“The Difference” by Beulah Vega

An old man drinks at a varnished bar, gleaming oak, and cedar polished to the point of reflection. He uses the slight gleam to bounce artificial moon-beams across the top of his glass of seasoned scotch. 

The backroom in stark contrast to the old man’s elegant domain is filled with sorority girls, and selfie sticks. The annual International convention of the Tri-Betas has again come to his home town.  The girls in the back are rowdy, drinking underaged whiskey to match their years. The women who fill the front of the bar are sedated perhaps a little leery. They have been to this convention in this town before.  Now older, matrons, they smile a little at the hijinks of youth, but also weep a little of the loss of their own as they down vodka like it was water, neat with no hint of irony.

            The man bides his time. He has bought some rounds for some of the girls and some of the matrons.  They thanked him and remarked about his resemblance to their grandfather. He smiled beatifically at them and saluted them with his glass as they cheered back with pink cosmos, and lemon drops, drinks with enough sugar to hide the pain.

A young woman that he had not noticed before detaches from a group of the rowdies. She approaches him and flashes an all-American smile. He notes the long, toned bare legs that end in a pair of New Zealand Sheep Herding boots. He does not need the ancient Greek letters on her oversized hoodie to tell him that she is a beta. Although the ample proportion immediately under the letters makes him glad that he has a reason to look. 

He smiles back at her, gently, as if she may be as skittish as the nymph she resembles. Can I buy you a drink miss?

She nods and orders a sour apple martini with extra vermouth. The bartender looks at her and at a slight nod from the old man makes the drink, extra vermouth, and a little bit of the white powder that is always kept behind the counter of this man’s bar. 

The bartender hands her the drink and looks away, no knowledge that she drank it, means no knowledge that he had anything to do with it.

She takes the drink and turns to thank the old man.

“You know, you remind me of someone.” She says

“Your grandfather?” He asks allowing a thick accent cloud his normally razor clear speech.

“No, maybe, I’m not sure”, she answers non-committedly, then “Have you been here a long time?”

“Aye,” the man replies, “I remember the very first Tri-Bets convention here.

“That was forever ago”, the nymph says then realizing the rudeness of such a statement, “I mean you must know everything about this town being here so long. That’s what I meant.”

A glint of anger awoke in his eyes, but he smothered it quickly as she took the first sip of her drink.

“I Do.” He said nodding in approval as she finished her first sip without any hint of suspicion.

“I have a question then.” The nymph said as she sat her glass down. “Why does this town have two huge cemeteries across the street from each other?”

The old man grinned, “They don’t dear.”

“Yes, I saw them when we were driving in.”

“No,” the old man said patiently, “There is a cemetery and there is a graveyard. They are not the same.”

She flicks her ashy curls away from a lightly powdered face. She leaned closer so that he could smell her scent, Foxglove and Morning Glories, and asked, “What is the difference?”

He chuckled low, his eyes darkening with greed. “I can tell you dear, or I can show you if you’re not scared. But first, finish your drink.”

She looked at him once with suspicion, but nodded her head and downed the drink in one gulp.

            The old man had to make some preparations. It was lucky for him that he lived above the store, so to speak, and as he helped the groggy girl to the service elevator in the back, not one of the now well-libated girls or women interfered. By the time he had helped her to his couch, she had fallen into a deep sleep. He looked at her sleeping, barely breathing. He almost decided that she should be spared, but he looked at her hands. They were almost translucent, the blue on the veins accentuating them like authentic china. Her fingers were long and supple, and they ended in perfectly groomed fingernails, whose French manicure only accentuated the point of the nail.

            He really had no choice he knew.  Her hands were so perfect, they were a collector’s item, and he was the top collector in the world.  He looked up at his mantle place where he kept the cream of the collection. These he would never sell, no matter how much he was offered.  Her hands would go in the center.

            His preparations were soon completed, and he lugged the still sleeping nymph to the freight elevator that would open into his garage. The crossroads were not far, but there was no need for excess exertion.  Plus her hands may get damaged if he were to accidentally drop her.

So it was as the evening transformed to full night, that the young girl awoke to find herself alone with the old man.  She was sitting in a chair in the middle of the crossroads.  Her hands were laid upon a small board balanced on her lap. Board and hands were lashed to her thighs, making it impossible for her to stand.

