The moon shone it’s silver light over the headstones and angel statues as crickets chirped, singing their nocturnal song. The night was clear, and the graveyard was as peaceful as always.
Upon their awakening, the earth was still and undisturbed as the ghosts arose from their resting places. The spirits yawned and stretched, preparing themselves for another night. Most were dressed in more modern clothing, as a great majority of the older ghosts had already passed on.
Once everyone was awake, they exchanged their hello’s and how-are-you’s. Children called to their playmates, young ladies tidied their graves, boys searched for mischief, and the adults conversed. The ghosts’ lives were all quite normal, as they would begin their nightly jobs shortly before midnight, the children would play throughout most of the night, and the teenagers would act as typical teenagers; some worked, some looked for fun, some engaged in their hobbies, and some would flirt.
It wasn’t long before Azrael made her nightly entrance. As she passed through the old iron gates of the graveyard, her black paws stepped silently over the grass, and her big, golden eyes were as warm and friendly as ever.
Everyone always looked forward to seeing Azrael, especially Mona Bailey, a young lady of sixteen, who had called the graveyard her home for nearly three years now. Mona loved to talk to the cat, and pet her, and cuddle with her. But that was all. She, like everyone else, knew the true reason Azrael came into the graveyard every night. As the Grim Reaper had the job of leading a person into purgatory, Azrael the cat had the job of helping a person to crossover into the afterlife. Nobody knew what happened there. But it had to beat being stuck in a graveyard.
Mona, however, enjoyed her time in the graveyard. Not because she was a ghost who underwent her death, every night the same as the other, but because she always looked forward to her father’s daily visits to her grave. During these visits, he would talk to her, tell her stories, read the daily paper to her, and on her birthday, he would leave her a single rose and a card. He never understood why his gifts would be gone the next day; little did he know that Mona had been storing them inside her coffin, as they were too precious to leave aboveground where the wind might sweep them away.
Mona was among the few ghosts who could not remember her death. Of course, her father had told her the story numerous times (and how he held her hand until her eyes closed forever). Although the memory of her death was more than unclear, she vividly remembered her father’s face: his brown eyes, his scruffy beard, the hat he still wore, and the warm, gentle smile he seldom wore nowadays. Sometimes she would see it when he would tell her about a funny memory, but most times, he was too sad to smile. He wasn’t ready for Mona’s demise, and neither was Mona.
The girl sat cross-legged on her headstone, picking petals off a flower, signing a low melody to herself. Although she was translucent, her curly red locks were unmistakable. Azrael approached her kindly, sitting on the ground before Mona and curling her tail. “Good night, Azrael,” Mona greeted her, holding her hand out to the cat. Azrael nudged Mona’s hand with her paw, purring with delight. Abruptly, Azrael left Mona’s grave, and she made her way to a grave across the cemetery. Raising an eyebrow, Mona followed the cat, spying from behind a statue. Azrael had stopped at Mr. Griggs’s grave. He had died while in his fifties, and had been in the graveyard since long before Mona’s arrival. He was a kind man, but according to others, he had not always been so nice. Many of the ghosts had talked about Mr. Griggs’s bitter attitude, and how they were amazed how his time in the graveyard helped him sort out his problems and shape him into a better person. He even seemed to enjoy his job as the graveyard’s gatekeeper, picking up the live gatekeeper’s slack.
The cat rubbed her side against the grave, the same way a cat would rub against its owner’s leg for attention, and she jumped onto the top of his headstone. After waiting for a moment, Mr. Griggs’s spirit appeared beside the grave, and Azrael meowed, letting him know it was now his time. A huge, toothy smile spread over Mr. Griggs’s face, and he followed the cat down to the old oak tree at the far eastern end of the cemetery. Mr. Griggs petted the cat for the last time, and with ultimate joy, he passed through the tree until his ghostly body had disappeared. A bright, golden light accompanied him, enveloping the whole tree only for a few seconds, and then the tree was back to normal.
With pale blue eyes full of awe, Mona witnessed the scene, and before the cat could spot her spying, she hurried back to her own grave. Silently, she wondered what it would be like to finally move on. She had heard rumors that each spirit has his or her own personal, unique experience at the old tree. What would hers be like? What or who will she see when she finally crosses over? But she quickly dismissed the thought. She had already left her father once. She didn’t want to leave him for good.
