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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"Grave Digger" from "Ten Little Terrors" by Timothy Whitcher, Kindle Edition


Daniel pulled the near-new Ford pickup into the drive of the modest ranch style home and waited. He didn’t bother tooting the horn. His brother Gabriel would know he was there, like every workday morning. He surveyed the front lawn in mild disgust. Plastic toys lay abandoned for days by Gabe’s two girls. The yard more weeds than grass, needed mowing. It was embarrassing. At least Gabe’s wife June kept the house neat and the girls behaved. Just as Daniel was about to lose his temper, Gabriel made his appearance. With one hand holding open the aluminum screen door and the other holding the knob of the front door, Gabriel obediently took instructions from June; his pudgy six-foot frame towering over her petite stature. Just as Daniel was about to toot the horn out of impatience, Gabriel leaned in for the kiss. Daniel shook his head as he read his brother’s lips: ‘I love you.’ This scenario played out the same nearly every day, but this morning it annoyed him more than usual.

Gabriel lumbered around the back of the pickup, opened the passenger side and hoisted himself into the cloying warmth of the cab. Daniel looked at him hard, and though not the first time, thought of looking into a funhouse mirror. Gabriel was Daniel’s identical twin, however, where Daniel was fit and trim, somewhere along the line in thirty years Gabriel had put on an additional fifty pounds. Where Daniel still had his hair, Gabriel’s had decided to recede with a vengeance a la Richard Nixon. Gabe’s wardrobe was a mix of old and new: old blue-jeans stained near black in spots from hydraulic fluid, plaid shirt repaired with patches at the elbows, brand new tan leather high-top work boots bought by Daniel himself as a belated birthday gift; as opposed to Daniel’s neatly matching denim work shirt, pants and jacket, finished off with new work boots, kin to the ones his brother wore, the second half of a two for one sale. To top it off, Daniel thought, Gabriel wore a dirty, blue nylon down vest.

“Morning, Danny.”

“Sure is.”

Daniel powered down the window despite the cool damp air, letting the rush of the wind fill in for idle conversation. He was put off this morning and really didn’t give a damn to hear what his brother had to say, which usually wasn’t much anyway. Within minutes they were pulling into the gated drive of Pine Woods Cemetery, the largest cemetery in their sleepy little town. Daniel was careful to stay on the narrow asphalt path that wended its way through the myriad of grave markers, many well over a century old, as the ground was as wet as a sponge from the heavy spring rains. Daniel sighed as Gabriel droned on about nothing; Daniel guessed just satisfied to hear himself talk.

Gabriel’s diatribe of last night’s reality TV show came to an abrupt halt as the tranquil view yielded to chaos. At least a dozen headstones had been toppled in the oldest section of the graveyard. Daniel cursed, Gabriel gaped in silence as they looked over the carnage. This was the third time in so many months that vandals had struck. It had been Daniel’s fantasy to catch them in the act and beat them to a bloody pulp and he felt he’d been denied the opportunity once again.

“Damn, brother. This is all we need. It’ll take a good day’s work to reset these. At least it’s not the newer ones. People get real up in arms when it’s the newer ones. As if the poor bastards in the old graves aren’t just as dead,” said Daniel.

“Geez o’ Pete, they’re all worthy of respect, Danny,” said Gabriel, quietly.

“Respect. Respect’s for the living, Gabe. And few of the living get my respect.”

Gabriel kept silent. He could feel his brother’s anger simmering just below the surface.

“So, we’re finishing up the Winkler plot, right?” Gabriel said, as if his brother needed reminding.

“Yeah, genius. Better get to it. Calls for rain this afternoon. Goddamn, ground’s wet enough already. Rained nearly every frigging day the last two weeks. River gets much higher, it’ll be pulling vaults from the bank.”

It had happened before. Burial vaults pulled out from the eroding shoreline. Some graves so old that their caskets had rotted to nothing, earth stained skulls and bones having to be retrieved from the Pine River, and then cremated. That was a job that Daniel knew he’d assign to Gabe, when or if the time came.

