from Graveyard Shift

by Stanley Dankoski

As soon as we set foot on this supposedly hallowed ground, I wanted to beat it the hell out of here. That, or knock old Willy out for dragging us this far out of town. It took him a whole hour to drive south to this place. We probably aren’t even in The County anymore; we probably dipped down into Washington, and I haven’t seen traffic or a house for miles. I’ve been working with Willy for two summers now, taking care of the church, inside and out, including the two cemeteries downtown. This place, though, I hadn’t heard of until today.

Apparently the church owns this graveyard, too, but I can’t figure out why. No one has cared for this in years. The headstones are from another world, another era, long ago forgotten, some of them on their way to dust. Pale vegetation stretches out over the grounds like long arms reaching for each other, pulling and pushing themselves out from the graves.

It’s a white-bright noon and deathly quiet, except for that weird whirring bug noise that occasionally comes from close by but you can’t quite pinpoint where. Sometimes it sounds like it’s coming from miles away and sometimes it’s so loud you whip your head to the side to try to catch it before it comes at you. Then there’s that snap-snap clap of grasshoppers, or locusts, and these hungry, pesky flies that aren’t afraid of your hand trying to slap or shoo them away. As soon as you smack one off, another one lands in its place and tries to taste a piece of you. This place is pure evil.

“Makes you want to set up a hammock and read a book now, doesn’t it?” Willy says after we inspect the premises. I laugh a nervous laugh. He then tops off the fuel for his weed whacker and I do the same. Willy calls it a weed trimmer, but I call it what Pa calls it.

Willy’s a spitfire mixed with down-home country charm. The shade of his sunhat covers a melanoma scar along his nose, under his right eye. He’s in his sixties and has been fed by the sun his whole life. He’s got ghost-white hair slipping out from under his hat, and for someone who smiles an awful lot, he’s got no lips. They’re as thin as he is. He gets along well with pretty much everyone, especially Hazel, who stops by the church hall downstairs each week to stock up and organize the provisions in the food pantry that the parishioners provide for the poor.

This week I walked in on Willy and Hazel hugging in there, in the pantry. The door was half open. After a long second I cleared my throat, and they broke away from each other, Hazel eyeing the shelves of canned goods and diapers, and Willy with a bashful smile. I swear I heard Hazel let out a quick nervous laugh, and her thumb went for her eye, careful like she was trying not to ruin her mascara.

They were good friends, I knew that much, although that was the only time I had seen them hug. It was strange, though, seeing a lowly maintenance man hug a well-to-do woman in a food pantry. Who knows how long they were hugging before I interrupted them? What else would have happened if I hadn’t barged in on them? If there was anything going on between the two of them, I couldn’t tell if he was going up or if she was going down.

She lived in a two-story home with twilight blue shingles and pink trim—and, the most remarkable of all, an actual tower at one corner of the house with a pointy roof. If you could put a little flag on top, it would have been perfect. Whenever Ma drove us home from church, we passed Hazel’s house, and every time, Ma muttered how cute it was. Hazel even had a landscaped yard. Her husband died some years ago, and she lived off his inheritance or pension or something. She was especially nice to me whenever we crossed paths downstairs, no matter how awkward it was—for me or for her, I couldn’t tell.

Willy hasn’t mentioned the incident since, and neither have I. Neither of us talks too much. We’re quiet types. We do our jobs, making the church look pretty. Inside and out. It was just Willy for years until he told the boss wearing the collar that it would be great having an assistant. Then one day, about a couple of years ago, he and his wife, Beryl, and a bunch of other folks were over at our house. It was Ma’s turn to host a discussion group about their faith. I guess going to church every Sunday morning isn’t enough for some Catholics; they like to break out in groups and talk about what they learn each week. Me, I’m fine doing my weekly duty, if I even do that, and that’s about as much as I’ll ever do. Ma, though, she truly needs her faith, and she surely needs their support. I think she arranged it to be held on a day when Pa had to work late into the night. I came home in the middle of their meeting that time, from my shift at B.K. Lounge. I was exhausted, and covered in grease and grime. I had done only a three-hour stint after school; on weekends I sometimes pulled a double shift. Well, Ma’s friends got a kick out of seeing me in my polyester uniform. Willy said he liked my work ethic. From there, it took about a week or two, but I was out of there, out of that flame-broiling, hot-as-all-hell kitchen.

