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Cemeteries have somewhat of a reputation for being creepy places. Places in which our imaginations can be stimulated to a point of extreme dread. The roots of a Maple Tree are mistaken for the reanimated corpses of the damned, crawling desperately to the surface of the earth to wreak havoc on the living. A fine layer of mist is the soul of a long-lost lover, hopelessly trapped between two planes of existence. Shadows are cloaked and hooded vampires waiting to pounce, stone angels are conduits for demons, and a headstone outlined by the phosphorescent light of the moon is a bloodthirsty werewolf, baring its fangs.

Jax Mercer wasn’t afflicted by such childish concerns. He had been around the Palestine Cemetery so often that it was nigh impossible to spook him. This was still quite a wonder, however. Very few people can enter a cemetery in the middle of the night without letting a shiver or two pass down their spine, even one as utterly mundane as the Palestine Cemetery. This place, in particular, was nothing special. A small collection of gravestones (some older and some new), scattered vases with the occasional rose, and, of course, the Palestine Methodist Church just down the road. However, Jax’s indifference didn’t stem from total bravery. He knew that the cemetery itself wasn’t to be feared. The real danger lay in the surrounding woods.

He was a giant of a man, standing at six feet, five inches tall. More so, he was muscular. His tattoo laden arms were as thick as trunks from a Crepe Myrtle Tree, and a single hand could grip and crush a watermelon without much discernible effort. Thirty-seven years of age had given his face a hard, brutal look, making his sparse stubble strangely noticeable. Not that he cared. He wasn’t a man of hygiene at all. Why would he be? He had no wife to please, nor anyone to please for that matter. Except for The Lark.

On the night The Lark called on him for the umpteenth time, he was sitting on his termite ridden couch at home, watching a late night John Wayne movie. He was in a fine mood. His naturally stormy countenance had taken on a look of contentment. The single red rose, the one souvenir of last month’s disaster, had been cast into the fireplace not too long earlier. He wouldn’t be plagued by sentiments of unnatural guilt any longer. Furthermore, Jax loved westerns. He practically worshiped actors such as Wayne, Eastwood, and Cooper. And to enlighten his mood, even more, he had a woman for hire coming over at One AM. Just in time for his movie to be over. Cheryl, her name was. A flirting blonde goddess of a woman. According to the Craigslist ad, anyways. Things couldn’t have been going better.

Then the Lark called upon him. Just as it said it would so many years ago. He knew the call would come soon, but he had shoved the possibility into the back of his mind. If he had remembered, and fully realized the proximity of his hour, it would’ve laid wreckage to his sunny disposition.

The voice of the Lark penetrated his brain like a slug from a high caliber pistol. It hurt like hell (It usually did) and in a moment’s notice, he was on the ground, writhing uncontrollably. His eyes had rolled up into his head, and he saw nothing but darkness, felt nothing but the convulsions running up and down his body like liquid fire coursing through the marrow of his bones. It was only when foam was beginning to accumulate on the corners of his mouth that The Lark spoke in some foreign language that Jax shouldn’t have been able to understand, but did.

“It is time.”

His perfect night was ruined. Cheryl could wait until some other time. He had a very important task ahead of him. An assignment that, if left unattended, would result in the tragic deaths of hundreds of innocent people. Jax was the unsung hero of the town of Palestine. Every night, as the people of the town lay down safely in their beds, they owed it all to Jax, though they didn’t know it.

Jax headed out to the shed in the back, unlocked it, and stepped inside before switching on the light. The scent emanating from underneath the rotting wood was nothing short of repugnant. It appeared as if a raccoon had trapped himself in the tight space between the bottom of the shed’s flooring and the uneven ground below. Jax didn’t mind. He was used to the reek of festering corpses. Not from his job as the local gravedigger, but from the burden that he had been victim to for seven years now. Scanning the shelves, he found what he was looking for: A shovel, a large Heavy Duty flashlight, and a coil of rope.

The first time he had made his ritualistic drive to the Palestine Cemetery, he had been as nervous as a kindergartener on the first day of school. His churning stomach had been tied in several complex knots, his sweaty hands had gripped the steering wheel tightly, and his lower lip was being bit with such ferocity that it had turned white. All that had changed now. He might’ve been going to the supermarket for a carton of milk for all the emotion he showed.

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It was a short drive. No less than five minutes long. As soon as he passed the church Jax turned his high beams on and pulled into the grass, rolling through the short pasture between the church and graveyard. Nobody saw him. The road was practically abandoned on every day, save for Sunday. He parked his Ford Pickup as close to the graveyard as he possibly could. As soon as the deed was done, he found it was best to get back home as fast as he possibly could. No sense in walking the extra fifty yards to the road. Best to just get it over with as quickly as possible. In and out, then go home and watch Clint Eastwood waste Lee Van Cleef, all while you try not to think about what you just did. Especially after what had happened last time. The cemetery didn’t scare him, but Jax shivered nonetheless as the memory permeated his mind. He shook himself, cleared his head, and grabbed the equipment out of the back of his truck.

