"Gravesite Visit" ©
an excerpt from Dan Blankenship's new novel, "currently untitled":
The rain was constant. It wasn’t a heavy rain, but it had managed to soak the region. Everything in the small town of Crown Point, Indiana, displayed the glossy coating of the relentless drizzle. And in the middle of Maplewood Memorial Cemetery a lone figure, sporting jeans and a light jacket that absorbed the rain, crouched in front of a tombstone. A receding hairline did little to protect his face from nature’s onslaught. The man could not hold back his own rain, and his tears became on with the downpour, mixing into the earth below his knees. He hoped the tears would help ease the pain. They didn’t. They simply reminded Steve Barrett that he could never stop the suffering.
He had tried to deal with the tragedy of losing his son by losing himself in his work, climbing the ranks to become one of America’s top radio talk show hosts in only five years, but it only distracted him from the misery that was his constant companion. Nathan Barrett was more important than his father’s ranting and raving on the open airways. For ten years, the child had given his father more joy and happiness than Steve had thought possible. Nathan was more than this marble stone with some engraving on the front of it. Nathan was his son. He would always be his son. Leukemia had not caused that to end.
Watching his son change from the athletic shortstop on the winning Crown Point Cardinals to a bedridden, sickly figure had nearly driven Steve insane. And in the end, the disease not only took away his only child but also left him with a broken marriage. Tracy had been strong. Steve had not.
He gulped for air as he sobbed harder than he thought possible. He had no umbrella, and he was completely drenched by the late afternoon storm.
He made the relatively short trip from his Gold Coast apartment in Chicago to his former home once a month. But he had never fallen apart like this before. The caller to his program, Sally, had struck a nerve. She had shaken his world – stirring his emotions like never before. At first, he hated her for it. He wanted to reach through the phone line and smack her a good one. He thought she deserved as much, with her Christian-this and Christian-that, self-righteous jabber. But then he realized he wasn’t mad at her or her stance supporting her beliefs. He was mad at himself and his inability to deal with his grief. He was angry at his own self-pity. He had been at war with himself for the past five years. Sally had nothing to do with that. He couldn’t blame her for his internal conflict.
Steve had his head bowed down and he was rubbing his forehead, occasionally cupping his eyes with his palms. He had been kneeling this way for nearly thirty minutes. His legs were feeling numb and his body quivered from the cold rain. For a few moments he felt calm, as if the unusual self-therapy was working. His mind seemed to be easing away from the hurt.
Steve jumped at the sudden greeting. Immediately to his right, standing in front of another tombstone, was a little girl. She had blond hair, in pigtails, and wore beautiful red dress. She was protected from the rain by a large, red umbrella. Steve guessed her to be about ten. He thought she looked like a young Shirley Temple. Steve was surprised he had not noticed her presence before she spoke to him.
“Hello,” Steve said, wiping away tears but realizing the little girl would probably think it was just rain covering his face.
“He was your son?” she asked, looking at the tombstone in front of Steve.
“Yes.” Steve noticed for the first time that there was a black Cadillac parked on the driveway to the cemetery. He was sure it was the girl’s parents and that they would soon be joining her at the gravesite she was visiting.
“He was ten when he left you?” She asked, sounding well beyond her years.
“Are your parents here?” Steve asked, looking in the direction of the Cadillac.
“My mom is.”
“Are you visiting someone?” he asked, realizing it was a stupid question.
She ignored the question and twirled the umbrella as she walked towards Nathan Barrett’s tombstone. She rubbed her hand across the large, gray marker. Steve noticed a woman dressed in black exit the Cadillac. She popped open a black umbrella and began walking toward Steve and the little girl.
“You know,” the little girl began, “His ways are not our ways.” Her bright green eyes seemed to widen as she removed her hand from the tombstone. Her face beckoned his response. She stared directly into Steve’s eyes, and he felt uncomfortable staring back at such innocence and pureness. The little girl looked angelic.
“Whose ways?” Jerry knew he had heard this phrase before. Christians used it whenever they were trying to explain why bad things happen in a world supposedly created by a loving God. Some of his Christian friends had used the phrase during his son’s illness. But Steve wasn’t sure his young visitor was repeating the quote in reference to God.
The little girl looked towards the woman now walking towards them across the saturated graveyard. She didn’t answer Steve’s question.
“Nathan plays second base now. He said to tell you that.”
Steve was stunned. His body jerked backwards. His knees slid lifted from the ground and he stood up in front of the girl. He tried to catch his breath and slow his pulse. His mysterious visitor had caught him completely off guard. He felt lightheaded, and the moist ground offered little stable footing. Steve fought for his balance on legs that had been folded for far too long. Nathan had always wanted to play second base, but that was the coach’s son’s favorite position. After most of Nathan’s baseball games, he would whisper into his father’s ear that he was sure the coach would one day let him play second base. Steve didn’t remember hearing Nathan tell another soul about his desire to play the position.
