Author's note: This is my entry for Cornconic's Halloween 2021 story contest.
Jack didn't bother to brush the dirt off his rotten suit. Some say cleanliness is next to godliness, but he figured the big man upstairs or even the head honcho of Hell didn't factor into his current situation. There was a spent bullet rattling around in his empty skull, after all. And he couldn't recall ever seeing anything resembling a tunnel of light or even a sucking pit blacker than night. Besides that, digging from the wrong end of a grave was tiring work, and he still had more to do that night.
With empty eye sockets, he spotted the handle of a shovel partially hidden under dead and decaying leaves. He assumed whoever buried him there had accidentally left it behind, thus marking the spot where his remains had been hidden. Not bothering to consider the irony of it all, he let out a breathless sigh of relief, simply glad he didn't have to dig anymore with his hands. The how and why of his resurrection was a mystery to him, but somehow he knew what had to be done and where he had to go. He only hoped he could hold together long enough to complete his task.
With limbs lacking connective tissue or ligaments to hold them together, he leaned down and picked up the rusty tool. Despite the absence of muscle tissue, he gripped its handle tightly and rested its long wooden shaft upon his boney shoulder. Defying more than a few natural laws, he did all these things and then turned away, shambling through the woods toward his final destination. He had a long road to travel and another grave to dig that night.
He clumsily shuffled his way through the overgrown thicket on the edge of the woods, passed a dead-end sign, and headed directly up the center of May Street. Children, dressed in all manner of colorful costumes, walked along the sidewalks. Plenty of them gawked at the animated corpse of Jack Marlon, but no one saw his appearance as the coming of the zombie apocalypse. In fact, he fit in quite well with all the other ghoulish creatures roaming the streets that night.
There really was no better night for his return topside. After all, pretty much anything goes on the thirty-first of October. One kid made up to look like a hamburger yelled out to him, "Super scary costume, Mr. Bickle. You've really outdone yourself this year." Jack didn't know who Mr. Bickle was, but he took the misplaced compliment as a sign he'd see little resistance on his trek through town.
If it weren't for his jawbone lying somewhere back in the thicket, he might have responded with a, "Right back at ya, kid." Instead, he ignored the boy and continued his slow, arduous walk down the street. He figured it was probably for the best he didn't try to speak. None of the trick-or-treaters seemed daunted by the thing held together with nothing more than filthy, rotten clothes and a will stronger than death itself. But even a single guttural grunt or growl might have inspired unwanted scrutiny. The last thing he needed was an angry mob intent on doing some zombie bashing.
By the time he reached the opposite end of May Street, the sidewalks were vacant, and most front doors were illuminated only by moonlight. Turning left, he took to the sidewalk to avoid attracting too much attention. The next few hours crawled by at a pace matching his own sluggish stride. Other than a few blaring car horns and one inaudible slur, he walked along unnoticed and undeterred.
Crossing the street toward the end of his journey, he tripped on the curb and did a faceplant on the sidewalk. As he rose to his feet, something the size of a fist slipped out of his ragged clothing and burst open on the cement. Thinking another part of him had fallen off, he looked down to see if it could be salvaged. Lying there on the sidewalk was a rotten piece of cloth surrounded by charred bits of bone.
He only had to compare them to his own hands to confirm they were broken finger bones. The knuckles, being the only bits not touched by fire, made him think of popcorn for some strange reason. A phantom pain where his stomach used to be stopped him short of reminiscing about his past life. With a swing of his shovel, he scattered the bones. Not giving one second to consider the bones' significance, he moved on toward his destination.
A shaggy dog with dirty, matted fur came upon him about a block from his destination. It followed along behind him, probably hoping there was still some marrow left in his bones. He shooed it away with the business end of his shovel when it got too close for his comfort. "If anyone's burying anything tonight, Fido, it sure as hell ain't gonna be you." The thought made him chuckle inwardly as he came upon a railroad crossing.
