A muskrat scurried into the marsh as Sorie Kalawa and Tony Williams crossed the low embankment. With the remnants of low tide drying under the glow of the setting sun the two men were able to enter the backside of Burnt Church Road Cemetery unseen. The short walk they’d taken from the street through the swamp patch left Sorie’s chest burning, but he chalked the pain up to the steep drop in the Fall temperature and ignored the fact that it could be something much worse. Sorie chose to remedy the pain with nicotine and lit a cigarette as they waited on the edge of the cemetery grounds. Tony slapped the crowbar he had into the palm of his hand and looked around the cemetery with dirt so dark it seemed to consume the very earth where it lay.
Fallen leaves crackled nearby and the two men struggled to catch a glimpse of the approaching figure, they shielded their eyes from the setting sun. There was a whistle in the direction of the shadow and from the heart of the cemetery among the headstones came the grave keeper, keys jangling in hand.
“I left Mr.Goldberg’s grave uncovered, it’s number forty-five. You might can get inside by hanging off the straps from the casket lowering device. Just try not to make much noise eh? I’m working with another guy tonight. You’s on your own if he sees you.” The grave keeper spoke with a strained voice, one you’d suspect from a man as old as he. It seemed he was only a few years younger than Sorie, both among the oldest men Tony had known.
The old grave keeper held up the keys with one hand and opened the palm of his other. Tony dropped a hundred dollar bill into the open palm and the grave keeper’s wrinkled twigs for fingers clamped shut whilst his other hand let the keys jangle free into Tony’s hand. Sorie watched Tony inspect the keys and by the time they both looked back up, the grave keeper was halfway across the cemetery grounds. His slumped figure limped into the fog that had rolled in between the glades of the bald cypress trees, seemingly spawning from the muddy remnants of the retreated swamp waters.
The pain in Sorie’s chest throbbed as his nerves seemed to have caught up with him and he said, “We can still reconsida.”
“This was your plan, old man. Stop being so jittery, damn.”
Sorie’s Gullah accent grew thicker with his apprehension, “It’a was him. I swear it was di midnight man up ata di gate. He done seen us.”
“It was just some homeless guy, Sorie,” said Tony as he fumbled with the ring of keys and singled one out. “The midnight man don’t exist,” he said before starting deeper into the cemetery. “Keep a lookout for grave number forty-five.”
The two men peered at the numbers marked on the gravestones around them. They were in the sixties and started deeper into the cemetery toward the forties. The sun soon disappeared and the cold grew unbearable. Sorie could hear Tony’s teeth chattering.
“You youngin’s think dere an explanation for every’ting, but dere not. Not like for dat man who saw us dere. I was wrong to bring you here.”
“Look, you were right, old man. This will be the easiest couple of thousand dollars we’ll ever make in our lives. We just need to get into Mr. Goldberg’s grave and take the jewelry that greedy ass lawyer decided to take to the grave with him.”
The fog grew thicker then, its thick haze swallowed the earth beneath them and roiled outward about the bare canopy of branches above them. The cemetery lights, hanging from wrought iron stands shone like splotches of white emptiness lost with the swaying tendrils of the fog. Leafs crackled around them as bugs scurried within the earth. The wind blew and a shadow stalked among the shifting figures of rustling branches. A frog croaked a long and hollow croak. Something moved in the mud.
“Di midnight man comes for men like us. Men wit’ great desires dat cannot be met. His image grows from di doughts and wishes dat we bare. Takes form wit’ our greed. He’s already struck several times in town. Yea, I heard di stories.”
“Stop. Shut up.”
Sorie went quiet for a short while, but then the pain came back to his chest and he went to pull a cigarette from his pocket when he saw the silhouette of a man in the distance standing where the grave keeper had walked off to. The old man tried to remove his gaze from the figure but couldn’t and stuttered, “D,di midnight man came for Okeli.”
“Okeli had a stroke Sorie.”
“Left him wit’ half a mind is all. Sometimes he comes before your time and breaks your reality instead. Okeli struggled to tell me what he saw dat night. He said di street lights went dark around di midnight man’s figure. He said di cars in di street done lifted behind him and they was consumed by the darkness dat did spawn out of him.”
