by Lisa Franek
The bus lurched around a corner, causing the woman next to Rupert to slide into him, pressing him up against the cold glass of the window. He sighed, knowing he should have sat somewhere else. But he was tired. It had been a long day. Winters had the longest days. That was when old people and children took ill, and the illnesses spread like wildfire through households, claiming anyone with even the slightest weakness. It was tragic to see the tiny bodies of children come in, and merciful to see the old, knowing they had fought to the end. And when he saw them, Rupert always sighed and looked out to the grassy hills, knowing there was still plenty of space out there for them. If only he could dig fast enough. He knew tomorrow would be worse, and that there was a storm coming after that. And after the storm, there would be more.
Rupert looked out the window at the grimy streets full of blackened snow and smudged people and wondered which faces he would soon see, either white and still, or streaked with grief. There would be many. That much he knew. The bus stopped, and the woman got up to exit. Rupert felt the seat sigh with relief, just quickly enough for another person to take her place. Rupert looked sideways as the man sat next to him, feeling uneasy in the close quarters of a seat too small for two grown men. At least the woman was soft and cushiony. This man was angular and gruff, and seemed to be made entirely of sandpaper. Rupert knew he himself didn’t exactly exude grace or softness, but this man was hard like stone. Rupert leaned into the window glass, looking for space and finding none.
Sometimes the vast open spaces of the graveyard were lonely, but mostly he longed for them. Especially in times like this. Rupert’s friends, if one could call the rabble at the tavern that, thought it depressing that Rupert dug graves for the dead, but Rupert rather enjoyed it. It was solitary work, where he was left alone with only his thoughts and his shovel. That was enough. He knew what was expected, and he knew what to do. It was the confinement of the city streets that gave him anxiety. The noise, the chatter. It was endless and pointless, and he found himself knowing too much about people that he would rather not know. He marveled at their ability to ignore things that were painfully obvious; the cheating lover, the pilfering employee, the duplicitous friend. No one seemed to know they were all being duped, but Rupert saw it with alarming clarity. He would take the silence of the graves to the treacherousness of the city any day.
The man peered at Rupert, causing him to stiffen, as if waiting for a blow. “Do I know you?” the man asked.
Rupert exhaled only slightly to answer. “I don’t believe so.” He gave a quick smile that ended up being more of a grimace, but the man didn’t waver. He examined Rupert’s face carefully, his brain searching for the name that would match. Or even a place of meeting. Rupert was relieved to see that none came. He knew he did not know this man, but also knew the possibility of mistaken identity was high, given the number of people in Chicago. And Rupert knew he had one of those faces that seemed to be familiar to everyone, since he was often called by other people’s names. Sometimes he wondered if those people had somehow seen him in passing while digging his graves. They could easily be visiting a departed friend or relative, or attending a funeral, and their brain had recorded his face in that moment of heightened emotions. He knew it was much easier to remember things when there were emotions tied to them, and no one came to the cemetery without their emotions on display. At least, not the normal ones.
Every now and then, Rupert would see one with no emotion walking among the headstones, and a chill would run through him. They always looked like everyone else, and sometimes even managed to produce crocodile tears, but he saw them. Empty and lifeless. This man had a similar countenance. Rupert closed his eyes and rested his head against the window, hoping things would stay quiet. The bus was full of people who were tired; their thoughts slow and quiet. Rupert was grateful.
But then it came. Rupert opened his eyes and looked at the man sitting next to him. The man stared intensely at his hands clasped on his lap, moving one thumb to cover the other and back again. Of all the people on this bus, the man sitting next to Rupert was deep in thought, fixating on one thing and one thing only: money.
Rupert looked at the man’s hands. They were dirty and calloused; not the hands of a man used to having money. His clothes looked old, but were clean. Rupert looked up to find the man staring directly at him. “Something wrong?” the man asked. Rupert shook his head and shrugged. Part of him knew he should stay quiet, but he had to know.
“I was going to ask you the same question,” Rupert said. The man looked at him quizzically, raising an eyebrow and scowling. “You seem tense, that’s all.” Rupert indicated the man’s tightly gripped hands, and the man stared at him for a moment, then smiled slightly.
