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If I’ll be perfectly honest, I am scared; very, very scared. What happened was like nothing I could’ve ever imagined. I never really believed in the supernatural or the paranormal; you’ve probably heard stories from drunken ramblers which turns them into the laughing stock for disbelievers, but now, I’m not far off from them. I’m afraid to even bring up the incident; reliving that awful memory makes my head throb. Hopefully, getting all this down on paper would help process everything. Not like I have much time anyway.

For some background, I am a college student named Callie White, studying with my three friends, Connon, Maxwell, and Sammy. They were quite the troublemakers; they couldn’t go a week without doing something completely outrageous just for a laugh. I couldn’t possibly imagine a future without them. They never failed to make me laugh or reassure me during tough times.

The usual route we took to college featured a place called Old Lake Churchyard. I used to view it as quite the peaceful place, a quiet resting ground with gravestones worn down by time, surrounded by withered trees and tall iron fencing, complete with a small church. I liked to gaze and contemplate the solitude of that churchyard and how it would be a nice place to rest after your time had come.

One thing that made this place stand out, however, was one lonely man. The man was tall, rail-thin, and always wore a black coat and a wide-brim hat; he had long black hair and gardening gloves. He seemed to work at Old Lake Churchyard, digging graves, cleaning tombstones, and watering flowers. I never got to see his face; he always had his back facing the fence. He wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, of course, just a lonely gravedigger in a seemingly empty graveyard; it’s just that one thing that struck me as odd is that despite the sheer amount of graves I’ve seen him dig, I’ve never actually seen a funeral hosted there.

I used to tell my friends about the graveyard, pointing out details and features during our walks to and from college. They also found it interesting, but not in a beautiful kind of way. Connor joked about how the graveyard was haunted and that all the graves were for the gravedigger’s victims to be buried alive. I tried to laugh it off, but the idea made me uneasy.

The first incident happened in early September, around two months ago. We were walking on our usual path; the sky was a dull dark gray, and a light fog clouded the streets as an autumn chill lingered in the air. We were just about to pass Old Lake Churchyard when Connor stopped us to make a suggestion. Now, Connor was probably the most noticeable out of our friend group, not because of his questionable taste in band shirts but because he was the most adventurous and risky. If he went on a trip somewhere, he would always come back with a new injury or scar. So when he stopped us, I already guessed what he was going to say. Connor suggested that we sneak into the churchyard and have a closer look at the place. He was quite the horror fan, so the idea of exploring a seemingly haunted graveyard made him ecstatic.

Everyone agreed, but I refused; it was quite a lovely graveyard, and the thought of a group of teenagers disturbing the peace put me off. On top of that, I was afraid of getting caught. Connor tried to persuade me, telling me it would just be a quick look around, nothing too serious. I told him the graveyard is open during the day, but Connor said something about “The fog adding to the experience.” I didn’t see the gravedigger around, so I supposed we were in the clear. I mean, you’ll have to take a stab in the dark eventually. I sighed and agreed.

Getting over the six-foot fence was tricky; I’m not exactly the most athletic kid, so I had some trouble. Maxwell helped me get over by giving me a foot up. Eventually, we were standing on the grounds of the churchyard. Looking at the entire place up close was such a surreal experience. Seeing the gravestones up close and reading all the final farewells to loved ones was oddly beautiful. I found several freshly dug graves, presumably by the gravedigger. I was right about the bizarre number of graves; who were they even for? The town I lived in had a low death rate, so there was no need for this sheer amount.

The fog was really starting to roll in, making it harder to see. At this point, the place started to unnerve me. Not only was it dark, but the way the fog coated everything in a blanket of gloom made the trees look unnatural; they almost looked like twisted veins. I made sure to stick close to my friends, but everyone was off doing their own thing. I felt a little stressed about the actions my friends were doing; Sammy and Maxwell were taking pictures of graves and giggling, and Connor was standing inside an open grave. I even saw one of them step on a buried grave. Nothing about the churchyard was silent and peaceful anymore.

