The archaic, ornate gates rose out of the foliage, giving Julia the impression of an elvish castle materializing in a Middle Earth forest. The word CEMETERY peered through interlacing ivy and cast a pall over a burgeoning romantic walk.
“I’m sorry,” she said. Her fear of death lingered over her words. “This… This isn’t what I envisioned.”
“Oh, my god!” Sue smiled. Julia thought she had a gorgeous smile. “Don’t be sorry! It’s kind of cute.”
“Cute? It’s a cemetery.”
“Lots of cemeteries are cute. With baroque architecture and elegant calligraphy on the headstones. What can I say? I like antique things. But you knew that.”
“That might be the only thing I know about you. Even after a month of working together, I still don’t think I know your last name.”
“I’m an enigma.” Sue winked. “Come on.”
They passed through the open gates and admired the intricate patterns twisted into the wrought iron. “See.” Sue pointed out cherubic imagery and floral accents. “It’s lovely.”
Five feet into the cemetery, hordes of flowers lined their path, and impossible blooms decorated every tombstone. Every few plots, the flower species changed, and assorted colored petals painted rainbows along each side of the trail. Julia gasped at the elegance. As she inhaled, a sweet scent filled her nose, and she closed her eyes. It took her back to her mother’s flower garden and all the woodsy, citrusy, and apricotty smells. It was a trip to the past—to a magical place—and Julia forgot she was in a cemetery.
She recognized some California poppy sprinkled about —her mother’s favorite flower—and it surprised her to see it on the East Coast.
“This is fantastic.”
“I told you,” Sue replied. “Besides, this was your idea anyway.”
“No, no, no,” Julia said with a laugh. “I suggested lunch and a stroll in the park. You’re the one who saw ominous gates and led us across the River Styx.”
“Jeez! Dramatic much? It’s just a cute little cemetery.”
“It’s more than little,” a rough voice called out from behind a row of graves, giving both women a jump.
An elderly man stood and stepped out onto the walkway. Cuts and scars, too thick to be from shaving, covered his bald scalp. Billowy overalls hung from his massive shoulders and sagged in the front. Dark stains splattered his snug T-shirt, and in his gloved hands he held a rusted grass sickle and a double-claw cultivator. Julia couldn’t help but imagine the damage those tools could do to human flesh as the man said, “We got about one and a half million square feet here. Lots of open plots, if youse ladies are interested.”
“No!” Julia said—a little too loudly, too quickly, and too suspiciously for her liking. “I mean, no thank you. We, uh…”
“We were just admiring the flowers,” Sue said. Julia felt Sue grab her hand and squeeze it.
“Yeah,” Julia agreed. “They’re beautiful. And some of these species… I didn’t think they could—”
“We used to get lots of people in here to admire the flowers,” the man said. “Right after we were in the papers. But no one comes to look at them anymore.”
Julia looked and saw Sue’s eyes alight with adventure. Sue had a reputation for being reckless, and it seemed well-founded. As inviting as this cemetery—of all places—looked and smelled, Julia didn’t want to hang around.
“You’re not thinking…” she began.
“Come on, scaredy-pants. Flowers!”
“Please!” The old man’s smile seemed unnaturally wide. “Youse ladies are more than welcome to tour our path.” He pointed down the flower-lined walk. “It’ll loop around and bring youse right back to the gate.”
Sue still had a hold of Julia’s hand and pulled her along. “Thanks,” she said to the man as they moved forward.
“Just one last thing,” the guy called out. “At the top of the loop, there’s an open plot that’s roped off. I ask youse to please don’t go near it.”
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that,” Julia replied.
The elderly man shrugged and returned to whatever he’d been doing, but his departure did nothing to alleviate Julia’s unease. Sue let go of Julia’s hand and walked over to a large, moss-covered headstone. Visible parts of the molding hinted at something exquisite, and she wiped away the growth to unsheathe the top of the stone.
“Ew,” Julia said. “You’re touching that?”
“Oh, relax. Come over here and look at this. It’s gorgeous.”
Julia trekked across the grass, careful not to step on any grave markers lying flush with the ground. Sue stood before a beautifully chiseled stone that would’ve looked at home in any museum. The area she’d cleared away displayed a labyrinth of lines that crossed and curled and coalesced into cats.
