After ballet, Corey liked to walk home through the cemetery. The grounds were large and well tended and offered the visitor a wealth of picturesque monuments and sentimental gravestone inscriptions, some of them dating back before the Civil War. There were columns, slabs, and spheres in abundance of the pinkish marble that was quarried locally, and among the mausoleums built to look like temples, chapels and houses was one defiant pink pyramid.
The walk through the cemetery, like the ballet class that preceded it, was one of the few things Corey enjoyed, something she did because she wanted to and not because she was expected to or thought she should.
On this October afternoon, crunching through the dead leaves and breathing in the crisp, autumn-scented air, Corey felt pleasantly tired, and looked forward to reaching her apartment where she could have a cup of hot tea and some sandwiches before settling down to write her usual evening letter to her fiancé.
But although she looked forward to those simple things, there was also pleasure in being able to delay them. With no one waiting for her and no schedule to follow, there was no reason to hurry back. It was a beautiful day, and she knew she had at least an hour before it would begin to get dark. So she turned aside from the main path and wandered the sloping, uneven ground among stone angels and headstones until she came to her favorite spot, discovered on a previous walk.
This was a bench beneath a large old oak tree with a view of a cluster of elaborately carved tombstones all commemorating various members of the Symonds family, and a statue of a gentle-faced young woman holding a baby, with a second child clutching at her stone draperies, half turned as if looking longingly at the graves.
“It’s as if she were saying, ‘Why did you abandon me, and leave us here alone?’” said a voice behind her.
Corey jumped up and turned to see a young man in a bright blue windbreaker. He had a pleasant, rather weak-looking face, and seemed about her own age.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“I thought I was alone. I didn’t hear you walk up,” she said, and realized she had pressed one hand against her heart; she let it drop, feeling embarrassed.
“And in a cemetery . . . I don’t blame you for being frightened.”
“I’m not,” Corey said. “I was just startled, that’s all. I like cemeteries. I like this one, anyway. It’s peaceful. I often walk here.”
“I know,” he said. “I do, too. I spend a lot of time here. I’ve seen you, although I don’t suppose you ever noticed me. I’ve seen you, always by yourself, and I suppose I got to thinking that I knew you. That’s why I came up and spoke like I did. It was stupid of me, and rude—I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right, really, I understand,” Corey said. “You don’t have to keep apologizing.” He gave off such an aura of unhappiness and unease that she felt obliged to try to lessen it.
“I can tell you like this spot,” he said. “It’s one of my favorites. I love to sit on the bench and look at that woman with her children. She’s so beautiful and so sad, really a tragic subject. Her husband has left her—and it’s the ultimate desertion. He hasn’t gone to another lover, but to Death. So she knows she can never win him back. But she stares at his grave and dreams, and asks him why. You’d think that her beauty and her obvious need would make any man change his mind—but it’s too late, of course, for both of them.”
Corey felt uneasy now, her pleasant mood shattered. She had no desire to be standing in a cemetery, talking to an odd boy who had watched her without her being aware. But force of habit kept her polite.
“I have to be getting back soon,” she said. “I have things to do.”
“You’re from the South, aren’t you?”
“My parents live in Florida, so that’s supposed to be my home now. But actually, I was born here in town. My family goes way back. In fact, I’ll be buried right here in this cemetery when I die. There’s a family plot, with a space reserved for me. But you’re a long way from home. What made you come here?”
“It’s a good school,” she said, her voice resentful. “My parents thought I should have the opportunity to go to a first-rate school and see another part of the country. But I’m only here for a year. In May I’m going home. I’m getting married.”
“He’s not here?”
“He’s home, in North Carolina.”
“Ah.” He nodded quickly. “I thought you were . . . it’s the lonely who seek out the cemeteries. We have that in common.”
She wanted nothing in common with him. She wanted to get away, to escape to the dull confines of her furnished apartment and reread Philip’s old letters. Blandly cruel, she said, staring at the bright blue of his jacket, “In common? You mean you’re engaged to someone who isn’t here, too?”
“Engaged? Oh no, I . . . I don’t have anyone. I don’t have anyone at all except my dead friends here.”
“I’ve got to go,” Corey said, glancing at a wrist on which there was no watch. Anything not to see the misery on his face. She walked away quickly, deliberately crunching through fallen leaves. If he spoke again, or called after her, she might not hear him above the noise she made.
When the letter came, it had been five days without a word. Corey was so excited that her hands shook, and she tore the envelope in getting it open.
It wasn’t very long. Just one page written in Philip’s precise hand. She read it through to his signature without understanding, and then read it again, her mouth going dry and her stomach beginning to hurt.
