A frigid wind careened off granite head stones and smooth, dark basalt rock that surfaced around the perimeter of Ben’s cemetery like a pod of prehistoric whales. Ben had worked at the funeral home all his adult life, finally taking it over from his father around five years ago, but the rock surrounding the cemetery had been there forever and still revealed new colours and contours depending on the light and weather, always suggesting new similes. He saw whales today.
The wind stung as Ben walked towards his smoking bench and listened to McFadden school young Kevin. Ben was getting a schooling too. He’d learned more about the area’s geological underpinnings in the three weeks since the geologist died than he had during the rest of his forty-three years living in the mining town. McFadden was Ben’s new ghost and a serious pain in the ass, and he still didn’t know what the old guy needed from him.
Almost everyone uses granite for headstones these days, son, but if I had to choose my own monument I’d go for quartzite, a metamorphic rock composed mainly of…can you guess, Kevin?
That’s right, quartz. And metamorphic rock is…
Rock that’s been altered by extreme heat or pressure or chemical processes.
Very good, Kevin.
And oh, Mr. McFadden. Kevin raised his hand as if in class. Quartzite is a non-foliated metamorphic rock. It was originally sandstone.
Today, like every day, Kevin wore a white and orange patterned shirt with snaps up the front and a spearpoint collar. His shaggy hair could have been the style at the time he died, but Ben was pretty sure it was the product of parental neglect. Kevin had been six since 1981, the year he went missing to everyone but his classmate, Ben. At six, Ben already knew what missing meant—his mother had been missing from his life since she died the previous winter, leaving a hole in the centre of Ben’s existence—so he didn’t know what the fuss was about. He’d say to the adults, “But Kevin’s right here. Beside me. Right here.” Eventually, he came to understand that no one else could see Kevin and that Kevin was dead, like his mother, but only sort of.
Well done, Kevin, said McFadden. Quartzite is highly durable, attractive—expensive, mind you. My own son chose Blue Pearl granite from Norway. Wouldn’t have been my pick, but he didn’t have much choice, did he, given granite’s all this guy sources.
Ben’s granite offerings were industry standard, and he didn’t appreciate being referred to as “this guy” so often.
“You could’ve made prearrangements, McFadden. People do that, you know.”
Funeral directors, bunch of crooks. Could just bundle us in a sack and throw us in a hole. Dust to dust. Instead—
Ben ignored this part of the lecture as he reached his regular bench, a memorial to one of the town’s founding prospectors. He was wearing McFadden’s parka which was proving a superior smoking garment: ugly, beige, roomy, pocket-rich. The zipper of Ben’s previous parka—designed and priced for Everest—had broken within a year and the hi-tech fabric was dotted with ember burns by the time he incinerated it along with McFadden. It seemed like a fair trade. Trouble was, McFadden always appeared with Ben’s old parka either bundled under his arm or slung casually over a shoulder. Ben wasn’t worried about the old guy being burdened with the piece of junk for all eternity. Rather, it reminded him of the basic transactional nature of their relationship.
Other than Kevin, Ben’s ghosts came and went. Went, after Ben helped them in some way. Some of the ghosts were coy about what they needed, like McFadden; others were direct. The first thing Conrad said to Ben was, I need to talk to her, and never shut up about his wife. Though Ben wouldn’t pass along any messages directly—his business couldn’t withstand gossip about the funeral director who communed with ghosts—he agreed to bring Conrad close. So Ben shoveled snow off the widow’s driveway and mowed her lawn, while Conrad got whatever it was off his chest. Ben’s ghosts were tethered to him by some physical law as compelling as gravity, and they were lucky to be tethered to a loser with so much free time on his hands. Ben had no wife, no family, no kids, no girlfriend, few friends. But he still had no idea what McFadden needed.
“What am I going to have to do for this parka?” Ben mumbled with a cigarette between his lips, patting his pockets for a lighter, interrupting McFadden’s flow.
Always the drama with you young people, said McFadden, peering over his reading glasses, perpetually half way down his nose at withering level. Ben wished he’d tossed them before cremation.
“Forty-three is young?”
Seems forty-three’s the new thirteen.
“Maybe you’re right. I still love smoking, Super Mario, masturbating—”
Grow up. Kevin is more mature than you.
Ben found the lighter in a left breast pocket—though it had felt like something else—and lit a cigarette, cupping his hand around the vulnerable flame.
Smoking is bad for you. Mr. McFadden said so.
“I know, Kevin.” Ben took a second drag. “When you grow up you can make your own poor choices.”
