by Cristina Van Dyck
Reuben watched the funeral from a distance, ignoring the steady patter of rain that fell through the boughs of the tree. Water dripped from the bill of his stained groundskeeper’s cap, spattering his crossed arms. He shuffled his feet every couple of minutes, chilled, breath fogging from his open mouth. He pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and blew his nose. The sound was loud enough to attract a glance or two from the funeral party. A woman sobbed. Reuben smirked and leaned against the tree, his shovel propped next to him.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Dean said behind him. He wore a polo shirt tucked into dark-blue jeans, and a blue-and-black hiking jacket, his large square hands pushed into its pockets. On his head was a cap identical to Reuben’s. Across the front, it read, “DuMar Digging”.
Reuben nodded. “I know, Mr. DuMar.”
Dean stepped around him and looked down at his employee. “You do good work, Reuben. But you can’t hang around the services like this.” He gestured toward Reuben’s green, dirt-smeared pants, work boots caked in mud. His eyes lingered on the shovel, polished to a shine. Rain beaded on the pointed silver scoop and its cherry-stained handle glowed warmly in the grey light. Dean shook his head. “Don’t make me tell you again. I’d hate to let you go.”
Once more, Reuben nodded. “Okay, Mr. DuMar,” he said as the other man retreated beyond the hedges.
Vega scuffed her booted foot against the wet grass as the priest droned on. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
And dust shall Aunt Ina, the bitch-hag-from-hell, remain, Vega thought.
A noise caught her attention, and she looked toward a clump of oaks not far away. A man stood there, in mud-spattered work clothes. A canvas sack lay at his feet. He wore an odd expression that Vega couldn’t interpret. A mixture of excitement and anticipation, it seemed to her. She watched as another man approached him and spoke for a moment or two before moving on. What’s up with him? she wondered.
When the service was over, she hugged her father, more in congratulation for surviving his sister’s reign of tyranny than in sympathy, and slowly approached the man with the sack. She studied him before she spoke. He stared back in silence.
“This is a funeral, you know,” she said finally, pushing blue-black-purple hair out of her eyes. Her long, blue-painted nails scratched along the skin of her face, a sensation she relished.
“What are you doing here?”
“Watching.” He was fascinated by her timeless punk costume, dark, multi-colored hair, styled in long cascading spikes around her face. Black rimmed her eyes, trailing to a long curlicue past the corners, making their large, dark, roundness stand out. On her full mouth, she wore dark-red lipstick. She was Robert Smith and Pink rolled into one. She intrigued him. “I work here.”
She nodded and eyed his work clothes. “You bury people?”
Her left foot stretched out and nudged the canvas sack between them. “That your shovel?”
“You gonna bury my aunt?”
“If that’s who she is.”
She nodded again. “Can I help?” she asked after a pause, surprising them both. “She was a complete bitch, especially to my dad and my aunt. I hated her. Everyone did. ‘Cept my grandma. She’s the only one who cried.” She looked back at the small group of relatives walking toward their cars.
Her father’s voice called out, “We’re going!”
“My dad. So can I help, or what?”
“No, I don’t think so. Against the rules.”
“I just don’t think my boss would like it.”
She shrugged. “What’s your name, anyway?”
When he didn’t ask, she said, “Mine’s Vega.”
He looked down at his hands, contemplating them a moment before speaking. “Was your aunt really a bitch?”
“You really hated her?”
“Everyone did. She was awful. She beat the shit out of my dad and my Aunt Serena when they were kids. She had nothin’ good to say about anything. Or anyone.”
“You want to play a game with me, Vega?”
She stepped back, suddenly wary. “What do you mean?” She glanced back at her parents. Her father had started to walk toward her.
“It’s a prank, really. On your Aunt.”
She studied him, and a slow smile spread across her face. “Yeah?”
“Yes.” He toed his shovel gently. “And we’ll use this.”
She paused a moment, considering. “You mean, like, egg her coffin or something?”
A frisson of nervous excitement coursed through her core, and she chewed at her lower lip. “Yeah. Okay.”
“Good. Meet me at the gate at midnight, and I’ll let you in. I have a key.”
“How about we meet right here? I know a shortcut through the woods that leads right to the cemetery.”
Reuben smiled. “Perfect.”
He watched as she skulked back to her family.
A minute or two later, Dean had rejoined him. Reuben picked up his shovel and stepped forward, but Dean DuMar laid a hand on his shoulder. “Not, yet, Reuben. Wait until they all leave. You know the procedure.”
Reuben glanced down at the hand, then up at Dean, his face expressionless. “Right, Mr. DuMar.” Reuben knew the procedure quite well. There were only three rules, really. Wait well out of sight--preferably in the cramped groundskeeper’s office sipping coffee--until Dean gave the okay. Don’t let the mourners see you. And for God’s sake keep the shovel out of sight.
“All right,” Dean said and clapped Reuben on the shoulder. “Looks like everyone’s gone. Let’s get a move on.”
Reuben followed his boss to the gravesite and together they started the awkward task of easing the lowering straps from beneath the casket. One was stubborn however, and Reuben had to lower himself into the pit to disengage it. He straddled the coffin and bent forward pulling and fiddling until it was free. While he was down there, he admired the mahogany finish on the coffin and stroked the smooth texture, pushing aside the yellow roses someone had thrown onto it. Grabbing hold of the strap that still hung over the side, Reuben got a toe-hold in the wet earthen wall of the grave and hoisted himself out. “All set, Dean,” he said.
