‘You’re not from here, are you?’
He was seated on a bench near the cemetery’s exit. A dingy little man in a rumpled suit too big for him. He smiled at me and lifted his hand in a half-hearted wave. I waved back.
‘Is it that obvious?’
He laughed, croaky and dry. ‘Nah. I’ve been here forever, though. I notice if someone new comes along.’ He shifted over and patted the space next to him.
The wood of the bench was rotting and looked damp, and the man emitted a rancid, meaty smell that made me feel grimy. But I didn’t want to reject an offer of companionship, so I drifted over and sat down.
He grinned at me again, a putrid flash of horribly crooked teeth. ‘City boy?’
I nodded, and fought the urge to shiver. The wind was stronger here without the large family tombstones to hide behind. ‘I’m Daniel’.
‘Jeff. Sandwich?’ Jeff pulled a mouldy, brown suitcase onto his lap and took out a plastic lunchbox. Inside were several triangular sandwiches in cling wrap with the crusts cut off. He handed one to me and took another for himself. His fingernails were cracked and black with dirt, and I was silently grateful he had wrapped his food in plastic.
‘So, Dan,’ Jeff said, gesturing to the vacant expanse of mismatched graves before us. ‘Business or pleasure?’
I smiled, despite myself. I couldn’t imagine anyone visiting Jeff’s drab little town for either of those reasons. ‘Visiting family,’ I said, nodding at the tomb I’d been staring at before Jeff called me over. It stood out, small and plain, among the surrounding marble crosses and angels.
Jeff brightened as he followed my gaze. ‘Ah yes! Poor Tommy. I watched them bury him the other day.’ He glanced at me curiously. ‘Your father?’
I took a bite out of my sandwich. Meat and avocado. ‘Yeah.’
For a moment, we ate in silence. The sky was beginning to darken, and the wind was noticeably colder, but I hadn’t had a proper conversation since I’d arrived in the town and I didn’t want to leave just yet.
‘You look like him,’ Jeff said finally. ‘I didn’t know he had another kid.’
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I suppose he didn’t like to tell people.’
A dark shape flickered in the corner of my eye, making me flinch. Jeff ducked his head as a rock bounced off a headstone in front of us. I looked up to see a fat, middle-aged woman hurl another rock from the centre path of the cemetery.
‘Don’t talk to him, sonny!’ She called out to me. Her voice was shrill and angry.
Jeff glared at her and she shrank back. She threw him a final dirty look, before hurrying past us out of the graveyard and down the street. Jeff leaned back against the bench and exhaled a long, foul breath. I suppressed the urge to gag.
‘They’re mad out here.’ He wrinkled his nose. ‘Never mind. You didn’t get along with your dad?’
I shook my head. ‘Haven’t seen him in years. He sent me a letter a few months ago when he found out he was terminal. Got here this morning to find out he’s dead.’
Jeff clucked sympathetically.
‘It’s okay,’ I said, ‘I’ve lived without him for so long, it’s kind of hard to miss him now.’
Still, my throat had closed up when I’d spotted the grave.
In Memory of Thomas James Greenhill,
Loving father of Robert.
14th April 1965 - 18th September 2016.
No mention of me or my mother. Just Rob. Some things, it seemed, would not change even in death.
Jeff passed me another sandwich, and I unwrapped it mindlessly. The light was fading quickly now and I could see only the outline of my father’s headstone, dwarfed by its elaborately carved neighbours. I couldn’t see the angels’ faces anymore. I imagined them side eying Thomas Greenhill’s minimalist grave, paid for by the man himself. My fingers were numb.
There was a hiss from behind us. An old man this time, tottering along the footpath. He glared at Jeff, as though he wanted to smash him into the ground with his walker. Jeff turned and bared his rotten teeth.
I waited until the man had turned out of sight before speaking again.
‘I thought country people were friendly.’
Jeff grimaced and slumped back into his seat.
‘They are. As long as you’re like them. God forbid you’re not like them.’ He tilted his head to the side, scrutinising me with swollen eyes. I hadn’t noticed how large they were. How they seemed to bulge right out of his face, veiny and yellow in the darkness.
‘You – they’d like you. You look just like your dad. And they liked your dad.’
The stare Jeff was giving me wasn’t unfriendly, but it wasn’t pleasant either.
‘Most people liked my dad,” I said “And they don’t usually like me, so I know it’s not just the face.’
‘Most people don’t like you?’
‘They don’t. I can tell. You’re the first person who’s wanted to speak to me since I got here.’
Jeff nodded sagely. ‘Ah, there’s something else, isn’t there? Something on the inside that attracts. You and I, we don’t have it. It’s missing. We repel.’ He grinned. Again, that decaying smell hit me like a weapon, but this time I felt weirdly comforted. Like I could trust this fellow outcast. Like he could know exactly what I was and wouldn’t care.
‘My brother had it.’ I said, ‘Rob. He attracted people too.’
‘That kind of thing does seem run in the family, doesn’t it?’
I nodded, ‘Guess I missed out’
‘Oh I don’t know,’ Jeff said thoughtfully. ‘You might be missing the charm, or the magnet or whatever, but that just makes you different. People are afraid of difference, that’s all. Would you rather be Rob and be liked, than who you are now?’
‘Rob’s dead,’ I said, ‘So I guess not.’
Jeff raised his eyebrows. ‘I’m very sorry to hear that.’
‘Don’t worry. It was a long time ago.’
