“Burying Uncle Albert” is one of my favorite stories. It has undergone many revisions during the years, from the first “WTF” draft to the “deep, dark family secret” draft to the current draft which I think is the most successful.
“Burying Uncle Albert” has never been published, but it did win “Honorable Mention” in the Writers of the Future contest in the first quarter of 2018.
I hope you enjoy it!
BURYING UNCLE ALBERT
©2018 by Richard S. Crawford
All rights reserved
Uncle Albert came back for the fifth time one morning while our family sat around the breakfast table, eating Grandma’s chili omelets. Dad looked up and saw Uncle Albert standing in the doorway. He grimaced, and his fork hit the table with a clatter. “Ah, hell.”
Uncle Albert looked the same as he always did when he came back from wherever we’d buried him: clean and spotless, not a mark on him, as if he’d just had a shower, though kind of pale. He wore his old overalls, the same ones we’d buried him in every time. His shoes looked the same as well, the leather all smooth and shiny, with laces frayed at the ends like something had been chewing on them. His eyes rolled wildly in his head and his mouth moved — open, close, open, close — like he was about to say something. The scent of licorice — Uncle Albert’s favorite candy — hung in the air. So we all sat for a moment and waited, even though we knew what was coming.
“Hey,” he said at last. “What are you doing here?”
Grandma slammed her hand on the table. “Oh, for Heaven’s sake, that nonsense again?” She turned to my dad. “Where did you bury him last?”
“Under the old oak tree on the south side.” Dad sounded a little defensive. “I put a bunch of heavy rocks on top of him. There’s no way he could have gotten out.”
“Well, it obviously didn’t work,” Mom said. She pointed her fork at Uncle Albert, splattering omelet on the table.
“Oh, please,” said my sister Sarah. “Why don’t we just let him stay with us?”
Dad glared at her. “You just eat your breakfast, young lady. It’s not right to let dead people stay in the same house with the living.”
Sarah leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms firmly across her chest. “Well, how many times has he come back here, then? He obviously doesn’t want to stay buried. We should just let him stay with us until he’s ready to move on.”
“Listen to your father,” Mom said. “Your Uncle Albert’s dead and he should stay buried. That’s how things are supposed to be. You don’t just die and then get up and walk around. Not unless it’s Judgment Day.”
“But we’re all treating Uncle Albert like such a freak!”
I piped in. “Well, he is dead.”
Sarah shut up at that. She pouted and picked at her omelet.
Dad brought his fist down on the table. “This fighting ain’t gonna fix anything. Ed, I want you to go and bury your uncle again this afternoon.”
“Me?” I was outraged. “Why me? It’s your job!”
“You’ll do it because your father told you to,” said Grandma. “And that ought to be a good enough reason even for you.”
“You do your chores this morning,” Mom added, “and this afternoon you go bury your uncle out by the willow tree.”
“But it’s Saturday! I wanted to go into the city to see a movie with some friends!”
Sarah smirked. “Wah, wah,” she mocked.
Mom furrowed her brow at her. “Just for that, young lady, you can go and help him.”
Sarah’s mouth dropped open. “What? Why? I didn’t do anything!”
“This conversation is over,” Grandma decreed, raising her hands. “Now everyone be quiet and finish your breakfast.”
Mom nodded. “Amen.”
I looked over at Sarah and she glanced away from me quickly, frowning. Just great. A stupid chore like this on what was likely to be the hottest day in the year, and I had to take her along. I gulped down my coffee and wished I had the guts to cuss out Dad about this.
Uncle Albert shuffled his feet. “Hey,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
Every family has something weird about them. For some, it’s something pretty banal. The Andrews family puts a rubber pig on top of their television set every year at Christmas time. They say it’s tradition. The Thompsons down the street sit out on their lawn chairs in their swim suits and pretend they’re at the beach, much to the mortification of their children. Things like that.
Other families have it weirder. Silas Burke says his farm is haunted by the ghost of So Low’s first mayor, Doug Roberts. And Laura Livingstone’s father, Nigel, a billionaire from England, up and left one day to be a pirate in Singapore, saying that the same ghost had told him to.
But our family is pretty normal. Or we were, at least. Then Uncle Albert started coming back from the dead every few days or so, and things just went to Hell.
We buried him proper that first time, out in the county cemetery. It wasn’t a church cemetery — there aren’t any in So Low — and Grandma said that’s probably what caused it. I don’t know about that. Hundreds of people have been buried there, and no one else has come back.
