IT HAD BEEN THEIR RITUAL FOR THIRTEEN YEARS. AND THEIR - A note on Sources Acknowledgments Also by Ben Sherwood Page


secret too. Every evening they came together to play.
Sam caught the ball in his mitt and threw it right back--a two-fingered fastball. It had started long ago on the evening of Sam's funeral after Mom and the other mourners had gone home. As the sun set, Charlie had stayed alone by the grave.
And then, incredibly, impossibly, Sam had appeared from the woods, his body banged up from the crash, still holding his mitt and ball. Oscar was there too.
"What now, big bro?" he had said. "C'mon, let's play catch." The moment had rendered Charlie so distraught--so inconsolable--that doctors gave him powerful drugs to ward off the visions. At first the experts called them dreams, then delusions. The diagnosis: post-traumatic stress disorder. They sent him to a shrink. They gave him Xanax for anxiety, Prozac for depression, and Halcion for sleep. They never believed what he could see.
But see he could, and they were not illusions or hallucinations. He had been dead and was shocked back to life. He had crossed over and come back. He had made a promise to Sam and was given the power to keep it.
A few months later when yet another grown-up refused to believe what he could see, Charlie pretended it was over. He professed the apparitions were gone. So the doctors pronounced him healthy and took him off the medicine. Charlie swore he would never tell another soul about Sam. They'd only call him crazy. They'd never understand. It would be his secret forever. A secret that would govern his days and nights. A secret he would conceal beneath a carefully constructed carapace of charm.
From that day forward, Charlie and Sam played ball each and every evening. Their game at dusk, Charlie believed, was the key to his gift, and he feared that if he missed a single night it would be gone. So he kept careful watch on the angles of the sun. He printed out charts from the Weather Service and tracked the differences between civil, nautical, and astronomical twilight.
As long as they threw the ball every night, he could see Sam, and Sam could see him. Their time together was confined to the Waterside grounds, for Charlie swiftly realized his gift did not extend beyond its walls or gates. So in the mornings, they goofed around on the dock before anyone else was there, and in the evenings, they hung out in the cottage and watched ESPN or James Bond movies. It had worked this way for thirteen years--more than 4,700 nights--and Charlie knew there was no point taking risks.
Over time, he realized his gift had grown, as he began to notice other spirits passing through the cemetery on their way to the next level.
They came in all shapes and for every reason--a crotchety lobsterman who drowned in a squall, a
college football linebacker felled by sunstroke, a frazzled hairdresser who slipped on some hair clippings and snapped her neck--but they each shared one telltale trait: they shimmered with an aura of warmth and light. Helping these glowing souls with their transition, he came to think, was his purpose and his punishment.
"So?" Sam said. "How was work today?"
"Pretty good," Charlie said. "Remember Mrs. Phipps? Ruthless Ruth?"
"Yeah, your English teacher?"
"Exactly," Charlie said, floating a knuckleball. "Saw her today."
"Hanging around her grave."
"No way!" Sam said, firing a fastball. ^ Strike one. "What happened to her?"
"Heart attack. I think she died while she was getting her teeth cleaned."
"Figures," Sam said. "It was only a matter of time before Dr. Honig killed someone with his stinky breath." His throw sailed high and Charlie leaped to catch it. Ball one. For his next pitch, Sam kicked his leg up and zinged a fastball. Strike two.
"So how's Mrs. Phipps doing?" he said.
"She's taking it hard. She's flabbergasted by what happened."
"Flabbergast, verb," Sam said, cracking a smile. "Freaking out over how much weight you've gained." Charlie couldn't help laughing. His kid brother was always playing with words.
"So was Mrs. Phipps's makeup all over the place?" Sam asked.
"Yuck, the new mortician uses too much face junk. He makes everyone look like a clown." Curveball, low and outside. Ball two. "When is Mrs. Phipps crossing over?"
"Not sure. Her husband, Walter, is on the other side. Remember him? The man with no big toe?"
"Oh my God," Sam said. "Yeah, a bluefish bit it off in the bottom of his boat. Remember that stub sticking out of his sandals? It was freaky."
Fastball in the dirt, ball three. Full count. Two blue jays shot across the field in little loops. The wind from the ocean rushed up the hill, zigzagged through the tombstones, and swept across the playground.
"C'mon, Sam," Charlie said, smacking his mitt. "It's three and two, a full count. Give me your out pitch."
"Here goes!" He reared up, kicked, and threw a screwball that danced through the air and, in a signature move, actually froze in mid-flight, hovering motionless as if time stopped. Sam snapped his fingers, and the ball blasted off again, making a perfect loop-de-loop before sailing home.