McFadden covered the boy’s ears. No need to rub it in, he hissed at Ben. The old ghost let go of Kevin’s head and addressed the boy with great seriousness. Kevin, listen to me. Dead is best. Remember that. The living are a bunch of shits. It’s a marvel he’s even using the parka, given his throw-away culture.
McFadden had died while ice fishing near his winterized cabin and was sitting frozen in a lawn chair watching his tip-ups with clouded eyes when the conservation officer found him. It’d taken him two days to thaw, but he’d adapted as easily as Ben had ever seen to his new incorporeal state, instantly adopting an us (dead) versus them (living) position. Like he was relieved not to be part of the problem anymore. Ben got the appeal, given the garbage state of macro affairs, and he was glad Kevin had a new companion to tutor him in geology and contemporary attitudes towards smoking. A grandpa to complement Ben, his ersatz big-brother-dad.
Ben patted his breast pocket again. The nicotine had yanked a memory thread, and he pursued the thing he’d felt there earlier. Yes, there was something else in the breast pocket, not in the outside pocket where he’d retrieved his lighter, but behind it. He undid the parka’s top two snaps, reached into the inside breast pocket, and pulled out a folded fishing licence.
There’s Margaret! Here she comes! Kevin bobbed with excitement. He didn’t seem to care what Ben had found. In this moment, he only cared about Margaret, who worked for Ben at the funeral home.
Christ, you found it. McFadden, on the other hand, seemed to care. Fidgeting, he moved Ben’s old parka from one arm to the other, then put it on. It was too small and bunched up his suit jacket around his neck. Ben would let him stew a bit. He was excited to see Margaret too, though he played it a bit cooler than Kevin.
Margaret’s voice was barely audible over the wind. “I need a smoke.”
Margaret didn’t smoke, but her versatility was one of the things Ben loved about her. Would she mind draining poor Mr. Williams who’d been found a little late? “I likes my men ripe.” Cleaning up the barf in the chapel? “Stomach contents of the living? What a treat!” Fixing the web site? “Millennial to the rescue!” What would he do without her?
Ben glanced behind him, towards the funeral home. Kevin had slipped his hand into Margaret’s and was staring up at her adoringly. Ben wasn’t jealous—Margaret was clearly a superior person—but he felt sorry for the boy. Kevin could play around Margaret, who was unaware she had a worshipful ghost, but only when Ben was close. The physics of the dead was limiting.
“Give me one of those.” Margaret arrived in an eddy of formaldehyde. “Mrs. Chan’s bed sores were not pretty.” She shifted from one foot to the other, hugging herself against the cold, and perched on the edge of the bench. Kevin bounced gleefully on her jouncing knee. Margaret was never still. Ben couldn’t figure how she ever settled down enough to sleep and imagined her bound, sexily, in a tourniquet of bedding after a night of constant rolling. Then he felt ashamed of this thought and made a show of getting a cigarette for her.
“What’ve you got there, boss?” She pointed at the folded fishing license in Ben’s hand.
Just throw it away, said McFadden.
“Don’t know,” Ben said through lips clamped down on two cigarettes. He raised an eyebrow at McFadden who was chewing on a hangnail. Ben lit a cigarette for Margaret and handed it to her.
Margaret, stop! Smoking is bad for you!
Ben’s careful flame had ignited the corner of the licence, but the wind extinguished it in a moment. When he unfolded the paper, the edges were brown and scalloped.
“It’s a map. X marks the spot.” Margaret pointed at the X in the middle of the page. “Arrgh.” She squeezed her left eye shut and made a hook out of her right hand. “Thar’s gold me thinks, matey.” Kevin laughed. Margaret puffed on the cigarette without inhaling.
Indeed, superimposed over the faint and copious legal rights and responsibilities of a Manitoba fisherman, was what looked like a treasure map. It was drawn in a firm but shaky hand with thick carpenter’s pencil, as if dashed off urgently while having a stroke. X did mark a spot, with HWY 10 a distance from it. Thin, trailing lines from the highway leading to it. Longitudinal coordinates. The initials J.G.M. in the corner. John Garvey McFadden. Ben glanced up at McFadden.
“Do you think McFadden drew it out on the lake before he died?” asked Margaret.
Yes, said McFadden.
“Maybe,” said Ben.
I don’t know what I was thinking putting that in writing. What would Mark have done with it?
