Okay, got another Halloween present for you. I'm not sure I like this one as much as the other one (so go read that one instead if ya haven't already- I need the attention!) but it's a lot shorter, which, depending on how much you hate my writing, might be a good special feature. I dunno. :) As always, feedback is encouraged, here or on Twitter. If it disturbed and upset you, GOOD! If you thought it was funny, I'll take that, too. And if you thought it sucked, lemme know why and maybe that'll help me next time I write something.
The title is odd. I'm sometimes bad with titles. Originally all I could think of for this was "Burials," but that's so generic. Then I decided on "A Fitful Sleep," which might be better than what I settled on... but, I decided to go for the weird just to make you start reading just to figure out what the fuck that title was about. If you think that title's stupid, you may be right and should go with "A Fitful Sleep" instead.
That's all the stories I've got for this year, but keep an eye on the blog because I think Kicker Of Elves may be working on something for ya, and that should be good!
Anyway... enjoy... if that's really the correct term for experiencing the nasty gack I'm about to put in your head... :)
It took Matt a minute to figure out that the noise that woke up him at two a.m. wasn't part of nature.
Another two minutes went by before he realized that it was the sound of a shovel.
Someone was digging in his lawn in the dead of night, and it sounded like it was happening right under the bedroom window.
He was awake then, and afraid, and trying to find and pull on clothes in the dark so whoever was out there wouldn't be alerted by lights in the window. He wondered if he should wake Jennifer or not; he might need her to call 911 if whatever-this-was-going-to-be turned ugly, but if it somehow turned out to be nothing then he'd undoubtedly scare the bejesus out of her. She often got spooked just by strange cars driving through the neighborhood, so digging on the lawn at 2 a.m. would surely mess her up good. He grabbed his cell phone, deciding he'd call the cops himself if he needed them.
He wasn't a gun owner. He'd meant to buy one, flirted with it for years, but hadn't committed. Too bad now. The best weapon his sleepmuggled brain could come up with and that he could find in the dark was a hammer. Not much against a guy who'd definitely have at least a shovel. He'd just have to try to avoid violence if possible; always his first plan.
He fished a flashlight out of a drawer and slipped out the front door. He thought about locking it behind him in case the shoveler killed him and went in after Jen, but if that happened the lunatic could take the keys off him anyway. He'd just have to not get killed, which was also part of his first plan.
Great, we're thinking in terms of being murdered now.
The shik-chuff was much louder out here, coming from right around the corner, and he paused, listening to it a second. Definitely a shovel; he could hear the metal scraping on roots or gravel, and the digger's grunts and hard breathing. Did he really want to confront this guy? The mental state of anyone digging in someone else's yard at this hour -- or any hour, without permission -- had to be far off the rails and into the weeds. He wondered if he should just go ahead and call 911 now. But there was always the rare chance that there was some sane explanation, and he could end up embarrassed. He'd better check it out first. Face it up, be a man, sometimes the hardest job in the world.
With a chill of fear, he peeked around the corner.
There he was, a short, sturdy man, bald on top with a wild white fringe around the sides like some mad professor. He was working the shovel hard, throwing his body against it as he piled dirt into the hole he'd been digging. There was enough light from the moon and the utility pole up the hill to make out who it was fairly quickly; old Mr. Thorson from the next block. Crazy Mr. Thorson, who didn't like neighbors. Matt had once said hello to him after an ice storm; Thorson had been out looking at one of his pines that had come down under the weight of the ice and Matt had said, "Ouch, looks like you're going to lose that one," and Thorson had bared long yellow teeth at him and said, "Don't you worry about it, shitbrick." Ended that conversation and all others in the future.
Other neighbors he'd told about the incident had reported similar interactions. Ernie Thorson was pathologically unfriendly at the very least, and probably full-blown crazy. Nobody really knew what he did, because he made sure everyone minded their own business. He was supposed to be retired from a job in an air conditioner factory or something, but he was so antisocial Matt couldn't imagine him holding down any job, anywhere.
Matt stepped out and switched on the flashlight and beamed it at Thorson. "What's going on here?" he said.
