Live in the glamorous heart of Hollywood! Spacious bachelor studio. Shared utilities in a growing community. Close to nature with stunning natural light. Won’t last long!
Jeff’s holding his phone across the coffeeshop table for me to read the listing.
“Bachelor studio?” I squint at the screen, taking a sip of cold brew.
“Spacious bachelor studio!” he responds. “And we definitely can’t afford a one bedroom, so we’ll just have to get cozy.” He scoots around the table to join me in the booth seat, draping an arm over my shoulder as I get a big whiff of his musky stink. I actually found those earthy vibes attractive when we first met, but now I scan his scraggly beard before every kiss, searching for smears of almond butter from those little pouches he sucks down on daily hikes.
I wiggle from under Jeff’s arm and take his phone, scrolling through the Craigslist post. “There aren’t even any pictures.”
“That’s why we gotta go see it in person, Lena. The location is prime, and look at that price.”
Price is everything for us right now. We probably wouldn’t have even splurged on the large cold brew if I didn’t get free employee upgrades. Then again, free doesn’t really feel free when my boss is glaring at me over the top of the espresso machine for taking up precious table space after my shift.
“There have to be some better options out there,” I insist.
“The market is fucked right now, babe.” Jeff takes the coffee from me, popping the plastic lid to double-gulp the last two inches of black nectar. Guess no more for me then. “Rents are so jacked up that anything remotely affordable is getting snatched up quick. You remember the backhouse in Burbank we messaged last night?”
“Yeah?” It was more of a garage than a house, but I would kill to have four walls that weren’t connected to neighboring apartments with their barking dogs and screaming children.
“They messaged back saying someone signed a lease three hours after they posted it.”
“Shit. How long has this place been up?” I look back at the pictureless mystery posting.
“Two hours, and the realtor is already on site showing it to potential tenants. We can make it there in thirty minutes if we hoof it.”
“Can’t we take your van? It’s so hot out.” I reach for the plastic cup to tip a few ice cubes into my mouth. One of them clatters off my lips to the floor, crunching under the foot of a passing patron. I can hear my boss huffing over the screaming espresso machine as I shrink from her gaze.
“Between traffic and parking, it’ll be a wash. Besides, we can’t afford the gas.” Jeff stands and slides into his Osprey backpack, bursting at the seams with every shred of clothing he owns.
My boss is rounding the counter like a bull now as I jump to Jeff’s side. “Okay, let’s go.”
Sweat drips down my back as we trek down Santa Monica Boulevard past The Virgil, the bar where Jeff and I first met. I was doing standup at an open mic night, bombing in front of a full house. Luckily, nobody was listening. They were all too busy trying to get laid at the bar in back, which is where Jeff caught me drowning my sorrows after my set.
“You’re actually pretty funny,” he said, and that half-assed compliment was enough for my desperate drunk ass to grab him by his backpack straps and pull him in for a kiss.
The next morning, we had a delayed “getting to know you” chat lying naked in bed. Turns out we’d both just landed in LA a couple months earlier, and even though we weren’t admitting it to each other out loud, it was clear that we were both pretty lost and lonely. Jeff came here to be a musician, but had so far been rebuffed by the “bullshit corporate music complex.” He was living out of his van, committed to the starving artist act, but it didn’t take long before he started spending every night at my place. Well, not my place, but the room I rented from a random housemate. She was getting aggressively passive aggressive about that distinction, frequently requesting a “house meeting” that I dodged as long as I could, until new management bought the building and bumped up the rent. I couldn’t afford my share anymore on coffeeshop paychecks, and Jeff’s dumpster-diving wasn’t exactly subsidizing our new life together.
So here we are now, moving in after three months of dating because neither of us can afford to live alone.
Tents crowd the sidewalk as we weave down the street, and my gut churns as I realize we’re not far off from joining the growing ranks of unhoused folks this city has abandoned. Multi-million-dollar-home owners would rather complain about the “eyesore” than buy a breakfast burrito for a human being in need.
I bump into Jeff’s back when he stops suddenly to double-check his phone. “Huh,” he says. “Looks like we’re here.”
The black iron gate of Hollywood Forever Cemetery looms above us. “Very funny.”
“Are you my two o’clock?” A voice calls from the other side of the gate as a woman in a chic gray pantsuit rushes toward us.
“Cindy?” Jeff asks.
“Yes, yes,” she says, creaking the gate open. “It’s a bit of a walk to the unit, a very scenic walk, but we better get moving.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, frozen in place. “But we’re here to look at an apartment?”
