Taphophobia

Ariane Both

Taphophobia

29th March 2018 · Fiction, Issue 1

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Trigger warnings
Character death.

The knock on the door is quick and loud. I roll out of bed and fumble for the light switch so I can blind myself with fluorescence. Blinking back the black spots swarming my vision, I stumble to the door of my apartment and yank it open.

“Please, Kala, my son-” Mrs. Oteri takes a heaving breath. I’m not sure what is more disheveled, her hair or her clothes.

I’ve already started to follow her down the hallway as I answer. “I’m coming.”

Mrs. Oteri is a mail clerk at the post office. Her son is Robert, five years old with a mouthful of crooked teeth and leukemia.

This visit has been a long time coming.

We speedwalk down the midnight streets of Nowheresville, USA. A town where the people number less than the feral dogs that roam through the cornfields hunting rodents and crows. A town where everyone knows who I am.

At the far end of town, where the main drag ends abruptly in a grove of scraggly deciduous trees, is the cemetery.

Half of the town is already there.

A few people are sniffling, but most of them watch my approach the same way Mrs. Oteri looks at me: with eager hunger. A hunger for what I will do for them.

The boy, Robert, is lying on the wet grass, his lips already blue with hypoxia. He is still in red pajamas, and his bald head reflects the moonlight. He lies next to an open grave. The grave marker is a white chalkboard, wedged firmly in the dirt. The shiny surface is already emblazoned with his name. Inside the grave is an empty coffin.

My stomach flips. The ground seems to stretch away before me until I’m standing over a gaping black mouth waiting to swallow me whole.

“Kala, please!” Mrs. Oteri is tugging my hand, tugging me towards the grave.

“Just give me a minute.” The familiar taste of bile washes across my tongue.

“Robbie doesn’t have a minute! He doesn’t have any more minutes!” She is screaming now, her nails digging into my forearm. The townspeople have closed in around the two of us, the body, and the grave.

“Fine!” I yank my arm free, and with a shaky breath, I jump down into the shallow hole. My bare feet thump against the wood before I take a seat. A ring of faces peers down at me. With the moon behind their heads, all I can see are white eyes. I lie down and pull the coffin lid shut.

I can hear Mrs. Oteri sobbing with relief as dirt begins to rain down, loud as thunder in my ears.

#

I suck in my first breath of fresh air. So cold it sears my lungs. Hands reach for me, pulling me into the sunshine, the touches welcome and painful. I want to curl up in the dark and roll around in the grass and vomit. I only manage the last one, splattering last night’s meatloaf onto someone’s sneakers.

I wipe my mouth and sit, shaking, on the grass.

“Thank you! Thank you!”

Arms encircle my neck before I can find the words to protest. Mrs. Oteri squeezes me, unaware of how close she comes to getting vomit on her nightgown. When she finally releases me, I see the small figure clutching her waist.

Robert smiles at me with his crooked teeth. I try to smile back, but everything hurts. He hides his face in his mom’s nightgown.

“Are you alright?” Mrs. Oteri asks, helping me to my feet.

I nod, slowly, feeling my muscles strain. My body is trying to remember how to live again.

“Nothing a bath and a vodka won’t fix,” I say, enjoying the sight of her eyes widening.

“It’s…nine in the morning,” she says, her enormous smile faltering.

I laugh, and she laughs, and everyone is laughing like I had made the funniest joke but all I can think about is the bottle of Absolut in my freezer.

“I just need some sleep,” I say, and everyone relaxes.

“Of course, you’ve more than earned it,” Mrs. Oteri says. “I’ll take you home. And I can bring by dinner later, if you’d like. I know Lydia’s meatloaf is terribly dry. Maybe some of my famous pot roast instead?”

#

The first time they buried me alive, I was ten.

Mom was in bed when the knock came. We were still living in the house on Acorn Street then, kitty corner to the cemetery. This was right after my father had left but before I knew what I was. I answered the door, Saturday morning cartoons blaring in the background.

