Bruce Braun wrapped his arms tightly around himself and shivered. “Cold night” he said, “awfully cold night”. He was sure the goose bumps he felt as he briskly rubbed his bare arms were the biggest he’d ever had. Why am I not at least in long sleeves, he wondered as he looked down at his undershirt? Why not a jacket for that matter? Maybe it was just colder than normal for spring. But then again, he wasn’t completely sure it was spring.
He continued walking down the sidewalk past another streetlight and toward Pine Street where he would turn and walk to the west.
What time was it? He didn’t know.
“My feet” Bruce said to no one. “It’s my feet that are really cold.” His bare feet slapping the chilly concrete had begun to have a stinging sensation that became more intense with each step.
He turned right at the intersection, just as he always did.
Approaching the high school reminded him of his wife Julia, who taught there for over thirty years. But he really didn’t want to think about Julia just now.
Walking in front of the school Bruce felt even more uneasy. He had been walking alongside a large area of delicately manicured grass and flower beds in front of the main building that sat thirty or forty yards away from the street, but afterward he would have to pass the recreation hall, which fronted right up to the sidewalk he was on. What was the matter, he wondered. Was he afraid some high school punks were waiting to jump him from one of those two incredibly dark entryways? No, that wasn’t it. At least he didn’t think so.
Then there was the stadium. Walking slightly faster, Bruce was glad to leave the recreation hall behind, but now he had to get beyond the football field. Squinting, he searched as intently as possible into the myriad of gray and blue shadows that fell under the bleachers and beside the small concession building and the restrooms.
Then a thought came to him. One that had surfaced before, he didn’t know how many times. The other side of the street. The well-lit storefronts and small parking lots over there didn’t seem menacing at all. Why didn’t he ever simply go to the other side of the street? Unable to answer himself, the old man just kept walking.
Finally getting past the high school campus Bruce walked down a short parkway lined with streetlights then into a dark neighborhood. Back in the shadows, he thoroughly examined the sides of houses and around trees, anxiously looking in front and behind him. But for what? He wasn’t sure.
At the edge of town Bruce left the sprawling oak trees and the dark houses and arrived at Terrytown Memorial Cemetery. Grabbing the freezing wrought iron gate, he pushed it open and wondered why it wasn’t locked, while knowing it wouldn’t be. By instinct, he went right and headed down one of the small gravel roads that snaked around through the old church graveyard.
In the light of a three-quarter moon, the many headstones seemed to form a sort of surreal, unworldly landscape. But it was the vaults that had the greatest effect on him. Bruce wasn’t sure why his anxiety was heightened by the sight of the small white tombs where the dead were buried above ground, but it seemed to be an old feeling. Something from childhood perhaps; from an old movie or maybe a funeral he’d attended and didn’t even remember.
But that wasn’t all. Even that wasn’t anything like the new fear he felt before he had so much as laid eyes on the cemetery this evening. Before he had first wondered what he was doing out in the cold and the dark. Nothing was like this feeling; an apprehension that seemed to encompass him entirely. It encompassed him and it lingered; unceasingly and unmercifully.
Yet in the midst of his fears, Bruce walked. In the cold. In the dark. And alone.
Then finally only a few steps further and he would be there. A few seconds passed that seemed like a few weeks and then he stopped. Standing, as always, a respectful few yards in front of the stone, Bruce looked down at his bare feet and noticed the skin was turning red. “Now I can rest, at least.”
Trying to ignore the cold of the night, he read the epitaph aloud for what may have been the thousandth time. “Julia Braun, born April 16, 1951, died November 3, 2019. Loving wife of Bruce Braun, may they be together always in the eternities.” The few short months since November seemed like an eternity to Bruce as he stood shivering with the legs of his pajama bottoms flapping in a light, but frigid breeze. Only a few months, he was sure, since his wife died of a stroke at sixty-eight. Too soon, he thought. They should have had several more years of life together.
His mind wandering, Bruce recalled as a youth, dreaming of the distant future and imagining what it would be like to live in a year like 2000 or 2020. But now, with so many years behind him and six months since her passing, he still couldn't imagine any future without his dear Julia.
Bruce shook his head in confusion as the cold jolted him back to the moonlit solitude of the cemetery.
Then almost as if willed up as a respite by his subconscious, another thought came to him. “Well, I’ll be darned Julia, but it’s your birthday today, isn’t it?” Having decided that it was indeed springtime, Bruce nodded toward the stone and managed a brief smile. “And I should celebrate, shouldn’t I dear?” He looked at the piece of granite expectantly, as if it might answer. “Of course, I should,” he muttered softly, “I always will”.
He rubbed his freezing arms and elbows and ignored his stinging feet while remembering how much his wife loved birthdays. She loved everything about them, the whole experience, gifts, surprises, guests and all.
Bruce read the epitaph again and thought about how it sounded like he was dead already as well.
Then nervously looking away from the grave again, he remembered his home and his warm bed and wanted to be there.
“Well then my darling, it’s settled,” he said resolutely, “today is your birthday and there will be a celebration.” But it’s nighttime, he thought. Isn’t it too late?
Bruce shrugged slightly and looked around again. In his confusion he turned and began walking away without even saying goodbye. But after a few steps he stopped and listened.
Something had startled him.
It’s the hoodlums again, he thought. The ones that vandalized some headstones last summer. They’ve seen me and are hiding until I leave so they can knock over poor Julia’s grave marker as well.
Searching keenly around, Bruce saw no one. But again, something happened. Had he heard something? No, he felt it.
He sighed heavily and peered even more intently between and around trees and headstones and tombs.
“Well Julia” he said, while turning back toward his wife’s grave, “maybe I’ll just stay a tiny bit lo…”
Bruce’s words stuck in his throat. His eyes widened and his body shook, but this time not from the cold. Trembling violently, he stared at the grass in front of Julia’s headstone. The ground there was moving, sinking. Filling a cavity forming below. And as the earth subsided, Bruce, unable to move or even look away, watched in horror as two decayed, skeletal hands thrust up from its midst. Two dead, rotting hands reached up and pushed the soil away.
Gripped with terror, Bruce tried to scream, but the breath just wouldn’t come.
Then the sound of his wife’s voice reverberated in his ears. The wonderful, terrible sound of his beloved wife’s voice echoed within him. It permeated his entire being as he watched Julia’s decomposing corpse rise from the grave, clawing its way free of the earth.
“Bruce, please” the ghastly skeletal face of his wife pleaded “take me home. Please Bruce, I’m so cold and lonely, please take me home.”
Still unable to remove his eyes from the horror they were witnessing, the old man finally managed to open his mouth and draw in a breath, “NO!” he cried, “PLEASE GOD, TAKE IT AWAY!”