I saw that the Waller family dug up another grave today. Yet again, they’ve sunk thousands of dollars into the hope that they’ll find their son, Alex. Hope has proven to be a costly endeavor for them. As I’ve been told, they’ve spent well over a hundred thousand dollars on digging services alone. The story is nothing new. It keeps repeating itself like a broken record.
It’s such an odd sight to say the least. Every once in a blue moon, Nickolas and Judy Waller return to our town with a team of highly paid professionals. A backhoe is unloaded from the back of a truck. It creeps across the hallowed ground to the area where a concrete statue of Saint Lawrence stands before 36 graves like a lonely sentinel. Through the wind and rain, his facial expression never changes. With a crucifix in the crook of one arm and the other raised to the heavens, he stares solemnly upwards as if to offer the souls below him to the Lord. Saint Lawrence shouldn’t be there. Those 36 graves shouldn’t be there. That theatre fire should have never happened.
The beastly machine revs up its motor and fills the air with cloud of diesel exhaust that’s as dark as coal. Scoop by scoop, the machine slowly claws away at the earth like a tired animal desperately trying to escape the trap. First the sod is ripped from the ground and tossed to the side. Soon after, a few bucketful’s of top soil is piled up alongside the grave before another pile is made for the caramel-brown clay.
While the digging happens, Nick and Judy stand close to each other while quietly praying and singing Hallelujah in hopes that this hole will be the last they will ever have to excavate. Suddenly, the machine pulls up a unique mixture of earth; one that is composed of clay and soil that is black as pitch, and rich with decay. The hired men now know that their work with the machine is done for the time being as they send it crawling away from the grave.
From there, the men put on pairs of rubber overalls and gloves; and respirators on their faces. They then descend into the hole with their shovels. Like a volcanic eruption, scoops of soil spew from the hole until the dull, yet loud sound of metal sticking wood is heard. At a slower pace, dirt continues to fling from the open grave. In time, one of the men climbs out of the hole and retrieves a bundle of rope from the truck. He tosses the rope down and within minutes, the backhoe roars back to life. The rope is then attached to the machine’s arm. With the utmost care and skill by the operator, the old rotting casket is hoisted out of the ground.
The old wooden box is placed off to the side of the hole and is quickly covered by a sheet of tarpaulin to conceal it from curious eyes. Once more, the men descend back down into the hole and continue to carefully dig for several hours. Just like all the other times, the men run out of black soil and find only clay the deeper they go; indicating that what they are looking for isn’t there. Judy in a desperate plea yells to them, “Please keep digging! I know my baby is in there! You just have to go a little deeper!” Just to satisfy her, the men keep on with their work until the sun begins to descend. But as the sun fades away, so too does the spark of hope in both Judy and Nickolas.
When the hole has been dug far below a reasonable depth, it is deemed as a failed venture. The men climb out of the grave and replace the casket and soil in the same order they removed it. The backhoe is loaded onto the truck, the men hand the Wallers a business card, say their condolences, and then drive away. Yet, Nickolas and Judy remain at the graveyard until it is too dark for comfort. They do not gaze upon the grave they have dug that day, rather, they stare with a strange mixture of sorrow and hope at the grave that lies next to it, just waiting to be exhumed. They walk away from the matter for now, while Saint Lawrence remains just as still as before.
The grave that was dug up today was that of Jack Davidson. As I’ve been told, his mother and father finally gave in when the Wallers offered them 400,000 dollars. Now that I think about it, they were actually going to settle for 350,000, but that changed. Just before Paul Davidson was about to sign the papers, Judy made the comment that there was a silver-lining to the loss of his son. When Paul asked her to explain, she said that Paul and the others were lucky that she and her husband had to pay to search the graves of their loved ones. She went on to say that it was better than winning the lottery.
The price immediately jumped to 400,000 dollars.
I’m actually surprised that the Davidsons gave in. They always said that they weren’t going to play the Waller’s little game. They said that the way the Wallers had it set up was so callus and disgraceful, that it bordered on insults. You see, the Davidsons may have been offered 400,000 dollars, but that doesn’t mean they would actually receive 400,000 dollars. The Wallers have their contracts set up in a way where they would only have to pay if their son is found in the questioned grave. Now that I think about, Judy’s comparison to a lottery is actually quite fitting. The only gambit that the unwilling players had to wager was a son, brother, father, mother, or daughter.
