I Never Thought I’d Be So Terrified Investigating A Graveyard Until Tonight

Image provided by Tara-Mae Wrona
Image provided by Tara-Mae Wrona

Not many people know this, but there was once a state asylum about a five-minute drive from my house. The generically-named Illinois State Training School For Girls sat nestled in the woods halfway between Batavia and Geneva. Of course, the entire campus was demolished in the late 70s. Nowadays, a blissful upper-crust suburb overlooks the forest where the reformatory once existed – and the small graveyard in which the young girls lucky enough to be given graves are buried.

Most residents in that subdivision, I assume, go about their lives completely oblivious to the pain and anguish that took place just minutes from their homes. To them, the gated cemetery is just another historical landmark. The young girls resting beneath the earth are just as dead to them as the stones in the ground.

Sometimes I wonder whether neighborhood kids are allowed to play in the graveyard, or if it is off-limits due to some unspoken dread that everyone feels but no one will talk about. These days, though, I doubt kids are even allowed to go outside anymore. Parents are terrified enough of the living who would harm their children. Instead, they buy their kids smart phones with apps to play with. When I was their age, the only Macintosh we had was a thick, plastic monster of a thing in the school library. The apps on it were called “Millie’s Math House” and “Bailey’s Book House,” with other 16-bit farm animals and the like. Computers were boring when I was a kid. We entertained ourselves by scaring each other senseless with ghost stories.

We didn’t always tell stories about ghosts, though; sometimes we talked about people around town – “weirdos,” we Nineties Kids called them – who seemed to be touched by some supernatural influence. There was the Cat Man, a homeless guy who lived by the river and decorated his belt with the skulls of stray cats he ate. There was the Old Farmhouse over by the Jewel-Osco; legend has it that a farmer in the seventies (why does this fucked-up shit always happen in the seventies?) killed his cheating wife and buried her under the grain silo. Then there was the Park Lady: a sweet, grandmotherly homeless woman who pushed a cart around town collecting trash, mostly from playground to playground.

When we were younger, our parents warned us to stay away from her. They’d say, “she has mental problems,” or, “she isn’t clean.” We quickly learned not to go near people who got called these things. Yet, as we got into our early teens, old enough to pull the parental leash a little bit further, our curiosity surpassed our ingrained childhood prejudices. My friends and I saw the Park Lady a few times when we sat under the jungle gyms, smoking things we weren’t allowed to smoke. She always seemed nice; she came around and collected our pop cans when we finished them. We always offered her a hit, but she always politely declined. She never ratted us out though, so she was cool.

Long story short, I didn’t see the Park Lady again for many years – not until I ended up back in town after college, unemployed and severely fucked-up with almost nothing to show for the twenty-odd years I’d been alive. Our generation had been promised the world in a Happy Meal box; we thought they’d just hand it to us. Instead, the economy was too shitty to take on lazy young dreamers. We drifted in and out of semi-adulthood, always dreaming, always fucked-up in one way or another. At this point in my life, I probably had more in common with Park Lady than ever before. So naturally, I’d see her out and about sometimes, and we’d talk.

She was in the early stages of dementia, and I politely overlooked this. Instead, I struggled to make sense of her scrambled sentences as we exchanged greetings. She always smiled, even though her eyes looked sad.

Then one day, I happened to catch her in a rare moment of clarity. It took me a while; the “Baby Graveyard” she mentioned could have just as easily been nonsense. I couldn’t tell she was lucid at first; then she started recalling details with a strong grasp on reality I hadn’t seen in her for quite a while.

“The girls were probably mistreated and malnourished, you know,” she said in her wispy, pensive voice; she always reminded me of Mia Farrow; “the goal being probably to hinder them from carrying their children to term. And if by some miracle the child did make it into this world, the odds of it reaching age two were slim. Then, when the infants died, they buried them in that clearing in the woods. The Baby Graveyard, we called it.” She looked down and shook her head, probably anticipating tears. “The poor little things. None of it was their fault, but they paid the price.”

“That’s awful,” I said. Of course it was awful, but it was also interesting. I paused, hoping she’d fill my reverent silence with more details. It worked.

“They only started marking the graves in the 1900s, after they changed the name. It had a different name before. Something about Juvenile Female Offenders.”

No wonder they changed it; the original name sounded scandalous. “Oh,” I said; a more polite way to say, Go on … Details!

