Zooey dug her nails into the ground and removed hefty scoops of soil from the new grave. Chunks of mud and dirt flew up in spatters. Clawing through layers with ferocious speed and concentration, she had dug down past her knees before the ravens in the cemetery trees could squawk four times.
Her arms whirled through the earth to the last few inches, pulling up sand and sometimes clay. It made no difference to her; the effort was the same. Her strong claws ripped at the roots that poked through. Her muscles flexed and rippled beneath her brown-fur-coated back as she moved away the deeply embedded boulders and tossed them overhead with ease.
Nearly through the dig, she stood inside the hole, her long nose nearly at eye-level with the ground. She closed her eyes and took in the smell of wet grass mixing with the metallic tinge of the rich soil in the morning and the dewy bouquets and wreaths on the plots. The morning was the best time to breathe deeply and pick up all of the scents, because you know, once funerals began, all other senses gave way to the rapture of pain and grief, not to mention your nose getting all stuffy and full of snot when you cry.
In the early morning, Zooey was the only one on the cemetery grounds, which was just the way she liked it. This was when she could be alone, and no one was in danger of the flying boulders she threw. No one would catch a glimpse of her and scream or cringe at the sight of Zooey’s beastly, hunched back, still visible above the six-foot-deep graves. She could concentrate on the job alone, her task, without having to worry about shrinking herself down or answering their many, many questions.
There. Six feet dug all the way around. For a brief moment, Zooey looked around from inside the hole to appreciate her work. Then she tapped her front paws together to free the stuck clay. Reaching one paw onto the lawn, and pressing down, she flung her body upwards like a sidewinder pitch, landing perfectly on two feet.
Before she could think of taking a break, the whirring buzz of the dirt trolley approached. It rolled around and stopped dead in front of her, and Gletchley climbed down from the reappropriated golf cart like a child from a restaurant booster seat.
“Get over to the end of Foster’s Row, ya big oaf,” he shouted up to her from below her waist. “Parker’s to be put there later today.” Gletchley’s bulbous face scrunched up, as if it was hard for him to form words, even without his usual wad of tobacco. He grabbed his hand shovel and started to remove the perfectly piled triangle of soil that Zooey had just turned out. He got it all shovelled into the cart and drove away.
Zooey had no tools to pick up or move to the next plot. She had no map. Her instructions from Gletchley were clear enough, even if they were delivered with undisguised racism. She heaved her bulky body to where Parker Foster would be buried next to her grandmother, who had also died recently. And they had been close.
Zooey inspected the ground, measuring the distance between Susan and where Parker should lie with her fast-moving, sharp eyes. As the sun started to come up, the dependable mist rose from the ground like cartoon ghosts gliding to heaven. But Zooey barely noticed. She didn’t have such an imagination, and ghosts around the cemetery were actually quite rare.
Once she had the coordinates from Gletchley, she started with the grass around what would be Parker Foster’s grave. The first layer of sod peeled away with a scratch, she kicked it out behind her in one powerful stroke of her haunches. It didn’t take long before there was a perfectly even, six-foot-hole once again. One of my best, she thought.
Turning to make her way to a sprinkler for a drink, she heard a shuffling sound coming from the hole. The sides of the grave began to crumble into dusty piles, and the walls caved in and covered the bottom, ruining her clean dig. A long, gnarled yellowed hand slowly reached out through the dense soil.
“Kenny!” Zooey growled.
The wall opened up like a long, horizontal mouth, and more dirt spilled into Zooey’s fresh grave. Kenny appeared, crawling out of the ground with an apologetic grin on his ghoulish face.
“Sorry, Zooey. Hah! That rhymes.”
“Kenny, I just dug this, and you’ve made a mess!” Zooey shouted.
“Oh, geez. I had no idea you’d be over on this side.” Kenny smirked. “Who died in the Foster family?”
“Parker. The youngest,” Zooey huffed, climbing back into the grave to shovel out the dirt that had shifted.
“Ya don’t say. She’s only a girl,” Kenny said while scratching his wrinkled chin.
Zooey smiled at the Ghoul, forgetting his clumsiness. “I think she was no more than ten or eleven.”
“What’s with this huge grave, then?”
“Gletchley says to always do what’s standard.”
“Gotcha. Here, let me help you pull this out.” Kenny climbed out of the wall completely and bent down to cup the dusty soil in his hands, but most of it fell through the spaces between his long, skinny fingers.
“That’s great, Kenny, thanks. I think I’ll take it from here, okay?”
“Sorry again. Ghouls aren’t really made for carrying soil—just living in it. Our fingers are more for slitting open skin and pulling out organs and tissue, tearing open muscle and—”
“I really don’t need the details,” Zooey said, lifting her paws to her fox-like ears.
“Right. Well, I’m just going to go back to the mausoleum to take a nap. Let me know if you need me.” Kenny turned and dragged himself over the cemetery grounds through the morning mist. Walking upright was more difficult for ghouls than shuffling underground, but Kenny’s hobble would get him there eventually.
The brakes of the dirt trolley squeaked as Gletchley stopped on the path. “Alright. Um, good. You were almost fast enough on this one. Help me get this pile outta here, and then you can get started on your other daily chores.”
Zooey threw the dirt in the back and waited for her next set of orders.
“You know you’re too big to ride with me.” Gletchley laughed in his nasal tone and rode away down the path to dump the dirt where the families wouldn’t see it.
Zooey did know it. She was too big for most things. It was why she was happy to work at the cemetery, where there were tasks for her to do at dawn and dusk, and places for her to hide away the rest of the day. She was grateful to Gletchley for it all.
With a dutiful look and a slight smile at the smell of the dew on the grass, she stomped along the path, trailing behind the dirt trolley, back towards the shed.
Before any services began, there was tidying up to do: hedges to trim down to make the sharp corners even sharper; edging of grass to get even straighter, and tree-tops to shape even rounder. Zooey worked hard for most of the morning. Trimming a few trees meant reaching up high and breaking limbs in half with her hands, pulling down hard to break them off cleanly every time.
She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the fur of her arm and blinked her small black eyes against the sun. The rising heat was getting to her, but the mourners would arrive soon, and she’d hide away for the afternoon. Maybe a nap in the shed.
Once there, Zooey clapped the dust off of her paws and lay down. She nodded off as the first cicadas sounded off, like nature’s built-in alarm system, announcing the hot day ahead. She hadn’t slept long when a low, thunderous rumble came from below her feet, shaking the floor of the shed.
“Psst, Zooey! It’s starting,” Kenny whispered. His wrinkled, yellow face stuck out of the dirt floor. He had binoculars strung around his neck.
Zooey stood, put out a strong paw, and pulled Kenny all the way out. Together, they peered out of the small, smeared window.
All of the Fosters and most of the town were out at the furthest plot on Foster’s Row, close to the stream, where Zooey had dug the grave for Parker.
“They look sad,” Kenny said, his soft skin falling into drooping wrinkles.
“Of course, they’re sad. Why do you always say that?” Zooey said in a soft scoff.
“Because they do! They look very sad.”