The sun was already below the horizon. The heat of the day was lifting and the breeze from the south passed over the parking lots and strip malls out by the highway. Jeff, Brian, and I had already been to the liquor store and were looking for a place to settle in for the night’s drinking. We could have gone to Brian’s but we were all a little stir crazy having been stuck inside at jobs all day.
The cops had been patrolling the park a lot lately, and we didn’t want to get caught underage drinking. Brian, especially, would be in trouble with him being the only one of us over 21. Plus, he’s the one who bought the beer and whiskey and it was his car.
I remembered we used to haunt a graveyard buried in the woods just off one of the main drags. The land belonged to someone who long ago had left the parcel to grow. There were no houses on the street, only a daycare on the corner. The street trailed off into undeveloped territory, a sort of nature oasis in the great sprawl of suburban Kansas City.
“It’s out there by itself,” I said. “I’ve been there a couple of times. No one’s ever bothered us. It ought to be a good place to lay in a while.”
“A graveyard?” Jeff said. “I don’t know. I’d rather go down to the park and hike in and build a fire.”
“Come on,” Brian said. “Let’s give it a shot.”
Brian told us to leave the beer in the cooler until we stopped. For some reason, he had his hackles up, had a bad feeling about the night. We had cruised this part of Southtown thousands of times. We drank and drove as a matter of course. But tonight was different. Jeff and I knew something was up. Better to leave the beer alone for now. We’d be where we wanted to be soon enough.
We pulled onto the side street that left off in the wooded area. We drove down to the end of the street and turned around, pulling up to where I remember the gravestone were. We waited a few minutes smoking and joshing around, waiting to see if anyone noticed us or if any cops would turn down the street. Jeff and Brian cooked off a couple of joints.
After they were good and high, we climbed out of the car. Jeff grabbed the cooler out of the back seat and Brian unlatched the trunk. I reached in and pulled out the bottles. Follow me, I said, and dove into the tall grass just beyond the road’s surface. Poor Brian was just under five feet tall, beefy, broad at the shoulder. He got lost in the growth and Jeff and I played hell finding him in a version of Marco-Polo.
We made it through the brush at the edges of the wood and into the empty forest floor. Jeff was curious about these grave markers and hurried us along.
We wandered around the woods, picking our way through the light undercover—mayapple and saplings reaching for whatever light came down through the canopy. The woods could not be that old, I thought. It was once someone’s farm. It had to be. The trees had been growing like this maybe since the 1920s. I didn’t know and only thought of it a minute.
Night was falling and the forest had become quite dark when we came across the first grave marker. Jeff flicked his lighter but the stone was so aged there were nothing more than undecipherable grooves on the face of it. Before we moved on to the next, we communed over the whiskey, each of us getting a good drink. I took two, split open a beer that went down so cold and quick I took another from the cooler.
We went different directions, each of us shouting out when we found another marker. Sometimes trees had grown over the stones. Our voices didn’t carry. The woods acted like a soundproof chamber, shielding us from the city sounds beyond and confining us in our own world.
After about a six pack and a couple more pulls off the bottle, I had gotten soppy sweaty from the heat and humidity. Sitting down on a stone, I felt the cool work up from the forest. It felt fine. I let the boys walk the woods some more and contented myself with a smoke and another beer.
“You can’t read any of these markers,” Jeff said, sitting on the stone next to me. “I’ve only been able to read a few dates. 1895, 1903. One said 1889, that’s the earliest I could find.”
“This must have been a family graveyard,” Brian said, taking a pull on the whiskey and sparking up another joint. “It’s not very big.”
“It was big enough for what we needed it for,” said a long, deep voice from behind me. I turned and couldn’t see anything in the dark. “This has been in my family for five generations.”
A shadow moved out from the trees and approached Brian, who was standing in front of Jeff and me. I could make out that they shook hands. “Brian. Brian Pollack.”
“Howdy,” the voice said. He moved close enough for me to see he had a hand extended. I shook it. Right away, I noticed the guy was missing some fingers. “I’m Patrick,” I said. “We didn’t mean to trespass on your land. We’re not up to anything.”
Jeff introduced himself and shook hands. “Yeah,” he said, “we’re just having a couple of beers. Doing a little exploring.”
“Well, you’ve come to the right place,” the voice said. “No one comes around here. The graveyard and all. We used to farm this land, but the city grew out around it. I don’t remember it much, he said, but we used to have a big house on the corner of the land where the daycare is now.
“My mom grew up here, as did her mom. They go all the way back to the 1840s. We buried everyone here. The latest stone here dates to 1945. My uncle.”
“It’s a beautiful place,” Brian said. And, indeed it was. The hardwoods supported a closed canopy. The forest floor spread out clear but for a layer of undergrowth and grapevines snaking into the trees above. The night was quiet and the tree frogs were singing. He opened a beer and handed it to the man. “What happened?”
“Land got expensive,” the man said. “It came to the point where selling land made more money than farming. Sons and daughters moved away. How long are you going to stay?”
“We’re just here to take a look around,” Brian said. “We’re on our way out now.”
“That’ll be good, too,” the voice said. “Go ahead and finish your beers. Have fun.”
Just like that, the man was gone. We stood there looking at each other. We guzzled our beer and ran the hell out of there. We bustled into the car and drove out to the main street. When we were set up at Brian’s I was already drunk. Jeff was getting there, and between the alcohol and weed, Brian’s eyes were getting narrow.
We sat watching television in Brian’s living room until the hour approached midnight. He drove Jeff home. He wobbled up to his front door and we continued to my house. Sitting in the driveway, Brian turned to me.
“Man, was that freaky or what?” he said.
“It was all right. The guy was nice.”
“Yeah, but I told you something was up. I could feel it. Then, this guy comes out of nowhere and just disappears. I didn’t hear a car pull up or drive away. What do you make of that?”
I shrugged my shoulders. Brian then held out his hand for me to shake. I took it and realized he had a couple of fingers tucked into his palm.
“That was the freakiest. The dude only had three fingers. I bet he was a ghost.”
I laughed and pulled enough out of the bottle so I’d pass out when I got inside. But in those few minutes before I went all the way under, I wondered about that guy in the woods.
Brian, Jeff, and I only had about a year together before Jeff got his girlfriend pregnant. Brian took a job out of town. I moved into the city and disappeared from them and everyone else I ever grew up with. We never did go back to that graveyard.
Thirty-five years later, I pass by it sometimes and am tempted to drive down that sidestreet but I don’t. It’s good enough for me to know that piece of woods hasn’t been felled yet.