He was releasing her from their engagement, he said. Their parents were right—they were too young to make such a momentous decision. He did love her, but he felt they should both date other people and get to know their own minds better. He was sure she would agree with him, but they could talk this over at greater length when they saw each other at Thanksgiving.
Corey dropped the letter on the floor and walked across the small room to stare unseeing at the wall. Less than two months they had been apart. He hadn’t been able to last even two months.
She clenched her fists and pressed them against the sides of her head. Her mouth open wide, she breathed in ragged, tearing gulps, feeling as if she were drowning. She wept.
It was beginning to get dark, and still Corey remained slumped on the couch where she had spent most of the day since reading Philip’s letter. She had tried to call him, and had left a message with his roommate. She didn’t know what she would say if he returned her call, but she had to talk to someone, and she could think of no one else to call.
She had come to this distant, northern town, this first-rate university, under protest, in order to satisfy her parents. She saw her agreed-upon year here as a time of trial, something that must be undergone before she could be united with Philip, and so she had taken a certain grim pleasure in refusing to do anything that would make the time easier on herself. She hadn’t joined any organizations or tried out for plays, as she would have back home, and she had not made any friends. What was the point? She would be gone at the end of the year. Why should she pretend that this lonely interval had anything to do with her real life?
She didn’t need dates, she didn’t need friends, so long as she had Philip, no matter how far away he was. That was what she had thought. And now that she longed for a friend, anyone with a sympathetic ear, she had nowhere to turn.
She thought of the people from her classes who had spoken to her, and how she had always turned aside whatever gestures they had made toward friendship. She thought of the boy in the cemetery. He was as alone as she was now. Remembering how she had deliberately cut him, she felt deeply ashamed.
Abruptly she stood up. She had to get out. She had done nothing but sit and brood and cry alone all day, until the walls and furniture were so saturated with her grief that she could scarcely bear to look at them any longer.
She decided to go to the cemetery. It was a good place for walking, for brooding, for being alone. It was nearly dark, but that didn’t bother her. She suspected a cemetery would be safer after dark than the campus.
Corey’s apartment was one of four in an old house on the west side of the university. As she crept cautiously down the dark, narrow stairs, she hoped she wouldn’t encounter any of her neighbors. Although she had heard them coming and going, she had never actually met any of the other occupants of the house; she wasn’t even certain how many of them there were. They were only heavy footsteps on the stairs to her, and voices muffled by walls.
She walked quickly through the empty evening streets. The air was gray-blue with dusk and very still; she felt as if she were walking along the bottom of a deep, quiet pond. When she reached the cemetery she made her way toward the familiar bench and statue.
He didn’t startle her this time. It was as if she had known he would be there, sitting on the stone bench and waiting for her as the day faded.
He stood when she approached. “I knew you would come,” he said quietly. “I knew that if I waited long enough, and thought about you hard enough, that you would understand and come to me.”
“How could you know?” Her voice was gentle.
“Because I needed you. I’ve come here every day, and hoped to see you. Today—I didn’t know how much longer I could go on. Today I concentrated on you. I thought about you. I really needed you . . . and so you came. If you hadn’t, then I would have known that it was all over, that what I needed didn’t matter. But you came.”
“I came,” she agreed. It was an odd conversation, but it seemed almost appropriate under the circumstances. What else did one say to a strange boy at twilight in a cemetery? “But I didn’t know you would be here,” she said. “How could I? I’m not sure why I came here. I guess I needed you, too.”
She heard him suck in his breath.
Feeling very tired, she sat down on the bench. After a moment he joined her.
“I didn’t go to class today,” he said. “I was up all night, thinking, and then I came here. I spent all day here, hoping I would see you. When it started to get dark I almost gave up. I’m glad I didn’t.”
“You don’t even know me,” she said. She turned her head to look at him. In the darkness she couldn’t even tell what color his eyes were. “You don’t even know my name.”
“But that doesn’t matter. What matters is the kinship between us. I felt it long before I spoke to you. You feel it too, don’t you?”
“I don’t know.” She clutched her shoulders, folding her arms across her chest. “I just didn’t want to be alone anymore. I don’t have any friends here; I don’t know anyone I can talk to.”
“You can talk to me,” he said. “If I could help you—you don’t know how happy that would make me. I’d do anything, anything to help you. Anything you need from me.”
His tone was disconcertingly intense, and Corey felt briefly the oddness of the situation. But anything was better than being alone right now.
“I’d like to talk to you,” she said. “I need to talk—if you’d be willing to listen. Maybe we could go somewhere and have dinner together. I haven’t eaten anything all day.”
“I’d like that very much,” he said quietly.