Thorson looked over his shoulder and grunted, "None ya GOT-damn business, pissteat."
Matt barked a laugh at the absurdity that a burial in his yard was none of his business. Fear was getting replaced by anger and bewilderment. "Like hell it's not! The fuck you burying in my yard?"
Thorson ignored him and kept working the shovel. He was almost finished covering up whatever he'd put down there, in a sizeable hole. It was maybe a yard square, possibly enough for a body if it was compressed. He slapped the flat of the shovel on top of the dirt to pack it, then crouched to arrange the sod back over it.
Being dismissed like this just made Matt angrier. "You going to answer my question?"
Thorson looked at him and his upper lip pulled back in that ratty sneer-smile and he said, "So far don't look much like I am, does it?" He snorted.
Matt wondered if he could hit him, if it would ruin his life if he tried. Would he lose his job for being involved in a brawl with a crazy old man? Probably, and probably be left with no useable references, either. It was something to consider, but he really did want to deck this arrogant sonofabitch. "Well, you'd better! Digging up my yard, burying... what did you bury? Dig it back up!"
"Not about to, and don't you be poking around down there, either. I fixed your grass back. A good rain or two and you'd never know anything was down there, so you forget about it, leave it be."
"Like hell!" Matt laughed. "You're fuckin' crazy! For all I know you killed a kid or something and tried to plant it in my yard."
"It's buried now so you leave it be and nobody'll know anything about it."
Mike couldn't believe anyone would try to make this argument to him. "You are... ah, fucking apeshit bugnuts, man! Jesus Christ! Okay. Okay, I'm calling the cops and they can come dig it up." Matt took out his cell phone.
Thorson jabbed the shovel at Matt's face. The edge of the blade was right under his nose, so close he could smell the clayey earth and the blood-like tang of rust. "You ain't calling no-goddamn-body or I'll be digging another hole," Thorson snarled, spraying spit. "You ain't gonna call 'em now and you ain't gonna call 'em later, neither. I hear from the cops, you'll hear from me. They won't haul me in for what I buried, and I will be back, and I'll for-sure-no-foolin' kill you. I'll do it ugly, too. Maybe I'll get the chair for it but I'm old, I don't much care, and it won't make no difference to you. You leave that hole be. Or maybe I won't kill you, just leave you blind and crippled and tongueless with no hands. How'd that be? I don't give a damn what I do to you, you got me, boy? Don't give the merest shit!"
Matt's blood had retreated somewhere deep inside him and he felt faint. Thorson meant every word of it; looking at the crazed gleam in his eyes Matt had no doubt he'd carry his threats through. Real violence was just seconds from happening, and Matt had never experienced anything like it. He'd played some football, had a few playground scuffles, but this was something different, so severe it made him shake. He felt almost certain of dying in the next minute. "Ye... yeah, man, okay," Matt stammered, almost forgetting how to speak in the whiteout of terror.
"You keep your mouth shut or I'll carve it so big it'll be no use to you, you fuckwallower," Thorson rasped, panting. He, too, was shaking, apparently from the effort of reining back his urge to murder. Matt's fear was feeding Thorson's rage, emboldening him. "You leave the cops out of this, you leave everyone out of this, you leave yourself out of this, or you gone wish to grandmammy Jesus you had!" Thorson took a knife out of his pocket and snapped it open. It's blade had the wickedest shape Matt had ever seen, like a talon, and he backed away as Thorson gouged little shapes in the air with it. "Ain't none of your business what I put down there. Far as you're concerned this was just a bad dream you had. Go get back in your bed and it'll be over. I hear from the cops and you'll have nothing but nightmares ahead of you." Thorson looked so crazy that Matt wasn't about to argue with him. The hammer he was holding didn't feel even remotely adequate to deal with this, and he didn't want that knife punching into him, slicing. He backed away, hands up, and kept backing away. Thorson watched him, shovel and knife in his hands, not following.
Nightmare. This was just a nightmare. That'd be easy to believe.
Matt went back inside, locked the house, and vomited in the kitchen sink. After washing up he crept back into bed and lay awake until dawn.
