The Ghost and the Graveyard

Chapter 1


I Get What I Pay For
Welcome to Red Grove. Population 200
"Now, two hundred and one," I murmured as I passed the painted wooden sign in my trusty red Jeep. Small towns like Red Grove always made me think of horror movies as if a gap-toothed, overall-wearing butcher might hobble out of his deep woods shanty, pitchfork in hand, at any moment. The town had an off the charts creepy factor. On my right, a dark forest worthy of the Brothers Grimm. On my left, a cemetery edged in a weathered wrought iron fence. I think there were more than two hundred headstones. More dead than living. Nice.
There must be some mistake. I came here to start over. Could a new life be hiding behind the unappealing rural exterior? My promised house remained a mystery. I double-checked the notebook with my father's scrawled directions resting on the passenger's seat next to me. Technically, I'd lived in Red Grove as a child, but we'd moved before I turned two. I didn't remember the town at all or the residents, living or dead.
I shifted my attention back to my driving. "Holy shit!" I proclaimed as I overcorrected the wheel, and my foot drifted from the gas.
The man on the side of the road was so attractive I could've died-literally. He was planting something. A tree, I think. Every time his shovel hit the dirt, a ripple coursed through his shoulders and down his stomach. I raised an eyebrow at the glint of sun on tanned, shirtless skin. Dark hair, low slung jeans. I tried not to gawk, but the best I could do was to keep my head inside the window.
I was thinking he belonged in a museum, a chiseled-by-the-gods man museum, when my brain was hijacked. I forgot about the road. I forgot where I was going. A fantasy hit me so fast and hard, it could've been a memory.
We were in the shower. I stood behind him, my arms wrapped around his torso, rubbing lather circles down his chest, over his rock-hard abs, and lower. In my daydream, he moaned my name, and I was considering ways to wrap myself around him without breaking the rhythm. The scene was so vivid, the lavender scent of soap filled the cab of my Jeep.
The rat-tat-tat of pebbles hitting the undercarriage wrenched me from my reverie. I slammed on the brakes, sending my vehicle into a reckless skid toward the edge of a stone bridge straight out of a Thomas Kinkade print. Whether by ace driving skills, gravity, or sheer dumb luck, I stalled at the precipice, all white-knuckles and shivering limbs. Eyeing the boulders in the brook below me, I suppressed a lingering fear of plummeting to my doom.
"Hey, are you okay?" the man called. He dropped his shovel and headed toward me, his eyes narrowing in concern.
With a gasp, I clutched at the front of my shirt relieved I was still dressed. What the hell? Sure, he was attractive, but I'd never had that kind of reaction to anyone before. The fantasy was so...real. I tried to shake the vision of him naked from my head.
No way could I explain what just happened. I couldn't possibly tell him about my fantasy, and I wasn't a good enough liar to make up an alternate story on the fly. The hot sting of a blush crept across my face.
"I'm okay. Thanks!" I gave a friendly wave out my window.
He nodded but didn't stop walking toward my car.
Before he could reach me, I accelerated back on course, leaving him staring in my direction. I wasn't trying to be rude. Besides the obvious embarrassment, I had no business talking to a man who looked like that. I had no business talking to any man. Not until I took control of my life again.
I reached the end of the road and pulled into the driveway of the house I hoped would be my salvation, my financial rebirth. The truth? I had bigger things to worry about than a man on the side of the road, no matter how gorgeous. It was time to face my future.
Wedged behind the tailgate of my Jeep was one large moving box. I sighed. My entire life fit inside a cardboard cube with the logo of a defunct trucking company. Technically, the box wasn't even mine; I'd borrowed it from my friend Michelle.
The wrinkled cardboard flaps bowed like judgmental eyebrows, and I slapped them down with unnecessary vigor. I reached for the mammoth cargo, too big to carry from the bottom without completely blocking my face and without those convenient cutout handles you find on cases of beer. I hoisted the box using the pressure hold, bear-hugging the cardboard to my chest and resting the bottom on my knee. It weighed a ton. I did my best to shuffle up the stone pathway to the porch as the leaden box slid down my body centimeter by centimeter. By the time I reached the bottom step, I was hobbling toward the door, holding the box up with my flexed foot.
That's when my hip started vibrating. With one final heave and a contortion of my limbs that must've looked like I was having a seizure, I propelled the box onto the porch and ripped the phone from my pocket. I thumbed the answer button while I kicked the cardboard monster toward the door.
