Red simmered waves glowed on the horizon, deepening into the tide of black that was pushing down on the hilltops. The willow trees swayed in silhouettes, their phantom wisps lamenting the fading daylight. Sharp whistles of a mockingbird melted into the steady breeze, curling around the shallow valley. The long shadows became the prelude to night across the darkened green hills.
The Ward Hills cemetery rested in the sanctuary of the winding vale. The mortuary offices were off to the right, through the newly painted brass gates, nestled at the base of the first hill. Beyond it, the grave markers streaked like lines of elevation up the gentle mound. Dust and bone lay under each one, and the hills drew back farther into the distance, holding more memories, some forgotten by the living.
The only sound inside the mortuary offices was Zoe's keyboard, clicking through the last of her paperwork. A louder clunk for every space between words, then rattling on the delete key, then forward again. She had taken on a new family earlier that day. Another soul, Charlotte Higgins, lost to the simple passage of time. A long life, one hundred and two years old. If she finished the funeral announcements, Zoe could send it out tomorrow.
She shook her head as she typed. We're gonna run out of room one of these days. She looked at the old photo the family had sent her. A stand-up headstone of Charlotte's great-grandfather, a chunk crumbled out of the corner. It was one of the older ones in the cemetery, and that was saying something here. Ward Hills was one of the oldest in Georgia, one of the oldest in the United States. Generations of families were here. Some families didn't even realize they had old relatives until they started planning their own arrangements. A confederate soldier.
Great. She shook her head again. Well, at least we got the...
“Oh shit!” she said out loud. The marker rubbing. She shuffled through her papers to the bottom of the pile sitting on her makeshift desk. The funeral directors offices were still in the middle of their remodel. For now, she worked behind temporary dividers near the lobby.
She looked up at the ceiling, glaring at the white fluorescence, clenching her teeth. He didn't find it. He's so lucky he's their family.
The knock on the flimsy divider sent shivers through the whole wall, and through her. She thought she was the only left in the building.
“Oh, I'm sorry Ms. Moore.” A man stood at the opening between the dividers. His hair was as white as some of the graves on the grounds but he never seemed to lose the smile on his face. His genuine kindness seemed to respond inverse to the amount of funerals he ran, grief he counseled, and people he buried. He even joked that a few more pounds and a beard and he could convince his grandkids he was Santa Clause. A walking irony for this line of work. He was Liam Ward, owner of Ward Hills.
“Nothing to be sorry about, Liam.” Zoe said, pretending that she didn't jump a little.
"You know I love how much you care for the families you serve," he said, "but you don't need to spend every night here!"
“Night?” she looked at what was left of the orange flicker out the window and smiled. “There's still some light out there.”
Liam smiled back. “Well, be sure to take care of yourself now. You've stayed late every night this month.”
“Just one last thing, I promise.”
“And what's that?”
“Um...just a marker rubbing.”
“That's the kind of thing we brought on our assistant for, my dear.” he said chuckling softly. “I knew you were working too hard.”
“Uh...well...the thing is...”
“You asked him and he couldn't find it. Didn't even get back to you, it would seem.”
She pressed her lips together.
“Just because he's my nephew doesn't mean he gets a free pass.” he said.
“I just didn't...uh...”
“How many times do I have to remind you?” he looked at her earnestly “You are a part of my family now.”
"No" he held up his hand. "You are. I know there's plenty of people that come in every day and hate me for it. But that's ok. I just think to myself, someday, you might be making their arrangements!"
They both laughed. It wasn't easy taking what he said at face value, although he never gave a reason not too. She couldn't tell if he was genuine or trying to be noble. No. She knew the answer, but it was hard to trust. It wasn't every day a black woman was hired on by a long-standing white family to work the family business of eight generations, and get equal pay. She got looks every day from just about every family that came in. She was used to that. She knew how to deal with that. It was harder, actually, accepting that they weren't all like that. There wasn't many, but here he was, and there they were.
“Where is this nuisance of a marker?” he asked.
“Out in lot C, if you can believe it.”
He tilted his head, like a twitch. “Lot C?”
"Yeah, the woman who passed is the great-granddaughter of some...a Confederate soldier." she said. "Wants to be buried out there with him, I guess. Even the daughter, who's arranging everything, can't make sense of it. Apparently they never even met!"
