A boy, a girl, a neglected cemetery, and a town's terrible secret.
I am considering these as choices as the cover for the book.
Which do you prefer?
Quinn tugged with a metal rake at the moist green weeds, released them from the dew-dampened earth, and used his brown calloused fingers to deposit them from the tines into a pile near his right side. He repeated this action many times until the dirt lay bare and the weed pile at his side was as tall as his waist. Satisfied for the moment, the boy wiped back-handed at his nose where a bead of sweat tickled him. He wiped the sweat on the seat of his jeans and glanced up at the sky as a cawing crow circled and alit on a branch. Boy and crow acknowledged each other with that silent eye-to-eye connection shared only by the most intimate of friends. The crow cawed and lifted skyward, dived and disappeared in the trees behind the top of the slope. The boy resumed his labor. He sang or sometimes talked to himself as he worked.
He was tall, thin, with sinewy muscles. His hair was so pale blond it appeared almost the color of mid-day sunlight. His face was long, yet slightly square shaped, with a softly rounded chin – a very handsome sixteen-year-old boy of Scandinavian stock. He had a light tan, which he acquired over the past week as spring melded into the delightful dawning of early summer.
He continued with his task, his forehead shimmering with sweat and flecks of dirt. The metal tines of the rake scraped something hard. The boy stopped and stared at the patch of gray granite. He abandoned the rake off to his side and dropped to his knees in the dirt, bent and used his hands to uncover his discovery.
It was an old headstone. The name and date were faint, eroded by time and the elements. He scrutinized the words and numbers.
Patrick H. Fitzgerald. Father. Born 1837. Ireland. Died 1885.
A gratifying shiver went up his spine. His suspicions confirmed, and the rumors laid to rest, he chuckled to himself. "Well, sir, I bet you're happy someone has finally found you. It's about time someone gave you all a nice tidy place to rest. That's all I'm doing, Mister."
A familiar vibration raced through his body, tingled every muscle, every internal organ, every inch of his skin. It raced up his spine and rose into his brain with the sensation of warm water rising up into his head. The water was full of a million sparkling stars.
Quinn knew what it meant. He was seven years old when the first one came to call. There had come many others since then; they no longer frightened him.
His inner radar told him what direction to look, and he looked, his expectation verified. It was her again. She had appeared every few days or so since he began working to clear the old graveyard. She was a very young woman, short and slight of figure, dressed in a long sapphire blue gown – the height of early 1900's fashion. Her dark hair was neatly piled in loose curls framing an insipid face that had likely garnered few compliments during her lifetime. Yet, the young woman radiated an underlying effervescent humor that produced a far deeper attractiveness. Her intense blue eyes possessed the energy of endless stories and experiences tragic and joyful. She carried one of her stories in her arms, a tiny motionless baby wrapped in a white christening gown. She cuddled it tightly to her bosom as if she feared someone would take it from her as she gazed pleadingly at Quinn.
Because she was standing less than ten feet away from him, Quinn stayed put where he sat kneeling. He didn’t want to frighten her by suddenly rising to his feet. He grinned at her and amusedly remarked, "Well, you're definitely not Mr. Fitzgerald."
She stepped back to widen the distance between them. As she backed up a branch of the bush behind her protruded through the wispy form of her body at her right shoulder. It was apparent to Quinn she didn't feel it and was not aware of it. One corner of her mouth lifted with a responding smile to him.
Quinn persevered in a friendly tone of voice. "Are you going to talk to me today?"
She brought her right hand up to her mouth, lay her fingertips gently upon her upper lip, cocked her head to one side apologetically.
This was her fourth visit to him. Four visits, and still no words. Quinn finally understood.
"You're mute? You can't talk?"
She nodded slowly.
He said, "I don't know how to help you if you can't tell me what you need."
She snuggled the baby securely with her left hand, pointed with her right to a spot far off at the edge of the cemetery. Quinn looked to where she pointed, an area overgrown with weeds and littered with a thick covering of last winter's spent brown maple leaves, broken twigs, and wind-carried acorns. Beneath that mess laid the detritus of innumerable decades. He assumed there were graves there, just a few among the many forgotten resting places in this secluded little glade. He estimated it would take him a few weeks to work his way over there; for now, it was inaccessible. He turned to her to tell her this, but she was gone. Although disappointed, he assured himself she would come again, and this gave him hope he would be able to help her cross over. Thoughts of her preoccupied him as he resumed uncovering Mr. Fitzgerald's grave.