“Which was nonsense. Their only crime was being loved in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Or they got raped, I thought darkly; but I didn’t say it.

“Some of them weren’t even given proper graves,” she went on. “the ones with no relatives to pay for a funeral. They buried those girls out in the woods – just tossed them out like trash. Who knows how many they forgot about.”

“Terrible,” I remarked. “People can be so terrible.” I genuinely meant this; still, I had another question that could not be silenced. “How do you know about all this?”

Her eyes got that foggy, far-off stare again, and for a moment I thought I’d lost her. She held on, though. “Oh, dear, I thought I told you. I was one of the last girls to live there before it closed down.”

“Were you really?” Now this was interesting.

“Yep, the Class of ’76, we called ourselves. After it closed, they shipped us off to a halfway house in The City.” (She meant Chicago, obviously.) “But I begged on the street until I could buy a train ticket, and hopped the Metra right back here. I don’t like The City. Too many bad things happen there.”

I paused, debating whether I should ask her one more question. My curiosity won. “So how did you … Why were you … sent there? To the Girls’ Training School, or whatever?”

Her clear gaze was fading in and out now; her voice went flat. Soon the past would reclaim her, and she’d be lost again.

“I used to cut myself,” she said, eerily serene. “Mostly my arms. My parents … it was a different time back then. They didn’t understand … all I needed was help. Instead, they shipped me off. I was the State’s problem now … this was when I was eleven.”

A single tear slid from her eye, but she wiped it away.

“I’m sorry,” I said. I wanted to feel more sincere than my shallow suburban-girl voice sounded, but I rarely feel anything these days. “For what it’s worth, I did it too once. On my arms. I was in a really bad place.” This was all true, but for some reason it felt like bullshit.

She ignored what I said anyway; I could tell her mind was already wading back into the still, dark past. Its undertow kept pulling her back.

“I don’t even remember why I did it,” she said, voice estranging itself. More tears slipped from her expressionless eyes. Then she murmured something about always wanting to be a mother, and her sense just cut all ties with the present. At that point I knew she was gone again.

I didn’t think about Park Lady or the Baby Graveyard again until months later.

While scrolling down a local news site, I saw a picture of Park Lady and the words MISSING PERSON.

Apparently she’d been reported missing by community center volunteers after she hadn’t been to the shelter for several days. At least I live in a town that doesn’t forget about people; not even when they’re elderly and homeless.

I clicked on her picture and opened up a page that continued the story: “Glenda Hopkins, 67, is thought to be mentally unstable and a danger to herself. If you have any information, please contact the Kane County Sheriff’s Department.” It listed the number, and that was all. At least I knew her name now: Glenda Hopkins. I don’t know why I’d never asked before.

For the sake of the story, I told myself, I needed to find her. I don’t pretend to be a good person, I don’t delude myself into thinking that my intentions are noble, because I know that isn’t true. Even if it meant taking advantage of another’s misfortune, I still had to write. Whether I liked it or not, ideas were congealing in my mind’s subterranean labyrinth. They brooded and festered together, forming clumps of fetal tissue into words. Sentence fragments quickened their pulse. Their still-forming hearts throbbed. My unborn stories, my beautiful monster children – they smelled blood. And they were hungry.

I didn’t even feel that much like a creep as I drove into that subdivision, eyes hidden by dark glasses. Totally inconspicuous, I parked in a spot at the bottom of a hill and stepped outside. I saw an old-ish lady in a visor walking her dog; we exchanged smiles and a quick hello. Girls like me are the Southern Belles of neighborhoods like these. For all she knew, I lived on one of those quaintly-named streets, and I’d parked here to do some power-walking.

Just over the top of the hill, the Baby Graveyard lay safely beneath the trees, guarded by a black iron fence. A commemorative headstone sat at the edge of the sidewalk. I snapped a picture of it with my phone; it made sense to document this.

Image provided by Tara-Mae Wrona
Image provided by Tara-Mae Wrona

That brief description would have been enough to satisfy a casual passerby’s curiosity, but not mine.

I looked around for any kind of entrance. There was a gate at the base of the hill, at the end of a dirt semi-path that spring rains had reduced to mud.

Mother. Fucker. My sneakers sank into the grime. It’s a good thing they were a few years old, or I would have been really pissed. My feet made slug trails in the miry earth as I half-walked, half-slid down the hill.

