Ground never feels that hard under your feet. Not the way it does with a shovel in your hand. I’d shifted at least four hundred pounds of dirt, kicked a bruise into my foot, ground the skin off my fingers launching soil into the air. It landed darker now: more little rocks, bits of tree root. Metal smell. That dark brown color revealed the last pages of a story I wasn’t really enjoying. When I looked out of the hole and saw lighter sand on top of that brown, I’d be down four feet, Mike would shoot me, and I would fall through this badly dug hole into whatever comes after.
Digging. Hard work. I was tired. Not happy. Breathing like I’d done five rounds on a heavy bag. Mike stood five steps behind the pit, automatic raised, shooting stance. He wasn’t taking a chance on me. When I stopped to get my puff back, he gave me an exasperated look like we were out here shifting furniture, and I kept on taking breaks.
“C’mon,” he said. “Let’s get it done with.”
Just us. Out in the boonies. A few miles off the 563, upland of the Batsto river: Sopranos country, exactly the kind of place you’d imagine a guy like me getting shot and buried in. Fifteen minutes off the byway. I guessed Mike wanted the chance to say goodbye on the trail, but neither of us said a word. I didn’t try to run: wouldn’t have made a difference. When your time comes, shut your mouth, stand up tall and be straight about it.
I don’t know if things were the other way around, I would have given Mike any more of a chance. But I was disappointed. This big, dumb, get-along lunkhead, always so sweet natured. He was always the first to volunteer for trouble and for blame. Even as a five-year-old, he always had my back. Until now. Look at this sorry fat Judas, pointing a gun at me. Making me dig the hole. I’d never called him my best friend, because it’s embarrassing. That someone so slow is the best you can find. But I’m glad I never told him he meant anything to me. He grumbled at me to pick up the pace again.
“Fuck your mother,” I said. “Get down in this shit, dig it yourself.”
Mike frowned, like I hurt his feelings. “Don’t be like that,” he said.
“Why? Because you and me got history? If we was ever friends you would at called this morning and told me to wear comfortable fuckin’ shoes out,” I said, and kicked the spade angrily into the dirt. God damn it, I thought. Just like every other worthless piece of shit in this world. My futile so-called life, scrabbling in garbage for pennies, making no-one happy for an instant, not even myself—now about to end face down in a shallow, self-dug grave under the ugliest state forest in America.
“You a fucking loser,” I told Mike.
He made a blowing sound. “Fuck yourself.”
“This is bullshit. This is bullshit, Mike, and you know it,” I said.
“It’s orders. You know I don’t like it, I don’t got no choice in it.” Mike said.
“You’re weak. You never had no moral character.”
I kicked the spade into my destination. Inevitably, the brown sand was starting to lighten. For some reason, there was a weird sensation in my mouth, coppery and bitter, like anesthetic. I felt a rush of discontentment looking into the ground. This was your life: this is what you got. I kicked down on the blade again. I hit something yellowish and hard.
“What is that?” I said out loud. I stopped digging to scrape the spade along it. It looked like bone. I bent over and ran my hand along it, pushing my fingers into each end. I took a moment to clear the cold dirt around the edges, but the shape was clear. Just over half a foot long, bird-thin in the middle, either end all thick with a nobble in it—a leg bone of Flintstones proportions.
“I just found something,” I said over my shoulder.
“What are you talking about?”
“I think it’s a bone.”
“It’s the woods,” Mike says, “woods is filled with bones.”
I started digging to the side of the exposed bone, opening up the edge of the grave.
“You’re wide enough already,” Mike grumbled.
“Then shoot me and finish it yourself, you fat fuck,” I said to him.
Mike mumbled something meant to be hurtful, I wasn’t listening. I stuck the spade next to the bone and pried the sand up around it. Nothing else came up. I slammed the spade into the earth wall, hard as I could, then started levering the blade up, widening the mouth of the grave.
“Hey! What the fuck are you doing?” Mike asked.
The spade drew the sand back from a whole mess of fine little bones, all connected to each other. I went down on my knees again and started scooping the earth around them. Some of the dug-up dirt from the edge of the grave started falling in the hole on top of me, and I was throwing that out with my hands at the same time as feeling for all the tiny bones together. Then, like it reached from of the sand and touched me, I understood what was beneath my fingers. Jesus Christ. Perfectly clear. It was a tiny little hand, all curled up.
“Mike, there’s a body in here,” I said.
“Bullshit,” he said. “I’m done with this. You get digging again, or I swear to God I’ll blow your fuckin’ brains out.”
“Like hell you will,” I said, and heard him click the safety off.
I looked at him and opened my mouth. He was deadly serious. From where Mike stood, he couldn’t see anything in my side of the hole. He clearly saw this as some desperate attempt to save myself, get him close, hit him with the spade or a rock. I rubbed my face with my dirty fingers. I looked back down at the ground at the leg bone, the little hand.
“I’m gonna start a count,” Mike said.
“Mike,” I said. “Honest to God.”
I grabbed the spade and started digging.
‘You motherfucker,’ I said, throwing sand over my shoulder into the other side of the grave.