Mark was McFadden’s son who’d chosen the Blue Pearl granite headstone. At the funeral Mark had wept openly. Ben rarely saw men get as broken up. He didn’t want to think about the level of emotion he’d shown at his own father’s funeral. Too much? Too little? He’d been too preoccupied by Mrs. Thiessen, who’d died while making jelly, and her overweening need to know if the jelly had set, to properly experience the thing. Was the map a key to Mark’s inheritance? McFadden had been a geologist scout for gold companies in his day. There’d always been rumours around town about his worth. A treasure chest full of gold would allow Ben to raise Margaret’s salary and to keep Funerals R Us from circling his business—Ben’s inheritance— like a pack of corporate zombies. More importantly, though, Ben sensed this was what McFadden needed from him.
“Ben?” said Margaret. “You should call Mark.”
Don’t call him. I made a mistake. I was having a bloody stroke.
Margaret snapped her fingers in front of Ben’s face. “Are you there? Call Mark, I said.” She sprang from the bench. “Back to work. Mrs. Chan isn’t going to embalm herself.”
Ahhh, Margaret, whined Kevin. Don’t go.
Ben didn’t want Margaret to go either. He wanted to talk this through with her, but of course he couldn’t. Should he send the treasure map to Mark? It was tempting because that was the last thing McFadden wanted, but Ben knew he had to keep it, find the treasure—whatever it was—if he was ever going to get rid of the guy. Ben pictured himself with an eye patch and sword, chest out on a swaying galleon. He’d have to wait for the ground to thaw.
Ben’s spade sunk into the sandy soil with a familiar thock. The X on McFadden’s map led to a patch of land, cleared of pine maybe ten years ago and now home to a wild blueberry patch and a shitload of mosquitoes who created a menacing hum. He reapplied the layer of Deet he’d sweated off and lit a cigarette.
He’d been at it on and off for two months and was starting to feel less like a pirate and more like a crazy person. With his metal detector he’d found machine parts, saw teeth, aluminum beer cans, and other essential tools of the logging crew. He knew he couldn’t afford this treasure hunt, but neither could he stop, because, though Ben doubted he’d find gold, he knew he’d find something. If Ben possessed no other skills, he possessed this: a sensitivity to messages from secret places. He was on the way to resolving McFadden’s problem, whatever it was, and then he’d be rid of him. The old ghost was reaching peak annoying, having, with characteristic alacrity, long become comfortable with the treasure hunt. Plus, the fucker still hadn’t told Ben what they were looking for. All in due time, he’d say maddeningly when Ben demanded to know. He’d cite research that demonstrated delayed satisfaction resulted in a happier life and that Ben should enjoy the process: nature, exercise, quality time with Kevin. I wish I’d spent more time with Mark.
But Kevin was acting strangely. Ever since Ben had started digging in the blueberry patch, he’d been mopey and distant. At first Ben thought it was because Margaret wasn’t around, but now he wasn’t so sure. Kevin routinely retreated to the top of a pine tree or curled up in the truck bed or buzzed around the perimeter of the clearing in endless laps.
Ben stepped on his spent cigarette and continued roving with his metal detector and digging, overseen by McFadden, sitting cross-legged on an outcropping of rock. Ben’s old jacket in his lap.
Flow banded rhyolite—note the unusually large amygdule, Ben. Here, by my feet. Ben.
“What’s an amygdule?” He didn’t ask out of curiosity; he asked because McFadden wouldn’t stop pestering until Ben admitted he didn’t know what an amygdule was. Also, he wanted to perk Kevin up, because he knew Kevin would have the answer. Kevin had always been the better student, feeding Ben the correct answers in class throughout all his schooling. Kevin knew all Ben knew, and more. And yet Kevin was still a child, innocent in many ways—would rather play than do anything else, always hid in a closet or drawer during Ben’s rare moments of intimacy with women. Ben wished his ghosts were all so reticent. Would’ve made these moments less rare.
Kevin, McFadden shouted. Tell dumb-dumb what an amygdule is.
Kevin’s voice was not perky, but he answered the question from his perch in a nearby pine. A deposit of minerals found in igneous rock. The minerals fill a cavity left in the rock from gas bubbles that formed as the lava cooled.
Thank you, Kevin. Your youthfulness is contagious. I haven’t been able to sit cross-legged since fifth grade. Look how flexible I’ve become.
“You just don’t feel pain anymore because you’re dead.” Ben swatted a mosquito on his cheek. “Nothing to be proud of.”
Poor Ben. Psychic pain is the worst. I like her, you know.
“What are we talking about?”
Margaret. Why don’t you ask her out on a date?
“She’s my employee.”
Do you have a harassment policy or some- thing?
“She’s not interested.”
