J. R. Roper
Nick strode down the walking path toward Mom’s resting place. The clouded sky brought on early dusk, forcing him to quicken his pace. He passed the boarded up white house and the foundation of a barn that used to stand beside it. Exposed nails bled rust down the weathered siding.
A woman jogging toward him flashed a smile, her bushy hair bobbing with her stride. Nick glanced down a side trail at a man and his dog. The man, a friendly old codger, waved and Nick waved back.
As Nick approached the cemetery, a woman pushing a stroller rolled past him. He glanced at a sleeping baby wrapped in a pink blanket.
“Cute little princess,” Nick said.
The woman made eye contact and then looked to her baby. “That’s my angel.”
Nick stopped and faced the woman and stroller. “Bit dark in the cemetery, isn’t it?”
“That it is,” Nick said. “Off to visit my mom’s grave.”
“I’m sorry.” The woman started forward. “Be careful. There’s a man I don’t recognize sitting toward the back.”
Excitement welled in Nick’s stomach and his temples pulsed with blood. Maybe he was the one. “Oh. I’ll watch for him.”
“Take care.” The woman charged down the path.
Nick sucked in a deep breath as he stalked toward the cemetery. Branches hung over the entrance as if ready to grab passersby. His mother’s bones rested in the far corner, next to the oldest section. Freshly dug earth revealed a new grave nearby. Something about the scent made Nick’s scalp tingle. Lines of gray headstones rolled across the landscape, broken only by tall virgin trees.
Nick passed the Cemetery Office. It was dark and the parking lot vacant. He wanted to run full speed, but had to play it cool in case someone was watching. He quickened his pace and glanced behind. The woman with the stroller, the man and his dog, and the jogger were all out of sight. And just as important, earshot.
He reached the last row and turned right, heading deeper into the death field. As he neared Mom’s grave, he saw him—a man leaning against a tree, smoke rising from a cigarette. Nick reached into his jacket pocket and gripped the handle of a dagger. Within ten paces of the man he stopped.
“I wondered when you’d finally pay your respects.” Nick squeezed the handle.
“What? Who are you?”
Nick laughed, and fought back a smile. “You should have come sooner.”
“You’re crazy.” The man tossed his cigarette and bolted away, glancing at Nick every few strides.
Nick started toward him, gaining ground.
The man stopped and faced him. “Seriously, kid. What do you want?”
“You should have been there for her.”
“I don’t know who you are.” The man turned and ran toward the forest path.
Nick looked to Mom’s grave. There she was, as gray as the headstone on which she’d perched. She nodded and pointed in the direction of the man. Nick bowed his head and began the chase. The man was running toward the forest, away from prying ears. Nick knew where the path led and where to cut him off. Knew the looming sounds of panic and death. And he knew the prickle of the swamp’s cold squelching mud where all of his fathers had been laid to rest.
J.R. Roper is the author of The Morus Chronicles, a Moonbeam Award-winning series, and Stories from the Fringe, a collection of short horror stories. Other awards include a Reader’s Favorite Gold, Children’s Literary Classics Gold, Foreword Reviews IndieFab Finalist, and Preditors and Editors Readers Poll Best Children’s Novel winner. His essay, “Over the Edge,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.