“Hey! I’m Alice. It’s Riley, right?” I smile.
“That’s me! It’s nice to meet you,” my date wraps her arms around my shoulders. I usually don’t go for hugs on the first date but something about this girl makes me want to open up and tell her all my secrets. I’ve never tried online dating before, but it doesn’t seem as bad as people make it out to be. Or maybe I just got lucky. I mean, she’s beautiful. Her curled blonde hair cascades down the open back of her baby blue sundress. When she pulls out of our hug, I’m met with eyes bluer than water so clear that you can see through to the ocean floor.
“Sorry,” I chuckle nervously as I realize I’m staring. She joins me in laughter as we both sit down at the high-top table. Three tall candles rest on the glossy finish of each table, being the only source of light in the whole restaurant. The small flames cast a reddish glow with the maroon color of the walls, setting a very intimate mood for a first date. I was unsure of the location as soon as I arrived. Now, I have no choice but to make small talk in an attempt to lighten the mood. “How are you?”
“A little nervous, to be honest.”
“Me too! I haven’t been on a first date in years.” Why did I say that? Great idea of a first impression, Alice.
“That’s okay!” she says, “Let’s just get to know each other for now. Tell me about yourself.” She must have seen the embarrassment on my face.
“Okay, let me think.” I try to come up with interesting things about my life but I’m blanking on everything other than my breakup with Penelope. I’m on a first date! She shouldn’t be on my mind. Should she?
“Well, my dad died a couple years ago. Just tell me the first thing that comes to mind! I want to know everything,” Riley leans forward on her arms, giving me her full attention. It’s a warm gesture, but it fails to rid me of my thoughts.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I frown. “I was actually thinking about everything that went down with my ex-girlfriend, Penelope. That’s a dark story.”
“Don’t be afraid to share things with me! How long ago was your breakup?”
“A little over a year ago.”
“Why did you two end things?” Oh boy. Here it comes.
“That’s where it gets dark. Are you sure you want to know?” I ask her, fearful of her response.
“Of course! I have quite a few scary breakup stories myself.” If only she knew what was coming.
Two years ago…
“Henry, our one-year anniversary is coming up in a month. I have to get her something. But what?”
“Maybe a necklace?” my best friend suggests on the other end of the phone.
“I could make her a butterfly necklace! I know she likes butterflies. I want it to be real, though, and diamonds are really expensive. Can you make real diamonds?” I ask.
“I think they’re made of carbon?” he says, his tone turning it into more of a question.
“Yeah. Google says carbon is found in pretty much everything, even ashes. That’s interesting.” I get an idea. “I’ll call you back,” I mutter and hang up the phone. I open a new tab on my laptop and type “ashes into diamonds” into the search bar. Videos pop up immediately and I find myself watching them until the sun goes down. I know how I’m going to do it, but where will I get ashes? There is a cemetery down the street from my house…
I pull my boots on, grab a black bag from the kitchen, and go outside to grab a shovel from the greenhouse. When I step inside, my black and silver shovel is leaning against a shelf full of succulents. As I hold the shovel in my hands, a pang of guilt washes over me. Maybe I should think further into what I’m about to do. No, I think to myself, Penelope and I have been dating for almost a year. I have to do something special for her. I grab hedge trimmers and start running down the street. I don’t have much time to do this if I don’t want to get caught. The gravel crunches under my feet and my pulse is in my ears. The loud thrumming distracts me from my doubt.
Upon arriving at the garden of death, I start searching for graves with the lumpiest dirt covering the casket. Carbon resides in fresh corpses more prominently than it does in old and decomposed ones. Squinting in the dark, I come to a cross-shaped headstone that reads:
Father, Brother, and Friend
He will be forever missed.
I swiftly look away after reading the last line. I can’t let this simple factor stop me from achieving my goal. I thrust my shovel into the ground beneath me and jump when I hear a stick snap behind me. I freeze, not wanting to be seen. Dread fills every inch of my body as the thing comes closer. Its steps are quiet in the fallen leaves, like it’s about to jump out and grab me. I can feel it right behind me as beads of sweat form on my forehead. Right when my legs are about to give out, something soft brushes up against my shin. I let out the breath I was holding as I realize, it was just a cat. A black cat to be exact. How fitting.