Something in that churchyard that did catch my eye was one grave in particular. The grave wasn’t freshly dug; it had a small open hole in the mud like someone crawled out of it. I looked at the gravestone; the deceased person’s name was one Simon Fisher. The odd thing was that it had no date or a message from a loved one, only the words “Sorry for your loss.” It puzzled and startled me slightly. I never believed in zombies or the undead, so I didn't know what to make of it. Another strange thing about the grave was that embedded in the mud next to the stone was an old revolver.

As I looked at the grave, Maxwell called out to me and said that Connor was missing. I got up quickly and looked around. Connor was nowhere to be seen. I tried calling his name, but the fog deafened my voice. We started to wander around looking for him. From my time gazing at the churchyard, I memorized the general size of the place, yet it felt scarcely bigger. If you picked one direction and kept going, you would go on for miles. There was much more to Old Lake Churchyard than I thought.

Eventually, we heard Connor calling us over because he found something. We followed his voice through the fog and we found him standing by a freshly dug-out grave. I looked at Connor; he had a thrilled look on his face. I asked him what he found, and he told me to read the gravestone. What that gravestone said was truly horrifying.

“Here lies Connor Grey, 1993-2010. Beloved son and brother. His passing was a great tragedy for such a young soul, and all who love and remember him shall never forget.”

Dread washed over me as I read those words. How could someone possibly explain the feeling of fear seeing their own name carved into a gravestone, standing over their own empty grave? What was worse, the day of his death could come at any moment without warning, and he wouldn’t know. I looked at Connor, expecting some sort of maddening strain or rise of panic. But no, he was amused; he was smiling. He laughed it off, assuming someone overheard our conversation and put the stone there to scare us off. He didn’t even have the slightest hint of concern in him. I glanced over to Sammy and Maxwell; they looked as scared as I was. Connor was so unaware of the potential doom looming over him.

I saw a familiar figure watching us from behind the church; it was the gravedigger. He watched us as we silently panicked at the potential demise of our friend. My heart dropped as I stared at him. Despite the fog, I could faintly see his eyes, and I swear there was not a hint of life in those pitch-black eyes, cold and deep as the graves he digs. I couldn’t tell if he was satisfied or grieving, but I knew he was involved with this; I knew that he was the one who put the stone here. My mind gave in; with every ounce of energy I still had, I ran. After everything that had happened, I just wanted to leave this dreadful place. Everyone else noticed the gravedigger, assuming they were caught and were about to get into trouble for trespassing, and ran back to the fence.

We did manage to escape without any consequence, but we were all distraught by the gravedigger and the discovery of our friend’s grave. Connor, however, was still skeptical about the situation; he still thought it was a prank. I was genuinely worried for Connor, the oblivious teen that he was. I tried to convince him that it may not be a joke, but Connor still wasn’t buying it. He told me that there was no way someone could predict his date of death, and for once, I considered that. Maybe I was just overreacting, but I couldn’t deny the inevitable.

That’s when it came without warning. Two weeks after the incident, Connor was pronounced dead. While we sat in the canteen, Sammy said that Connor died in a car accident. My face grew pale as I heard those words; sadness washed over me. We were all grieving at the news; I could see that Maxwell was close to crying. Connor was such a great friend, and his death felt so draining. I have not once in my life felt so wrong for being so right.

I still felt confused. When I looked around the canteen, no one seemed sad or worried at the news; no one came up to us to say sorry. Connor was quite a popular kid with few large friend groups; he wouldn’t go unnoticed. Either no one knew that he was dead, or they simply didn’t care. I asked Sammy where she got the news; she said Connor’s sister told her, but Sammy went on to explain that when Connor’s sister told her the news, she said it with such a straight face like she did not have the slightest hint of grief for losing her brother.

I asked a few of Connor’s friends if they knew about the news, and the same thing happened; they were fully aware but seemed unfazed. I was scared but overall confused. Maxwell, Sammy, and I knew about his death, and we felt grief, but no one else did. Was everyone simply incapable of feeling loss unless they witnessed the empty grave of their loved one firsthand?

