4 A.M. New Town Cemetery, Charleston, Washington
Eternal Keeper reached into the sky and plucked threads of starshine. The sheared strands merged as a multi-colored lightning bolt which struck the only oak tree inside New Town Cemetery. Thunder failed to tattle on the bolt; no one saw it strike; nor were the plentiful, watchful, sensitive, nocturnal creatures in the graveyard aware of it; nor did it in the least disturb the slumbering daybreak birds, nor squirrels, nor even the insects that inhabit the lone graveyard oak. But something did happen within a set-aside dimension where Keeper and the spirit of the tree coexist. Come sunrise, the shape of a ghost, whom Keeper had woven from the threads of plucked starshine, rose from his grave and proceeded to the power and safety of the enchanted tree.
There was a theme of silver to the ghost–who, in both life and death, was named John Mallory. Maybe thirty, Mallory’s eyes were the color of city rain, and his swept-back hair was heavily streaked with veins of early pewter. He was wearing the same nondescript suit in which he had been buried. Keeper had seen to the restoration and cleanliness of the suit, and also had “fixed” the ghost’s head, for it had been indifferently repaired by an undertaker prior to Mallory’s burial in 1978.
From the distance at which you stop tracking the finer details, you’d think Mallory’s Ghost was a live man. Any closer, however, that notion would fall apart upon the perception of his opaque, shimmering form, which seemed more superimposed on reality than a part of it. Although Keeper is able to shape starshine into believable representations that can pass scrutiny, she had cause to make it clear (to a degree shy of placing him in a white sheet) to the one person with whom Mallory would interact that he was a ghost. Mallory knew this, and as he waited in the morning shadows cast by the oak, he found himself hopeful and filled with good purpose. With any luck he would do something positive, and perhaps even give his meaningless death purpose.
Charleston city parks’ employees usually remember to lock the main cemetery gate at dusk, but when it comes to securing the two side entrances it’s pretty much hit or miss. In fact, the previous night had been a “hit,” which presented a small problem that Keeper solved by exerting the last bit of energy culled from the stars to vaporize the lock on the south gate. Keeper hadn’t intended the atomization of the lock, she’d sought only to pop it open, but she had underestimated the size of the leftover charge. Alas, even the seemingly all-powerful screw up now and then. (For the record, a raccoon took note of the lock’s sudden disappearance and was quite impressed by the trick.)
The ghost of John Mallory also marked the lock’s quick change from something to nothing, and was aware that it hadn’t been intentional and that it embarrassed Keeper, a little, so he politely pretended not to notice. He sat down at the foot of the oak and faced the south gate. It won’t be long until she comes, he thought. No more than ten minutes later, the object of his “mission” entered the graveyard through the unclasped south gate.
Gwen Cooper is an extremely fit and attractive woman of twenty-eight years, seventy-three inches and a hundred-and-none-of-your-goddam-business pounds. On the morning Keeper loomed the shape of John Mallory from starshine, Gwen was on her customary three-mile daily run before work. New Town Cemetery is seated in the west face of a hill that just happens to be an excellent cardio challenge for the living as well as a pretty final resting place for the dead. Gwen always approaches the graveyard from the south, and when the gate is unlocked (as it most definitely was that day, and for several days to come) she enters and runs the paved “loop” inside the cemetery and eventually exits through the same gate.
Gwen doesn’t run alone, nor did she on the morning Mallory had risen. Lady McBee is an attractive Cardigan Welsh Corgi of four years, eleven ground-hugging inches and five too many pounds.
If Keeper hadn’t given Mallory a crash course on modern technology the ghost would have been puzzled by the device strapped to Gwen’s upper right arm. He would’ve understood the earbuds–for those had often accompanied the transistor radios of his time–but without coaching he might have thought that the beautiful, tall woman with the little dog was insane; for she was speaking unabashedly aloud, but not to herself or the dog, but seemingly to an imaginary person. And without the heads up, her words would have been gibberish to Mallory:
“This will be the fifth message I have left in this box without reply. If my car isn’t ready by noon I’m gonna Yelp you guys a new one.”
Although Mallory was in the shadow of the oak more than eighty yards north of the lady, the physical perceptions related to his mind by his unique existence allowed him to see and hear her as though she were standing beside him. In only seconds she’d round the corner and pass the oak.
There’s an old myth about dogs having the ability to notice ghosts before humans can. That isn’t necessarily true. Although any dog’s senses are keener than those of any human, most ghosts (save for special olfactory phantoms who mimic the scents of various flora) do not cast a smell. In Lady McBee’s mind, this made the shimmering person she spied beside the upcoming oak tree as unreal as a person on TV–and–being a dog, she didn’t examine the absurdity of a TV person standing beside a tree in a graveyard.
Gwen Cooper, however, examined and reacted to the situation. Upon seeing the ghost she immediately came to a dead stop, which caused leashed Lady McBee’s to rear up like a mustang (or, a very excited Shetland pony).
Mallory “spoke” one word to Gwen over her phone; a common word that for just that one usage had been endowed with a technological enchantment: “Sleep.”
Keeper knew that almost all human reactions to the unknown are counterproductive. She didn’t go to all the trouble of weaving Mallory together from starshine as well as her unintentional act of vandalism just to have the woman run off. And although Gwen did not literally fall asleep, the command temporarily suspended Gwen’s disbelief in ghosts as well as it dampened her fight or flight response. She’d claim that it was impossible, but not really believe it; she’d pretend to be incredulous, but not feel it; and, no matter how contrarily she’d behave, she wouldn’t go away until she was released.
