Choke

by
Fiction - April 20

We circled around the stones, once, like we would find a letter someone left for us. Like in Ghostwriter, which we both had watched obsessively and then tried to recreate with our own Secret Kids’ Crime-busting Society that one time. The reason it didn’t work out was because the nearest metropolis was 45 minutes away and none of our ghosts were that big into literature.

We sat down on the grassy mounds.

“Do you remember that time,” Chris said, “when they drove us out here and he said, ‘I want to show y’all a surprise,’ and it ended up being their funeral plots?”

I nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I do, because it was after dinner and usually any time granddad said he had a surprise it was always Dairy Queen. So I honestly believed we were going to Dairy Queen.”

Chris laughed, but not much. We both sat facing the ridge in silence, the sun fading on Oglethorpe Mountain.

Our grandmother passed away first, but she had still been alive that night when we visited for dinner, though she was just a shell by then. She sat in the back seat with me, smiling and living mostly inside herself, and our grandfather had steered the Mountaineer out onto the highway for barely a minute before pulling over into the cemetery.

When I realized what was happening, the blood drained into my feet. From my place behind him I could see Chris’s hand grip the doorhandle: his eyes steady but his throat tensing, and I knew his spine had to be stiffening like mine. Granddad wound the truck slowly through the narrow roads, pointing out historical gravestones and remarking on the sunset, and far too chipper. We finally pulled over to a patch of untouched grass and he put the truck in park. “Let’s take a look.” But Chris and I didn’t get a chance to exchange any.

Granddad pointed to their already chiseled headstones, “Now this here, I chose because if you look up to the ridge, you can see our house there on top of Oglethorpe.” Grandma and Granddad stood next to each other calmly as Chris and I rocked back and forth on our toes, nodding enthusiastically but bellies jumping, and following the line of my grandfather’s arm out to a small structure that was maybe their house. We were 25 and 30 years old, and our arms were folded protectively against our chests like children, muttering soft “uh-huhs” in support. I couldn’t remember how to sound chipper, and I guessed that Chris had forgotten as well.

“And when your grandma goes,” continued Granddad, “she can look up there from here and make sure I’m behaving.” He winked and gave her a little squeeze and she smiled, tiny and mute, and it reminded me of Penn and Teller and I snorted—half laughter and half horrified tears beginning to burn my lower lids. Chris laughed too; a strained, explosive laugh like someone who’d been holding his breath for too long.

endcap

I startled back to life from the memory when Chris slapped an ant away from his ankle. He tugged at the hem of his shorts, shifting on top of our grandfather’s grave. He tentatively leaned back against the headstone but clearly didn’t want to scoot his butt back to where he presumed Granddad’s head was. He leaned forward on his legs. We didn’t say anything for a while, both trying to make out the tiny dot of white house we were supposed to be able to see from here. The sun dipped further, turning the mountain purple.

“It’s not ours anymore, isn’t that weird?” I knew he was referring to the house, where we would spend over twenty years of our lives retreating, but which now belonged to some other family. Our grandparents had built it at the very top of the mountain, and our grandfather had nicknamed it “Rainbow’s End.”

One time I’d tried to take my little sedan down a rugged county service road. As I drove further and further into the woods it was obvious that even if I got to the end, I wouldn’t make it back, and I got out of the car and looked down at the washed-out mud puddles and I knew there were things I wouldn’t know and couldn’t touch.

In the hot months we’d pass controlled burns in the foothills on our way here; choking forests that couldn’t choke themselves. Acres of matchstick trees plugged into black earth, standing and understanding somehow that they didn’t have to fall over; that instead of reaching out it was time to draw up from below.

“It’s weird,” I said, and we stood up and brushed off and the mountain turned blue in the twilight.

endcap

After dinner that one night we didn’t visit again until almost two years later, when Grandma was dying. I had gone into her room when no one else was in there, sat down by her hospice bed. My grandmother had charmed hummingbirds and deer, chopped the heads off of rattlesnakes in her garden, and shooed away black bears from her porch, but now she was a small dot on top of a mountain. I didn’t say any goodbyes—goodbyes would have just been for me. We sat face to face. She could hear me, but she couldn’t speak, and so I didn’t tell her that I was envious of what she must have been seeing. Or that I thought her crystal blue eyes somehow looked like deep space, and I swore I could see stars. She could focus on me for seconds at a time, before her gaze floated off softly to the side. I wanted some way to ask her what language she was speaking now—now that the few noises she managed only sounded like a slowed-down cassette tape to us. I wanted to whisper excitedly that I knew she was close to our ghosts, and while the rest of my family wandered fretfully around the house I was so excited for her. I wanted to ask her what she could see, to lean in and wink for both of us, because her muscles could no longer reciprocate. I wanted to tell her, “I know you’ve got this all figured out.” But I didn’t, because she wasn’t mine anymore. I just kept petting her hand and smiling; tiny and mute.endcap

 

Hilary Kelley is an illustrator living and working in Atlanta. When she's not illustrating she's running, and if she's not running she's singing in the band Book of Colors. If she's not doing any of those, she writes a thing now and then.

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