The long grass swished impatiently about his feet. He would have to cut it soon, preferably next Monday when he was well rested and fit. As the gravedigger of this establishment, it was what they paid him for. With an expert flick of Jax’s thumb, the flashlight burst to life, providing a small ray of illumination which he used to look at the headstones.

Henderson. He was looking for the tombstone labeled Shelley Henderson, although in reality, Shelley wasn’t the one laying on the soft white fabric of the casket. The rotting remains of Shelley Henderson were now slowly dissolving in a pool of stomach acid. The beam of light danced across the cemetery until it found what it was looking for. Heading over to the grave, Jax set his flashlight down on the ground, propping it up slightly on the rope coil as to cast a ray of radiance over the area where he would be digging.

He raised the shovel, then stopped. He knelt and brought the round point of the tool closer to his face. His stomach dropped about a foot. No, his eyes hadn’t been deceiving him. A maroon speck that he had somehow missed was encrusted into the rusty metal. He extended a thumbnail and scratched until it was gone.

With that out of the way, he stood, pushing the flat of his palm on the handle of the shovel. Jax plunged the blade deep into the earth. It slid through the soil easily, just as expected. After all, it was only a month ago that this grave had been last exhumed. Jax smiled wryly. First stab of the night. Not bad. Of course, there would be much more to come over a sustained period of three long hours. For the average group of two to three men, the process of exhumation would take around five hours, but Jax was a brute of a man on his own, and a fast worker at that.

Two hours later he was four and a half feet into the ground and just beginning to sweat excessively. Perspiration was dripping down the bridge of his nose and giving the roman gladiator inked into his left bicep a new slick sheen of fluid. He wiped at his brow absentmindedly and continued. The pack of chewing tobacco that he had jammed into his lower lip was growing heavier. He spat once, letting some of the juice drip down his chin, then kept digging.

He struck the concrete of the burial’s vault’s seal no less than an hour later. Breaking in wasn’t a problem. That part was done already. Within seconds, he was staring down at the black steel of the casket. He breathed in and let out a shaky breath. The hardest part of this entire operation was moments away. He had no trouble handling dead bodies. Otherwise, his job would be difficult. He did, however, have trouble working up the courage to open the lid of that casket. Looking down at the face of the young boy he had murdered… that was going to be difficult.

He took a moment to reminisce. It was last month, July, when he had killed the child. He hadn’t wanted to but he wasn’t given much choice in the matter.

On that night, an especially nasty thunderstorm was forming in the distance. The occasional flashes of heat lightning served as a natural malfunctioning lantern as he dug feverishly, beseeching the earth for the corpse of Shelley Henderson, an elderly woman who had died only last month.

By midnight, the storm was upon him. The blackened clouds attacked relentlessly with bullet-shaped stinging raindrops. The deep rumble of thunder shook the air. Jax could only smile to himself. The water loosened the soil, making digging far easier than it already was. In a matter of minutes, he uncovered that same black steel casket for the first time. The grave was flooding rapidly, and already his ankles were submerged in lukewarm summer rainwater. Situating one knee on the bottom portion of the casket, he slipped his fingers under the lid and flung it open, exposing the corpse within. In the beginning, he had always had to use special tools to open the caskets, but he had since discovered that he could use his own brute strength.

All in all, Mrs. Shelley Henderson didn’t look that bad after a month underground. Her mouth was turned downward in a postmortem scowl, her lips shriveled back to reveal dry yellow teeth, her white hair was beginning to fall out in thick clumps. Blistered brownish yellow skin had sunken into the bones of her wrinkled face. Worst of all, her closed eyes looked strangely empty. Like bare sockets with two thin layers of rotting flesh stretched across them and sloppily sewn together. Jax felt the sick, unshakeable urge to find a needle and poke one eyehole. He mused that if he did, the flesh would slide apart and off her skull entirely.

She had been buried in a beautiful white dress; expensive lace, no doubt. The casket itself wasn’t too shabby either. Someone had spent a lot of time and money to make sure that she would rest peacefully. Jax felt a twinge of sympathy. When his mother had died fifteen years ago, he had taken measures much like this. He almost felt bad for disturbing Shelley’s final resting place. Almost.

Jax slid his hand under the corpse’s shoulder. Like so many times before, the bare skin exposed at the back had stuck to the cloth of the lining. He pulled, gently, slowly. Ironically, he was always as delicate as he could with the bodies, despite the destruction that would eventually become of them. To his discontent, some of Shelley’s skin peeled and left a slimy residue on the costly fabric. Oh well. Cradling her in his arms like an overgrown newborn, the gravedigger tugged Shelley out of her shell, lifted her, and benevolently set her down on the even ground above, next to his dirt pile. Jax was just considering how he’d have to move the body quickly when he climbed out of the grave and saw him.