“Please.”

They always started with “please.”

That time, it was Mr. Harris. He had fresh blood splattered across his shirt. He was babbling about his brother and a tractor and it was hard to follow. All I knew was that he kept saying “fuck” and “Jesus Christ” and I was in awe of all the swearing.

I called for Mom, and she stumbled out of her room with her nightgown slipping off her shoulders. I fixed it for her while she leaned against the doorway.

“Please,” Mr. Harris said. “My brother’s had an accident. We need you.”

I had never seen a grown man cry before. My father had never been the crying type, more the shout-y type. But Mr. Harris had tears streaming down his face like it was the end of the world. And for him, maybe, it was.

I remember Mom shaking her head with a bark of a laugh, and shuffling back to her bedroom. Mr. Harris looked so angry his face was nearly the color of his shirt stains. I tried to stammer an apology. I explained that Mom was in one of her moods, that maybe she could help later. But he told me later was too late.

And then he threw me over his shoulder.

I had never screamed so hard in my life. He strode down the streets with me kicking and screaming and people watched but nobody stopped him. I saw my third-grade teacher, Miss Clara, cover her mouth with a delicate hand. I cried out for anyone to help me as we marched down Main Street towards the cemetery.

When I saw Mom running after us, I sobbed in relief. Mom would save me.

But before she could reach me, several people grabbed her. I cried out for her, and I heard her call my name. I heard her tell me not to be afraid.

We walked into the cemetery and then they buried me alive.

Mom never refused a house call after that.

#

The vodka helps, but the bath helps more. I sink deeper into the scalding water, letting the heat seep into my pores. My skin turns red, except for the thin white lines across my wrists; lines I trace over and over with my fingers because they help me feel close to Mom.

There’s a knock on the door. I freeze. My heart leaps into my throat.

“Hi, Kala, I’ll just leave the pot roast outside your door,” Mrs. Oteri calls through the wood. “I’m hosting a single’s mixer tomorrow for lunch. We’d love it if you stopped by. Just think about it. It’s never too early to be thinking about kids!”

I listen to her footsteps recede, and then submerge myself. I only resurface when my lungs are on fire.

#

I walk down the street and everyone stops to say hello. I’m offered a muffin, a rose, a scarf. I don’t carry money. All I feel are eyes on me.

I walk into the bookstore and Jenny Sawyer gives me a smile. She’s always been sweet to me, even after Mom pulled me out of school and the other kids stopped playing with me.

“Hi, Kala, what brings you in today?” she asks, blonde hair twirled in some elaborate braid.

“I’m looking for a book on cars.”

“Cars?” Her eyebrows knit together.

I shrugged. “I don’t know much about them. Figured maybe they could be my next topic of interest.”

She smiles again and nods. “Of course. Follow me.”

She should be used to my odd requests by now. I have all the time in the world to learn about strange things. I have to pepper in a random assortment so she won’t start to see the pattern. But today is an important day.

“Here’s the section you want,” she tells me, gesturing at one of the shelves. “Anything in particular you’re looking for?”
I shake my head. “No, I’m just going to browse. See what catches my attention.”

“No problem.” Her teeth are perfectly straight and white. “Let me know if you need anything.”

She walks back to the front of the store, putting up a red sign in the window. So people know that I’m here. People always have to know where I am.

In case they need to bury me again.

#

I am twenty pages in to learning how to hot-wire a car when someone clears their throat. I look up from my spot on the carpet, several books scattered in an arc around me.

I don’t know her face. I don’t know anything about her. That feels strange.

“Hi, sorry, I need to get by you.” The stranger points across my legs to the section on my other side.

I pull my legs up into a pretzel, and she takes a large step over the books on the floor.

“Thank you.” She gives me a smile, her lips bright red; a red some of the older ladies in town would whisper about. On someone else, it would clash with the dusty cargo shorts, button- down and ankle-high hiking boots but she makes the look work, somehow.