     Daniel brought the lumbering pick up to a stop just past a stand of pine trees, which revealed the plot they would be digging. The day before they’d had just enough time to measure the plot, lay out plywood sheeting, remove sod, cover the sod with tarp and move the Cat backhoe into place before the sky let loose; a torrential rain driving them from the site. Daniel had stewed all the way to Gabe’s, while Gabe spoke with pride about attending his twin daughter’s dance recital that evening, totally oblivious to his brother’s agitated state. Daniel had spent the night drinking in his extravagant yet lonely home set deep in the countryside, cursing the weather. Well, today wasn’t going to be a pleasant day either, Daniel thought, but damn it all to hell, he was going to get the job done. The deceased in the cement vault sat waiting for its internment on plywood sheeting, the family already deprived of a proper funeral. If that wasn’t bad enough, the vault was vulnerable to vandalism and they’d been lucky that the vandals hadn’t noticed it last night. Daniel guessed that the stand of pines must’ve hid the vault from sight. It would’ve been pretty hard dealing with the City Commisioner if they’d found it desecrated this morning.

Daniel fired up the Cat and began digging as Gabe stood to the side, shovel at the ready to keep the growing pile of earth spread neatly on the plywood, as always. He never ran the backhoe. Danny had always been too impatient to show him how. Gabe was glad. He knew if anything were to go wrong with it, he’d be blamed, somehow. Daniel hollered at Gabe every so often, with increasing agitation, for Gabe to stay off the grass; Gabe’s boots damaging the muddy turf. Gabe was doing all he could not to. He could never understand why his brother always had to be so critical of him, to lose his temper. The weather wasn’t his fault, and he wanted the job done as much as Danny did. Gabe hoped that no one from the deceased’s family would show up. He knew it would be up to him to be the level-headed one. The diplomatic one. If they were to show up, Gabe hoped Danny could control his anger. At least Danny was sober today.

“Gabe! Don’t make me tell you again! Keep off that goddamned grass!” bellowed Daniel from the backhoe.

Gabe gave him a weary look.

“Let me measure Danny,” called Gabe.

He measured the hole for depth. Two feet to go. Now came the hard part. Gabe knew they’d need to dig the rest by hand. If they tried to dig further with the Cat, it was possible that the lip of the hole would collapse due to the dampness of the soil.

“Four feet,” said Gabe.

“Measure it over. I’m not getting back on this thing again.”

“Four feet, four inches, okay?”

Without another word, Daniel jumped off the backhoe, slipping and tearing a deep three-foot-long gouge into the muddy lawn.

Gabe watched with neutral expression as Danny’s face became redder and redder; Gabe looking away as his twin brother flew into a rage, expletives flying thick as mosquitos in July. He’d heard it all before and was just grateful that it wasn’t aimed at him. Gabe was just as grateful that his twin girls weren’t here for the barrage, like they had been Easter Sunday. After five minutes of tirade, Danny suddenly stopped, took a deep breath and began unloading the equipment they’d need from the back of the truck, as if nothing had happened. Gabe wanted to shake his head in amazement and disgust, but feared to. Gabriel just pretended nothing had transpired as well.

They went to task. Gabe retrieved the step ladder from the bed of the pick up after Daniel’s prompting, Daniel setting up the gas powered generator and sump pump to pump out the five or so inches of water that had seeped into the four foot hole. He set the ladder in, and with Daniel’s reminder, stepped off well from the edge of the hole as not to cause the wall to cave-in. He was about to ask Danny why they weren’t shoring up the walls of the grave with plywood, but thought better of it. He knew that Danny would either berate him for the idea, or would take off in the truck in anger to retrieve the boards. Gabe just wanted to be done with it.

Gabe’s boots sank into the sodden earth up to the laces; muddy water nearly at the tops. The sump pump ran noisily. He grabbed the hose from Danny and fed it into the water, careful not to let mud clog the line.

“Don’t let mud clog that hose again,” said Daniel, supervising from a squat, balancing with the dirt caked shovel.

Gabe had let it clog the first time he’d used it. That was a good dozen times ago, Gabe thought. Danny couldn’t let anything go. He kept silent, concentrating on the job.

“It’s Friday. You and Sandra got plans?” Gabe realized his misstep as soon as the words escaped his lips.

     “Trying to be funny, Gabe? You know I dumped that bitch. Is that your idea of a joke, Mr. Family Man? You’re a real piece of work. Then, I didn’t marry the first piece that bothered to look my way, did I? Nope. My dumbass brother threw it all away right out of High School. Bet you wish you were me every night, don’t you? Tied to the old apron strings, just like our ol’ man,” Danny ranted.

“Geez, I forgot she left, okay?” said Gabe, concentrating harder on the end of the hose, unable to move, his feet cast in thick mud like wet cement.

“Left? Holy fuck. Is that what that wife of yours said?”

“No,” said Gabe, trying to think of something to say, something that would diffuse the situation, but instead, he blurted out what was running through his mind in a loop.

“How’d she get that broken arm, then?”