Now I’m out here, under this hotter’n hell sun.

Yeah, but that hug, it was the only weird thing. I haven’t stopped remembering about it. It was sort of like a dream, a blink-or-you-miss-it moment where you know you did not blink. It’s bugged me, though. He’s bagged her produce in there before, sure, and sometimes I’d get in there and give them a hand. It was surreal, though, it really was. I didn’t see it coming.

We each yank on a cord, and our weed whackers come to life, the heads spinning faster than I can follow—and I try to, but that just makes me dizzy. Willy figures the grass and the weeds are too much for the mower right now, so we’re gonna whack the shit out of this graveyard until our dear old Johnny Deere is ready to suck it up and spit it out.

No matter which way I angle the whacker, the shards of grass prick into my legs and arms and get caught in the hairs. By the time I whack around a half row of tombstones, my sneakers and legs and shorts and T-shirt are covered. The more I pull on the throttle, the faster the head goes round and round, and the whirring plastic string sings a high-pitched buzz. The weeds tangle together in knots. It’s like I’m trying to trim someone’s thick mane. Or maybe it’s not like that. I have thin hair, and even though I just finished high school, my hair’s already getting thinner. So I’m only guessing what thick hair is like.

The only thing that comes close that springs instantly to mind, since I was just thinking about her on our way here, is Crystal, with her long, greasy hair, all ratty and messy and hanging over my face back at the cove that one time. It was just us that day, but horny kids are always crawling all over that place, so it wouldn’t have been impossible to be joined by a few other adventurous folk.

All these weeds and vines knotted up together reminds me of that, too. So maybe it’s like an orgy. A long weed coming over here, another weed bending over from over there, and then more and more coming at each other, and they all get tangled up in a big hot mess. And when I whack through them, all I can sense below is the roar of the dead, their indignation, as I disrupt the violence they are doing to each other down there. And here I am, tearing the tops of their heads to shreds, bit by bit. They had moved underground against their will, deep into the dirt. They found others in the same predicament, buried with no hope of seeing this bright light of day again, and made the most of the situation, oozing out of their old bodies, seeking, intermingling, their intercourse hidden away for years, until now.

My thoughts can get pretty weird when I’m all by my lonesome tending to graves, I tell you what. Even if the guy you work for is there with you, if he’s on the far side of the yard, there can be a dozen or more plots in between, whole lifetimes separating you. When the weed whackers get going, or when I’m on the mower, the drone of the machines can carry me away into another world. Sometimes I’m so out of it, or so tired from staying up late at night, I bump the mower into a headstone and the top slab gets knocked off, and luckily no one’s ever around to see that, or to see me quickly hop off and heave the headstone back on. But something about this place gives me the heebie-jeebies for sure. It’s like there’s a presence here that won’t leave me alone.

Everything was fine before we got to the graveyard. Willy and I were listening to Top 40—his choice, by the way, I think partly because he wants to connect with me, maybe to show he’s “cool” too, and partly, well, there aren’t any stations on the radio dial with square dancing music. Even though I go for rock with a little bit of edge to it, I didn’t mind this station because they played that great new song by Alanis all the time, almost enough to drive you nuts. So yeah, me and Willy had the windows down, the wind whooshing the stuffy air out of the cab. It was a long ride, and my mind wandered in and out about Crystal and her pale skin. I was calculating the odds of ever getting with her again—the summer was out because she’s on the coast now, so maybe in the fall when school starts up in August. Anyway, Willy started telling me about that one time when he couldn’t get the blade off the mower. He takes the blades off occasionally to sharpen them, by clamping them in a vise and going at her with an electric sander.

No, wait, it’s not a sander, that’s for wood. But it’s round and heavy and goes around like a drill and sparks fly off of it like fireworks. I can’t think of the name of it. Why can’t I think of the name of it? But anyhow, Willy and I—a grinder, that’s what it’s called. You clamp down the metal blade and you put the grinder to her, and tiny sparks shoot off, and if you’re standing nearby you might feel them sting—but it’s OK, just rub them off before they melt your skin.