She pauses before moving on. “Don’t they get mad at you? For reading the books here and not buying anything?”
I laugh and she frowns at me.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing,” I say, though my lips are still twitching. “You’re new here.”

It’s not a question, but she nods in answer anyway. “I’m here on business for a few days.”

“What kind of business would bring you here?” I ask.

“I work with animal rehabilitation. A lot of small towns have feral animals that when they’re unchecked, continue breeding until their population becomes untenable. I work to take these animals into shelters, make sure they are properly sterilized, get them any training they may need to become household pets, and try to find them homes.”

I stare at her. “Huh.”

She lets out a chuckle and runs a hand through her short hair. “Didn’t mean to talk your ear off. I get passionate about it.”

“No, it sounds great,” I say. “Do you work alone?”

“Well, I have a team, but usually we’re all off on different assignments. I’m here alone this time. The work isn’t exactly a moneymaker so we get spread pretty thin.”

“Must be lonely.” I wonder how her loneliness compares to mine.

She runs her hand through her hair again, but it falls back into place every time. “It’s a lot of travel, late nights, and overtime. But worth it, I think. I feel like I’m making a difference. I do sometimes I feel like I’m buried alive in the work, like I’m not really living.” She giggled a little. “Sorry, that sounded terrible.”

“No, it’s okay. I know the feeling,” I say, more to myself than to her, but she starts to ask me something.

“Kala, is everything ok?” Jenny is staring at the stranger, whose question dies on her red lips.

“I’m fine.” I raise one of the books at her. “Found plenty of interesting stuff.”

“Well, Mrs. Oteri just called and asked if you’d come have lunch at hers, so you’d better get a move on.” Jenny has her arms crossed now.

I stand, gathering a few of the books in my arms. “Mind if I take these?” I ask.

“Of course not.” She flashes me her smile again, though it’s not quite as wide as before. She is still watching the stranger.

I turn around. “It was nice talking to you.”

“You, too,” she says, and I see a smudge of red on her front teeth. A part of me wants to reach out and wipe it away.

#

“Back in the old days, they used to carve real headstones for everyone they wanted saved. Can you imagine that, Kala? Poor fools throwing their money away on fancy headstones. And the people who made the headstones? Must have been a racket. I think it was my grandma who started the chalkboard thing. And then when I was little, the town was gracious enough to donate a new chalkboard every year. It’s the little things that they think make the difference. As if there was anything at all they could do to repay us. Not all the money in the world would make up for it. So they donate chalkboards, give us cookies. Don’t be fooled, baby girl. They only want to use you.”

“There are rules to this. It ain’t unlimited magic. People will try and trick you, but they can’t trick the grave. If it’s their time to go, it’s their time to go. You only get a certain number of years on this Earth. Nobody knows how many but the graves. If old age has come for someone, you can be buried there for ten years and it still won’t bring them back. And if someone offs themselves, well, don’t even try it, baby girl. You’ll only end up hurting yourself.”

“They will expect you to reproduce. They will expect you to carry on the gene or the magic or whatever the hell this is. That’s all they’ll ask of you. To be buried, and to reproduce. Only two things in your entire life will you be expected to do. They all think that’s freedom. But it’s a cage.”

After that first time, at ten, Mom started telling me stories. Stories about what we were. About what we could do. But mostly they were stories about what we would endure.

#

I stride past the dark storefronts, folding my arms against the predawn chill. Nobody watches me. Nobody communicates my location. For a little while, at least, I am free.

I pause at the cemetery. I am always drawn here, despite how much time I spend beneath this turf. I wind through the old tombstones, bypassing the churned dirt at the foot of the chalkboard to brush my fingers against Mom’s grave.

Hers is the newest, as yet untouched by the erosion or creeping vines overtaking the rest of the tombstones. I press two fingers to my lips, then to the cold marble. Nothing but the best for my family.

