Jason leaned against the door frame, looking out at the graves almost floating like little stone ships on the waves of a green sea. He took a long drink of his coffee, frowning as the bitterness slid down his throat. It tasted burnt and stale, as usual. You would think that he would switch coffee shops after so many cups of bad coffee, but he never quite got around to it. Early morning sun was just beginning to peek between the branches of the trees, casting glittering shapes on the grass and warming the dew, extinguishing the last threads of silken, silvery mist from between the headstones. It so was peaceful and serene.
It was too early for this shit.
He rolled his eyes and ducked back into the small, stone gardener's shack, looking for the list of notes Herbert had left for him, grumbling some choice words under his breath. How had he managed to get this god-awful shift? Oh. Right. Seniority. Of course, out of the three other people who worked on the grounds of Bramblewood Cemetery, he was the one who had the least amount of seniority. So, while Herbert was getting his hip replaced or a new heart or robotic arms or whatever, Jason was stuck with the early morning shift, while his coworkers got to keep their late afternoon shifts. Jason ran a hand through his bed head and groaned, he didn't even bother showering this morning.
- Start with trimming before it gets too hot
- Annuals need to be planted around flagpoles and mausoleums before June 10th
- Mrs. Henderson has requested a burning bush be planted next to her husband, approved forms are in the office with Denise.
- There is one burial today (June 6th) and two tomorrow (June 7th), so make sure the grounds around section 11A and 7C are taken care of before 11:00 am
- Mr. Jenson keeps putting flamingoes around his daughter's headstone, please take them down and (tactfully) remind him that they are not approved decorations. We will accept applications to plant special foliage if he chooses.
- Look out for Raven.
Jason reread the enigmatic last statement, brow furrowed. Look out for ravens? Why in the world would he be worried about a bunch of birds? There were birds all over this damn place. Sparrows, crows, finches, and even ravens. He put the letter back down on the workbench and took another long swig of his terrible coffee, staring through the warped glass in the window to the rest of the cemetery. In the distance he saw one of the other early shift workers picking through the equipment shed to get to the mowers.
The place felt different in the morning, calmer almost, but there was a strange buzz to the air. Energy sizzled around him like a million small, invisible flies, and he kept looking through the headstones as if he was going to see something that wasn't supposed to be there. Shaking his head and finishing his coffee, he stepped outside the shack. He needed to stop staying up so late and watching bad B-movies on TV. His imagination was starting to get the better of him. Picking up the tools he needed to get started on trimming, he moved through the sea of headstones and monuments toward the path. He heard one of his coworkers finally start the mower, breaking the unusual energy and silence of early morning.
He reached into his pocket and popped his headphones into his ears as he moved down the hill, tucking his gardening shears under his arm. The sounds of Metallica drowned out any residual energy or silence from the patrons around him, putting him full into "work mode". The sun spilled through the trees and rested on his back, reminding him that summer was quickly approaching. It was going to be an unusually hot day today, and he didn't envy the funeral that was coming in later. Crouching down to his knees, he stopped in the middle of the winding, cobblestone path in a less fashionable part of the cemetery, and reached out to trim an unruly bush that had started to creep into walking space.
Through the blaring electric guitars and James Hetfield's raspy voice, he thought he heard shouts. But, it was too early in the morning for someone to be here… right? He glanced up just in enough time to see a black running shoe fly directly at his face. The next thing he knew, there was a soft body falling over him as they both tumbled ass over tea kettle to the pavement.
He lay there for a moment, staring at the unruly branches that still crept toward his arm and sat up, clearing his head of stars. He gingerly touched what was going to be a bruise on his left cheek and turned to see his attacker lying on the pavement behind him. "What the hell...? Didn't you see me there?"
"Good morning to you too. And no, I didn't." She groaned and forced herself to sit up, hair falling into her face as it pulled out of her ponytail holder. Her dark eyes flashed at him and a snarl peeled her lips back. "Sorry, I don't usually see anyone on this path at seven in the morning, I wasn't anticipating a rogue gardener standing there."
"Well... you should watch where you're going, you know. Whether it is seven in the morning or not." Jason dusted himself off and sat up, looking down at the person sprawled out over the payment. She was a petite little slip of a girl with a sturdy build and nice legs, her hair pulled back into a now disheveled ponytail, strands of her blue-black hair falling into her eyes. If she hadn't nearly tried to knock his head off his shoulders, he might have called her cute (in that best-friend's-awkward-little-sister way).
"Likewise." She ran her fingers through her mussed hair, taking a second to wipe a smudge of dirt off her forehead. Her eyes drifted over his body before looking back up at his face. "You're not Herbert."
