The brittle leaves lying like dead men in the gutter crunched under the man’s feet. The shadows were long on the streets before him, but the sun still perched defiantly on the edge of the horizon. The few rays that reached him warmed his unshaven face, providing a small relief from the bitter chill creeping out from beneath the shadows of the trees.
A few trick-or-treaters were out early. Mostly the younger ones clutching their favorite cartoon characters hollowed out heads in their hands. A bit barbaric if you thought about it. The man wondered what ever happened to pillow cases.
The man walked by the youngsters without a word. A few of their mothers turned to glare suspiciously after he passed, but said nothing, before turning back and shooing the little ones to the next house. The man walked on unfazed. He was glad they were uneasy about him.
The horizon gradually swallowed the sun and darkness fell on now crowded sidewalks. Older kids were out now, gradually transforming the cute costumes of the toddlers to gorier and skimpier versions of the same characters. A grim reaper and a skeleton ran passed him laughing, their pillow cases stuffed with candy banging against their legs. Now that was more like it.
As the man walked on, the suburban houses decorated with fake spider web and jack-o-lanterns began to fade. The road leading away from town was lit up in patches from the streetlights that seemed to bend downwards towards him like the dead legs of a spider. This was a bit more “Halloween-like” than the sidewalks of town if you asked the man, but the road was deserted.
He stepped out of the warm glow of the street light into the surrounding darkness and felt something solid hit the front of his foot. It clinked, rolling a few inches before the man stooped to pick it up. The dim light of the street light reflected off the glass, the letters reading ” Corona” obscured only by his fingers. He stared at it for a second, the scent of alcohol faintly touching his nostrils.
The glass smashed as it hit the sidewalk, sending tiny chunks glittering through the air like tiny fireworks. The man stood unmoving for a second, letting the still night recover from the sudden interruption. His face was expressionless, but his heart pounded against his ribcage. It matched his footsteps as he continued down the road.
The man had never liked the metal gates at cemeteries. They stood before him like iron watchdogs, waiting to grab foolish passerby’s that strayed too close. He glanced around at the rows of carved marble breathing out a sigh of relief that it was deserted. If he had to do this, he wanted to be alone.
He stepped through the gates, half expecting them to slam shut behind him. Of course, they didn’t, this wasn’t the movies. But passing through them still gave that sense of finality as if they had slammed shut, never to open again. Like there was no going back. The man stopped, turning to look back though the gates to the street beyond. There was no going back, not really.
He stepped carefully between the graves, the grass succumbing silently to his weight. The lifetimes portrayed on the stones weighed down upon as if he were carrying them on his shoulders. With each step he imagined himself sinking down into the cold earth, and he shivered a little at the thought. He stopped beside a lonely oak tree, its coarse boughs still clinging to a few orange and yellow leaves. He gazed at the maze of stone angels and monuments before his eyes settled on a large cross to the far left.
That one was his.
He took a deep breath and started walking towards it. As he approached he slowed his pace. Something didn’t look right about it. The base was too large. He couldn’t have possibly forgotten which one it was, could he?
As he stared the cross moved.
He took a step back, catching a yell of surprise in his throat. His heart throbbed as he stared at the cross straining his eyes to cut through the darkness. The cross moved again. His surprise turned to anger as he realized what he was seeing.
Somebody was at his grave.
He glared at the figure, silently demanding to know what business they had here. It wasn’t family. They always came in the morning, he knew that. So who was it? A random griever? Or just some kid trying to get their kicks on Halloween? He came at night so he could be alone, he was courteous enough to do that, but they couldn’t even give him his privacy?
He started to walk towards the figure, but heard something that made him stop in his tracks. The figure was crying. The man slipped silently behind a larger tombstone, shielding himself from view. He pressed up against it, the chill from the stone seeping through his jacket onto his back. He shivered, not just from the cold, but from the sound of the figure grieving.
It sounded like a wounded animal. Ragged breathing coupled with low, hoarse sobs. The man’s heart softened momentarily. He had only heard that kind of crying once before in his life, but that still didn’t explain why they were crying here.
“I’m sorry.” The words bit the air like frost on a cold breeze. The figure breathed again, deep, painful breaths. “I’m…so sorry.”
The man froze. It was a male voice.
The man peered out from behind the tombstone catching a glimpse of a boy’s face in the faint starlight. He recognized it. Of course he recognized it.
He remembered seeing him there. The glass, and the blood, and that boys face covered with it all. People were yelling, screaming, but everything had seemed so quiet. Just for a moment, just before the world came crashing down, he had seen that face bathed in red and blue light. Just before they loaded him into an ambulance. Just before they came with the coroner for the little girl in the pretty pink dress. A princess, she said. She had wanted to be a princess.
The man covered his mouth trying to hold in the screams welling up in his chest.
The man remembered hearing the police say they smelled alcohol on the boy’s breath. He remembered the police arresting two more, all three were minors, but the boy was the driver. He was the one going to prison. He remembered the boy’s mother pleading that he was just a kid. He remembered how much he had wanted to hit her, explaining that his daughter was eight years old. She was just a kid, he was a murderer.
The boy’s sobs brought the man back to the moment. Back to him hiding behind a tombstone while his little girl’s killer knelt at her grave only a few feet away. The boy wiped his eyes and reached inside his jacket pulling out a crumpled rose, laying it on the ground beside the cross.
“They told me when I got out I was a free man. That I was just a stupid kid making stupid choices, but you weren’t. You didn’t deserve this.” The boy’s voice quivered and he wiped his face on his sleeve. “Nothing’s going to make it right, which is why I’m going to go talk to your Daddy tomorrow. Not like in court, but face to face. He never had the chance to punch my teeth out. I figure it’s only fair that now that I’m out I give him the chance.”
The boy stood silently for a few moments looking down at the tiny name scrawled in the base of the cross.
“You have no idea how much I wish I never got in that car.” The boy whispered. The man stared at him, his heart twisting inside his chest. He had hated this boy for three years now. Hell, he would have killed the bastard with his bare hands had he gotten there before the police showed up. He had never understood how his wife could have just stood there while they pulled that boy out of the car. That was probably one of the reasons they had gotten divorced a year later. Now that same kid was standing less than fifteen feet away, and the man couldn’t move.
The boy stood silently for a few more moments before turning and walking away. The man watched him go, only moving from his hiding spot when he passed through the iron gates.
The man walked to the cross and knelt beside it, running his fingers over the letters in the stone.
August 2, 1998 – October 31, 2007
Three years ago, on a day where you can be whatever you want, that boy chose to be a murderer by getting in that car. Three years later, just after he was released, when he finally had that choice again, he still chose to be that murderer. To accept it, and to face it.
The man reached into his coat and pulled out a single rose, laying it beside the one from the boy. He stared at it thinking. Three years ago the man had put a hell of an ugly mask on that boy’s face. He hadn’t bothered to look at anything else, the boy was just a monster to him. The man hadn’t thought that after all this time, the boy would still be wearing it. He hadn’t realized that it was a boy underneath that mask.
The man stood up turning to face the iron gates.
Tomorrow wasn’t Halloween. It would be time to take off the mask.