Dissections logo scissors body by Deena Warner

 


Dissections logo pterodactyl by Deena Warner


 

 

 

 


Artwork: The Woods Are Dark and Sticky by Will Jacques

Prick of the Thorn

Adam Phillips

Julio would have done practically anything to avoid what he was about to do, but he’d run out of options. He’d just have to keep his eyes wide open, and his fingers crossed, and hope for the best.

There were certain unpardonable offenses that, if observed by the wrong co-worker (or, God forbid, Walt the owner) would send you cleaning out your locker before sundown. People paid dearly to bury their loved ones in Rainbow Heights Cemetery, and the clientele, frequently stressed out and high strung and heavily medicated, expected perfection. Therefore, mild annoyances became big problems pretty damn quickly. Every Rainbow employee knew that unless you were hiding in the maintenance shed, you couldn’t smoke (too many residents there due to lung disease). You couldn’t curse. You couldn’t eat or drink (it fucked up the somber atmosphere to see a gravedigger sinking his teeth into a meatball sub or popping a coke). You couldn’t laugh out loud, or speak audibly beyond the most bare bones work-related communication. You couldn’t loaf. You couldn’t show up unshaven, or with a dirty uniform. You couldn’t listen to an iPod. Everybody knew the rules, and everybody knew that you wouldn’t get a second chance.

Julio loved the absolute nature of the rules. Working in the cemetery was an important, dignified job, and the staff ought to comport themselves appropriately. During his ten-year tenure, a dozen groundskeepers had been fired, all of them within a few weeks of starting. You could either handle the expectations, or you couldn’t. This job tended to separate the wheat from the chaff pretty quickly.

Julio slid his slender body between the pump house and the thick hedge of rose bushes. Urinating in the cemetery was such an obviously fatal breach of protocol that no rule specifically forbade it. But Julio, who was, he now realized, suffering from some minor ailment (the voice of his great-grandmother Helena came back to him, admonishing him for his constant tea-drinking: “You’ll ruin your kidneys!”), found himself suddenly roughly three seconds from pissing right in his tan work slacks. Which is also, I have to assume, against the rules.

Dropping his pants all the way to his ankles like a little boy, hissing at a quick pinch in his lower back, I’ll be damned, Grandma was right…my kidneys, Julio pissed on the pump house to avoid the unmistakable sound of puddling urine. While he’d have to keep watch for the few “regulars,” old widows and widowers who cruised the grounds more days than not, it was a cold, blustery October afternoon, no type of weather for a casual visitation or flower replacement. And there were no burials scheduled today. In fact, it had been an unusually slow autumn. Pretty dead around here, as we like to say in the biz. There hadn’t been a burial since the senator, mid-September. As he continued peeing, which felt like it might carry on, in distressingly weak spurts and stops, forever, Julio looked though the bushes to the senator’s headstone, just across the gravel path.

“Senator Floyd Garrison, Cougar of the Capitol” read the stone. Must have coined the nickname before people started applying it to sexy middle-aged women. Remembering the ceremony, a little shiver wrinkled Julio’s spine. He’d never been one to get the creeps in the cemetery, but the senator’s funeral… Julio had found himself counting the seconds until the final mourners went shuffling off to their sedans.

There hadn’t been anything ostensibly unsettling about the event. It was an elderly crowd, and the ceremony was duller than most. But there was certainly nothing ominous in being surrounded by the old, and the boring. It was…

The whole thing had seemed…not quite real. That was it. He knew this explanation was stupid, and childish, and he certainly would never have said it out loud to anyone, but it was also true. The entire time he’d been unable to shake the impression that he was participating in a ruse, that at any moment everyone would break character, ask him to pry the casket back open, and the senator would slide over the side, brushing off his brown suit.

Because there’d just been something too perfectly Gothic about the scene. It was too much like a funeral to be an actual funeral. In real-life, any momentous event: weddings, christenings, funerals, somebody always fucked it up just a little bit. A kid farted, an elderly uncle said something stupid at a quiet moment. The priest had a bad toupee or mustard stains on his frock. But the senator’s interment, Perfect, like a bunch of wax dummies. Even the sky had been ordered up out of a “funeral scene” catalog: shrieking wind, gray clouds swirling around, lightning off in the distance. And that Bible verse…. Working in a cemetery you tended to absorb a lot of the readings. But this was all stars exploding and Beasts crawling up out of rivers of blood. Some heavy revelation shit. Pretty weird choice for such a stodgy crowd.