Walking over the tracks brought up memories of his wife. She always crossed her fingers when passing over train tracks. She insisted he do it too, but he never played along. In fact, he always chided her for being so superstitious. Suddenly overwhelmed with regret, he did it for her then and lost a finger for his efforts.
Not bothering to pick it up, he continued on. For the second time that night, he felt a strange tingling in his bones. Shrugging off the doubt welling up inside, he quickened his pace, certain that whatever was holding him together had an expiration date.
He stopped for a moment when he came to the edge of the cemetery and gazed out over the landscape. He wasn't present when he was interred there. Well, only in the way that counts, but somehow he knew on the other side of the property was an empty coffin and a headstone with his name on it. And right beside it was where his wife rested. She was alive the last time he saw her, but in the same mysterious way he knew where his grave was, he also knew she was dead as well.
Walking amongst the grave markers and headstones gave him a little taste of the tranquility no unmarked grave could ever give him. To finally be at rest beside the woman he loved was all he wanted. He didn't know who had dug him up and buried him in the woods at the end of May Street. Nor did he understand why anyone would do such a thing. He decided it didn't matter because he'd taken matters into his own hands and would finally be at peace very soon.
With the shovel gripped tightly in his dead, cold hands, he stepped up to his headstone. Etched into the stone was his name, the timeline of his life, and a simple message, "Beloved son, father, and husband." Beside that was his wife's stone. He brushed a reddened leaf off the top of it and turned back to his plot.
"Time to get back to being dead and buried," he thought as he sunk the head of the shovel into the ground. He pressed it deeper with his foot and heaved out the first shovelful of dirt. As he tossed it to the side, a voice broke the silence surrounding the graveyard.
"How exactly do you intend to put all that dirt back when you're done?" Jack spun around to discover a tall man in a plain, black t-shirt and blue jeans. Not seeming the least bit shocked by the animated corpse of Jack Marlon standing before him, he exclaimed, "Ah, there's my shovel" before snatching it from Jack's hands.
Without a second of hesitation, he swung the shovel around and slammed Jack in the side of the head. The dead man bellowed inhumanly as he stumbled to the side. Just as he regained his footing, the stranger swung the shovel upward, catching him square on the chin and dropping him hard onto his back.
Seconds later, a boot pressed heavily on his chest. He could hear his ribs cracking as he desperately clawed at the man's leg. The stranger stabbed the shovel into the ground beside the dead man's head and grabbed him by the arms. With a great heave, he tore them out of their sockets and tossed them aside. The writhing corpse of Jack Marlon let out a ghastly screech that echoed through the cemetery.
The stranger grabbed the shovel and, without a second thought, drove it straight through the dead man's neck. Jack's head rolled free and settled into the divot he'd dug just moments before. Crouching down, the man picked up the severed head and spat in its eye socket.
"You don't remember me, but I wish you did. The next time you see me, it will be like we've never met before. Sadly, hexes can only do so much. You're probably wondering who I am, but my name's not important. Just know I'm the great-grandson of Hilda Swanson. You at least remember her, right? She's one of the many people you swindled. Yeah, well, she has a message for you."
With all that said, he set Jack's skull on the grass and pulled a little pouch and a pack of matches from his pocket. Within the pouch was a fine, red powder he poured in a circle around the skull. Jack, being the unwilling witness he was, could do nothing but watch as the man took a little sack from another pocket. He guessed what it contained seconds before the man opened it and dumped its contents onto the grass. Lying there before him were bits of yellowed finger bones.
The man placed the bones around the skull with the knuckle end of each sticking outside of the red circle. Mumbling a few inaudible words, he struck a match across the top of Jack's head and dropped it onto the circle. A green flame burst to life and quickly encircled the skull of Jack Marlon. The flames rose up around him and flickered threateningly.
Jack awoke as if from a dream. He was sitting at the desk in his office with a loaded revolver gripped tightly in his hand. A loud voice came from the other side of his office door. "I repeat, this is the police. We have a warrant for your-" The voice cut out just as an elderly woman in a long, yellow dress appeared before him.