Anyway, we were shooting the shit, some dumb story, but there was nothing wrong about it. I wasn’t thinking about hugs or hair or orgies then.

Maybe it’s because we’re so far away from the church. It’s a big building on the hill in the center of town, a million miles back that-away—the church that doesn’t look like a church, all square angles and shapes and colors and a flat roof. It’s called “modern design.” The fact that it doesn’t look like a church has made me sort of second-guess its holiness. I know they say God is everywhere and in all things, but it looks like a fricking warehouse, a warehouse with a tall white cross sticking up from one corner, like a middle finger. Am I expected to think and know and believe that God is in a warehouse? What good does the good God do in a goddamned warehouse? I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense. It just seems so unnatural.

Not like this corner of the world. This place, man, this place is wild. Earthy. Raw. What you see is not what you’re gonna get. That’s the feeling I’m getting. There’s more to this place than meets the eye. It’s like a shell with so much more underneath. There’s hard ground here, see? And then there are these soft, bumpy lines like the bulging veins on Willy’s hands, that sink down with each step. I know I’m at a place where I haven’t been before. What I mean is the feeling I get. I don’t feel good when I’m here. I don’t feel well. It’s a little disturbing. It’s like we are as far away from the church as we can be.

If God is in that warehouse, His arms can’t reach this far, like we are in the spot where God has forgotten, where He couldn’t bust through if He tried.

And here we are, me and Willy, in the thick of it, in the middle of nowhere.

There Willy is, over yonder, with nothing, no God to protect him.

Here I am, completely godless, stepping over heathens in a glorious grave, groping and tussling for each other. But they’re dead. I mean they all are, aren’t they? Of course they are. It’s a cemetery. But why the hell does this place feel so fucking alive? It’s buzzing, like that bee in your ear—can you hear it?—except I’m feeling the buzzing in my bones. It’s like the cemetery is a living, breathing creature, but it’s all beneath the surface, in hiding, and it is the one that’s disturbed. Not me. Not you. It is disturbed that we’re here. We’re disturbing them, and they’re angry, angry as hell that after years or maybe decades of solitude, we come in here with our engines all revved, all in the name of prettying up. Putting it all on display. Thank God we didn’t bring any of those goddamned plastic flowers. But the church cares for its dearly departed, right? Gone but not forgotten. Box them up and send them to their eternal home.

Maybe they’re angry because they’ve been forgotten. What are the dates on some of these stones anyway? Turn of the century? Who could tell with all this lichen covering them up? Here. I’m whacking off some of the lichen, but the white limestone is so dirty from eons of erosion, little chunks of the stone actually come off. With a quick glance I see that Willy didn’t notice. He’s swatting a fly, or maybe he’s waving at that car driving by, the first one I’ve seen since we arrived.

My weed whacker chokes. I lowered it too much by accident, and the strands of grass and weeds are all wrapped tight around the head. Fuck. I sit on the ground and grab at the mess. I feel a prick. A thistle or some shit just pricked my fucking finger. I nurse it, sucking out the blood as much as I can, like Pa taught me. It tastes bitter and hot. As much as I want to, I don’t spit it out. I flex my tongue up and around my teeth until I don’t taste it no more.

I hear a whoop. Willy waves me over and points his fingers to his mouth. Lunchtime. We grab our matching coolers, mine’s a dark red and his a soft blue, and he and I find ourselves a flat, long headstone that we use as a bench. We sit our asses over the remains of the Tucker family. Willy has Swiss on rye, and I have a tuna sandwich. He always has a small bag of chips and a cola can while I always have an iced tea and a container of sweet potatoes. How I love thee, sweet potatoes.

Willy points out the section he’s been working on, a mess of weeds and tall grass that looks like hundreds of rats’ nests on a barber shop floor.

“I should have brought the machete,” Willy jokes.