Beyond the graveyard is a patch of former farmland, now overrun with knee-high weeds. Puffs of dandelion spores waft away as I wade through them. I reach the property line, marked with a chain-link fence to separate it from Mr. Daniels’ corn crop. He has offered to buy the land from me many times. But it is the only thing Mom left me.

At the base of the fence sits a metal trunk. The first hints of rust are beginning to creep out from the corners. Using the key hanging from my neck, I open the padlock and swing the lid open.

Everyone knows Mom left me the trunk with what remained of my father’s belongings. The day he ran off, she dragged the thing out here, as far as she could get it from our house while still being available to me. The day she died, I burned all of his things.

Inside, I grab the pen and notebook sitting on top of the neat piles of clothes and supplies. Flipping open to an empty page, I outline everything I learned of how to hotwire a car. When the page is filled, I put the notebook back and lock the trunk again.

I stand up and find myself face to face with red lipstick.

“Oh, hello again!” The stranger smiles at me from across the fence.

“What are you doing out here?” I ask, slipping the key beneath my shirt again.

She lifts a bone in the air, as white as her teeth. “I’m on the hunt. You?”

“This is my land.”

It’s not really an answer, but she nods.

“Okay. Say, you mind if I walk back with you? I saw some paw prints in the cemetery earlier, maybe I’ll have better luck that way.”

I shrug. “I suppose not. Just don’t let anyone else see you in the cemetery. It’s off limits to outsiders.”

“Thanks for the heads up.” She tucks the bone under her armpit and proceeds to clamber up and over the fence. Using the trunk as a stepping stool, she comes down to stand next to me.

“I’m Maggie, by the way.” She holds out her free hand.

“Kala.” I don’t shake the outstretched hand. I turn away from the fence and begin the walk back through the weeds. Maggie keeps apace with my quick strides. I notice her dirty work boots, and the smell of dog food emanating from her should bother me, but it doesn’t. I expect her to ask about the trunk, but she doesn’t.

“So, Kala, what do you do?”

“I’m between jobs at the moment.” Not exactly a lie.

“I can imagine finding work in a small town must be difficult sometimes,” Maggie says. “Have you ever thought about leaving?”

I glance over at her, and find her meeting my gaze with dark brown eyes. “Yes. But my family’s lived here for generations, back and back and back. It would be…difficult to leave.”

She nods, eyes crinkling in sympathy. “That is a pickle.”

We have reached the edge of the cemetery now. I spot the black dog snuffling near the road before she does, and turn just in time to see her face light up.

“And the chase is on!” She pats my arm with a warm hand. “Thanks for the shortcut and the company.”

Before I can figure out how to respond, she is off after the mutt, cooing and shaking the bone like strange doggie voodoo. But it works, because before I reach the street myself, she has slipped a leash over its head. She starts to tug it towards an SUV parked outside the cemetery. With the windows down, I can see several empty cages in the backseat.

“Kala!” she calls out as I walk past.

I pause. The sun will be coming up soon. I need to get home.

“Here.” She presses a small piece of paper into my palm. “If you ever find yourself ready to leave, come find me. I can even put you to work, if you’d like.”

I stare at the business card, a green pawprint emblazoned on the corner. I don’t know what to say about the strange warm feeling my stomach. I meet her eyes again.

“Thank you.”

#

When I turn down the hall to my apartment, two people spin around to glare at me.

“What can I do for you?” I ask.

“Where were you? We’ve been here for almost an hour!” the woman screeches. I see it is Miss Clara. The Mayor stands behind her, hands on his hips.

“I went for a walk.” I stop in the hallway, but they both move towards me.

“We need to know where you are at all times, Kala,” Mayor Sawyer says in a firm voice. I notice his restraining hand on her shoulder, like petite Miss Clara is a savage animal in disguise.

