Karla Brandenburg

EpitaphEpitaph
©2017 Karla Brandenburg

The man standing beside the table with Amy’s mother was built like a spark plug. His hair was the color of a well-worn penny, his eyes the color of a seafoam crayon—Amy had never seen eyes quite that color. He wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous, but those eyes were mesmerizing.

“Pleasure to meet you,” he said.

“He’s a reporter,” her mother repeated. “You can tell him about the epitaphs. Why don’t you give him a tour of the cemetery?”

Amy tore her attention away from the man to stare at her mother. Her grandfather had taught her that while she had a gift, it wasn’t meant to be examined too closely. In his words, that would be inviting the devil to dinner. “But…”

“I’m sure you won’t expose any trade secrets,” her mother said with a wink.

What was she supposed to say? Amy glanced at Kevin and scowled. “What do you want to know?”

“Won’t you sit with us?” Kevin asked.

His voice warmed her like a sip of liqueur. Amy took a seat and found herself staring at Kevin’s eyes again. They were remarkable, by far his most attractive feature.

“If I understand correctly, you’re the fourth generation in the family business,” Kevin said.

“Yes, I am,” Amy replied.

“That’s quite an accomplishment in this day and age,” he said. “What motivates you to carry the torch, to keep it going?”

“I’m not sure I have a choice, it’s more of a calling. I’ve been watching my grandfather, and then my father, cutting stones for as long as I can remember.”

“And you write the epitaphs,” he said.

Nope, he hadn’t missed that piece of information. Amy shot her mother a nervous glance. “Yes.”

“Where are my manners?” her mother said. “Can I get you something to drink, Kevin?” She tugged Amy’s father by the arm and turned toward the workshop.

“No, thank you,” Kevin replied.

“Will you excuse us for a minute, then?” her mother said. They disappeared into the back, although they left the door open.

Amy closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. Kevin must be single, or at least her mother assumed he was since she suddenly wanted him to interview Amy. Hopefully, Kevin wouldn’t notice the clumsy attempt to throw them together.

“Tell me about the epitaphs,” he said. “Do you have a library people flip through? How do they decide what to put on a stone?”

“Each one is personal,” she told him. “People generally know what they want on the stone, but sometimes something about a person strikes me and I offer a suggestion.”

“Kind of like ‘would you like fries with that?’” He smirked. “Upselling?”

He thought her gift was a joke. Might as well give him something to laugh about. “More like the dead tell me what they want to say.”

His eyes widened. “The dead speak to you?”

She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t tell him. Amy pursed her lips. “I have a strong sense of intuition. I’m good at reading people.”

Kevin laid his pencil on his notebook and leaned across the table. “As a healthy, vibrant woman, don’t you find graveyards morbid?”

“Not at all.” Amy smiled. She recognized the attitude and looked out the window at the setting sun. “I suppose you could call me a taphophile. I’m fascinated by tombstones. There’s a beauty in the material of the stones, the craftsmanship of the engraving, the symbolism portrayed. And cemeteries are quiet. Respectful and reverent.”

“Taphophile,” Kevin repeated. “Can you spell that?”

Amy watched as he wrote each letter. “It’s our business,” she told him “To add dignity to someone’s passing by leaving a reminder of their contribution to the world.”

Kevin scribbled her words. “I like that.”

Her brothers chose that moment to push through the front door, laughing about something or other. They stopped dead when they saw Amy sitting with Kevin.

Their mother rushed out of the shop to run interference. “Kevin, these are my sons, Thad, Garth and Brian.” She sent a warning glance at the three of them. “Kevin is a reporter. The paper is doing a Halloween series, and they were nice enough to ask us to help with an article about cemetery symbolism and epitaphs.” She narrowed her eyes at each of them in turn. “It will be a nice bit of free advertising.”

Amy’s brothers each stepped up to shake Kevin’s hand.

“Everything okay, Sis?” Garth asked, looking at Amy while he shook Kevin’s hand.

Really? “And why wouldn’t it be?” she replied. She’d known Kevin all of ten minutes. Even if he wasn’t here to date her, she was tired of her troglodyte brothers scaring off every man she talked to. He certainly wouldn’t ask her out now, even if she wanted him to.

Did she want him to?

“Maybe you’d like to see some of Amy’s work,” her mother said to Kevin. “Amy, why don’t you take him out to the cemetery, help him understand how you feel about it.”

That was a bad idea. “I don’t know…” Her connection to the cemetery had earned her the nickname Crazy Amy.

Kevin pushed away from the table but continued to make notes. He dotted an exaggerated period on the notebook and nodded to Amy. “Show me the way.”

Amy glanced at the brochures on the table. She could do this. She’d show him the array of markers, help him understand why people selected things other than a standard headstone. He didn’t have to find out about her strange gift. She pushed to her feet with a nervous smile.

