Monday, August 12, 2019

Vet Cemetery by R.R. Trevino

...In which a teenager steals from the dead. By R.R. Trevino.

My life ceased being my own on Veterans Day, 2013. It started with my mother rousing me at the crack of dawn and dragging me from my bed to the car so that we could stick to our annual commitment of visiting Rick, her dead brother, who was buried at the local veterans cemetery. The fact that I had never met Uncle Rick, due to him bleeding out in a Vietnamese jungle decades before I even was born, wasn't justification enough for her to exclude me from the tradition.

The gates to the cemetery didn't open until 7am, but there we were, waiting diligently near the front of a long line of cars. "Almost time," my mom said, "so go on and start getting up." I sat up in my seat and looked out on the rolling hills of granite headstones, spaced at perfect intervals. I turned my attention to the passengers in the other cars, all somberly waiting to pay their respects.

"Still don't get why we have to wake up so early," I said. "It's not like there's going to be a line at his grave."

She turned to me and glared. "Please, please, don't be asshole you right now," she said. "Not today."

I rolled my eyes back to the cemetery. The grounds were immaculate; not a wilted bouquet, mildewed stuffed animal, or spoiled offering of any kind to be found. That was because each Friday evening, after the last visitor had departed, the groundskeeper would sweep the sections and round up anything that wasn't bolted down or buried. Didn't matter what it was, how sentimental or expensive, every item got the same treatment: straight into the trash bin.

Because of this rule, I thought it idiotic to bring anything in the first place. Waste of money, and besides, the recipient of the gift was dead and therefore, unable to appreciate it. There was a lot of religion in my mom, the unwavering belief of an afterlife and all that, but those messages never resonated with me. I thought then that once a person was dead, he was dead, lights out, returned to the earth from which he sprang.

The groundskeeper's truck motored to the front gate. The driver's side door opened and out he stepped. Though I had seen him a number of times before, his appearance still shocked me. Age north of eighty, he looked sickly, like someone who should be tucked away in his deathbed, not punching a clock. Stringy gray hair swung in knotted ropes over a deeply grooved, sunken face. Bloodshot eyes, too close together, perched over a bulbous nose, swollen and red. But it was his skin, which hung in heavy folds off long-atrophied muscles, that drew my attention the most as he shuffled toward the wrought-iron fence, fussing with a heavy key ring. It was nearly translucent; the network of unsightly black veins that carried sludgy blood to barely functioning organs was visible to all who dared look at him.

Once inside the gate, we turned at the first intersection, and chugged along the road that would eventually deliver us to the section where Uncle Rick was buried. My thoughts turned back to all the waste the cemetery generated. For example, several years ago, I saw a family leave a stack of new board games at a headstone. I was tempted to steal them. Maybe my mom and I could've played them together, bridging the gap that had started to form between us after dad left, but she never would've allowed that. Better they be relegated to the trash can, along with the wilted flowers, stick flags, and tiny plastic windmills. There was this other time I saw a fat woman leave behind an oil painting of her dead husband.

We parked along the curb of Section C, Lot 3, which backed up to a tree-lined pathway that encircled a small pond. This particular section was considered special. Only those killed in combat could be buried here.

"No more than fifteen minutes, right?" I said.

"A little respect, please," she said. "These men died for your freedom and -" yadda-yadda-yadda...

I stepped out of the car and watched as other folks flooded the section. The horde splintered off as each family, carrying flowers or some other offering, adjusted direction toward the plot of its destination. There, they gathered and crouched at the headstones to perform their little rituals. I heard quiet sobs and loud guffaws, saw wide smiles and quivering lips. The entire range of emotions associated with human beings in states of grief was on display. A few would even touch the headstones, but never for too long, almost as if death was catching.

I was strangely unmoved by it all. It was hot. I was tired. I just wanted to dump the bouquet of flowers we brought and be back home, in the AC. My mother fell in next to me, mascara already runny. I took the flowers and stepped over the curb onto the well-manicured grass.

Uncle Rick's gravesite was located on the second to last row, off to the right of where we parked. The quickest way there was a diagonal path, but as soon as I stepped out of the aisle onto the grass laid out in front of a headstone, I heard my mother's voice.

