Denise was unconscious when we bundled her up and carried her to Elijah’s truck. Blood still seeped from the corners of her mouth, and somehow her pallor was getting worse.
I kissed her once she was safely in the truck, pressing my face against her cheek, smelling her hair. My eyes were stinging with tears, and I had the feeling I was never going to see her again.
“I love you,” I whispered in her ear. “I’m going get this thing. It’s all going to be fine, I swear.”
I kissed her a final time, and stood motionless as the truck rolled away. As it rounded the bend, I turned my back and tried to find some courage left.
I had work to do.
I headed for the sheds, my footsteps heavy in the snow. I had to keep moving, because if I stopped for even a moment, the absurdity of what I was about to do would resurface, and I would lose my grip. I envisioned my mind just snapping, and Elijah coming back up the hill to find me grinning, giggling alone on the mountain in a bad Dwight Frye parody. So I kept my motions mechanical, going through this like it was the most routine thing in the world. Letting my body carry it out unburdened by thought.
I unlocked the shed and squeezed my way past the wood pile, taking a hatchet off the wall. Then I picked up the ax I had tripped over the day before and started hacking away at the wood just below the metal head. I didn’t need an ax…it was the strong oak handle I was after.
I was still hacking away when Elijah returned. “She’s down there with my mother,” he said, reading my troubled expression. “She should be safe enough while we do this. There’s plenty of day left before night.”
I nodded grimly. “Okay. Let’s get it over with.”
I had hacked the oak ax haft into a reasonably sharp point, leaving the metal blade in the sawdust on the floor. In the tool shed, we found a pair of shovels, a pick, and a large sledgehammer. Neither of us said a word about what we were going to do.
The walk from the woodshed to the grave under the old oak was one of the longest I had ever taken. The yard seemed to stretch out impossibly long, a football field of bare white snow. With each step, the tree loomed larger, its naked branches scratching at the face of a stone gray sky. I am not sure either of us were prepared for what we found underneath it.
No snow had fallen on Stephan Schroeder's grave; or if any had, all six or seven inches of it had melted down into the earth. All around it, the snow was deep and unmarked--only here was the soil exposed to the sky. The surface was covered with decaying leaves, glued to the earth by thin tendrils of fungus. Small beetles and worms wiggled in the topsoil, apparently kept alive and warm by whatever was lying beneath.
We stared at each other in shock, until finally Elijah lifted his shovel and drove it deep into the naked ground. The ground was unfrozen, and an unpleasant scent, something like rot and mold, was oozing up from the wound he had made.
Taking up my shovel, I joined him, and we began the long work of working our way down into the earth.
After about ten minutes or so, we were both gagging on the stench. But the earth was soft and easily removed, crawling with filthy life. It heaped up around us on the spotless snow, while the sun continued its winter arc down towards the mountain tops. We tried to ignore this fact as we shoveled.
The only way to get through it was to not think. Not to think about why this patch of ground refused to freeze, not to think about the stench, not to think about the thing that we might find lying at the bottom of this grave. For my part, I also tried not to think of my wife and child dying just a mile or two down the hill. None of this was easy to do.
Despite the cold, I was sweating. Muck and filth was covering both of us, and for some reason the ground was growing muddier and more damp the deep we went. It was also beginning to stink even worse. After going down a few feet, the bottom of the grave was starting to fill with some brackish fluid that stank like old blood. As we dug, it spattered over our faces and clothes.
Elijah lost his stomach first. He heaved himself over the side of the grave and started vomiting, loosing the contents of his stomach up on the surface. I ignored him and continued to dig.
Three feet. Four feet. Five…it had to be five. Neither of us expected to find a coffin; according to his mother's account, old Grandpa Conkley and his friends had just buried the bodies in the earth. But as we went deeper and deeper, a terrible cold was beginning to squeeze my chest. There was no sign here of human remains, no body, no living corpse. All we had found was mold and insects, and sickening puddles of purplish blood.
"Jesus, Elijah…he's not here."
Elijah shook his head. "He's got to be here. Dig."
After twenty or thirty more shovels full of dripping mud, we both fell into a kind of frenzy, tearing the muck up as fast as we could. Overhead, the light was growing dim, and horror scenes from a dozen old movies were playing through my head. But we had gone deeper than any normal grave, and now, suddenly, the earth was turning hard, frozen, and stony.
Stephan Schroeder was not there.
Dropping my shovel, I collapsed, gasping, against the muddy wall of the grave. My chest felt like it was on fire, and my heart was pounding. We stared at each other with horrified incomprehension.
"Where can it be…" I asked, my voice more shrill than I wanted it to be. "I don't understand."
Elijah, helpless, shook his head. He looked older than usual, his skin gray under all the mud. The exertion, combined with decades of cigarettes, was clearly taking its toll on him.
"We just assumed it was like the movies," I said, finally. "But it isn't…maybe it doesn't have to be. Jesus Christ…maybe he lies here year round, except winter. Maybe then he's free to walk around, whether it's day or night."
Elijah stared at me in mounting horror. "Oh God...it was day, when I spotted him hunting...I just didn't think..."
I nodded, my heart feeling like someone had just punched through my ribcage to wrap a fist around it. "We have to get down the hill. Fast."
I crawled my way out of the loose grave, feeling like some monster in a low budget zombie movie. Panting, I helped Elijah out, frowning at the growing shadows and the darkening of the light.
Mountain Hollow seemed to be watching us as we shambled up the hill, towards the truck. The house seemed to realize something terrible was happening to it, that it was being abandoned again. I wondered if it feared suffering the same fate as its predecessor.
