Ellis Hawkins and Julep McBride sat together on the high school bus taking them home on a late Friday spring afternoon. They had grown up next door to each other on Woodlawn Avenue across the street from the largest local cemetery. Born weeks apart, Julep and Ellis were playmates from the start and had been classmates through 10th grade. Though she enjoyed wearing dresses and had blossomed into a pretty young lady, Julep had always been a tomboy and remained, if not best friends with Ellis, at least his closest female friend (and by far). They frequently finished one another's sentences and enjoyed an easy rapport neither knew with anyone else.
Looking out the window, they gazed at the big neighborhood of the dead. How many times had they played there? As babies, their mothers pushed them in strollers throughout the cemetery. As soon as they could walk, the place became their own vast green, white, and gray amusement park. How they had loved to run down the walkways and in the grass between the graves and climb all over the tombstones. When a little older, they treasured playing hide-and-seek with thousands of headstones and mausoleums providing ideal hiding places.
Unlike most everyone else it seemed, neither Ellis nor Julep had ever been uncomfortable, much less fearful, in the cemetery. None of the local ghost stories about its more notorious denizens had ever fazed them. Instead, the view from each of their upstairs bedroom windows offered an endlessly intriguing, handsome collection of monuments nestled amidst one of the county's most charming landscapes. With all its magnolia trees, oak tree limbs twisting like the arms of an octopus wrapped in purple wisteria and Spanish moss, pink and white dogwoods, and loads of multicolored azaleas, red bougainvilleas, pink camellias, and green grass, Julep thought the place would make a colorfully serene setting for a wedding -- if not for all the graves. The cemetery was especially enchanting and aromatic in the spring.
Ellis and Julep found solace from adolescent anxieties by crossing the street to stroll leisurely among their permanent neighbors. No matter how many times each had traversed the cemetery's many walkways, there were always names, dates, and sayings engraved on tombstones not noticed before, and each youth never failed to marvel at the cornucopia of gravestone architecture. Contrary to long-time local legends that the grounds were haunted, the 16-year-olds found them not only lovely but the quietest, most peaceful public place they knew. Both came to relish it ever more as a refuge from all the pressures of school, family, part-time jobs, and each one's first, awkward efforts at dating.
If feeling especially sorry for oneself, it was always sobering to walk through the Confederate soldiers' section to see row after row of graves of 19-, 18-, and even 17-year-old boys who sacrificed their lives in the War Between the States, and so many without even a name on their simple little headstone. Walking among these war dead stoked a particular stillness that silenced whatever academic or personal woes plagued Julep or Ellis.
Despite many folks mistaking them for a couple since they spent so much time together, they had not dated. Though each found the other attractive, they dared not risk disrupting their oldest, most treasured friendship, especially considering how many young couples they knew had endured rough breakups and were no longer friends or even friendly to each other.
When the bus door finally opened on the edge of town in front of their homes, Mr. Hawkins and Miss McBride said goodbye to the last few friends remaining seated and exited the bus. Since they had a history class worksheet due Monday and did not want homework casting a shadow over their weekend plans, they went to the Hawkins home to knock out the assignment together. With their history textbooks, notebooks, and worksheets spread over the dining room table, the work went quickly.
Ellis's mother sang softly in the kitchen preparing dinner. It had always been a comfort to her that her only child had been blessed with a de facto sister. Having two brothers and a sister growing up herself, she had always wished for more children. Likewise, the McBrides next door were grateful their three daughters had something of a brother a mere stone's throw away. The families went to the same church and had taken several summer vacations together.
Mr. Parker Hawkins arrived from work as his son and goddaughter high-fived each other for finishing the homework.
"Hello there," Mr. Hawkins said with a broad, end-of-the-workweek smile.
"Hello, Mr. Hawkins."
As Ellis's father went into the kitchen to greet Mrs. Hawkins, the family's young maid had one last task to do before leaving. Taking the broom, Epiphany Baxter breathed deeply before quickly going out the front door to sweep the porch. Ellis and Julep smiled at each other as they went to the living room window to sneak a peak at how quickly Mrs. Baxter cleaned the part of the house closest to the cemetery.