“Good night, Miss Bailey,” called a familiar voice. Already annoyed, Mona let out a sigh and greeted the woman. Miss Jane Collins was a thirty-two-year-old woman who had been in the graveyard for almost a decade. She was the graveyard’s counsellor, and Mona seemed to be her favorite person to pester. Mona was a locked door full of secrets, and Miss Jane Collins was more than eager to unlock her. “How are we feeling, Mona?” she asked with an exaggerated smile framed with bright red lipstick.
“Peachy,” Mona replied, refusing to look up from the flower she had already de-petaled.
“That’s lovely, dear,” Jane said. “Shall we get started?”, she said, pushing up her glasses and clutching her notepad.
“I don’t feel like talking.”
“It’ll make you feel better, dear. It always does,” insisted Jane. “Now, let’s see… Oh yes, there we are.” She flipped through her notepad. “Now, last time, we discussed your sleeping pattern. Are you sleeping better during the day?”
“I guess,” Mona shrugged, still refusing to meet Jane’s eyes. She tossed away the remaining stem of her flower.
“Very nice.” Jane scribbled something inside her notepad. Mona tried to keep it secret that she always woke up around four o’clock in the afternoon. It was a rule to stay asleep during the day, but Mona chose instead to stay awake for at least an hour each day to hear her father. She had lied and told Jane that she was just “restless”, which Jane insisted was the reason Mona could not move on. Allegedly, when a ghost is “restless”, he or she is holding on to unfinished business. Mona did not believe this was true, but she agreed anyway to shut her up. God, was she a pest.
“Do you have any suppressed feelings you feel we need to discuss, dear?”
“No. Like I said, I don’t really feel like talking.”
“Very well. I’ll respect your wishes this time, Miss Bailey, but you really should open up a bit more. It’s unhealthy to keep thoughts and emotions bottled up.” Jane collected her notes, adjusted her glasses, and offered Mona a clumsy smile. “Until next time, Miss Bailey.” Then, she walked away, seeking out her next patient.
Azrael had made her final rounds. All three ghosts she had been ordered to help had finally crossed over, so now the night was hers to enjoy. Although she was not allowed to have favorites, Azrael frequently spent hours at a time with Mona. She was kind, gentle, and affectionate. But most of all, she was lonely, and Azrael felt sympathy for the poor girl.
Returning to Mona’s grave, Azrael watched Mona lying on her back with her head rested upon her folded arms. She let out a meow, and Mona met her golden eyes. She smiled and called her over.
Mona continued to stare up at the stars, twinkling like an ocean of glitter. She wondered if her father could see the same stars from her old home. Perhaps he, too, was stargazing, as it was an activity they both enjoyed, especially after her mother’s death. Another reason why Mona was unhappy was because she had expected her mother to be in the same graveyard. To her dismay, Annabelle Bailey’s grave was empty, and she had been told that her mother had crossed over years ago.
“Azrael?” Mona said, her sweet, trembly voice breaking the silence. “Why do we have to die? Why can’t we live on forever?”
No response was given. All Mona heard was the endless chirping of crickets and the distant hum of other ghosts’ conversations.
“Do you think I’ll get to talk to my dad again before I move on?”
Once again, there was no response.
“I know you can’t answer me. But I guess I’m just kinda depressed.” A tear formed in the bucket of her eye, and Azrael nuzzled her cheek and purred loudly. Mona ran her pale hand over the cat and wiped away her tears with the other.
Before long, the sky grew a little brighter, fading from dark blue to violet, to pink. All the ghosts were making their way back to their graves. Within a short while, the graveyard was silent, and the sun introduced a new day.
Azrael wandered up the path to the old iron gate, and with the twitch of her tail, she faded away.
As usual, Mona awoke at four o’clock. She heard footsteps approaching her grave, accompanied by the same cough she had heard for weeks now. Mr. Bailey sat down on the grass at the foot of his daughter’s grave, and she surfaced, only letting her head peek through the cemented top of her grave. She looked like someone bobbing in a deep pool of water.
“I’m back, Princess,” said Mr. Bailey, followed by another cough. “I brought something for ya.” With a weak hand, he slowly placed two red roses on her grave, and then two envelopes, each containing a birthday card.