It was the only time Julio had ever seen Walter, the cemetery’s owner, attend a ceremony. Although Julio had known the old man for a decade, and considered him closer family than blood, Walt had been part of the eerie vibe – standing at the edge of the open grave, looking intensely down into the hole, like he was watching for something. Julio had asked him that night, over their weekly card game, if he’d known the senator, and Walt had said they’d been friends, and changed the subject. But even that brief conversation had come off oddly, stiffly, as if, well, Julio didn’t know. The whole thing had just seemed unnatural, somehow.

Julio saw the flash of movement just in time to squat down beneath the hedge, yanking up his pants despite the seemingly perpetual dribble of urine. Son of a bitch. He’d fallen so deep into his memory of the weird funeral that he’d totally missed Ricky coming through the stones. Fucking Ricky, of all people. Julio crouched, holding his breath, watching as Ricky angled towards the irrigation ditch, rake in his hand, head cocked like a curious rat. After a minute of scouting, sniffing the goddamn air, Rick’s eyes settled on the rose bushes, and he headed over.

Shit. Julio slid around the side of the pump house, pushing through a gap in the hedge. Moving quickly, he felt the thorn sink into his forearm. He twisted away but felt the thorn bite deeper, and when he glanced down it was buried, a quarter inch deep, into a vein. Hissing and biting his lip to avoid shouting, Julio tore his arm free, and came staggering out onto the gravel path an instant before Ricky turned the corner.

“What are you doing, Rick? Grates clogged?” Shit again. The asshole was looking him up and down.

“What are you doing over here, Jules? Because me, I came over thinking I’d seen something suspicious, maybe even a pervert beating off in those there bushes.”

Julio ran through his options. Should he tell Ricky he’d been taking a leak, and trust his discretion? Pissing wasn’t great, but it was definitely a full step preferable to masturbating in the shrubbery. He looked at his co-worker’s smallish watery eyes and yellowing buck teeth, the long greasy hair and zitty nose, and decided he’d have to either sink or float with the total lie. Ricky couldn’t be trusted with anything. Although Walt kept a close eye, Julio would bet a month’s pay that Ricky’s white trash Honey Booboo-looking girlfriend left the house on Friday nights wearing jewelry pulled off a corpse. Julio couldn’t imagine having sex with a cadaver but he’d bet Ricky could. Vividly. Julio shook his head, gave the muscles in his jaw a little flex that said Best to leave this alone now, Kid Rock. “Must have been your overactive imagination. Or wishful thinking.”

Ricky nodded, smugly licking his teeth. “I suppose. Although you probably best clean yourself up, just the same. Don’t wanna scare the customers.” Julio followed the gaze of the ratty eyes to the streaks of blood rolling down his forearm.

Jesus. “I guess I stuck myself with the screwdriver, fixing the door on the pumphouse.”

“Got yourself pretty good. Say, can I borrow that screwdriver?”

“No.”

Ricky slung the rake up onto his shoulder, resuming his stroll towards the irrigation ditch, whistling. “Well, watch out for, whatdya call em, pedophiles in the bushes.”

“Necrophiliacs.”

“Necro-who?”

“Necrophiliacs. Somebody who screws corpses. That’s who’d be jerking off in a cemetery. Not a pedophile. They like kids.”

“Hmm. Well. I guess you’d know more about that than I do. Best take care of that imaginary stain on your britches, too.”

Julio looked down to the dark dribbles along his thigh. He’d have to think about how to handle this, if it needed handling.

*

That evening, showering in the employee locker room, Julio was surprised to discover how far he’d go in order to keep this job. That he was willing to threaten, or beat the shit out of Ricky, was mildly surprising, although he’d probably expected as much. What really stunned him was that he’d lie. He’d lie, and lie about the lying, right to the face of Walt Young, the man who had given him this job and who had, without veering too far into hyperbole, arguably saved his life.

