THE TELL-TALE SOUL
“This is how it’s going to be now.” The man’s ghost said. It sat off to the side, in the dense fog, where the flying dirt would not disappear through his body. “You know that right?”
After everything that happened in the last four days, he did. Now, being haunted by the ghost of the man he just killed, Larry knew. “Shut up, Dave. Go away, you’re not real.” He wheezed between breaths
“Yeah, right,” the ghost of Dave said. “You’re digging my grave and you want me to shut up?”
“It’d be nice.”
“Well it ain’t gonna fuckin’ happen. It’s me ‘n you now. We’re gonna be friends ‘til the end, just like herpes.”
“I’ve been through enough.” Larry said, stabbing the shovel into the dirt, and leaning on the warm fiberglass handle. “I’m sick, got the flu.”
“Ahh, poor baby,” Dave replied. “I hope you die.”
The way his fever was spiking, Larry thought he just might. But before he keeled over, he promised himself he would finish this grave. Back to work, he thought, and the shovel returned to fulfilling its purpose in this world. Five more feet to go.
“You know when the cops come looking for you, you’re gonna get the chair.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Why’s that?” the ghost asked. “It is what you deserve for killing me.”
Larry looked the ghost in the eyes. He tossed a load of dirt through the ghost just to make sure it wasn’t real. As long as he isn’t real, Larry could convince himself he is just temporarily insane, or more likely, he was hallucinating because of the fever. But the ghost looked just as real as the dead body laying face down, and that made it hard not to believe. “Because this in this state, the electric chair is reserved to be used only if lethal injection is someday found to be inhumane or unconstitutional.”
“What are you a fuckin’ lawyer or somethin’?”
“Yes I am.” Larry said. “I passed the Oklahoma Bar thirteen years ago, just after my daughter was born.”
“Look, for what its worth I wasn’t gonna do anything to her.”
“You already did.”
Another scoop of rich dirt flew into the ghost’s face.
“No, they never proved that and you know it!”
Larry pointed the shovel at the ghost as if the metal blade could decapitate a ghost. “You did. My daughter said you did, and they proved you raped her friends. You did it and you got what you deserved.” He sent the shovel back to work in the dirt.
“It was over eight years ago, and I paid my debt to society.”
“Not to me! And not to her!” Larry screamed quietly. He didn’t want to alert any of his neighbors that bordered his back pasture. He kept digging; dawn would be coming soon, and he still had so much left to do. “You never even apologized when you were alive.”
“Would it have mattered if I did?” the ghost asked.
“So you killed me after seven years of prison for two things I never did?”
“You know why I did it.” Larry said, giving in to the ghost’s prodding. He snorted thick mucous back into his sinuses. “I would not have shot you in the head and then twice in balls if I thought there might be a chance you didn’t do it. No, I had all the proof I needed; I had to wait for the time to be just right; and now I am about to get away with murder. You messed with the wrong girl, Dave.”
“How are you gonna get away with this?” Dave asked. “You think the cops won’t find me buried out here eventually?”
Larry smiled as he heaved another load of dirt. His head felt like he was swimming underwater. “I could leave a suicide note if it makes you shut up.”
“Are you kidding?” the ghost said. “What would it say? I just feel bad, cruel world, so I shot myself in the head and nuts, and then buried myself out here.”
“That’s pretty good. I just might use that.”
“How about you leave your name and address?”
“It wouldn’t matter.”
“Because you’re not going to be buried out here.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Dave asked. “You are digging my grave, literally, as we speak.”
“I have been planning this a very long time. I am not about to get caught now. You’re not being buried here, you’re being burned here.”
“What the hell are you talking about? You can’t just burn somebody.”
“That’s where you are wrong.” Larry heaved another scoop of earth, and then took the short hop down into the shallow hole. “It’s called the Wick Effect.”
“You’re making shit up,” Dave said. “You’re delusional.”
