Thursday, November 16, 2017

Bill's Last Breath

Bill had seen enough of them to last a lifetime, of that he could be sure. It had been so long by then that he had stopped seeing them as human, or, at least, something that had formerly represented them. No, by then, Bill thought of them as nothing more than animals, perhaps worse than that. ‘Monster’ was a bit too strong of a word for Bill’s liking, as he sort of felt it had a hedonistic connotation to it, but the term was certainly closer to the truth than the old man much cared to admit.

The old shack (that’s what Bill called it, anyway) was filthy. There was a time when he thought it made some sense to keep the place clean, maybe even respectable. But, over the course of years, the disrepair and general foulness simply became, well, normal. He supposed that had Norma been around to set it right, then things may have turned out different, but she wasn’t and it hadn’t and that was the end of it.

Cleaning the old shack would have cut straight through Bill’s routine anyhow and routine was just about the only thing Bill Grimes had left. If you hit noon, Bill’s father used to say, and you weren’t half way done with a full day’s work, then you ain’t worked hard enough. He had always been a man of structure, Bill, even before, when his job was just to dig. He liked digging. It was simple, sort of pure in its own way. Norma used to laugh and jest that he just liked getting dirty, like a little kid playing out in the mud after a storm. But that wasn’t it, not really. While even Bill would admit that he did like feeling his course hands against the earth, the real thrill of it came from the effort. The strain. Bill liked how hard he had to work for it. He liked the feeling of looking at the finished hole; the mound of sediment he had disheveled from the place it had been for so many forgotten decades.

There was something infinitely satisfying about moving what was not meant to be moved. Now, couple that with the physicality of it, the hard fought, raw muscle of pushing his shovel deeper and deeper into the cemented ground and Bill had himself the perfect profession. Norma would tease him about the boyishness of his task, but the truth was, the draw was an adult one - made all the more serious by the things that were being deposited in the small chasms he so effortfully generated.

When they had first started to rise, he thought the fact that he had spent the majority of his life burying the dead was ironic. Over time, however, he came to realize the things in question made his profession no more ironic than they did that of an airline pilot or a gas stop waitress. He could have been anything, indeed, millions of people all over the world were everything, and the things still would’ve come, still would’ve brought it all down. Bill, you see, understood a little thing called context, something many others in that great big world of theirs were woefully unequipped with.

No, it was not ironic that when the dead started to rise Bill had already made a life putting them in the ground, but it was somewhat fortuitous. At least, for Bill it was - again, context. He was used to them by then, the dead. He had inherited his current position from his father, after all. Morty had trained his son at an early age and if Morty Grimes was anything, he was thorough. Morty used to say that Bill was born staring at a corpse, as his Ma had passed as he came out, but, if you asked Bill, he saw his first dead body at the ripe old age of 5.

Her name had been Henrietta Malcolm and she had been an old and wrinkled little thing. Pale and sallow, her face looked like it was melting in the heat - and, by Bill’s account, that particular day had been very hot. She had been lying in the mortician’s quarters, her face painted and her form bedecked in a simple, black gown. Were it not for the lack of breath and general, intangible sense of lifelessness that all corpses seemed to Bill to possess, she may have merely been sleeping. Bill stared at the woman, holding his breath that day, frightened but curious. He didn’t know it yet, but that curiosity would never go away. Although a mere child and altogether incapable of understanding that odd interest which was suddenly upon him, it spoke to a greater wonder - the greatest wonder - which would be the driving force behind the remainder of his long and very interesting life:

What is it to die?

Hell, replace “die” with “live” and the question gets even tougher.

Such questions seemed silly then, in the years that followed the horror, but Bill was generally too distracted to notice. Bill didn’t like to think too deeply on life and death anymore, not now that the two were no longer mutually exclusive (that is, if they ever were). No, he much preferred to go about his daily task as he always had: to the best of his ability and with as much gusto as he could muster.

The sun rose that day as it had every day before and as it would every day after. The thought comforted Bill. He rolled out of bed wearing the same dirty, gray jumpsuit he had worn for months by then. He used to wash his clothes. After a while, however, he stopped washing and started changing, occasionally switching out one outfit for another and so on. Eventually, even the changing stopped. Nowadays, Bill wore whatever it was he was wearing until it hung off of him in tatters. Then, and only then, would he seek out replacement garb.

t wasn’t as though clothes were difficult to find. On the contrary, He was close to a strip mall, a place that Norma once described as being “clothes for days”. He had gone there once, not too long after he had put Norma in the grave he had reserved for her upon accepting his position all those decades before, and had gone back to the old shack with a new pair of trousers. He had wept that night, staring at the pants with disdain. He buried them the next day, shallow, atop Norma’s decaying remains. That was about the time he stopped actively trying to maintain hygiene.

