First Published in 'Blood & Blasphemy" Hellbound Books 2019

“What do you think?”

When she speaks she is not looking at him but at the trees. Birch trees. The kind with that peeling white bark that resembles scalded skin.

“I like it,” he replies, “it’s peaceful.” The trees are shrouded in a fine mist like a fresh coat of dust on a recently cleaned window. They remind him of a case he consulted on as a young man: A birch whose roots had leached into the plaintiff’s neighbor’s yard, damaging several sections of tile in his brand new swimming pool. “You can barely hear a thing.”

You had to be an idiot to build an outdoor pool in Massachusetts to start with, but this dude had been a real gem: A commodities broker, middle-aged, four kids, and an Ivy League education. Rich too. More money than brains. But after 9/11 this rich idiot had been too scared to take the kids down to the timeshare they had in Clearwater, so instead had cemented over his family’s disgruntlement - literally - by building a pool in the backyard of their new-build mansion in Lower Waltham.

“That’s why I like it,” she agrees, “it’s...it’s so still.”

No expense spared with that damn pool. He’d seen the pictures of it. Marble trim and faux-gold handrails and a tiny waterfall and even a half-dozen fake palm trees. The perp had been a sapling at his neighbor’s fence just a few feet from where he had dug and the guy had not considered it might become a problem until after he’d gone and shed thirty-three thousand dollars on construction.

 

“I was thinking we could have the service here,” she goes on, “not in the main church. There’s a little chapel…”

Needless to say, he had snapped at the case. He had been hungry for it, the first-rate attorney he imagined he was. Committed two months of work to figure it out. Ten minutes later the judge had thrown them out like the second-rate attorney he had actually been all alone; an idiot attorney for an idiotic plaintiff, angry with his collapsing pool and thirty-three grand sucked into the soil.  

 

“...wake at my mom’s place.”

That had been what? Fifteen years ago. Fifteen long years.

“It’s less...fancy, but simpler. Dignified.”

They seemed longer somehow, those years. The whole thing feels like another life. What the hell happened, he thinks, a question he has grown to meet every setback with. What happened? What the hell did happen? There had been some good, sure. She was a good thing. He still believed that. The problem was not the good but the bad that had taken its place. Birch roots shattering through carefully laid tiles.

Robert-

“Just family and friends.” Her voice is frail; the way voices always seem to go in graveyards. “Not too many.”

Just as well, he thinks, we don’t have many anyway.

“I know you don’t want to make a big thing. I don’t either.”

“It’s fine. Whatever you think best, for you and for--”

Through the bonelike trunks of the trees he finds himself regarding the sky through the thin wisps of wintry mist. A tired sky for what was quickly becoming a tired conversation. Tired like he never left the hospital. Like a part of him is still there in his unwashed trousers and crumpled work shirt all wild-eyed and locked in a nightmare. They have already discussed this once.

Robert. Say his name. Robert.

But she has already taken his hand in hers and he feels the late February cold clinging at her fingers. We should head home, he thinks to say, but when he thinks about the home he sees the same mist there. Sees it in the ceiling and walls, in the air that is somehow colder even than this. He imagines birch tree roots buckling their floor like teeth and wonders if she keeps talking about the funeral just so they have something to talk about; just as he keeps thinking about the trees so he has something to keep thinking about besides the still that waits for them both in nightmares.

“I’ll handle the catering,” he adds, turning his face at hers. “I was thinking Magnolia’s.”

“Could do.” She nods. “Or Pasquale’s. You know, where we went that day--”

“Yeah, that's good.”

She looks older. Like some witch had cast a spell to make her age a year with each passing hour. The mist makes her look old, he thinks. Both of us, it does, like the way cobwebs do old houses. She is thirty-five but looks fifty. He remembers they had referred to her as old in triage. He had been unaware of it before. A risk factor. A statement that has become prescient.  

If only she hadn’t been old, he thinks, Robert might still….

