Death’s Head

‘I’m going to be so glad when this project is over,’ she said, righting the headstone she’d unearthed from a deep pile of tangled ivy.

Her hands were lashed with tiny cuts and swelling hives from where the ivy had bitten at her, and she was covered in dirt and smears, her t-shirt drenched with sweat. For late October, the weather was oppressively hot and working in the cemetery all day had left both of them feeling wrung-out and filthy.

The headstone was heavy, and he moved to help her, propping it against a tree, photographing it, and then tagging it. They’d found four that day in the old colonial section of the cemetery, and this one was one of the largest and oldest. He’d have to check when he got home, but he thought it might be the oldest stone in the cemetery so far, period. The headstone’s ornate carvings were a little bit crude, but the winged death’s head at the top was clearly visible, as was the name of the decedent, Anne Smythe.

She pulled out a piece of tracing paper to take a grave rubbing and he started dragging the ivy they’d cleared that day to the spot by the side of the drive where the groundskeeper had told them to leave it so he could pick it up later. The cemetery beautification and recording project had seemed like a good idea to him at the beginning of the school year when he was looking for a senior project, but already he was starting to regret it. Even worse, he hadn’t set a goal like clearing a specific area that he could point to in order to say they were definitively done.

He really needed to talk to his advisor about that.

It was starting to get late, the light turning rich gold and fading to orange. This was his favorite time of the year because the light was so amazing, but darkness could come up fast, and he took the sunset as a symbol to knock off work for the day, go home, and shower, just as soon as he was done moving all the ivy and scrub.

Something poked through one of his leather gloves, stabbing the pad of his hand sharply.

‘Ow,’ he muttered, pulling the glove off to look at the injury.

‘Is everything okay?’ she shouted.

‘Yeah, fine, just got poked by something, is all,’ he said.

A little runnel of blood had developed on his hand in the time it took him to take the glove off. He unclipped his water from his belt and rinsed his hand so he could see more clearly, sluicing the blood away in a stream that turned pink and then red again as the wound kept sluggishly bleeding. It didn’t look that deep, but it must have hit a vessel or something. It tingled, probably thanks to a small stick stuck in his hand, which he carefully pulled out, but that only made the wound bleed more freely. He kept rinsing with the water, and then wrapped it in the handkerchief he’d had over his head.

He tried not to think about the amount of sweat and dirt that was probably on it. Wrapping it and stopping the bleeding was better than getting blood all over everything, surely. He stuck his apparently useless gloves in his pocket and was surprised to see that it had gotten much darker since he’d cut himself.

‘Hey,’ he said. ‘Are you still taking that rubbing? I think maybe we should go home.’

She didn’t reply, and when he listened, he didn’t hear the characteristic scratching of charcoal against tissue paper, or her footsteps. There was no noise at all, actually, which was a little bit unsettling. The graveyard was totally still with not a breath of wind or an animal stirring, just him in the gathering darkness next to a pile of tangled ivy.

He shook his head to dispel the creeped-out feeling. He couldn’t get all spooky in a cemetery, that was the whole point of the project: he was the one who didn’t care about staying late day after day to slowly clear away overgrowth and fish out long-lost gravestones with no one to care for them, no known descendants to come and maintain them. Everyone else thought he was either totally gothy or totally weird, but she got it, which is why she’d agreed to help him in the first place. The cemetery was nice, quiet, calm, an escape from his horrible family.

Sometimes they would go there on the weekends, too, and they’d have a picnic lunch on the grounds. She’d bring something her mother had made and casually pretend she’d brought enough for two by accident. He liked her for that, for the way she didn’t make him feel like a charity case but still managed to be fiercely protective of him. They’d talk about how soon they’d be gone, and he talked about how he wanted to use his photographs from the cemetery project as a portfolio for art school. He imagined living in a loft with other art students, developing prints in the bathroom.

‘Hey,’ he said again. ‘Where are you?’

She wouldn’t have packed up and left without him, and besides, he’d have seen her, or at least heard her. They had to gather up the gloves and clippers and other gardening supplies along with the camera and tagging kit, and load it up in her car, which was parked on the drive close to the graves. He could see it, reflectors glowing dimly in the remainder of the light.

There was a rustling off to his left and he swiveled to look, but he didn’t see anyone.

‘Very funny,’ he said. ‘Come on, let’s go.’

She didn’t reply, but the rustling noise continued, and when he turned toward it again, he realized it was closer to the ground, among the ivy they’d cleared that day. He squinted to make it out in the low light, seeing the branches twisting and writhing. They almost seemed alive, squirming around themselves and brushing against the ground in a sort of hungry, desperate way, sending out green shoots in his direction.

He blinked, pushing the illusion out of his eyes, but while his eyes were closed, something brushed against his foot, and he snapped them open, startled. The cemetery was inky-black now, not even a glow from the lights of town or the moon, and he couldn’t see a thing. He left his eyes open to adjust to the blackness, and twitched his leg, pulling his foot away from whatever was brushing it. He didn’t think it could be a snake, since they hadn’t seen any that day.

His foot didn’t move, though, and whatever it was seemed to be wrapping up around his leg. He breathed more heavily, and tried to calm down while he reached to see what it was. Maybe he had blundered into the ivy and was tangled or something.

Without thinking, he extended his injured dominant hand, and he felt, as he suspected, ivy. He pushed his hand into the thick tangle of vines and tried to pull them apart so he could get his foot out, but instead, he only seemed to become more tangled. The sound of rustling grew, and he realised with a slow, visceral horror that the ivy was growing too, racing up his body to wrap him snugly and pull him close to the earth.

He worked his mouth, trying to cry out, but the ivy muffled him.

‘Shhhhh,’ he heard a voice say.