Heir to family fortune must solve the riddle of his father’s sinister tombstone to claim his inheritance in this Virginia horror story from K.E. Moore.
(Warning: Adult Language)
Bent Hill stumbled out the front door of the Jackspot into the cool night air. On the other side of the door behind him, he could still hear the din of the bar as it drank its way through the sharp cymbals and strained vocals of the live band performing its last set.
It was nine, and Chincoteague would be going to sleep soon; it was rare to find anything lively after eleven on the island. Normally, Bent would have stuck around to help shut the, for lack of a better word, club down. But tonight was special.
He slouched his way to the charcoal gray Jaguar in the seashell crusted parking lot, his uneven footsteps crunching a drunken jazz beat against the fading sounds of the revelers in his wake. Bent had known going into the Jackspot was a risk, and he only intended to have a few drinks disguised as regular soda to take the edge off. But after the day he had, it turned out the aforementioned edge was not so easily appeased.
He would be fine, he decided. This was Chincoteague, and he was a Hill. The worst that could happen would be him wrapping the Jag around a tree, and even then the townsfolk would likely sweep it under a rug.
Hell, these people might even pitch in and buy him a new Jag.
Bent smirked at the thought as he jangled his keys free from his once-pressed slacks. He hated Chincoteague with a fiery passion, but because his name was Hill, he was revered like a God. Fucking waterlogged hicks, he thought.
He unlocked the car, but only after adding a few more scratches around the already crosshatched paint. The opulent gray leather welcomed him, accepting his considerable girth as he slid into the car, the bucket seat almost enveloping him in a cool, soft embrace. When the engine turned over, it purred—fucking purred—because that, Bent knew, was what Jaguars were supposed to do.
On the seat beside him lay an anonymous brown paper bag, the sight of which made Bent smirk once more. Oh yes. Tonight was a long time coming. A real long time, and there was nothing anybody could do about it now.
At Bent’s command, the twin headlights came to life, casting their yellow pools of light onto the parking lot’s bleached shells. Seashells everywhere, on walking paths, front yards, parking lots—so many seashells if you didn’t watch yourself you’d end up with some jammed in your ass crack—and that was only one small reason why Bent hated this damned island.
The Jaguar whispered onto Main Street while the headlights cast their gaze on some of the other reasons Bent hated the island.
Main Street was a postcard. Up and down the street were quaint old stores owned and operated by island families. There was the fairgrounds, home of the annual firefighter carnival, the antique mall operated by a single old lady that would dash from one store to the next whenever someone was ready to check out. But the worst offenders in Bent’s mind were the bed and breakfasts. The whole damn street was lined with them, all looking like they were made from gingerbread and boredom.
This wasn’t life, Bent thought. This was a piss bucket—an old folk’s wet dream about what life was like back in the days when church bake sales were the hottest event on the books and kids stared slack-jawed at ten inch black and white televisions in display windows.
Bent wanted life as it was now. He would see tourists from New York and Pennsylvania, adorned in Abercrombie & Fitch and driving their Mercedes coups. How he wanted their life, night clubs that stayed open until sunrise, bespoke clothing, designer drugs, and women as exquisite and delicious as wine.
And yet, despite being the heir to a pile of money that would make Scrooge McDuck blush, Bent grew up here, in this sea-locked, aw shucks, prison.
The Jaguar turned onto the accurately named Church Street. Half a dozen churches lined the picturesque lane; why a town so small needed so many churches eluded Bent. But first, there was the funeral home.
Without meaning to, Bent slowed as he drove by the funeral home. It was a simple, squat, red brick building with an elegant green archway over the door of finely etched glass. The Jag nearly crawled to a stop as he remembered the first time he stepped foot in the place.
Now, at night, he could barely see through the glass, making out only sparse shards of light that cut sharp and thin into the amorphous shadows. For reasons his drink addled mind couldn’t comprehend, he felt his skin prickle as his eyes searched the nameless shapes beyond the funeral home door, as though some part of him, primal and scared, expected something to move, some dark nameless shadow to shift and drag itself closer to him, saliva dripping from its decayed mouth. His heart thudded, and the fog dissipated from his mind as he waited for it, waited to see a face twisted and decayed look back out at him.
It didn’t. Of course it didn’t.
Bent had been on the other side of that door recently. The whole funeral home was designed to offer comfort and solace. He remembered the cool air, almost enough to make one wish for a jacket even in the heat of summer, and he remembered the rich cream-colored walls and dark stained oak—plush red velvet chairs that wrapped him up like a consoling hug.