“Wow, you’re right,” Julia said. She scanned down the tombstone. “Hey, Petka. I went to school with a Petka.”
Sue swiped her hand down the front of the stone and cleared away more of the lichen. The last name was legible but not as deeply carved as it must have been originally. The first name and any dates had been eroded away.
“I’d say this grave has been here long before me, you, or your classmate was born.”
“Yeah,” Julia agreed. She focused on the empty space on the front of the headstone. It was as if the world had forgotten the person buried there. Or drained them of their essence.
“Let’s go check out those flowers.” Sue was off toward another location along the path.
Julia followed, trying to shake the weird vibes from the Petka grave. She caught up to Sue, who asked, “So? Was she cute?”
“What? She who?”
“This Petka you went to school with.”
Julia laughed. “She was a he, and he was my best friend throughout grade school.”
“That’s sweet,” Sue said. “Tell me more.”
Julia talked about her years in Philadelphia and St. Tim’s. She’d hated her time there, had few friends outside of Mike Petka, and was constantly teased after realizing she liked girls. It got awkward when Mike confessed his feelings and asked her to their prom.
“That was the first time I had to admit who I was to someone,” Julia explained. “I thought I was going to crush him, not to mention what it would do to me to say it out loud.”
“How did it all go?”
“He took it well. Much better than my parents. We stayed friends, but I went to an all-girl high school while he went to an all-boy one, and we drifted apart.”
A bright, purplish color caught Julia’s eye, and she indicated the area to Sue. They headed over to a large patch of drooping branches with large, bright green leaves. Julia had noticed the berries on the branches where the leaves sprouted were the vibrant purple of a child’s highlighter.
“These are incredible.” Sue picked a berry and looked closer.
“I think…” Julia began. “I think they’re beautyberries.”
“They certainly are.” Sue dropped the berry and moved off to another eroded headstone.
“No.” Julia shook her head and tried to recall some things her mother taught her. “I think they only grow in, like, Texas.”
“Well, they must grow here too,” Sue said, preoccupied with the grave marker. “Hey. You didn’t know an Andrews in grade school, too, did you?”
“No.” Julia was still fixated on the flowers that shouldn’t be there. “But I knew a girl—a friend of a friend—in college with that name. Michele. Michele Andrews.”
“Ha!” Sue barked out a laugh. “You’re two for two. Though, I also knew an Andrews way back when.”
Julia left the purple berries, wishing she could remember more of the knowledge her plant-obsessed mother had shared, and stood beside Sue.
“Don’t you think that’s weird? No first names?”
“Nah.” Sue shook her head. “I’m sure I’ve seen headstones with only the last name before. Besides, the last name is the one with all the power.”
“Yeah. I guess.” Julia was still unsettled by these lives being erased. “Let’s go check out more flowers. I want to see what else they have going on here.”
Once back on the path, Sue took Julia’s hand and asked, “So, your parents didn’t take your coming out too well?”
“My dad’s Catholic, and my mom’s Lutheran. I expected my dad to flip and my mom to stick up for me. Turned out my dad was cool with it, but I had a falling out with my mom.”
“Oof. That sucks.”
Julia nodded. “We started talking again after my dad died, but our relationship is still strained. And we lost all those years.” Her eyes stung, but she blinked back any threatening tears. She didn’t want pity on the first date. “What about you? Did young Sue jump up on the table and announce to the world that she’s queer?”
Sue shook her head, and Julia thought a bit of her shine faded.
“You have to understand my childhood. My dad went out to pick up pizza one night and never came back.” Sue let go of Julia’s hand and shoved her own into her pockets.
“Get out! Really?”
“He did! I mean, who does that in the 90s? That kind of shit happens in old movies. After that, it was just me, my mom, and my grandmother. We wouldn’t have made it if it wasn’t for my grams.”
“Oh, it’s not hyperbole,” Sue said. “We wouldn’t have had food or a place to live. My mom would’ve died to make sure I made it or started selling herself. It was bad there for a bit.” She wiped her eyes, and Julia felt terrible for asking. “Anyway, when I figured out I was gay, I told my mom right away. She was mostly indifferent—you are who you are, she told me—but she made me promise to hide it until my grams passed away. After all Grams did for us, I kept my promise.”