I’ve paid close attention to this game over the last two decades. The first family that played the game were the Jacksons. Ever since Harold Jackson died, the family struggled to make ends meet. They sold out for 2,000 dollars, if I remember correctly. I don’t think they would have done it if they weren’t so desperate for money at the time. Of course, Alex wasn’t found in Harold’s grave, and the Jacksons never received any sort of prize. As the laws of probability dictated, the original odds were 1 in 36, but after Harold was exhumed, they became 1 in 35. Henceforth, the cash prize went up slightly when the people around here realized that the graves of their respective loved ones could be the lucky one. As the years went by and the odds increased, so too did the price.
Around these parts, the excavation and the desecration of the grave is viewed as one and the same despite the good intentions behind it; but that’s not to say the people around here won’t go against their morals when a big wad of cash is waved under their noses. I think it’s a dirty rotten shame that the Davidsons sold out. Their son Jack was far more deserving of a peaceful slumber than having his corpse pulled out of the ground. He was a fine young man. As a matter of fact, there was once a time when I looked forward to calling him my son-in-law. But that fire burned away the pages of the story that had yet to be written.
I can still recall that fire now as I saw it over twenty years ago. It was an average night and I was just about to fall asleep when I heard the sirens wailing past my house. Out of panic and curiosity, I went to the kitchen window and saw that the theater down the street was engulfed in flames. I quickly put on my shoes and sprinted towards the blaze. All I could do was watch helplessly as the flames climbed higher into the night.
The firemen wasted no time in connecting their hoses to the hydrants. Despite their loud shouts, I could hear the sound of screaming coming from inside of the theatre. As the water began to spray onto the fire, a team of the firemen sprinted into the building with their axes in hand.
After a few minutes, they pulled the first person out of the building. His name was Derek Svenold. He was caked in soot; and burns covered a large portion of his body. He looked lifeless as they laid him down on the grass across the street. All I could do was watch with shock. Until then, I’d never seen a dead body, but the horror of it all only became worse as the firemen laid more people next to him. The others had not faired to so well. Unlike Derek, their bodies where charred black and were unidentifiable in the darkness.
The smell was the worse. Never before had I smelled burnt flesh. The smell in and of itself wasn’t what bothered me. It was the idea that my nose was inhaling the essence of a dead body. I held my nightshirt over my nose to block it out while the people around me fled away from the scene feeling too sick to take much more.
Before the ambulance arrived, they had 25 bodies laid out on the grass. It was then I saw something that I can only describe as a miracle. Derek, the man that I assumed was dead, suddenly sat up in a fit of violent coughing. His eyes first locked onto the fire across the street. I saw the way they became wider and wider as the refection of the flames glinted off of them. He put his hands on his face, then his chest, and finally his legs. Without words, I knew he was in disbelief as to how he got away from the fire, and how he could be alive. He then turned his head and looked down at one of the charred corpses next to him.
He touched the flaky skin, pressed his fingers into it, and said, “Hey, ‘you alright?” When his question went unanswered, he began to gently shake the body. “Hey, wake up.” He said. I could see the realization starting to sink in just as the ambulance arrived. The paramedics quickly noticed him and helped him to his feet. Derek fought against them. He screamed while pointing his finger at the corpses, “What about them? What about my friends? What about my sister?”
As they put Derek in the back of the vehicle, the firemen carried even more bodies out, all 36 of them.
The sights and sounds of that night severely damaged Derek. Not only were parts of his skin disfigured, so too was his soul. He was prescribed pain killers for his recovery and quickly became addicted to them. I supposed the chemicals helped to fill a void that was burned away, if only temporary.
I wanted to help Derek anyway I could in the months that followed. I’m not a specialist in mental health, but I know that lending an ear can make a world of difference. With a great deal of compassion and respect, I asked him what it was like. I asked him how he felt about it all. Oddly enough, he told me a story that seemingly had nothing to do with fire at all, but after telling me I realized it had everything to do with it.