A week passed and he didn't tell anyone what had happened, not even Jennifer. He was ashamed of how afraid he'd felt of Thorson. He'd never been a fraidycat but Thorson was crazy, truly crazy, and god knew what he'd do. And it seemed safer to just do like he said, leave it be. He hadn't felt like he could call the police anymore after the first couple of days, anyway. He was implicated by his failure to report the incident quickly.
And maybe it was nothing, anyway. Thorson was so loopy he could have just been burying some old dirty magazines or a dead dog or something. It didn't have to be anything illegal.
But of course it probably was. Would he be that frantic to keep something innocent a secret? Would he risk getting caught burying something innocent on someone else's property?
Maybe. The man was insane. Irrational.
It was probably something awful. A dismembered body. Maybe a child, or two. Who knew what that psycho was doing at his house? He was so secretive, so eager to keep people away, something bad must be going on there.
Matt was too afraid to call the police, but he didn't think he could stand not knowing what was buried in his yard anymore. It was preying on his mind, driving out all other thought until life was just a secret background for The Problem. He would have to do something about it.
More days passed as he kept an eye on Thorson's house until he found a night when his car was gone. Matt waited until after midnight and snuck out with a shovel. He had the patch of ground memorized and, shaking with fear, dug away at the top sod and set it aside. Second thoughts were hitting him hard; he didn't know if he could handle what he'd find down there. But then, if it was nothing, he could leave it be and get the whole incident out of his mind.
So, he dug. Shik-chuff. Shik-chuff. It sounded a little like the needle digging at the end of a record, some finality. He couldn't see what his shovel was biting in the deep shadow that filled the hole, and he stopped every few shovelfuls to shine the flashlight down. The soil was still loose, and the digging went quickly.
Two feet down the shovel hit some soft resistance and something whined.
Matt backed away from the hole, trembling. The sound had been like a kitten's mewl, but thicker, phlegmy. Something alive down there? Impossible! Even if Thorson buried a cat or something alive, that had been over two weeks ago. It would have died by now. Maybe it was a rubber doll that squeaked if it was squeezed. But it hadn't sounded like that.
He didn't want to see whatever it was.
But there was no way he could just cover it back up. He'd wonder forever. He'd only dig it back up eventually, and now was the time, with Thorson not home.
He shined the flashlight down the hole and saw a bit of muddy burlap.
Carefully, he scraped the dirt away and revealed part of a sack, which he grabbed and dragged out of the hole. It wasn't easy; the ground had taken a grip on it.
Something inside was moving a little, and Matt quickly dropped it on the grass and backed away.
Christ, what's in there? Rats?
Fighting back the fear, he reached for the neck of the bag and picked at the twine Thorson had used to tie it shut. It was hard to pick apart the mud-slicked knot but he managed to wrestle it loose and, with intense fear, so bad it squeezed him like a vice, he opened the bag and shone the flashlight in.
Whatever it was, it was badly decayed and unrecognizable. It looked like maybe the upper half of a very deformed man, or a dwarf that had melted together in a lump. The thing had a head of sorts, although without features, no eyes, just a hole that opened and shut with a dreamy slowness, something diseased having a fitful sleep. There was a limb, or part of one, ending in a stub of skin-folds. There was hair, mostly fallen loose in the bag but also sprouting from the thing. Its flesh was slimy wet and horribly pale, rotting and sloughing, almost luminous in the flashlight beam. It stank, though not as overwhemingly as he'd expect from its appearance. Spoiled meat, confined sickness, rotting vegetable matter, sewer mud, snotty breathing, all combined.
And yet, it moved. Lazily, like a dreamer writhing while enduring a nightmare. It couldn't possibly be alive, and yet, it stirred. After two weeks in the ground. After putrefaction.