“And now that she’s gone, you’re the openly proud person we all see at work?”
Sue laughed. “Oh, she’s still kicking! But she and my mom moved down to Florida. I’m Ms. Gay Pride up here and Ms. Aging Spinster down there.”
“I’m sure it’s tough, but it’s nice you do that for your grandmother.”
“Thanks. The hardest part is facing the teens I counsel. I’m telling them not to be ashamed of who they are while I’m hiding who I am to the person most responsible for getting me this far in life.”
“Hey,” Julia said, moving closer. “Anyone would understand. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
She lifted Sue’s chin until they were eye-to-eye, leaned in, and kissed her—once, gently—on the lips.
“I certainly wasn’t expecting that.” Sue laughed. “What happened to the quiet, reserved woman from work?”
Julia blushed as she said, “I don’t know. You told me a little about yourself that I didn’t know, and I just felt something open inside me.”
“That’s kind of romantic.”
“Thanks.” Julia stepped back. She looked around and pointed. “Those flowers over there look pretty romantic, too. Let’s check them out.”
“You really like flowers,” Sue noted.
“My mom was a flower nut. I learned a lot from her, but I’ve forgotten most of it in the years we weren’t speaking. I wish I could remember more. Some of these species shouldn’t be able to survive here.”
They stopped before a large swath of yellow flowers. As Julia knelt down and cupped a bloom in her hand, Sue asked, “What are these? They’re not daffodils.”
“Nope. Black-eyed Susans…”
“Not named after me, by the way. I’m a Suzanne.”
Julia flashed a devilish grin but continued. “They’re in every state, but they’re mostly coastal and in warmer climates. And look…” Julia pointed to vines growing up nearby tombstones and mausoleums with yellow, trumpet-shaped flowers. “I’d bet my right arm those are Carolina jessamine—also from more tropical, Southern areas.”
“They smell lovely.”
“They’re poisonous. My mom drilled the dangerous ones into my head.”
“That’s messed up,” Sue said, slowly backing away from the jessamine. “Who would plant poisonous plants where kids or animals could accidentally eat them?”
“That old guy WAS disturbing.”
“Maybe he doesn’t know.” Sue held out her hand and helped Julia to her feet. “We should tell him on the way out.”
“Yeah.” Julia wiped her hands on her jeans, not convinced it was a mistake. Someone capable of growing these plants in the wrong habitat would know better. “Let’s get moving.” She returned to the walkway.
Sue didn’t follow, so Julia looked back and found her staring at another old stone they’d come across. It was the width of two plots. Julia couldn’t make out the name centered across the top, followed by Husband on the left and Wife on the right, so she moved closer and stammered, “That’s… that’s so creepy.”
“The Leidys. They were a couple that lived on my street when I was growing up. They vanished.”
“Vanished? What do you mean, vanished?” Sue sounded… alarmed.
Julia shrugged. “It was the summer I turned sixteen. They told me I don’t have to call them Mr. and Mrs. Leidy anymore—I could call them Warren and Kristen. It was the first time I learned their names. And then they were gone. The cops came and searched their house and everything. But no one, as far as I know, ever saw or heard from them again.”
She glanced down for first names, but they’d been eroded away. All that remained were two initials. W and K. Sue must have noticed the same thing because she took both of Julia’s hands in hers and said, “It’s a coincidence, and it means nothing. Like you said, we should get moving.”
They continued along the walkway. Sue remained quiet, and Julia wondered what thoughts filled her head. She hoped she wasn’t scaring Sue off, but the names on the graves disturbed her. Especially the Leidys, with the matching initials. She tried to distract herself by noting the various plants along the way. The ones she recognized didn’t belong here—not outside of a greenhouse. They neared the halfway point because Julia could see some caution tape in the distance. She assumed Sue saw it too, but no one said anything.
Julia attempted to lighten the mood by saying, “This is the point in the story where you—the serial killer—have a tombstone with my name on it all prepared at the open grave.”