The first time he came back was just a few days after the funeral. Dad and I were out in the fields, working at a stubborn patch of earth, when we heard his deep, almost wet sounding voice for the first time: “Hey. What are you doing here?”
I jumped and spun around.
Dad turned, saw Uncle Albert, and screamed like the Devil was ripping out his insides. I thought he was going to have a heart attack. He dropped his pick and just stared.
Uncle Albert said nothing else. He just stared at the two of us, face blank and jaw slack.
After a few minutes of us just standing there staring, Dad spat onto the earth. “Well. This is a hell of a thing.”
“Should we tell Mom?” I asked.
Dad shook his head. “Hell no. We’ll just put him in the shed for now. After lunch I guess I’ll go bury him again.”
So that’s what we did. Except that Dad didn’t shut the shed very well, and Uncle Albert got out and came to the house during lunch. We didn’t know until we heard his voice at the door.
“Hey. What are you doing here?” It was the last thing he’d said before he died.
Was Uncle Albert dead? Of course he was. We’d buried him after all. He must have just dug his way back up or something.
So after lunch, Dad and I went to put Uncle Albert back in the ground. Dad wanted to bury Uncle Albert in the same cemetery as before; he figured the hole that he had crawled out of in the first place would still be there, so we’d just put him back in and cover him up again. But Mom didn’t like the idea; she didn’t want to be caught digging around in the graveyard, and she certainly didn’t want to be caught putting someone in the ground. She didn’t want a scandal; there are some secrets you just don’t share outside the family.
Grandma reckoned we could just haul Uncle Albert to the landfill and dump him out there in a big bag, but I said there’d be even more problems with that. Even if we didn’t get caught dumping a body at the landfill, someone would surely find him and even identify him, and that would just be worse.
Finally, Dad decided to bury Uncle Albert out by the old oak tree at the north end of the ranch, far away from where we did our farming. He set out with his shovel and dug a great big pit for Uncle Albert; it took him the whole afternoon. He got Uncle Albert to lie down in the hole and piled dirt and rocks on top of him.
He came back late, exhausted, and we were all pretty quiet. We just watched TV and Dad sat far away from Mom.
And the next day, I rode my bike out past the county cemetery, just to see the spot where we had buried Uncle Albert before.
The dirt there was undisturbed.
After breakfast, Dad put Uncle Albert in the shed to wait until Sarah and I had a chance to go bury him. I went outside to trim the pomegranate tree, and Sarah followed me.
Sarah’s a distraction, plain and simple. Mom and Dad hardly ever gave her chores, so she followed me around whenever I did mine, just for something to do. She never helped out, just kept yammering about whatever was on her mind: school, homework, clothes, TV, friends, and boys. Always boys. I wondered if it would be wrong to shut her in the shed with Uncle Albert just so I could have a little peace.
I could hear Uncle Albert bumping into the walls inside. Every now and then, over Sarah’s chatter, I’d hear him talking. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but I knew anyway.
Sarah finally tired of talking about how her friend Emily always dressed totally like a slut and how could Brandon not see through her and she stood on her toes in and peered in at Uncle Albert through the window. “This is so totally cool. I don’t see why we can’t just let him stay.”
I kept my mouth shut. As far as I was concerned, we had already finished that conversation a long time ago, and I was trying to concentrate on the pomegranates.
She lowered herself and turned to me. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know.” I sighed and wiped sweat from my eyes. “I think it’s creepy. Uncle Albert’s always been creepy.”
“No he wasn’t. And you just can’t stop these things sometimes.” She turned back to the window. “Sometimes things just want to come back up, you know?”
“I know.” I clipped some branches. Pomegranate trees are horrible things: they have thick sharp branches that will scratch the skin off your body right through your clothes if you aren’t careful. The pomegranates hung heavy from the tree; some had split open and their seeds, bright purple and juicy, were exposed. I could smell their sharp scent.
“It’s a miracle,” Sarah went on. “You know? We shouldn’t be burying him. We should be calling everyone and telling them what’s happening.”
“Oh yeah? You want everyone in the world to know that we’re a freak family? You want reporters and scientists and doctors and the government coming into our house and completely invading our privacy?”
“Because you know that’s what would happen.”
“But it’s a miracle.” Damn she was stubborn, just like Uncle Albert. Just like Mom. “It’s beautiful.”
I shrugged. “Yeah, maybe. But we don’t have to tell the whole world about it. Dad’s right. Some things are just supposed to stay dead and buried.”
Sarah made a “humph” type noise and went back to the window. From inside the shed, I heard a bump and a crash. I didn’t want to know what was happening.