Once I reached the bottom, I took another bad-camera-phone pic (seriously, my phone is a piece of shit), this time of the gate and its subtle warning to all who enter.

Image provided by Tara-Mae Wrona
Image provided by Tara-Mae Wrona

Once inside the Graveyard, I stowed my phone in my coat pocket and found a dry patch of leaves to wipe the mud off my shoes. It wasn’t completely effective, but it would have to do for now; my cleaning instincts would likely be on full panic mode later.

As my neuroses quieted down, I stood still and barely breathed. It looked and felt like a typical graveyard. The air seemed hushed, save for the trees brushing leaves with each other. Sometimes I think nature has its own ways of remembering the dead.

Just to be thorough, I took a few more pictures. One of them showed the grave of an unfortunate child who’d only lived from 1934 – 1935. As I saved it in my phone, I noticed this weird rainbow aura hovering around the gravestones. I wasn’t immediately impressed, as it could’ve been a reflected sunbeam in the late-afternoon light. Still, I thought it worth mentioning, even if it turns out to be something completely mundane.

Image provided by Tara-Mae Wrona
Image provided by Tara-Mae Wrona

I scanned around for similar light angles, any kind of pattern, when something caught my eye – something out of place. Near the back of the cemetery, the fence had a few bars missing.

As I stepped closer, I saw that they’d been broken off where the rain had rusted the bars. Deliberately, it appeared. The elements may have weakened the iron; but judging from their jagged edges, the bars had been forcefully, willfully broken. Even better, shoe-prints stepped through the rift in the fence and into the damp forest floor. They looked like adult-sized shoes; other than that, I couldn’t tell.

I tried to take another picture, but the dumbphone said “Memory full.” Now, when I say dumbphone, I mean every low-intelligence adjective I can use without directly insulting the mentally ill. I tried to go back and delete some extra bathroom-mirror tattoo selfies, but the image gallery WOULD. NOT. LOAD. The hourglass icon wasn’t even functional enough to spin. I pressed every possible button – I even tried turning off the phone – but the screen stayed frozen. I jammed my phone into my pocket and muttered some incoherent curses. It was getting dark.

At this point, the sane thing would’ve been to turn back. But I’ve always given zero fucks as to what a sane person might do, and I had no desire to break that streak. Was I doing anything illegal? No – the sign on the gate read, “No trespassing from sunset to sunrise;” but I could argue that it only applied to the area within the fence. Also, the sun still glared red through the treetops to the west; technically it hadn’t even set yet. So, without much caution, I passed through the broken fence into the growing near-dusk shadows.

Nothing seemed strange, at first. The forest made small, chirping noises, paired with lonely last-call bird sounds as the sun went down. If anything was off at all, it was the total lack of human debris. Maybe conventional hiking-trail litter didn’t reach this far into the woods.

The tracks kept going, mostly in a straight line. Whoever made them wasn’t lost. Maybe I should’ve broken off a rusted bar for myself, in case I needed to kill someone in self-defense. I didn’t want to trudge back through the mud, though; it was already ankle-deep, and soaking into my socks. No, if I met anyone at the end of this crude trail, I hoped they’d be either nice or weak or dead.

Soon the path became more and more muddled, blurred by fallen leaves and small animal tracks. As the footprints sank into obscurity, though, a set of wheel-grooves appeared. For a startling moment I thought a grown person had been following a tricycle – and that couldn’t possibly end well – but what kind of a kid would ride a tricycle this deep into the woods? Again, if that question had an answer, it wasn’t a good one.

As I followed more closely, though, it didn’t look like tricycle tracks. It looked like cart marks. The broken brambles and snapped twigs underneath seemed consistent with a large, heavy object. Of course, a cart could only mean one thing. Park Lady had been here, I was closer to finding her; but why did I feel like I should have been afraid?

Let me explain something, before I go further; I rarely actually get scared. Usually I get vague hints from my environment that I should be scared, that I should use caution. It’s the same sense that tells me when I should act friendly around other people; or sad, or concerned, or pissed-off; even when I’m not exactly feeling those things. That same dull impulse, probably from somewhere in the stem of my brain, was strongly urging me to really be afraid now.

