The sun is starting to fall before Eugene sees anything other than trees and grass. Or rather, it is at this point that he starts to see nothing, as a thick fog creeps up from all around, and before he knows it envelops him in its damp embrace. Moisture beads upon the exposed skin of his face and hands, making the already difficult trek unpleasantly soggy as well. Several times he almost collides with trees, such is the opacity of the billowing vapor. The third or fourth time this happens, his now halted and much more hesitant steps are overlapped by the gentle crunch of foot upon grass from behind. He hesitates and then turns around as the noises continue, a regular rhythm that comes to a stop as he sees his companion in the mist.
About a yard or so away from him stands a man wearing a coarse-looking hood upon his head, a stained material with streaks both black and a dark red in scattered splashes upon the fabric. The hanging edges are ragged, individual threads with frayed ends visible. There are small holes punched through the cloth in a vaguely circular pattern over where the person’s eyes would be, and no other openings in the makeshift mask. A thin rope is tied around the middle, longs ends trailing in front to either side of the man’s nose and causing the top half to bulge slightly while the bottom hangs loosely, leaving only a sliver of dirt and sweat-stained skin visible above a torso bare of clothing but covered in dirt and grime that emphasizes the lines of muscles, tendons, and veins of this apparition. Loose, tan shorts are perhaps the cleanest thing about the man, spots of dried dirt mostly near where the pants legs end shortly above his calves, feet bare and toenails black with dirt and jagged. He is nearly as tall as Eugene, but not quite. There is a thick tree branch in his right hand, the end a mess of broken fiber around a sharp central point. It is stained dark all the way up to where his hand clutches it tightly.
They stare at each other for some time, though the other man’s eyes could be looking anywhere from behind the punctures through which he supposedly sees. Eugene hefts his pack, pulling on the straps that rest upon his shoulders and clears his throat.
“On the off chance that appearances are deceiving, may I help you with something, sir?”
There is no response from the man in the hood, and not a muscle moves. Eugene shifts on his feet. “Well, good day to you and safe travels.” As he starts to turn he sees the man flip the sharp branch point down and then lean forward to dash at him, so Eugene runs, eyes wide, teeth bared in a grimace, and pack bouncing upon his back. His initial lead shrinks rapidly, the unencumbered madman gaining on him by the second, not to mention the lingering fatigue from his earlier flight slowing his movements. Only desperation and fear keep his pace fast enough to make any difference. And then, as though they popped up from the ground, there are tall black bars only a few feet in front of him, a gap in between them to his left. He swerves through this gap and sees the open gate door off to the side, and whirling around, swings it shut with a clanging crash, the metal latch falling down and the point where they connect bent from the impact. Eugene backs away from the bars as the hooded man slows to a halt on the other side and stands staring once again. The masked head tilts back slightly, looking at the bars that rise up into the mist, edges of their square length sharp and slick with moisture. The empty hand reaches out and pulls on the gate, but it barely budges, and the hand falls back to the hooded man’s side. Eugene backs away further but does not turn away until compulsion drags his eyes to watch where he’s stepping. When he looks back up again, the hooded man is gone. It is as though the empty, billowing white mist swallowed him up, which it very likely did. None of this is very comforting, and as Eugene turns to see what sort of enclosure into which he’s wandered, the familiar shapes of stone headstones greet his eyes, squat grey arches peeking up through the fog.
“A graveyard. Of course.”
He takes one last look over his shoulder and, satisfied that no one is following, starts to make his way through the pock-marked ground of the graveyard. As he passes the first few headstones, he sees that the graves have been completely dug up, gaping rectangular holes that plunge down into darkness. This seems to be the case for all of them – there does not appear to be a plot that has been left undisturbed. Each has been dug up and is empty of coffin or body. He walks slower, his eyes fixed upon the ground in front of him, and avoids the stones when possible, but they are many and sometimes closely bunched together, forcing him to wend his way between them as he can, making a roundabout path until he is surrounded on all sides. How large is this cemetery? And why are all the graves dug up? Maybe they’re preparing for a lot of burials? Though, the implications of that… he shakes his head and attempts to pick up the pace, but the promulgation of pits keeps him from moving too fast. Then, just as he passes between two particularly ornate headstones, a noise breaks the quiet.
Eugene whirls about. There is one less headstone peeking up through the fog, the gap where it stood very obvious thanks to the regular cluster of the rest. “Ha! Of course it would fall as I pass through. These sort of places always seem inclined to scaring people. Not to mention the awful condition of the grounds. Whoever dug these graves should have used some of the dirt to fill in the other holes.” He takes another step.
Two more fall, and he sees a blur of movement from the corner of his eye, but the shape is gone just as soon as it appeared. Each time Eugene turns, stones fall behind him, and when he tries to get a glimpse of the cause, more sounds come from behind. Headstones continue to fall in this way until there is a solitary stone, a lonely island in the sea of light-grey fog. It is larger than the rest, a slab of crenelated and weather-worn sandstone that almost seems too big for a single person. Eugene stares at it, but it remains standing. He approaches it step by step, one of which is upon one of the fallen stones, his shoe scratching across the blank back. Making sure not to stand in front of the five foot tall, cross topped headstone he walks past it. And when he passes it, the sources of the falling stones become apparent.
There is what can only be called a gremlin crouched behind the stone, small and bent and moss green, pointed ears and pointed teeth grinning from beneath hooked nose. Or rather, there is a veritable pile of gremlins, all stacked on top of each other and staring with pure black eyes at Eugene, who gasps and backs away from the huddled horde. They all cackle in unison, a shrill, chittering noise, and then they turn, tiny clawed hands upon tiny arms pressing together against the back of the tombstone, toppling it into the yawning mouth of the grave in front of it. As soon as the stone hits the ground they scatter in all directions, cackling even more than before, leaping off each others backs and jumping all around, and there is a rumbling noise from below. Eugene staggers as the ground upon which he is standing trembles and starts to sink. His mouth drops open as he starts to run, the ground sinking behind him. Up ahead, more of the same black metal fencing that he passed through to enter the graveyard can be seen, and an open gate. He dashes for this, now running up a slight but increasing slope. An open grave blocks his path and he jumps. One foot makes it, the other dangling into the grave, knee hitting the ground as he scrabbles with his hands to keep from falling further, bits of dirt and dry grass peeling up in his grasp. He manages to pull himself from the pit, panting, and makes his way up the ever steepening sinkhole slope. Reaching the gate, he jumps over the threshold, the collapsing ground stopping behind the fencing as though the metal bars were holding the land together. Eugene watches on as the graveyard passes into the earth, a burial for the empty graves. Dirt walls descend down into darkness, roots protruding and a tree desperately clinging to the side, resisting the drop into the unknown below. As soon as he catches his breath, Eugene turns and walks on.
( ©2017 Sean Dorsey )