“I guess I’m not used to being around all these people,” he said. Rupert nodded. At least they had this in common. “Damon,” he said, holding out his hand. Rupert shook it, knowing he didn’t really want to know this man, but now they were here, meeting. He would know things about Damon before too long. Damon shook his head and looked around the bus, then leaned over to Rupert. “All these people coming home from work. Lots of people.”
Rupert nodded. Damon was clearly not coming home from work, he asked the question anyway: “You’re not?”
Damon shook his head. “Looking. It’s not easy. Especially during the winter. Things are slow.” Rupert nodded in agreement as Damon continued. “What do you do?”
“I dig graves. Cavalry Cemetery.”
Damon shook his head and smiled. “Wow. You’re like the cryptkeeper or something. Wild.”
“It’s a living.”
“You know, it’s steady work. At least there’s that. In this day and age, that’s something.”
Rupert nodded. “This is my stop,” he said as the bus slowed and pulled towards the curb, and Rupert was grateful.
Rupert walked along the hill at the end of the cemetery towards the big oak tree at the back. It had been there since the cemetery had been staked out; a marker of where the edge of the property was. Rupert kicked the snow as he walked, knowing that in a couple of days, it would require boots and a thick coat, and it would silence everything in a thick layer of softness. He stood next to the oak and looked out onto the expanse, with headstones jutting up in somewhat regular patterns. Some had angels perched over them, while others were simple and bare. There were some small mausoleums on the other end of the cemetery where the more fortunate laid their kin to rest, but no matter where they were, Rupert knew it was always cold and dark. He sighed as he looked at the tree again, then drove a stake into the ground. Before too long, a deep hole would take its place. But for now, Rupert had others to dig.
He walked out of the cemetery, blowing on his hands for warmth. “Thought I might find you here,” Damon said. Rupert stopped short, startled. Damon stood leaning against the pillar of the entrance, and Rupert wondered how long he had been standing there. He didn’t look cold, but his hands were jammed deep into his pockets and his collar was pulled up around his cheeks.
“What are you doing here?” Rupert asked more pointedly than he had intended. Damon wasn’t someone to provoke. Rupert already knew that. Damon kicked a rock and slowly walked toward Rupert, then shrugged.
“Looking for work. Think you could get me on?”
Rupert looked back at the gates behind them. Cavalry was a big place; there was always room for another hand. Still, Rupert was hesitant. As big as it was, Rupert knew that having Damon close by would feel just like the bus. Damon was loud, and he had no idea. Rupert looked back at Damon and shrugged.
“It’s just for a little while,” Damon said, “until I get back on my feet.” He chuckled. “Who wants to dig graves forever? Certainly not me.” Rupert drew his mouth up into what was almost a smile. Rupert had tried other jobs, but this was the one for him. It was somehow comforting that he and Damon did not have that in common. And even more comforting that Damon didn’t plan on staying long. Rupert looked at Damon, who stared intently back at him. It was unnerving, really.
“Well, I guess until you get on your feet again, it should be alright. Start tomorrow?”
“I’ll be here bright and early.” Damon shoved his hands down into his pockets again and stalked away, and Rupert sighed, glad to have distance between them.
Damon leaned on his shovel and looked around. “Don’t you ever get bored? Digging the same holes every day?” Rupert shook his head as he drove his shovel into the hard ground.
“I find it peaceful. Quieting.”
Damon laughed. “You’re a weird guy, Rupert.” Damon lifted himself off his shovel and started digging again. “I don’t know how you do it,” he continued. “Me, I’d rather do a million other things. This is just temporary for me, you know.”
“You said that. A few times.”
“Well, you’re not saying much, so there’s only so many things I have to say.”
Rupert shook his head, knowing that wasn’t the truth. “I doubt it,” was all he said in answer. It had only been one day, and Rupert was already tired of having Damon here. Damon was uncomfortable with the vast silence of death, and did his best to fill it with noise. Rupert gritted his teeth as he continued digging. It’s only temporary, he kept telling himself. It would become his mantra over the next several weeks.
