It appeared one day, in the middle of town.
It wasn’t there yesterday. Everyone passed this area dozens and dozens of times and they would have noticed it, just as they have noticed it today. But it’s here today, seemingly from nowhere. A single, unmarked tombstone.
“A prank, surely,” is what’s first muttered among the crowd. But everyone looks amongst themselves uneasily, wondering who could be missing. It’s a small town they live in, just under three hundred people. But unfortunately, the saying of “everybody knowing everybody” is not always true.
“Oh, don’t let’s all be ridiculous!” says one woman who sells clothes and jewelry. “It’s not like one of us could die and be buried during the night, tombstone and all. Someone would have noticed it.”
“Where’s Denasia?” a man, the painter, says suddenly, whirling around. “Where’s my daughter?”
“I’m here, Daddy!” A preteen girl breaks away from her friends and rushes to the painter, the both of them enveloping the other in a hug.
“You stay close, you hear?” the painter says.
All around the group, families and friends followed suit, pulling those they love in a comforting physical hold.
“Perhaps it’s not any one of us that’s dead,” the local librarian speaks up, their head tilted as they study the tombstone. “There are other people outside of town. Perhaps one of them came to an untimely demise and was buried here.”
“But why here?” asks the clothing and jewelry woman. “Why in the middle of the road? Why not in their own town or in the woods or anywhere else? A place like this is rather preposterous.”
“Stupid,” offers another person.
“Bold,” someone else says.
“Nonsensical.” The sheriff steps up, standing in front of the tombstone to bring all attention to him. “Listen. There’s no dead body here. This was obviously a prank, plain and simple. I would like the perpetrators to step up so it could ease all our nerves, please.”
A moment passes. No one moves.
“Very well. All the same. The tombstone will be removed and we will all go back to our lives.”
“Are you sure that’s the best idea?” the librarian asks. “Perhaps your wrong and there is someone buried there. Wouldn’t it be immoral to remove their gravestone?”
“Mx. Autumns, surely a sensible person such as yourself isn’t afraid of the dead?”
“Of course. Any sensible person would be. Especially one who appears from nothing.”
“I have to say that I agree,” says the clothing and jewelry woman. “I don’t think it smart to take action when we don’t quite know all the details yet.”
“It’s in the middle of the road!”
“We have the means to walk around it.”
“I like it,” Denasia offers. “It makes things interesting. This place is so boring.”
The painter pulls her back, shushing her quietly.
“The grave will be removed,” the sheriff repeats. “I will not have you all encouraging the rash acts of children. Everyone, go about your business. It’s late enough as it is.”
There are low murmurs of mixed opinions, but the crowd disperses, going about their day.
As the sheriff promised, the tombstone was removed the next day. The day after, however, it was back.
The sheriff waved everyone away, refusing to make a spectacle about it. He removed it again. And again. And again.
Soon, two weeks have passed, and no matter how many times the sheriff removes the tombstone, it returns looking just the same as before.
“All right, that’s enough of this!” The sheriff looks among the townspeople, his eyes scanning them as if he can detect their guilt. “Who’s doing this? Who here thinks it’s funny to scare those around them? To create senseless panic? Huh?”
Everyone looks amongst themselves, but no one steps up.
“Perhaps it’s the body’s ghost,” the librarian offers, their eyes not fully open as they take a sip of their coffee.
“Mx. Autumns, I beg of thee to shut up!” the sheriff barks. “There is no ghost! There is no body! No one is dead!”
“The tombstone seems to disagree.”
The sheriff lets out a hefty sigh, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“I will remove the tombstone one more time and one more time only,” he announces. “And I will be making sure that this time, it does not come back.”
The crowd, once again, disperses, but before the librarian can retreat back into their home to fully wake up, the woman who sells clothing and jewelry approaches.
“That man is going to set a curse on us all,” she bemoans.
“Good morning, Ms. Button. How is the wife?”
“Healing splendidly. Dr. Plague suspects she’ll be well enough to leave the house in a week, perhaps less.” She casts an annoyed look the sheriff’s way. “That’s assuming a ghost doesn’t kill us first.”
“If you’re so worried, perhaps a move is in order.”
“Perhaps it is.” She turns back to the librarian. “The tombstone is right outside your home. Have you seen anything?”
The librarian shakes their head, stirring the spoon in their cup. “I’m usually in bed before the moon is high.”
“Humor me, then. I’ve stayed up countless nights. I want to see if this is a prank or not once and for all.”
“Will your wife be all right with that?”
“She’s the one who suggested it.”
The librarian hums before tilting their head back and downing the rest of their coffee as if it is in a shot glass instead of a mug. Once finished, they look at the clothing and jewelry woman.
“Very well, but be sure to come early. Else I can’t promise I’ll be awake to let you in.”
