I met her while I was weeding the flower garden.
I had just about finished up when I heard someone clear their throat behind me. They may have been trying to get my attention for a while, I had my headphones in and the only reason I heard anything was because I was in between songs.
“Sorry, sorry,” I pulled out an earbud and scrambled to my feet, “I didn’t hear you back… there…”
My voice got choked up in my throat as I stared into the soft dark eyes of the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. Her golden hair came down in waves past her shoulders and she had a smile like sunshine. She quietly laughed. “I wasn’t waiting long. You seemed to be enjoying your music, anyway.” She offered me her hand. “My name is Bea.”
Her name could’ve been Mud and I would’ve thought it was the prettiest name in the world. “Um, I’m Cassie, but everyone just calls me Cass,” I shook her hand, inwardly kicking myself as I saw I got dirt all over her hand. “Shit, I’m sorry-”
Bea laughed again, just brushing her hand off on her skirt. “A little dirt won’t kill me. Sorry, I’m just trying to find the Lakeview Cemetery?”
“Oh, you’re not far,” I pointed down the street, “Just down the ways, take a right at Petunia Road, it’ll be on the left. If you hit Black Street, you’ve gone too far and you’ll need to turn around.”
Bea turned to look, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. “I see. You visit often?” She asked.
I nodded.“It’s where my parents are buried. I try to go every other week. If you need to pick up flowers, Mary’s Garden is right nearby. Tell her you’re there to pick something up for a deceased relative or friend and she’ll give you a good deal-”
I nearly tripped over my feet to look up at the door. My grandfather was leaning against the door frame, with an expression like he had seen a ghost. “Grandpa, what are you doing out of bed!?” I rushed to his side, all thoughts about the pretty girl in my front yard gone. “You need to be resting.” Resting wouldn’t change his rapidly approaching fate, but it would make him more comfortable when the time came.
He pointed a shaky finger at Bea. “It’s you. I know it’s you. How… where’s Francis? Is he still with you?” He asked.
The woman blinked owlishly before her eyes widened in recognition. “Robert! The years have changed you, I am terribly sorry for not realizing you were still living here.” She looked at me before curtsying. “I’ll come talk to you again, I have to be going.”
“Bye,” I said, waving as I watched Bea return to her car. She opened the door and held it open just for a second to let a young man poke his head out. He wasn’t nearly as graceful as Bea when he seemingly recognized my grandfather, his jaw dropping and eyes nearly popping out of his head.
He dived back into the car before Bea slipped in and it drove off. I looked at my grandfather, who looked like he’d experienced a shock. “Do I need to call Dr. Samuel-”
“I just need to be alone for a bit.” My grandfather shuffled back to his bedroom, leaving me alone.
It wasn’t until the sun was going down that he called me into his bedroom.
My grandfather was a quiet man, I’d never known him to make the outburst like the one earlier that day. Even when I entered the room, he just pointed to his closet. “Check behind the coats, there’s a photo frame,” He said.
I moved aside old coats and a far outdated tuxedo to find the photo frame. I brought it out and sat beside my grandfather’s bed to get a better look.
The picture inside was faded and black and white, but I could recognize a much younger version of my grandfather sitting out on the front porch, his arm wrapped around a black teenager about his age. “I’ve never seen this picture before,” I said, tilting it side to side. When Grandma had been alive, she’d shown me her albums again and again, even as the cancer wasted her away.
“I keep it just for myself. His name is Francis.”
I nodded while reaching for my cellphone. “Listen, grandpa, you’re a little tired, how about I call-”
“Listen to me, Cassandra!” My grandfather snapped, causing me to nearly jump out of my skin. “You bring up calling the damn doctor again and I’m sending you to your room!”
Even with me being twenty-one, that was a very real threat. I sunk down in my chair, deciding not to question him any more. “Who is Francis, Grandpa?” I asked.
He calmed down and looked back at the photo. I saw a touch of a smile on his lips. “… Francis was my best friend. See, his father saved mine. After that my father referred to him as a brother- white and colored was never an issue. Our families were close, I was just a few days younger than Francis. We never could attend the same schools or play together in the park, but if I wasn’t at his home he was at mine. If he couldn’t sleep, he would sneak in through my bedroom window and we’d stay up just talking about anything and everything under the sun. I had his back, he had mine. We were just as close as our fathers.”
