The steering wheel of my car is a divining rod that points and pulls in its own direction while I hold on for the ride. Something is dragging me to Jane's grave. Tonight is the first anniversary of her death, and I am pulled toward the cemetery on a cloudy murky day whether I want to go or not. I can't put off my visit any longer. I haven't visited Jane's grave before because I am haunted by the memories of that last night. I blame myself for what happened, and I am still fearful of her. In my mind, I am still her victim.
The cemetery was open. I parked in a vaguely familiar spot I thought was near her grave. However, I didn't find her stone after walking toward where I expected it should be. I pictured the gravesite in my mind and remembered it was near some mausoleums. As I slowly turned in a circle, I saw them in the distance and headed that way.
I found her grave and stood there looking at the simple stone tablet set in the ground. It was too plain, but was too late to do anything about it. A year ago, I couldn't think of anything to put on it other than her name and date of birth and death. Maybe I should have had something more put on the stone, but I was just out of the hospital and still recovering from my wounds.
As I walked to where I had left the car, I smelled lilacs. Their scent reminded me of Jane. It was darker now and I quickly became lost in the maze of crypts and graves as I wandered around trying to find where I had parked. The cemetery lights glowed weakly and faint shadows flickered across the stones from tree leaves moving in the gentle wind. The night pressed around me as a lead shroud and I felt the cemetery swallowing me in darkness. I began to backtrack, but everywhere looked alike.
I came around a large obelisk and saw a hooded person duck behind a nearby tomb. Was it my imagination? Maybe. Area police know the cemetery as a dangerous place at night, so I walked the other way until I came to a medieval monument that looked like a very small church. I hid between its pillars and peeked out. No one followed me, but an ominous feeling slid down my spine like an ice cube. The smell of lilac permeated the air. Lilac was Jane's favorite perfume.
I told myself this was ridiculous. I wanted to go back to where I started, but I didn't know which way to go. As I tried to decide, I heard a sound on the gravel path ahead. Maybe was a caretaker who could point me to the exit. Then again, maybe it wasn't the caretaker after all. Hiding behind the pillars I waited to see what caused the noise. Suddenly, a cold mist enveloped me, and I was almost overpowered by the fragrance of lilacs. I bolted away from the monument and crept under the branches of a large nearby tree. Something wrapped its moist, soft tendrils across my face. I closed my eyes and dropped to my knees groping at my face and head. The sticky threads were a wet tangled spider's web, and I worried about being bitten. With great difficulty, I got them off my eyes and pulled the stringy strands from my face. I quickly looked around. I thought I saw something in the darkness behind me. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. Nothing there. Was I seeing things now? Then I heard a whisper, "Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle, the cow jumped over the moon." Jane sang that nursery rhyme on our last night together. Why did that just pop into my mind? The smell of the lilacs in the air must have caused my thoughts to continue to return to that last night.
I saw an open grave not more than ten feet away. Again, I had the sensation of something cold wrapping around me. It wasn't cold when I started out. Why did I feel cold now? As I pushed my back against the tree, the skin on my head tightened and my heart pounded. I looked back at the grave. My imagination was working overtime because now the grave's edge was within five feet of me. As I watched, the near edge came two feet closer, and the far edge filled in. It was as though the grave were walking toward me. The earth under my feet began to crumble into the hole while the far edge slowly became complete. An overwhelming odor of lilacs came from it.
I had to get away from there. I ran from the tree just before the last of the ground crumbled beneath my feet and sank into the pit. As I jumped to the side to avoid falling, faint flashes of lightning occurred from a sky filled with heavy clouds. The wind picked up. The cemetery darkened and a strange feeling of dread filled me. It's my nerves, I thought. I felt dizzy and light headed and, in an unsteady run, made my way to the cover of a tomb shaped like a row of books on a library shelf. As I peered around its corner, I noticed a faint shadow disappear behind the granite shaft I had just left. Was someone following me?
There had to be an explanation for this. The morbid setting was knocking me off kilter. That was it, and it was causing the closed door in my mind to come ajar. The nightmare of Jane and me fighting our last night began playing in my head. I felt her presence. I imagined she was in the cemetery, lurking somewhere in the shadows watching me. I tried to calm myself as I crept alongside a large stone sarcophagus. I saw the shadow floating away toward a row of vaults and crypts across a gravel path in front of me. It had to be the caretaker on his rounds. He would be able to tell me how I could get out of this labyrinthine dwelling of the dead. "Hey you! How do I find my way out of here?"
The shadow stopped and turned. Even through the murky darkness, I recognized the shadowy figure. I gasped. It was Jane! Who says the dead don't come back to life? Not me, not now! She floated toward me, and I ducked behind the sarcophagus. The glue of fear stuck me to my spot. The smell of lilacs was everywhere. I did not believe in ghosts, but I was quickly becoming converted. The dead stay dead, I repeatedly said to myself. "You can't stalk me from the grave," I shouted.