“No, it’s true,” Larry said taking a small break to breakdown the plan to the ghost, as if he were Lex Luther giving Superman the evil-genius monologue. “I saw it on the Discovery Channel. They were doing a show on spontaneous combustion. They showed how a body could burn up in a very small area. They put a pig on a mattress and set it on fire, and when the body fat drips down into the fire, the flames get hotter, creating the “Wick Effect”. The flames burn so hot, that the pig fat dripped down, keeping the flames burning hot until there was nothing left. Except for the feet, not enough fat in the feet to burn the bones. But your fat will burn the rest of your body hotter than the funeral home cremator, because you have a lot of body fat don’t you? Did you know that in this state, the law says if the cops can’t find the body, then it can’t be murder? I win.”
Larry smiled, finally having gotten one over on the ghost since it appeared. “You’ll see.”
“It’s not real.”
“You’re not real.”
“Is that why you put my body face down over there?” the ghost pointed to his corpse. “Maybe you can’t stand to see what you did.”
“Maybe, but you’re still not real.”
“Maybe not, but in your head, I am. And I’m never gonna stop. Can you imagine the next five years without sleep. Every time you start to nod off, I am gonna start screamin’. So get used to having me around for a long, long time.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Because I intend to burn your soul, on earth as it is in hell.” Larry tilted his head to the side. “I’d like that.”
Dave shook his ghost head from side to side. “No, someone will see the flames and call the fire department.”
Larry stopped in mid-shovel. “Do you think I am that stupid?”
“Well I’m not. I have a trash burning permit, pre-dated in advance for today, on my private property, out here in my pasture where my cows will shit and piss all over your final resting place. I have to use this shovel so there is no paper trail to me renting heavy equipment. Trust me; I have had a long time to think this through.”
“Well have you thought about the fact that I have been missing for almost a week.”
“And you stink.” Larry said. “Don’t worry, just a few more feet to go, and no more stank.”
“That’s not what I mean.” Dave said. “I mean the cops are going to be coming for you, because you have the most motive.”
“You have no idea what you are talking about.”
“You’re a lawyer, think about it!” Dave said. “I mean, you are the only one with nothing to lose. All your friends are going to tell them since your daughter killed herself you haven’t been right since.”
“I expected the cops to be here yesterday.” Larry said heaving a heavy scoop out of the hole. He wasn’t about to let the ghost get to him using his daughter’s suicide as leverage. Instead, he dug down even harder, slamming his boot down on the shovel. “Now they are too late.”
“Oh yeah, well you said that everything got burned except for the feet.” Dave said. “What are you gonna do ‘bout that, smarty-pants?”
“I’m gonna use that logging chain to fold you in half. That should do.”
“So you don’t know if my feet will burn up or not?”
“No, that’s where I guessed.”
“Oh, the brilliant lawyer guessed.” Dave said sarcastically. “You better hope you are right.”
“I have accepted the possibility of getting caught.”
“I did too, once.”
“Yeah, well yours was worse. Mine is just revenge.”
“Just how is mine worse, killer?”
“You killed more people than me.” Larry said grunting.
“I never killed anyone.” The ghost replied. “I’m not a murderer like you.”
Before Larry could contain himself, he jumped out of the hole and swung the shovel at the ghost. The shovel hit nothing but air, pissing him off more. Larry saw the corpse lying motionless in the grass, and he began beating the dead body with the shovel, each stroke creating a loud and satisfying BONG!
“Hey, calm down.” The ghost said holding his arms out in front of him. “Easy, big fellow, easy.”
“No!” Larry said, beginning to cry again. “You killed those girls; you just didn’t pull the trigger like I did.”
“My Emily was never the same. Never. Her friends are scarred for life, and they will never be the same either. No, you killed those little girls that day alright, all three of them.”
“Quit hitting my head, its disturbing!” Dave yelled.
Somehow that struck Larry as severely funny, and he began to laugh. He gave it one more, just because. The last hit didn’t create the same sound as before, instead the metal dug into the soft decomposing throat, and it created a long hissing sound. A gush of rotten air escaped and Larry turned to vomit. He wasn’t laughing anymore, that horrible had stench ruined the moment. When he had control of himself again, he wiped his mouth on his shirtsleeve, and hopped back into the steadily deepening hole. When he was sure the nausea had passed, he sent the shovel back to work; the night was slowly turning into day.