     With all the courage he could muster, Gabe turned to look Danny dead in the eye. Daniel’s face was deep red, veins bulging from his forehead, lips tight as a stretched rubber band, nostrils flared; Gabe could hear the rush of Danny’s breath in and out. Then deep from Danny’s gut rose a bellow of rage that even through all his years of torment Gabe had never heard from his twin brother before, shattering the quiet of the cemetery air; Daniel still in a squat, both hands now gripping the shovel handle which rested across his knees. In one swift, savage motion, Daniel swung the shovel with all his might, the blade connecting with the side of Gabe’s head. Gabe’s whole body torqued from the force, his head twisting on his neck then recoiling back as if spring loaded. A pain like the sting of a dozen hornets blossomed in his brain. A fierce buzzing like a giant tuning fork had been struck, just like the times Danny used to throw him hard onto the cement slab kitchen floor when they were just kids. Gabe bounced off the far wall of the grave, hitting the muck face first.

     Daniel stood, shovel still in hand, his chest heaving, and looked down at his twin. He watched as Gabe tried to sit up, grasping at the air. Gabe shook his head. Blood splattered against the aluminum ladder. He grabbed hold of the ladder and brought himself up to a kneeling position, then sat back on his calves. Danny watched as blood flowed onto Gabe’s mud covered down vest. The blood looked surreal, almost fake on the bright blue material.

“Kripes almighty! What was that?” said Gabe, incredulous. Stunned.

Within seconds, Gabe knew what had happened. He looked up at his brother with an expression of disbelief.

“Help me out, Danny. Think I’m hurt bad,” said Gabe, attempting to stand.

Daniel stood still, silent, a cold hard look on his face. He knew he’d fucked up royally. He was screwed. Gabe wouldn’t lie for him this time. This wasn’t a punch in the gut, or a bruised or cracked rib. Shit, Gabe might even die, thought Daniel. He’d lose it all. The business. His house. Hell, if Gabe died, his freedom. His brother had held him back all these years. He’d have made twice the money if he hadn’t had to split everything with Gabe. He’d been cornered into that agreement by his Father’s will. If he wanted to inherit the business, Gabriel would be in it for half. Without another thought, Daniel raised the shovel, and with machine like precision, brought the shovel blade down again and again, the shovel ringing with every blow. He didn’t know how many times. It was the lightning strike and roll of thunder that brought him back to reality.

Gabe lay crumpled at the bottom of the grave. Daniel had a lot of work ahead of him. Dark work.

 

Daniel tossed the shovel into the hole and climbed down the step ladder. He gazed up into the sky, watching the storm clouds in the distance. Another flash and peel of thunder made him jump. He stepped back onto his brother’s hand. A hand that looked identical to his own. Danny gingerly repositioned his feet, trying hard not to touch his brother. He was determined to not look at the body, but it was impossible not to. Even his peripheral vision betrayed him. He realized he was hyperventilating. He knew he needed to get a grip if he were to get through this. He took in long deep breaths; the first through his nostrils, the sharp tang of fresh blood made him gag. He counted. Fifty deep breaths. He felt better. His mind clearer. He looked at his watch. How long had he been in the hole? A cold realization flowed through him like ice water. The longer this took, the more likely he’d be caught. Gabe’s wife could show up. A visitor to the cemetery. Hell, even a cop. He began to dig. Danny dug and dug. The brown muddy earth didn’t give up easily. Muddy clay and water sucked at the shovel and his boots. Pushing himself harder, he struggled with each sodden shovel full, which he had to pitch out of the grave and onto the pile above. At first he was careful not to sling the mud haphazardly on the grass, but as each scoop became more difficult, each sling more frantic, the turf above was splattered with a thick layer of clay.

It started to rain. Just a light drizzle. Daniel welcomed the cool comfort of the water on his red, hot face. He looked skyward for the first time in what his watch said had been over an hour. He’d made some progress. A two foot deep by four foot wide hole lay before him. He’d need to go a bit deeper, since he’d decided to bury his brother’s corpse in the fetal position. That would mean another six inches deep. Daniel discarded his jacket. It couldn’t have been more than sixty degrees out, yet he was burning up from the exertion; also it gave him the excuse of using it to cover his brother’s body. He turned and while looking aside, cast the jacket over Gabe’s bludgeoned head. He watched as blood blossomed through the material. The jacket couldn’t disguise the unnatural shape of Gabe’s head, but at least his eyes were covered. His blind, staring, accusing eyes. Danny wiped the sweat and rain from his brow with the back of his gritty hand. An image of how he must look flashed through his mind. Face greasy, dirty and wet; eyes watering and wide. He had to get out of here, get home and clean up. Get home and figure out his next step. He realized he’d been gripping the shovel handle so hard that his hand had begun to ache.

