The Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award
SECOND HONORABLE MENTION, Summer 2015
BY REBECCA RING
The squeal of the backhoe teeth on stone always gave him shivers. He’d hit a rock again. Second time this morning, and the damn thing wouldn’t budge. Horace Underwood climbed out of the cab and walked to the front, knelt by the almost finished grave. He’d planned on being done by ten so he could eat the other half of his peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The thought of it created a gnawing in his stomach. And to make things worse, a yellow bus was pulling up the long cemetery drive, which meant invaders of the miniature kind—always a distraction. There was nothing for it; he was going to have to drive the backhoe around and try to get at the rock from the other side.
The October morning had lost its chill. Briefly blinded by the sun, Horace stood up, pulled off his jacket, and watched the school bus give birth to its swarm of little vermin. He shook his head. Couldn’t they see he was working here?
Fifteen minutes later, Horace had managed to get his bucket around the boulder and was rocking it back and forth like a baby in a cradle. “It’s a-comin’. It’s a-comin’,” he said over and over to himself. It was a monster. He was no longer a young man, but the power of the backhoe made him feel like Atlas or Sisyphus, or one of those ancient gods who moved mountains. Every time he finished preparing a gravesite, he felt a sense of achievement and pride. He sometimes watched from his truck—always parked at a discreet distance—as the coffin descended from its regal support frame into the waiting hole he had made for it. At these moments of great emotion, with family members slumping to the ground or wailing as their loved ones disappeared into the earth, Horace became emotional too, because he had made the hole with his own hands.
Horace, startled into releasing the backhoe’s joystick, watched the bucket drop the boulder it had finally snared. “Damn!” he said. “Dammit all to hell!” Then just as quickly, he put his hand over his mouth and looked around. A child’s voice. He’d heard it. But where was the child?
Off in the trees he could see small groups of children led by overeager adults as they traipsed through the cemetery. But they were far away now, having wandered in the opposite direction from the bus. He saw them every year around this time—carrying clipboards and little magnifying glasses, kicking at dry leaves. They were often crouched down in front of headstones, inspecting them with their hand lenses, scribbling busily on their clipboards while the adults herded and shouted directions.
Once, a young teacher with pencil-straight brown hair had stopped him while he was whacking weeds around a monument to ask for directions to some city founder’s grave. She’d been offended when he said he didn’t know. Horace hardly ever read the headstones; he just dug the holes and kept things tidy. Only occasionally—when he noticed a stone whose birth and death dates were less than ten years apart—would he give a closer look. Something about a person dying that young set Horace’s heart thumping, made him need to read the epitaph, always hoping there’d be a reasonable explanation. That was the day he’d finally found the nerve to ask, “Why do you bring these kids to the cemetery every year?”
The teacher had pushed up her glasses and, in an effusive, bubbly voice, told him what a great place it was for her fourth graders to learn about local history and geology.
“Geology?” Horace had asked numbly.
“Rocks and minerals. You know, what tombstones are made of. Metamorphic, sedimentary, igneous.”
Horace didn’t see anyone today who looked like that teacher.
This time Horace looked down, out of the left side of the backhoe’s cab. She was about nine years old, he figured. Pale and blonde, very pretty, standing alone and staring up at him with big, gray eyes and a hesitant smile.
“Hey, Missy,” he said. “You’d better get back with your teacher and the rest of your class. Can’t you see I’m working here?”
“Will you play with me?” she asked.
He pointed. “Your teacher’s right there. Your friends—”
She shook her head, the blonde pigtails whipping back and forth across her face in a blur. “They’re boring. I choose you.”
“I don’t have time for nonsense,” he muttered and shifted the backhoe into gear, aimed his bucket for the boulder again. As he managed to get a purchase on it, he peeked out from the corner of one eye. She was still standing there, watching him. The backhoe belched a puff of black smoke. Its teeth sank into the dirt. He tried not to look at her.
Then he heard a scream and his head swiveled around. It was one of the school kids, surrounded by a gaggle of friends, jumping up and down on a fresh grave. The one Horace had filled in just yesterday. He killed the engine and clambered out of the cab, almost falling, and ran toward them. “Hey! You! Get offa there!” he yelled. Where was their teacher? The kids galloped away, shrieking and looking over their shoulders at Horace, who waddled more than ran. He stopped and clutched his chest, his breath coming in short, wheezy bursts. He wasn’t up to this anymore.
The red bandana he used to wipe his forehead came away dirty and greasy. He looked at it briefly, stuffed it in the back pocket of his denim overalls, and stumbled wearily back to the gravesite.
The little girl was gone. Good, he thought. One less urchin to give him grief. Probably all part of some prank, her and that other group of kids who had given their teacher the slip just to see if they could get a rise out of the gravedigger. Nope. Not today. He had to finish up this hole by noon.