"Astute. No, I'm not." Jason picked up his gardening shears, thanking the universe that he didn't land on them, and stood up. "He's out for a few weeks. I picked up his morning shift, starting today. I'm Jason." He debated offering to help her up, but decided against it and wiped his muddy hands on his jeans.
"I see that. Herbert never starts in this section of the cemetery today. He's normally farther towards the west, around the Knight mausoleum." She crawled to her feet, stretching out her legs and ankles to get out any kinks her fall might have created. She leaned forward and re-tied her shoes, breaking eye contact with him. "You threw my schedule off."
Jason rolled his eyes. Jeez, what was with this girl? She was blaming him for being clumsy and she knew Herbert's gardening schedule. Weirdo. "Sorry. I didn't realize that I was impeding on your life's schedule. I'll make sure I check that before I make any drastic changes to my gardening plans."
"No need to be so rude." She stood up again, and Jason watched as a stream of blood started to spill down the front of her shin from her knee. She pretended not to notice, but he could see that she wasn't putting any weight on that leg. Great, now he was starting to feel like a jerk.
"Who are you?"
"Raven." She checked a few scrapes over her arms before looking back at him. "I run through the cemetery every morning."
Look out for Raven. Jason resisted the urge to roll his eyes again. Clearly this wasn't the first time she had pummeled someone with her carelessness. "Weird place to run."
She shrugged. "Better than a treadmill."
Jason glanced down, still staring at the gash ripped across the pale skin on her left knee. He winced and returned his stare to her eyes. He knew that it wasn't exactly his fault that she fell and hurt herself, but he knew he should have at least helped her out. "You scraped your knee up pretty badly. I've got a first aid kit and some bandages back at the shed... why don't I help you out?"
He watched color spread across her cheeks and she turned around, looking at one of the tombstones with a glare. She cleared her throat and took a step back, waving him off. "I'm fine. I'll just head back to my apartment and fix it up myself. No need to worry."
Jason raised an eyebrow and glanced from her to the empty space behind her before jerking his thumb behind him. "The shed is right there. It's not even fifty feet away." He pointed to the small, stone shed hidden under an old oak tree. "It's not like I'm taking you to the hospital or anything. I'll just patch you up and you can go back to running as if we never met."
"Um... okay. I guess." She followed him back up the hill, her eyes darting between the headstones as the blush grew darker on her cheeks. Jason stared at her, eyebrow raised.
"You afraid of the dead or something?" He opened the door to the shed and led her inside. "It's not like they can hurt you."
"You'd be surprised..." Raven muttered under her breath.
Jason glanced over his shoulder at her. She really was a weirdo. He picked through the mess covering the floor, finding the first aid kit hidden under a stack of request forms, and pulled out disinfectant and a bandage. Silence spread between them, making Jason acutely aware that they were alone in the small shed. He cleared his throat and moved closer to her. "So, you run through here every morning?"
"Yeah. It's... quiet. I like that."
She didn't really seem to trust her own response, but chose not to elaborate on her words any farther. She moved toward the edge of the small shack and sat down on a stood, and Jason felt obligated to crouch down to look at her knee. He pulled back the edge of her running capris, wincing at the wound. It looked like a tiny bear had attacked her, all teeth and claws. Great. Now, he really felt bad.
"And you talk to Herbert?"
"Every morning. He always asks me about his wife."
Jason glanced up at her, eyebrows knitting together as he tried to remember the few conversations he had with Herbert. He never mentioned a wife, or children for that matter. "Huh. I didn't realize he was married."
"Oh!" Raven looked away, glancing out the window, breaking eye contact with him. "Well, it's kind of a strange situation, but his wife and I talk occasionally. Ow!" Her knee jerked back and she glared down at Jason, lips pursing into a frown. "That hurt. At least warn me when you are going to do that."
"What are you, a kid? Stop being so whiny. It's just a little alcohol." He rolled his eyes and continued to clean up the wound, listening to her wince through the pain.
Raven bit down on her lower lip, looking away. "So… you've started working here?"
"About a year ago. I usually work the late afternoon or evening shift. Herbert likes coming in for the morning, but honestly, I don't know how he does it. It's way too early for me." He blew gently on her scrape, trying to soothe the pain. The energy around her changed and he glanced up to see a dark blush stain her cheeks. Jason stared at her knee and realized the intimacy of what he was doing, and quickly stopped.
He cleared his throat and rifled through the first aid kit for something else. "He's never mentioned you before. I mean, you would think he would mention a runner every morning. We don't even really get that many visitors. It's usually pretty quiet here... I mean, it's not like the tenants make a whole lot of noise."
