“It’s going to be refreshing cool on the inside,” I found myself thinking. I laughed out loud so Bethy gave me a funny look. I guess that was a good enough reason to visit the deep Hawthorn crypt in the old Hawkins mausoleum, I thought, a stupid grin on my face. Bethy, seeming to guess my thoughts, smirked and shook her head.
The decrepit old building, actually the third to have stood over the crypts, was set pretty far off of the street so we had to walk through some old gravestones in the stifling August heat. As a child I had stopped to try and cypher out the dates on some of the older stones, but I now knew more of the history. Like the original crypt which contains the patriarch, Miles Hawkins, most of these stones were put up in the early to mid-eighteenth century.
As we come up to the building we discovered that the mausoleum was open. That meant members of the Hawkins branch must be visiting.
We were greeted by a cold blast of moldy air rushing up the steps, which fluttered Bethy’s hair. Although the air was cool, it wasn’t really refreshing. I would call it clammy. I led the way down with Bethy just behind. My cousins Bill and Stan helped Aunt Gertrude down the steps in the rear. She was a spry 93, but the steps were steep.
We entered the Octagon at the foot of the stairs. A woman who looked to be in her mid-40s was comforting two girls. The youngest girl had long blond hair. She was maybe 14. Like most of the Hawkins branch the older girl was African American. She seemed to be in her late teens or early twenties, perhaps 19 as a best guess. I said hi to the three of them. The woman gave me a smile and nodded. The two girls just stared at me, wide eyed. I understood. The crypts are not for the weak of heart.
I looked back at the others in our party and started for the stairs down to the Hawthorn crypt. I couldn’t help noticing that there wasn’t’ the usual crucifix and charms at the entrance to the Halley branch. I shivered. The last of the Halley branch was interred in the 1870s. Legend had it that they were a strange bunch, in death as well as in life. Today, as always, the stairs and crypt were just a black void as no one had replaced the burned out bulbs most likely since the 1950s when the old wires were replaced. I shivered again. As a child I once snuck into their vault. I remember waking up with my mother holding me, but I don’t remember the crypt itself. I just remember pure terror.
Once in the Hawthorn crypt I tried to stand out of the way. Aunt Gertrude stood, head bowed, in front of Uncle Charles’ casket. It was the most modern, being placed in here in the late 1980s. There was an empty slot next to it that we knew was for Aunt Gertrude. She would be the last of our branch interred here.
Without thinking I glanced around but quickly focused on Gertrude’s back again. There were a few older coffins, some just simple boxes. But there were also bodies that had just been wrapped and left. They were now skeletal, wearing rotting clothing, wrapped in a rotting shroud. Most were lying on the cold stone, but a few had been placed in a sitting position. I know this was done in the 1870s to some of the older corpses to make room for the new. Over the years all but two of the sitting corpses disintegrated into a pile of bones with a skull on top, but two were still sitting there, watching the door and all who entered. I never could make myself look close, so I was never sure if it was old flesh hanging off of them or just old clothing that my imagination turned into flesh. I didn’t look long enough to find out this time.
We didn’t stay very long. Even Aunt Gertrude was uncomfortable in the dark, cold crypt. As we left I could see that the Hawkins had left just ahead of us. Crossing the Octagon we went to the opening that had the upward stairs, towards the little bit of sunshine streaming in. We walked towards life and the outer world.
After we were all out I called to the members of the Hawkins branch who were still around, asking if everyone was out. Given the affirmative I closed the doors. Just as I was putting the heavy bar in place, the woman I had seen in the Octagon came running up, blond girl in tow.
“Where’s Milly?” she asked. Her voice was shaking.
I opened the door again. The 19 year old Milly was standing there, unseeing eyes wide, mouth agape. I took a step in and touched her. She gave me a look of complete terror and ran screaming. Looking back I could see her on the ground with her mother hugging her.
“Is there anyone else in there?” I called out. Everybody said no. “Are you completely sure? It will be a long wait in the dark for anyone left inside.” They said they were sure.