As Horace grunted his way up to the well-worn seat of his backhoe—noticing as he climbed how once again that nemesis boulder had fallen back out of the bucket—a light rustling from behind made him turn. And she was there again, the little girl, this time swinging her legs from side to side atop a nearby marble headstone. The swish of her black-stockinged legs against the sandiness of the unpolished rock made a sound like leaves skittering in the wind. Like a big cricket, Horace thought. That was when it dawned on him that she wasn’t dressed like the others. The other kids all wore white shirts and beige pants, some kind of school uniform, but she had on a lollipop-pink dress and patterned black tights with holes in them. Her shiny, red, patent leather shoes were scuffed, and one buckle was undone. Horace pointed his finger at her, trying to think of something to say. She jumped off the headstone and hid behind it. One eye peeked out, teasing.
“Come on outta there, Missy,” he finally said. “You need to get over with your teacher and friends.” He waved and nodded toward them. “Look, they’re gettin’ on the bus. Time to go back to school. They’ll be lookin’ for you.”
She turned and sprinted away from him, away from the bus. Instinctively Horace slid down from the backhoe and started after her. As he ran, he felt a tightness crawl across his chest and realized he could never catch her. He turned and lurched back toward the school bus. Only two kids left, and when he finally reached them, the prematurely-graying teacher was climbing the steps. The driver swung the handle just as Horace’s fist intercepted the closing bivalve door.
“Hey!” he cried. “You forgot a kid! There’s still another kid in the cemetery!”
The teacher’s face grew wide with alarm.
“That . . . little girl over there,” he said. He lifted a shaking finger in the direction he’d come from. “The one running away.”
Her eyes skipped across the cemetery. “I don’t see anyone,” she said, and then with her gaze fastened on Horace, she called into the bus, “Evelyn! Can you count the kids again? Make sure everyone has their buddy?” Stepping into the sunlight, she shaded her eyes. “What did she look like?”
“Pigtails—” Horace was still out of breath. “Stockings. Black. Pink dress. Blonde.”
The teacher shook her head. “No. We don’t have anyone like that.”
The woman who must have been Evelyn poked her head out the window. “All accounted for, Janet.”
“I’m sorry,” the teacher said to Horace. “You’re mistaken. She’s not one of ours.” She gave him a pinched, suspicious look and hurried back onto the bus.
Horace stared out across the cemetery and wiped the sweat from his eyes with his bandana. “Goddamn kids,” he mumbled to himself. He started back toward the unfinished grave. “Should be a barbed wire fence around this place.”
Finally, after ten more minutes of scraping and rocking, the heavy boulder seemed to leap into his bucket from the underground vault where it had re-nestled itself. “Ha!” he shouted triumphantly. Before it could get away again, he slammed the joystick that raised the boom. The backhoe arm hoisted the boulder with a dusty shudder and sat poised to deposit the rock onto the ground above. Horace, glowing with pride, glanced into the nearly perfect five by seven hole from which it had come.
Beneath the crumbling dry clay something seemed to shimmer, something shiny and red. He slid from the cab for a closer look. Was it a shoe? Only the toe of it. Had the girl—? In the next instant, he was scrambling into the grave. Breathless, gasping, he clawed madly at the dirt with his bare hands. As he struggled, his ears filled with the rasp of his own breath and the thunder of his own straining heart, so he didn’t hear the whoosh and grind of the hydraulics or the gradual, rusty release of the backhoe arm slowly returning its burden to the hole. As he pulled out the little red shoe and realized it was the only thing in there, a shadow fell across him. He looked up to see the boulder blocking the sun as it closed in.
The morning light glinted off the backhoe window, but the sunbeam that hit Horace Underwood smack between the eyes went right through him, illuminating the tombstone behind him. His face was placid and unsquinting in the sun’s glare as he stood graveside. He looked down. A breeze fluttered the red bandana hanging from the back pocket of the denim overalls on the body pinned beneath the boulder—his body. And next to the hand that would forever be reaching out was the red shoe. His heart gave a slight murmur of regret, but it felt lighter in a way too, less braced—as it had recently seemed— for imminent explosion.
Funny, in all these years he’d never given a moment’s thought to the likelihood he would someday end up in a grave—had certainly never imagined digging his own. The boulder sure had been a large one. Metamorphic, sedimentary, or igneous? he wondered. Horace had never left a grave in such a muddle. The hole would have to be filled in. He wondered if, in his present condition, he would still be able to operate the backhoe.
While he stared into the hole, two little feet appeared at the edge of the grave next to his—one encased in a scuffed red shoe, the other with a dirty toe sticking out of a black stocking. A small hand slipped into and merged with his.
“Silly shoe, always falling off,” she said.
He looked down into her gray eyes. Her grin was wide and toothless.
“You see, I chose you. Now . . . tag or hopscotch?”