Nicholas Anthony – EIGHTY-FOUR BY TWENTY-EIGHT

M. Barnabas Griswald is dead. His funeral was a dull affair; the incessant droning of the minister was broken only by the frequent, half-hearted sobs of some distant relative. The relative in question was putting on quite the show. She had produced a handkerchief the size of a wash towel and proceeded to add her trumpets to the funeral dirge that already escaped from the organ pipes. The resulting cacophony echoed harshly through the halls of the cathedral. Ed Hart stood a ways back, distancing himself from the heart of the service. Leaning up against a pew, he idly chipped away at the corner of a long, unwashed fingernail. He hated these late afternoon funerals. In fact, on his list of things that most deserved his hatred, evening funerals ranked just a notch below the Sunday Funnies.

The service was nearing its conclusion. The minister was running out of things to say and the congregation grew more restless with each passing minute. To be honest, he was surprised they had made it this far. M Barnabas Griswald had never been called an interesting man, let alone a warm one. He embodied the suit that even now seemed painted onto his cold and lifeless body. Of course, this did little to stop the crowds from clawing at his pocketbook after he passed. Ed Hart found it funny. A businessman of so much wealth and repute. Where did it all get him? The same place as everyone else: stuck inside an eighty-four by twenty-eight box and buried in dirt.

Ed Hart soon decided he could take no more of the monotonous eulogy and went outside to catch some air. It was getting dark. Night was approaching faster than expected and the chill along with it. Ed Hart took a seat on the steps of the church and reached into his slacks’ pocket for a Pall-Mall. He struck a match on the concrete steps and lit the cigarette, inhaling deeply the calming smoke and exhaling his irritation. Not far from where he was sitting a streetlight flickered to life. Beneath its light a tabby cat lounged on the pavement. She had bored yellow eyes and a crooked tail that bent at an awkward angle. A small obsidian marble hung from her collar. It was a curious thing, juxtaposed between the carefully arranged stripes that colored her fur. Not something you usually found on a housecat’s collar. Ed Hart casually tapped the end of his cigarette against the church railing and she watched as the ash cascaded to the pavement below, her obtuse tail flicking lazily.

Parked a few steps from the cat was Ed Hart’s hearse. The black Cadillac had a full tank of gas and stood ready to chauffeur M. Barnabas Griswald to his final resting place. He was looking forward to the drive to the cemetery. It was the best part of his job. Just him and the road, quiet and peaceful, he never had to worry about a noisy or complaining passenger, they were always silent. Ed Hart loved silence. People talked too much. It was useless, all of the pointless jabbering about this or that. Bullshit they spewed to avoid being uncomfortable. That’s why Ed Hart hated people. He much preferred them dead. Dead and quiet.

The cigarette spent, he flicked it aside as the chapel doors opened. He stood back and watched as the mourners filed out in pairs, each engaged in deep conversation that typically followed a funeral. The tabby, meanwhile, seemed uninterested in the collection of people exiting the church. Her eyes would wander amongst the faces for awhile but always returned to the weathered lines of Ed Hart’s. He could feel the cat regarding him with a lingering curiosity, like the passing fancy of school children who behold a bizarre creature for the first time. He could have sworn that he heard the sound of her purring as she watched him.

It didn’t take long for the adjacent lot to empty. Soon only a few cars remained. The double doors of the church opened once more and the residing minister stepped out. The man’s eyes surveyed Ed Hart’s moth-eaten sports jacket with distaste before telling him that M. Barnabas Griswald was ‘out back’. The priest’s white robe collected the leaves as he walked away.

A single man was waiting for him behind the church. He wore a tight, grey t-shirt that showed off his apparent lack of diet, and a small cross that clung, suffocating, between his massive breasts. The man nodded in greeting but said nothing. An admirable trait. Between the two of them, they were able to load the cargo in no time at all and Ed Hart was soon on his way.

There weren’t many cars out that night but that wasn’t unusual. About this time, most folks would be indoors sitting around the dinner table: the father complaining about the lack of paperclips at his office, the kids playing at war from across the mashed potatoes and peas, and the mother debating whether or not to kill them all in their sleep. Ed Hart imagined he could see them hiding behind their shuttered windows. House after house of happy families. These continued for a time, but were slowly replaced by thigh-high brown grass that encroached on all sides. Another mile or two passed and the car took a right, exiting town completely. Its flashing blinker leaving a line of diluted red as it did.

