I liked to jog through the cemetery. The air was brisk and the leaves crunched underfoot and swirled around me. It was peaceful, especially at daybreak, but it took on an added significance after my aunt and uncle were buried there. Now each morning I paid my respects at their plot on the hillside next to the lightning-singed oak tree. This morning I paused as usual on the path next to their stone. I wasn’t looking where I was going, and as I stepped onto the grass my foot squished into something. A dog had chosen that spot to relieve himself. I groaned and wiped my shoe off. Movement suddenly caught my eye, and I stumbled back as I realized a hand was sticking out of my uncle’s grave, and it was moving.
I shrieked, one long ear-splitting cry, but I kept watching the hand. It scratched at the soil, slowly and deliberately, the nails were filthy, the flesh gray. I could see specks of bone and raw sinew — I could smell it too, I covered my nose and swallowed bile.
My aunt and uncle had met later in life and they fit like hand in glove. She laughed the loudest at his thrice-told jokes. At their fifteenth anniversary he still called her his bride. It didn’t surprise any of us when word came that she’d passed only two months after him.
His diagnosis had come last Thanksgiving, already stage 4. They offered hospice and liquid morphine. The doctors were amazed he lasted until spring. He should have been in a coma but still managed to turn himself in bed, his eyes finding my aunt’s, his hand reaching out for hers. In his last lucid moments, my aunt said, he’d sworn he’d come back in whatever way he could. He’d visit her dreams, haunt her as a ghost, even if he could only be a cool breeze on a hot day, he’d find a way.
In her note, my aunt had asked to be cremated. Her ashes were interred next to his coffin. I knew it was her hand he was reaching for, and he would have been furious to find after fighting so hard for his own life that she had surrendered hers. So steeling myself, I took his hand, wincing as the bones popped and shifted in my grip. The gold ring was still on his finger. After a long still minute my uncle gave my hand a squeeze and then released his grip. The ring slipped off. He tapped around until he found it, then after an awkward fumbling, held it out for me to take. Once I had it, the fingers wiggled and bent as they gradually retreated underground.
I released a long breath and leaned against the headstone, the coolness of the granite felt good against my flushed cheek.
Thanksgiving is approaching again, and it will be a mournful holiday, our first without them, but I wear that ring on a chain around my neck, a reminder that even in death, love prevailed.
Shawna Mayer lives in central Illinois, with two cats and a Quaker parrot. For this story she has a writing buddy to thank, who threw out a prompt for a story that incorporated love, zombies, and poo.