When he was only a child, one of his chores was to empty the mouse trap in his father’s garage. It was one of those live-traps; the kind that is made from galvanized steel and has little air holes punched into it. The idea behind these traps is to catch multiple mice without having to constantly reset it. Eventually, the mice could be taken out into the wild and humanely let go. At least, that’s what the advertisers sell it as. Instead, most people like Derek’s father have a rope tied to the trap so that it can easily be recovered from a body of water.
That was Derek’s duty. Once a week he would take the trap down to the river and toss it into the water. He said that he remembered the way the mice would squeal and thrash around as the trap sank into the river. Their little claws would scratch against the metal as every single one of them fought to keep their mouths in the disappearing air pocket. He said it would take about ten minutes before the air bubbles would stop coming up. When the job was done, he’d pull the trap out of the water, dump the dead mice, and put it back in the garage.
At the end of this little story, Derek said, “That’s what it was like to be stuck in that fire. Everyone in there was trying to claw their way out. People were being stepped over. Bodies were washed in flames. All I could do was watch as the people around dropped, one, by, one.”
Trying to be helpful, I told him, “There’s a reason why you survived Derek.”
He then gave me a look that bordered on annoyance and anger, “That’s what everyone tells me. I don’t know why in the hell I should have lived while the others died. I’ve talked to therapists, preachers, old folks, and people like you. You all tell me that I have a purpose in life. You all tell me that there’s a reason I lived, but none of you can tell me why.
“I’m surrounded by blind people. They tell me that I need to find the light switch, but the damned light switch isn’t even there. Maybe I’ve been given the gift of life. If I had it my way, I’d give it to someone else. I sure as hell don’t know what to do with it.”
It was only a couple of months after our conversation that Derek overdosed on pain meds. Unlike the others that died in the fire, Derek’s passing went quietly. The last victim of a disaster is rarely mentioned after all?
I don’t think that he would have wanted any recognition either. I remember how much it tore him up to see the aftermath of the fire being played over and over again on the news. Indeed our little town had its fifteen minutes of fame. Albeit the notoriety was neither asked for nor desired. Especially when our fifteen minutes turned to an hour, a day, a week, a month, and finally, a year.
It wasn’t the fire that gripped the attention of the newsmen. Oh no. They focused on the one person that didn’t die in the fire; and that person certainly wasn’t Derek. I suppose it’s noteworthy when the son of a wealthy family goes missing without a trace. That son was Alex; son of Nickolas and Judy Waller. And son of a bitch if you listen closely to the hushed whispers around town.
There really isn’t much to say about Alex. He was a college kid that took up residence in our town for two summers. It seemed like his favorite past-time was to indulge in the fiery burn of whiskey, as his favorite haunt was the local bar. As sure as a dew covered flower finds the morning sun, nighttime would find Alex wasting away in a corner booth.
You could almost set your watch by his routine. At around 8 o’clock every night, he’d leave his apartment above Nix’s Garage. He’d venture past the Old Catholic church, the graveyard, two blocks of homes, the theater, and would finally end up at the bar. When last call came at two in the morning, he’d make the same journey back, only in reverse; while stumbling and staggering the entire way.
This fact was well known and was quietly talked of as gossip amongst ourselves when he was out of earshot. Normally, this type of behavior is overlooked by us townsfolk. After all, we already have our fair share of bottle dwelling persons. Like the Bremar brothers; the proud veterans that proudly show their battle scars from the war, even if the wounds are in places where no one wants to look. Even our mayor keeps himself in good spirits. An outsider might see this as a problem, but we actually get a sense of safely from it. I mean, the man can hardly find the wallet in his own pocket, let alone someone else’s.
The complaints made about Alex’s drinking habits were not the main issue. It was just another thing to talk about with the spicy indulgence of gossip. There were other things about Alex we did not take kindly to. For the sake of politeness, I will not say where Alex hailed from, but I will say that his upbringing did not correlate with our own.
As I remember Alex, all I can recall is a snide young man that refused to adapt to the long standing traditions of our little social order. These arbitrary social laws have never been formally written, bear no legal standing, but are heavily instilled by the wrath of a father’s belt. I’m led to believe that the Waller’s idea of normalcy finds ours backwards and barbaric.
These are the three basic laws of our little culture:
Never touch another man’s money.
Never touch another man’s tools.
And never touch another man’s woman; whether it be his wife or his daughter.
