Everyone told Carmen that it would get easier with time. All that time did, however, was present her with more moments, more scenes, that she could use to frame her grief. Here she was in the produce aisle – Jun would never get to taste foods like acorn squash or broccolini and find out if he liked them. There she was driving past the middle school athletic field – Jun would never get to try out for track. Carmen’s life was a dark, quiet hallway in a gallery, and she was painting Jun into every picture she passed.
Autumn only made everything worse. Around her, the trees were losing their leaves while the cold sunk into their branches; it wouldn’t be long before the cold took over her limbs, too. And each day, the neighborhood kids would head off to school in their jackets, little bundles of primary colors, their parents or grandparents or aunts or uncles holding their hands all the way to the bus stop, while Carmen’s hands sat empty, like hollows in a rotting log.
Maybe the morning and afternoons spent watching the children were what made her decide to finally visit Jun’s grave; maybe it was dealing with the thought of him anywhere and everywhere else she went. Maybe it was because she was tired of telling the support group she was fine, you know, as fine as can be, a little better each day and feeling the words scrape her throat raw each time. It was October 21 when Carmen went to Jun’s grave for the first time, roughly five months after his funeral; it was a late Saturday afternoon, nothing special. All this she knew for certain, as certain as she knew Jun’s voice when she heard it behind her, while she was tracing the letters on his headstone.
His skin was still as grey as it had appeared under the makeup on the day of the wake; his lips were still a deep bluish-purple, just as they had been in the hospital when his lungs finally surrendered. He was wearing the jeans and the red race car t-shirt that Carmen had dressed him in for the afterlife. The difference now was that he was smiling. And his eyes were open. And he was waving at Carmen like a child who loved her.
“I didn’t know you were going to come. They said you might not come, like, ever.” Carmen wanted to hug him back when he threw his arms around her. She couldn’t. His entire body felt cold, yet she was the one who was frozen. He smelled like soil laid fresh in a garden.
“They—” she spluttered.
“The teachers at school. I’m late,” Jun said, pulling away. He began running, but he caught himself and turned back toward her after several steps. “Will you come back and visit me?” he asked. “After I’m done?”
“Done?” Carmen was nothing but gasps and syllables. “When—”
“Sunrise.” Jun’s smile was a sheepish one. “We stay up late here.” Carmen suspected she knew why Jun looked so embarrassed. She herself was remembering all the times she’d had to struggle to get him to turn off the computer and go to bed, and how since he had died she’d regretted every single night she didn’t let him stay on the couch with her just a few moments longer.
In the far corner of the cemetery, nestled in the space where two sides of the chain link fence met, stood an oak tree, wide and proud. Carmen watched mutely as Jun ran toward it, tapped a specific rhythm onto its trunk, and ducked, as quick as a heartbeat, into the gap that appeared and then disappeared the second he stepped through it. The gap wouldn’t appear for Carmen. She determined that eventually, after she spent an hour clawing at the tree’s bark and pounding on the trunk until the sides of her hands were scraped raw. She stopped only when an old woman approached a grave nearby and looked at Carmen as if to say, “I know.” Carmen was sure that she did, even if not in exactly in the same way.
* * *
“They teach us lots of stuff,” Jun said, plucking an earthworm from the grass and setting it down on his headstone.
Carmen hadn’t slept at all that night. Instead, she had browsed the Internet for stories of children returned from the dead, stared at the phone imagining all the things her counselor would say if she called, and ultimately resigned herself to walking laps around her living room. She’d left the house as soon as the sky had begun to lighten. When she arrived, Jun was waiting for her, sitting cross-legged on his grave, cleaning dirt from the treads in his sneakers, waving the moment his eyes met hers. It was terrifying.
“What kinds of stuff do they teach you?” Carmen was kneeling in the grass to the side. She couldn’t bring herself to sit on top of Jun’s plot, even though he was doing so and she was looking right at him.
“We’re just starting shapeshifting,” Jun said. “We’ve been working on making ourselves go through things. I’m pretty good. See?” He plunged his hand into his gravestone without any hesitation. It disappeared into the granite all the way up to his wrist. He held it there while he turned his head toward Carmen and grinned. He still had the space where his right upper canine, the last of his stubborn baby teeth, had fallen out.