Dean disassembled the frame then trundled it back to the truck, which he had driven to the site while Reuben worked below. Reuben grabbed his shovel, and began tossing dirt over the coffin. As the level rose he let it lie loose, without tamping it down, so by the time he was done, it lay in an overlarge mound. Dean had already returned to the office to listen to his phone messages and arrange new contracts, so he wasn’t around to notice and comment. He never checked Reuben’s work anymore. Dean trusted him.
Reuben held his shovel away from him, letting the rain washing away some of the dirt. He took out a rag and wiped off the rest, pausing to rub at a stubborn spot, then slipped it carefully into its custom-made, felt-lined canvas case. He lifted the case by its leather handles like a guitar, taking comfort in its heft, and started for home.
Reuben’s cabin lay twenty yards from the path he knew Vega would take. Shortly before midnight, he left his home, locking the door behind him, and waited behind a large tree. When he heard her soft tread draw close, he stepped away from the tree and into the middle of the narrow lane.
She let out a tight squeak and stopped short. She raised her flashlight and shined it on his face. “Jesus!” she said. “You scared the piss out of me.”
“How’d you know I’d be here?”
He waved in a vague direction off the path. “I live right over there, and know all the paths in these woods. This is the only one that leads to the cemetery.”
“You ready to start?”
She nodded. “Yeah.” She continued walking and he fell in step beside her. “What we’re doing, whatever it is, is it, like, illegal?”
“Illegal?” He considered this a moment as if he’d never given it thought before. “Yeah, probably. Is that a problem?”
“Oh no. That’s cool. I mean, like, well, I just don’t wanna get caught, is all.”
He shook his head. “Nah. We won’t get caught. I’ve never been caught before.”
“You’ve done this before?”
Reuben and Vega walked in silence until they reached the edge of the wood, which marked the outer boundaries of the cemetery. She stepped over a flat grave marker, and trotted up to Reuben, who had already reached the main gravel path. She looked around, and saw there were several fresh graves. “Um, I don’t really remember where she’s at. Do you?”
“Yes, indeed.” Her words sounded far away, to him; the voices had begun demanding his attention again. They whispered to him, urging him in one direction and then another. They were what told him who should be chosen, and who to leave alone. They told him Vega’s Aunt Ina was ideal.
She followed silently until they approached Ina’s grave. It was unmarked, the stone ordered was meant to be delivered in a week’s time. “Yeah, this looks like the one.” She looked around. “I think.”
He unzipped the canvas sack, withdrawing his stainless steel shovel, and handed it to Her. She took it, holding it between her small hands like a security blanket. “What’re we gonna do?” she asked.
He turned his back to her and bent over his shovel, hefting it up and then thrusting it into the loosely packed earth. He sighed. The first shovelful thrilled him the most; it sent a tingling sensation from the palms of his hands, up his arms, down his spine and into his feet. His toes curled inside his work boots. He glanced at Vega, who watched nervously, her eyes darting from him to points around the cemetery. He tossed the dirt to the side and said, “Don’t worry. I know this place. I work here, remember? We’re far from the road. No one will see us.”
She only nodded, and watched him dig.
At last, the shovel hit the polished wood of the coffin. The dull noise reached her ears.
“Hey, is that it?” She peered over the edge and saw him on his hands and knees, fiddling with something on the side. He closed his eyes, and heaved the cover open, the edges scraping the sides of the grave. Loosened dirt cascaded in small avalanches into the open crack as he lifted. She turned on the flashlight and looked inside. A gasp escaped her throat. “Oh my god. I don’t believe we really did it.” She felt a tightening in her middle, her excitement almost painful.
Reuben smiled up at her, his face triumphant. “And now for the good part.” He withdrew a hunting knife he kept hidden in a sheath in his work boot and stared at her. “Which one do you want?”
Vega blinked. “Which one what?”
He gestured toward Ina’s hands, folded coolly on her breast.
“Which finger?” she said. “You want to take her fingers?”
“Just one.” he said. “Unless you want one. Then we’ll take two. Just as tokens.”
“Christ. Tokens of what?”
He shrugged. “Of anything. For me, it’s part of a collection. A token of the shit of humanity.”
She stared. “What about me?”
“For you? A token of… revenge. You love your dad?”
“Then do it for him. You’re lucky, you know,” he continued, “that you can do this. Not everyone can.”
She looked from Reuben’s face to Ina’s hands. Those long bony fingers, so sharp she could still feel their hardness in her shoulders where Ina had so often poked her to make a point. Rebuen’s knife caught the moonlight, and Vega smiled. “I want the middle finger,” she said. “The one with the big blue stone in the ring.”
He tapped it, the tip of his knife making a light clink in the darkness. “This one, here?”
“Yeah. That one.”
“Good choice.” He hunkered over, put the blade to the flesh, and began to cut. Vega shifted her feet and then dropped to her knees to get a better look, then decided better of it.
“Here you go,” he said, straightening. He held the finger out to her, still dripping embalming fluid. She just looked at it. “Here,” he urged. “Take it. It’s yours.”
She pinched the lone digit between two fingers. It dripped twice on her left boot, and she reached out to catch the next drip with her finger. The fluid was cold and viscous on her skin.
“All done.” He lifted himself out of the ditch and dropped another of Aunt Ina’s stolen fingers into a baggie and tucked them into a small pocket of the canvas sack. He sounded almost cheery. “Let me get this dirt back in the hole, and we can go.”
She held the finger out to him. “Here, you keep it.”
He stared at her. “It’s yours.”
“I can’t keep it. What am I supposed to do, hide it in my room? What if my folks find it or something?” She shook her head. “You keep it for me. It’ll be safer with you.”
Reuben had nodded, dropping the finger into the baggie with the other, and pushed it into the pocket of his shovel bag. “Okay.”