I did visit Connor’s grave, and to my demise, it wasn’t empty anymore. Connor’s casket was below the earth. I stood over his grave, distraught and heartbroken; it was so sudden, and it had such an impact on our friend group. I never felt loss before, and the fact that no one else did besides us was absurd. At that moment, I couldn’t help but feel angry. Angry at the graveyard and the gravedigger. Is this what it wanted, for me to understand what it's like to have someone important to you taken away, just for no one to care about your state of grief and melancholy? Is that what HE wanted?

Everything went downhill after that. First, it was Sammy. I found another empty grave with her name on it right next to Connor’s. A week later, she was pronounced dead from chemical burns, informed by her mother in such a monotone voice like it just didn’t matter. I don’t think I need to explain what happened to Maxell. Now, they are all buried together. Their families never hosted a funeral for them. Is this just how it is now, to see my friends in coffins while not a soul mourns over their deaths apart from me? Am I truly alone in a world where no one respects the dead?

I still see the gravedigger around, still digging graves. For a while, I was convinced that he was the one who killed my friends, and how they died was just a cover-up. I know he knows about the incidents, yet he never said a word about it. And even if he did murder them in cold blood, it would feel almost mocking. He would continue to tend to the graves while living in the pride that he ruined my life. He would make sure that no one feels any remorse for their deaths, let alone say goodbye to them. He knows it was as much a tragedy as I did, and my fear and confusion would absolutely delight him.

I wanted to know more about the gravedigger, to see if he was hiding anything under that black coat. One thing that never struck me before was the church, the very pinnacle of the graveyard. So, one night, I snuck into the church. There was an open window and no sign of the gravedigger; I felt like I was in the clear. When I was inside, I was met with such a sorry sight. The church had gone to ruin; stained glass windows were shattered, vines snaked up the walls, and pew benches coated in dust. It was clear the church hadn’t been visited for a long time. It was nearly pitch black; only a small ray of light from the moon made it possible to see. A slight chill crawled up my neck, not just from the cold but from the eeriness of the old chapel.

When I slowly made my way to the altar, all was silence beside the clack of my shoes and the dull whirl of the wind. Y’know, I never really believed in a God; I never felt like there was a creator up there watching the world’s gears turn; I never felt like there was a limit to how far a person could go, yet in that very moment, I felt like I was crossing a boundary even the toughest and the fearless dared not pass. Walking onto holy grounds felt profane, and what I was doing to get information was blasphemy. If there really is a Lord up there, would he consider what I’ve done for my friends a sin?

I stood before the altar; on it were broken candles, and above was a crucifix that fell off its hinges long ago. The cold was getting to me; the icy autumn wind pierced through my skin. I got out my phone to use the torch so I could get a better look at the altar. Laid upon it was a single piece of paper. I picked it up and shunned my torch onto it; the paper was old and looked like a diary entry. I could faintly remember what it said, as well as the dread I felt reading it.

“March, 1989

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the dead. Working as a gravedigger made me question the reality and nature of people. When your job is centered around the deceased you tend to think about the people you’ve served. Do they really feel sympathy for the dead, or do they mourn against their own will? Jonathan, the funeral director, has told me about the times people showed no sympathy over the death of their loved ones and even felt relieved that they were gone. Was this what the Lord intended, for individuals to not bear even the slightest amount of remorse? Is it really that difficult for someone to say “Sorry for your loss”? I wish some people would know how it feels for no one to mourn over their death, something that those people never learned to do.

I sometimes find myself wandering the graveyard, knowing that blessed souls down below my feet are safe in the warmth of the earth; I tend to find peace amongst the dead. I’ve always wondered why people have thanatophobia; I do not believe that people should view death as a terrible fate. I imagine death as a warm embrace and the Lord’s way of letting you know that you lived a long and glorious life and deserve to finally rest. Passing away should be seen as a sweet ending to the final act of your life, and oh the things I would give to bear the wakeless sleep.