“Yeah, no kidding.” I laugh a half-hearted laugh. I’m trying to decide how to tell Willy about the wicked depravity lurking here. He might think me nuts. I wonder if he can feel it, too. What does he know of the history here? Why is this graveyard so far away from the church? Is this where they used to bury all the parish rejects? I want to know this, and none of this, all at once. Somehow I feel the info could give me some sort of safety. Knowledge is power, or so I’ve heard. But I fear, too, knowing anything more would scare the shit out of me. I can still feel the evil creeping out of these plots, seeping into my bones.

And something about this place is making my tuna sandwich just taste…off. I hate everything I’m tasting. The tuna squishes through my teeth and makes me want to vomit. The sweet potatoes, oh, my sweet potatoes would have been my savior in this wretched place, but they, too, must have gotten spoiled in the midday heat and I feel a faint sense of slime among the fibers. The iced tea tastes tangier than I normally like. I made it myself, too, homemade like Ma used to show me. The bees are all over it, though, like stink on shit.

Willy shakes his head. “You’re not liking your lunch?” He must see my disgust.

I set it down, and I look around us, at the comb-over lawn, the sunken headstones commemorating people long dumped here and ignored, pushed away and forgotten over the decades. Their essence is still here, though. I can tell. I can feel them, angry and vengeful. They’re dead, but they’re still alive, and waiting, and hungry. Not for this spoiled lunch. Hungry for me, or maybe for us, hungry for our flesh and blood. I just know it.

“How much longer do you think we’ll be here?” I hesitate to ask. I know we’ll be here until quitting time, if we’re lucky enough to get out alive.

Willy looks down at his sandwich, which he has barely bitten into. Looks like he didn’t have much of an appetite either. “We’ll be here as long as it takes,” Willy says, and he flashes that damn smile again. “Let’s get it done. I don’t want to come back all this way again on Monday.” He sticks his right leg out straight in front of him and scratches his calf.

“How’s Beryl doing?” I say before thinking it. Beryl’s his wife. She looks always to be in a pissy mood, even before she fell and broke her leg.

Willy looks at me, like he can’t believe I’d bring her up, ruining his lovely lunch hour, but he doesn’t say so. “Doctor says the cast should come off in a couple of weeks. She’ll be back to herself, bitching and moaning in no time.”

“You mean she’s stopped?”

Willy grins, shakes his head. He points to a handful of headstones a couple of rows in front of us. The stones have sunk so deep that the ground has started to swallow them up. That happens. Over time, the coffins underneath collapse in on themselves, which is why, if you ever go to a cemetery like this one ever again, you’ll notice how the ground in front of some upright stones droops down a bit, the whole length of where the casket is. That’s why rolling through with a riding lawn mower can be just as fun as a roller coaster. Bumpity bump.

“We’re gonna fix those stones if we have time. They’re the worst there is in here.” Willy stands up to double-check, nods, and sits back down.

We got the tools to do the job in the back of his pickup: the thin but hefty wrecking bar, all the rebar, crowbars, shovels, you name it. No machete, though. Willy’s usually ready for anything.

He’s even got that chainsaw he uses—he don’t ever let me use it—to slice a body-sized rectangle into the ground. If you didn’t know about old Willy’s method, you wouldn’t have known a new tenant had just moved in there. The chainsaw cuts make it easier to slide our flat shovels in there to pry the sod away from the earth. We set the sod aside in a neat pile, and then we dig the hole—and it’s not six feet deep like everyone thinks, it’s more like four—and after they lower the casket, we pack the dirt back in. Somehow, don’t ask me how, we are able to use all of the dirt that we dug out earlier to level the rectangle off, even though there’s a big fancy box inside. Then we roll the sod back over the grave. As if nothing happened. Like that person never existed. At least until they get their own stone propped up, and by that time they were already only ever dead.

Willy lifts up his hat with one hand to swipe through his white hair with the other. He pokes at his scar on his face a couple of times. Then he leans back, his eyes closed, his head facing up to the sunny heavens. He’s either soaking up the warmth or giving himself up to the Lord. Maybe he’s forgetting the connection between the sun and that melanoma scar on his cheek, or maybe he doesn’t care. His smile’s still there, now more relaxed, and I can’t help but see it as vulnerable. Like his good-natured mask is slip-slipping, sliding off in this heat.