“Strange indeed. Interesting, when we can't let go of the past, we end up wanting to be buried with it. Those old lots can be confusing, I suppose. But I'll sit Ethan down and talk with him. He needs to know he has to get his job done, nephew or not. He needs to know my expectations!”
Zoe smiled and shook her head as she lifted her purse on her shoulder. “Don't be too hard on him.”
Liam walked her out to the parking lot, locking the glass double doors of the mortuary behind him. His white Expedition sat a space away from her blue Accord. Zoe opened her car door and turned to say goodnight but he interrupted her before she could even start.
"Leave the marker for tomorrow." he said, "I'll do it first thing."
“That's nice but...”
“No...it's nothing. Please?”
“Thank you.” he said. She could just make out a smile of relief in the twilight. “Goodnight, my dear.”
They both got into their cars and he led the way out of the parking lot. He turned left onto the central road inside the cemetery and headed towards the gate. Zoe hesitated and looked to the right, up the road, between the curving hills.
I just want to get this done.
She turned right, heading towards lot C. Liam's car stopped at the gate for a few moments before going on out onto the highway.
I can hear him sighing in there, she thought. But he knows I have a key.
She wouldn't sleep if she didn't get her checklist done for the day. It was just a rubbing, she had the stuff in her car, it would take a minute at most.
There was just enough left of the day to see the trees contrast on the pale dark. The hills had stories, according to the locals. It was easy to dismiss when the sun was high into the air and the shadows couldn't hide. When the sun went down, memory began walking the paths between mounds. Whispers in the dark. The mind could start playing riddles there were no answers to.
The car journeyed back into the forgotten and overlooked sections of the grounds. When Zoe reached lot C she turned off the lights and realized just how hard it would be to find one specific grave in the dark, even a standing one.
The wind was telling secrets through the tops of the branches as she walked away from the road, onto the grass. She took out her phone and turned its light on. It wasn't much but she could see the grave markers in front of her. She walked to the side of the lot and counted the rows up until she reached row nine. Then twenty-two over, a stand up grave stone every few feet. Looking for Higgins. Higgins. Higgins. No Higgins.
She searched around with the small light. Out in the open, the darkness around her grew thicker yet empty. She checked the rows above and below and went farther and farther away from the original spot, then back. No Higgins. A marker set into the ground where Higgins should have been. She had a picture, it should be hard to miss. She went back down to the road, counted the rows up and the markers over again. Still no Higgins. Back to the road. Lot C. This was it, just no Higgins. Had she gotten the location wrong? Ethan is gonna get yelled and I gave him the wrong damn number.
She opened her emails on her phone. The message from the family clearly says lot C, row nine, marker twenty-two. Maybe they got it wrong. Well, she was out here now, one last look. She started from the top of the lot, near the gate at the edge of the property. Maybe these older plots counted the other way? She didn't want to have to admit she couldn't find it tomorrow morning. She counted the rows down, markers over. No Higgins.
The trees seemed to watch her now. She tried to ignore them and the crawling feeling on her spine. Her mind beginning to play its games.
Moving her light around more, she thought the ground seemed odd. Perhaps it would be at night in a cemetery. Some of the plots felt softer. The grass was a different shade too. Like new plots. Just these shouldn't have any new plots...not this many, anyway. There were clumps of dirt. Almost like the ground had been pushed aside.
The wind slammed the gate in the chain link fence closed. Zoe jumped up. Shit. She took a deep breath. It was time to admit defeat. Her nerves were more than willing. Daylight would reveal the answers. She took a step towards the road, then paused. That gate is always locked. Then crunching gravel. Soft and slow. She shined her light at the road. No other cars. The sound was from behind her. Beyond the fence. Footsteps.
She turned. The light only caught parts of the metal in the fence reflecting back. More gravel underfoot. Go back to your car. She walked towards the fence instead. As she got closer, the latch of the gate was clinking against the outside of the post in the wind. Someone had gone through. She pushed the gate open and stood on the other side of the fence. The light on her phone lost itself in the willows, chords drooping across a low ceiling under the black sky. A dirt trail started at her feet, leading away into nothingness.
