This story by Shane Fitzpatrick won the Readers’ Choice Award in our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Shane writes short story fiction. He particularly likes writing in the crime and thriller genres. He is currently working on several writing projects, including screenplays. He lives in Dublin, Ireland with his wife Michelle and son Harry. You can read more of his writing at The People I Meet Every Day and Creative Daily Scribe and follow him on Twitter (@sfitzyfly).
Inside a grey cubicle over a period of time, your enthusiasm drains and your appetite for life dissolves. You have a squeaky chair, recycled air and plastic plants for forty hours a week. You need something to tax your brain as well as the body. Answering monotonous internet connectivity questions isn’t challenging.
Then a random ad in a free-sheet paper caught the attention.
“Applications sought for a gravedigger. Tools will be supplied on site. Applicants must be over eighteen, fit and healthy. Must be willing to work unsociable hours, including weekends. Salary will be consummate with experience.”
I sent off the email application. and got an immediate reply. I had an interview that very evening at St. Michael’s Rectory and advised to dress appropriately.
A petite lady called Eleanor, with a pointed nose and buttoned up collar, met me at the front door. Her curt instructions had to be followed each day to her exacting specifications. I would be paid accordingly for each grave. The brief interview was conducted over sixty seconds on the stoop.
I knew I got the job when keys were thrust into my hand. I had to liaise with her every morning via email, for the following mornings service. I was pointed toward the work shed, given one grave to be dug overnight and shooed away from the residence.
The old wooden shed looked dilapidated, but told a different tale inside. History dripped from every corner, reverent in the previous owners’ expertise and skill. The enclave wasn’t large, but was kept spotlessly. Amongst the lawnmowers, sickles, metal grinders and chains, everything had a place. White paint on the cement floor dictated a spot for each implement.
I saw photographs of previous tenants taken outside the shed. Counting five gravediggers, with similar chins and noses, I noted their clothing differed. Their stance was stoic and respectful. They all had one thing in common.
On a wooden hook inside the door, hung a shortened shovel under a spotlight. I pulled it down and marveled at its simplicity and beauty. The entire handle and shaft was carved out of a hardwood, oak I suspected. The blade was sharp, with no rust visible. I lifted the wall pictures of the previous gravediggers and found myself in exalted company. The shovel was nearly 150 years old, having being passed down from one to the next that followed.
Filled with the knowledge of reverence, I set about digging my first grave. I double-checked I was in the right spot and it seemed apt that I use the shovel on the wall to cut into the earth. It scythed into the grass and dirt like cutting through butter.
The shovel blade glistened as I delved deeper into the soft earth. It glowed brighter as I sank further into the rich brown soil. The shovel was amazingly effective so I overlooked the glitch it possessed. The only noise of the still night was the intermittent sound of crickets chirping. A light breeze tickled the leaves on the yew trees.
I reached the depth required when I struck a coffin below. I wiped the sweat from my brow and rested my hand on the shovel. The handle pinched my right thumb and I stuck it in my mouth, despite the ingrained muck under my nail. It had drawn blood, akin to a nip from an insect.
I examined it, looking for loose splinters or bugs. The wooden stained handle had nothing obvious that might have caused the bite. I grabbed the torch at the edge of the grave and scanned the floor. I saw nothing moving. Under the glare I saw no indentations or deviations in the intertwined loops of the wood.
Cursing myself, I returned to the shed, with my first night’s work done. I filled out the online paperwork, hung the old shovel on its hook and locked the door. It was near eleven at night.
Driving home, I heard a song I hadn’t heard in years. It was a Frank Sinatra classic, even though I was always tuned into “Nothing but Nineties.” I didn’t switch channels, enjoying the moment. My mouth turned dry, gasping for a beer.
My day job never crossed my mind. I drove through threadbare traffic, redirections and orange cones into the city. The first bar I came across was McGettigan’s, with neon Empire State emblems glittering out the front window.
The loud music compelled me to venture inside. Three young ladies sang Mustang Sally, butchering a melody I used to like. There was a large crowd in, made up of young professionals and Friday night regulars.
I ordered a bottle of beer and beside my beermat lay a karaoke songbook. The urge to sing was beyond my control and my right thumb tapped twice on Strangers in the Night. Without forethought, I had a karaoke slip in my hand. I retreated to the bar, safe in the refuge of alcohol.
I flexed my right hand, wanting to feel self-influence. But my thumb was tapping in time to the next singer, a rendition of Tom Petty’s Freefalling. I breathed heavily, feeling helpless.
Then I was up. Public speaking, never mind singing, was not a forte of mine. I had no idea what would come out. I expected indecipherable humming. My knees and legs were shuddering.
The music started and the nerves faded. My clothes and hands bore the evidence of muck and grime, but that wasn’t important now. The baritone voice that emanated from my lungs was a gravelly texture of railroad brakes, late nights and silken honey. Self confidence oozed from every sway and step I took.