When he pushed down on the metal blade and pulled back on the handle, the fiberglass cracked halfway down. “Shit.”
“Ha, ha!” Dave said pointing and smiling. “You’re screwed now! Didn’t see that comin’ did’ya smart fella’?”
Larry pulled the shovel free from the dirt to inspect the shaft. Just as he thought, it was cracked down the middle. He didn’t have a spare, but it didn’t matter. He simply placed the handle across his knee and pulled it apart. He flung the useless end at the body. Without slowing down, he knelt down in the dirt and began digging the hard way.
“It’s gonna take you all night to dig like that!” Dave said, clapping his ghost hands. “You might as well call the jail and make reservations.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Larry said. He began excavating small piles dirt instead of removing the big chunks. His head was pounding, and the blood rushed past his eardrums so fast it created a sonic boom in his brain. “This doesn’t change a thing.”
“I think it does, you see I figure you have an hour, maybe two at the most, before dawn. You’re gonna get caught.”
“I have a backup plan.”
“It won’t matter ‘cause you’ll never get that hole dug with half a shovel.”
Larry coughed up what felt like the bottom of his left lung. With his mouth loaded, he spit on the corpse. “You’re not listening, Dave. I’m going to fold you in half, remember? I only have to dig half a grave with half a shovel.”
“I hear the birds chirping, it will be dawn soon, and then people will be waking up wondering what is causing all the smoke.”
“Not in this fog,” Larry said. “Its too thick, just like the Weather Channel predicted.”
“You watch too much TV.”
Larry kept digging, lurching on his knees to remove small mounds of dirt from the deepening hole. His back screamed out in pain, his fingers were beginning to bleed, but he kept thinking about his little girl, and that gave him the fuel he needed to stoke his hate-fire inside. He knew he would keep digging with his bloody fingertips if it came to that. He knew Emily would want him to finish, just as he knew she wanted him to be the one who killed this man.
“You think just ‘cause you watch CSI and Bones that you can get away with this?” Dave prodded. “This is the real world, wake up, Larry.”
“In the real world, dead men don’t talk, so shut up already.”
“Do you still think I am just going to go away ‘cause you burned my body?” the ghost asked.
“I am hoping that you will be gone when my fever breaks.” Larry said. He was deep enough that the air in the hole was dirty; he could taste it on his tongue, and felt the gritty earth coating airways, causing him to cough even more. “As soon as I begin to break a sweat down here, you will be gone, you’ll see.”
“Not likely,” Larry replied. “I am almost never wrong.”
“I know one thing you were wrong about.”
“The time,” the ghost said, suddenly appearing at the side of the hole. “The fog getting brighter, dawn is closer than you think.”
Larry popped his head out of the hole and looking to the east to check the validity of the ghost’s statement. “Shit.” He plopped back on his knees and began furiously stabbing the sides of the hole, widening the opening that resembled an open mouth with brown lips.
“So close,” Dave said looking down at Larry. “I would say it’s too bad, but I want you to get caught, and when you do, I’m gonna do a little dance.”
Larry ignored the ghost’s taunts, and continued to scoop with all his might. He had to finish, just had to. After all, Emily was counting on him. Load after load, with every chunk of soil he flung over his shoulder, he remembered that.
He dug so hard so fast, that eventually he became dizzy and disoriented. He had to stand up and prepare to vomit outside the hole. He stood with his eyes closed, inhaling deep breaths of cool crisp morning air.
“You’re out of time.” Dave said.
Larry opened his eyes and saw part of an orange circle cresting the eastern horizon. He was waist deep in the ground, and he could see the fog lifting. The ghost was right. He looked to the hole with a small measure of satisfaction. It was bigger and deeper than he thought when he was on his knees. Not quite as deep has he had planned, but it would have to do. “Time to move on to phase two.”
“What’s phase two?” the ghost asked. “You might as well give up.”
