Thursday, 15 October 2015 15:57

The Language of the Dead by Bethany Gray

The Language of the Dead by Bethany GreyThe lady at the cemetery front office eyes Ruby Death and her best friend Neon Mica skeptically, taking in their extreme red and pink hair colors, punk-rock clothes, and the fine-tip Sharpie tattoos they’ve drawn on their necks and hands. “No one under the age of fourteen is allowed without an adult,” she says, pointing to a sign with a list of rules.

“We’re fifteen—we have IDs,” says Ruby. She bends to unzip a compartment in her backpack, but the lady waves her off.

“The cemetery closes at sunset. I don’t want to have to send Bernie to track you down at closing time.”

“We’ll make it quick, we’re just here to visit my Uncle Herman,” says Ruby. She shoulders on her backpack and she and Mica take off at a brisk walk along a gravel path that leads through the trees.

“Uncle Herman?” says Mica, raising an eyebrow.

“Well, it’s not like she’d be cool with what we’re really going to do.” They emerge from the trees into a large field scattered with headstones and grave markers. The late afternoon sunlight throws elongated shadows, dappling the grass. The girls wander around taking pictures with their cell phones.

“Check out the dead flowers,” says Mica. She picks up a bouquet of limp lilies and carefully puts them into her backpack.

Ruby walks around a tall statue of an angel standing on an engraved base, taking pictures from different angles. “I was thinking props and inspiration, but I like the vibe here. We should totally do it here.” She snaps a few pictures of a small paved patio.

“We’re losing light and it’s too cold,” says Mica. She shivers as the lengthening shadows rob the air of the faint warmth of the autumn sun. Mica switches her phone into flashlight mode and turns to go. Ruby grabs a few more wilted bouquets and sprints to catch up. When they emerge from the trees, a heavyset man is walking toward them.

Mica squints in the fading light, then draws herself up. “Arr, ye scurvy cur! Step aside or you’ll be sleepin’ with the fishes in Davy Jones’ locker,” she shouts. Mica is good with accents—the girls know this and work them into their performance art pieces.

The man stops in surprise, then frowns. “What are you girls up to, taking flowers?”

“Only the dead ones,” says Ruby. “It’s like community service, right? You guys clear them out anyway. The sign with the rules says so.”

“Well, we don’t need any help with that. Let’s go.” He walks the girls past the front office and out through the cemetery gate.

Ruby and Mica stop in at a coffee shop. It’s warm inside, full of chattering people and the loud shushing of the espresso machine. They squeeze in at the end of a community table bench and sip their cappucinos. Mica gets a sweatshirt out of her pack, brushes off wilted flower petals, and puts it on. Ruby is texting like mad, her phone plugged in to recharge. She uploads photos and a link to the cemetery website. “We’re good to go,” she says to Mica.

“For real? I told you, it’s too cold.”

“A true artist is willing to suffer for her art. Plus, over twenty people said yes already. So now we have to.”

Mica sighs dramatically, but Ruby knows that Mica will come through because she’s all about being onstage even if the stage is a patio at a cemetery. Ruby tugs Mica out of the coffee shop and onto the darkened sidewalk. “Look,” she says as they pass the cemetery’s tall, decorative, front gate. “The gate is like an Enter-Here sign, so that’s where they expect everyone to go in.” She leads Mica around the corner, points to the wrought iron fence. “But the side fence, it’s what, four feet tall? Easy enough to sneak in.”

The girls scramble over the fence and into the cemetery. Half a moon overhead lights their way. When they reach the patio they dump out their supplies, chalk, candles, matches, and some stuff they bought from a psychic at a flea market. Mica weaves some of the wilted flowers into her hair.

They light a few candles and Ruby pulls out her cell phone and brings up the summoning diagrams she saved at the coffee shop. She finds the prettiest one with red coils and blue and black curlicues. Ruby starts to draw the ornate circle about ten feet in diameter, but her hands are cold and it’s taking longer than she thought. She should have made it smaller, but it’s too late now. She simplifies the design. Close enough, she decides.

Edgy-looking teens are starting to arrive in twos and threes. Ruby spots Toxin, a boy who sings in a wannabe metal band with some other kids from their school. He’s too good for that band. Her heart skips a beat at the coolness of his skinny silhouette and the glint of his lip piercing and earrings. What does it feel like to kiss a person with a lip ring, she wonders. The night is cold, a little windy. Ruby wishes she’d brought a jacket, though she likes the “Look behind you!” slogan on the shirt she’s wearing.

Ruby and Mica confer in whispers. Mica positions herself outside the circle facing the crowd. Ruby kneels in front of Mica, holding up her phone with the spell. Mica begins to read out loud. The words are weird and twisty, the effect spooky and powerful. The sound seems to echo after Mica stops. Ruby uses an earring back to prick her finger and squeezes three drops of blood inside the circle. The cemetery is eerily quiet now, without even the rustle of leaves.