A thunderous crash of lightning filled the air and lit up the area like an explosion.
I was in trouble. Jane's ghost was stalking me. I backed away, looking everywhere at once, and saw nothing. It was darker now. My stomach climbed into my throat. I saw the dim blob of a stone monument, and quickly ran to it and put my back against the cold polished granite and listened for a sound. Nothing. Nothing but the wind.
How do I get out of here? This was Jane's playground _ not mine. Which way? Carefully, I peeked around the corner. I couldn't see anything except the dark shape of another monument. Was she there? Was she just waiting for me to approach? She could be there now, and I wouldn't know it.
I had to move as quickly and quietly as I could. I tiptoed left toward a towering shadow of a large obelisk. I stopped and rested against it. I thought I detected a slight movement of a shadow coming around the monument I had just left, but I couldn't be certain. I crouched and stared. The wind now moaned through the trees. I looked up at the low dark clouds scudding across the sky and heard a rumble of thunder. It was dark, and I felt as though an executioner's hood was over my head. I had no idea the direction from which Jane might come. I didn't know where my car was. I was lost in this dark maze of deathly residences. I straightened up, pressed my back against the stone, and wished to melt into it to be one with its surface. Then maybe Jane wouldn't be able to find me. The wind gusted, bringing with it the awful stench of lilacs.
I felt a presence. An impending sense of disaster caused me to turn around, and I saw Jane's living corpse covered by the nightgown she had on when she had died. In her hand, she held an ice pick. Spiders were crawling out of her nightclothes and over to my legs like an advancing army. They were going up my pants. I could feel their hairy bodies as they crawled along my skin. I jumped up and down, batted them from my pants, and stomped on them as they fell to ground. I said to her specter, "You're dead and once you're dead, you're dead. You can't hurt me anymore."
Jane laughed and lunged at me. She stabbed me in the right shoulder. It was the same shoulder she had stabbed a year before when we fought. Searing pain shot through my arm. I ducked and moved to the left as she tried to stab me again.
I kept thinking that ghosts aren't supposed to be able to do this. Jane was dead. I know because I hit her in the face when she attacked me in bed with an ice pick that night over a year ago. The force of my blow caused her to stumble backwards through our open bedroom door and fall over the upstairs railing to the front hall below. I saw her body on the floor. I saw her body in the coffin. I saw her coffin put in the ground. I saw dirt thrown over her coffin. The dead don't come back to life. "Ghosts don't exist!" I yelled.
The crash of lightning was so close and loud it knocked me to the ground.
Adrenaline shot through me like a lighting bolt. I zigzagged between shadowy crypts and burial vaults. My right arm throbbed and swung uselessly at my side as I clutched at my shoulder. There was very little blood, but the pain was intense, and I felt light headed.
I ran. I didn't know which way to go. Everywhere I looked; it was one shadow after another. The gusting wind wailed through the trees, and lightning struck continuously. I saw her searching for me in the flashes. I moved for the cover of a monument. As if on cue, lightning bathed the area. She saw me.
I tried to run, but it was as if I was in a dream where, no matter how hard I might try, my movements were in slow motion while my fear approached at the speed of light. As she got closer, I could see her licking her lips. I could hear her singsong rhyme, "Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle, the cow jumped over the moon."
She clamped her teeth together as her face became contorted in a deranged grin. Her right arm went up slowly; ready to strike out with the ice pick. It began to rain. Water dripped from its point.
She lunged at me, and I ducked aside, lurched toward a large tomb, and ran behind it. Any second now, I knew I would feel the ice pick plunge into my back. I wasn't going to let that happen. She wasn't going to hurt me anymore as she had done when we were married. I darted between two massive monuments into a stand of trees. I dodged between them and ran until I came to an open field. I stopped with a tree against my back. I looked around it and saw nothing.
The rain was coming down in torrents, and gusts of wind blew it first one way then another. The trees overhead thrashed about as if in agony. I looked at the open field ahead of me. This must be an area reserved for expansion, I thought. The violent wind made the weeds and tall grass look like an angry, gray, undulating ocean. A train whistled in the distance and I knew where I was. I was almost out of the cemetery. All I had to do was cross the weed-filled field and somewhere out there in the blackness was a fence that separated the cemetery from the railroad right- of-way. There would be an industrial park beyond that. Looking behind me one last time, I slowly slipped away from the trees and began a crouched run toward where I thought the fence might be. Halfway into the field, another bolt of lightning flashed and I dropped to the ground. Slowly, I raised my eyes until they were just above the tops of the weeds and looked over my shoulder. I couldn't see anything, but I knew she was there. Another lightning flash and I saw her at the edge of the woods, moving from one tree to the other. I crawled along the ground, but it sloped upward and was muddy and sparsely covered. I kept going. The higher up the hill I went, the more exposed I felt. Then I saw the fence. I'd made it to the edge of the cemetery. I had to get away and hide before she came after me. So far, I was in the clear, but I knew she was close behind me.