Sue burst out laughing and said, “Holy shit. I was about to make a joke like that, but I didn’t want to upset you. Also, you figured out my fiendish plan.”
“I’m so glad I helped pick my own death on the first date. Sure saves having to come up with something original for date number two.”
“You’re hilarious. Why don’t we see this side of you at the office?”
Julia shrugged. “I’m crazy introverted. I like to get to know people more before I open myself up.”
Sue pulled them to a stop, and they checked out the headstone of the roped-off open grave. Sue pointed to the carved words on the shiny, new granite—first name, last name, and dates—and said, “See. It’s not your name. You don’t have to worry about me pushing you in.”
“You couldn’t anyway, not with those twig arms. But, for once, I don’t know anybody by this name.”
“Hey, there’s some surprising strength in these twigs. But I’m glad your morbid streak is over. Come on, let’s check out some more flowers and head out.”
They left the open plot at the top of the loop and followed the path as it headed back toward the gates. After chitchat, many vines, and more ivy, another yellow patch was visible through the green.
“Now, THOSE are daffodils,” Sue cried out.
She ran over to a butter-colored field and knelt in the middle, smelling the flowers. Julia followed and almost tripped over a timeworn stone, set flush with the ground and carved with the name GORSCHBOTH and the year 1998. Julia felt a chill down her spine.
“I think we should go.”
“Are you okay?” Sue looked up from the flowers. “You seem pale.”
Julia tapped the stone with her Converse. “I knew a girl—Heather Gorschboth—in grade school. She died right before we graduated. In 1998.”
Sue walked over and stood beside her. “What did she die from?”
“Officially, a drunk driver. But we were immature. And a rumor went around school that something unnatural got her.”
“What?” Sue laughed. “Like what? A ghost? A vampire?”
“I don’t know.” Julia shook her head, remembering. “I wasn’t that close to her. After people found out I was gay, she was one kid who teased me. I remember asking one of her friends for dirt on her as payback, like her middle name and who she had a crush on. I found out what I could, but then she was gone. It was a closed-casket funeral, and a lot of us suspected the coffin was empty.”
“Kids.” Sue shook her head. “I’m sure this is just a coincidence. I mean, you told me you grew up in Philly, so why would a girl from your school be buried out here? And there’s no first name. Come on…” Sue took her hand. “We can’t be too far from the end.”
They walked on. Julia didn’t know how long or how far when they came to another really ancient-looking grave. Sue dropped Julia’s hand and moved closer to the headstone.
“I don’t want to know the name,” Julia said.
“This is weird. It looks like it’s a hundred years old, but the name and dates are fresh.”
As much as she didn’t want to look, that piqued Julia’s interest. She joined Sue and took a long look at the marker. The granite was chipped, and time had softened the edges of the stone and the carved letters. Moss clung to the bottom right side like a child trying to scale a parent’s leg to be picked up. Green dots of lichen dotted the letters as if someone began coloring them in but gave up. Etched across the marble were the words: M. MALIA, Died 2020.
Julia blurted out, “I know a Malia, but she’s still alive.” But did she know that? She hadn’t talked to Marie since the last reunion. Could she be sure Marie’s still alive? The date was only two years ago.
As Sue examined the headstone, Julia pulled out her cell phone and opened the Facebook Messenger app. She sent Marie a message—just saying hi and asking how she was doing—and made sure it was sent before closing the app. She brought up Facebook on a whim—she hadn’t checked it in ages—to look at Marie’s page. Posts asking for prayers and MISSING PERSON notices for Marie peppered her timeline.
Julia dropped her phone and looked at Sue through bubbling tears.
“She’s missing. We need to go.”
Sue stood. “I’m sure—”
“You don’t understand…” Julia cut her off. “I’ve known people who’ve just passed away. My grandmother on my dad’s side. My mom’s aunt. I’ve also known people who were tragically killed. A sorority sister got into an accident while drunk driving. The brother of an ex-boyfriend was killed in a construction accident. None of those names are here. Only the people who’ve died mysteriously or gone missing.”
“How many people have you known who’ve gone missing?”
Julia ignored Sue’s tone and said, “We should go.” She could hear the pleading in her own voice.