She stood in the swirling air. More steps. Purposeful, hidden, even slower now. There was nothing the light could reveal. She looked at the ground around her. There were prints in the ground. Not just one set. There were too many to count. Back and forth. Out in all directions. Then, in the light just a few feet ahead, something different on the ground. It stood out, small and white. She picked it up but heard more steps. Quicker. She looked up. Breaths. Something was breathing. The shadows moved.
Zoe couldn't contain her imagination anymore and she threw the gate open as she bolted through it. She stepped on the sides of markers and tripped over two edges but she fell forward, catching herself, towards the car. The keys tangled in her pocket as she got the driver's side. Fuck, fuck fuck. They rattled in her hand as the gate clanked back and forth up the side of the hill. The door finally got opened and she jumped into the seat, slamming the edge of her dress. There was no time to notice or care. She turned back down the road, flying towards the main gate.
She had already turned onto the highway before she realized she needed to lock the main entrance behind her. She pulled over, backing the car along the side of the road until she was close to the gate again. Engine off. She started chuckling to herself, still catching her breath. It was just the wind. She shook her head as she got back out of the car. She pulled the swinging gates in, securing the latch and locking it.
Back in the car, her breathing was almost back to normal. The passenger seat had a little pile of dirt in it. She had thrown what she picked up off the ground in her imagined escape across the inside of the car. There was a larger rock in the middle of it. She held it in the palm of her hand, wiping the dirt off. It was light, edges rounded, white. No...not a rock. It was bone. She threw it across to the passenger side and it spun under the dash on the floor. She stared at it, heart pounding like she was running again. It looked like a finger bone. What the fuck is happening?
The car crawled back off the side of the road, crackling the gravel as it went. She wanted the cemetery as far behind her as possible. Her thoughts wandered as the car seemed to drive itself. There were always the stories. The other directors talked about kids that went missing in the hills. Local legends. Zoe always assumed they were all in on the joke together. They were all Liam's family, after all. Do I have a dead teen's bone in my car? No...the imagination was just being fueled like throwing gas into a flame, bursting for a second but dying back down.
Her driveway never seemed so long when she got home. The front yard stretched out towards the street, the house sat far off the road more than it ever had before. Dark and empty. She went inside, leaving the bone in her car. She couldn't bring herself to touch it again.
She made chamomile tea, after scrubbing her hands so hard she could feel it in her joints, then sat on her couch with the white noise of TV in the background of her thoughts. There were animals in those hills, foxes and bobcats. The bone was the last of some poor animal. Disgusting but nothing so extreme as some kid's hand. See? Don't be stupid, I'm going to laugh at myself when I wake up.
If she slept, it wasn't for long. The night only intensified her imagination in spite of her logic. If her exhaustion took her, she would wake sweating, claustrophobic in her own sheets. Then finally merciful daylight to make the nightmares seem like foolishness.
She tried to keep her morning routine as mindless as she could.
When she drove back into the hills for work, she drifted into her thoughts once more. The bone still burning into her thoughts on the passenger side of the car. The main entrance was already open when she drove up. Before going into the office, she looked down at the bone. She couldn't just keep in the car forever. She could tell Liam, he would probably have some good insight. He should know anyway, if there are kids going missing, especially. If the stories really are true.
Inside, the main counter went parallel to the lobby, the makeshift offices were set behind it. Hannah, Liam's daughter, was already working on arrangements to have her cousins pick up a body from a call last night. She had been the on-call director last night. The normal start to the morning shook Zoe's last worries. Just an animal.
"Mornin' Zoe." Hannah said without looking up from the computer on the counter.
“Hey hey.” Zoe said, looking down at the bone cradled in a tissue in her hand. Now it was just gross, not scary. Some part of a dead animal she was now bringing into the office. Stupid.
She walked around the counter and was about to throw it away into the bin next to her workspace when Liam came around the corner.
“Someone worked even later last night.” he said, shaking his head but smiling.
“I tried anyway!” she said.
“Couldn't find it in the dark, could you?”
Zoe pressed her lips together, frustrated with herself this time. Not because she couldn't find it but because she lost so much sleep last night over a fantasy. She should have just listened to the man last night and gone home.
