The girls all shrieked and skittered past the graveyard. Little ones in saddle shoes, older ones daring to wear micro-minis against their mothers' wasted scoldings. Ellen wore bellbottoms frayed at the ends and took the cemetery as a shortcut, though she often got home later than if she'd gone around.
None of her relatives rested here, no ancestors lying side by side in increasingly weedy plots. Maybe she didn't belong here, strolling six feet over these strangers, all full of breath and blood and who knows how many years dividing her from her bed and theirs. But someone needed to care for them.
Mabel Watts, loving wife and mother, who died just shy of 36, deserved flowers on her birthday. So what if they came from the bouquet of carnations that Margaret Olsen's family placed at her headstone every other week? There would be a fresh bunch next Sunday. Hell, Margaret died at age 97; she probably couldn't even see the damn flowers through her inevitably cataract eyes by that point in her life, let alone smell them. Then there was Thomas Jefferson Washington, who not only suffered from an unfortunately and excessively presidential name, but who died only two weeks after being born. And some sick fucks kept knocking the little mildewed lamb off his headstone. Both ears had already chipped off, and Ellen could only get one of them tacked back on with the contact cement that she’d filched from the school’s supply cabinet. It wasn't pretty, a little too much glue sticking out of the edges like kids' snot, but it held the little figure in place until the next time some disrespecting brat came along.
She happened upon a boy messing about Thomas’ mother’s grave once. He was about her age, sitting crosslegged and ripping up clusters of marigolds, collecting them in his lap. With her hands on her hips, she said, “What are you, Ferdinand the Bull?” He laughed at her with too-sad eyes, said his name was Bill. He had a knack for knowing species of plants she’d never heard of, taught her some too. She found him there a lot after that, same time after school, weeding the more neglected graves.
Ellen's favorite section was the most neglected of all: way in the back, close to the woods where she and her daddy hunted pheasants. She'd gone past it a dozen or more times before stumbling upon it, what with the bramble and bushes that obscured the small lot of forgotten stones. There was a gate that had been knocked down, half-embedded in the earth now and too eroded to read like most of the stone etchings, except for a Star of David in its center. She'd gotten poison ivy brushing back the vine that wrapped around Aleksander Something-ov's marker there. He died in 1882, just two years older than she was today. Born somewhere in the Ukraine, somewhere she could no longer read, and dying in some place half a world away, no wonder he'd gone forgotten. How much of his family stayed on back home, waiting out his return over years that saw no reunion? Or maybe he'd been cast away? Maybe he needed to get out. She could respect that. Sometimes you needed to make your own change. Her? She was hanging on until just the right time.
Sooner or later it would be. Most girls kept hanging on, even when they had opportunities for something better. Ellen swore she wouldn't turn away the chance if she got it. She'd kill for that scrap of luck, and, no offense, but she'd rather die than do what those other girls did to get it. Giggle and play dumb and put on a fake blush for any boy that looked at them for longer than a second. Those girls were more dead than the company she kept here. Some days, she'd almost have them change places: resurrect the dead and show the others a real reason to scream.
The only time Ellen screamed in the graveyard was when she took Bill to the almost-cleared lot in the back. And that was a real reason too. She came under the shadow of Aleksander's headstone, her fingernails digging clay out of the letters, Bill buried deep inside her. Later, she yelled at him when he started walking away without picking up the empty bottles he'd brought, and he actually looked sorry. The next day, he gave her a bouquet of carnations. She put them on Margaret's grave. She didn't think Bill would mind, and didn't care if he did. Flowers were for the dead, and she had living to do.
The last grave in the back belonged to someone named Josephine or Jolene or Joanna — who knew? The first two letters were the only ones that hadn't receded into the slate face. Ellen plucked three ticks from her forearms while trying to clear the clematis that grew over it. She backed away from the plot, rolling a cold match between her fingers. The vine would bloom soon; she decided to let it go.
It was right before she left home.
When Bill drove past the cemetery late that night, Ellen turned to watch it through the passenger window and felt afraid for the first time.
Maybe it wasn't the best way out of town, but she wasn't waiting around any longer.