The Red Maple by Douglas Kolacki

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The Red Maple by Douglas Kolacki
Illustration by Sue Babcock

Will purchased his standard bouquet of twelve roses, white this time. Sometimes he went with white, sometimes red. No particular reason; he once got purple ones for a girl of seven. It all depended on how he felt at the time.

Bouquet in hand, he headed up Blackstone Boulevard. He’d almost reached the cemetery when he spotted Terri. Or rather, she spotted him.

Terri was a lady from his building–she lived in the flat beneath his. He’d pounded through calisthenics every morning until she rapped on his door and asked him to stop. The building was old, and the hardwood floors creaked and pounded as he ran in place. He apologized and took his morning exercises down to the laundry room.

Now, seeing her on the other side of the boulevard, he waved, holding his flowers, and hoped she would leave it at that.

“Will! Hey!”

He had made the mistake of telling her his name, that time she had come up. He followed up his wave with a nod, maintained his stride, and hoped she would get the message.

“Hey! Woah, woah Nellie.” She laughed and ran across the street, falling into step with him until he gave up and stopped.

“I’m on my way somewhere right now,” he said. People always said not to quit, to keep trying, damn it, you’ll never win if you quit. “Now’s not a good time.” (Which anyone else would have seen straightaway!)

Her eyes lit up with a knowing look. “Oh, yes, ahhh-hah! What’s her name?”

He sagged inside. Damn it all to blazes, he would have to spell it out. “I’m on my way to the cemetery, to pay my respects.”

There–that ought to do it. The light went out of her face, but her feet stayed planted. “Is it a relative? A friend of yours?”

He bit back his impatience. He’d always had a bad habit–raised that way, he supposed–of barking out mean things, uncalled-for things, the kind of things that turned everyone’s heads, that he would have to apologize for afterwards–and he didn’t always get the chance–and would forever rue, cringing at the memory, slapping himself on the head, how could he ever have said such a thing! And it happened easily when something irritated him…like now.

“I’d rather not talk about it.” He pronounced each word carefully. “And you’re keeping me from it.”

“Oh.” She backed away, hands up. “Sorry. I didn’t mean–”
“It’s all right. I just need to–to get going.” He strode off, then remembered to turn and wave. “See you later.”

She stood still. He kept walking.


Swan Point Cemetery.

Of the times he’d received the urges, the need to come out here–he’d dubbed those times the “summonses”–one had never come at this time of day. He’d kept careful track of them all, in a Word document he’d named Dear Departed (DearDeparted.docx). His mind touched upon this as his middle-aged form fell into its routine, familiar now from months of repetition. Most of them he became aware of upon waking up in the mornings. As if the summons arrived while he slept, slipped inside his skull and hovered there, patiently waiting for him to awake. Strong, but never going so far as to wake him up. That made sense; give him the whole day to get his floral tribute and get to the cemetery. Other times, they arrived during his job. He’d go right from his job then, catching a bus, and get home before the sun set. Twice they came at night when he was turning in. He got those done the next day, first thing if it was Saturday, Sunday or a holiday.

But this was later afternoon–late, but not late enough to put it off till tomorrow–and that was unusual.

It occurred to him then, as his legs carried him up the paved road that ran through the gate into the cemetery, between the oaks and monuments, the ancient flat stones with their epitaphs worn away to almost nothing, and the pristine new granites…that he’d never been here after dark before.

This whole thing had started in June–and the longest day of the year was the twenty-first of that month. The cemetery closed its gate at eight o’clock, before the summer sun set. He’d made a dozen trips here and never considered that. He’d taken daylight for granted; he’d never had to think about being in a cemetery after dark. He’d heard of people showing up here, causing trouble and making noise, maybe because the bars had thrown them out. Someone even tried to dig up Howard Lovecraft once. Now it was mid-November and winter was coming on.