Living his life with a dreary old woman. Slip. Working every day to upkeep the church, in and out. Slip. Having an affair with a woman who likes to look good in front of the parish. Slip. Whether it’s when she’s feeding the poor, slip, or when she’s at the pulpit Sunday mornings, slip, her hair all up in a bun, slip, enunciating the second or third letter of Saint Paul, her lips stretching around hard consonants and sliding along soft vowels. Slip, slip, slide.

The more I think about it, the less I blame the guy. The more I think about Hazel’s mouth moving like that, the more I think about that girl Crystal. I mentioned her earlier? She lives across the street from me. She was in my Intro to Spanish class, but a year below me. I had to take it to graduate. Like, what in the hell do I need Spanish for up here in northern Maine anyhow? All there is are French Canadians and the locals. I’m sure Crystal’s come from a long line of French Canadians—she can talk Mainer, French and Dirty. We had barely talked to each other before, except for in class when we had to partner up that day. No one else wanted to partner with her—I suppose with all that ratty, unkempt hair she had sometimes—but I did. She was kind of sexy. I didn’t care none about her reputation. I just wanted to be close to her. She wore the most unbelievable perfume; it had a radius of like ten feet, like she was hiding something in that fog, a potent mix of, I don’t know, maybe lilacs and cotton candy. I just wanted to inhale her whole body. She had a hard time with some words en español, but she could do those rolling R sounds like nobody’s business. When we kissed hours later, she called me a perro sucio, and with one hand on her neck (and the other you-know-where), I could feel her words vibrate in her throat.

When the bell rang at the end of class, she tore off a piece of notebook paper and slid it in the back pocket of my jeans before strutting away. On it she scribbled a highly suggestive note that I take her to Mercy Cove after school. I couldn’t believe it. I admit I hesitated for maybe two seconds before it was decided.

It’s a well-known secret among the kids at school that Mercy Cove is where you go have some fun until someone says mercy. It was actually my first time, but Crystal knew the lay of the land. We knocked off our socks and shoes on the riverbank and waded into the cove. I remember how her dark hair fell out over us when I tugged at the elastic band holding it together. I must have tugged too hard. It snapped and shot off into an eddy.

I remember how she looked at me, a look of both horror and pleasure, those blue eyes piercing into me. I remember the branches drooping down over us, over the cove, so that no one could see anything. How she hung on to a lower branch, how she purred, not giving a shit, as she rocked in my arms. I remember how wet and warm it was. I remember how she said “mercy” and I kept going. She let out a scream and she rocked and she rocked, and she said “mercy” again, and I had to keep going. Then she said “mercy” a third time and let go of the branch, and I lost my balance, and I fell backwards into the river, but somehow she managed to stay upright. She laughed. I didn’t know what to think. “What the fuck,” I said when I splashed out of the water. Then she came up to me and put her hand on my chest. Under her breath, she said merci and slowly, slowly put her clothes back on.

She’s a piece of work, that Crystal. And of course she didn’t look me in the eye after that, neither. But that wasn’t the last I’d see of her. Oh, hell no. After I headed home and ate dinner, after going up to my room, I just happened to look out my window. In the moment, I swear, in the moment I had forgotten about her, even though I couldn’t get her out of my head. But I looked over at her house, across the way, because it’s right there, and there she was in her room with the lights on. Usually her curtains are closed, but not that time. She was undressing, and dancing at the same time. At first I figured she must have forgotten to close the curtains, but then I got wise and of course I watched the whole thing. You know. She’s slipping off her shirt, her bra and panties, and she’s letting it all hang out for me to see. I could see everything. I could see every last morsel of her. Mercy.

The next day, she doesn’t even look at me in class. She hooks up with a girl to partner with and I’m stuck with Harry Slocombe, the poor schmuck. But that night, I run up to my room and there she is. First there’s nothing to see. She’s just going back and forth, in and out of view, from one side of her window to the other, doing who knows what. Then she sits down, doing some homework maybe, or writing me a love letter. I think I catch her looking out at me and then not. And then, then the show begins. I swear, she’s a fucking tease. I was going crazy. Pa warned me about girls like her. And I almost had her, too. God dammit.