“Time to burn, you bastard, but first we need blankets.” Larry said. After he layered the sleeping bags on the dirt, he grabbed the dead man by the arms, and Larry quickly pulled the corpse into the hole. “Would you hand me that chain?”
“No, you go ahead.” Dave said shaking his head, but his eyes never left his dead body.
Larry grabbed the chain and wrapped the long end under the body. He then pulled the dead man’s knees into his chest, and locked the chain in place. Another burst of putrid air escaped Dave’s slit throat, and Larry vomited on the corpse. “That’s a nice finishing touch; don’t you think, Dave?”
“I’m gonna piss on your grave.”
“Who knew killing you would be so much trouble?” Larry said, climbing from the hole. He lay on the wet ground, looking to the morning sky. Sick or not, broken shovel or no, he had made it. And that made him feel better, if only for a brief moment. A small breeze puffed up, and he felt sweat beading on his forehead. His fever was lifting. All he had to do now was light the fire, and make it all go away.
“You know you will get married the first night in prison.” The ghost said. “I did.”
After a moment of lying in the dirt, he achingly rose to his feet. His back popped in several places, all his muscles began to protest, but he pushed through the pain. He limped to the supplies waiting nearby. He grabbed several quick swallows from the canteen, replaced the metal can in his backpack. He pulled a book of matches and cigarettes from the front pocket, placed them both in his dirty shirt pocket, and went to gather the gas cans. “Never going to happen, I am going to finish this.”
“I’m telling you, you’re not gonna get away with this.” Dave said. “And I’m not going anywhere.”
“We are about to see about that,” Larry said. He began dragging the metal cans to the side of the hole. “Better make your peace with God. Again, I guess.”
“Go fuck yourself, Larry.”
Larry laid one can down on the ledge and unscrewed the cap. Immediately, gasoline poured out, covering the body entirely. Larry smiled as he dragged the other can to the head of the grave. For the first time in a long time, Larry was happy. With both cans drained, he and Dave stood over the body, letting the blankets soak up the fuel. The sun rose in the east, the bottom finally broke free of the horizon, and the fog was lifting.
“This ain’t right.” Dave said solemnly.
“You’re right about that,” Larry replied. He pulled out the cigarettes and opened the fresh pack. He put one in his mouth and waited. “This is for Emily.”
“See you in hell.”
“Maybe,” Larry said. He lit the first cigarette he had smoked since Emily was born. He pulled in a deep drag, and proceeded to light the rest of the matches in the book. A small flame sparked to life, each matchstick angry and hungry, just waiting to finish his plan. “I love you Em.”
The matchbook sailed into the open pit, igniting instantly. A huge blast of flames shot up and out, and Larry had to back peddle to a safe range. The fire blazed and popped, angrily rising up into the sky.
Larry again had to step back as he watched the flames flicker and dance in the morning air, creating a thick grey smoke that billowed almost to heaven. Higher and higher, hotter and hotter, the flames burned the air, completely clearing the fog in the area. The blaze danced back and forth swaying in the gentle breeze, almost hypnotic in its movements. He pulled on his cigarette one last time and threw the remainder into the pit.
Together they watched the dancing fire as the morning sun slowly rose behind them.
“Did you hear something?” Dave said at last, breaking the silence. “It’s coming from over there.”
Larry tried to hear over the crackling and popping of the flames, but the blazing inferno was too loud. He thought he could hear drops of fat sizzle every now and then, but other than that, he heard nothing. He looked in the direction the ghost was pointing, but saw nothing. He turned back to the flames, hoping the ghost would go away now that he had burned his soul.
Then he heard it, an engine revved in the distance, and Larry knew the time had come. He saw the SUV slowly maneuvering its way through his pasture, and he didn’t have to see the police lights on top to know it was the cops.
“Whew!” Dave shouted as he jumped up and down. “For a moment there, I thought you really were gonna get away with my murder, but now your goose is pretty near cooked. That’s the law coming for you. I told you! I told you!”
Larry stood motionless, waiting for the police to approach, and he became aware he needed to urinate, but he probably couldn’t squeeze a drop. His heart pounded in his chest, almost up into his throat, and he considered just making a run for it. His legs protested, not willing to budge after the long night of strenuous digging. He would not make it ten feet before he dropped in exhaustion.
