Estimated reading time — 6 minutes
An orange sun lowered steadily into a pit of evergreen teeth, valiantly spilling it’s last light upon the Night Springs Cemetery while it still could. If he had noticed, middle-aged Simon Willis might find himself grateful for this light so he might continue overlooking his mother’s grave in peace. After all, the cemetery was dangerous after dark. Not for any mysterious reason, mind you. The forest outlining Night Springs Cemetery was one of the only places wolf sightings have been reported in all of Pennsylvania.
“You know about the wolves, don’t you?”
Simon jumped at the voice and twisted his body at the intruder with anger. He managed to calm himself as he recognized the kindly-looking old man who approached him as the groundskeeper for the cemetery. His cold annoyance further melted when he saw the old man raising his hands in apologetic surrender.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you like that. I assumed my creaky legs would’ve given me away for a mile.”
The old man laughed and continued to approach, as Simon allowed himself a small grin for the first time all day. For a minute, the groundskeeper stared silently at the grave beside him, in solemn reverence. Despite politely declining similar offers from friends and family, Simon appreciated the man’s company here. The groundskeeper brought a sense of practiced officiality to Simon’s mourning and gave him a reason to stay rooted to the spot. The man even seemed to know the appropriate time to break the silence.
“I dug this grave you know. I dig all the graves around here. It keeps my body younger than I really am.” he said, eyes winking with pride. It was true too. Simon knew the man was well into his eighties at least, because he remembered the site of him as a child. He didn’t seem to have aged much in that time. He looked like he could be just barely approaching sixty.
“I’ve had this job for forty years now. Got it from my father after he died. I must’ve been about the same age as you when it happened. My name’s Jeremy Carter, if you’re wondering what to call me. Plain ‘Carter’ does most people just fine.”
“‘Carter,'” Simon repeated vaguely. “How’d your father pass? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“No, no, it’s fine. He just got tired of living, I s’pose. Probably smoked too much tobacco and buried too many good people.” He changed the subject here. “I didn’t know your mom much–could recognize her from passing in town, but I never knew her name or nothing. I heard she was taken by cancer.”
“Yeah.” Simon’s voice sounded so hollow and he wondered if that’s how it’d always sound from now on.
“A terrible way to go, cancer. Wasting by inches. You’re tired of hearing this, but you have my sympathies all the same.”
Carter was right. The “thanks” that tumbled out of Simon’s mouth was smoothed from overuse. The word felt like an overworked muscle–raw and lifeless–and Simon wanted nothing more than to hide away from all the apologetic well-wishing that demanded response and give the word time to rest until it’s meaning could be salvaged once more.
Simon wanted to talk about his mom to this man. He even managed to push out a forced “She–” before he realized he had no words to follow it and found his throat dry. Somehow, the old man seemed to understand this and brought the subject closer to his mother.
“I know your mother always lived here, so am I right in assuming you grew up in Night Springs too?”
The question offered direction and Simon gratefully seized upon it.
“Yeah, I never knew my dad so I grew up here alone with my mom.” He corrected himself. “Well, not alone you know. There’s the whole town, of course, and I used to know just about everybody here. My mom never had another kid or remarried though so it was always just us two in the house.”
Simon paused a moment, reflecting, then realized he needed to speak more to properly convey his mother.
“It was great though. My mom was a great woman. The house was small compared to others, but just fine for the two of us and my mom worked her ass off to made sure we always had it. Mr. Anderson at the bank–I don’t know if he still works there anymore–he wasn’t at the funeral today–Mr. Anderson was always good enough to give my mom an extension on the loan if she needed it. He helped out a lot when I was going through college. My mom had two jobs back then so I wouldn’t have to do any work myself and could focus on my education. Got a business degree and then went to law school and later became a lawyer working out of Chicago. I stopped seeing her and the town so much, since then. I tried to come back for the holidays, you know, but something started coming up and I missed more than I ever should have allowed.”
“I was crushed when I found out my mom had cancer. I tried to get her to move in with me–get her better medical care, you know?–but she was dead set on staying in Night Springs. She always loved this town. I couldn’t wait to get to college, but she was always happy living here. I thought of moving closer, of course, but I couldn’t just abandon all my clients and practice. And my mom insisted Debbie next door was taking good care of her. They were always like sisters to each other. I offered to pay Debbie as a nurse, but she wouldn’t hear of it. You know how people in this town are.”
The two men grinned in shared understanding for a moment. The sun was nowhere to be seen now. You could make out some orange lingering in the night right at the edge of the horizon, but no more than that. It was getting very dark.
“She fought it for a while. I was… am very proud of her. Seven months later though, that was it. I visited a lot in that time. At least a dozen times, though never more than for a weekend. Still, I just figured she’d pull through somehow. I never let myself consider that she might actually go like this until the last couple weeks.”
Simon realized he was finished. The man clasped him on shoulder and said “You were a good son. I talked to Debbie, you know, and she told me that all your mom’d do is talk about you and how hard you were trying. She’s very proud of you.”
Simon didn’t cry, but he couldn’t speak either. A long pause and then Carter broke the silence once more. “Well, I best be leaving now. A gravekeeper’s work is always plentiful. You’d best be getting back soon too. They howl up a storm some nights, but I’ve never known the wolves to actually attack anyone unprovoked. There ain’t no lights around here though and you’d be best be careful if you want to avoiding cracking your head on someone’s grave.”
“Thanks. I’ll be heading out soon. If it’s okay, I think I might stay another few minutes.”
Carter patted the man’s shoulder one last time and said “Of course son.” With that, he dipped away through the moonless night, leaving Simon to mourn his mother in solitude once more.
Simon was good to his word. He waited a few minutes. He thought some final words to his mother, hoping she would hear them, wherever she was. He tried to remember every good time they ever had together and did his best to press out intruding images of his sickly mother wasting away on her death bed. He was just about to leave when he heard the scream.
A howl was heard just moments before, then a quick shout followed by agonizing screams of a voice he recognized.
“MR. CARTER!” he shouted, running in the direction of the scream as they grew more frenzied. It didn’t take long for the small, black headstone to trip him up, sending him hurtling into a freshly-dug grave. Simon Willis died instantly.
Only fifty paces away, shrouded in darkness, an old man tossed his dog a treat. His throat was a bit raw from screaming, but he made sure to say “Good boy,” to his pet wolf for acting on cue.
Slowly and methodically, Jeremy Carter made his way through the labyrinth of graves and finally approached the one he had just finished an hour ago. He had filled the bottom with wooden spikes about three feet tall placed every six inches or so.
He shook his head in mild disappointment as he peered at the body, punctured and bloody. He was good kid, he thought. Almost wanted him to just run and save himself. A strange thought for Carter. Maybe he had buried too many good people too. Still, he drunk deeply from the energy leaving the man’s body and moaned in relief as his ailing joints seemed to strengthen somewhat.
Maybe he would call it quits soon, but his father was only a hundred and twenty when he passed and he was determined to make it a bit longer than that. Besides. A gravekeeper’s work is always plentiful.
A wolf howled into the night as Jeremy Carter set about filling the hole he made in the earth.
Credit To: Jered Kral