“A recently rezoned dwelling, yes.” She says it with a flavor of ‘you idiot’ that I’ve only ever tasted in LA. Before I can ask any more questions, Cindy’s striding along the paved road into the cemetery. Jeff turns to me with a shrug and a “Maybe it’s a shortcut” before following in the realtor’s footsteps, and now I’m hustling to catch up, physically and mentally.
“Look!” Jeff points through the rows of gaudy headstones to a statue of a guitarist wailing on his ax. “Johnny fucking Ramone!”
He has to be right. Not about Johnny Ramone (I mean, maybe about Johnny Ramone), but about this being a shortcut. I can see the top of an old warehouse on the other side of the cemetery. Buildings like those have been getting chopped up and converted into apartments all over town. Maybe we’re getting in on the ground floor of some hip new lofts. Rent controlled, asbestos probably less so, but there’s no way the place is actually inside the cemetery. That’s what I’m telling myself when Cindy stops at the large mausoleum and starts appraising it with a saleswoman’s charm.
“Notice the marble walls. Very rare, very expensive.” She uses a big rusty key to open the iron door.
“You’re not actually renting a mausoleum, right?” I start looking around for hidden cameras, waiting for some C-list celebrity to pop out and reveal the televised bit.
“The property owners are repurposing their investment for new tenants, yes.” Cindy is annoyed now, which seems to be her underlying wavelength, but she’s no longer trying to hide it for our sake as she huffs. “Didn’t you see the photos?”
“There weren’t any on Craigslist,” Jeff says.
“My fucking intern.” Cindy pinches the bridge of her nose, then pops a loose pill from her blazer pocket, dry swallowing in the midday heat. “Okay, well, if this isn’t what you’re looking for, then let’s not waste each other’s time.” She checks her diamond-crusted watch, which definitely costs more than I make in a year.
“New neighbors?” someone asks over our shoulders.
I turn toward the mausoleum across the path, where a crunchy granola couple sits on camping chairs, mixing powdered coffee into hot water from their JetBoil backpacking stove.
“Someone will be,” Cindy responds. “By end of day, for sure.”
“You guys like living here?” Jeff crosses the path toward them.
“Oh, it’s the best.” Granola Guy reaches into his pocket for, dear God, a granola bar. “We were camped up in Buckhorn for a few months, but the bugs this time of year...”
“The worst!” Jeff says. “But man, do I love Buckhorn. Been trying to drag her ass up Angeles Crest ever since we met.”
My head is still spinning as I say out loud to everyone, to anyone who will answer me: “Just to be clear. . . people are living in cemeteries now.”
“Best decision we ever made,” Granola Girl smiles, scratching her dreadlocked hair.
“You’ve heard of tiny houses, right?” Cindy interjects, sliding into a practiced pitch. “Mauso-living is just the next step for people who want to live a bit more rugged and unplugged. No electricity, but then no electricity bill either. You’ll share a bathroom with the grounds maintenance crew, and there are several gardening spigots on the property for drinking water.”
“Where would we shower?” I ask.
I wasn’t asking Jeff, but he answers anyway. “Hollywood Boulders is literally across the street, babe. They’ve got showers, sauna. . .”
“You climb?” Granola Guy asks.
“You know it,” Jeff responds with a fist bump, and I’m climbing out of my skin now.
I can’t believe I even have to say it, but “I don’t think this is what we’re looking for.”
“I mean, we’re here,” Jeff shrugs. “Might as well have a peek inside, right?”
“Great!” Cindy says before I can respond. She pulls the heavy iron door open, and we cross the threshold into a deceptively spacious room.
My eyes are instantly drawn to the large stained-glass window, featuring the comedy and tragedy masks in all their smiley frowny glory. Sunlight blazes through, sending a vibrant pattern of red and gold and blue all over the bright marble floor. It’s so viscerally striking that a “Wow” escapes my lips despite myself.
“Stunning natural light,” Cindy grins, reciting her posting with pride.
I shiver with a chill, and Cindy clocks it.
“You won’t need air conditioning. These walls keep the cold in during the summer and out during the winter.”
My attention can no longer be diverted from the elephant in the room. A large coffin-shaped crypt extends from the far wall, creating a horseshoe shape of usable space around it.
“I assume the body has been removed?” I ask with undue hope.
“I’m afraid that’s not possible, legally, but you two lucked out because this one’s famous!” She points to the plaque on the wall with a black-and-white photo of the dead man. “Lance Ballard.”
“The Lance Ballard?” I rush toward the photo.
“Who’s that?” Jeff asks.