Julio had been seventeen, a week from graduation, with no plans and no prospects, prone to getting into trouble but not committed to it as a lifestyle, when he’d bumped into Walt behind the high school gym during the career fair. Both had slipped out back for a cigarette. Julio’s first impulse as the door opened had been to flip his cig and run, since the last thing he needed was to get his diploma held up while he paid off another smoking ticket, but seeing that it wasn’t a teacher, he decided to stay. If the old guy started to lecture, he’d bail, but there was no reason to run. They nodded to one another. Julio liked the guy’s looks, with his navy corduroy jacket and puffy white hair and deeply lined face. He looked like a college professor. He looked like Black Einstein. After lighting his own cigarette, the old man said, “None of the potential careers in there grabbing your fancy?”

Some smartass comment rose to Julio’s lips and died. The truth was, he hadn’t even gone into the gym. He said, “I didn’t even go into the gym.”

“College?”

“No.”

“Military?”

“Hell no.”

“You already have a job in mind?”

“Not a clue.”

The old man nodded as if Julio had explained himself perfectly, and looked off across the football field.

“You’ve got a booth in there, I presume?”

“I do. Not that anyone’s noticed.”

“What is it?”

“Rainbow Heights. Cemetery and funeral home.”

“Really…” Some odd little insect tickled the back of Julio’s brain. “What, specifically, is the work?”

“Well…at first you’re keeping the grounds. Landscaping, really. And digging graves, of course. Eventually, a person gets into preparing the bodies, cutting stones. I started as a grave digger and toilet scrubber forty years ago. Now I own the place.”

Suddenly, Julio’s entire future had appeared, as if he were peeping into a diorama. There he was, lean and fit, free of the bad habits that had just begun to puff his face and sap his energy, walking through the headstones against a smoky orange sunset. He counseled grieving families. He worked hard and he slept well. He had a lot of time alone with his thoughts.

He heard himself, as if from a distance, say, “I’m interested. In the job.”

Walter looked him over and shrugged. “Maybe you are, maybe you aren’t. But there’s a position open, and I certainly have no reason not to give you a try. As soon as you graduate, of course.”

On Friday, Julio walked across the stage and accepted his diploma. Saturday morning, he drove his battered Chevy Impala up the hill to Rainbow Heights Cemetery. And the rest, as they say, is history.

*

During the ensuing decade, Julio had taken full advantage of his opportunities, and recently he’d begun to hear the whispers that when the old man retired, he’d take over the operation, and maybe even inherit the place someday. In the course of his ever-expanding duties, he’d learned to carve and inscribe the stones, prepare the bodies, to placate the aggrieved, arrange floral displays, and to fix practically every object on the grounds. Julio was hard-edged enough to perform the most difficult physical labor, but handsome and presentable enough to take part in the ceremonies. Nobody else occupied both worlds at once. Ricky, for example, could work like an animal when he took the urge, but no quantity of Axe body spray and hair gel could have rendered him an appropriate accompaniment to a funeral ceremony. On the other side of this coin, the mortician Arthur Lee, colorless, balding, seemingly lipless, smoothing his black silk suits with disquietingly long fingers and inexplicably long nails, wouldn’t have lasted five minutes with a spade in his hand.

Nor was Julio averse to the darker work. One spring, Rainbow Heights had suffered an unprecedented infestation of geese. Thousands of geese, shitting all over the stones and the paths, eating the flowers, terrorizing children, drowning out eulogies with their honking. After a month of this, one night over their weekly card game, Walt had looked meaningfully at Julio and said “Those geese…have got to go. They need to disappear.” Julio had nodded, and turned back to his cards.

The next night, Julio covered the grounds in seed soaked in Avitrol. By midnight, he’d bulldozed the corpses into a heap next to the crematorium, shoveled the bodies into the oven, and dumped the ash into the irrigation ditch.

On both occasions when the cemetery had awoken to an unexpected dead body above ground, once an elderly drunk freezing to death, and once an anonymous teenaged heroin overdose, Julio had transported the corpse back down the hill, leaving it to be found elsewhere, lest the cemetery suffer any negative PR.

So, he’d lie about pissing in the bushes. Regardless of what Ricky might say. And if push came to shove, he’d also beat the shit out of that skinny scrap of trailer trash.