The tires crackled against the loose gravel of the new road. The absence of the moon, like a massive hole in the sky, allowed the stars to shimmer more boldly, providing an immense, flickering backdrop to the rolling country that lay ahead. It was like a beautiful oil painting. He was reminded of one he had glimpsed as a child. It had been composed of dark and muted colors,  with little dots of orange and white light that sprinkled the foggy background. He had stared at that painting for hours; stared until the museum had closed and his mother had come looking for him. Ed Hart lit another cigarette and watched as its thin trail of smoke disappeared out the open car window. It had been the first time he had seen fireworks.

“Scrrrrtch.”

The sound was like a rusty nail dragging across a barn door. He could feel the frayed wood splintering and peeling away. A chill crept up Ed Hart’s spine, crawling slowly, spreading its tendrils along the web of nerves that wrapped around his muscle and bone. He waited for a moment. Then allowed that moment to stretch on for a minute or two. Nothing. Only silence. He must have imagined it. Yes, that was it. He was tired and he had just imagined it.

“Scrrrtch.”

It had come from the back. Ed Hart glanced over his shoulder but the wall between him and the cab obscured his sight. It was probably nothing. Most likely the casket shifting slightly or the frame grinding against the cabin floor. He tried to put it at the back of his mind, though his knuckles—white against the dark leather of the steering wheel—betrayed his unease. The cigarette was on its last breath. The fire had begun to eat away at the filter. He took another drag.

“Scrrrrtch.”

The Pall-Mall fell from his fingers. Its carcass burned a hole in the Cadillac’s upholstery. His eyes twitched nervously from the rearview mirror to the road ahead.

“Scrrrtch. Scrtch. Scrrrrrrrtch.”

Ed Hart slammed on the brakes. The tires squealed in protest. He swung the wheel to the right. Green brush and weed disappeared beneath his front bumper. Finally the car came to a grinding stop. A loud thud echoed in the back as he put it in park. There was silence. Ed Hart collected himself, took a deep breath and opened the door.

As he walked to the rear of his car, he did not know why he felt on edge. He knew that there was nothing to be afraid of. Not of the dead anyways. And yet, it was the sound, that awful rusty scratch. It was the sound of someone—something—trying to claw its way out. He had heard of people being buried alive. He had seen the coffins with long scratch marks dug deep into the interior lid; felt the frayed wood with his fingertips. He shuddered. It didn’t matter. What Ed Hart felt was only an affliction of the nerves. He knew that M. Barnabas Griswald was dead. Dead. Dead. Dead.

He fumbled with the key for a moment before inserting it into the rear door. It fell away with a click and swung open to reveal a dimly lit interior. The oblong, wooden casket hadn’t moved. Not even a little bit. Ed Hart sniffed hesitantly. A new scent assailed his nostrils. A fresh scent. It was sweet and sickly, with a cloying heaviness that lingered about his senses. He hunched down and took a step inside. It got stronger. The light was so faint, however, that he could not find the source. Until he stepped in it.

The sucking squelch made him flinch as he lifted his shoe from the mess. There, with its entrails splattered across the plush carpeting, was the grisly remains of the tabby cat. Its crooked tail was still visible despite the poor condition of the rest of its body. Ed Hart frowned at the poor feline’s demise. How had it gotten here? What had happened? He ran his fingers along the smooth wood of the casket.  The lid looked as though it hadn’t been disturbed.

The cat’s remains proved difficult to gather, but Ed Hart scooped up what he could and brought them outside. A clump of brown grass served as her grave, where, tucked beneath the brown and dying stalks, her eyes stared up at him with a glassy intensity. He shuddered. The obsidian marble still hung from the cat’s collar, unblemished. Its surface would catch the starlight for a moment before reflecting it back to him like flashes from a camera. Gently, he unhooked it and slipped it into his pocket next to a pair of broken matches. He would come back later to bury the tabby. Ed Hart stood and returned to the Cadillac. It sat idle for a span of seconds before once more returning to the road.

Nerves now spent, he tried to relax in the driver’s seat. The whole thing was silly. How could he have thought—there was no way that—it was just unreasonable. He had made sure, made all of the right precautions. He could remember standing in the basement of the mortuary, his shoes squeaking on the recently scrubbed floor as he stared down at the former M. Barnabas Griswald. He could recall everything—the man’s organs removed, sealed in plastic bags, and piled in an unlabeled bucket to his left; the skin, pale and white, massaged gently until no longer rigid and unyielding; the unholy stench of formaldehyde as the mortician pumped the pink embalming fluid into the deflated corpse; the small scrap of paper that bore a name tied loosely to the end of a single, big toe—the man was dead, no questions about it. And yet there was still something fighting in the back of Ed Hart’s mind. Something that demanded clarity. Something.

