Laurel Wilczek









Laurel Wilczek is a local writer whose work has appeared in T-Zero Literary Magazine, Be a Better Writer by Pearl Luke and in The Greater Lehigh Valley 2016 Anthology. She was the First Place winner in the fantasy category of the 2013 Golden Rose Contest and 3rd place winner in the fantasy category of the 2010 Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Contest. Laurel teaches the November Teen Writer's Workshop each year at Hughes library and taught characterization & plot at the Pocono Liars Club Workshop for New Writers. She is currently working on a dark quirk fantasy novel.
Lara

Laurel Wilczek
Winner of Honorable Mention
2017 Bethlehem Writers Roundtable Short Story Award


Early spring. Caulder, Pa.

Spring is nearly here. I can taste it in the air, a sharp brew of mud and decaying leaves. The wind has no bite. My feet don't crunch anymore as I walk along the forest path. They slide into the skin of the earth and leave furrows behind me. My father hikes through the woods like he walks through life, with a sense of purpose. I can tell he's eager to get to our destination, but he keeps his pace steady and does not urge me to hurry. . . .

"Tell me if you need to take a break, sweetheart," he says as we reach the monstrous oak at the edge of our property. Stripped of leaves and the birds that nest in it during the summer, it is an unfriendly stranger.

I gaze up at the skeletal branches and think of red salamanders, turquoise Japanese beetles, and all the other things that make summer worth waiting for. I am ten years old and I like to think that I will always be ten and that things will never change.

My mother says I almost died, but that doesn't mean anything to me. The town looks the same as it did when my parents rushed me to the hospital. The parking meters on Main Street still lean like the old men who sit in the back pew at Sunday morning mass. Customers still have to kick the vending machine at Smileys' Gas Station to get it to spit out a candy bar. And once a week, when the train cuts through the east side of town at midnight, the dogs still howl at its wailing whistle. As far as I'm concerned, nothing has changed except the tightness of my mother's hugs.

It was my father's idea to visit Caulder Cemetery today. My mother has always hated that I fall in so easily with his strange rituals. She followed us outside as we left the house, but she wouldn't go any further than the back porch. "Joseph Weathers, you crazy son-of-a-bleep! She's not strong enough."

"Stop it, Helen. If she tires, I'll carry her."

And off we went, leaving my mother to haunt the empty house.

The mud sucks at my boots. I have to work harder to climb the path. My father's fingers smooth my hair. "You should have worn a hat."

I left it back at the house on purpose. He's proud of my hair. He says the color reminds him of a winter sunset.

"I bet you missed visiting the cemetery with me while you were in the hospital."

Not really. My father likes to sit on graves and tell stories about the people who lie under the headstones. His favorite grave isn't very old compared to some of the others. It belongs to a woman named Lara Matheson. She died ten years ago. She didn't have a lot of money. Her headstone is just a small stub of rock compared to the others around it.

When I asked him why he picks Lara's grave so often, he said some of the dead whisper their stories louder than others. I don't like that. What do the dead have to say that they couldn't have said while they were alive? Besides, we have family in this cemetery. My Aunt Mercy's grave is somewhere on this burial ground. I don't want her to whisper anything to me. That wicked old lady told my father I have a third eye.

Liar. Big fat liar. I've searched for it on my scalp, in my armpits, in my private places, even on the soles of my feet. It's not there. Unless it's tucked under my skin looking at my insides. I wonder if it matches my green eyes or if it's brown like my mother's? I wish I'd asked the doctors to look for it while they were poking around inside me. They could have taken it out with the tumor.

My breath escapes in smoky plumes. I haven't exercised in weeks. My bones are wobbly. The early March air chills my lungs. "Can we visit the pond?" I ask.

"Sure, sweetheart. We'll go there first."

I'm not actually interested in the pond itself. It's nothing more than a smelly swamp. I want to see whether the ducks made it through the winter. Last year, sometime after New Year's Day, an unexpected cold front swept through Pennsylvania. The temperature dropped too fast and the water in the pond froze around the ducks' legs, trapping them in place. Mr. Tenkler, the town pharmacist, found them the next morning. True-to-life sculptures of sleeping death. He cut the dead birds out of the ice with his chainsaw and buried them. Then, he bought a new flock of ducks and put them in the pond so the kids who came to feed them wouldn't know. Of course, I knew. There's no way a flock of brown ducks can suddenly turn white over night no matter how many candy canes Mr. Tenkler claimed he fed them.

Dad and I reach the crest of the hill that overlooks the pond. We stand together, silenced by the gall of the town pharmacist. Mr. Tenkler has really done it this time. The number of ducks swimming in the pond has doubled. None of them are white.