“Well, I got something for you.” he said. He pointed to her desk at the wax paper rubbing of the grave marker. He had gone out first thing in the morning to make it. That, and the picture he took of it, would help the engravers copy the style for Mrs. Charolette Higgins.
"Thank you," she said, "You really didn't ne..."
“No no.” he stopped her. “I was happy to do it.”
She looked at the picture he took, shaking her head. “Stand up marker”
“Most of the old ones are.” he said.
“How the hell did I miss this?”
“It's amazing what the darkness can hide”
She stared at it, thoughts going behind her hazel eyes, still holding the tissue and bone.
“What's that?” Liam asked looking at her hand.
“Oh...just part of the adventure last night.” she said throwing into the bin along the divider wall.
“Another reason not to head that far back into the grounds at night, my dear.” he said. “Those coyotes don't seem like much, but they have plans all their own and get bold about them.”
She would have responded if he wasn't staring through her. There wasn't the normal smile. Just his eyes. Blue but age made them grayer, along with his hair. Like steel in blue flame. She had never seen that look from him.
Then as suddenly as it manifested itself, his face snapped back to his gentle smile.
"Just be careful." he said.
“Of course” she forced a smile.
When he had walked back away out of her sight, she sat down at her desk. She stared at the picture. No fucking way I missed this. She peeked into the bin at the bone. I never hear coyotes crying here.
She tried to just keep going. The wax paper was scanned and an email written to the engravers. Then she got an envelope to send the original and started the paperwork for another family. Some back and forth emails with the daughter of Mrs. Higgins, happy she had found the grave marker. A call about another death before noon.
By lunch she was already tired, no sleep and a constant battle with her mind had made it feel like she had already put in eight hours. She couldn't let it go. I would have tripped right over it. She looked out the double glass doors around her divider wall. She knew she had to look for herself. It was stupid, it was just a simple mistake, on something she had done a million times. Looking for a marker? It's the most basic thing. Maybe that's why she couldn't let it go.
She walked out to her car from the offices like she was going to grab some lunch somewhere. The nearest place was fifteen minutes away, but it wasn't like a corporate job. Liam let you do what you wanted as long as you took care of the families you were serving. The white Expedition was in the lot but the pick-up van was gone, bringing in another family's loved one.
She got back into her blue Honda with dirt still smeared on the passenger seat and floor. She pulled out to the little road and turned right, towards lot C. The winding road through the hills was an uplifting one with the sun at its peak. It may have been a cemetery, but the emerald waves, pushed by the tides of the wind, created a peace here that was hard to come by. There really was rest here. Echos of lives lived in the closed chapters of time.
Lot C seemed smaller in the daylight. It crept up the first small rise of the hill before hitting the gate, much closer to the road than the night before. The headstones were scattered across the grass, while markers that sat right in the ground were nestled in between.
She got out of her car and looked up and down the road and across the hills, back towards the offices. The building was hiding out of sight from here. She actually couldn't remember the last time she had come this far back before working with this family. There was no one to be seen. There rarely was back here, except the occasional group of tourists looking for the oldest graves in Georgia. Tourists in a graveyard. She never understood it but, then again, no one ever understood how she could work here either.
She went to the side of the lot again and started counting. Nine rows back. She counted slow with deliberate steps up the slope, turning right at row nine with the markers at her left. She walked down, counting with each step and marker. She got to twenty-two and there before her was a stand-up headstone.
“FOUGHT FOR FREEDOM”
She just stared for a minute.
There's no way...absolutely no way I missed this.
Leering over the lot, was the fence. The gate right where it had been last night. I was in the right spot last night. She walked through the headstones up towards the gate. The padlock was chained around the post and locked, just like it should have been last night. Someone had been here.
She shook her head. I'm being crazy. This all had to have a reasonable explanation. It was just normal operations. The property on the other side of the gate was owned by the city. Liam had been in talks for years to try and purchase it so that he could expand the grounds. He probably goes to have a look at it every once in awhile, especially if he's getting closer to making a deal. He came to get the rubbing this morning, that somehow I missed, she still thought, and saw the unlocked gate.
She decided to put it out of her mind. It was no use going over some stupid mistake. It really wasn't a big deal. She had the rubbing, she had the picture, it was time to just do her job. It was a cemetery at night. The imagination is never more on fire.
