Digging graves was not a desirable occupation. The dirt was unforgiving, cold and solid. It was back-breaking work, a bone-wearying profession. Max had known all of this before he had taken the job, but sometimes circumstances dictated the situation. He had a problem, and try as he might, his hands just always seemed to wander where they didn’t belong and return with something that was not theirs.
But Max was an optimist. No matter how far he sank, he always considered it a temporary plight. He could dig graves. He could till the earth’s surface for as long as it took because after all was said and done, it was still just a temp job. Now, almost six months after being released from the county lockup, Max began to wonder just how long this living hell was going to last. His Uncle John, the graveyard caretaker, a gruff old man with a toothless grin and a lazy eye, had told Max when he’d started off that he’d be digging graves until he dug his own, and at the time, Max could barely suppress a chuckle, but now he wasn’t so sure.
As Max’s dirt-encrusted pick split the grass, his thoughts wandered. He wondered how, for a town of only 500 people, they could manage a body or two a week. Sure, threshers hacked people to death. Farm animals killed ranchers in freak accidents. And there was a staggering cancer rate; these people smoked like the Marlboro man was riding away with the last of their cigarettes. But still, it just seemed like a bad town, a place where people came to die.
Max’s current client, though, had been a transient. A bad car accident and no one to claim the remains. Not a particularly pleasant way to go. Max paused, lit up a cigarette, and thought that, perhaps, there weren’t all that many ways that were. Inhaling deeply, Max listened to the faint rumblings of thunder just over the hills, telling of the storm to come.
He had to hurry. There was still another body waiting on the table, an old drunk named Howard Broach, who had to be interred before the storm made the ground too muddy to till. Max’s thoughts grew grimmer contemplating the enormously corpulent deceased, whose only legacy in life was to indulge in everything to excess and leave an immensely bloated corpse behind. And while there were no shortages of mourners at his funeral, when all the smoke settled, no one wanted to be stuck with the bill. Howard Broach became another county job. Max had been sour at the funeral and he was sour now. County requisitioned bodies, those with no one to claim them, were interred for next to nothing, which made Max’s cut even less. With a grimace, he snuffed out his cigarette with a booted toe, took a swig of whiskey from the flask he always kept at the ready, and returned to his digging.
* * * * *
Night had fallen by the time the two holes were dug, and with great effort, Max wrestled the bodies into their final homes, the unwieldy body of the late Howard Broach giving him more than a little trouble. Max had asked his uncle about a coffin for the body and the man had merely shrugged. The county got what it paid for.
With a grunt, Max picked up his shovel and somberly started filling in the graves. Rain was beginning to fall, making his grip more slippery with every stroke of the shovel. “Damn,” Max groaned as the spade slid out of his hand, down onto the barely covered body of Howard Broach. Max shook his head in aggravation as he climbed down into the muddy hole, cursing his misfortune. As he bent down to retrieve the implement near a bloated hand that appeared to be reaching out of the dirt for a lifeline, suddenly Max’s run of bad luck seemed to come to a dead halt. Fortune surely smiled on him as his eye caught a glimmer that could only be gold, a ring still attached to the dead man’s finger.
It was a plain gold band with ruby inlay set in a distinct pattern. Definitely valuable. Perhaps tonight had not been such a bust after all.
Curious as to why his uncle, by no means an honest man, had not thought of the same idea, Max bitterly found out the reason as he tried to wrest the ring from the corpse. Stuck tight. Judging from the frayed and torn skin on the bloated finger, Max realized his uncle had come up with the same idea and had obviously failed. Not wanting to follow in his uncle’s footsteps, Max simply seized the burial spade and hacked off the finger with a single stroke, easily extricating the ring. Prize in hand, Max climbed from the grave, tossing the finger over his shoulder with no more thought than a discarded cigarette butt.
After relishing his treasure for a few golden moments, a subtle fear began to gnaw at him, realizing what he had just done. Thoughts of cold clammy hands bursting from the grave flashed through Max’s mind with every scoop of dirt as he quickly resumed his job of interment. Max could almost feel that cold lifeless stare watching him, waiting for something. “Sorry buddy, you’re not getting your ring back,” Max muttered under his breath. “Finders keepers. You’re not going to need it where you’re going.” Sweat beading his brow, Max swore, as he shoveled the last patches of dirt over Howard “Nine Fingers” Broach, that the corpse’s eyes were wide open.