How was I going to get over a six-foot chain link fence? Thank god, it didn't have any barbed wire on top. The rain stopped. Lightning flickered here and there and I saw her dark silhouette still pursuing me. She was in the field drifting slowly, turning this way and that. She hadn't seen me yet, but it wouldn't take her long to spot me. I sank into the mud as much as I could and prayed she wouldn't look my way. She was still about a hundred yards away and moving in my general direction. I was cold. I was wet. I was in pain. I was afraid.
Even if I didn't move, she would spot me when she got closer. I had one chance. I had to make it over the fence before she got any nearer. I pulled myself free of the muddy ground and ran for the fence. My shoes squished in and out of the mud as I ran. I was quick. I leaped for the fence. My arm hurt, but not as much as I imagined an ice pick in the back would. I used my fingers and the toes of my shoes to climb the fence. She heard the noise and saw me climbing. "Dick," she screamed and came at me as I threw myself over the top. My leg was caught momentarily and I hung in mid-air.
There was the sound of ripping cloth and I plunged to the ground. I saw her strike where my leg had been just seconds before. I slipped in my haste, began to roll down the steep embankment, and didn't stop until I hit the train track. I shook my head, looked back at the fence, and saw Jane float through it. She wasn't going to stop until she had killed me.
I started running down the tracks. I didn't get very far before my shoe became wedged in the rails and I fell. I couldn't pull it loose. The blaring sound of a train's air horn startled me. As I looked up, I saw a train rounding the bend and heading for me.
I yanked at my foot. It wouldn't move. I looked back at Jane. She was slowly moving down the tracks toward me, but she disappeared as the train's bright light washed out her image.
Woooooo! The warning blast of the horn was deafening. I pulled and pulled, but the damned shoe wouldn't move. I grabbed the laces and yanked them apart. The train was almost on me.
The train engineer gave one long ear rending blast of the horn. My body vibrated from its intensity. The ground shook, and the locomotive's light blinded me. I jerked at my foot as the monster engine charged past with a great violent rush of wind and noise. Sparks flew from its steel wheels. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought I heard a scream.
My fuzzy head told me I was on my back on something soft. As I slowly turned my head to the right, I saw a partially drawn curtain and beyond that an open door. I could see nurses pass back and forth in the hall beyond. Turning to the left, I saw the curtain went around me. My right shoulder and left leg were bandaged. I knew I was in a hospital, but I didn't know which one. Presently, a nurse came in and smiled at me.
"How are you feeling?"
"Awful! Where am I?"
"You're at Barnes Hospital. I'll be back in a minute. I want to tell the doctor you're awake."
As I lay there, I thought about what had happened. It must have been my imagination. Nobody can come back from the dead. There had to be lilac bushes near Jane's grave, and I bet that triggered it all. However, I still felt vulnerable and I didn't know why. Where was the threat? For some reason, sweat began to pour down my forehead and cheeks. The pillow beneath my head was wet. Not damp _ wet! What was I afraid of now? Jane was dead, wasn't she?
Something was bothering me, and I began to look around the room with renewed interest. What was it? There was the monitoring equipment beside me. That was no threat. A small empty chair was alongside the bed. That wasn't a threat either. A washbasin and mirror were on the wall facing the foot of the bed. These weren't threats. The door was open into the room so the doctor and the nurse could come in if I needed them. All I had to do was shout. They were just outside. I could see them through the glass wall. There was nothing wrong with that. So what was it?
The room was empty, but something unseen was there. Was that a faint whiff of lilac in the air?
No, it must be the institutional odor all hospitals have. There were
no lilacs. I gazed back to the room, and looked at the mirror. A blue-white
mist covered its surface. Then something began to appear through the mist
that chilled me to the bone. My heart began to hammer so hard I could feel
it pounding in my chest and shaking the bed from its violent beating. My
throat tightened up. I couldn't breathe or cry out. A monitoring alarm
began to faintly ring far, far away, and the room slowly faded into
darkness. Everything disappeared except for Jane's face in the mirror. My
last conscious thought was, she's back.
© 2003 William H. Miltenberger, all rights reserved
appears here by permission
I always try to have a ghost story for Autumn. Autumn is when I eagerly look forward to crisp air, the crackle of dry leaves as I walk along and of course, Halloween. I initially wrote "'Til Death Do Us Part?" to enter in a Steven King fiction contest. It was written in two days, the shortest time I've ever taken to write a story, and submitted to him just under the wire. After waiting a year for a response and receiving none, I rewrote and polished the story and began submitting it to other print publishers. It was picked up by the Taj Mahal Review and published in June of this year in India. It was one of thirty-eight short stories and 136 poems by authors from around the world included in the literature and cultural journal. That's it. I lost the contest, but came out a winner by having my story put in print in a literary journal published half way around the world. This is my first story to make it into print. I guess you might say I'm now an international author.