"Steeeeee-rike three," Charlie yelled.
They played ball until it was almost too dark to see, telling each other stories about their day. As a spirit, Sam could have roamed anywhere he wanted, traveling to Alpha Centauri in the Milky Way, shimmering with a rainbow over the Lakes of Killarney, catching the sun over the Barrier Reef, and riding the moon over Machu Picchu. The possibilities were truly infinite. The known universe with its 40 billion galaxies could have been his playground. And there was heaven waiting for him too.
But Sam had sacrificed all that. He spent his days and nights on Marblehead adventures, sitting behind home plate at Seaside Park for Little League games, sneaking a peek at Maxim magazine at Howard's newsstand, and skateboarding down the steepest run on Gingerbread Hill.
"C'mon," Sam said. "Let's go swimming before it's too late. Tag, you're it!"
Then Sam sprinted into the woods with Oscar and Charlie giving chase. Night was almost upon them, the shadows were getting longer, and the forest filled with shouts and yelps. It was the most comforting feeling in the world--the three of them flying through the trees without a care--just as it had been all those years ago on Cloutman's Lane, and just as it would always be.
It happened too fast to brace. Tess suddenly found herself pinned to the ceiling of her boat with bilgewater surging around her head. Radio equipment slammed about, and pots and pans clanked. Chaos resounded inside the cabin. Outside, the ocean and wind roared. Then the lights flickered out.
She heard the sea rushing into the boat, but fear was not foremost in her mind. Querencia was built to capsize and right herself. There were pumps onboard to expel the water. In the midst of all the mayhem, she was overwhelmed by something deliciously annoying: the aroma of Newman's Own dressing. The bottle in the galley had obviously shattered, and now the whole cabin smelled like tossed salad.
She huddled on the ceiling, up to her knees and elbows in water, and muttered to the boat, "Please turn back. Come on, come on. Get upright, please?" But nothing happened, so she crawled toward the nav station and found the EPIRB emergency beacon in its bracket. She hated needing help--it was so damn embarrassing--but she pushed down on the yellow power switch, breaking the safety seal, and saw the LED flash. The device was now sending a distress signal via satellite that would ping on every Coast Guard screen in New England. Suddenly she did not feel so alone. But wait, she reminded herself, Querencia wasn't sinking, and there was no real need yet for an SOS. Tink and the gang would really bust her chops for crying wolf when she got back to the dock. If the boat started to go down, there would be plenty of time to call the Coast Guard. So Tess flicked the toggle off, and the Mayday light stopped blinking.
A minute went by, then another. The fragrance of Italian dressing was mixing with the sulfuric stench of battery acid leaking from the power units. What was taking the boat so long to roll back over and right herself? The weight of the keel was supposed to pull Querencia upright. Her mind jumped to the worst-case scenario. She remembered Tony Bullimore, whose keel was sheared off in sixty-foot seas. He was stranded upside down for five days at the bottom of the world below Australia as his boat slowly sank in freezing waters. "Below forty degrees south, there is no law," he said when he was rescued. "Below fifty degrees south, there is no God."
Tess was not an especially religious woman. She went to the Old North Church on Sundays largely because it was important to her mother. She was friendly with Reverend Polkinghorne and had built him a sail or two. But she didn't like the conventions of organized faith and she preferred doing it her own
way. She considered herself a spiritual person with her own relationship to God.
Now, upside down in the Atlantic, she found herself praying in the darkness. She began by apologizing for her arrogance. She knew she had taken too big a risk. She had been careless, and now she felt ashamed. This wasn't how she wanted it to end, all alone on a weekend sail in a storm that could have been avoided. She prayed to God to be merciful. And then she summoned her father. "Dad, please help me. Tell me what to do." He had always bailed her out of desperate situations. She closed her eyes and promised that if she got back to the harbor she would never do anything so rash again. She would play it safe in the race around the world. She would sail with the rest of the group, even if it meant going slower. She would be a good girl.
Yes, when she got out of this mess, she would go straight to Waterside and take an oath: She would change. Dad had raised her to be bold and to make every moment count, but he would have frowned on her recent recklessness. Flaunting fate was no way to cope with his death.
"Show me the way home," she whispered into the roiling darkness. "Dad, please help me."



