Grave Dancers

Ash Kennedy

Chht. Theweh. Chht. Theweh.

* * *

Somewhere in one of the backwoods of Oklahoma not yet paved through by modern civilization, three shovels dig a hole just over six feet and two inches in length. Laying beside the digging siblings is the body that the unfinished grave belongs to. Beside that, there is a large boulder to be rolled into the grave over the body in case the police notice a monster missing from his home and decide to hunt him down with dogs. There were better ideas to cover up the scent–among them being a dead dog. Presumably, the police would notice their K-9s digging had led to an animal’s carcass, assume it was a pet’s grave, and not cover the two feet of dirt left between the creature and the body; however, none of the siblings could bring themselves to kill an innocent animal, so the boulder (and a little bit of hope that it was enough to cover the scent) would have to do.

Cheryl’s hand brushes hair from in front of her eyes, which immediately falls back in front of her face. Again, she pushes her hair back and again it falls, none of which Cheryl has noticed for ten minutes of digging. Her thoughts are captured by the memories of carnage she shares with her two brothers – the execution not even an hour ago. More than the carnage, she remembers the pleading whine of the monster as he crawled away. More than the carnage, she remembers the glass film forming over the eyes of a living dead man. More than the carnage, she remembers the last pathetic apology of a thing with no concept of God or forgiveness uttered through clenched teeth as her brother took the rightfully deserved killing blow. She grunts. She smiles. She tells herself to keep replaying those moments in her head. She has no reason to, but she wants those memories to remain as clear as possible, and to do so she has to keep remembering them while they’re still fresh. She wants those memories to remain more clear than the first time she saw her favorite band perform live. After all, that stadium was a sea of thousands cheering on a band that millions of others had seen live before. Only two others could share this memory.

A shovel lifts with no dirt and doesn’t return to dig any up. Instead, its wielder turns around and vomits into a nearby bush. Ike turns back around to face his siblings. “That’s two odors to worry about.” He chuckles, wiping the remnants of breakfast from his sleeve. It is the first time one of them has spoken since he killed the monster.

“I think that’s worse than the blood.” A smile dawns on Cheryl’s face. As soon as the words leave her lips, they become aware and surprised that she has been silent for so long.

“Really?” Cliff’s grin fades.

“I’ve never liked vomit,” Cheryl says.

“You like blood?” Ike asks.

Cheryl shrugs as the edges of her lips pull down. “It’s better than vomit.”

All three shovels dig now. The silent percussion reminds Ike of old slave songs, carried only by a melody of chains. He considers singing.

“Vomit’s funny,” Cliff says.

“You didn’t laugh,” Cheryl teases.

“I was… thinking.”

“About the murder?”

Cliff’s eyes dart up at the two people he trusts more than anyone in the entire world. Ike’s shovel hovers over the dirt, as the rhythm of Cliff and Cheryl’s shovels synchronize. Cliff looks to his brother, then his sister, and finally admits it. “Yes,” he almost whispers, “Ike killing him just keeps – I just keep thinking about it, that’s all.”

“Yeah…” Cheryl booms as she usually does, “it was pretty cool.”

Ike shifts his shoulders and shoots his shovel back into the ground. “I just like pickaxes. I think I’ll keep it.”

“Sorry the chainsaw didn’t work,” Cliff says. His brother and his sister look at each other as they laugh. The jovial cackling echoes through the trees drowning out Cliff’s chuckles. “What’s so funny?”

“‘Sorry your chainsaw didn’t work,’” Cheryl manages to push out, “that’s just genius. That’s just too good.”

Cliff smirks as he returns his shovel to the earth.

Cheryl’s heart beats steady with the shovel. Stab. Lift. Toss. Stab. Beat. Lift. Beat. Toss. Beat. Stab. Beat. Lift. Beat. Toss. BEAT. She can hear her heart picking up steam. Sometimes she had to ask herself what was wrong when she could hear her heart beat so heavy. Is it the song of the cicadas stalking the siblings from the trees? Or maybe it could be the crickets scratching their crooked legs. She even suspected the sloshing of water in a nearby creek. All of these things could be bothering her, and in a way they were. But, despite her growing awareness of these things, perhaps it wasn’t actually them that was bothering her. Maybe it was only what they represent.