Mica starts shaking like she’s having a seizure and then she launches into her Bloody Mary character. Bloody Mary is partial to an English accent, or maybe it’s Scottish. Ruby can’t tell. Bloody Mary is shouting dire predictions and pointing at members of the crowd, who are eating up the performance. Ruby pans her phone, recording video of Mica and the crowd. In spite of all the drama, Ruby finds herself thinking about Uncle Herman. Yes, there really is an Uncle Herman and he really is dead, but he’s not buried at this cemetery. Scattered clapping comes from the crowd.

“Dude!” Mica breaks character and Ruby turns to see why. She could swear that Uncle Herman—a translucent Uncle Herman—is there in the circle next to Mica. Mica is staring, so she must be seeing him too.

***

Ellen and Uncle Herman are at Benihana sitting at the teppanyaki table. Ellen is twelve. Uncle Herman takes her here as a treat whenever they go to a stamp collecting club meeting. One of Ellen’s friends went to Thailand on vacation and brought her back some stamps. Plus, Uncle Herman gave her a block of mineral stamps with gemstones. She likes the ruby one best. This is going to be a fun meeting. The chef is tossing knives up in the air and catching them, chopping veggies and making an onion volcano. Ellen knows the show is sort of silly but she likes the theater of it anyway.

Suddenly, Uncle Herman says he has a headache. Ellen begs to stay long enough for them to have lunch. He agrees, but he doesn’t feel like eating. Ellen eats fast because she feels bad for him and then they get the rest of the food to go. He says he can’t take her to stamp collecting today. Ellen buckles herself in the passenger seat of the Toyota, annoyed at the unreasonableness of grownups. Uncle Herman looks wrong, somehow. His eyes close and he slumps in the seat. Ellen shakes his shoulder, but he doesn’t wake up. She digs frantically in her backpack, pulls out her phone and dials 9-1-1. The rest is a nightmarish blur of emergency workers and then endless waiting in the car for her parents to come. If only she’d done things differently—if they’d left when the headache started—or she’d called Mom or Dad right away back in the restaurant. Maybe they could have gotten Herman to the hospital in time to save him.

Ruby realizes she’s crying. She swipes at her eyes, swallows the lump in her throat.

“Ellen?” a distant voice is coming from the circle. “Is that you?”

“Um, yeah, it’s me,” says Ruby. Of course he wouldn’t know her stage name.

“Ellen, this is important. You need to come inside the circle.”

Uncle Herman sounds serious, but Ruby hesitates. She can’t quite believe what she’s seeing, and if she really is seeing something, maybe it isn’t actually him. Isn’t the whole point of a summoning circle to keep whatever you summon inside, with you safely outside? Mica—Mica is barely outside the circle—awfully close to whatever it is that looks like Uncle Herman. Ruby grabs Mica’s arm and pulls her away. Uncle Herman makes a sound of annoyance that is so specifically him that Ruby decides he’s the real deal. She goes inside the circle, dragging Mica in too.

The crowd is impressed. “Cool effects!” someone yells. People are holding up their phones, recording the show. With a grin, Toxin threads his way through the crowd and joins them inside the circle. He lets out a heavy metal man-scream and fist-punches the air. Ruby appreciates his vocal awesomeness. Mica is less thrilled to be upstaged by a ghost and a death metal front man. Plus, she just spotted a lurching figure behind the audience—probably some homeless guy or a drunk.

“How did you set up the hologram?” Toxin asks quietly.

Mica opens her mouth for the next round of improv. A slumping figure starts moving toward the crowd. It’s human in shape, but something is wrong with the way its joints bend.

“Stay inside the circle,” says Uncle Herman, softly.

The temperature drops. Frost covers the grass. Everyone’s breath shows in soft, white puffs. Ruby starts shivering. Toxin peels off his jacket and puts it over her shoulders. Ruby is surprised, and ridiculously happy considering the circumstances. “Thanks, Toxin,” she says.

Whatever it is reaches the edge of the crowd. Frost dusts the hair of a guy standing toward the back. He collapses, falling to the ground. A girl standing next to him screams and backs away. The crowd applauds until the beam from someone’s phone flashlight highlights the face of the thing. It’s dull, like it’s made out of putty and the eyes don’t fit right.

“Ellen, invite me in and I can help you,” says Uncle Herman.

“Come in, Uncle Herman?” says Ruby doubtfully. She feels Uncle Herman settle inside her mind like a sheet of clear plastic wrap—there but not there.

“Everyone get inside the circle,’ shouts Uncle Herman with Ruby’s voice. The crowd rushes into the circle, with minimal pushing and shoving, squeezing into a tight group.

***

Herman is at Benihana sitting with Ellen at the teppanyaki table. The headache that started this morning is so overpowering it’s hard to carry on a conversation. He sees Ellen so happy and excited about her new stamps. He should have cancelled this morning, but he’d popped some Advil, not wanting to disappoint her. He thinks he might throw up as they pack up the food. Herman is sitting behind the wheel when he realizes something is terribly wrong. Dear God, poor Ellen is calling 9-1-1. She’s just a kid.