soggy from a night of hard rain. The storm had blown a

riot of leaves and branches all over the lawns. Charlie hid under his yellow hood and looked into the hole where one of his gravediggers was shoveling. It was backbreaking work on a normal day, but when the ground was drenched and the backhoe couldn't maneuver in the muck, it was especially miserable. Now, compounding the gloom, Elihu Swett, the cemetery commissioner, had stopped by for a spot inspection.
"The Ferrente funeral party will be here any minute," Elihu was saying beneath his great umbrella. He was an elfin man in a tan trench coat, royal-blue corduroy suit, and rubber galoshes, and his entire wardrobe appeared to come from the boy's department at Filene's. "How much longer till you're done?" he asked, taking a sip from a Mountain Dew bottle that seemed half his size.
"Don't worry, we'll be ready," Charlie said, kneeling down and looking into the opening. "How you doing, Joe?"
"Just fine," Joe Carabino said from the bottom of the grave. "But it's Elihu that I'm worried about." He winked.
"What's the matter?" Elihu asked, stepping gingerly toward the hole.
"A lethal dose of caffeine is ten grams," Joe said, leaning on his shovel. "A few more of those Mountain Dews and you'll be pushing up daisies." He paused for dramatic effect. "You feel all right? You seem a little pale." Before Joe could even razz him about his bloodshot eyes, Elihu stuffed the bottle in his coat pocket and took off for his Lincoln Continental. A bona fide hypochondriac, he had been treated by the best doctors in Boston, and every one had urged him to find a new line of work. He refused and insisted on slathering himself with disinfectant and even wearing latex gloves to staff meetings. After all, a good town job was hard to find.
With a swift movement, Joe jumped up from the grave and high-fived Charlie with a muddy hand. "The old lethal-dose-of-caffeine trick," he said. "Poor Elihu, works every time."
Joe was in his early thirties and built like a bull. His blunt face was darkened by the sun, and his thinning hair was teased into a few proud, well-gelled spikes. Male-pattern baldness, he liked to say, was caused by an excess of testosterone, and he had the scientific journals to prove it.
Joe was one of the great rascals of the North Shore. By day, he worked with dirt and the dead. By night, he chased women up and down Cape Ann with a shameless repertoire of strategies and tactics. He had been known to hunt for young widows in the obituaries of the Marblehead Reporter, but he wasn't a total rake. He had a code. He steered clear of the bereaved for a minimum of six months--that was the amount of time he heard Oprah say it took to grieve.
Joe's only other great devotion was to his own brand of evangelical atheism. It wasn't enough that he didn't believe in God. He also felt it was his duty to proselytize. That was just fine as long as he kept his missionary work outside the iron gates, but once or twice Charlie caught him grumbling "There is no
heaven!" at a graveside service or griping "What a waste!" when a gilded ten-foot cross was brought in by crane to stand atop a mausoleum. Joe the Atheist was duly reprimanded, but it only increased his ardor.
"What's your story tonight?" Joe was asking as they finished dressing the job. "How about coming out with me to happy hour? I'm taking the ^ Horny Toad up to Rockport. I know these gals who run a bar there. The things they do, man, you wouldn't believe."
"Give me a hand with the lowering device," Charlie said, walking toward the panel truck on the service road.
"The Dempsey sisters. You ever heard of them?"
"No, never."
"You'd like Nina and Tina. Trust me."
"Let's see how it goes today," Charlie said.
"Yeah, yeah. 'Let's see how it goes.' But when it's quitting time, you'll disappear. Same old story. You know, you should live a little."
Charlie pulled the lowering device from the truck, and the two men carried it across the grass toward the grave. They carefully positioned it over the hole. It was a stainless-steel contraption invented by a mortician named Abraham Frigid, who retired on his royalties to the south of France. In every cemetery around the world, the gizmo was used to lay the dead to rest. With nylon straps and a simple switch, one man could do the work of many and lower a thousand pounds into the earth.
The brilliance of Mr. Frigid's machine was surely in the speed control. Too fast--a quick drop into the ground--and the grieving family would be overcome, the shock too great. Too slow, and the prolonged agony would be insufferable. Thus, Mr. Frigid's eternal contribution: a dignified, emotionally acceptable rate of descent governed by the Galilean principle of inertia and carefully engineered spiral gears, lead weights, and hinges. It was efficient, effective, and relatively painless for all involved.
Charlie heard a horn honk, then saw a procession of cars and one fire engine rolling into the cemetery. He could always tell a lot about a funeral by looking at the vehicles, clothes, casket, and stone. Nice late-model cars, a good coffin, and a big monument meant the deceased had money, but today's burial seemed pretty average. In a few minutes, the vale would be full of mourners. He and Joe had set out one hundred folding chairs and had raised a green tent to cover them. Fortunately, the rain had stopped.
