Contest #250 shortlist ⭐️


Romance Fiction Happy

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

“And so I told him, he’d have to earn back my trust!” Mort rasped between fits of laughter. “Get it? Urn? Because he’s always harping on about that big stupid urn his sister bought him!” He slapped his thigh with one bony hand and relapsed into cackles, reliving his moment.

 I shook my head fondly, grinning the stiff, rigor-mortis grin of a wife who’d long since learned to see the punchline coming, and instead mostly focused on admiring the strong cheekbones of the comedian who lay by my side. It was not a bad pastime. For any softness in his belly, Mort had always had cheekbones you could slice bread with, and the decades had only made them finer. I propped myself up on one elbow to see him better in the dark.

“You are something else, Mort. What’d he say to that?”

“Say?” Mort was practically gleaming with mirth, ramping up, “Why, old Darius hasn’t said a word to me since nineteen-sev—hmmg!”

I heard them first, and I had a hand clapped over Mort’s face quick as lightning. Footsteps. Getting closer. I nearly rolled over onto him in the tight space to keep his damn jaw shut.

Mort’s muffled protests died down as he heard them too, no longer drowned out by the sound of his own voice. We waited frozen, quiet as the—well, quiet as the grave we were lying in. 





Mort and I had been dead and buried for seventy-odd years when those footsteps came. It was difficult to keep time in the casket—we’d tried carving daily notches on the wood, back when we’d still had our fingernails, but that had gotten boring fast, and we’d muddled the numbers anyway playing tic-tac-toe and hangman in between.

In those early months, as we were getting acclimated to our new accommodations, both the close quarters of a mid-range casket and our own softly decomposing bodies, Mort liked to bring up at intervals how glad he was the family had put us in a pinewood casket—“a soft wood,” he’d say proudly, as though he could have had any possible hand in planning our eternal rest. 

“Yes Mort,” I’d say dryly—and my voice was getting dryer all the time, during that period—“what good fortune they didn’t spring for the expensive option.”

And yes, I was not my sunniest self back then, when we discovered death was not the end. I hadn’t expected Heaven or anything—I’d been a staunch atheist since my prayers for snow days had gone unanswered as a little girl—but I’d been more than ready for some peace and quiet. I had not been ready, following Mort and I’s frankly embarrassing deaths in our seventies via unreplaced CO detector batteries, to wake up a week later under six feet of soil and feel my soft tissues liquefying. I’d screamed, I’d thrashed, I’d clawed at the lid of our cheap casket, until my sluggishly bleeding fingertips broke through into stale air and were quickly met with the concrete chamber that separated us from the dirt. Only then did I fall back in limp despair, and Mort held me gingerly and brushed the splinters out of my hair, one by one, with stiff, cool, fingers.

By week three, those splinters were as familiar and intimate to us as any cherished family pet. Blind, going entirely by touch, we put on little plays with them as the actors, held miniature sword fights, and stacked them up like firewood. I even pierced one of Mort’s ears with one, which his good nature stretched to allow exactly once and no more. In a way, the grave was a good thing for us—I remembered why I’d married Mort, how funny and endearing and doggedly upbeat the man could be, even under the worst of conditions. I dubbed him my post-mortem morale officer, and he told me I had post-mortem depression, which I decided was funny, to an audible sigh of relief. For his part, he seemed perpetually delighted by the creative streak I had unearthed in myself, which was really a necessary adaptation to avoid insanity. 

It was at what must have been a year to the day of our deaths that we saw each other for the first time. Saw each other as we really were, our flesh and funereal clothes in tatters. By this point, we were nearly all bones, the softness of our bodies having largely stewed itself into a sort of awful soup that eventually soaked into the fabric and wood of our casket. Our eyes, quite quickly into the whole mess, had gone flaccid, leaked, and then begun drying out in a sensation so unpleasant that we, after days of hemming and hawing, removed them ourselves. Not as though there was anything to see, we thought.

We had, by necessity and mutual coaching, gotten over the fact that we were rotting, especially as we discovered, after an ill-advised game of tug-o-war slipped much of the skin and muscle off of Mort’s right hand like a glove, that whatever force was keeping us conscious kept us mobile, too. He had waggled the wet bones of his fingers in amazed relief, and that began a thrilling new game of trying to shed our skins as quickly as possible, finding smooth bone to be a much less disgusting thing to be made of than rotting, sludgy, flesh, which we kicked down to the foot of the coffin like so much dirty laundry. There was a freeing sense to being so stripped down, so grotesquely laid bare of the warm squishy stuff that we had agonized over all our lives. There comes a moment of immense relief, when you lay in the dark, feeling the weight of wood and concrete and earth all around, and know no one will ever see you again. No make-up, no pimples, no thinning hair, no food in your teeth. 

We reveled in that. And then we were wrong. Because a year to the day of our reawakening, I saw my husband again. It crept up on us, not all at once. A sense of space, of hinges and corners, of how our bones lay together. Then more—the wood grain of the lid, suddenly perceptible, lightless but present. The dark gradients of stains that wrapped our bones, not cleanly bleached like a science-class model. It came rushing to me, in shades of darkness, deep greys and blues and blacks, and I could see, eyeless, mindless, nerveless, I could see that face I loved, and I recognized him. I tackled him in joy, with a clatter so loud I heard a mourner above us stutter in the eulogy they were giving. 