Rupert lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. Damon’s thoughts had become so loud over the last few days that they drowned out his own. The time Rupert spent in his bed were the only quiet moments of his day now, and he was anxious to be rid of Damon. Damon had taken to the work quickly, his strong back making the work go faster than expected. It was a good thing, too. The storm had come a week ago, and the bodies were already starting to come in. Starvation, exposure, illness. Just as Rupert had expected.
Rupert closed his eyes and took a deep breath, knowing that sleep would come quickly. He rolled over and embraced the quiet. But then it came. Damon’s thoughts. Rupert pushed them away, exasperated. Damon had infiltrated every corner of Rupert’s life, when all he had wanted was to be left alone to the quiet. He still hadn’t dug the hole near the tree, but he knew he would have to soon.
“Why are you always so quiet?” Damon asked.
“Seems like you do enough talking for both of us,” Rupert joked. Damon didn’t laugh, so Rupert took a more serious tone. “I like the quiet.”
“You must, working here.”
Rupert watched as Damon dug, asking the question he already knew the answer to. “What would you rather be doing?”
“Anything. Back in the day, me and my boys had all kinds of fun.”
“I bet you did.” Rupert already knew, but he went along with it anyway.
“All the trouble we caused,” Damon shook his head and smiled at the memory. “Drinking and carrying on. Boy, did we get into some trouble back then.”
“What kind of trouble?” Rupert had already seen it. Angry barkeeps, smashed windows, police giving chase. He’d seen Damon and his friends drinking and carousing with women, gambling, and generally causing trouble. But here, Rupert heard a new thought. Damon was diving down a deep hole that Rupert had unwittingly pushed him into.
“I killed a man.” Damon said it quietly, more to himself than to Rupert. And then Rupert saw it. He saw Damon rifling through the man’s pockets and finding a key before running. “It was an accident. It was supposed to be your run of the mill back alley fight. We’d had a disagreement, and we’d both had plenty to drink. I was just going to give him a good drubbing and a couple of black eyes. But that dummy had to bring his beer bottle with him. He smashed it on the wall and tried to stab me with it, but I moved out of the way and pushed him.”
Damon stopped digging for a second and leaned on his shovel, looking up into the sky. It was grey with clouds, and neither Damon or Rupert could remember when they had last seen the sun. It had been a harsh winter, and it was going to get worse before it got better.
“Then what?” Rupert asked.
Damon sighed as he continued digging. “He went down. Fell on the bottle. Right on his neck. By the time I turned him over, he was already bleeding out, so all that was left was to rifle through his pockets to see if there was anything worth anything.”
“And then I got the hell out of there. I hid out for a couple of days, but it was inevitable. The cops came and got me and took me away.”
“How long were you locked up?” Rupert hadn’t seen the answer to this question.
Damon continued to dig, but with new intensity. Rupert watched him, feeling the strength of his anger every time the shovel pierced the dirt. Damon had a score to settle. Rupert still wasn’t sure who the score was with, but it was there, obvious as day.
“Storm’s coming,” Rupert changed the subject. Damon nodded slightly and kept digging. “It’s going to be a big one, they say. A foot or so.”
“About time too,” Damon answered.
Rupert watched him, wondering what he meant. For the first time, Rupert found himself digging through Damon’s thoughts, looking for whatever he was scheming. Why would a storm be so important? Then he found it.
The key. Damon didn’t know what it was for, but the dead man’s wallet indicated that he was just some rich guy who ended up on the wrong side of town one day, drunk and belligerent. Rupert kept digging. He had to know. Damon had lost all contact with his friends while he was in prison, and filled his days with books, learning about the world. Learning about the stock market, learning about other cities, travel, and so on. Damon could weather anything. Any storm, any situation, any difficulty. He was the ultimate survivor, and now here he was, digging graves for a living. Temporarily, he kept insisting. For the first time in ages, Rupert finally believed it. Damon had a plan, and Rupert was an accidental part of it.