Silly, of course. Just as long as he was done and gone by closing time–and he would be. Here’s the end of the long road, the T-junction in front of that tall, tall monument. Left turn onto Burnside Road, keep right onto Crest Lane. There’s the pond to the right, the rock fountain in the middle streaming water. By the pond, where the ground sloping up from the water met the cemetery grass, stood a red maple that might have been there since the American Revolution, branches spreading up into canopy of green; one could build a good-sized cottage and live comfortably under its shade. Its roots spread toward the cemetery, half-buried, and between the largest two of these the bark smoothed out nearly flat from the ground to about three feet up. This was his destination.

The grass here was always freshly mown–it smelled like it, in the summertime, during all of his visits–did they cut it every day, or was it part of this phenomenon? After a while, he’d stopped noticing it.

Up until now, all had remained within the realm of the Normal and the Understood. One could always tell oneself that the “sense” of someone needing his presence here, was just him. His imagination, delusion, the onset of early dementia. Nothing weird, when it was within his own mind. And he’d been accused of being weird once or twice in his life. Class clown in grade school, acting out.

But here, at this spot, a grave had appeared overnight. There was the rectangular mound that told you plainly that someone lay beneath. No dirt; it was covered over with grass. He’d seen this spot as just, well, a spot, and the next day answered a summons to come pay respects. No dirt like a grave newly filled in, but the grass. He didn’t think grass grew that fast. And it looked as if it had always been that way.

The grave itself was the start of the weirdness; the marker completed it. No stone–although a tombstone appearing here would not have been much stranger. God–who else could arrange this?–had chosen the maple. Its trunk smoothed flat, the part overlooking the grave, and its two largest roots extended out to either side, flanking the head of the mound. There was a patch where the bark seemed to fade into the trunk, the wood smooth as if sanded, and it was here where the victim’s name always appeared.

This was the part Will had never completely grown used to. Someone had to have carved it there. And it was always expertly etched, all seven times, like the names in all the cemetery’s stones, monuments, and memorials.

What hit him was, he always knew the name ahead of time.

It always appeared in his mind at the time of the summons, as if someone had spoken it to him. One moment he’d never heard the name; the next, he did. It was like something long vanished from his memory, now rekindled by some chance thought. Searching then for this name, and finding it–always, it was someone who had vanished–didn’t feel strange anymore; he’d grown used to it. The searching, the Googling, really wasn’t necessary, but it seemed important to match a face with the name. This girl was blond, blue-eyed, liked eyeliner, was studying to be a nurse. She had been twenty years old.

He stood over the grave now and called these things to mind. Never mind the weirdness; that didn’t matter. What mattered was that he knew her face and the unique details reminding him she had been a person, a person like unto herself out of Earth’s five billion-odd human beings, whose soul, like a snowflake, had been uniquely fashioned, formed, and sparked to life.

It had fallen to him–why him, he supposed he would never be able to guess–to send this person off.

Somewhere also on Earth–in this case, Tennessee–she had been taken away, dragged out of sight, to some unknown location where he didn’t want to think of what was done to her. And after that, abandoned. And there she lay–again, he didn’t want to know the details–in a hidden place far from any care, stripped of all dignity and thrown out like garbage. For her, there would be no funeral. A memorial service, Will was sure, but she would not be there for it. By the time she was found–if she ever was–only bones might remain.

Looking down at the raised earth–how her remains got there, somehow materializing and pushing up the perfectly-mown grass from underneath, or where they would go afterwards, he wasted no time on speculating. And surely, if it could appear there out of nowhere and her name could appear on the tree trunk, then it wasn’t too outlandish to think she must be enclosed in some kind of casket, not just buried in earth. But there was no point in it. The answers, as with so many other things, lay out of reach.

She should have her family here. Relatives, loved ones, not a stranger.

But here he was. And what could he do? Look up the phone number to her old home, ring up her parents, and say: “Hey, your daughter is buried here in Rhode Island, you can come up and say your goodbyes and gain closure at least, only you have to do it today because after that she’ll disappear again and I don’t know where?”