"Keep to the lanes, please," she said. "Jeez, Caleb, how many times?"

We arrived at Uncle Rick's headstone. The inscription read:

RICHARD ALLAN CLARK
1939-1970
CPL, USMC
VIETNAM
LOVING SON AND BROTHER

Fat droplets of mascara streamed down my mother's cheeks. She dabbed at the them with a tissue. "Hey Ricky," she said, then caressed the headstone's crown.

I considered reaching for her hand, holding it tight in her time of need, but she had stuffed them both into her pockets. So, I crouched and placed the flowers, rather precariously, against the granite slab.

"Don't just set them down like that," she said, then bent over and snatched them from the ground. "They'll fall over the second we leave. Here, hold them while I get the shovel."

As she rummaged through her purse, searching for the small plastic gardening spade she always brought to dig a divot in the grass, my gaze drifted along the last row of headstones, where I spotted a full bottle of Maker's Mark leaned against the base of one. The red wax that sealed the bottle and hardened into messy rivulets down the side of the glass was undisturbed.

"Here it is," my mom said, pulling the tool out of her purse. I swapped the flowers for the spade, bent down, dug out a little hole, and jabbed in the stems of the bouquet. We stood there in the near-silence of her sniffling, and thought of different things; her of memories of her brother, me of that bottle of Maker's Mark. Had someone always brought and left it there, year after year, and I failed to notice until now? If so, funny how we notice the things in the world that relate to our place in it; the stack of board games when I was much younger, the bottle of booze as I neared the end of high school.

The headstone it was gifted to was close enough to read the inscription.

MARVIN COREY JONES
1934-1970
CAPT, USMC
VIETNAM
SILVER STAR

Was the bottle some kind of trick? I scanned the vicinity to see if anyone else had noticed it, or me looking at it. That's when I saw the groundskeeper, standing in the shade of a tree, glaring at me as he puffed away at a cigarette.

"He was captain of your Uncle Rick's unit in Vietnam," my mother said, pointing out Captain Jones's headstone.

I was so transfixed on the groundskeeper, the sudden sound of her voice made my heart jig. She continued as I looked her way: "I met him once, between their first and second deployments. To be honest, he scared me. Real tough guy, imposing, didn't talk much. But I know your Uncle Rick looked up to him. Worshipped him even. They all did. Couldn't save Rick that day, but he did save a lot of them before he got shot."

I glanced back to where the groundskeeper stood, but he was no longer there. I pointed out the bottle. "What's up with that?" I said.

"People pay their respects in different ways. C'mon, let's get out of this sun."

I slid back into bed upon returning home, but sleep proved to be elusive. Imagery of the groundskeeper and his constellations of black veins were indelible on the insides of my eyelids. I played video games and jerked off to pass the time, both activities done half-heartedly.

Night brought with it a chill and a text from Shea, a friend who I had been crushing on lately. Molly, our other friend, was holding a gathering at her house and now Shea was parked outside, waiting to drive me there. I pulled on a hoodie, spit-styled my hair, then headed downstairs. My mom was planted on the couch in her nightgown, watching a movie. "Going out with Shea," I said.

"Be home by midnight," she said, without bothering to peel her eyes from the screen. "If I'm asleep by then, don't wake me or I'll be up all night."

"Yeah," I said, then strode outside and climbed into Shea's hatchback.

Shea's style bucked trends, which I loved. She mixed a flat-billed hat, cocked to the side over short, dyed hair, with heavy necklaces of tortoise stones that hung loosely over a shredded sweatshirt. One sleeve was scrunched up to her elbow, revealing the beginnings of what would become a full ink sleeve.

We drove across town and parked along the curb in front of Molly's house, the largest on a street of expensive homes. It sat on a corner lot and had trumpet vines crawling up all sides of its two-story brick facade. Shea reached over my lap and fished a preloaded glass one-hitter out of the glove compartment.

