Cemetery Girl Excerpt
Somehow, the dog knew he wasn’t coming back.
I picked up Frosty’s leash and jiggled it while walking to the door, but he didn’t follow. Ordinarily, that sound made him jump and run, his nails clacking against our hardwood floors, but this time he slinked away, head down, eyes averted. I called his name, but he ignored me. So I went to him.
Frosty was a big dog, a yellow Lab, gentle and friendly and smart enough to recognize something unusual in my voice, something that told him this wasn’t going to be a normal walk.
I made a grab for his collar. Frosty tucked his head down against his shoulder so I couldn’t attach the leash. Up close, I smelled the rich scent of his fur, felt his hot breath against my hand.
My frustration grew, and I gritted my teeth, felt the molars grind against each other in the back of my mouth. Frosty ducked even more. Without thinking, I brought my free hand up and gave him a little swat on the snout. He surprised me by yelping, and I immediately felt like a jerk, an indefensible son of a bitch. I’d never hit him before, not even during training.
He cowered even more, but when I reached out again, he lifted his head, allowing me to attach the leash to his collar.
I straightened up, took a deep breath. I felt utterly ineffectual.
“What’s going on?”
I turned. Abby stood in the kitchen doorway. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and her eyes were wide as she considered me. Even though it was Saturday, she wore a black skirt and striped blouse. Her feet were bare. She used to dress down on weekends, but now she dressed the same every day, as though she were about to rush off to church, because she probably was.
“Nothing,” I said.
“I thought I heard the dog squeal.”
“He did. I hit him.”
Her eyes narrowed.
“I’m getting rid of him,” I said. “Taking him to the pound.”
“Oh,” she said. She raised her hand and placed it against her chest.
“Isn’t that what you want? You’ve been after me to do it for almost a year.”
“Yes, I do want that,” she said. “I thought you didn’t.”
Frosty sat at my feet, head down. Defeated. The refrigerator cycled, made a low humming noise and then shut off. I shrugged.
“You keep saying we have to move on with our lives. Right? Turn the page?”
She nodded, a little uncertain. Over the past couple of years, Abby’s face rarely showed uncertainty. Her involvement with the church made her seem certain all the time, as though nothing were ever in doubt. Except for me. I knew she harbored doubts about me. As a last resort, I was sacrificing the dog. A show of good faith on my part. But I didn’t think she’d let me go through with it. I thought once she saw Frosty on his leash, ready to be led out the door and to the pound, she’d stop me.
Tears stood in her eyes, and she took a deep breath.
“I think we do need to do that, Tom.” She sighed. “With the memorial service coming up, I think we can move on.” She sighed again, and it sounded more like a hiccup, almost a cry. “I used to love Frosty, but every time I look at him now, I think of Caitlin. And I can’t. I don’t want to do it anymore.”
“You’re sure, Abby? Really? He’s such a good dog.”
She shook her head, tapped her foot against the floor. “I’m sure, Tom.”
“Fine.” I tugged the leash, harder than I needed to, and Frosty jerked to his feet. His paws clattered against the floor, slow and methodical. Dead dog walking. “Will you be here when I get back?”
“I have a meeting at church.”
I nodded, my hand on the back door knob.
“It’s funny,” I said.
“What is, Tom? What’s funny?”
“You say you can’t stand to see Frosty because he reminds you of Caitlin. I love having Frosty around for the same reason.”
“I won’t.” I opened the door open and stepped outside, leading the only known witness to my daughter’s abduction to his demise.
I didn’t go straight to the pound. My guilt got the better of me—guilt over Frosty’s impending doom, guilt over the slap on the nose, guilt over who knows how many things—so I drove a short distance and stopped at the park. When I pulled into the lot, Frosty perked up. His ears rose, his tail thumped against the back seat, and he started panting, filling the enclosed car with his musky dog breath. I found a spot in the shade and climbed out, then opened the back door for Frosty. He jumped down, nose to the ground, sniffing every square inch he came across, stopping only to pee against a small tree. I took that opportunity to attach the leash again and let Frosty lead me through the park.
Since it was a Saturday and late summer, the park was full of activity. At the baseball diamond near the road, a boys’ team practiced, their aluminum bats pinging with every contact. Joggers and speed walkers traced the running track, and I followed along in their wakes, letting Frosty pull me off to the side every ten feet while he inspected a fallen branch or a curious scent. I tried to tell myself I was there for the dog, that he deserved to spend his final moments on this earth doing the things he loved the most: romping through the park, chasing butterflies or charging after squirrels. But it was a lie. Caitlin disappeared from that park four years ago, while walking Frosty, and I found myself returning there, alone, again and again.
