They spent a lovely afternoon hiking in the Ozarks, the fall foliage everything they had hoped for. Finding the little waterfall as the backdrop for their picnic lunch had been the absolute topper. Mary Beth took dozens of pictures with her cell phone, but was thwarted by the lack of a signal when she tried to post them online. Time enough to do that tonight. Now they just needed to get back to the car before sunset.
Tony assured her that the park rangers would not lock them in for the night, but she was not so certain.
“You worry too much,” he teased her as she set a brisk pace. “And what’s the worst that could happen? We end up sleeping in the car?” He smiled at that thought. He would not mind that at all.
The sun now angled low, cutting through the canopy above with an amber glow. Dust motes and tiny bugs swirled on eddies in the air. The thick leaves underfoot were nearly as vivid as those overhead – a jumble of rich scarlet, orange, and deep yellow, all mixed in with muted russet browns.
Any chance of spotting wildlife was ruined by the pace Mary Beth set. The the rustle and crush of the leaves underfoot could probably be heard for a quarter mile, or more. Still, Tony kept an eye out – dusk being peak activity time for deer.
Something ahead caught his eye – a bright flash of white slightly off the trail on the uphill side. He paused and called out to Mary Beth. “What’s that?”
She stopped and silence descended upon the woods.
“What?” She looked at him, puzzled.
“Up there. Something bright, in the sunlight.”
She followed the line of his point. Shrugged. “I dunno.” She continued on, but slower.
They both watched as they neared the bright spot in the shadows of the trees. There was a little clearing, probably not more than forty feet off the trail, but the lay of the land kept them from seeing the object clearly.
“Looks like a rock,” Tony suggested, a bit disappointed. He had no idea what he hoped for, but certainly not a rock.
But Mary Beth’s pace slowed until he nearly rear-ended her. Then she came to a stop.
“I think it’s a headstone,” she said in a hushed tone.
She took a few steps off the trail. Tony stood pat, unwilling to follow.
“Uh, I thought you were in a hurry to get back?”
“It’s not far,” she said. “Come on. It might be an old graveyard. They’re scattered all over in these woods.”
“I think we should get back.”
She glanced back at him, and smiled. “Scaredy-cat.” She bounded up the hill.
She paused beside an old post oak. The sunlight perfectly framed her upon the ridge line. Smitten, Tony followed.
As he crested the hill he saw it was indeed an old, abandoned graveyard. By the time he reached the post oak Mary Beth had wandered in amongst the tombstones. Roots seemed to anchor Tony’s feet to the ground. Cemeteries gave him the creeps.
She turned toward him and called out, “Come on.” She gestured with a jerk of her head. “We used to find little cemeteries like these all the time when my aunt Ruth was doing her genealogy. They’re sacred ground, but fascinating. Aunt Ruth says you just need to be respectful. So rich in history.” She squatted to read what was carved on one of the headstones, shook her head in frustration, and moved on to the next.
Tony didn’t budge.
She let out a sad moan. “Oh. This little guy was only three months old.” She moved on to another. “This guy’s four.” She moved past several that were but nubs sticking out of the ground, then stooped to read another. “Here’s a six year old. Anna Morrison. How sad.”
“Two years.” She straightened and looked at Tony, tears welling in her eyes. “They’re all babies.” She turned in a broad circle, taking in the headstones. “They’re all dated 1918.” Realization dawned on her. “Oh my God. The Spanish flu. It had to be…”
“Come on, let’s go,” Tony called to her.
She walked deeper into the graveyard. “A boy. Michael. Samuel. Henrietta. Ooh, she was just two weeks old!”
The sun was settling on the horizon.
“The park’s going to close.”
Just as she took a step toward him they both heard it – a baby wailing in abject misery. The hairs stood up on Tony’s neck. Mary Beth turned back, looking for the source of the sound.
“Mary Beth! Come on!”
“There’s a baby!” she snapped back, searching desperately in the gathering gloom.
The cry of another baby rose off to the right. She turned toward it. Then another, behind her. She whirled round. Tony reached out to her, plaintively, beseeching her to come. She ignored him, continuing her frantic search.
She stumbled over the remnants of an old monument, landing on her hands and knees. From where he stood Tony saw her scrambling forward toward something he could not see. Then he heard the screams.
They found him locked in the car, mumbling, “The babies took her,” over and over again.
They never found Mary Beth.
© 2014 by J. M. Strother. All rights reserved. Photo by J. M. Strother, © 2014. All rights reserved.