“Hello. Are you okay? Would you like an umbrella? I have an extra one.”
Steve turned to see the woman in black standing next to him, in the same location where the little girl had stood before she approached Nathan’s marker. “Uh, no that’s okay. I’m pretty much one with the water now.”
The woman chuckled and smiled at him. The woman’s blond hair was tied back tightly. She was the same height as Steve and reminded him of his former wife, only without the screaming and accusations of infidelity. He could smell her perfume even through the rainfall. It was a pleasant odor.
“Your daughter has been keeping me company,” Steve said, looking in the direction of the little girl. He didn’t see her where she had just been standing. He quickly scanned the area in search of the woman’s daughter. He was sure she was hiding behind one of the larger tombstones, so he jogged to a position where he could see behind most of the markers. The girl was gone! He could find her nowhere.
“Excuse me,” said the woman dressed in black. "Did you say ‘my daughter has been keeping you company’?”
“I – ”
“Is that what you said?” She asked, appearing quite disturbed. She now stared at Steve with piercing green eyes – eyes that he now noticed matched the little girl’s eyes in every detail.
“There was a little girl here, just a few seconds ago. She told me she was ten...and that she was here with her mother. I swear.”
“I saw you from my car. There was no one with you! Are you playing some kind of sick joke?”
“Huh?” Steve wasn’t sure what she meant by her question. He was confused by her seething anger that seemed to be directed toward him.
She pointed, her hand shaking, to the tombstone she was standing in front of – the one right next to his son’s grave. The granite stone included the engraving of Amber Brianne Tyndale. The girl had been laid to rest ten days earlier, at the age of ten.
Steve’s eyes widen and his pulse quickened. He wasn’t sure what to do from here. Did he deny what he was sure had just happened. Did he apologize for making the woman feel uncomfortable while visiting her daughter’s gravesite? He wasn’t sure what to do next. Instinct took over, and he did something he was sure he would regret. He asked the first question that popped into his mind; the exact maneuver he would have used on his radio show. “Do you have a picture of your daughter?”
Tears welled up in the woman’s green eyes. She turned to walk away, her hand clutching a tissue to her nose. She was not going to answer Steve’s question.
“Wait, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to – ”
She stopped suddenly. Steve almost bumped into her from behind. He wasn’t sure if she was stopping so she could hear him out or because she was about to become violent. He hoped it wasn’t the latter.
He heard her gently sobbing.
He decided to try starting at the beginning. “My name is Steve Barrett. I host a talk show at WLS in Chicago. I lost my son five years ago...to Leukemia. I had a caller to my show really strike a nerve yesterday. She made me realize I hadn’t really grieved for my son, that I had let anger get the best of me.”
“Anger?” the woman remarked.
“Yeah, anger. I’ve been angry at someone...something I don’t even believe exist.”
“God?” The woman kept her back to Steve.
“Yeah, him. I’m pretty much an Atheist. But when Nathan got sick, I was going to do everything I could to make him better.”
“So you prayed to a God you don’t believe in?”
Steve wished she would turn around. He was telling her his most intimate thoughts, and she wouldn’t even face him. “Yes,” he answered.
“And when he didn’t answer your request, you went back to not believing he doesn’t exist.”
Steve couldn’t think of any other answer. “Yes.”
“And does it make it easier for you?” she asked, sounding angry.
“Believing that he doesn’t exist rather than that he does but just didn’t believe you son was worth a miracle? Does that make it easier for you?”
“I guess it does.”
Before Steve realized what was happening, the woman turned around abruptly and positioned her face inches from his. She then raised her right hand so fast, Steve was sure she was about to slap him across his left cheek. He defensively raised his left arm to block the attack. The woman in black stopped her arm herself, and in her hand was a wallet size photo of her daughter, the green eyes once again staring back at him. Her daughter had been his visitor. Steve’s knees buckled. His throat became so dry it hurt. He began to tremble with fear. He didn’t believe in the supernatural. What was happening was completely impossible.
The woman in black could tell that Steve had seen her daughter before. The look of horror upon his face was all the proof she needed.
“Did you see my baby? Did you talk to Amber?” She was yelling the questions over and over. She grabbed a hold of Steve’s jacket, the umbrella falling to the ground, and wrenched at the material, pulling him closer. He could see the desperation in her eyes. He could barely keep his composure.
“I think I did.” It was all he could think of to say.
“What did she say?”
“She said...‘His ways are not our ways’.”
Amber’s mother let that sink in. She let go of Steve’s jacket and stared at her daughter’s tombstone. She wiped her nose with the tissue and asked another question. “Is that all she said?”
“She knew you were here.”
The woman looked at him, her eyes so full of tears that Steve had to look away. Her sorrow was more than he could bear. He asked her about her daughter and she began to tell him all about the precious ten-year-old who had been hit by an errant car only ten days earlier. Steve listened with his head and his heart, for he knew the anguish firsthand.
© Dan Blankenship
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