A thump sounded from Granny’s coffin. Eunice leaned forward from her front-row pew and looked around the church. The congregation sat silently, fixated on Reverend Parker’s eulogy. No one seemed to notice anything unusual. Maybe the sound was nothing more than Eunice’s overactive imagination.
Another thump came from the coffin, louder this time. The reverend paused and looked toward the casket.
Eunice sat up straight and scowled. This couldn’t be happening again, not when they were so close to finally putting that woman in the ground. If only the old hag would stay quiet just a little bit longer.
Eunice held a handkerchief to her cheek and wiped away an imaginary tear. “Oh, Lord, why did she have ta’ go now? Why, why, why?”
Eunice poked her husband, Amos. He leaned forward, his head slumping on his chest. A snore escaped from his throat. She shook his arm. His head shifted but he continued his slumber. Dang good-for-nothing husband.
She nudged her sister-in-law, on the other side of her, and whispered, “Help me, Rose, they’ll hear Granny.”
Rose tilted her head toward the ceiling and bawled. “Oh, Granny, Granny. It’s too soon for you ta’ go.”
Eunice looked across at Rose’s husband, Festus. He slumped with his head back, also pointed at the ceiling. He was as useless as Amos.
A whole series of bangs now rattled from the coffin. Eunice wailed until her throat felt scratchy, but it couldn’t compete with the sound.
The flower vase on top of the coffin slid off and shattered on the floor. Granny screamed from inside, “Dab blame it, git me outta here now! Tommy! Tommy, where in blazes are ya?”
Reverend Parker stared with wide eyes at the coffin.
Tommy sprang from his seat on the second row and pulled a claw hammer from the pocket of his coat. He ripped the lid off the coffin and up sat a glossy-eyed Granny Miller.
She leaned over the edge of the coffin and hugged Tommy. “I’m so glad yer here. I was afraid they’d done buried me.”
The congregation stood and shouted, “It’s a miracle! Halleluiah! Praise Jesus!”
Eunice frowned. Didn’t the people know by now? No miracle had happened. This was a result of Granny’s strange new condition.
As the congregation filed out of the church and headed to their horses and wagons, still rumbling about the supposed miracle that had just happened, Reverend Parker walked up to Granny, his skin as pale as a ghost. “Missus Miller, please forgive me! I was willing to swear on my Bible you were really dead this time. I’ve never had a situation like this in all my years wearing the cloth.”
Eunice stepped up to the reverend. “It’s all right. These spells’ve fooled a lot o’ other folks too. I’d hang on ta’ that eulogy, though. It’s a dandy an’ ya never know how soon ya’ll need it again.”
Tommy brought the wagon to a stop in front of the house and helped Granny off. Eunice and Rose jumped to the ground, their feet aching so much they could barely stand. They should have at least broken in their new shoes before they tried to walk in them. Amos and Festus had decided to find their own way home, and of course their route took them past the saloon.
Ahead of her, Tommy guided Granny onto the porch and through the front door. Eunice stumbled into the parlor to find Tommy settling the old woman onto the sofa.
He bent down to her. “Would ya like me ta’ git ya some water? Ain’t nothin’ like cool well water ta’ soothe a body’s nerves.”
Granny reached up with shaky hands and hugged him. “My precious grandson. What would I ever do without ya? Yer Ma and Pa would be so proud of ya’ if they was still alive today.”
Eunice gave Granny a forced smile and went straight upstairs, to the room she shared with Amos.
A moment later, Rose sauntered in and shut the door. “I hate that old biddy. I don’t think I can stand one more minute in this house with her.”
Eunice put a finger to her lips. “Shush. If the old cow finds out how we really feel about her, she’ll change her will. Then we’ll never see that money.”
“I swear, if she leaves it ta’ Tommy, I’ll walk out on Festus for sure.”
An hour later, two sets of clumsy footsteps ascended the stairs, accompanied by atrocious singing. Amos and Festus unlatched the door and staggered into the room, with the stink of whiskey about them. Amos grabbed onto Eunice and bent over to kiss her.
Eunice pushed him away. “You two stopped at the saloon again, didn’t ya?”
