Originally published by A Thin Slice of Anxiety, reprinted with permission by the author
It was a beautiful day at the cemetery.
Michael had wished for rain so the family would be forced to dirty their rented, black formalwear, standing in an inch of mud, leaving stains that could never be cleaned. Each time they would return to the grave for the rest of their lives, they would be reminded of those soiled clothes like the soiled, rotting heart of their precious deceased. But being a clear morning, Michael could have a view, unobstructed by rainfall, of their faces twisted up in pain, bloated and red from the tears. He would see directly into their shrink-wrapped eyes and drink in the agony, knowing that a piece of that feeling would remain buried inside them like a virus until they joined their flesh and blood’s corpse beneath the earth. He took solace in that.
Michael stepped out of his car in the parking lot, his scuffed and torn tuxedo serving as both attire for the funeral he wasn’t invited to, and as celebratory garments the night before. Crushed and emptied beer cans fell from the passenger seat onto the concrete. He reached into his inside jacket pocket, removed the fifth of whiskey and took a long pull as his bleary eyes adjusted to the sunlight.
Letting the bottle dangle at his side by a loose grip, Michael stumbled across the lawn dotted with gravestones, towards the small circle of mourners gathered around a coffin.
“Tell me again. Read it again! Slower this time.”
Anthony eyed him warily as Michael laughed and threw his head back to drink the shot. He picked the pamphlet up off the bar and read: “Please join us to celebrate the life of JOSHUA MILLER, beloved son and brother, December 16th, 2018. We will be gathering to share our fondest memories of Joshua. We please ask that this be a celebration for friends and family only.” Anthony repeated the final line as a grin stretched across Michael’s face: “For friends and family only.”
“Can I have that?” Michael reached over the pint glasses between them and snatched the pamphlet before his friend could answer. He took a pen resting atop a nearby settled bar tab and began scribbling on the paper.
Anthony nipped at his beer. “Why do you want it?”
Without taking his eyes off his task, Michael responded, “I’m gonna put it up on my wall. Maybe get it framed. There—I fixed it.” He lifted the pamphlet to show Anthony, still grinning. The black and white photograph of Joshua Miller had been adorned with a crudely drawn penis ejaculating onto the dead man’s face, with devil horns atop his head and an X over each blank eye. “This may be some of my best work.” Michael stared at Anthony, hoping for a reaction, and upon getting nothing in response, nevertheless slammed his open hand on the bar and cackled before draining the remainder of his beer glass in a single, gluttonous swig. “Lighten up, man.” He belched, wiped the foam from his neglected facial hair, and held up two fingers towards the bartender. “This is the best day of my fucking life. Can you try to be happy for me?”
Anthony ignored the fresh shot glasses that were placed in front of them. “I don’t know how to talk to you right now. Whatever…”—he waved his hands in circles around Michael—“this is…it’s not healthy. You should talk to somebody about this. I wanna help, but—”
“Help?” Michael interrupted. “Help? What’re you talking about? I’m fine! I’m better than fine! I’m the happiest I’ve fucking been since that…”—he paused, searching for a word that would inject the heaviest dose of venom—“faggot did what he fucking did to me.” He picked up one of the shots, clacked it against the other still sitting untouched on the bar, and held the glass in front of his chin. “To the death of Joshua Miller. Ding-dong, the witch is fucking dead! Haha!” The cheap whiskey disappeared down his throat as he shivered and grimaced.
Anthony watched the mechanical motion, contemplating how best to breach the topic he wished to address. He lifted the glass, staring at the brown liquor before throwing it into the back of his throat. “Just tell me you’re not gonna do what you’re thinking of doing.”
Michael’s eyebrows raised as he smirked, accentuating the deep lines like trenches running across his forehead. “Now, what would YOU possibly think that I’M thinking of doing?”
“Just don’t go, man. Don’t show up there.”