Ronnie Blakely. That was the kid’s name, although Jax didn’t know him personally, or at all, for that matter. In fact, he would only learn the name of the child later that week, when he read about his disappearance in the newspaper with trembling fingers. He was a short little guy, especially compared to Jax. The cute characteristics of childhood marred his face. Someone like Shelley Henderson probably pinched his cheeks every once in awhile. Especially with those freckles and chubby facial features. His chestnut brown hair, partially obscured by the hood of his yellow rain slicker, was curly. In his hands, he carried a single red rose. A rose that Jax would eventually destroy in his fireplace. He was looking at Jax, half confused, and half frightened. His tiny green eyes kept flitting from his frozen form, one knee on solid ground, the other leg still in the hole, to the nearby body.

Jax was panicking, though he didn’t let it show. This wasn’t supposed to happen. This couldn’t happen. Not now, not a kid. Oh God. Why couldn’t it have been an adult that had walked in on him? Adults could be bargained with, reasoned with, and threatened. Not a kid. All kids ever did, in Jax’s experience, was talk. And from the looks of it, this particular child had quite a story to tell. And when he did tell, what would happen? Jax, certainly, would be imprisoned. And then the town of Palestine would be doomed. The child standing not twenty paces away from him could unintentionally murder hundreds. A ball of energy began to build in Jax’s chest as he stared at Ronnie, who was silently sizing him up from a distance. The energy spread to his legs, his arms, his whole being. He knew what had to be done, but did he have the power to do it?

A single tell spurred the chase. Ronnie’s lip quivered. Slightly. Almost infinitesimally, but enough. Jax wrenched himself out of the opening in one quick motion, grabbing the shovel from its place beside the flashlight. Ronnie turned and started to run. Jax followed, feet stamping furiously into the marshy grass, his wet feet squishing against the soles of his boots. It didn’t take him long to catch up, with his height and build. They were both still running when Jax raised the shovel over his head, both still running when he brought in down, concentrating all the strength in his body on this one fatal swish.

The blade of the shovel embedded itself in Ronnie’s skull with a short, crisp thwock. A moment passed, and his legs were still kicking desperately, as if he was still capable of running away. A primal groan of pain escaped his lips, followed by a series of short gasps. Jax was gripping the handle of the shovel so tightly that he was sure it would burst to splinters at any moment. He tasted blood. It was his own. He was biting the inside of his cheek hard. The brassy taste mingled with remnants of tobacco. Ronnie was flailing his arms, his hands desperately reaching towards the back of his head, as if to dislodge the metal from his brain. A few thin, eerie scratches were oddly noticeable through the din of the rain as his minuscule fingernails scrabbled over the shovel’s head.

Suddenly, every bone in Jax’s body felt drained. He lightly wrenched the shovel downwards, and it released itself from the child’s head with a hiss of pressurized blood, which lightly peppered his face and arms with a veneer of warmth before the rain washed it away in rivulets that cascaded down his form and tainted the soil. He closed his eyes, only listening to the thud of the body hitting the ground.  

He went to his truck, got inside, and locked the door. There was a bottle of Smirnoff’s in the glove compartment. Man’s best friend in case of crucial decisions. It took him a long time to consider his options. He could get out right now, he could run away from Palestine and never come back. But then… no. He refused to think of the destruction that response would entail. He was a good person. Truly, he was. His mother, God bless her, had raised him better than to commit such a cowardly action. There was only one option. The right option.

An hour and a half later, Shelley Henderson had been fed to The Lark, and Ronnie was six feet underground, lying in a bed of eternal sleep. His slumber, however, would soon be broken. The Lark liked fresh bodies, and he had to be running out of tombs to raid, right?

That was a scary thought. Soon, he would run out of graves to dig. Jax did his best to push the thought out of his mind. He had faith in his lifetime philosophy: Do what you can, while you can, and if you have a problem, wait until it presents itself instead of worrying about it.

He had taken one thing from the boy. A single article to preserve some of his innocence that was otherwise wiped off the face of the Earth: The single red rose.

That was a month ago, Jax realized. It seemed like just last week. Like last week when the search parties were issued. Just last week when Ronnie’s pitiful mock funeral was held just yards away from where his actual body resided. It was so ironic, Jax couldn’t help but find it darkly funny.

Jax stared down at the casket which housed the Lark’s monthly meal. He breathed in, letting the cool air fill his lungs. Then, in one fast, precise motion, he bent down, hooked his fingers underneath the lid and jerked the boy’s next-to-final resting place open. Ronnie had fared even better than Shelley Henderson. In fact, he was virtually the same as he was while he was alive, with the exception of the blood that matted his hair and the thick layer of moss that now covered his face. And of course, his exposed skin was noticeably paler, but that was to be expected. Nonetheless, Jax felt sick to his stomach. Not from the body itself, but the fact that he was the one who had caused this once living creature to lie still.

