Stories

Bad Penny

A tall, thin man steals up the knoll in the center of the cemetery, his eyes darting from side to side. At the top, he slowly spins around, squinting into the dark. The only other occupants of the knoll are an ancient red cedar and a pair of weathered headstones—one straight and one slightly crooked. The man straightens his threadbare coat and lowers himself into the tall grass with a sigh of relief. Leaning his back against a cold headstone, he tilts his head up to the dark, cloudless sky. The stars are fading fast as night cedes its time to day. I finally made it, he thinks. Plucking a blade of grass, he rolls it between his fingers as a smile tugs at his mouth.

From behind the cedar, a second man—the mirror image of the first—leans out and observes him through narrowed eyes. Doesn’t he look like the cat that got the cream? he thinks. He allows the first man to enjoy a few contented moments before stepping from behind the tree with a smile. Straightening his ragged coat, he saunters over and plunks down cross-legged next to him. The first man stiffens, his smile slipping into a frown. Plucking a thick stalk of grass, the second man sticks it between his teeth and leans back onto the neighboring headstone. “Evenin’, brother!” he says around the stem. “Looks to be another beauty of a sunrise, don’t it?”

I’ll just ignore him, thinks the first man as he continues to stare straight ahead. The second man watches him from the side of his eye. Ignoring me, eh? He turns to look at the first man and cocks his head. His eyes sparkling, he slowly draws the stalk from his teeth. His smile expands to a Cheshire cat grin as he carefully takes aim and says, “How many people are dead in a cemetery?”

The question hits its mark; the first man jerks and grimaces. Still refusing to look at the second man, he raises his face to the brightening sky, willing the sun to rise faster. I’ll wait him out. The sky lightens another shade before he murmurs, “You never tire of that joke, do you?”

The second man raises his eyebrows. Trying to wait me out? Two can play at that game, he thinks. He waits in silence, still grinning and twirling the grass stem between his fingers. The first man still stares straight ahead, his back rigid and his lips pulled into a thin line. The sun continues its deliberate ascent, painting the sky pink. The second man leans in. The grass stem twirls faster. Almost there, he thinks. The first man clenches his jaw. A muscle twitches in his temple. Almost there, he thinks. Twirl, twirl. Twitch, twitch.

Suddenly, a lone bird stirs and cuts the thick silence with a shrill whistle. The first man starts, glancing at the second man. The second man sinks back against the crooked headstone with a smirk and puts the grass stem back between his teeth. His shoulders slumping, the first man sighs, closes his eyes, and thinks, I almost made it. He leans back against the straight headstone and without opening his eyes, he whispers, “All of them.”

A ray of sunlight breaks over the horizon, illuminating the knoll. Its only occupants are an ancient red cedar and twin marble headstones that time and weather have made anonymous. More birds awaken and join together in a morning chorus as the fading echoes of laughter drift through the tall grass.

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