Rupert felt a chill in the air, colder than the day before. The storm was coming. His time was running out, so he walked up to the oak tree to start digging. When Damon finally found him, he just stood and watched as Rupert dug.
“I don’t remember seeing this plot in the list,” he said.
“Special project,” Rupert said. It wasn’t something he felt like explaining, and even if he did, Damon wouldn’t understand. It was best that he did this one himself. “You can get started on the graves for the twins if you want.”
Damon shrugged, but didn’t move otherwise. “I don’t feel much like digging today. That ever happen to you?”
“Sometimes. Usually in the spring. Things slow down then, so it’s easier to take a rest here and there.”
Damon nodded and spat on the ground. “Well, I don’t feel like it today. I think today will probably be my last day, anyway.” Rupert stopped digging and looked at Damon. The key. Damon had figured it out. And now Rupert knew as well. He hadn’t wanted to know. He had just wanted Damon to be gone and leave him alone, but now it was too late. There was no going back from this. Damon was sitting on freedom. Rupert was surprised he had come to the cemetery at all, now that he had a way out.
“Last day?” Rupert asked. “Well, you said it was temporary. Where you off to?” He wanted to hear the lie.
“Movin’ on. Thinking I may head west. Maybe out to California.” That part was true. Rupert smiled. Damon may be a thug and a criminal, but he wasn’t a liar. At least there was that. “What’s so funny?” Damon asked.
Rupert shook his head. “Nothing. I’m just happy for you, that’s all. California seems pretty nice right about now.”
Damon scoffed. “You bet your ass it does. I’m done with the cold.” He looked up at the sky for emphasis. He was going to try to beat the storm, but he was going to have to hurry.
Rupert stopped digging and looked up at the sky with Damon, then picked up his shovel. “Well, I guess we should get those graves done. It’ll go faster if we both do it.”
Damon smiled. “What about the one you’re digging now?”
Rupert glanced back at the hole he had started and sighed. “I can finish it tomorrow.” Damon looked confused, but clapped Rupert on the shoulder heartily.
“Alright then. Let’s get to it.”
Rupert’s hands were stiff with cold. He and Damon had finished the graves as the cold crept across the cemetery. As the day had worn on, Damon’s mood had improved, and he put his back into his work with fresh gusto. Rupert had never seen him work so hard, but he knew the excitement that filled Damon’s head was drifting down his chest to his legs, making him jittery. The work was the only thing keeping him together as he worked through his plan with more focus than Rupert had ever seen in him.
“Well, I think that’s enough for today,” Rupert said as he leaned on his shovel. “Beers to celebrate? I mean, it is your last day and all. I never had a partner before. It was kinda nice, actually.” Lie. Rupert had hated every moment of working with Damon. But he was happy now. Tomorrow, everything would be different.
Damon thought for a moment, then nodded. “Okay. But just one. I’ve got stuff to do before I go.”
They each pulled up a stool at the bar, letting their weight sink with the satisfaction of fatigue. Beers were set in front of them, and Damon gulped it down, probably more out of habit than thirst. Rupert sipped his drink as he watched Damon empty his glass, then ordered him another. It was a celebration, after all. Damon protested only momentarily; he had missed the taste of beer, and it was refreshing. Rupert didn’t have to talk him into the third or fourth beers, and it all became too easy after that. As Damon drank, Rupert watched the snow fall lightly outside. He hoped the brunt of the storm would hold off until morning at least. That would make things easier.
Rupert helped Damon get home and put him to bed, then found the book with the key in it. He went back outside and trudged down the street. Snow was already collecting, and it was coming down harder every moment. He would have to hurry. He thought he might be able to wait until morning, but now he considered the possibility that the dark would make things a lot easier. No one pays attention in the dark. Especially when it’s snowing.