There were other perks to hygienic mire besides the suppression of grief, of course. For one, it seemed as though it was harder for them to suss you out. He stood quietly and watched one afternoon as three of them passed him by. They couldn’t have been more than fifteen feet away and… nothing. Not one twitch. They just kept shambling onwards toward wherever it was they were going.

Bill liked to tell himself that that was the reason. Survival. He could have his pick of houses. Several miles down the road were the wealthier suburbs. He hadn’t seen a car in at least six years, and the last one he did see was low on gas and piloted by a desperate woman who had no intention of going back in that direction. But, still, he stayed in the old shack. 

His bed was little more than a cot. And his cot was little more than a soiled mattress, blackened by the earth that stuck to the clothes he so rarely changed. The shack contained two rooms. One held the cot, a sink, a mirror and a chair. The other contained the metal toilet that fed to a long out-of-order septic tank. Bill had discontinued use of his indoor bathroom years ago. He couldn’t even remember using it anymore. No, the trees alongside his old shack were just fine with him. In the winter he kept a bedpan of course, or if it were to storm, but in general the woods were a perfectly acceptable place to do his business.

In the old days that would have been considered quite dangerous, in some cases suicidal. He had vague recollections of arguing with Jerry about such things, back before when there was a group of them at the cemetery. Bill could hardly even remember their faces anymore. In fact, it almost seemed stranger that he had once had companions than the thought that they had never existed at all. It was a possibility, Bill would often tell himself, he could be going senile, remembering what was never there. Remembering people who never were.

But then he’d picture Norma.

Norma was there. That he remembered.

He rose and lit a fire in the small, metal box he called a stove. He cooked and ate his flavorless oatmeal quickly. He didn’t enjoy eating, but he understood why it was necessary. After, he stepped outside and opened a cooler that was so black and dirty that it looked more like a rotting log than anything else. He removed a large metal water bottle filled to the brim with liquid he had sanitized the night before, like always, and strapped it to his belt. Had to stay hydrated. Dehydration, now that’s a real killer.

He made his way out onto the cemetery grounds which now resembled more of an untamed patch of wildflowers in the midst of an overgrown forest than it did a family owned graveyard. There was a time when Bill thought it prudent to maintain the ground, in memory of those that occupied it, but that time had long since past. Crickets chirped loudly and wave after wave of locust evacuated the tall, swaying grass as he moved forward. He didn’t brush the insects from his skin as he had in the early days, rather let them crawl around a bit until they found their way off.

There were bigger fish to fry, after all, Bill thought.

He had to watch his step as many of the jutting gravestones were hidden in the waist high grass. He knew the grounds by heart, intimately in a way that no one else ever would, but, still the land had a funny way of changing, deceiving. He had taken a hard spill once, about three years back, sprained his ankle. Had one of them been around then, well, Bill would’ve bought his ticket. But one wasn’t and Bill didn’t, so: no fuss, no muss.

The sun was low in the sky, but the whole of the grounds was bathed in warm, yellow and orange light. Just gorgeous. Bill stopped at the top of the hill that ran parallel to the old shack and took a moment to really appreciate what had truly become his home. He breathed in the fresh air. That was one positive, Bill thought then, no more people, no more smog. Norma had once said they should feel lucky, most people were driven from their homes when it happened, but she and Bill got to stay put. He supposed she was right.

From his vantage point he could make out the four quadrants that comprised the cemetery grounds. Hundreds of bodies were buried on the grounds. Go back over a century and the records ceased, so Bill suspected there may be even more than that. There was also the closed off portion to the south, gated and out of use. Owners told him in confidence once that the place was used to dump prisoners, executed soldiers, vagrants - bodies that needed disappearing. Unmarked graves, they had said.

Bill hardly saw a difference between marked and unmarked plots. Decades later, they may as well all be unmarked, he often thought. Still, he certainly didn’t want to unearth a skull when digging, so Bill did appreciate the area being cordoned off.

