The cemetery I’m touring is entirely out of my price range. Still, I let the realtor show me around. She’s a lovely woman. All her corners are polished clean, and her skin is pulled taunt against each sharp angle. Her name is Monica Hanson, and she’s introduced herself to me five times in the last hour. Monica’s smile is blindingly perfect.
We stand in front of a hole, three feet deep. Clumps of dirt give way when we stand too close to the edge. There’s already a name carved on the tombstone, but Monica assures me that roommates can’t be helped in this economy.
“Just look at this open floor plan,” she says. “And the view, you can’t forget about the view.”
The bright sunshine is making a mockery of what would otherwise be fantastically morose surroundings. Monica assures me that the weather is overcast normally. She tells me to picture the potential of the place, ignore the inconvenience of a little sun.
Potentially, it does have the prospect of gloom. We passed a willow tree on the way in that seemed to infuse the atmosphere with just the right amount of melancholy. Ivy grows rampant on every surface. The atmosphere could be fantastically morose. It’s the kind of place you imagine haunting for years to come. I don’t even mind sharing the plot. This is the city, after all. Privacy is an antiquated notion.
“The neighbors, how are they?” I ask.
“Quiet, for the most part. You’ll have such a restful time.”
Then she quotes a price.
Her nails click against the clipboard as she watches me. Her nails watch me too. On each one there’s an immaculate eye painted. Even they seem to realize that there’s no bank in the world that will loan me enough for something as whimsical as a comfortable afterlife. They swivel upward to ask God for patience in dealing with people who haven’t been pre-approved. That smile flashes.
“Why don’t I show you some more affordable options? There’s a charming little spot in a converted warehouse if you don’t mind your ashes getting mixed into concrete.”
She’s starting to wander off, but I don’t follow. I’m staring at the three-feet hole in the ground that I can’t afford. The tombstone has a name on it, but it’s nothing I would recognize. The only thing I can read is the ‘Dearly Beloved.’ I wonder if you can be beloved to yourself.
When I finally drag my eyes from what could have been my final resting place, if it wasn’t for something as damnable as my credit score, Monica is almost out of sight. She’s bobbing between tombstones. Her heels sink into the soft ground a little deeper with each step, and I can hear her talking from here. I’m certain she just introduced herself to the willow tree. It doesn’t seem impressed.
A skeleton burst from the plot one headstone over. Loose dirt and dust stain my cheek. I try to brush it away subtly, like I would if an older aunt accidentally spit on me. There’s no sense in being rude. These things happen.
“Touring or grieving?” the skeleton asks me. Their jaw clicks with each word. The grin they offer is garish without lips. They lean on their headstone, but it must be hard to look casual when the bare bones are all you have to work with.
I try to read the name before I answer, but the only thing engraved on the stone is a pair of hands, praying or pleading. It’s hard to tell the difference between the two. I don’t want to ask their name either, in the unfortunate case that they have forgotten the heavy syllables that used to weigh on their tongue during introductions.
“Both,” I say instead. “Any pest problems?”
“Rats, but only until the flesh is gone.”
That seems reasonable in the way that terrible things seem reasonable once they’ve become familiar. I try not to let the image of rodents burrowing into my organs invade my subconscious. The valiant effort for that is not rewarded.
When I turn back around, the skeleton has been joined by a corpse. She must’ve only been in her forties when she died. Whoever dressed her for her funeral stuck her in a mauve dressing gown that could only be described as a punishment from beyond the grave. She looks furious, and I think that I love her for that alone. From some invisible pocket, she produces a half-empty pack of cigarettes. I watch the one eye that she still has left bounce from the cigarettes to me. She doesn’t offer me one, and I don’t hold it against her. I think I prefer the dead ignoring me.
“They’ve started digging up bodies in the east end,” she rasps to the skeleton. “Bastards are just dumping them in the river.”
The skeleton turns their faceless skull to the sky. They drown themself in sunlight, and I wonder if they can feel the warmth. I hope they can.
“A change of scenery might be nice,” they say.
“For fucks sake, we deserve peace.”
“Do we?” the skeleton asks. “Sometimes, I think I remember guilt.”
She crushes her cigarette under her heel. The embers flare longer than I expected them to.
“And? I still deserve the sanctity of death.”
I don’t notice the guy behind me. Not until he slips his hand into mine. The coolness of his skin does not shock me, but I flinch anyway. I wrench my hand from his, politeness is never something I can fake for long. I take a step away from him then I take another. He watches me. There’s no recognition in his gaze, and I shiver. He does not blink. His eyes are brown.
The skeleton speaks to me softly.
“You know how it is. The freshly deceased take a while to acclimate.”
I take a couple more steps back, toward the gate and the willow tree and the crowds beyond on the busy streets that I can hear even now. It’s lovely here, but I’m not ready to stay.
“Don’t you have more questions for us? Don’t you want to pry and prod until your sick curiosity is sated? Don’t you want to know how the maggots fester?”
She lurches forward more with each word, until her nose is inches from mine. There’s a stench. It’s no use thinking about it, but the tilt of her chin makes me think she’s daring me to mention it.
“I think I’ve learned enough for today,” I say instead.
She grabs my coat, twists the material in her fist, and I pretend I can’t feel her bones.
I try to turn away, but her grip doesn’t loosen. I don’t like knowing the strength of the dead’s convictions.
“No, you wanted to hear from your prospective neighbors. Tell me, what is it you want to know? Let me tell you how it floods in the spring, how the coffins float to the surface. Your family will weep when they see your living conditions.”
The skeleton is pulling on her shoulder, but she’s not finished. They don’t have a homeowner’s association here yet, but I know she’d thrive in a position of obscure authority.
I try to turn away again, and the newly dead guy’s brown eyes are searching mine. I just know he’s going to try to hug me. There’s no escape and my optimism for mortality isn’t holding up well against their tirade.
My savior appears in the form of Monica, the realtor. She descends on the group, introducing herself with stiff handshakes and a barely superior tone. I’m not surprised that she can sense when a property’s value is in danger of plummeting. She’s offering business cards and a last cursory plot appraisal. And then we’re walking.
“You’ll have to pardon the locals,” she says. “They do take some getting used to.”
I ask her for more options. Some place with a little more square-footage and a little less potential of wildlife absconding with a femur or two.
Monica sighs. It sounds like it comes from the very depths of her real estate agent soul.
“Look,” she says, drawing me closer and whispering like she’s known me for years, “These anti-social tendencies of yours are going to make finding you a final, peaceful resting place very difficult.”
I wish I could sigh with the same convention, agree with her assessment, and maybe try therapy. But Monica isn’t the type for daydreaming nonsense. She’s already taking long strides toward the gate, but she stops with only a quiet beseeching of patience from the cloudless sky and waits for me.
“Have you considered a nice, old-fashioned burial at sea?” she asks, almost entirely to herself.
She knows who’s in control of my death, and more importantly, she knows my price range. Monica grips my fate in her impeccably manicured hands.
I have no choice, but to bear my inescapable financial deficiencies and follow her to my next afterlife option.
Alexis Jamilee Carter is a software engineer in Denver, CO and holds an undergraduate degree in Computer Science with a minor in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. She wants to create, in every sense of the word and as much as possible, but writing has always been her home. Her work has also recently appeared in The Diamond Line and Runestone.