The guy who sold Landis the burial plot seemed to think that there would be a body, or a cremation, or a service of some kind, and Landis had a hard time explaining to him that there were no bodies, that these were long dead friends, and there would not be a service. The guy, whose job title escaped Landis, reluctantly gave Landis a no-burial, no-cremation, no-service estimate, and it was still out of Landis’ budget. Landis bought the land.
The ghosts had elected not to come along on his errands today. Since the incident with the police, they weren’t grounded anywhere, which was new. They could have left the lake house whenever they wanted, Landis figured, but Landis wouldn’t have left either, if he were in their shoes. Now Landis wasn’t in the lake house, and they didn’t know what to do with themselves. He hadn’t seen Wes in nearly a week—the Antlers library was open 24 hours when you’re a ghost. Danton sometimes asked Landis to buy him magazines. Mostly he and Jeremy kept to each other. Mal often tailed Landis at a distance, silent, observing him, and stewing, a physical manifestation of the judging eyes of god. “I haven’t forgotten,” Mal’s eyes said. “Even when everyone else has forgiven you, accepted you, I will not let you forget.”
But today was a sunny day in Antlers, and Mal had found something else to do. Even a ghost can’t spend all his time commenting on the state of Landis’ soul.
“Can I use the land right away? Today?”
The guy said “Mm,” and led Landis out the back, onto the surprisingly small plot of land Antlers used for nondenomonational burials. There were about 300 graves. There was another, slightly larger piece of land across town, owned by the same man, but that was it for Antlers.
Landis’ plot was not even large enough to fit his body lying down. The guy seemed to guess what he was thinking, because he hovered a hand over Landis’ arm and sternly said, “This isn’t a pre-emptive purchase, is it?”
Landis swallowed. He tugged on his long sleeves, double checking.
“Nothing like that.”
“It’s sensible to plan ahead, but a young man such as yourself…”
“Nothing like that.”
The guy dropped it. After a moment he cleared his throat and left Landis to himself. Landis watched him pick his way around the graves and disappear back inside.
Landis’ plot of land didn’t feel like a grave. It felt like a space between graves. His shoulders crept up to his ears with tension. He had work to do, he supposed, before this would mean anything.
Landis was literally the worst. But he was such a sad bastard that it was hard to hate him. Mal could pity him, Mal could bubble up with fury every time Landis opened his stupid, sad sack mouth, but as much as he wanted to imagine Landis tripping into a volcano, he couldn’t. He couldn’t even imagine a cartoon Satan stabbing Landis in the ass with a pitchfork because no, that’s not what he wanted. He wanted to know if, were he in Landis’ shoes, he would have done the same thing. And at the same time, he didn’t want to know, didn’t want to have the capacity to empathize, didn’t want to see Landis’ flaws in himself.
Mal was pretending to taste a milkshake. He was pretending because Landis had strangled him and dumped him a magic lake. Mal hoped to god that as long as he lived this half life he could still remember what a chocolate milkshake tasted like. There were movies he couldn’t watch anymore because it was unbearable to watch the characters eat General Tso’s Chicken out of a take out box, knowing he could never experience sauce of any variety ever again. He missed sauce. His top five sauces were, in order, turkey gravy, alfredo sauce, that wine-and-butter shit that comes with seafood sometimes, General Tso’s sauce, and Heinz 57. Mal watched Officer I-Forget-Her-Fucking-Name drink a large strawberry milkshake alone at the diner.
Landis walked by on the street, and suddenly Mal wasn’t thinking about milkshakes anymore, thank god. He was thinking “Why is Landis holding a bunch of shitty bargain bin flowers?” and “What’s that fucker up to?” and “I should probably follow him.”
Mal cracked his neck, showing off the deep purple bruising in case Landis or any psychic boy adventurers were watching. He popped out of the shop, onto the street. Apparently Landis was walking distance from wherever he was going, because he wasn’t taking his car. Though practically everything was walking distance in Antlers. In ten minutes they reached the edge of town. There was only a Waffle House and a graveyard before you hit the Interstate.
Mal was sadly not surprised when Landis chose the graveyard over the Waffle House. Sad fucking bastard. Mal couldn’t hold back any longer. He floated up behind Landis.
“Landis. What the fuck are you doing.”
Landis cut across the headstones. It was getting dark, and he nearly fell over a couple of them. Finally they reached an open patch of grass. Mal’s face hardened.
“I know what this is. I know what this fucking is.” He pressed his palms over his eyes, squeezing. It hurt. “If you want to talk to the goddamn dead, I’m right fucking behind you. I’m also in the lake, so if there’s something you want to say to me or my corpse, you’ve got options.”
Landis had a bag with him, too. He put the flowers down, kind of half propped up against this ugly sort of wooden thing with his and Wes’s and Jeremy’s and Danton’s names carved on it. Totally illegible. Just utter shit. Like if you gave a toddler a chisel and the toddler was also on a school bus going 90 miles per hour. Mal’s fingernails dug into his cheeks.
There was a fucking candle in the bag.
“You have got to be kidding me,” Mal screamed. Landis stopped. “You just can’t fucking wait to get rid of me,” Mal choked. “I’m not your dearly fucking departed. I’m right here, Landis. Right here. If you want to say something, I’m, God, I’m here.”
Landis was silent. He turned and looked at Mal.
“I know,” he said, quietly.
Mal couldn’t think of anything to say. Landis didn’t make eye contact with him, ever, but he did now. The light of the day was almost gone, but Mal could just see his eyes, big and sunken in with too little sleep.
“How much did this cost?” Mal said.
Mal sat down next to him, trying not to look at his mangled name on the makeshift headstone. Landis cleared his throat a few times. He flipped the lighter over in his hands, not looking at Mal anymore.
“I’m not trying to bury you,” he said.
Mal barked a laugh.
“I know that sounds stupid.” Landis swallowed. “I know you’re not gone. But unless I do this, I can’t…”
“Can’t be forgiven?” Mal clenched his teeth.
“Can’t honor you. And them. And what I did.” Landis flicked the lighter a couple of times, and held the flame up to the wax of the candle, watching it liquefy. “This is all I could think of to do.” He cleared his throat again. “For you.”
Mal stared at the fire. He looked properly at the wilting carnations, and his name, first on the list. Then Danton, then Jeremy, then Wes.
“You can light it.” He gestured broadly. “The candle.”
Landis did so, and they returned to silence. Landis shifted on the grass while Mal remained perfectly still. Wax pooled in the grass around the candle when Mal spoke again.
“This is gonna make Danton cry. You’re a real bastard, you know.”
“And it looks like you carved my name with a damn key.”
Landis bit his lip. “Yeah.”
Mal blew the fire out.