by Linda Sparks
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The moon was rising in slithering silver streams of light, casting deep shadows upon cold stone that had waited patiently for a glimmer of illumination. A cold wind tossed leaves into dervishes, spinning wildly, and then allowing them to flutter to earth to be absorbed or to be kicked by errant paws or feet that wandered off the path.
Silence shrouded the small group as they moved through the darkness with only a promise of moonlight. It mattered little, as they knew the path well and the places of those who resided here. Some had long ago melted their ooze into crisp, cold bones and the ultimate final reckoning of decay. Had they ever imagined that they would sleep the long slumber, weighted by stone and monument? The living often regarded such a finality as a remote future, ostensibly many years into that timeline that stretched before them.
With Samhain looming and the possibility of winter sacrifices being whispered about, October was the chosen month for these forays into the Cities of the Dead. The scent of pumpkins ripening in the farmer’s field and squash awaiting their plunder flourished in the night air, and nocturnal creatures scurried to taste them before the man came with his gun and his anger.
They moved swiftly, despite the fickle moonlight that flirted behind clouds. The wrought-iron gate they entered through shrieked in protest, perhaps not wishing to be disturbed by these night visitors, these invaders. The group always whispered words of welcome to those who awaited them and asked for permission to pass into their domain. It would be utterly foolhardy to assume their presence would not aggravate some of those who wished to sleep undeterred.
Ghost Girl whispered softly, “I feel them. Their vibrations move through the iron gate like electrical current. They are warning us to stay away.”
She was not afraid. None of the Cemetery Squad felt any trepidation or doubt about their purpose this night. Even if the hounds of hell rose from the fiery pits to dissuade them, they would continue with their mission.
They forged ahead with Ghost Girl leading the way, following the scent of the spirits as only she understood how to do. She had never thought of this ability as a curse, but it often depleted her energy because of the incessant needs of those spirits who wished to leave a message, who wanted someone to hear them or to see them. They did not like the idea that they were dead and some did not even realize that they had died. Those were the troublesome ones and they were often angry and vengeful. They wanted to do harm.
The Squad moved forward, deliberately stepping, cautiously weaving through the stones as though they followed a GPS, but it was their navigator's special connection with the dead that actually guided them.
They had visited this cemetery many times during the hours of sunlight and often spoke to those who lay beneath their stones, wishing them a peaceful rest, recognizing them in a way that others had long forgotten how to do.
The leaves rustled ominously, as though something Other passed this night within the gates and watched them and tracked their progress. This darkness could not be brightened by the shards of moonlight that swept through the stones. Though, it was not in a physical form, its malignant presence was undeniable.
An owl’s cry pierced the night but they did not pause, fully aware that predators came in many forms and such was the cycle of life and all things, that some must die so that others might live.
This night, the veil between worlds was gossamer thin, as beautiful as a spider’s web that might ensnare unwary prey into the strength of its trap. The coolness of the night spoke of cold, dead things and bodies that no longer warmed with the heat of blood. One of the Squad shivered slightly and then breathed deeply, once again girded by the strength of their purpose. They had to do this. There was no alternative.
For many weeks now, Ghost Girl had suffered from the violence of her visions and the interminable cry of the lost one who tried to reach her, persuade her, beg for release that only Ghost Girl could provide to a spirit who had not yet given up on the world of the living.
The sounds of their footsteps hitting the cold earth seemed to echo an alarm. Would their presence wake the dead? Who walked this place after the hours of sun, when the unimaginable often reigned? Yet, they persisted, moving in a formation, alert for any attack which might come from the fringes of darkness.
The mournful howl of a red wolf curled into their ears. Such creatures were rare in the wild. How had it come to join this night game that was afoot? What did this wolf at the brink of extinction wish to tell them, or was it enough that he voiced his plaintive song, reminding them that he was not yet gone and still fought for survival.
Was his night call an ominous warning? A challenge for those who walked this night uninvited and even now trespassed upon the peace of the nocturnal creatures and those souls who lay buried beneath the ground? Was there no Night Watchman to call out, “Who goes there?”
If they heard those words, would they dare to reply? For it was well known that to give one’s name was to invite danger and power that might be used against that person who was not cautious enough to guard their name.
The Cemetery Squad was accustomed to such diversions and they refused to allow any interference. Ghost Girl was progressively growing weaker as she struggled against this persistent spirit who begged her to help her. How could she deny the needs of one who could not free herself?