The violins and orchestral music guided me to stride down from the makeshift stage. I was swirling the microphone in my right hand with absolute precision. I was kissing ladies hands before I started singing dooby, dooby doo at the end. The place erupted in applause. I made an exit, downing my beer as people came up to congratulate me.
In the car, my heart was beating wildly. I slowed my breathing, trying to understand. Before I turned the key in the ignition, I felt the faint tickle of a whisper on my left ear.
“Thank you Bruce.”
I froze. I hadn’t checked the back seat.
Glancing up into the rear-view mirror, I saw a man in a tuxedo with his black dickiebow necktie loose around his neck. He was sitting in the middle of the backseat, with hands clasped on his lap. His eyes were soft.
“You know who I am?” he asked.
“No. Who are you?”
“Oh! I mean you no harm. I just wanted to say thanks. You let me sing once more, and more importantly, feel alive.”
“Sorry, but who are you?”
“My name is Tim Franks. I died almost twelve years ago. You just dug a grave tonight for my eldest daughter, Janice. You tapped on my casket with your shovel. I don’t know how long I’m going to be hanging around Bruce, so I need you to do me a favour.”
“Tell my wife Ellie to break down the wall of the good sitting room through to the garage. She’ll find cash there.”
“And how am I supposed to tell her this?”
“Are you new Bruce?”
“Why do you think I’m new?”
“Your nerves. An experienced hand would know what to expect. You’re the Gatekeeper. For St. Michaels.”
I took a moment to digest, breathing heavily, and looked down. When I glanced up at the rearview mirror, Tim was gone. In his spot was the black necktie. I scooped it up, with the white engraved initials, TF.
Morning came and I rang in sick. I dressed in my finest black suit and drove to the graveyard. The funeral was in service, with a huge gathered throng.
A light autumn mist descended upon the emotional weight of the congregation, adding to the humidity and black clothing. I crept into the background, taking shelter under the arbour of a nearby tree.
The ceremony was long over before I made my way toward Ellie. She was hunched over, brave face and tired hands under a black see-through veil. I clenched the initialed necktie and whispered softly. Only family members remained within twenty feet.
“Hi Ellie. I’m so sorry. This is something Tim wanted you to have.”
“Tim? Who are you? And how did you get this?”
“Please don’t be alarmed. He’s keeping an eye out for you. He told me to tell you to break through the wall between the garage and the good sitting room.”
“He stashed some money but never got a chance to tell you. He’s still singing too.”
The confusion on her face softened. She nodded and I started to shuffle on slowly.
“It’s no wonder I dreamt of him last night. Damn bastard was slow at getting things done. But he always got them done.”
I turned in my haste to get away, and nodded. I hadn’t a clue to what to respond with. Her hazel eyes glistened with sorrow, regret and admiration.
“Thank you, you never said your name?”
“It’s Tim gawdammit, Ellie. Listen to me!”
The baritone voice invaded me for another split second. She was just as surprised as I. Making a hasty exit, I rushed toward my car, far away from the service.
“You’re getting into the swing of this rather quickly Bruce.”
“Eleanor! I didn’t expect to see you again so soon.”
“Stop stalling. If you get emotionally involved, you won’t last long.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t follow.”
“You know damn well what I mean! We researched your background and you were a perfect fit. Since we know you haven’t checked your email this morning, these are the two graves we need dug for tomorrow.”
“I’ll get to them later.’
“Why not now? You have the day off, so what’s your hurry elsewhere? And bloody well watch your depths. We don’t want screw ups.”
I walked away, scolded, like back at high school. From running away I was now dragging my heels.
The first grave was a shallow one, barely four feet down. The shimmer of overnight rain made the heavy lifting easier. I was conscious of the shovel and hitting anything underneath.
Eleanor’s words hung heavy. Distraction of the word ‘We’ rang through my ears, until I heard a wooden thud on the second dig. This time, instead of a nip on my hand, I was jolted back on my ass. Caked dirt went into my hair and down the back of my shirt.
An intense, white electrical shock reverberated through my core. I started spitting, tasting blood. My nasal passages flared and I thrust my shoulders back. I rolled my neck, feeling powerful. My chest expanded with every breath. I stretched my mouth, expanding my face. I started thumping my chest without warning, humming lightly. I didn’t recognize the air.
Eleanor had warned me. Her exacting tone and the unsaid implication rang through my being. I read her initial report, knowing she wasn’t giving me everything. His name was Jeffrey Bannon Jones, retiree of the suburbs.
I put his name into Google, feeling weaker by the second. He lived until he was 91. His name was changed in the deaths register, to prevent vandalism on site. He spent nine months behind bars before his age and health caught up with him.
His original name was Jeffrey Kappler, former SS Lieutenant at Auschwitz-Birkenau. He had been tried at The Hague for war crimes, too many to mention.
I saw chain restraints attached to the back wall, beyond a lawnmower.
My energy was draining fast as I dropped the keys.
I managed to unlock one handcuff.