After digging up mounds and mounds of dirt, my jeans are brown and the top of a white casket can be seen, even in the dark. I open the casket to reveal a man that looks to be around 70 years old. His hair is white and he’s wearing a blue button-up that’s tucked into black dress pants. I grab his wrists and pull as hard as I can. It takes some force to lift his body out of the pit his casket is in. Once above ground, I lay him down and grab my hedge trimmer. His body is definitely too big for the bag I brought. The snap of his bones breaking under the pressure of the large scissors echoes through the small cemetery. First his arms are shoved into the plastic bag. Then, I cut his legs at the hip and right below the knee. Thank God he was embalmed. Otherwise, there would be blood everywhere and I don’t have time for that.
I don’t have it in me to snap his neck. I leave his head on and tie the bag closed around his neck so I don’t leave remnants of an old man around my neighborhood. I refill the hole with dirt and start on my way home, now carrying 165 pounds of old man with me. I have to take breaks every once in a while to rest my arms. I can’t carry 100 pounds, let alone 165, and I don’t want the gravel pathway to shred the thin bag I’ve put him in.
When I get home, I put Charles in the huge freezer attached to my fridge. He needs to stay cool if I want his remains to be as valuable as possible. I pick up the phone and dial Henry’s number.
“Alice?” His voice sounds raspy. He must have been asleep.
“Hey! I need a favor. Do you still work at the crematorium down the street?”
I hear a car door slam. I look out the window and see Henry’s red pickup truck parked in my driveway. Since I don’t have a car, Henry drove here to help me take Charles to the crematorium.
“Where is he?” He sounds nervous and tired.
“In the freezer over there,” I point towards the kitchen and follow him through the hallway. He carries Charles to the bed of his truck and secures him with bungee cords. Once we arrive, we park in the back of the crematorium.
“I’m sneaking you in, okay? There shouldn’t be anybody here since it’s so late at night.”
“It’s only 10pm.” He gets out of the truck and heads to unlock the door before grabbing Charles’ remains.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he groans.
“What is it?” What could possibly go wrong at a time like this. Lots of things.
“I left my key in my office. I didn’t have a closing shift or an opening one so I didn’t think I’d need it. I’m sorry, Alice.”
“We can pick the lock! I have some hairpins,” I say, reaching for the pins holding my messy bun in place. My brown locks tumble down across my shoulders.
Henry grabs the pins from my hand and frantically starts picking the lock, his hands shaking. The only street lamp in sight shines just enough light to see the keyhole.
Right as the lock clicks open, the streetlamp’s bulb flickers off, leaving us in complete darkness. Henry and I both jump in surprise.
“I’ll go get the bag.” Henry stumbles toward the truck. I know he ran into it because a loud thud is followed by some impolite words.
The air inside the crematorium inside is cold, much colder than outside, despite the furnaces surrounding us. I flick the lightswitch on while Henry carries the black bag into another room. This one is full of metal tables and unfolded cardboard boxes.
“Take one of those boxes and place it on the metal table over here,” he nods toward a table against the wall. I do as I’m told and Henry sets Charles on the brown surface. With an easy slice, the black bag is cut in half, revealing the pale, chopped up body before us. Henry is quick to fold the cardboard box and place the lid on. Thank goodness. The frown lines on Charles’ face were creeping me out.
“Can you help me wheel him to the furnace?” We roll the metal table into the first room. In front of every furnace is a large rectangular hole that drops into a concrete ashtray below, full of ashes. I could probably just use these. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I just realized that there are ashes already here,” I mumble, partially regretting my decision to dig up an old man.
“Well, we can just use those if you’d like.”
“No. I’ve already made it this far. I don’t want to turn back now,” I decide.
“Okay. I’ll just close the door and turn on the fire. It’ll take a few hours,” Henry informs me. Henry presses a button to open the furnace. A metal door slides up and he pushes the cardboard box into the space in front of us.
“A few hours? What if someone catches us?”
“We’ll be fine. The whole city will be asleep in a few hours. Don’t worry. Wanna come play chess with me while we wait?”
“Okay,” I groan and roll my eyes.
Sure enough, the flames disappear and Henry heads to break up what’s left of Charles with a large metal rod. He comes back with a black box full of ashes.
“That should be enough for the diamond. Thank you so much for doing this, Henry. You don’t understand how much this means to me. I know this is probably crazy, not to mention against the law. But I trust that you’ll keep this to yourself, yes?”
