I traced the letters on the tombstone.
And the dates of his life, cut short two years ago.
He had been so much more than just a friend to me. I choked back a sob. Dill’s parents, two more D. B. Coopers, hadn’t allowed me to put the precious words “Husband” on the grave marker. We hadn’t been married long enough for that, they said.
When I had control of my voice again I said aloud, “Dill, I’m sorry I couldn’t visit you sooner. I got sort of lost. You are probably the only person I know who would believe my tale. It’s more unbelievable than the stuff I write. I got very sick. Then a sisterhood adopted me and nursed me back to health--not a convent as we know it, more a sorority of warriors. We battle...
“Come to think of it, maybe you wouldn’t believe my story.” The fantasy fiction in my novels was more believable.
Out of the corner of my eye I spotted movement. An adolescent girl with the dark hair and copper skin of a Native American stooped to pick some flowers on the verge of the cemetery. Queen Anne’s Lace, chicory, and dandelion blooms filled her hands. One by one she scattered them around the graves.
I half-smiled at the image of innocence. My grief had no place in her young life. I should have outgrown it by now. But then I had gotten sidetracked and never found an opportunity to visit Dill’s grave until now. I was still having trouble letting go of the man I loved so intensely.
The girl looked up and smiled back. Then she ambled over and offered me one of the white filigree blooms. “Here. You didn’t bring any flowers. You look like you need one.”
“Thank you,” I choked out. After a moment, when I’d regained control over my voice, I added, “Do you have someone special here?” I couldn’t say the word “dead,” or “buried.” That would make the wound of Dillwyn’s absence from my life too raw. Again.
“Not here. Back home on the Colville reservation.” She turned and looked wistfully to the north. “I can’t give them flowers so I spread them here, on graves that look lonely.”
A moment of comfortable silence passed between us.
“Thank you again for the flower. I’m Tess.” I held out my hand to the girl. She shook my hand with all of the solemnity of an almost adult. “Cynthia. Cynthia Stalking Moon.”
“Hey, Cindy!” a boy called from the nearby skatepark. “Come show us that twisty thing you do.”
“Gotta go.” Cynthia waved and ran off to join her friends. She scattered her flowers randomly as she ran.
Nice kid, Scrap said. He reclined against Dill’s headstone, a translucent pudgy shape without much definition. Except for his stinking cigar, a black cherry cheroot. He remained his usual tranquil gray.
My imp companion didn’t truly live in this dimension. I sometimes wondered if I did. His ubiquitous cigar appeared all too real and noxious. But then tobacco comes from here and now.
Other than Scrap, I had this Alder Hill, Oregon pioneer cemetery to myself once more. The traffic roaring up Highway 26 toward Mt. Hood gave me the sense of privacy and isolation I craved while I mourned Dill.
I heard an indelicate snort from Scrap near my left shoulder, but ignored it. Scrap liked to perch there. He was so insubstantial I couldn’t feel his weight. But I always “sensed” him there.
“Even your weird sense of humor, Dill, can’t explain Scrap.” I laid the long-stemmed flower at the base of the tombstone. “He’s an imp from another dimension. A scrap of an imp. Not fully grown and not fully functional yet. We’re supposed to grow together as we work our way up through the ranks of the Sisterhood of the Celestial Blade Warriors. You’d like Scrap. The two of you could trade sarcastic and irreverent comments on life and compete for the most outrageous puns.”
Dill had embodied everything I enjoyed in life. He was my hero, cut down in the prime of his life. He had saved my life at the cost of his own.
I chuckled through another closing of my throat. “I told your favorite joke at your funeral, Dill. Your folks disapproved of course. Afterwards, they went back to the house for a formal reception.”
I looked up toward the white house with gray stone facing and gray trim that squatted on the hill above the cemetery. No signs of life there. Dill’s parents were probably at work in the family furniture store in Gresham, the closest city to Alder Hill.
I continued to tell Dill about his final send off. “Your friends and I, the ones who truly knew you, retired to a bar after the service. We all lifted a glass in your honor and then we sang all of your favorite filk songs, you know the parodies full of puns, and recounted every hideous joke you ever told, over and over. We laughed until we cried. That’s the only kind of tears you approved of. We left your wake with many fond memories of you. Just the way you wanted us to.”
Would I ever be happy again without Dillwyn Bailey Cooper?
One lonely tear dripped down my cheek. I swallowed and swallowed again, trying to force the useless emotion back into its dungeon behind my heart. “Jokes won’t dull the pain and loneliness, Dill.”
A whiff of cigar smoke and an itching tingle along my spine jolted me back into reality. Scrap.
Can the waterworks, Tess, dahling. We have work to do.
“Scrap, you know you are not supposed to smoke those foul things where someone might smell them,” I snapped at my companion. Bad enough that the gaseous emissions from his lactose intolerance brought dogs sniffing at my heels from miles around. I didn’t need the reek of tobacco clinging to my clothes and hair as well.
The imp pulled my hair and jumped off my shoulder. His chubby body with bandy legs, pot belly, vestigial wings, bat-wing ears, (ugh, I hate bats but that’s the only description that fits his huge jagged ears) and snub nose became almost visible to my sharpened eyesight. His spike tail beat an arhythmical tattoo against Dill’s tombstone. Pale pink replaced his gray skin. He wasn’t totally pissed at me.