"Work time," Charlie said to Joe. "Let's go."
The funeral director's helmet of black hair was as shiny and sleek as the paint job on her brand-new Cadillac hearse. "How you guys doing?" Myrna Doliber said, slamming the front door shut.
"Better than most," Charlie answered. He had tucked in his shirt and jammed his work gloves in his back pocket. "How 'bout you?"
"Peachy," she said. "Two kids with chicken pox and a third with a busted arm." Myrna's ancestors, the Dolibers, had been the first settlers to arrive on the peninsula back in 1629. Somewhere along the way,
they had gotten into the funeral business and ran a monopoly all the way north to Beverly and south to Lynn. On busy days, every Doliber was put to work, even Myrna, who was known as the most superstitious person in Essex County, and who kept a running list of ill omens like a twitch in the left eye or a white moth inside the house.
"Hey, Myrna, I counted thirteen cars in your funeral procession," Joe said with a mischievous grin. "That mean someone's going to die today or something?"
"Knock it off if you want your tip," she said, walking to the tail end of the hearse. She opened the door and stood back. Charlie reached in, released the latch, grabbed a handle of the casket, and rolled it onto the cart.
"Here you go," Myrna said, handing Charlie an envelope. "Don't spend it all in one place." Most funeral directors padded the customer's bill with $100 or more for so-called cemetery gratuities, but then passed only two dollars each to the workers. Myrna was more generous and usually tipped ten dollars.
The two men pushed the coffin across the lawn and stopped beside the grave. Charlie lifted the foot of the box, which was always lighter, and Joe took the heavier head. It was a point of pride: Joe was the strongest worker in Waterside and he liked to show it. They carried the casket and positioned it on the lowering device. Everything was now ready for the funeral.
"Okay," Charlie said. "Break time. I'll catch you later down by the water."
"Ten-four, boss." Joe reached behind his ear for a Camel and strolled down the hill. Charlie walked up the rise and stood under a weeping mulberry for the best view of the proceedings.
Car doors were slamming, and men and women were coming up the hill. Dozens of firefighters in dress uniform stepped from their vehicles. Bagpipes played a wailing song. Charlie watched the tears wash down so many faces. Long ago when he thought he could weep no more over his brother's death, he had investigated the biology of crying. It turned out the muscles above the eyes were responsible, squeezing the lachrymal glands, producing the runoff. Since every adult was made up of about forty-five quarts of water, there was essentially no end to the amount of tears in the world.
He looked over the job one last time. He and Joe had done good work dressing the site, camouflaging the mud pile beneath the carpet of Astroturf and spreading a canopy of roses and carnations around the hole. Now, where was the dead man in the crowd? Often Charlie would see the departed walking the aisles or weaving among the tombstones while the mourners sniffled into their Kleenexes. With their familiar glow, the deceased might sit under a tree or lean against the casket to take notice of who had managed to come for the burial: old girlfriends, office rivals, long-lost cousins. Insincere eulogies could provoke the dead to scoff vociferously and hoot at phony tears. And, more often than not, they would be touched, even surprised, by what their lives had meant to others.
Charlie could always spot the luminous new arrivals. Those who died violently sometimes had scrapes or limped from broken bones. Those who passed away after a long illness were weak and hobbled at first but soon regained their strength and shape. Charlie remembered how banged up Sam had looked after his own funeral, but within days he was back to his old self.
For some, of course, attending their own funeral was too much. At first, they stayed away. Then after a day or two they'd appear at Waterside and make peace with the end. Finally, they'd fade away to heaven, the next level, or wherever they were headed for eternity.
It all depended on how quickly they wanted to let go.
Charlie listened to Father Shattuck begin the ceremony. His few remaining hairs were as white as his collar and had been meticulously spun around his head like a shellacked halo. Only a gravedigger would know the Father's true secret. His dramatic performance was identical every time--all the way to the climactic pauses in Psalm 23 as he walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
^ I shall fear no evil . . .
And then, he read from Ecclesiastes. "There is a season for everything," he intoned. "A time for every occupation under heaven. A time for giving birth, a time for dying; a time for planting, a time for uprooting what has been planted; a time for tears, a time for laughter; a time for mourning, a time for dancing; a time for searching, a time for losing; a time for loving, a time for hating . . ."
And, Charlie thought, a time for new material . . .