"Hello," I said, in a tone that clearly meant goodbye.
"Grateful? Is that you?"
I lowered the phone from my ear to see Michelle Murphy's margarita fueled grin staring back at me from the screen, a photo I'd taken of her two spring breaks ago before my financial apocalypse. I put on my happy voice. "Yeah, it's me. Sorry, you just caught me trying to launch the moving box from hell onto the porch."
"I should've helped you move."
"It's one box. I think I can handle it."
"Right... That bastard."
"It's my own damn fault. I handed him the money. Who gives a boyfriend that kind of money?" I rolled my eyes at my own stupidity.
"You can't blame yourself. It's not your fault for trusting someone you loved. I'm telling you, you're a victim! Your situation is a manifestation of the blonde paradox."
Michelle and I attended nursing school together. After we graduated, I'd had enough of academia. She, on the other hand, decided to pursue a master's degree in mental health nursing. Now she thinks she knows everything about relationships and psychoanalyzes all of my problems.
Her blonde paradox theory is based on two recent research studies-the type you read about in magazines at grocery store checkouts. The first study found women who look like Barbie-blonde, blue eyed, big boobs-are more attractive to men. Something about these features signifies a more fertile womb to the caveman brain. I loosely fit this description. I do have blue eyes, but my hair is more of a honey blonde than platinum. My boobs are on the large side, but it's because I'm about fifteen pounds heavier than my goal weight. However, Michelle thinks I am close enough to ignite evolutionary passions and this explains why I never lack masculine attention.
But here's the rub. The second study found that men shown pictures of Barbie-ish women scored lower on intelligence tests. Turns out people who believe the "blondes are dumb" stereotype actually take on the projected characteristics of their prejudicial target. Thus the paradox. I attract more men than the average woman, but they degrade into idiots in my mere presence.
The theory does explain some things. Like why I ended up with my snake-belly of an ex-boyfriend, Gary, while Michelle, 5'2" and 160 pounds of dark-headed attitude, is married with a baby.
"So, what should I do? Dye my hair?" I asked.
"Or contacts. Green might be nice."
"You can't be serious."
"No. I'm not. You're a wonderful person. You just need to find someone who will love you for you, the whole package. I know he's out there, somewhere."
"I hope you're right. I can't take another Gary," I said.
Silence. Michelle was probably holding her tongue so she wouldn't say, 'I told you so.' Smart woman. "So what's the free house look like? Is it as bad as you expected?" she finally asked.
"No. Super cute! I can't believe this place hasn't sold. Definite curb appeal, the architecture looks old but freshly painted. Hold on, I'm going inside."
I fumbled in my pocket for the key and turned it in the brass lock. The door opened, and the sun cast a square of light on the floor around my silhouette. I patted the wall for the light switch and soon an elegant chandelier glowed from above.
"Wow, Michelle, it's fabulous! You have got to see this. Hardwood floors, two-story foyer, curved staircase." I walked into the kitchen. "Holy crow, stainless steel appliances!"
Michelle squealed on the other end of the phone. We were both expecting a dump. I mean, after I had to crawl to my real estate agent dad for help, I kind of thought the unsellable place he gave me to stay would be a punishment. Compared to my last apartment-or worse, the dorm room Michelle and I lived in at college-this place was a palace.
"Hold on, I'm going to check out the rest." I walked to the front of the house and opened the curtains, bathing the main floor in natural light. The place had an elegant dining room and a family room with a flat-screen television. The living room's floral print screamed old lady, but I wasn't complaining. The furniture looked new. I talked Michelle through the tour, bounding up the stairs two at a time to check out the bedrooms. Besides a little dust, the place was meticulously maintained.
On the second-floor landing, I attempted to toss back the curtains to have a look at my new backyard but the rings caught on the antique cast iron rod. I wrestled with the damask, catching a glimpse of what was beyond the glass. My heart sank into my gut, and, distracted, I dropped my phone. I tried to catch it with my other hand, but it bounced off my palm. Thankfully, the thick carpet of the landing saved me from certain communication purgatory.
"Grateful? You still there?"
I scrambled to return the phone to my ear. "I think I figured out why this house hasn't sold yet," I said.
"Why? Is the yard small?"