The park occupied nearly two hundred acres just two blocks from our house. To the east and south, new subdivisions with streets named after variations on deer—Running Fawn, Leaping Hart—dotted the landscape. The bricks of the houses were new and gleaming, the streets smooth and unstained. As we walked, Frosty continued to huff at the end of his leash, his tail bobbing like a metronome. Forgiveness came quickly to him. My earlier transgression was apparently forgotten, and I didn’t have time to think about it anyway. I knew that Frosty was leading me toward the edge of the park where it bordered Oak Ridge, the oldest operational cemetery inside the town’s limits and the sight of Caitlin’s upcoming memorial service and “burial” which was scheduled for later in the week.
The neat rows of headstones and cleanly cropped grass came into view. I must have slowed because Frosty turned his head back to look at me, one eyebrow cocked. I hadn’t been to the park or the cemetery in the weeks since Abby decided to hold the memorial service and place a headstone in Caitlin’s honor. She had been receiving “counseling” from the pastor of her church—Pastor Chris—and he apparently felt that four years was enough time to grieve for a lost child. He managed to convince Abby it was time to move on.
I used to take some measure of comfort from cemeteries, even after Caitlin disappeared. They assured me that even death could be beautiful, and that even after we were gone, some memory, some monument to our lives could still exist and endure.
My cell phone buzzed in my pocket.
I jumped a little when the vibration started. Frosty turned his head around, his tongue hanging out of his mouth.
I dug the phone out of my pocket, expecting it to be Abby checking in. If it were her, I might have ignored it, but the caller ID told a different story. It was my brother. Actually, my half-brother, Buster. His given name was William, but he acquired his nickname as a child when he managed to break everything he touched.
I answered just before voicemail kicked in.
“What’s up, boss?” he asked.
His voice possessed its usual hale-fellow-well-met cheer. Talking to him on the phone was like conversing with a particularly convincing telemarketer, one who could almost make you believe your ship had come in and you’d be a fool to pass up the current offer. Buster maintained this tone even though we hadn’t spoken to each other in close to six months. He moved an hour away the year before, and our communication, which was always sporadic, slowed to a drip. We shared a mother—dead five years earlier—but had different fathers. My dad died when I was four. My mom remarried and had Buster.
I told him I was walking the dog.
“Good, good.” He cleared his throat. I heard someone talk in the background on his end of the line. It sounded like a woman. “I wanted to tell you I’m coming to town this week.”
“For the funeral,” he said. “Or whatever the hell it is that Abby’s doing. I know you didn’t invite me, and you might not even want me to come, but Abby called. She said she wanted all of the family there, and since you don’t have much…I mean, I’m pretty much it these days. Sam’s out west, but who the hell talks to her. Right?”
“It’s not that I didn’t want you to come,” I said. Frosty and I stood alongside the cemetery and I could see the area where Caitlin’s marker would go up in a few days. “I just thought you wouldn’t want to come because—”
“Because it’s so fucked up.”
I hesitated. “Yeah, because of that.”
“What’s she going to do, bury an empty coffin? How do you have a funeral for someone who might not be dead?”
“We didn’t buy a coffin.”
“But you bought a plot and a headstone?”
Frosty tugged on the leash, indicating he wanted to move on.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Jesus. Is this because of that wackadoodle church she belongs to? What’s it called?”
I regretted ever answering the phone. “Christ’s Community Church.”
“That’s original,” he said. “Aren’t they all Christ’s churches? Remember when people belonged to actual churches? You know, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians. I hate hearing about these anything goes religions, you know? Just put up a warehouse and a coffee bar and let them come in and feel good about themselves.”
“I didn’t know you were so easily offended.”
“Stupidity pisses me off. That herd mentality. How much is it costing you to buy this cenotaph and plot? A couple thousand bucks?”
Frosty pulled against the leash again, and I tugged back, trying to keep him still.
“Buy what?” I asked.
“A cenotaph. That’s what they call it when you put up a marker and there’s no body under it. A cenotaph. You’re not the only one who knows the big words, professor.”
“Look, I have to go. The dog’s done his business.”
“I’ll call you when I get to town. Okay?”
“Sure. But don’t feel obligated—”
“I do feel obligated,” he said. His voice dripped with sincerity, and I wanted to believe him. I really did. “For you, anything. Just let me know. I’ll be by your side.”
Frosty and I faced the choice of going around the track again, something we almost never did, or getting in the car and completing my mission. Frosty pulled a little in the direction of the car, but I pulled harder, and we entered the cemetery together.
I knew they didn’t want pets in there, digging up flowers and shitting and pissing on the graves. But Frosty’s tank was pretty well emptied, and I preferred to face the prospect of an accident in the cemetery over delivering him to the pound.