Footfalls crushed dry leaves in the cluster of forest nearest the road.
The boy shot to his feet, startled by the unwelcome intruder. "Who's there?"
A female voice, young, called out, "Hello?"
"What do you want?" Quinn demanded suspiciously.
A bush moved, a sandaled foot emerged, a hand moved a branch of the bush to the side, and then a second sandaled foot stepped into view. Finally, she emerged, her dark eyes inquisitive but also cautious. The girl was pretty in a plain sort of way. She had fair skin, an oval face, and big brown eyes full of intelligence, humor, and tenderness. Quinn thought her lips were pretty, not too plump, just plump enough to be inviting. Her hair was dark brown, straight, shoulder length, parted on the left side. She had a petite build, yet firm muscles that belied her small-boned fragility. She was dressed in rose-colored cotton trousers and a sleeveless yellow blouse with pink stripes. She had tied the hem of the blouse so it exposed her belly and her navel.
"I didn't know anyone was here." She stopped in front of the bush and quickly scanned the area with her big dark eyes. "Wow! What a great camping spot."
"It's not for camping," Quinn said, retrieving his rake.
"So, what are you doing here?"
"Cleaning up what?"
She paled just a little. "Graves? This is a graveyard?"
"A very old one." He pointed to the stone he had just uncovered. "See?"
She approached him slowly and looked where he was pointing. "Wow! That's old."
"And it's probably not the oldest one in here." He smiled at her smugly, because she was impressed with his finding.
"Are you part of a clean-up committee or something?"
"Uh-uh. I'm just doing it because it needs to be done."
"Are you doing this all by yourself?"
"Are there lots of graves in here?"
"That's what I'm gonna find out." The whole time he didn't look at her, lest that would encourage her.
"You must have a lot of time on your hands."
He grimaced at her comment; he didn't know why it bothered him.
She smiled and offered her hand in greeting. "My name's Stephanie. I just moved in a couple of weeks ago. I live over that way," she pointed behind her toward the main road, "Where the old grain silo is – you can see it from the road. Mom said it hasn't been used in decades, and there used to be a ranch there, but it's not really a ranch anymore; it's mostly just the house that's left."
He thought she was quite the motor mouth. At the same moment he had that thought, a frown crossed her face as if she knew what he thought, and it insulted her. Whether or not she had read his mind, the very possibility of it spooked him, and at once he regretted hurting her feelings if he had in fact done so. With this in mind and wanting a quick save, he referred back to her comment about her house. "Oh. Down the road. Mrs. Tarantino's house. That place is older than the dirt it sits on."
"She was my grandmother on my mom's side. Did you know her?"
"Not very well. We talked a few times when she was out at the mailbox and I was walking by. She was a nice lady. I liked her."
"Oh. Well, she passed away."
"I know," Quinn said.
The girl continued over his remark, "My mom inherited the house. We just moved in."
"Is it just you and your mom?"
"Yeah. My dad died last year. He was a fireman."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Like I said, my name's Stephanie." She offered her hand again. "What's your name?"
"Quinn." Hesitantly, he shook hands with her. Her fingers and palm were warm and slightly damp. The warmth he didn't mind. The dampness – her sweat – he found repellent. Without considering how it would look to her, he wiped his hand on his jeans the moment they released each other.
She smiled, embarrassed, wiped her hands on the hips of her trousers. "Sorry."
"Are you a germophobe?"
He laughed. "No. I'm sorry."
"That's okay. I was hoping there'd be someone around here my age."
Quinn pointed his thumb casually over his shoulder. " I live in the house up the hill. You can see it from your place."
"The Victorian-style house?"
"That's the one. My dad owns the sporting goods shop downtown – Vanderfeld's Sports and Outdoors Supplies. It's right off the freeway."
"Yeah, I saw it. It's got a big yellow rowboat on the sign, right?"
"It's a speedboat, not a rowboat." He resumed raking up the weeds.
"We used to live down in L.A. area. Before Dad died my mom worked in television as a sound editor. Did you ever see Knights of Red Dragon?" She didn't wait for Quinn to reply, although he nodded that he had seen the program. "That was the last show she worked on. She couldn't stand the city anymore, too rushed, too congested, too much crime, too many memories. When Gram died, she thought it best we move up here to the country. I bet it's boring here, huh?"