Gingerly, he placed a finger on Ronnie’s shoulder and pressed. The skin underneath was oddly spongy. Then, pursing his lips, he worked an arm under his back, leaned in close, and hoisted him upwards.

That’s when Jax caught sight of the boy’s wound in the feeble ray of flashlight. His insides turned to water, and his arms began to shake involuntarily. A green oozing crust was layering the exposed cut, which was outlined by a large, ugly yellow-brown discoloration that was noticeably large even through the haziness of Ronnie’s hair. It reminded Jax, ludicrously, of the bruised skin of an apple. The exposed brain matter within the cut itself might’ve been red toothpaste with a small stretch of the imagination. Jax bit his tongue hard to keep the vomit down and pushed the body upwards, thrusting it more roughly than required onto the ground above. The last time he had seen such gore was three summers ago when he had exhumed the body of a car crash victim.

Physically, the walk into the woods was the easiest part. You just cradled the corpse like your one true love in your arms before setting out. The Lark had one specific place it liked to appear. And Jax reached it in less than five minutes.

He had stopped at a clearing in the forest, with a deep incline that led into a huge abyss of mud and slime, about fifty feet across. Jax stopped, and laid the body out on the ground, in the right position for the upcoming task.

He smelled The Lark before he saw it. He always did. As much as he had been around the dank stench of decomposing and even bloated cadavers, the smell of The Lark always managed to make him wrinkle his nose in disgust. It was ozone combined with warm rotted eggs and a strong touch of the sewers.

The ground under Jax’s feet trembled slightly. He took a step back, cautious of his surroundings. One of his biggest fears was that he would accidentally tumble down into the pit. Then, all would be lost, in more ways than one.

Then, from the chasm of filth below, a low, gentle, stirring in the muck, which was starting to issue a low hum as it bubbled, gently at first, then more violently as it progressed into a full gurgle, complete with the the buildup of fizz near the outer rims of the pool of sludge.

A single black tentacle emerged from the slime, sleek, smooth, and shiny. The reptilian rope swished through the air like the tail of an angered lion, testing the night. Apparently, it liked what it felt, because it was soon joined by more. Ten, twenty, forty, Jax couldn’t keep track of their number. All of them vibrated spastically, unveiling the source of the bubbling and fizzing. This was a new trick, probably an attempt at intimidation, and one that was working at that.

A cool hand of reassurance touched Jax’s mind. He closed his eyes and clenched his fists. It was an illusion. All an illusion created by that beast in the ground. It was that same illusion that had lured him into the woods all those years ago, forced him into that deal…

A series of high, shrill pitched clicks echoed off the trees. It was laughter. The Lark was laughing at him. Jax could do nothing but swallow his pride and push the comfort to the edges of his consciousness, forcing himself to face the cruel truth of the world. There was no consolation here. He hated The Lark, and The Lark would destroy him without a second thought. That was all.

It was several years ago when they had first met. Jax was young and naive. The Lark must’ve known this. Must’ve been able to sense that such minds are easier to twist and pervert. Because now, he was on the low end of a high-stakes deal for the rest of his years. Every month, one exhumed body for The Lark. And if the Lark didn’t get what he wanted? Palestine would be razed. How fair.

Bitterly, Jax spit what remained of his tobacco. A tired sense of rage was expanding in his being, starting in his heart, and working its way throughout his veins. Jax was exhausted, plain and simple. Exhausted of giving so much to people who had given him so little. Exhausted of the constant, boring cycle that his life had become. Exhausted of knowing that there was no escape. In a single romp of pathetic and doleful fury, Jax rushed forward and kicked Ronnie’s body directly in the sternum, sending him tumbling down into the void, where he was encompassed by the mass of writhing tentacles. It looked like a thousand water moccasins were crawling over the corpse, especially in the light of the moon. Within a minute, he was gone, swallowed by tentacle and muck alike. Jax’s work here was done. He turned to go.

Now… about those tombstones. There were very few left in the Palestine Cemetery. Jax knew that. What would he do when he ran out? Surely, he could get bodies from other cemeteries? No, moving them would be too much a chore, and anyways, few cemeteries were as isolated as Palestine’s.

Jax thought of the shovel. How easy it had been, murdering Ronnie. One swift, quick blow to the head. Could it be all too difficult to do that again? The rose was burned. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. No more guilt. Yes. He could do it again. Probably several times, as a matter of fact, once the Palestine Cemetery became useless to him.

If he was lucky, maybe he’d even get caught.

Written by SnakeTongue237
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