I didn't know what to expect when I arrived in the small town of Brunton, Pennsylvania, and began working for Oliver Watson, owner-editor of The Brunton Bulletin, the town's three-times-a-week newspaper. I didn't care. I was fifty years younger than I am today and I could handle anything. So I thought.
Oliver Watson was getting old and losing interest in the paper, so inside of three months he was leaving the bulk of its operation to me. This suited me fine, and I decided that Brunton was the town for me.
On one glorious and colorful autumn morning before I opened the office I decided on a walk. The graveyard was just a few minutes from the south end of towna lovely place, well kept, its green grass and flaming leaves at that time of the year quiet and serene. I enjoyed browsing its silent aisles, noting the names and dates on the tombstones and imagining what the people's lives might have been like.
Clay Weller was the caretaker there. Gently put, Weller was the town derelict. It had been a prime item of gossip when he somehow persuaded a woman from another town to marry him. Three children followed soon after, but the family was never able to make ends meet. Weller prowled the town looking for handouts or odd jobs. He finally landed the job of caretaker for the town cemetery. After that, the family prospered. Weller had a small but steady income, the house that came with the job, and some pigs and chickens. His pigs especially had a reputation for savoriness and must have brought a tidy addition to his income. He'd even become a churchgoer. It was a nice story, and I'd often thought of doing a piece on his reclamation in the Bulletin.
"Hello, Clay," I called as I approached. "Working hard?"
He was knee-deep in a hole, busily tossing dirt over his shoulders. He wiped his brow as he looked up at me. "Yeah. I hear McGinchy's worse, so I'm getting ready for him."
"McGinchy!" I exclaimed. "Worse? When did that happen?" McGinchy was the owner of the two department stores in Brunton and three-time mayor of the town.
"How did you hear about it?" I asked with irritation.
"Doc Kramer passed here half-hour ago and told me what was going on. I took it as a hint." He smiled and began digging again.
"Doc Kramer? Are you sure? McGinchy would never let Doc Kramer near him. They hate each other like the devil."
Weller paused to lean on his shovel. "Doc Ray is out of town visiting a sister or something. Family had no choice." He chuckled. "McGinchy probably had a stroke when he saw Doc Kramer walk into his bedroom."
I left Weller chuckling and headed back toward town. This was news. Sickness, death, any kind of change in familial status was fodder for the Bulletin. Especially if it involved Orville McGinchy. Most especially if he was being treated by Martin Kramer. The entire town knew of their feud. It had been going on for years. McGinchy had married late in life. The doctor had never married, though he had once been engaged. Everyone knew the story. The engagement between the doctor and his fiancée had been hastily terminated when McGinchy proposed to the same girl: the woman who was now his wife of some twenty-odd years. The two men had actively avoided one another since that affair. I knew McGinchy's condition must be serious indeed if his wife had called for Doc Kramer. And I knew Doc Kramer would respond to her only if it were a life-and-death situation. So I hurried to McGinchy's.
Madeline McGinchy answered my knock. "Oh, it's you, James."
"Is it very bad?"
"Martin sent me out of the room. I don't know why. I'm afraid I'm going to lose him," she sobbed.
I put my arm around her shoulders, not knowing what else to do. I sat her down on the sofa and waited next to her. Nearly an hour went by. Finally, the bedroom door creaked open above, and we both tensed as Doc Kramer shuffled down the stairs.
How haggard he looked! Normally a robust man, his face now conveyed a pallor most unnatural.
"What is it, Martin?" I asked.
He lowered his head and mumbled, barely audibly, "I'm afraid he's gone."
With that Madeline lost control.
Martin reached out to touch her but pulled his hand back. I put my arm around her again. "I'm so sorry, Madeline," I said.
Doc Kramer and I stood silently as the new widow wept. Finally, between sobs, she asked, "What do I do now?"
I cleared my throat. "Well, arrangements need to be made...."
"Would you like me to do that for you, Madeline?" Doc Kramer asked in a soft voice.
"Oh, would you? I just couldn't. I..." She broke down again.
Doc Kramer looked at me and nodded. "I'll take care of everything."
We settled Madeline down and she made a few phone calls. When her sister arrived, Martin administered a sedative to her and beckoned me to follow him outside. Grasping me tightly by the arm, he said, "If you pass by Weller's, have him prepare a grave immediately."
"I just passed there, and he's knee-deep in one already."
Martin's eyes widened. He turned away and hurried off without saying another word.
I put out a special edition that day on the death of Orville McGinchy. Doc Kramer arranged for the viewing to take place early next morning with the burial immediately after.
Doc Kramer skipped the viewing and the trip to the graveyard, and I thought that odd.
Madeline thanked me for my Bulletin story. I presumed she was referring to my adding the angle of a twenty-year feud ending upon the deathbed of one of the participants, though I had little basis for the story.
After putting the regular edition of the paper to bed that evening, I began walking home. But I couldn't keep from wondering why Doc Kramer hadn't attended the funeral. Then my obit hit me. Maybe my mention of the feud ending on McGinchy's deathbed had embarrassed or offended him. I had no way of knowing what had happened in that room between the two men. I knew when I wrote the story that I was going out on a limb, and now the more I thought of it, the more fearful I grew that I had humiliated the good doctor. I turned and went straight to his house to talk to him. One lone light burned in an upstairs window. When I knocked, the door opened quickly, as if the doctor had been sitting close by in the dark.