"What are y'all grinning at?" asked an amused Mr. Hawkins while picking up the day's newspaper in the living room.
"We're betting how fast Miss Epiphany sweeps the porch," Julep answered with a smile.
Unlike the exceptionally diligent job she did cleaning the rest of the home, Epiphany raced through the ritual of sweeping the front porch -- always her final chore. When her husband picked her up, she insisted on exiting the house via the side door.
When she quickly came inside and shut the front door, Mr. Hawkins greeted her warmly.
"Well, hey there, Miss Epiphany. How are you doing today?"
"Lots better now than I'm done wid' dat front porch. Lawdy, Lawd. If I'd a known y'all was living across de street from a great big ol' graveyard, I'd a sho' never take dis job."
"What's wrong with such a peaceful, pretty cemetery, Miss Epiphany?"
"Now, Mr. Parker, you know good and well dey's haints out dere."
"They're not going anywhere. Why are you so scared of them?"
"'Cause dey lie so still."
Mr. Hawkins winked at his son and Julep.
"We can't get any of our friends to join us over there, Miss Epiphany," Julep declared.
"See." Epiphany raised her head triumphantly. "De white folks be 'fraid of it too. And y'all best not be spending yo' time in such a place neither." She pointed at the teens.
Julep soon went home for dinner before she and Ellis joined a few male and female friends for a movie at the town square's cinema. Afterward, they walked across the square to get malts at the Downtown Dixie Diner. By the time Ellis drove he and Julep home, it was close to 11. Since neither was sleepy and it was a pretty night with the stars out after a week of rain, they sat in lawn chairs shared by their families where the two yards met. Joining them was the McBrides' big black Labrador retriever, Dola.
When her neck got sore leaning back to admire the heavens while scratching Dola's head, Julep focused on the cemetery where she noticed a faint light emanating from what appeared to be the far side of the burial grounds. Squinting, she tried to recall ever seeing a light in the cemetery since it closed each day at dusk and there were no light fixtures anywhere on the grounds. At night it was the darkest place within city limits.
"Do you see a light in the cemetery?" she asked and pointed in its direction.
Ellis turned his head from the stars to look where Julep gestured, leaned forward, and opened his mouth slightly.
"It sure looks like one. Not a big one. And is it moving, at least a little? That's intriguing, especially since I can't recall when I've ever seen any lights over there." He wondered.
"Are you sure it's moving?" Julep asked. "It looks still to me. Could it be a lantern?"
"Maybe," Ellis answered. "I just thought it may have been going up and down a little bit as if it might be a flashlight held by somebody walking."
"Isn't it against the law or the rules for anyone to be there at night?" Julep asked.
"Right. 'Open dawn to dusk' the sign at the entrance says, and it's now close to midnight. How about we go see who – or what – it is?" He asked with a grin and raised eyebrows.
"No way. Who knows who it could be, especially this late." She frowned.
"Or what it could be?" He smiled. "Doo-doo-doo-doo." Ellis laughed.
"Real funny," Julep replied. "No, I don't believe there are any 'haints' out there, however scared Epiphany is of them. I just don't want to risk any kind of confrontation with the sort of folks exploring a cemetery on a Friday night at 11:47 p.m. Plus I'm tired. So I think I'll turn in now."
Though disappointed, Ellis knew when Julep's mind was made up.
"It's been a fun evening," he pronounced. They stood up and said goodnight.
As April rains rolled into May, the rhythms of late spring for high school sophomores came into full bloom. Students were under pressure to resist the calls of longer, warmer days and spring fever romances to study more for rapidly approaching final exams. But most still made time to attend the school's baseball games and weekend parties at friends' houses. Buzz was also brewing over the school's annual end-of-the-year spring fling dance for all four grades.
Every few days, when there was a longer than usual lull in their conversation, Ellis and Julep would ask if anyone had asked the other to the dance. The reply was always the same.
"I don't know. You?"
"I'm not sure."
