As I was driving home from work along Old Bridge Road one evening, a deer suddenly darted out in front of my car. When I swerved to avoid hitting it, I crashed my faithful, old Subaru Forester into the thick trunk of a massive oak tree. Luckily, I was not injured in the crash, but the force of the impact caused the Subaru's engine to stall. A dozen or so attempts to get the car started again proved futile. It would have to be towed, I realized. I got out and quickly assessed the damage. Given the age of the car and the extent of the body work that would be needed to repair the front end, it was likely the insurance company would write the vehicle off as a total loss.
"Damn it! Why did this have to happen so close to Christmas?" I cried in frustration. "It's not like I don't have enough bills to pay this time of year. Now I have to go out and buy another car to boot."
At this point I realized that if I wanted to make it home that night, I had no alternative but to walk. Old Bridge Road was one of Frost's roads less traveled, except during the autumn when tourists drove up to New England to see the fall foliage. It was doubtful that another motorist would pass by to offer me a ride.
Like most people of my generation, who preferred sitting on the couch watching television to working out in a gym, the idea of walking all the way home didn't particularly appeal to me, even in the most pleasant weather. To make matters worse, it was a chilly, rainy early December day. It was already early evening, and it would take more than an hour to walk up the hill to my home, or--a scenario more to my liking--a half an hour to walk to a house where, if I was lucky, the owner would let me use the telephone to call the automobile club.
For the first time in my life, I envied those annoying people who walked around with cell phones seemingly glued to their ears. Why hadn't I had the foresight to buy one, even if I kept it in my car for emergencies?
Resigned to my unfortunate plight, I buttoned my London Fog raincoat, grabbed my Totes umbrella from the trunk of my car and started walking toward town. I would take my changes with finding a house or store since I was not about to attempt the steep uphill climb, as out of shape as I had become.
It must have been later than I had thought, for already I could see that the sun was starting to set on the horizon.
I had been walking for close to ten minutes when I remembered that the Pine Grove Memorial Park was not far up the road. Pine Grove was a large cemetery with entrances from both Old Bridge Road to the north and Gloucester Street to the east. If I were to take a shortcut through the cemetery and head toward Gloucester Street, I would no doubt save a considerable amount of time. Also, there were shops on Gloucester Street. Surely, some of them would be open, despite the fact that the tourist trade was over for the year.
I wasn't superstitious by nature, nor did I have an overactive imagination so often influenced by watching horror movies or reading scary novels. Consequently, the idea of walking through a graveyard in the dark of night by myself didn't bother me in the least. I had reasoned long ago that it was the living, not the dead, that people should fear.
Having made my decision, I bravely headed for the wrought iron gates of the Pine Grove Memorial Park.
* * *
As I walked along, I noticed that the rain had stopped, only to be replaced by a dense fog. The thick mist made it even more difficult for me to see once darkness set in. Visibility was only about three feet, at best.
Suddenly, I heard a noise, as though someone were walking behind me. I turned to investigate, but there was no one there. To bolster my spirits, I began to hum a cheerful tune. I also began to walk a little faster.
There it was again!
Now I was certain that I'd heard something. I turned around again, so fast that I almost twisted my ankle in my haste. But again there was nothing there. I walked even faster.
With each passing moment, the noise grew louder and clearer. I could distinctly hear the rhythmic cadence of footsteps. Someone was walking behind me. More than one person, it seemed, because I could hear those footsteps coming from slightly different directions.
This time I didn't even bother to turn around and look. Was I afraid of whom or what I would see should I turn and look, or was I afraid that once again there would be no one there? I walked faster still.
Then a new sound joined the echo of the mysterious footsteps. It was the unmistakable sound of someone weeping. I dropped my Totes umbrella and began to run. In my headlong dash across the grounds of the cemetery, I tripped over a low gravestone, fell forward on my face and rolled over onto my back.
Through the darkness I could vaguely see a group of ghostly figures moving toward me. In the denseness of the fog, I could not discern their faces. However, they could be no mortal beings, I reasoned. I had run from them while they continued to walk at a slow pace, yet I had not been able to outdistance them.
As those terrifying phantoms drew nearer, I scrambled to my feet and ran faster than I ever had before.
"Dear God, if I could only make it to Gloucester Street!" I prayed.
There were streetlights on Gloucester Street, and there was a diner less than two blocks from the graveyard's east-facing gate.
I ran like the wind. Then, to my horror, I felt the ground disappear from beneath my feet. I felt as though I were floating on air. Then I hit the ground with a thump. Darkness was all around me, and I realized I had fallen into a freshly dug grave.
Now I knew what true terror was! I was trapped in a deep hole with my pursuers getting ever closer. When I looked up, I could see the faceless apparitions near the edge of the grave.
"Help me!" I screamed in terror.
* * *
The fog gradually began to dissipate. It was also getting lighter out. But that was impossible! Morning was still hours away, wasn't it? Or had I hit my head in the fall and been knocked unconscious for several hours?
No, it was not my imagination; it was definitely getting lighter out.
In those first golden rays of early morning light, I could finally distinguish the faces above me. I recognized them all. The woman standing closest to the foot of the open grave was my wife. Our three children were huddled around her. To the right of the grave were my parents and to the left, my wife's parents. Our respective sisters and brothers were there, too, and so was an assortment of aunts, uncles and cousins. I could see friends from our neighborhood as well as coworkers from my office. In fact, nearly everyone I knew was present.
As I stared up at my friends and loved ones in amazement, I could clearly see that they were all grieving, that some were even crying. Suddenly, I knew that they had all gathered there to say goodbye to me.
With this knowledge, a sense of peace and contentment descended upon me, a heavenly calmness I'd never known in life. As I lay down in preparation for my eternal rest, I looked up at the headstone above the grave. I was not at all surprised to see my own name engraved upon its marble surface.
Salem, watch out you don't fall into an open grave. I'll never find you again (not that I'd spend much time looking).