Roger could feel the cold north wind blow through every loose button on his coveralls, caressing his skin like an icy fingered lover, as he restarted his weed eater. He glanced up at the dull November sky, then down the long row of head stones that lay, quite literally, before him. Maybe it would be the last time this year he would have to trim the place. At least he hoped it was.
For a brief moment he had begun to feel la little short winded and his left arm hurt, but after a moment the feeling subsided. He would have to make a doctors appointment tomorrow. Lord how he hated doctors. Needles and such always made him queasy.
He moved the plastic safety glasses back down over his hazel eyes and started on a small head stone near the old fence row that ran along the back of Twin Oaks Cemetery. He had retired after 32 long years at the sawmill on the outskirts of town, planning on settling down to a life of leisure. But he had grown restless and had taken the job at the small Kentucky cemetery almost 20 years ago on a part-time basis. But as the years went on, his duties moved from just mowing the cemetery’s 10 or so acres to general running of the place. Now days he took the orders for new head stones and even sold an occasional plot from time to time. After all, people were still dying to get in, he often told his friends.
His parents, who had been dead for more years than he cared to think, were buried here and he was given his plot next to them for free a few Christmases ago from the out of town company that owned the place. What a Christmas bonus! Guess it’s the thought that counts. Roger liked working here. He never had worked well with other people so the quiet of the cemetery suited him.
He meticulously trimmed the grass around the head stones of a couple passed from this world many years ago. As he moved from one head stone to the next, he jumped back, startled, like a man that had stepped onto a bed of hot coals with his bare feet. His breath hitched in his throat as surprise and alarm streaked across his wrinkled face: standing just a few feet away from Roger was the presence of a man he would swear had not been there a moment earlier.
The stranger was a tall, foreboding looking man with thinning hair and a forehead rising up sharply like a cliff face above dark cavernous eyes. His reed thin nose strangely set off his angular face, casting part of it in shadow. He was in the indeterminate age of over 50 but under 100. Roger never could guess a person’s age very well.
He was dressed from head to toe in Johnny Cash black. Though not an unusual color to be worn in a cemetery, his appearance was both familiar and unsettling to Roger. Had he met this stranger before? Try as he might, he could not put a finger on what it was about this strange man that tickled the back of his memory.
“Hello, Roger,” the man said. With a deep, bass voice that rumbled from somewhere far off, like thunder heard over a great distance.
Roger’s eyes narrowed and he replied, “Just how the hell did you know what my name was, Mister?”
The man in black simply raised an eyebrow. Then Roger glanced down at his weed stained overalls. Duh, his name was sown on the front in bright red thread. “Oh, yeah,” Roger said awkwardly.
A smile briefly graced the stranger’s wrinkled face as he said, “It’s OK. I didn’t mean to startle you.” He turned his gaze to the head stone directly in front of Roger.
Roger turned off the weed eater, removing his safety glasses. “No problem,” Roger said, his racing heart beat finally slowing from a mad gallop to a mere fast trot. “I just didn’t hear you with the trimmer going, that’s all,” he said defensively, not liking to be taken off guard.
The man nodded. “That must’ve been it.” Pointing to the head stone he continued, “Beautiful woman that Wanita. Every year she made an anonymous donation to the children’s home on the outside of town. Did so for the last 52 years of her life. Never even told her husband.”
“I didn’t know that,” Roger replied, his brow furrowing and his mind itch growing. The stranger standing next to him must be a local. But if the man lived here in town, Roger couldn’t remember ever seeing him. Perhaps he was a relative visiting from our of town.
After a moment, the stranger moved to the next head stone away from where Roger had been mowing and began to read the fading name carved on the crumbling granite stone out loud. “Abagail Winchester.” He said her name in a wistful melancholy tone and a look of sadness passed across his dark features, but only for a moment, like a cloud racing briefly across the face of a bright summer sun.
Roger moved up beside him and leaned on his weed eater asking, “Relative of yours?”