Trouble is brewing, babe, Scrap informed me in an accent that was part flamboyant interior decorator, part leering cabbie, and all obnoxious sarcasm. “What kind of trouble. I don’t have a lot of time,” I replied, checking my watch. “I need most of an hour just to drive the twenty-five miles between here and the city.” With air-conditioning in the rental car, thank God...or Goddess...whoever might be listening.
If anyone listened at all to my prayers.
They hadn’t when Dill died.
Later. Scrap jumped back up onto my shoulder.
I heaved myself off the ground, scanning the vicinity for what had alarmed Scrap. All I could hear over the roar of traffic was Cynthia and her friends with their boards at the skatepark behind the cemetery.
We’ve got trouble. Now. Scrap started to turn vermillion. Waves of heat radiated out from him.
I began to sweat through my goosebumps.
This had never happened to us before. I’d almost begun to believe the lost year of my life was just that, lost in a fever dream.
“What and where?” I asked alarmed. The base of my spine tingled in warning. Just like Sister Serena said it would.
The noise from the skatepark grew a little louder. The thumps and bangs became shrill with fear. I jogged across the cemetery, zigzagging around tombstones.
Right direction, dahling. Wrong speed. Scrap puffed on his cigar like an old steam engine.
I lengthened my stride to a ground covering lope, hurdling tombstones and other obstacles. Scrap had to tangle his claws in my frizzy hair to stay on board.
He grumbled something that I couldn’t quite understand.
The normal squeals of adolescents burning off energy turned to terrified screams.
“Hang on, Scrap.” I ran full out, defying three cars to hit me as I crossed the back street at a gallop.
No one seemed to notice the frightened commotion close by.
I skidded onto the green space between a ski rental shop, closed for the season, and an abandoned church, painted white with a steeple and red front door. Dill had attended Sunday School there as a child. The park sloped steeply downward to a creek. A half-pipe wooden ramp took advantage of the landscape. But no kids flew down the polished wood and up the other side on their boards. They were all huddled beneath the support struts.
Not quite all. Two boys lay sprawled face down upon the grass. Their arms and legs twisted at unnatural, broken angles. Blood pooled from mouths and gaping wounds in backs and throats. A third boy tried to crawl toward the protective illusion of the shade beneath the ramp. He collapsed at every third movement. His left arm was a mangled mass of raw meat, torn tendons, and protruding bone.
So much blood! I gagged. The smell brought back memories of the night Dill died. I wanted to run away from here. As far and fast as I could. With or without Scrap.
Cynthia stood in the middle of the carnage. Her screams split the air like nails on a chalkboard. A huge, ugly dog, with jaws big enough to engulf the girl’s head, enclosed the fleshy part of her upper arm and tugged. I could not abandon Cynthia or her friends.
She’d given me a flower because I was as lonely as Dill’s grave.
My heart beat double time and my focus narrowed to the dog. The rest of the world seemed to still around me. My assignment, my quest, justified this fight.
No time to call for help. I yanked my cell phone out of my belt pouch and tossed it toward the huddled kids.
“Call 911,” I shouted. Then I snapped my fingers. “Scrap, I need a weapon.” Instantly he jumped into my extended palm, elongated, thinned, became more solid. Between one eye blink and the next I grasped a ...
“A soup ladle!” I screamed. “How am I supposed to fight off that dog with a soup ladle?”
I threw the useless tool away and grabbed an abandoned skateboard. With all of the strength in my upper arms I swung at the dog’s flank.
I smacked his brindled fur-covered body with a satisfying whomp and crack of the skateboard.
Dog yelped and released my thoughtful friend.
He turned on me with bared yellow fangs as long as my fingers. His massive head was nearly level with my shoulder. He growled and drooled long ropes of greenish slime.
“At least I got your attention,” I said to Dog, gulping back my fear. I had trained for situations like this. But facing the real thing was different in the field than on the training ground.
Sorry. Scrap’s face appeared in the metal bowl of the ladle, cigar still clamped in his wide mouth. He stretched again, darkened, became heavier and sharper.
I grabbed the fireplace poker he had become. “Better,” I sighed.
The dog, bigger than a wolfhound, meaner than a pit bull, and uglier than a mastiff, bunched his powerful haunches for a lunge.
I met him with a sharp thwap across the nose. I heard something crunch. He kept on coming.
I let my momentum carry me full circle and out of his direct path as I shifted my grip on the poker.
The dog twisted in mid-air and landed beside me, grabbing my forearm.
An uppercut to his snout from my poker. Then I brought the weapon down hard on the dog’s spine. He yelped and released me.
We stared at each other for several long moments; judging, assessing.
Scrap hissed at the dog from the cross piece at the tip of the poker.
The dog ran off, downhill into the tangled undergrowth. I heard him splash into the creek.
Then I heard the sirens. One of the kids must have gotten through to 911. I sank to the ground and stared dumbly at four puncture wounds on my forearm. Top and bottom. Blood and green slime oozed out of them.
I retched. Long painful spasms tried to turn my stomach inside out.
My head threatened to disconnect from my neck. Darkness encroached on my vision.
“I thought you were only a legend. But you are real,” a gentle masculine voice with a slight British accent whispered in my ear. His finger traced the crescent scar on my face that ran from left temple to jaw. A scar that Scrap had promised me was not visible in this dimension to anyone other than the Sisterhood of the Celestial Blade Warriors.