I didn't like Clyde Nunley the first time I met him face-to-face in the old cemetery. There was nothing wrong with the exterior of the man: he was dressed like a regular person would dress for the mild winter weather of southern Tennessee, especially considering the task at hand. His old blue jeans, work boots, shapeless hat, flannel shirt, and down vest were reasonable attire. But Dr. Nunley had a smug, smooth, air about him that said that he'd brought me here to be an object of derision, said he'd never believed I was anything but a fraud.
He shook my hand, standing right in front of me. He was having a great time, scanning the faces of my brother and me, as we waited side by side for his directions.
Offered under the aegis of the anthropology department of Bingham College, the course Dr. Clyde Nunley taught was titled "An Open Mind: Experiences Outside the Box." I noted the irony.
"Last week we had a medium," he said.
"For lunch?" I asked, and got a scowl for my reward.
I glanced sideways at Tolliver. His eyes narrowed slightly, letting me know he was amused but warning me to play nice.
If it hadn't been for the presence of that a**hole of a professor, I would have been brimming with anticipation. I drew in a deep breath as I glanced past Dr. Nunley at the tombstones, worn and weathered. This was my kind of place.
By American standards, the cemetery was an old one. The trees had had nearly two centuries to mature. Some of these hardwoods could have been saplings when the denizens of St. Margaret's churchyard had been laid to rest. Now they were tall, with thick branches; in the summer, their shade would be a blessing. Right now, in November, the branches were bare, and the grass was bleached and strewn with dead leaves. The sky was that chill, leaden gray that makes the heart sad.
I would have been as subdued as the rest of the people gathered there if I hadn't had a treat in store. The headstones still upright were uneven, both in lodgment and in color. Below them, the dead waited for me.
It hadn't rained in a week or two, so I was wearing Pumas rather than boots. I would have better contact if I took the Pumas off, but the students and the professor would doubtless interpret that as further evidence of my eccentricity. Also, it was a bit too cold for going around barefoot.
Nunley's students were there to watch my "demonstration." That was the point. Of the twenty or so in the group, two were older; one, a woman, was in her forties. I was willing to bet she'd arrived in the minivan now sitting frumpily among the other vehicles pulled up to the wire strung between white posts to separate the gravel parking lot from the grass of the churchyard. Her face was open and curious as she evaluated me.
The other "nontraditional" class member was a man I placed in his early thirties, who was dressed in cords and a heathery sweater. The thirties man was the shining Colorado pickup. Clyde Nunley would be the ancient Toyota. The four other cars, battered and small, would be those of the traditional students who formed the bulk of the little crowd here to watch. Though St. Margaret's was actually on the campus grounds, the old church was tucked far back into the reaches of Bingham College, beyond the little stadium, the tennis courts, the soccer field--so it wasn't surprising that the students who could, had driven, especially in the chilly weather. The kids were in the typical college eighteen-to-twenty-one age bracket, and with an odd jolt I realized that made them only a bit younger than me. They were wearing the usual uniform of blue jeans, sneakers, and padded jackets--more or less what Tolliver and I were wearing.
Tolliver's jacket was from Lands' End, bright red with a blue lining. Red looked good with his black hair, and the jacket was warm enough for most situations in the South. I was wearing my bright blue padded jacket, because it made me feel safe and soft, and because Tolliver had given it to me.
We were spots of color in the overall grayness. The trees that surrounded the old church, its yard, and its cemetery gave us a feeling of privacy, as if we'd been marooned at the back of the Bingham campus.
"Miss Connelly, we're all anxious to see your demonstration," Dr. Nunley said, practically laughing in my face. He made an elaborate sweeping gesture with his arm that encompassed the gaggle of headstones. The students didn't look anxious. They looked cold, bored, or mildly curious. I wondered who the medium had been. There weren't many with genuine gifts.
I glanced at Tolliver again. Fuck him, his eyes said, and I smiled.
