By Andy H. Sweet

Special to The Messenger

The Family Plot

A breeze whispered through the lone, knotted oak standing guard over the small cemetery. A family plot circled the forlorn tree, most of its grave markers scrubbed plain by the scourge of more than a 150 years. In the dark, Caleb wouldn’t have been able to read them anyway. He stood there staring at them as he had every All Hallows’ Eve since he was 10 years old.

He’d spent the day cleaning the graveyard. Though few people knew of its existence, it was apparently a party location for kids on occasion. His pickup was full of garbage bags.

So, the place was spiffy. Mowed, weeded, picked up. Caleb had even gently cleaned the 13 gravestones. Now he would wait. Maybe it would happen again.

“What are you doin’ here, punk?”

Startled, Caleb turned toward the voice. Something hit him on the side of his head. He heard laughter, then the dark world around him darkened even more.

It could be that everyone experienced being knocked out differently. Caleb supposed that was the case, but he found that he was strangely aware of what was going on around him. He heard the snap of branches being broken and could even tell they were being stacked. He smelled the charcoal lighter and even heard the flames catch and grow. There were four of them — three men and a woman, or boys and girls. He judged them to be in their 20s, like him, by their distinct voices. He perceived all of this while he was, most certainly, unconscious.

One might allow that a person could not comprehend these sounds and smells while in such a state and therefore make an assumption that he was not truly unconscious. Caleb knew this was not the case as he was stabbed with what was surely the burning end of one of the branches that some would think that he could not have heard being snapped, or smelled being lit on fire. He screamed himself awake to find he was bound to one of the larger headstones.

***

The bonfire they had built cast a golden hue on his attackers. They were younger than him by a few years. Three of them were dancing around the blaze, to some heavy metal music.

Caleb looked at his arm then at the younger man standing before him. “Why?”

“’Cause man. This is our place. You can’t be here.” He turned toward his companions. “Hey…Hey! The girl stopped twirling, looked at him, then turned the CD player down.

“Look who’s awake. Bring him a beer.”

She reached in a Styrofoam cooler and grabbed a bottle. The three of them approached, she handed the guy the beer, he stooped down and pushed the brew to their prisoner’s lips. Caleb turned his head aside.

“Hey, man,” he laughed. “I’d just as soon knock your teeth out and chug it down your throat. Easy or hard…your choice.”

Caleb opened his mouth and his tormentor turned the bottle up. He gulped the beer as fast as he could, but could not keep up. A fit of convulsive coughing ensued. Another of the guys, on his right side leaned him forward and started slapping him on the back. At last the spasms subsided. Caleb took deep breaths.

“Sorry ’bout that man. You can call me Hoss. Why you here, dude?”

Caleb took another breath. “This is my family’s graveyard. At one time they owned all of this. It was field then, not woods.”

The four of them moaned. “Spooky!” the girl shrieked. “We should do, like, you know, a seance.”

“Yeah…and…a funeral. Chuck, dig up Grandpa.” One of his sidekicks stuck a shovel in the soil just to the side of Caleb’s leg, then started digging. Hoss grabbed his feet and tugged his lower torso aside. Another boy lit a butane lantern, then joined in the digging. The girl danced, and Hoss smirked, drinking his beer.

A coldness washed over him and with each strike of the spades, a dart of fright spiked his abdomen. Shovel after shovel of dank earth steadily removed the shroud which sheltered this world from the other. Caleb had witnessed a denizen from that world and he feared angering it.

“Got something.”

“What is it, Ernie?” Hoss said.

The girl jumped into the grave-sized hole. Ernie pushed her back, then answered. “Looks like rotted wood. Get back up there, Sissy.”

Instead, she dropped to her knees and clawed the dirt with her hands.

“Get out of there, Sissy,” Hoss commanded.

Suddenly, she held up something. In one hand was a skull, the other clutched its jaw bone. Hoss bent to one knee and took them from her. He sat them aside and held out his hand. She grabbed it and he pulled her from the grave. Sissy clamored around him and picked up the remains and shoved them toward Caleb, articulating the jaw with the skull.

“Kiss Grandpa…kiss ’em, kiss ’em,” she chanted.

He squirmed against his restraints, trying to avoid the ghastly remnants. As he did, his body rotated toward the hole. Caleb cried out in pain as his lower half fell into the freshly dug pit. He was suspended by the ropes securing him to his ancestor’s headstone, with his upper back arched against the remaining ground between the hole and the grave marker.