            The man carried a pack of mysterious jangly things and eyed her hungrily as she looked up at him.

            “What are you doing?” She asked as he started removing scalpels and blades from his bag.

            “I am answering your question,” He said, and then as if teaching a freshman philosophy class he took his place in front of her with, of all things, a laser pointer. “Now, my dear”, the old man said pointing the laser to his left. “To the west is a cemetery. It is new and shiny. It is not sacred to anything. No gods receive offerings here, no immortal souls occupy this land.  It is really a travesty,” he continued, “You see, the new mounds of dirt beside freshly dug graves? Do you feel the expectancy of that place?  It is because the ground there is hungry. It has been waiting to feed since the first hole was dug, but those holes will hold caskets of steel that do not decompose. Those worms will go hungry trying to gain nourishment from embalmed flesh and cosmetically reconstructed skin. The beetles will lack entry into eyes, and lips, and buttocks that are plugged, glued and sewn shut before ever leaving the mortuary.

            This then is a cemetery. It is marked by well-manicured lawns not rightly fed by festering flesh, but instead with store-bought manure. It is not being emptied and rejuvenated by the natural rot of man. This is a monument to immaculate non-decay, so much that even the souls are trapped in those steel caskets, and cannot escape to walk the earth or breach the nether.”

He stopped to look at her making sure she had followed his points. She looked frightened, so he reassured her before moving on, “Don’t worry my dear. You and I have nothing to do with that place.  

He then pointed his laser pointer to his right, before she had a chance to reply. “Now over here to the East, is an ancient church, itself decaying in peace.  The last rites here were given more than a hundred years ago. The last time the church fed its hungry ground was long enough ago that nothing remains, but the odd piece of jewelry, and a coin or two rejected by old Charon out of hubris and spite.  This then is a graveyard, my dear. A holy, sanctified place where the dead go in and do not remain forever, in halted decay.  Here the dead rot back to the base elements that will allow the rest of us to flourish.  Here, no souls are locked in steel and concrete tombs. And here, He said pulling the largest knife from his pocket. The graves naturally empty themselves, leaving space for those of us who like to plant by moonlight.

So saying he quickly struck down and severed her hands from her wrists. A dark liquid gushed out, and he quickly wrapped the hands in an ice pack before turning back to the girl.  She was not dead and strangely not even passed out, he found this refreshing and cut the ropes from her thighs so she could walk toward the church under her own power.

She did not cry. “shock” he thought.  He knew that she would bleed out before she reached the hungry earth behind the old altar, but the farther she could stagger, the less distance he would have to carry her.  She stumbled and moaned as she slowly moved toward the church, he was always right behind her, the knife ever at her back.

Finally, the young nymph reached the open ground, and as he was about to be merciful and end her suffering with a quick slash at her pretty throat, she walked over the open grave.  She did not jump, or take extra-large steps, she walked on the air above it. 

She turned as he emitted his first scream. Her perfect hands now reattached she held them out to him as if to help him over the hole, and away from the 20 hands reaching up from the empty grave pulling apart flesh and bone, and tendon. Away from the hands that were severing his extremities, a sharpened fingernail load at a time. Away from the 20 hands, each with a sorority ring, on one of its decaying fingers, and rotten joint, that he had last seen in their jars on his mantle not an hour ago.

            In desperation and panic, he reached out to her beautiful hands, and for a moment all stopped.  She came close to him again, her fragrance of all that was beautiful, but poisonous filling his nose, and chest, and lungs.  She leaned in to whisper to his still intact ears” You were right, you know. Cemeteries are not for us, who occasionally need to escape the confines of our graves.” And so saying her hands dropped away from her wrists and he fell into the hungry earth, where 22 hands now finished the horrific job that had been started with his first screams, as the beetles and worms, waited for their finest meal in years.

Beulah Vega, author.

Beulah Vega is a poet and theatrical artist living and working in California’s Bay Area. Her work has been published in “First Leaves”, and “Before They Were Cool” (Weasel Press). Her poems have also been performed as part of the Bay Area WTF festival in “Heroines, Harpies, and Harlots: A Woman Speaks”. She specializes in work that gives voice to those traditionally marginalized in literary arts.