He remembered the funeral director, and the Jaguar pushed on.
Soon, Bent had put the churches behind him. He was now encroaching on the real side of Chincoteague, the part of the island not meant for the tourists. The picturesque houses had dissolved, replaced by cul-de-sacs guarded by signs warning that trespassers were not allowed. Mobile homes barely bigger than campers were propped precariously atop stacks of cinder blocks and cookie-cutter houses huddled close together, sharing the spare street lamps that existed in too few a number.
And still the Jag pressed on into the night. Into the darkness.
This was dark Chincoteague. The shadowy Chincoteague. As Bent coaxed the car through the unlit streets, he could easily believe that there was a reason why the island went to bed so early. Because here, where street lamps dared not to dwell, there was only the tall untamed grass, a bitter wind that knew nothing of civilization, and the dark—the kind of dark wherein predators slinked, hiding, waiting for their prey to stumble in cold and afraid and confused. Here, where the shadows had shadows, and things waited patiently with yellow, sharp, jagged teeth.
Cemeteries on Chincoteague are an odd entity. Most are small, maintained by family and friends. There is even a cemetery with exactly one occupant. The Chandler cemetery, at the north end of Main Street, is the final resting place of Captain Joshua Chandler, something of a local hero and rumored friend (or, as the more scandalous rumors told, lover) of the famed German composer, Richard Wagner.
But Bent’s Jag carried him to one of the most crowded cemeteries on the island.
It wasn’t until the last street lamp, faint bluish-white in the rear-view mirror, had come and gone did the twin headlights of the Jag pour over the painted green railing that contained the Bunting Cemetery.
A crooked garden of tombstones leaped and danced as the yellowed light of the car slipped over the markers. Shadows darted behind one tombstone before dashing to the next as Bent slowed the car to a halt. Somewhere under the haze of alcohol, and the cynicism of being in the mid-twenties, there was ten-year-old Bent, gaping at the dancing tombstones, knowing that under the tilled earth, corpses slept, but slept uneasily, tossing and turning from wicked dreams. Deep down inside, Bent knew that at any second, any of those corpses could rise from its rotted coffin and tear through the soft earth, the flesh eaten away by worms, leaving behind only a mask of rotted bone and yellow-gray teeth.
Bent eased the Jaguar to a halt as he shook his head. He was not some silly ten-year-old out on a dare. Corpses didn’t rise from the grave.
He looked up, his eyes following the headlights of the car, past the green fence, and through the headstones. They looked to him like rotten teeth. And there, at the very back, he found his final destination.
The tombstone in question stood out, to say the least. He stared at it, and it stared back at him. Those eyes, he thought, all of those ugly, hollow eyes. Fear covered Bent like a blanket, cold, prickly, and paralyzing, before he scolded himself silently in the plush cabin of the Jaguar.
Grown men did not piss themselves with fear at the sight of a cemetery. It just wasn’t done.
Bent studied the tombstone from the safety of the car, and recalled the moment he first laid eyes on it.
“It’s quite a remarkable piece, Mr. Hill,” the funeral director said in a silken, practiced voice that hovered somewhere just above a whisper.
Bent nodded. Compared to the blistering July sun, the air-conditioned sitting room in the funeral home was cool and soothing. And yet, something about the chunk of rock on display gave Bent chills of an entirely different sort.
Finally, he spoke. “It’s exactly as dad wanted,” he said, doing his best to sound like the loving, grieving son.
“Well, your father…” the director began. To Bent, the funeral director looked… well… like a funeral director ought to look. He was short and bald, thin and small. His eyes were kind, but it was a sort of manufactured kindness, almost as if he spent an hour every day in front of a mirror practicing. “…your whole family means so much to the island.”
Bent started to roll his eyes, blinking instead just in time. He raised a finger to his right eye and made a show of wiping away an imagined tear. It was far too close of a call, especially now when he was so near to the end. Bent simply had to keep his shit together for a few more days and he could put the whole thing behind him: his sainted family history, his revered father, and this stupid hick-spunk island.
Selling the act of the grieving son, Bent sniffled and squinted at the tombstone. Just on the edge of his vision, he saw the director smile understandingly at him, making the youngest Hill left alive wonder who was really bullshitting who?
