by Wendy Scofield

Cynthia Watson’s Ghost Story

In some of the most inhospitable environments on our planet, plants and animals thrive. From the blind fish in underwater caverns to cacti thriving in desolation, life adapts.

- Charles Darwin

The deceased are not without their own resourcefulness.

- Cynthia Watson Client Service Coordinator Briarwood Cemetery.

Briarwood Cemetery’s gates closed promptly at 7 pm. Today was the first day of spring, and sundown was 6:58. It was now 7:30. And so Cynthia Watson, Client Service Coordinator for the Dead, stood outside the gates in the cold and under the faint glow of a distant street light.

She did not fumble for what she needed. Fumbling, stumbling, or being unprepared was not in Ms. Watson’s nature. Her leather satchel bag may be from an earlier time, but Victorians understood the need for pockets and organization. The key to the iron gates never left the inner pocket, which was its home unless necessary.

Cynthia let herself in and locked out the world of the living.

The inner reaches of Briarwood Cemetery were as dark as any medieval wood. Trees formed a canopy and blocked out any moonlight. Even with late winter snow reflecting ambient light, a few steps into Briarwood and you were consumed in darkness.

The headhunter who first approached Cynthia told her of the unusual nature of the job. A position such as this one offered high rewards. The Client Service Coordinator for the country’s oldest and prestigious cemetery would enter the halls of power few traverse. And monetary compensation? Within a short time, they would feature in one of those stories you see on the Internet about so-and-so retiring at the ripe old age of 30.

She was 25. Retiring at 30 didn’t sound that bad.

The headhunter was quick to add there were risks involved in such work. The job took its toll on the body, mind, and spirit. The dangers were quite real.

At the time Cynthia felt she was about to enter a fairytale — Beware the gingerbread house! It’s sweet, but inside lives a witch!

No one told her this was the part of the job she was going to hate the most. Out of the bag she pulled out a headlamp. It was one campers use. It allowed the use of both hands while the lamp planted on the forehead provided light.

She hated it with a passion.

When Mr. L. hired her, he offered precious little on how to do vital job duties. “Listen. Support. And provide comfort,” were the instructions. He was kind enough to inform the new employee every other Client Service Coordinator in the 185-year history of the cemetery had found their own way.

Navigating murky situations was one of her skill sets. Go navigate.

That first night found Cynthia mucking about blindly and getting stuck in rose bushes because her iPad’s battery died. Never again she thought, and after a few online searches, she resolved the issue. Amazon saved her once again. More than once, she wondered How did people do this job a century ago? By candlelight?

Thankfully the strap of the headlamp fitted nicely over her cashmere hat. Though she’d been at the job for months, the lamp still rubbed her as ugly and irritating. More than once, she dryly noted how scientists love to talk about having elegant solutions to nature’s riddles. A lamp strapped to her head was far from beautiful. Regardless, there was work to be done. It was the first day of spring, and that meant the dead were beginning to stir.

She walked up Providence Avenue. Like all the avenues, this one wound its way around the hills of Briarwood. The original reason was horse-drawn carriages would strain themselves going up the cemetery’s numerous hills. Horses and carriages were to stay on the lower ground while their owners took footpaths up the gentle slopes.

Each night brought a series of paths for Cynthia to traverse. Tonight’s journey included Halcyon, Ellis, and Athens footpaths. They were all by Consecration Ridge.

While Providence Avenue was without snow, most paths still had an inch or two. Some families arranged to have their gravesites freed as soon as it was possible. Mr. L. had other gravesites shoveled even though the families of those interred had run out of money decades ago. He was a creature of sentimentality and tradition. The paths on tonight’s agenda did not rely on charity. Those buried here are from the most affluent families in the city. All three paths were clear of snow.

Cynthia stood in front of the first grave marker. It was a stone angel looking skyward with hands cupped as if to receive a blessing. In any other cemetery it would stand out as a thing of beauty. However, in Briarwood, the dead competed against each other as they did in life. The best way to show you were better than everyone else is to have a more unique or ornate grave marker.

She grabbed her iPad out of the bag and turned it on. It was fully charged, and that simple fact brought a thin smile of satisfaction. The screen only had one app — BRIARWOOD. Cynthia tapped it open and waited. The screen was blank. It wasn’t a blue screen of death but a creamy white. Everything was ready.

When she first started the job, she didn’t know how long she should stay at any one grave. Every client needed to have their needs met. Briarwood was huge. To make sure her duties are finished in an acceptable amount of time Cynthia couldn’t wait too long at sites whose residents were happily on the other side, or asleep or at the very least somewhere else than Briarwood. A few seconds passed, and she moved on to the next resident.

Again and again, Cynthia would take a step or two, wait patiently and continue. Boredom filled most of her nights. Soldiers grumbled about the military’s way of doing things — Hurry up and wait! Her job was similar. She needed to be at certain places at certain times, and most of those times, she did nothing but wait.

It was an odd occupation.

However, like any soldier who has seen combat will tell you, days of boredom are interrupted by terror.