"If it's any consolation he never mentioned you either." She winced again as his fingers brushed against her tender skin.
"Relax, I'm almost done." He unwrapped the bandage and pressed it to her knee, making sure to secure the adhesive tightly against her skin. He smiled up at her and stood up. "There. All done. Now, you can go back to running and I can go back to work without having you bleed all over my path. We both win."
"Thank you." Raven pulled the leg of her capris down and offered him a small smile, fidgeting with her hair. "Sorry I kicked you, by the way. I didn't mean to smack you in the face. And you're right... I should have been paying better attention."
"It's okay." He laughed and shrugged. "I wish I could say it was the first time I've been pummeled by an angry foot, but it's not."
She chuckled. "You'll have to let me know the story behind that some time."
Something about her comment made Jason realize that she anticipated on running into him again (although next time he hoped it wouldn't be as literal). He smiled back at her. "It's not all that interesting, I promise. Let's just say it involves a large amount of beer and one really pissed off ex-girlfriend." Much to Jason's surprise, his anger had completely vanished and was instead replaced by something warm and fluttery in his chest. He shifted slightly under her stare, knowing he hadn't felt this way in years. "And you? Is this the first time you've gone and wailed on some poor, unsuspecting gardener?"
She chuckled again. "Yes. Sorry you're the one who had to have the inaugural face-smacking. I'll try to avoid it next time, or aim for something not so important."
Unconsciously, Jason's eyes darted to her left hand, looking for any evidence of a ring. Her hand was clean and clear, not even a potential tan line. That was good. Jason paused and reeled back at his own thoughts. That was good? She had nearly run him over and knocked his head off his shoulders, and he was checking her out and flirting? What was wrong with him?
"So, are you okay now?"
"Yeah… thanks. Anyway… I better get back to my run before work. Thanks again." She gave him a half-hearted wave and darted out of the shed, running down the aging, cockeyed steps and back to the path. Jason watched her go, eyebrow raised as she moved through the headstones towards the pavement. It didn't matter how cute she was, she really was a weirdo.
Raven glared at the woman following her down the path. "You didn't have to make that so damn awkward, Tilly." She rubbed her forehead and slowed her pace. "'Why don't I help you out… of those clothes'? Are you trying to make this uncomfortable for me?"
Tilly laughed and raised her hands in defense. "I was just informing you what I would have done if I were in your position. All alone in that tiny shed by yourselves? Mm-mm. He's got shoulders that could carry the weight of the world and a chest you can wash your laundry on." Her eyes softened, as if she was remembering something. "You know, he normally works the late afternoon shift, and sometimes it just gets too hot for his shirt..."
Raven stumbled slightly, color filling her face again. "He's just a guy. Besides… I don't need to be wrapped up in some stupid romance. Not now, and not ever. I've got too many other things to worry about than some guy."
"Darling, let me tell you something…" Tilly pressed a finger into Raven's chest, filling her veins with icy coldness. "You are not on this earth forever... you should have a little fun once in a while." Tilly glanced over her shoulder, looking back at the shed on the hill with a smile peeling across her lips. "And he certainly looks like fun... besides, when was the last time you had relations?"
Raven stumbled again, but chose not to respond. That was none of her friend's business.
"Thought so." Tilly correctly interpreted her silence, looking smug. "You and I have had many conversations, sweetheart, but we have never actually talked about your love life. Maybe you don't have one."
"Maybe I don't need one." Raven pulled her hair back up into a pony tail, ignoring her friend's stare. "I am perfectly content to be by myself. I enjoy what I study, I have friends, and I have a cat. I don't see what else I need out of life."
"How about a date?" Tilly paused and sat down on a headstone, fiddling with her high heeled shoe and adjusting her hat. "I haven't heard about you talk about a guy since that Garfield fellow… and he didn't seem to care all that much about you. Just his… what did you call them, video games?"
Raven sighed and debated starting to run again, but decided against it. Tilly would follow her to the edge of the cemetery and talk until her ears fell off her head. Trying to run away from Tilly wouldn't do her any good. She settled on staring at the headstone she was sitting on, reading the dates off in her head.
"Garfield wasn't a bad guy… he was just interested in other things." Raven gave a halfhearted shrug, ignoring the stare that Tilly gave her. "I wasn't one of those things. There's nothing wrong with that, I can't force him to like me. Besides, he was one of my students, I couldn't really have a relationship with him even if I wanted to. At least not until he graduates."
"Hasn't he been in school for years?"
"Well… he's not exactly the most studious person I've met. He's failed my history class twice now, and his GPA is down-right rotten. But…" Raven kicked at a stray stone, her mind starting to wander with the silence that surrounded her. "He was nice to talk to. It's better than having my TA chatter on about her boyfriend all the time."