"Not really. Once you start school here, you'll see."
"So, why aren't you out having fun with your friends?"
He took a long pause and thought before he answered. "This is more important to me."
"They have no one."
"I don't think they care. They're dead."
He clenched his jaw in a determined manner. "Well, I care. No one should be forgotten. What if your dad was buried here?"
A sad gleam came to her eyes, and Quinn thought at first she was going to cry. She didn't cry. Instead, she raised her chin and looked at him directly, bravely. "I suppose… well, yeah… good point."
"My family was one of the first to settle in this town. Another reason this is important to me."
"Are you related to anyone buried here? Ancestors?"
"I'm sure some are here, but I haven't found them yet." He feared he had already said too much. He continued working, hoping she'd get the hint and find someone else to bother.
She observed him for a few moments and then offered casually. "I can help if you want."
He didn't like that idea and quickly aimed to discourage her. He gestured at her sandals. "Not in those."
"I've got hiking boots. I can go home and get them."
He couldn't believe her audacity. "I'm just about done for today."
"Are there a lot of spiders?"
"Of course. Big ones. All kinds."
"I spotted a few mice."
"Are you scared of mice?"
"I used to have a pet rat. She was white with pink eyes. I'm allergic to cats, so..."
He continued raking and spoke to her over his shoulder, hoping to dissuade her. "You have to be careful of the rocks, too. There are also a few holes." And then, hoping this would scare her, "Snakes. There are a lot of snakes."
"I'm not afraid of snakes."
Shit. How can I help that dead girl if this pest starts hanging around?
Quinn sighed impatiently at her persistence. "There're a lot of hazards here. Some of the stones are broken, and some have fallen over or been pushed over. Most of them are hidden under all this overgrowth. You can get hurt. Break your leg or something. Thanks, for the offer but I'd rather do this myself."
She made no effort to hide her disappointment. "Okay, then. So, what do you do for fun in this town?"
"I don't know. It depends on what you like to do."
Stephanie persisted, "When I lived in L.A. I had passes all summer for Disneyland. When I wasn't at Disneyland, I went to the beach and hung out with my friends. There's no Disneyland and no beach here, and my friends are five hundred miles away. What the hell do you do for fun around here?"
"There's the lake up that way," he pointed, "Boating, fishing, even an arcade out there. You should check it out. The joint's jumpin' all summer."
"Is it far?"
"A couple of miles." Quinn slid weeds off the tines of his rake, began to gather his other yard tools. "I have to go now."
"Do you go there?"
"Because I'm doing this."
She laughed darkly. "This is your summer project, huh?"
"What's wrong with that?"
He suspected she was a blabbermouth like most girls. He gave her his full attention to be certain she would hear his message and take it seriously. "Listen… Don't tell anyone about this place. I mean it."
His stern tone seemed overly austere to her. "Why?"
"If the word gets out it'll attract vandals and partiers, that's why."
She nodded. "Okay." As both an afterthought and an apology, she added, "I don't usually talk this much."
That sent a dull chill up his spine. "Who said you talked too much?"
She glanced at the dirt, shoved her hands in her pockets. "You're the first person I've met since I moved here. I tend to come off like a steamroller when I meet new people."
"It's okay." Quinn was an expert at expressing sincerity while lying.
She gave him an empathetic half-smile. "What's your name again?"
"It was nice meeting you, Quinn."
Quinn gathered his tools as she walked away, tried not to be obvious he was watching her as she left, watching her and wondering about her, wondering if she would keep the secret. The more he thought about it as he carried the tools to the brush enveloped oak beside the footpath that led up the hill to his side yard, the more he suspected there was something special about her, and maybe he should have been a little bit nicer to her. He leaned the rakes and the shovel carefully and neatly against the tree along his fence, his mind replaying their conversation; his mind's eye recalling her face, her very sad eyes, her obvious loneliness. Yet it seemed to him there was something else about her; it wasn't all tragedy. Lightness. Yes… her sadness didn't weigh her down. Her spirit was light, despite her grief.
In sharp contrast to me… Quinn whispered.
Stephanie crossed the road after a vehicle passed, proceeded to her right on the dirt shoulder and down the slight incline, and then she turned left through a wide-open white iron gateway that led to her home. It was an old farmhouse, two stories high, with a sloping shingle roof. An inviting porch encircled the entire structure. Her mother had the house repainted a bright white before they moved in. The shutters were green, as were the borders of the four front gables. The windows in the front were very large, a contrast to those on the upper floor, which were small and square.
