“I can’t believe this! This is just like one of the old man’s stories. ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ my rosy red ass!”
Lightning forked across the sky, the thunder sudden and shockingly loud. The hearse slewed about the road as Dave jumped.
All this because he was ‘the new guy’.
“Why do I have to go,” he’d wailed to his boss over the phone. “It’s the middle of the friggin’ night! Is this really in my job description?”
“Because you work for the DPW, kid, not some damn bank with nine-to-five hours. Because you’re the only one in the department who’s done the work before. Because no one knew Digger was going to have a heart attack out there. Because the funeral is tomorrow, so there better be a hole. But mostly because I’m the BOSS and I’m TELLING YOU TO!”
Thus Dave found himself in the pitch-dark middle of the rain-swept town cemetery, right next to the half-dug grave that had finally given Digger McCrieg his heart attack. And, joy of joys, someone was there waiting for him.
“Look,” his boss had said. “Digger drives a hearse anyway. The coroner’s already ruled the death ‘natural causes’, so all you have to do is get him back to his old office. Just finish the hole and get Digger to the body storage unit at his place, okay? And don’t screw this up.”
Dave brought the hearse back under control, wincing at the dull thuds he heard from behind him: Digger, his diminutive body bagged by the coroner but as yet un-boxed for his final journey, rolling about as the big car swerved.
“Sorry, Digger,” he muttered, then caught himself.
“Terrific,” he said. “I’m talking to the dead guy.”
His eyes widened still further.
“And now I’m talking to myself. I’m still talking to myself! I’m nearly as nutty as old Digger himself!”
Digger, as little and wizened as Yoda’s own grandfather, had dug like a gopher despite the fact that he was so old no one in the DPW could remember a time when he hadn’t been the town gravedigger. The man just loved to work.
He also loved to tell stories.
The problem was that Dave believed him. Every story. Every time. Every one of the stories Digger had told him was locked away in his head, and the cemetery was the absolute last place he ever wanted to be.
Especially at night.
Standing in a fresh grave.
With a freshly deceased body waiting for him.
He’d been out there in that driving rain, deepening that hole just as fast as he could, all the while keeping an eye on the waiting hearse.
Looking for movement.
The lightning cast shadows leapt and danced, and Dave saw motion everywhere. After the third time he’d nearly speared his toes off jumping at shadows in mid-shovel-thrust, he’d scrambled out of the hole, mud-spattered and soaking, and hustled to the hearse. He shoved the short spade into the worn shoulder bag of tools. The long shovel probably went in the rear cargo area, but Dave was damned if he was going to open it up right there in the midnight-dark cemetery, bag full of Digger and all — he just shoved it behind the seat and jammed himself behind the wheel. The engine roared, he goosed the accelerator, and twin rooster-tails of spray shot up from the rear tires as he got the hell out of there.
He was well on his way before he realized he still had the bag of tools on his shoulder. With every bounce and jounce he was painfully poked and prodded by the contents of the bag he was half-sitting on. With the seat set as far forward as the much smaller Digger had kept it Dave lacked he room to draw a deep breath, never mind maneuver that bag. He considered stopping the car, but his mind filled with visions of zombies and ghosts and things that would kill him for just being alive.
Screw it, he thought. I’ll get this whole mess back to Digger’s, then sort it all out. I’m not stopping here!
Another pothole, another painful bounce on the tools; from behind, another low, rolling thump.
“Sorry, Digger,” he whispered again.
And then he heard … a noise.
That’s what it was, he thought, clamping down on panic. A noise. Another of those rolling thuds. The body just shifted a little on a bump, that’s all. There’s no way that was a voice, right? Damn skippy!
Beneath this mental pep-talk lurked the knowledge that there had been no bump in the road right then, no curve, no hill, nothing at all to make anything shift or move.
The sound came again, a low murmuring that may have been something rolling, but there was a curious lack of any thud. If something was rolling about back there, it wasn’t running into anything else. David laughed, high and loud. A laugh that said he didn’t believe anything was back there, but just in case there was something there, he wasn’t afraid of it. Then, as sometimes happened when nervous, his mouth began to babble long before his brain knew what it was about to say.
“Now, Digger, you just settle down back there, alright?”
Immediately his brain began to shriek You’re talking to the dead guy again! Stop talking to the dead guy! If you ignore him, maybe he’ll ignore you!
That was silly,he realized. Of course a dead man couldn’t do anyth—
“Let… me… out…”
The hearse swerved again as David’s foot pressed the accelerator, his whole body going rigid with fear. The voice, quiet and muffled, had come from behind him.
Right behind him.
“I—I—I—I—”Dave stuttered, his mouth on auto-fire but lacking ammunition.
“Let me out… Dave…”
At the sound of his name Dave’s stuttering became whimpering. He stomped on the brake, bringing the hearse to a juddering halt, the two right-hand tires on the shoulder. All he knew was he wanted — needed — to get out of that car, and away from the remains of Digger McCrieg.
The door crashed open, nearly rebounding into Dave as he scrambled from the car. The swinging weight of the still-shouldered tool bag nearly overbalanced him. He let the bag slip to the ground, the short-handled spade spilling out on the tarmac. Dave snatched up the spade, leveling it over his right shoulder like a Louisville Slugger as he crept to the rear door of the hearse.
“Digger? H-h-hello? You in there?”
“It’s about time, boy.” The voice was familiar, quiet and clear — and behind him. He spun about, spade at the ready, but saw no one.
“I couldn’t barely breathe in there,” the voice continued, the light brogue sounding directly in his ear.
His right ear.
Eyes huge, Dave stared at the worn spade he now held at arm’s length.
“Couldn’t you hear me talkin’ to ya?” the spade asked, in an old man’s voice.
Dave slumped to the ground in a dead faint.
From the spade lying next to Dave the old voice slipped into the night air once more, this time tinged with laughter..
“Och — this is going to be fun!”
Note from the author:
Yes, once again I am over my self-imposed word limit of 1,000. There are 1,227, to be exact.
My apologies -- I'll try to do a little better next week!