Daniel turned back to the task, driving the shovel into the murky mess. A sound like a cannon hit him. Brightest day exploded bringing the blackest of shadows. Shocked, he stumbled backwards. For a millisecond he thought he’d been shot. Danny tripped on his brother’s legs and fell back, sitting hard into Gabe’s lap. He groped for a handhold to slow his momentum but only found the fabric of his discarded jacket, yanking the bloodied denim from his brother’s ruined face. Danny hit the back wall of the grave, chunks of gray-brown earth rained down on him. He sputtered and blinked as the soil invaded his mouth and eyes. He could feel the soft yielding flesh of Gabe’s legs underneath him. He could smell blood like raw meat, could smell sour sweat, feces. More lightning, followed almost instantly by booming thunder, ripped the sky. Purple-black clouds boiled overhead. Danny tried to scramble to his feet, the slick clay slewing under his boots. His tired muscles struggled. He was panicking. Flailing arms, his grasping hands finding no purchase, fingers clawing clumps of sticky muck from the walls. He gave in. Gave up. Fell back against the earthen wall, panting, shaking. The sky opened up. Hard driving rain hit him like silver nails, stinging his cheeks, the backs of his hands. Rain pelted Gabe’s nylon vest with a manic rattle. The aluminum ladder shook with the force. Danny watched helplessly as the hole he’d dug began to skim over with water, rain shattering the surface like a hammer on a mirror.

Danny fought to get back on his feet but in his reclined position, his back angled against the wall, thighs hiked up over the flabby thighs of his brother’s corpse, it seemed an impossibility. He would have to turn on his side and get one leg under him. Closing his eyes against the onslaught of rain, Danny reached for a hand-hold on anything within reach and reluctantly grasped his brother’s jeans pocket. He pulled hard while pushing his other hand under him into the watery grave. Danny felt hard bone and cold flesh press against his forehead. Opening his eyes, his gaze was met by Gabe’s empty stare, his limp fleshy lips pushed against Danny’s mouth in an obscene kiss. Danny could smell the bile on the corpse’s breath as the last gasp of putrid air was forced from lungs and stomach. Danny screamed, frantically trying to push the weight of his twin’s body off of him, the dead weight driving him down, pinning him. He twisted on his side, sliding from under the smothering weight, bringing himself to an upright position. The relentless rain pounded on. Despite the rain, Daniel sat unblinking at the realization that the grave was quickly filling with water. At least six inches of opaque brown water nearly hid his calves from view. He needed to get out. Get up the ladder. He knew what he’d do. The Cat. He’d get out, drive it into the hole, and make up a story how it was all an accident. It could work. He’d be done with Gabe. He’d come out of this okay.

It was as if God or the devil had read his mind. Daniel crawled forward and just as he pulled himself up on the ladder, the earth gave way in front of the backhoe. Daniel watched incredulously as the three ton piece of equipment tottered on the edge of the grave, chunks of dirt flowing in around the ladder in an avalanche. There was nothing he could do, no room to move. He watched in horror as the steel toothed bucket, grinning its shiny earth polished grin like some mechanical T-rex, slid inevitably toward him. The backhoe tilted ever so slowly forward, the heavy bucket effortlessly took the ladder from his hands and crushed it like a foil gum wrapper into the side of the grave. But like a dissatisfied, spoiled child it slid on, wanting more than the lifeless metal. Danny stumbled back once again, grabbing up the shovel and leveraging it between the bucket head and the dirt wall. The handle snapped, exposing white splinters like fractured bone. The bucket kept on course. Danny sat hard beside his twin with an explosion of mud. The mud dripped from the steel teeth of the bucket like blood. Its idiot grin pushed on. Danny watched helpless as the inevitable took place. He felt the rigid metal press into him, the bucket driving into his chest. The backhoe groaned as the front wheel slid on the slope of earth now burying his legs. He pushed himself back against Gabe’s body, in an attempt to escape being crushed alive. The bucket bit into him. He felt and heard a rib snap. A groan that should have been a scream escaped him. He could barely breathe in or out. Then it stopped. He was pinned, but the bucket had stopped. The backhoe had settled into place.