Sorie couldn’t resist the temptation to keep his eyes pasted on the figure and slammed into Tony. Tony clicked his tongue and pushed back on Sorie, “Back off old man. Get a grip on yourself.”
Sorie nodded and shut his eyes tightly, trying to get a hold of himself. Even in the darkness of his shut eyes, the image of the midnight man’s face etched itself to the back of his eyelids. The old man shuttered and picked up his pace, passing Tony on their way to Mr. Goldberg’s grave.
Tony scoffed, “Go on old man.”
Sorie stopped short of grave forty-five and looked over his shoulder to Tony. The reflection of the grave shone in the young man’s eyes and a grin widened across Tony’s face as he patted the crowbar against the side of his leg. The grave was agape, replete with fog that seemed to be flowing from within its depths.
“Let’s get what we came for,” said Tony, then leaped into the grave. The young man’s body was swallowed by the grave and for a moment Sorie was alone in the graveyard. A gust of wind rattled the bare branches above and there came a clicking sound from where Sorie had last seen the strange figure lurking in the shadows.
Leaves crunched behind Sorie and something struck at his ankle. He forgot to breathe, and his heart’s palpitations rippled through his skin. The sting gnawing at his chest struck.
Sorie refused to look down, afraid he’d see the midnight man’s face if he did. He knew the only way the midnight man could take him was if he looked right into thing’s eyes.
“You goin’ just stand there all night?” asked Tony. The young man shook Sorie’s ankle and beckoned for Sorie to join him in the pool of fog within the grave. “I can’t get the coffin open by myself without making too much noise.”
Sorie hesitated to look down. Perhaps the midnight man could mimic the sounds and images of earthly beings? He rubbed at the pain in his chest and looked down, it was Tony looking back up at him with a sidewinding stare. The young man motioned with his head and Sorie jumped in the grave with him. Once inside the two took to the corner of the casket. Tony forced the crowbar against the corner of the coffin and a cascade of soil fell from the side of the dug grave around where he worked.
“We’ll have to open one side at a time and shift to the other side to get it fully open,” said Tony.
“Yeh,” acknowledged Sorie.
Tony lifted the casket open spewing the rotting stench of decaying flesh and together he and Sorie shifted so as to allow the lid to come off. Their feet fell into the casket with Mr. Goldberg’s stiff body and Sorie felt his heart’s palpitations surge through him again. There was a flash at the head of the coffin. What little light there was in the graveyard reflected Mr. Goldberg’s corneas. The late lawyer’s inquisitive stare was as demeaning in death as it was in life and even in his final resting place it seemed his chin was raised higher than it should’ve been.
Tony jerked toward the deceased man’s right hand and yanked the fat golden and diamond-encrusted rings off his fingers. Sorie bent down to the man’s left hand and undid the strap of the diamond-encrusted submariner Rolex watch.
“Sorie,” came a whisper somewhere above him.
Sorie looked up and saw two tokens reflecting death from within a darkness so deep it paralyzed the old man. He gasped and gargled, trying to call out for Tony, but he had already peered into the midnight man’s eyes. The pain in his chest surged. It had grown beyond pain, it was a hot iron slicing his chest in two. Sorie groaned and felt someone tug at the Rolex in his hand. He wanted to turn and warn Tony. He wanted to tell the young boy to run while he still could but darkness poured out of the midnight man, consuming the fog that roiled about the graveyard and crept toward his face. Finally, his legs grew weak and Sorie collapsed into the open casket. The old man lay sprawled out about Mr. Goldberg’s body. The stench stung Sorie’s nose and though he wanted to shift his face away from the decaying flesh of the dead man’s face he couldn’t. Tony fell too, but out of the peripherals of Sorie’s sight, the old man could see the young man struggling with what lingered just outside the grave.
Soil cascaded down around them. Darkness grew.
Click. Click. Came the sound as the midnight man’s head jolted from side to side.
Darkness was the last thing Sorie saw. The searing pain in his chest jolted through his back and seemed to come out the side of his shoulder, but it was the pain at the base of his head that was the last thing he felt.
JM Advent is the pseudonym taken up by John Steven Martinez, an avid writer of all things fantastical from science-fiction to urban fantasy. Born in 1991 in Miami Florida, John has worked on honing his writing skills by crafting poems and short stories.