“I’m sorry, but I’m here now.”

“Eddie had a heart attack in the night,” Miss Clara says, eyes wide and red. “We need you, now!”

I have no say in the matter, as they each take an arm and pull me back the way I have just come. I let them, and when we reach the street the sun is pale yellow on the horizon.

“Eddie’s what, sixty-five?” I ask.

“Sixty-three,” Miss Clara says with a hiccup.

“Are you sure it’s not his time?” I say as gently as I can muster with her fingers digging into my wrist. “Because you know it doesn’t work if-”

“I know the rules, Kala! We all know the rules. But him clutching his chest and crying out in pain isn’t old age. You need to bring him back!”

“I’m just warning you,” I say with a shrug.

We enter the cemetery. There’s a smattering of people here to watch. Reviving children is more exciting, I guess. I see Eddie on the ground. He looks like he’s asleep, but his chest is still.

“Quickly!” Miss Clara is pacing beside the open grave.

There are hands on me before I can protest. Before the bile has a chance to rise up in my throat, I’m prostrate and blind, locked in the coffin once more. My stomach churns, and I will myself not to vomit as I listen to the dirt raining down in the darkness.

#

“The dead should stay dead, Kala.” Mom reclined in the bathtub, waves of water cresting against her knees. I could see the dirt under her fingernails. It never went away, no matter how long she soaked. I was eighteen. Old enough to be embarrassed by this ritual, and still young enough to crave her attention.

“Then why can we do what we do?” I asked her, sitting on the closed toilet lid.

“Because our family’s cursed. Because some god out there is laughing at us. Because life isn’t fair and never will be. The people in this town, they don’t know how good they’ve got it. If any of us had left…But we haven’t. They always manage to tie us down here. So we stay. We let ourselves be used.” She downed the rest of her wine, forgoing the glass and tipping the bottle against her lips. Splashes of burgundy seeped into the bath water.

“Look at me, baby girl.” She cupped my cheek in her outstretched hand. “I love you. It’s too late for me, but I want you to get out of this place. Somehow, someday, you do what you gotta do to be free. Promise me.”

Her fingers gripped my chin, nails pressing crescents into my skin. I nodded. “I promise.”

She released me and leaned back with a sigh, water splashing over the lip of the tub and soaking my socks. I opened my mouth to complain, but she had already pressed a razor to her wrist.

It was midnight as I dragged her naked body down Main Street. I didn’t call out for help. It was against the rules. I knew I couldn’t bring her back. But I had to try.

There was no one to bury me. So I buried myself. I left the coffin lid open and pulled armfuls of dirt down until I couldn’t move anymore. Until I couldn’t breathe anymore. Until the earth filled my ears and mouth and lungs.

When they dug me up in the morning, my arms were scarred and my mother was dead.

The whole town was there, crying over her limp form. Like they cared about her as a person instead of what she was to them. Plastered in wet dirt and arms aching in phantom pain, I could see them for what they were. They were crying for their own loss.

Someone wrapped a towel around me. Someone handed me water. Someone held my shoulders as I shook and shook, and someone murmured in my ear.

“Shhh, she’s gone, Kala. She’s gone. Don’t worry. We’ll take care of you.”

#

The first thing I hear when I come out is sobbing.

Miss Clara is bent over Eddie. I don’t want it to have worked. But I see him sit up with shaking hands cupping her face. I’m too good, I guess. My mouth is dry and stale, and my chest aches like I’ve taken a beating. I drink from the water bottle handed to me until it crinkles inward, empty.

Miss Clara and Eddie stand, and are enveloped by family and friends. I watch them meander off, leaving me on the ground with a few stragglers, including the Mayor.

“We should talk,” he says, and I try not to roll my eyes as I watch the crowd pass through the cemetery gates.

He helps me to my feet and someone screams. Everybody turns to look.

Maggie is standing at the cemetery gate. Her mouth is open, a perfect red “O” shining in the sunlight.