It seems that the sheriff had the same idea as the clothing and jewelry woman. The clothing and jewelry woman sit at the window, watching him, as he sits in a chair in the middle of the road, right where the tombstone usually is.
“If you want to rest your eyes, you can, Sheriff!” the clothing and jewelry woman calls with a teasing smile on her face. “I’ll keep a lookout!”
The sheriff sniffs, but makes no response.
“Do you think he’ll be able to stay up the whole night?” the clothing and jewelry woman asks.
“I won’t,” says the librarian, who is leaning against the windowsill, their eyes fluttering close.
The clothing and jewelry woman nudges the librarian, forcing them to sit up. “Hang with me a bit longer. Aren’t you at all curious? You’re an academic, after all.”
“I’m curious as to why this is such a big deal for everyone.” The librarian sits back in their chair, their arms folded. “It was strange at first, yes, but I fail to see the harm in leaving the tombstone be. If it wants to make its home there, why not let it? It hasn’t hurt anyone.”
“You speak as if it’s a person.”
“Isn’t it? Aren’t all tombstones technically people who once were? They wouldn’t exist otherwise.”
“I suppose you have a point.”
The conversation was in danger of dropping off into an uncomfortable silence, but just before it could, running is heard down the road. The librarian, the clothing and jewelry woman, and the sheriff all look to see Denasia running as if her life depended on it.
“Sheriff!” Denasia stops short at the sheriff, doubled over and panting terribly. The sheriff watches her, waiting for her to catch her breath.
“You have to come, Sheriff,” Denasia finally says. “Daddy—he fell over suddenly. I don’t know why. He was just painting and he suddenly collapsed and I can’t tell if he’s breathing and—”
The sheriff lifts his hand. “Honestly, Denasia, I expected better from you. You’re usually the well-behaved one.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Did your new friends put you up to this? I know you’re getting older now, but you need to learn how to keep good company.” The sheriff leans back in his seat. “You can go tell them that the prank is over and done. I’m not moving.”
“Prank?” Denasia repeats. “Sheriff, my father could be dying.”
“Get the doctor.”
“I tried. They won’t answer.”
“What do you mean, ‘they won’t answer’?”
“I banged and screamed at their door. They didn’t come. They might not be home; I don’t know where they are. Sheriff, please.”
The sheriff shakes his head and waves her off.
“I cannot believe this!” The clothing and jewelry woman stands up. “Denasia, I’ll come with you. Dr. Plague might be at my place, checking on the wife. Obviously, this shrimp is too lazy to properly do what his actual job is.”
“You’re being fooled, Ms. Button. It’s why I’m the sheriff and you’re a shop owner.”
“Protect and serve the people, indeed!” the clothing and jewelry woman huffs. She turns to the librarian. “You don’t have to stay up. I know it’s past your bedtime. But if you can hang as long as possible just to stick it to that sheriff, I’d be ever grateful.”
“You had me at ‘stick it to that sheriff’,” the librarian says before stifling a yawn.
“You’re a gem. I’m coming, Denasia!” The clothing and jewelry woman leaves the librarian’s home, running with Denasia down the street.
The librarian rests their chin in their hand at the windowsill, eyes half closed as they stare where the sheriff sits.
“Seems we’re the only two with sense!” the sheriff calls to them.
“Don’t lie, Sheriff,” the librarian yawns. “If you had sense, you’d leave the grave be.”
The sheriff laughs. “You mean let those kids play their games! If we let this pass, who knows what else they’ll try to get away with. That girl was just lying about her father’s own death!”
“Children can’t act fear that well,” the librarian argues. “Not without years on stage. Denasia is quiet, shy, anxious. She’s not a liar, and she’s definitely not an actor. That fear was real. Her father collapsed.”
“Though I don’t think he’ll die. I don’t think it malicious.”
“You don’t think what malicious?”
The sheriff stares at them before laughing again. “You’re right! I was lying. It seems I’m the only one with sense.”
The librarian sits up and leans forward, poking their head out the window. “Tell me, Sheriff, why on all possible nights would Denasia’s father collapse on this one? Don’t it seem awfully convenient?”
“Of course it is! A lie is nothing but for convenience!”
“But I’ve already given my reasons on why it is not a lie,” the librarian says. “So, assuming that what Denasia says is true, that means her father conveniently collapsed on the night that people decided to watch for the tombstone.”
“Well, even so, it didn’t work. Because I’m smarter than that. I’m not moving for any kid, adult, or tombstone.”
“Denasia wasn’t for you. She was for Ms. Button.” The librarian leans back in their seat again. “Ms. Button’s wife is sick. Dr. Plague is at her house. Denasia’s father collapsed. Now Ms. Button has to take Denasia to her home to make sure her father is well. She might not be back before the night is over.” They cross their legs. “I already know how it’s going to get to me. Hell, it probably doesn’t have to try. I’m going to fall asleep. I’ve never been able to stay up past midnight and I doubt I’ll be able to start now. The only question is how it will get to you. I suspect it will go all out on you.”
