Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Running With The Dead©

by D. Thomas Mooers


At first Bill Reisen would not go into Oak Hill Cemetery.

The route was straighter, and it involved less traffic, but the thought of jogging through row after row of monuments and markers, not to mention on top of what they were standing in remembrance above, made him uneasy. His usual course took him from his house on Hamwoods Lane down Peale Street to West Street. A left on Newbridge, another onto Hobart then up on Main, back to Peale towards home. The loop was four miles, and Bill ran it every morning. His clock radio with the old style red LED numbers would go off at 6:19. In exactly eleven minutes, Bill would go to the bathroom, pull on his shorts, sweats and shoes and "be on the road" by 6:30. Every morning, four miles, regardless of the weather, rain or shine, Bill hit the bricks.

It was a pleasant enough trip. Bare Cove was a nice enough town. Trees lined most of the streets and sidewalks, but Newbridge and Hobart tended to be busy. Already at that early hour many of Billís peers were making their daily trek into the city. Men and women packed themselves into cars, bumper to bumper, for the long commute. More than once Bill questioned the actual cardiovascular benefits of his routine when compared with the amount of exhaust he likely inhaled each day.

Still, every morning the alarm went off, and Bill got up to do his four miles. He thought of himself as a runner, that solitary type of individual athlete who relished the distance and the comfort that came in a familiar trip. On those rare occasions when Bill didnít go out, either because he was sick or had something pressing to do, the rest of the day just didnít seem right.

The turn onto Newbridge brought him directly past the main gates to Oak Hill. As if fabricated for a movie set, the tall wrought iron doors, done up in what he assumed was a Victorian style, had the name of the cemetery formed in Gothic script above them. Bill had witnessed other runners passing through the gates. One, maybe two; there were not that many others on the road at that hour. Most active people it seemed were content to clock their miles on treadmills or stationary bikes downtown during their lunch hours. Only a small handful of devotees like Bill himself still laced up at dawn and only the paths of a couple of these, usually elderly runners Bill observed, passed under those hard black gates.

Bill himself never ventured into the cemetery. In other venues he could be rather an adventurous runner. He had read "The Joy of Running" when he first took up the sport, and like the bookís author, he always brought a pair of shoes whenever he traveled. Down the banks of the Seine, over the white sands of Cancun, through the chaotic streets of Hong Kong; Bill considered himself as much an international runner as traveler. Yet, out of respect or just plain superstition, he never strayed from his route onto the grounds of Oak Hill.

That he eventually did was by total accident rather than election or conviction. One fine morning in late May, Bill was crossing West Street to make the turn onto Newbridge. The sidewalk on West ended abruptly, forcing pedestrians to cross over the busy street to continue either on West or Newbridge where the sidewalks started up again. Bill was busy trotting across the road, as he had done on countless times over the years when a car, apparently desperate to make the stoplight, cut in front of him. Bill dodged left and heard the squeal of brakes as he barely made it to the other side of the road. Looking behind, all the while still trotting along, he saw a black compact, likely a hybrid, tearing down West Street.

Idiot, Bill thought as he continued on, the idiot could have killed me. The thought would have vanished in the aftermath of anger and annoyance otherwise felt had Bill not realized where his quick elusion had landed him. In his haste to avoid being run over, he realized that he must have sprinted headlong through the cemetery's gates, for just then he found himself jogging down a wide path surrounded on both sides by tombstones as far as he could see.

The worn little road was paved in gravel, and with each stride Bill heard the crunch of the little rocks underfoot. It sounded like bones he mused to himself, but instead of turning around and retracing his normal route, Bill continued on. He seldom turned back once he started in a direction.

Far ahead he caught the outline of another runner wearing a light blue and gray jacket. At least I am not the only one disturbing the departed, he consoled himself.

Bill maintained his pace, keeping his stride despite the surroundings, and comforted himself with the observation of what a lovely day it was going to be. Already the sky was shifting from the golden hues of sunrise to the rich blue of spring. Stray white clouds hung here and there, but otherwise the air above was clear, and scented Bill noted with the smell of flowers. The latter seemed a strange thing to find in a cemetery. There were of course bouquets and other floral arrangements placed by many of the stones, but the pleasant odor Bill detected originated not from these but in the bushes and trees that were growingĖalive in Oak Hill Cemetery. And they seemed to be relatively abundant.