“I’m not gonna do that. I wouldn’t do that. Why would I do that?” Michael’s eyes widened and bore into Anthony’s. They burned and glimmered underneath the dim bar lights. Lifting two fingers again in the air, he spoke softly, almost unintelligibly beneath the blaring music pouring out across the room: “I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna piss on his fucking grave. I’ll destroy his tombstone. And every time they fix it, I’ll come back and destroy it again. And every night I’ll pray there’s an afterlife, because I want him looking up from the fucking hellfire, watching me do it—over and over.” His voice began to raise, the hatred spilling out over his swollen tongue. “Over and fucking over I’ll do it. Until I know that somewhere he’s screaming at me to stop.”
Anthony grabbed the new round of shots as they arrived, pulling them out of Michael’s reach. “Let’s call it a night, buddy. Sleep this off.”
Michael slumped forward, rubbing his palms over his face. “Fine, you go. Just leave.” The words slithered out between gritted teeth. “I paid for those, leave them there. You go.”
Anthony looked around the bar. “I don’t know if I can leave you here alone. Why don’t we get outta here?”
“I’m not alone.” Michael grasped Anthony’s hand to lift it away from the glasses and took both, sliding them in front of his stooping body. “I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. Let me just sit here a while.”
Michael drank both shots one after the other before gagging and turning around in his barstool to solidify the end of their interaction. As Anthony stood to leave, placing a hand on his shoulder, Michael mumbled something into his empty glass.
“What was that?” said Anthony.
Michael glanced back for a moment before returning to face the bartender with a finger in the air. “Nothing. I’ll see you later.” He waited for the feeling of eyes on his back to dissipate, picked up the drink, and repeated it again for only himself to hear: “I wish I had killed him.”
The courage bubbling within Michael’s chest transmuted into acute terror as the eyes of those in attendance turned to identify the drunken stranger charging across the grass. Even as a body in the dirt, Joshua Miller held a chokehold over his emotions. His specter had climbed atop Michael’s shoulders, weakening his legs like iron shackles strapped to his ankles. He had never met the people who all now stared at him, but in their features he saw Joshua’s face. The mother and father, bearing his eyes and thin nose, and the brother, a young child with tousled, brown hair who was yet unaware of the black mold that encompassed his soul by birthright. The reactionary instinct to rip out their tongues and eyes with his hands was immediately traded for the horror of the recognition of what they represented.
Before Michael could relinquish the scream rising up to the lump in his throat, the priest at the head of the congregation interrupted his own speech for the deceased, and waved. “Hello,” he said.
Michael fell to a knee and vomited. Every repressed memory and their images like short films that had been involuntarily replayed inside his head thousands of times poured out onto the earth, twisted up in the rejected liquor and the blood like wet coffee grounds from unhealed stomach ulcers.
A collective gasp emitted from the group of onlookers. A woman—the mother—stumbled forward and bent down close to his face. Michael wiped away the bile and met her gaze; behind the mascara running down her cheeks like water droplets on a dirty mirror, he recognized the same eyes he’d seen in his nightmares for seven years.
“GET AWAY.” The words erupted out from somewhere deep inside him, somewhere hidden, in a voice he didn’t recognize and couldn’t control. “STAY AWAY FROM ME.”
Michael fell backwards, reaching his arms behind him to crawl away like an injured animal attempting to escape its attacker. He pulled out the whiskey bottle and began swinging it in front of him like a blunt weapon. The terror wrapped itself around his throat and strangled his next words, instead expelling from his mouth as guttural moans.
As the rest of the audience stood watching in silence, the father stepped forward, around the coffin suspended above its grave, and pulled his wife away from the man sputtering on the ground. “He needs help! Call 9-1-1!”
“NO!” Michael screamed, the acrid taste of stomach acid coating the inside of his mouth. He lifted himself back onto his knees, wobbling as he found the strength to stand. “Let me talk!” Michael aimed a rigid finger like a sniper’s laser at the coffin before them. “It’s…ALL…his fault.”