"Last of my shit," she said, then sparked the end of the pipe with a lighter. The weed crackled as she sucked the smoke into her lungs and held it there. She turned to me, beckoning me closer with a flick of the head. I leaned in, cupped my hands around my mouth, our lips nearly touching, and received the shotgun blast of smoke. We parted and I exhaled the second hand smoke out the cracked window. We sat there for a moment, looking out on the dark street beyond the windshield, allowing the THC to invade our bloodstream. I considered turning back toward Shea and making a move, but decided to wait, the night ahead being full of possibilities.

"Shaping up to be a wild night," Jack said.

The five of us - me, Shea, Jack, Travis, and Molly - stood in a circle around the kitchen table, looking down at a mismatched collection of warm beers. Five in total, some in cans, others bottled, each a different brand, all leftovers from Molly's last party.

"We could head to Quikie Mart, see if somebody will buy us a case," Molly said.

"Shit doesn't work anymore," Jack said.

Shea stifled a yawn. "Think I'm just gonna go home and chill, Neflix it up."

Things were looking grim. The image of the Maker's Mark bottle flashed in my head, but was quickly overtaken by the memory of the groundskeeper and the look, no, the warning, he gave me. Rationalizing the cemetery was long closed now and the groundskeeper had gone home for the night, I opened my mouth and spoke words I would soon regret.

"I know where we could get a bottle of something good."

Every head snapped my direction, so I told them what I had seen. Molly appeared uneasy at the idea, but Shea looked intrigued. Jack and Travis, of course, were on board. "I'll drive," Jack said, and jingled his car keys. The girls opted not to come, though Shea left me with a delightful smile and the words, "Hurry back."

Jack, Travis and I stood against the tall spear-top metal fence that ran the perimeter of the cemetery grounds, which was now littered with flowers, trinkets, and other mementos left behind by the grief-stricken. The headstones exposed to the night sky were lit eerily, the granite mingling with the moonlight to give off an ethereal shimmer, like gleaming bits of perfectly carved bone. The shaded sections, and those on the opposite side of the pathway, were cloaked behind a wall of darkness.

Being teenage boys, on a mission to get booze for girls, we acted unfazed by it all, but nothing could have been further from the truth. The fear was palpable, with a weight to it, something that could be measured. It pinched into our shoulders, sat on our chests, hung from our necks like metal spheres chained to medieval dungeon collars.

"It's back through the trees there, on the other side," I said.

"We'll keep watch," Jack said.

"You're not coming?" I said.

"Your idea, so you go get it," Jack said. "Travis?" I said, turning my attention his way.

Travis looked down and kicked at gravel.

"Can't believe this shit," I said, and scanned the grounds one final time for any sign of the groundskeeper, but there was no evidence of the living.

"One of you pussies give me a fucking boost then," I said, quite angry.

Travis made a basket with his hands. I stepped into it and was lifted up and over the top, taking care not to puncture any organs on the speared tips. I eased myself down on the other side, pulled my hoodie over my head, and ventured out into the grounds.

I was utterly exposed moving through the first section. It was possible to shorten the distance by cutting a path through the section; but, feeling much more superstitious now that night had fallen, I stuck to the lanes and avoided stepping on any of the graves.

The sight of a Dachshund, sitting obediently at the base of a headstone, froze me in my steps. Last thing I needed was a barking dog to alert the world to my trespassing on sacred ground. I stood there and watched. When it didn't move for a full minute, I realized the dog was stuffed, placed there to be with its former owner. At least for another week, before it too would meet the fate of the trash bin. I started moving again and finally reached tree cover.

The manner the trees rose up on both sides of the pathway, their wild branches hanging evenly over top, made it feel like I was indoors somewhere, navigating a dark corridor. Luckily, the peels of moonlight falling through small gaps in the canopy provided adequate illumination for me to keep moving forward until the path could deliver me to the other side.

I was within fifty yards of my destination when I first heard the music. Faint at first, like notes skipping on a breeze. Confused, I checked my phone, thinking perhaps a playlist was inadvertently triggered, but it was locked and silent. There were the unmistakable sounds of an electric guitar, verging on distortion, accompanied by blues-soaked vocals. Classic Rock sound. Hendrix, sounded like. I stood there, very still, and listened. Definitely Hendrix. All Along the Watchtower was the song.