Over the next few Friday and Saturday nights, Julep and Ellis saw the same illumination in the cemetery. Each noticed it upon turning out the light to go to bed. The small, faint glow emanated from what appeared to be the same spot on the far side of the burial grounds. Ellis and Julep each resolved to tell the other about it but ended up forgetting amid all the blur of family, school, part-time jobs, sports, clubs, church, and everything else in their busy lives.
But one Friday night in mid-May, as friends dropped them home close to midnight, they noticed the same pale light as soon as their buddies' car lights disappeared. Standing in the driveway, Julep and Ellis stopped talking as they looked at the distant gleam.
"I've seen that light on weekends late at night from my room." Ellis looked at her.
"Me too," Julep quickly replied.
"Come on. Let's go see what it is," Ellis said excitedly. "Tomorrow's Saturday, so we don't have to get up for Sunday School. We're not tired. It's not even midnight. Let's just see what it is, Julep."
After a pause to look at the light, she turned to him with a smile.
"Okay. You're on."
"Yes! This is going to be so cool. We probably haven't been in the cemetery at night since the last time we played hide-and-seek years ago, and it wasn't remotely this late."
"But we're taking Dola." Julep pointed at him.
"That's fine. If you want, I can bring Daddy's pistol." He smiled.
"Dola's big enough and can get plenty loud too. I think we'll be fine." She chuckled.
So Julep went in her house to put the large lab on a leash while Ellis got his flashlight and then they headed across the street, with Dola especially thrilled to go outside so late. They walked through the cemetery's main entrance and headed down the central walkway toward the light which remained still but ever less feint. Dola paced left and right in front of them and increasingly tried to jump ahead.
"Hey, I think Miss Dola sees the light too. Getting excited, huh, girl?" Ellis asked.
"Shh. We don't want them to hear us," Julep said with growing concern.
"Don't want to alarm the haints?" He laughed.
"Quiet. I'm serious, Ellis. They could be crooks or creeps — "
"You didn't bring your gun, big shot." She looked at him for emphasis.
"You said yourself Dola's here. Trust me, nobody's going to mess with her, especially once she barks. Besides, what have you got to fear?" He smiled. "I'm here."
She bent over and stifled a big laugh.
"Hey. It's not that funny." He giggled with some disappointment.
After shushing him again, they realized the gleam appeared to come from behind a tombstone just beyond the Confederate section and was beaming outside the cemetery. Now slowing their pace and crouching, they were likely 50 yards away.
Suddenly Dola leaped and began barking, so startling them that Julep dropped the leash and the dog raced to the light. Within a couple of seconds, the light went out as Ellis and Julep ran through the Confederate section shouting Dola's name. Within seconds they heard a car start and quickly accelerate.
Dola's barks could be heard down the road growing more distant. But she soon came prancing back all smiles and jumping on Julep.
"That was tres cool," Ellis observed.
"Hopefully Dola didn't spook whoever was here too much," Julep replied. "So much for bringing a dog along when you're trying to keep quiet."
"Oh, but she added to the experience. That was the most excitement I've had since seeing Adelia Watkins kissing Clarissa Simpson behind the gym two weeks back.
"I feel bad we scared off whoever was here." Julep sighed.
"We didn't mean to, and now we know not to fear whoever's been coming out here at night. It must not be a very scary haint to immediately run away – and I didn't know haints could drive either," Ellis chuckled.
"I hope the person comes back tomorrow night," Julep said.
With Dola back on the leash, they returned home. Each silently admired how lovely and mysterious the grounds looked while bathed in the glow of an almost full moon.
After crossing the street, they said good night and each soon went to bed. It was the first Friday night in weeks that the cemetery light could not be seen when each turned off the bedroom light. Both missed it and hoped it would return the next night.
For Ellis, the next day was defined by visiting relatives out of town, while Julep's day was dominated by working an extra long shift at the county library. Mr. Hawkins' family returned home around 8 that evening. Bored, he went next door to watch television and listen to music with Julep. When rising from her seat to change the music at 10:30, she happened to face her front bedroom windows and noticed the light across the street again.
