It was 7am when the dead began to wake, and John had only just finished breakfast. He saw it happen by an accidental glance through the open chapel doors. Throughout the cemetery, hands flung from the earth like grabby flowers, and John was at the center of it all, wishing his best laid plans had laid a little longer.
The spellbook he had on long-term loan from the local library had confidently assured him the raising would take a week to go into effect. How the mad, grinning thing had found its way into the Valleyvale Public Library, John couldn’t guess. But the leather-skinned tome (or at least it felt like leather…) had a robust and confident voice that brooked no argument.
“A week! A week! The dead shall peak!” it told him.
But it had only been three days since he said the words, three days since he slew the lamb and spread its entrails over the earth. Three days since he…
Oh no, John realized. I forgot the re-fertilizer.
John wiped the egg from his face. If he didn’t get the front gate open, this would all be a waste. Not the herald of Valleyvale’s doom… just a minor inconvenience. John wondered bitterly if those words would appear on his gravestone.
Most of the dirt-nappers shambled with mad, drunk determination, unfazed by gravestones and other obstacles which tripped and tumbled them over. Others wriggled across the grass, dragging limbs too decayed to walk on.
John crept quietly out of the chapel, but was so distracted by the rising hoard that, out of dumb habit, he turned to lock the door behind him.
A loud clack! came from the lock, and every rotting head turned his direction. The dearly departed hissed and gnashed their teeth and reached for him with outstretched hands. Panicking, John made a break for it, forgetting his keys and running stiffly towards the gate, while the daisy-pushers shambled after him.
It was at the town hall that the horrible plot had first come to him, sprouting through the soft soil of John’s id like some dark thing that had long been germinating. Somewhere in the hubbub of hissing voices, waving arms, and fingers clutching hungrily for attention, inspiration had whispered in John’s good ear.
The whole town had gathered, all of them demanding John’s resignation as cemetery groundskeeper. Some called him careless. Others called him heartless. One person said having an overzealous night-watchman was overkill and things escalated from there.
Through circumstances beyond his control, John had been responsible for the death of a high school sophomore. Oops didn’t begin to cover it.
The teenagers he’d routinely chased from the cemetery spoke against him, looking very penitent with their big, crocodile tears. They told how the scary man came after them, they’d thought they were in danger, and then Danny tripped, diving headfirst into a gravestone, and ultimately the grave.
Well, stupid Danny shouldn’t have been stupid trespassing. John hated Danny. Even if he was dead. Especially because he was dead. Dead Danny had cost him everything.
They all expected John’s tenure as groundskeeper to pass without so much as a whimper, but John had determined to leave, if not with a bang, then at least with a few raspy moans for brains.
It had all sounded very grand in his head. Unfortunately, the reality looked like this…
Even through the decay of their bodies, John recognized many of the worm-feeders trailing behind him. He’d known them during his life and had been glad to put them in the ground.
There are no friends in small town communities, John often thought. Just relentless acquaintances. And that is what John found chasing him with gray-wormed mouths and dead set eyes – acquaintances.
The danger ought to have sharpened his senses, but John tripped over the same roots and flat-stones he always tripped over when surveying the grounds. Instead of laughter, however, he heard only the gnashing of teeth, and his terror made him trip again.
John was so preoccupied watching his feet that he found himself bumping into someone he recognized. Danny had come back, hungrier and dumber and with less acne than before. He grabbed John by the shoulders, as a person does when they wish to be taken seriously, and indeed, John now took Danny very seriously.
The two grappled as the other dirt-nappers closed in around them. They tumbled onto the grass which was still fresh with morning dew, though John had the misfortune of hitting his head on the base of a towering gravestone.
The words Here Lies hung ominously over him.
This is it, he thought. The town wanted him gone and now they would get their stupid wish. Lawyers be damned, it wasn’t his fault. Accidents happen. Even the best groundskeeper can’t catch every exposed root. He was paid to keep trespassers off the premises, wasn’t he?
As John struggled with the ungrateful dead, he saw in the distance, just past the gate, a pack of teenagers on their way to school – the same teenagers that he had routinely chased from the cemetery at night, who had cost him his livelihood and now his life.
John hoped they wouldn’t notice, but a legion of the dead is a hard thing to miss. The teenagers stopped. They pointed and gasped. Precursors to jeering laughter, John was sure.
He hated them. He hated them all.
Instead of jeering, however, they screamed. Their faces were wracked with horror and this was almost worse for John. An honest failure with laughing and pointing would have been better than this glimpse. Their trauma and fear from a place of utter safety only added insult to mortal injury.
Then two of the boys jumped the gate, running past the slow moving bucket-kickers and their swinging, hopeful limbs. Before John had fully registered what was happening, one of the boys had pulled the jaws of death off him, and the other had helped him to his feet.
“Let’s get out of here!” one said, and carried him along.
Only once they reached the gate did John realize he’d left his keys in the chapel door. “I left- I left them…” he stammered, pointing with a shaky finger. The boys glanced at each other, uncertain.
“Maybe we could throw him over,” suggested one.
Without so much as a thoughtful shrug, the other bolted, weaving a path through those-in-a-better-place, ducking under arms and pushing bodies over headstones.
The boy that stayed with John looked back at the gate several times. John noticed this of course, and the boy noticed John noticing. “Sorry,” the boy said, unapologetically.
Meanwhile, the runner reached the chapel door and collapsed against it, exhausted. Around him, the swarming dead closed in. John wondered whether the boy would make it – whether any of them would make it – and a dark thought crept up on him: At least this wouldn’t be for nothing… The thought shamed him. After all, despite their enmity, these boys were risking their lives to rescue him.
Still, thought John. Not enough…
John wasn’t sure what to feel when the runner burst through the line of rotting bodies, holding the keys and heading their direction. He would escape. And so would they.
“Good…” John frowned.
The boy handed the keys to him in unconscious deference to authority. John promptly fumbled through them with slow, arthritic fingers. The old gate unlocked and the boys quickly pulled John to the other side while their friends shut the gate behind them, just as the dead were reaching through.
They set the old man on a soft patch of grass. He needed to sit, to take in this utter waste, to come to terms with what a complete fool he’d been.
I’m not evil, he had told himself while performing the ritual. Just crotchety. Now he watched the boys rejoin their group, patting each other on the back, embracing one another. “No,” he muttered under his breath. “Not just…”
Around him, their relieved sighs quickly turned to nervous laughter. You okay?s became I think that one likes you, and Careful, she looks like a biter. Anything could be a joke to them. Everything was a joke to them.
To them, to the world, to the living and the dead.
As for John, he was grateful to be alive, of course. At least until the next blunder. Ultimately, he just wanted to see something through for once.
“Jesus, old timer,” said the one who’d retrieved the keys. “You’re lucky we came by.”
“Thank you…” The words almost choked him. “I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t passed by.” John had learned a little about himself that day. And about others. Things that scared him about both.
“Oh, you’d be dead for sure.” They all laughed, although the laughter was shaky. John struggled to his feet and moved past them. “What’re you doin’, mister?”
“Finishing what I started,” said John as he opened the gate.