The show went on every night through the weekend, and then the curtains closed. Just like that, she was gone. The weekend after that was graduation, and in the week in between, I heard a rumor she and her family were going Down East for the summer. I didn’t know she was rich. I didn’t know her well at all before that week. But how can she just up and leave without saying nothing?

Can you imagine having access to someone like that, seeing all you care to see, feeling that body move in your hands? I couldn’t imagine that until she was right there in front of me, with her tits in my face. I tell you I felt like I was living a miracle. I didn’t know what I did to deserve her that day, but there she was, offering herself to me.

And then she wasn’t. She pushed me into the river, for God’s sake. I didn’t know what to think. What the fuck did I do to deserve that? I couldn’t figure her out. She was crazy. Loca with a capital low. Then for her to taunt me, knowingly taunt me for days. I don’t know what to think. I really don’t. I’ve been thinking about this, about her, for weeks. There are days where I just can’t stop thinking about her, nights where I can’t sleep and I look out the goddamned window, into the darkness.

And then seeing Willy and Hazel together. Man. That threw me for a loop. They’re in their sixties. Aren’t they too old for sex? What was Willy doing cheating on his wife anyway? So his wife’s a pain in the ass, so what? My parents stayed together. Thick through thin. Brick through shin. Whatever, they’re dealing with it now. But hell, they’re not even fifty yet, so who knows what will happen with them? I just know that if any numb-nut dating either of my sisters does to them what Pa did to Ma, I’ll let those jerks have it. They’ll not want to look twice at my sisters. Whether they want me to or not, their guys won’t do that to them no more. If they did anything, I mean. I can just imagine. That would feel so good. I’d do it to protect them. Why else would I do such a thing? Why wouldn’t I? Pa wouldn’t do it for them. He’s a lying shit. I’d have to do it someday. I’m not sure anymore how I’d do it, but I’ll have to. Somehow. I’ll find a way.

“Hey!” Willy shoves me.

I fall off our bench. I almost go to shove him back, but a couple of fighting carpenter bees ricochet off me, followed by a third, and I gasp in shock.

Willy is fiddling with his hearing aid. “I thought I was the one who couldn’t hear,” he says. “Let’s get to it. You ready?”

I feel discombobulated. I don’t like that he shoved me. We bring back our coolers to the truck, and on the way I step into one of those soft spots I was telling you about, and I sink in like half a foot. You never can tell. That happens with dry dirt, too. It scared the shit out of me, like I was getting pulled down. But I’m not going down there, not yet.

We grab the shovels and the crowbars, and a couple of short two-by-fours for leverage, and drop them by the stones. Willy’s already weed-whacked around these stones. We get on our knees. Willy grabs a shovel and stabs at the weeds on the edge that are sucking the stone down. I stand back and watch, mainly to see what he does, partly to anticipate following his lead in a second. I expect he’ll need me to stick the wrecking bar in underneath the stone to pry it up, so that’s what’s in my hand. I don’t remember picking it up.

I remember holding it, though, how heavy and solid it was. But my mind must be playing tricks on me, because now I’m holding the shovel. I shake my head. OK, I can see now, Willy is swapping the shovel for the wrecking bar, and I’m holding the shovel. I look down and sure enough, there it is. I’m grasping it tight with both hands.

I hear the cracking sound first, and then her otherworldly scream, like I’m hearing it as it’s being rewound, and then I can see it all play out again, this one awful moment, from start to finish. I’m back home. Pa is out back, laying bricks. He’s making a fire pit, and Ma is standing there beside him yapping about who knows what. Pa’s about a foot high into his work when his face gets as red as the brick he’s holding in his bare-knuckled hand. I’m sitting on the porch, all lazy-like, pulling a splinter out of my finger when I hear the crack, or more like a crunch, and I look up and see Ma fall. I can’t believe it, and I stand up and hold myself back by the porch post. I grip that thing so tight I get another splinter, a bigger one that slides sharp and deep, deep, deep.