The living are so tiresome. Why do you think she still works for you at that death factory? Open your eyes. You didn’t notice the fiddleheads at the edge of the forest either and now they’re gone. I saw them for ten bucks a dozen at The Forks last spring. You’re blind to opportunities.
It was true Ben didn’t know why Margaret worked for him, but was he blind to opportunities? He existed in a state of perpetual distraction as his ghosts carried on their own business with him no matter if he was watching a movie, at a party, running a funeral service, engaging in sex, or digging for buried treasure. Ben thought of himself as a functioning schizophrenic—which he felt was pretty good given the circumstances—but where did that leave fiddleheads? Margaret? Undisturbed.
The metal detector started beeping frantically.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ben saw Kevin swoop down from his tree and duck behind a squat scotch pine. McFadden drifted over, his legs still folded in a yogic pose. Ben started digging with greater hope and care than usual. His ghosts knew something. He scraped at the sandy soil, easily uprooting some small blueberry bushes and pine and aspen seedlings, stir- ring up the smell of pine forest and earth. He could feel its relative cool on his hot face. A matchbox car—a rusted but recognizable Camaro—settled on top of a pile of soil. Kevin rushed to the toy car, got onto his hands and knees, and started making engine noises. Ben scraped off another layer of soil and saw something white. He reached down and picked up the object, the rubber sole and toe cap of a child’s running shoe. Much of the canvas had rotted away. He turned it over in his hand and something fell out of it and dropped beside the toy. A tiny bone. A phalange.
There you are, said McFadden.
There I am, said Kevin.
Ben looked back and forth between Kevin and McFadden. The mosquitos’ hum roared in his ears. His heartbeat thrummed along the spade handle.
Keep digging, said McFadden. Gently.
With shaky arms, Ben slowly uncovered the remains of a child. Some rotted clothing clung to the skeleton, the exaggerated points of a collar, the plastic tabs poking through. A row of rusty snaps. Ben felt panicky and short of breath. The sweat on his skin cooled, felt like cling wrap. He fumbled in his pocket for his phone even though he knew there was no service.
They’ll think you did it.
Yes, you. Look at yourself.
Ben looked down at his filthy T-shirt, spade, and metal detector to see if it all added up to murderer, and he saw that it did. The appearance of guilt made him feel guilty and chilled by a fresh sheath of sweat. But, wait, he was six when Kevin died. They’d date the remains, identify the body. But he’d still have to admit how he got the map which was basically theft of a decedent’s effects. He’d lose his licence, his business, Margaret. And, despite his innocence, people would associate him with child killing. Margaret would associate him with child killing. And not just any child. Kevin. How was Kevin feeling about this? How had he felt? How could Ben be thinking about himself at a time like this? Ben looked up. Kevin was zooming around the site with his hands at ten and two, spitting the sounds of a V8 engine, downshifting, spinning out. He shouted, You found it, Ben! Thank you! Ben reached down and pocketed the dirt-packed toy.
Through the fog of shock, he remembered it was McFadden’s map. McFadden knew what he’d find in the wild blueberry patch and was hovering with his eyes closed and hands clasped behind his back, shaking his head slightly.
“What the living fuck, McFadden!”
Take it easy now.
“How am I supposed to do that?”
McFadden raised his shaggy eyebrows and looked over his reading glasses as if Ben should know the answer.
Ben dropped onto his knees, gestured towards Kevin’s remains. “I don’t want to know this.” And he didn’t, hadn’t ever. How was it he’d never asked Kevin what happened to him? Why had Kevin never volunteered the information? Why hadn’t he thought Kevin might need something from him too? Questioned why he was the only ghost who’d stuck around? Had Kevin been protecting him from the truth all these years? Spared Ben the knowledge? He ground a handful of soil between his palms, seeing but not feeling McFadden put a hand on his shoulder.
Soil ’s perfect for blueberry bushes. Acidic. Good drainage because of the sand. Soil mechanics. Look how it crumbles in your hands. Does it feel gritty? You know, I miss that. The feel of things. As much as I hate to admit it, you’re right, Ben, death is nothing to be proud of. Now I’m pure energy, there’s no matter. I flow through. But if Kevin had been pure energy instead of stubborn matter, he wouldn’t have been your constant companion.
Ben scooped up another handful of dirt, waited. Kevin was completely absorbed in play in his pretend Camaro.
Kevin was one of, what, five kids who lived next door. Running wild around the neighbourhood at all hours. Always outside, is my guess, because when they were inside they got screamed at. Terrible people, his parents.
