Ray sat just so on the bucket of the backhoe so the teeth didn’t get him in the ass, one on the left hip, one on the right, and one rising straight up there in the middle where he guessed his manhood would be.
One hole was dug, with another right next to it, just a few feet shy. The workers were off under a live oak scarfing truck tacos chased with mango aguas frescas. Ray could almost smell the food, almost feel the aguas coating his throat with their nectary smoothness. Losing the senses was hell, but he was far better off than—he leaned over to glance at the work order strapped to a clipboard on the ground—Eleanor P. Hills, who was set to be interred the following morning. The hole meant a coffin and a coffin meant, well.
He stood from the bucket and wandered into some shade. Not that it gave any relief, but for the idea of the cool it had once brought, and set down to wait. The ground-bound were always needy in their first days and weeks, and for some reason Ray felt compelled to offer comfort and guidance. Others of the spectral sort hung about, mainly watching, judging, rarely offering more than a serves you right. Ray wondered how the newly dead could be blamed for the manner of their disposal before they’d known the consequences. It was an odd thing about apparitions. On the whole they were some pious sumbitches.
Ray’s outreach meant that the others treated him no better than a fresh cadaver. He guessed it’d been written somewhere that you could be in league with the confined or the liberated, not both. Why that was the case he couldn’t venture. Anyways, the ground-bound, once settled, were better company.
The next morning the woman arrived. Screaming.
No matter how many times he heard it, that scream—the sound of the second death, Ray had dubbed it—never failed to send a shock through the substance of whatever constituted him. Unnoticed by the living, it lasted from the moment a casket’s screws were tightened until eternity, unless someone like Ray came along to help the situation. It was terrible sound, a soul’s howl. But Ray had put in the hours and Six Oaks Glen was largely quiet thanks to his work.
Oh, what the living would think to know that cemetery air is usually just a field of screams.
He sat in his usual spot, a crooked elbow of tree root breaching a patch of lilyturf. Up at the site, the half moon of chairs went at least twenty deep, counting back from the rectangular swatch of Astroturf. This was always the toughest part for him, waiting for the conductor to say his words while the deceased’s shrieks ripped the air. Ray supposed the living couldn’t be blamed for what they didn’t know; that the ground-bound ain’t listening to anything once that lid pulls down.
He shifted uncomfortably as Mrs. Hills’ caterwauling sliced into him. Others watched from nearby, jeering and hooting like observers to an initiation. He’d long since given up on asking them to stop. Better to keep quiet and let them get their fill.
The service dragged on longer than a curlew’s bill, the actual words drown out by Mrs. Hills, but it finally drew to a close with the guests rising from their seats like blackened stalagmites. Only immediate family mulled while the rest scattered. One thing Ray’d learned in his time: no exodus is faster than that from the funeral of a non-relation.
The workers waited for everyone to leave before bringing out the Bobcat. With the last guests out of view, it cranked alive from between the wrought iron fence and a sprawling holly that’d concealed it. Folks have an image of hand-shoveled scoops of earth laid gently over their loved ones. Cemetery owners know shovels are slow.
The others disbursed to their ghostly wanderings and Ray made his way over, the shrill edge of Mrs. Hills’ endless screaming more harrowing the closer he got. With no need to recharge the lungs, the dead could wail without interruption. He never got used to that.
Mrs. Hills’ casket was quality. Steel—18 gauge probably, with metal flake in a champagne finish and fat bezels of chrome all over—a bejeweled tank of a sarcophagus. Somewhere people had gotten the idea that the dead were to be shielded from the very earth, with its roots and worms and water. Coffins had become thick and strong, near invincible, all in the name of the protecting the dead. The real purpose, of course, was to salve the peace of mind of the living. But Ray knew there were two ways to see the situation, one from the outside and the one currently enjoyed by Mrs. Hills.
The Bobcat had her almost covered when Ray knelt beside. “Mrs. Hills?”
The screaming stopped. To her, his voice would sound distinct from the murmurings of the living, and right now she would be checking her sanity. “Mrs. Hills, can you hear me okay? My name is Ray.”
“Ray? Ray! Ohmagod I didn’t die in the wreck? I’m alive! I’m buried! Help! HELP!” Her voice was younger than the person her name had conjured.
“Mrs. Hills,” he continued, trying to convey some serenity down through the clogs. “You’re not alive. Neither am I.”
“Of course I am! We are talking! Please call for help! I have to tell my son I survived!”
“We are talking through six feet of red clay, Mrs. Hills.”
“Please! Please get help before I run out of air!”
“Mrs. Hills,” he said, and then waited for her to stop yelling. “Lick your hand.”
“Just do it.” It was a gambit he’d used countless times by now. The silence would last about four seconds. It did.
“Mrs. Hills, uh, Eleanor, if that’s okay,” said Ray, “you’re dead. Just like you thought you were.”
Another silence, then, “How do I get out there with you?”
Over the years, Ray had answered this question more times than he could count and still hadn’t settled on an explanation that gave any type of satisfaction. It was a problem without a solution. “Well, see,” he said, parsing, “it’s the way your body was…handled that decides if you are out here or down there.”
“What are you talking about? Tell me how to get out.”
Ray would have swallowed had he a throat. “There is no way out.”
“How long do I have to wait?”
“Well,” he said, giving a glance over the lawns, “we think…forever.”
“What? Why are you up there then?”
“I was cremated.”
Silence. Reality was descending on her. “Eleanor?”
“I can tell you that you’ll get used to it. So many others have. And you can talk to them as well—with everyone here at Six Oaks. It’s less lonely than you think.”
“Is this Hell?”
“Naw. Still in Houston.”
She didn’t respond after that. Ray felt bad about his little joke, his attempt at lightening the mood, because for her it was Hell. Capital H capital E capital L-L, HELL. Forever in a box. He sat for a bit, regretful. It was easy to get overwhelmed on the first day, and here he’d already said something insensitive. The shock would have Mrs. Hills shutting down for a time, her mind falling into a sort of defensive hibernation at the news of eternal confinement. Sure, Ray wished he could taste the agua fresca, but at least he was above ground.
The next morning, workers outfitted the neighboring hole with Astroturf and a pulley system. Ray sat, feet dangling, and listened for Eleanor. She didn’t know yet that sleep wasn’t a thing anymore. Her mind would mimic it until she was acclimated. It was the same for all the ground-bounds, lying there for half the day not realizing that they were awake.
“Ray,” she said, her voice weak, almost humbled. “Is it morning?”
“What does it look like? Can you describe it?”
Ray took in the grounds. “Sun’s low. It’s pretty right now. No clouds. Going to be a scorcher though.”
“You can feel it?”
“Scorcher for the living, I mean.”
“They dressed the hole next to you.”
“The hole right next to you. Someone’s coming today. You’ll have a neighbor.”
“Which side?” Her voice came urgent.
“On which side of me is the hole, Ray?”
Her tone was panic and Ray looked at the ground, tried in his distress to remember which end of Eleanor’s casket was the head. “The—the right. Your right.”
And her scream swept the cemetery like a squall line.
– Chris Panatier
I am an artist and trial lawyer. I was a finalist in this year’s Texas Writers’ League manuscript contest.