Pale and lavender lilacs formed hedges that set apart the different neighborhoods of tombs. In between snowy dogwoods dotted the wide fields of stone. Together the floral vegetation combined to emit a pleasant aroma that to Bill smelled nothing so much as like fine perfume. Better than perfume, he thought, for this smell had none of the cloying nature of cologne, but rather was accented by the fresh scents of earth and open air.

From that day, over the next several weeks, Bill altered his route to include a jog through the cemetery. The flowers stayed in bloom, and by and large the temperatures remained gentle and warm. Whether in the simple change in venue, or from avoiding much of the traffic fumes he normally encountered on the old route, Bill began to think in only a matter of days that he was actually feeling healthier. There was a sense of energy about him. All day while he was at work until the time he returned home at night he felt there was nothing he could not endure or accomplish. His heart felt light, and above all what he could only conceive of as a general contentment seemed to embrace his soul.

Each morning Bill looked forward to getting up, more than it seemed he did before. Every time he traversed Peal Street and approached Newbridge, the sight of the entrance to Oak Hill brought him delight. He would dash across Peal, sometimes causing near accidents himself, and sprint headlong through the now familiar wrought iron gates.

Once safely inside hearing nothing but his breath and the grinding sounds of his footsteps upon the little rocks of the path, Bill began to take note of the surroundings. What at first had seemed to be merely repetitive rows of plain white stones on closer inspection gave way to a variety of details and singularities of sculptural style and craftsmanship. There were tall marble obelisks sitting atop sturdy, squared-sided monuments. Some had elaborate systems of columns, others entwined patterns of vines. Crosses could be found in every style and shape, from sharp spiked Maltese roods to rune inscribed Celtic crucifixes. Each marked the passing of their owners as they revealed something of those that lay below, or at least those that put them there. There were a few staid Stars of David, some heavy mausoleums that looked more like safes than tombs, and quite a number of other odd sculpted works. The last of these were sometimes so unusual that were it not for their location Bill would have had no clue as to what the structures were meant to be.

Eventually, the lilacs and the dogwoods shed their petals, but in their absence grew the lush greenery of summer. All the while mourners and rememberers would place flowers on the graves of those they missed. These were often simple. A large bouquet of red roses cast up against the marker of a lost spouse, flags with carnations for the tombs of beloved veterans, with them were found pots of mums, daisies, lilies or whatever other blossom the departed had enjoyed in life or was remembered by in death.

Over time, Bill, who weeks before would not have even thought of setting foot in Oak Hill, could not begin to think of taking in a run without passing through the cemetery's weathered gates. Each day he would make what he began to think of as his morning rounds. Like familiar landmarks for a driver, the monuments became the milestoneís of Billís route. Each of the graves with few exceptions had the names of their occupants carved on their stones in large letters, and after a time, Bill recognized some of the names as he ran by. He began to regard the graves and their inhabitants with a kind of familiarity which gradually grew into certain amount of sentimentality. Bill even began to speak to them, albeit in his mind, conveying greetings and pleasantries as he ran past them.

Hello, Mr. Johnston, he would think. Fine day weíre having. Nice flowers, Mrs. Beal, and might I add that you are looking lovely today. Greetings, Mr. Jenks. I see the family has been by with new flags. They look terrific.

Occasionally, Bill would see other runners coming or going down the cemetery path, and this only served to make his now favorite portion of the run more congenial. Whimsically, he thought it nice that his "cold friends," as he now considered them, entertained other visitors.

There was one jogger in particular who usually caught Billís eye. A woman who appeared to be about his own age would smile as she ran past him from the other direction. Like him she seemed to be at some point on the approach to forty, but Bill was never good at judging peopleís ages. What really got his attention was her face, always friendly, always happy with a slight hint of bashfulness that often sent a shiver through him as he proceeded down the cemetery's main path. That she too was a runner already gave them something in common, so every time they passed, Bill vowed that one day he would to speak to her, and "get her number" as they say.

Blending together, all of the disparate elements of Billís jaunts into the cemetery made the fondness he felt for his new morning routine to deepen. Each day he passed through Oak Hillís gates, Billís heart lightened. His strides brought up the now soothing sounds of the gravel path, and soon his mind started to wander. Sometimes he would think of the day ahead and tasks he needed to finish, at others the places he had been, or old friends he kept meaning to call. Everything about his mornings had settled into a near idyllic ritual, and it was around this time that Bill began to think he heard his cold friends speaking to him.