One of the only times Ben had visited Kevin’s house was for a birthday party, but there wasn’t a cake or candles. After playing inside with Kevin’s matchbox cars, the small group of boys was instructed to, “Shut the fuck up. Go to the fucking park or something.”
One night Mark was driving home from a hockey game. Almost in the driveway, and he hit Kevin who’d run out onto the street after something or other. Right outside our house. It was an accident, of course, but Mark had this scholarship lined up in the States. He was leaving the next week. And the neighbours, the police were always at their door…I’d done some scouting around here, so this is where I brought Kevin.
“How could you?”
I’m hoping I won’t have to keep asking myself that question for all eternity. The living are shits, I told you that. And I was the king of shits, but now I’m trying to make it right. Kevin needs me; I need him; we need you. You need us, it seems. We’re bound together.
In a tourniquet? Ben was reminded of the stubborn matter of Margaret and her binding sheets as he worried the soil in his hands. It felt gritty. He wondered at the privilege of matter over energy. The world of matter was his advantage, was his to know and feel. The world of pure energy, the world the ghosts inhabited, was his to observe. But did he need them as McFadden suggested? He could hardly remember a time before Kevin. Maybe Kevin only appeared because Ben had lost his mother and was lonely. Maybe Kevin and the others were not the cause of his loneliness, but an answer to it, a distraction from it. Maybe to the dead his stink of neediness was irresistible. A cavity waiting for mineral fill.
During that night’s sliver of northern summer darkness, Ben ran his first funeral service without distractions. Under a sky weighted with stars, Ben prepared a narrow grave next to McFadden’s at the edge of the cemetery where the basalt formation rose highest. Ben gently laid Kevin’s remains, wrapped in McFadden’s parka with the matchbox car in a pocket, into the grave, nestling him next to ancient, unsurprised rock. When this was done, McFadden and Ben took turns telling stories about Kevin, leaning against the still sun-warm rock. Kevin laughed with a child’s nostalgia about his own recent past, crouched on McFadden’s headstone. When the talk had gone on long enough, Kevin started to get antsy, and McFadden turned to the rock, moved his unfeeling hand over the surface.
Basalt, feldspar-pheric, some brecciation. Just imagine it, Kevin. McFadden’s voice became louder. The earth’s plates shift, collide. Boom! A volcanic sequence is set in motion. A submarine volcano erupts, spewing liquid basalt into the water.
Boom! Splush! Kevin made the sounds of plate tectonics and underwater volcanoes.
You’ve got it, son. The water’s so cold the top layer of lava hardens quickly, but an underlying flow continues to creep along. And this flow is powerful enough to break off bigger solidified chunks from above which reheat and stretch like silly putty, folding in and over themselves. As the lava cools, mineral crystals form, and the whole mass of liquid rock creeps along cooling, cooling until one day, it stops cold. It’s become its monumental, mineral-pitted, crystallized self. Transformed.
Whoah. Kevin hopped off the headstone and looked up at McFadden with love. Watch me.
Sure thing, kiddo. Since finding Kevin, McFadden’s rough edges had been worn smooth. Eroded in an instant. His geological instruction was no longer belittling or bettering, but generous and full of wonder.
While Kevin took a last spin in his Camaro around the cemetery under McFadden’s attentive eye, Ben filled the grave and pieced together patches of turf on top. He laid out a picnic blanket, poured three whiskeys, drank them all, and lay back on the blanket. The northern lights danced across the sky while Ben enjoyed a smoke, and McFadden commented from a distance, Another perfect night. Consider sharing these with someone, Ben.
Vroom, vroom, said Kevin as he zoomed overhead. He means Margaret!
When Ben woke in the cool, damp dawn, his ghosts were gone. Behind a squirrel’s insistent scolding, a crow cawed from the tallest pine and a high-flying hawk shrieked. The cemetery was alive and so was he. He could tell by how much his body and his heart hurt. At the same time, he felt the giddiness and freedom of having the beloved but irksome relatives leave after an extended stay. He could be himself again. But what was that? What was he without them?
Ben sat up, then stood, slowly pushing himself off the basalt wall that rose beside him. The rock face was cold now and it seemed to shift beneath his hand, making him feel dizzy. Or maybe it was the other way around. What would it feel like to turn from a liquid to a solid? How had the basalt felt when it didn’t flow anymore? Stuck or strong? Trapped or settled? Ben’s ghosts might have known. They’d already gone from matter to energy, then from energy to, what, matter again? He should have asked them what to expect of the coming folding and faulting volcanic sequence.