Alex was the worst offender of the third. As the way it is seen around here, the best way to deal with a feral dog like Alex is to drag it into the back alley and thrash it around until it scurries away with its tail between its legs. The method behind the madness usually works. I say usually because it certainly had no effect on Alex. As I recall, there was more than a few times that Alex made a lewd pass towards one of the local girls, only to have it met with the fury of the lady’s brother, father, or the like.
For those two summers he was with us, this behavior did not change, but it went away immediately after he vanished without a trace. I don’t think the general public really noticed his absence at first. That theater fire clouded every mind like a morning mist looming over the harbor before the storm.
I don’t think anyone can be blamed for not noticing. It’s especially sobering to see 36 graves being dug in advance for the ones you knew. 36 may seem like a small number in and of itself, but when it comes to the matter of death, it’s a lot.
I remember watching all 36 of those graves being dug. The first two or three didn’t seem like a big deal; they were just holes. But to see so many blurred the lines of reality. There was so much dirt scattered around that each individual hole seemed to blend in with the other. In a way, it reminded me of a mass grave that was dug in the heat of war. The only things missing were the multitude of tangled, bloated corpses, and a dusting of lye.
Through all the blinding chaos the fire brought, there were still two people that noticed Alex’s disappearance even though they were a long plane ride away. Those people were his parents, Nicholas and Judy. As mothers and fathers usually do, they called and sent Alex letters on a weekly basis. When Alex failed to return either of these things for two weeks, they became suspicious. Then after a month, they dreaded the reasons why.
The Wallers sent our sheriff to check on Alex at his apartment. After several knocks on the door at several different times during the day without a reply, the sheriff had the landlord open the door. What they found of course was nothing out of the ordinary. There were no signs of Alex or any sinister hints to his whereabouts. It simply looked like Alex stepped away from his home for a while and could return at any moment, but he never came back.
Of course this was all newsworthy material and it didn’t take long for a flood of volunteers to come search for him. For weeks they walked in a line through the fields and woods with no results. These searches soon stopped when Janette Thomas revealed what she allegedly saw one night.
What Janette had to say about the matter completely trumped all the theories to Alex’s whereabouts. The story itself is shaky at best, but it’s the one the Wallers believe beyond a shadow of a doubt to be true. She supposedly saw Alex being murdered with her own eyes.
According to her, it happened two days after the theater fire. She like many others took to the bar after the horrible disaster. Many sorrows were drowned that night, including her own. You see, she lost a nephew in the fire, and the presence of alcohol and good company helped heal the wound.
She remembered going outside to have a cigarette when she saw Alex strolling along on the sidewalk. He was clearly intoxicated like usual. The sight would have been brushed off had it not been for a particularly haunting detail. She saw a figure behind Alex as he walked. Alex was completely unaware of it too. While Alex sang a happy song off-key, the person skulked ever so carefully behind him, occasionally ducking into alleyways when the opportunity presented itself.
The person followed Alex for several minutes until they passed by the graveyard. The mysterious figure than veered into the darkness of the yard where the 36 graves were dug in preparation for the next day’s massive burial.
Just when it was thought that the person had long since left Alex alone, the figure suddenly burst from the shadows of the graveyard. He or she was brandishing a shovel. There was not a word spoken between the two, save for the brief scream made by Alex before being struck across the head with the shovel. The blow knocked the young man over and he was motionless, but it didn’t end there. The assailant continued to mercilessly beat Alex with the shovel over and over again.
When at last, the killer seemed exhausted, Janette quite clearly saw Alex being drug into the darkness of the graveyard. Beyond that, no one is sure what happened. This all led to a very thrilling theory made by Janette. She assumed that Alex was buried in one of the already open graves. It made perfect sense too. All the killer would have to do was dig one of the holes a little deeper, throw the body in, and cover it up with just a little bit of dirt. Then the next day, a casket would have been laid over the body, buried, and no one would ever be the wiser.
It was a good theory. It was a perfect theory. Unfortunately, Janette’s credibility was quickly called into question. You see, Janette is one of our more colorful residents. The poor woman just hasn’t been the same ever since her husband got hit by that train back in ‘73.
