Letters to the Lost

By: Brigid Kemmerer



CHAPTER ONE


There’s this photograph I can’t get out of my mind. A little girl in a flowered dress is screaming in the dark. Blood is everywhere: on her cheeks, on her dress, in spattered droplets on the ground. A gun is pointed at the dirt road beside her, and you can’t see the man, but you can see his boots. You showed it to me years ago, telling me about the photographer who got the shot, but all I remember is the scream and the flowers and the blood and the gun.

Her parents took a wrong turn or something. In a war zone, maybe. Was it Iraq? I think it was Iraq. It’s been awhile and I’m fuzzy on the history of it. They took a wrong turn, and some spooked soldiers started firing at the car. Her parents were killed instantly.

The little girl was lucky.

Unlucky?

I don’t know.

At first you see the horror because it’s so perfectly etched in the girl’s expression.

Then you see the details. The blood. The flowers. The gun. The boots.

Some of your photographs are equally gripping. I should probably be thinking of your work. It seems wrong to be leaning against your headstone and thinking about someone else’s talent.

I can’t help it.

You can see it on her face. Her reality is being ripped away, and she knows it.

Her mother is gone, and she knows it.

There is agony in that picture.

Every time I look at it, I think, “I know exactly how she feels.”

I need to stop staring at this letter.

I only picked up the envelope because we’re supposed to clean up any personal stuff in front of the gravestones before we mow. I usually take my time because eight hours is eight hours, and it’s not like I’m getting paid for this.

My grease-stained fingers have left marks along the edges of the paper. I should throw it away before anyone knows I touched it.

But my eyes keep tracing the pen strokes. The handwriting is neat and even, but not perfect. At first I can’t figure out what’s holding my focus, but then it becomes clear: a shaky hand wrote these words. A girl’s hand, I can tell. The letters are rounded just enough.

I glance at the headstone. It’s newish. Crisp letters are carved into shiny granite. Zoe Rebecca Thorne. Beloved wife and mother.

The date of death hits me hard. May twenty-fifth of this year. The same day I swallowed an entire bottle of whiskey and drove my father’s pickup truck into an empty office building.

Funny how the date is etched into my brain, but it’s etched into someone else’s for something entirely different.

Thorne. The name sounds familiar, but I can’t place it. She’s only been dead a few months, and she was forty-five, so maybe it was in the news.

I bet I got more press.

“Hey, Murph! What gives, man?”

I jump and drop the letter. Melonhead, my “supervisor,” is standing at the crest of the hill, wiping a sweat-soaked handkerchief across his brow.

His last name isn’t really Melonhead, any more than mine is Murph. But if he’s going to take liberties with Murphy, I’m going to do the same with Melendez.

Only difference is that I don’t say it to his face.

“Sorry,” I call. I stoop to pick up the letter.

“I thought you were going to finish mowing this section.”

“I will.”

“If you don’t, then I’ve gotta. I want to get home, kid.”

He always wants to get home. He has a little girl. She’s three and completely obsessed with Disney princesses. She knows all her letters and numbers already. She had a birthday party last weekend with fifteen kids from her preschool class, and Melonhead’s wife made a cake.

I don’t give a crap about any of this, of course. I just can’t get the guy to keep his mouth shut. There’s a reason I said I’d handle this section alone.

“I know,” I say. “I’ll do it.”

“You don’t do it, I’m not signing your sheet for today.”

I bristle and remind myself that being a dick would probably be reported to the judge. She already hates me. “I said I’d do it.”

He waves a hand dismissively and turns his back, heading down the opposite side of the hill. He thinks I’m going to screw him over. Maybe the last guy did. I don’t know.

After a moment, I hear his mower kick on.

I should probably finish clearing the mementos so I can get on my own mower, but I don’t. The September sun dumps heat on the cemetery, and I have to shove damp hair off my forehead. You’d think we were in the Deep South instead of Annapolis, Maryland. Melonhead’s bandana almost seemed like a cliché, but now I’m envying him.

I hate this.

I should be grateful for the community service, I know. I’m seventeen, and for a while it looked like they were going to charge me as an adult—but it’s not like I killed anyone. Only property damage. And lawn maintenance in a cemetery isn’t exactly a death sentence, even if I’m surrounded by it.