This night was one of boredom. Cynthia completed her duties, and left Briarwood promptly at 4am. She locked the gate behind her and reentered the world of the living.

***

7:30 sharp the next night and Cynthia once again let herself into Briarwood. Once again, she positioned the headlamp and switched it on. Tonight’s itinerary included Maple, Thistle, and Mayflower paths.

At first, the soft ringing was faint. It came from within her satchel bag. Cynthia reached in and pulled out the very impatient iPad. Its cover was closed, but the screen’s light escaped through the edges. “Apparently, you can turn yourself on,” she muttered out loud.

The ringing grew louder.

The Briarwood app’s map feature was open. At that particular moment, it showed where Cynthia stood in the cemetery. She was a small white light. On the other side of the cemetery was a significant red light that throbbed with irritation. A ringing kept in perfect time with the throbbing.

What the hey-diddle-diddle does that mean?

She didn’t know. The iPad throbbed in her hand. In case you didn’t notice, we have a situation here it seemed to say. Cynthia attempted to get more information. That was unsuccessful. The device appeared to be communicating This is all you need to know. Go, do your job. And with that the throbbing and pulsing moved into her hands, through her arms and found a home just behind her temples on both sides of her head.

NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW! It was no longer asking or beseeching. Its need became her need. Need didn’t have a reason. Need compelled action.

Grabbing the iPad close to her chest, Cynthia ran. NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW! didn’t stop nor did it lessen. Tears stung her eyes, but they did not hinder her flight.

The light of her headlamp cut a path in the night.

Even under the best of circumstances, the avenues of Briarwood were fickle. The pavement is uneven and cracked. Great roots from trees push up and breakthrough in places. She tripped, and when she landed on the avenue, the throbbing receded momentarily. Thankfully, her years of early morning gymnastics paid off and saved her from face splatting.

Her headlamp flickered for a second and then returned to its LED glow. While her gymnastics training saved her from injury, it didn’t keep the iPad in her hands.

As soon as she got to her feet, the pounding started up again. A quick look and she found the iPad. Its light rising and falling. She grabbed it and ran. Wherever the iPad wanted her to go, she needed to be there five minutes ago.

She ran. Her heart pounded. Her head felt like exploding.

And then all it once everything stopped.

Cynthia stood there. The iPad no longer pulsed. The pain disappeared. The world was quiet. She had lost track of time. She needed to collect her thoughts.

The light from Cynthia’s lamp reflected and splintered off The Door. Granite, marble, or limestone were the materials of choice for most gravestones. However, some residents chose untraditional materials. The Door also had an unconventional design. It stood a full seven feet, and as its name suggests, depicts a doorway. The door is partly open. Made from aluminum alloy the doorway and the door naturally played with light.

Mathew L. Shaw Esq was the resident who resided under The Door. Back in the 1970s, the elderly Shaw held a competition to discern the best design for his and his family’s memorial. One Avery Hall of Boston Massachusetts took the lawyers breath, heart, and money away with her entry. Her competitors accused her of manipulating Shaw’s affections to win. Most art experts agreed The Door would’ve won even if Mr. Shaw didn’t fancy the artist who was 50 years his junior.

Ms. Hall’s accusers became louder when the two wed, predicting the artsy gold digger would soon leave the man old enough to be her grandfather. Mr. Shaw lived for another two decades before passing. She was always at his side. After his death, the widow reportedly told friends, “I was biggest gold-digger ever if you consider our children my treasure.”

Cynthia wasn’t alone.

The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She was never one to get a shiver up her spine, but those hairs on the back of her neck never lied. It wasn’t a ghost, spirit, or any other creature that goes bump in the night. They created an entirely different physiological effect. The hairs on the back of her neck meant someone was there. And that someone was a people.

“I am Cynthia Watson, Client Service Coordinator for Briarwood Cemetery. Please step forward and identify yourself.” She was using her dry bureaucratic voice. Life doesn’t always go the way you want them. Boyfriends cheat. Landlords swindle. Parents misbehave. Her dry bureaucratic voice helped manage all of those situations by communicating she meant business in a non-aggressive manner.

He walked out of the darkness and into the light. She took mental notes. Height six foot three to possibly six foot five. Two hundred and fifty pounds or so. Despite his size, the man moved quietly. Ex-military?

While she was taking the measure of the man, he was recalculating.

“Excuse the intrusion, Miss. Watson. My name is Nathaniel Parsons. I need fifteen minutes alone, and I’m outta your hair.” His voice had Southern charm. One hand in his pant’s pocket and the other ran through his dark hair. Everything about Mr. Parsons seemed casual. It was as if he was there to fix her garbage disposal and needed a few minutes before leaving with a wink and a smile. “I’m not here to do any damage. Scout’s honor.”

She wasn’t having it. “Mr. Parsons, you are trespassing. Any business you have here needs to be done during regular hours. If that business is anything more than visiting a loved one who has moved on or taking in the wonders of the cemetery you will have to talk to my employer, Mr. L.”

Her fingers danced on the screen of the iPad. She needed to communicate to him that even though they were the only ones present, they were not alone. They lived in a world with laws.