“A comedic genius from the ‘30s.” I smile at the devilishly handsome actor with his dapper side-part and clean-shaven jawline. “My dad’s favorite.”
I used to visit Dad in the nursing home every night for Turner Classic Movies and mint chip ice cream. He remembered the actors’ names long after he forgot mine, and Lance Ballard never failed to turn Dad’s blank expression into a big grin. Ballard’s screwball antics were peak physical comedy, and his witty repartee with leading ladies made him one hell of a charmer. After Dad died and all the medical debts were paid, there was only a few thousand dollars left in his account. I used that tiny nest egg to move to LA and pursue my comedy dream, because I knew that’s what he would’ve wanted for me. He always said I had a gift for making people—
A screeching guitar pulls me back to earth, and I turn to find Jeff holding his blaring phone up toward the vaulted ceilings. “Acoustics are amazing! I could totally record in here. Something stripped and raw, like Bon Iver, before he sold out.”
“Speaking of music,” Cindy says, “I’m sure you know that Hollywood Forever is a popular venue for concerts, movie screenings, all sorts of events. And residents get free access to everything.”
“No way!” Jeff turns to me. “You remember when we saw Lord Huron here last summer? Tickets were like fifty bucks a pop.”
“I remember.” I remember thinking ‘Why would anybody want to go to a concert in a cemetery?’ but that seems like a dumb question when compared to ‘Why would anybody want to live in a cemetery?’
“Deposit is first and last with a six-month lease to start,” Cindy explains. “No pets allowed, I’m afraid. They don’t want any. . . desecration of the graves.”
“Ah, yes,” I quip. “Desecration by defecation.”
A literal cricket chirps somewhere in the room as Cindy checks her watch again. “I’ve got a two-fifteen showing, so. . .”
“Can you just give us one minute?” Jeff asks. Cindy reluctantly steps outside as Jeff takes my hands. “Lena. This place is amazing.”
“Jeff. This place is a tomb.”
“For one of your favorite comedians! Don’t you think that’s a sign? I mean, it’s Lance fucking Mallard!”
“Exactly. Six months is a shorter commitment than we’re gonna find anywhere else. And at this price, we know we can actually afford it for that long. If we stretch ourselves into a lease we can’t cover, that’s our asses on the sidewalk with an eviction on our records.”
I sigh, knowing he’s right. I hate it when he’s right, but I hate it even more that he punctuates it with, “Can you please just try to be openminded?”
It’s the same line he used when he tried talking me into a threesome with some tattooed poly girl he met top roping at the gym. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now. But as the light sparkles through that stained glass, I tell myself that I’m making this decision for me, not for Jeff. Saving money on rent means I can put more time into workshopping my material. I can focus on my dream and make Dad proud.
“Okay, fine,” I say. “But I’m not cleaning this place. We’ll have to hire a cryptkeeper.”
Jeff ignores the joke, slapping me on the shoulder. “Awesome!” He turns and pushes the rusty door open. “Cindy! We’ll take it!”
I look toward the photograph of Lance Ballard in his three-piece suit. “Tough crowd.”
Lance winks in response.
Or at least it looks like he winks. Must be the strange light playing tricks with my eyes. A full-bodied chill ripples through me, and I step back outside to let the LA heat warm my bones.
I have to sell a bunch of stuff on Craigslist to downsize into the new space, but I don’t think I’ll miss any of it. It’s actually pretty damn freeing, and makes move-in day a breeze. We use the extra cash to buy a twin bed (the only size that will fit on one side of the horseshoe), and even then, we need to prop it up against the wall during the day to make full use of the space. We can’t hang anything from the stone walls, but I wouldn’t want to anyway. The swirling marble is so gorgeous, it’s like living inside a work of art.
I drape a yellow tablecloth over the rectangular crypt, turning it into our multipurpose dining room table. It’s not so bad, if you can manage to forget about the dead man you’re eating on top of. Jeff cooks us a celebratory first dinner in our new home: Beef Stroganov from a freeze-dried pouch, courtesy of Backpacker’s Pantry. Just add hot water.
“It’s the best one,” he promises, “even better than their Pad Thai.”
As we finish downing the mushy noodles from our tin cups, Jeff sparks a joint.
“Can you take that outside?” I ask.
“Why?” he exhales.
“Because there’s no ventilation in here, and I’ve been burning these candles all day to make it smell nice.” I motion around to the built-in wall sconces, and every scented candle flickers with a gothic glow.
“Fine.” Jeff sighs dramatically, tossing his cup on the table before taking his smoke outside. I shake my head at the stroganoff splashed on the tablecloth.
