The phone rings with the volume of a cathedral bell and the delicate tone of a circular saw. It comes ripping through the still evening air at ten PM, same as last night and the night before. And every time, the darned thing still manages to surprise me.
Still, it’s enough to wake me up-more than enough-and I take a moment to wake up and pretend I wasn’t dreaming up until ten seconds ago.
“Maus Fields Cemetery and Funeral Home-James speaking.”
A voice answers me a bit too loudly-I have to hold the phone away from my ear a bit.
And I can’t quite hide a smile. “Hey there, sport.” He’s gotten cuter as he’s gotten older, I swear. “Is it that time already?”
He laughs at the same old joke, and I laugh with him. We proceed with our nightly ritual, one that even a second job for Dad won’t interrupt. In my supply closet-turned office, twenty miles away, I read my son a story for bedtime. Tonight is Dr. Seuss, a favorite of both of ours.
Times haven’t been easy on our little family. The dog left with the wife, and I can’t say I don’t miss Sheila. My wife had been alright too, sometimes. My apartment was just not going to cut it for miss- I shouldn’t get off on that vein, or we’ll be here all night. My apologies.
Suffice to say that we haven’t been thriving. I’m a reporter, primarily. It’s not always a job that brings in heaps of money. Actually, no, allow me to correct that: It’s never brought in heaps of money. But it’s the craft that I fell in love with way back in high school and if I’m being completely honest with myself, I don’t think I’d rather have any other job. Well, I guess I wouldn’t mind a shot at being an oil baron. “Yes, son, we sure can get a pet giraffe! why not five?”
No, no, wait. You know what job I really love? I love raising the smartest young man in all of Somerset Elementary. Matt’s got the kind of wits I had way back when, and he’s a good kid too. Builds model planes, watches a bit too much TV, gets sick on Halloween candy and pukes on the rug, he’s well-rounded and smart and… And I’m missing nights with him because I didn’t choose a lucrative degree all those years ago. As this crosses my mind, I do my best to keep reading without a waver to my voice. That’s the thing Dad never told me about life. You can either choose your passion or your finances, not both. My ex wife didn’t seem to understand that either.
I finish with Hop on Pop-something Matthew has been advised not to do, though he does it anyways-and he asks me how work is and if I’ve seen any zombies tonight. I remember being his age and thinking that my dad had the coolest job in the world, out there driving a truck across the states. Once, hauling a load of Elmer’s glue, he had been in a terrible wreck on the highway. Veered out of the way of a drunk and demolished the front of his eighteen wheeler against a concrete support beam. And me, little Jimmy Green, asked him why he couldn’t just glue it together and come home. When you’re eight, Dad can do anything.
Matthew thinks that I spend my nights here making sure that the resident stiffs don’t get up to any mischief late at night. I think he’s been watching zombie movies again. He likes those ones, which is funny, because every time he sees an ad for another scary movie he has to sleep in my room for a week. I don’t have the heart to tell him that I’m just the night security guy, seasonal for the months of autumn when high schoolers like to sneak over the fence and hang out among the dull headstones.
“Not yet, big guy, but it’s pretty early still.” He’s quiet, and I can tell that he’s a little bummed. “Though the gates have been swinging all night.”
This time there’s another pause, but it’s laced with thrilled apprehension.
“But dad-there’s no wind tonight!”
“Wish me luck, Matt! I’m off to do my duty!”
“YAY DAD!” I jerk the phone away from my ear again, so I almost miss it when he mumbles out the second part. “Do I still have to go to sleep?”
I have to hold back a chuckle. “Sorry, Matt. But you’ve got school bright and early tomorrow. Just lay down for a bit, ok?”
“Promise. g’night, dad.”
“Night, sport. sleep tight.” I wait for him to hang up. Don’t wanna leave the little guy hanging if he still wants to talk. But even as I think that, I can feel the hollowness in it. Of course he still wants to talk, and here I am in a damp old cemetery til 2 AM. I should be there with him, reading him one last story and making sure he brushes his teeth. I’m beginning to understand my father through being a parent myself. I’ve started to regret being so hard on the old man.
For one thing, he could drive. He’s still got that over me. Last month, I finally managed to pay off the car, a deep blue Mazda with a mismatched hood. It ended up in the shop not two weeks later, spewing fluids from newly crushed tanks. I had managed to hit the only tree on the property. I had been taking the late bus since then, despite warnings from the travel authority not to take the late buses without telling someone first. Muggings were a pretty real factor here In town.
I’ve gotten out of the building now, a dreary old stone thing that the owners have tried (unsuccessfully) to spruce up with renovations. They were going for “stately Georgian style”, but they ended up with “we used a discount contractor style.” Halfway between mausoleum and estate, it’s a beast of its own. Rounded columns of granite sit next to square white beams of wood, celtic stone windows glare at their paned counterparts. It’s really a mess.
