Grave robbery has never been that high on my list of to-dos’, but tonight, with a frigid Washington wind blowing in off Lake Cushman, I find myself up to my waist in dirt with a shovel in my hand. Weird how life likes to fuck with you sometimes. There are plenty of other places I could be tonight, and yet here I am, the muscles in my back aching like a bitch as I lift the haft of the shovel over my head and I pile drive the steel blade into the unforgiving, frozen earth.

Dorme, Passerotto. Shhh. Time to go to sleep.”

I ignore the soft whisper in my ear. That voice is long gone now. It doesn’t serve me to remember it, but…forgetting wouldn’t be right. Forgetting would feel like a betrayal.

The cut, scrape, swish of my work fills the night air, and a river of sweat courses down my spine. My body’s no stranger to physical labor, and I’m grateful of the fact as I press forward, hurling clods of icy dirt over my bare shoulder and out of the deepening hole. This task would be way shittier if I weren’t in shape. Scratch that…it’d probably be impossible.

I don’t believe in zombies, vampires, ghosts, or any other kind of apparition, but there’s something about this place that creeps me out. Yeah, it’s a graveyard, Poindexter. You’re surrounded by rotting bodies. I roll my eyes at my own inner monologue, again lobbing loose grave soil out onto the well-manicured grass to my right. It’s only natural that this place would have a sinister edge to it. It’s abandoned, not a soul in sight (very convenient for me), and yet there are signs of the living everywhere—laminated cards bearing the smiling faces of children; floral tributes, tinged with the first signs of fading decay; stuffed animals, fur matted and crusted over with frost. The people who left these trinkets and treasures are safe in their own warm houses now, though. It feels like the end of the world out here, a neglected place, filled with neglected memories. The moon overhead, round and fat in the clear September sky, casts long shadows, making spears out of the headstones.

I wipe at my forehead with the back of my forearm, grit and clay smearing my skin, and I consider how much further down I need to go. They bury people deeper than usual here in Grays Harbor County. I read that on the cemetery website yesterday morning when I was scoping the place. They said it was because of the bears. Seriously fucked up. I try not to think about that as I quicken my pace, eager to accomplish my goal and get the hell out of here.  

A loud, metallic clang eventually signals that I’ve come to the end of the road, I’ve found what I’m looking for, and that hard part, the disturbing-as-fuck part of this evening’s adventure has finally arrived. Takes some time to clear off the coffin and figure out how to open the damn thing. They always make it look so easy in the movies, but it’s not. Far from it. I nearly rip the damn nail from my index finger as I try to heave back the lid.

Figlio di puttana! Fucking piece of shit.” I nearly shove my finger into my mouth to suck on it, but then I remember the fucking grave dirt underneath the nail of the finger in question and I decide against it. Dirt is dirt is dirt, but grave dirt? No, thanks.

Upon close inspection, I conclude there’s no way to finesse the coffin open, so I resort to brute force, heaving on the wood until the coffin makes a splintering sound and the lid frees, groaning as it yawns reluctantly open.

Inside: the body of a man in his late fifties, dressed in a red button-down shirt and a black tie. No suit jacket. His face, a face I know all too well, is as severe and downturned in death as it was in life. Hooked nose; pronounced brow; deep, cavernous lines carved into the flesh of his cheeks, bracketing his thin-lipped, angry-looking mouth. His hands have been stacked on top of his chest. Beneath them: a copy of the Gideon’s Bible. The cheap, generic kind you might find in the drawer of a nightstand in a Motel 6. I scowl at the sight, a familiar, slick, oily knot tightening in my chest. Ahh, rage, my friend. Fancy seeing you here, you sly old fuck.

Speaking to a dead body isn’t nearly as weird as you might think. “Well, Gary. Looks like the piper wanted paying huh?” Sweat stings at my eyes. Crouching down, feet balanced on either side of the coffin, I take my t-shirt from my back pocket where I hung it for safe keeping and I use it to wipe at my face. Before I arrived here tonight, I’d prepared myself for the sickly-sweet odor of death, was ready to face it, but two feet away from Gary, the only thing I can smell are the winter pine trees on the wind. “Figured we’d end up here eventually,” I tell him. “Didn’t think it would be so soon, but hey…I’m not complaining.”

Unsurprisingly, Gary has very little say in return.

I contemplate his face, his sallow, sunken in cheeks and his pinched, withered features, and wonder when he got so gaunt. Was he always like that, or did the process of dying shave twenty pounds off the guy? I suppose it’s a mystery I’ll never solve now. It’s been six months since I saw him last; there’s every chance the bastard joined Jenny Craig during that time.

I stoop low over him and reach out a finger, prodding at his cheek, expecting to find some give in him, but there’s nothing. He’s solid. Stiff, like a calcified husk. Like I said, I didn’t come here unprepared. Gary’s been dead for four days, so it seemed prudent to read up on what kind of shape the motherfucker was going to be in when I unearthed him. His corpse isn’t bloated, though. His tongue isn’t protruding from between his teeth. He looks…he looks kind of normal. Even the makeup they must have put on him at the funeral home still looks like it’s holding up.

It’s the cold. Has to be. There’s no way he’d be so perfectly preserved otherwise. Honestly, I’m a little disappointed. A part of me was looking forward to seeing the bastard’s skin sloughing from his bones.