“Can’t a feller kiss his own wife?”
“Not when he smells like a distillery. You’re broke again too, ain’t ya?”
“Whisky ain’t free.”
“That was all the money we had ta’ git us through ta’ the end of the month. An’ there was this bonnet down at the store you promised ta’ buy me.”
Festus grabbed on to the bedpost for support. “Relax, ladies. The way I got it figured, it’s only a matter o’ time before Granny either has one o’ her spells again, or maybe even kicks the bucket for real. Soon, we’ll have all the money we can shake a stick at.”
“So, why don’t one of ya boys take a shovel an’ bash that bag’s brains out?” Rose said. “We could git it over with fast.”
Eunice held a finger to her mouth. “Hush, Rose. She’s right downstairs. If ya don’t keep yer voice down, she’ll hear you. Besides, what yer talkin’ about is murder.”
“An’ what we’re tryin’ ta’ do ain’t?”
“Not exactly. Nature put these spells on her an’ we’re just helpin’ it along. With her goin’ this way, nobody‘ll ever be able ta’ blame us.”
Dinnertime approached. Eunice and Rose slaved in the steamy kitchen. Eunice stopped stirring a pot of beans long enough to take a peek at the husbands in the parlor. They lay sprawled on the sofas, sleeping off their drunkenness. Of course the men would never offer to help. That would be work.
“Cookin’ fer two is bad enough,” Rose said. “I hate cookin’ fer six.”
“It’s only fer a little longer. Soon we’ll be able ta’ afford havin’ people cook for us.”
“If I could put a little rat poison in the old woman’s food. At her age, they’d just think it’s natural causes.”
“No, we have ta’ be patient. It’s only a matter o’ time an’ then we can be gone from this place forever.”
Rose poured the beans into a large bowl. “Forever can’t come soon enough!”
The husbands shambled into the kitchen. They always had a knack for waking right before meal times. Tommy pulled out a chair for Granny and helped her sit.
The men dug in to the food like starved hogs. Tommy stared at them with squinted eyes. “Wait, Uncle Amos, Uncle Festus. We didn’t ask the blessing.”
They bowed their heads. Tommy folded his hands. “Dear Lord, we thank ya for deliverin’ Granny from the jaws of death again. Ya just can’t imagine our joy when we realized she was still with us. Please allow her ta’ continue ta’ grace our lives, an’ if it be Yer will, grant her many more long, happy years with us all. Amen.”
Eunice opened her eyes to find Amos already chomping on the best cut of meat. “Ya ladies put too much salt in the pork.” Slobber flew from his stuffed mouth.
“Yes, an’ y’all didn’t steam the beans enough. They’s still a little hard,” Festus said.
Eunice felt herself steaming nearly as much as the beans. “Well, why don’ y’all cook supper yerselves next time.”
“Na, that’s woman’s work,” Amos said.
“What exactly would ya call man’s work around here then?”
He paused. “Well, I guess the stuff Tommy does”
The sound of Granny’s glass spilling interrupted their conversation. She had slumped over, either unconscious or dead.
Tommy bent over her. “Hey, I think Granny’s havin’ another one o’ her spells. Is she dead, Uncle Amos?”
Amos grabbed Granny’s hand. “I can’t tell. It sure looks like she’s dead but the last three times this happened we thought she was dead, too.”
Eunice stood. “Amos, Festus, git Granny into her bed.”
Amos speared another hunk of meat. “Can’t we wait ‘til we git done eatin’?”
Eunice glared at him. “Git that stuff out o’ yer’ mouth and git busy.”
While the husbands were tucking Granny into bed, an idea popped into Eunice’s head. She climbed the stairs and poked Amos in the rib. “Now Amos, ya know this could be the real thing.”
“Nah it can’t, Eunice. This’s happened too many times before.”
“Yep,” Festus said. “That ol’ woman ain’t never gonna die.”
“I think it is.” Amos and Festus weren’t too bright but even they seemed to pick up on the way Eunice put stress on the last word. “Now Tommy, go down an’ git her some cool well water. In case she ain’t really dead, that is.”
