by Robert Holt
Born with great gusto and dying in the early hours, the life of a party ends when the host announces she is going to bed but that everyone is welcome to stay. Nobody ever stays, except the closest friends, and usually they have the party taken out of them and are only staying to help clean up. This was the case of the party in 1999, the year of the Y2K scare, the year I turned twenty-one.
The party was a close friend’s. It wasn’t my birthday party, although it was held just two days after my birthday. Most of the people there I did not know or knew only as passing faces from earlier parties.
When the host drifted toward her bed, I was left with only one other straggler: our host’s childhood friend who had rekindled the friendship recently. I knew Jessica as the long-legged brunette that regularly did yoga. The numerous stories I had heard about her had conglomerated into a mishmash of our host’s other friends, all of whose names also began with J. What I did know about her was that she was beautiful and way out of my dating league.
I walked from the living room to the kitchen, carrying the remainder of beer bottles and dumped them into the trash can. Jessica was there hand-washing a serving tray. “I guess we should go,” she said. I wondered if she was waiting for me to leave out of a lack of trust for me.
“Yeah.” I pulled out my keys. “I guess I’ll see you later.”
“It seems a waste to end the night so early.”
I looked at the clock. It was nearly one in the morning. “Want to try and make last call somewhere?”
She shook her head. “We would never make it. Besides, we have beer here.”
“Do you want to stay here for another beer?”
“Not really. I’m just not ready to end the night.”
I thought for a moment. “Do you want to grab a few beers and take a walk?”
She smiled and her face shone with an amber glow. “Where to?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I thought just a walk. Or maybe down to the cemetery to tell ghost stories.”
“Sure,” she said to my surprise. “That sounds like fun.”
Several beers were opened. We set off on a mile walk to the Sacred Heart Cemetery, nestled back in the woods off the Meramec River just south of Saint Louis. We got less than a quarter-mile from the house before an officer pulled up beside us and asked us to pour out our beers. We did and continued our journey under the bright summer sky.
The sidewalk ended and we walked side by side in the narrow street, talking about college and work and dreams. She knew my birthday had just happened and insisted on walking on the outside. “The eldest always walks on the outside,” she said. “You have more life ahead of you. This way a car would hit me and not you.” She was ten months older.
I laughed and put my hands on her hips and moved her to the inside. The moment my hands touched her, I felt a shocking thrill pulse through my body. I was thankful for the darkness so she couldn’t see me blushing.
As we reached the heavy raw-iron gate with Sacred Heart spelled out over it, I turned to her. I felt my pulse quickening in my neck. “Do you still want to do this?” I half-hoped she would chicken out so that I could comfort her fears and not go through the open gate.
“I’m game.” She grabbed my hand, sending another wave of excitement through me. “But only if you promise to stay with me.” With that said, she led the way into the cemetery. As we stepped into the soft grass, a cold breeze blew in from the river. I stepped ahead of her and took the lead. In the center of the cemetery was a bench and a monument. I pulled her gently to the bench. We sat down and continued our conversation from the road. The temperature continued to drop. A low, snaking fog rose up from the grass, sending clouds puffing up with each movement of our feet. After we sat for a few minutes, talking in hushed shaking voices, a cricket chirped near us.
“What was that?” She squirmed closer to me.
“It was just a cricket.” I put my hand on her knee. “Just a cricket.”
She shifted her weight and I brought my hand back nervously. A tree frog chirped. She jerked and shuddered.
“Just a frog,” I told her quickly.
“Are you sure?”
I laughed. “Yes, I’m sure.”
After another few minutes, a screech owl joined the conversation with its piercing cry.
Jessica jumped to her feet. “What the hell was that? What the hell!?”
I grabbed her hand. “It was an owl.”
“An owl, it was a screech owl, and it is really close, but it won’t hurt us. If you want to leave, though, we can.”
Jessica sat back down. “No, not until you’re ready.” She flinched as the tree frog chirped. Her whole body tensed. I slid my arm around her. She jumped at the touch and laughed and fell into my chest for a second. “Aren’t you scared?”
I smiled at her. “I told you, I want to be a horror writer. I like being scared. So, yeah, I’m scared out of my mind right now, and I’ve never been happier.”
She looked at me. In the cold summer night’s light, I thought for a second that she might let me kiss her. This beautiful woman might actually let me kiss her.
The moment was shattered as quickly as it came by the angry barks of dogs. “Now it’s time to go,” I said. We ran toward the gate, laughing with fear.
Our walk back was spent laughing at our foolishness and playfully fighting over who had to walk on the inside. As we got back to our cars, I got a pen and wrote her my phone number. “I had fun,” I said, “I would like to hang out again sometime.”
She smiled and said a noncommittal “Sure,” and I left.
I slept until noon the next day. She called a half-hour later.
We were married in 2003 and our daughter was born in 2009, our sacred heart.
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About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation. The submissions guidelines are here.