With quick hands I get to work, first grabbing the Bible and tossing it out of the grave, hissing between my teeth. Gary’s hands are next. I wrench them apart, then hinge his arms down by his sides, giving me room to unbutton his shirt and fold the material back. He’s wearing a vest, but that’s no big deal. I stand briefly so I can get my hand in my pocket, and then the short blade of my flick knife is gleaming brilliantly in the moonlight. The sharpened steel cuts through the thin polyester in two seconds flat.

Gary’s narrow, twisted pigeon chest hasn’t been rouged up like his face, and here I find the evidence of decay I was looking for. His skin’s pale, tinged an unhealthy blue, mottled like a fine-veined marble. And just off center of his torso, a little up and to the right, a small, neat, black hole with puckered edges punctures his skin.

Do morticians charge for sewing gunshot wounds closed? If they do, then Gary’s penny-pinching brother from Mississauga declined to cover the added expense. I never met him—the brother. In the three years I lived under the roof of Gary Quincy’s doublewide trailer, I only ever heard his brother’s voice on the other end of a telephone, and even then I knew I didn’t like the fucker.

“Had to make sure, Gaz,” I say. “Needed to see with my own two eyes. Now. Where’d you put it, hmm?” I pat down the pockets of his cheap suit pants, feeling carefully…

I didn’t just come here to make sure Gary Quincy was dead, though that was a big part of this. I’ve spent the last two hours laboring in the dirt, digging his ass up, because he has something that belongs to me, something he took from me, and I want it back.

His pockets are empty. Juuuust fucking perfect. I lift his head, checking his throat, just to make sure, but it’s not there, either.

“You swallow it, Gary?” I ask, glancing at the knife I rested on the edge of the coffin. “Wouldn’t put it past you, you fucking psycho.” I take up the knife, dread lacing my bones as I survey the concave shell of his stomach, wondering if I have the stones to even proceed with such a fucking crazy idea. Cutting Gary open, unravelling his intestines, feeling around inside the cavities, nooks and crannies of his insides will not be something I’ll ever be able to forget. Something like that changes a person, I’m betting, and I don’t really feel like undertaking that type of a transformation right now. I like being able to sleep at night.

Dorme, Passerotto. Shhh. Time to go to sleep.”

Fuck. No, not here. Not now. I push the voice aside, shivering away from the comforting warmth of it, and I’m left chilled to my core, a cold, angry fist closing around my heart.

“Fuck you, Gary,” I growl under my breath. “It wasn’t yours. You should have known I wouldn’t let you keep it.” Steeling myself, I pick up the knife and lower the blade, its shining tip hovering an inch above Gary’s stomach. I’m ready. I can do this. I’ll gut him from stem to sternum if means I can reclaim what’s mine.

The knife meets Gary’s skin, and…

The moonlight strengthens for a second, the shadows inside the grave peeling back, and I catch an unexpected flash of gold out of the corner of my eye. A brisk gust of wind moans through the trees, and I stop dead.

There…in Gary’s right hand.

Motherfucker,” I hiss. “I knew it. Couldn’t just leave it for me, could you? Had to make sure I never found it.” Prizing Gary’s fingers open takes work. I don’t even flinch when I feel the snap of his middle finger breaking, though. I actually have to fight the macabre urge to break even more of his bones as I pluck the small gold medallion attached to the fine gold chain out of his palm and close my own hand around it.

Suddenly, I’m five years old again, watching owl-eyed as a woman with hair the color of sunshine kisses the small, golden medallion and tucks it inside her shirt. “St. Christopher, holy patron of travelers, protect and lead me safely on my journey.”

Jesus, the past is hitting hard tonight. It’s as if my close proximity to Gary’s empty carcass is opening all kinds of doors to the dead, and I can’t fucking take it a moment longer. Standing, freezing cold now that I’ve been still for a while and my sweat has cooled, I adopt a wide stance with my feet still planted on either side of the coffin, and I unzip my fly. “Sorry, Gary. But you and I both know you deserve this.”

Steam rises from the coffin as my piss splashes down onto Gary’s chest. I’ve been waiting for this for a long, long time. It feels…Damn, it feels fucking—

“Hold it right there, kid. Stop what you’re doing this instant!”

Oh, come on.

I tense, freezing in place, every part of me rigid.

The female voice behind me is alive with anger as she repeats her command. “I said stop what you’re doing, asshole!”

I risk a glance over my shoulder and my stomach sinks when I see the uniform. The badge. The gun aimed at the back of my head. “If you’re referring to the fact that I’m still pissing, Officer, then I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do. Stopping mid-flow is bad for the prostate.” I smile to myself, knowing I’m not helping matters. Fuck it though, right? I am going to be arrested. No doubt about it. And if my ass is getting thrown in jail for this, then I’ll be damned if I don’t finish what I started.

“Kid, if you don’t quit right now and put your dick away, you’re gonna get Tazed. You understand me?”

Ahh. Tazer, not a gun. Well, I guess that’s something. I surrender a long, resigned sigh. I do not stop.

“Last chance, dumbass.”

There are worst things to be in this life than stubborn and dedicated to a cause. And let’s face it…this opportunity will never present itself again. I brace, even though bracing is pointless, and I wait for the pain.

When it comes, lancing into my back, striking like lightening down my arms and into my legs, I retain just enough control to make sure I sag sideways into Gary’s grave and not forwards.

After all, the very last thing I need, on the back of such a long and successful night, is to find myself slumped over the deceased remains of the man who repeatedly beat me, while lying in a pool of my own piss.

Somehow, through my gritted teeth, my tensed muscles, and the blinding ball of pain that’s lashed itself to my back, I manage to choke out a single, bitter burst of laughter.

The sound echoes like a gunshot over midnight Lake Cushman.