It was the stitching drawn across her face that gave him the courage to speak to her. “Sally?” he asked, admiring her commitment to the costume, ignoring the drinks and games preoccupying the other college students.
“You like Nightmare Before Christmas?” she giggled in response. “It’s my favorite.”
From then on, Halloween was their special day: the parties, the coordinated costumes, the horror movies. Especially the movies. They started watching videos each year on October First. Snuggled together on the couch, cringing, screaming, hiding behind the blanket. Debating whether The Thing was better than Halloween, whether Psycho should have been made into a musical like American Psycho.
“Assuredly not,” was her defiant response.
On their eighth Halloween together, they won another costume contest. He dressed as the Bride of Frankenstein, she as the Monster. On the drive home she held the trophy in her lap. Her thumb polished the laughing skull face on top.
“This might be our last party for a while,” she said.
His knuckles whitened. “What…I…what?”
She peeled his right hand from the steering wheel and pressed it against her belly. “But we might be trick or treating.”
For the next twenty years, parties gave way to homemade costumes, candy collecting, and a front yard full of skeletons and punny grave markers. Until the Halloween came when there were no children left at home.
“There’s a party at Duggan’s Pub this year,” he said. “Maybe we show them what real dress up looks like?”
The twinkle in her eye indicated that she had been thinking the same thing. “Just like the good old days?”
He couldn’t stop talking on the ride home. “Second place?” he kept repeating. “How’d we get second to Thelma and Daphne?” He turned to face her, “It feels so unoriginal. We might as well have lost to a couple dressed up like a coronavirus.”
She giggled. The same giggle she’d had since that first Halloween so long ago. “We didn’t lose, we got second.” She placed her hand against his cheek, caressing his greyed stubble. “Keep your eyes on the road, sweetie.” She pushed his face toward the front of the car.
He had enough time to see a flash of red and chrome before the windshield glass shattered inward. Her side of the car crumpled toward him, her scream cut short as the front bumper of the runaway truck struck her head. Snapping it lifelessly into his shoulder. And blood. Everywhere.
The first anniversary of her death he ignored, the second he couldn’t. He filled the trunk of his car with assorted tools and drove to the cemetery. He made no effort to hide or sneak; the amount of alcohol coursing through his body made stealth impossible anyway. “One more costume party,” he announced to the dead.
His shoulders ached and dust filled his nostrils as he dug through the hard earth. The digging going poorly, his body already tired from staggering through the darkness trying to find her gravestone. Further frustrated that he could not remember her face. “Those bastards moved you,” he muttered and smeared dirt mixed with sweat across his forehead. “That’s why you were so hard to find.” Torn blisters on his fingers leaked pus into his palms. The work gloves providing minimal comfort. His left knee buckled and he fell onto his side panting. The haft of the shovel pressed into his face.
A sob escaped. “Sally?” he managed to gasp. Tears mixed with the sweat mud already caked on his face. In the quiet, he heard her giggle. From somewhere beneath him.
He rose and began hammering the shovel into the ground. “Sally!” he howled. “I’m coming.” Unwilling to acknowledge the pain in his body, the pain in his heart, he threw dirt from the hole. He dug faster and faster. Harder and harder. And harder.
The new groundskeeper fumbled his walkie-talkie out of his coverall’s pocket. “Carlton? You hearin’ me, Carlton? Come in, Carlton.” He stared down at the freshly dug hole in the ground. He checked the headstone and then back into the hole. A man, maybe drunk, possibly dead, lay at the bottom. Rotted bones from an even more rotted coffin scattered down there with him. “Jesus, Carlton,” the groundskeeper yelled into the walkie at his supervisor, “where the hell are you?”
“Relax, kid,” crackled back through, “I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Carlton, I think he’s dead.”
“Is it an older guy?” Carlton asked. “Green jacket? Orange cap?”
The groundskeeper’s eyes darted across the fresh dirt, the tools, and articles of clothing. “Yes, but he’s not wearing them.”
“No worries, kid. That guy comes out here every year at Halloween. For at least the last twenty. Blotto. Some loner that everyone ignores. Falls asleep on someone’s grave and we call the cops to get him dried out. Usually wakes up ranting about someone named Sally.” Carlton’s thick laugh rasped through the walkie. “Sorry, should’ve warned you about him. He’s no problem. I’ll call the cops, just keep an eye on him in case he wakes up.”
“He ain’t sleepin’ on a grave, Carlton. He dug it up.”
“What do you mean, dug it up?” Carlton asked.
“Dug it up. You know. Like all the way down to…to the body.” The groundskeeper paused. “There’s bones.”
The walkie was silent.
“Carlton? You still there?”
“Give me a minute, kid.” More silence and then, “Which plot is it?”
The groundskeeper turned his eyes back to the headstone. “Gregory Dendridge. Plot 721.”
He waited in the morning silence for a response and stared into the hole with the dead man surrounded by the bones of another dead man. His stomach turned over and threatened to heave his breakfast onto the grisly mess in the sabotaged grave. Then the man at the bottom of the hole twitched and a scream echoed from the depth of the hole.
The new groundskeeper forgot about his queasy stomach, dropped his walkie-talkie, and ran.
He woke, uncertain at first where he was. His entire body hurt when he tried to move and couldn’t. Far above he heard a voice. Sally? He tried to say, but no words came out. Memories flashed through his mind. Not of Sally or Halloween parties or kids or truck crashes. Instead, it was images of a small house on the edge of town. Paint peeled from the window frames and a half-eaten dish of cat food sat on the porch. Inside the house was a television and stacks of videotapes. And loneliness. Larger than the hole he now found himself in. The weight of the loneliness crushed him, squeezed him, forced air from his lungs along with the memories of a life unlived.
In his hand was an unknown bone or remnant of a bone. An artifact he’d dug up imaging something that was never there. He jerked in fear, finally able to move, and wailed until his cry became a scream. He wished he had the courage to drive the shard he held deep into his heart and be done with it all.
And somewhere, far, far below him, he heard a giggle.
About The Author
Jay likes to write. So he does. Some of his stories have recently appeared in Penumbric, Versification, A Rock and a Hard Place, Crystal Lake, and The Dark Corner. His first novel “The Great American Coward” is now available from Golden Storyline Books.
He can be found on Twitter @BechtolJay or his website www.jaybechtol.com. He can be found in person in Homer, Alaska.