It’s not every day someone you’re conversing with tells you she’s been dead for a quarter of a century, so you can imagine how surprised I was by her statement. I had about a million questions I wanted to ask her but by the time the shock had worn off and I’d started formulating them, Charlotte Broome commenced a coughing fit that had her entire small body trembling with spasms for several seconds. As she brought her hand up to her chest and started slumping toward the table, I rushed over and helped her into one of the chairs. She was as white as a sheet and her face was covered with perspiration.
“Are you okay, Miss Broome?” I asked, not quite knowing what to do.
She nodded and took a drink from the glass of water she’d poured to have with her pie. “I’ll be fine, Grady. I just need to rest now. It’s been a taxing day.” She tried to smile at me but it was a feeble attempt. “Perhaps you can come back tomorrow and we’ll talk again.” I nodded in agreement because as badly as I wanted more information, I could tell that she wasn’t up to anymore conversation. I said goodbye and left her sitting at her kitchen table.
As I made my way home, I pondered what I’d learned in the last hour or so and made the surprising decision to keep everything to myself, at least for the time being. As badly as I wanted to be the one to get credit for solving this mystery, I couldn’t help but think about how sad and pitiful Miss Broome looked just now as I left. If there was a story here–and it seemed there most certainly was–it belonged to her and no one else had the right to tell it. My sister was to say later that this moment–this decision to put someone else’s needs before my own–was the moment I grew up. Clarry was always making pronouncements like that and I always ignored them for the most part, but this time I think she might have been right.
Fortunately, my absence from home had gone unnoticed and the rest of the night passed without incident except for Mama asking me why I was being so quiet. Once I was in bed, I went over everything I’d found out earlier in the day and by the time I fell asleep, I knew what my next step had to be.
While I didn’t have any reason to doubt the stranger’s story, I didn’t have any reason to believe it either, which is why I was riding my bicycle through the gates of the Garden of Gethsemane Cemetery early that next morning. I knew this place like I knew the back of my hand because I’d played out here with my best pals–namely Buzz White and Mary Faye McDonald–ever since we’d discovered that a graveyard was the perfect place to avoid adult supervision, which in our collective opinion was the key element in having any sort of fun. Among these tombstones and monuments, we’d acted out just about every story we’d ever read or heard, with tales about Sherlock Holmes and Ellery Queen being our favorites. Perhaps that’s why I was here today–neither Sherlock nor Ellery ever took a story at face value, so neither would I. Just like those fellas, I would search for clues and gather hard evidence before drawing any conclusions, a plan of action that had me heading to the southwest corner of the cemetery where I knew the Broome family plot to be located. It was hard to miss the Broome’s headstone, which befitting his position as undertaker and coroner was one of the largest in the entire place. However, just to the left of the ornate granite monument was a small, plain headstone I’d overlooked in all my numerous visits.
Charlotte Clarissa Broome
February 2, 1904 – November 18, 1918
In the Company of Saints, Sinner No More
I’m not sure what was more surprising–discovering a grave I’d never noticed before or learning Charlotte Broome’s middle name. Clarissa was an unusual name in these parts, to be sure, except it wasn’t unusual to me. You see, I knew another Clarissa and I knew her pretty dang well, except I called her Clarry. I stood there for a couple of minutes, mulling over this new bit of information. Was it possible that my sister was named after the woman who claimed this grave was empty? After all, Miss Broome told me Mama was her best friend once, so it was certainly something to consider. Of course, the bigger, more pressing issue–the one that would have motivated Sherlock Holmes or Ellery Queen–was just why in the heck there was an empty grave in the Endurance cemetery in the first place.
I knew of only one person who had all the answers, so I turned my bicycle around and headed for town. When I got to the Broome house I ran up the back steps to knock on the door but before I could, I saw her through the window. Charlotte Broome was exactly where she’d been when I left last night, only now her head was on the table and she wasn’t moving. I opened the door and ran inside to check on her, and although she was alive, her breathing was shallow and ragged. When I was unable to rouse her, I did the only thing I could think of to do; I ran to the phone on the kitchen wall and rang the operator.
“Operator. Would you like to place a call?”
“Clarry, it’s me! Ring…”
“Grady Gibson, what in the world are you doing at…”
“Never mind! Ring Doc Handy and tell him to get over here to the Broome house as quick as he can.”
“Grady Gibson! When I get hold of you…”
“Just do it, Clarry! And ring Mama and tell her to get over here too.”
And then I hung up, having no way of knowing, at that particular moment, that folks in Endurance would be talking about that phone call–and the chain of events it started–for years to come.
(to be continued)
Categories: Story in Progress