The thing had no definite shape. He felt certain it was not and never had been human, unless it was some incredibly deformed mistake, some teratoma. It was too big to be a baby, weighed around thirty, forty pounds. Matt made himself hold the light on the head-like bulb and lean in. Veins, but no place that eyes, nose, or ears could ever have been. The mouth -- or orifice, more correctly -- was in the wrong place and toothless, a flexing fatty-yellow wound amidst the scabby luminous moonlight-skin. Hair sprouted here and there, along with mold. The smell was gassy, and like a dead rat squished in a mildewed book, and it clung to the back of his throat. Here and there knobs or spines of bone protruded. The inside of the bag was lined with slimy, fatty seepage. Living foulness, opening itself like a baby bird wanting a worm, or a kiss.
And it seemed to be forcing itself into his mind with one horrible, insistent urge, like grease oozing through clenched fingers, foul and compelling, more impulse than thought, absurd but strong:
Matt turned aside and vomited, then stumbled away and looked somewhere else so he couldn’t get the thing’s message. There was no telling what the thing was, it was indescribable, and he couldn’t imagine where Thorson had found it. Was it some child of his, some deformed animal that he’d raised, some experiment? Were there more such things in his house? Something worse? What had he buried in his own yard? Had he been so afraid of getting impulses from the thing that he couldn’t have it on his own property?
He only knew one thing for certain; he wasn’t going to let it remain in his yard. He’d never sleep again, knowing this thing was writhing in the ground below his bedroom window. Wanting him to... to...
He coughed and heaved. There was plenty of night left, he could still get rid of this damn thing somewhere. He was afraid to return it to Thorson, and dumping it somewhere on the side of the road wasn’t a good idea, because it might be found and then Thorson would know he’d dug it up. It might even manage to crawl back, somehow get into his house.
Matt went and got a black plastic garbage bag and dropped the burlap sack into it and knotted it tightly. He picked it up, along with his shovel, and he walked to the next block, where a meek little man named Leon Fleer lived. Picking out a spot, Matt began to dig. Shik-chuff, shik-chuff, he dug quickly and he dug deep, but apparently he didn’t dig as quietly as he thought, because as he was finishing up, out came Leon Fleer, bald, eyeglassed, wiry nervous-eater’s frame swimming in a bathrobe and striped pajamas.
“Hey... hey, what goes on here?” Leon peeped. He sounded scared out of his wits. Good.
“None of your fucking business,” Matt snarled, panting. “Go back to bed.”
Leon blinked rapidly, his chin trembling. His eyes were as blue and shocked as a baby doll’s, and Matt felt simultaneously sorry for him and aggressive, wanting to punch him. Matt wondered if he’d looked like that when he’d confronted Thorson. Probably. “But... you’re burying something in my yard!” he said.
“So... what is it? You can’t just...”
“It’s something you’re better off not wondering about.”
Leon blinked again, and looked even more harmless in his pajamas. He hadn’t even brought a weapon. Violence was an alien concept to this little man. “But you can’t just... it’s my yard, you can’t...”
Matt - amazed at himself - jabbed at Leon with the shovel and glared. Leon stumbled back and adjusted his glasses, a nervous tic. “I can, if you mind your own business. And if you don’t, if I hear anything more about this, if I hear from the cops, then I’ll come back here, no matter what else I do, and I’ll chop you the fuck up with this shovel. You got me?”
“I... I...I...” Leon wrestled with his glasses like they were a bat biting his face.
Absurdly, the opening of Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" went off in Matt's head and he had to fight an urge to laugh. If he started, he'd probably keep doing it until they hauled him off.
Instead, he snapped, “Don’t worry about what’s buried in that hole. You’ll only be sorry if you if know. It’s nothing illegal, but you don’t want any part of it. You just leave it be, or you can start concentrating on what’ll be buried in the next one if you don’t keep your mouth shut. Because it’ll be you!”
Leon flinched and shifted from foot to foot. He looked like he wanted to bolt but worried what might happen if he tried it.
“Do you understand me?” Matt spat.
“Yes, yes, okay.” Leon’s voice broke. He held the glasses like they might serve as a shield against a shovel-blow about to cleave his face. His hands were shaking
“Don’t forget,” Matt said, pointing at him.
Then he carried his shovel home in the starlight, though for a moment he considered leaving it there.