 

The rain pissed on and on. Daniel’s teeth chattered from the cold and wet. He’d lost track of time. He couldn’t look at his watch; his right arm was pinned beneath him. The rising water was at his armpits. In a couple of hours, it would be at his chin. He prayed to God for the rain to stop. He prayed to God that he be rescued. He prayed to God for forgiveness. The rain kept on. He swore at God and prayed to the devil. He reluctantly rested his head against Gabe’s. His fatigued neck muscles could no longer support the weight of his head. Gabe’s teeth scraped against his ear. Danny’s labored breathing was like a metronome; the only sound other than the continuous rush of rain.

 

Daniel awoke, startled. His predicament came flooding back to the forefront of his consciousness. His jaw ached, teeth chattering like a wind up monkey. Skin on his face raw from the beating deluge. The rest of his body was numb. Water lapped at his neck. Hypothermia would soon be upon him. The sky was near dark. Evening had crept in like a feral black cat. Gabe’s body had actually floated up a few inches beside him. Ripped flesh now bloodless and deep pink, water streaming over teeth, gums and slack lips.

Just as Danny thought all was lost, he saw lights swing above his head, illuminating the towering pines with a bright amber glow, reflecting off the sheeting rain. A car. They’d realize something was wrong.  It must be June, he thought, looking for Gabe. Wondering why he wasn’t home. She’d come to find Gabe! Please God, I’ll tell her everything… but why should he? There’d been an accident, that’s all. The bucket had crushed Gabe’s head, then pinned him in place. He’d make her believe him. He heard a car door open and close. Then another.

 

The boys got out of the old Camaro, leaving it running. Johnny wasn’t born yesterday. His Momma didn’t raise no fool. He and Ray headed for the new Ford pickup.

“Shit, Johnny! The dumbass left the keys in it!”

They both brayed laughter as Ray jumped in and fired up the truck.

“Mother fucker! Let me drive!” whined Johnny.

“Finders keepers bitch,” said Ray with a toothy grin, “follow me.”

Ray took off in the truck down the cemetery path as fast as he could, swiping three headstones as he went, followed closely behind by Johnny’s Camaro. This beat the shit out of tipping gravestones, thought Johnny, elated.

 

Daniel could barely make out voices. He tried to shout, but could do nothing but wheeze out a croak. He heard his truck start, followed by nothing but the sound of pouring rain. It hadn’t been June. Someone just stole his truck! Fury boiled Daniel’s brain, his face growing hot with rage. A jagged pain ripped through his chest. He forced himself to calm down. Survival was all that mattered. More time passed. Daniel didn’t know how much. He slipped in and out of consciousness. He could feel little but the aching throb in his chest. In a moment of lucidity, he noticed that the rain was tapering off. He truly thought he was going to drown, but now that the rain was stopping, he felt there may be hope after all. Hope was all he had. Even his face was numb now. He had to keep his head leaned back as far as possible to keep the brackish water out of his mouth. He was afraid to close his eyes, watching for headlights, since he was sure that his only salvation was that June would eventually come looking for Gabe. Gabe, who’s battered and torn face loomed over him, backlit by a field of stars in the clearing sky.

“Have to give it to you, Gabe. You just may have beaten me,” Danny thought. Gabe didn’t answer. The silence was galling to Danny. “You always were a pain in my ass. You’ll be one to the very end…”

Danny’s thoughts were interrupted as once again the tree line was illuminated by headlights. Danny knew it had to be June.

 
 
June had waited as long as she was willing to. She hated to dog Gabe like some worried old hen. It wasn’t like Gabe not to call if he were to be late, nor was it like him to not answer his cell. She supposed he could’ve forgotten to charge it, but where was he? And now here she was in the cemetery. There was the backhoe. She saw that it was at an odd angle. Danny, probably pushing too hard as usual, must’ve gotten too close to the edge. She never could figure out why Gabe didn’t drive it; he was much more responsible. Well, Danny’s truck wasn’t here. Damn Danny. He must’ve convinced Gabe to quit for the day, and then sit out the storm at the Barley House Tavern, or some other God-forsaken dive. If she didn’t have such good news for them, she’d probably be angry. She’d drive over to the bar and surprise them there. They’d be ecstatic once they heard that their lottery number had finally hit. She couldn’t believe their good fortune.

 

The beams paused for three or so minutes as Danny waited to hear the car door, then June’s frantic call for Gabe, followed by her shocked expression as she gazed over the edge of the grave. But he didn’t hear anything but the idle of the old Buick. Didn’t hear the desperate call. Didn’t see the shocked expression. Instead, the headlights swung away, the sound of the motor faded. Danny watched as the stars winked out. Heard the rain, felt the rain.
 
"Ten Little Terrors"