“My job is time-sensitive, and it’s best done without prying eyes. Now, how about you hurry along and let Nate do some work. And that’s when he took one step towards her.

There were laws and rules in the outside world. There were also laws and regulations within Briarwood, and as the Client Service Coordinator, it was her job to communicate them.

“By your accent I can tell you are not a local. You may not be aware of binding arrangements specific to Briarwood.” He took another step towards her. She held her ground. One more step and he’d be able to seize her.

“Perhaps your employer did not tell you of these binding arrangements.” That gave him pause. So he was there on another’s behest. “The authorities enforce them, and I hope you are aware I am not referring to the police. If anything happens to me, then your employer will be discovered, and swift justice applied. Regardless of where you go on God’s good Earth, you will also be found.

That made Mr. Nathaniel Parsons take a step back. This was good. Very good. He was simply out of his league. By his accent, Mr. Parsons was not originally from the area and had no idea what sort of mess he was getting himself into. Regardless of all that, her charge was to ensure the clients of Briarwood were happy. She needed to usher this intruder off the grounds. There was no need for unpleasantries. She would be polite, lock the gate behind him, and offer a reminder any business should be taken up with Mr. L.

She didn’t see him reach for it. His gaze kept her eyes busy. A moment later, he was pulling out a weapon. Was it a gun? A knife? Cynthia was kicking herself for not noticing, and not being in complete control of the situation. For some strange reason, she thought that time in 6th grade when she lost the spelling bee to Henry Thompson. Great, that’s going to be my last thought, screwing up the word sepulcher.

Nathan was doing a poor job at killing her. Instead of shooting or stabbing Cynthia, he held the object out. It was her turn to take a step forward. Upon closer inspection, it was a tube. She had seen tubes like that before in her employer’s office.

“I was hoping to do this the easy way, Miss Watson, and avoid the paperwork. But here I am a stranger in a strange land, so to speak. I have to do all the paperwork that’s required.” She took the tube, popped the lid open, and there it was — a scroll.

“Take it to whoever you need to. I’ll be back tomorrow night to finish up,” he turned and stepped back into the shadows.

“What’s this all about?” she called out after him.

“The cat’s outta the bag at this point. My boss is Mathew Shaw the Younger. He’s being haunted. I’m here to put things right.”

Cynthia’s jaw dropped. Being the consummate professional, she did not drop the scroll.

Cynthia immediately notified Mr. L. Even though the hour was late, he seemed fresh when he picked up the phone.

“I’m sorry for calling you at this time,” she started. In her experience, she found an apology — whether she was at fault or not — helped the process.

He acknowledged her, and then waited. L. tended to talk little and listen quite a bit. During her interview, he spent the first five minutes looking out an open window and chirping to (with?) some birds who had taken residence in the nearby elm tree. Being in customer service for years she sized up the situation and went into a well-rehearsed list of her qualifications. Once that was over, she expressed admiration for Briarwood and made a comment or two about its history.

During most interviews, Cynthia liked to connect on a personal level. Perhaps ask about a painting on the wall or pictures of children sitting on a desk. Most of the time, she liked to find out beforehand who she was interviewing with. Does so-and-so have a reputation? Is said reputation good or bad? Her sleuthing yielded little in this case. L had no history.

Mr. L chose to interview her the sanctuary of the Bigelow Chapel. They sat in pews. Nothing beside L’s love of birds was evident, and she felt it a bad idea to bring attention to his preoccupation with local avians.

Cynthia recited a synopsis of the evening’s events. She apologized again — this time for the broken iPad screen. She then waited.

After a moment of silence, he asked her to read him the scroll.

Mr. L.,

My name is Mathew Shaw. You know my family. We have supported Briarwood for some time and look forward to continuing our relationship into the distant future. Please allow me to cut to the chase. Over the past months, I have been subjected to a supernatural force intent on driving me mad. Doors, Sir. Doors slam throughout my house at all hours of the day. My staff abandoned me. I can not recall my last full night of sleep. I tried to escape to other parts of the world to no avail. The evil force follows me.

Out of desperation, I contacted some of this city’s most respected psychics and mediums.

Mr. L let out a sigh upon hearing that line.

After doing some research, they informed me of the identity of the spirit. That spirit must be put to rest so I may find peace. Mr. Parsons can rectify the problem.

Mr. L told her he had heard enough. She needed to return home and rest. She was to return to work in a few hours.

***

Written in Cynthia’s contract with Briarwood Cemetery is the phrase any other job functions as directed by management. When the clientele is the elite, client service professionals are expected to cater to every need. This often requires laboring extra hours and performing odd and unusual tasks.

Cynthia’s job catered to the elite of this world, those in the next world, and individuals lost in between the two. She worked her graveyard shift religiously and frequently came in during daylight hours to dot Is and cross Ts.

Walking out of Mr. L’s office left her with the feeling not unlike finishing a very satisfying appetizer and then having to go before the main course arrives. It was his way. On different occasions, she noted her employer interacted with staff, visitors, and other members of the public with an attitude that implied I am not here to think for you. She suspected he considered this a win-win. Others’ intellectual indolence wouldn’t burden him, and perhaps they would be a little better at taking care of their own affairs.