Ed Hart reached into his pocket and took out the obsidian marble. It felt warm in his hand as he rolled it about his palm. There were no flaws, no imperfections. It was as smooth as it was hard. He tapped it gently against the dash and listened for its responding ring. He did not know why he had grabbed it, impulse maybe, but he liked the way it glinted in the starlight.

It has been said that a person’s eyes are windows into their soul. Now Ed Hart was not a superstitious man, but he wanted to believe this was true. Ever since he was a boy he had been fascinated by the human iris. His mother had always told him that in each child’s eyes was a kaleidoscope, shining unique collections of colors and patterns. He could vividly remember the beautiful, pale blue of Barnabas Griswald’s. How they looked like the ocean on a calm day. Each wave of tranquil blue washing gently over the black rocks that were his pupils. Ed Hart’s own, vacant eyes stared back at him from the rear-view mirror; brown pits of soil and dirt.

He felt it long before he heard it. An aberrant stuffiness, as if the oxygen had been sucked away with a straw. Gooseflesh crawled up his arms and legs. The feeling grew heavier, suffocating him with its oppressive weight. Finally, when he felt his lungs could take no longer, there came the long, drawn out whine of nail against wood.

“Scrrrrtch.”

His heart sank deep into his chest. A moan escaped from the bottom of his throat, animalistic and coarse.

“Scrrrtch.”

Ed Hart violently shook his head back and forth. What was wrong with him? Was he going mad? He couldn’t be going mad! He couldn’t—he wasn’t! He bit down on his bottom lip and tasted his own blood.

“Scrrrrtch.”

Ed Hart pleaded for it to stop, but it would not listen. Perhaps in spite, the scratching continued with renewed intensity. It clawed at his insides, tearing its way through his senses. The marble, sitting on the dashboard where he had placed it, chimed against the window in vicious harmony.

The Cadillac came alive as Ed Hart’s foot pushed the pedal to the floor. He had to be rid of this godawful noise! The car sped along the abandoned road, tree and brush a hazy blur. Finally—there, in the distance—a faint light illuminated the shadowy mass of a cemetery. The entrance was in sight! He picked up speed. By the time the gate came into view, there was no time to slow down. Ed Hart crashed through the iron bars. Their rusted metal groaned as they broke away. The headstones, painted red by his tail lights, seemed to follow him as he tore down the road.

The scratching ceased when the Cadillac came to a stop in front of the Griswald plot. There was a deep hole already dug in the ground. A rusty shovel stuck out of a sizable pile of dirt nearby. As Ed Hart looked upon the sad collection of headstones, he could not stop the wide, hysterical grin that stretched unnaturally across his face. He let out a chuckle and leaped out of the driver’s seat. The rolling marble came to a rest behind the steering wheel.

The casket had not moved an inch. It lay where he had loaded it, quiet and pensive, as if lost in deep contemplation. Ed Hart lifted one end and dragged it out of the car. It fell to the gravel in a cloud of dust and rock. M. Barnabas Griswald gave no protest.

Ed Hart had every intention of leaving. To just abandon that damned box and return home. He ached for his bed, to fall into its quilted sheets and let sleep take him. He wanted to forget, to shut out all sound and just forget this night, forget that sound. The key was still in the ignition. It would only take a little twist and he could be on his way. Just a little twist. He grasped the key and felt its cool metal sucking whatever warmth he had left from his fingers. He tried to turn it—oh, how he tried!—but he couldn’t will himself to do it. There was something holding him back. Something that held him firmly grounded in front of the Griswald lot. He looked into his rear-view mirror. The casket seemed to be expanding, growing steadily, gradually, until it threatened to encompass the entirety of the glass. He couldn’t hear it from where he sat but he knew the scratching had returned. That gnawing, clawing, biting, scratching that tug and tore at his mind, leaving lacerations that scarred his insides until his whole body was ripped, ragged, and bloody. He had to be rid of it! He would find no rest until he saw it buried. Hidden deep within the earth where no one could hear that terrible noise!

Deep furrows marked the ground where Ed Hart dragged the coffin. It must have taken some strength to do it, but it was done all the same. The drag marks led to the hole. Its steep sides sloped down into the darkness below to where the casket lay splintered. An elegant headpiece stood watch over the proceedings. Its simple words stated: Here Lies Monsignor Barnabas Griswald: Husband, Father, Friend. May his bones find rest in the solitude of Death.

Ed Hart surveyed his work triumphantly. The casket lay at the bottom of the hole with long slivers of wood strewn haphazardly around it. Its lid remained firmly closed. He began shoveling the dirt, slowly at first, and then more manically. The earth fell in loose chunks upon the coffin below. At this point he could not stop the laughter, it came unbidden and unrelenting. It was not a pleasant laughter but one that lingers, reverberating through the walls of the subconscious, echoing and echoing until you plead for it to stop, but even then it continues.