Ever since then, she’s been spinning these wild yarns about the most ridiculous things. She’s gone on record that she’s been abducted and probed by aliens. She claims to have a time machine in her basement; but refuses to show anyone because she’s afraid the Military Industrial Complex of the Antarctic Elephant Corps will have her eliminated. And to top it all off, she didn’t bother to tell anyone about what she saw that night until three months after it happened.
The lawmen may not have given her account much credence, but the Wallers sure did. They believed every word Janette told them, even if the story varied slightly with every retelling. Henceforth, the Wallers became absolutely convinced that their son was buried beneath one of the caskets where Saint Lawrence stands guard. It did make perfect sense after all?
There was just one problem. Neither the Wallers, nor Janette knew which grave it was. Thus, as things go, the graveyard lottery was born. The Jackson family was the first to give in at $2,000. The casket was dug up and nothing was found. They then moved on to the plot of Jeff Thomas and his surviving family didn’t budge until they were offered $30,000. The price just kept going up from there on out. I would have never imagined that the Wallers would have ever offered a family like the Davidsons $400,000. There’s been whispers going around town as to how much the Wallers will offer to dig up that one last grave. The one that has been left untouched for the past 20 years.
Some say they will offer a million before a deal is made, and others argue that they will never make an offer considering that their finances have since gone to hell. But, that’s been said before and it’s been proven to be false. I think it’s just so strange how people are willing to donate so freely to such silly causes. Then again, Nicholas Waller is a salesman by trade and selling such a thing just comes natural.
I remember when he was interviewed on the news. He talked about how his son made the Dean’s list for three straight years. They showed a lot of pictures of Alex when was just a little boy; still wet behind the ears and shitting in diapers. You know, the usual bullshit? It makes me wonder if the Wallers would have stopped looking for their son if they knew what John Leroy knows. I’ll go out on a limb to say that they’d be ashamed of Alex if they knew his dirty little secret. John has only told this little tidbit of information to a select few people. And when I say a select few, I mean a very select few. As far as I know, maybe four people know about this, myself included.
On the night the theater burned down, John came home from work at nine like he usually does; and like usual, he gave himself a quick shower and went to bed. Sometime during the night he got out of bed to use the toilet. As he walked past his kitchen window, he saw Alex strolling along with a cigarette in his mouth, and a drunken sway in his step. When Alex passed by the theater, he tossed his cigarette butt into the dumpster next the theater. John didn’t think much of it at that point in time.
When he finished relieving himself, he walked back to the kitchen to get a glass of water. When he looked out of the window, he saw that not only was the dumpster on fire, but so too was the theater.
Yes, Alex Waller was responsible for the death of 36 people. The little shit would have gotten away with it too, but luckily someone had the good sense to smack the little bastard across the head with a shovel. If you ask me, justice was served.
Come to think of it, I’ve probably said a little too much. You can blame it all on the booze. I’ve been soaking in it ever since the fire. I tell you what, you don’t know shit until you’ve inhaled the charred flesh of the ones you loved. You don’t know how those screams still ring my ears. You don’t know a damn thing.
Am I a little upset?
I’m absolutely furious.
Alex knew what he did! I could see it on his face! I could see it in his eyes! He looked like a pathetic little child fearing the belt! I know what that look is! I’ve seen it in my own child’s face for God’s sake! I saw it on her beautiful face! I saw it in her beautiful blue eyes!
And those damned Wallers had the nerve to tell us that there was a silver lining to our loss. They told us that we were lucky! We were lucky that they had to pay to dig up our own! They told us that it was better than winning the lottery! I don’t care how much money they offer, I’m not going to play their little game! And to hell with those degenerates that sold the caskets of their family! Is there no decency left in this world?
I’ve seen the way the town is looking at me! Every eye is looking at me! They whisper to themselves! They want to know what the final jackpot will be! The filthy rats! Those filthy traitors!
I’ll show them! I’ll show them all! I’ll show them like I showed Alex! I’ll show them what it’s like to have something forever taken from them! Oh God, it will be so satisfying to see the look on their faces when I turn them down! Why should their child have gotten to live when my own died?
Maybe then they’ll know what it’s like to be living in this nightmare! Maybe then they’ll know what it’s like to have a granite slab and a story that was never written!
It doesn’t matter if they have all the money in the world! I will not let them disturb my daughter’s rest!
The winner already lost it all!