“That’s very nice, Jun,” Carmen said, her fingers interlaced so tightly that they lay white-knuckled in her lap. “How long will your, um, your lessons last?”
He shrugged. “Until I’m ready to go haunting, I guess.”
“And who will you be haunting?”
He blinked when he looked at her. “Bad people.”
Because it was a Sunday morning, there weren’t many cars traveling the road nearby yet, but Carmen was aware of a few in the distance. She wondered how all of this worked, if the people inside would be able to see Jun when they passed. She wondered, if she needed to be rescued, if they’d be able to see her. “Jun,” she whispered, “is that what this is?” Inside, the thoughts sped through her mind like the blood speeding through her veins: if only I’d called the ambulance a second sooner, if only I knew CPR, if only I’d saved my son. Outside, they manifested as one simple, fragile question:
“Am I being haunted?”
But Jun groaned, rolling his eyes, shattering the delicate stillness the way only a child can. “Mom! No. Geez. This is just, like, you visiting your kid, okay?” He stood and approached her, and quite unlike the day before, Carmen was surprised by how comforting she found a hug from her dead son to be.
“I have to go to sleep now,” Jun said. Carmen could see his dark hair catching golden sunlight. “We have school every night. Will you keep coming to visit me?”
Carmen swallowed. “Of course I will, baby.”
He smiled, stepped back, and lay flat on his plot. In a second, he was gone, and Carmen was left kneeling beside and empty patch of grass, idly drilling her finger into the ground. She knew there was no reason to imagine digging him out; she knew that her hand couldn’t slip through the cold, solid ground the way Jun’s probably could. She tried not to think about it, but there it was, this idea that even though Jun was back in her life, in some way there might be more distance between them now than what the grave had placed between them months before.
* * *
She didn’t tell her counselor or anyone in her support group. At work, she continued to process payments and update accounts just the way she had before (though sometimes, in the moments when her mind would wander like an untethered balloon, she would allow herself a few minutes to read ghost stories in an incognito browser window).
Now every morning, though, Carmen stopped at the cemetery before heading to the office and listened to more about her dead son’s new life. They came and met from graveyards all across town; they had cliques; they progressed in their studies at different rates, just like students at any other school. Jun thought there might be some adult students, but he couldn’t figure out the ages of a few of his classmates from the way they looked in their natural states. For all of the differences between the new life and the old one, several details remained oddly the same. Jun still liked peanut butter sandwiches. He missed eating them, so Carmen brought him one every time she visited. He always sniffed it and said thanks, but he never took a bite. Carmen didn’t ask if he ate at school.
One morning, Carmen was particularly curious. The cemetery was small, situated at the intersection of two relatively sleepy roads, and low on the security company’s list of priorities as far as she could tell. She pulled up to the curb with her lights already turned off and parked in the rose-tinged darkness. She climbed the fence and took a seat by Jun’s grave, waiting to see whatever there was to see.
It looked almost no different when Jun stepped out of the tree than it did when he stepped into it. A gap appeared, as if someone inside the trunk had ripped open a zipper, and there was Jun, walking away, his head bent low beneath the pale dawn light. Then there appeared another boy behind Jun, staring at him with a look cast in ice and leaving the tree heading the opposite way.
“I didn’t know one of your classmates was here,” Carmen said as Jun sunk to the ground and lowered his chin to his hand.
“What’s his name?”
“You don’t like him?”
Carmen could see why Jun felt that way; it wasn’t just because the left side of Paul’s face, including the eye socket, had caved in like a sinkhole in sand. Something in the way Paul had looked at Jun before – was looking at the two of them now from across the yard with his one good eye – struck Carmen as feral. His was a gaze with sharp edges. Carmen wondered if this Paul was the kind of student who liked to take his lessons home with him.
“Now, Jun,” Carmen said, stroking her son’s hair while she stared at the other dead boy in the cemetery with them, “unless he’s hurt you, we can’t judge him. We don’t know what kind of life he’s had. Or death.”
Because dead or not, Jun still was Carmen’s son, and it was never too late for a mother to set a good example.
* * *
By all the accounts that Carmen read later that day, Paul Odemeyer had had a terrible death. Not until she saw Paul’s picture on a local news site and skimmed the accompanying article, however, did she remember that she had known about it, had heard about what happened months before. She just hadn’t known Paul by name. He was simply that family tragedy a few towns over, the stepson of a widower who couldn’t stand being reminded of his dead wife, even years after she’d passed. Given the nature of the boy’s death, which had come for him in the form of a table lamp that his stepfather had swung at his head, Carmen had to assume that Paul’s life hadn’t been great, either.