In the beginning he was confident that it was just his own mind generating the voices. They were merely an internal response, Bill reasoned, to the jocular greetings that he had become in the habit of making. His subconscious was just playing along with the words he pretended to say to his new buried friends, and extend the game as it were. Soon, however, Bill discovered the sounds took on an independent nature, almost like conversation.

The dialogue initially was rather common, merely pleasant things spoken over a dinner party. Where do you live? Are you married? Do you like to run? Do you have children? All simply the kind of mundane words and questions that came to mind with people you might encounter on the street; that was what it was Bill convinced himself. After all he was the one who started the game in the first place. He had pretended to talk to the graves; now his brain was merely anticipating what their response would be subconsciously.

Rationalizations firmly in place, Bill went on with his morning runs as if nothing had happened. But to his alarm Bill noticed over the next days that the voices were becoming more personal.

Why do you go so fast? he heard one say. Wouldnít you like to stay a little longer? Isnít it so nice here?

He grew more and more concerned. A degree of apprehension crept into his cheery regimen. But with the same mental obstinacy that initially kept him from running in Oak Hill in the first place, Bill clung to his conclusions. He dismissed the voices as nerves and suppressed superstition, or maybe even guilt. Yes, guilt, he soon argued to himself. It was rather callous to be sprinting along past the rows of the dead, brashly calling out to them. Somewhere in his brain, he convinced himself, a twinge of regret was released at his lack of respect. Logically, he deduced, the voices were merely a form of self-generated punishment.

Sure of his amateur diagnosis Bill went on with his running. He still did enjoy the route over all, and he was to such an extent a creature of habit that stopping would have been harder than going through with it. He attempted for a few days to go back to his old route, running down Newbrigde and Hobart Streets, but the noise and pollution in no time led him back through the gates of Oak Hill. There the voices returned almost immediately.

Itís so good to see you again. Where have you been? Did you injure yourself? It is so nice here, isnít it?

As much as he could Bill fought to put the voices out of his mind, hopeful that by ignoring them, and not speaking himself, he would rid himself of his guilt. Try as he might Bill continued to hear his cold friends speaking. They called to him, asked him about himself and inquired where he lived.

The mental battle of rationalization and denial waged throughout the long days of summer. Bill alternated between Oak Hill and his old route. The exhaust seemed thicker in the hot air, but the voices now distinct, male or female, young and old, made him hesitate to return to the cemetery. Back and forth he switched his morning run, sometimes braving the vocalizations, on others facing the traffic, until one morning he had to go back to Oak Hill. That day it was already eighty degrees at 6:30 in the morning, and Bill could not bring himself to put up with the choking fumes on Newbridge Street. So, as he crossed Peal Street, he took the first turn and jogged through the cemetery gates. Almost immediately the voices accosted him.

Youíre back again! Where have you been? It is always nice to see you! It is so peaceful here, donít you think?

You know we love having you with us, BILL.

It was his name that finally made him scared. Bill knew he had a considerable imagination, and he was well aware of the power of his daydreams. More than once he found his Walter Mitty type musings, on everything from captaining interstellar galleons to what he wanted to do with the pulchritudinous receptionist at his office, put him in awkward situations. But Billís fantasies, however creative or lurid, never became interactive. They never courted him back, let alone spoke to him, especially not by name. There was no other answer: Bill Reisen, thirty-eight year old financial planner, was hearing voices. Somewhere in the memories of his undergraduate education, he remembered a course in psychology. From it he learned that hearing voices was never a good sign.

Hard as it was, Bill did not go out for his run the next morning. He showed up at work tired and irritated. He was short with the receptionist, even though she was wearing the floral, low cut sundress that had immediately become one of Billís favorites. He made the analyst run the numbers for a new client three separate times, even though he knew they were right the first time. After work he went out with friends for a drink, but left after only one beer. With an alacrity that raised a few eyebrows around the table, he got up tossed down a few bills and without saying a word stomped out. The chattering around the bar, and the mindless conversation had only made him remember the voices of Oak Hill.

He went home and tried to watch television, but all that was on were reruns of shows he had seen, movies that he had no desire of sitting through, and baseball games between teams that he didnít care about. He drank three or four more beers, made a sandwich and attempted to get into a book he had started on at least three separate occasions. Nothing seemed to work. After a while Bill gave up, went to bed and turned off the light. He tossed for what seemed to him to be hours, but thankfully in time he succumbed to sleep.