Two gifts?, Mona thought. She always had trouble keeping track of her birthday as most ghosts could not keep track of time in death, but she was more than certain that she couldn’t have two birthdays.
“Best that I go ahead and give you this one in advance, Princess. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to next year.”
Mona was taken aback. What did he mean? She desperately wanted to ask him, but she knew he’d never hear her.
“I miss you so much, sweetheart. But maybe I’ll see you soon.” Mr. Bailey wiped a few beads of sweat from his forehead, and he shifted onto his knees. “I have to cut this visit short, Princess.” Shakily, Mr. Bailey arose to his feet and blew a kiss to Mona’s headstone. “Happy birthday, darling,” he whispered, and he slowly made his way back down the path of the graveyard.
Once he was gone, Mona clutched her cards and roses, and she quickly took them down to her coffin. She ripped the first envelope open and read her father’s first card.
Today, you would have been nineteen. You would have been a grown up woman. Where has time gone? It seems like just yesterday you were inviting Mom and me to your tea parties with Mr. Teddy. He’s fine, by the way. He still sits on your bed, and he still gives the best hugs when I need them.
I would have loved to have seen the beautiful woman you would have turned out to be. You used to look so much like your mother. Even when you were sick, you were the prettiest girl in the world.
I love you, Princess. Rest well.
After reading the first card, Mona opened the second envelope.
I’ve just come back from my visit with the doctor. Your old dad’s not a spring chicken anymore. Don’t be sad for me, though, Princess. Don’t let this spoil your birthday. Let’s both be happy. We’ll see each other again very soon.
Happy birthday, Princess.
Sleep was hard for Mona to find for the rest of the day. She wasn’t sure whether she should be happy or sad. She had hoped for so long to finally have her father back, but not under such dreadful conditions. Inside her coffin, she lay still in the silence, her mind full and weary. Sleep was hard to find, but she eventually drifted into it.
The night had finally fallen, and all the ghosts in the graveyard awoke again, stretching, yawning, and greeting one another. From underground, Mona could hear hundreds of footsteps above her. She rolled her sleepy eyes and shut them, trying to ignore it all. Then she heard a knock against her headstone, followed by, “Miss Bailey? Yoo-hoo! Rise and shine, sleepy head!” With a groan, she reluctantly arose. Didn’t that woman have someone better to bother? Tucking away her birthday gifts, she floated to the surface.
Miss Jane Collins was awaiting her less than patiently, notebook in hand, wearing that broad, fake smile. “Good night, Miss Bailey! And how are we feeling tonight?”
“Tired,” Mona replied dryly.
“Still not sleeping, huh?” inquired Jane, shifting her red-lipped smile into a thin frown. “Sweetie, you’re never going to move on if you don’t get some proper rest, and certainly not if you don’t open up and discuss what is keeping you from resting.”
“I miss my dad.”
Jane shifted in her black high-heels. “Darling, it’s been three years. We’re supposed to have let go of our loved ones by the end of our first year. It holds you back.”
“What do you care? You only pretend to care about everyone here because it goes on your record, just so you can move on.” Angry, Mona crossed her arms.
“Teenagers,” whispered Jane. “I’m not here for myself. I’m here to help you. Please, just talk to me. It will make you feel better.”
Mona met Jane’s eyes, and finally forced herself to open up. “I didn’t want to die. My dad didn’t want me to die. But here I am. And you keep talking to me about ‘moving on’. Have you ever considered that I don’t want to move on?”
Arching a thin brow, Jane asked, “Why ever would you not want to move on? There’s nothing for you here in the graveyard.”
“No. Not at night. You want to know why I don’t sleep during the day? Because that’s when my dad visits me.”
“Darling, I’m sure you two miss each other, but death is a part of life. It’s cruel and nobody will ever fathom death in its whole, but as spirits, we can’t linger in this world forever. We have to move on at some time. It’s just the way it is, I’m afraid.”
Mona looked unconvinced. Instead of looking at Jane, she only picked at a loose thread on her soft-blue gown.