Slumping behind the steering wheel, Elijah did not look well. He was coughing almost as badly as Denise had been, wheezing to catch his breath. I put my hand on the older man's shoulder, both panicked and concerned for him. "Are you okay, Elijah? Do you want me to drive?"
He shook his head, but the coughing fit would not stop. He seemed to be getting light-headed from it, wobbling a little in his seat. After a couple of minutes, he looked at me and nodded helplessly, leaving his keys dangling in the ignition. We stumbled out of the truck to exchange places, just as a fresh curtain of snow started to fall.
The engine rumbled, complained a little, and then came to life. The smell of gasoline filled the cabin of the truck. I clicked on the headlights and started to back out into the drive, glad of the old truck's weight in the snow.
I had seen this drive in so many seasons. The pale green of spring, dusted with flowers, heavy green summer buzzing with insects, golden autumn and its carpet of leaves. Now, gray winter loomed down on me, blowing against the windshield, turning the poplars into shadowy towers of white. There was something so final in the view before me. I think I had decided, even then, that Mountain Hollow could never be home again.
I pressed the accelerator lightly, wanting to gun the engine, feeling a terrible sense of urgency. But I restrained myself, as I always restrained myself, fearing the awful bend in the road. Conkley was still gagging beside me, his window rolled down for fresh air. Others were also present here in the car, or at least I felt they were, crowding all around us. The dim shapes of the Schroeders, dead these many years. Maria, who lingered in the house that she loved just a few weeks too long, and my parents, their argument never finished, dead on this very road.
I seldom prayed, but as I clutched the steering wheel I begged whatever God could hear me not to add my wife and unborn child to the heap of ghosts shrouding this truck.
We started around the bend, and my heart was racing. The swirling snow made it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead. All around us the mountains and trees had been reduced to dim and hollow shapes, shadows without substance. They were only patterns in the snow. Conkley had finally stopped gagging, both his hands on the dashboard as I fishtailed a little entering the bend.
i swear mike, she intentionally waits until the last minute, just to keep us there longer
My mother's voice echoed in my ears. My lips kept moving of their own accord, soundlessly mouthing "…please…please…please…" I wasn't sure who I was asking for what.
Damnit, jackie, could we not do this again…
Elijah bolted upright in his seat and shouted, pointing dead ahead. At first, I had no idea what he was talking about, so preoccupied in my memories, in the past.
But as my eyes fixed themselves ahead, through the veil of snow, I saw what he saw standing in the pool of the headlights. And this time, there was no doubt what I was seeing.
He looked no older than a boy of nineteen, my height, maybe less. His dark hair was matted to his skull, caked with mud and earth. He still wore the uniform they had buried him in, the fabric worm-eaten and filthy from years beneath the ground. There, right in the middle of the road, he seemed fearless of the truck rushing down on him. His lips were stretched in something that could have been a smile, a snarl, or a leer. There was no way to tell, because the thing in front of us had long ago forgotten how to make any truly human expression. His teeth were purple-black, his lips dripping wet with blood.
For this, fifteen years ago, my father had swerved. Instead, I pushed my foot down on the accelerator, aiming the car for him. Half a lifetime of anger and pain erupted, and I made some kind of unintelligible scream. Conkley raised his arms as if to ward off some kind of blow.
It never moved, but I could swear in the brief seconds before impact it had faded, dissolving into the snowy air the way an alka-seltzer dissolves in water. There was no bump, no impact. We only plowed our way through snow and air.
I slowed the truck and stopped at the end of the bend, hopping out before Elijah could prevent me. I had no idea what I would do if he was out there, but I was well past the point of reason.
But there was nothing. In the red tail lights of the truck I saw only snow, and darkness, and our own tracks in the road.
The front door of the Conkley's home was wide open, swinging in the wind.
My knees went weak when I saw it, and the dark house rising lifeless before us. Elijah shouted something and hurtled up the steps. I couldn't make myself move.
After a minute or so, I found him weeping in the living room, his large shoulders shaking. Mrs. Conkley was lying flat on her back, her lips drawn back into a scream, eyes bulging. I had seen the expression before. Her Bible was on the floor beside her, right were she had dropped it while gaping at the terrible figure that must have appeared to her in the room.
I can't explain the icy calm that held me. They say it might have been shock, but it felt more like helplessness and resignation. There was terrible pain, but I felt it only distantly, as if it belonged to someone else entirely. Everything went strangely quiet, as if someone had turned the volume down. I could see Elijah weeping, but I could no longer hear it. The only clear sound was my heart pounding in my ears.
My feet carried me forward into the next room, seemingly without any guidance from my brain. What I found in there, on the bed, was not Denise. Denise was long gone, having abandoned this life at least an hour or two before. What I found was a ruin, a pale husk spattered with what was left of her blood. He had ripped open her blouse, and I found myself staring at what used to be her belly (now just part of an anonymous corpse). I wondered if the tiny life inside her was also a mummified husk, nestled neatly inside her for the rest of eternity.
I had fallen to my knees (when had that happened?), and took the hand of the body in front of me. It felt dry, stiff, and cold.
And all the air just went out of me in a rush.
Tomorrow, I decided, I would go back up the mountain. I would take her with me. We could sit awhile, together, in the house that I had always loved as a child, reminiscing.
And then maybe I would tear up all the floorboards, in the house, in the sheds, in the barn. I would search everywhere I could think of for Stephan's corpse. I would find him, and then burn everything down around him. Because I knew, in the deepest chambers of my heart, that as long as he lay in unquiet slumbers, I would never sleep easily again.