It was at that moment I should have turned back, slapped the proverbial abort button so hard that it broke off the control panel. Instead, I crept forward, the music getting louder with each step, until I arrived at a break in the trees, and looked out on the entirety of Section C, Lot 3.

I took note of the maintenance shack, its windows dark, across the section and off the road. I figured the music must be coming from there, but, strangely, it seemed much closer, as if it was being piped into my head via ear buds. I oriented myself to what I believed to be Capt. Jones's headstone, though I couldn't be sure since the epitaphs were facing the other direction.

The music stopped abruptly the moment I stepped off the pavement onto the grass. There was a scratching sound, like a needle being lifted off a spinning piece of vinyl. Strange. I checked again the dark windows of the maintenance shack, but saw nothing. Too close to hesitate any longer, I ran as fast as I could, straight to what I believed to Capt. Jones's headstone, trampling over each grave caught in my path.

I had guessed correctly and saw that the bottle was still there, but now, it was only half-full. I picked it up for an inspection, noting that the wax seal had not been broken or disturbed in any way.

The sound of a door shutting jolted me out of thought. I looked back to see the groundskeeper hobbling out of the maintenance shack. Two brilliant beams of light, which I assumed were high-powered flashlights, flooded from his position and momentarily blinded me.

I spun into the cover of a tree, back to the bark. As my vision slowly returned, I watched as the beams cleaved through the darkness around me. The beams were strangely in sync, and the distance between them never changed, no matter which direction they pointed. Having to find out the reason for such a strange phenomenon, I waited until they danced far enough away, then peeked out from behind cover. Only then did I see the horrible truth.

The beams were shooting from the groundkeeper's eyes.

He detected my movement and swung his eye-lights. I bolted from my position and sprinted for the pathway. I could feel the heat of them on my back as I rounded the trees, until finally, I felt the hard pavement beneath my feet.

The next two minutes were a blur. I crashed through bushes, hurdled headstones, and dodged trees. When the perimeter fence came into view, I was relieved to see that Jack and Travis had not left me. "Start the car," I yelled, closing in on the fence.

Jack must have seen the terror in my eyes because he ran straight to his car and turned the ignition. My forward momentum sent me crashing into the fence. Travis watched, horrified, as I leapt up and power-gripped the bars. I dangled there for a moment, feet struggling to find purchase on the slick metal. Eventually, I found a foothold and scurried up and over the fence. In my state of panic, rather than easing myself down as I had done earlier, I jumped.

The crack of my ankle was audible as I crumbled to the ground. I reached for it with both hands, the searing pain nearly unbearable. Travis helped me to my feet, and guided me into Jack's car. The tires kicked up gravel as it carried us away from there.

"Is it broken?" Travis said from the front passenger seat.

"Give me some light," I said.

Travis fumbled his cell phone out and directed the flashlight beam at my leg. I carefully removed my shoe and sock, sucking air through clenched teeth in response to the sharp pain. There was slight discoloration and it was beginning to swell, but I wasn't convinced it was broken.

"Think I just need some ice," I said.

"The fuck happened back there?" Jack said.

"I... there was this music, and then, the groundskeeper, he... had... lights in his eyes," I said. Silence hung in the air as Jack and Travis exchanged glances. Then, they started to laugh.

"I'm serious," I said.

"We believe you," Travis said, still chuckling. "You smoked some of Shea's shit, didn't you?"

"Yeah," I said, "just a shotgun."

"Guess she didn't mention she laces her shit then," Jack said.

I sat there, stunned. The high just felt like an average high, nothing special. But if that weed was laced, it would explain a lot. If it wasn't, I was either losing my mind or there exist things in this world worse than any nightmare. I remembered the bottle in my hoodie pocket. If Jack and Travis could see that it was only half-full, without any evidence that it had been opened, that would settle the matter.

"Explain this then," I said, sliding the bottle into the light. Right away, I saw that it was back to being full again.

"I know what you need," Travis said. "I know what we all need."

