heart is cradled in my throat.
She spots me right away. Almost as if she’s waiting for me. She glides over, her movements effortless. Again, she wears a long flowing dress with ruffles at the neckline and low-heeled shoes. A shawl accented with lace covers her shoulders. In a way, her attire looks timeless. Nothing is out of place.
“I hoped you’d be here,” I say. The words stumble out. I forget myself.
Anna nods, her smile inviting.
I smile back. “I know this sounds like a line, but I feel like I know you.”
“I feel the same.”
“Where from?” I ask.
She’s speechless, but I see it in her eyes, our connection. Those dark eyes drawing me in, leading me down into the warmth and safety of her den; they envelope me.
“Where do I know you from?” I repeat.
I need to know. I need to reconcile my unsettling feelings.
Again, she is silent.
Then she pulls something from her dress pocket. A hand-sized drawing. Its edges stained yellow and curled with age. She holds it out to me and I touch it.
Somehow, in that moment, it connects us. We are bound. A pulse surges from my fingers and throughout my entire body. I’m enlivened, my mind on fire and flooded with foreign memories; they push up against me. Glimpses of lives lived and lost, lapping over me again and again. Children, homes, professions, passions, hopes, and dreams. My mind indexing what seems like centuries of past lives, maybe my lives, in the greatest of detail. I’m reliving them in split seconds and yet they’re fully realized. And then, periodically my thoughts linger on a specific incident and I’m lost in it—
“Anna, I do not understand,” a version of me says.
I am dressed in pants tapered to the knee, with long white stockings, leather shoes with buckles, and a dress coat, a three-cornered hat held firm in my hand. I stand before Boston’s harbor; a briny tang permeates the air. Tall ships of all shapes and sizes fill my view, their sails waving from lofty masts, welcoming me like sirens.
“You know perfectly well, John,” she says. Her face twisted and balled up tight like a fist.
“It was just a conversation,” I contest. “She means nothing to me.”
“I saw the way you looked at her.” She turns from me.
“This endless jealousy, Anna. I do not understand you. I am not sure what else I can say or do to convince you. I am giving you everything I have. Heart and soul—”
Just then, she releases her hold on the small drawing and the bond is broken. I’m spent. Sweat falls from my brow, my arms and legs hang from my torso like a scarecrow. I have no understanding of how much time has passed.
I look down at the worn picture. It’s finely drawn. The couple represented is unmistakable. In it stands Anna, just as she appears before me, and next to her a man—me. The background in the drawing is the Boston harbor. Unlike the memory, we are smiling, happy, hand in hand.
“I don’t understand,” I say. “How is any of this possible? My thoughts, these memories, this image of you and me together from…another time?”
“It is complicated.”
“Complicated?” I’m beside myself. I’m a man of science, a practicing internist. I understand the here and now. “It’s not of this world,” I add.
“No, it is not,” she says. “And yet, it is.”
“Who the hell are you?” My hands shake; the sharp taste of bile hits the back of my mouth.
“I am Anna.”
“I need more than that,” I say.
She sighs. “I have been searching for you for a long time, John. Hoping, praying to reunite.”
“This picture is real?” I say, my disbelief palpable. “You know me from another time?”
“Many times. Our souls were one, but became separated,” she says, almost matter of fact.
This can’t be happening. Tears race down my face. I want her to explain every detail, but deep inside I already know what she’s about to say. Deep inside it’s unraveling, revealing itself to me.
“But why? Why did we separate?” I ask. “I can see much of our time together, but I can’t see that. I can’t open that door.”
“I was weak.” She is struggling with it, the emotion at the edge of her voice. “When I thought I lost you…when I thought you loved another…I—”
“You what?” I want to hear her say it.
“I broke the tie. I did not know the impact of my decision then.”
I’m taken back. “I was the cause of this?”
“I did not believe you,” she says. “I could not believe you. Even though you did not act upon it, I knew your heart wanted another.”
“So, what? You took your life?”
“Yes. And the bond was severed. When you take a life, you no longer drink from the Well of Souls. You are destined to—”
She doesn’t finish.
I’m unsure what any of this means. First, Theresa and her sudden death. Now, the weight of another soul on my conscience. The weight of my thoughts and intentions.