For the millionth time he wanted to ask: Why here? Why not back home where her people are? And why me?

But he would never get an answer. So…

The name etched on the trunk, at the head of the grave, confirmed the summons. By the time he’d purchased the bouquet and reached the cemetery, he knew, and any doubt had been forgotten. But the grave needed a name and an epitaph.

The name he already knew: HELEN LEAH BYER. The dates: BORN OCTOBER 12, 1990, DIED APRIL 13, 2011. (So she died the same day she had vanished, and, if nothing else, hadn’t suffered that long. One other victim’s death date had been a whole week after her disappearance.)

The etched letters–no, actually “etched” wasn’t the word; he’d studied it close and saw the intricate weavings of the grain, the grooves in all the right places. Close up, you saw just bark, but but when you backed up, the name, the dates and the epitaph, all came into view.

And the words said:


The whole thing actually tended to interfere with the reverential spirit he was trying to attain. To see the name appear magically on that tree trunk was creepy enough; to see these statements weirded him out still more.

The epitaphs varied. he always tried to ferret out from them, some clue where the victim had gone. Clearly, he could skip that in this case. If the epitaph included words like “angel” or quotes from that supernatural book whose celestial author transcended death, then that had to mean that the victim, the part of her that hoped and dreamed, now transcended it as well, and dwelled in the unapproachable light of her Creator.

Other times the epitaph seemed cryptic, something that could be read different ways, like the Magic Eight Ball he had seen in department stores as a boy. But he had never seen one that flat-out said, “Alas, she went to hell.”

Now came the part this was all about. He stepped toward the grave, sank down on one knee, and placed the bouquet on top of it. He undertook every single errand with a sense of apprehension, as if keenly aware that he’d better not mess this up–if he didn’t get it right, there was no one else here to do so–yet, oddly, deep down, a reassurance that he would do fine.

He shifted now so that he knelt on both knees. He clasped his hands to his mouth. Do this like you mean it. Half-measures avail nothing. Yet, once he got started, he found there was no need to coach himself, that it all welled up naturally, into his eyes, out his mouth.

“This dear girl–”

He blurted this out, needed to, somehow, despite never even having heard of her until his summons.


He jolted. He almost–did not–curse. He’d never sworn much since the Navy, and using that kind of language here was out of the question. Biting his lip, he turned around.

Terri stood a few feet back, and wore the sheepish look of someone who knew she was intruding on something personal.

Will huffed out a breath, struggled to his feet. “Terri.”

She wore an awkward look, like a kid caught raiding a cookie jar. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to…ah…relative of yours?”

Damn. He imagined this word, he didn’t say it out loud. How to explain this? Should he just lie?

He shut his eyes, opened them again. “No,” he said quietly. “Not a relative.”

“I didn’t mean to intrude, I just–”

“Were you following me?”

“It’s just that…” She swallowed. “Well…you’re all by yourself here, and I thought…”

He was thinking something else. This lady, middle-aged like himself, no spring chicken like himself, and unmarried like himself–whether divorced, widowed or in danger of an old maid’s fate, he neither knew nor cared–she’d encountered him on the stairs a little too often, always smiled at him, and once blushed when she said hi. And now she saw him dressed up and carrying flowers somewhere.

Did she want to find out who he was seeing? Who was he romancing, that Casanova?

“Now,” he said, “You know.”

Terri craned her neck to see the tree-wrought name and epitaph. “Was she your…?”

“No. Not my gal-pal or anything like that.” Just a look at the dates ought to have told her that, frankly.

“Oh. Then…who…?” Her face was a muddle of puzzlement, embarrassment, and self-consciousness.