“She’s not supposed to be here,” Mayor Sawyer says, voice loud enough to reach the entire graveyard.

I grab his forearm. “You wanted to talk?”
“She’s not from here,” he says, pulling himself free. “She saw you.”

“No, please, just let her go.”

“I’m sorry, Kala, you know the rules. She can’t leave.”

I see the crowd closing in. Miss Clara and Eddie and Mrs. Oteri and Jenny Sawyer and everyone I’ve known my whole life circling the woman who had offered me a way out. My fingers close around her card in my pocket.

“Maggie, run!” I yell. She stares at me, her eyes wider than eyes should be, before spinning around and running towards her car.

I feel hands grabbing me. They keep me in place. My whole body is trembling. Her form gets smaller. But they’re still chasing her. Too many. If she can just get to the car. I see the black dog from earlier inside, howling as she bears down on him.

A truck turns the corner, wheels squealing as skids towards her. I hear the sickening thud before I see it. I fall to my knees and watch Maggie fly through the air.

#

The cemetery is too bright and too warm. Awful things are supposed to happen in the rain and the dark. Sweat trickles down my neck in the sunlight. I can hear a dog barking.

Maggie is on the ground by my grave.

Her dark hair is plastered to her forehead with burgundy blood. Her eyes stare up at the noon sun. I see the tip of a bone sticking out of her khaki pocket, only it’s not the dog treat I saw earlier but the jagged tip of her femur, blood dripping onto the grass.

“Kala.”

I shake my head, hair falling in a curtain around my face.

“Kala, you know this is how it has to be.”

“Is it?” I turn to look at Jenny Sawyer. I see the pity on her face.

I stand. Everyone’s watching me. I’m the zoo animal here. The Mayor steps forward, always eager to assert his authority.

“Why don’t I take you home, Kala?” he says, brows knit together. I see the group nod almost in unison. I see Miss Clara clutching Eddie’s arm.

“I don’t want to go home.”

“Do you need more time with her?” He inclines his head towards Maggie’s body.

“I wanted more time with her while she was alive.” I jerk away from the hands trying to pat me on the back or rub my shoulders.

I look around at these people. People who cook me meals and clean my apartment and sing my praises. People who keep tabs on me and wake me at all hours of the night and never ask if I want to go into the grave.

“I’m leaving.” The words are heavy on my lips, falling away and leaving me lighter.

Everyone is suddenly quiet. They’re finally ready to listen to me.

“Kala, this is your home. Where would you go?” Mayor Sawyer says.

“Anywhere but here.”

“You can’t just leave!” Someone calls out.

“If you try to stop me, I’ll follow in my mom’s footsteps.” I start walking away from the grave.

“Wait!” Mayor Sawyer calls out. I turn to see him standing over Maggie, pointing down at her with a shaking finger. “If you stay, you can save her. You can revive her and she can stay here with you. But only if you stay.”

#

The cornfields slide past the window. I try to keep my eyes on the road but I am drawn to watching the landscape to my left. The black dog nudges my elbow, and I smile at him. I hit the button to roll down the windows. My hair streams out in ribbons behind me. He leans out the passenger side, tongue lolling. I don’t have a name for him yet. But it’s a long drive to the city. I breathe in the smell of asphalt and cow shit and gasoline. The card with the green pawprint is sitting on the dashboard, reflected in the windshield. Every time I look at it, I feel a twinge deep in my chest. That’s why I leave it there. I can’t let myself forget the cost of difficult things.

But Mom was right.

The dead should stay dead.

1 Comment

1 Comment on "Taphophobia"

Brilliant story-loved it!

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About the Author

Ariane Both

Ariane lives in Arizona, where she writes speculative fiction in her free time to avoid the blistering heat and the scorpions. Her short fiction has appeared in Room Magazine and Overland Literary Journal. She can be found at arianeboth.com.

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