“Yes, Aunt Eunice. I’ll be back with a whole bucket real soon.”
Rose waited until Tommy was out of earshot. “Well water ain’t gonna bring her back if it’s just one o’ her spells. Why don’t we just put a pillow over her face while Tommy’s away an’ be done with it!”
“I ain’t gonna meet the Lord on Judgment Day with murder on my conscience,“ Eunice said. “Besides, I think I know how we can pull it off this time. Rose, I need ya ta’ slaughter one of the chickens an’ lay it out on the roof of the shed.”
“Ya know that chicken’ll spoil in no time in this heat, don’t ya?”
“Just do what I say. Amos, go out back an’ git me a bucket o’ pokeberries. The bluest ones there is. Festus, go ta’ the shed an’ bring back the stiffest board ya can find. Make sure it’s no longer than four feet.”
Eunice went down to the cellar. Rows of jars lined Tommy’s sturdy cedar shelves. The smell of the wood nearly covered the musty earthen odor. She found a jar of honey and returned to Granny’s room. The old woman still hadn’t moved an inch.
Tommy stood next to Granny’s bed, carrying a bucket of well water with a dipper sticking out of it. “Here ya’ go, Aunt Eunice. What do we do now?”
She patted Tommy on the head. “Go ta’ bed. We’ll see how Granny is in the mornin’.”
“But Aunt Eunice—“
“Don’t sass your elders.”
She watched Tommy walk into his bedroom and waited for Amos and the in-laws to return. They had a lot of work to do before morning.
It was already hotter than Hades when the sun poked above the eastern horizon. The day was going to be a real scorcher. Eunice sprang from her bed and slid into Granny’s room. She hadn’t moved or twitched since they had set her in there last night. Could she really be dead this time? It was probably too much to hope for.
She tiptoed back to her bedroom and shoved Amos. “Git up. We gotta lot ta’ do this morning.”
Amos growled. “Can’t a feller sleep a little longer? We was up half the night.”
“If you wanna see that money, you’ll git out o’ bed.”
Amos shot to his feet. “What do I gotta do next?”
“Follow me.” She stepped into Granny’s bedroom. “See. She ain’t moved since last night.”
Amos made a wide, gator-like smile. “Well, I’ll be.”
Rose entered Granny’s room, with Festus waddling along behind. She took a gander at Granny. “Do ya’ think the old goat’s dead, or is it just one o’ her spells again?”
Eunice walked to the door. “It don’t matter none. I think we can finally git her in the ground fer good this time.” She called into the hall. “Tommy. Git in here.”
Tommy dashed into the room and took one look at Granny. “Oh, my Lord. Ya mean she’s really dead this time?”
Eunice put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “I’m afraid so. Ya’d better git the marshal. While yer at it, git the undertaker, too.”
“Right away, Aunt Eunice.” He sprinted down the stairs.
Festus watched out the window as Tommy left the grounds. “That ain’t gonna help us none. Soon as the marshal figures out she ain’t dead this time either, he’s gonna be twice as mad.”
“No he won’t.” Eunice said. “So long as everybody follows the plan.”
Tommy returned with the marshal. Eunice met him at the front door.
The marshal scowled. “She’d better be dead for real this time. I’m gitin’ tired of bein’ summoned ta’ this house just ta’ find the ol’ lady ain’t dead.”
Eunice started up the stairs. “Oh, it’s for real this time. Just follow me.”
Before they had even reached the top of the staircase, the stench of Rose’s rotting chicken hit them like a mule kick.
The marshal gagged. “Dang, I ain’t smelled nothin’ that bad since the time my horse died an’ I didn’t find it fer three days.”
“Oh, it gits worse,” Eunice said.
They went into Granny’s room. A cloud of flies swarmed in every direction, like one of Moses’ plagues.
The marshal swung his arm in a futile gesture to disperse them. “I ain’t never seen a body draw that many flies, neither.”
“It’s even worse than that. Try ta’ sit her up an’ see what happens.”
The marshal put his hands behind the poor woman’s shoulders and tried to lift her. “That woman’s stiff as a board already.”
“Look at the lips, too.”