By the time a respectable amount of dirt had fallen into the hole, the scratching adopted a different tone: desperate and pronounced. Soon it would be silent, soon it would be drowned under six feet of earth! Ed Hart paused and wiped the sweat from his brow. The box was half buried, its sides covered by dark soil and a film of dirt that lay draped over its top. He looked to the Cadillac. The door was still open. Illuminated there in the dim glow of the overhead light was the marble. It shone like a great malevolent eye, lidless and black, watching him silently from the dashboard. It winked.

Suddenly and without warning the scratching stopped. Ed Hart waited for it to resume. He knew it must. Surely, it must! He waited. Waited. Waited.

A blind rage suddenly swelled inside Ed Hart like a balloon. It expanded and stretched until he knew it would explode out his mouth like something from a Hollywood exorcism. He let out a scream. It did not have his permission to be quiet now! He had not finished burying it! It would speak to him yet. Ed Hart jumped down into the pit, his feet landing heavily on the wooden lid below. He was muttering something unintelligible; some random grouping of grunted syllables. He grabbed the shovel and started to dig out the dirt that pressed up against the casket’s sides. The shovel’s tooth struck up a rhythm, repeatedly burying itself deep into the earth, again and again, returning each time with a trickling chunk of earth. The sun was just peaking out over the bosom of the hills when the sides were hollowed out enough. Ed Hart’s veins stood like thick cords rippling along each arm and his strained muscles pulsed with exhaustion. Ed Hart tossed the shovel aside. It fell with a discordant ring against one of the neighboring headstones above him. A coat of dark earth had covered the entirety of his face and his eyes stared out frenzied and wild from behind the mask. He crouched down low and brushed off the dirt from the lid of the casket. The hinges creaked when he cracked open the lid.

Inside M. Barnabas Griswald lay in repose. His Italian leather boots and his blue Zegna suit gave off an air of wealth and power even in death. Hands that folded delicately lay gently across his chest, where a gold band encircling his ring finger was visible. He had small tufts of white hair that were combed back but a complete absence of facial hair. Soft lines of age creased his worn face. Ed Hart gently traced them from the ends of his lips to the crow’s feet that marked the corners of his eyes. But his eyes, they were closed—glued shut with adhesive.

Ed Hart looked down at the reclining corpse and noticed something odd. Beneath those closed lids a brief flurry of motion could be seen. Twitching, back and forth, as though the man’s pupils sought his face. Ed Hart knelt down and brushed his fingers across the closed eyes of M. Barnabas Griswald. The twitching stopped. Slowly, gently, Ed Hart peeled back the eye lids. Pale, blue orbs stared up at him. They did not stir. Motionless, ageless and beautiful.

As he looked into the eyes of M. Barnabas Griswald, a curious sensation spread from the tips of his fingers to the ends of his toes. It came like a tide, in soothing and lethargic waves. Ed Hart was tired. So very tired. Catlike, he yawned and arched his back, stretching out his worn and exhausted muscles. The faint echo of his yawn reverberated gently against the walls of the pit like a faint lullaby. He immersed his fingers in the interior lining of the casket and felt its soft, silky texture upon the sensitive skin of his fingertips. It was softer than the sheets that lined his bed back at home. It looked—it felt—so comfortable. There was so much room too! M. Barnabas Griswald took up only a portion of the soft carpeting. Ed Hart looked once more into the dead man’s eyes. They looked so peaceful, so inviting. They seemed to offer a haven away from the noise; the constant bedlam that surrounded daily life. An end to the scratching. Oh, if only he could know the silence behind those eyes. Know the bliss of such a sleep. If only.

Ed Hart looked around. The cemetery seemed deserted. The caretaker would not arrive for another hour or two at least. There would be no one to bother him. No one to begrudge him a little nap. A little rest before the drive home. It wasn’t safe to drive tired anyways. It was just irresponsible. Ed Hart dusted himself off—he didn’t want to track dirt in after all—and gingerly climbed into the open casket.

M. Barnabas Griswald proved a comfortable bedding to lie upon. He was remarkably warm and soft, like a lightly worn cushion. Catlike, Ed Hart pawed around until he rested with his face buried in the soft underbelly of the casket and his cheek pressed up against the neighboring cheek of M. Barnabas Griswald. Ed Hart closed his eyes to sleep. Darkness fell like a flood, wrapping him in its cool embrace. He allowed a smile to cross his lips and thought he felt M. Barnabas Griswald respond with one as well; the corner of the dead man’s lips brushing gently against his own. The coffin closed silently behind them.

____________________

Nicholas is a third year English major at Santa Clara University in California.

____________________

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