Travis took the bottle, located the paper tag curled beneath the wax and peeled it away, revealing the twist cap beneath. He took the first pull, then passed it back to me. I sniffed at the liquid inside, then tossed it back. The liquor was smooth going down. I passed the bottle to Jack, and he took a pull. I leaned back into the seat as an instant warmth blossomed in my belly and spread throughout my body. The pain in my ankle subsided, leaving behind only a vague throbbing.

Word of the party must have spread because now a half dozen cars were parked in front of Molly's. Jack found an open spot and parked. Travis provided me a shoulder to lean on as I hobbled toward the front door. Jack was kind enough to carry the bottle, which he displayed victoriously to the dozen people spread about in the living room, where rap music thumped from speakers and hands plucked beers from a case of Pabst, apparently a contribution from one of the newcomers.

Shea's eyes lit up at the sight of the bottle. She sprung from the couch and approached us. "You really got it," she said to Jack, impressed.

I snatched the bottle from his hands. "I got it," I said, "he drove." Jack's eyes sharpened into daggers, but I didn't care.

"We need to talk," I said to Shea, stone-faced. I took her firmly by the arm and led her into the hallway. Noticing my limp, she said, "What happened?"

I didn't answer and gently spun her so that she faced me. "What was in that bud?" I said, "And don't lie." She cocked her head, confused.

"Nothing," she said. "Just weed, and not even very good."

I studied her face for the slightest hint of deception, but I saw none. What I did see there was a growing fear, a fear of me. I released her arm. "I'm sorry," I said. "It's been a weird night."

After an awkward pause, I said: "Can you drive me home? I need to sleep and get off this ankle." She reached out and wrapped my hand into hers. "Don't go yet," she said. Her eyes were hypnotic, beckoning.

The five originals squirreled ourselves away from the others in Molly's dad's movie room, which featured a plush leather couch, an eighty-inch, wall-mounted 4K screen, and wall shelving loaded with an impressive collection of Blu-ray titles. Molly had been kind enough to fetch me a bag of ice, an Ace bandage, and an old pair of crutches she found tucked away in a closet. I held the bag of ice over my wrapped ankle as Jack topped off five shot glasses.

"A toast," Jack said, holding up his shot glass. The rest of us followed his lead. "To Caleb, for being a teenage grave robber."

Everyone except me laughed, then threw back their shots. I held my still full shot glass, and said: "No, to Jack, for being a little bitch who profits off the hard work of others. May that trend continue the rest of your life." Not pausing for reactions, I slammed back my shot.

"Fuck you, dude," Jack said, but I ignored him, and refilled all five shot glasses. One by one, I knocked them back. "Take the bottle," I said, to no one in particular. "I'm just gonna chill in here and watch a movie."

Jack snatched the bottle, now half-full, and stormed out. Travis and Molly followed, but Shea lingered. "You going to be alright?" she said.

"If you stay here," I said, "and watch a movie with me." She hesitated, and I knew then that I had lost her. "But, the party's out there," she said. "I'll check on you later."

The hope died on my face. "Don't bother," I said. "Lock the door behind you." She turned, locked the door from the inside, and departed the room. I struggled to my feet and perused the lowest shelf of discs. Finding one I liked, I inserted into the player, hit play, then sank back into the couch. Before the opening credits were done rolling, my eyelids were flickering. The six successive shots had done the trick, and I was asleep within minutes.

I dreamt of the groundskeeper and his eye-lights. The beams cut through infinite darkness, until they found me, exposed, with nowhere to hide. I screamed as the temporary blindness set in.

The room was filled with bright light when I awoke. It took a few seconds to realize the light was pouring in through a street-facing window. I struggled off the couch for a look, and saw a car parking along the curb. A few drunken teenagers spilled out and staggered toward Molly's front door. I realized then the light had come from the car's headlights as it turned onto Molly's street. I breathed a sigh of relief, and as the fear washed away, the hangover set in. A wrecking ball knocked about in my head, my tongue was a strip of sandpaper, and my bladder burned. I needed to piss and drink a full gallon of water, neither option available to me in this room. I'd have to brave the party outside my door, which, judging by the noise, had grown considerably.