The story was heartwarming, but there was certainly a part nagging at me. “Why have you never talked about Francis before then?” I asked.
That smile on my grandfather’s face vanished.
“Because I never wanted to think of him again.”
He handed me the frame to hold as he told me the story.
“It was probably a week after this photo was taken that we met her. We were on a walk through the woods, we took a lot of those. Just so we couldn’t be bothered by people who thought a black man and a white man couldn’t be friends. We were on the way back when we heard a car refusing to turn over. Francis insisted we take the right path to see if someone needed help. I followed, he was always the leader out of the two of us. We didn’t expect to see such a nice car way back where we were, but what we didn’t really expect to see the behemoth of a man poking away at the engine… or the girl standing beside the car, her dress spattered in mud as she shivered in the cold. She looked up at us and her eyes met Francis’… and I knew it was all over then. Because he looked at her and he fell in love.”
“Was she also black?” I asked.
“She was Bea.”
“You mean she looked like Bea?” I asked.
He shook his head. “No, I mean that the Bea you talked to today was the same Bea standing on the road next to the car that wouldn’t start.” He scowled as he saw me open my mouth. “I’m not crazy, you know I still have all my marbles. You shut it and listen.”
I closed my mouth.
“Good girl… now where was I…” My grandfather’s eyes went glassy as he was transported to a much different time. “Right. Francis was just about frozen in place so I had to shout out and ask if they were all right. Turns out they’d stopped for a picnic and when they got back damn thing wouldn’t start. That’s when Francis’ brain started working again and he offered his help, he was pretty handy with cars. I just sat with the giant as Francis got to work and started chatting with Bea. I found out his name was Sten but we didn’t really talk, we just watched Bea and Francis interact, and let me tell you- you could tell the attraction was mutual by the way she laughed and how she’d brush her fingers against his arm. I think Francis was disappointed when the car finally got running, but I’ll admit I was relieved. I didn’t know what she had going through her head, flirting with Francis like that.”
“I thought the color of Francis’ skin didn’t matter,” I said.
My grandfather shook his head. “Cass, you have to remember where we live. About three years before a black man was accused of groping a white woman. No evidence, it was just what her brother said what happened. What happened to that poor bastard…” My grandfather shuddered, “It wasn’t human. Humans don’t do that to other humans. I was worried about Francis’ safety. I gave him an earful on the way home about it. He was a bit embarrassed but he realized where I was coming from. I was worried for him. He promised me he’d be more careful and that was that… or so I thought.”
My grandfather took back the picture frame and removed the back. He took out a photo hidden behind the other one and placed it on his lap.
This one was slightly better quality. I now knew what my grandfather meant by behemoth, the one man standing next to Francis was an absolute giant. Next to them stood two women, one crossing her arms and trying to look serious while a woman of Asian descent was practically leaning all of her weight on the serious woman, clearly laughing and having a good time.
“Sten, Francis, Alana, and Lihua.”
My grandfather pointed at each of them when he said their name. “So many things you can’t see in this picture… Alana’s hair was so red you’d think it’d somehow find a way of bleeding into these old picture. Lihua had the most joyful laugh, when she got going the whole town could hear it. I never saw her without a smile. Sten’s arms were covered in this old scars, I never got the story for all of them but he was a warrior, a soldier in another life, he told me.”
I leaned in close to the picture. “Who are these people?” I asked.
“They were Bea’s.”
Leaning back in the bed, my grandfather sighed. “Almost two weeks after we found her stranded on the side of the road, I would’ve forgotten all about it. But when we were heading home after work, we were suddenly surrounded by Bea’s two girlfriends. Lihua looped her arm in with Francis’, Alana put hers with mine, and they pulled us down the street towards a car as they chatted us up like we were old friends. I’d thought I was about to get robbed when I recognized who was driving that car- it was Sten. Alana and Lihua drew straws to see who would be walking, there wasn’t enough spots for us all to sit, Lihua lost and proceeded to call Alana a bitch before laughing and starting to walk. Sten drove us to probably one of the nicest houses in town, and that’s when we had tea with Bea.”
