By Dave Dowdy
He stopped suckling, the milk having run out long ago. Elise slumped back and sighed. She hummed and waited for Charlie who’s cooing soon followed as usual. Into the third verse of his own melody, the doorbell chimed. Bundling him in her left arm, she opened the door to Jane, her only sibling, standing on the stoop with her baggage.
“Jane! Come in.” They hugged and exchanged pecks. “I’ve been expecting you. Meet Charlie.”
Elise readily gave the baby to Jane who had sat down comfortably.
“Charlie, you occupy Aunt Jane while I go make tea. It’ll only be a few minutes, sis.”
Jane turned to make sure Elise had left the room. She held Charlie up to her face. Her smile melted and the whites of her eyes became dirty.
“Now, Charlie, what have you been doing with Aunt Elise while mommy’s been gone?”
Charlie was oblivious. But, his sour look showed that he didn’t like her gruff, halting voice.
“Don’t you dare cry,” she said. He froze. Disbelief more than hurt shamed the delicacy of his tiny features.
During her extended stay, Aunt Jane often secretly told Charlie that he was the baby her barren plumbing had produced. Jane was sure she had cruelly secured his love.
The years passed until he was thirty. Charlie hefted a small black lacquer box in his hands. Something inside bounced and made him curious. It had sat on the coffee table since late morning when he picked it up from the mortuary and now the living room was growing dark. He had gazed at it for hours and wondered what cremated remains look like.
Finally, Charlie couldn’t stand it. He unlatched the box, slowly lifted the lid, and peeked inside. There lay all that remained of Aunt Jane. He snapped down the lid. When he lifted it again, Charlie was awed by the chalky mass of ivory-like pieces no bigger than a button.
Jane’s body reduced to a small heap of crushed bones! He thought he spied a fingernail, impossible after the high crematory temperature. He turned the dry, flaky piece. It felt like a shaving from a bar of soap. He felt eerily sick, but reversed the vomit heading up his throat. He steadied his fingers, slammed down the lid, and latched it.
Quickly he made a cursory check of the windows and doors. He prayed that he was alone, but wondered if he had tempted a visit from unpleasant spirits by opening the box. The sound of crickets didn’t assure him that he was safe.
Charlie jumped to check the doors. They were secure. He dashed from window to window and snapped the horizontal blinds shut.
Charlie silently vowed that he wouldn’t display the remains. Oh no, Aunt Jane must go. She will not bother me any more, he thought.
“Tomorrow morning, if I last through the night, I will get rid of her”, he said aloud to placate or warn any awaken phantom. “A proper burial and then no more Jane.” It’s the least I can do”, he said. He made a nervous cruel cackle and thought it delicious to finally be rid of Aunt Jane.
Saturday morning Charlie awoke happy to be alive. He had only strong, black coffee. As he drank, he stared at the box. The coffee finished, it was time to go.
Charlie drove endlessly searching for Jane’s resting place. He stopped at several cemeteries. Each time he attempted to bury the box either someone would appear nearby or a car would slowly ramble down the adjacent street. Always he felt watched.
Once, he had just lifted the sod with his spade. Another time he had nearly dug a hole big enough for the box. Each time a pair of eyes fixed on Charlie and his creepy chore. Why shouldn’t they watch him? His presence was incongruent.
He threw the box and spade into the trunk and sped off. He drove until he spotted a perfect place: a gravel quarry, Farmington Aggregates. Who would know the difference between crushed bone and limestone gravel? He got out of the car and grabbed the box.
Charlie scanned the off-hours site. A massive excavator was silent and still. On Monday it would dig loads of gravel and dump them into a waiting open hauler.
There were no prying eyes at this stop as Charlie stood on the precipice of the quarry pit. He held the box in a casual grip, confident that spirits wouldn’t appear in the morning sun.
Though Charlie had nothing but contempt for Aunt Jane, he reached inside for something appropriate to say at this funeral rite. Not words to see Aunt Jane off. If he was somewhat sure that her soul was gone, he was completely sure where it had gone. No, this rite would free him from Aunt Jane.
He paused then unlatched the box. Turning it over above the edge of the large open pit, he emptied the remains and said “Goodbye you hateful old hag. I only hope I don’t meet you in hell”. A ceramic disk identifying Aunt Jane’s remains, unbeknownst to Charlie, fell with the ashes.
Charlie tossed his bittersweet memories of Jane as well. He made one last long look back to when she had taken him in as an adolescent after his mother mysteriously died. As neither had any family, she willingly accepted him. What began as a necessary and charitable act by Aunt Jane grew into a mutual dependency as they became like mother and child.
Pathetically, she had no close relationships or friends. The child’s love for her filled a deep hole in her life. Charlie was the friend and love Jane had willed.
As the years passed, Charlie’s dependency faded. Aunt Jane wasn’t prepared for the separation that would come as Charlie grew. She held fast to him and took his teenage rebellion hard. If Charlie hated her, he didn’t know why. He thought it was a natural phase. Aunt Jane, however, took Charlie wrong and resented him.
When Charlie finished college he didn’t come home to Aunt Jane. In turn, she shut out his calls and mail. She bent in anger behind her locked door whenever he visited. Aunt Jane’s decision to will her estate to her college nailed the coffin shut on their relationship as far as Charlie was concerned.
Several peaceful months for Charlie passed since Aunt Jane’s death. He pulled into the driveway arriving home from work. Al the mailman had just put some letters in the mailbox. He walked back down Charlie’s new sidewalk whistling “Stardust”:
Though I dream in vain, in my heart you will remain.
My stardust melody.
The memory of love’s refrain.
Charlie smiled and waved to Al who by then was on the pavement walking to the next house. He was proud of his new sidewalk. It was thirty feet long and had fresh plantings of liriope set in red mulch on either side. Though Charlie was a DIYer at heart, the job of pouring a sidewalk was beyond his abilities. He contracted the job out to a local paving company. And now it was finished.
He walked down the driveway to the main sidewalk just for the thrill of going up his new walk. He started up the path which curved slightly from the main sidewalk up to his front door. He was halfway up when the sidewalk shook and a frightened Charlie froze in place as the concrete started to crack. A hole opened up beneath him and a wretched old hand reached up. “No, no”, Charlie screamed as he recognized his nemesis.
She reached up and grabbed his leg before Charlie could pull away. Then Aunt Jane snatched his other leg. He struggled and cried out for help as he sank. His bloody fingers scratched and pawed the concrete as he desperately reached out to grab the rim of the pit. He writhed, but soon disappeared underground and the sidewalk closed up neatly as if it had never been breached.
“Thought you had broken free and gotten rid of me, eh?”, a reconstituted Aunt Jane smirked. She wore a medallion swinging on a chain around her neck. It was the mortuary ID. “Jane, please let me go”, Charlie said. His howl echoed meaninglessly in the tomb which he found himself buried.
Aunt Jane held tight and replied, “I have you back and I will never let you go. You’re mine again. You’re mine again”. With Charlie in tow, she dived into the depths of the earth.
In his mailbox sat the letters that Charlie would never read. One from probate court notifying him that his contest of aunt’s will had gone in his favor. Her assets were his. The other an itemized bill from the paver that had poured Charlie’s new sidewalk. Lines one through three we’re for labor, concrete, and miscellaneous supplies. Line four was for the limestone base from Farmington Aggregates.