Through the window, I noticed a person standing in the front yard of a house across the street. He was difficult to see, loitering just beyond the reach of streetlamp light. From what I could make out, the person was tall and built, and he wore one of those short-billed military dress caps that sat tall on his head. At first, I didn't think it too strange. I had seen plenty of hipsters at school sport similar hats. He could also be an R.O.T.C. cadet coming from a function, and had opted not to change before heading to the party. He must be drunk, I thought, and had wound up in the yard of the wrong house. A passing car obscured my view and when I looked back, he was gone.

I clumsily positioned the crutches beneath my armpits and hobbled to the door, which opened on a dark hallway. To the left was the party, the ruckus of which made my headache even worse. Luckily, I remembered the downstairs bedroom, to the right, and its en-suite bathroom. I headed that direction, and as I inched closer to the door, I heard the unmistakable sounds of sex. This was not unexpected; that room had been unofficially christened The Hook-Up Spot during a prior party. Normally, I would've turned back, given the couple their privacy, but seeing as I was about to piss my pants, I barged in.

I kept my head down as I moved through the room, trying my best to not look directly at the forms of pinkish flesh gyrating against each other on top of the bed. I navigated my way over piles of clothes, his and hers, strewn about on the hardwood, and only stopped when I saw the Marker's Mark bottle resting atop a nightstand.

It was full again.

"You just gonna stand there like a gimpy perv or what?" a voice said, words slurred and tinged with anger.

I turned and saw Jack's face. Shea was beneath him, desperately trying to wiggle the blanket over their exposed bodies. For a moment I thought Jack had cornered her, put her in a position she didn't want to be in. When she refused to meet my eyes, I understood she was exactly where she wanted to be.

Angrily, I snatched the bottle, worked my way into the bathroom and emptied my bladder. I found my reflection in the mirror. It was neither angry nor sad, just blank. I flushed, scooped several handfuls of water from the tap into my mouth, then hurried back to the hallway, closing the door behind me.

It was an awkward juggling act trying to chug from the bottle while crutching my way forward, but by the time I reached the living room, I'd managed to get down a good third of its contents.

The drunken crowd flickered and undulated like a school of fish, rolling to fill any blank space the moment one appeared. A thousand conversations happening at once, each competing with the incessant thumping from the stereo speakers. Roughly half the faces I recognized. The others must have been from neighboring high schools - when a party grew large enough, school exclusivity went out the window, whether the house owner approved of it or not. In this particular case, Molly seemed not to care. I found her flailing in the corner, showing off her dance moves to the ogling male faces that encircled her. I glimpsed Travis through the back window, gathered around a keg, taking turns on a beer bong. Neither scene appealed to me, but I didn't want to return to the movie room just to sit there with my tortured thoughts. Some drunk people watching would do some good in clearing my head of the images of Jack and Shea. Plus, I needed to take the weight off my ankle. I spotted a small opening on a couch and moved that way.

As I pin-balled my way through the crowd, I noticed two older guys huddled along the perimeter. Their faces were manlier than those surrounding them, clean-shaven and angular, with pronounced jaw lines. Like the figure I saw earlier, they too wore service dress caps, and had the pressed uniforms to match, adorned with racks of service ribbons and shooting medals that shimmered upon breast pockets. Must be R.O.T.C. recruits from a different school, I thought.

I found the couch and plopped down. I drank and drank as the faces in the crowd were replaced by more faces. Eventually, I passed out.

The sounds of Jimi's warped rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner filled my ears before my eyes opened to a dark room. I felt around for the bottle, but it was missing, carried off by some opportunist. I looked about - the party ended long ago, and all that remained was a metric ton of red Solo cups and beer cans, which littered every square inch of tabletop surface. I wasn't alone. Molly, her face pressed into the cushions, was next to me on the couch. Travis was asleep in a dining chair, his face flush with the kitchen table.