(...still)

The knitted sweater is loose enough to hide the stretched skin of her belly, the skin that just three days ago had been slathered with black blood and mucus as she had screamed, crowded by ashen-faced nurses fussing with their bloodied hands and sweat. He hears that scream still. Distant like she had fallen down a canyon, every bone had been shattered by a hammer blow.

“I love you.”

Maybe now, he thinks, seeing the empty bassinet on wheels. Now she says it, but she did not love him then. Not in that moment. Seeing the tiny diaper in the sanitized glass basin, a stuffed bear from the hospital gift shop stricken on the floor, her face twisted up in agony and anguish and shock: How could this happen to them?

“I love you too.”

She squeezes his hand tight and he feels the faint tremor of her heart inside her wrist. A lonely sound, fragile like the rattling engine of an old car driven days into a desert. She is not a fragile person, he reminds himself, and it occurs to him then he has been the one to inflict fragility onto her. The thought closes his eyes and when he opens them he is looking back to the earth-square marked out with those small stakes into a rectangle. Much bigger than seems necessary.

“I’m ready,” she says, “do you want to go now?”

He thinks about how he never wanted to come in the first place.

“We can stop somewhere, if you want to. Get something to eat. Something nice.”

Yeah, right.

“Hon?”

“That sounds wonderful.” He looks at her, pressing his teeth, and without thinking he hands her the keys and the metallic sound clangs the quiet. “In five minutes. Why don’t you go back to the car where it’s warm?”

“But what about you?”

“I’ll be fine. Be right behind you.”

She stares at him, uncertain. There was an unspoken agreement they would not do this - isolate each other. He had broken that agreement many times, but had the decency to wait until she was sleeping or whatever.  “Just five. I need the air.”

“You’re sick?”

“No, no. Just feeling nauseous. Fresh air helps.”

She nods slowly, then leans up and kisses him. “Don’t be too long, okay? I - I don’t want to be here after dark.”

“I won’t be.”

“You sure you don’t want me to stay?”

“No.” He shakes his head. “You shouldn’t be on your feet this long, remember what they said?”

The corners of her mouth twitch. She remembers. “Oh shit, we have the paperwork...”

“Paperwork?”

“For the Reverend remember?”

Fuck the Reverend, he thinks, suddenly and with a burst of aggression. “Yeah, okay. Five minutes tops.”

“You did bring the checkbook, right?”

“Checkbook?”

Her lip twitches. “We talked about it, the parish donation?”

    “Oh yeah.” Donation. Six hundred bucks for an old man reciting mumbo-jumbo. “I think it’s in the glovebox. If not there’s the corp one. They won’t care.”

“I’ll get it.” She sighs. “Well, guess I’ll meet you in the office then. Don’t be late.”

(Fuck the Reverend in his shriveled old ass)

“I’ll be there in five minutes.”

“Love you.”

He listens to her footsteps fade. A thud and scraping of the fossilized leaves left since the fall. Among them wasted seeds. Or nature’s version of the still.

When she is gone he takes out a flask of Jack Daniels and a half-gone pack of Camels. After taking a deep swig he lights one up, idly remembering a fight they had eight months back where she’d told him smoking could hurt their baby.

Robert.

Not been a baby in any discernible way back then but a mass of cells her Tinybeans app had said, in its unsettling appetite for food-based analogisms, was the size of a kernel of sweetcorn. Nevertheless, he had quit his vices that day, all tossed aside as easily as a pair of worn-out tennis shoes. Funny, he thinks, the things a fella does when he’s invested. Funnier still how the day of the still being born - the very same day - he had barely been able to move or speak yet somehow managed to drive himself down to the gas station and buy a pack of Camels. Easy, it was, like fixating back on an old flame.  He looks down at the plot again. That pegged square of uncut earth.

Robert.

As the alcohol began its first warm splotches across his brain, so did other thoughts.

Robert. Your son Robert.