“Yeah,” Sue agreed. “We should be near the gates.”
They moved quickly, no longer holding hands or touching.
“I’m sorry I’m freaking out,” Julia rambled on. “But all these names are too much of a coincidence. I feel like I should be next. And now I’m in some dreadful cemetery with a woman whose last name I don’t even know and a crazy old guy with sharp gardening tools. I saw some Netflix documentary like this and—”
Sue didn’t stop moving but said, “This isn’t some Stephen King book, and nothing is going to get you. But my last name is Sibiski if that makes you feel any better, and people know where I am.”
Sue didn’t know if giving her last name was a bright idea, but she wanted Julia to move. She wanted out of this cemetery, and honestly—she wanted to end this date. But she worked with this woman and couldn’t just run off and leave her stranded. Perhaps getting her out of this cemetery would help calm her down and let Sue go her separate way.
She thought the exit was beyond the curve up ahead when she noticed a final, antiquated grave by the turn. Sue heard the screech of fingernails on a chalkboard, and her eyes were drawn to letters carving themselves into the granite. It was like watching a ghost chiseling the stone. Dust nestled at the base of each letter like bread crumbs settling at the bottom of the bag. SUZANNE SIBISKI appeared as the final ‘I’ was etched.
Sue stumbled, almost falling to one knee, and said, “I… I don’t understand.”
It was the first time I learned their names. And then they were gone, Julia had said to her. Her middle name. I found out what I could, but then she was gone.
And what had Sue said? The last name is the one with all the power…
She turned and looked at Julia.
Twin flames burned in her eyeless sockets like tea light candles inside a wax burner. Six-inch stiletto-like teeth filled an elongated mouth as her lower jaw hung down over her stomach. Maroon spots Sue associated with the elderly covered her hairless, mottled skull. And bulging, phallic veins painted motifs across her gray skin. The rows of sharp teeth separated as the enormous maw opened, and the last thing Sue saw was an endless void of nothing that went deep down Julia’s throat.
Okyong asked, “Really? At your last job?”
“Really,” Julia said. “She went missing last year, right before I quit. I don’t remember her name. A shame, too. She was cute.”
Okyong slapped Julia on the arm and said, “Lucky me then, I guess.”
Both women laughed when archaic, ornate gates appeared out of the foliage.
“That’s weird,” Julia said. “Gates in the middle of a park?”
“It’s a cemetery. Look!” Okyong pointed to the word CEMETERY as it peered out from behind uncontrollable ivy. She walked under the arch and looked back. “Come on!”
“A cemetery? But…” Julia didn’t know how to put her feelings into words, but she didn’t know if they should enter.
“Come ON!” Okyong repeated. “You should see all the flowers in here.”
Julia entered the cemetery, lured in by the gleeful look on Okyong’s face. Okyong had a slight smile—not a timid or shy or a half-smile, but tiny compared to the rest of her face—but it was radiant enough to light up a room. Julia could follow that smile anywhere. She met Okyong on the path about ten feet into the cemetery and took her hand. They walked along and saw rainbows of flowers that would shame the local Flower Show. In fact, Julia thought some of them might not be—
“Good afternoon, ladies,” a rough voice called from a field of pansies. An old man who looked as scarred and weather-beaten as the front gates was wiping sweat from his bald head. “Don’t be shy; have a look around. We don’t get many people in here nowadays. But youse two should be able to find something you like.”
“Thanks, Mister…” Okyong squinted at the patch on the man’s baggy overalls. “Is your name Ren—?”
The old guy slapped his hand over the name and chuckled. But his eyes bugged, and he looked right at Julia.
“Actually, the name ain’t mine. I borrowed these from the last guy who worked here. Youse ladies enjoy yourselves.”
Okyong thanked him and began pulling Julia along the path. Julia cast a glance back at the caretaker. He caught her looking and instantly covered up the patch again. That was odd. But she forgot about it when Okyong pulled her off the path toward an ancient and seasoned tombstone.
“Look at this one!” Okyong cried out. “It looks like it’s from the time of the pilgrims or something!”
Julia took in the grave marker and made a joke. “Hey! I think I knew a Sibiski once.”