Kevin stood beside her, a few inches taller than Amy’s five-foot-seven. He was broad about the shoulders and wide at the waist, although she couldn’t consider him fat. His coloring reminded her of a leprechaun. “Kevin. That’s an Irish name, isn’t it?”

“Yes ma’am. I still have family back in the old country.” He tapped his pencil on his notebook as they left the shop and walked up the block.

They passed through the stone gateposts, through the iron gate. Amy closed her eyes, pausing to feel the peace. A breeze caressed her face. She touched the stones lovingly in passing, and each responded with a sigh only she could hear.

Amy paused beside Jedidiah Collins’ stone. “We just came in from planting this stone,” she told Kevin. The imprints of her knees showed in the damp leaves where she’d helped to clean the epoxy between the base and the marker.

Kevin pointed at the headstone with his pencil. “The epitaph. A poem by Shelley?”

Clearly, he wasn’t going to give up on the epitaph thing. “You know your poetry,” she said. “His widow told me he used to send her poetry when he was serving in the war. He said it gave the world a sense of humanity amidst all the killing.”

Kevin stopped to scribble more notes. He stared at Amy a moment, pencil poised as if in mid-thought. “And you suggested the epitaph?”

Her heart skittered. “I did.”

“You do seem comfortable out here, among the graves.”

With a sideways grin, Amy raised one eyebrow. He’d never understand. “There’s more to a cemetery than dead people.”

“What about the dead people?” he prodded. “You said something about them talking to you. Did Mr. Collins tell you what he wanted on his stone?”

And why was she surprised he couldn’t let go of the epitaph thing? He’d told her mother that’s what he wanted to write about when he’d set up the interview. Amy closed her eyes to compose herself, and then decided for the truth. “Yes.”

Kevin took a step back. “Not every stone out here has an epitaph. Some markers only have names and dates.”

“That’s true. Can I show you examples of the more unique markers? There are lots of different examples in this cemetery …”

“How many markers carry epitaphs?”

Amy shrugged. “Engraving can be costly. Not everyone can afford it. Some people don’t need to say anything more.”

“Some people? You mean dead people?”

Amy crossed her arms. “I suppose.”

“Are there people who should have epitaphs and don’t?”

Instinctively, Amy looked up the hill to where Mary McCormick lay. This reporter was pushing her into dangerous territory. She did not want to have Benson Monuments portrayed as a money grubbing business that pushed epitaphs, or worse, eccentric people who spoke to the dead. How was she supposed to answer that question?

“There are, then,” he said, his voice carrying a cynical tone. “What do you do in those cases? You seem like the type of woman who wants to give the dearly departed their voices.”

She hated the defensive edge that had crept into her voice. “I can’t force people to put epitaphs on headstones. Likewise, I can’t justify the cost to satisfy my own ego. All I can do is offer suggestions and, often enough, people don’t care for my ideas.”

He wasn’t writing anymore. Kevin stared at her. A gust of wind blew her hair across her face and she brushed it back.

“You’re okay with that?” he asked. “Getting a message from the great beyond that you can’t put on a tombstone?”

“You’re making fun of me.”

“Actually, I’m serious.”

She considered for minute. He didn’t look like he was making fun of her. “There isn’t much I can do if the family doesn’t want my epitaph.”

He smirked. “Do the dead haunt you until their wishes are carved, or not carved, in stone?”

“I can’t say I’ve ever been haunted.”

Kevin put his notebook in his pocket, slid his pencil behind his ear and held up his hands. “Off the record.”

“Why would I give you the opportunity to portray me or my family’s business as something out of a Stephen King novel?” As quickly as the words came out, taunts of “Crazy Amy” replayed in her head. “I don’t expect you to believe I hear the voices of the dead. My talent isn’t about ghosts or haunting.” Amy cringed at the demand for justice echoing inside her head. “They’re only my impressions.” She rubbed her forehead, trying to erase Mary McCormick’s insistent cry.

Kevin took a step closer, inside her personal space. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “I’m not making fun of you. I have family buried here. If I had come to you for the headstones, what would you have suggested for their inscriptions?”

A test.

She gazed into his mesmerizing green eyes and her insides turned to jelly. What was it about this man that appealed to her so much? She moistened her lips, dry from the October wind. “I’d have to see the marker. Sometimes there isn’t any more to be said.” Amy tilted her head. “I know most of the headstones in this cemetery. My mother didn’t give me your last name.”

“McCormick. Kevin McCormick.”

Amy shivered and glanced up the hill, at the grave beside the oak tree. “Are you related to Mary McCormick?”

The smile left his eyes. “She was my sister.”

“What happened to her?”

His gaze didn’t waver. “She died.”

Amy waited for him to elaborate.

Kevin licked his lips. “Are you saying she wants something on her stone?”

“You didn’t buy it from us. I wouldn’t expect you to want another one.” This was her chance to give the girl peace. “How did she die?”

The color drained from Kevin’s face. “She fell.”

Amy tilted her head, not sure she’d heard. “There must be something more. She’s screaming for justice.”