The tombstone was… it was hideous. Horrific. No sane person would request a tombstone like that, and even if they did, good luck finding someone to make it. But the Hills of Chincoteague were special. And, in the end, Bent wasn’t sure which was worse, the subject of the sculptures adorning the stone, or the epitaph etched in its face.
“I know the material I gave you to work with wasn’t… common,” Bent said finally.
The director breathed deep and offered the man a modest smile. “Well, Mr. Hill was an eccentric. I don’t think there’s a one of us on this island that would have expected something normal out of him.” The director rested his hand on Bent’s arm, just above the elbow, the pressure perfectly calculated to show affection and commiseration. “But of course, you knew him better than any of us.”
Bent nodded. That was a complete fiction of course. Bent knew Thomas Hill III about as well as he knew the insides of the panty drawer of Ms. Haley Cox—that is to say, not at all.
It was then, as Bent studied the hideous tombstone, that he realized something. What if this was all just a joke? One last punchline, a zinger aimed at the people he worshiped, and worshiped him back in return. Those sculptures, that epitaph—if anyone else had asked for that tombstone the general consensus would have been that such a thing was in poor taste. But not for a Hill. Ol’ dad asked for a grave marker that was borderline offensive, and these hicks practically applauded him for it.
That thought was immediately followed by another; what if the joke was on Bent? Make him jump through all of these hoops, explain all of these oddities, just to get access to the family fortune? That seemed right. That was more like the man he knew.
Bent squatted and ran his fingers over the chiseled stone. “Fine craftsmanship, though,” he remarked. There was something gaudy about this dance that reminded him of buying a used car (an act that someone of Bent’s station shouldn’t have been forced to experience, but good ol’ dad strikes again).
“Ah, yes,” the director said in a voice that managed to somehow get even smoother, oozing from his lips warm and sweet like chocolate syrup. “That was one of the reasons I wished to speak with you, Mr. Hill.”
Bent rose and looked at the director. “Oh?” he said as though he didn’t know what was coming.
“Yes,” the little man said. He looked away, his fingers worrying each other as the man exuded embarrassment through every pore in his skin. “You see, Mr. Hill. This sort of craftsmanship—we couldn’t get that kind of work here on the island. Oh, I assure you, for your father, for your family, if we had the capabilities, there wouldn’t have been a problem.”
“But…” Bent said, fulfilling his half of the tango.
“But we had to go off island. That was the only way to get the work done in time for the service.” The director bowed his head. “I assure you we have done everything we possibly could to keep costs down, but I’m afraid that the final cost is more than the initial estimates by a sizable sum.”
Bent just stood there, his face unreadable.
“I understand that remuneration at a time like this is a difficult subject. Believe me, Mr. Hill, your name goes a long way here, and we will work with you in the days ahead, if need be.”
“How much are we talking?” Bent asked.
The director looked away, “two thousand, Mr. Hill. I do wish I could have done more, please understand.”
Bent had decided that either this troll of a man was in the wrong business, or Bent himself was. This was a scam, he knew he was being scammed, and he was almost positive the funeral director knew he knew. What was more, he was being scammed over his recently deceased father—a fact that might have had more impact if he cared for the old bastard. This tiny man was fleecing Bent, and the whole time he was consoling him about it. Bent was a little jealous.
He gave the funeral director a warm little smile, a smile he himself practiced in the mirror. Bent worked hard at that smile that said, “Yes, these are difficult times, but I’m soldiering on so please don’t worry about me, really, life goes on.” It was time to take it out for a spin.
“I’ll cut the check right now,” he said.
The director bowed and humbly said, “Truly, your father is so lucky to have such a dutiful son.”
Yeah right,, Bent thought. What he actually said, though, was, “When it comes to dad’s funeral, the checking account is bottomless.” What he omitted was that dad’s funeral was the only thing for which the checking account was bottomless.
For now, anyway.
Bent’s Italian shoes crunched against the seashells that coated the ground like brittle snow. His father hated Bent’s love of the finer things, and outright refused them throughout childhood, but when Bent turned eighteen, he regularly spent his monthly stipend on luxury and smiled at the old bastard as he walked by.
What’s the point of having money if you don’t spend it?
The brown paper bag on the passenger seat had a delicious weight to it when Bent picked it up, and as he slid out of the Jaguar, the contents of the bag glugged slowly.