The next day, after Jun had wished Carmen a good morning (which he giggled doing, since it now replaced saying “good night”), Carmen crossed the cemetery. The few cars out on the road passed quietly, and the low-lying clouds, already thick in the sky and mottled grey like dirty cotton, crept along slowly, as if trying to eavesdrop on anything that anyone in the graveyard had to say.
“Hello,” Carmen whispered once she was standing next to Paul’s grave. “I, um, I read about how you died, and I just wanted to say that I’m sorry. No child should have to go through that. It really – well, it’s terrible, you know? I mean, of course you know.”
She cleared her throat. “My son’s a nice boy, even though he’s dead, but you’re dead, too, so never mind. I’m not your family, I know that.” A sigh. “But if you ever want to talk to anyone, or just be with people, we’re here. I’m here. And I’ll do what I can to help.”
Carmen listened. There were the sound of cars moving smoothly over pavement and the sound of a calm but steady wind nudging the late leaves out of the trees. A faraway crow signaled the morning with a single caw, then let it be. That was fine. Part of a mother’s job, after all, was not expecting anything in return.
Another part was taking care of herself so that she could take care of those who needed her. So Carmen went to work, and punched in, and smiled, and earned her keep. She had a reason for living, maybe two now, and should it really matter to her or anyone else if both of those reasons happened to be dead?
* * *
She was at Jun’s grave early the following morning, carrying a Thermos full of coffee to warm her hands and lips and two peanut butter sandwiches in the bag this time, just in case. It was because she’d arrived early that she was able to catch what happened between Paul and Jun.
The tree peeled opened as usual, and out came Jun in front, with Paul shambling closely behind him. For a moment, Carmen thought it meant that Paul would be joining them, and she cursed herself for being selfish and not filling the Thermos with something like cocoa instead. Boys like cocoa, she thought.
Then Paul shoved Jun’s shoulder. Hard. Hard enough to make him stumble. Carmen suddenly found herself glad she hadn’t brought hot chocolate. As she sprang to her feet, she saw Jun, still crouching where he’d broken his fall, turn to look behind him. Now they both were facing Paul, and Paul was facing them, and before Carmen could fully process it Paul had dropped his jaw to an inhuman length. It left his chin dangling down past his knees, revealing a mouth equipped with rows of needle-like teeth. I would’ve brought you marshmallows, Carmen thought, running, wondering if she really had it in her to swing her Thermos upside young Paul’s already broken and thoroughly deformed head if it came to that.
The sight of Jun gave Carmen her answer – Jun, wide-eyed, pale beneath his skin’s grey cast, shaking with fear like a boy who had never died. She dropped her Thermos and ran to him instead, sweeping him into her arms as her knees skidded across the grass.
Then she turned to Paul. “What is the matter with you?” she spat. “Don’t you ever touch my son, ever. Not with demon hands, not with ghost hands, not with regular hands. You have a problem with him, you come talk to me. Is that clear?”
Paul stood for a moment, his mouth open wide like a tunnel to Hell. Briefly, it occurred to Carmen that she had no idea exactly what Paul was capable of. But then Paul’s jaw snapped back into its usual position below his sunken cheeks, and with his one good eye he glared at them both before turning to trudge home to his grave.
“Are you okay?” Carmen whispered into Jun’s cool ear.
“Yeah.” Jun shook himself free and started walking toward his own headstone, leaving Carmen to trail him.
“You want to tell me what this is all about?” she called.
Jun shrugged and dropped to the grass above his grave. “He just hates me. That’s it.”
Carmen sat next to him. “Any idea why?”
Another shrug. “I’m better at what we’re learning than him.”
Carmen hesitated. “You mean… better at haunting people? At the shapeshifting stuff?”
Jun nodded. He blinked and, for a while, seemed content to let the silence of the graveyard speak for him. “He hates me because of you,” he finally said. “He says that only babies still have their moms visit him when they’re dead.”