Walking towards the car she watched the ground, stepping over markers and through headstones. She walked past the Higgins grave again. Something subtle on the ground, but it was there. At the back, a rectangular edge of dirt was peeking out from under the stone. She kneeled next to it to get a better look. It was the exact size of a flat marker, like some of the ones around it. Like the newer grave sites. There was still loose dirt in small clumps to the side of the headstone. Something was off. So much for shaking the feeling. She stood, the wind licking the edges of her hair. Something is moving out here.
She drove back, debating on asking Liam about any of this. It would surely clear up everything if she did. But if he was covering something up...if he didn't want her to know. He's given me no reason not trust him with anything.
She pulled back into the parking lot and inside the other directors were already busy filing paperwork and calling families. Hannah was still working at the counter and Ethan had just gotten back from a pickup. He saw her walking in, turned around as if to walk to the back of the offices, then thought better of it and walked over to her.
“I'm real sorry about yesterday.” he told her.
“Oh it's not a big deal.” she said. “Anytime you have a problem with something, you can always just ask me.”
“Will do...and thanks...got quite a talkin' to about it.”
“Well, I hope Liam didn't give you too hard of a time! He was the one that ended up having to get the rubbing anyway.”
“Yeah.” he said. “He usually takes care of things.”
He walked towards the back, the arms of his suit jacket covering a little too much of his hands.
When Zoe got back to her desk, she thought of her own advice. If you have a problem, just say something. Stop being an idiot about this...it's nothing.
When Liam walked by her workspace, she stopped him.
“Can I ask you a stupid question?” she said.
"Of course, my dear," he said, "they are usually the best kind."
“Why was the gate unlocked last night? The one up on lot C.”
“Oh it was just Ethan...when I talked with him, he said he used the gate to go around so he didn't have to admit he couldn't find it.”
“That's a long hike just to avoid embarrassment.” she said.
“Yes.” he had that look again. As if he was reaching inside her, looking around, like her thoughts were murals on a wall he could interpret. Then back a smile. Not like his jolly ones, more like a knowing one. “Why didn't you lock it up last night when you saw it?”
“I...” she didn't have a good response for that one. She wasn't about to admit she was running like a fool. Although in this moment, she wasn't so sure just how foolish it had been.
“It's no worry.” he said. “I locked it back up this morning when I got the rubbing. Besides, anyone could hop that fence if they wanted to. Well...I couldn't...but most people”
“True” they both forced a chuckle then he went back to his office.
She used her work to force out any of her wandering thoughts. It was such a simple thing. Just a marker rubbing. Just an unlocked gate. Just some dirt. It was nothing and she wanted to make something of it. How dare she? This family had been so good to her, one of the few that had been this welcoming besides her friend's. It's my own prejudices, in a way. I need to just let it go. Actually let it go this time.
The rest of the day was just a standard day of emails, paperwork, planning a funeral, and getting death certificates filed. The drive home featured an orange bourbon sky and lemonade clouds. It should have been calming. At home, she watched Netflix, texted friends about anything other than what was worrying her, and turned in early to catch up on the missing night of sleep.
That sleep was more elusive than ever. No amount of tea would calm her growing imagination. She got up, paced through the house, did some stretches, then went back to bed only to see her efforts were fruitless. She took out a book and read the same page, same paragraph, same sentence, over and over.
If he used the gate to avoid admitting he couldn't find the grave marker, then how did he get back to the car he would have used to drive all the way back there? The questions didn't stop. Why does it look like the headstone was sitting on top of where a marker used to be?How the hell did I miss a stand-up gravestone? That bone...the stories.
It was no use. There was no answer that satisfied. She needed the list of things floating around in her head to be complete. Just like her to do lists. She couldn't leave it undone. She couldn't rest until it was complete.
She put on her black workout pants, black pullover hoodie, and white running shoes. Am I seriously going to do this? She knew she was. She knew she just had to sit out in front of lot C and wait. Watch. Listen. For what? She had no idea. But something was happening. Something Liam didn't like talking about.
The debate was over. She pulled out of the driveway and went up into the hills. The main gate would be locked, but that was fine. She knew she had to make sure no one knew she was there. Going through the main entrance wasn't the best way to be subtle.