Standing up was a little easier than it had been since he had left the Jackspot, and Bent could feel the buzz quietly drain from his brain. That was fine, it would be making another appearance in the very near future. Now, nearly sober, Bent was able to better appreciate the sound of the door silently swinging shut, and that special ker-chunk that you only ever seemed to get from the higher end luxury cars.
Darkness enveloped him. That was another reason he hated the island as much as he did, a reason he wasn’t keen to share. The further in one got into the island, the darker it got at night until it felt like being smothered in blackness, the few tiny shards of light scattered and feeble.
A chill wind wrapped itself around him and Bent’s arms prickled with gooseflesh beneath his silk shirt. He shivered as he let his eyes grow accustomed to that special Chincoteague brand of darkness picking out the porch-lights and distant street lamps that glowed like morbid fireflies on the periphery of the cemetery.
At first he could only make out shapes, curved patches in the night that weren’t quite as black as the rest. They looked like gray, teeth, all of those tombstones, each one etched with decay, staring at him, cold monoliths of stone molded into an army of the dead.
Finally his eyes fell back upon the one he was looking for. Its gruesome shape beckoned him, and he mindlessly pushed past the creaky green gate and threaded his way through the other grave-markers until he was standing before it. His father’s final resting place.
Bent took a step back and studied the grave-site. All of those eyes, black in the scarce light, stared at him, and those words, so familiar and yet twisted, wound their way through his mind. The macabre stone was offset by a fountain of flowers and American flags that rested at its feet that somehow made the whole setting seem more eerie not less.
To the rest of the inhabitants of the island, Bent knew, this whole thing was probably just one last joke, a dark punchline from a man who, despite his apparent greatness, had a strange sense of humor. But Bent knew better. This was only a small piece.
Bent braced himself against another tombstone and slid down its back face until he was sitting on the ground and resting against it. A small part at the back of his mind noted that he had probably just ruined a thousand dollar pair of pants, while another part of his mind noted that tomorrow morning, he could buy a new pair. Hell, once the sun came up, he could fill his entire closet with bespoke tailored suits if he liked.
He reached into the bag and let his fingers curl around the smooth glass neck of a bottle. The paper bag fell away like dead foliage as he cradled the bottle of Macallan in his lap and grinned. This, he knew, was just a taste of the life that waited for him.
Just as Bent was about to work off the cap, he paused and looked at the offensive tombstone before him. Mock mortification filled Bent’s features as he looked at his father’s name etched in stone. “That’s right. You don’t approve do you?” The melodramatic expression on his face drained, replaced with spiteful glee as he added, “Yeah, well I’d like to see you do something about it now old man.”
He opened the bottle and took a long, slow sip from it, letting the fire like gold slip over his tongue and down his throat. “To you, dad. It was a hell of a ceremony.”
If nothing else, it was a hell of a day for a funeral. Clouds stretched across the sky in lazy grays and whites, while a sharp breeze wound its way through black pant legs and rustling leaves.
A large number of mourners showed up, Timothy Hill III being a local celebrity and all. Bent recognized more than a few of them, though, to be fair, most of them looked the same to him. Most of them looked out-of-place in their cheap black suits, each pairing of coat and slacks struggling to contain the knotted muscles and leathery skin of fishermen and boat guides. Men squinted beneath their unruly mops of wiry gray hair, and women with skin like the melted wax of a dying candle sniffed and shuffled in old-fashioned dresses.
Bent wore the same suit he would later ruin by sitting in the damp grass of the cemetery as he sipped expensive scotch. That, and the sunglasses—don’t forget the sunglasses.
He could never manage to squeeze out a tear for the old man, but he could wear sunglasses and pretend to wipe away an imaginary tear for the sake of the townsfolk. He only had one more day to go, so he might as well sell it.
“I am the resurrection and the life, sayeth the Lord…”
The funeral was, as it turned out, harder to endure than Bent anticipated. Not because he had all of a sudden found a nugget of emotion for the bastard. Oh no. The difficulty came from trying not to laugh at the reactions from the other attendees.
Many gasped when they first caught sight of the tombstone as hushed whispers skittered throughout the crowd like spiders. Others stared quizzically back and forth between the strange epitaph and the front page of the embossed programs clenched in their liver-spotted hands, at the bottom of which was inscribed, “Per the wishes of the deceased, we thank all attendees to not read the epitaph out loud.”
Bent had to stifle a smile as he heard things like, “scandal,” and “what is that even supposed to mean?” whispered behind cupped hands. If only they knew the whole story.