He glimpsed the quarter of the cemetery that he had already completed, the neat mounds of ground soil sitting in row after row of one another. It looked like a macabre satire of the quarter of a graveyard sitting beside it, albeit a fitting one, given the times. Bill grimaced and made his way down the hill.

There had been a time when Bill was startled by the sounds of the world around him, but not anymore. He had expected the end of things to be more quiet, but, on the contrary, the world was as loud as it ever was. Only instead of car motors and humming electrical lines, it was the incessant calling of birds and insects, the howl of the wind in the bolstering vegetation, the rustling of the deer and animal life that had positively exploded in the wake of humanity’s near extinction that rang loudly through his ears at all hours of the day and night.

It certainly made it more difficult to notice them, were it not for the smell.

He had’t seen one in the wild for quite sometime. That’s not to say his work didn’t involve interacting with them, but there was a rather big difference between the one’s stumbling toward you and the one’s Bill was unearthing. Bill’s shovel was exactly where he had left it at dusk the day prior: leaning against a pile of soil that looked much fresher than some of the others. It was dewey and still broken, as though a simple flick of the finger would send most of it flying, like grains of sand in a breeze.

He stepped carefully around the gap in the world beside the dirt without glancing down and walked across the path that separated the grave from the next. He squared his shoulders and peered down at the tall grass. Through the swaying strands he could make out the small, gray stone. There were words printed there, but the name and epitaph met nothing to Bill. He hadn’t known that person and he never would. Norma wouldn’t have cared for that sort of reaction. She used to come down and walk between the graves; she’d read the names out loud as though just saying them to the open air was keeping them alive, real maybe. That’s how this new phase of Bill’s life got started as a matter of fact, and why Norma was just a memory, another body in the ground.

Bill started to dig. Digging the hole was the best part of his day. It was when he was the most focused. When life started to seem, well, simple again. His thoughts didn’t range much beyond one shoveling to the next. The sense of accomplishment as he watched the mound grow taller and taller beside the hole which grew deeper and deeper was the most concrete sense of self satisfaction he was allowed anymore. Even Bill didn’t understand that it was the feeling he felt while he dug that kept him pushing forward; Hell, the digging kept him alive.

Several feet down, Bill’s mind began to wander. It was like a ship drifting slowly out to sea. The thoughts seeped in in uncontrollable waves, slowly at first, but progressively more and more quickly. He did his best to push them aside, to rest once again on the action of the dig, the simplicity of the dig, but for some reason his mind fought the routine. His routine.

The only thing Bill Grimes had left.

He could hear Norma’s voice. See her contorted expression. She heard something. Something underground. They had been alone for so long by then, Bill thought his companion was finally losing the marbles she had held onto for so long. He had gone down to the cemetery to check it out. She pointed to the grave in question. He put his ear to the ground…

He kept digging. He was breathing hard. His chest rising and falling out of rhythm, sporadic in a way that would have normally alarmed Bill. He was getting on in age, after all. Had the world not turned the way it had, Bill highly doubted he’d still be spending his days digging graves, well unearthing them anyhow.

Norma’s voice resounded in his ear, louder this time. She was frantic. He hadn't heard her get like that since the group. That last day, when those things came in the night. When they bit the kid and he bit the rest. Bill never, ever admitted it to Norma, but he knew it would be the kid that killed them, all of them. He knew it, because, he knew no one would want to kill a damn child if they had to. And he was right.

His shovel hit something hard. He recognized the sound right away. He fiddled the tip around in the dirt and cleared off a small portion of the surface of the coffin - the sizable chip in the smooth, wooden exterior visible in the light of the climbing sun. Usually he paused when he hit it, but not today. Today he set right back to work. He ignored the odd, numbness in his chest and the slight stab of pain in his heart.

Bill was going to finish the goddamned hole if it killed him.

Norma had made him dig up that grave. She carried on and on about it until he finally snapped and grabbed his shovel. There was no conceivable way that the body in that hole could still be moving. It had been buried for years. Buried before the dead ever started to rise. He dug that hole faster than he had dug any hole before, Norma watching the entire time. When he reached the bottom, the coffin, he tore it open in triumph, tore it open to prove her wrong and what he saw made him lose his breakfast.

