After sunset, Nine Thyme stood outside the family mausoleum. A plaque for Augustus Thyme, presumed dead, was mounted beside the stone walkway outside of the tomb of his father’s sister and her mother, the first resident of the graveyard on the hill. Boneyard, as they said back in her day.
The boneyard was home to several of Nine’s childhood companions. As she grew older, gradually they had abandoned her. According to her father, they had been imaginary friends. Nine preferred another explanation: childhood innocence saw ghosts of our past. She had only met a handful of the boneyard’s residents, none among the Thyme family.
Not until recently.
The marking she had made on the window of the sepulcher had faded away, but the response remained. Like a finger swiping dust on the inside of the glass, the message spelled her name and included a smudge.
Had the name—or the number, she thought—been there all along?
Breathing on the glass, she fogged the window. Using her finger, she smudged her name backward like before so the inhabitants could read it.
Waiting for a response, she considered writing a new message. Hello wouldn’t do. She watched the fading fog erase her backward name. In the retreating daylight, Nine took the narrow dirt path through the trees and into the backyard behind the house. An early service meant she needed to decorate the chapel tonight. She hiked along the side of the funeral home taking the drive along the woods around the chapel to the front of the property. Only a single car in the lot, her grandfather’s 1968 Cadillac hearse, now hers by inheritance.
Inside the office, she grabbed a hefty basket crowded with white carnations from the desk and turned out the light. Leaving through the other door, she entered the showroom full of caskets on display. Crossing the showroom, she heard a noise from the office. Stopping before the doors to the chapel, she glanced behind and listened.
Must have been the building settling, she thought.
She opened the door, taking the side entrance into the chapel, and pulled the door closed.
Dusk fell through the stained glass windows casting a dull, blue glow over the nave. Nine flipped the nearest switch on the set to conserve electricity. Two sconces softly illuminated the front of the nave leaving the main doors at the back in blue shadow. Two flower pedestals and vases waited along the wall.
The most requested flowers at Thyme Funeral Home were lilies followed by chrysanthemums. After that, it was a toss-up between roses and carnations. White carnations represented innocence, and Gladys DeWalt had stressed the importance of white carnations for her daughter’s funeral. Thyme had been ordering from the same flower shop for decades due to their excellent service. These carnations looked perfect and smelled wonderful.
Setting the basket down, Nine reached for a flower pedestal and positioned it on one side. She set the remaining pedestal on the other side surrounding where the casket would go. After setting the vases on the pedestals, she counted out carnations and arranged a dozen in each vase.
Taking the basket, she slung it under her arm and strolled into the alley stopping at the first row. She slipped the stem into the clip fastening the flower to the end of the bench. She did the same on the opposite side. Taking a step towards the second row, the floor groaned beneath her feet. She fastened two more carnations in place, and continued making her way down the alley. After the last, she still held a half-dozen carnations to adorn the casket.
The floor groaned behind her.
Spinning around, Nine gazed in wonder at the carnations on the floor of the alley. Low probability for all the flowers to come loose falling behind her, unless her father had set about improving the fasteners. He was good with working on a corpse, but terrible with building maintenance. He always meant well, though.
She scooped up the nearest flower, slipped the stem inside the clip, and gave it a good wiggle with her finger. The fastener held the white carnation in place. Working her way back up the alley, and keeping a watchful eye behind her for falling flowers, she positioned each carnation back in place.
Between the first and second row, the floor groaned beneath her feet. Pausing, she lifted her foot, hearing a quiet squeak, and pressed her weight down. The floor groaned and snapped. Until more funds became available, the creaky floor would have to do. It wasn’t so bad, really.
Looking back, Nine surveyed the carnations standing at the ends of the benches meeting her satisfaction.
After repositioning the final two flowers, she set the basket of remaining carnations down beside one of the pedestals.
A deep groan and a crackle snapped behind her.
Twirling around, Nine found the carnations piled on the floor near the weak spot. The fasteners still held the stems. Heads had been lopped off!
Glancing around, Nine found no intruder. No doors had opened. She would have heard it. How could have someone snuck so close behind her and escaped unseen? No ghost could cut flowers, or put weight on the floor. Someone had to be hiding nearby.
Keeping watch over the nave, she marched to the side and down the aisle. An intruder with dark enough clothing could move about in the back, she thought. She checked between benches in each row, scouted the back, and hurried up the other side peeking between benches.
Returning to head of the alley, she gazed down at the pile of stemless, ruined carnations—at innocence lost.
No, not a pile, she realized. Clumped close together the white carnations formed the number, nine.
Only one thought came to mind. Anyone sneaky enough to remain hidden within the chapel was equally skilled at breaching inside the doorless tomb and mark the window.
!ɘniИ, it had to be.