The Smiling Oaks Bed and Breakfast was exactly as it was described in the newspaper ad. A stately Victorian home, somehow both large and quaint, with whimsical arches and angles built over the porch and windows and bright cheerful colors painted over the walls. A large oak tree dominated the front yard, and from a particularly low and sturdy branch a swing drifted back and forth in the night breeze. Lights were on inside the windows, warm and inviting. It was exactly as Ted and Nancy hoped for at the end of a long day of driving. It was perfect.
Except for the cemetery that seemed to start mere feet from the southern wall and stretched for as far as the eye could see.
“They left that out of the brochure,” Ted muttered to himself.
Nancy clung to his arm. “Oh, Ted!”
The mild unease he felt simply could have been reflux, so he patted Nancy hand still wrapped in her glove and gave her a smile. “I’m sure it’s fine, Nancy! It’s just a cemetery. Death is a part of life, after all.”
Nancy didn’t look convinced, and her eyes drifted back to the car.
No way in heck I’m driving all the way back to the city tonight. Think, Ted, think…
“We simply won’t go over there! And we’ll make sure we have a window that faces the other direction.”
She gave the gravestones another narrow look but stuck her chin out and nodded. His wife knew just as well as he did that going back to the city tonight meant picking up the children in the morning and having to explain to her parents why they were back so soon – no easy feat.
“Hello, hello!” a cheerful voice rang out as they entered the home’s foyer. An old woman as perky as the voice followed from the back hallway, short and white haired and complete with an apron and a matronly grin. “I’m so glad you made it tonight, I was getting quite worried! You must be the Winslows?”
“Yes!” Ted said, putting the bags down. “This is my wife, Nancy, and I’m Ted.”
“So nice to meet you both! I’m Gloria, I run the place with my lifelong friend Lily. She’ll be upstairs, turning down your room. We only just saw you pull up! Let me get you checked in.”
Ted wanted to ask about the cemetery next door, but he pulled himself short. Why had no one mentioned it? It was not in the brochure, not in the pictures, the travel agent they had booked through had made no mention…was it simply that a bed and breakfast next to a sprawling cemetery was bad for business? Or was there something more…
He chuckled as he shook his head. Those were the kind of thoughts a day on the road could bring.
Once they were settled in their room – facing north, not a headstone in sight – and had washed the road off them, Ted and Nancy went back down the stairs into the dining room to find places set, bread and drinks out, and some new faces sitting at the table. Gloria was at the head, and seated next to her was a matching old woman who must have been her friend Lily. Another couple sat with their backs to the windows, a thin man with a strong chin and blonde hair, smoking a thin cigarette, and a thinner woman with a sneer and black hair smoking an even thinner cigarette. They stopped to stare as Ted and Nancy took their seats.
“Ted and Nancy Winslow, this is Amelia and Chauncy Dearborn,” Gloria said. “And this is my good friend, Lily.”
“Nice to meet you both,” Lily said.
“And you,” Ted returned as he helped Nancy to her seat. “And a pleasure to meet you.”
Chauncy smiled and blew smoke in his direction. “Yes. I’m sure.”
Ted paused in sitting. The Amelia woman winked at him.
Oh. Great. Whatever this is.
“I’m sure you all will have plenty to talk about,” Lily said. “You’re all from the city and all.”
Amelia chuckled mirthlessly. “The city is quite big, my dear. I would wager we run in…different circles.”
“Well, who knows?” Nancy said brightly. “I’ve always thought of the city as a big neighborhood, really, it’s so funny the people you run into! So, where do you two live?”
The couple, in unison, gave Ted’s wife an up and down glance that would have been withering to her if she wasn’t the most pleasant, honest, naïve person Ted had ever had the honor of knowing. Nancy only kept smiling, waiting for their response.
Ted, on the other hand, was making fists under the table.
“Darling,” Chauncy said. “I’m not even sure you can afford the question.”
“Okay!” Gloria said, standing up and pulling Lily with her. Even Nancy was beginning to sense the tension in the air. “Why don’t we get dinner on the table?”
They hustled through the door to the kitchen, Lily glaring daggers at the two across the table.
Nancy sipped at her water, oblivious. “We live over in the Lincoln Park area, by that little park with the double fountain? Do you know it?”
“I’m sure I don’t.”
“Anyway, we are here on our fifth anniversary, can you believe it?”
“How could we?”
“We came here for our honeymoon. At first, we weren’t going to do anything big for anniversary, but then we realize it was a big number. Five!”
“Many people can’t count that high. Good for you.”
“So we called the travel agent, found out this place was still available, sent the kids to my parents, and we were in the car!”
Chauncy lit another cigarette while Amelia wandered over to the wet bar, neither of them giving Nancy another little jab. Nancy, of course, didn’t notice.
“And why did you folks come to this sleepy little town?”
Amelia scoffed as she poured scotch into a glass. “Yes, Chauncy. Why did we come to this charming…sleepy…empty…boring little town, eh?”