***

“It wasn’t your fault!” Herman and Ruby both say with Ruby’s voice.

“Thanks,” says Mica. “But what do we do now?”

“Well, maybe Behihana wasn’t my fault,” says Ruby, ignoring Mica, “but I think this one is on me, not that I actually expected anything to happen. Why are we inside and he’s outside?” The figure drops onto all fours, sniffing, ignoring the kid lying on the ground.

“How should I know?” says Mica.

The creature advances, lizard-like, toward Ruby.

“You left off the curlicues, and the squiggles are reversed,” says Herman, “but she said the spell exactly right. Instead of being bound to the circle, that thing can go anywhere except in here.”

“Why are you talking to yourself?” Mica frowns. “Wait, where did Uncle Herman go? Is he, like inside you or something?”

“Yes,” says Ruby. “How do we send it back?”

“The language of the dead. Can I borrow your fingers?”

Ruby nods. Herman swipes Ruby’s finger across her phone, texting meaningless combinations of letters, numbers, and symbols. The cold intensifies. Ruby looks up at a snuffling sound and the smell of decay. It’s standing right in front of her, staring at her with empty eyes. She shudders and leans back toward the center of the circle. She’s jammed against Toxin and Mica.

“Not that I’m complaining,” says Ruby as her fingers fly. “But how do you know all this stuff?”

“Well, I did other things besides stamp collecting.” Ruby’s phone feels clammy and a twirling scythe appears on the display. “Operating system upgrade,” says Herman.

The death-glazed eyes look down at the ground to the curved chalk lines, seeking a gap in the smudges of the chalk-scribbled barrier. Uncle Herman uses an earring back to prick Ruby’s finger and lets three drops of blood drip onto her phone. The blood slicks, spreads, and encloses the phone. “Password-protected,” says Herman.

The creature licks its lips with a forked tongue. A rancid odor lurks beneath the coldness in the air. Ruby looks away. Her phone glows with strange symbols she doesn’t recognize. She and Uncle Herman read them together, her tongue sliding over unfamiliar sounds. Her mouth tastes like dirt, salt, then blood. She thinks she might throw up.

“It’s fading!” says Toxin.

Ruby lets out her breath as the creature melts into the shadows. No white puff forms—the night is autumn-chilly, no longer snow-storm freezing.

“We did it!” she says to Uncle Herman, but he’s gone. There’s just the faintest trace of warmth inside her mind where he used to be. Her phone shifts in her hand and it feels normal again, just a little slipperier than before. Ruby steps outside the circle. Nothing happens. The crowd scatters except Mica and Toxin.

Ruby runs to the boy lying on the ground. He’s in a couple of her classes, but she doesn’t remember his name. He’s so, so cold, but still breathing. She dials 9-1-1 and puts Toxin’s jacket over him like a blanket. Mica rubs his hands to warm them up. When flashlights signal the arrival of the paramedics, Ruby, Mica, and Toxin dart behind the angel statue to watch. Their classmate wakes up shivering hard. The paramedics help him up and walk him down the path toward the entrance.

Moments later, Ruby is climbing over the fence on the opposite side of the cemetery with Mica and Toxin.

“That was so metal,” says Toxin. “I never knew you girls were so hardcore.”

Mica’s eyes are huge and her pink wig is askew. “You didn’t know? We didn’t know! I can’t even.” She grabs Ruby, faces her straight on. ”Stagecraft, not witchcraft from now on! Got it?”

Ruby hugs Mica hard, then pulls back. “Got it. Actually, I think I need a break from both for a while.”

“You know, you’re right,” says Mica taking off her wig and stuffing it into her backpack.

“It’s uber-nerdy,” says Ruby. “But I’m going to dig out my old stamp collection. Oh, and sorry about your jacket, Toxin.”

“It was getting too small anyway,” he says with a good natured smile. “Stamps, huh?”

“Yeah, stamps.” Ruby looks him in the eye, daring him to pronounce stamps as un-metal.

“Cool. You’ll have to show me sometime. This is me,” he says pointing down a cross street.

“Wait a sec,” Ruby stops Toxin. She stands on tiptoe and gives him a quick kiss. She hardly feels the lip-ring-it’s just a subtle line of metal a touch colder than his mouth. He leans in for more, but she slips out of his reach. “Catch you later.”

He waves and walks away, his shoulders hunched against the cold. The girls walk in silence, heading toward Ruby’s house in unspoken agreement. “I have a block of mineral stamps,” says Ruby. “Uncle Herman gave them to me.”

“What’s a block of stamps?”

“An unseparated group. This one has ruby and mica in it.”

“No way!”

“Way! How do you think I came up with our stage names?”

“The opposite of Ellen and Angela, I guess.”

Ellen unlocks her front door. “Angela’s staying over,” she calls out as they go inside.

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Bethany Gray writes stories about things just below the surface of your life that you can almost see out of the corner of your eye. Bethany lives in Silicon Valley, where she also writes about passive-aggressive wireless equipment that wants you to think it’s your fault. But it’s totally not.