Vega opened her locker, and tossed her Chem books inside. “Stupid class,” she muttered. She rummaged around, searching for her History homework, and found it folded and crammed in the text. A voice in her hear surprised her, and she let out a little squeal.
“You’re so sexy,” Chris whispered. He came up behind her and pulled her butt to his hips.
“Hey,” she said, turning around in his arms to smile at him. She reached up and combed her fingers through his thick, sandy hair. Chris groaned with pleasure, then he turned his head and looked down the hallway, nodding once to someone in the distance. Vega followed his gaze and her smile faded. A pretty, long-haired blonde returned Chris’s wave, waiting for him. “I don’t believe it.”
Chris looked back at his girlfriend, shaking his head. “What?”
She pointed a long midnight-blue nail into his chest. “You cheating asshole. Someone told me you’ve been fucking around behind my back, but I wouldn’t believe them.” She shook her head curled her lip at him. “You can just get the fuck out of my face right now.”
She tried to push past him, but he gripped her in his strong hands.
“Vega, she’s my lab partner--”
“Just shut up, and get outta my way. It’s over.” She slammed her locker shut, stepped around him and stormed down the hall, still crowded with students. She kept her eyes locked on the girl, and rammed into her shoulder as she passed. The girl whirled with the impact, scattering her books, but it gave Vega little satisfaction. She crashed through the doors of the stairwell, ignoring the yells of students on the other side, hurried down the stairs, and into the girls’ bathroom. Pushing her way through the smoky air, she locked herself inside the furthest stall, and cried.
She had to get out of here.
When the bell rang and the halls cleared, she wiped her face with toilet paper and slipped out of the bathroom and down the hall that led to the theatre department. There was no class there this hour, she knew, so she sneaked through the empty room to the backstage. Skirting around stored scenery and tables of props, she made her way to the back door and left the school.
Kicking at the clutter of fallen leaves, she turned left and followed the sidewalk to the dead end that abutted a small forest. Crossing over the low barricade, she pushed aside branches and brush that barred the way into the wood and stepped inside. She took a narrow, little-used path through the trees and breathed deeply, filling her eyes with the reds and yellows of autumn, her lungs with the musty smell of mulch and decay.
Damn him, she thought. Damn him! She trudged through the deadfall that clotted the path, kicking leaves soft and rotting from the recent rain, wiping tears from her eyes.
Veering off the path she took a narrower trail through the trees to Reuben’s cabin. She hoped he was home. He’d probably have something to bring her out of her funk; he always did. Besides, she needed the company. She felt calmer now, but the sense of betrayal numbed her.
“Asshole,” she muttered under her breath.
She was relieved to see smoke coming from Reuben’s chimney, and the little clearing in which he dwelt looked warm and inviting. From somewhere beyond her teenaged sensibilities, she pondered the irony that hovered between appearance and reality. When she raised her fist to knock, the door opened and Reuben’s face jutted between the crack. “Out of school a little early, aren’t you?”
“What are you, my mother?”
He stepped back and opened the door wide. “Just asking.”
She walked in and sat at the small table before the fireplace. “It’s a shit day, and I needed to get away.”
He nodded but remained at the door, watching her as she stared into the fire. “What happened?”
“My fucking boyfriend. He’s cheating on me. I know it. I broke up with him.”
He felt his gorge rise and swallowed hard. “You have a boyfriend?”
“Not anymore, the piece of shit.” She stared at the table, running a nail along a crack in its surface. A tear fell and glistened in the light.
He cleared his throat, forcing himself to unfist his hands. “Well, I have a job in a few minutes.”
“Don’t you have anything for me?” She looked at him, her large brown eyes imploring. The black liner there had smudged, giving her a fetching appearance, a sad waif begging warmth and comfort. And Reuben wanted to comfort her.
“What do you need?” Reuben asked, closing the door and moving toward the cupboard that hung over the stove in the little niche that served as a kitchen.
“I don’t know. A downer I think. I don’t have a lot of cash on me.”
He pulled down an old wooden cigar box and sat at the table across from her. Searching through his selection, he shook out three pills from a small brown-glass bottle. He handed them to her and said, “These’re on the house. Take one pill now, and keep the others for an emergency.”
“Thanks,” she said, dry-swallowing one of the pills.
Then he pulled out a joint and pushed it across the table. “Here. You can have this, too.”
“Wow. Like Christmas.” She reached across and took the joint, her fingers brushing over his.
Reuben snatched his hand away and hurried the box back to the cupboard to hide his face. The touch was like electricity to him. “You can crash here a few hours, until I get back,” he said.
She was silent a moment before she spoke again. “You goin’ out tonight, too?”
“Can I come with?” She lowered her eyes to the table, where she fingered a splinter in the wood, then looked up at him and smiled. “Please?”
“Yeah, sure.” He walked toward the door, put on his jacket and picked up the canvas bag that held his shovel. “Those pills will probably knock you out, so make yourself comfortable. I’ll be back late this afternoon. Lock up before you fall asleep, okay?” He left, closing the door behind him.
She rose and wandered around the sparsely furnished cabin. It was small, and there was little to look at. She stopped at the foot of the bed and toed the loose floorboard where she knew Reuben’s gruesome collection lay hidden. She considered lighting the joint, but decided to save it for another time.
She yawned and sat on the bed to untie her Doc Martins and worked them off her feet. Then she lay back, thinking about Chris and the blonde. Had she seen them together before? She thought she had. She started crying again. Damn him, she thought. Damn him to hell!
The fire had died down, and the cabin grew chill. She considered throwing more wood on, but feeling sleepy, she instead burrowed under the covers and closed her eyes. The pill had worked fast on her empty stomach, and she had time to wonder what it was before she fell asleep, her eyes still moist from her tears.