For some reason I kept going; maybe I just found this more interesting than anything else I could be doing. I followed the tracks even further, until the orange in the sky turned to ghostly pinkish-lavender. Shadows of trees stretched further now, holding darker secrets. My own shadow was this sickly Giacometti-looking thing that writhed and twisted on the ground; I liked it, actually. As I stretched my arms to see how far my distorted reach would go, I spotted something. A few yards ahead, obscured by leafless branches, was the wide metal basket of a cart. Its angle barely caught the last of the fading sunlight; as I walked closer it burned floating bright grid-marks into everything I saw.

It wasn’t just one cart; it was four carts, tethered to a tree by rope and chain. Three of them were filled to the brim with all manner of garbage: wrappers, plastic bags, styrofoam cups; nothing recyclable, though, I noted. The fourth had only been half-filled. A few dead animals probably rotted in the mess, judging by the flies swarming and the God-awful smell.

I desperately hoped I’d get a picture of this, but my phone had died by now. No amount of button-pressing or useless shaking could brighten that dark screen. If I were an angrier person, I would have chucked it into the garbage heap with the rest of the human refuse; but that would’ve accomplished nothing. I still regret not getting a picture though. Four carts tied to a tree in the middle of the woods, festering there for God-knows how long … It was fucked up.

Then I caught the scent of something like roadkill, only worse. It didn’t surprise me in the least when I found Park Lady – sorry, Glenda – just a few yards away, dead. Her body lay back against a tree, and she wore dirt-caked sensible shoes. At that point I really wished I had a working camera.

Now, unlike most Americans, I know that watching a TV show about something does not automatically make you an expert on the subject. I’ve probably seen every episode of Bones to date, but I still have no professional knowledge of human decomposition. From what I could tell, though, she’d been dead for a while. Her face looked deflated; her eyes sank back into bruise-colored pits. The discolored spots that ate her skin from the inside out could’ve been insects or bacteria, I’m not sure. Her arms hung loose from her depressed shoulders, palms upturned as if she’d just let go of something. That probably had something to do with the crusted black lines down the inside of each wrist – clearly the marks of fatal self-inflicted wounds.

The smell was buried in my throat by now; if I’d eaten anything that day, I would’ve thrown it up. Instead, my stomach growled ravenously, after being fed only coffee and caffeine pills for several hours. I hated that a sight like this made me hungry – I’m a vegetarian, for fuck’s sake.

Something rustled in the leaves nearby, then darted away – probably a squirrel. My heart lurched, now that my senses were heightened, but my other muscles didn’t move. I turned my head around, expecting … anything, really. Yet I only saw shadows so thick they might’ve been alive in the gathering dusk. I glanced back at the remains of Glenda.

What I saw gave me such a bad shock I nearly bit my tongue off.

The corpse’s lips were puckering, like someone about to cry; but she made no sound at all.

I blinked, hoping it was a trick of the ensuing darkness. For some idiotic reason I stepped closer, just to get a better look. I wasn’t imagining it – her lips were slowly moving apart. Then her eyelids, as shriveled as they were, started twitching.

On instinct, I grabbed the first sharp twig I saw. I half-expected to hear a gurgling noise from inside her decaying throat. Did I seriously think this was an episode of The Walking Dead? No, her arms and legs would’ve been writhing by now. So far, the re-animation was confined to just her face.

Even if I could go back and tell my past-self to get the fuck away from there, I doubt I would’ve listened. If I didn’t find out why that dead body’s face was moving, I’d hate myself forever. So, I gritted my teeth and nudged her shoulder with the stick.

Her head tipped back, and her jaw slackened. The movement forced her lips open, and inside her mouth was the most profound darkness I’d ever seen. Then the most unnerving thing possible happened: a spider crawled out.

Every nerve in my body jolted back, and I screamed. Nothing makes me scream these days – unless it’s a spider. This spider was the size of a post-it note, and the way it moved its legs was utterly sickening. It scurried down her chin and into the sunken pit of her neck.

Then the pockets under her eyes burst open. Of course the spider had laid its eggs in there. Hundreds of baby spiders swarmed out, trailing down the wrinkles of her face. Then pus oozed from the eye cavities. I flung the stick toward the trash heap and bolted.

I ran past the carts full of garbage, back up the trail made by Glenda’s footprints when she was still alive. The mud was no longer an issue. Instead, I kept thinking, what was that last thing she ever said to me – something about wanting children of her own? In a way, she was like a surrogate mother now, at least to baby spiders. Maybe she’d gotten her wish after all.