I’ve always dreaded the possibility that the same would happen at my funeral, all hosts turning a blind eye to my grave. I have no real family left, so the only individual whom I could really think about who would pay respect is Jonathan. I do care about the man, and I’d hate for him to see me go, but nothing could compare to the sweet embrace that the Lord will bestow upon me. But if he chooses not to mourn over me, then I would not doubt his honesty; it would be understandable, to say the least. Jon would not be willing to perform euthanasia anyway, so I will be taking matters into my own hands. I just hope he watches over the grave for me. And I do hope that he will pay respect to the dead.

Simon Fisher.”

As I read the paper, I heard the doors to the church open with a creak which made my heart drop. I turned around to see the gravedigger standing in the doorway, shovel in hand. I tried to mutter some apology but my throat felt tight; I could only stand and face the consequences. The gravedigger started to walk towards me and for the first time ever, I heard him speak.

“You shouldn’t be in here. This place is off-limits,” he said in a low raspy voice.

He looked at my hand which was clutching the piece of paper. “Hand that over. That doesn’t belong to you.” He stood right in front of me, and for once, I got a closer inspection of the mysterious man who worked day by day in Old Lake Churchyard. The fabric of his clothes was torn and dirty, his hair was coarse and thin, and he wore a cross pendant around his neck. But what was most strange was that he wore a white plastic mask, obscuring his face. His mask was shaped to look like a face like he was pretending to be human. I could not begin to describe the fear I felt when he stared me down.

He held out his mudded gloved hand. It took me a moment to compose myself before I gave him the paper. He looked at the paper, then at me, seeming content. “Kid, I can let you off with a warning. Just don’t go sneaking around stealing stuff again,” He muttered, “Now, go home. It’s late.”

I silently nodded, and he turned around to leave the church. When I gathered my thoughts, I remembered why I was there in the first place; he was the reason I was doing all of this, and in the short interaction we had, he again didn’t mention the incidents. If he really does respect the dead, then why not respect my friends? Or worse, was he the sole reason for their deaths?

In a small burst of anger, I yelled at him, accusing him of murdering my friends. He stopped and turned to look at me; even behind the mask, I could tell he was frowning.

“What bizarre fantasy has your head been wrapped in? No, I did not kill your friends; it was just their time. Bad luck, I suppose. Your friends were insufferable, disturbing the peace,” I could hear the disappointment in his tone. I was still too stubborn to give up. I pushed the question further, asking how he predicted their deaths.

“It’s a strange world we live in; some things are just the way they are. I do not recall where such an ability comes from; it is a mystery to me as much as you. A lot of things change once you wake from a deep sleep.” he muttered.

My face grew pale once the realization struck me. Shakingly, I asked who was he, what was he.

“You should’ve recognized me by now.” the gravedigger said before reaching for his face. He released the strap, and the mask was removed. What I saw behind that mask was like staring into death itself. His skin and flesh were rotten, and his teeth were decayed. He had no eyelids, leaving his eyes wide open. Everything that made him human was discarded, but what disturbed me most was the gash on the side of his skull.

He only showed his face for a moment, but my looking at him filled me with such a fear I didn’t know I was capable of feeling, and he was drinking it all in. I tried to speak, but the words were stuck in my throat; I was almost on the brink of tears.

The gravedigger put his mask back on before speaking again. “Kids like you should learn to respect the dead. Before you join them below the earth.”

That’s the last thing I heard from him before I ran out of the church; I did not want to spend another minute in that awful place. I didn’t know where I was running, and I could barely see a thing in the dark, but anywhere was better than the graveyard. I did get a glimpse of one thing, one thing which is making my hand tremble as I write this.

A fourth grave right next to my friends’.

The last few days are a bit of a blur. While I was running, my legs gave in, and I collapsed on the sidewalk, unconscious. I was sent to the hospital, treated, and off on my way. I’m still recovering in my bedroom. I haven’t been able to talk to anyone about the gravedigger. I want to call the police, but what would I tell them? No real crime actually happened so what’s the point? I am so frustrated and scared at the same time; I don’t know what to do. I suppose the only thing I can say right now is that I, we, were in the wrong. We should’ve learned to respect the dead.

I haven’t been back to the churchyard, but I will be there soon, down below the earth.