“All out how?”
“In a haunting. It will do what ghosts are stereotyped to do. It will scare you and make sure you never want to walk this road again. It’s not enough to just get you to look away. It wants you to let it be and allow it to make its home here for the time being. Because you couldn’t just do that in the first place. So, it has to do something permanent.” They shrug. “But that’s just a hypothesis.”
The sheriff says nothing at first, though his leg shakes now, either from the cold or sudden nervousness.
“You’re an educated person, Mx. Autumns. One of the smartest around here. You truly believe in ghosts? Even the ones that come from nowhere?”
“I didn’t used to.” The librarian allows their eyes to close. “At first, it was just a small superstition that I’d rather not mess with. But you’ve proven them to me. Congratulations.”
“Well, prepare to have them unproven by me!” the sheriff says. “There will be no more tombstones because I will not move from this spot. It’s nothing more than an elaborate prank. You hear me?”
The librarian doesn’t answer. Their head dips in their chair.
“Mx. Autumns? Hey! Wake up!” The sheriff sighs. “Tell me a ghost story, then drift to sleep. Bah! Not that I’m scared. Me? No.”
The sheriff’s leg shakes faster and faster as he looks this way and that.
The sheriff checks his watch. Two forty-seven. Only two minutes since the last time he’s checked.
He watches both ends of the road. Sometimes he gets up and walks around. Sometimes he sits and allows his legs to shake. He keeps moving. He has to keep moving.
He can’t see the librarian anymore. They had succumbed in such a deep slumber that they fell out of their chair. The sheriff should be relieved to not have the distraction anymore, but his heart pounds.
He checks his watch. Two forty-seven. Still.
“Where is Ms. Button?” he mutters to himself. “Surely it doesn’t take that long to realize a girl is lying.”
The sheriff shivers, almost tempted to close his eyes. He’s not tired, really. In fact, he wishes he was tired. Anything would be better than…whatever this feeling is.
He checks his watch. Two forty-eight.
“This night will never end!” he exclaims, standing up once more to walk around. There’s no reason for this anxiety. Surely, it’s just the librarian’s words that are haunting him, not the idea of a ghost.
The sheriff pauses. Footsteps. Slow, walking ones. He turns, ready to greet the clothing and jewelry woman.
But there’s no one there. The road is as empty as a new casket.
Yet he still hears footsteps.
“Who’s there?” he calls, his hand now on his gun.
The sheriff whirls, letting a cry bellow out. His eyes land on the doctor’s and he catches his breath.
“Dr. Plague,” the sheriff says. “What on earth are you doing here?”
“I was told you had planned on staying up all night here. I wanted to check on you.” The doctor folds their arms. “Late nights aren’t healthy, you know. The human body isn’t naturally made for it.”
“Perhaps you should take your own advice.” The sheriff allows himself to take a seat once more. “Did you check on that girl’s father?”
“How is he?”
“He’ll live. It was just a bout of stress causing his body to give out. I suspect this tombstone business is part, if not most, of the reason.”
“Well, it will all be over once I’m done here.”
The sheriff gestures to the general area. “You don’t see a grave now, do you?”
“Not now, no,” the doctor agrees. But what, are you going to sit in this place for the rest of your life? Who’s to say it won’t come back the moment you walk away?”
“…I didn’t think of that.”
“I had a feeling you didn’t.” The doctor steps closer. “You don’t think much, do you?”
“Dr. Plague, where is this coming from?” the sheriff sputters. “You were just saying that the tombstone is stressing everyone out. How do you expect me to get rid of it, then?”
“I said the tombstone business is stressing people out, not the tombstone itself.” The doctor leans over the sheriff’s chair, grabbing onto the back for leverage. “In what lifetime is it ever a good thing to destroy a tombstone? When is it ever good to break it down to dust until there’s nothing left? Especially when it comes back? Could you really be so stupid?”
“Oh, and I suppose you wish for me to leave it be?”
“Of course. Everyone else does. Everyone else hates you.”
“They want me to figure it out.”
“They want you to stop. They’re scared. They think you’re releasing something evil into the air. And you are.”
The sheriff rolls his eyes. “You’ve been talking to Mx. Autumns.”
“What do you mean, ‘whom’? The librarian! You talk to them at least once a week, likely more. Don’t act ridiculous.”
The doctor straightens themself. “Funny. You’re so bent on me being Dr. Plague, but the narrator has only been referring to me as ‘doctor’.”
The sheriff’s eyebrows furrow together. “What…are you talking about?”