My grandfather rolled his eyes. “She said she always had a taste for the dramatic. Any advice I gave Francis he promptly forgot and the two flirted the whole. Damn. Time. I mean, by then I realized she wasn’t just trying to get Francis in trouble, she’d had him brought to her just so they could be on a date. But I still didn’t trust her. She was strange. Something about her just didn’t sit right with me.”
He paused for a while. “… But when she came to me, asking for my help to find ways to keep seeing Francis, I couldn’t say no. She said she found him… handsome. Charming. Genuine. She called the time we lived in full of sociopaths that would stone Francis if they had any idea they were interested in each other romantically. She promised me she wouldn’t hurt him. Promised me that if anyone tried to hurt him, they’d have to go through her first. I told her to get in line, cuz they’d be going through me first. That smile on her face almost seemed a little condescending, but she said that Francis couldn’t ask for a better friend.
“They started seeing each other weekly. I was their go between. I’d pass letters in between the two of them, tell them when the other had time to meet. I took that picture right there,” He pointed to the one with Bea’s friends, “And I watched their romance blossom. I learned more about the world from Bea and the others than I ever learned from school. I considered them friends… but the perfect little secret that Francis and Bea had couldn’t stay secret forever.”
My grandfather’s shoulders sagged as he placed the photograph on his bedside table. “It was just a whisper. I think someone noticed the look in Francis’ eyes whenever Bea passed by, or maybe they weren’t nearly as discreet as they thought. But when the whispers started, I knew my friend was in danger. People had killed for less than whispers. We made a plan. Dead of night, they’d pack up, head north. I’d accompany them to New York and see them off to France. Hell, I even considered going with them, go see the world… We never got a chance.”
I shook my head. “I’m not going to like this story’s end, am I?” I asked.
My grandfather didn’t answer, instead he continued with his stories.
“Francis and I were heading to Bea’s house, our suitcases were packed. Francis was humming love songs under his breath when I heard the gunshot.” Grandfather’s fists balled up, knuckles turning white. “I saw blood shoot out from Francis’ side and he fell to the ground. I turned and saw the sheriff leading a mob of angry men. I could’ve left Francis then, saved myself from the heap of trouble I was going to be in. But I didn’t. I picked Francis up and carried him the rest of the way.”
My grandfather reached up and pulled down his shirt sleeve, revealing an old puckered scar. “They got me once in the shoulder, twice in the leg. I remember you being a little girl and asking why I walked the way I do. I did say you I’d tell you when you were older, well, now you know. I don’t know how I made it to Bea’s house, but I collapsed at the front door. Francis was cussing, I was too. The door opened and out walked Bea. When she saw how bloodied up we both were and how Francis was hurt bad, I saw a tear sneak down her face before she just went dead calm and wiped it away.”
For a few moments he was quiet. “Cass, you know I’ve not lost my mind. I’m sharp as I was back then, maybe even more so. But what I saw… I just wanted to forget all these years, and I never can.
“Bea walked out in front of the mob, followed by the others. She looked at the mob and quietly asked who shot Francis. One of the stupid bastards near the front raised his hand… and then she snapped it off with the same amount of effort it would take to break a twig. He howled before she went for his throat, her canines became sharp as knives and she’d grown claws an inch long. The others followed suit. Alana ripped open the sheriff’s ribcage and stomped on his heart. Sten took a man’s head and crushed it between his hands. The man’s brains splattered over his face before he roared like a lion and charged into the fray. Lihua caught a coward trying to run away before dragging him into the dark. I heard him scream once for his mother before I heard a crack and nothing else.”
Grandfather shook his head. “It was over quicker than you’d think. That mob was about twenty men in their prime, and in about five minutes each one was dead. Sten licked off each of his fingers before coming to me, picking me up and carrying me indoors while Bea cradled Francis in her arms. I wasn’t sure if he was breathing anymore… and that was the last time I saw him.”