Jane gave a genuinely compassionate frown. “I had a baby brother,” she said. “His name was Neville. He was such a sweetheart! I used to love to play with him and cuddle with him when he would wake up from a nightmare. He used to bury his face into my shoulder when I would hold him. Neville and I were so close. I loved the little booger,” Jane laughed. “But one day,” she said, with sadness filling her eyes, “we were coming home from school. My mom was driving. Neville was only six. I was twelve. It had been raining that day, and a car had pulled out in front of us before Mom could stop, and we crashed.” Jane paused, wiping a tear from her cheek. “My baby brother died. My sweet baby brother died. I lived the rest of my life remembering all of this, and for years, I lived with the guilt, telling myself that I should have been the one to die. Not him. He was so innocent.
“But I knew that my sweet Neville wouldn’t have wanted me to live like this. I knew he would want to see his big sissy smile again, and I knew I would only drive myself crazy if I didn’t move on.”
Mona cried with her. She had never imagined that Jane had gone through such a horrible childhood. She had no idea that this obnoxious counsellor who pestered her every single night had suffered such trauma and sadness.
“How did you die?” Mona asked suddenly.
Jane frowned, removing her glasses. “I did something horrible, Mona. Something I have refused to let myself remember. Something I so deeply regret.” She met Mona’s eyes. “I hanged myself. I tried so desperately to move on. I tried to let go of the guilt. I tried to be happy. But one night, everything that had built up inside me hit me all at once, and I wanted it all to end. So, I ended it.”
Mona swiftly threw her arms around Jane’s shoulders, squeezing her tightly and sobbing with her. Jane relieved her sorrows on Mona’s shoulder until she recollected herself. Putting her glasses back on, she offered a genuine smile to her friend.
“You see, Mona. Moving on is so important. If we linger on something like this, it damages you. It can do the same to you in death. I could feel your bottled emotions the night you first came here. I don’t want to tell you what to do, Mona. But you need exactly what I needed. A friend. Someone to help you through everything. Someone to help you move on.”
Mona looked down at the ground, nudging a rock with her foot. “But my dad… He wrote me a birthday card. He says he’s dying.”
“I already know what you’re thinking. And I know what you want. But sweetie, don’t rush his death. Life is so precious. I know you want to see him again, but nobody knows how long that’s going to take. Would you rather be miserable and wait, or would you rather let go? There’s so much waiting for us in the afterlife. And when your dad’s time comes, you two will be together again in a much brighter place.” She took mona’s pale hand into her own. “Do what’s best for you.”
Mona said nothing. She looked away from her friend, and she thought. It seemed as though she and Jane were the only two ghosts in the graveyard. Looking around, she could think of only the misery and the loneliness the graveyard had to offer her. Finally, she returned her eyes to her friend and said, “I know what I want to do.”
Suddenly, Azrael made her entrance into the graveyard through the old iron gates. After what seemed like an eternity, she approached Jane grave and rubbed against it. In the blink of an eye, Jane disappeared from Mona’s grave and reappeared at her own headstone. Mona smiled. She knew.
From afar, Jane nervously looked around herself, then down at Azrael who meowed at her. Jane smiled her wide, red-lipped smile and followed the cat to the old oak tree. Once they reached it, she cupped her mouth and exclaimed with tremendous joy and hurried inside the tree. The golden light radiated throughout the tree, and Jane was gone.
Mona felt proud for her friend. She was happy to know that Miss Jane Collins no longer had to suffer her hidden sorrows. She also noticed that her own sadness had left her. The night had a much brighter mood, and the moon seemed to shine a great deal brighter than it had ever shone before. She placed one foot upon her headstone and rested her elbow upon her bent knee, feeling more relief than she had ever felt in both her life and death.
Seconds later, Azrael approached her. Her golden eyes looked more angelic than usual, and after a brief pause, Azrael rubbed herself against Mona’s headstone. Mona stood abruptly, unsure as to what exactly what was going on. She furrowed her brow. “Azrael?”
“Hello, Mona,” arose a clear, feminine voice from the cat’s mouth. Mona’s jaw dropped, as she had never heard the cat speak before this very moment.
“It’s time, sweet girl.” Azrael spun around, and Mona followed, taking one last look at her grave. Mona expected to feel nervous, but all she could feel throughout her ghostly body was peace. Tears welled up in Mona’s eyes, as she never thought this night would come.
As they inched their way toward the tree, it’s shape faded away until Mona saw a tall, solid white door before her. The door opened on its own, and behind the door was Annabelle Bailey’s beautiful face smiling at her, inviting her inside. It was then that Mona knew she had made the right choice.