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“This is where the living end and the dead begin.”
Those were the words his father spoke as they stood at the gates of the Odessa Cemetery on the day Michael was officially inducted into the family business. Although only thirteen, he was tall and strong for his age. These were common traits among the O’Donahue family. His father towered over most men and Michael was destined to become his spitting image. His destiny, in fact, as his father was now explaining, was to follow in the footsteps of all the O’Donahue men as the caretaker of what his father affectionately called ‘The Yard’.
“Every town has a Yard,” his father said. “And in every town there’s a family what takes care of the Yard. And that’s us here in Odessa.”
Absentmindedly, Michael kicked a loose rock from the soil.
“Pay attention to what I’m telling you, boy,” his father snapped. “This is important. This is the family business. Your great granddad helped build this cemetery; helped build this whole town. He came all the way from Ireland to Kansas here, and that’s a long, long way. So we’re part of Odessa, you see. Part of this town’s history. But you got to understand that, even though we’re a part of Odessa, we have to stay a bit removed from the rest of the town folk.”
With the word ‘removed’, Michael’s father motioned towards the cemetery gates.
“You see, boy,” he continued. “You get too friendly with them and pretty soon you’re burying your friends, or your friend’s wives; or their children. And that’s hard on a man; too hard. That’s why we keep a distance. That’s why your mother come up from Newport. That’s the way it gets arranged. So she don’t have no kinfolk here. And when it’s your time, we’ll find you a bride from somewhere other than here. Any of this making any sense to you, boy?”
“Yes sir,” Michael answered.
“Alright, let’s get going then.”
With his father’s shovel and pick slung over his shoulder, Michael followed along through the rows of gravestones and past the mausoleums to the oldest part of the cemetery. Here many of the markers had cracked and crumbled and those still left leaned precariously with the weight of time. This was where the founding families of Odessa were interred. This was where they would bury Old Man Frederick Heidelmann, the patriarch of the most prominent family in town, who had passed away two days ago.
“Start right over here,” Michael’s father ordered. “Use the pick first. The ground here is stony; gotta break it up a bit.”
Michael’s hands shook as he clanged the pick into the rocky soil. After an hour, he had sweat through his shirt, despite the morning chill. His hands blistered and broke open. Later they would become calloused and rough, just like his fathers.
“It’s good that Old Man Heidelmann is your first,” his father was saying. “Frederick was one of Odessa’s most noteworthy citizens. He paid to have that new school house built, paid for it all by his self. He loved to go around telling people all about it too; loved to remind people that he was rich. But even the richest and most noteworthy of Odessa must, sooner or later, pass through our gates and be tendered here in our Yard. Just remember that, Michael.”
“Yes, sir,” Michael panted as he flung dirt over his shoulder.
“Here, come catch your breath,” his father said, motioning for him to come up and sit next to him.
Thankfully, Michael dropped the pick and sat down on the ground next to his father.
“The Yard is our responsibility, Michael. Yours and mine just like it was your grandfather’s and his father before him. We take good care of it and the town appreciates us for it. The O’Donahue name is a well-respected name in Odessa. And so it shall remain. Understand me?”
“Good. You’ll learn all you need to know about caring for the Yard: How to set the stones, when to cut down a tree, where to replant a new one. Lots to learn, lots to know.”
“Father,” Michael said looking into the woods that bordered the Yard. “Are there really ghosts in the Yard? Jacob Miller says there are ghosts.”
“Well, it is a graveyard, Michael,” his father smiled. “So, yes, you may see a ghost or two on occasion. Or you may never see one your whole life. But if you do, just remember that it’s probably just the ghost of one of the good people of Odessa who all respect us because of the wonderful job we do with the Yard. Anyway, there’s much more to worry about other than ghosts.”
“Other than ghosts?” Michael asked, “Like what?”
“Like wolves. And wild dogs and them damn gophers. In the winter, when the snows get bad, there isn’t enough food to go around for all the beasts of the Earth. So they’ll come sniffing around the Yard. And then they’ll get to digging. Can’t have that. That’s why I mind the Yard so close in the winter. One time there was even a bear digging around in here.”
“A bear? What did you do?”
“Well, I went and got Reverend Murphy and we both brought our rifles down here, but by the time we got back the bear had gone.”
“You weren’t scared of the bear?” Michael’s questioning continued.
“Sure, it scared me. That’s why I went and got my rifle. So I can tell you this; that bear scared me more than any silly old ghost ever did.”
“What’s the scariest thing you ever seen in the Yard,” Michael asked.
His father paused.
“I wish you hadn’t asked me that,” he sighed. “But if I’m to be teaching you everything about the Yard, about caring for the Yard, I figure I ought to tell you.”
Pulling a silver flask from his coat pocket, Michael’s father took a long painful gulp, cleared his throat and then began.
“The most scared I ever been was back in 1879. It was long before you were born, before I had met your mother even. That year there was a terrible flood; worst in the history of Odessa. It rained for three straight days and three straight nights. We were waist deep in water by that third day. For a while, we thought the whole town might up and float away. But, the storm finally broke and the rain stopped and the town folk took to cleaning up the town and your grandfather and I took to cleaning up the Yard. Hell of mess that flood made. The whole Yard was nothing but mud; trees down all over the place. We had a dozen or so caskets washed up out of the ground. Out here, in the old part of the Yard, was the worst of it. There were bones all scattered about. And a stench so bad, I lost my breakfast. So anyways, your granddad and I were about to head back to fetch Father Murphy so he could re-consecrate the grounds when we saw something sitting right over there next to the Vanderwal crypt.”
Michael’s father paused for another pull from the flask. His hands were shaking.
“It had two heads,” he continued. “They looked like... like baby’s heads. Except they was mean looking; like angry. Its body was all a mess of arms. No legs; just eight or nine little arms. It was... feeding on some of the remains that had been dug up by the flood.”
Michael stared wide-eyed at the Vanderwal crypt as his father related the rest of the story.
“I don’t know what it was. Just some God awful thing that the rain had washed out of hiding, I guess. But it was in our Yard and we couldn’t have that,” the flask tipped once more. “So we beat it with our shovels. Your granddad and I beat that ugly little thing to death with our shovels and it screamed the whole time. Screamed bloody murder it did. Then we burned it along with all the tree limbs that were down and we never told any of the town folk about it. And neither will you.”
“Why didn’t you tell anyone?”
“Town folk don’t need to know about things like that. They don’t want to know about things like that, Michael. They want to know that the Yard is quiet and safe and that it’s a holy place and a peaceful place to bury their loved ones in. Not a place of ghosts and monsters. And it’s our job to make it that way and to keep it that way. It’s the family business. You understand me, boy?”
“Good. Always mind the Yard, Michael. Always mind the Yard. It’s the family business. Now let’s finish this up here and get on back to the house.”
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About the Author:
From plumbing the depths of the Deep End to sifting through the scattered fragments of The Other Side, Newton has dedicated himself to crafting stories stitched together from the ruined spaces and forgotten places that most people tend to avoid.