Family secrets. Forever.
“Dig!” the bigger man barked.
The two worked side by side in the pouring rain, shin-deep in the soggy ground, their shovels scraping loudly in the rocks and mud.
Thick black clouds blotted out the moon, so that the men were barely shadows and the tombstones around them just dark humps.
The rain had begun when they had, falling first in drops as fat as quail eggs that stung when they hit and burst against their skin with loud snaps. It turned quickly into a deluge, drenching them with steady sheets, until they felt like they were standing in a waterfall.
“Buckets would be better in this,” the smaller man said. He wiped a wet palm across his face, pushed the soaked strands of scraggly hair out of his eyes, blew a wet stream off his lips.
“Quit your bitchin’. You’re gonna be a rich man soon.”
“You better be right.”
“I am. This is the last place it can be. I shoulda known. Auntie Rose never let that little black book out of her sight.”
The smaller man’s shovel froze.
“What!” he groaned, turning to face the other. “That’s what we’re digging for, a little black book?”
“No,” the bigger man snarled. “For what’s in it.”
“What’s in it?”
“The ‘key to her treasure.’ That’s what she always said.”
The smaller man licked his lips.
“Sure!” the smaller man said, jabbing the ground with new enthusiasm.
The taller one stabbed his shovel viciously into the ground.
“Good old Aunt Rose,” he growled. “My rich — bitch — Aunt Rose.”
He plunged the shovel into the earth again, like a spear.
“I got sent to live with Aunt Rose when I was fifteen,” he said. “After my parents died in that fire. Funny how that happened. My dad told me they were sending me off to a military academy. Said it would be good for me. My mother just nodded, all sad and sorry. ‘It’s for the best,’ she said.”
He jammed the shovel home again.
“Well!” he said. “They got what was coming to them. That very night. ”
The smaller man looked up at his companion. He saw a dangerous cloud on the other man’s face.
“Quite a coincidence,” the bigger man said. “I went over to stay at a friend’s house. Gas stove must have stayed on. That’s what the cops said. By morning they were toast.”
He gave an ugly chuckle. The smaller man kept digging, not daring to look.
“So I got sent to Aunt Rose. Here, in beautiful, historic Salem. Couldn't have wished for better. Or so I thought. Rich spinster lady. Me, her only nephew. I walked around looking all mopey for a few months — what do you expect from a kid who just lost his folks in a fire?”
He huffed angrily.
“But that stingy bitch? She said she wished she could do something to make me feel better. Well, why didn’t she?” He spat. “At Christmas I told her I wanted a PlayStation. ‘PlayStation!’ she says, all surprised like. ‘Those are expensive.’ I said, ‘I think you could afford one.’ You know what she says?”
The little man shook his head rapidly.
“She looked in that little black book of hers, the one she always carried, and kind of snickered. Then she snapped it shut and smiled at me and said, ‘Just because you can doesn't mean you should. Let's see what Santa brings.’
“Santa!” He drove the shovel deep in the soil, heaved a huge mound of wet dirt over his shoulder. “Santa, my ass!”
They were making progress despite the rain, fueled by the little man’s fear and the big man’s anger. They stood waist-deep in the rough rectangle they had dug.
“You know what I got? A bike. As in bi-cycle. Not motor. The hell was I gonna do with that? Ride around the neighborhood? She told me I should be grateful. Ha!”
They dug in silence for a few moments. The big man ground his teeth, chewing on some bitter memory, tasting the bile.
“Three years later, I’m graduating from high school. I’m hoping maybe for a car. So I could get the hell out of there. Leave her and her damn little book. She says, ‘I got you something better.’ She hands me an envelope. ‘Your college tuition!’ she says. ‘Pre-paid. Any university you want, anywhere in the state.’
“Like I wanted to go to college!”
He hefted another shovelful of dirt up onto the lip of the hole, watched the rain push it back in.
“Hell, no! What I wanted was that little black book of hers.”
He shoveled furiously now. The little man struggled to keep up.
“She carried it with her everywhere, clutched tight to her chest. Never let it out of her sight. It sat next to her plate while she ate. She took it to the bathroom. She took it to bed.”
He turned his face to the sky, shook his head.
“I’d ask for something — a measly couple hundred for some Jordans; a few bills for some dope.”
“You’d ask her for money for dope!” the smaller man blurted in amazement.
“No, stupid. I wouldn’t tell her it was for dope. I’d tell her it was for a field trip. Which was sort of true, right?” He chortled at his own joke.
The laugh died in his throat.
“She’d look in her little black book, shake her head and say, ‘Why don’t you stay here with me? That’s what I want. Us, together.’”
“You never looked in that book?”
The bigger man exploded.
“SHE WOULDN’T LET ME!”
The littler man shrank even smaller. He shifted uncomfortably to one side, sticking the shovel handle between them, as if he could hide behind it.
“That’s when I figured she might have a little accident,” the taller man said. “Like my parents did. Of course, a fire would be too big of a coincidence. You know what I mean?”
