The Old Grave

[originally published on r/NoSleep]

I’ve read that your hair and fingernails keep growing after you die. Then again, I’ve also read that that’s stupid, and that actually what happens is that your skin contracts, making your hair and nails look longer. That one always seemed more reasonable to me. Dead is dead, after all. You don’t keep going after you’re dead. You just go in the ground.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about what happens when you’re dead. I used to work in a graveyard, doing groundskeeping stuff. That’s everything from mowing the grass to filling in the graves to picking up the trash people leave behind. You’d think people would have more courtesy than to litter in a graveyard, right? But you’d be wrong. People have no respect for others.

It was mainly just me and JR working Ever Rest Hill. It wasn’t that big of a place, so the two of us going full-time kept it under control. I didn’t see him much during the days, since we’d be off at opposite sites trimming the bushes and what have you. But I saw him pretty much every night.

See, me and JR didn’t have a lot going for us. The job paid minimum wage, plus a quarter an hour for every year you’d been there. So JR was making eleven bucks an hour, and I was pulling in just over nine. Take out taxes, and that leaves me pretty firmly in food stamp territory. Heck of a place for a guy with a full-time, no-breaks job to be.

People don’t care about each other, like I said. So when people came to the cemetery to come cry over poor dead grandpa or whoever, no one stopped to think twice about whether the guy who kept everything looking nice was doing okay. If I’d screwed up and let vines grow over the grave, I guess they would have thought about me then, and I would’ve heard about it for sure. But as long as it was all kept up, they were more concerned about the dead than about the living.

But JR, he saw a way to turn that around. You’ve heard the phrase “you can’t take it with you,” I’m sure. Doesn’t mean people didn’t try, though. The way some of these people were dressed, you’d think they were going to a red-carpet gala instead of a hole in the ground. Morticians dressed them to the nines and decked them out in gold and jewels and stuck them in boxes that cost sometimes more than I made in a year. Then it’s boo hoo hoo at the church, quick trip in the back of a hearse, one last cry at the graveside and boom, the whole thing’s under a few tons of dirt never to be seen again.

Mostly never, anyway. See, JR figured that if we could bury them, we could dig them up again just as easy. It’s the same backhoe either way, so it’s just a matter of whether you’re putting dirt in or taking dirt out. And yeah, it was rough the first time we cracked open a coffin. I saw that body lying there all stiff and rotten and I about backed out.

JR, though, he just grinned up at me and said, “Jackpot, man!” Then he held up a watch worth more than my car, and I figured I could just about do this.

After a while, it was easy. It was a real victimless crime, too. We took stuff that nobody ever knew was missing, and it made things a little bit brighter for us. I got a car that could pass inspection without me bringing the mechanic a case of beer. JR got himself a real nice grill, and we’d cook out some nights and toast to our luck. We still weren’t getting rich, neither of us, but we weren’t going begging either.

Thing is, though, we started to get kind of used to the extra money, and Ever Rest was only so big. We didn’t have but so many new people every month, and JR and I were going through them faster than they were coming in.

We started doing stuff to stretch it, to get more value. We cut off fingers when we needed to to get rings free. JR started checking the old folks for gold fillings. We even started taking the coffins when they were fancy enough. My plan had just been to strip off the bronze and copper fancy fittings and see what we could get for the metal, but JR went and had a quiet word with the funeral home. Turned out we weren’t the only ones looking to make a little extra profit. They bought the coffins off of us at 20% and sold them again at full value. The 80/20 split ticked me off a bit, since we were doing all the work, but JR pointed out that it was way more than we’d get for the metal. So I shrugged it off and kept going.

Even stretching it like this, though, we kept working our way farther and farther back in the cemetery. The older graves were less likely to have good loot, but when they did, it was a total haul. We’d have to dig up sometimes twenty or thirty graves before we found one that wasn’t just bones, but that thirty-first one would be like someone had just dumped a jewelry box onto a skeleton.

That stuff wasn’t always easy to sell, though, and so where this used to be a once-in-a-while thing, to get some extra cash, eventually I was seeing JR every night, like I said. We had to keep at it because we never knew what nights would be busts and what nights would be earners. And we went farther and farther back, digging up older and older graves.

We were back in the oldest part of Ever Rest when things went wrong. I’d just dug out the dirt, and was climbing out of the backhoe to hold the light for JR. He was climbing down into the hole to clear away the final dirt and open the lid. He seemed gung ho like always, but as I walked over, something felt wrong.

Fresh graves smell a bit like mud, a bit like rot and a bit like medical stuff, the way hospitals smell. Old graves just smell like dirt. But this smelled like something rank wafting up from the open mouth of a cave, something whispering to your nose about living and dying forever in the dark. It stopped me in my tracks for just a second, and I think that pause saved my life.

JR either didn’t smell it or didn’t care, because he was down in the grave and prying the boards off of that coffin. I heard the boards crack, and I heard JR say, “The hell?”

Next thing I heard was screaming, an awful blood-curdling yell. “Get it off me!” JR shouted, and I saw his hands scrabbling at the top of the grave. I started to reach for him, I swear I did, but then something dark whipped out of the grave behind him and lashed around one of his hands.

I heard his fingers break as that thing ripped his hand backward, and his screaming pitched even higher. I held my light up as high as I could, and for just a second, I got a clear view of what was in that grave.

The only thing visible of JR was his hand, the one that hadn’t been grabbed. That was still reaching for the sky, fingers grasping frantically at nothing. The rest of him was just lost in a tangled, seething mass of bloody, filthy, matted hair.

It was hair, I know it was. I’ve tried to tell myself it was anything else, some kind of animal or anything, but I know what I saw. It was hair, a giant, writhing ball of it, moving all on its own. It grabbed JR and when it saw me looking, it sent tendrils out to grab me, too.

I yelled and hurled the light at it, and then I did what I had to do. I leaped back into that backhoe and I shoveled every pound of that dirt exactly back where it had come from. I poured it all back in, slammed it all down tight and then drove the backhoe back and forth over it a few times to be sure. Then I sat there, panting, until my heart settled back down to normal and I was sure there was nothing moving in that grave beneath me.

I quit the job after that. I worked odd jobs, moved a few times, generally just kept changing stuff about my life until I finally quit waking up with nightmares. I always sort of hoped I’d get to a point where I could tell myself that I’d imagined it all, that maybe I was drunk or high or something. But there’s just too much reality in that image of JR’s hand desperately reaching out for help, and I don’t think I’ll ever get it out of my head.

I’ve been settled down for a few years now. I’ve got a little one-bedroom apartment that I rent, walking distance from my job at the gas station. It’s a nice enough place, and the landlord cares about it, so there aren’t a lot of issues.

So I wasn’t real worried when the drain started backing up the other night while I was taking a shower. If it was anything major, I knew he’d be out in a day or so to fix it. But I stuck my fingers in there to feel around, see if I could save him a trip.

I’ve been in this place for a few years, like I said. I live alone, and I’ve got short hair. The shower’s never backed up before. But what I pulled out of the drain was a thick clog of long, tangled hair.

The shower was backing up again last night. I think it’s time to be moving on again.

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