“It’s like he’s looking for his soul.” She sounded wistful. “Like he lost it when he died, and now he’s trying to find it, you know?”
“Whatever.” I reached up to clip a branch, and it fell out of the tree and onto my head, its sharp point scratching my face. I cussed as loud as I could. This day was really turning out to be mostly crap.
“You okay?” Sarah turned and looked at me.
I nodded and held my hand to the scratch on my face. I checked my palm; there wasn’t much blood. “I’m fine. Come on, let’s go bury Uncle Albert.”
Uncle Albert died the night before Sarah’s first day as a sophomore at high school. I’d graduated two years before, but I was still living with my family, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I envied Sarah; she didn’t have to figure out what she was going to do yet.
So that night I was walking around the ranch, feeling sorry for myself and trying to find some inspiration for my life among the shadows, when I heard shouting from the barn. At first I thought it was someone watching the television we kept in there, but then I recognized Sarah’s voice. She was screaming about something, and my heart pounded. She was an annoying kid, but I tried to protect her and keep track of her. I’m her big brother after all.
But when I got to the barn, the shouting had turned into hysterical giggles. I got to the barn door and peered around the corner.
There was Sarah, with Stuart Smythe, a kid I knew from school. He was a junior, and I knew he was trouble. The two of them were horsing around, and now he had grabbed her around the middle, and she was laughing.
“I got this,” said Dad from behind me. I jumped, because I hadn’t heard him even approaching.
“Dad, I think it’s okay. They’re just joking around.”
Dad’s face twisted and turned beet-red. “I got this,” he repeated.
He stepped past me and went into the barn. “What the hell is going on here?”
“Dad!” said Sarah. “This is –”
“Yeah, I know who he is.” Dad picked up a shovel and held it out threateningly in front of him, its sharp end pointed straight at Stuart. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, kid, messing around with my daughter?”
Stuart backed away from Dad, his eyes wide open. “Mister, I didn’t mean anything.”
“Dad!” Sarah cried out. “Don’t you hurt him!”
Dad acted like he hadn’t heard her. He was shouting at Stuart, and Stuart was gibbering with fear.
“Hey,” said a voice. “What are you doing here?”
“What–” Dad said, spinning around. Then he saw Uncle Albert. “Goddammit, you gimp. Get out of here!”
Obligingly, Uncle Albert turned and toddled away from the barn, turning left so that he disappeared from view rapidly.
Stuart took the opportunity to dart out from in front of Dad, and ran out the barn door.
“Kid, I’m not done with you!” Dad shouted. He ran toward the door with the shovel out before him. “Come back here!”
Dad’s momentum was formidable. He charged through the door and veered left where Stuart and Uncle Albert had both gone.
“Don’t you hurt him!” Sarah called out.
“He won’t,” I said. “Stuart’s not in any danger.”
“Go after him.”
I hesitated, then shook my head. “Uh uh. I don’t want to get in Dad’s way.”
“You go after him.”
After a few minutes of the two of us just standing there, Sarah finally said, “This is stupid. Come on, let’s go.”
Then Dad back into the barn, no longer holding the shovel. Dirt and blood covered his shirt.
“Kids,” he said, breathing heavily. “Your Uncle Albert is dead.”
Sarah paled and clutched my arm. “Oh my God,” she said.
“What happened?” I asked.
“He fell. Hit his head on a rock.” He rubbed his face with his hands. “Come on. Let’s go tell your mother.”
We let Uncle Albert out of the shed, and headed for the far edge of the ranch.
“Where do you think he’s trying to go to?” Sarah asked me just after we set out.
I didn’t bother to answer. The California summer heat was oppressive, and I was wearing a T-shirt and jeans and thick-soled shoes, proper for wherever we might be hiking to, but hot. Sarah wore a halter top, shorts, and sandals. She was going to be in serious pain by the end of the day, sunburned and scratched up by the rough weeds.
We trudged down the dirt path to the old riverbed, where we’d decided we were going to bury Uncle Albert this time. I had the shovel and pick slung over my shoulder and was beginning to feel their weight already. I was pissed at Sarah because she had refused to carry either tool. We had Uncle Albert tethered to a rope to keep him from wandering off; one end was tied around his waist and the other end around mine. This was another burden that Sarah should have shared with me.
“I said,” she repeated, “Where do you think he wants to go?”
“I thought you said he was looking for his soul.”
“That’s just my theory. What’s yours?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. And I don’t care.”
Sarah glared at me. “What’s your problem?”
I stopped. “It’s hot. It’s only two in the afternoon and it’s already over ninety degrees, and I’m carrying both the shovel and the pick and I have to drag along Uncle Albert behind me, and you won’t shut the hell up. You could help out, you know.”