Reuben worked hastily, opening the grave of an old man known among some for his taste for young children. Boys in particular. He’d fidgeted through the graveside service, hidden behind tall shrubbery, and hurried through the closing, eliciting a few worried glances from Dean.
“Is everything all right, Reuben?”
Reuben stopped pulling at the straps that lowered the coffin into the ground and stared at his boss. “Yeah, Mr. DuMar,” he said, finally. “Everything’s fine.”
“You look a little nervous.”
Reuben pulled up the last strap and began to disassemble the lowering device. “A lot of things on my mind, I guess.”
Dean DuMar nodded. “Well, if there’s anything I can do, you know to just ask.”
“Yes, Mr. DuMar.”
Dean left Reuben to fill the grave and tamp the earth, never noticing that, once again, Reuben had made a loose job of it.
By the time Reuben returned home, the light had faded to a grey dimness, and in the wood it was already dark. He knew well the way to his little house, and walked through the darkness without a flashlight. He sensed more than saw the narrow detour to his cabin, and he pushed through bare, reaching tree limbs to the clearing. He was disappointed to see the windows were dark and the fire had burned out. To his annoyance, the door had been left unlocked, and he stepped inside, leaving his shovel by the door. He fumbled for the kitchen matches and lit the gas lantern he preferred to electric light.
When he turned, holding the lantern aloft, he saw Vega laid out on his bed, still very much asleep. He walked toward her and raised the lantern to look at her. She looked like an exotic cat, sleeping under the patchwork coverlet his mother had sewn for him when he was a boy. Her full mouth, still red with a trace of lipstick, was partly open, and when he bent close, he could smell the sleepy sourness of her breath. He reached out and ran a dirty finger down her short upturned nose. With the back of his rough hand, he touched her smooth pale cheek, lowering his mouth to hers. “Wake up, Sleeping Beauty,” he said softly.
When she didn’t stir, he gently pulled the coverlet back until she lay exposed to the chill air. Her shirt had hitched up, leaving her midriff bare. He held the lantern over her and watched in amazement as her nipples perked and goosebumps marched across her skin. He felt himself grow hard, and lay his hand flat on Vega’s warm belly, pushing upward beneath her shirt until he cupped her breast. He kneaded gently and squeezed her nipple until she stirred, shifting her legs. He reached for her hand and held it, toying with her warm fingers, pressing them to his lips. He dared to slip one between his teeth to nibble the tip. She murmured incoherently.
Reuben carefully lowered her hand and had time to step back before she opened her eyes.
“You’re back,” she said and smiled sleepily, rubbing at the invisible cobwebs he knew she felt across her face.
“Yeah. I was just about to wake you.”
“Are we going soon?”
“No. It’s too early.”
“What time is it?” she asked, looking around. “It’s so dark. ”
“It’s only five-thirty or so.”
“Oh. I should probably call my folks. Tell them I’m somewhere, so they don’t come lookin’ for me.” She sat up and stretched, shaking her head and rubbing her face again. “I feel like hell. Got anything to eat? I’d kill for some water, too.”
While Reuben busied himself in the fridge, Vega padded across the cold floor in sock feet to the table, where she had dumped her backpack to the floor. She rummaged through it until she found her cell phone. While she spoke, Reuben set a plate with a sandwich and a glass of water on the table, then built a fire and had a few flames going when she hung up.
“I’m all set. I told them I was sleeping over at Trina’s.”
“An invisible friend.” She laughed, but it was a hollow sound. “Hey,” she drawled, blinking her sleepy eyes and reaching for the joint, “we still have this. Wanna smoke it?”
Reuben stared at her. “Yes.”
“Great. Let’s kill a little time, shall we?” She pawed through her backpack again, this time withdrawing a metallic-blue lighter.
Reuben watched as her small fingers worked the flint and held the joint between her lips, and the voices started to whisper. The hours that passed were anguished, and when it came time to leave, he pushed her out the door, hurrying along behind her.
When they returned to the cabin later that night, Reuben opened the door, stamping his feet on the doormat before entering. Vega followed, pulling the door closed behind them. She handed the bag she carried to Reuben, who took it from her and went to the foot of his bed, feeling for the loose floorboard in the near-darkness of the room. He pried it up with his fingernails and withdrew a wooden cigar box identical to the one that hid his cache of marijuana and narcotics. Three other cigar boxes lay beneath the one on top, the hole dug a little deeper each time a new box was added.
She poked at the fire, and laid on another log. The fire snapped and flared around her outstretched arm. A spark landed on her skin and she yelped, jerking her arm back and tumbling the log out of the fire. She rubbed at the pinpoint burn and sulked a moment, before turning to Reuben. “You do it,” she said. “It fell off and I can’t get it.”
He packed away the baggie that held the child molester’s finger. It was a large finger, long and thick, and Reuben meditated on the things that finger had done. It was rare someone of the old man’s reputation happened upon his patch of graveyard, but when one did, it made the voices particularly agitated, and they usually quieted down after his task was complete.
He didn’t know what the voices were, really--whether they were voices of ghosts or some telepathic part of his own mind--just that they told him what to do. They hadn’t subsided after he’d taken the man’s finger tonight, and that disturbed him. In fact, they got louder in Vega’s presence. He liked her, didn’t want to hurt her. He supposed he even loved her in his own way, and that was the part he was afraid of most. It made him no better than the old pervert whose finger he still held. If he allowed himself to love her, it would be too easy to allow himself the pleasure of others. Who knew how loud the voices would get then? What would they finally tell him to do when he gave in to his weakness, so similar to the old man’s? He struggled to push the persistent murmuring away.