The reason I had asked is I thought for sure I saw some movement half way down the stairs when I had stepped forward to touch Milly. I took my phone and used a flashlight app to make a light and shone it down the stairs. For a moment I thought I saw a pale man standing on the steps, but he was gone before I could be sure. I stepped in and was about to throw the big light switch on when I felt a hand on my arm. Looking up I saw the old matriarch of the Hawkins branch. I think her name is Rosaline. I hadn’t noticed her earlier in the day.
“Don’t,” she said. “That is no place for the living.”
“But, but, I thought I saw someone,” I said.
“No, everyone is out there. Don’t go back in. It is fine.”
Her face was worried and her tone was pleading.
“Will the girl be OK?” I asked.
Her face turned gentle and tender. “She should be,” she said. “She was alone with him for a while, but she is strong. She should have been able to resist.”
I was a bit puzzled but said, “I hope it was just a scare, but, what are you… how, why?”
“I always made sure the entrance was safe so he couldn’t pass, but I’m no longer able to do it. Nothing was there to keep him in; or her out.”
I stared long and hard at Rosaline. I’m sure she was talking about the crucifix and charms in front of the Halley branch. Why didn’t she put them up today?
The pleading look returned to her face. “If something is wrong, if she isn’t OK, will you help?” she asked. I nodded. “You’ll have to take care of him. It won’t be easy, but if she can’t fight him off in her mind, you’ll have to come back here to rescue her. Please.” She had tears in her eye.
I agreed. Stepping back I called over my shoulder, “OK?” “Yes,” everyone responded. I closed and locked the door then slid the heavy bar in, before locking it into place. I looked at the bar for a moment. I had never questioned it before, but it seemed designed to keep things in, not out.
Bethy came up to me and put her arm around my waist. “Who were you talking to,” she asked.
“Rosaline, of course, you know, the old matriarch.”
She pulled her head back so she could look into my face a little closer. “You mean you were talking to yourself?” she asked. “I’m sure you remember that Rosaline passed away about four years ago.”
I shook my head, mostly to clear it. What did it mean? I suddenly realized that I didn’t see her leave the mausoleum before I closed it up, yet she wasn’t inside either.
A little shaken I walked over to the woman as she comforted her daughter.
“How is she doing?” I asked.
“I’m sure she’s just frightened,” she said. “Imaging being locked into that place, thinking it might be weeks before someone would come back. Of course she should have known I’d miss her. The three of us left for a walk, to get some light and air, but for some reason after a couple of minutes Milly disappeared. I assumed she rejoined the others. I should have known!”
Tears were running down her face. I could tell she was shaken. Milly sat, still wide eyed, rocking back and forth.
I pulled a card out of my pocket and handed it to the mother. “Listen,” I said. “I need to know how she is doing. Please call me. Particularly if she doesn’t get any better. I have to know. I may be able to help. Remember, though it has been many generations, we are cousins of some sort. I will help my family.”
“Please listen to him, Aunt Winfried,” the blond girl said. “Grandma told me he may be our only hope.”
“When did your great-grandmother tell you that?” Winfried asked. “You know she’s been gone these last four years.”
The blond girl nodded. “I know, Auntie,” she said. “But I saw her today. And she talked to me. We need to trust this man, he’ll help. He saw her too. I saw him talking to her.”
Winfried looked at me and rolled her eyes, as if to say, “kids these days”.
“Cousin Winfried,” I said. “She’s right, I did talk to her. She told me to help. I didn’t know she had passed away. I’m sorry for your loss.”
I bent down to the girl in Winfried’s lap. “Did you see him?” I asked. She nodded. “You are in the light of day. Forget him and look at those who love you, at your mom and cousin. Reach out to them. They’ll keep him away. Be strong.”
“Don’t scare the child!” Winfried said.
“But Mom, he’s right,” Milly said. “I need to fight him. Great-grandma Rosaline says our cousin can help.”
“My baby, you’re still with us!” Winfried said. “Stop talking this gibberish and tell me you’re OK!”
“Please Winfried,” I said, “let me know how she is doing in the next few days. If she isn’t back to normal, I’ll have to know so I can help.”
Winfried looked back at me, nodded, and then put all of her attention back on her child, Milly.
Bethy took my arm as we walked back to the car. “What was that all about?” she asked.
“I wish I knew,” I said. “I wish I knew.”