“Hell, no. You know how I feel. We should call someone and tell them about this. It’s a miracle or something, and we shouldn’t be doing this.”
“Well, you’re helping me bury him,” I pointed out to her.
“Yeah, but not willingly. Mom’s making me, like she always does.”
I bit down hard on my tongue to keep from snapping at her, and simply hiked on.
“Hey,” Uncle Albert said from behind me.
I swung around on him before he finished and held out the pick, ready to swing its point directly into his skull. “You just shut up!” I shouted at him. “I’ve had just about enough of you!”
Uncle Albert hesitated. Then, of course, he said, “What are you doing here?”
I cussed as loud as I could, using every dirty word I could come up with, and swung back around. Sarah started to laugh. Furious, I threw both the pick and the shovel down hard onto the ground and untied the rope around my waist.
Uncle Albert’s eyes lit up — the first time I’d seen any expression at all on his face since he’d died — and he started toddling off on a new path, perpendicular to the dirt road we’d been trudging.
“What are you doing?” Sarah cried.
“You said you wanted to know where he was trying to go.” I sat down in the dirt and unlaced my shoes to loosen them and air out my feet. “Now you can just go on after him and find out.”
“God damn it!” She bounced off after Uncle Albert, crying out as the sharp branches and burrs stuck into her feet and legs.
Uncle Albert was making surprisingly good time, given his shambling, stumbling gait. Sarah had to work hard to keep up with him. Grinning, I went over to a tree and sat down underneath it to wait for Sarah to get fed up with the brambles and come back to get me.
I’m sure I dozed off. I woke up after a little while, with the sense that time had passed; the sun had changed position, and the shadows had lengthened.
“Sarah?” I looked around, but saw no sign of her. I figured she was probably just hiding from me to have a little fun, but my parents would be pissed if I lost her. I called out her name again as I pulled my shoes back on to my feet and tightened my laces. Still no answer.
“Damn.” I stood up, grabbed the shovel and the pick which I had dropped, then walked off in the direction that Sarah had gone.
It didn’t take long to realize that the path Uncle Albert had taken would lead him straight to the old barn. I walked along for awhile, then stopped when I heard Sarah’s voice, a loud whisper. “Ed!”
I turned. Sarah was hunched over by a tree, and staring at the barn. “Don’t say anything, just look.”
I tried to peer into the barn, but it was a bright day and I couldn’t see into the darkness. “I can’t see anything,” I reported.
“What are you, blind? Come on.” She stood, grabbing my hand, and pulled me forward toward the barn door. We moved stealthily, like burglars, until we were against the door.
I looked into the barn.
It was Pastor Garrick who gave the eulogy at Uncle Albert’s funeral. He didn’t have any friends, after all. Mom was his only relative, and she was too emotional to speak coherently.
“A simple man with simple faith,” Pastor Garrick said. “That’s who William Albert Jones was. A quiet man, a man who lacked the words to express his deep and abiding faith, but who felt it nonetheless. He was slow to anger, and never expressed anything but love for those who knew him.”
Grandma snorted from where she sat on my left. “Man obviously never met your uncle,” she confided to me.
Dad, who sat on the other side of Grandma from me, grunted. I looked over at him. He was grinning.
“Never knew a more contumacious man,” Grandma went on. “He’d follow you around all day without letting up if he had half a mind to. And half a mind was all he had.”
Mom sat right on the other side of me, and my face burned with embarrassment on her behalf. I don’t know if Mom heard what Grandma was saying, but Sarah, who sat on the other side of Mom, obviously had. On her face was that scowl of anger and disgust that fifteen year old girls have perfected since the dawn of civilization.
Grandma kept on, and eventually I found myself smiling. She was right. While Pastor Garrick went on about how Uncle Albert’s parents had tried their best for years to educate him normally, they’d eventually sent him to a special school where he’d lived until he was eighteen. And how he’d come to live with us after his parents had died.
The preacher went on about Uncle Albert’s gentle soul and nature. He’d never seen Uncle Albert follow one of us around all day, bringing rocks and leaves and insects, anything else he’d found that he thought was interesting, to show us and gift us with. Pastor Garrick had never seen Uncle Albert throw a fit on the days that Mom washed his overalls; he’d scream and fuss and spend the whole time sitting in the laundry room, waiting for them to be done.
Because I had all the grace of any other adolescent male, I went up to Pastor Garrick after the service and told him about these things. About the fits on laundry day, about the way he followed us around, and how he sometimes scared us. Then I said, “So what do you think? Think he was still a simple, faithful, loving man? Face it, he was a freak.”