Of course, there were downsides with that stratagem. And at that moment Cynthia was slipping down that side.

What Mr. L did tell her was what Mathew Shaw intended to do with this supposed haunting. The spiritualists he employed informed him he could put the spirit to rest. The idea was that certain incantations would assist a lost one’s journey to the other side. In such situations, the restless spirit is shepherded to wherever they are going, and the living can go about their business. The only problem is such no such magical spell.

Spirits caught between this realm and the other find their way on their schedule. Whatever emotional attachment they have here must be worked out to their satisfaction. The body can be assisted with medicine like antivirals and antibiotics. The soul is another thing altogether. There are no magic pills. You can’t give a ghost a metaphysical antidepressant, and everything will be sunshine and puppies.

Cynthia reflected on this sad state of affairs as she drove down Commonwealth Ave towards the brownstone that had been in the Shaw family for generations. After parking in the garage, she made her way to the front door and held down the buzzer.

The door opened.

“Come in. Come in while you can,” he said to her.

Cynthia darted inside. Just as she crossed over the door slammed.

“She must like you.”

Cynthia then took a moment to consider the measure of the man in front of her. Even though Mathew Shaw was in his 30s, he slumped like a man in his twilight years. He was still in his pajamas and robe. By the smell, neither pajamas, robe, nor their owner has had a proper washing for who knows how long. Cynthia realized she was avoiding eye contact with the client. It was the dark circles under his eyes she found most distressing. She quickly forced her eyes to do their job. Customer service meant putting your petty feelings aside and serving — especially when the client was in such dire need.

He walked up the stairs. While his eyes focused on going up, Cynthia was able to take mental notes of the condition of the house. The front door’s casing appeared to have some sort of padding. It made sense. When the door slammed behind her the sound wasn’t as pronounced as one thought it would. The hall and stairs seemed like Mr. Shaw. They showed signs of neglect.

A door slammed from somewhere in the house.

“It’s manageable during the day,” he said as he brought her into the library. “At night time the spirit is insatiable.” He sat down next to the fireplace. She followed his lead. This was the point where one of his servants would offer her tea or coffee. But all the servants were gone, and Mr. Mathew Shaw looked as though he could barely care for himself.

The curtains were pulled shut, but sunlight snuck in. The room belonged to another time when the economy was based on steam power and not ones and zeros. The ceiling was high as were the bookshelves. Above the fireplace hung a larger than life canvas of Avery Hall. Her welcoming smile and warm eyes belied her years.

What interested Cynthia the most was the library’s door. There wasn’t any. Hinges were still in place.

“I took it off this morning.”

“Somehow, I don’t think that solution solves your problems, Mr. Shaw.”

He squirmed a bit in his chair. “It does not. It does not. Not for lack of trying. My grandmother’s spirit is tenacious, Ms. Watson. Tenacious.” He pulled a vape pen out. His hand gestured about in between puffs. “I’ve taken every single door off its hinges. The first time I did it, I simply placed the things in the basement. The next day I discovered they had found their ways back home.”

His hand shook a bit when he took a deep breath in on the smoke. Who knew when the last time he spoke to another human being in the flesh? Cynthia felt he had more to say. Sometimes the pregnant pause gave birth to insight.

“I’ve hacked them apart. I’ve hacked them apart and burned them. All with the same result.”

She leaned forward slightly. “Are all the doors in your house treated the same by the spirit?”

His expression flashed from exhausted to excited. He said the front door only slammed if someone entered the house or left. That being the case, he never bothered removing it. Most of the other doors slammed randomly. The only other door in the residence that the spirit treated differently was the one to his grandmother’s room, Avery Hall. That door never slammed. However, every morning at four, the house shook with the spirit pounding against it. During those moments, the door slamming around the house would stop. The beating lasts for a half an hour, and then, as if exhausted, the spirit ceases activity. With the first sun, the door slamming begins anew, building up until the climax at 4.

She took all of this in.

“Why are you here?” he asked.

Generally, bad news is difficult to give. Broadly speaking such information comes in two categories. One is far easier to relay than the other. The first sort can be categorized as Acts of God. Acts of God, as the name suggests, is no mortal’s fault. An unfortunate and random event occurs, and someone must be the bearer of bad news. Depending on the severity of the situation, the person being told of the event may not wish to believe it happened, but the mind typically comes to an understanding after the initial shock. The second sort is far more difficult to give. This is no Act of God. Instead, it’s the case of the 3 Ms: misunderstandings, miscalculations, or malicious intent. In those cases, the one told the news could become agitated. While no one likes being the target of malice, it’s been Cynthia’s experience those suffering from self-inflicted wounds are the most defensive.

Cynthia’s job was to make sure Mr. Mathew Shaw did not get too defensive in this situation.

“I am sorry this has and is continuing to happen to you. I’m saying this as the representative of Briarwood as well as a human being. No one should be going through what you are. From the bottom of my heart, I am sorry,” she spoke slowly and carefully. This was the easy part. The more difficult section was on its way.