“Sorry about him,” I say toward Lance Ballard’s photo. I’m cleaning up Jeff’s mess when a familiar silky voice echoes off the marble walls.
“Talk about a wet noodle.”
My head snaps toward Lance’s photograph, which is frozen, of course, because it’s a photograph. But that was his voice, right? I step a little closer, leaning in, waiting for those soft lips to move.
“Hey.” Jeff’s voice startles me as I spin to find him back in the doorway. “Neil just texted that he’s at Davey Wayne’s, so I’m gonna meet him for a drink. Probably be back late.”
“Okay.” I rub my head, feeling woozy. Maybe those vanilla candles weren’t such a good idea after all. “I think I need to sleep anyway.”
“Cool.” Jeff leaves as I drop the mattress to the floor and curl up alone. I hope.
I dream of Lance Ballard.
We’re dancing in an empty ballroom, everything black and white. No music, no talking. Just staring into each other’s eyes. Smiling and swaying.
I can’t help but feel disappointed when I wake up the next day to Jeff, snoring beside me. Crawling off the mattress, I slip out of the mausoleum, out of the cemetery, into the real world.
It’s a long day at the coffeeshop, an endless stream of entitled customers complaining about alternative milks. But whenever I get overwhelmed, I close my eyes and go back to that ballroom, if only for a breath.
Back to Lance’s arms.
When my shift finally ends, all I want to do is sleep. But when I get home, I find Jeff chatting with our granola neighbors, setting up a camping stove outside their mausoleum.
“Devon and Maya are throwing us a little ‘welcome to the neighborhood’ barbecue,” Jeff explains, pouring himself a drink from their tequila bottle.
“That’s really thoughtful,” I say, hoping it sounds genuine, because it is. I’m just tired.
Maya reaches for my hand. “Let’s you and I go for a walk. I can’t spend another minute listening to these two geek out over backpacking hacks.”
We stroll among the headstones, sharing all the hopes and dreams that brought us to the City of Angels, and I’m really starting to like Maya. Especially when she finally admits: “It’s weird, right? Living in a cemetery?”
“So weird! Thank you for saying it.”
“It’s just social conditioning, though. Society feels more comfortable separating death from life, keeping it boxed away, out of sight. But the truth is, death is just a natural part of the life cycle.” She bends down and picks a pretty orange flower, handing it to me. “So why not live accordingly?”
“I guess that makes sense. But do you ever feel like it’s. . . disrespectful?”
“I like to think they enjoy the company.” Her fingers graze a tall headstone as we pass. “Cemeteries were invented to honor the dead, right? But wouldn’t filling this place with new life be the greatest honor? We have a chance to build an intentional community here. One big family, sharing resources, like it was always meant to be.” She motions toward the wrought iron fence surrounding the property. “The world beyond those gates? The capitalist insanity that pushes people out when they can’t afford to live? We’ll wonder how we could have ever lived like that.”
Birds tweet above, drawing my eyes up to the canopy of trees that create a dense
green shield against the smog of the city.
“I guess I could get used to this,” I say, breathing fresh air.
My steps feel lighter as we stroll back to find Devon pulling the carne asada off the grill top. Jeff wobbles beside him, tequila-drunk and useless.
“Babe!” he shouts. “We gotta get a stove like this!”
Devon winces at Jeff’s grating voice. It’s clear that their initial bonding has given way to Devon’s realization that his new friend might actually be profoundly obnoxious.
“Can you keep your voice down?” I ask.
“Why?” Jeff slurs. “You worried I’ll wake the dead?” A snorting laugh follows.
“That’s not funny,” I say.
“Oh, and you’re the expert, I forgot.” He turns to our very patient neighbors. “We’re in the presence of a professional comedian, you guys.”
I bite my tongue at the patronizing tone while Devon kindly tries to salvage the conversation. “That’s really cool, Lena. We’d love to come see you—”
“I gotta piss,” Jeff proclaims, crossing the path and stepping behind our mausoleum. The sound of liquid splashing against marble fills the air, and I can’t believe he’s actually pissing on our home.
“Jeff!” I call, flush with embarrassment. “The bathroom is a two-minute walk!”
“Couldn’t hold it!” he yells back.
Devon and Maya give me a look I know all too well. It’s the “you poor girl” look. God, am I tired of that one. Normally, I’d offer a jokey “boys will be boys” eyeroll at Jeff’s shitty behavior, but I’m done excusing it, done defending him as he stumbles back to the group.
“I’m starving!” Jeff says, digging his unwashed hands into the pile of tortillas.
I can’t sleep.