"Come in. Come in," he urged, pulling me by the arm and closing the door behind me. He went behind his desk and I sat in a soft chair. I could see even in the dim light that he had not shaved that day, and I noticed that same wretched pallor in him that I'd noticed the day before. Sparkles of fear glowed in his eyes. Yesterday's special edition of the Bulletin was spread across his desk.
"Doc," I began, "I want to apologize about that story." I could see he wasn't listening. I tried again. "About that story, Doc. I may have gone too far."
"Gone too far? Yes. That's it. Gone too far," he said as if in a trance.
"I just wasn't thinking."
"Yes, I wasn't thinking. I shouldn't have done it. I can't conceive how I even thought of it. I need help. You must help me."
It finally struck me that he and I were talking at cross purposes. "Help you do what? What are you talking about?" I was growing increasingly alarmed.
"Why? Why?" he demanded, pounding his desk with a fist and looking upward. He rose and moved about with increased agitation and my own panic rose accordingly.
"Tell me what you're talking about."
He fell into a chair. "I saw a chance and took it. I don't understand how I even considered it." He looked up at me. "I took my revenge on McGinchy. You must know the story. I'd been waiting twenty years for it. I saw it offered to me, and I took it." A fierceness had crept into his voice.
"Revenge on a dead man?" I asked. "What are you talking about?"
"McGinchy is not dead."
There was a ghastly pause as I tried to comprehend. "Not dead? Not dead? What do you mean he's not dead?"
"A dram. A powerful soporific. I administered it. I stood over him for an hour trying to decide. I was afraid he was going to diedie unpunished for what he did to me. So I gave it to him. I told him to take it. It would make him rest. It would make him sleep, I said. Sleep, James, sleep with imperceptible heartbeat and respiration. For thirty-six, maybe forty-eight hours, he would seem dead. But then he would awaken."
I leaped to my feet, grabbed him by his rumpled coat, and pulled him to his feet. "You buried him alive?"
"I did. I did. He will awaken to utter blackness," Kramer sobbed.
"My God, man." A tide of outrage and disbelief rose over me. "Wait, you said 'will awaken.' Is it possible that he still sleeps? Or has awakened and not yet gone mad?"
Kramer caught his breath.
"Is there still time, Martin?" I repeated.
"I don't know. The dram is imprecise. It is possible."
"Good Lord. Let's get right to Weller's." I pushed McGinchy out into the street, and we both started on the run.
"We must get Weller to help us open the grave," I said. "We will swear him to secrecy." By now we'd reached Weller's and I banged on his door. He answered it, still chewing on his dinner. I dragged him onto the porch.
"We must open McGinchy's grave. He may not yet be dead," I told him.
Weller began coughing, choking on his food. "Open his coffin?" he gagged. "No, I won't do it. I won't permit it. It's ... it's sacrilege. It can't be done."
"It must be done," I cried. "The man may be alive, I tell you. We aren't disturbing the dead. We're saving a living man."
Weller sagged backward against the wall. "No, I won't let you. I can't."
"What's the matter with you, Weller? Where are the shovels?" I hurried through his yard, avoiding the pigs and chickens that ran wildly about and found but one shovel in back of his house.
"This way," I called.
Weller followed. "I won't help," he cried. "You mustn't disturb the grave." He threw himself at me and knocked me to the ground.
I arose furious, brandishing the shovel toward him. "Weller, stand off."
True to his word, Weller did nothing to help us. I dug like a madman, Doc Kramer on his knees next to me, pulling dirt from the grave with his bare hands. When my shovel hit wood, a grim moan burst from behind us.
"Don't be so damned superstitious, Weller," I chastised him. "We're trying to save the man's life."
We quickened our work and were soon struggling to find a proper handhold with which to lift the coffin from the grave. We scrambled from the hole and began working the lid from the coffin.
"No, no," moaned Weller. But neither the doctor nor I paid him any mind.
In the deepening gray of the evening, we opened the coffin.
The doctor and I gasped in unison.
"Empty! Weller, it's empty," I cried. "The body, I saw it in here. What happened to it?"
Weller had slumped to the ground, his arms around his knees, his head hanging between them.
Kramer grabbed him by the hair and pulled his head backward. "Where is he? What has happened to him?"
"I warned you against looking."
"Damn your warning," I exploded. "Where is McGinchy? The man wasn't dead, he was alive. Do you hear me? Alive. He was alive in the grave. He was going to awaken in the grave. Where is he, Weller?"
The slam of Weller's back door halted our inquisition. It was Weller's wife entering the yard. She was carrying a large bucket and poured its contents into a trough for the pigs.
I turned back to Weller.
"I just wanted to help my family," he agonized. "I used everything I could. All the bodies. His body. Don't say he was alive. Don't say it."
"Where is he?" I demanded again.
"There," he said simply, pointing toward his wife.
What we saw was Weller's livestock munching contentedly upon the food that his wife had just provided for them.
The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror. ISSN: 1528-4271
The Harrow is published by THE HARROW PRESSSM