“Mr. L informed me of your family’s long relationship with Briarwood. We are proud to be your family’s caretakers once death arrives…”

She was waltzing around the elephant in the room, and he knew it.

“Ms. Watson, I am at my wit’s end, but that does not mean I am out of my wits. Please, tell me what you came to say.”

She took a deep breath, and the words came out in her best-honeyed tone. “It is my unfortunate job to tell you your spiritual advisors are incorrect. There is no way to force a spirit to the next world. There are no rituals or spells which will free you from this haunting. We can communicate with her. We can assist her. However, there is no silver bullet.”

She took another breath to continue. Mr. Shaw interrupted her.

“You and your employer are the ones mistaken. My advisors told me this. This haunting will stop. The time for talking is over. Her spirit is going to be destroyed.”

Somewhere in the house, a door slammed.

“If my grandmother’s spirit suffers, then so be it. She should’ve finished her unfinished business in this life.”

Cynthia’s jaw clenched.

He continued. “Mr. Parsons will complete his task tonight.” He stood up to usher her out.

“Her soul will be annihilated or damned. Can you sleep at night with that knowledge?”

“Cynthia, I haven’t had a good night sleep for months. I will welcome the sleep of the damned sinner.”

Cynthia stood and turned. The library door was back in its home as if nothing had happened.

***

The Central Library sat in the middle of the city. In years past architectural textbooks gave the building due respect. Some gave the building a few pages. Other texts specifically written for those interested in the Romanesque style dedicated a chapter. The edifice was the crowning achievement of Henry Hobson Richardson. From the outside, the Central Library looked something like a castle with a flair for fashion. Thick stone walls, stained glass windows, and cylindrical towers gave the impression the mind behind the structure saw a time when the building would defend knowledge against an inhospitable environment.

Cynthia’s refuge was the Central Library’s garden. It offered an open space where one could find shelter from a world dominated by sharp edges and narcissism. Iron tables and chairs dotted the sides and a few stone benches could be found among the greenery. The fountain stopped working decades ago, and yet the youth carved in stone seemed as positive and happy to be there as ever. It didn’t matter to him no water flowed. He seemed to find joy in gazing upwards and feeling the sunlight.

It was cold, and it didn’t bother her one bit. She had dressed appropriately for the weather. Years ago she found fingerless gloves offered enough protection from temperatures 40 degrees and higher as long as those fingers were busy. And busy they were.

For the last few hours, she buried herself in the life of Avery Hall to discover whatever unfinished business the woman still had. She led a remarkable life. The papers at the time recorded not only her many artistic achievements but also her philanthropic projects. Her initial passion was sculpture. After finishing an apprenticeship with renowned French sculptor Peter Loir, she returned to the States to follow her passions. Little else was known about the woman until she designed The Door as a grave marker for the Shaw family.

Cynthia Watson knew money, and celebrity reveals character. It was easier for everyday people to be “good.” Freedom to do evil for the lower classes is frequently constrained by the law, tradition, and religion. The powerful can make choices that aren’t within reach for most. A cursory look at the evening news provides enough evidence that they are not subject to the same consequences. It is easy for the authorities of the mortal world to look the other way. A greased palm can lubricate most people’s sense of right and wrong.

Avery Hall’s character, if anything, evolved and flowered during her marriage to the wealthy Shaw. Given freedom from material needs, she gave herself to art and then to the world. She funded scholarships and a building for City Hospital. And she was not above serving the homeless at soup kitchens (that was not public knowledge until after she died).

“What did you leave unfinished?” Cynthia mumbled.

The two children from her marriage led happy lives. Patrick, the eldest, was an accomplished violinist and played for Shaw’s Orchestra. It seemed fitting a Shaw should play in the ensemble his mother and father created. He died from a freak boating accident decades ago. His widow recently passed away.

They had two very different children. Mathew graduated from a prestigious law school but discovered living on his family’s inheritance too much temptation. His sister, Julia, followed her mother and journeyed to France for an apprenticeship. In her case, however, she found both art and love in the Eternal City. She still occasionally travels to the States with her art for showings.

She had a lot of information. How was she to discern the signal from the noise?

What Cynthia wasn’t going to do was ask Mr. L for assistance. After the interview with Mathew Shaw, she did communicate her findings. It was another one of those I will listen to what you say without commenting and then politely say thank you when you’re finished conversations.

Her fingers were cold. She stopped typing minutes ago. Lost in thought, her fingerless gloves provided a way of reminding her time was of the essence. Sundown was at 6:58. Mr. Parsons was sure to be there shortly afterward and execute the ritual. If that occurred, then Cynthia Watson would’ve failed her employer, condemned the spirit of an artist and a philanthropist to destruction, and prevented Mathew Shaw from making a choice he would regret forever. He was desperate for the haunting to end. She doubted he would fair better with being haunted by his decision.

It was one o’clock in the afternoon. Time was burning.