“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord…”
Bent spent much of the funeral wondering what the people would say if they knew everything else he had to do to protect his inheritance. He wanted to fight it, to be sure. He had even hired an outside lawyer to see if all of the provisions in his father’s will were legal.
To his dismay, they were.
In retrospect, Bent was glad at least for the tombstone. It made for some entertainment on what would have otherwise been a boring, annoying day.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”
Pastor Simmons presided over the funeral with the same voice he used to put people to sleep every Sunday. Bent hadn’t attended one of his sermons since childhood, but he could never forget those early mornings, his ass aching from the hard wooden pews, and the sonorous drone coaxing his eyes to droop shut.
There was even a moment when he thought the ancient cleric might put him to sleep again all these years later. But Bent persevered.
Once he had tuned the pastor out, in fact, he was able to let his mind drift to other more important things. For a while he entertained himself with what he was going to do with all of his money, but that couldn’t cover up a darker thought that had been nagging at him all day long.
“He restoreth my soul…”
That was the real last punchline. The tombstone was part of it, to be sure, but only a part. There was the vial of blood that had to be hung from his father’s neck, and a sprig of rosemary for his left hand. He was not to be embalmed, per his will, nor were any organs to be removed under any circumstances.
This list of burial requests was so strange that Bent had taken to carrying the will around with him as he made arrangements. There was the folded linen napkin, and the ivory bracelet, and of course the tombstone.
Compared to all of that, the pack of cigarettes and matchbook placed in his breast pocket were downright quaint.
“In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life…”
Bent delivered the eulogy. He had only written a paragraph and a half at which point he had planned to fake being far too overwhelmed by emotion to carry on. He was proud of his performance, going so far as to think maybe he had a shot at Hollywood.
And why not? He was still young and good-looking. He could easily sell off the family estate and move out to somewhere in Beverly Hills. His name might not mean a thing in California, but money talks everywhere, and he bet it wouldn’t be a thing to get in the right parties.
The possibilities opened themselves up to him, as long as he could make it through this last day.
Meanwhile Simmons had navigated the funeral like an expert, taking the host of mourners from one prayer to the next.
“To ashes from…” Simmons had said, his eyes affixed to the tombstone, before everything fell silent. The crowd in attendance sucked in a collective breath while every muscle in Bent’s body tensed. Don’t you dare ruin this for me old man, he thought. All of the work Bent went through, all of the acting, all of the waiting, all of it would be for nothing because some doddering old minister couldn’t follow simple instructions.
Bent’s eyes flickered over to Mr. Prescott, his dad’s lawyer, and he saw an entirely different future. In this future, the Hill estate would be donated, cut up and shared amongst the volunteer fire department and some charity for ponies. In this future, Bent wasn’t partying with Hollywood socialites, or cruising around in luxury cars.
In this future, Bent loses everything.
“Excuse me,” Simmons coughed. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
“The old bastard almost had me, didn’t he, dad?” Bent chuckled before taking another swig of scotch. “And I bet you were rooting for him, weren’t you?”
Bent shook his head. The tombstone stared back at him silently.
“You’re an asshole,” Bent said with a sense of finality. “Sometimes I think you liked it. Like how they worshiped you. That’s why you never left the island. Out there, you would’ve been just another businessman, some nameless old fuck in a suit with more money than he knows what to do with. But here, you were a god.”
He pointed at the tombstone. “I mean look at that!” he said in a voice somewhere between a whine and a guffaw. “Thirteen skulls on a tombstone and no one says a word.”
Bent took another drink and stared at the tombstone again. There, all around the edge of the tombstone, were thirteen skulls carved from stone. Each one was positioned as though it were taking a bite out of the marker, making it look less like a tombstone and more like some ancient shrine to a dark and terrible god.
The thirteenth skull at the very top of the tombstone, larger than the rest, glowered at Bent with its wicked black empty eye sockets.
“And what the hell are those words even supposed to mean? ‘To ashes from ashes, To dust from dust?’” Bent could feel the buzz from the scotch spread through his brain as he shook his head more violently, giving the tombstone the kind of smile a parent may give to a bemused child.
“You know what, dad? The money? It’s almost not enough to make up having you for a father.” More molten gold slid down Bent’s tongue before he climbed back up to his feet and pointed at the grave with a wavering finger.