Will was looking back at the grave. How he would explain this, he had no idea. But now that Terri was here…before, he’d always done this alone. He was used to that, but it bothered him somewhat that most people got proper funerals with families, friends, and well-wishers all turned out as one for a great show of honor, and to send the deceased off properly. These victims, after being torn away so long before their time, got only one person, and a complete stranger at that.

Two strangers wouldn’t improve it much, he supposed. But it would still be twice as good as before.

“Who was she?” Terri asked.

Deep breath. There was something about telling Helen’s story out loud, as opposed to keeping it in his thoughts. And conversation had never been a strong suit of his. He stammered, he lapsed into awkward silences, but little by little, he got it out. Slowly, because he didn’t want to mess this up either. And Terri listened rather than cutting him off, or trying to talk over him, or fighting for control of the conversation. He appreciated that.

When he had finished, he waited. He still could not read her face. Part of him hoped she would shake her head, declare him nuts and walk away…but another part of him hoped she would stay.

She stepped up to him. “I’ll join you.” She said it in a hushed voice that matched his own of a minute ago.

“Thank you.” Only then did he realize, he’d wanted her to–only when he felt the rush of gladness in his chest. An impulse took hold, that he was glad she’d shown up, but he didn’t go that far.

Will resumed his kneeling position by the grave. Terri very slowly, as if almost too conscious of the need for reverence, knelt down beside him, clasping her hands.

It was funny, the things that came to mind at these times. The book 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea: Captain Nemo and his crew in diving suits, burying one of their own at the bottom of the sea, kneeling. The Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, toward the end when the poor girl expired after biting the poisoned apple, the dwarfs kneeling in prayer around her stilled body. Things like these came to mind, always stories, not examples from real life although he’d been to a memorial service or two, because real life had always alienated him and he’d never been able to connect with it, somehow.

Softly, he spoke. “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

This always proved the hardest part. he prayed, and as he recited the words, he considered the unfortunate girl whose day this was. She was a human being…and human beings weren’t like something stamped and riveted together on an assembly line, that if one breaks, well, just replace it. And humans numbered in the billions, but none of them had ever been, or ever would be, Helen Leah Byer. There could never be anyone to fill her role on Earth as she had done. No positive spin could be placed on this. It was an irrevocable loss. How devastating to her family. Will, who was growing old without loved ones, could never imagine it.

The senselessness–always, the senselessness–Why? How?

A sob burst out. Good, good. This usually happened by the time he got to “Yours is the kingdom, and the power, and glory, forever and ever,” and he dissolved into his tears. This had always happened, so far, and he was glad it did. It made this paying of respects complete. Usually tears came very hard; he had not cried, to his dismay, even at his father’s funeral. Years went by without tears. Maybe life had been easy. Maybe life had hardened him into a cold SOB.

But now they streamed, thank God, and his shoulders heaved. He buried his face in his hands. Terri touched his arm. Fortunately she said nothing.

After about a minute, he’d cried himself out. It usually took that long. The floodgates opened, but did not pour on and on, making up for all the lost time, as he might have supposed. He sniffed, but did not wipe his face on his sleeve. Let his face remain wet. It didn’t seem proper, somehow, to wipe the tears away so soon.

Terri shook her clasped hands. “Father God, please be kind to your daughter, who was training to be a nurse and would have dedicated her whole life to helping people.”

Now, time for the final note.

Not much to this, actually, as there really wasn’t much to any of it. These private services were always over and done with in five minutes. But he had to do this.

Reaching out, he placed a hand on the grassy mound. He let it rest there, beside the roses, the soft grass under his palm and fingers.

Once he had done this, he looked up.

Darkness was falling; the stars were coming out.

“Will?” Terri asked.

He pointed. “See up there?”

“Yes.” She sounded puzzled.