“Wow, that looks uncomfortable,” Ernie said.

All of them laughed. Hoss grinned at him. “Fill it in,” he ordered.

Ernie and Chuck started shoveling in the chasm, without much care where the dirt flew. Grit peppered Caleb’s face, stinging it. Sissy was on her knees pushing earth in with her forearms. Her eyes reflected the lantern’s luminescence and her soiled, light-colored dress reminded Caleb of old black and white movies of zombies who’d clawed their way up from the depths. Hoss, as always — watched — and grinned.

It seemed to be only moments, but Caleb knew more than an hour had elapsed. He was buried up to his sternum and struggled for each breath, trying to fight down panic which gnawed him, as surely as if it were a live creature. Sissy was dancing again, on his and his great-great-great grandpa’s interment site. Each fall of her feet concussed against his chest.

Hoss retrieved a switchblade from his front pocket and released its blade. Strangely, Caleb was trying to identify the sound it made. The ringleader approached, then knelt in front of him. He traced the weapon’s tip down his left cheek, then up the other. He was clicking his tongue as he progressed, as if chiding him for some transgression.

“You know, all we need now, is some blood.” Hoss dug the blade into Caleb’s neck. He thought it had not pierced flesh yet, then the blade twisted and he knew that it had.

Caleb gagged, Hoss followed with a spasm of his own. The other three dropped to the ground, all spitting and retching. The air was malodorous, syrupy, with a clingy, decaying sweetness, which would turn the strongest stomach.

“Leave him be!”

The words bellowed from a figure standing behind them. Caleb remembered seeing him 13 years ago, when he was 10.

Hoss picked up a shovel and launched toward the specter. He swung the implement in a high arc. The blade of the tool struck the glowing apparition on the neck, severing three quarters of it. The being’s head lolled over on one side, but it remained standing. Hoss dropped the shovel and stepped back.

Caleb saw it draw a sword from its side, then swing it violently, guillotining poor Hoss. The others had froze, like deer caught in a spotlight. Head still listing to one side, the man vanished, then reappeared in front of Ernie and decapitated him as well. Chuck’s head rolled to the ground next.

Sissy had fallen. She extended one hand to ward off the inevitable.

“No, Grandpa!” Caleb screamed.

Caleb Sr. paused, sword in air. The way his head hung from his neck caused his hair to stream down past his waist. There, the scabbard swung empty on a belt girting the ghoul’s Confederate uniform. He could hear Sissy’s ragged breaths, a fretful murmur excreting with each expiration.

“Please don’t, Grandpa.”

His grandfather, five generations back, locked eyes with his namesake.

“You’re right, son. I couldn’t no more kill her now than I could then.”

Sissy shrieked. She had Hoss’s switchblade and leaped up thrusting it into the ghost’s side.

He dropped to his knees then fell toward his descendant. This close, Caleb Jr. thought he could have been looking at an older image of himself.

“Dang boy, she got me again.”

Caleb closed his eyes.

When he opened them, he was on his knees, staring at a smear of blood on the gravestone. There was no fresh dug grave and he wasn’t buried up to his chest in it. Everything blurred, and he thought he might be losing consciousness again. It was the tombstone that had clouded. The splotch of blood moved and spread, covering its entire surface. Then there was clarity. He could make out the engravings perfectly.

ADAMS

CALEB WILLIAM                               SISSY CONLEY

BORN JULY 12 1832                         BORN MAY 18 1839

DIED OCT 31 1895                             DIED OCT 31 1894

“First she stabbed my side with a knife, then she stabbed my heart with her love.”

                                                                                                               -Caleb Adams

“I’ll be damned.”

On a hunch, Caleb walked behind the tree to a group of three markers he had only found this visit. They were small, and considerably outside the circle and there had appeared to be faded markings on them. Now the inscriptions were clear. From left to right the names were Harold (Hoss) Conley, Charles Conley and Ernest Conley. The same date was on all three – October 31, 1864.

Caleb walked back and stood in front of Caleb Sr.’s gravestone.

“Your great-great-great grandson Hiram told me ’bout you fighting a bunch of carpetbaggers off your homestead when you got back from the war. My hat’s off to you, Grandpa. That must have been some fight, but I bet Sissy was the real handful.”

The stone was silent. Not a leaf stirred.

“Alright then. Happy Halloween, Grandpa — and Grandma.”

© 2017 Andy H. Sweet, who also writes under the pen name Drew Adams