“Nope,” replied the stranger after a short pause. “Old friend.”
Really old, Roger thought, considering Abigail had been born in 1904 and died in 1936. Roger looked at the man again, reassessing him. He didn’t think the stranger was THAT old, but he had to be. Besides with medicine like it was now a days, people lived forever it seemed. Well, OK, not everyone he decided, as he looked around at the row of markers in the cemetery.
Pointing one long bony finger at the head stone the stranger remarked, “Abby was quite a hell raiser in her day. No one could put away the hard stuff like Abby. Stayed out all night more often than not. A husband that wasn’t so forgiving finally caught her in the wrong bed. That settled things permanently, if you know what I mean.”
Roger thought he did. “Rough,” was all he could manage to say. Something about the stranger still bothered him and he felt a shiver run down his back, bringing goose bumps up on his skin. Then Roger laughed to himself, shaking his head slightly as he thought about how silly he was being. Must still be spooked from this guy just popping up out of nowhere and scaring me. He continued to shake his head and was moving away when the stranger turned and pointed to the head stone behind them. The date read born 1899 and died in 1942.
“But if you want a truly legendary trickster, then that would be Will Caughlin. Meanest man this side of the Ohio River. If you seen Ole Will comin’ down the street, you moved yourself on over to the other side. Died in a knife fight. Will always run his mouth, you see. And while he could beat any man straight up, he couldn’t beat a knife in the back. One night he was feeling kind of ornery and started a fight. He spent so much time jawing and taunting the man he was facing that he didn’t see the guy’s friend move up behind him.” The man in black made a quick side-to-side slashing motion over his throat.
Roger backed up a step. Now it really was getting creepy. “Hey Mister, I don’t think I caught your name. You seem to know a lot of stories about the people who are buried here. You some kind of historian or somethin’?”
The stranger’s eyebrows rose at this and another smile crossed his face as he replied, “Somethin’ like that.” As he talked, he moved away along the row of graves and then stopped. “There are many wonderful people buried here Roger, just like Wanita. But there are some that are pure unbridled evil. And this one here,” he said gesturing to the stone he stood next to,”Johnny Miller, he’s the worst.” Despite himself, Roger moved closer and looked at the head stone, though he really didn’t have to. Roger had looked at this one often enough. It was the most notorious plot in the cemetery because Johnny Miller was the town’s only mass murderer.”
Roger knew this story by heart. As a little boy Johnny Miller was the local equivalent of the boogey man. His grandmother would tell him the story about Johnny Miller and that if he didn’t mind his elders and be a good little boy, then Johnny Miller might just come to his bedroom one night and punish him for misbehaving. I spent more than one night, lying awake in bed unable to sleep and watching the window in my bedroom, sure Miller was just outside, waiting for me to fall asleep.
Johnny Miller had lived in the late 1800’s. One night in a drunken rage he had gone through the small town, a gun in one hand, a bottle of Jack Daniels in the other, shooting anyone that he saw. Like a devil loosed from Hell itself he shot man, woman and child alike. By the time his rampage ended eight people had crossed on to the great beyond thanks to his bloody shooting. Then, as if someone had just reached up and flipped a switch from on to off, he leaned against the court house wall, slowly slid down its length till he hit the ground and passed out, dead to the world drunk.
Deputies that had been close by but had remained hidden cautiously approached the unconscious killer and yanked the smoking gun from his hand and then hauled him off to jail. Before he could be put to trial, he was shot and killed along about dusk while being transferred from the jail to the courthouse, by a man avenging the death of his wife and son who were killed during Miller’s rampage. After shooting Miller, the man turned the gun on himself. Many had said Miller didn’t deserve being buried in the same cemetery where most of his victims had been put to rest. But in the end, he had been.
The stranger had grown quiet and Roger looked his way. The stranger’s chin had dropped nearly to his chest and he was saying something low. Roger couldn’t hear him so he moved closer, cocking his head to the side to better hear what the stranger was saying.