He shivered suddenly, the name spoken in his head as the hissing of steam. It was not a baby named Robert.  It was the absence of a baby named Robert and, in its absence a perversion, a monster, a beast. Some cruel creature that had taken its place with its shriveled skin and blackened mouth and slowly decomposing body, now freeriding in the funeral home with people - real people - who had been born and lived.

He takes another sip.

A sickening feeling descends. He could never be cruel enough to talk about how it sickens him. Just thoughts, but evil thoughts that resonated with a truth that was not there any other time. A truth when he thought of that polished headstone they had ordered, engraved with a name that was “Robert James Galloway” where it should have been “God Is Laughing” and some cockamamy epitaph pulled from the Bible or a Beatles ballad or whatever it was she pulled out of her tearstained ass. Words of love instead of words of anger and heartbreak and disgust. They were cursed now. Unfairly cursed. Doomed to pretend for the rest of their lives they were parents of a child and not buriers of a still. He figures maybe when all was said and done they would have living children someday - though it seems unlikely, especially since she was already old - it makes no difference. They are damaged. Irrevocably damaged by the idea of a child named Robert James Galloway and the reality of a creature in a casket.

Yawning, he tosses the spent butt down. 

Crushes it with his foot into the plot.

 

The pathway leads down a gentle hill lined with more birches, around to where the Trinity Episcopal Church sits in the darkening sky. A handsome structure in what he imagines must be a priceless location not far from Carnaby. He always liked the building. Less so the vast and chaotic layout of its colonial-era churchyard, hundreds of headstones going back to the middle 1700s. She loves that, the history, but he finds it disorganized. Unkempt to the point of unseemly, the graves scattered about pathways like scattered blots, some isolate and some in haphazard rows, but all concealed from plain view between the errant patches of stubborn trees and brush and winding dirt pathways in an untidy maze presumably fashioned by some drunk Pilgrim Father.

“Because of them roots,” a voice behind him mutters.

He jolts, hands snapping loose from the pockets of his parka. Shit, shit. It is his automatic reaction, born of time spent working in the city, dodging the panhandlers and junkies on Eighth Ave. Behind a pair of eyes watches, dense and piercing in the blue swarm of early twilight. Below the eyes a sharp little chin sporting a scraggly beard and paired with a large hooked nose to resemble a lobster’s opened claw.

 

“Over here.”

It is the face of a very old man. Dirty and wild-looking. He stares back, like a sheep in the road. “Can I help you?”  

The strange man does not reply at first. His face holds a thin gape of a smile. Inside he sees a flash of the man’s teeth. Small and sharp teeth, the color of radioactive mustard. “Were thinkin’ I might help you,” the strange man finally says. A quaint accent. Extinct even, but for certain nowhere places inland where the tourists don’t go.  He wears a sickly smile as he steps from behind the trees.

“Help me?”

The man extends his hand, the arm raising slowly like an old drawbridge. “Name’s Culferi,” he says, “Trent Culferi. I’m the groundskeeper.”

He feels a wave of relief and takes the hand reluctantly. The fingers are slender but the grip is firm. Culifer does not shake the hand but holds it for what seems a long time. “Richard...Dick Lautner.”

“Lautner,” the old man replies, pleasantly. He is dressed all in black, his head round, bald but for a scrape of what must be hair but resembles instead the dry burr of an old scab.  His baglike eyes are unblinking in his face. An ugly face, it is, even for an old guy. Ugly, cavernous, ridged with wrinkles, his dark eyes slightly oversized so that their inky roundness set in a receding forehead resembles the close-up of an insect. An insect with a toothy smile.  “I am very pleased to meet you.”

“Uh, yeah, likewise. Now if you’ll excuse me--”

“You’re shaking,” the man says, studying him with his strange eyes. “Are you feeling okay?”

“I…”

“Have another drink, Richard! A big one this time!”

He feels the grip weaken and takes his hand away. Immediately he winces. There is a residual sliminess. One that is too cold to be sweat and too greasy to be water. He takes out the flask and drinks, this time barely tasting it.

“Feel better now?” Culifer asks.