They went to an Italian restaurant near campus, and there, over plates of spaghetti and glasses of wine, she began to talk. The flood of her pent-up emotion rushed out and flowed over the young man who sat across the table from her, gazing at her as if she were a miracle. But she was past minding his disconcerting gaze or his odd speeches. He existed for her only as someone who kept her from being alone, a listening presence who served her need to talk in the same way that a glass of water relieved her mouth of dryness.
After their meal he walked her home and, noticing the darkness of the hall, suggested firmly that it would be better if he saw her safely to her own door. She felt a pang—it was the sort of thing Philip would do—but smiled and thanked him. The front door, she discovered, was unlocked—a good, hard push would serve to open it. This was a common occurrence. It was an old door, slightly warped, and needed to be firmly shut, and most of the people who hurried in and out of the house did not bother to pause to make certain the latch had caught. She was slightly nervous as they walked up the dark stairs together, but he did not try to touch her or kiss her, and said good-night politely when she had unlocked her door and turned on a light.
“We’ll see each other again?” he asked in a low, hopeful voice.
“Yes, of course,” she said. Exhausted from pouring out her troubles to him, she felt eager to get away from him.
“In the cemetery—tomorrow afternoon?”
“I’m not sure, I . . .”
“Then the next day. Or Saturday? Saturday afternoon, for sure?”
She nodded. “Saturday.”
“I’m not trying to push you, or chase you, you understand. But I want to help you. And I think we need each other. It is mutual.”
“Thank you for listening to me tonight,” she said. “It really helped. I hope it wasn’t too boring for you.” She was uncomfortable again, aware of him as an individual, as an odd stranger who was now knowledgeable about her problems.
“You don’t have to thank me. I’ll be here for you whenever you need me, I promise. All you have to do is ask me, and I’ll come. But I’ll see you Saturday, for sure, in the cemetery. Our place.”
She nodded uneasily. When he had gone, she locked the door and went to the telephone. Philip might have been trying to reach her while she was out.
But nothing could be learned or settled or changed by telephone, Corey found. Words went humming off into space and lost all connection with reality, with truth. Philip’s voice, detached from Philip, was distant and unfamiliar. Was that impatience in his voice, or regret? Pain or indifference? Corey didn’t like the sound of her own voice, which echoed in her ears, obscuring what Philip said and what she wanted to say.
She had to see him face to face and learn if he still loved her.
The money in her bank account, the money she was expected to live on for the next month, would more than cover the cost of a round-trip ticket. She didn’t think about what she would do when she returned—her parents would provide.
She left Thursday evening, on the first flight she could get. It involved a change in Philadelphia as well as one in Charlotte, but Philip had agreed to meet her post-midnight flight. Despite her nervousness, she felt a greedy exhilaration. No matter what happened, she would have this weekend with Philip.
It was wretched.
At the end of it, Corey felt as if she and Philip were complete strangers. She was eager to leave, even to go back to a place she despised.
She returned Sunday night, thinking about the boy from the cemetery, and remembered her broken promise—she had not met him Saturday, after all. But surely he would understand when she explained, she thought. He knew, as no one else in this town did, something of her feelings. She would have to go and look for him the next day. She realized that she didn’t know his name or where, besides the cemetery, she might expect to find him.
On Monday, she found out.
She paused by the student union to pick up a newspaper on her way to class, and noticed that the lead story was about a student who had committed suicide. It was not the student’s name, but her own address that leaped out at Corey as she scanned the article—501 Comstock. That was the house she lived in, and it was where the student, Harold Walker, had been found early Sunday morning, dead of self-inflicted wounds. Shocked, she glanced at the accompanying photograph and recognized Harold Walker as the boy from the cemetery.
He must have spent his last hours of life waiting for her in the cemetery. And then he had come looking for her, needing her. And this time he had needed her in vain. She hadn’t been home. And so he had killed himself outside her door.
“Oh, God,” she said. Heavy with guilt, she sat down on the steps of the Union. He had needed her, and she had failed him—betrayed him—and now he was dead. She began to cry. Other students, passing by on the steps, looked at her and then looked away. No one stopped to talk to her; no one knew her.
During the next few days Corey thought a lot about Harold Walker as she walked dazedly through her life. She saw his body interred in the family plot he had told her about; saw, but did not approach, his quiet, bewildered-looking parents. After the funeral she went to the place where they had first met, and sat alone on the bench where they had once sat together.
What horrified her most of all was the realization that she could never atone. She had never before seen anything in her life as irrevocable. But Harold Walker was dead, and if she had not failed him when he needed her, he might now be alive. Beside his death, the loss of Philip faded into triviality. She scarcely thought of Philip now; it was Harold she dreamed of, mourned, and longed to see again.