He kept counting down.
I terrorized the ground in front of me, arcing the spade into it. I heard a crack underneath me. I had found another haul of bones: this time, a little ribcage, which I had just accidentally broken almost in half.
Mike reached six.
“Mike, look in the hole, I’m not kidding!”
I kept on going, fast as I could. I wasn’t breathing right, kept seeing little fizzing stars in front of me. I frantically tried to clear the area above the new bones. Like a terrible photograph, the whole thing was slowly developing out of the ground beneath me.
Suddenly, I gave up digging.
“Oh, my God,” I said.
Mike reached three.
I looked down at a little, half-uncovered skull. It was too round, like a cartoon version, the eye sockets were huge for the size of it. It was disgustingly cute, unreal. It stuck up at an ugly angle from the little broken ribcage, in the kind of angle a head doesn’t rest at. The front had a nasty hole in it, and something horrible was wound around it, a big long loop of something like old sellotape, bound around the skull and in front of the sockets. A long galvanized screw had been driven through the tape into the side of the head.
I dropped the shovel. My whole body started to shake.
“One,” Mike said.
I went down to my knees and started retching. I reached out and touched the little skull. It was cold. It felt like plastic. It was the last thing I ever really touched.
“Get up,” Mike said above the grave.
“Can you see this?” I asked him.
“Nothing to see,” he said over the top of the grave. “Stand up like a fuckin’ man and take it.”
I stood up slowly. Mike hadn’t moved. He was in position.
“I’m sorry,” he said and moved his finger off the guard.
“Wait,” I said, “You gotta look inside here,” I said.
“No,” he said.
“Mike, I never begged for anything in my life,”
Mike was breathing hard. “You are now,” he said.
“You don’t understand. I’m just asking you to look into the pit. You can’t bury this up again. There’s a little kid in here.”
“There isn’t,” he said.
“There’s an atrocity in here. This is terrible. There’s a monster put a little kid in the ground here.”
“It’s a fuckin’ trick,” Mike said.
“I’m not falling for it,” Mike said.
“I swear it, Mike,” I said, as desperate as I’d ever been in my life. “Someone killed a child and buried it here. You’ll find that out whether you want to or not. If you close this hole back up, there’s a terrible crime that you let someone get away with.’
“I’m not…” Mike said, his voice cracking for a moment. “You think I’m so fucking stupid.” He levelled the automatic up with my head. I raised my hands, shaking.
“Don’t bury me in here, Mike. Don’t put me in the ground with this atrocity. You do this—it’s a nightmare you’ll have for the rest of your life. It’s the mouth of hell.’
His arms went rigid. I could see his finger touching down on the trigger.
“I’ll dig a new hole, it’s all I’m asking!” I squeezed my eyes closed and shouted. “With a smile on my face! I won’t say another word, except for ‘thank you’. Except for, ‘none of this was your fault’. Just let your best friend die in a different fuckin’ hole! I’m on my knees, Mikey, I’m begging you!”
There was silence. I waited for the shot. Then Mike said in a low, wobbling voice, “This isn’t my fault.”
“I know,” I said.
“It was you or both of us.”
“It’s how it is,” I said.
“I know, Mikey.”
The gun was still raised. His arms were still rigid. His voice was still tense. “There really a kid in there?” he asked.
“I wish to God there wasn’t.”
“Step back,” Mike said. I pushed myself upright and stood at the back of the grave.
“Throw the shovel—out and to the side.”
I threw the shovel out.
“You gotta swear to me you’re not about to throw dirt in my eyes or some shit.”
“You’re my friend.”
“I swear,” I said, and turned to look back at the little curled up skeleton by my feet. Mike came forwards cautiously, his left leg leading, the gun locked on my head. He peered into the edge of hole. Then he leaned over further. Then he put his hand up to his face.
“Jesus Christ,” he said. “Oh, Jesus Christ.” He took a few steps backwards and bent over and retched up his breakfast all over his feet. He breathed in and out, looking at the floor. He looked at me without straightening up and then let out a deep breath. “Get out of there for Christ’s sake,” he said.
I crawled out of the hole and got up. My legs felt so weak I couldn’t stand. I staggered against a tree and leant against my knees. When I tried to breathe in I couldn’t. That’s how I suddenly realized I was sobbing, like I’d never done before my whole life. I thought I was going to pass out. I slid down the tree and slumped on the forest floor.
I looked at Mike, and he was leaning over, breathing heavily, his jaw clenched up, the veins sticking out of his head.
“Poor little kid”’ he said. “Poor little kid.”
It was a while till I had breath in me and I could see again through my wet eyes. I rubbed my face with my hands and the dirt turned to mud across it. I could see that Mike was walking over to the hole. He didn’t look in, he just lifted up the spade. Then he walked over to me, using it like a walking stick. He stopped in front of me and sighed.
“You always meant an awful lot to me,” he said with his head lowered.
“You too,” I said.
We were both silent. He wiped his eyes. Then he reached out and pulled me to my feet.
“Okay,” I said. One side of his mouth turned up and he handed me the spade.
“New hole,” he said.