Turning back toward the window, I gave the curtains one last firm yank. They gave way, rewarding me with a clear view. The yard sloped from the house toward a weathered, wrought iron fence that bordered the property. Behind the fence, row after row of tombstones stretched across the landscape, with the odd mausoleum thrown in for good measure. The graveyard I'd seen driving into Red Grove extended all the way to my back door.
"My backyard is a cemetery," I deadpanned.
"Seriously? Is that even legal?"
"I've gotta go, Michelle," I said. "I need to take this up with my realtor."
"Okay. Say hi to your dad for me."
* * * * *
I paced the floral living room, trying to keep my voice from climbing to the octave of hysteria. I was pretty close. Any higher and dogs would come running. "Dad, you could have told me."
"Sweetheart, it's nothing. Keep the drapes closed and no one will ever know."
"Don't you think an important piece of information to share with a potential homeowner is the number of dead people buried in the backyard?"
"Now, don't overreact. First of all, may I remind you, you are not the homeowner but a custodian, so to speak. And think of it this way-your neighbors are quiet, keep-to-themselves type of people." I heard a muffled chuckle.
"I can hear you laughing," I said. "I've told you before, putting your hand over the receiver does not work. Can't you understand why this might freak me out a little? I'm here all alone."
"I'm telling you, a few nights there, and you'll forget why you were ever worried," Dad said. "Plus, if you get scared, the caretaker of the cemetery lives just over the bridge from you. Come to think of it, he would probably give you a tour if you wanted. Maybe that would put you at ease."
"Oh sure, a tour of the cemetery with some old, creepy caretaker is just what I need to feel at home!" My voice was rising again. I was painfully close to looking the gift horse in the mouth.
"Grateful, I love you."
"I know, Dad."
"I wouldn't put you in harm's way."
"I know, Dad."
"I stocked the refrigerator for you..."
Like that mattered. We were talking about dead people here.
"...and the wine cellar."
"This place has a wine cellar?"
"In the basement."
"Awww, you're the best." I guess Daddy's charm was harder to resist than I thought.
"So you'll give it a few nights?"
There are few things in this world I won't do for a really fine bottle of Shiraz, and fewer still I won't do for my dad. I wouldn't let a bunch of dead people ruin my chances at a new life. Dad was right. I could do this.
I ended the call and raced to the little door behind the kitchen I assumed led to the basement. To my pleasant surprise it was a finished walkout; too bad if you walked out it would be straight toward the dead people. I tried to ignore the view and veered toward the wine cellar. As big as a bedroom, the section for reds had a separate door from the whites to keep each wine at the optimal temperature. Looking over the rows of bottles, their labels turned upward, my mood significantly improved. Dad hadn't let me down; my favorite label was at eye level. I grabbed the familiar bottle of Shiraz from the reds and headed upstairs.
Dad had come through on the food as well. I found a Styrofoam clamshell from Valentine's, my favorite restaurant. Salmon fillet, some red potatoes and fresh asparagus. I scraped the contents onto a plate and popped the vittles into the microwave. Cooking with wine is my specialty, so I grabbed a glass and reached for my old friend, Mr. Shiraz. Unfortunately, the bottle in my hand was Pinot gris.
"Weird," I said to myself. I could have sworn I'd grabbed the red. Odder still, the white was cold. I didn't remember going into the refrigerated section at all.
I revisited the cellar. The bottle of red I'd wanted was back in its spot. I replaced the white in the cooler and then ran back upstairs with my Shiraz, double-checking the label. Man, I was losing my mind. I blamed the stress of moving.
In the dining room, I uncorked the bottle and poured myself a glass, admiring the clarity and subtle scent of berries. I drained the vino with an unladylike swig. Who cared anyway? Like my dad said, the neighbors wouldn't be talking.
The doorbell rang. I jolted, almost dropping my glass. Who the hell could that be? I set the glass down and approached the door cautiously. The bell rang again.
"Can I help you?" I yelled through the etched glass oval of the door. A man's silhouette sliced the twilight. There was no way I was opening up without some credentials.
The man's muffled voice filtered through the door. "Hello? I'm Rick Ordenes, from up the street. Your dad asked me to stop by and welcome you to Red Grove."
"Up the street?" I hadn't noticed any neighbors.
"Yes, I live across the bridge. I'm the caretaker."
"Oh. Hold on." It was nice of my dad to send the old guy over to check on me. I unlocked the dead bolt and opened the door.
And came face to face with the chiseled Adonis from the side of the road.