Downcast - Cait Reynolds


I always loved taking the trash to the dumpster.

In an over-careful, over-clean, over-safe life, it was a mean, gritty chore. It was real. It was freedom.

For five whole minutes, I would be out of sight of my mother, who ran the organic produce department of our local high-end grocery store. I wouldn't have to feel her eyes flicking over to me every time I spoke to a customer, checking to make sure it wasn't someone "inappropriate" trying to get to know me. I wouldn't have to smile back at the clingy, sappy "I love you" smiles she gave me every time I accidentally caught her eye.

For five whole minutes, I could just be me and maybe explore what else could be me as well.

I slung a trash bag into the dumpster, enjoying the feeling of torque and momentum as it spun my body and lifted me slightly off my feet. It was as close to a roller coaster ride as I'd ever get. (Did I know how many people died every year because of roller coasters? No, Mom. No, I didn't know.)

A little giddy and dizzy, but smiling, I glanced across the street at the old abandoned graveyard, seeing the glorious red brilliance of the dahlias I had secretly planted there in the spring. Old in Darbyfield, Massachusetts, meant really old. Some of the graves were from the 1600's and had the strange winged skulls engraved on the headstones. Some of the headstones were broken. Some leaned like they were about to fall over. All of them had names on them, and I knew every one of them.

In a way, I felt this was my graveyard. It was just a little clearing, encircled by a thick wall of trees that bled into one of the many forests that crept down the sides of the Berkshire Mountains and encroached leaf-by-leaf and root-by-root on the town. There were maybe fifteen graves in all. Small and abandoned as it was, it was my little kingdom.

Ever since I had started working at the grocery store when I was fifteen, I had secretly weeded, planted and tended a kind of wild garden among the graves. I had a green thumb when it came to flowers and plants, which is why (duh) I ended up working in the floral department. Often, I snuck flowers from the graveyard into my bouquets for special customers, and I liked to think that there was a kind of good spiritual energy I could pass on to them from these buds that bloomed between life and death.

I had never been scared of the dead, and I was never scared to go check on the graveyard when it got dark early in the fall and winter. It was my domain, and you can't fear the things you rule.

Besides, the dead weren't there. Their bodies were dust by now, part of the soil that grew and gave life to the flowers I planted. Their spirits had rejoined the great cosmic oneness, or so Mom had taught me, trying to raise me according to her new age spirituality.

In the flat blue light that happens just after sunset, I swung the last bag into the dumpster and wiped my hands on my apron. I looked over one more time at the dahlias, when a jolt of absolute terror cut its jagged way through my body.

I blinked hard to clear my vision of the tall black shadow standing next to the dahlias. My eyes must have been playing tricks on me because when I looked again, it wasn't a ghostly shadow. It was just a guy, standing with his back to me.

He was tall and lean, with shaggy black hair, and was wearing a long-sleeve grey shirt and jeans. Mesmerized, I watched as he carefully stepped between the headstones. He reached out with a pale, long-fingered hand to brush his fingertips against the stones. The motion was slow and deliberate, somewhere between a reverent caress and a royal blessing.

I studied the shift and play of his muscles as he gracefully wove his way among the graves, touching nothing but the headstones. He paused by each one, his body going completely still as he ran his fingers over the carvings.

Suddenly, he stiffened, and I felt my body try to do the same, but already, every muscle I had was wound tight and taut. I braced myself for him to turn around, to show me his face.

His hand clenched into a white-knuckled fist by his side, and slowly,