Because she could not spend all her time in the cemetery, Corey continued to wander through her daily routine, but her mind was elsewhere. Gradually she accustomed herself to the idea of Harold’s death—perhaps he was better off, he had escaped the life that had made him so unhappy. She mourned for herself, now, for her own loneliness.
On the last night of October, sitting alone in her small apartment, a bowl of soup rapidly cooling in front of her, Corey felt her grief turning to anger. The resentment must have been smoldering beneath the sorrow all along.
How could he kill himself like that? With all his talk of need, he must have known how she needed him, and realized what he would be doing to her by killing himself. If she had betrayed him, his betrayal of her had been far greater, because it was forever. It could not be recalled or apologized for. He had taken himself out of life, and out of her life, for all time.
“What about me?” she said aloud. The tears rolled slowly down her face.
It was Halloween night. People were out having a good time with their friends, attending parties all over campus. And Corey sat alone, talking to a dead man.
“I needed you,” she said. “Did you think about that? Couldn’t you have waited a little longer? Or weren’t my needs as important as yours? All right; I wasn’t there for you on Saturday, but I would have come back, you should have known that. But you can’t come back—no matter how much I need you, you’ll never come to me again.”
She went to bed early because there was nothing else to do, but she lay awake a long time. And when she did finally fall asleep, it seemed only a few minutes before something woke her.
She lay in the dark and listened. She could hear someone moving about downstairs, and thought now that the sound which had wakened her had been the slamming of the front door. Probably one of her neighbors coming home drunk from a party. Whoever it was was making a very noisy job of climbing the stairs; in addition to the slow, heavy footfalls, Corey could hear a soft, erratic thump-and-slide sound, as if the climber had to support himself against the wall as he climbed.
There was something oddly disturbing about the sound. She was wide awake now, and she lay stiffly waiting for the noisy intruder to reach his journey’s end.
Silence—the top of the stairs reached at last. Then more dragging footsteps. Then a thumping at her door.
She sat up in bed, clutching the covers. The pounding continued.
“No!” she cried. Then, feeling nervous and embarrassed (it was probably only a drunk who had made a mistake), she got out of bed and walked through the dark into the living room and called, “You’ve got the wrong apartment; you’re across the hall. Try the other door!”
She waited for the sounds of departure, but when the pounding stopped there was nothing, and the silence ate at her nerves.
Then the pounding began again, still at her door. It was not forceful at all, but neither was it controlled enough to be called knocking. It was heavy but unfocused, a loose, meaty slapping against the wood.
She shuddered. Remembering the downstairs door, and how it was often left unlocked, she realized that anyone might have gotten in.
“Who is that?” Corey called.
The pounding stopped. Silence again. Corey stared at the door, wondering who waited on the other side. Suddenly she had a vivid image of Harold Walker crouching outside her door on the night he died. Had he pounded and begged to be let in, imagining her hiding inside?
The pounding began again, making her jump. She bit her lip and tried to keep from crying. It wouldn’t do to lose control. It was probably just some old drunk, or some kid trying to frighten her. But now that she had thought of Harold, she couldn’t seem to get the thought of him out of her mind. It was absurd and impossible, but it seemed to her that Harold was on the other side of the door, making that terrible slapping sound with his weak, dead hands.
“Go away,” she cried, her voice high and shrill with fear. “Go away, or I’ll call the police!”
Silence again. A waiting silence. Whoever was there did not leave.
Harold, she thought. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you came looking for me. She walked closer to the door. Cautiously, trying not to make a sound, Corey leaned against it, pressing her ear to the wood. She heard nothing, not even breathing, from the other side.
But as soon as she stepped back, the pounding began again.
She stared at the door, remembering something Harold had said: “All you have to do is ask me, and I’ll come.”
“But you’re dead,” she said. It was barely a whisper, but again it stopped the pounding, as if whoever was in the hall was eager to hear anything she had to say.
“Go away,” she said more loudly. “Go away, do you hear me? Go back to where you came from! Do you hear me? I don’t need you! Go away!”
There was no more pounding after that. There was no sound of any kind. Corey slumped to the floor, facing the door, no more able to walk away from it than she was to open it. She was shivering and felt slightly sick.
If it was Harold, she thought, someone would find the body out there, sooner or later. And if it wasn’t, if it had been only her imagination, her need, someone would find her and let her know; someone would call or someone would come. Sooner or later.
And so she sat, all through the night, waiting and listening for the sounds of the dead.
© 1981 by Lisa Tuttle.
Originally published in Shadows 4,
edited by Charles L. Grant.
Reprinted by permission of the author.