There was a squatter in my spot again tonight.
I hate that.
A body goes out and does all it can to do the job, and do it right, and comes back, bone-tired and stiff and smelling like death warmed over, and Bingo! there’s somebody in your spot.
He just laid there and looked at me like I was the one who was trespassing, eyes all glassy, just staring, staring, staring like his baby blues were trying to jump right out of his head. Slack jaw, forehead as bright and smooth as a fine china plate.
Bam! I wanted to knock him one, right on that shiny skull of his.
But it ain’t too smart to pick a fight when who knows when you might have to share a claim.
Oh, I rousted him out all right. Kicked his scrawny butt hard enough so as you could almost hear the bones rattle.
He hit the ground running, and his joints creaking loud enough to wake the dead. He knew the rules well enough, because he just kept running, trying to find an empty spot before the sun came up. I hoped he’d make it.
Hell, I might be dead, but I still got feelings.
No way would I turn somebody out if they were going to get caught. Only one ghoul I knew that would. Names don’t matter anymore, so I called him Adolf. Nastiest name I could think of.
I’ve stepped around plenty of piles of dust that used to be people just like me. Ones that Adolf, that sour bastard, could have saved from the sunlight, but didn’t.
I watched the squatter run over the hill, right toward Adolf’s roomy crypt. He was kind of listing to the right and bouncing off tombstones. Must have been new to the ghoul game, I figured. No need to hurry that much. Adolf had plenty of space, even if his location wasn’t prime, but there was not a chance in hell of sharing, not with Adolf.
I wished the best for him — or maybe he was a she — gender doesn’t matter when everyone looks like a gnarled heap of gristle and bones. For all I know, maybe Adolf was a gal, too… Nah. I don’t have the imagination to wrap my desiccated gray matter around that possibility.
(Sex appeal? Please! Doggie chews are more sensuous than the undead.)
I don’t much blame any ghoul for wanting my spot. It’s a tidy single, a slab-topped grave near the cemetery’s back fence, which butts up against a neighborhood bursting with fat kids and their fatheaded parents. I can get out of the graveyard quick, scare up some business, then get back in quicker than a catbird can whistle.
Please don’t start with the stereotypes. Eat your brains? Possess your souls? What a bunch of crap! Just like a lot of things — salesmen, sharks and white people in general — Hollywood and the liberal media gave us a bad name.
The undead are mainly about lumps in your throat, feelings of panic like when you forget to do your homework. It’s those small scares that add up, after all, not the moments of sheer terror.
That might not sound important, but think about it: If a ghoul can’t scare somebody, then what’s the point of going on? You might as well be dead.
And if we don’t go scaring people and making them feel bad, then how will they appreciate the good things, like how smooth and sweet ice cream feels on your tongue. Like the smell of a baby’s hair or the silky sweetness of chubby little arms around your neck. Like autumn leaves, crisp as apple cider, or chicken barbecuing on the grill.
You gotta measure your good feelings against something, right, or how would you know they were good feelings?
Of course, time will come when the essence of my primo grave dries up, but now it’s pretty fresh and strong, almost oozing off the walls.
When I’ve soaked it all in, then I’ll have to move along, but I’ll worry about that when the time comes. This spot is fine. Damn fine. Location, location, location, as I used to preach back in my living days.
I was still thinking about that rookie squatter — it’s not like you can exactly slip down a storm sewer or into a mailbox if daybreak catches you out. There are rules, even in the afterlife, such as it is.
There was a grayish charcoal smudge in the east — dawn was lurking there — but I had time, so I went looking, and got over the hill just in time to see the squatter tuck himself into Adolf’s crypt.
Had Ol’ Grouchy turned over a new leaf? I drew closer. No, no leaves left on that dried stick. Adolf wasn’t home. Which meant…
I got back to my place with dawn at my heels and a sinking feeling in what used to be my stomach. And, of course, there was Adolf. If slack-jawed zombies could smirk, he was. And feelings or not, I wasn’t about to share with him.
Survival beats the Golden Rule all to hell and back.
He was already drunk on my grave’s dark richness, and dug in, kicking and clawing. His bones felt as heavy as lead, but fear of dying is strong in the undead, and I twisted him out and slammed the slab home with him and my left foot on the outside.
He scratched and thumped once, then twice, but the third sound was the hiss of his dust blowing away on the wind. And when I go out tonight I’ll be lurching one-footed. That would be a pain, if I felt pain. Then again, there’s something sinister and even scarier about a limping ghoul.
So, thanks, Adolf. Here’s dust in your eye, and a lesson to all you wannabe squatters out there: Just let me live my death in peace, thank you very much.
TW Williams is a Chicago-area writer and magazine editor, who has magazine and anthology credits in fantasy and science fiction genres.