Her dress flowed around her as if she were underwater, but her graying black hair didn't move an inch as she strode up to his desk. "Don't you worry about them, sugar. They ain't comin' in unless you give 'em the go ahead."
Jack blurted out, "Who are you? What's going on?"
She leaned over the desk and looked him right in the eyes. "The name's Hilda Swanson. You and me need to talk."
In a flash, everything came back to him. He was reliving the last moments of his life. The woman was new, but everything else was just as it had happened before. He'd just gotten off the phone with the head of security who had called to tell him the police were heading up in the elevator to deliver a warrant for his arrest.
The realization was almost too much for Jack to take in, but he eventually came to his senses. "I... I shot myself."
"That's right, sugar, but don't you fret over that jus' yet. Ain't nothin' carved in stone that can't be undone with the right ritual."
"But how? This can't be real. I mean...."
"Shush, sugar. It's simpler than bakin' a pie. You jus' gotta stand up and open that door."
Jack sat there, staring at the ethereal figure standing before him. "But what would that do?"
Hilda shook her head in frustration. "Seems I gotta spell it out for you. You go ahead and let them men in here, so things can move along as they shoulda in the first place. Things should sort themselves out from there."
"But I... I don't want to go to jail."
Hilda slammed her hands down on the expensive, mahogany desk. "Oh, you damn coward. You'd rather leave this mess for your family to clean up? Yep, I guess you would. It's what you done before. So what you waitin' for? Go ahead, put that gun in your mouth. Pull that trigger!"
Jack looked at the revolver in his hand. He wondered how things had gone so wrong. Convinced he'd never get caught, he dug himself deeper and deeper until he inevitably ended up where he was - deciding between whether to eat a bullet or face the shame and humiliation awaiting him on the other side of that door.
Discovering a courage he didn't know he had in himself, he stood up and walked around his desk. He dropped the revolver at his feet and stepped up to the door. Taking a deep breath, he reached for the doorknob. Hilda began to cackle wildly as he swung the door open. There were no police standing there or even his secretary typing away at her desk. Instead, all he saw was the graveyard he'd walked all night to reach.
"You damn fool... ain't nothin'... can undo what you done!" Hilda exclaimed between bouts of insane laughter.
He spun around to confront her. "I don't understand... you said...."
The old woman's laughter died as a twisted grin replaced the laugh lines on her face. "Yep, I said what I said, but only so I could watch you blow your brains out again. This the first time you ever chose option two. Took you long enough, but it don't change nothin'. You dead and so am I."
"But nothin', sugar. I died waiting for those in charge to figure out where you hid all your stolen gains and so did plenty of other people you cheated. No doubt you locked it all away in some Swiss bank and ain't nobody ever gonna get at it. So all that leaves little old me with is the chance once a year to shit in your cornflakes. And believe you me, that's just what I aim to do for as long as my kin keep pumpin' out babies and teaching them all about you. As long as they keep the tradition alive on Halloween, you ain't ever gonna rest easy beneath that fancy headstone."
Utterly dumbfounded, Jack could do nothing but sputter and gasp in shock. She said he'd never rest in peace and he believed her. He wondered in that moment how long this whole sordid affair had been playing itself out, but he didn't bother asking. He doubted she'd tell him and he didn't think he really wanted to know.
Lost in a mire of self-pity, he failed to notice Hilda step up behind him. Rising up on the balls of her feet, she leaned in close and whispered in his ear. "All that's left is to git you back in the ground. See you next year, Jack." With his name barely out of her mouth, she leaned into him hard and shoved him through the door.
About an hour later, Jack was once again dead to the world and settled back in his unmarked grave in the woods. Hilda's great-grandson tossed a small bag bound with a leather cord onto the corpse. Its contents crackled and hummed with the promise of dark and impossible feats. He then filled the hole. When his task was done, he laid the shovel beside the mound and covered it all with leaves and branches.
As the sun began to peek over the horizon, he uttered the five words he ended every Halloween with, "See ya next year, Jack."
Written by Kolpik