“Why, they’s as blue as blue can be.” The marshal took off his hat and held it over his heart. “Lord bless her soul.”
“So ya’ll sign the death certificate?”
“Sure I will. It’s a good thing I hung on ta’ it. Somethin’ just told me not ta’ throw it away.”
“An’ we need ta hold the funeral real soon. She’s rottin’ awfully fast.”
“I hear what yer a sayin’. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person spoil that quick before.”
They heard a wagon approach and rushed outside. The undertaker was passing through the gate, driving his sleek, black coach.
He pulled up to the house. “Mornin’, y’all.”
“Mornin’, undertaker,” said Eunice. “Ya’ll find Granny upstairs in her bed.”
“I hope she’s dead for real this time. I’m gittin’ awful tired of haulin’ her ta’ the funeral home every other day just ta’ bring her back here later.”
The undertaker entered the house. “Dang! I don’t think I ever smelt a body this rotten before.” He turned to his sons, who were just now climbing out of the back of the hearse. “Let’s git her in the coffin real quick. I don’t think nobody’ll be able ta’ stand that stench much longer.”
“The cedar coffin Tommy built is still in the shed out back. We can use that, right?” Amos asked.
“Sure. Boys, go git it.”
“So how much will that save us on the funeral?”
“The price of a new coffin, I reckon.”
“Will we have ta pay for the grave diggin’ again?” Amos asked.
“Well, I reckon so. When she turned out ta not need it last time, I had the boys fill it back in.”
“How come we gotta pay the same amount ta have the boys dig up loose dirt as we did ta have them dig packed dirt? Everyone knows it’s faster ta’ dig loose dirt.”
Eunice grabbed Amos by the arm and pulled him away. “Ya’ve gotta excuse my husband, it’s the Scottish blood in him. We need ta’ have the funeral as soon as possible, an’ the burial right after. She ain’t gonna last long in this heat, an’ we need ta’ git her in the ground before she rots too much. Ya can do that, right?”
“Sure thing, Mrs. Miller. How ‘bout if we have it at noon tomorrow an’ the burial right afterward?”
“That’ll be fine.”
Rose looked happy as a hog wallowing in a mud hole as the coach shambled away with Granny in back. “I hope that’s the last we ever see of that old goat.”
Just as the sun was setting, the undertaker’s coach appeared at the gate. The husbands and wives rushed to the porch to see what was the matter. The back of the wagon rocked back and forth like a ship in a storm and a horrible pounding emanated from inside, like a whole troop of demons trying to break out. It was not a troop of demons, however. There was only one thing capable of causing that much racket.
“Dab blame it, all o’ ya, git me the Devil outta here right now!” Granny shouted. “Tommy, where in Hades are ya? Tooommmmyyyyyyy.”
Tommy rushed from the house and forced open the back of the wagon. Once again, Granny jumped into his waiting arms.
“My precious little Tommy,” she sobbed. “Yer the only one ‘round here that’s worth a dang plug nickel.”
“Thank the Lord she’s out,” the undertaker said. “She like ta’ tore up my whole coach gittin’ her back here. I swear, she’s the most uncooperative customer I ever did have.”
Granny gave Tommy a big hug. “Yer so sweet, Tommy. It’s good ta’ have someone like ya around in my time of troubles. Tomorrow mornin’ I’m gonna have ya take me ta’ see my lawyer an’ I’m gonna change my will. I’m leavin’ all my money ta’ you.”
“That’s awfully nice of ya, Granny, but ya don’t have ta’ do that. I don’t need all that much money.”
“I know, sweetie, but I wanna. I think ya’ll be a fine executor of my estate when you git old enough, too.”
Eunice felt a lump form in her throat, which then sank all the way to the pit of her stomach. The money was gone forever now.
That evening, Eunice sat on the front porch, lamenting what could have been. Amos and Festus passed her as they walked toward town.
“We found a little money Granny had hidden away in the cookie jar,” said Amos. “I think some inebriation is in order at a time like this.”
They headed toward the saloon.
Eunice crept up the staircase and into Rose’s room, who busied herself packing her clothes into a bag.
“Rose, ya leavin’?”
