“Hey, Caymen.” He holds two shovels. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Yep.” I grab the shovels.
“Okay, I got it started for you so that you could get a sense of the dimensions. It’s past that oak tree down there.” He pulls a walkie-talkie from his back pocket and hands it to me. “Let me know if you have any questions.”
I hand Xander a shovel. “Okay.”
“Gravedigger?” he asks as we walk toward the site. “Really? You thought this was a serious option?”
“It’s not just grave digging, Xander. It’s about this whole place. Living a quiet life surrounded by peaceful death.”
“You are morbid.”
Dirt clings to his hair and is smeared across his cheek. But even in his present state his confidence and stiff posture come through. “We’re not going to be buried in here, right?”
“You caught me.”
“You didn’t think I’d do this, did you?”
Never in a million years. “I had my doubts.”
“I wish I would’ve brought some gloves.” He opens one of his hands and I catch the glimpse of a bloody blister on his palm.
I gasp. “Xander!”
I grab his hand and study it closer, gingerly touching the broken skin. “You didn’t tell me it was killing your hands.” I had pulled my sweatshirt sleeves down over mine. His sweatshirt was a little on the small side.
“It’s not too bad.”
I unclip the walkie-talkie from the pocket of my jeans. “Mr. Lockwood, I think we’re done.”
“This hole isn’t nearly deep enough,” Xander says.
“I know. I just mean that we’re done.”
There’s a burst of static on the walkie-talkie, then Mr. Lockwood says, “You ready for me to send the tractor?”
“Wait,” Xander says. “A tractor is going to come dig the rest of this hole?”
“Yeah, they haven’t hand dug graves in years. I just thought it would be fun.”
“I’m going to kill you.”
“This would be the perfect place.”
He charges me, sweeping my legs out from beneath me with one of his feet but catching me then lowering me to the ground gently. I laugh as I struggle to get free. He pins my wrists above my head in one of his hands and uses his legs to pin mine. With his other hand he scoops up a handful of dirt and smashes it into my hair.
I laugh and continue to struggle but then realize he has gone still. I suddenly become very aware of every place his body presses against mine. He meets my eyes and his grip on my wrists loosens. A sense of panic seizes my chest and I grab a handful of dirt from above my head and smash it against his cheek. He lets out a groan and rolls away from me, to his side, propping himself up with one elbow.
I lay there in the soft dirt for a while. It’s cool against my neck. I can’t decide if I just prevented something from happening or if it was all in my mind.
Xander lets out a large sigh. “I needed this after a week with my dad.”
“Is he hard on you?”
“He’s hard on everyone.”
“Don’t be. I can handle him.”
I’ve seen the way Xander “handles him.” He shuts down, becomes hard, closed off. But if that’s what gets him through, who am I to argue? I don’t deal with my mom in the healthiest ways either.
My back aches and lying down feels great. I close my eyes. It’s fairly peaceful, the silence seeming to press against me being surrounded by dirt walls like I am. Maybe here I can forget all the stress in my life. Forget that I’m a seventeen-year-old living a forty-year-old’s life. Thinking about it makes it feel like someone dropped two tons of dirt on my chest that I wasn’t expecting.
I open my eyes to see Xander staring at me. “Nothing.”
“It doesn’t seem like nothing. You’re off your game today.”
“What game is that?”
“The one where you take every opportunity you can to make fun of me.” He looks at his hand. “There were a million jokes you could’ve made about this.” He shows me his blister again.
“I know. I really should’ve gone off on your soft, under-worked hands.”
“Exactly.” He brushes a piece of dirt off my cheek. “So what is it? What’s wrong?”
“Sometimes I just feel older than I am, that’s all.”
“Me, too. But that’s why we’re doing this, right? To have fun. To stop worrying about what’s expected of us and try to find out what we want for ourselves?”
“My dad would die if he saw me here.”
“We should’ve invited him, then, right?”
He laughs. “He wouldn’t be caught dead out here.”
“Well, actually, that’s exactly when he’ll be caught out here.”
He laughs again. “You’re different, Caymen.”
“Different than what?”
“Than any other girl I’ve met.”
Considering most of the girls he’d met probably had fifty times as much money as I did, that wasn’t a hard feat to accomplish. Thinking about that makes my eyes sting.
“It’s refreshing. You make me feel normal.”
“Huh. I better work on that because you’re far from normal.”
He smiles and pushes my shoulder playfully. My heart slams into my ribs.