The coffin was mostly visible then. Bill’s breathing was wheezy and slow, much slower than before and he was starting to lose feeling in his left shoulder. His fingers tingled like they were asleep, like they used to be when he had his arm around Norma in the movie theaters before…

His mind was wandering back to that moment, more than a year before, staring down at that body. That woman. She was bone in places, body in others. The tissue and skin around her face had sunk in to her skull and her eyes were just gaping holes in the dark black mass of her cranium. Purple and black patches and misshapen growths spread throughout her body that were, after a moment, recognizable as rotted flesh and one of her arms, amazingly, still looked, for the most part as it should’ve. That was the arm that moved. Norma screamed. The woman in the box rattled and her skull shifted, a portion of it caving in completely as a sickening sound emitted from a hole in her neck where a white, mucus like substance was leaking.

Bill threw himself against the side of the narrow hole. He winced and shook his head, fighting to push the memory from his stubborn brain. He could see Norma’s eyes welling with tears. See her staring down at the body in the coffin. See her losing what hope she might’ve had left. He watched Norma give up. Then he watched her die.

He thew open the coffin and faced nothing more than a skeleton. He winced again as he chortled through the pained tears that were leaking from his bloodshot eyes. He felt relief wash over him as he fell backward, hitting his arm against the shovel and twisting his ankle in the confined space. The pain was there, dully in the background and on a different day Bill might’ve been worrying about how he would ever climb out.

Norma’s heart gave out, Bill was sure of it. It was a good heart. A good heart that had seen a lot of bad things. But that day, as she stared down at the poor soul who had been trapped in the coffin, as she more than likely considered the hundreds of thousands of other poor souls trapped in their own coffins for, well, forever Bill supposed, she lost something. If Bill had to put his finger on it, he would say it was her faith. Deep down, Bill thought, just maybe, the sight confirmed not the non-existence of her merciful God but the very real existence of an extremely cruel one.

Bill’s vision was blurry. He sat upright, his wheezing growing more and more faint, his tired grin gazing into the face of the skeleton. He had only spoken aloud to himself once or twice since Norma died, mostly on accident. And, even then, as he spoke, he still did not view the act as being aimed at himself, rather his companion in the hole.

“Must be nice.”

He didn’t know they would be the last he’d ever speak as he said them, but, certainly, once they were out, he knew.

He had buried Norma in the back, to the south. He made sure she wouldn’t be coming back, although Bill had a sneaking suspicion that it was the amount of embalming fluid to blame for some of the resident’s animation in the cemetery. It seemed that based on the level of decomposition at the time of the incident, some came back, while others appeared to have not. Still, Bill suspected Norma would have wanted to be sure, so he started the long and arduous task of unearthing the bodies and taking care of the issue.

He had put down at least sixty of them that year, although had found several hundred more that were nothing more than bones and dark, rotting fabric. Most of them weren’t no more than that, but if there was even a chance, Bill had to dig. One a day, he had decided. He would do it until he had completed the whole cemetery and then, well, he supposed he would’ve moved on to the next and the next after that. He was getting on, but, to Bill, life seemed as though it were going to be endless. And he needed a routine. A purpose.

Norma. He needed-

The air was leaving him then. The skeleton lay across from him, its cranium cocked to the side slightly, as though it were shooting him a one eyed glare. A near playful look as far as Bill could figure. He remembered that look. He remembered that look from his Norma. That look that said Bill was acting a boy, not a man of his age. Just a boy who liked to play in the dirt. And she wasn’t wrong.

Bill had seen enough of them to last him a lifetime, he could be sure of that. It had been so long by then. So very long.

He had put Jerry down last. His friend. Almost like a son to him after more than a year together. But that was so long ago. That terrible night. First Jerry’s son and then Jerry. Norma was screeching. She was never the same after that. The next day she began to read the names off of the gravestones. The names of people she would never know, the names of people that, presently, would never be said aloud again.

The marked ones. As good as unmarked, in Bill’s opinion.

Bill smiled serene. He listened to each slowly diminishing breath. The birds and the insects talked, so loud they were then. The one across from him, the one in the coffin stared forward, eye cocked in his direction. Bill wanted to laugh, maybe he would.

Bill swallowed it then, the last. His eyes rolled back and his brain dimmed low. The terrors he had seen subsided and the last vision that flashed was anything but horrific. Norma was young, so was he, they were to be married that day. Marrying his best friend and the prettiest gal this side of the Mississippi. How lucky was he?

Bill’s last breath faded away, as did his life, slowly blending with the wind as it swirled down into the hole. Bill had dug that hole with his own two hands. A hard day’s work, done, and it wasn’t even noon yet.

By Paul Farrell

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