“So…” Cheryl’s voice lingers, “who’s confessing first?”

“You really think I feel any guilt for this?” Ike looks up into Cheryl’s eyes.

“No,” Cheryl sighs, “but I think if the police caught you, you’d want to barter for a lighter sentence. You can pay someone a million dollars and they’d still rat on you, but blackmail will keep them silent.”

“Thing is, I don’t have a secret that would ruin my life.”

“Me neither,” Cliff pipes up, “and even if I did have some major secret that could ruin my life which I haven’t already told you guys, that means it would ruin our friendship – our brotherhood – as well.”

“Hmm, I doubt that.” Cheryl says. “We killed someone together. I don’t feel like that’s the kind of bond that could ever be broken.”

“You’d be surprised,” Cliff admits.

“Would I?” Cheryl tests Cliff by looking into his eye. Cliff’s face flushes with red hot embarrassment. He looks to Ike as he digs and back to his sister.

“Why don’t you go first? After all, it’s your idea.”

“I’ll tell if you tell.”

Cliff’s arm extends before his shovel falls back to the ground beneath them. Stab. Lift. Toss.

“Right,” Cheryl starts, “you gotta promise not to tell Denise, though. Both of you. Not just about the secret, but this too.”

“I promise.” Cliff says, “do you really think Dee would care about this, though. I mean, he was -”

“I think she could.” Cheryl croaks before pointing to Ike. “Now you. Promise you won’t tell her.”

“I promise,” Ike says, “of course I promise.”

“Good,” Cheryl stalls, “good. Then I guess I’ll begin. You know, when I was younger, back in Illinois, we had that pond, right? The pond with the frogs. Well, I don’t know how it started, but I used to get up really early on Sunday mornings – only Sundays, really – I’d get up early and go to the pond so no one would follow me. And the frogs would all be so loud, they’d ribbit so loud, so I decided to play a game with them. I’d pick the loudest frog and I’d just pull off his arm. It was funny to me. It still is if I’m being completely honest. And, I think the funniest part was that, if he cried out because I pulled off his arm, I’d pull off the other. I’d pull off all of his limbs, really, because the frogs always screamed when I did it. And that’s the funniest part. They always screamed, so I always got to pull off the next limb. After that, I’d just toss him back into the water and he’d drown.”

“That’d ruin your life?” Ike asks. “The pond… I mean, we had that thing years ago. You were probably just six at most.”

“That’s the thing: when I moved in with Dee… well… there’s that pond at the complex. I mean, it’s really funny!” Cheryl breaks out into a demented laugh, demanding the silence of her brothers. “You have no idea how funny it is to me – every night too! I mean, nothing’s remained that funny to me for so long. Nothing! And, I’ve tried to stop too. I’ve given up so much, especially for Dee, but… I just can’t give up the frogs.”

Cliff and Ike stare at each other for almost too long. Silence hangs in the air like snow falling from the clouds. The only thing to do is to keep digging. Cheryl shakes her head, her eyes returning to the scene of the grave. She digs.

“Oh, come on, guys! Don’t look at each other like that. I mean, Hell, at least look at me with your judgment.” Cheryl shoves her shovel into the dirt, just a little harder this time. “How about you, Cliff? What’d you do that’s so bad?”

“Let’s all just keep digging for a moment,” Cliff suggests, “we’ve barely made a dent and it’s getting dark. There’s plenty of time ahead of us.”

Chht. Theweh. Chht. Theweh.

* * *

The three siblings stare at the measuring tape Cheryl rolled down into the grave.

“Eight feet!” Ike announces. “Finally!”

“That’s only half of the work.” Cheryl says. “We have to dig all this under too.”

“Man, I know! How about after all that, we go get something to eat. What do y’all think about Boomerangs?”

“If you’re in Oklahoma,” Cliff states, “you have to eat at Boomerangs.”

“It’s about the only good thing they have here.” Cheryl adds. “How late are they open, though?”

“Until nine.” Ike says. “I looked it up.”

“Oh,” Cheryl remarks, “we’re definitely not making that, then.”

“I think we can do it,” Cliff notes.

“The sun’s going down!”

“Cheryl, it’s only six.”

“Yeah, daylight savings has finished, hasn’t it?” Ike notes. 