As he caught the words the stranger was saying, Roger pulled up short. He thought he heard the stranger saying, “You killed my boy and my wife Johnny. And then I killed you.” That can’t be right. He had to be hearing this wrong. The stranger wasn’t smiling anymore as he glanced sideways at Roger. His eyes narrowed and his face was pulled tight as if it were a mask too small for the person wearing it.
“I ah, I ah …, I’m sorry,” Roger stammered. “Did you say just say that Johnny Miller killed your wife and boy?”
The stranger, who had started to move away from Roger into a private family burial plot, stopped. A black metal fence surrounded the three head stones in the plot. The fence was one in an old fashioned Gothic style and rust had begun to claim a good portion of it. The stranger stood in a gap where a gate had perhaps once been and looked over his shoulder at Roger.
“My last name is Vincent. My wife and child are buried in this plot.” As he said this he once again looked back to the weather worn stones that marked the burial mounds of three people.
“Yeah, right!” said Roger nervously. Now he knew the stranger was off his proverbial rocker. The plot he was standing in front of was one of the oldest sections in the cemetery. And as Roger looked past the man to the grave markers beyond he realized it was the family of the man that had shot Miller. This guy WAS nuts. That’s all there is to it.
Roger walked over to the stranger and took him by the arm. “Look Mister, I don’t know who you are, or what you think you are trying to pull, but I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
The man in black turned his gaze back to Roger, looking first into Rogers’s eyes, then at his hand, and back to Roger’s eyes. The smile was back, but it was a humorless smile, the kind of smile that one would see on a Halloween Jack-O-Lantern or on one of those old chattering teeth skull heads. And the smile never touched the stranger’s deep dark eyes. Roger, swallowing hard, pulled on the man’s arm. Yet despite the strangers advanced years, Roger was not able to move the man even an inch from where he stood. As he started to remove his hand a cold chill flooded into him. It was as if he had been plunged into a pool of ice-cold water. And it was spreading through his body, rapidly causing his breathing to come in gasps.
“My boy is buried on the left, Roger, my wife on the right. I am sure you recognize the face on the center head stone. Don’t you, Roger?”
Roger managed to turn his head even as his legs gave out and he fell to his knees. The stranger took hold of his arm and eased Roger to the ground. God no, he shouted in his mind. This particular head stone had a face carved in the marble front. The face on the head stone was the same as this man! That’s why it had looked so familiar! It was the face of Franklin Vincent, the man that had shot Johnny Miller. Roger had to have mowed and trimmed the grass around these three head stones a thousand times. It couldn’t be. This couldn’t be happening.
“I greet everyone that comes here, Roger. I know the stories of everyone that lies here. What is your story Roger? Tell me.”
Roger’s life passed before his eyes; his lonely childhood; his dropping out of school at the age of 16; the long seemingly endless days working at the saw mill, the serenity he felt working his job here alone at the cemetery and his regret at never having married.
Vincent’s head tilted back slightly, his mouth open and his eyes closed, as he seemed to be reading Rogers thoughts. “Ah-h-h, thank you Roger.”
Roger fell to the ground as Vincent, the goblin smile still on his face, released his hand. Roger stared up at the limbs of the trees over head, moving back and forth in the cold winter wind. He could feel his arms and legs going numb, as his life seemed to slowly drain away from him like the water of a bath that flows down the drain after the plug has been pulled. Vincent leaned over him as Rogers eyes began to close and with a smile whispered, “Don’t worry Roger, you have forever to tell me the rest. Now we will take care of you for awhile.” Roger opened his mouth to reply just as the darkness overtook him.
Franklinburg Town Gazette
Roger Timeball, age 70, curator of Twin Oaks Cemetery died yesterday of an apparent heart attack while working in the cemetery. He has no surviving relatives. The funeral services will be Wednesday at 1:00 PM, Holy Evangelist Church, 1235 East Chadwick St. Burial to follow promptly at Twin Oaks Cemetery.