by Scott Brendel






From Issue 13 (Sept 2011)

I was in such a rush to bury her, I forgot about the ring.

By the time I remembered, she’d been in the ground over two weeks, out behind the barn beside the old oak tree, in a hole I’d dug with a few swipes of the backhoe’s bucket. Nothing fancy, nothing ornate–just a deep hole with her at the bottom. The practical kind of thing an old farm widow would appreciate.

But I had forgotten the ring, an oversight that would come back to haunt me.

I hadn’t meant to kill her. And she certainly didn’t deserve it. Just one of those train-wreck moments you can’t take back; God setting you up for a cosmic pratfall because He’s got nothing better to do. Which is not to say I had no hand in the calamity–just that it needn’t have turned out the way it did.

It was the lavender that did it, the sweet stink of the bath water she put on when she forgot to bathe. Which had been happening more and more often.

“Just a touch,” she’d say with that addled look, then slather it on like it was sun block and her at the beach–the old lady smell I’d come to associate with nursing homes, like the one where I used to work. A smell that made me squirm every time Aunt Tilly pressed her hairy cheek against mine.

I’d dozed off in the recliner in front of the TV, helped along by the Jack Daniels I’d been sipping, a remedy for the sense of failure I carried wherever I went. And I dreamed a glorious dream, of a beautiful woman who held me with forgiveness.

The smell of lavender was faint at first, but then it began to grow. I said nothing to the woman, because she looked at me with the adoration seen only in dreams. But the smell grew slowly oppressive as she ran her hands down my arms and pressed them to my sides, held them there while she slid first one, then two, then three arms around me . . .

“Can’t move!” I screamed, as I came awake.

It was Aunt Tilly who hugged me, the wrinkled prune of her face pressed to the side of mine, overcome, no doubt, by a moment of tender concern. But I woke violently, lashed out to free myself, and threw her backward in a parody of pinwheeling arms. The ottoman–an overstuffed obstacle of questionable purpose–was behind her and she tripped over it.

When her head hit the radiator, the air rang with a husky tone that faded along with the light in her eyes.

I was screwed six ways from Sunday, ol’ God getting a laugh at my expense. And this just the latest in a long line of them.

Aunt Tilly had taken me in after my mother had died, suffered my stupidity until I was old enough to leave, then taken me back again when the state penal authority had had its fill of me. Her heart was a sponge full of love, which I’d wrung dry and then stopped altogether.

I stared in righteous disbelief.

She lay on her back, her head propped up by the radiator and lolling to one side. Her arms stretched wide, palms up, as if to say, now what? Which, of course, was the first thing I wondered.

That’s when the doorbell rang.

“Tilly here?”  The man who asked had the sullen look of a dog denied its bone. He also had a cheap tin star pinned to the front of his hat and a sharp crease in his navy slacks.

“She is,” I said, for once unable to lie. The one skill I’d honed to a fare-thee-well deserted me in my hour of need.

“Can I speak with her?”


“No?”  The deputy frowned. He didn’t like me. I knew, because he’d once gone out of his way to say so. “Why not?”

“She’s out,” I said, clutching at straws and drawing the short one.

“You said she was in.” His frown deepened. “Which is it?”

“Out like a light,” I stammered, trying to shut myself up. “Down for the count.”  Dead on her feet, and flat on her back. Halfway to heaven, and don’t hold her back!

“Well,” he drawled, stretching the word out so long I thought it’d snap. “Tell her I’ll come ‘round again.”

I buried her that night, once I was sure he was gone, in a performance worthy of the comic greats. Uncle Floyd had once taught me how to run the old backhoe, but like all things worth remembering, I’d forgotten.

I had the bucket swinging and twisting, the backhoe rocking back and forth like an old lady at a Sunday tent revival, and all this in the dead of night with the moon nowhere to be found. Something fell over with a crash, but I was too scared to stop.

When I figured the hole was deep enough–it was so dark, I honestly couldn’t tell–I clambered down into the pit with Aunt Tilly in my arms, prepared to lay her to rest.

