The evening is thin and blue, and as night sets out to conquer the sky, dark trees cast shadows across the tired grass. The bitter night air rests heavy on the earth, which sighs as it bends under the weight of the tombstones. As the painter limps deeper into the graveyard, he watches smooth granite fronts and clean-cut corners give way to moss-softened stone and long-forgotten names, worn away by years of rain and wind and dust. He can see his breath painting patterns in the air, hear his own arrhythmic footsteps, feel the ground under his weathered boots, firm and cool.
He usually feels at home here, among the forgotten, but today, the wind sends an empty chill down the fold of his spine. The darkness seems just a bit sharper than usual, the shivering grass just a bit too tense. Brittle leaves snap under his feet as he trails along, his bad leg catching in the dust. The ache in his knee grows to a fierce burn, and he sighs. All these years, and still it gives him trouble.
He watches the night brim on the horizon, watches the darkness descend on the shoulders of the statues and the tips of the stones. One in particular catches his eye – a hooded figure kneeling in the dirt, head bowed. It’s covered in a thin layer of dust, and a single white rose rests at its feet, curled beside its outstretched hand. He hasn’t done anything nearly as extravagant for his sister’s grave – ordered nothing but a plain white block, Lillian Gray chiseled into its surface. He swallows down his guilt, tells himself that she wouldn’t have wanted anything more, that anyway, he doesn’t have the money.
He has an urge to replace the flower in the statue’s palm, but as he moves forward, the wind grows restless, bristling against his tight back and slapping at his cheeks. The timid earth swells into a sea of churning grass, a rolling ocean of olive and beige; plants shake off lazy insects, and the vengeful air pushes birds off course. The wind barrels against his slight frame, and he has to fight to keep his balance. A shiver runs down his spine.
He hears her before he sees her – the skittering of gravel, the thumping of tires on the uneven path. A girl with flying, chestnut hair is swinging around the corner on a bicycle – not the sort they have nowadays, with plastic-coated handlebars and backlit seats, but the kind that he grew up riding. Bare, dusty wheels connected by a patchwork of metal beams, adorned with a tarnished silver bell and an unraveling wicker basket. It’s quite a nice bicycle – refreshing to look at. He hasn’t seen one like it in years. As she passes him, he can make out the rust clawing its way up the rims of the tires, speckling the interwoven spokes and the welded metal bars.
It’s strange, but rust has always reminded him of his childhood – of Lillian in particular, and especially of that day in the lemon grove when she was seven and he was nine. He doesn’t quite know why; there was no rust involved, only broken lenses, and his memory starts and stops at the feeling of glass shattering under his shoes and the sound of Lillian’s bitter shriek. He can’t remember the details of the incident, either, only that the money to replace his sister’s broken glasses had come out of his savings, and that he hadn’t said a word to her for nearly a week afterwards.
He’d been proud of that – the silent treatment, that is. Usually, he gave up after a few hours, and the two of them went back to whatever new game they’d invented that week. He’d lasted this time, though – and he often wonders if things would have been different if he hadn’t. What would have happened if he’d given up on his petty justice earlier, if he’d talked to her that morning – or even later that night? He’s come to believe that nothing would have changed, that nothing can throw fate once it gets that cruel gleam in its eye, once it finds an opportunity to teach a lesson.
Still, if he’d talked to her that morning, she wouldn’t have gone outside to sulk, riding her bicycle around and around in circles on the street. And if she hadn’t been riding, she wouldn’t have lost control just as he stepped outside, shrieking as she barreled down the drive towards him. As they tumbled together into the gravel. As his leg caught in the wheel and the wires tore into his skin. As a sickening crack cut through the air.
He remembers surprisingly little. The bike was beginning to rust – his sister used it irritatingly little, and it had been a particularly wet spring. He hardly remembers the pain at all – only that it was there and that it was blinding. He must have blacked out for a while, because as hard as he tries, all he can remember about the time between home and the hospital is rough cloth against his face, a cool hand on his forehead, the echo of his mother’s voice. After that, a cold night and a bed with thin sheets. A hazy, white room. A man with flashing glasses, a white coat, and a sympathetic smile.
The gashes would scar, of course, he’d heard the doctor say to his mother, but they would ultimately heal. No, the real problem was the shattered kneecap. Half-sedated with his head propped up against the wall, he found out that the bones were too far broken to fix. That they would knit together, eventually, but never in the same way. That he would walk again, eventually, but never as he once had.
If he’d talked to her the night he’d returned from the hospital – the first time he’d seen her in days – when she’d slipped through his door well after midnight and sat down on the floor, cradling her favorite doll in her lap. It’s the most vivid memory he has of her – cast in moonlight, hair astray, searching for comfort and finding none. Whispering, again and again, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
At the time, he felt sure that she was lying, that she had torn away his leg and his future as a sick kind of punishment. He’d resented her at first, barely spoken to her during their time together at home. Then, he’d gone off to college and forgotten her altogether. Looking back, he really does think that it had all been an accident – after all, she hadn’t been wearing her glasses.
She’d never ridden the bike again. She’d kept it, though – he knew because she’d left it to him in her will. He would have been shocked, once, but not anymore. Out of curiosity, he’d gone to have a look. Its frame was fragile now – he’d broken a pedal just pulling it out of the garage. The whole thing was coated in a thick layer of rust, as if blood had soaked into the metal. It seemed to tremble in the wind.
Looking at it had made him sick. He’d offered his sister’s lawyer an appreciative smile, gone home, and promptly thrown it into the river. He hadn’t even stayed to watch it sink.
He’d been the first one to speak at her funeral. It was an odd crowd – a few of her friends from Church, three or four ex-students, an obscure European cousin who she had lived with for a few months in her thirties. He shouldn’t have spoken – he was the least qualified of them all, really. He and Lillian were strangers, had been for all but the first ten of his fifty years. Strangers who shared blood, but strangers all the same.
He’d prepared a story for the podium – some made-up gibberish about the innocence of childhood and Lillian nursing a tabby cat named Juniper back to health. He can’t imagine his sister actually doing anything of the sort, can’t even remember how the story went, but it had brought the meager audience to laughter and to tears, and after receiving heartfelt condolences from the majority of the room, as well as the odd bouquet, he was sure that he had played the part of loving brother reasonably well. He wonders if he should have brought flowers with him today – roses for love, lilies for peace, poppies for remembrance. That’s the point of it all, really – remembrance. She was loved, flowers call out to passerby. She was needed. She will live forever in our hearts. But that would be a lie, wouldn’t it? He can’t conjure memories of a stranger; can’t offer her the mourning she deserves.
At last, he comes to the end of the graveyard – to a clean, chiseled stone standing straight among the forgotten and decrepit. Fresh dirt clings to his shoes as he moves towards the tomb – pale gray, almost hazy under the curtain of descending night. Slowly, he runs a finger over the name. The stone is cold, and the hard line of the L leaves an indent in his skin.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers.
About the Author: Prisha Mehta is a student at Millburn High School in New Jersey, and she is very passionate about her writing. She aspires to be a successful author one day, and she has won many writing awards, including a Scholastic National Gold Medal. Her work has been published in Spaceports and Spidersilk, Asymmetry, Ginosko, Blue Marble Review, Stinkwaves, Riggwelter, Drabble and is forthcoming in Spelk and Body Without Organs. When she isn’t writing, she can often be found scrolling through psychology articles, sketching in her notebook, or, of course, reading. You can find out more about her at prishamehta.com