Julio crossed the dark grounds briskly, heading to the Friday night card game at Walt’s. The leaves had just begun dropping en masse, and they skittered along the gravel, so that the cemetery echoed with a thousand stealthy footsteps. A light rain began to fall.

Coming into Walt’s living room, which had always seemed like it should have been an old woman’s living room, although Walt was a lifelong bachelor, all afghans and cross-stitch and pictures of Jesus, Julio saw that the two old men were already settled in and waiting. He glanced at the ornate grandfather clock; he’d never known them to start the game early. He got the distinct impression that he’d interrupted them in the middle of a heavy conversation. Maybe about firing me for pissing in the goddamn bushes. Then they smiled, nodding at him, the impression evaporating. Fucking paranoid.

Julio smiled, pulling a club soda out of the cooler. “Guys getting the jump on me, huh? Well, I’m here now. You can start sending your money in this direction.”

Arthur shook his head, pointing at Julio’s beverage. “This is what I’m talking about. The kid should have to drink. We’re playing cards and drinking. Of course, he ends up with most of the money, drinking water all night. He should have to take a drink.”

Walt laughed and dealt. “Ante up, Jules. Not even I get to play based on my good looks alone.”

Julio reached for his wallet, and froze. Oh my fuck. It all came back to him. Wrenching his pants up in the bushes, he’d felt something brush his ankle. The wallet flipping out of his back pocket. He jumped up from the table. “Forgot my wallet.”

“Hurry back.”

Julio had his hand on the doorknob when Walt asked, “How’s your arm?”

Slowly, he turned back. “How’s that?”

“Rick said you got hung up on a rose bush. I was tinkering with the water pump a couple of hours ago, and there’s a pretty good spray of blood on the pump house wall. If Rick hadn’t mentioned your accident, I would’ve thought cats had been back there, fighting.”

Julio rubbed his bandaged forearm, mind racing for excuses, and explanations. Why would I have been back in those bushes, did Rick already give him the screwdriver story. And come to think of it, why the fuck would Walt have been stumbling around the pumphouse? “I could have done taken care of that, Walt, the water pump. Did you fix it?” Julio cringed inwardly; that didn’t sound like anything he would actually say.

Walt smiled, and after what seemed like an unnaturally long pause, said “So, your wallet, then?”

“I’ll be right back.”

Julio waited until he was out of sight to break into a sprint, dodging stones, skidding on the wet grass. If Ricky was poking around in those bushes, and noticed the wallet, that fucker’s long gone. He won’t even have the decency to take the eighty bucks and leave my ID and the pictures of my sister’s baby.

Julio could see the weak flickering light on the pump house, and he picked up the pace, mentally running through all the ways that losing the wallet was going to be a huge pain in the ass. Cancelling the credit card, the debit card, setting up new account numbers. Shit. What if Ricky had already drained his bank account, charged a new jetski and AK-47?

Sprinting around the corner of the pump house, Julio stopped short, skidding on the gravel path. All thoughts of his wallet and Ricky and the card game instantly evaporated. What the hell.

The ground had been ripped up, chunks of sod dislodged, water pooling in the muddy ruts and craters. Those fucking kids spinning cookies in their pickup. He thought back to the sixteen-hour day he’d spent repairing the damage those little pricks had done last spring. Noticing that in addition to ripping up the grass, they’d knocked the senator’s stone askew, shattering the clay statue of a cougar, Julio saw red. This time, I’ll be doing a whole lot more than calling the cops. No sooner had Julio begun imagining what he’d do to their truck, and to the kids themselves, than he saw the body.

Just past the pump house, right in the middle of the gravel path was a man, lying facedown in the dirt. His long white hair fanned into the mud. “Sir,” Julio came hesitantly closer. What the hell had happened here? The same kids ripping up the grass had rolled a bum, or what? “Can you hear me?” Julio knelt, gently shaking the man’s shoulder. Not a bum, though. At first I’d only noticed the crazy hair. But no bum’s wearing leather shoes, or gold cufflinks on his Armani suit. Brown Armani—

Julio’s stomach lurched, and he jumped up, stepping back. Just like the suit that the senator had worn, down into the ground. He looked at his surroundings more closely. The sod hadn’t been ripped by tires, it had been blown straight up. Like a bomb had gone off underground. Or like someone had dug up out of—

The hand sprung forward, grabbing his ankle, twisting Julio to the ground. Oh fucking god what. He sprung up, sprinting down the gravel path, whining and grunting with adrenalin. Cutting towards the main gates, But I’m not gonna go to Walt’s, even though I can see the lights in the living room, instead I’m gonna go all the way down the fucking mountain, into town, because, because. Julio’s feet slid on the wet grass, kicking out from under him, and he went down, banging the side of his head off a stone. Struggling to push himself up, he heard wet footsteps behind him, and turned to look back at his pursuer.

