Here's a little story of mine. Think of it as a Christmas present.
He stopped the car where the road met the trees. The rapid thud of his heart frightened him and he rubbed his chest through his heavy coat as if to quieten the rhythm. The movement also helped to block the thoughts of the thing waiting for him in the boot.
Night peered at him from outside the car. He leaned into the windscreen, pressed his nose on the freezing glass and looked into the dark. The cold was becoming stronger and he was tempted to start the engine again, get the heater blowing hot air. His fingers made it as far as the key before he stopped and drew his hand back. Even through his long coat, thick jeans, boots and gloves, December had no problem touching him from outside. Below his clothing, the small piece of metal hanging on the chain around his neck was as cold as the woods.
He illuminated the display on his watch. 3:28.
With the door open, the freezing air struck him and he slid out of the car. The shapes of the trees all around were nothing but differing shades of black and the frozen earth beneath his boots was one huge shadow. He rested a hand on the side of the car and walked its length to the rear, trailing his fingers on the metal. A sound rose from somewhere to his left: a soft rustle of long grass and bush. He faced the dark and tried to ignore the wave of terror covering his body.
In the woods. In the middle of the night. Far from all the others. All the others who could keep him safe. Stuck here with. . .something he still could not bring himself to name wrapped in bags. Something still not dead.
Trembling spread throughout his body, threatening to spill him to the ground. Inwardly groaning, he fought it. Bitter air touched his tongue, teeth and lips. Winter cold fell down his throat. He waited, counting in his head, and stopped when he reached two hundred. The sound from the woods had not come again and he was able to believe the sound had been down to an animal. Maybe a badger or a hedgehog. Maybe even a fox on the prowl. Licking the remnants of vodka from his gums, he opened the boot and made out the shovel resting on the shape in the binbags. There had been no movement in the boot and that was all the comfort he could take.
He placed the shovel gently at his feet before gripping the shape in the binbags. Even through his gloves, the bags were ice cold. He held the shape at both ends, offered a quick prayer and pulled.
It came out of the boot easily; he staggered back, surprised, and the shape rested on his chest for a moment. He hissed, his upper lip rising to expose his teeth. The exposed flesh around his neck caught the bitter air and his arms throbbed. Knowing he had no choice, he gripped the shape tightly and bent to take hold of the shovel. In the darkness, a memory spoke up.
‘You’re too young to do this. We need someone older. You’ll fuck it up.’
The voice in his head came again and he could do nothing but let it echo. Just below it, the memory of his reply shouted just as he’d shouted it a few hours ago. And what a joke that had turned out to be. Here he was in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night and now he knew he was too young for this; they did need someone older; he was going to fuck it up.
The voices faded and he opened his eyes. The dark remained the same. The weight against his chest and stomach had not lessened and there were still no sounds coming from the trees and bushes. And he still had a job to do.
He walked slowly, heading in a straight line from the car. The trail took him into the woods; the trees grew closer to the path; a branch prodded his side as if to get his attention and he kept walking, not looking around. He walked for ten minutes and stopped when the area spread out in a clearing just as they had said.
He eased the shape in the bags to the freezing ground. His arms and shoulders ached; he ignored the feeling and gripped the shovel’s handle. Movement ran through the trees behind him. A soft crack followed the movement. He peered into the black, desperately looking for the source. The wind, still since that afternoon, lifted his hair. It felt like fingers. The air coated his fingers as he slid off his gloves; they ached in seconds.
The bushes around the trees rustled in the wind. Satisfied that the thing in the bags had stayed still, he fished inside his coat pocket, pulled a small bottle free and undid the lid. Although the liquid inside was cold, he held the bottle as if taking warmth from it. Upending the bottle, he poured a few drops of water on to the shovel. Moving fast once the bottle was sealed and back in his pocket, he struck the ground with the shovel.
At once, frozen earth split, the cracks hissing. The split widened when it hit it again. Heat rose from the shovel into his gloved hands. Swallowing his fear and ignoring the sweat soaking through his fleece, he hit the ground a third time. A small hole had opened in the earth. The heat from the shovel eased but he was still sweating. He dug for a few minutes, shifting hard earth to the side, and created a deeper hole. Time passed. He dug. His shoulders ached. His hands were sore; his gloves rubbed on the wood of the shovel and blisters wanted to form between his thumbs and fingers. The pain in his shoulders grew. The heat from the shovel had gone; there was nothing warm around him. He dug. Time passed and he did not look at anything but the growing hole. He did not let himself think of anything other than the hole and he did not look when a shadow skittered past his side and sounds that did not quite manage to be voices whispered and hissed on all sides.
He stopped when he was knee deep in the hole. He could not see his feet and that frightened him. He stepped out of the hole, dropped the shovel and stretched. His back screamed and his shoulders joined the howl. His gloved hands throbbed and he had no urge to take the gloves off. He did not want to see the red patches or the blisters. The sweat on his back had dried and he was horribly cold, the heat from his exertion leaving him quickly. He checked the time and estimated he had a couple of hours before dawn, no more than that.
He nudged the shovel to the side, heard some of the earth shift in the pile by the hole and squatted. The shape in the binbags lay on the earth. He reached for it, aiming for the middle and bottom. An end turned towards him. The very top rose, the head attempting to rise from the hole.
He fell back, mouth open, no sound emerging.
The top end of the shape continued to face him. A noise rolled out of the trees behind him.
It was a laugh.
He did not turn. The soft laugh dropped into a mocking giggle before fading away. The silence meant little, he knew. The woods were full of eyes staring at him, of things unable to come any closer to him thanks to his little protection of water and necklace.
As hard as he could, he shoved the thing in the bags. It rolled and dropped into the hole. He picked up the shovel, dug into the pile of cold earth and held it over the hole. The shape moved for the second time, turning over. Although the starlight could not illuminate the hole, he still saw it facing him. For a few seconds, the whispered rustle of the bags rubbing on earth would not leave him.
The earth pattered on the bags and ran off the sides as he dropped it. A second load followed the first, then a third. Time passed again. Eventually, he stopped, knowing he had used almost all of the earth. The hole was as filled as it could be. The woods were now utterly silent.
With a shaking hand, he poured half of his remaining water on to the earth making a small circle in the centre of the mound, praying the liquid would seal the grave. Unable to stop himself, he squatted and listened.
In regular intervals, a tiny sound rose from below.
Scratching. Long nails pushing into bin bags and earth.
He turned, peered to where he thought the path lay and walked, making sure he did not break into a panicked run. He dragged the shovel with him, scraping it into the ground for a few feet. The sound unnerved him and he lifted the shovel next to his knee.
Once the shovel was back in the boot, he rested for a moment at the door. It would be dawn in a short time. Then he told himself that made a difference.
He slid inside the car and left the engine dead. The car was horribly cold. There was nothing on the trail ahead. He grabbed the bottle of vodka from the glovebox, swallowed a mouthful, counted to three and swallowed another. He looked to the trail, then to either side. A suggestion of the trees was visible, the bare branches reaching like fingers. He did not shake although the interior temperature was only a little over freezing.
He drank more vodka and looked to the trail into the woods. Nothing moved.
Wondering if dawn would come before the thing he had buried broke out of its grave, he waited for whichever happened first.