21 June 1943
Emma Wick had been beautiful for life. Even at seventy-four she had retained her figure and carried herself with the grace and confidence of someone much younger. For nearly half her time, however, there had been an icy quality about the lady. The few persons who knew her attributed this remoteness to the closely occurring losses of her daughter and husband, many years before. Only Emma knew the truth. She had lost her Mary, who had lived just five years—to a bad case of it having been 1906, more than anything else; but she was the reason why her husband, Robert, lay in his grave since 1907–which was a circumstance that she had never considered anything more than addition through subtraction.
On the last day of her first life, Emma entered Newtown Cemetery to tend to Mary’s grave, as she had done at least once a week for thirty-seven years. And as she took the winding path to her family plot, a not remotely human intelligence known to itself as Keeper spied dustfall on Emma. The opportunity it had been waiting for had arrived. Although Keeper was eternal and had ineffable powers, its reach was short; but here in the hillside that hadn’t always been a hillside, but had twice been covered by an ocean and three times lay beneath thick sheets of ice, Keeper found itself in the position of gaining insight into the peculiar thinking creatures that had recently sprung up on the planet. All Keeper had to do was wait and reap.
That first summer day of 1943 was full of the unwholesome impurities that exist only in the Pacific Northwest. Too bright, yet at the same time diffuse and wan, the cloudless sky wasn’t as crisply blue as it was in autumn and winter; a thin scum of creaminess clung to it like a nascent cataract, and the dirty sunshine felt liquid and unclean on Emma’s face. Although the birds were singing cheerfully and the squirrels chattered and bustled in the old growth pines and maples inside the cemetery, Emma was aware mostly of the rancid odor of hollyhocks and the scent of a small lost life decaying in the switchgrass across the road from the graveyard.
Mary Elizabeth Wick
Here Lies a Mother’s Heart
Every time Emma read the inscription was the same to her as reading it for the first time. So much had gone away with Mary: God, love, hope, laughter.
The Wick family plot wasn’t much to behold—just two graves and an open space in the middle. Mary lay to Emma’s left; her immaculate, expensive granite stone shone brightly under the adulterated sun; it could have been laid just the day before. To the far right, however, Robert’s unkempt grave looked as though it had been through the Ice Age. Emma had bought the cheapest headstone she could get and had nothing inscribed in it other than his name and 1865-1907. Nearly four decades’ worth of freezes and thaws had cracked the stone. Emma observed, without remorse, that the elements had almost finished the job of scrubbing his name off; she hoped that she’d live long enough to see that happen.
This is when a silent and painless explosion occurred inside her brain. It was accompanied by white flash and a sudden weakness in the left side of her body. The weakness increased, and it seemed to Emma that her left side no longer existed. She began to fall, but suddenly, the laws governing falling over were suspended and Keeper entered her mind.
“You will remember everything,” Keeper “said,” not in words, but through a series of highly compressed images.
Although Emma had been extremely occupied by the massive stroke she had just suffered, she understood what had entered her mind. This will happen before yesterday, she thought. She even managed to utter a tiny, ironic laugh through her partially paralyzed mouth.
Keeper let Emma go and her lifeless body crumpled to the ground. She struck her head on the edge of Mary’s headstone, which opened a gash from which a flow of blood spilled into the soil.
Newtown Cemetery’s resident caretaker, Martin Lemolo (whose great-great-granddaughter to come, Thommisina, would meet Emma at the other end of her long conscription), found Emma lying at the foot of her daughter’s grave about half an hour later. He knew her from her weekly visits as well from his days as a student at Charleston Elementary. She had been quite beautiful then; although she had been cold to other adults, she’d doted on the children.
Martin had served in World War I and knew dead when he saw it. And the frozen sneer on the left side Mrs. Wick’s face told him all he needed to know about the cause of death. Martin used his handkerchief to daub the gash on her forehead. He figured that he’d catch hell from Joe Parmentor, the deputy coroner, for doing so, but it seemed like the thing to do; the old lady had died alone, she deserved a little kindness, even if it was too late.
Martin took off his light jacket and placed it beneath Emma’s head. He was about to go down to the house to telephone the authorities when something extraordinary happened.
The Lemolo house sat at the foot of the cemetery hillside. Although a long wooden fence separated the house from the graveyard, the view out the large kitchen window was composed mostly of tombstones. This never bothered Martin and Jeri Lemolo; nor did it perturb any of their three children who had grown up with a very interesting side yard to explore. Only their two grandchildren found the living situation odd; but when they came to visit, the cemetery was the first place that they wanted to visit.
Dinnertime at the Lemolo household used to be a chaotic affair, everyone talking at the same time, dogs and cats eyeing the pot roast. But as it has gone since the Garden or the cave (depending on how you look at things), life has a way of moving on and coming full circle at the same time; Martin and Jeri kept themselves busy throughout the day, but the dinner hour had reverted back to just two settings, as it had been many years before. Sometimes they’d just sit in silence and gaze out the window while drinking the day’s last cup of coffee.