Pastor Garrick sat in his chair and looked at me for a few minutes. “Do you think your uncle loved you?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but then I stopped; I had no idea what to say. “I don’t…” I hesitated. “I don’t know. I think so. It’s hard to say. I don’t think he knew how to love.”
“There are people who simply don’t know how to love, you’re right about that,” Pastor Garrick said. “But, I think, there are also people who love very well, but lack the language to express it. They do their best to express how they feel, but because their language is incomplete, their attempts leave us confused, sometimes nervous, sometimes even scared. You’d be surprised the way people find to express their love.”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Uncle Albert was nice, I guess. But really, sometimes he was just creepy.”
Pastor Garrick smiled. “You can’t fault a man for doing his best.”
That’s what I thought about, staring into the barn: that last conversation with Pastor Garrick about the nature of love. And the way that Uncle Albert kept followed people around with a stone or a squashed bug in his hand.
“Hey,” I heard.
And then another voice, from the opposite direction: “What are you doing here?”
I looked around. I saw Uncle Albert standing by one of the stalls, smiling benignly.
And Uncle Albert standing next to the ladder up to the loft, looking up at Dad, who was looking down at the scene, looking terrified.
Between two ancient farm tools, Uncle Albert was sitting on the ground and looking off into the distance with a bland expression; then I saw that he wasn’t sitting, he was just kind of buried halfway into the dirt.
From the corner of my right eye, I saw a movement. I looked and saw Uncle Albert set halfway into the ground. His right half protruded from the ground at an angle. His hand waved around weakly.
Dad looked down at me from the loft. “Jesus, Ed. What the hell is going on here?”
I shook my head, barely able to move. There was a feeling in my chest that wanted to be either terror or hysterical laughter. I couldn’t tell.
I turned to Sarah. “What’s going on here?”
“I don’t know.” She shivered and crossed her arms in front of herself. “This is so weird.”
“They’re going to kill me!” Dad cried.
“They’re not going to kill you,” I said. “Just come down from there and we’ll go back to the house, okay?”
“You don’t know that!”
“What’s going on in here?” Mom’s voice, right behind me.
“Hey. What are you doing here?”
I turned around. “Hi Mom. I don’t really know what’s happening.”
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Sarah said.
“But look! Isn’t this a miracle?” I said to her. “Look at Uncle Albert!”
She gave me that look, the same one she’d given Grandma in the church. “Shut up.”
“Honey?” Mom called up to Dad. “Why don’t you come down, and we can get out of here and call the police or something.”
“No way. They’re going to kill me.”
“No they won’t, honey. It’s just Albert.”
Dad shook his head vehemently. “No way.”
“Ed,” Mom said, turning to me, “help your father, won’t you?”
I looked at the crowd of Alberts, and shook my head. “I think this is on Dad.”
Mom made an exasperated noise, then turned to Sarah.
“Uh uh,” Sarah said before Mom even had a chance to ask. “This is too creepy.”
The same noise again from Mom. She turned back to Dad. “I’m coming!” she called. “Just you wait up there, okay?”
She moved into the crowd of Alberts. They parted to let her through, but they looked resentful as they did.
“No!” said Dad. “Stay right there. I’ll come on down. Just wait, okay?”
“Whatever you say, dear.”
Dad went to the ladder, took a deep breath, and started to climb down slowly.
“Hey. What are you doing here?”
Then for the second time I saw an actual expression on Uncle Albert’s dead face. This time, though, it wasn’t delight; it was a much darker expression. It was anger. But he — they — did nothing. They all stared at Dad in silence, a cloud of simple rage enveloping him. Then they began to collapse and fall to the ground. Every single one of them.
Mom had caught the look on their faces, and her face paled. “What did you do?” she asked Dad. “Honey, what did you do?”
It’s been awhile since then. Dad’s in jail for manslaughter and Mom’s filed the divorce papers. I haven’t seen Uncle Albert or any of his clones since that afternoon, and Grandma still makes her chili omelets. Sarah stopped hanging out with Stuart.
So I suppose it’s been a happy ending all around.
I work at a hardware store in town, saving up money for college. It’s mostly okay, but sometimes, walking home at night, I get nervous. Especially when the wind blows through the trees; the rustling sounds, sometimes, almost like voices.
“Hey,” they whisper to me. “Hey…”
FUN FACT: This story was once rejected by one market because “We don’t do zombie stories.” So I sent it to another market, which replied, “We only do zombie stories.”