Drops of rain splattered on the headstone. Carol wiped them away with one slow caress. She smiled. This one felt right.
“An elegant choice,” said the gaunt man behind her. “And moderately priced.”
She could feel him looming over her shoulder. The way he held his hands reminded her of a praying mantis. He wore his suit off the rack, and too big.
It was the first cold day of October. Grey clouds hung low in the sky, dripping now and again. A light breeze tousled Carol’s damp locks. She wiped her hands on her jeans, then sank her fists into her jacket pockets and pulled it tight around her.
“I’ll take it,” she said.
The mantis nodded. No other piece of him moved. When the solemn moment passed, he cleared his throat, asked delicately, “Shall we discuss caskets?”
Carol shook her head. “Let’s talk shovels.”
The mantis stared, motionless. Blinked. Shot his tongue out and retracted it. He looked as if he might leap.
“Do you sell them?” Carol asked.
The mantis rotated his head to one side, then back to center. “I do not.”
Carol turned back to the stone. She squatted in front of the pink granite and placed her fingertips against it. If she held her head just right, she could almost make out her own reflection. She considered the inscription, and began to write invisible words with her finger.
“Shall we discuss delivery?” asked the mantis.
“Here is fine,” said Carol.
She wondered how long it would take for him to speak again. She began to count … one one-thousand, two one-thousand…
At six one-thousand, he said, “Come again?”
“I like this space,” she patted the grass. “Here.”
The mantis twiddled his thumbs. The sole indicator that there might be some confusion.
Maintaining eye contact, Carol pulled a pen from her purse and wrote on an orange post-it. She handed the post-it to the mantis and said, “Send it here.”
The mantis clipped his spindly fingers onto the note. A moment later, he flicked his eyes down to read it.
“I don’t recognize this home.”
Carol rose from her squat and said, “It’s my home.”
A gust of wind shook the trees, rattling dead leaves. They floated down and skittered across the grass.
“Madam, this is … not customary,” said the mantis, his suit ballooning to the left of his still frame.
Carol crossed her arms. She uncrossed to tuck her hair behind an ear. She re-crossed, and said, “Shall we discuss the inscription?”
The mantis cocked his head, then straightened it.
Carol clicked her pen and wrote another post-it.
* * *
The headstone arrived at her home on Wednesday. Carol asked the young man who delivered it to set it behind the hole she’d dug in the front yard. The young man commented that the casket down there looked so real. Carol said nothing. When the stone was in place, she thanked the young man and handed him a fifty dollar bill. She said that if he were to come back tomorrow to fill in the hole, she’d give him a hundred.
The young man looked down at the fifty, then back up at Carol.
She said, “I’ll leave the shovel out.”
After thinking about it, the young man pinched the fifty between his fingers and pulled it slowly towards him.
* * *
That night, Carol had a bath. She put on pajamas. She filled the feeding contraption for the cat, perhaps too much, then poured a glass of Chardonnay. She slipped her feet into slippers and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders. She turned off the lights and shut the front door behind her.
At the edge of the hole, she sat, dangling her feet inside. The wall of earth felt cool against her calves. Moonlight illuminated the casket and stone. She sipped her wine.
Forty-seven minutes later, she eased herself down into the hole. She slid her arms across the polished surface of the casket, the silk of her pajamas sliding smoothly. When she held her head just right, she could almost see her reflection.
She taped the envelope with the hundred to the top of the casket, and rubbed the tape with her fingernail to make it clear.
She raised the lid. She got inside. It was as soft as any bed, and so comfortable. She took one last look at the stars, then grabbed the lid and pulled it closed.
* * *
Weeks later, after everyone had taken down their decorations, the neighbors were gathered outside. Someone asked if anyone had seen Carol lately.
Mr. Evans, from two houses down, was the first to venture up to the realistic-looking grave in her front yard and actually read the inscription on the headstone.
It said Here lies Carol. Not a moment too soon.
Mr. Evans covered his mouth with his hand, turned to the neighbors.