Michael had the better part of a decade to think of ways to torture Joshua Miller. For the first three or so years after the event, he could do nothing but drink in bed and sleep away the hours with a box cutter underneath his pillow. But as time went on, he began to formulate plans to ambush Joshua Miller with a baseball bat or a dull knife—something that would take time to kill someone. He would start by breaking the kneecaps or severing tendons in the ankles, and then as Joshua Miller lay there gasping, unable to run, his eyes screaming upon recognizing his assailant, Michael would slice open his throat. Not deep enough for him to bleed out, but if done with enough surgical precision, Michael could reach inside the wound and tear out his vocal chords. He’d then use a lighter and a sewing needle to cauterize and seal the gash so Joshua Miller would be unable to speak as he continued.
Michael understood he lacked the constitution to enact this plan in reality, but surmised that with enough bloodlust and alcohol to cloud his terror response and judgment, it could be pulled off. Disposing of the body or covering up the murder would be unnecessary, as Michael planned to kill himself upon completion of the task. Suicide by cop was a possibility, as he could call in his own crime and wait atop the corpse, soaked in blood, speaking his last words to the emergency operator to be recorded and immortalized for the family and the world to hear and to know exactly why Joshua Miller was now dead. Michael was not a violent man beyond this single, hypothetical circumstance, and wouldn’t hurt the police, but he would scare them, and for that they would kill him.
Joshua Miller was also not an innocent man long before doing what he did to Michael. It was feasible to tip the police on any number of the illegal activities that he knew Joshua Miller participated in regularly. The justice system could then ruin his life without Michael’s further participation. If this were to happen, he had dreams of becoming famous—for what was of no consequence, as the sole reason for achieving notoriety was to have a podium with a large audience. Perhaps after being invited on a talk show, Michael could swim through the monotony of questions and answers, ask for a moment to speak, face the camera, and announce that there is an inmate named Joshua Miller in So and So Penitentiary. Michael would then address the inmates at that particular penitentiary directly, and tell them that whoever is willing to beat and sodomize Joshua Miller on a regular basis for the remainder of his sentence, that he would personally donate a large sum of his fortune to their commissary fund. Upon receiving an answer of agreement to the proposal, Michael would then give that inmate the entirety of his money and assets, and he would then kill himself.
However these fantasies played out, the constant was that at their conclusion, Michael would no longer be alive. There was nothing left about life that held any purpose other than enacting revenge on Joshua Miller. Everything else had been taken away. After that, he could rest.
But now Joshua Miller was dead, through circumstances outside of Michael’s control. He died not caring or knowing about the effects of his actions, not understanding the depths of the black chasm to which he had sent his victim, not giving a thought or expending an ounce of guilt or remorse for the life he’d destroyed in the wake of his violent, otherwise unremarkable existence. Joshua Miller was dead, and the gaping hole he’d left in Michael’s psyche would continue to bleed out and decay, for not only was he the one who had administered the poison, but he was the single person in the world who, unwittingly or not, held its antidote. And with the stillness of Joshua Miller’s once beating heart, that antidote had forever disappeared from the face of the earth.
With adrenaline cascading throughout his body, the cloud of anxiety was disappearing behind his rage. Michael approached the coffin, the mourners all backing away as he wound up and kicked the solid mahogany, resulting in a dull thud and pain like an electric shock running up his leg. “FUCK YOU,” he screamed, kicking the coffin over and over, letting the agony tear through the bones in his feet.
“FUCK YOU.” Thud. “FUCK YOU.” Thud. FUCK YOU.” Thud.
The father charged forward and strangled Michael from behind with an arm around his neck, pulling him away from his deceased son. Michael swung the whiskey bottle over his shoulder, smashing it into the father’s nose, and erupted forth a stream of blood like a broken spigot. The father went limp and collapsed onto the ground.