Tilly clicked her tongue and shook her head. "He's just a boy, now look at that…" Tilly waved her hand back towards Jason, who was now walking back down to the bush he was trimming previously. His headphones were back in, and he seemed oblivious to Raven. Tilly grinned at her friend. "That is a man. He wouldn't let video games come between you and him."
Raven rolled her eyes and started back down the path again, ignoring her friend's voice. "He is also just a guy, Tilly. I don't need to be worried about all that… nonsense." She waved off her friend. "I've got enough troubles without having to be bogged down with anything else." She sighed. "Why are we talking about me anyway? You know I hate talking about me. There are a million other more interesting things to talk about than me."
"I beg to differ. I think you are simply fascinating." Tilly chuckled.
"I wish you would find something more interesting to do than worry about me." Raven shoved her hair out of her face, rolling her eyes.
"Tilly, I wish you would stay away from my spot. You're making the whole place look dreadful with that tacky hat of yours." A robust, squat woman smacked Tilly's hand and shooed her off the tombstone and onto the pavement. Tilly rolled her eyes but moved away from the squat woman. She looked at Raven and waved, letting her rings glitter in the morning light. "Good morning, Raven! It's nice to see you up and about this morning." Her eyes drifted down the bath towards Jason, and she smiled. "And I see you met Herbert's replacement."
"Good morning, Gladys." Raven leaned back on her heels. "So, why didn't anyone tell me about Herbert? I almost creamed that poor guy while I was running this morning." She glanced down at her bandaged knee before looking at the two ladies standing on either side of her. "I'm lucky I didn't crush his face in! Herbert never starts there and I was just trying to get away from Sir Charles... he kept wanted to ask me about polo... you know I don't play polo. I don't even like horses."
"Oh, come on now, Sir Charles isn't that bad." Gladys waved her off, ignoring the faces Tilly was giving her. "He just gets so tired of his wife chittering on about this or that and the latest fashions… I don't blame him for wanting to talk to the first person who isn't her. Sorry it had to be you."
"I wish it wasn't." Raven glanced at her watch and sighed. "I've got to get going. I've got a class in an hour and I need to shower and change."
"Class in the summer?" Gladys seemed appalled. "Don't you ever have a break, dear?"
Raven shrugged. "No. Someone has to pay my bills, and I don't have a fairy godmother."
"And that is why you need a husband." Gladys shook her head, sighing. "You need someone who is going to pay for all your bills and take care of you while you take care of the household. That's just the way it needs to be."
"Uh-huh…" Raven shook her head and fought the urge to roll her eyes. Every time she talked to Gladys she was like this, talking about how Raven was old and shriveled by now. At least Tilly was a little more progressive. "How about no? I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself. I don't need a man trying to do it for me. Thank you very much for your concern though, Gladys."
Gladys seemed put-off by her comment and huffed. "Well, I was just trying to help!"
"I appreciate your help, but I'm fine on my own… I promise." Raven forced a smile and moved toward the entrance to the cemetery, trying to put distance between her and the ladies that seemed determined to talk about her life. There was no need to put her in the middle of everything. "I really have to go. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Oh, that's right. Tomorrow is Saturday!" Tilly's eyes brightened. "Are you reading to the children again?"
Raven nodded. "I picked up Peter and Wendy to start tomorrow."
Tilly grinned and clasped her hands together in front of her in excitement. "Oh, they will love that! I will let Delilah Jenson know so she can stop by to hear you read. She gets so upset sometimes that she is forced to be around the older folks."
"Teenagers." Gladys huffed. "Those aren't children."
"They're not adults either." Raven bit back a scathing comment, reminding herself that Gladys was married off at the age of 16. She was just a child herself, even if the rest of the world didn't see it that way. "Anyway, tell Delilah that she's more than welcome to come by and read with me. I will be glad to see her again."
"Good. I will see you tomorrow, Raven."
"Bye, Tilly. See you later, Gladys!"
"Have a good day at school, dear!"
Raven ran down the sidewalk back to her apartment, feeling a heavy spot start to form in her stomach. If Herbert was going to be gone for the next few weeks, how in the world was she going to keep her promises and her secrets at the same time? She glanced back over her shoulder, hoping that Jason didn't realize that her best friends were dead.
I don't know how much I'm going to keep up on this one, since I already have a ton of unfinished stories, but I'd like to keep up on it. So, after rediscovering some hidden, historical neighborhoods in my area this came to me, and I couldn't let it go without a little work. I don't know how long it will be, but I'd like to flesh it out as much as I can.
Anyway, let me know what you think. Thanks again for reading.