But tonight Jeri knew that there was something on Martin’s mind. Something extra that had to do with the old teacher he had found dead in the graveyard that afternoon. She knew that he’d tell her by and by, because they told one another everything. Still, the strange things he had said and the expression on his face that afternoon when he had busted into the house to call the cops had startled her. It had been as though her steady and even tempered husband had glimpsed something he could not comprehend. There could be no waiting for the by and by; she intended to get to it right then and there.
“You hardly touched dinner,” Jeri said.
“What happened out there today? You see a ghost?”
Martin smiled. “Not going to mince words tonight, I see,” he said.
“Can’t play coy right now,” she said, “not with a three-hour pot roast ignored.”
Martin lighted a cigarette. “Mrs. Wick came alive after she had died and told me something,” he said plainly.
“Maybe she wasn’t dead yet,” Jeri said. But she knew that this was a perfunctory statement. Her mind raced back to the afternoon and the panicky way Martin had been unable to hold the telephone as he called the city. And the plaintive expression in his eyes, which told Jeri that he had something big to tell her yet didn’t have the words to explain to her what he had seen.
Martin gazed out the kitchen window into the cemetery. Streams of smoke exited his nose and mouth. “You had Mrs. Wick in school, didn’t you?”
“Third grade,” Jeri said. “She was awfully pretty, wasn’t she?”
“Yeah,” Martin replied. “But in a chilly sort of way.”
“People must criticize beauty.”
“I saw her how she was then,” Martin said. “I found her dead as dead gets in the ‘yard. She had a terrible gash where her head had struck a stone; but I figure that she was already gone by the time she fell. Her hands were at her side, and she had made no effort to turn her head as she collapsed.”
“And then it happened,” Jeri said.
Martin at last looked his wife of thirty-one years in the eye. “Yeah, that’s when it happened.”
“What kind of it happened?” she asked. “Or do I have to squeeze it out of you a word at a time?”
Martin leaned forward in his chair, butted his cigarette in the ashtray and took one of Jeri’s hands in his. “I put my jacket under her head like a pillow and started to come down to call the city…She changed for a second then, and told me something…I didn’t imagine it either…though I wish I had…”
“She went from a dead-as-hell old lady with a gashed head and froze-up face to the way we remembered her from school,” he said. “So beautiful…She smiled at me and said, ‘Thommisina will remember everything,’–whoever that is– then her face went back to the way it should’ve been…I keep on trying to tell myself that I didn’t see or hear anything, but I know I did.”
Jeri then lighted a cigarette of her own and looked thoughtfully into her coffee. She had no doubt that what her husband said was the truth. Jeri had actually lived on the grounds a year longer than her husband on account of him serving in the so called War to End all Wars. And over the years she had been aware of a conscious presence in the cemetery. To her it felt as though the combined sum of the dead had formed a single mind–yet she had never felt anything disquieting about it. And she remembered the day in 1917 when she had seen a smiling, skipping little girl at the crest of the hill during a thunderstorm. Although the wind had been up something fierce, the child’s old fashioned dress, and long hair never moved with the wind.
“Did you catch a bad feeling off her?” Jeri asked.
“Um, no,” Martin said. “She seemed friendly enough–A lot warmer than she had been in life.”
“Then it’s all right,” Jeri said. “Nobody’s smart enough to know everything, ain’t that right?”
Martin smiled. “Certainly not me. Anyways, I hope she rests in peace.”
“You didn’t happen to mention any of this to that idiot Parmentor, did you?” Jeri asked with a sly smile. Joe Parmentor was the deputy coroner and a gossipy lush.
Martin and Jeri both laughed loud and long over the idea of telling Joe Parmentor anything that would be soon to be circulated at the White Pig Tavern. And Jeri knew that whatever Martin had seen no longer made any difference because the possible poison in it had been drained through the telling of it. Nobody knows everything, and the coming of what is to be known will happen only if such is meant to be. Martin went to the icebox and pulled out the pot roast to make a sandwich. “For the love of God let me do that for you before you ruin my counter,” Jeri said.
Eventually the longest day of the year ended. The sun went down behind the Olympic Mountains, and the sleepy first magnitude stars and planets began to take their places in the sky. Emma Wick awoke in the graveyard’s lone oak tree. A great sense of joy circulated throughout her being. I will remember everything. She was not to forget or sleep again for seventy-four years.
Banner image: Newtown Presbyterian Church Cemetery
By Shuvaev (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
4 thoughts on “The Long Second Chance By JC Freeman”
A wonderful, mysterious story full of gems like the image of the skipping girl, Mary Elizabeth’s epitaph, and many more. It’s ultimately optimistic — I think. There are downsides to remembering everything!
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Thank you, Sir Henson. I took the liberty of knighting you on the strength of your Snowman tale. No matter your nationality, I’m sure the Queen won’t put me in the Tower for it;only the Plantagenets and Tudors were big on that. L.A. (Freeman is in hiding until the Tower thing blows over.)
Another beautiful complex tale full of promise and mystery which leaves the reader curious and emotional.