“Well, we’re certainly not going to make it just standing and talking. Let’s toss the body in.”

Ike and Cliff plod over to the monster they killed. Cliff scratches his head and looks at Ike, who has already taken hold of the monster’s arms. Cliff gropes his legs and the two slowly drag him over to the hole. They create a clear track where the mass of the body presses into the ground, dirt and snow rolling up around his gut. The snow will be gone in a few days’ time. The dirt won’t. Cheryl shakes her head and chuckles as she strolls over to help her brothers. Together, they drag him over to the hole and roll him in. The body lands face down in the crude grave. The siblings each take their shovel like sword from stone and begin digging the dirt mattress where the boulder shall sleep above its bone box spring. Cheryl looks at Cliff.

“Time is running out.”

“Huh?” Cliff’s confusion is genuine for a moment, but the moment it passes does not come quick enough.

“Don’t play dumb. Confession. Absolution. I wanna know what could possibly ruin what we all have.”

All color drains from Cliff’s face, leaving only a ghost’s image. “Right. I made a deal, and I guess it’s time to pay.” Cliff pauses. “Do y’all remember Tommy? That kid who went missing around, oh, Freshman year of High School?”

“Tommy Gildan?” Ike asks. “What about Tommy Gildan?”

“You testified in court for that!” Cheryl shouts. “Of course I remember!”

“About that, specifically: I perged.”

“You purged?” Ike squints his eyes. “Like bulimia?”

“I lied in court.”

“That’s not a real word,” Cheryl is quick to point out, “you idiot.”

“I’m guilty of perjury! Is that what you wanted me to say?”

“You lied in court…” Ike mumbles, “how much did you lie about?”

“Uhh… all of it.”

“All of it?” Ike yells.

“Yeah.” Cliff says. “I never saw him go into Parker Walker’s house. I never saw Parker Walker on the day he went missing. Hell, I didn’t see Tommy the day he went missing! The last time I had seen Tommy was the night before at the play rehearsal!”

“An innocent man went to prison because of you,” Ike utters.

“You don’t know he was innocent,” Cliff professes.

“Innocent until proven guilty!”

“Oh, so you care about the law now! You’re gonna tell me now that pedos deserve to live free!”

“He was a registered sex offender.”

“What’s the difference?”

“You don’t know what he did! If he was a rapist or not!”

“You only become a registered sex offender one way, Ike!”

“What if a girl lied about her age or something?”

“Look, you rape a kid, you rape a kid! Statutory rape is still rape, and I know that wasn’t even Parker Walker’s first charge.”

“God…” Ike mutters, “the man who took Tommy could still be out there.”

“Maybe, uh… m-maybe he ran away,” Cliff stumbles over his words, “no other kids have gone missing like that since.”

Ike looks down at the head of his shovel still digging. Stab. Lift. Toss. His head lifts for nothing, his eyes unbreaking from the shovel. Cliff and Cheryl still dig with him in a cacophony of metal breaking and tossing dirt. For a long time, Cliff ponders the consequences of his actions. If, perhaps, Tommy Gildan were to come back to town and tell everyone that he had simply had enough of his life there, what then? Perhaps there was a book he was writing all about where he’s been for the last several years, and he would release that book and go back to his family with his new fame and fortune. What then? Would the court try him for perjury? It was even possible that Tommy was trapped in a monster’s basement, a skeleton starved to death for growing too old and satiating his master’s sick desire for a long time to come. That monster would never be caught.

“I don’t care,” Cheryl chimes, “I mean, a pedophile is in jail, and no other kids went missing. I think you did the right thing.”

“Really?” Cliff chokes.

“Well, maybe not the right thing,” Cheryl bobs her head from side to side, “but nothing bad has happened, right?”

“Yeah… right.”

“You think that’s about two feet of dirt?”

“Yeah. Let’s push the boulder.”

In unison, the three drop their shovels at their side and approach the boulder. To Cheryl, the boulder is nothing but another obstacle. Perhaps it is only because her brothers are there, but she finds the boulder is not only easy to push – it’s fun. Cliff, on her right, struggles with the boulder. He feels no weight pushing against him thanks to his siblings, but the job still takes a lot out of him. He wonders how well he can keep digging after this. Ike sweats. The weight of the boulder challenges him harder than he’s ever been tested before. He feels as if the boulder will never reach the grave and even questions if it’s moving at all. But, the boulder moves. Finally, the boulder falls. The three take their shovels and start to bury it.