People screamed and scattered as some pulled out their phones to call the police. The child fell to his knees beside his father, bawling in an earsplitting pitch like a teakettle.
“IT ISN’T FAIR,” Michael roared, hurling his fist at the coffin, shattering his free hand. “YOU DON’T GET TO JUST DIE. YOU DESERVED TO FUCKING SUFFER. YOU CAN’T JUST GET AWAY WITH IT.”
The mother let out a bloodcurdling howl, like a dog caught in a trap. This brought Michael’s surroundings back into focus, and he turned to face the screaming woman, his nostrils flared and eyes alight, his mind on fire. “SHUT THE FUCK UP. SHUT UP. YOU DID THIS.” He turned again to point at the bleeding man on the ground. “YOU RAISED A FUCKING MONSTER. DO YOU KNOW WHAT HE’S DONE? DO YOU?”
The father spit up crimson and mumbled something incoherent. The priest had taken off down the lawn, waving people down and yelling as they walked past. God had left this place.
Michael opened the bottle still in his hand, now smeared with blood, and drank until coughing up liquor as it ran down into his windpipe. “YOUR SON RUINED…EVERYTHING.” He threw his arms out in exasperation, sloshing whiskey onto the dirt as if blessing the site with tainted holy water. Michael leaned down close to the father, lowering his voice to a hiss: “What did you do to make him the way he was?”
The sound of sirens began crying out in the distance.
Punctuated by whimpers, the mother’s voice called to him: “Please…don’t hurt him anymore. Please don’t. What do you want from us?”
Michael spun around, watching the woman inching slowly over to her son to reach an arm around him and pull him close. The family of Joshua Miller sat crouched together beside his scuffed and splintered coffin, gazing up at a man they’d never before seen.
He looked out over the graveyard, at the brightness of the winter morning burning his eyes, at the faint glow of approaching red and blue lights through the tree line. “I want you—I want you to make this go away.” Michael’s nervous system collapsed in on itself. Tears welled and his words broke into sobs that trembled inside his stomach like the wails of purgatorial spirits. He thrust the side of his fractured hand into the center of his chest. “Just make this go away. I can’t handle it anymore. I can’t.”
“I don’t know what to say to you,” the mother cried. “I don’t know who you are! I don’t know what he did to you. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t understand! My son is dead! I don’t know WHO YOU ARE!”
Three police cars had pulled up into the parking lot. The figurine men drew their pistols and grew larger as they sprinted across the grass in his direction.
Michael spoke, his eyes trained on the approaching police he’d decided would end his life: “Tell me you’re sorry.”
The woman stared at him, her mouth agape. “I—I don’t—”
“GOD DAMNIT!” Michael dug his nails into his scalp, tearing at the hair until he could feel it rip and his vision went white. He hurled the bottle at the ground, the shattered glass like bomb shrapnel twinkling in the sunlight around the family. “SAY YOU’RE FUCKING SORRY. TAKE IT AWAY FROM ME.”
“OKAY,” the mother shouted, her eyes darting towards the police now feet away from their target, “I’M SORRY. OKAY? I’M SORRY YOU’RE SO SICK.”
Michael’s response was severed as the policeman collided into his chest with the full force of his body. He hit the earth. The men rolled him onto his stomach and attached handcuffs to his wrists as a boot found the side of his head.
“I’M SORRY YOU’RE SICK,” the mother repeated, cowering from the crazed man being lifted to his feet.
“SAY IT AGAIN.” A punch landed against his ribs; blood streaming down his face; the grass flattening beneath him, leaving a trench in the earth as they dragged him away from the convulsing woman.
“I’m SORRY!” she called to him.
“SAY IT AGAIN!”
The mother began to shrink away between the gravestones, and still he screamed: “AGAIN.”
A large hand grasped the back of his neck and squeezed, twisting it around to face him towards the open door of the cruiser. He looked up to the blinding sky. “AGAIN. SAY IT AGAIN. SAY IT AGAIN.”