They all had clipboards, all the students. And all the clipboards had diagrams of the old graveyard, with the gravesites neatly drawn in and labeled. Though this information wasn't on their clipboards, I knew there was a detailed record of the burials in this particular graveyard, a record containing the cause of death of most of the bodies buried in it. The parish priest had kept this record for the forty years he'd served St. Margaret's church, keeping up the custom of his predecessor. But Dr. Nunley had informed me that no one had been buried here for fifty years.
The St. Margaret records had been discovered three months ago in a box in the most remote storeroom of the Bingham College library. So there was no way I could have found out the information the registers contained beforehand. Dr. Nunley, who had originated the occult studies class, had heard of me somehow. He wouldn't say exactly how my name had come to his attention, but that didn't surprise me. There are websites that connect to websites that connect to other websites; and in a very subterranean circle, I'm famous.
Clyde Nunley thought he was paying me to be exposed in front of the "An Open Mind" class. He thought I considered myself some form of psychic, or maybe a Wiccan.
Of course, that made no sense. Nothing I did was occult. I didn't pray to any god before I got in touch with the dead. I do believe in God, but I don't consider my little talent a gift from Him.
I got it from a bolt of lightning. So if you think God causes natural disasters, then I suppose God is responsible.
When I was fifteen, I was struck through an open window of the trailer where we lived. At that time, my mother was married to Tolliver's father, Matt Lang, and they had had two children, Gracie and Mariella. Crowded into the trailer (besides that lovely nuclear family) were the rest of us--me, my sister Cameron, Tolliver, and his brother Mark. I don't remember how long Mark was actually in residence. He's several years older than Tolliver. Anyway, Mark wasn't at the trailer that afternoon.
It was Tolliver who performed CPR until the ambulance got there.
My stepfather gave Cameron hell for calling the ambulance. It was expensive, and of course, we didn't have any insurance. The doctor who wanted to keep me overnight for observation got an earful. I never saw him again, or any other doctor. But from the Internet list I'm on, a list for lightning strike survivors, I've gathered it wouldn't have done me a lot of good, anyway.
I recovered--more or less. I have a strange spiderweb pattern of red on my torso and right leg. That leg has episodes of weakness. Sometimes my right hand shakes. I have headaches. I have many fears. And I can find dead people. If their location is known, I can diagnose the cause of death.
That was the part that interested the professor. He had a record of the cause of death of almost every person in this cemetery, a record to which I'd had no access. This was his idea of a perfect test, a test that would expose me for the fraud I was. With an almost jaunty air, he led our little party through the dilapidated iron fence that had guarded the cemetery for so many decades.
"Where would you like me to begin?" I asked, with perfect courtesy. I had been raised well, until my parents started using drugs.
Clyde Nunley smirked at his students. "Why, this one would be fine," he said, gesturing to the grave to his right. Of course, there was no mound, probably hadn't been in a hundred and seventy years. The headstone was indecipherable, at least to my unaided eyes. If I bent down with a flashlight, maybe I could read it. But they didn't care about that part of it; they wanted to know what I would say about the cause of death.
The faint tremor, the vibration I'd been feeling since I'd neared the cemetery, increased in frequency as I stepped onto the grave. I'd been feeling the hum in the air even before I'd passed through the rusted gate, and now it increased in intensity, vibrating just below the surface of my skin. It was like getting closer and closer to a hive of bees.
I shut my eyes, because it was easier to concentrate that way. The bones were directly underneath me, waiting for me. I sent that extra sense down into the ground under my feet, and the knowledge entered me with the familiarity of a lover.
"Cart fell on him," I said. "This is a man, I think in his thirties. Ephraim? Something like that? His leg was crushed, and he went into shock. He bled out."
There was a long silence. I opened my eyes. The professor had stopped smirking. The students were busily making notations on their clipboards. One girl's eyes were wide as she looked at me.
"All right," said Dr. Clyde Nunley, his voice suddenly a lot less scornful. "Let's try another one."
Gotcha, I thought.