“Jesus Crimony!” Gwen said. “Are you for real or have I gone bonkers?”
“I’m as real as I’m going to get. My name is John Mallory, I’m buried over there,” he said with a nod at his grave, his voice still coming through the phone, for it was his only way of getting across. “As far as you and bonkers go, I have no idea.”
Gwen and the suddenly wary Lady McBee approached the ghost. Lady McBee kept a weather eye on the ghost, but mostly she was determined to follow her human’s play.
“Now I have seen everything,” Gwen said in an astonished whisper. Then all at once she gushed the following: “Are you a good ghost or an evil one? I suppose that’s a shitty question since if you were evil you wouldn’t say so–unless, of course, and I have heard this from a friend who says she lives in a haunted house, mind you, that ghosts cannot lie. Even knowing that I still can’t trust you because you might be evil and not know it or believe what the other ghosts say about you. Charles Manson had a healthy self view, but the human race considers him as evil as it comes. You know him? If you do then you probably have been to hell, which infers evilness in you–Say, does this mean that there is a heaven and hell?”
With a straight face Mallory spoke the following: “Carly Simon goes into a bar and the bartender says, ‘Hey, Carly Simon, why the long face?’”
“I must have fallen and hit my head–If so, B. you gotta make like Lassie and go for help,” Gwen muttered, not at all believing in the possibility. The corgi sat down after judiciously selecting a spot which placed Gwen between her and the artificial man.
“Mean joke, huh?” Mallory said.
“That’s a joke?” Gwen said, somewhat snottily. “Sorry, don’t get it. I’m into sophisticated wit, like ‘that’s what she said,’”
“I know, I know,” he said. “Unfortunately, those were the last words I heard before I died. A couple of guys passed me on the street and the first guy said that to the second guy. Two seconds later I was hit by a car and fell and smashed my head on the curb.” Mallory then flashed his finest smile, a good one, according to Gwen’s appraisal. “Beware those words, Gwen Cooper! They are cursed and lead only to death and social ruin!”
“Now you’re shitting me,” she said, flashing her own first magnitude smile. “Nobody except Roseann’s career ever died from a stupid joke.”
Keeper informed Mallory that he had only one minute to go before his shape disincorporated. “I don’t know who that is, but I’m sure you’ve spoken wittily,” he said. “But I do have one useful thing to tell you, although it won’t make much sense in your pretty head until later.”
“The power that allows us to communicate can see, to a limited degree, the future–just a couple of minutes, usually, yet sometimes as much a few hours–as is the case today, To change the course of an upcoming event a time bubble must be formed which affects the flow of spacetime the same way an air bubble, however minutely, affects the run of a stream. For example, just telling someone what to avoid doesn’t work because the flow of the hardby future is much tougher to move than that. But if you animate a handy dead man and have him flirt with a pretty woman, for, say, five minutes, then a time bubble is formed that’s just strong enough to push away that which what had lain ahead.”
Gwen considered this for a moment. “Are you saying that you and this power are changing my future?”
Mallory began to fade. His voice grew faint in Gwen’s ear. “If you could live your life again, would you if you knew that it would resurrect all pain?” His voice began to echo as he completely faded out of sight. “Go on pretty Gwen and milady McBee. The unwritten fresh future belongs to you.”
“Hey! You can’t run out on me like that–”
Lady McBee suddenly turned her head and raised her ears. Half a second later Gwen heard the ululating of wail a siren and turned in time to see a car chased by a police cruiser come flying down the street which ran parallel to the northside of the cemetery. The driver of the speeding vehicle lost control, veered onto the sidewalk and slammed into the chainlink cemetery fence, in which it became entangled.
The cruiser avoided the wreck and came to a sudden stop across the street, and the two officers in it emerged with weapons drawn. Slamming into the fence had knocked whatever zeal the apparently uninjured driver had for flight. He got out of the car with hands raised and was taken into custody without further drama.
Gwen suddenly realized with mortal clarity that the car had been meant for her and Lady McBee. It didn’t take a leap or stretch of faith to believe that. Whether the gate had been locked or open, that’s where they would have been if Mallory hadn’t stopped her. If the south gate had been locked she would have gone around the long way and would have been right where the car had crashed. If it had been open, she would have taken the loop, exited the south gate cut through the east to west alley and come out also where the car had crashed. The distance was the same and Gwen had no third option. The only difference between the two routes was that if the gate had been locked their backs would’ve been turned to the chase while they would have been facing it had they come the other way. It really wouldn’t have mattered; once a speeding car gets up onto the sidewalk it won’t stop until there’s blood.
Lady McBee must have figured this out as well. She stood on her back legs and reached up like a child. Minus the sarcastic “oof” Gwen usually makes regarding the corgi’s extra five pounds, she picked up her dog and comforted her.
“I say we go the other way,” Gwen said. “How’s that work for you?”
That afternoon Gwen Cooper’s beautifully restored cobalt blue 1966 Oldsmobile Dynamic 88 entered New Town Cemetery’s empty parking lot. It turned out that Gwen hadn’t needed to Yelp anybody a new one because the garage had finally located and corrected the trouble with her turn indicator. Besides, after that morning’s events she had reconsidered the worldview in which Yelping anybody anything new or old was the civilized way to go.
This time, looking resplendent in a tweed business suit with her hair up, wayfarers on and tail-wagging McBee in tow, Gwen wasn’t there for the cardio–although it can be said that she had come on a different matter of the heart. It’s unknown if Mr. Mallory saw Gwen lay the flower arrangement on his grave or use her car key to remove the moss that had grown in the letters of his name. But it is something one might like to believe.
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