“But I did it. I did everything you asked, didn’t I? You can’t say I didn’t, because… well… ha-ha, you can’t say anything because you’re dead. But still, even if you weren’t dead, which you are, you still couldn’t say I failed you this time because I followed the instructions to a… to a T!”
Bent braced himself on an anonymous tombstone. This, he decided, was some really good booze. He would have to make sure to stock his bar with lots of it when he got to Hollywood.
“Oh, but there was one more rule, wasn’t there, dad?” Bent said. “No alcohol. Isn’t that right? ‘Cause my dad, the great Timothy Hill III is far too great a man to be brought down by the booze, isn’t he?”
By now, Bent was swaying gently from side to side. Yet, no matter how much he moved, those skulls always seemed to stare at him, like those trick paintings where the eyes follow you down the hall. Somewhere under the haze of alcohol, Bent could feel something dark and dangerous in the hollow voids that glared at him. But the scotch was running the show now.
“Oh well,” he said. “Looks like I screwed another one up, eh dad? Like you always say, I’m not perfect… just one big, spoiled disappointment. Right?”
One foot lurched in front of the other, carrying Bent closer to the tombstone, to those slightly twisted words, to the skulls. He rested a hand on the center skull and patted it with false affection. “But it’s okay, dad. ‘Cause you’re dead, and tomorrow. Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of my life.”
Bent laughed wildly at this, the bottle in his hand glugged with the effort, sounding like a deep, dark guffaw. “That’s right, father dearest. You’re dead, and I’m off to go put your money to some good use. But hey, I can be a good sport. Just like you always taught me right? Hell I’ll even share. Drink up, dad!”
Bracing himself on one of the smaller skulls with one hand, Bent took the bottle of scotch and upended it onto the center skull. One of the closer street lamps caught the flow of the liquid as it splattered off of the stone skull, sending out shards of reddish light that died in the darkness.
Bent laughed. He laughed as the booze drenched the skulls and fell over the face of the tombstone in a dark curtain. He laughed as thick tendrils of scotch, black in the shadow of the marker, stretched and reached for the freshly lain sod and the grave dirt underneath. He laughed even after the bottle was emptied, leaving only the bottle wavering in his hand.
“Drink up, dad,” Bent snorted. “Drink up and rot in Hell.”
Laughter died. All of a sudden, the whole scene didn’t seem all that funny to him anymore, instead feeling as empty as the bottle that dangled from his hand. Bent sniffed, and turned to walk away.
He only made it past the second row of graves before a strange sound stopped Bent fast. It was a soft sound, so soft he wasn’t even sure he heard it correctly. It could have been the sound of his foot against the soft loam of the graveyard, or the beating of a heart.
With his eyes closed, Bent focused his scotch addled mind on the sounds that surrounded him, carried by the night breeze.
He started walking back to the car once more when he heard that sound again, this time louder and sharper. Bent’s eyes scanned all around, looking for someone in the glow of a porch-light out for a smoke, or the yellow-green glow of the eyes of some small animal out foraging for food.
But the noise came again, a hard thump. The buzz quickly evaporated as Bent tried to home in on the source. Alarm bells were going off in his head like Klaxons even as his rational self refused to accept from where the thumps were coming.
They came louder now, faster, more insistent, and Bent’s feet drew him toward them, back through the garden of tooth-like grave-markers, back to the thirteen skulls biting into stone. And then there was a crack.
Bent flinched and felt his knees go wobbly as more sounds, different sounds emanated not from the tombstone, but from the ground beneath.
By the time Bent saw the ground actually move before him, he was dead sober, and quickly losing his sanity. There was just enough of his rational self left when the hands burst through the sod, pulling it apart with a terrible ripping noise, to know what he was seeing.
A shadow pulled itself out of the earth, clutching the grass with its black claw like hands until it spilled out in its entirety, sprawling onto the ground just a few feet from Bent.
His knees gave out and Bent fell on his ass. He tried to scream, but what came out of his mouth was more like a strained squeak, his hands scrabbling against the cemetery grass, his legs kicking futilely as though trying to run before he was even upright.
But when the thing that had oozed from the earth pulled itself to its feet, all of Bent’s will to move, to scream, to run, died. It wasn’t a shadow; it was his father.
Clumps of soil clung to the man’s scalp, and the faint glow of the distant lights gave him a ghastly, pale hue, but it was definitely Timothy Hill III. “Well, son, I gotta hand it to you. When I needed you most, you finally came through.”