“I’m not sure I can handle this. Not now. Not ever.”
“John, we can be together again,” she pleads.
“I don’t understand.”
I drink in her words, her unforgiving beauty, the longing in her eyes. They flow over me like soothing tides.
“We could have these moments,” I say, almost in a trance. “I could learn what came before.”
“Yes,” she says with confidence. “And after time, you may decide to walk this path with me. Forever.”
“And take my life?” I say in disbelief.
“If that is what you want, John. What you decide.” She grabs at my hand. There’s a sensation. An undeniable power in her every word, her presence. She’s beyond captivating.
“Our souls were meant to live out eternity together,” she says. “I will do anything to undo what I have set in motion.”
I look down at her delicate hand. The magic of her touch. Hoping to bridge the chasm that separates our worlds, our mistakes. Consumed by loss and yet sparked by the promise of—
But something’s not right. Something does separate us. As I drown in the wake of her needs and desires, my flood of emotions come to a sudden halt.
On her finger sits a ring. It pulls me from the allure of the past and returns me to the present. I recognize the ring, but under the drug of her muse I cannot fully understand what my senses are telling me.
It’s platinum, with a center diamond and smaller diamonds lined on either side. The band is engraved with waves. I shake my head to break Anna’s hold on me and then it reveals itself. I know this ring. I know it well. It’s the ring of a fallen angel.
I pull my hand from Anna’s. “Where did you get this?” I ask.
She’s silent, motionless. A spider caught in its net.
Everything inside me comes to a boil. “Tell me!”
Her face looks different now, more weathered. Cracks form at the corners of her eyes and mouth.
“That was Theresa’s,” I say, connecting the dots. My tone steady but rising gradually to crescendo. “Her engagement ring. It was lost in the crash. Never recovered. How can you possibly have it?”
Finally, she breaks her silence. “I told you John. I would do anything for you. Anything to reunite.”
I can’t move.
Her words seethe into me, creeping like a marauder at the break of night. The realization of what she has done. What she has set in motion. The extent she will go to draw me back in.
“You took her from me,” I say. “You’re responsible for all this.”
“I did what I had to, John. A love like ours—”
“This is crazy.”
“A love that has stood the test of time. Centuries. You just don’t give up on that, John.”
“You’re insane. Unhinged.”
I can see it in her face now, the anger. The bitterness of her spiteful soul.
“John, don’t say things you will regret.”
I step back, away from her. I need to create distance. I need to collect myself.
In my hand, I hold the drawing she gave me. I look down at it, at our faces. The burden of our shared experiences pressing me down, holding me there. Were we happy? Were we in love? Maybe— once. But some things have their time and then they’re done.
I reach into my pocket and pull out my cigarette lighter.
“What are you doing, John?” She is beyond intense, her face hard, eyes fixed. “Give the drawing to me.”
I back up further. “No, you’ve taken enough from me.”
She moves towards me. “John, you don’t know what you’re doing.”
I press down on the lighter; it ignites. The heat of its flame evident as it pierces dusk’s embrace. In one hand, I hold the small drawing, in the other the lighter. The balance of the future, my future, in my grip.
She moves even closer. Each step placed with intention; she’s stalking her prey.
“Stop,” I say. “Or I’ll burn it, Anna. Your only tangible memory of our time together.” Her face is like stone now, a shadow of what it once was.
“John, you know what they say about playing with fire.”
There’s danger in her words. She’s killed before.
“I do,” I say.
She reaches out, her haunting arms like weapons.
And at that moment, I put the drawing to the flame. It catches like aged tinder, the worn paper no match for the present. It burns fast and hot; a plume of black smoke fills the air. I drop the burning remains to the ground.
She’s too late. It’s done.
And so is she.
She doesn’t fade; it happens in an instance. One minute she’s there in front of me, and the next she’s gone. I don’t understand the science of it. I can’t explain it and I’m not sure anyone would believe me if I could.
Emptied of all emotion.
Like a carved-out pumpkin, the soft flesh ripped from its core, I walk what’s left of me to Theresa’s graveside. I crouch down, my hand resting on the stone for balance. The epitaph reads truer than ever:
‘Here lies Theresa. Loving Wife and Mother. Forever Yours.’
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