The next grave was Ephraim's wife. The bones didn't tell me that; I deduced her identity from the similar headstone positioned side by side with Ephraim's. "Isabelle," I said with certainty. "Isabelle. Oh, she died in childbirth." My hand grazed my lower stomach. Isabelle must have been pregnant when her husband met with his accident. Hard luck. "Wait a minute," I said. I wanted to interpret that faint echo I was picking up underneath Isabelle's. To hell with what they thought. I pulled off my shoes, but kept my socks on in a compromise with the cold weather. "The baby's in there with her," I told them. "Poor little thing," I added very softly. There was no pain in the baby's death.
I opened my eyes.
The group had shifted its configuration. They stood closer to each other, but farther from me.
"Next?" I asked.
Clyde Nunley, his mouth compressed into a straight line, gestured toward a grave so old its headstone had split and fallen. The marble had been white when it had been situated.
As Tolliver and I went over to the next body, his hand on my back, one of the students said, "He should stand somewhere else. What if he's somehow feeding her information?"
It was the older male student, the guy in his thirties. He had brown hair, a thread or two of gray mixed in. He had a narrow face and the broad shoulders of a swimmer. He didn't sound as if he actually suspected me. He sounded objective.
"Good point, Rick. Mr. Lang, if you'd stand out of Miss Connelly's sight?"
I felt a tiny flutter of anxiety. But I made myself nod at Tolliver in a calm way. He went back to lean against our car, parked outside what remained of the cemetery fence. While I watched him, another car pulled up, and a young black man with a camera got out. It was a dilapidated car, dented and scraped, but clean.
"Hey, y'all," the newcomer called, and several of the younger students waved at him. "Sorry I'm late."
The professor said, "Miss Connelly, this is Clark. I forgot to tell you that the student newspaper wanted to get a few shots."
I didn't think he'd forgotten. He just didn't care if I objected or not.
I considered for a moment. I really didn't care. I was ready to have a good fight with Clyde Nunley, but not a frivolous one. I shrugged. "I don't mind," I said. I stepped onto the grave, close to the headstone, and focused my whole attention on ground below me. This one was hard to decipher. It was very old, and the bones were scattered; the coffin had disintegrated. I hardly felt my right hand begin to twitch, or my head begin to turn from side to side. My facial muscles danced beneath my skin.
"Kidneys," I said, at last. "Something with his kidneys." The ache in my back swelled to a level of pain that was almost unbearable, and then it was gone. I opened my eyes and took a deep breath. I fought the impulse to turn to look at my brother.
One of the youngest of the students was white as a sheet. I'd spooked her good. I smiled at her, trying to look friendly and reassuring. I don't think I achieved it. She took another step away from me. I sighed and turned my attention back to my job.
Next, I found a woman who'd died of pneumonia; a child who'd died of an infected appendix; a baby who'd had a heart malformation; a baby who'd had a blood problem--I suspected he was the second child of a couple with conflicting Rh factors--and a pre-teen boy who'd had one of the fevers, scarlet, maybe. Every now and then I heard the photographer snap a picture, but it really didn't bother me. I don't care much about my physical appearance when I'm working.
After thirty or forty minutes, Nunley seemed almost won over. He pointed to a grave in the corner of the cemetery farthest from the gate. The plot he indicated lay right by the fence, which had collapsed almost completely in that area. The headstone was partially obscured by the overhanging branches of a live oak, and the light was especially bad. This is a draining process, so I was beginning to get tired. At first I attributed my extraordinary reading to that. I opened my eyes, frowned.
"It's a girl," I said.
"Ha!" Nunley chose to regard himself as vindicated. He kind of overdid his glee, he was so happy to be proved right. "Wrong!" he said. Mr. Open Mind.
"I'm not wrong," I said, though I really wasn't thinking about him, or the students, or even Tolliver. I was thinking about the puzzle under the ground. I was thinking about solving it.
I took off my socks. My feet felt fragile in the chilly air. I stepped back onto the dead grass in line with the headstone to get a fresh outlook. For the first time, I noticed that though an attempt had been made to level this grave--it bore the flattened spots that blows with a shovel on soft dirt would have produced--the earth had been recently turned.