* * * * *
Max’s house was little more than a shanty, the paint peeling and the floorboards creaking, but the refrigerator was filled with cool beer and that was enough. A pile of discarded tall cans later and the grave digger was feeling A-OK. The TV, with its blurred picture, was off, but the radio bleated a bluesy tune and a newfound sense of possibility flared in the soon-to-be-former grave digger.
Max pulled out the ring and fingered his prize gently, marveling at the uncanny smoothness. Despite the glow of intoxication slowly enveloping him, something didn’t set right about it, and Max knew it wasn’t pangs of regret. There was definitely something off about the ring, and its ruby inlay, but Max couldn’t pinpoint it, and furthermore, he didn’t really care. It was his ticket out. The money it would fetch at hawk would set him up for a while until he could find something better. Tossing a discarded can to lay with the others, Max searched for another beer. Finding it, he popped the lid and spilled the drink all over himself as he heard a voice.
It was old and hollow, as if from a great distance away, calling out to him, “My ring.” Max shivered, glancing around frantically. He was alone. Or so it seemed. He tried to tell himself it was just an overactive imagination and too many graveyard stories, but he wasn’t convinced. Trying to salvage what was left of his beer, he came up with only two shallow sips. He definitely needed another one.
Max made his way to the kitchen, flicking on the light switch as he went. A little illumination and a fresh can of beer did wonders to ease the mind. He was already halfway to feeling normal again when he saw it. Muddy footprints. And definitely not his. Following the dirty trail led a bewildered Max back into his living room.
Sitting there patiently was none other than Mr. Howard “I’m Buried” Broach. A sickly pallor coupled with dirt stained his clothes.
“What… what… the.…” Max could barely voice the words, taking a tentative step back as he spoke them. “What… what… do you want?”
Howard chuckled, an animal-like cackle. “What do I want? Hmmm… now let me see?” As the unreality of it all set in, Max suppressed a scream. “Well, a coffin would have been nice.” Again that horrid laugh. “Maybe someone who wouldn’t have tossed me into the dirt. Yeah, you thought I didn’t see, well I was watching. But you know what I really want? I want my finger back.” That same humorless smile never leaving his face, Howard held up his mangled hand, short one digit.
Max took another step back, his mind unable to handle the unreality of it all. He searched frantically for a weapon but found nothing promising. “Forget it. What’s a little finger between friends, right? But you do have something I really want back, Maximillion. My ring. It’s special. You like the ruby pattern? The ancient Byzantine symbol for immortality? I know I did. It called to me Max, like it called to you. I knew from the second I saw it on that gypsy’s finger. I knew I’d kill for it. It speaks to you, Max. But you already knew that didn’t you? I feel its voice waning in me. And I need it. It does things Max… It’ll bring me back. Forever.”
Despite his fear, Max realized just how much his own future rested with that ring. It was his, and nobody was going to take that from him. If it truly was that powerful it would be priceless. Max stalled for time, “What ring?”
“MY RING!!! My ring now!”
Max took another backward step, running into a wall, his hands going up protectively. “It’s my ring now.” His eyes closed despite himself and he waited for those cold hands that never came.
Instead there was just horrid laughter. “Over your dead body, right?”
After several moments passed and Max found himself still alive, he mustered the courage to open his eyes. Nothing. He was alone again. Utterly alone this time. He checked his pocket, the ring still nestled safely inside; his eyes catching on the pile of discarded beer cans. Had he really had that many? He didn’t feel drunk, but he knew he probably was. He tried to rationalize. It had to have been a hallucination. Stress and alcohol, never a good mix. That was the only explanation. And nearly an hour later, after a few more tall ones, as Max slipped into sleep, he had a good long laugh about the whole thing.
* * * * *
Sleep didn’t last long. The peal of thunder awakened Max in a cold sweat. He was still in the throes of a waking dream, the vision earlier still all too real. For the next hour he tried to fall back asleep, but with little success. The storm had abated somewhat, but he couldn’t shake what he had seen. Every time he shut his eyes he could see cold dead hands digging their way towards him. Another two hours of restless waking, debating on the reality of his encounter, and a full bottle of Jack Daniels later, Max reached a conclusion: he knew what he had to do.