She could see the property line starting, that chain link fence went all the way around the grounds. There was a turnout just before the gate started on her side of the road. It was a long trek back to lot C but it was the only way to keep her car hidden.
The willows whispered to each other as she walked under the long swaying canvas. She kept her pace steady, running entirely on curiosity. The roots tangled in places but there was more or less a path, part of a hiking trail the city had cleared. The moon fought as much as it could through the branches, guiding with silver streams through the black.
She moved quietly, as if she was already near someone. It felt like that, anyway. Minutes began to gather, then an hour, maybe even more. She couldn't tell and she didn't even want to bring out her phone for a second and risk the glow giving her away. Giving her away to who...or what, she didn't know.
She reached a part of the cemetery she recognized and hopped the fence. There were lone trees dotting the lawns and she moved quickly between them as she went. Finally, lot C was within sight and she sat crouched, hugging a tree a little ways off. Her eyes had gotten used to the darkness and the moonlight was enough to see the grass shimmer between the dark compact monoliths of the graves.
Then one of those shadows stood up.
Zoe nearly went flat against the ground while her heart stuck somewhere in her throat. Someone was out here, there was breathing last night. But who? Or what? No...no...she fought her imagination. Then another figure struggled up...it was coming out of the ground.
Oh, Jesus....what the shit?
The other figure went over and helped the struggling shadow up and out of the grave. They lumbered over to the fence. The gate was already open and they walked out into the woods beyond. The gate clanged behind them. Clinking against the post in the wind. It was the only movement there for a while. She didn't have the courage to get up to take a closer look. The metal scratched in the night.
She brought herself to a crouch again. Slowly, purposefully, without even breathing. The darkness grew thick around her. What if it was happening all over the cemetery? What if there are more shadows walking here in the night? What am I even saying? This isn't possible.
She looked around, most of the details hidden in the darkness. The trees stood watching. The dryer leaves rattled in the wind, fluttering like moths with nowhere to go. The grave markers that stood were like black omens in the sea of silver grass. Shadows seemed to move in her mind. All she could think about was how far the car was.
There was something in the fields to her left. A marker seemed to be closer than she remembered. She would stare and it waited. Another sound would distract. She looked back and it was closer. It had to be. What am I doing out here?
The gate smashed against the post in the wind. A metallic echo ran along the fence. It startled her enough to make her take extra time to ensure it was just the wind. She searched for the two dark shapes again. There was a bite in the wind, it reached down to her bones. It suddenly didn't feel like spring.
She looked back across the lawn to her left. The shape was far closer now. There was no denying. Wait...was it still moving? It was crawling towards her, slowly, silently. She stood without thinking. It matched her move, standing and sprinting at her before she could even think. A skull shimmered in the dim light. She jumped away from the tree to the right. Down from lot C, desperate to get to the main gate, a good ten minute run without a car. It didn't matter, she pushed herself with everything she had. She could see the beads of asphalt on the road ahead of her. It would be easier running on it so she didn't have to dodge headstones or any more of whatever this insanity was coming out of the ground.
Just before she reached the pavement she turned back to see how much distance she had put between them. It was closer, eyes peering out from the skull catching the moonlight with their desperate gaze. Her shoe snagged the lip of the curb as the grass turned into road. There was no catching herself. Before she knew it, her hands and face were skidding across the solid ground scraping away skin. She rolled forward, trying not to let the fall slow her down. For now, adrenalin absorbed the pain.
It was too late. The shadow had reached her. It jumped on her back, pulling her down to the ground. She screamed, throwing her fists and elbows at the weight on her. Then the back of her head smashed against her brain as something solid hit her from behind.
The first thing she noticed was her breathing. Once she could hear it, it was like her mind realized that she was awake again. The back of her head pulsed shattered glass across her body. Her hands felt like they were resting on needles, tangled somehow behind her. Her mouth tasted like she had thrown up. She opened her eyes, or at least she thought she did. There was just more blackness. Her breath felt close, hot, reused. She blinked trying to gather herself. Tried moving her hands but they refused to separate behind her.
Finally, she noticed a faint glow, it flashed in front of her then disappeared. A few moments later it returned. It felt close yet so far, like it was being held back. Then she noticed the light was reaching her through stitching, like burlap. She had something over her head but the pain didn't let her feel it.