“Ya betcha I am. I got a little money stashed away even Festus don’t know about. First thing tomorrow mornin’ I’m goin’ ta’ the station an’ takin’ the first train outta here. Ya’d do the same if ya was smart.”
“I guess I was wrong, Rose. We shoulda’ bashed the old coon’s head in when we had the chance. Now if sometin’ happens ta’ her, they’ll know it was us for sure.”
Granny’s shrill voice ruined the evening stillness. “Tommy! I’m feelin’ a little thirsty. Can ya be a good boy an’ git me some water?”
No one answered.
“I think Tommy’s still fishin’ at the river,” Rose said.
A moment later Granny called again. “Eunice. Rose. Can one of ya git me some peach preserves?”
“Don’t bother ta’ answer,” Eunice whispered. “Now that we ain’t gonna git that money, it don’t matter what she thinks of us.”
Her stomach growled. She realized she hadn’t eaten much today. “I’m gonna git me some peach preserves from the cellar, though. Ya want some?”
“Nah, you can have the jar ta’ yourself.” Rose folded a dress and packed it into her carpet bag. “I’ll stay up here an’ finish packin’.”
Eunice went downstairs and out the back door. The sun had long set and there was no moon, leaving the sky black as tar. She struggled to open the heavy cellar door and then strained to hold it open as she descended the steps.
One of the stones shifted beneath her feet. She tumbled down the steps, the door slamming behind her. After rolling all the way to the bottom, her head slammed against something hard.
Eunice awoke and opened her eyes. Nothing except complete darkness surrounded her. She held her hand in front of her face, but it was invisible in the total blackness.
She started to sit up, but her head bumped into something before she could raise it even a foot. Curious about what she had run into, she pressed her hands forward. She felt a solid wood boundary just a couple inches in front of her nose. Eunice took in a whiff of air. The smell of damp earth, accompanied by the scent of cedar surrounded her.
Her heart galloped, like a race horse just getting out of its stall. They done it ta’ me! Eunice pounded on the wood above her. “Let me out, dab nammit.” She stopped to listen. There was nothing but dead silence. She pounded again. “Dad blame it, git me outa here now. Tommy. Rose. Reverend Parker. I ain’t dead.”
The silence continued. Of course they wouldn’t know she was alive. She was underground. “Please, Lord, I don’t wanna die!”
Tears ran down her face. Her heart rumbled like an avalanche. She clawed at the wood above her. Splinters stabbed her fingers but she ignored the pain. She continued to scratch in futility until she passed out.
Rose sweated as she stood at the top of the cellar stairs with the rest of the family. The noon sun hung high overhead, scorching the grounds. Festus held one of the doors open while the marshal led the doctor down the steps. Eunice’s lifeless body lay at the bottom, under one of Tommy’s sturdy cedar shelves.
“Are you sure all this is necessary?” The doctor asked. “I have live patients to tend to.”
“Yep, I’m sure,” the marshal said. “We need ta’ make certain this woman’s really dead. I’m dog tired of pronouncin’ people dead around here just ta’ have ‘em come home a couple hours later.”
The doctor got out his stethoscope and bent over the body. He listened to her chest then pulled the instrument from his ears. “She’s dead all right.”
The marshal pulled one of Eunice’s chafed hands into the light. Even from the top of the steps, Rose could see the bloody fingernails with embedded splinters. She shuddered at seeing her in-law in that condition.
The marshal removed his hat. “Poor woman. She must o’ thought she’d been buried alive.”
“When a person panics like that, things don’t always occur to them,” the doctor said. “Funny thing, I can see how that bump on her head could have knocked her out for a while, but I don’t see any evidence of concussion. I don’t think it was the fall that killed her.”
“Well then what did?” the marshal asked.
The doctor pulled her face into the light. Her eyes were frozen in an eternal stare and her mouth gapped open in a silent, ghastly scream, like a horrific death mask. “Off hand, I’d say it was heart failure.”
Chuck started his career as a science teacher, but ended up in the information systems field. He has been married for twenty-five years to a registered nurse but most of all a compassionate wife and mother. They live in the Missouri Ozarks and have two college-age children.