Any self- respecting teenager will tell you that there are at least 2 answers to the question: “If your friends all jump off a cliff, would you jump too?” The obvious answer, if you must supply one is: “No. Duh”, but the honest one is: “Maybe. It depends on the cliff.” Some cliffs are more interesting than others. Risk is often sexy. It’s also something that parents tend to oversell, forbidding their children to do the very same things that they themselves did with great glee just a few years earlier, and survived.
The “cliff” for Aleta Graham was going out with friends to the town’s abandoned historic cemetery on Halloween Night, 1972. There should have been four of them;, Aleta, Carole, Lamont and Mike, but Mike got grounded earlier in the evening for TP-ing a neighbor’s car. Aleta sort of felt like a fifth wheel, Carole and Lamont obviously wanted to make out. But plans are plans and, she thought, maybe things were going faster than Carole anticipated and having Aleta along was a natural retardant. Ha ha. Pot wasn’t legal then but it might as well have been, especially in Thompson Falls, a small town near the Maryland border known mostly for its proximity to Thompson Falls itself, a waterfall/national park where some battle was fought two hundred years before.
Aleta was the only one of her friends who hadn’t smoked pot yet and since Carole knew that, probably everyone else did, too, Carole was pretty bad at keeping secrets.
The cemetery was far from the Falls, on the edge of the original town itself. Once, it had a lovely view of the river and the farmlands but now it was surrounded by ugly industrial parks and some undedicated fields where old cars came to die, spilling their oil lavishly and permanently on the stubby brown grass
It had rained that afternoon and looked like it would again later but when they arrived at the entrance to the graveyard, the moon was limning through the blue clouds with a chromelike iridescence, lightening the evening fog to almost white, illuminating the crumbling tombstones and causing sharp, deep shadows in the empty places.
The rusted iron fence was padlocked but as generations of teens had discovered, the gate hinge had rotted and it was easy to push forward and walk through. As they held it open for one another they looked around as best they could. The place appeared to be deserted. A soft wind came soughing through the trees, the few intrepid leaves that hadn’t fallen yet that year, finally did.
They made their way through the ruins of a path that led to the older gravesites, where the Revolutionary Era tombs were. There were a few crumbling benches there and they soon found one next to a family that had been wiped out, one by one, probably by some disease. The Talmadges: Eliza, Jeb, their six children and one infant had all died within days of one another, in 1789. If they had heirs, apparently none of them had come to lay flowers or even weed in the last few hundred years.
Carole spread an old bedspread she had brought on the ground at the feet, figuratively speaking, of the Talmadge family and they each took out whatever they had managed to bring from home. Lamont had brought most of a bottle of cheap vodka, Old Dominion, Carole had stolen some of her family’s Halloween Candy, Aleta had popped and buttered popcorn in a greasy brown bag, a box of Oreos and a sleeve of Ritz Crackers. Carole’s older brother Greg had supplied the marijuana, which he exacted a high price in chores and secrecy for, plus $8 for the entire ounce. Carole started to roll a joint but Lamont just laughed at her efforts and redid it, bereft of twigs and seeds.
At her first inhale, Aleta knew that she had made a big mistake. She started coughing so violently that she thought she would throw up and Carole had to pound her back.
“Take it easy, little sister,” Lamont said, smiling. He was only one year ahead of her, a junior, and Aleta didn’t appreciate the condescension. Nevertheless, the next time they passed it to her she took a smaller puff. A while later she took another one.
That’s when they heard the owl. It sounded much more like, “coo coo”, Aleta thought, than “who” or “hoot”. Carole and Lamont were passing the vodka between them and sitting closer and closer so Aleta announced that she was going to try and find the owl. They cautioned her not to get lost but she went off the path anyway, confident that just the sound of face-sucking in the silence would guide her back. She made circles within circles a few feet on, convinced that this was a brilliant strategy for pathfinding. At one point, she didn’t know exactly when, she decided to go behind some bushes to pee. The bushes were actually a thicket with a round clearing in the middle. She stood there and took a few minutes to look at the moon, revealed as full, round and naked if she looked straight up. All she could think of was, ‘Ill met by moonlight, Proud Titania’ but she couldn’t remember what play it had come from. Not Romeo and Juliet, something else they had read in school or seen a movie of, but she couldn’t find it in her memory. Suddenly she realized that she should get back. She had been brought along to chaperone and she wasn’t doing a very good job of it. For some reason, spinning in place slowly two or three times in both directions seemed like the right thing to do. She seemed to be getting higher and higher. The sweet, rotting smell of duff was intense, redolent.
She started to walk down what had once been a path, careful to keep the bushes behind her. Only, there were bushes everywhere. Then she saw some flattened grass and figured that must have been from her own footsteps. She followed the trail for more than a few yards when she spotted something out of place sticking out of a bush on a rise to the right, a bit of clothing maybe, or more likely part of a plastic garbage bag. It was harder to get there than she’d thought, up a rise and in some deep, wet grass, plus what was there was in shadow. When she was still about 10 yards off she saw a white running shoe face down and nearly covered with mud. She always thought it was crazy to lose one shoe, like wouldn’t you notice? Two shoes, fine. She had already turned to go back when something made her turn back. That’s when she saw what looked like a pants leg in brown cloth above the shoe and under the bush. The rest of the body, if it was a body and not just garbage, was hidden. She started to perspire in the cool air. Carole had been wearing brown cords.
“Care –” she said softly and waited. Then, louder, “Caroline? Lamont?”
Her voice died in the darkness.
She turned back, found the path such as it was and began to walk it as quickly as she could. Maybe she hadn’t seen anything? It could easily have been leaves, a twig, a mudbank.
She tried to orient herself by the moon but a wisp of cloud had moved over it again, like the curtain in a stage show, telling the audience to go home.
She began to stop every few feet and yell for her friends and also just “Help!” “I’m lost”. She remembered her Aunt Meg telling her, when she’d been lost for two minutes at the beach, “no one is ever really lost, She said. “We are all here to find you.” ‘That had comforted her then, when she was seven, but it wasn’t comforting her now.
She was screaming so hard she started to go hoarse. Tears of fear and frustration began running down her face and she picked up her pace although she had no real idea of what direction to run in.
Finally, she heard a loud “Shh! For Chrissakes, what are you doing?” and saw Carole, her shirt misbuttoned and the rest of her cat makeup smeared across one cheek bursting through two trees, with Lamont following right behind.
“Here,” Lamont said, “Have some of this.” He put the bottle of vodka, almost empty now in her hands and put his arm around her as they walked back to the Talmadge graves.
“What are you so worked up about, Al?” He asked.
She couldn’t really say. She just shrugged and smiled.
“I got lost, I guess.”
“You weren’t gone very long,” Carole said. “We thought you were just taking a shit.”
They all laughed about it. It was getting late so they had one more puff each and headed back to Lamont’s car, and then home.
The next day was a Sunday but when they got back to school on Monday the place was abuzz with the news that a girl had been murdered, on Halloween night. Her body was found the next day by some kids playing hide and go seek in the old cemetery.
Aleta didn’t know the girl. Had never seen her. Anyway, she was probably already dead, if that had been what she saw and not just a mess of mud and twigs. It wasn’t her fault.
Still, she didn’t smoke dope again for decades afterwards and never told anyone why.