There were more whispers. It sounded like ones she had heard the night before. There were words in them this time, if she strained enough to make them out.
“...isn't finding it, I know where it is.”
“Then do what I tell you. This is your punishment.”
“I won't be back 'til morning!”
“Then you better hurry and stay out of sight on your hike back. As you walk you can think about how I need to know everything that happens here. Especially when it concerns the old lots. I didn't bring you on to ruin the whole legacy!”
There was silence for a moment. Whimpering maybe. Whatever it was, it didn't sit right with her. Not that anything did in the moment.
“Now take the keys and take her car back to her house. Stay in the forest as much as you can on the way back up. No one is to see you. No one.”
She realized that this was Liam's voice. The other whimpering one may have been Ethan...it was hard to pay attention to anything over the hammer on her skull every heartbeat brought.
Suddenly the sack was taken off her head. Some strands of hair were pulled with it, radiating pinpricks through her spine. The flashlight was on her face making her blink. It overwhelmed her, she couldn't make out anything and tried to get up. She couldn't get her feet to work or her hands in front of her. They were both tied with zip chords. She was sitting on the ground, propped up against one of the gravestones, almost on top of her own hands.
The light finally was brought down. She squinted, trying to make out the figures in front of her. There was Liam, still in his suit vest and pants. The other two had their full skull mask beanies pulled up over their eyes. It was Hannah and Luke, her brother. They stood next to their father, shovels in hand and silent.
“I told you to be careful.” Liam said walking over to stand over Zoe.
“What's...what are...” It was hard for her to speak at all.
“Now now.” he said. “I wish everyone here listened to me more. Things would be so simple. If Ethan would tell me the things he should, if you would have just gone home, if these two would have just locked the gate!” He looked back at them.
“We told you, she had already...” Hannah started but Liam put up his hand and she grew silent again.
“Yes...what a curious little bird we have here.” he said.
"What's going on?" she said. There were tears threatening already. Something was torn out of reality, something was backward. She couldn't understand it, although she soon would.
“Don't fret.” he said. “What's going to happen is going to happen, you might as well face it with some dignity.”
“WHAT'S GOING ON?!” she couldn't contain it, squirming as much as the pain allowed her. “Please...please what's happening?”
“You ask too many questions, that's what's happening. You discovered something that I rather wish you hadn't. I do feel bad...it's true.”
“I haven't discovered anything...I just...”
"You have seen enough. You would have figured it out at some point. You can't let things go. It's great for your work ethic, but every strength has its weakness."
Zoe looked around her, a little more aware. They were still in lot C, a grave had been dug out, an older marker sitting above it. A mockingbird cried out somewhere in the trees, always sounding like something it wasn't.
She looked back at Liam, “You're digging up old graves.”
“You see! Not so complicated.” he said.
“What the hell for?”
"Oh, you could guess. We have run out of room here. The city will never let me buy the land next to the lot, it's hiking trails and conservation. But I'm not going to be the man to end my entire family's legacy."
“This...this is awful! You are supposed to be honoring the past not turning it for money!”
“And that's why I can't have you out there knowing this. You actually care! It's a terrible curse.”
“It won't matter if I know or don't! You can't think you will get away with this.”
His laugh only turned her anger hotter, enough to help her ignore her throbbing head. He looked at his children, they were chuckling too.
“I've been doing this for ten years.” he said looking back at her.
“No one cares about these old memories. There's no one left to remember them.”
"My family I'm serving remembers." she said.
“A rare deviance.” he snapped back. “If Ethan had done his job we would have set up the headstone without you knowing, you would have gotten your rubbing, you would sleeping right now just like you have for the year and a half you have worked here.”
“So you are replacing them with new graves”
“Not all...we are famous for some of the older ones. So they stay. We sprinkle the new ones in so it's not too obvious. Even you didn't question it, thinking we really found room between the old graves. How many times have you even been back this far? It's a lot of land to cover.”
“I just would have never thought anyone could...well...especially you!”
“And that kind of reasoning has allowed me to do this for ten years. But all of that doesn't matter. The question is what to do with you. Well, I already have an answer I suppose.”