***

Cynthia sat feigning comfort in the Hearth Room. That particular chamber was the most intimate of the establishment known as the Russian Tea House. True to its title there was a massive fireplace featuring ornate carvings in the ancient oak that framed it. The rest of the room seemed to scream, “I won’t be outshone by you!” Sconces on the wall held candles set aflame by natural gas — high technology when the Tea House first opened. Luscious drapes framed paintings of Mother Russia. One revealed an austere Kremlin clothed in snow. Happy Cossacks cutting down Napoleon’s soldiers dominated another wall.

Bright reds and bold gold dominated the room. It was Catherine the Great’s Russia, sans Potemkin villages, of course.

The chairs offered comfort but not in the twenty-first century meaning of the word. They were solid and performed their duties. Besides providing a place to sit on, the cushions seemed to convey two messages: 1, The one hundred dollars you are spending for afternoon tea does not mean you get to stay too long; 2, Being Russian means paying for beauty with a measure of discomfort.

Cynthia sat. She did not fiddle with her phone. She was not a fiddler by nature. What she did do was move from task to task during free moments. Responding to emails was different from watching cat videos. After completion, she might fire up her iPad and research the night’s potential clients. Customer service for the 1% required a comprehensive knowledge of their wants and needs. Knowing who they were in life, their likes and dislikes, meant Cynthia could offer them exceptional service found only at Briarwood Cemetery.

Cynthia sat. Madame Tatiana Ivanov’s reputation for being a taskmaster was well known. She didn’t often grant audiences and rarer to meet without scheduling an appointment months in advance. The only reason Cynthia was getting to chat with her was that Briarwood had a reputation, too.

The double doors opened. The first thing Cynthia saw was the walker. The steady rate in which the walker and its owner moved implied a sort of meditation. Each step was carefully planned and executed. Breathing was synchronized with pushing the walker. Yes, one would think the type of focus required for only moving about would nurture calm and an appreciation for the little things. One look at Madame Tatiana Ivanov’s face dispelled all of those pie-in-the-sky assumptions.

Cynthia stood as protocol required.

She was followed by a servant who looked to be in his mid-20s. He was her nurse, and salacious rumors were whirling about he was more than that. He dressed in a simple black shirt and pants.

Cynthia did not utter any greeting. Madame Ivanov talked at staff and staff listened, even when the staff was not employed by her. Cynthia guessed if Mr. L were in her place, then he would offer a salutation. Equals could talk to each other.

“Sit,” Madame Ivanov rasped.

Cynthia followed the command and sat with two feet firmly on the floor with hands folded on her lap.

The nurse held the chair for her. The elderly Russian did not require (or simply was too stubborn to ask for) any more assistance. The nurse offered her a cigarette, which she took with surprising speed. He provided a light. She took a long breath of carcinogens and then breathed out contempt. Contempt for the modern world. Contempt for the smoking laws of the city. And more than a little contempt for Cynthia.

“You want to know how to reach Michael Shaw’s heart?” she blew smoke at Cynthia, who did not respond to the aerial assault. “He has himself in a mess, I imagine.”

Cynthia waited for a split second to make sure her counterpart was finished with the thought. “By all evidence, it is not one of his own makings.”

That statement brought the life into Ivanov’s eyes. “You speak of fault, but do you understand what those things are? This country believes an individual is the prime carrier of guilt, but that is a mistake. Look to your Old Testament. God judged nations and families. The individual was simply someone who inherited sin and in doing so, infected others.”

Another pause. This one longer than the first.

“Mattie is in trouble.”

Madame Ivanov took another deep breath. “I do not doubt he is working hard to make matters worse. Isn’t that why you’re here?”

“I am here to ask you to help a child you helped raise.”

Cynthia wasn’t sure if there was a Russian word for being angry, sad, and having a longing for a past life.

“Before the Tea House became my physical as well as spiritual home, yes, I raised the Shaw children. The parents were not Russian, but they saw me as someone who could instill and old-world view of life. Unfortunately, I could not win against destiny. Blood is stronger than any nanny.”

Cynthia allowed her face to show her not understanding. She figured out Madame Ivanov didn’t appreciate other people talking.

“Patrick and Julia may have had come from the same womb, but they were very different people. Julia took after her mother and immersed herself in work. Patrick took after his father and worshipped Avery.”

She put out her cigarette. Her nurse assisted her up from the chair. The conversation was over. In her mind, everything that needed to be said was said.

Cynthia’s mind raced. This is a test. This has to be a test. There is no way she thinks —

Avery Hall loved her husband, and he worshipped her. She loved her work, and the world loved her back for it,” Madam Ivanov breathed as she made slowly for the door.

Cynthia grabbed for a straw. “Her grandson is going to damn her soul if you don’t talk him out of it,”

Madam Ivanov didn’t look back. “Avery’s soul has already passed. Her spirit is satisfied. Only the souls of the lost are here.”

The nurse opened the door. “Avery Hall loved and was loved back. You must know, child, the human heart only has so much room. Some women’s hearts can’t love what nature and society tell them they should. What happens to a child when they love but aren’t loved back? They become lost. It sounds like a story from Patrick’s favorite book when he was a boy, Russian Folk Tales for Children.”