I didn’t want to think about Jeff’s question, because there was only one answer I would have given when Rob was alive, and I didn’t want Jeff, fellow outcast Jeff, to think less of me for it. But his stare was piercing and for a moment I was convinced he knew the truth anyway.
The conversation lulled to silence and we sat chewing our sandwiches. The wind was strong enough that it rattled the fence behind us, and the sky was getting darker by the second. I couldn’t see my father’s grave anymore.
‘What kind of meat is this?’ I asked, ‘Lamb?’
I didn’t really care, but the silence had become somehow unbearable.
‘Your father,’ Jeff said, ignoring me, ‘did he not get along with your mother?’
Evidently Jeff’s bulbous eyes were keener than mine. He was still staring in the direction of my father’s gravestone. I wondered if he’d noticed the lack of a ‘beloved husband’ inscription next to the ‘loving father.’
‘They split up when Rob died. Not on good terms either. That’s when Dad came here actually, and Mum stayed back with me.’
‘He didn’t look like the type,’ Jeff said, ‘abandoning his wife and son like that. I suppose it just goes to show.’
I shook my head. ‘He never liked me anyway. Rob was the one who mattered to him. Rob was the one who mattered to most people.’
Jeff nodded again. I could only make out the outline of his face, but his eyes were still strangely luminous, as though backlit by soft, yellow glow. I was distantly aware that both of us should have left by now, that I would have to rely on the street lamps to find my way back to the motel, and that my skin was as cold as stone. But I could only think of my brother.
‘I’m the one that found him, you know,’ I said. ‘Floating in the pool outside.’
‘It was strange. Rob was always coming home with all his friends and celebrating awards – he used to get lots of awards, for music, sports, whatever. Dad always said he was going to change the world. Then he was dead and there was nothing. No friends, no nothing. He might as well have been me.’
I bit my lip, certain I’d said too much.
‘And your dad couldn’t handle it, I suppose.’
‘He couldn’t even look me in the eye.’
It was stupid, I knew. There was a time before Rob had died when I thought that perhaps I could fill his space. That if he weren’t there, perhaps I would finally be seen. Then he did die, and his absence became just another shadow that blanketed me from everyone anyway.
Everyone besides my dad. My dad knew. He saw me for what I was and it repulsed him so much he had to leave.
‘Did you know him?’ I asked. ‘My dad? Was he repelled by you as well?’
It seemed important, suddenly, that fellow outcast Jeff had been rejected by Thomas Greenhill too. My heart was beating too quickly in my chest. I couldn’t remember when it had started to do that. It was like I’d been ingesting caffeine instead of sandwiches.
Jeff shook his head. ‘Sorry kid. Never met the man til I saw him in his grave.’
We ate in silence again. Jeff seemed to notice my disappointment, because he reached into his bag and dropped another sandwich on my lap. Something glinted on his wrist, reflecting off the dim street lamps behind us.
A watch. It was too dark now to see anything in detail, but the gleaming shape was horribly familiar. I grabbed Jeff’s arm and held it up. He didn’t resist, but his grotesque yellow eyes watched me closely.
My fingers traced the brass form pressed against Jeff’s clammy skin. The edges were smoother than they’d once been, but it was unmistakable. A circular image of the Earth, with country borders that you could feel on the clock face.
Rob was wearing it when he died. Dad had taken it with him when he left.
‘This is what you do, then?’ I asked. My heart was pounding in my throat. ‘Steal from dead people?’
Jeff’s eyes blinked at me slowly. ‘It’s not as if they need to tell the time.’
‘That’s why they hate you. You’re a grave robber.’
I twisted Jeff’s wrist around, searching for the watch latch. Jeff let me, eyes boring into my skull, and I could tell from the smell that he’d opened his mouth to smile again.
‘Of sorts. But that’s not why they hate me. I told you, they hate me because I’m different.’
The watch popped off and I shoved it into my pocket.
‘They hate you because you’re disgusting,’ I said. I tried to slow my breathing, gripping tightly enough onto the watch that my hand ached.
Jeff’s eyes, unnaturally bright in the darkness, seemed to glitter.
‘You’re not really one to talk, Danny boy.’
‘You knew his face,’ I realised, ‘you knew that he looked like me. But you didn’t even see him ‘til the funeral.’
Jeff blinked at me, unperturbed. ‘After the funeral, actually. I can’t help what I am, Danny. Just like you can’t help what you are. Yes, I’ve pulled bodies out of the ground. But I never put one in it first. And believe me, my little friend,’ his eyes raked me up and down, ‘I’ve had plenty of opportunity.’
He knew. He knew what I’d done, what my father knew I’d done, what my mother had refused to believe.
I turned away and stared out into the darkness of the graveyard. The wind had stopped without me noticing, and the air was silent and cold. The graveyard didn’t feel empty anymore. I imagined hundreds of ears beneath our feet, listening, and knowing.
I wanted to leave. I wanted to leave this town and forget about it, forget about Jeff and forget about Thomas and Robert Greenhill. But my bones had seized up. I was made of stone. I was locked in place by those terrible eyes, and the stench of those terrible teeth. The gentle weight of another sandwich dropped in my lap. Mechanically, I unwrapped it and took a bite. Sweet, tender meat filled my mouth.
‘Eat up, Dan,’ Jeff said, almost sympathetically, ‘I’m lots of things, yes, but never wasteful.’
Alison likes monsters and small towns.