He looked over at the freshly dug grave. She then realized on the other side of the hole was a casket, old splintering wood and covered in a layer of dirt.
“You...no...no.” she started pleading.
“As I said...I do feel bad. You could have avoided this. A shame.”
“No...but...but you said I was family!”
“And look how hard you worked for me.” he said with a smile starting at the corner of his mouth. “You believed the nice words and kindness. It's not like those things are hard to give. Even my own family questioned why I would hire a black woman from the city here. I knew as hard as it would be for you to trust, the kind words from a white man would go that much farther in the end.”
He smiled. “You were the first out of the family hire...we needed the extra help with all the new business.”
“On top of old business”
"Well, yes. I couldn't trust you with this, obviously. If you ever did find out, you would need to be dealt with. I knew no one would work too hard to find a black woman that had gone missing. Especially one that the whole white family, running a cemetery with confederate soldiers, said skipped out on work more often than not."
“But nothing...did you think I was just kind to you? I'm kind to everyone, and if I say something is so, they believe it all thanks to that kindness. Smiles win me more lies than hatred. Speaking of, please don't think I hate you. I'm no racist. But if other men's racism works for my benefit, why not use it?”
She couldn't stop herself from shaking. It wasn't the cold in the wind. It was those eyes. The cold faded blue looking through her. She didn't realize that, from the first time they pierced her like that, they were marking her for death. I'm going to die here tonight.
“Let me go...or I'm going to fucking scream like you've never heard before.”
“Go right ahead.” he said...the smile back on his face. “Do you think that anyone, even if they hear it out here in the hills, will run towards screaming, at night, in a graveyard?”
She looked at him, hope fading in her eyes, willing to fight...wanting to fight, not knowing how.
“That's the thing about humanity.” he said. “It loves the idea that it has pulled itself out of the darkness into the light of knowledge. But it still looks back and thinks it sees ghosts in the black. There aren't any of course, and that's where men like me take advantage. We work in the dark because decent people are too afraid to go there themselves. There isn't anyone here to stop us.”
"There might not be ghosts," Zoe said. "but there are monsters."
He signaled to his children and they picked her up off the ground. Dragging her towards the coffin.
No no no no no no!
She tried kicking and wriggling free. It made it harder, and they dropped her as they got her around the dug out grave. She wasn't going to make it easy, kicking at them with both legs still tied together on her back. She shuffled her arms down and brought her legs up to her chest. She ignored the pain as she squeezed her hands around her feet and in front of her. It was no use, though, they were still tied together. Luke punched her across the face while they both brought her back up. She started screaming. The sound was sucked into the willows.
Liam opened the casket. It was black on the inside, whoever had once been in there had been taken out and buried in the woods beyond the fence. They threw her inside and she tried to kick the sides of the wood. It was thick, well made even with its age.
“Please, please, please....no, God...no...no.”
“Shhh” Liam stood over the casket. “Think of it this way, this will be the greatest statement of equality you or I will ever make! In a hundred years, when they dig you back up to make more room, they won't be able to tell what kind of person you were. What color, gender even. You will be dust and bone...just like the rest of the bodies around you. We are all the same underneath it all.”
She tried to speak but she was crying, her throat tightened. Then one last burst of rage carried her voice through.
“The coyotes really do have plans all their own.”
Liam looked down at her and smiled. “Goodnight, my dear.” And he closed the casket.
Her screams ignored her tears but they were muffled in the wooden box, not even the willows could hear her anymore. They lowered her into the hole they had made under the old grave marker. It read:
“REMEMBERED IN OUR HEARTS”
She was in complete darkness hearing, at first, only her desperation. Then something far worse. Shovel fulls of dirt. They scraped against the top of her coffin. Rhythmic. Every drop brought more weight. The casket felt like it was crushing down on her chest, closing in as tight as the darkness itself. It wasn't even touching the top of her, though, but crushed her breathing all the same.
She beat at the wood all she could, then started scratching at it. All she could think was to dig. She had to dig, just keep digging out. She couldn't stop. The wood was unrelenting. She ignored whatever pain there was and kept digging. Finally, there was no sound. She brought her hands close to her face. She could barely make it out but there was a white gleam. It was just like what she found on the ground. Bone. She dug through her own flesh.
Dust and bone
Dust and bone