The littler man couldn’t help but nod, quick and nervous like a bobble-head.
“So I waited, and I thought,” he said. “A little old lady like her? She might slip on a loose carpet at the top of the stairs. But that might not be a sure thing. She might just bust a hip. So, no, I thought she might fall asleep soaking in the bathtub. Slip under the water. Wake up dead.”
They were deep in the rectangle they’d carved in the ground now, up to their chests. Still, the rain kept coming.
The little man couldn’t help himself.
“So, uh,” he sputtered, “how did she die?”
“An accident. Of course.” The big man spoke in a monotone. He stared straight ahead. “All alone in that big old spooky house of hers. I was away. With friends. A few days upstate, with lots of people around. All the time.”
“How convenient,” the other man said, under his breath. The big man heard him anyway. He turned sharply and pushed his face up close.
The little man stopped breathing. The big man leaned in until their noses nearly touched.
“Wasn’t it, though?” Then his voice went flat again. His face went blank. “They called me when they found her. She’d been there a few days. On the floor in the greenhouse. That’s why it was closed casket.”
Yeah. She’d go out there to read, evenings, after the weather warmed up. There was a loose wire. On the light. Go figure”
“At least it was quick.”
“That’s what the lawyer said, when he read me the will. ‘Lucky,’ he said.” A lopsided grin cracked his face. He elbowed the smaller man. “Well, one of us was. Right?”
He got something that sounded like a cough back.
“Anyways, I'm sitting there in the lawyer’s office looking all mopey. I had the practice. And he starts reading off a bunch of legal mumbo-jumbo. I wasn’t really listening. I was thinking. ’Bout the house. ’Bout how it’s gotta be worth, I don’t know —“
“Yeah,” he said. “It had been in the family forever. It belonged to one of those witches.”
“The witches. Got accused of being one, anyway — got burned at the stake. You know, the Salem Witch Trials?”
“You’re shittin’ me.”
The smaller man stopped shoveling. He eyed the ground suspiciously.
“You don’t think your aunt was a …”
“Yeah. Sure. And I’m Santa Claus. Keep digging. We’re almost there.”
He pushed his own shovel hard, waited for the smaller man to do the same. Then he continued.
“So, the lawyer says, ‘She left all her money to you — twenty thousand dollars.’ My mouth fell open. Couldn’t help it.”
“You didn’t expect that, huh?”
“Twenty thousand dollars? Unexpected don’t come close to what it was. I know she had a hell of a lot more than that. But I kept my cool. I said, ‘Well I won't be able to keep up the house much with twenty thousand dollars. I might have to sell it.’”
“So then he tells you what it was worth.”
“No. He says, ‘Oh, don't worry about that. She left the house and everything in it to the local historical society.’”
He took a shuddering breath.
“Then it hit me. She was teasing me. She knew I knew about her little black book. The twenty thousand was just to whet my appetite. Her way of saying, ‘Come and get it!’”
His shovel slammed something hard. It gave a metallic clank. The men looked at each other. They used the noses of their shovels to scrape the dirt away. The rain helped. For the first time since they started they were glad for the constant drenching.
“I tore that house apart. There’s only one place left. Isn’t there, Aunt Rose?”
They found the edge of the casket, tried pulling it open, but their fingers kept slipping. Their feet sank deeper into the mud as they fought to find their footing.
“Try this,” the big man said. He jammed the point of his shovel into the gap beneath the lid and leaned down hard. The lid opened a crack.
“Do it!” he said.
The smaller man shoved his shovel into the opening, too. The top rose enough for the bigger man to get his hands in. He gave a mighty heave and nearly fell in on top of the corpse inside as it flung open.
The smaller man fell back gagging, as the stench of putrid flesh flew out at him.
The bigger man barely noticed. He fished his cell phone out of his pocket and flipped on the flashlight.
“Hello, Rose,” he said.
Her eyes were gone. The dried, decaying skin had shrunk taut. The lips had drawn back to expose her teeth in a frantic grimace, like some gruesome grin.
Her nephew panned the light down to her chest. There, sure enough, clasped tight between her bony fingers: her little black book.
“I told you,” he said. He pushed his phone toward the smaller man. “Hold this.”
The rain seemed to come down even harder as he pried the book from his aunt’s hands. It came away with an ugly snap of breaking bones.
He yanked it open, thumbed through the pages. Slowly, at first. Then faster, and faster. Blank page after blank page.
“What the hell?”
He kept turning, ripping through. Until he reached the end.
“Welcome, nephew,” it said. “Us, together. Forever.”
The rain fell harder. The men felt the ground turning to mush beneath them, sucking them down. They clawed at the sides of the hole, came away with sodden clumps. Mud and water rose around them. The sides caved. The bigger man saw the little man get swallowed by the muck, filling his mouth and choking him, drowning out his scream. Then it was in his nostrils and over his eyes. And the bigger man, a full head taller, could only watch and wait.
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