by Bilal Latif
A grave encounter.
By Bilal Latif
It wasn’t the cold of the gravestone against Bootsy’s bleeding scalp that roused him, or the hands scraping his shirt, neck, jaw. It was the smell. Rancid puffs of spoiled eggs and rotten meat jolted his slowing heart and opened his swollen eyes.
Before him, yellow stalactites punctuated darkness from which wafted a warm stench. A cave? But when Bootsy groggily extended an investigative hand, dry fingers cuffed his wrist and the cave collapsed in a grey blur his perception translated into a closing mouth.
The owner of that mouth released him and recoiled, his eyes glinting in wrinkled sockets. He spoke. “Thought you were dead.” His cracked lips parted in a nervous smile that revealed yellow teeth Bootsy had just mistaken for stalactites. “I’m Marv.”
Bootsy stared at Marv’s ragged clothes and thinning hair and said, “You got bad breath, man.”
“Not as bad as your fall.” Marv indicated the hill behind him. Moonlight illuminated the snake of disturbed grass Bootsy had trailed as he’d tumbled over the fence at the hill’s peak. Marv cocked his head. “Before you crashed into that tombstone, I heard sirens. You in trouble?”
If trouble was getting two black eyes and a scalp-splitting roundhouse kick from some interfering idiot who then called the cops and forced you to run and trip into the graveyard, then yeah, he was. “Marv, let’s just say a man’s got to eat.”
“I know what you mean.”
“Course you do. You hang out in the cemetery after dark.” Bootsy tried to stand. Pain burst from his right ankle, which buckled and sent him screaming into the dirt.
Marv said, “Must have been a really bad fall.”
Bootsy reached for the headstone and wrenched himself onto his left foot. A few graves down the row lay a shovel, toward which he hopped, until, reaching it, he shook soil from the blade and leaned on the handle like a crutch. He hobbled forward, away from the weirdo with halitosis.
“Very resourceful,” Marv called out. “But you don’t want to go that way.”
Bootsy scoffed and trudged onward. He’d find his own way out, no need to listen to some stinky nutcase… He froze. The scent of rotten meat lingered in the air. Ahead.
Behind, Marv’s voice: “Turn back.”
But he could not, even as the stench grew stronger, gag-inducing, suffocating. And he saw it. A couple of graves down, before a mound of soil, hair webbed stringy across pale skin, was a man’s severed head.
Bootsy couldn’t talk, couldn’t scream. He could only draw closer, glimpse the open grave by the head, the severed arms near that grave, the bloody marks on the arms, the human bites in those marks.
And staring into the hole, and peering at the broken coffin, and hearing Marv run up beside him, Bootsy uttered, “You dug him up and ate him.” It was that simple and that complex. He nearly laughed. “Did I disturb you? Were you having dinner?”
“Ghouls eat the dead.” Marv sounded so matter-of-fact. Fish got to swim, birds got to fly.
Then Bootsy did laugh. He wasn’t sure if it was nerves or mirth, but the chuckles shook his shoulders, stood him wobbling on his good left foot and let him swing the shovel at Marv, who stepped out of the way, grabbed the handle and ripped the tool from his grasp. Perhaps due to some sort of delayed concussion, Bootsy found this so hilarious he had to plant both feet. When the inevitable spurt of pain exploded from his injured ankle, he felt Marv’s shoulder slam into his solar plexus, and Bootsy was stumbling backwards, and tripping, and falling…
Something crunched under his back. Dust tickled his throat. And when he forced open his swollen eyes, he saw Marv standing over him.
Six feet over him.
Bootsy clawed at the earth on all sides, tried to hop onto his left foot to escape the grave, but Marv leapt in, shovel and all, knocking him back to smack his head into the broken coffin.
Marv said, “You know, your fly’s undone.” He stepped backward over Bootsy’s feet and continued, “So I’m not going to feel bad about this. I mean, any guy flying low with two black eyes was never exactly a law-abiding citizen.”
Bootsy grinned and zipped up. “Fish got to swim.”
Marv shrugged and shunted the shovel’s blade into Bootsy’s injured ankle. Pain bleached the world white. Bootsy’s ears rang from the din of his own screams. And when the agony cleared, Marv crunched the shovel into Bootsy’s other ankle.
Eventually Bootsy stopped screaming. Through the stinging film of tears, he glimpsed the bloody mess below his shins, then squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them, Marv was over his chest, the shovel’s handle a splintery spike.
“Blade snapped off.” Marv grinned. “Strong ankles you got there.”
Bootsy’s voice was cracked and quiet, drifting on the wave of an emotion he could not identify that swelled in his chest. “Let me go. I won’t tell anyone what I’ve seen and…” He breathed deep, the wave growing. “And I’ll never even look at a woman again…” The wave crashed up his throat, twisting his face to wrench sobs from his mouth. “I don’t want to die.”
Marv silenced him by prodding the point of the handle into his Adam’s apple. “It’s like you said.” He drew back the handle like a coiled spring. “Fish got to swim.” Smiled. “And a man’s got to eat.”