“Uh-huh.” He pulls his parka closer, “Listen, I don't mean to be rude, but my wife...she’s waiting for me in the chapel office.”

 

“An appointment?”

“With the Reverend.”

“Ah yes, " says the man solemnly. "About little Robert?”

“How did you know?”

Culferi grins. He rubs his arm across his nose, a sickly honking sound of shifting congestion. His hand is gray, the flesh protruding from his sleeve thinly. More than thin, he thinks, his stomach making an involuntary churn as it always has at the sight of deformity in a body. The fingers are withered, curled like wicker from an unraveled basket. He glances down and sees the other hand is the same, both appendages equal in deformity. Poor bastard. “There is something I wanted to speak with you about, Richard,” he says, his voice lowering, “Would you listen?”

“Huh?” He is still thinking about those terrible hands.

“It concerns your wife. Your son too.”

"Sorry? What are you talking about?”

Culferi smiles, bearing those mean little teeth again. “You’re a good man, Richard. Good enough that I know you will do anything but consider what I must tell you. For your sake and for your son’s. For Robert’s.”

“I don’t have a son.” He feels his insides clench, pressure building. “He was stillborn. How the hell do you know about him anyway? Did the Reverend--”

“It isn’t important how I know about him, Dick.” The old man’s dark eyes tightening slightly. “What is important is what I know about him. And whether you will listen to it.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“We don’t have much time left together to explain. It will be dark soon, and this is a tough place after dark.”  His round, balding head twitches to the right. “Come with me. There’s something I’d like you to see.”

“But--”

“Come with me.” He extends his withered hand. “It won’t take long.”

A lunatic! The thought lurches, suddenly like a spasm. Groundskeeper my ass. Mister Cauliflower or whatever the hell he called himself, the man had to be a prize-winning lunatic. Then he remembers again those junkies and bums, the ones who had lurked around Eighth back in the day. The kind Giuliani had loaded into vans and dumped in the Hudson or whatever. This guy, Cauliflower was clearly one of those...those curbside prophet wackos. The kind who spends their days preaching about anything from pedophile politicians to lizard men from Pluto. The kind who sneak in vicious scams under the cover of bullshit. He finds himself struggling to imagine the chain of events that had such people now haunting historic Massachusetts churchyards, but there is just nothing else that makes sense. Harmless. “I’m not interested.” The words come quick like a boxer’s one-two punch. Turns sharply...and then he hears it.

The cry of a baby.

Coming from somewhere in the birch trees.

“Richard? What the heck!”

It is raining now. The dark deluge pounds the glass like a hundred stampeding feet as he climbs inside. The leather seats are cold through his wet pants. Through the nickel of turned earth and the rotting stench of the dead leaves, the smell of her perfume and the Pina Colada Magic Tree is like the last memory left.

“Richard! Where the hell have you been?” Her voice is shrill, jarring like bad music. He feels her eyes. This time it is him that does not look. “You’ve been gone...over an hour!” He hears the crackling of self-pity through the guttural churn of rain. Outside all that is visible is the spire of the old church as a spike against a thick winter sky. Below the idle engine throbs.

“Richard are you okay?”

In the rain it looks like a wreck at the bottom of the Atlantic.

“Richard?”

He sees only the church and the blackness beyond the church. The blackness of the old man’s strange, insect eyes and his own blackness reflected.

“Honey, what’s wrong? You look--”

The sound is like a hiccup. A small plosive of air and shock. The rain fades quieter. In the car, it is too dark to see her face, but he sees it nonetheless and it is not her face but the face of a creature...no, a monster, a monster that murdered their baby. That left him darkness, that left him with the still.

“Richard,” the creature gasps, choked by pain. He hears her throat close. He hears another open. Creatures have many throats, he thinks as, over his hand, a warmth spills and he takes the blade and does it again. Over and over, he does it again. In and out, he does it again and again and again until Robert’s distant cries in the cemetery become the benign hiss of rain and there is nothing left of any of them but the still.