No response came but the muffling of the outside world. The door slammed shut. He bashed his head into the metal separating bars. “AGAIN. AGAIN. AGAIN. AGAIN. AGAIN.”
Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud.
The cold, midnight air raised the hairs on Michael’s bare leg as he stepped onto the lawn. He reached down to unfurl the cuff in his jeans, covering up the ankle monitor. Carefully, he crept around the flat, marble gravestones, illuminated by the sparse light of the crescent moon behind the clouds, and approached the solitary, etched stone standing upright beyond a patch of newly grown grass. He sat upon the earth cross-legged, pulled off the gym bag strapped around his shoulder, and leaned in close to read the words:
1994 – 2018
God needed another angel in Heaven.
Michael laughed. He reached into the bag, removed a pint of Old Crow whiskey, twisted off the plastic top, and drank. It had rained earlier in the night, and the wet grass soaked through the bottom of his jeans.
A cemetery was a beautiful and tranquil place to be during the night. It was quiet, and he imagined the spirits of the dead rose with the moon to sit beside him and listen to the wind. Michael imagined Joshua Miller was watching him.
He smiled and smiled, and continued to drink until the bodily urge came. Michael stood, undid the button on his pants, and pulled out his cock. The dark yellow stream of urine polished the stone as it ran down its face, absorbing into the dirt at its foundation. He stepped away, tucked his organ back inside his pants, reached back into the gym bag and pulled out the ten-pound sledgehammer, letting it rest over his shoulder.
Michael craned his neck back, looking up at the night sky, and suckled at the pint until the last of the cheap whiskey tore through his throat and settled like burning gasoline at the base of his stomach. He dropped the empty bottle beside the gravestone, grasped the sledgehammer with both hands, lifted it high over his head, and swung it at the glistening marble slab like a crusader dealing a deathblow with a claymore.
A large chunk broke off with a metallic bang, echoing across the flat landscape. Michael giggled and looked around before swinging again, knocking off another piece, tearing Joshua away from his surname. Again the sledgehammer collided, again, again, again, again, until what stood before him were the crumbled remains of Joshua Miller’s memory.
Breathing heavily, Michael released the weapon and leaned over with his hands on his knees, laughing. He laughed until the sound carried over the tree line, until its volume surpassed that of the act that had brought it on.
Once he ejected the last of the joy from within his chest like air in a vacuum, Michael allowed silence to return. He collapsed upon the earth, straightened himself, and returned to a meditative, cross-legged posture. The silence encompassed him, seeping into the cracks left unmended, until it suffocated the fire he’d kept stoked since the first day of his second life. His mind became empty and hollow. The cold he’d staved off for so long soaked through into his aching bones, and he accepted the flood of neglected emotions he’d buried beneath his surface like a stillborn child. They came in waves, rising up and up and up until his nose submerged under their weight, and he could no longer breathe.
Michael remained there, floating in the murky depths, finally refusing to fight its violent current as the pressure of his environment crushed his body, the corpse of a specter beneath his feet far below, and he peered through the blackness at the rubble he’d created. The fractured pieces glinted with the silver moonlight, the words etched upon them now illegible.
He had made his statement. Michael would remain in the graveyard, waiting, engulfed. He would wait until he heard an answer. And when it came, when the voice cried out from a place it could never leave, he would reject it. He would stand up, with air in his lungs, and he would walk away.
He would wait as long as it took.
— Jack Moody is a novelist, poet, and short story writer from wherever he happens to be at the time. He is the author of the short stories collection Dancing to Broken Records, released through Beacon Publishing Group, as well as being a staff writer for the literary magazine and podcast Brick Moon Fiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in multiple publications including Expat Press, Horror Sleaze Trash, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, and The Saturday Evening Post. Moody’s debut novel Crooked Smile available now through Outcast Press. He didn’t go to college.