Back at work bright and early the next morning, even though it was Saturday and my hours were by appointment only on the weekends. Anticipating a cozy day, I wore fuzzy black sweatpants, and a light V-neck tee. My morning was completed with an enormous mug of coffee. Homemade, of course; the idea of Pine Grove having a Starbucks was laughable.
I went into my office, flipping on the overhead light, and staring directly at Lon Chaney Jr.’s hairy, bestial face in The Wolfman poster on the wall behind my desk. I’d only been open four days, but this place was already like home.
Just as my graduation-present MacBook blinked to life, the outer office door opened with a creak and a swoosh.
I wasn’t expecting anyone.
Adrenaline pounded through my body with each frantic pump of my heart, and I reached for the small caliber gun hidden in my desk. Before my fingers were even close to the drawer handle, a familiar voice rang out.
I rolled my eyes. “In here,” I shouted.
Penny strolled through the door, white bakery bag clenched in his fist and a smirk on his clean-shaven face.
“Are those doughnuts?” I asked, already standing up to move closer to the bag of pastries.
His smile widened as he opened the bag and pulled out a white box, presenting it to me as though it contained an engagement ring.
“Doughnut holes!” I squealed, pulling them from his hand, and popping a bite-sized doughnut between my teeth.
Penny made a sound like a laugh, but it came out as a snort.
“Shut-up,” I said, words garbled by the mound of half-chewed pastry in my mouth.
“Found anything yet?” he asked, collapsing in one of the chairs across from my desk and ripping into a chocolate-covered, sprinkled doughnut.
“Haven’t even started,” I said. “Some doofus came into my office and interrupted me.”
Penny made a tsk-tsk sound with his tongue against his teeth. “A wonderful, amazing guy brought you breakfast and joy.”
“Potato, potatoh,” I replied with a wink.
“Coffee?” he asked, head swiveling as he searched the room for a carafe.
I gestured to the reception area, “Hand-me down Keurig.”
He unfolded his long legs, traipsing into the other room.
“I see you found your razor,” I called after him. He gave me the finger.
As the aroma of brewing coffee filled the office, I got down to work.
Pine Grove was the biggest town in one of the least populated counties in South Carolina. We’re about an hour from Augusta and Columbia, yet somehow still in the middle of nowhere. Pine Grove and the towns in its immediate vicinity (none having a population over 500), were serviced by one newspaper, The Pine Grove Gazette. The other well-sized towns in our county, Riverview and Wilkesville, also had their own papers. I didn’t imagine it would take much time to skim through the archives of each for any mention of graveyard vandalism.
By the time Penny returned to the chair, a steaming mug of coffee warming his hands, I was reading through the latest issue of the Gazette. Seeing that I was otherwise occupied, he pulled out his phone. Soon, the only sound in the office was the click-click of his phone and the tapping of my index finger on the down-arrow key.
I thought that the limited number of towns and newspapers would make my search that much easier, but I was sorely mistaken. I slogged through months of archived issues of the Gazette, eyes itching and burning from focusing on the small, inconsequential type. I went back three months, but found no significant mention of cemeteries.
Once I finished the March archives, I allowed my eyes to drift close. I wasn’t interested in sleep. Instead I cleared my mind of the thoughts crowding to the forefront, letting it drift along on its own currents. It began filtering through local news reports from the last few months, searching for mention on anything of note.
…Girl Missing from Riverview Area; Two Drown in Lake Bartlett boating accident; Wild Spring Weather Causes Flooding in Pine Grove; Wilkesville High School Baseball Breaks Strikeout Record; 10 Animal Attacks Reported in the Last Two Months—Wildlife Experts Called In…
None of those were helpful. As the news stories dissipated, I noticed the distinct lack of smartphone key click from Penny. I shot a look over to his chair, and found him asleep—long legs sprawled out in front of him, arms limp at his side, head cocked at an uncomfortable angle, dark hair flopping against his forehead with each deep inhalation.
In the daylight, freshly shaved, it was clear why he thought the beard was necessary. His face was gaunt; dark hallows indenting his cheeks, bone and sinew starkly illuminated. Judging by the puffy, almost black circles under his eyes, this was the first time he’d slept in days. This thin unhealthiness didn’t carry over to his body; he was lean and muscular, as always. Just the same, he looked ill; he was ill.
An image of his face as it used to be superimposed itself on the one in front of me. This face had small, sun-pinked pouches of fat over the cheek bones, which allowed dimples to appear whenever he smiled. His skin was golden and shining, and the violet highlights in his blue eyes were bright with the joy and invincibility of youth. The Penny with this face played baseball, but that hadn’t happened in over a year. Guilt prickled at the base of my skull, but was quickly smothered.