That’s when it hit me, an ungodly stench that curled the hairs of my nostrils, a smell that convinced me I had stepped into a quagmire of shit.

Which, it turned out, I had, a point driven home when I saw the splintered remains of the outhouse I had knocked over. The half moon cut into its door looked just like a smile, and I could’ve sworn I heard God laughing.

The phone rang off and on for the next couple of weeks, but I ignored it, for fear of whom it might be and what they might want. The deputy, with little else to do in the aching emptiness of our rural county, had taken up a vigil at the end of the long drive.

Worse yet, doubt had seeped through the cracks in the foundation of my belief, which cast me as the innocent in this colossal foul-up. Had it really been an accident?  Or a moment of pique?

If truth be told–which some would say was not my strong suit–Aunt Tilly had grown increasingly strange over the past year. Forgetful at first, she’d taken to carrying on whole conversations with herself, working both sides of an argument with ease.

Creepy, too, when she’d stare at me with that moony-eyed look and call me Floyd, like she had somehow confused me with the dead dirt-farmer she’d married sixty years before. But I knew she’d finally gone round the bend the night she tossed her nightgown over the bedpost and crawled in beside me.

Call it what you like–Alzheimer’s or hardening of the arteries–but I call it unnatural. And it came in a cloud of lavender, a smell that made me sick.

When the doorbell rang again, I knew it was trouble. Sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed.

“Is Mom around?” Annabelle asked.

“She’s out back. In the outhouse,” I said, my new-found propensity for the truth alive and well.

She nodded, probably relieved she wouldn’t have to deal with the old lady. “I come for the ring.”

“What ring?”

“The one she asked me to sell. With the rubies and pearl.”

I knew the one she meant. It hadn’t left Tilly’s finger in over thirty years.

“I got a bidder on eBay.”  An annoyed looked crossed her face as I shuffled my feet nervously. “Is there a problem?”

“Nope,” I said, looking over her shoulder at the deputy at the end of the drive. “Just gotta dig it up.”

God must have thought it a howler, upping the ante and watching me sweat. I had to get that ring back, just to keep up appearances.

The deputy packed it in early that night, his enthusiasm for the stakeout apparently having begun to fade. It was a chilly night anyway, and I imagined him headed home to a TV dinner and a rerun of Andy Griffith.

But I waited until dark just in case.

When I crept out the back, it was to an eerie landscape of darkness and light, the waxing moon lost behind a tumbling scrim of clouds. With the old oak as my landmark, I made my way along until the silhouette of the backhoe emerged from the shadows, its arm and bucket like the trunk of a tuskless elephant. The machine had made short work of an unpleasant task on the night I’d buried Tilly, even allowing me the luxury of rolling a boulder atop her grave.

Well clear of the house, I flicked on my flashlight and crawled into the cab. Then I pulled down the visor to retrieve the key that Floyd had kept secured beneath a pair of rubber bands. But the night was cold and the rubber brittle. Both bands snapped in sequence, releasing the key to the force of gravity.

I grabbed for it, but a piece of flying rubber caromed off my cheek just below my eye, and made me flinch. The falling key bounced off the heel of my palm, slipped between my fingers, and disappeared through the rusted lace of a hole where it took up residence in the cavity of the cab’s floor.

What were the chances that both rubber bands would let go at the same time?

“Gimme a break!” I screamed, a modern-day Job who’d had enough. “Cut me some slack!”

As I levered myself out of the cab, a loose bit of bailing wire that Floyd had used to hold the contraption together snaked through the weave of my sock and sent me sprawling. I took a header past the edge of the tread and ended up stretched out on my back, just like ol’ Tilly, my one bit of luck to find a shovel lurking in the dark within reach of my hand.

“Hah!” I screamed, waving the shovel at the veiled moon. “I’ll do it the old-fashioned way!”  I smacked the backhoe for good measure, retrieved the flashlight, and then turned my attention to the task at hand.

The boulder presented a problem, preventing me from taking a direct route down from the top. So I went in from the side and tunneled beneath it at a long and steep angle, like it was The Great Escape and me Richard Attenborough. My freedom lay at the end of that dark and gloomy hole, wrapped around Tilly’s finger.