Standing still, she smiled at her friend and tilted her head toward the light. Ellis quickly stood up and recognized it with a grin.
"Let's go," he pleaded.
"Okay, but without Dola." She smiled back.
They were soon out the front door crossing the street before again following the cemetery's central walkway. Because of the cloudless night under a full moon, they had not thought to bring a flashlight. There was a slight breeze and the light appeared to be in the same location.
Again they walked through the Confederate section as the gleam grew larger and brighter. As they got closer, they walked slower and began to crouch. When about 30 yards from the light, it became clear that it was in the same spot as before and was a flashlight lying on the ground just to the left of a large headstone and pointing to the back of the cemetery. Proceeding very slowly, they noticed a pair of shoes placed next to the flashlight. A few steps further they saw a pair of legs and bare feet on the ground stretched out from the tombstone.
Ellis and Julep stopped and looked at each other for a few seconds.
"Do you want to introduce ourselves?" he whispered.
"I don't want to scare the person again," Julep answered.
"Come on. Let's meet them. Otherwise, we're always going to wonder who it was."
Not answering, she looked at him and then faced the light again. He resumed walking toward it and she followed. When they were perhaps 15 yards from the tombstone, Ellis spoke.
Almost immediately Julep and Ellis were blinded by a light.
"Who's there?" came the frightened reply.
"Don't worry. We're not ghosts. I'm Ellis Hawkins and this is Julep McBride. We live right across from the cemetery and were just curious about the light we've been seeing here the last few weekends."
"And my dog's not with us," Julep added hopefully.
To her and Ellis's surprise, a tall girl about their age looked back at them.
"Hi. I'm Zerlina Perkins … and this is my momma," she sighed pointing to the new tombstone she had been leaning against.
Julep and Ellis walked closer to read the engraving and learn Zerlina's mother had died a couple of months before. She was 47.
"Aw, we're very sorry," Julep said.
"Yes. Deepest condolences," Ellis added.
"Thanks," Zerlina murmured. Now that they were within a few feet of her, they saw her cheeks were wet.
"And we're mighty sorry about my dog chasing you away last night," Julep added. "I feel so badly about that. We were just curious as to what your flashlight was but we thought we better take Dola just to be safe."
"It's no problem," Zerlina waved her hand. "It was likely good for me since I was having a real pity party. The whole thing's kind of funny looking back on it."
"Well, you're very understanding. I promise it'll never happen again," Julep assured her.
"I hope I'm not intruding, but why do you come here at night?" Ellis asked.
For the first time, Miss Perkins offered a weak smile and sighed.
"Before her tombstone arrived, it didn't feel like she was really here," Zerlina said looking at the grave. "And when I'd visit in the daytime, it just didn't feel right. Everything in this place was just too pretty, colorful, and alive with spring. But at night all that goes away and I feel like I really am among the dead. Plus, I like to lean against the headstone and talk with Momma. I'd feel extra weird doing that during the day when other people are sometimes around. I guess it's all pretty weird."
"No," Ellis and Julep quickly spoke up.
"I think it's lovely," Julep continued. "You love your mother very much."
"And she loves or loved me," Zerlina replied. "There's just so much I needed to say to her since she died so suddenly and I didn't get to tell her goodbye."
Julep and Ellis looked at her but were too shy to ask what happened.
"She was killed in a car wreck," Zerlina volunteered.
"Was your mom the one who hit that Mack truck pulling out in front of her by the highway overpass?" Ellis asked.
"She's the one," Zerlina answered.
"We're so sorry," Julep offered and Ellis nodded.
"Thanks. I only come here on Friday and Saturday nights since I don't have to get up for school the next morning."
"Why do you come here alone?" Ellis inquired. "Don't you feel a little anxious coming here so late at night all by yourself?"
"Nobody else in the family wants to come. I guess it's still too painful or each one just has to grieve in his own way. A couple of friends have offered to come, but I wouldn't be comfortable talking with Momma in front of them. So it's just better alone."