Still, it wasn’t exactly a comforting thought; not after the horrors I’d just seen. Forging a path was more difficult this time around, as night took over both the forest and my senses. I kept imagining spiders would swoop down from the trees and burrow into my hair.

That’s when shit really got weird. As darkness set in, I swear the shadows started moving. I thought I heard girls’ voices in the rustling trees. What were they whispering about? I didn’t want to know. I almost wished I’d pass out, just so the panic would go away – even if it meant I’d never wake up.

At last, I saw the broken black fence up ahead. I’d made it back to the Baby Graveyard – not my first choice for a beacon of hope, so to speak, but I’d take it. Gasping with relief, I ducked between the rusted bars. I feverishly hoped another huge spider wasn’t dangling from the fence, waiting for me. Luckily, that didn’t happen – but something a lot worse did.

I practically tiptoed through the cemetery, careful not to disturb whomever rested there. Although I’d made it through the woods, the shadows were no less ominous. As I neared the gate, I saw that it was locked. I thought my heart would stop. At least, my will to move my feet did. I wondered if I was going to die that night – and if I did, who would be the last person I called?

Even though I knew my phone was dead, I took it out on the cat in hell’s chance it would turn back on. It didn’t. I saw my pale reflection on the black screen and thought, at least my hair looked okay. There was always that.

Then an even paler face showed its reflection right behind me. The mirror image of my eyes grew freakishly wide. My back went rigid, and I slowly, very slowly, put away the phone. The whispering was right behind me now, pricking chills into my neck. Whatever happened, I was definitely going to die. All I could do now was confront the thing; at least I’d know what killed me. I slowly turned around, trying not to look afraid.

A misconception I’ve always had about ghosts was that their eyes are hollow dark spaces. I couldn’t have been more wrong in this case. The pearl-white teenage girl had the realest, most harrowing eyes I’d ever seen. She scowled at me, her hateful glare magnified by her blunt 1920s-era flapper bob. She looked like she hadn’t cried in nearly a century, and desperately wanted to.

Her child made a soft sound, less ghostly than expected. It had bright eyes too; but they glittered with moonlight, untouched by pain. I’d say it looked happy, or pretty damn close. It looked at me and giggled; its hands fiddled with some kind of toy. I noticed it was a darkened razor-blade.

The ghost girl rocked it gently; she breathed a hushing lullaby, and a cold breeze nearly froze my blood. She fixed her eyes on me, and I didn’t look away.

I saw the bare white room she died in, strapped to a gurney; I followed her down hospital halls, with other faceless girls. They had swollen ankles and boney elbows, these underfed young mothers. White-coated figures placed them on rusted bed frames, put them under with whatever anesthesia mask was in vogue that decade. The white gloves turned bright red as they ripped the babies out of fragile young girls. Some of the unborn had their eyes open, but not for long. The ghost girls saw their blood-soaked children hauled away in trash bags. Then the vision ended, and I was staring at the ghost girl’s face again.

“Now you know,” she said; and I did know. I knew what a scary thing a mother’s love can be, once her child has been torn away from her. Until then, she hadn’t spoken to me. Her voice was an anguished howl under the cover-slip of a girl’s voice. She spoke in throat-rending grief, in ageless sorrow.

“Now you know what happened here. Get out, and don’t come back.”

Behind me, the rusted gate groaned open. I took a step back, keeping my eyes on her; I still didn’t trust her. She kissed the sleeping child, and for once, she looked relieved. Tears streamed from her eyes, and she disappeared like moonlight under the shadows of trees.

Which was strange, because there was no moon in the sky that night.

I walked through the gate and didn’t look back. Then I pulled my shoes and socks off – I’d throw them away later, far away from here.

My car was waiting for me down the other side of the hill, right where I parked it. I unlocked my door, after I checked the back seat just to make sure some maniac with a knife wasn’t waiting there; I always did.

Maybe I should’ve called the cops to report Glenda’s death, but my phone was still dead. It would stay dead until I brought it home and charged it. No matter; even if the cops suspected foul play, which they wouldn’t, the coroner wouldn’t bother to dusting one stick in a pile of garbage for fingerprints. Not in an apparent suicide, when the decedent had a history of mental illness.

Besides, the words and images were already alive in my mind. Something as dull and tedious as a police interrogation would interrupt my creative process. No, it couldn’t wait; I needed to write this like I needed to breathe.

After all, I’m a mother too. My stories are my children.

And my children were starving. TC mark

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