“You’re busted, and you’ve nowhere to run.” Dave said smiling. He began waiving his arm in the air, as if they could see him. “He is over here!”
“I think they know.” Larry said, watching the vehicle creep closer. “I think the forty foot flames in the air were their main clue.”
“It doesn’t matter!” Dave said happily. He pointed to the fire. “My feet are still there! He is gonna see them and bust you!”
Larry looked, and sure enough, the corpse’s feet were on fire, but still not burned beyond recognition. His heart skipped a beat. “Shit.”
The police SUV came to a stop. For a few agonizing moments, time slowed to a crawl, and nothing happened. All kinds of thoughts raced through Larry’s mind, including several worst case scenarios.
“Murderer!” Dave screamed, in hopes someone could hear him. “You filthy fuckin’ murderer!”
“Shut up!” Larry hissed through his teeth.
Finally the door opened and a boot touched down, followed by another. “You alright Larry?” the voice called out.
Larry couldn’t speak. Instead, he waved a hand in the air, trying to wave the man off.
“Hold on, I’ll be right there.” The voice called out.
“Yeah, come over here and see my foot!” Dave screamed as loud as he could. “It’s evidence!”
Larry began to fear the cop might just hear the ghost after all.
After a few moments, the officer exited his vehicle and began walking towards the bonfire. It wasn’t until the man blocked the sun behind him, that Larry recognized him. The man stood tall in the morning light, casting the shadow of a giant.
“He is a murderer!” Dave tried shouting into the officer’s ear. “He fucking killed me! My body is right there! Hurry before it’s too late.”
“Gus,” Larry said, trying not look at the ghost. “How’s business?”
“Good as can be, I guess. I was knocking on your door when I saw the smoke.” Gus said. He pushed his thick glasses higher up on his nose. “You got a cold or something?”
“Oh yeah, summer cold I think. What’s got you out this early, Gus?” Larry asked, amazed at how casual his voice sounded. “It’s not my fire, I have a permit.”
“No it’s not the fire, and I know you have a permit.” Gus replied. His eyes stared directly into Larry’s soul. “We have been friends since kindy-gart’n, an’ I know you always obey the laws.”
“Law and order every time, that’s me.” Larry said. “What’s up?”
“You remember that piece of shit Dave Collins?” Gus asked. “He went missing a few days ago.”
“You understand if I don’t feel bad.” Larry replied honestly. “You of all people should understand.”
“He is a killer!” Dave pleaded. He knew the cop couldn’t hear him, but he was still trying.
“Mm-hmm. What’cha got burning?” Gus asked, pointing behind Larry. “You got a diseased cow or someth-”
Larry froze, knowing he was caught. After years of planning, the ghost was right. “Yeah, the cow died last night.” Larry croaked from his dry throat.
“Was the cow wearing shoes?” Gus asked as he moved around Larry.
“No, it is my shoe, and my foot is burning right there!” the ghost screamed to no avail. “Look!”
Larry slowly turned his head to see Gus pick up Dave’s shoe that had somehow fell off when he dragged the body in the hole. He had missed it. He had been so careful, planned every detail, but in the end, he supposed everyone gets caught eventually.
“Look!” Dave shouted and pointed furiously at the blazing inferno. “Look right there!”
Larry blinked in disbelief as Gus seemed to look into the fire right where the ghost was pointing. It was over now. Larry accepted it, and wished he had another cigarette.
“Is that the foot of the man who molested my nieces and your daughter?”
Larry swallowed hard and nodded.
“Carry on.” The officer said, turning his back and walking back to his cruiser. “You should get that cough checked out, those summer colds are terrible.”
“What the fuck?” Dave screamed out. “What did he say?”
Larry watched Gus climb back into his vehicle and drive away from the flames and into the sunrise. When he turned back around to watch the fire do his dirty work, he smiled a big grin because he knew he had done it, gotten away with murder, and now Larry could tell that it was turning out to be a beautiful day.