“And somewhere beyond there, heaven. Some of the stars–most of them I guess–are like our sun, huge burning hydrogen lamps. And thousands of them show up in the sky. Did I ever tell you I lived in western Australia once, with the Navy? Just a small communications station out in the boonies, and at night you could see them all. Now just suppose. What if one of those was actually Helen?”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe departed spirits, the good ones at least–only our Creator can decide who’s good–they’re not so much what one might think of as ghosts, but more like living windows into his realm. What if that heavenly radiance–radiance to good people, to the bad it’d be more like a glare–shone out through them, and we can see it from here?”

Terri paused. “Interesting idea.”

“How about this. With every murder, every crime like this, more of them appear? Starting with Abel and on through the ages, thousands, millions, until…”

She just looked at him.

“Well, they sort of assemble together. All those little windows, combining into a big window. You see? What keeps us separate from our Creator, his light and everything…what’ll happen when it’s no longer there?”

Terri scanned the skies, nodded. Maybe she was humoring him.

“Anyway, it’s just a thought.” He raised himself up, cautiously; his legs were sore and starting to tingle. He stretched. “That’s it.”

“That’s it?” Terri stood up.

“We’re done.” Dear girl, he thought again, but not toward the grassy mound. He seemed to have forgotten all about that. Goodbye, Helen Byer. For now at least. The world shall see you again. The world will see you all again. Walking away, he said: “Tomorrow, if you come here, you’ll find only fallow ground and no writing at all on the maple. It’ll be obvious that no hole was ever dug. Until next time.”

She hurried to catch up. “Really? That’s really how it goes?”

He stopped. Darkness was gathering fast, the headstones and crosses and statues fading into silhouettes, the last orange sliver of sun setting over the treetops. Voices floated from over to his left; he squinted in that direction.

Terri whispered in his ear. “They sound drunk.”

One of them shouted “Hey!” Another, more slurred voice called out the same.

“Seen us.” Will didn’t move. It would be difficult to walk in the cemetery now, without running into one of the stones. A flashlight beam wobbled about ahead, then another one joined it in a dance of light that plainly broadcast the state of their owners, along with the increasingly loud voices.

“Terri, head for the gate. Hopefully this is nothing, just college kids. I’ll distract them, laugh and joke with them, and then meet you outside. But just in case…”


“I’m afraid if we both take off, they’ll catch us. Maybe they haven’t seen us yet and will think I’m alone.” She held still. “Go!” he hissed.


She went.

Behind her, she heard Will’s voice, first jovial, then low, then lost among the raucous braying that never seemed to quit. All sounds faded, save the crickets, as she approached the gate.

She waited five minutes, ten, twenty. Finally she got out her phone and called the police.


The next morning Terri called out from her job at the coffee house. She went to the cemetery instead.

The police had arrived, and plunged into the dark. They had cruised patiently along the roads, teamed with the cemetery’s security, but found neither Will nor the intruders. Someone had dug a small hole, only a few inches deep, and it was a good seven feet from the nearest grave, if they’d meant to rob one.

Perhaps Will’s job–he never told her how he’d come to be the one to do this, but perhaps it went back, far back, even to colonial days. She carried a bouquet of roses from the same shop on Wayland Square where Will must have gotten his. It was the only flower shop in the neighborhood that wasn’t a seasonal cart or kiosk, and it was now past summer when roses bloomed.

The red maple guarded the pond, the water streaming over the rock fountain in the center of the water. She stopped and looked at her roses and thought of a silly fantasy she’d entertained yesterday, that Will might buy something like this for her.

All right. Now she was ready.

She approached, looked up, and saw the mound exactly where Helen’s grave had been yesterday. The name wrought in the tree trunk, however, was different. She felt no surprise at all to see it was Will’s.

Tonight she would look up at the stars, and see if, perhaps, one twinkled there that hadn’t been there before.


BIO: Douglas Kolacki began writing while stationed with the Navy in Naples, Italy. Since then he has placed fiction in such publications as Weird Tales, Dreams & Visions, the Lorelei Signal and Aurora Wolf. He now haunts Providence, Rhode Island.