“I promise, Alice, there’s no way I’m admitting to being an accomplice to this. I can’t believe you even talked me into this. But I would do anything for you.” And with that, he drives me home, making sure to lock the door again on his way out.
Today’s the day. The jewelry should arrive at any moment. Our anniversary was seven months ago, but I discovered that it would take around eight months to make the diamond. The company apologized for my loss, even though it wasn’t technically my loss, and they said they couldn’t put my diamond in a necklace. I had them set it into a ring, instead. I hope she likes it. With that thought, the doorbell rings.
“I’ll get it!” I shout to Penelope, who’s in the other room. The velvet box comes with a note that says:
Thank you for purchasing this diamond ring. We’re glad to have helped in the permanent remembrance of your loved one.
-Ashes to Diamonds x
How sweet. “I have to ask you something, Penny.” I say as I walk into the living room. Her strawberry blonde hair is tied in a bun with little twirls coming down on her face. She looks so perfect while reading Frankenstein, her favorite book.
She looks up at me with golden-brown eyes and smiles. “What is it?”
“I need you to stand.” And with that, she does, leaving the dog-eared book on the couch. I kneel. “I’ve known you for two years now and there isn’t one thing I don’t love about you. I love the way your hair curls when you get out of the shower. I love the way you smile and wipe your tears after watching The Notebook for the millionth time. I love the way you’re always so interested in the news. I love your compassion for people. The list could go on forever. But, most of all, I love the way you look at me as if I’m the only girl in the whole world. I want you to look at me that way forever. Penelope Irene Bell, will you do me the honor of being my wife?”
I pull out the box and open it. A diamond ring sits in the middle of the box. Her eyes are wet now, leaving trails of tears down her cheeks. She covers her face in her hands and, for a second, I’m not sure if those are tears of joy. I hear a muffled “yes” before she nods her head frantically and kneels down to wrap me in her arms.
She crawls back and holds out her left hand for me to slide the ring on her finger. It fits perfectly. The sun coming in through the sheer, white curtains makes the diamond glisten.
For the next few days, all Penelope talks about is the wedding. She spends her days looking through newspapers and wedding magazines. A few months ago, she told me about a news story she read. The grounds keeper at a cemetery found a black and silver shovel, along with hedge trimmers, by the grave of a seventy-year-old man. My guilt kicked in immediately. Every Sunday, she would tell me about another detail the cops had found. There were no fingerprints. The casket was filled with dirt. The family hasn’t even claimed him. With every new detail she tells me comes another wave of breath-taking guilt. Now that I’ve proposed, I don’t know what to do.
We’re both sitting at the glass table when she looks up from her newspaper and says, “The cops still haven’t found the culprit. Nobody saw who did it or knows who it could be. Who could do such a thing? That poor family, and they don’t even know,” her tone is full of sympathy.
After staring into her brown eyes for a while, I can’t take it anymore. I’ve thought about this every day since the cremation. My guilt has been building and I cannot take it. “It was me, okay? I robbed that man’s grave. There, I confessed. Every single day for the past eight months has been so torturous for me. And you following this story has only made it more difficult. But I did this all for you!” I thrust my hand in her direction. “Where do you think that diamond came from? I know you found the note on the counter after I proposed.”
She stares at me in silence. Her hand brushes through her hair as she tries to process this information. “How— how could you? I don’t understand. That’s absolutely disgusting! What were you thinking? I love you more than words can express, but this is too much. I don’t even want to know, Alice. It’s over.” And before I can protest or explain myself, she slips her shoes on and bolts out the door.
In the present…
“Wow. What kind of person would steal a man from his grave? I mean, seriously. What was that? And then to use his ashes to propose to your girlfriend? That’s disgusting!” Riley scoffs.
“It was all for Penelope. But it’s in the past now. She dumped me and I have no idea where she is. I haven’t seen her since.”
“That guy had a name! Charles had a name! Do you even know what his last name was? Or were you too blind with your crazy ideas to look?” Her cold gaze moves from me to the candles, which are now halfway melted.
“His name was Charles Stewart,” I mumble into my water glass before taking a sip.
Riley gasps and the color fades from her cheeks. “Wait. Charles M. Stewart?”
“Yeah, I think so. Why?” I ask, now confused.
“That’s my father’s name.”