He turned around to find her still massaging her arm and stepped closer, laying the box on the table. “Let me see.”
She held out her arm and pouted. “I burned myself.”
He held her arm, rubbing a hand over the sore spot. “Right here?”
“Yeah,” she said softly. She looked up at him from the corners of her dark eyes, a slight smile playing on her lips. She knew he had touched her while he thought she slept, the way she looked at him told him so. “Don’t worry about it. I think I’ll live.”
He swallowed, letting go of her arm. The voices were getting louder. He glanced at the shovel propped against the wall next to the door, encased in its custom-made sack.
“You still have my aunt’s finger in there?” She thrust her chin toward the box on the table.
“Yes,” he said, “both of them.” He sat on the chair, bending to unlace his muddy boots and took them off. He left his knife sheathed at his ankle. As his hand passed over it, he thumbed open the catch, trying not to think about what he might do. He hoped she would leave soon.
“Lemme see,” she said.
He sat up and held the box out to her. She moved until she stood almost between his knees and he had to move the box to make way for her. She peered inside until she found the one she sought, picked it up, and examined it through the baggie. “The ring’s still on it.”
“Of course it is. I wouldn’t take it from you.”
She laughed. “I didn’t say you would. I was just surprised, is all. I kinda forgot about it.” She smiled down at him, a mother indulging a slow child.
Reuben’s anger flared, and the voices crescendoed out of their murmuring.
Take her, said one voice.
Kill her, said another.
She thinks she’s better than you!
Do it now!
He turned his head away, blinking, rubbing the heels of his hands into his eyes.
“What’s wrong with you?” Vega tilted her head, brow furrowed.
“Nothing,” he said. His voice sounded strangled. “Go away.”
She sat on his knee. “But I have nowhere to go. I already told my parents--”
He pushed her away. “Just go! Leave!”
She stared at him. “You’re pathetic.”
She had turned to walk away when he shot out of his chair and grabbed her by the arm, holding his knife in his other hand. His eyes gleamed with rage, and she cringed in his grasp. They remained locked together a moment, then something in Vega’s young mind turned over.
Her fear subsided, replaced by cool calculation. She considered him carefully, and the excitement of wrongdoing they had shared, the overtone of intimacy it had produced. He was short and sturdy, strong from burying people and digging them back up again. His green eyes were wide-set, and his light-brown hair was a mass of waves that hung over his forehead. He was not attractive, but there was something primitive and dangerous about him that appealed to her. He excited her.
She smiled again. “What are you going to do? Kill me?”
Reuben laughed. It was a vicious, bark of a laugh, and Vega caught a peculiar glint in his expression that alerted her to very real danger. Her smile faded, and tried to pull her hand away, but he held fast, his grin morphing into a leer. Her breath caught in her chest. He pressed the knife against her throat.
“What are you doing with that?” She heard the waver in her voice and winced.
He traced the knife lightly across her shoulder blade and down her arm. He held her hand between them, gripping her by the wrist until she cried out, then teased her fingers with the point of the knife. He pressed a little and drew blood. She gasped.
“Your fingers are so lovely and plump and pink.” He smiled and tilted his head. “I think I’m in the mood for a souvenir.”
She blanched. “You already got one tonight. Isn’t that enough?”
He shook his head slowly, his eyes never leaving hers. “No. I want more.”
“But we’re friends, you and me. Friends. Right?”
“All the more reason. I want a token of trust. Of friendship.”
Her mind raced, then she smiled at Reuben suggestively, her teeth catching the light.
“I can give you a token.” She took the knife from his hand and dropped it to the floor. It landed point-down, near their feet. She pulled his head down and kissed him. “I’ll give you a real good token, and maybe take one or two for myself.”
Reuben grabbed her roughly and pulled her toward the bed.
“Easy, now,” she said. “Easy. I can make this nice.” She laid a hand on his chest, urging him to lie down, and slowly took off her clothes. “You got a job tomorrow night?”
He nodded, breathless.
“Good. I’ll be here,” she said, and slid onto the bed beside him.
“Chris?” Vega reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. He stood talking to his musician friends in the hallway, and he turned around to look at her.
“What do you want?”
Her hand slid to his chest and she lowered her head, looking at him shyly. “I just wanna say I’m sorry.”
He stepped closer, then took hold of her elbows and steered her away from his friends until she was against the lockers. “Vega, I can’t deal with your shit anymore. This is crazy.”
“I know,” she said, casting her gaze downward. A repentant girl. “I’m sorry, Chris. You know I love you. Don’t you?”
He sighed. “I guess so.”
She curled her arms around his neck, rubbed her nose against his, kissed him lightly on the lips in the way she knew he liked. “I’m sorry, Cwissy-wissy. Forgive me?”
His lips curled into a reluctant smile--she was so damn sexy, he couldn’t help himself--and kissed her back. “Okay.” He pressed himself against her. “But you have to make it up to me.”
“Naturally, Cwissy-wissy.” She ran her tongue over his lips and smiled.
“And you can’t call me that, anymore.”
“Whatever it takes.”
His hands moved to cup her face. “Are you free tonight?”
“Can you get away from the house?”
“Yeah. I already told my mom and dad I’d be at the library.”
He looked at her closely. “Good. Then let’s meet at the usual place. Six o’clock?”
“It’s a deal,” she said, and kissed him. “And there’s a surprise in it for you.”
He pressed himself closer still, their tongues touching. “You really turn me on.”
“Yeah,” she sighed, ignoring the lock that dug painfully into her back.