“Wha…Wh…” Bent stammered, causing the older man to cackle a hoarse, gravelly laugh.
“Relax, Bent. I’m not,” and here the old man chuckled again, “some sort of movie zombie. Lord, no. Though I must say, zombies are grossly misunderstood. The mindless slouching about? That’s all Hollywood hooey. Now, the brain eating, we’ll have to come back to that one later. But it don’t matter. I’m not a zombie, son. I’m resurrected.”
Bent blinked dumbly.
“And I got you to thank for it.” The reborn corpse smiled at his son, his teeth brown and gray, rounded and crooked like the tombstones that surrounded the pair. “You didn’t know, of course. But then with your lazy ass, I didn’t expect you to care much beyond doin’ whatever you had to do to get my money!”
The man crouched down right in front of Bent with that graveyard grin still on his face. This close, Bent could see his eyes, bleached with the haze of cataracts, but still staring at him as though they weren’t there. What was worse, he could smell the thing, the sour-sweet, putrid stench of death pouring off of him. It made Bent want to vomit.
“Had to use a little reverse psychology on a couple of things though, didn’t I? The vial of blood, the napkin, the ivory, I knew you would do. The tombstone, Hell, Prescott would have that money out from under you so fast you’d bust your ass on the ground if the tombstone wasn’t right. But the phrase, that was tricky. Couldn’t have anyone saying it too soon, but I knew if I forbade you, you’d wait until no one was around.” The corpse clapped its hands right in front of Bent’s face and laughed.
Bent felt something hot and wet spread out over his legs and realized with hardly a glimmer of embarrassment that it was his own urine.
Timothy looked down at the steam rising up from the piss in the night and chuckled. “Look at the little piss boy,” he sang.
The old man leaped back onto his feet and stepped away. “Bent, Bent, Bent. I knew I could count on you. I knew I could count on you to be a greedy little shit. Just like I knew I could count on you to disobey me when you could, to come out here and say my words when no one was listening, and drink your booze when no one was watching. And here we are. I was worried for a little bit, but after all this time, you came through.”
The old man fished for something in his breast pocket, and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. “These weren’t part of the ritual, just figured I could use a smoke after a few days on my back. Not like they’re gonna kill me now, right?” he chortled before putting a cigarette between his lips and lighting it. The flame illuminated his face a glowing red, each line and wrinkle etched in flickering darkness. That face was a nightmare mask, grinning, and breathing smoke.
“The ritual,” the old man nodded as blue smoke faded into the night. “We’re a little too far north for voodoo to be easily accessible, but after a while I managed to throw a few things together. What you did after my untimely demise was a kind of patchwork—a little voodoo here, some witchcraft there.”
“See, I knew I couldn’t leave the family legacy up to you. Probably fuck your brains out and overdose in some whore’s arms before the year was out. So I had to come up with another option, don’t you see? And here we are.”
Bent nodded as though he was listening and agreeing to everything his father was saying. Meanwhile, his fingers had found the smooth, cool weight of the bottle, and he was trying the best he could to wrap his fingers around the neck without his dad realizing it.
“Stupid and greedy, that’s my son. You weren’t worth a shit when I was alive, but I realized you could finally do something good once I had passed on,” the corpse nodded. “Oh, what do you have here?”
The man stalked towards Bent, his foggy eyes affixed to Bent’s hand. “I told you, boy, the bottle will do you no good, but did you ever listen?”
One big shoe lifted itself up and stepped down on the hand holding the bottle. Bent looked up at his father’s face, milky green eyes and tombstones curled into a crescent moon smile. He felt the shoe press harder, just as he felt the glass shatter from the force, the shards tearing through his flesh and slicing their way deeper into his fist. That smile continued to grin at him as Bent felt his fingers snap like twigs.
This time Bent screamed. Even when his father raised his foot again, Bent could do little more than hold his mangled hand and whimper.
“Still a little crying piss-boy, ain’t ya?” the old man said before flicking the cigarette off into the night. “Lord knows I tried. But maybe this is for the best.”
The corpse crouched down again, this time his face only inches from Bent’s. Bent could feel his father’s breath, hot and toxic as it smothered him.
“You see, Bent, originally I was going to give you a pass. Maybe even give you one last chance to redeem yourself, one last chance at becoming a true Hill like this island deserves. But you know, it’s the damnedest thing. Being dead makes you very, very hungry.”
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