I would’ve gone on staring at him and reminiscing for hours, but his head slipped backwards and a trumpeting, gurgling snore erupted from his throat. I jumped, fingers going to the keyboard and typing in the URL for the Riverview newspaper.
I found it after skimming the last four issues of the Riverview Tattler. It wasn’t even a story, just a small blurb in the Crime Blotter section: “Willow Hill Cemetery Targeted by Teen Vandals; Damage Repaired by Local Volunteers.” I read the line twice over before it sunk in that this was the evidence I needed, and then I let out a delighted “Yes!” forgetting that Penny was in the middle of much needed sleep.
“You found it?” Penny asked, making me jump for the second time.
His eyes were completely alert, the exhausted bags underneath them only a little diminished from his nap.
“Yup,” I said, “Over in Riverview.”
“We going?” He asked as he yawned, stood, and lifted his arms in a deep stretch. The movement allowed his t-shirt to pull up, revealing a two-inch expanse of pale six-pack. My head snapped away from the view. I chose to ignore the smirk lifting the right side of Penny’s lips.
“Yes,” I said, closing my laptop. “Now get out, so I can change.”
“We’re getting food,” he said.
“Whatever, just get out,” I said, planting my hand in the small of his back and shoving him out of my office.
“You’re paying,” he called, as I shut the door.
There was a small armoire in the corner of my office, filled with office supplies, but also a few changes of clothes. They were nice to have around in case things got bloody, which they often did.
I kept my t-shirt, but swapped the sweatpants for jeans that were so dark a hue of blue they were almost black. I replaced my flip-flops with calf-length boots, and topped the outfit off with a waist-cut crimson leather jacket.
Before walking out to meet Penny, I checked the mirror affixed to the cabinet door, smoothing my chin length black hair, and ensuring that my clothes fell appropriately around my curves. Skinniness and I had never been close friends, and while I was in the same shape as most professional athletes, I still wasn’t what you’d call small.
When I stepped out of the office Penny sighed, “Finally. What took you so long?”
I thumped him on the side of his head. “Let’s go,” I said.
When we stepped out, the bright sun made me wince, and I had to shield my eyes with my hand. I’d had such an early morning that I was convinced it was evening, not sweltering afternoon.
As promised, we stopped at our only fast food joint on the way out of town. The rest of the half-hour drive was spent in silence. The radio, tuned to the local pop station, played a steady rotation of Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Macklemore and Eminem. With the sun glowing above us and the music softly flowing through the speakers, it was a perfect late spring day. You know, except for the living dead, and all.
The Willow Hill Cemetery, on the banks of the Grove River, had served the communities of Riverview, Sparks Creek, and Coeur de Coeur since the towns were nothing but a few clapboard houses patched together in the territories (the last two still weren’t much more).
I pulled the car into the gravel parking lot next to the small chapel. From outside the fence, the graveyard appeared deserted, but through the trees I could just make out the green canopy of a funeral home’s graveside service tent.
I jogged ahead, to see if the service was in progress, but the rickety wooden chairs were empty. There were no funeral attendants around, so I assumed it hadn’t started yet.
The crunch of gravel in the still afternoon air announced that Penny had caught up with me.
“We should get this done before the service starts,” I said. I pointed him to the right side of the road, while I took the left. I didn’t need to tell him what to search for; when a body is dug up it’s pretty difficult to hide all of the evidence.
We went row-by-row, scanning the ground for the smallest hint of disturbance.
It happened after we’d been searching for over an hour. It was a new grave, only seven months old. I wouldn’t have noticed anything out of the ordinary, except that the grass was lighter and there were clumps of dirt marking a clear outline of where the grave was dug up. I bent down, placing one knee on the warm ground as I pulled back the sheet of cheap Astroturf. The ground beneath was a churned mess; when I pressed my hand down into it, the land gave several inches.
I texted Penny: “Found one. Covered with Astrotuf. Careful where you walk. Count the graves.”
Seconds later my phone bleeped. “Found 2. New worst cover up.”
We continued for another hour, by the end of which I’d totally forgotten about the incoming funeral processional. It was with quite a bit of astonishment that I registered the grumble of engines and churn of gravel under wheel. They drove past, spraying chunks of rock and sending clouds of dust into the air in their wake.
To Penny: “How many?”
“14. We gotta wrap this up soon.”
I didn’t want us to draw attention to ourselves; hopefully, we could find the last four in the next few minutes and get the hell out of here.
That was wishful thinking.
From across the road, there came a surprised yelp, hastily stifled. My eyes scanned the area, but I didn’t see anyone for several long beats. And then—Penny lurched around a six-foot tall obelisk, ducking to avoid a blow from the shovel being swung at his face.