Large potted plants and flowers, bright green wicker furniture with coordinating colorful pillows and cushions decorated the porch. Her mother had hung a wreath of artificial pansies and greenery on the front door behind the screen door.
A warm breeze rustled Stephanie's hair. She stood still for a few moments, enough to savor the serenity and enough for her to smell the accumulated scents of hay, grasses, flowers, and pollens before it all drifted past her and continued on its way. It was quite a change from the incessant noise and exhaust-laden smog of the L.A. Basin.
Her mother pushed open the screen door. She was of average height, small-boned like her daughter, and slightly overweight. Her faintly lined face, pale from too many hours indoor and countless hours of lost sleep, enhanced her deep chestnut eyes. Her hair, dark at the crown and blonde down the length of it, curled at the curve of her shoulders. The color clashed with her skin tone, which only added to her appearance of chronic exhaustion. Just this morning she had been contemplating dying it to the original dark brown color inherited through her Italian lineage. She wore dark red trousers and an oversized white t-shirt. Barefooted and carrying a large clear plastic pitcher of water, she stepped out to the porch. "Did you have a nice walk?"
"I sure did. If you give me the pitcher, I'll water the plants."
"Thank you, dear." She took the chair beside the doorway where there was an unobstructed view of the property. With an appreciative glance at the blue crystalline sky and the puffy white clouds, she remarked, "What a beautiful day!"
"Did you know there's a cemetery up the road?"
"Oh, yes. It's been there for over a hundred years. So, you found it."
"Is any of your family buried there?"
"Not as far as I know. There might be somebody. I don't know for sure. All my mother told me about it is that it was a pioneer cemetery, and it hasn't been used in over a hundred years. That's why she and your grandpa are buried over at Oakview."
Stephanie nodded, recollecting Gram's funeral there, and recollecting her dad's funeral in his family plot down the hill in the same place. Per prearrangements, the funeral home flew his body all the way to Masonville and then shipped him by cargo van the rest of the way northeast to "if-you-blink-you-miss-it" Providence. There he joined his predeceased parents and older brother in the manicured plot near the man-made stream in Oakview Memorial Park. Stephanie didn't get much of a look at the place; she could hardly see through the steady flow of her tears.
Her clearest memory was when they began to lower the casket, which was a dark blue metal of some kind, and she turned away and stared into the grass. There was a ladybug struggling among the blades. Stephanie stared at it, stared at it so hard, she forgot for a few moments about the funeral, concerned after all was done and over someone would step on that poor ladybug. She bent and gingerly picked it up, let it rest upon her fingertip. Its wings trembled and spread. It alit and flew off; where… Stephanie couldn't guess.
"I'd prefer you didn't go in there, Steph."
"That old graveyard."
"It's untended. Mom told me there are snakes there, too."
"There's a boy cleaning it up. He just took it on himself to do it."
"His name's Quinn."
"Oh!" The woman smiled broadly, revealing her flawless white teeth. "The Vanderfeld boy. When you were three, you and he played together when we visited here. When I was a girl, I had a crush on his dad, John."
Stephanie gushed in surprise. "No!"
"Yes, indeed. John Vanderfeld was quite the looker - a blond Adonis. All the girls were after him. Bernice Talmadge finally landed him. Not surprising; she was a looker, herself."
"Were you jealous?"
"No. I was off at college by then, and your father was my main squeeze." Her eyes glinted with happiness at the recollection. "Your father was something special. My god, you should have seen him when he was young. So slender and muscular – he got a football scholarship, you know – and smart as a whip. I sat at front at every game, and sometimes he would steal a glance at me as I cheered him on. He had a smile that could melt the paint off the walls. It certainly melted my heart."
"I miss his smile."
"So do I."
"I miss his laugh, too. That yuk-yuk laugh of his." Stephanie grinned, yet her eyes were moistening.
Her mother draped her arm over the girl's shoulders. "We'll see him again someday. It's all right. Really, it is. Our love will never die, right?"
"Please don't cry. You'll make me cry. It's too beautiful a day to spoil with tears."
They sat in silence for a few moments, until Stephanie spoke. "Would it be okay if I invited Quinn over?"
"That'd be fine, honey. We'll invite John and Bernice, too. How about this weekend?"