Vega flipped a black lock of hair out of her eyes, and glanced at her watch. It was nearly six o’clock. It was raining again, and the tree she stood beneath leaked drops of water around her. An occasional drop sunk through the thickness of her hair onto her scalp, rolling a cold wet trail to her forehead. She swiped at the wetness and blew air out of her nose with impatience, then climbed up the rickety boards that to the tree house.
A sliver pushed through her skin as she wiggled inside, cursing. She tossed her jacket aside and settled down on the heap of sleeping bags stuffed in the corner and started to work the sliver out with her nail. She and Chris had been meeting at this old place for months, ever since she’d decided to give herself to him. She snorted. Correction. She’d given herself to no one. Chris was her first, sure. Her first love. Her first lay. But had she given herself to him? As far as she was concerned, she was her own being, not up for grabs. She’d take, but not give. It was a very adult way of being, she thought.
A movement startled her out of her thoughts, and through the cut-out window she saw Chris plodding down the narrow, overgrown path that led toward the tree house. He swore as he heaved himself up the weather-worn boards nailed into the bole of the big oak.
“Christ, it’s nasty out there,” he said as he appeared through the hole in the floor.
She moved to make room for him. “But it’s so cozy in here,” she said as she took his hand and pulled him toward her.
He settled between her legs, his cheek nestled against her breast like a small child. “I’ve always liked this place,” he said, nipping her through the fabric of her sweater.
“Daddy and me made this place,” she said, and ran her fingers through his hair. So thick it was. A sandy blond color she loved.
“I know,” he said, “you told me before. ‘Daddy and me built this place when I turned ten years old.’”
“Yeah,” she said.
“Hey,” he said, turning his face toward her. “What’s up with you these days?”
“Nothin’,” she said. “I’m glad to see you.”
“Me too.” He lifted his head to kiss her. Their mouths met, and his tongue tasted hers greedily. “God, I want you,” he said between kisses.
“Me too,” she breathed. As they lay between the sleeping bags on the floor, he struggled out of his jeans and lifted her short skirt. She wriggled her hips and pushed down her leggings, spreading her thighs for him. Chris sighed and lowered himself over her. As he pushed into her, she saw only the image of Chris walking toward the pretty blonde, and felt nothing but hate.
Chris moved away from Vega and slipped his jeans on, not looking at her. She was a good screw, but a little fucked up. He chuckled at his own pun. He could take her any way he liked, and she’d do it with a smile. She was wild, that one. He liked that. That blonde from Biology, Jennifer, wasn’t as accommodating, but she was good for a straight lay. She was good at listening, too, and smelled like soap and flowery perfume. She was soft where Vega was rough, and Chris liked that, too.
“What’s so funny? What’re you thinkin’ about?”
His eyes slanted toward Vega. “You.” He hoped Vega didn’t still think he’d slept with Jennifer. He didn’t want to dump her. Again. But she’d come running back to him. Yes, she would.
Vega smiled. “Good things, I hope.”
Chris pulled on his black biker boots. “What do you think?” He flashed her a wide grin, showing his canines. The smile he knew she couldn’t resist.
He wondered when Jennifer would meet him again. He’d just come from her place before he met Vega at the tree house.
“Why can’t we go to the usual place? My parents will be home soon,” Jennifer had asked.
“Can’t, Sweetheart. There’s a hole in the roof, and the floor’s all wet.” The lie came so easily to him.
Jennifer nodded. “Okay.”
They’d shared a nice sweet ride, and he’d left her afterward with a kiss on the nose.
He threw Vega a wink and shimmied down the tree. “So what’s this surprise you’re planning?”
Her smile vanished as soon as he disappeared down the hole. She knew he was fucking that goody-two-shoes. She could smell the skank all over him. On his clothes. On his skin. On his breath. The bastard. “I been talkin’ to this one guy who lives around here. He’s, like, the gravedigger for this cemetery right over here, and he is the absolute Shit. You gotta meet him.”
She fixed her skirt and climbed down the ladder, shrugging into her leather motorcycle jacket when she reached the bottom. The buckle and zips clinked as she moved, and the smell of leather wafted upward. She inhaled and closed her eyes.
“You totally gotta meet him.” She opened her eyes again and turned around to face Chris.
“He does the craziest shit you just won’t believe. Besides,” she said, nuzzling up to him, “he’s got some good shit, and he likes me. He might share with both of us. Where do you think I get the stuff we smoke all the time?” She stood on her tip-toes to peck Chris on the cheek, and pretended not to notice when he pulled away ever so slightly. She let go of him and pranced down the path that lead toward Reuben’s cabin.
“Follow the wolf, little Red Riding Hood,” she called out.
“What do you mean, he likes you?”
Vega glanced over her shoulder and grinned. “What do you care?”
Chris caught up with her and grabbed her arm, whirled her around to face him. “What do you mean, he likes you?”
Vega’s smile vanished, leaving a cold light in her eyes. “What do you think?”
She yanked free of him and turned down the path again. Let him stew, she thought, and smiled to herself.
Reuben lay on his bed thinking about Vega, about the way she’d pleasured him the night before. He felt himself grow hard and gripped himself through his work pants. He thought he might relieve some of the tension when he heard footsteps coming up the path through the deadfall. He yanked his hand away from his crotch and sprang to his feet just as a knock sounded on the door. He took two strides and opened it.
“Hiya!” she said, and pushed past him. He stepped aside and started to close the door when another figure entered.
“Hi,” said the other.
Reuben, after casting a quick glance out the door, closed it and turned to Vega. “Who’s this?” He looked at the stranger and they measured each other, not liking what they found.
“This is Chris. He’s my boyfriend.” Vega smiled broadly.
Reuben stared at her. “Your boyfriend?” Bitch! Whore! went the voices. “Your boyfriend?”