We walked down the road that cut through the center of the cemetery, then turned right and headed toward the back. I recognized the names on the larger headstones, the same names that adorned the buildings and parks throughout town. Potter. Hardcastle. Greenwood. Cooper. They didn’t skimp on death, these founding families and innovative educators, these city councilman and spiritual leaders. Not only did they have elaborate headstones, beautifully engraved and clean as the day they were cut, but they paid for life-sized guardians to watch over the graves. Vigilant Virgin Marys and winged angels, Christ with his eyes cast to heaven as though begging for intercession. While the stone we picked out for Caitlin didn’t approach those lofty heights, it wasn’t cheap either. Buster was right—we’d spent too much money.
I read the signs posted at knee-level and found section B, then I worked my way up until I came to the number. Despite the presence of the sleeping and buried dead, it was a beautiful day. The temperature climbed toward eighty, and only a few high, puffy clouds disrupted the blue of the sky. In the distance, somewhere, a lawn mower engine churned, but I couldn’t see where it was, and when I looked around the cemetery, I found myself alone. The walkers and joggers kept up their work in the park, so I just listened to Frosty’s panting breath and rattling collar.
“It’s just a little detour, boy.”
Most of the cemetery was full, the stones nestled close together so that it didn’t appear there was any room left for new burials. I kept my eyes peeled for a small open place, a last remaining plot that we purchased only to—hopefully—never fill. My eyes wandered over husbands buried with their wives, the headstones a monument to eternal love and union. I saw children buried near their parents. Veterans of wars, their stones decorated with small, fluttering flags. And then I thought I saw Caitlin’s name.
It was a brief glimpse, something caught out of the corner of my eye, and I just as quickly dismissed it, assuming that my eyes and mind, in their haste to find a closer connection to my daughter, simply imagined her name. But as I came closer, I saw it again, chiseled into a large rectangular headstone. It was really there. Caitlin Ann Stuart. Daughter. Friend. Angel. 1992-2004.
The stone didn’t belong there.
Abby told me that it wouldn’t be placed until days after the service, that when we stood at the grave on Wednesday for the memorial, we’d just be facing a small area of green grass. No earth would be churned, no stone in place. And I took comfort in that scenario because it seemed less permanent somehow, less final than what Abby intended. I convinced myself that the ceremony would bear no real relation to my daughter, that we were there remembering some other kid or maybe even some person I never knew. A stranger, the faceless, nameless victim of a distant tragedy.
I stared at the slab. Frosty walked away, pulling the leash taut, and sniffed at a nearby stone while a chorus of cicadas rose and fell in the trees above, their chittering eventually winding down like a worn-out clock. I often tried to imagine what happened to Caitlin. Try as I might, a coherent, sensible narrative concerning the events that took place just yards from where I stood in the cemetery never formed in my mind. But I did hear the soundtrack in my head. Often.
I lay in my bed at night, the lights from passing cars dancing on the ceiling and walls, and I heard Caitlin’s screams, the sound of her voice rising in terror and growing hoarse. Did she cry? Was her face soaked with tears and snot? Did she suffer? How long did she call for me?
I pounded the mattress in frustration, buried my face in the pillows until it felt like my head would explode.
I knew the statistics. After forty-eight hours, the odds of a child being found alive were next to none. But I managed to ignore the numbers and pretend they didn’t apply to me. Not then. Not ever. I still stopped at the front door every night, flipped on the porch light and made sure the spare key—the one Caitlin occasionally used to let herself in after school—lay under the same flower pot, right where she could find it.
But it was difficult to argue with a headstone.
Frosty came back and nudged at my calf with his snout. I could tell he was growing impatient and wanted to move on. He didn’t like to stand still when there were sticks to fetch and trees to mark. I shooed him away, lost in my own thoughts. I resented Abby for the ease with which she chose to move on, to accept that our lives would go forward without any hope of seeing our daughter again. I crusaded on behalf of my daughter’s memory, and for what? To find out that life progressed without me as well as Caitlin?
“Frosty. Come here.”
He wandered back, happy, tail wagging. I crouched in the grass and placed my hands on either side of his head. He opened his eyes wide but didn’t resist, perhaps remembering the smack he received earlier. I felt his hot, stinking breath in my face, saw the stains on his long teeth. I asked the dog a question I had asked him several times before, ever since that day he came home from the park trailing his leash with Caitlin nowhere in sight.
“Frosty? What did you see that day? What happened?”
He stared back at me, his panting increasing. He didn’t like the way I held him, and he squirmed.
“What did you see?”
He started to slip away so I pulled him back. He shook his head as though trying to knock the feeling of my hands off his body. I stood up.
“Fuck you,” I said. “Fuck you for not being able to talk.”
I looked at the headstone once more, letting the image of my daughter’s name and possible—likely—date of death burn into my brain, before giving the leash another tug.
“Come on, Frosty,” I said. “We’ve got someplace to go.”