Chht. Theweh. Chht. Theweh.

* * *

Ike brushes his hands together to wipe off the dirt. He looks at his brother and sister for the first time with new eyes. The work is done, and they are each exhausted.

“Well,” Ike lingers, “Boomerangs?”

“Yeah…” Cliff checks his watch, “I’m famished.”

“Sure, sure,” Cheryl begins, “Boomerangs.”

The three laugh like only siblings as lucky as they are can. Not every trio of brothers and sisters can honestly say they are best friends with one another, that there is no one else they need and can depend upon when times are low. Not everyone is lucky enough to kill a monster and bury him successfully with their siblings and trust each other not to go mad with the information. The three walk through the woods to Cheryl’s car, laughing and joking down the whole path. Ike reaches for the handle of the passenger door and, upon pulling, finds the door is locked.

“I can’t get in, Cheryl.”

“Yeah, the door’s locked.” Cheryl takes a pistol from inside her coat pocket and points it at Ike. “I’m not unlocking it until you confess.”

“Cheryl,” the smile fades from Ike’s lips, “is this a bit?”

“No one’s innocent, Ike. No one.”

“Cheryl, we just killed a man. We buried him, did you not see that?”

“I was there Ike! You were too! And Cliff! You are one hundred percent right! We killed someone. We buried him. That’s not enough! Only I torture frogs, only Cliff lied in court! But you? You can’t tell me you’re not a sinner. I don’t believe that.”

“Why isn’t this enough? Murder? I mean, really, that would ruin my life!”

“If you get caught, I don’t want my life ruined too.”

Ike looks at Cliff standing next to Cheryl. Cliff lowers his head as Ike’s eyebrows raise. “Fine. You want dirt on me, I’ll give it to you. Just… don’t…”

“We’re not gonna tell your wife, Ike! Now, please, I don’t want to shoot you.”

“Well, maybe you should. Sometimes I think about it. I mean, Hell, it’s hard to live with myself after what I’ve done. But that’s no confession, is it? I wasn’t a virgin when I met Betty. I mean, I’d never had sex with a woman before, but I wasn’t a virgin. I had met a man before her – a man I’ve never told either of you about. We only shared one night together,” Ike looks at Cliff, “but when it was over he told me he had lied about his age. He wasn’t eighteen. He was fourteen. Fourteen! He was just tall. He worked out too, heh. He didn’t look fourteen at all. Part of me still doesn’t believe it. I wouldn’t if I hadn’t gone crazy and taken his wallet. I thought it was a prank, some sick joke. But, it wasn’t. His permit was in there. I swear he didn’t look fourteen.”

Cheryl and Cliff stare at each other for a moment. Cliff’s eyes pass from Cheryl’s eyes, to her gun, to Ike’s head weighted down, to his watch, and finally back to Cheryl’s gun. Tears roll down Ike’s cheeks and fall to the ground below him.

Crunch. The car unlocks. For a moment, relief washes over Ike before he looks up into the black barrel of the gun. He looks to Cliff, and a scene unfolds not unlike the climax of a western film. Eyes pass from one another, each sibling unsure if they really know each other at all. They might be strangers to each other for the rest of their lives. Perhaps they have always been strangers, at least until today.

Half of eternity passes before Cheryl glances at Cliff. Her pistol stays on Ike as her head jerks towards shotgun. Cliff obliges, walking around the car and moving between it and Ike.

“Cliff.” Ike’s voice falls as silent as his tears. “Cheryl!” Louder now, roaring like a chainsaw. “Cheryl, you can’t do this to me, I didn’t know!”

The two siblings get in the car, drowning out Ike’s begging with a CD he had picked out. They drive away, all three asking themselves the same questions.

“Where to, now?” Cliff trembles.

“Anywhere but Oklahoma.”

Ash Kennedy is another person like you or me. The difference is, he finds the truth hard to express without fiction and sometimes the truth is just too hard to bear. Oftentimes he thinks of each story as its own living being and takes it upon himself to nurture such stories rather than to write them.

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