“Yeah. C’mon Reuben. I told you about him. What’s the big deal?”
“He’s coming with us tonight. I thought it would be cool.”
Bitch! He rubbed his forehead with shaking hands. Whore! “Cool? You thought it would be cool? What’s wrong with you? Should we bring music too and have a party?”
She stood before him with her hands on her hips. Her lip pushed out in a little pout. “I thought we could be friends. Remember what I told you last night? A token of friendship?” She winked at him.
Reuben glanced at Chris still standing by the door, and smiled, the voices quieting again. “Oh yes. Yes, I’d forgotten,” he said, staring at the handsome young man.
Chris cleared his throat and shifted his feet. His eyes slid around the cabin, refusing to meet Reuben’s.
His gaze swiveled back to Vega. “Huh?”
She smiled sweetly and put a hand on his arm. He swallowed. “You got anything to get this party started? You know, before we go?” She glanced at the cabinet that held the box of marijuana and pills of various colors and shapes.
Reuben took down the box and sat at the table. Vega followed and sat across from him, leaving Chris to stand beside her. Reuben rolled a fat joint and lit up. They passed it around until nothing was left but a roach too small for even Vega to hold. He watched, his eyes bright, as Chris pulled Vega to him and started kissing her. She kissed back, and Reuben joined them, holding her from behind.
Chris lifted his face from hers to glare at him, and Vega laughed. “Now boys, there’s enough to go around.”
Vega let them fondle her, enjoying the warmth, the feeling of being pressed between two male bodies who wanted her. As their attentions became more fervent, she felt their hardness against her belly and backside. Reuben reached around and kneaded her breasts, while Chris slipped his hand up her skirt and down her panties. Her breathing quickened, and desire pulled at her from deep within. With regret, she pulled away to shake her finger at them.
“Naughty, naughty, boys. Not now. After the surprise.” She looked at each of them significantly and they stared back, the heat in their eyes searing through her. “C’mon you two. We got work to do.”
Vega laughed as she watched the other two shake themselves from their stupor. Reuben retrieved his canvas sack from its place near the door and they filed out of the house, heading toward the graveyard.
“What’s in the bag?” Chris asked.
“A shovel,” answered Reuben.
Vega took his hand and smiled up into his face. “That’s the surprise.”
They reached the cemetery and crawled through the thick hedges that bordered it. It had stopped raining, and night brought with it a thick fog.
“What are we doing here?” said Chris. His eyes were round and the skin around them taut and pale.
Vega looked at him and smiled, the fog enshrouding her when she continued walking. She listened to their feet swish through the wet grass and stumbled over a depression, earth that had settled over a gravesite and needed refilling. Chris reached out to catch her.
“Thanks,” she whispered.
They had reached the wide gravel path, and Reuben followed it briefly before angling toward a small copse of trees where a fresh grave lay beneath. Reuben stopped and unzipped his bag, withdrew the shovel and tossed the bag under the nearest tree. He propped the shovel between his splayed feet, rested his meaty hands on the handle, and grinned.
Chris stopped short. “Wait a minute.” he said, and pulled his hand out of Vega’s. “Wait a minute. You’re not going to dig there, are you?”
Vega moved next to Reuben and smiled again. “Not me, honey. You.” She took Reuben’s shovel and held it out toward Chris. “Surprise.”
Chris backpedaled, and Reuben, catching on quicker than Vega had expected, locked his arms through Chris’s from behind while the younger man struggled.
“This is what happens when you fuck around behind my back, asshole,” she spat.
“Hey! Don’t think I didn’t know. Don’t think I couldn’t smell her all over you, taste her in your mouth when you kissed me. You lied to me.”
“Please don’t what?”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry! It’s over, I swear. I’ll do anything you want. I promise. Just don’t kill me!”
Vega laughed. “You make me sick.” Then she nodded to Reuben. “Let him go.” Vega held the shovel out to Chris again. “Dig,” she said.
Chris took the shovel and started to dig.
It was well past midnight when the shovel thudded on the wooden lid of the casket that lay in the pit and Chris stopped digging. Vega peered within, shivering in the damp chill of night. They hadn’t brought flashlights and the moon was behind clouds. Vega could see enough to know that Chris was tired, but in his exhaustion he’d lost his fear. He stood on top of the coffin rolling his shoulders. “Now what?”
Vega shrugged. “Now it’s Reuben’s turn.”
“Turn for what?”
“He’s got business down there.”
Reuben slid into the pit and pried open the casket.
“Did I ever tell you about his collection?” She watched as Reuben grabbed the hand of the old woman within. She had been a stingy, nasty old bat. Vega remembered walking past her house on the way home from grade school. She would yell at the younger children who scampered up her spacious green lawn on a dare. “Bet you won’t get to her front porch before she hits you!” The old woman had thrown rocks at them, and she had a deadly aim. Vega had walked away with more than one nasty bump on her head.
Chris stood pressed against the foot of the grave, peering around Reuben’s shoulders. “Uh, no.”
“He collects fingers,” she said.
“Yep. But only from people who deserve it. People who are bad inside and do bad things.”
Chris looked at her sharply, and Vega nodded. “Yeah. But they gotta be dead, first.”
Vega handed Reuben the knife. He took it and bent to his task. Chris looked away. “Don’t worry,” said Vega. “It’s not messy.”
There was the sound of blade on bone as Reuben’s arm moved sharply upwards. He looked at his treasure and handed it to Vega. She took it and held it toward Chris. “Wanna see?”
“You two are sick.”
Vega shrugged and placed the finger on the grass beside the canvas sack. Chris started to climb out of the grave, but at a motion from Vega, Reuben grabbed his sleeve and stopped him.