The nurse closed the door after them, abandoning Cynthia Watson.

***

The Sun sped across the late afternoon sky as she crawled through the city. Over the years most of its population fled. Most emigrants would tell you they left to build a better life. They needed to live in a place where the future shined bright. If you sat with them for an afternoon and chatted, you’d come to the realization they left because they were sick with death. The scent of decay penetrated everyone from the top of the social ladder to the lowest rung. Those remaining lived an existence denying what they saw and what they felt. The filth was everywhere. Despite all of that or perhaps because of it, traffic was always horrible. Even with fewer people, the roads seemed continually clogged.

The chat in the Russian Tea House sowed seeds she was going to reap within a few hours if everything went well. Her epiphany came while waiting for the light to change at the intersection of Shaw and Boylston streets. She spent most of her time in traffic making phone calls.

To most of her associates and friends, Cynthia Watson was not a gambler. Gambling implied uncertainty, and she seemed quite sure of herself. If you asked her mother on this matter concerning her only daughter, she would give you a complicated answer. Cynthia is no one’s fool. She gambles when the odds are in her favor, and she has limited options.

This happened to be one of those situations.

“Call Mathew Shaw.”

The phone rang.

“Mathew Shaw.”

“Mr. Shaw, this is Cynthia Watson. Mr. L. and I reviewed your case and your particular problem. As per your contract with Briarwood Cemetery you are fully within your rights to have Mr. Parsons enact the cleansing ritual this evening.”

“Very good. Very good.”

She cleared her throat. “However, one of the clauses to the agreement explicitly states a witness needs to be present. The witness needs to be a blood relative of the stakeholder in the grave.”

“You’re saying I need to be there tonight?”

“What I am doing to alerting you to what’s in the contract. If the clause is not followed, then Briarwood will not allow the ritual to be executed until all the requirements are met.”

“I’ll be there tonight.”

“Very well.”

“Whatever game you’re playing at, Ms. Watson, I hope you have career options. This time tomorrow you’re going to need them.” And with that, the phone went dead.

Satisfied, but not happy, she parked her car on the street and rushed into a bookstore.

***

If you were walking through Briarwood that night by the Shaw memorial, then at first glance you may have mistaken her for one of the statues. Growing up in church meant finding comfort in a place with uncomfortable seating as well as standing for long periods. Children’s choir taught her early about the importance of standing and focusing on your breathing. What gave her away as flesh and not stone was that ridiculous headlamp. There were no grave markers in Briarwood that featured a silly light strapped to an angel’s noggin.

Mr. Nathaniel Parsons sauntered out of the night. She half expected him to have a mint julep in one hand. However, beneath that laid-back veneer were dangerous undercurrents. She had no doubt he could’ve snuck up from behind her. If he had a cat at home, then the feline would want to put a bell around his neck.

“Evening.” He placed a black bag down.

“A pleasure to see you once again, Mr. Parsons.”

She didn’t know if Mathew told him about the nature of the ritual. He could be here honestly believing he was assisting a spirit instead of causing irreparable harm. This could very well be a trap of Shaw’s working. If she told Parsons the truth, she would be breaking client confidentiality, and it would be grounds for termination.

Most people like talking about themselves. She learned long ago, men loved to talk about themselves to women. Even with that stupid headlamp on Cynthia could play ‘Tell me how brave and strong you are.’

“You have a knack for silence,” she offered.

“Thank you. I noticed Briarwood has a few Carolina Silverbells. They must be pretty when May comes along.”

While men love talking about themselves, geeks of either sex love talking about their interests. She didn’t have a green thumb. She did have an appreciation for the flora of Briarwood. Why yes, the Silverbells are nice. They should be blossoming within weeks. Perhaps you can put off this horrible ritual until then so I can think of a better way around this car wreck of a situation? Was how she wanted the conversation to go. However, in the middle of their chat on the time of year of the Silverbells blossoming Mathew Shaw arrived.

Mathew looked like a starving man about to get his first proper meal in who knew how long. Exhaustion and the madness it brings gave him an otherworldly appearance. It was as if he was there in Briarwood and also in some faraway place that pulled at his heart and mind. Once this task is done, then I return to the land of the living, his eyes seemed to say.

“You may start the ritual,” Mathew told his man.

Cynthia stepped towards him, “Mr. Shaw, Briarwood has consulted with our experts and found it was not your grandmother who has been haunting you these months.” Madam Ivanov didn’t waste words. The ones she used pointed Cynthia in the right direction. “Your father’s spirit has been the one vexing you. Though he died years ago, he’s been between realms in a confused state. Lost spirits become active in the spring, and your father’s woke early. He’s been reaching out to you, and in that confusion has made your life a living hell.”

Mathew considered this. “Why does it matter who is the cause of my misery? Their bodies are both here underneath us. The ritual will cleanse this plot. Either way when the ritual is completed, this thing is over, and I am free.”

Mr. Parsons watched and listened.

“Your father didn’t drown, did he?”

“No,” just by saying it, he seemed to stand a bit taller. Sin weighs down the spirit and body. There is something to be said for confession. “He chose to leave us. He left me.”