Chauncy rolled his eyes. “That’s quite a lot of adjectives, isn’t it, dear? A little trite, don’t you think?”
At least they don’t like each other, either.
With her drink freshened, Amelia sat in her chair, leaning hard to the side away from Chauncy. “Chauncy here is a writer. He said the city was stifling his creativity and he just had to get out. So far, he’s written… what is it dear, a page? Two?”
“It’s been three days, my dear.”
“Oh, I know. Believe me, I have felt every minute.”
Now that their viper aggression was pointed at each other Ted was starting to enjoy himself. Their comments were funny when they weren’t pointed at him and his wife. Just as Chauncy was clearly coiling himself up for another strike, a great sound exploded from the front hall of the house making all of them jump.
The door to the dining room opened.
A man stood in the frame.
He was a tall man, and singularly ugly. Crooked nose, chin too big, hat barely covering a too large forehead, cauliflower ears. He was wearing a cotton shirt under overalls with heavy work boots, all of it and his face, too, covered in dirt and mud and…something else. Something that smelled.
“Oh, well,” Amelia said, putting a hand to her nose. “Chauncy, if this doesn’t inspire something in you than I guess you can call it quits.”
“Um, hello,” Nancy said, smiling at the new man. “What’s your name?”
Ted gave him a funny smile. “That’s an odd name. What was it again?”
The man looked at him full on with those small, dead eyes, and all the hairs on the back of Ted’s neck stood on end.
The other door opened again and Gloria sighed.
“Seamus, we told you,” she said, putting the tray of food down on the table. “You can’t be coming in when we have guests. This is Seamus. He works at the neighboring…park…”
Chauncy made an ah sound. “You mean the cemetery next door.”
“Yes,” Gloria said. “That. He comes over for meals…when we are empty which we are clearly not, so…”
“Dead’s rising,” Seamus said again, and he walked for the back of the house.
“He keeps saying that like it means something,” Amelia said.
Gloria’s face had gone pale. “Surely not. It’s far too early in the year for that, barely September…”
She had hustled over to the window on the south wall and pulled back the curtains. Ted watched as she put a hand on her hip.
Chauncy gasped. “Such a firm word from a gentle-wait, what is that?”
He’d gotten up, intrigued by the open window. With the swift change in his tone, the others quickly followed suit.
In front of the headstones closest to the house were rather large piles of fresh dirt. And beyond, shambling away from the house in slow ugly steps, were the dead.
“Dead’s rising,” Ted muttered.
“You can’t be serious?” Chauncy asked, his cold veneer finally washed away. “Is this some sort of stupid prank?”
Ted and Nancy looked at each other, out the window, and then shrugged.
“What, do the dead not rise in your circles?” Ted asked.
Amelia scoffed, offended. “Certainly not! The dead in our part of town stay where they are supposed to be!”
“Well, ain’t that a kicker!” Nancy said. She nudged Ted. “Maybe that’s where we should go for our honeymoon next year. Some magical place in the city where the dead stay in their graves all year round.”
Ted and Gloria chuckled while Chauncy and Amelia fumed.
“I am so sorry about this,” Gloria said, letting the curtain down. “It really is quite early. They usually don’t get restless until October. We block off that whole month! I’ve never seen them up and about in September!”
“Nothing you could do about it,” Nancy said, patting the woman’s arm. “Don’t you worry. Now, which direction did Mr. Seamus go?”
Gloria’s eyes went wide. “No. No my dear, no, I could never make a guest-”
“What ‘make?’” Ted asked brightly. “We wouldn’t dream of letting the dead shamble around and do nothing about it.”
Nancy was nodding. “‘The freshly risen make good neighbors,’ that’s what my mom and dad always say. Now, why don’t you and Lily keep that meal fresh. We can go out and join Mr. Seamus, and I’m sure with the five of us we’ll have them all back in their beds in no time.”
“Five,” Amelia droned. “You must be kidding. You expect us to go out there and…what?”
“Punch their ticket. You know, knock them down. I mean, break their heads in until they stop moving again, at which point we put them back in their grave. Which is really why we should hurry, we don’t want them to get too far. They’re so heavy to drag once they’re dead again.”
Ted perhaps didn’t need to go into such a detailed explanation, but he was enjoying the looks on Mr. and Mrs. Dearborn’s faces.
“Dead’s rising,” Seamus said as he passed the hall door, a shotgun resting on either shoulder.
“Coming, old chap!” Ted said.
“Yes, save some for us!”
“Are you dears sure?” Gloria asked. “With my arthritis…”
“Of course,” Nancy said. “You sit here…and I supposed baby sit the Dearborns, hmm? Ted and I and Mr. Seamus will be back in…what do you think, Ted? An hour?”
Ted glanced out the window. “Two, tops.”
It was a bit of an interruption to their anniversary, but a couple hours of honest work in the cemetery was far better than whatever dinner was going to be with the Dearborns so Ted didn’t really mind.