“What the hell?” Chris had taken his leather jacket off while digging, and now he was shivering.
“We’re not done yet,” said Vega, “we gotta fill in the grave again.”
“Well, I can’t do it from down here.”
“No,” she said, “But I can.”
“What do you mean? Will you at least toss me my jacket?”
She ignored him. “Only pricks like you think you can get away with the shit you pull.”
Reuben grabbed Chris around the shoulders and held the knife to his throat. They struggled, and Chris freed himself enough to climb halfway out of the pit. Reuben yanked him by the hair and pulled him down again until he was kneeling on the coffin. He got a knee into Chris’s back and pressed him against the wall of the grave. He pulled his head backward by the hair, the tendons in his neck straining, his eyes bulging, and Vega gazed into them.
“What a waste,” she said and kicked dirt onto his face.
Chris struggled again. “You bitch.”
“Watch your mouth, pretty boy,” Reuben said. He appeared to enjoy Chris’s struggles.
“Jennifer was a way better lay than you any day.”
Vega shook her head. “You were lost anyway.” She nodded to Reuben. “Kill him.”
Reuben’s arm came up and slashed the knife across Chris’s throat, then let go. Chris looked up and met Vega’s eyes, and she stared back as his life drained away, down the front of his shirt. When he collapsed, Reuben bent and lifted one hand. “Which one do you want?”
“He’s mine,” she said. “I wanna do it.” She slid over the other side of the grave and took the knife from Reuben. “I want the middle finger.”
Reuben folded his hand over the other fingers, holding them down, and Vega held Chris’s middle finger firmly above the second knuckle. She drew the knife across the base and was surprised both by the ease with which the knife cut through the flesh, and by the sudden resistance of bone.
“No,” said Reuben. “You have to do it quick and hard. Like this.” He held the finger in one hand, letting the weight of the arm anchor it, and wrapped his other hand around Vega’s. He gripped the knife firmly through her hand, and brought the knife upward in a quick, smooth motion. Chris’s arm fell away, coming to rest against the muddy wall. Reuben handed Vega the finger. There was little blood.
“Thanks,” she said, taking it, still holding the knife in her other hand.
“You’ll get the hang of it,” said Reuben.
“Yeah. I just need a little practice, right?”
Reuben nodded, touching a strand of hair that had fallen over Vega’s eyes. “Remember what we did the other night?”
Vega stiffened. “Yeah.”
“I want to do it again. Right here.” He stepped closer and cupped her face in his hand, caressing her cheek with his thumb. It left a bloody streak across her skin.
She tried to moved away but he was fast, and gripped her hair tightly in his grimy fist. She stumbled over Chris’s body and fell heavily against the head of the grave. Before she knew what was happening, Reuben was on top of her, tumbled across Chris’s body, bloodying himself and her.
He reached for her, tore at her clothing, pushed at her breasts. Vega struggled against him and he wrested the knife from her hand. He shoved her short skirt over her waist and ripped away her leggings and panties. Anchoring her down with one arm, he unzipped his pants and pulled them down around his hips. He was hard, and plunged himself into her. His forcefulness caused her to cry out, and he buried his face in her neck, and she felt his breath hot and foul on her neck. His ragged breathing alerted Vega that he would come soon. When he did, she knew he would likely kill her.
Gathering her wits, she moved her hips with his, running her hands up his arms and down his back. His rhythm staggered, but he soon resumed his pace. She dragged her nails into his buttocks and he grunted, pumping harder into her. She licked his ear and touched his face, caressing his cheeks, his mouth. When her fingers reached his eyes, she smiled into them.
At the moment he came, she dug her thumbs into his eyeballs, pressing until she reached the back of the sockets. His eyeballs popped and warm fluid oozed down her arms. He screamed, clutching his face. Still pinned beneath him, she scrambled around her head for the knife, where his hand had dug into the earth to support himself over her. When she found it, she shoved it to the hilt into his neck, the blade scraping against gristle and bone. Reuben reached for his throat, his screams now nothing more than a gurgling rasp. Vega pulled out the knife and stabbed again and again. He fell on top of her, lifeless, his blood covering her neck and shoulders in a hot sticky mess.
With effort, she pushed him off and struggled up the side of the grave, but not before reaching for Reuben’s hand. Choosing the middle finger, she pressed the blade of the knife to the flesh and drew upward in one fast, strong movement. The finger came away and she held it tightly as she pulled herself over the edge. Then, with cold determination, she tossed the canvas sack and Chris’s jacket into the grave. As an afterthought, she threw in her own blood-sodden jacket as well. The knife she kept, and after wiping the blade in the grass and sliding it into her combat boot, she grabbed the shovel and began scooping mud and dirt into the open hole.
As she shoveled, she hopped into the grave, tamping down the earth with her feet, as she’d seen Reuben do. Then hoisted herself out, lifted more the wet earth and heaved it into the hole, until she had enough to tamp down again. Over and over she did this until the grave was filled. The mound was bigger than it had begun, but way out here, and considering the old coot who was buried there, she doubted anyone would notice.
The shovel she wiped down with her shirt and propped it against the tree near the grave. It would prove a nice mystery in the days ahead.
Rain started to fall, a few drops at first, then a heavy sheet of it. It plastered Vega’s hair to her head and washed away what blood remained. She walked toward the forest, through the fog, heading for home. She slipped through the thick hedges that bordered the cemetery and into the forest. In her left hand she gripped the tokens taken from the three people who shared the single lonely grave at the back of the cemetery.
“That’ll teach you,” she said, and grinned.
Word count: 9,254
© 2004 Cristina Van Dyck