The crowd of black-garbed funeral mourners, arms draped around one another, turned from the open grave. Their dark clothes, Greer thought, like gashes of night set against the bright late summer morning, appeared perversely out of place. He sat and watched them quietly from the cab of the nearby backhoe.
Greer took off his cap and mopped at pearls of sweat on his forehead. The faded funeral home logo on its front, a red rose, was barely discernible from years of wear and sun.
The mourners’ faces were tear-streaked and shining, reminding Greer of dew clinging to dawn lit grass. He’d dug the grave that morning, operating the bucket of the backhoe with surgical precision, leaving only five inches between the graves on either side.
A mound of earth now sat in front of him. He’d already lowered the sleek wooden casket into the grave.
Greer watched as the mourners returned to their cars and exited the cemetery. Once the last taillight disappeared around the curve of oak-lined road, he thumbed on the ignition switch, raised the bucket, and set out to finish the job.
Scraps appeared after the last bucket full of dirt fell. Greer had named him even though he wasn’t sure if the cat was alive or dead. The feral-looking feline never got close enough for him to touch, instead winding in and out of headstones the same shade of gray as his patchy fur.
One of the cat’s ears was completely bitten off and there was a hard black scar where his left eye should be. Greer raised a hand in greeting. Scraps swished his tail, the tip missing, and yowled in response.
A large, slitted, orange eye regarded him impatiently.
Nodding, Greer powered down the backhoe and jumped from the cab, his boots leaving imprints in the displaced dirt. Scraps bounded a few feet away, surprisingly agile despite his near-starved frame, but kept that one eye trained on Greer.
The cemetery birds and insects hushed. Greer lowered himself to the ground, lay on his back, and after a few moments, closed his eyes and slept.
The grave sleeping ritual, developed over years, started with the death of his mother. That long ago late summer morning was buried in the tender innocence of childhood. Greer was fishing off the riverbank, sloping downhill from the backyard of the small house he lived in with his parents.
He wasn’t using a real fishing pole. It was a long willow switch with a string tied to one end. He’d found a photo of a real fishing pole in a magazine and did his best to make a copy.
Greer’s parents were fighting again, but his father’s angry shouts were barely audible from Greer’s position so close to the fast-moving river.
Greer cast out, reeled the string back and cast out again.
Suddenly, his mother was next to him, chest heaving, and brown hair falling loose from its bun. “Greer, honey,” she gasped. “We have to go.”
He noticed her feet were bare, and there was blood on the hem of her white house dress.
“Go where?” he asked.
He sensed his father before he appeared, anger palpable, like an approaching thunderstorm. One moment his father was atop the slope, and the next, at the bottom, shoving his mother roughly by the shoulders.
She fell and Greer dropped his fishing pole in the same moment. They dropped into the river, thin and quivering, swallowed by the churning, muddy water.
Greer followed, unsure whether he had slipped or jumped in after her. The river filled his ears, nose, and mouth, forcing its way down his throat. The current dragged him away from the summer sky. The water’s surface swirled above, like a watercolor painting left in the rain. Further down he went, until Greer was in total darkness.
Someone saved him, someone not his father. A man fishing down river, with a real fishing pole, had pulled his body to the shore and pumped the water from his lungs.
The first breath into Greer’s starved lungs pierced knife sharp, and he choked on the air as if he’d forgotten how to breathe. The darkness receded, but Greer could not help but feel as if there had been something in the black oblivion. Something that had touched him and left scars so deep no one else could see them.
No one saved his mother. Her body washed up on the bank days later, tangled in a fallen tree miles away. After that, Greer never spoke again. Not to anyone living, at least.
His father cremated his mother. A respected local elementary teacher, his father was never suspected of pushing her, and Greer, the only witness, was mute. Her death was labeled an accident and all that remained of the woman who had raised him, who had oved him, was a metal jar of ashes.
Greer hated that his mother was trapped inside, so one day, he took a handful of ashes and scattered them among the wild lilies along the river.
Their smooth faces angled toward Greer and he heard his mother’s voice speaking from inside the red and orange blooms.
Scraps meowed, waking Greer from troubled dreams. He raised himself on his elbows, and in front of him stood a woman. She was in her early twenties, with long blonde hair. Pain shone in her eyes.
Greer opened the connection, unfurling his ability like a blossoming rose.
Greer used his ability, a side effect from his brush with death so many years ago, to communicate with the dead. He’d helped countless spirits pass from this cemetery to the other side…to what lay beyond the darkness. He did not use words. Instead he visualized questions in his mind like watercolor paintings in a language of color.
The woman’s response was immediate. Bruises appeared on her neck and Greer was struck with an image of her body, hanging limp from the rafters of a dusty attic.
From there, the scene rewound, quickly, like a movie played in reverse. Greer watched in his mind’s eye until she stopped, pausing on a segment from her own childhood. A man stood over her, a man Greer immediately recognized. A cold, clammy sensation overtook his body, and he shivered despite the August heat.
In the woman’s memories, Greer watched his father, alone with his student in a dimly lit classroom. He caressed her face, dewy with tears, as his crooked teeth poked out from behind a lustful grin. When his father’s hand lowered, Greer broke the connection.
The lilies, daisies, dandelions and violets dotting the cemetery in tiny bursts of color spoke first in hushed tones, and then in increasing volume until they were shouting.
They spoke in the voice of his mother.
“Greer,” the flowers said. “You know what must be done!”
The dead woman looked at him, pleading.
“I won’t let him hurt anyone else,” he said aloud, and the voices inside the flowers went silent at the same moment the woman disappeared in an explosion of petals.
This day felt more appropriate for a funeral. Rain dripped through the outstretched arms of the oaks, the wetness staining their leaves dark emerald. Thick, gauzy clouds blanketed the sky, and the first small teeth of autumn bit at the back of Greer’s neck.
He sat in the cab of the backhoe, the mound of earth in front of him melting into rivers of mud bleeding through the cemetery.
Only a few mourners braved the weather and even then lingered only long enough under slick umbrellas for a brief, final goodbye.
Greer did not watch them leave. Rain spattered the windshield and the two tiny wipers swiped back and forth in a steady tick. Once alone, he raised the bucket and began to move the dirt back on top of the grave.
Except this time, he paused after only a quarter of the pile was replaced. He left the backhoe on and slid down from the cab, walking through the curtain of rain to the maintenance shed. Inside, next to the riding lawn mower, lay a long form swathed in a white cloth. Blood stained the edges, much like the hem of his mother’s house dress.
Grunting with effort, Greer dragged the white-swathed shape, the sheet turning brown from mud, to the partially covered grave and shoved it inside. He returned to the backhoe and finished, filing the grave and covering the unmoving, shrouded figure below.
Scraps did not appear after the last bucket of dirt, Greer’s signal that the recently departed was not worthy of his help. The flowers also remained quiet, and the only sound Greer heard was the dripping of rain.
He powered off the backhoe, jumped out of the cab and walked the oak-lined road out of the cemetery.
Heather Santo is a development chemist living in Pittsburgh, PA with her husband and newborn daughter. In addition to writing, her creative interests include photography, painting and collecting skeleton keys. Follow her on Instagram @Heather52384 and Twitter @Heather52384.