Father Shattuck finished, and Don Woodfin, the chief of the Revere Fire Department, stepped forward. He was a gaunt man with a thick mustache that bridged two hollow cheeks. His dress hat rested on his lanky frame like a cap on a coat rack. "In our 119-year history," he began, "we have suffered six line-of-duty deaths. We gather here today to mark our seventh." He bowed his head. "We thank you, Lord, for the life of a great man. We are grateful for his devotion to a fireman's duty, for his dedication to the preservation of life, and for the way he faced danger."
In the front row, a woman and her baby boy wept. "We ask the comfort of Your blessing upon his family," the chief said. "May they be sustained by good memories, a living hope, the compassion of friends, and the pride of duty well done. And for those who continue to battle the fiery foe, we pray for Your guidance and strength. Keep them safely in Your hands. Amen."
Charlie noticed immediately when a man approached him under the tree. He was wearing a firefighter's dress blues and he seemed lost in thought. There was a faint glow around him that made it clear: He was the dead man, and this was his funeral.
"Can you see me?" the man said after a while.
"Yes," Charlie whispered.
"Are you dead too?"
"No, not yet."
The man scratched his neck. "You look so familiar," he said. His face was grizzled and his voice was as rough as gravel. "Wait," he said, "you're the St. Cloud kid, right? Charlie St. Cloud?" He was pulling off his jacket, rolling up his sleeves, revealing forearms tattooed with images of the Virgin and Child. "I'm Florio," he said. "Remember me?"
"I'm sorry," Charlie said. "My memory's fuzzy."
Near the grave, the chief was invoking the fireman's prayer. Florio folded his arms and bowed his head.

^ When I am called to duty, God,

Wherever flames may rage,
Give me strength to save some life
Whatever be its age.

Then the chief gave his cue, and Charlie stepped forward. He flipped the jam break on the lowering device. The coffin began its dignified descent.
Charlie looked at the name carved on the stone.


And then he realized: Florio was the fireman who'd saved his life.
The coffin bumped gently to the bottom of the grave. Charlie pulled the straps and tucked them beneath the Astroturf. Then he stepped back to the mulberry tree as mourners began to throw roses onto the casket.
"My God," he said to Florio. "I'm so sorry I didn't recognize you."
"Don't worry," Florio said. "It was a long time ago, and you weren't in very good shape."
"What happened to you? I had no idea--"
"It was an easy two-alarm in a residential unit," he began. "We breached the front door with the battering ram. Rescued a little girl and her mom. Kid was screaming her head off about her cat and dog. So I went back in to get them, and the roof fell in." He gave an uneven smile. "That's it, lights out." He scratched his square chin. "All for a cat and a dog. And you know what? I wouldn't do it any different."
Florio looked across the lawn. "You seen them? A cat and dog? Could've sworn they were here earlier. Running all over the place with a crazy little beagle."
"Wouldn't surprise me," Charlie said. "They may follow you around for a while."
Firemen wiped their eyes with their sleeves. Some crouched in silent prayer. Then the woman came forward, cradling her baby boy.
"My wife, Francesca, and our new son," Florio said. "We tried for years to get pregnant, and it finally
happened. God bless them. No better woman on this earth, and Junior is my pride and joy." His voice began to break. "God knows what I'll do without them."
"It's too soon to think about that," Charlie said. "Give it some time."
They watched as his wife and baby left the grave, passed the other mourners, and got into a limousine. Then Charlie began filling the hole, and Florio watched. Shovel after shovel. Dust to dust.
"You know," Florio said after a while, "I've thought about you a lot over the years. I felt so bad I couldn't save your brother. Beat myself up pretty good about that one. I always wondered what happened to you. You married? Any kids? What have you done with your precious life?"
Charlie kept his eyes to the ground. "No wife, no family. I work here and volunteer at the fire station."
"Oh yeah? You a fireman?"
"I got certified as a paramedic. I put in a few nights a month. I'd do more, but I can't go too far from here."
"You know, I was a medic for more than twenty-five years. Seen a lot, but only two or three people ever came back from the dead like you did." He paused. "That was a gift from God, son. God had a reason for saving you. He had a purpose. You ever think about that?"
A long minute passed as Charlie shoved more dirt into the hole. Of course he had thought about that. Every single day of his life, he wondered why he hadn't been taken instead of Sam. What on earth was God's reason? What purpose did He have in mind? Then Florio broke the silence again.
"Don't worry, son," he said. "Sometimes it takes a while to figure things out. But you'll hear the call. You'll know when it's time. And then, you'll be set free."


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