When my father is angry, his ears burn bright red. When he's happy, his lips stretch wide in a clown's smile and his black eyes shine like the buttons on my winter coat. Right now, his teeth are as white as the sheets on my hospital bed and beautiful against his olive skin.

"Too much candy?" He asks.

"Too many bats in Mr. Tenkler's attic," I say, because I know that will make him laugh.

The path leads us away from the pond to the cemetery. It's an old lot, nestled in the middle of a forest of knobby pines and framed by a metal fence high enough to discourage anyone from trying to climb it. Under the sweep of a bland sky, the gate swings on a lone, rusty hinge.

My father angles his shoulders and slips through it. He's off and running before I can do the same. I stop three steps into the lot, cover my eyes, and count. This is one of my favorite games. He plays it better than any of my friends because he uses lots of grown-up tricks to make it last.

I finish my count and follow the tracks he's left behind. The ground feels oddly uneven, as if I'm walking over the legs of people lying a few inches beneath the soil. The oldest gravestones remind me of worn teeth. I'm in such a hurry to catch him, I don't see the stone sticking out of the ground until it's too late. I trip and fall on my hands and knees.

Something sharp rips through my pants into my calf. I tear a clump of last summer's grass out of the ground and blot away the blood. 

"Carrrroooole!"

"I'm coming!" Rising, I toss the grass aside and pick up his track again. The largest monuments are at the back of the lot. That's where he likes to hide. At the center of the cemetery, not so far from where my father's voice taunts me to find him, I see movement on the ground. The urge to see what it is drags me off course and leads me to a massive stone angel guarding a hump of dirt.

Only one family can afford to buy a life-sized guardian angel as a grave marker. The Caulder family. Their bloodline predates the Civil War. Half the people buried here are related to them. This grave is fresh. Two weeks ago, Benita Caulder buried a stillborn child. I'm not supposed to know that, but kids talk. Besides, Wayne Caulder goes to school with me. He sits next to me in religion class. I saw his face when Father Jarvis told the class that all stillborn babies end up in limbo.

I guess money can buy you an angel, but not a crib in heaven.

Wayne's parents named his unfinished sister, Grace. And today she has company in her grave. I squat at the feet of the angel and stare at the limbs poking through the grassless earth. What I see doesn't make sense. Wings. The feathers are shredded and broken. Slivers of white bone wriggle like tiny fingers. The smell is worse than old chicken bones left to rot in the sun.

Father Jarvis raises birds behind St. Raphael's Rectory. Big, black crows or ravens, I don't know the difference, but Aunt Mercy never liked them. She claimed they transport souls between the world of the living and the dead and that sometimes, they steal a soul before its time. Father Jarvis lets Wayne feed and water the birds during recess. And when one of them dies, he lets Wayne bury them wherever he wants. I wonder if Wayne chooses his sister's grave because he thinks they will free her soul from limbo and fly it to heaven?

The dirt stirs and a beak pushes out, then a head. The bird's feathers are greased with oils of decay. One eye is a black hole. The other, a smudged bead strung on a frayed thread. It crooks its beak up as if asking me to feed it. Grains of sand trickled from its tiny nostrils.

"No!" Strong hands snatch me off the ground. My father clutches me tight against his chest. I can feel his heartbeat through his shirt. He lifts his right boot and slams it down on the bird before it escapes the grave.

"No, Daddy, don't kill it!"

But he grinds the heel of his boot into the bird's body, tearing feathers and cracking bone. I hear a "pop" as he pulls his foot free of the mud.

"Daddy."

"Quiet."

I am. I am very, very quiet. Around us, the gravestones bob like the soap in my bath. Up and down. Up and down. The angel rocks too. His wings cast a long shadow across the ground. Something is stirring beneath our feet. Something that sucks birds down into the earth and spits them back out as something else.

My father shifts me onto his hip. Then, as the nearest gravestone topples, he sprints toward the gate. From my perch, I can see the whole cemetery. I finally understand why he is afraid. More wings flap on top of individual graves like the tails of stranded fish. Wings too big to belong to a bird. Wings tipped with fingers, not feathers. We pass Lara Matheson's grave as she shrugs out of the earth. Her dull red hair is clotted with sand and pebble; her fingernails dribble black soil. She lifts her head. Her face is little more than dirty bone. She stares at me with one empty socket and one clouded green eye.

My father sobs her name. Lara. Lara. Lara.

Now I know why he comes to the cemetery to listen to the hushed voices of the dead. Why my mother will not come here with him. And where my third eye has gone.

Things will never be the same between us after that. My father will never bring me to the cemetery again. And I will never, ever listen to Lara Matheson's whispering no matter how much she cries or begs. I didn't ask for the power to see and hear the dead; and while my father might try to convince me that the dead whisper loudest to the ones they love, I know for a fact that those the dead love don't always love them in return.
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