The gates I had mentioned to Matthew are indeed swinging, a mystery that would be considerably more terrifying if it weren’t for the busted motor on them. during the day they didn’t act up, but late, when the dew settles on the lenses in the sensor, it tends to get a little off-kilter. I shine my flashlight around, and I’m not quite too old to let my imagination and the fog turn it into a lightsaber. A lightsaber with an inordinate amount of nighttime gnats caught in the beam, specifically.
I make my pass through the yard, wishing I had remembered my gloves. It’s mid-october, and frost has settled on many of the stones. I look at the same names as usual as I go by. O’Mallahew, Bartlesby, Smith, Rath… And I stop.
Because where Rath’s black headstone is supposed to end and Levitz’s should begin, there is nothing, just a space like a lost tooth in between the orderly rows. I shine the flashlight around confusedly. the Levitz plot has a pretty sizeable stone over it. You can’t just run off with that if you’re some teenage punk. And then I shine the light down onto the dirt.
It’s been a painfully dark night tonight. No moon or stars to speak of, overcast and black. The cemetery itself is surrounded on all sides by a thick curtain of tall, rustling pines that block any of the light that local buildings would shed even if they had lights on at this hour, which they don’t. I can hardly see the grass before it crunches underfoot. It’s entirely understandable, then, that I didn’t notice this.
But how will I explain to Mr. Walsharp? He’ll know that I was asleep on my post and I’ll lose this job-And I can’t afford to lose this job. How will I fix the car? What would Dad say?
How will I face Matthew?
Maybe I can explain to Mr. Walsharp that it was dark out, and in the mist someone could potentially go unnoticed as they tore up a grave.
There’s a six-foot deep, roughly rectangular hole in the ground just in front of my feet. The headstone is nowhere to be seen, and the casket-oh god, the casket-is thrown several feet away, the lid torn off and the occupant missing. I’m paid to prevent things like this, and it’s gone and happened under my nose. A cricket chirps somewhere in the darkness. I think he’s laughing at me.
It’s almost an hour before the police arrive. It takes me half that time just to work up the courage to call them. I haven’t called my boss yet. I’m not quite ready to get fired.
The officer takes a statement from me-In which I omit the part about being asleep-before she drives off. She advises me to call if anything odd happens tonight; She tips his hat when I thank her, and she drives off. The noise of her engine fades away into the night along with my plan to save up for Matthew’s new bike. Somewhere beyond the treeline, I can hear the same cricket singing his song.
I spend the rest of my shift staring out at the vandalized grave, at first out on the grass and then inside of the building. I tell myself that the cold has driven me in, but I have to admit that I feel a little scared. Graverobbing isn’t something that I can imagine emotionally balanced non-murderers doing. I ponder this as I’m standing out on the grass and watching the mist waft by, afraid to light my flashlight and make myself a target. Part of me is wishing that the policeman had stayed. My father would be disappointed in me for this.
But really, what could I have done?
If a guy is out to dig up a body and I go outside and tell him to stop, he might go nuts on me. I can probably spin that angle with the boss. I begin a financial plan in my head as I watch the bus approach, yellow headlights boring their way through the mist. The rustling of the pines has intensified now, and it bothers me a bit to hear them do that.
But dad-there’s no wind tonight!
He’s right. There isnt.
The hair on the back of my neck stands straight. I will the bus to come faster, but it’s still a good forty seconds away (Long enough to come get you) and there is someone or something out there capable of hefting a coffin out of a hole six feet down. I feel my pulse quicken. I can’t see very well without the flashlight but god, I don’t want to turn it on.
The bus is getting closer.
I hear movement behind me. I turn and face nothing, not a damn thing but the graves standing like crooked signs. As the bus arrives behind me, I leap aboard and toss the driver my dollar without glancing at him. In a gravelly smoker’s growl, he thanks me.
I sit down just behind the driver and we pull away. out the window, I’m fairly certain that I see a shadowy hump in the yard.
It takes two full minutes before my heart stops racing. All at once, I notice a few things.
First, we’ve just passed a police car crashed in the ditch. The headlights were on and the drivers’ side window was smashed out.
Second, the bus has two other passengers on it. One is slumped down in his seat, and his head is covered by a coat’s hood. But under that he is wearing a half-rotten suit. The other is the policewoman from earlier.
Third, both of these people are very, very dead. A wretched stench rolls off of the decomposed corpse of Levitz, and the officer has her mouth ratcheted open in a jaw-cracking yawn. Her eyes have been gnawed from their sockets.
Fourth, they are absolutely covered in locusts.
We’ve come to a field. This is not the route home. I dare not scream.
The driver turns around and chitters at me, mandibles clicking. He shrugs off the bus driver’s coat and gives me a full view of his exoskeleton, his six arms that end in monstrously humanoid hands, and the small cloud of insects that cling to him.And I swear to god, he’s laughing.