Out of nothingness his dreams came. In the last and most pleasant Bill dreamt he was lying at the beach. His feet dug furrows into the cool sand, as his toes sifted the grains. Relaxation was what he needed, he imagined in his dream, to get away from it all, to just lay at the beach and hang out. Maybe later he would grab some raw bar and a few beers. It all sounded marvelous.

Then somewhere in between the alternating, blithe perceptions of thought and dream, Bill shifted in sleep. His left arm came up, as it often did at night, to fall in its usual place over his head, but on the way it smacked hard up against something. The unexpected jolt immediately woke Bill from his shoreline bliss. He tried to sit up but his head likewise smashed into something cloth covered and hard.

Bill opened his eyes to nothing but blackness. Neither the familiar light of his clock nor even the pale gray images of night could be seen. He reached out and felt his confines. Smooth fabric lined the tight squared space on three sides. Beneath him his fingers sunk into the sand. Too soft, too moist, no not sand, it was dirt, cold and damp. Small things, wriggling and slick, moved under him. In the midst of terror and panic, the voices spoke to him.

It is so good to see you again, BILL. We do so love having you with us.

His chest tightened in stabbing pain as felt himself sinking into the cold earth. The worms writhed up against his bare skin and into his ears, as he fell deep, deep into the cold, wet soil.

It is so peaceful in here, donít you think, BILL? he heard them say as the wormy mud poured into his screaming mouth.

####

...It was another perfect morning.

Birds twittered and warbled in the trees thick with leaves that rustled under clear blue skies. The run felt especially good that dayĖno knee pain. Well, there was a little at the start but it went away after a mile or so. That was always good. It was when the pain stuck around or worse, got worse, that you knew you had an injury. No, the old body felt good, she thought passing what had to have been the tenth person walking their dog.

So thatís what they mean by "The Dog Days of Summer!" she thought.

Giggling and pleased with her little joke, she nearly missed the turn on Main Street to the old cemetery. She still could not believe she went running in there. She had only gone in the first time because she saw another runner do it. The place was quiet though. Little wonder why! The air was also cleaner, and wasnít that the point of dragging herself out of bed every morningĖhealth? Well, that and the physical benefits too.

Yes, her body felt good today. Looked good too if she may say so herself. A lot of good it did her. She couldnít remember the last time she had a date. Work at the firm was just piling up, and it didnít give her much free time. Maybe that cute guy will be out today. She used to pass him all the time in the cemetery, but she hadnít seen him in what seemed like weeks. She could tell by the sheepish way he had looked at her that he was interested, but he never said anything.

Maybe Iíll say, "Hi," today she considered. Would that be crazy? The guy could be an axe murderer for all she knew.

Looking up she saw that she was approaching the first big mausoleum. It was about halfway down the path. Hello, Mr. Johnston, she greeted in her head. In actuality she had no idea if the corpse in the big white marble box was a Mr. or Mrs. Johnston. It just seemed to her to be a manís name so she went with it. She saw up ahead the large obelisk that marked Mrs. Pealís plot. It too could have just as easily stood over a Mr. Peal, but to her Mrs. just felt right. No, her guy didnít show up again. She always passed him in front of Mrs. Pealís place. He probably moved with my luck she thought. Goodbye, Mrs. Peal.

The opposite gates of the cemetery came to view in the distance, but off to the right of the path she could see an arrangement of fresh flowers lying against what appeared to be a new grave. The stone was a simple rectangle of gray marble with a name carved in large block letters. In front of it was a low pile of fresh dirt.

"Just moved in huh?" she said out loud slowing down a bit. "Well, welcome to the neighbor, Mr. uh? Oh, Mr. Reisen."

Thank you, she heard in her mind. It is so peaceful in here, donít you think?

Why do you go so fast?

She did not give an answer; she was too busying sprinting head long for the black iron gates

THE END


© 2008 D. Thomas Mooers

Bio: D. Thomas Mooers did all he could to avoid writing. After graduating from Northwestern University with an honors degree in Art History, he spent years in traditional employment, accomplishing everything from pouring perfect martinis to driving less than perfect forklifts. It was only after he graduated from law school and passed the bar that he finally gave into his baser artistic instincts, and he has written ever since. Mr. Mooers currently lives outside of Boston, Massachusetts with his wife and two children. He is still a recovering attorney and continues to write for therapeutic reasons, but he is pleased to report that it has been several years since he has sued anyone.

E-mail: D. Thomas Mooers

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