They reached their destination and scanned the surrounding area, checking their perimeter for anything unusual, although it was debatable as to what might be considered unusual in a graveyard after midnight, closing in on the witching hour and All Hallows Eve. Did the ancient ones walk the earth this night looking for solace? Lusting for the blood of sacrifice?
The clink of their shovel struck against one of the weighted stones. It sounded like a gunshot. The group looked around. Did those listening scurry to their hidey-holes or did they move in closer in curiosity or in hunger?
The Squad members took a moment to breathe deeply and assess their surroundings once again and they looked to Ghost Girl expectantly.
“I feel her heat,” she said. “She knows we are here. Yet, she is still angry. She will not be an easy one to lay to rest.”
They were all well-acquainted with the dead, with trying to understand them, and they had often discussed this exact situation. The postmortal sentience was stronger than that of most of their previous encounters. They shivered in unison at the thought of a person or spirit being trapped in a grave and being totally aware. The flames of that reputed hellfire could not possibly compare to such horrendous torture.
The three other members moved in closer to the grave, the shovel poised for use if need be, as though to fortify themselves against any attack, even though Ghost Girl had indicated the danger was from the one deep in the ground, fulminating with rage and the need to be free.
They marked the position of the moon and knew they must make haste as they did not wish to be found in the cemetery at dawn by either mortal or monster.
The shovel was not essential to their usual excursions into the graveyards but, in this case, Ghost Girl said it was necessary.
“Plus it'll be quite useful if we needed to bash the brains of a zombie,” one of the Squad said, and they all laughed as they were each rather fond of zombie movies. They loved the growing nature of zombies from the slow- moving thuggish ones to the more recent ones that were fast, agile and quite clever. Perhaps their diet of brains had improved their undead mentation capabilities.
There was a rush of movement in the woods. They turned, one holding the shovel high in a defensive stance, but they could not identify the cause of the sound and there was no time for speculation. The moon was moving across the sky, undoubtedly watching them with curiosity, and eager to share her observations when she met the sun before he began his duties.
When they struck the first blow against the shroud of earth, an icy wind hungrily curled around their feet like a cat entwining. They stood fast and moved in closer to form a ring around the grave and offer some measure of protection against forces which did not wish for them to succeed this night.
Ghost Girl was holding her chest. She took the shovel and she began to dig fervently as though trying to hold back the deluge of the Great Flood. They each took their turn, moving in rhythm, methodically and purposefully. It had been decided that they would bring only one shovel to mitigate curiosity if they were discovered. What fool would be prowling a cemetery on All Hallows Eve when there were costume parties to attend and drunken brawls to incite?
Ghost Girl had made it clear that she felt there was a total lack of respect for this ancient Sabbath as it had become a game to some who did not believe any harm could come to them, who felt secure in their belief that they would awaken in the morning with a hangover and no memory of the night.
It was a sacrilege. No wonder this generation was reeking with trouble and confusion. They did not honor the dead and that increased the danger of becoming dead.
Ghost Girl remembered cemetery picnics from her childhood and drinking wine and chanting words of comfort to those who listened from their enforced seclusion in caskets. It was a golden childhood and had given her a vast understanding of those who had passed and also how to deal with the spirits who cried out for her attention. She could not always help them and the weight of their burdens rested heavily upon her.
Her heart was pounding as she had just taken her stint at the shovel but it was more than mere exertion. The force of the one in the casket was powerful. Still, as they dug their way down to where this one should be sleeping, she felt a rising nausea and quickly tried to suppress it. Some spirits were far more powerful than others and did not care if they harmed the one who was trying to help them.
Being an empath and a Ghost Girl was not an easy task and she had never asked for it but she was fortunate that her Squad believed in her and that she had a family who understood her burden and tried to help her. She felt regret when her husband also began to see spirits and he was not at all prepared for it, despite knowing her experiences. He wanted to run from it. She reminded him that spirits have no boundaries and, once they had found a listener, they would not go away. And now she was dealing with this very aggressive spirit who had convinced her to ask her Squad to rumble through a cemetery on All Hallows Eve and invite wandering souls and ghostly specters to the party.
A twig snapped. Something or someone watched them. There was no stopping now. They had nearly reached the casket. Ghost Girl had never actually opened a casket before, so she hoped they would be able to manage it. She regretted not bringing other tools but then considered that the shovel might be used in that manner, once it had delivered the layers of earth from the grave.
Clunk! The metal of the shovel hit against the hard surface of the casket lid.