"We'll be on our way then. We're sorry to intrude," said Julep.
"No. This has been really cool meeting y'all. It's a relief to talk and actually get a response out here, or at least one I can hear. And now I'm no longer scared of the dog returning."
"So sorry about that," Julep offered. "She jumped and I dropped the leash. She would have never hurt you, though. I promise. She just barks when excited."
"Oh, I understand," Zerlina smiled. "I have dogs too. Looking back, it was good she got me out of the funk I was in."
"I don't recognize you from school," said Ellis. "We're 10th graders at Zora Hurston."
"I go to Flannery O'Connor," Zerlina replied.
In the clear moonlight, Julep realized just how attractive Miss Perkins was: tall, with long brown hair, a quite fetching face, and long legs. She also noticed Ellis's eyes never left Zerlina's and thought she detected a smile on his face she did not recognize.
"Has it been comforting for you to come here," he asked.
"It has," Zerlina replied with her first real smile of the evening. "I've gotten a whole lot off my chest talking with her out here these last few weeks. A lifetime of stuff I should have said but didn't. I know it's stupid — "
"No, not at all," Ellis interjected as Julep turned to look at him.
"But it's only here that I feel like I can truly talk to her or that she hears me, that there's a real connection or communication. I'm sorry, this must all sound so strange."
"Not at all." Ellis tried to reassure her. "I think it's really moving. Deal with the loss in whatever way works best for you."
Julep agreed but found it hard to say anything. She nodded her agreement.
"So how come y'all ain't afraid of being alone in this big cemetery late at night, especially with all the haunted tales about it – and without even a dog?" Zerlina smiled.
Julep started to speak up but Ellis answered first. "We grew up largely in this cemetery. It was our favorite playground when we were little."
Julep shifted her feet again and surveyed the area as Ellis continued talking with Zerlina.
"I'd never spent time in a graveyard," Miss Perkins volunteered. "But this place really is pretty, day or night. And I'm right glad to meet you guys. Having grown up here, y'all may think I'm less of a weirdo than anyone else."
Julep spoke up. "I think what you're doing is lovely — "
"You're not weird at all," Ellis interrupted. "And if ever you'd like some company out here, we're just right across the street over yonder."
Julep looked at him again. Then she noticed Miss Perkins smiling.
"Well, I 'spect I'd feel a little weird knocking on your door to ask you to join me at Momma's grave," Zerlina said with a slight chuckle.
"Then give us a call. Here, I'll give you my number," Ellis answered.
As he and Zerlina exchanged numbers, Julep looked at her watch and wanted to go home, suddenly feeling it had been a long day.
"It's getting pretty late, y'all. I should head back," Julep announced to Ellis's surprise. "But it's sure been sweet meeting you, and very best wishes to you and all your family."
"Thanks so much. I'm glad to have met y'all too," Zerlina smiled and she and Julep shook hands. To the latter's surprise, Ellis hugged their new acquaintance and reiterated how he hoped she would call. Julep tried to recall the last time he hugged her.
Zerlina ended up leaving the cemetery as well, and they all waved goodbye. The flowers appeared to emit a special glow, and Julep could never recall the cemetery feeling so ethereal as she and Ellis walked slowly back along the central walkway. She looked up at the Spanish moss hanging from the gnarled oak tree limbs and deeply breathed in the sweet smell of wisteria.
Ellis was just savoring the setting when he felt Julep take his hand. Other than crossing the street together when quite young, and on their parents' orders, he could not recall them ever holding hands. A warm sensation slowly spread throughout his body as he detected an absence of the earlier breeze. For several seconds he looked straight ahead, saying nothing, but felt Julep turning to look up at him. When he met her gaze, he noticed a slight smile which he returned. She squeezed his hand and he squeezed hers.
Each wondered if a forbidden door had just been opened through which exciting but dangerous risks beckoned ahead. But both knew this felt so right and chose to go with it. Julep had never seen a lovelier lunar light envelop the entire cemetery as they walked ever slower toward the street. Ellis sensed he would now go to the spring fling after all and even figured he could finally guess his date.