At first, the dirt flew, as my anger and fear conspired in a frenzy of effort. But the deeper I went, the harder the earth was packed, a side effect of the days of rain we’d had after I’d planted Aunt Tilly. Then there were the roots . . .

Picking a spot beside the old oak tree might not have been a good idea, I thought, fifteen days too late. The backhoe had shredded the root system, an agonizing offense to such an old and benign tree. But strangely, my route in from the side was threaded with them, as if they’d already grown back. I hacked and stabbed my way through with the shovel, while the leaves of the tree rustled with near-silent suffering.

Then I hit something that was neither rock nor dirt, something with a strange give to it. When I looked at the shovel’s edge in the pale glow of the flashlight, I saw a dark smear of jellied blood.

I’d found her!

The thought that I may have severed some part of her with the shovel’s blade made me queasy. No sense in violating the old bat any further; I’d take it more carefully from here on out. Retrieving a hand trowel from the barn, I got down on my belly and wormed my way head first to the bottom of the sloping tunnel I’d dug.

It was close down there, like an earthen birth canal, and it smelled like shit. Not surprising, since ragged bits of composted toilet paper marbled the sides of the tunnel. I wanted to make this quick, so I could refill the cesspool and put the whole sordid affair behind me. Working by the feeble glow of the flashlight, I carefully excavated what turned out, by a stroke of luck, to be the gray, fleshy flap of Tilly’s arm, and worked my way toward her hand.

It was quiet, the only sounds my labored breathing and the scrape of the trowel. From somewhere far off, I heard a distant rumble, as if a herd of horses had passed nearby. But my desire to see the job through led me to ignore it. I was close; I had uncovered her wrist.

The first sign of trouble was a tickle of cold that worked its way into the tight funnel of my pant leg and up my thigh, where it soaked into the cotton crotch of my BVDs. It was water, pulsing down the slope of the tunnel in a thin stream.

Oh, God! I thought, then realized how right I was to accuse Him. He’d conjured up a rainstorm, His way of pissing on me!

“Damn you!” I screamed, anger fighting the fear.

I dug faster, too close to my prize to leave, until the trickle turned into a torrent. When the flashlight winked out and left me in the dark, I knew it was time to go.

“Sorry, Tilly,” I said, the remorse thick in my throat.

I pushed against my dead aunt and the wall of earth that encased her, only to realize that the slope of the tunnel was too slick to traverse. With no friction, I was stuck. I had dug my own grave and would die beneath a mountain of shit.

In the frenzy of fear that gripped me, I managed to turn over onto my back, while the level of the water slowly rose along the back of my neck. I cursed and I screamed, I bargained for a break, then I begged for God’s mercy, only to hear a blistering crackle of thunder that sounded like laughter.

As I wept, the scent of lavender slowly suffused the air in that tunnel, forcing out the stink of shit. But the smell brought no comfort, just a rising sense of horror–that this time, I’d climbed into bed with her.

Then I heard movement in the darkness behind me, from the end of the tunnel where Tilly lay–the sucking sound of something breaking free from wet earth. It plopped into the water like a fish trying to shake a lure, and ripples lapped against my skin. I clawed at the wet walls of the tunnel in panic and desperation until I felt my nails break and my fingers bleed, but to no avail.

When something crawled onto my trembling shoulder to embrace me, I screamed for the water to take me away.

But Tilly was there to console me.

Copyright © 2011 by Scott Brendel

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Scott Brendel

Scott Brendel is the author of “The Seventh Green at Lost Lakes,” which appeared in Read By Dawn, Volume 1. Ramsey Campbell called the story “…satisfyingly grisly… the kind of fun in the sun Sam Raimi might have had in his less respectable days.” He also wrote “The House Beneath Delgany Street”, which appeared in Subtle Edens, an anthology nominated for a 2009 British Fantasy Award. “Ataraxia” appeared in an anthology entitled Day Terrors.

Scott lives along the Front Range of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, where he is at work on a novel.

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