Ma’s on the ground, wailing and reaching for her leg. She’d been going on and on like someone she wasn’t, someone who could do something about her life instead of just living in it and sucking it up. Pa must’ve had enough of that talk. I imagine Ma was just having fun, fantasizing, poking fun at the rich folk—like Hazel—who go around sticking out their pinkies when they drink their iced tea.

But Pa was as cool and collected as can be, slopping the cement on the bricks and slapping them into their place. He had control over them bricks. Where he put them is where they will stay. And here was Ma thinking herself out of her place. She was getting ideas. Crazy ideas. Dangerous ideas. Imagining she could be somebody. So just when she got a little too carried away, Pa couldn’t take it any longer. Did he think for one second he would break her leg like that? I don’t know. But as I stood there gripping that post, the splinter digging into me, I felt something in my chest for the first time. The fear—well, the fear was always there, I can feel that now. But there was this new brew of feeling bubbling inside of me. An anger, a deep hatred digging into me.

And the bees, the bees and the bugs out here in this place, and all their buzzing sounds are yanking me off my hinge. I swat at them with the shovel. I hear the swoosh in the air. Willy’s still working away at the clumps of dirt around the stones. Standing above him, I can feel how rough it is, this long wooden handle, against my calloused palms, which I flex into fists as I twist my hold this way and that. I feel a suffocating tightness coil inside me. I feel the buzz in my legs, the evil, dead spirits rising from the depths of this hell, rising up my body. Like prickly pin needles.

I squeeze my fingers around the shovel when I remember Crystal and her taunts, her hips swaying in the window, her moans in the cove, her laughing at me in the river.

I see how fragile old Willy looks down there on his hands and knees. I think of how he must crawl up the steps of Hazel’s tower like this, on all fours, like some dirty dog looking to get his bone licked clean. I imagine Hazel on Willy, like Crystal was on me, and I can’t stand the thought of Willy getting some action while I’m hung out high and dry.

Then I realize it’s been Willy all along. Without ever saying a word, he’s been taunting me. How he flaunts his charm everywhere, everywhere but where he ought to. I feel the buzz now in my arms. I can hardly breathe. The buzz feels so powerful, but I’m fucking losing it. I’m right behind him. Willy is calm, unaware. Cool and collected. Like Pa, he’s been in control the whole time.

The shovel throws itself into the air, but I’m still holding on to the handle. I can feel how it hesitates up there, a pause in the arc. All I can hear is the buzzing, the bees that I cannot see when I look for them, the gnats that bite before I can slap them. The weight of the shovel propels it into Willy’s sunhat with a soft thud. I can feel the weathered crack in the handle more than anything in this moment. Willy’s body collapses, his head at an odd angle, getting wedged under the leaning marble stone. A dark red stain bleeds through the hat, like he’s seeping through it; he’s oozing out of his body to seek me out, like the dead here have already done with me. They’ve overtaken me. They did it. I see his body move, his arms tremble to pick himself up, but the shovel digs into him again. He’s silent. I don’t hear a moan or a scream.

The bees, the gnats, whatever they are, they must have a nest or something hidden in the grass where Willy had been poking. I whack at them with the shovel, but I still can’t see them, they’re everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I’m here and not here at the same time, too. I don’t know where I end and the graveyard begins. They came in and took me out.

I’m telling you, this place is disturbing. Please. Please take this shovel. I’m right here. I’m in front of this open grave. This is your chance. Free me from this pain. I’ll turn around for you. I’ll even close my eyes. Hit me as hard as you can. I tried to do it myself, but I’m still here. And so are you. But first, tell me, how does the shovel feel in your hands? Can you feel its power? Can you feel the power buzzing through you yet? Grip it tight. And let me have it.

Stanley Dankoski has fiction published at Literary Orphans. A New England native, he now writes from the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina.

About Graveyard Shift—About twenty years ago, I had a similar summer job and at one cemetery, I felt this uneasiness about the place and an unprovoked notion to off my coworker. The idea stayed with me for years as a potential story, to explore a character who follows through on that notion. It wasn’t until this year that I actually felt competent enough a writer to dare myself to tackle it.