Carmen inhaled the chilled air sharply through her nose. In the distance, she could see that Paul wasn’t resting yet; he was kneeling on his grave, staring right at her while she rubbed her son’s shoulders. “Honey, you know that’s not true, right?” She continued to watch Paul from the corners of her eyes. “People of all ages visit their loved ones all the time. It’s why cemeteries exist.”
“Paul…” Carmen sighed. “Paul’s angry right now. I don’t know where his mother went after she died, but I don’t think she can visit him, whatever she’s doing.” She gave his shoulders a squeeze. “It’ll be okay. Just tell your teachers or whoever’s in charge. We won’t let anything happen.”
“Mom, I’m dead. It’s fine.”
Carmen shook her head, as if that would help the weight of Jun’s words settle more easily inside of it. “Just ignore him for now, if you can.”
“I know, Mom,” Jun said, his words now sharp. “I’ve got this.” He spoke at the same moment that Carmen hard and small hit her cheek. She touched the skin and glanced down, expecting to find a pebble. Instead she found something unmistakably cream-colored and smooth lying in the grass, flecked as it was with specks of yellow and hints of grey decay. She picked up the tooth and looked to her right, toward the spot where Paul was still kneeling, grinning at her with what appeared to be a gap in his smile.
“I know you’ve got this,” Carmen said, even though there were some things she felt she knew better. She knew, for example, that at some point, everyone needed a little help from Mom. She also knew that the help from Mom that some kids needed most involved her being the person who kept their asses in line. Sometimes, a stern, no-nonsense presence was the best gift a mother could offer.
Fortunately for all involved, Carmen considered herself a very giving person.
* * *
She’d taken half a day off from work, but by sunset that evening, Carmen was ready. She arrived and sat a short distance from the tree in the corner with all the supplies she’d been able to find: salt and breadcrumbs in a plastic bag; a silver pendant around her neck; a bell to ring and a brass key to throw, in case Paul came too close to either her or Jun; and the piece that had been the hardest to find, the one she least wanted to use, a foot-long bar of scrap iron to lay across Paul’s grave or, failing everything else, to ram down his throat if he tried to do anything with his wide-open monster mouth.
For all her preparations to deal with Paul, however, Carmen realized too late that she wasn’t event remotely prepared to deal with Jun. Jun rose from his grave that evening already sprinting toward the tree, but Paul was faster. He was on Jun’s back before Carmen could close the distance, leaving her to curse herself for sitting by the tree instead of Paul’s grave, just because she’d wanted to give the beaten boy a chance to prove he could behave. She threw fistfuls of salt and bread ahead of her and flung the key as well, but her aim was bad, almost deliberately so; she wanted to disable Paul but couldn’t risk hurting Jun at the same time.
Instantly Paul’s mouth was gaping open, and Carmen was aware of the iron bar in her hand. She stepped closer to swing it but then just as quickly stepped back. She had to in order to give Jun’s new shape room.
He was huge, a tower, taller than the corner tree. He didn’t look like a tree or a tower, though. No, he looked like a man – a gnarled, twisted version of a grown-up man, except that he was enormous, of course, and instead of a hand or a forearm, his right arm ended in what looked like a tabletop lamp stand attached to his elbow.
Jun bent over until his giant face was inches away from Paul. “You go to school, and you leave us alone,” he said, “or I will do this to you every time you get up.” He was speaking in his own voice, his child’s voice.
Paul shut his mouth without saying a word and ran away into the tree.
Before Carmen could blink, Jun had returned to his usual size and shape and to the grey skin that, for him, was now normal. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
Carmen let her arms hang like broken branches. “I wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“I have to go take a test now.” Jun grinned. “You know, if I did that on my test, they’d give me a big F.”
“For that? Why?”
“You’re only supposed to haunt bad people,” Jun said. “I know Paul’s not bad. He’s just mean and stupid and I hate him. But it’s not his fault.”
“I know,” Carmen said. She held up the iron bar. “You want me to use this?”
“To shut him in his grave?” Jun shook his head. “He’ll be okay, I think.”
And Carmen knew he was right.
So she wished her son good luck on his exam, gathered her remaining supplies, and left the graveyard for the evening. She went home, turned on her tablet, and spread her bills out on the kitchen table. She paid the hell out of those bills. That was what grown-ups did, she told herself: they took care of matters. She paid the gas, the water, and the electric. Then she looked into scheduling payments for the months ahead. It was, after all, the adult thing to do.