“There’s a reason names haven’t been used, Sheriff. Because none of us are certain we are speaking to those we name. At any moment, we can become someone else entirely. Even your actions may no longer be your own.”
The sheriff stares at the doctor for a long moment. “You know, perhaps you’re right. It’s late. You should go rest a while, Dr—”
“The sheriff stands up.”
The sheriff stands up.
“W-what on—” he sputters.
“It’s not a coincidence that the narrator purposefully stayed out of people’s inner thoughts until now, Sheriff,” the doctor continues. “What, suddenly now we care how afraid you are? That the librarian’s ghost story freaked you out? Why, yes, we do care. Because you weren’t freaked out enough. You needed to be pushed harder. The narrator need to get inside your mind in order to break it.”
“What narrator? What are you talking about?”
“The sheriff has a sudden fit of anxiety, so bad he couldn’t speak.”
The sheriff has a sudden fit of anxiety, so bad he couldn’t speak. He doubles over, shaking, his heart pounding in his chest, his ears, his brain. He looks up at the doctor who doesn’t seem like the doctor he knows anymore.
It will scare you and make you never want to walk this road again.
“Are…are you the-the ghost?” the sheriff manages to get out.
“Don’t be simple,” the doctor says. “There was never any ghost. There was never a body. You were right on that.”
The doctor puts a hand over the back of the sheriff’s neck, slowly squeezing tighter and tighter.
“I’m the tombstone.”
The sheriff jumps awake and falls out of his chair. He sits up quickly, feeling the back of his neck as he looks up. Denasia and Ms. Button stare at him.
“Fat lot of good you are,” Ms. Button says. “‘Oh, I’m the sheriff! I’m so smart and brave and better than everyone else!’ Then you fall asleep.”
The sheriff stands slowly and checks his watch. Two forty-nine.
“Mx. Autumns!” Ms. Button rushes to Mx. Autumns window and sighs. “They fell asleep too. I suppose I can’t blame them.”
“Are you okay, Sheriff?” Denasia asks. “You seem stressed.”
“I’m all right, dear,” the sheriff sighs, though he doesn’t like the quick pace of his heart. He looks at Denasia. “How come you don’t call me by my name?”
“I don’t know your name, sir,” Denasia says.
“Why, it’s—” The sheriff pauses, thinking it over. “—not important. How is your father?”
“Fine,” Denasia says. “Dr. Plague says he passed out because of stress.”
Thumpthumpthump, right in the sheriff’s ears.
“He wasn’t…stressed about this, ah….” he mulls over the words, “tombstone business, was he?”
Denasia shrugs. “I don’t know. That’s what he was painting though, the tombstone. Had been working on it since yesterday. Said that since the tombstone can’t be in the middle of the road, maybe a painting will placate it.”
The sheriff nods, trying to ignore the jitters in his arms and legs.
“All right!” Ms. Button comes out of Mx. Autumns house. “Mx. Autumns is nicely put to bed. I hope they don’t feel too bad in the morning. The way they were laying on that floor cannot be good. I feel terribly guilty!” She sighs, looking behind the sheriff. “It’s unfortunate, though. Now we’ll never know who keeps putting it back.”
The sheriff’s eyebrows furrow before he turns around.
The tombstone is there, same as always.
“The mystery is absolutely killing me,” Ms. Button says. “Prank? Supernatural? We’ll never know, because of an incompetent sheriff.”
“Sheriff, are you going to take it down again?” Denasia asks. “Sheriff?”
“What?” The sheriff looks at Denasia. “Oh, ah…let’s not worry about it right now. It’s late. Allow me to take you home. I feel terrible for not believing you earlier.”
“It is late.” Ms. Button stretches her arms as she starts walking down the road. “Normally, I can stay up, but I feel exhausted for some reason. Almost as if my body is not my own right now. Ha! Imagine that.”
“Ms. Button, I do wish you’d talk less,” the sheriff sighs tightly.
Ms. Button waves him off.
The sheriff takes Denasia’s hand and pulls her along. “Come now, child.”
“Okay,” Danasia says, rushing to keep up. “And I forgive you for not believing me. I guess everyone is stressed.”
“Oh, that is an understatement, my dear.”
“But you can trust me. I hope you know that.”
“Because until now, I was the only one the narrator had to call by my name.”
A month has passed since that eventful night. The grave has become a sort of monument in the town. People even started leaving gifts and cleaning it regularly.
Mx. Autumns sits outside on their porch, finishing the last of their coffee. They nod a hello to the new deputy walking past. This is a small town, with only a little under three hundred people. Everyone doesn’t necessarily know everyone, but there is rarely any crime here. Never any reason for there to be more than a sheriff.
But ever since that night, the sheriff has hired a helping hand. There are many speculations as to why, but Mx. Autumns has a pretty good hypothesis on the reason.
After all, they haven’t seen the sheriff on this road since.