“What happened after that?” I asked, shocked I could find my voice.
“They disappeared.” My grandfather shrugged. “When I woke up the next morning, I was in my own bed, all bandaged up. The whole town was in an uproar. The sheriff and his sons, all dead, along with several other ‘upstanding’ men of the town. Bea was gone, along with the others. No sign of where they’d gone. Francis… Francis was also gone. They never found his body, but they went and said he was dead anyhow. Probably for the best, I can’t imagine how they’d blame the slaughter on a single man but I’m surprised they didn’t try. We all just pretended nothing ever happened. I took care of Francis’ little siblings like they were my own brothers and sisters. I never told anyone before tonight about my best friend.”
I couldn’t believe it. Most of me wanted to reason out how that couldn’t have happened. Stuff like that didn’t happen.
Instead when I opened my mouth I asked, “Was the man in the car today, was it really Francis?”
“Looking just like the last day I saw him.” My grandfather sunk into the pillow, I could see how tiring this whole experience was for him. “Whatever Bea was must’ve crawled right up out of hell. You need to know that, before you go with her.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
My grandfather smiled sadly.
“Because the way your eyes lit up while looking at her, it was the same way Francis’ did when he first saw her… I think I’m going to shut my eyes for now, I’m feeling tired. Go to bed, Cassandra… I love you.”
I swallowed the hard lump in my throat before getting up. “I love you too, Grandpa,” I said before fleeing the room.
Just before I closed the door, I think I heard the sound of his window being pushed up. But I wasn’t sure until I came in the next morning and it had been left open. My grandfather had passed away with the most content look on his face. He was at peace, finally having revealed his darkest secret.
The funeral had long been planned, nearly everyone in town attended. People came up to me and told me how my grandfather was the most open-minded and kindest of people. I got told stories of his generosity, his good sense of humor.
Hours passed until I was finally sitting alone between his grave and the ones of my parents. My tears had dried up, leaving an empty hole inside me. For the first time in my life, I could truly say I was alone.
I heard quiet footsteps approached and I looked up to see her.
Bea was wearing a dark coat and black stockings. Her hair had been carefully pinned back, her eyes reddened with tears. “Can I sit with you?” She asked.
I nodded and patted the ground next to me, the side closer to my grandfather’s grave. She nodded before taking her seat, folding her legs under herself. “… Your grandfather was my friend. I owe him a great deal. Did he tell you about me?” She said.
“Shot three times, carrying the bleeding body of my dearest love and his dearest friend,” Bea’s breath shuddered and she wiped her eyes, “I could never repay that. I offered, but I knew he wouldn’t accept the only thing I had to give before he even responded. I’m not sure if even remembered the talk we had before I took him home that night.” Her fingers combed through the freshly turned earth.
“What did you offer?” I asked quietly.
She got up and glanced at the other pair of graves next to me. “He’s with his wife, his daughter, and his son in law. I think he couldn’t live in a world that he knew he’d never be able to see them again, so I am glad he didn’t take my gift when I offered it again last night.” She looked down at me and smiled, extending her hand. “Would you like to go on a trip? A chance of pace might help you.”
I knew what offer was hidden behind those words. I glanced at my parents’ graves, dead when I was just a little girl. I looked at my grandparents’ graves, much newer than theirs.
I took Bea’s hands and she pulled me to my feet. “I think I wouldn’t mind visiting Paris. I’ve always wanted to see the Eiffel tower. Is it more beautiful in person?” I asked.
Bea smiled widely.
“It will take your breath away.”
Together we walked to the car, this one was probably a lot bigger than the one my grandfather talked about. Sten was even bigger than the picture suggested, he was sitting in the driver’s seat while Lihua took selfies of them both. I think I caught a glimpse of some sort of Instagram filter on the screen before Lihua dropped the phone, she was laughing too hard to hold it. In the back seat Alana was reading something on a Kindle, absorbed entirely in the digital pages.
The car door opened and there sat Francis. His eyes were also tinged red from tears, but he smiled as he looked at me.
“You look a lot like your grandfather. Come on in, we got space to squeeze in one more.”