I take another handful of dirt and smash it against his neck then try to make a quick escape. He grabs me from behind, and I see his hand, full of dirt, coming toward my face when the warning beeps of the tractor start up.
“Saved by the gravediggers,” he says.
Xander hops up and helps me to my feet. We throw our shovels out of the hole, then he gives me a boost out and hefts himself out after me.
As we walk back toward the funeral home, our shovels propped on Xander’s shoulder, he says, “So this is where your best friend lives?”
He laughs a little. “You live above a porcelain-doll store; your best friend lives in a cemetery. You’ve pretty much grown up surrounded by creepy things. Is there anything you’re afraid of?”
He meets my eyes, almost as if he had read my mind or maybe my thought is written all over my face.
I clear my throat. “Dogs.”
“You’ve been bitten by a dog before?”
“No. But the thought of them biting me is enough.”
“Oh, please. Don’t analyze the statement. Dogs have sharp teeth. They bite people.”
“What about you? What’s your biggest fear?”
He twirls a shovel on his shoulder once, thinking. Either he doesn’t want to tell me or he doesn’t have a strong fear of anything because it takes him a while to say, “Losing. Failure.”
“Failing at what?”
“At anything. Sometimes it’s hard for me to start something because I’d rather not try at all than fail at it.”
“But nothing good ever happened without risk.”
“I know this. And yet . . .”
We reach the back doors of the funeral home and he leans our shovels against the wall. I shake out my hair and he does the same. Then he turns me around and brushes off my back.
“And yet what?” I ask when I’m not sure if he’s going to continue.
“And yet I can’t get past it.” His hands linger on my back and I close my eyes.
“Maybe you should let yourself fail at something. Fail hard. Then you won’t be scared anymore.”
“So should I go get the dogs now or later . . . ?”
“Okay, okay, I get it.” He’s right. I can’t tell him to face his fear if I’m not willing to face mine. And I don’t mean my fear of dogs.
“So are you just scared of the big dogs or do the little ones bother you, too?”
“You have dogs, don’t you? The kind you carry in a purse?”
“No,” he scoffs. “Of course I don’t.”
“Their size doesn’t matter. In fact sometimes the little one are worse. They’ll take off a finger.”
“This coming from a girl who’s never been bitten before.”
“The thought, Xander. It’s the thought.”
He chuckles then pats my shoulders as if to say my back is now free of dirt. “Ready to go?”
“Yes. No, wait. Let me fix your hand real fast. Mr. Lockwood has supplies inside.” I knock on the door then open it a crack. “Mr. Lockwood?” I step inside. “Follow me. If I remember right there’s a first aid kit this way.”
We walk down a long hall and I open the last door on the right. I stop cold when Mr. Lockwood looks up from a dead body lying flat on the table in front of him. “Sorry,” I say. The man has a large cut down his chest with big staples holding it together. He had obviously had an autopsy performed. His face is sunken as well, not a fresh body but one a coroner probably had for several days.
“It’s okay, come in.”
The room is cold and a shiver goes through me. “I just needed a first aid kit. Some gauze and antiseptic maybe.”
He points to the small bathroom attached to the room. “Right there.” Mr. Lockwood applies some sort of foundation to the man’s face.
It’s hard to ignore the smell lingering in the room. It’s not a horrible smell, but the smell of something being preserved. “Is he going to be open-casket?”
“Yes. Tomorrow.” A large picture of the man when he was alive is taped to the wall next to Mr. Lockwood and he keeps referencing it.
“He needs some work,” I say.
“We’re getting there.” He holds out a brush. “Do you want to apply some blush?”
“Xander, what do you say? Another facet to this career?” I turn around, but he is frozen in the doorway staring with a horrified expression at the guy on the table. His face looks almost as pale as the man who has his attention. “Maybe not.”
I step in front of him and it takes a moment for him to meet my eyes.
“You okay?” I ask.
“Didn’t expect that. I’m fine.”
“Okay, come here.” I lead him to the bathroom and close the door, hoping that putting the body out of sight will help. I hold Xander’s hand under some slow running water, gently rubbing it with soap. His eyes keep drifting to the shut door. “Stay,” I say, searching the cupboards for the first aid kit. I find it and set it on the counter, opening it. Xander turns off the water and pats his hand dry.
I unscrew the lid off some antiseptic then take his hand back in mine and dab some onto the raw wound. “Does it hurt?”
His breath touches my cheek with the answer and I realize how close we are. I wrap his hand with gauze and look up. “There, good as new.”