This story is by Aarika Copeland and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The cemetery isn’t far from Aunt Becky’s house; enough time for her to pour out a parental lecture. I pretend to listen, taking in a few words here and there as I stare out the car window at the passing fields of rural America. I love Becky, and she’s the coolest, but she’s not my parents, and I’m tired of her trying. I slip the headphones from around my neck up and over my ears when the spiel turns into whether I think they would be ‘proud of the young man you are’.
The bass in my speakers fills the minutes until we pull onto a gravel road. Becky pulls to the side, keeps the car running, and shifts into park. I stare at the dump in front of us: headstones peek out beneath overgrown grass and vines, empty soda cans and fast food wrappers litter the ground, and an array of junk embellish the remaining field. Why can’t I work on my community service in the animal shelter like the other guys? It wasn’t even my BB gun.
My headphones fall back around my neck as Becky yanks them down. “I said I’ll be back in four hours. Stay in your jacket; it’s getting chilly. Oh,” she reaches in the back seat and produces a large thermos and my neon orange vest, “I made you some hot chocolate to help keep you warm.”
I grab the thermos and the vest before opening the door. Becky shifts the car into drive and leaves in a haze of dust. My hands tingle from the warmth of the thermos, making me wish I wore the gloves she offered this morning.
On the far side of the cemetery, a girl fights against a determined vine wrapped around the base of an angel statue. With luck, I can avoid her for the next four hours. Feeling awkward, I move toward the pile of garden tools laid out near the edge of the cemetery. I shuffle the hoe, shovel, and other supplies around with my foot.
“Hey! Can I get some help?”
I look up to find the girl staring in my direction. Fallen leaves stir around her ankles in the breeze, and she stands with one hand on her right hip while leaning her weight against the shovel in her other. A Santa-hat flattens her blonde strands, and her red-and-white outfit pulls the Christmas look together. Even the rosy cheeks and wide smile reflects the jolly fat man’s face. Not waiting for my response, she shouts again. “Are you here to help or not?”
“Not really,” I call back.
“Oh. I guess you won’t need me to sign that community service sheet?”
I shake my head in defeat as she giggles. “Come on, grab those clippers,” she says.
I pick up the shears and walk over to her.
“Start on that one,” she says, pointing to the headstone next to her.
Peeking a glance at the decked-out Christmas ornament next to me, I drop the thermos and kneel in the driest patch of damp leaves. Dangling from her ears are miniature Christmas light bulbs that glow, she wears black leather boots trimmed with white fur, and I swear its tinsel that makes her hair gleam in the sunlight.
After an hour of plucking and shucking, my fingers are numb. I pick up the thermos and roll it in my hands.
“Here,” she says, pulling off her gloves and handing them to me.
“Don’t you need them?”
“I think you need them more. We’ll share.”
I take them and slip them over my fingers.
“Really?” I hold my hands up, showing off the fur trimmed gloves.
She laughs and says, “Not into Christmas?”
“Corporate holidays? No.”
“What about the holiday spirit?”
“You mean, like, a higher power? Like Santa?” I say, gesturing to her get-up. “Seeing is believing.”
Smirking, she resumes the chopping of foliage.
“So, shooting yard inflatables’ in a town you just moved to is your way of rebelling?”
“How’d you know about that?”
“Small town, I guess.”
“That guy had at least ten in his yard. What was the harm of a few less? Besides, it’s creepy, isn’t it? A grown man, no kids, who still rides a bicycle everywhere, decorates his house and lures the eyes of children,” I say with a chuckle.
Her smile is unwavering, but she doesn’t laugh. “His daughter died years ago.”
My smile fades and I regain my war path with an unruly shrub.
“He rides that bike because of what happened to her.”
I turn back, interested in the story she’s brewing.
“Those inflatables were his daughters. He bought her a new one every year. They hit a patch of black ice on their way home from buying that year’s addition. His daughter died in the accident. He hasn’t driven, or ridden, in a car since. But he kept the inflatables.”
We work in silence the rest of the time and manage to make headway on clearing out the weeds and trash. Becky arrives, and I hand back the gloves, saying a quick goodbye to the girl in the Santa hat, never catching her name.
“Did you enjoy your hot choc-o-late?” Becky asks playfully. I smile but keep quiet.
I find the cemetery clear of debris the next morning. Santa-girl, still in costume, shoulders deep in a maze of Christmas lights. Becky hands me my thermos and vest before waving good-bye. I jog over to the girl, helping her unravel the tangle.
She offers little in explanation, but I follow suit and help her wrap the headstones in lights, poinsettia, and all other decorations she’s brought. The cemetery begins to transform into a cheesy Christmas scene.
“I never got your name,” I say.
“Alice,” she says. “Alice Whitman.”
“Tucker Hull.” I pick up the thermos and hold it out. “Want some hot chocolate?”
She smiles and nods. I unscrew the cap and pour her a cup. We sit against granite headstones, and I feel myself relax into the warmth of liquid goodness. In her company, I find the courage to share the painful truth behind my recent move.
“My parents died in a car crash last year. Becky is my only relative.”
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know about the man’s daughter. I destroyed a piece of her memory. My parents would be disappointed. They believed in this whole ‘Holiday Spirit’ thing. Be kind to thy neighbor, or whatever.”
She tells me she understands, that she knows what it is to lose someone. “My father used to say ‘seeing is believing,’ but I’d remind him of the full quote.” Her blue eyes glisten as she fixates them on me. “Seeing is believing, but feeling is truth. You feel you’ve done something wrong. Fix it.”
Her words are inescapable. Not all things in life are mendable, and I don’t know if an apology could bring the man any peace but watching the joy emanate from her smile makes me believe I can do just that.
With only a few graves left to decorate at the end of the day, the cemetery is a twinkling star likely to draw more visitors than it has in years. Becky is in awe when she arrives which draws back a grin on my face.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I say to Alice.
She waves. “Thanks, Tucker.”
I ask Becky to hit the local hardware store before we head home. We buy a snowflake inflatable and a string of lights.
The next day I take the thermos and gloves Becky lies out for me. I hug her and say I’m going to ride my bike to the cemetery today. When I arrive, the place is still aglow with Christmas joy. People peruse the rows of crypts and headstones, admiring our handiwork while paying tribute to those who call the cemetery home.
Lost in the sea of Santa hats, Alice goes unseen. Grabbing my gear, I head over to the only remaining headstone underneath an oak tree. Focused on trimming back the bushel of grass, I don’t hear the man approach. He clears his throat, and I spin on my knees.
The man steadies his multicolored flashing bike against the tree. “Thank you, for replacing the inflatable.”
I hang my head. “What I did was wrong. I don’t deserve your thanks.”
“I owe you more than thanks.” He gestures around the cemetery. “You’ve restored this place. I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t see it. It felt like a hopeless thought that she would ever be surrounded by this joy again. That’s no longer the truth. She’d love what you’ve done.”
He points to the headstone under the tree. “My daughter.”
I turn back to the headstone, pulling the last of the vines obscuring the epitaph. My heart skips as the last of the greenery snaps apart and falls. I read the name etched on the surface.