He pulled his collar up around his cheeks and forged ahead through the wintry night. He didn’t have far to go, and came upon a dark house on the edge of the less rough part of town. It was a home that had fallen in disrepair, but it was obvious that it had been beautiful at one time. Rupert went around to the back of the house and pushed a door open. It scraped against the floor as he leaned into it with his shoulder. Once inside, he pulled a flashlight out and clicked it on, then made his way upstairs to the bedroom. The walls were dark stained wood, making the room seem even darker in the black night. Rupert looked around the room at the paintings and wondered if any of them were worth anything. He shrugged. He wasn’t here for the paintings, anyway. Rupert spotted a built-in bookcase and held his flashlight up to read the titles. He found the collection of Dickens novels and pulled one out, smiling when they all came together, revealing a safe behind them. He pulled the key from his pocket and opened the safe, chuckling that the gift he had cursed his entire life had finally yielded something good. He slid a metal box from the safe and opened it. Loose jewels, cash, and gold. It was all there. He could do whatever he wanted now. Find his own open space away from everyone and live in peace.
As Rupert stepped back outside, the snow hit him in the face immediately. It was really coming down now; it was difficult to see very far ahead. He had to hurry. He made his way to the train station, not noticing that he was the only person out on the streets. It was late, and the cold was keeping people inside near their fires.
He threw open the doors of the station wide, excited about what the next adventure would be. The sound of his footsteps echoed throughout the cavernous building, and it was only then that Rupert realized he was one of few people inside. There was no one staffing the ticket windows, and there was no sound of trains coming or going. Rupert found an empty bench and curled up to wait for someone to come in. He could buy a ticket then.
The snow had piled up; biggest storm Chicago had ever seen. Snow was two feet deep, and Rupert had trudged through it, up to the oak tree. It was easy to clear the snow away from the hole he had started yesterday, and he had made good progress for the last few hours. The dirt was piling up quickly, and every few minutes, Rupert would glance over to the box on the ground next to him. He was fueled by anger and frustration, and the sinking feeling that he needed to finish quickly, even though he already knew he would finish at exactly the right time. He took a moment to stretch; his muscles sore from the digging and from sleeping on a wooden bench all night.
The train station was at a standstill, and he’d learned that there was no way they were going to reopen that day. Begrudgingly, he had come to work; there was nowhere else to go. He jammed his shovel deep into the hard ground, feeling the cocoon of snow on all sides, insulating him from the city and the noise. It was welcome, as if he had come back full circle to the beginning, with snowflakes falling lightly around him; the brunt of the storm over. Until he heard Damon.
Rupert leaned on his shovel and watched Damon trudge slowly up the hill, seething with anger. He gripped his shovel tighter, knowing it could be used if he could get close enough. If. Damon stopped when he was close, and sighed with fatigue. His face was ruddy and there were bags under his eyes. Rupert lifted his shovel just slightly above the dirt until Damon pulled a gun from his jacket. Rupert sighed and let the shovel rest again.
“How did you know?” Damon asked.
“It’s hard to explain.” Damon didn’t answer, but his look said he expected one from Rupert. “I have this thing. I always thought of it as a curse. Until you came along, that is.”
“I didn’t do nothin’.”
“You made plans. You spent the last seven weeks figuring things out. I have to admit, I never expected you to come up with the answer. But you did. And when you thought of it, I heard it.”
“What do you mean, you heard it?” Damon lifted the gun higher, agitated. Rupert raised his hands, letting the shovel fall flat.
“It’s this thing I have. I can hear people’s thoughts, see what’s going to happen.”
“You mean like a psychic or somethin’?”
Rupert shrugged. “Kind of.”
“Is that why you work here?” Damon was sharp, Rupert had to give him that.
“It’s the only place that’s quiet.”
“And this?” Damon motioned toward the hole in front of them.
“Started digging it the day after I met you.”
“You knew way back then?”
“Not exactly. It was just a feeling back then. I didn’t know everything until I saw you walking up that hill five minutes ago.”
“So you know what happens now, right?”
Rupert sighed and nodded.
“Too bad,” Damon said, “I actually kind of liked you.” Before Rupert could take another breath, a shot rang through the air, causing snow to fall from the branches of the oak. Rupert closed his eyes, then fell squarely into the hole at his feet. Damon picked up the box, then trudged back down the hill as the snowflakes started their work of burying the gravedigger.