Ghost Girl’s nausea was rising again and dizziness overwhelmed her.
“Hurry. We have to help her,” she said, tears streaming.
After several attempts, they were able to use the shovel to release the latches on the exterior of the coffin. As each one opened, there was momentary hesitation. It was not too late to retreat.
“This is madness,” one of the Squad muttered.
Then, she saw Ghost Girl sweating profusely. Retreating was never really an option for Ghost Girl, and therefore, for the Squad. She fell silent and worked in tandem with the others to raise the crown of the coffin.
What do I expect to find? Ghost Girl wondered. How long has she been buried? Will she be bones and a Sugar Skull with empty eye sockets?
Ghost Girl felt the fear ripple through her body in a wave. She was not afraid for herself but for the others. What might this angry dead spirit do to them? Its power radiated in rings, encompassing them like a massive spider’s web.
Sound surrounded them. It came from a gaping mouth, like the last breath being expelled, and it was filled with putrid air that reeked of rot. Ghost Girl wanted to back away and pull them out of the hole and cover it and bury this thing even deeper than the deepest sink hole in Florida.
But she refused to run. The breath of life still moved in her and she would not allow a soul-sucking spirit to steal it from her.
“What do you want?” She demanded. “What is your secret? You told me we would find it in your grave and that discovery would set you free.”
They were all breathing harshly. A chill crept into their bones, insidiously and relentlessly. The scent of wolf and unnamed things mixed with the rotten smell, permeated the air.
Then she saw it.
There were scratches on the interior of the coffin’s crown and the woman’s clothing was shredded, her hair wild and bloodied, her eyes wild with that ultimate madness.
No! She shook her head in disbelief. There are laws. There are guidelines governing the treatment of the deceased. They have to be certain.
They drain the blood when they embalm them. It is done for a reason.
“I see it, too,” one of the Squad said, her voice trembling.
“Oh my God.” Someone had to answer for this.
A heaviness brooded in the night air. The watchers had moved in more closely to observe and, perhaps to test or to touch. Or to taste. Ghost Girl ignored it.
“We will find out who did this to you,” she promised.
A brutally cold wind whipped at her hair, even in the relative leeward shelter of the grave. The corpse became silent, no longer forcing her thoughts like knives into Ghost Girl's brain. A small comfort, yet she could not dispel the feeling that something lay in wait.
Ghost Girl tilted her head and listened, never disconnecting her gaze from that of the woman’s bulging eyes. The gaping mouth was the signature of those screams that had gone unheard. How long had she fought against madness and death as she was imprisoned in the grave?
Ghost Girl gently took her hand and closed the eyelids, allowing the woman to sleep at last, to go on that final journey into the abyss or meet whatever fate awaited her beyond the veil.
“Okay, Let’s close her up before the sun rises. We’ll get a court order for exhumation. We will find out who did this and why,” Ghost Girl announced.
They all agreed and quickly began shoveling the dirt back onto the coffin. It went much quicker than digging her out of the grave.
Ghost Girl breathed more easily. She knew exactly what steps she must take. This was not just incompetence. It had been deliberate. Straight out of one of Poe’s tales.
As the sun began to rise, the Squad had completed their task. The grave would appear to be disturbed but there was nothing to be done about that. By the time they were able to convince the court of a need for exhumation, the grass might well return and it could appear as if it were any other grave in this cemetery.
As they moved out of the gate, it screamed in protest. Did it want to keep them? Forever? Or was it yet another warning not to return?
There was a raw pit of discomfort curled within Ghost Girl. Something cold spread within her, altered her. Had she taken something malignant-- possibly fatal?--with her?
She shivered again and tried ignoring the thing that gnawed at her mind. She shook her head to clear it of shadows. She could no longer hear the cries of the dead woman but...the corpse had felt impossibly warm. And, just as they closed the crown of the coffin, she thought the corpse had moved. She thought she saw the corpse opened her eyes.
Linda Sparks is a poet and writer who has been published in various anthologies as well as online publications and podcasts. She has 21 published books. She also served as Editor for Valkyrie Magazine. She prefers writing horror including what she terms as horror poetry which is included in a few of her books. She also writes science fiction, dark fantasy and paranormal mystery. She enjoys her group, "Cemetery Squad" and they explore cemeteries and graveyards everywhere. Her children have told her one of the highlights of their childhood was having cemetery picnics. She grew up in Southern California and now lives with her family in Florida and uses the hurricanes as writing material.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.