So yes, we’d come to terms with our afterlife after that first year, without much choice. We’d resigned ourselves to running out the clock of purgatory together, in the cozy padded cell of our drying entrails (which thankfully, we couldn’t smell, once the sensory powerhouses of our noses were hollowed out), until the sun swallowed the earth, or the dead rose for Armageddon or what-have-you. We fantasized about that latter one a lot, imagining lurching through the streets of our neighborhood, triumphant and grotesque, cackling “so you thought you’d seen the last of us!” to the pushy landlords and dismissive doctors that had plagued us in life. And less vindictively, we thought about feeling the sun again, basking in it, warm again, letting it bleach our stained bones to brightness. Mort thought about diving into the lake of his childhood home, of finally finding all the sunken toys and treasures lost at the bottom. He thought about the cold, heavy green water rushing to fill the space where his lungs used to be, filling every crack and hollow and emptiness, pulling him down in a safe, secret embrace. I thought about making music, of dancing unconfined by four walls again. I thought about threading chimes and bells and delicate chains through my skeleton, of twirling and jingling and whistling in the wind, feeling myself intertwining and colliding with the world and hearing the chiming proof of it from my own spine.

We had dreams, fantasies, ambitions, outside the realm of our casket. We talked of freedom, revenge, exploration. And less ambitiously, we talked of a social life; we extended the roots of our imagination into the soil around us, thinking of the other graves, the crypts, the ashes. Had any of them met our same, extended, fate? Had all of them? 

We thought of the poor saps buried alone, tossing and turning in one-man caskets, and drafted letters inviting them to tunnel over for tea. We invented a neighbor for ourselves, “Gladys,” who we envisioned a couple yards to the left of our own grave, a pleasant woman around our age, but always subtly hinting that we engage in a ménage à trois whenever we chatted, whose imaginary advances Mort and I would dodge with increasingly elaborate misunderstandings and excuses. We thought grimly of the cremated, and came up with a sulkily shifting vase of ashes named Darius, who Mort would have long conversations with, playing both sides, and voicing Darius with an exaggerated whispering tone as I looked on and plotted Gladys’s newest scheme. Though Darius, who could be quite a bore, always managed to bring the conversation back to his damn urn, assuring us of its fine quality and design, and poorly hiding his envy of our full sets of bones. “Poor guy,” we’d say after he ‘left,’ nodding our skulls solemnly. “We don’t know how lucky we are.”

Yes, it was delusion. Yes, we were alone down here, and likely never to leave. But why leave, anyway? What point? To be a museum, or worse, a zoo exhibit, Boston’s fabulous talking corpses? It wasn’t half bad down in the dirt. Mort was good company, that’s why I married him, death-do-us-part or not, and between our blossoming theater careers as Gladys, Darius, and any of a number of other players, the casket could feel even crowded at times, booming with spirited debate and laughter. We tried to keep the bulk of that to the night shifts, though, when we shared the graveyard only with the soft pitter-patter of rodents and raccoons. In the daytime, we’d drawn curious or aggrieved attention a few too many times, as our muffled chatter made it to the gloomy visitors above.

We didn’t want, or need, their attention. They’d have their turns soon enough. 

“Shhhh,” I hissed, giggling like a schoolgirl, my teeth clicking and chattering against Mort’s clavicle, and pulled my husband closer, our ribcages intertwining with a new, bone-deep sort of intimacy, something the living above us couldn’t know. “They’ll hear us!”

May 18, 2024 02:18

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Philip Ebuluofor
02:27 May 25, 2024

If it happen this way down there, it will not be that bad.


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Story Time
15:52 May 30, 2024

Such an original voice and style. I really enjoyed it.


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KC Tillman
15:30 May 30, 2024

A unique and delightful story. It encompasses humor, morbidity, along with a beautiful underlying message. Loved it!


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Tommy Goround
18:18 May 29, 2024

Standing up to clap. Wonderful.


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08:51 May 25, 2024

Congratulations on the shortlist and this inventive tale. Which is also bone chillingly creepy. Reminds me of the children's poem; If ever you see a hearse go by you may be the next to die. They wrap you in a big white sheet, and dig a hole that’s six feet deep. The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout, And one little fellow who isn’t so shy crawls in your ear and out your eye! Your stomach turns a horrible green, puss comes out like whipped cream. You slap it on a piece of bread, that’s what you eat wh...


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John Rutherford
04:12 May 25, 2024



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Kristi Gott
18:45 May 24, 2024

Congratulations! Very original and unique!


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Alexis Araneta
17:47 May 24, 2024

Interesting one here. The imagery is on point. Congrats on the shortlist.


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Mary Bendickson
16:28 May 24, 2024

Certainly a unique point of view. Congrats on the shortlist.🎉


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21:47 May 22, 2024

This was an interesting story, I really liked the descriptions you used to describe the years of decay. I kept wondering what the footsteps would lead to, it might have been nice to see some development there, but overall the story you tell of the couple is endearing and quite funny. I hope you continue writing and improving on your skills!


Ross O'Donnell
03:56 May 23, 2024

Thank you so much! This is my first try at this (maybe obviously) and the heart and humor of the couple was the thing most important to me to get across! I agree I definitely left some threads untied--when I wrote that first paragraph I had no idea where it was all going to go. It means a lot to me that you read it and left your thoughts! :) I will definitely keep writing.


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