But there was nothing. Through the drizzle and the mist, Julio saw, in the weak light thrown by the lamp on the pumphouse, the body still sprawled in the path, just as he’d found it. Pushing himself up off the ground, he waited as his brain cooled and his breathing slowed. Calm down, get ahold of yourself. No monster movie bullshit. So the senator’s grave had been desecrated, probably robbed. Although during Julio’s tenure he’d never seen a body dug up and laid out like that, he’d dealt with grave robbing before. He sighed, thinking about the unpleasant night of work that had just come to replace the Friday night card game.

Off in the distance, through the fog, Julio heard his name. Two figures loomed up out of the misty rain, Walt’s familiar voice repeating “Julio?”

The two old men materialized through the burgeoning rain. “We thought maybe you’d fallen into an open grave out here, ha ha. What—” As they drew close enough to see him, the smile fell from Walt’s face. Concerned, he asked, “What‘s going on?”

Julio sighed. The senator had been Walt’s friend? Whatever the connection, Walter didn’t need to be subjected to seeing the body. Maybe Julio could convince the old man to lay back, while he took care of the immediate disaster. “Bad news. The senator’s stone is knocked over, the ground ripped up. And I’m not sure what’s been taken, but the body…,” Julio trailed off. Walt didn’t seem horrified, or concerned, or even surprised. All the emotion had dropped off his face, and he was edging forward. And why would these two old farts be running around out here, anyway? Looking for me? I’d only been gone for a couple of minutes.

Arthur leapt forward, the moonlight glinting off something in his hand, long and slick. Julio lashed out, feeling the old man’s paper-thin cheekbone splinter under his fist, Arthur dropping straight back into the bushes as something hit Julio in the back of the head, a dull thud, a bright flash of light, and darkness.

*

He woke up, jumping to his feet. His stomach lurched and his head pounded, as he tried to take in everything at once. He was still in the cemetery, near the back of the property, where the manicured grounds dropped off into a forested hill and a creek. There was a campfire burning. Catching sight of two figures sitting near the fire, Julio clenched his fists, backing off.

The figures rose from the fireside, faces shadowed but recognizable within the hoods of the bright red robes—Walt and Arthur, keeping their distance. Arthur’s face was swollen and black on one side. Shooting a look behind him, into the deeper woods, Julio caught a flash of movement. Walter spoke softly and calmly. “You can certainly run if you like, Julio, but I think it will go easier on you if you don’t.” Arthur nodded, his voice mushy. “I’d think he’d be pretty favorably disposed towards you, Julio, apt to inflict as little discomfort as possible.”

Walt stepped forward but stopped short, hands held out in placation, after Julio raised a fist. “He’s indebted to you, son. After all, the blood had to be given voluntarily. Given to the thorn, given to the soil, in order to wake him up, bring him back. He might have been waiting for years, or forever, if you hadn’t stumbled into those rose bushes. But now that it’s been given, the rest, all the rest, can be taken.” The dreamy eyes of the old men, pulsing in the light of the fire, rose over Julio’s shoulder, and he turned. There, where the trees began, stood the senator. His head was slightly bowed, long brittle white hair falling over his shoulders, flesh hanging from his yellowing cheekbones in papery flaps.

When the senator raised his head, his pulsing golden eyes, Julio began to run. He ran past the fire, into the woods, glancing back once to see the senator raise his arms into the air, reciting in a deep guttural voice. He heard Walt, shouting, “It begins with the sacrifice.”

The ground began to shake all around him, and when he fell, the fingers came thrusting up through the wet earth, seeking, gripping the flesh of his face, tearing away his clothing, digging into the skin.


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Dissections logo pterodactyl by Deena Warner
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