* * * * *
The rain beat down on him like miniscule needles. Max would make sure it was just his mind playing tricks on him and then he would go home reassured. He was thoroughly soaked by the time he reached the grave. It was deserted, as he had expected at this time of night, and though he had tried his best to skirt the houses adjacent to the graveyard lest someone call the cops, he couldn’t help but feel someone was watching.
There was scant illumination from the lightning, and Max was thankful for the darkness, making his secret job that much easier. Placing a small flashlight on the ground, he hefted his shovel and began to dig, taking one patch of freshly tilled soil from the ground after another. Max emptied the grave which he had just filled, aware of the lunacy of it all, constantly assuring himself that at the bottom he would find exactly what was to be expected, one very cold, very dead, Howard Broach. And then he would sleep. He would sleep the sleep of the dead, assured in the knowledge that there was no body after him.
But as he got closer and closer to unearthing, what he fervently hoped would be a corpse, Max’s uncertainty increased tenfold. And as he removed shovelful after shovelful of dirt where he was sure that he should be striking flesh, his uncertainty manifested into full on terror, complete and abject horror because the deeper he dug the more certain he became: there was no body.
Suddenly, he felt a hand upon his shoulder. Max could not even venture a scream as the hand forced him around to stand, face to leering face, with the dead Howard Broach. “MY RING!!!” the dead man spat at him. Max was gripped by panic, unable to move, confronted by a man who should by all rights be lying in the cold ground. Max’s mind reeled with the implications, the unreality of it all cascading over him.
A stroke of lightning split the stormy night sky, illuminating Howard in all his grizzly glory. The dead man did not hesitate, instead pushing Max, still clutching his shovel, into the grave. Howard followed, landing with a thud right next to him.
Max barely had time to sputter and choke, before he felt a four-fingered hand pressing his face into the mud. Relying on nothing but instinct, Max seized a handful of earth in his hands, and in a quick motion ground the soil into Howard’s eyes. Not pausing to think, seizing the opportunity, Max grabbed the shovel and swung. He connected, the blow smashing the side of Howard’s head with the sharp trowel blade. And then as quickly as it had begun, it was over.
Howard didn’t move. But that wasn’t enough for Max, not nearly enough. Howard had been dead once before. Max had to be sure this time, so he brought the shovel down, again and again, striking with unrelenting fury. He didn’t stop. Like a man possessed, he pounded Howard’s corpse into oblivion.
Lost in his rage, Max almost didn’t notice the voice of someone approaching. And even when he did, it took him a minute to pin down the sullen oaths and repetitious swearing, but as soon as he realized just what was going on, he scrambled from the hole. Taking a hiding place behind a weather-worn granite crypt, Max tightened the grip on the shovel. He had company.
Max watched as the old man stood beside the hole with a somber look of bewilderment. It was clearly not what he expected to see. Putting it all together with the pick-axe, saw, and shovel in the man’s hand, Max chuckled, stepping out from his hiding place. “I know what you want, and its mine.”
“What… what?” The old man stammered, taking a step back.
“I know what you were trying to do. And I’m telling you, you’re too late. I already got the ring.”
“Max?! Is that you?”
“In the flesh.” Max advanced on the startled man, his shovel held behind his back. “I’m sure you’re a little surprised at seeing me here, huh, Uncle John?”
“Well… yes I was…” He stalled for time, his hands reflexively grasping his pick-axe. “I got a call about a grave robbing.”
“You call the cops on yourself? Is that it?” Max laughed at his own cleverness. “I know what you really want.” He approached until they were both within striking distance. “You want my ring.”
“It’s my graveyard, my ring.”
“I found it first.” Max prepared for his swing. Just a little provocation and it would all be over. That was when he felt the hand. From the look on his uncle’s face he could tell that the old man was likewise startled. However, that brief moment of surprise quickly turned into abject terror when realization struck, as cold clammy hands reached out from the grave, that utter chill and fear the last thing the pair felt as they were dragged down, screaming, into the earth.
* * * * *
The town sheriff was perplexed when he saw them. Two very dead gravediggers piled into what appeared to be a cemetery battleground. The lawman stared long and hard at those two familiar faces, now so horribly distorted in death, and thought. I always wondered when those two would do each other in. Never did like each other much. Finally he shrugged impassively, telling himself to make a note of it. Guess it’s time to put out an ad for a new caretaker and grave digger. With no further ado, the sheriff picked up the shovel. County jobs, he thought bitterly, and started the arduous task of filling in the grave.