I’m seething at the foot of the bed with Jeff passed out drunk behind me. I finally found my place, my family in this lonely city, and he’s ruining it. He ruins everything.
Stone grinds against stone, and I must be sleeping, must be dreaming, because when I turn toward the sound, I see the crypt lid sliding open, further and further, until the movement stops, and my breath stops with it.
Lance Ballard springs to his feet like a jack-in-the-coffin, and I scramble backwards against the marble wall. It’s not the Lance from the photo or the films or my dream, though. It’s a very-much-dead Lance. Maggots dribble from a rotten grin, bouncing off his tattered three-piece suit as he gives a cordial bow in my direction.
Jeff is still passed out cold as Lance reaches over the crypt, bony hands latching onto Jeff’s ankles. He snorts awake and squints into the empty eye sockets of the zombified comedian. “What the fuck?”
“I’ve got a bone to pick with you, old sport,” Lance quips. His loose jaw hangs open as he feeds Jeff’s bare feet into his mouth.
“WHAT THE FUCK?!” Jeff flips onto his stomach, pawing at the sheets as he’s pulled knee-deep into Lance’s gaping maw. “Lena! Lena, help!”
Jeff’s swiping at the air toward me, but I’m not helping. I’m too busy smiling as Lance keeps swallowing. Jeff is up to his waist in the dead man’s impossibly deep gullet, and I’m laughing my ass off now, tears streaming down my cheeks as Jeff’s arms flail.
He’s devoured up to his shoulders when sheer panic softens into desperation.
“Lena. . . Please. . .”
But I feel no sympathy, only glee, as Lance wraps his skeletal fingers around Jeff’s stupid face, pressing it out of sight behind blackened teeth. All that’s left now is Jeff’s hand, flapping out of Lance’s mouth as I lift mine to wave goodbye. A final gulp from Lance sends the last of Jeff into whatever endless abyss lurks within the corpse’s chest.
Lance plucks a browning handkerchief from his breast pocket, dabbing his long-gone lips before cocking his head toward me. “I’m afraid you have terrible taste in men, my dear.”
“Don’t I know it,” I reply. White moonlight radiates through the stained-glass window, those comedy and tragedy masks burning bright behind the undead gentleman.
“You’ve had a long day,” he says, extending a hand toward me. “Come now. To sleep, perchance to dream.” I place my hand in his bony grip and climb into the crypt, where the curtains close over my eyes.
When I wake up in the morning light, Jeff isn’t in bed beside me.
Because I’m not in the bed. I’m in the open crypt, spooning Lance Ballard’s lifeless corpse.
I should panic. I should jump out of the dusty tomb and call for my boyfriend, desperate to make some sense of what happened last night. But I don’t do any of that. I just squeeze Lance tighter in a rib-cracking embrace, knowing in my gut that it wasn’t a nightmare.
It was a dream come true.
A knock at the iron door brings me to my feet. When I creak it open, Maya waits on the other side, a concerned look on her face.
“Hi, sorry to bother you, it’s just. . . We heard some things last night and. . .” My heart catches in my chest as Maya leans in to whisper. “Was Jeff screaming at you?”
I take a deep breath before lowering my voice to match hers. “Yeah, um. The truth is, Jeff and I. . . well, I don’t think we’re gonna last.”
“Okay,” Maya nods with understanding, peering over my shoulder as I casually slide to block her view. Her voice goes even quieter. “Is he in there?”
“Do you want to get out of the house, come for a walk with us?”
I nod. “Just let me put my shoes on.”
I shut the door and let that big breath go. Pushing the crypt lid back into place is actually easier than it looks, and when it’s finally sealed with the bright yellow tablecloth draped over it, I look around at my new home. It suddenly feels incredibly spacious.
“Thanks, old sport,” I say with a wink toward Lance’s portrait.
This time, I’m sure he winks back.
When I step outside, Devon is just leaving their mausoleum to join Maya on the path.
“Jeff coming with us?” he asks.
“No,” Maya affirms, and Devon is visibly relieved.
“Jeff got wasted last night,” I say. “May he rest in peace.”
I laugh at my own joke. My new friends turn to each other, unsure if they should join at first, but they can’t seem to help it. We’re all laughing now because I’m more than “actually pretty funny.”
I’m fucking hilarious.
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Brian McAuley is a WGA screenwriter whose produced credits range from family sitcoms to horror films. His debut novel Curse of the Reaper was published by Talos Press. His short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Dark Matter Magazine and Nightmare Magazine. Brian received his MFA in Screenwriting from Columbia University. He currently lives and teaches in Los Angeles.
Copyright ©2022 by Brian McAuley.
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