I was sober now and desperately wanted to go home. Struggling to my feet, bones popping and crying out, I headed for the guest bedroom to make Shea drive me home. I had moved past her betrayal, and would now prey upon her guilt. Something was strange in the way my body felt as I lumbered through the dark house. Instead of the pain being contained to my ankle, it was now everywhere. My movements rigid, each step a struggle.

They were still there - Jack and Shea - lying nude beneath a twist of sheets. I pulled back the blanket that covered their faces, and reeled from the horror.

Their bodies were fused together, locked in an eternal coital embrace by skin that seemed to have melted then solidified at every point of contact. Mouths, noses, chests, groins. If they did struggle when the hex had first been put upon them, it was a fight they lost, most likely suffocating after being forced to inhale what the other was exhaling.

I stumbled back, mouth agape, my lungs, which already felt strange and heavy, struggling to grasp air. I fished my cell from my pocket, but it was dead. I tried concocting a plan of escape, or rescue, but the deafening music drowned all thought. I hurried to the stereo, but found that it was powered off; yet, the music, originating from the same ungodly realm it had at the cemetery, continued.

Molly was closest, so I went to her first. I shook her by the arms. Her skin was cold, clammy. The horror building, I slowly flipped her over. Where the openings of her eyes, nose and mouth had been was now sheathed over with thin, newly formed layers of skin. Travis was the same.

I made my way through the sliding glass back door, which was already open. Instead of seeing the pool and other features that had been there, I found myself back in the veterans cemetery.

Out of the shadows they stepped. There were five of them, each dressed in Marine Corps Dress Blues. They marched in a straight line toward me. As the moonlight slowly lit up their pale faces, I recognized Uncle Rick on the far right of the formation. Their blank eyes stared straight ahead, seeing nothing and everything at once. Thousand-yard stare, I'd heard my mother call it.

I tried to flee, back into the house, anywhere, as they continued their slow advance, but my body was frozen with fear. They halted just short of me, heels of their polished dress shoes clicking together, arms locked in tight to their sides. The military bearing they mastered in life followed with them into the beyond.

I opened my mouth to speak, but the only thing that came out was a weak gurgle, as if my vocal chords were dried-up strips of meat, dangling uselessly in my throat.

The formation of ghost soldiers parted, creating an open lane. Their hands snapped to their covers in unison, saluting as the bottle of Maker's Mark rolled by their feet and knocked into mine. That would not be the end of the procession.

Another Marine materialized out of the shadows and marched down the lane, stopping mere inches from my face. His frame was massive, skin so black that it melded with the enveloping darkness around him. The whites of his eyes sparkled like mounds of fresh snow. Moonlight glinted off the silver bars on his lapel, as well as the line of medals adoring his chest, including, most prominently, the Silver Star. I read the surname etched on the brass nameplate pinned to his chest: Jones.

Capt. Jones picked up the bottle and pushed it toward me. I took it into my quivering hand and looked into the glass. Instead of my face, the groundskeeper stared back at me. My eyes drifted from the reflection to the hand that held the bottle. Translucent skin hung off the old bones like clothes put out to dry. A network of black veins spread up the forearm and disappeared from view.

I looked back to Capt. Jones, and noticed he was now looking past me, into the glass of the sliding door. I turned and saw the groundskeeper in full and realized my eternal fate. My mouth struggled to form an oval, but no scream came out. The only thing that emitted from my body were the beams of light shooting from my eyes. They swept like searchlights across the night sky.

The instructions were made clear in my bones. When the next Veterans Day came, I was out there among the headstones before daybreak to place the bottle of Maker's Mark where it needed to go. Later, as the cars began to stream in, I watched from a distance as my mother paid teary-eyed tribute to her dead brother. I wished to go comfort her, but the time for that had passed. She would recognize me even less now than she did before.

4 comments:

  1. Very entertaining and well plotted horror story. Hedonistic teen learns respect the hard way.

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  2. Pretty compelling, especially the first half, up to the place where he hurts his ankle. Couldn't stop reading. Then it slowed for me. I could have been satisfied with the soldiers coming in earlier. But overall, nicely done.

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  3. My favorite sort of horror tale, kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. Wild ending, makes me wonder how many groundskeepers there have been through the years...

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