“Spirits don’t experience time as we do. They sleep. They wake up. If the living suffered a traumatic event, then their spirit is trapped in that loop. He was a gifted musician who loved a mother who never had time for him. As a child he did anything to get her attention even slamming doors and banging on her bedroom door whether she was there or not.”

Tears welled up in Mathew’s eyes. He looked up to the sky and took deep breathes of the night air.

“Parsons, execute the ritual,” he commanded.

Cynthia could only imagine what state of mind the beleaguered and sleep-deprived Mathew was in. He needed to hear everything she had to say.

“I know how to make this all right. We can put an end to the haunting without any ritual of damnation,” she countered.

Nathaniel Parsons raised an eyebrow.

“Your father’s spirit needs what all boys need. Comfort and love. You can be the parent your father never had.” She pulled out a children’s book out of her satchel. “This was his favorite book as a child. Read it to him. He is here with us, lonely and confused. Do this and help him.”

Mathew stared into her. Those eyes were not longer sleep deprived or filled with tears. They had a purpose that was once hidden built now about to be revealed.

“You have a high estimation of your abilities, Ms. Watson. I’m providing a corrective lesson for you this evening. I knew it was my father’s spirit all the time. The deception was intended to keep your employer looking down rabbit holes while Mr. Parsons completes his orders.”

He smiled.

“He is not the victim here. I am. He was an adult and had years to deal with whatever wall was there between him and his mother. Instead, he fiddled and lapped up whatever crumbs of affection she dropped off the dinner table. She was his Sun, his Moon, and his universe. He ignored me for her.”

At that moment Mathew Shaw towered above them all.

“Imagine my surprise when I found out it was his spirit? It took some time for me to realize it was my moment to exact the revenge I couldn’t as a child. Parsons, execute the ritual.”

The cat quiet lover of Carolina Silverbells was now center stage in a drama he had no desire to be in.

“Contracts are invalid if one party is deceitful to the other. I am under no obligation to execute the agreement. You, sir, still have to pay my retainer fee.”

Michael Shaw, who benefited from the best education any law school could offer, already did that calculation. While Nate Parson talked contracts, Michael Shaw pulled out a pistol and leveled it at the man who loved Silverbells.

In violent situations, men tend to focus on other men. Cynthia hypothesized it was millions of years of evolution playing out. In the distant past, brute strength trumped all. A man’s biggest enemy was typically another man.

That stupid headlamp she wore? It was smart. The creators understood wearers would want to keep their hands free as much as possible. It was only natural the lamp could be voice-activated.

“Max, shut off,” she commanded.

Both men had their flashlights aimed at the ground. They depended on Cynthia to light the area. That was a mistake for Michael Shaw. It was a boon for Nate Parsons.

Whatever training Parsons had, it shown brightly in the darkness. She heard body smashing against body and the clattering of what sounded like a gun against granite.

“Max, turn on.”

Cynthia’s hearing didn’t lie to her. Shaw’s gun lay by his father’s grave marker. Parson was on top of Shaw.

Cynthia Watson swam in unchartered waters. How were the police going to deal with this matter? Excuse me, officer, one of the most affluent men left in this city just tried to damn his father’s soul for eternity. Can you please take care of it? wasn’t going to work.

She opened up her iPad. Her fingers played on the screen.

“My employer, Mr. L, has been alerted to this incident.”

Michael Shaw looked at her like a recalcitrant dog whose master just pulled on the leash.

“The authorities are also well aware of your actions. You understand what that means?”

“I do,” he no longer looked like a dog fighting his master. Shaw’s body slumped.

“Mr. Parsons, you may release him.”

He looked at her. Nate Parsons knew he was a visitor and there were rules and powers he didn’t fully grasp in this city. In a fluid motion, he released Shaw and picked up the pistol.

Cynthia turned and walked towards the main gate.

“That’s it? We’re just going to leave him here all by himself?” Parsons asked.

“This is Briarwood. You are never alone here. Judgment is coming. Do you want to be here?”

Nate put the pistol away and jogged after her.

“I know when to stay and when to leave. And it’s time for leaving,” he quipped.

Mathew Shaw waited on his knees.

He didn’t have too wait long.

***

The Client Service Coordinator of Briarwood Cemetery wore many hats. Cynthia Watson was the liaison between the world of the living and the world(s) of the next. She catered to those clients who were still among the living.

She never had to read to the dead before.

Cynthia lay the blanket down by Patrick Shaw’s marker. Early mornings in early spring are chilly. Her breath came out as a cloud and wrapped around the book in her hands, Russian Folk Tales For Children.

“Once upon a time…”

She was reading to Patrick’s spirit his favorite childhood book. She carved out time from midnight to 1230 am.

“there was a man named Ivan Tsarevich…”

She didn’t know how long it would be for Patrick’s spirit to find peace. Would she have to come here and read for days? Months? Years?

It didn’t matter.

She’d do it even if it weren’t her job.

I’m a comedy writer, podcaster, YouTuber, and activist. Millions have read my material and laughed. Support my work on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/AndrewHa

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