Heavy footfalls crashed across underbrush in the still of the woods. Bright moonlight filtered through the bare tree limbs overhead. The dark figure plowed on through, a prone charge thrown over his shoulder. He came to clearing, and proceeded slowly over the moss covered ground.
The man swapped shoulders carrying the large package. He found a large, old gnarled tree. The limbs grew in random directions, weaving together like a tornado overhead. He dug in his pocket and pulled out a wooden pipe. Approaching the edge of the ancient tree, he shifted the weight on his shoulder awkwardly. He struck a match and lit the pipe.
He found a simple red birdhouse nailed to the tree. He leaned forward and blew a plume of smoke into the small drilled hole. Looking up to the full moon, he took the pipe from his lips and rapped it against the side of the birdhouse thirteen times.
The ground trembled. The roots split and flailed upward as they arced and craned up. They revealed a cave, dim light flickered from the depths. The man clutched the pipe in his teeth, and began down the steps made of carved stone and twisted root.
At the bottom of the stairs, the rock and earth opened out into a raucous room. The man stepped into the torchlight and the crowd fell silent. He gazed upon the room, skeletons and corpses in varied stages of decay sat around tables. They stopped their dancing on the floor and turned from the bar. They all glared back at him.
“Well, if this is a dead man’s party,” the man called, “Count me in.”
“Frank!” They all yelled together. Some raised glasses, but they settled back into their merriment.
Frank deposited his shrouded package at a table by the door, leaving an old fedora on the head. He crossed the room to the bar and took the pipe from his mouth. “Evening Lou,” he said to the man across the bar from him. “Things seem lively tonight.”
“Har har,” the bartender responded. “What can I get you tonight, Frank? It’s been awhile.”
“Not really here to drink tonight, Lou. How long has it been?”
“An old grave digger like you? At least forty since you came in here as that spry little fifteen-year-old. Much grubbier back then though,” he wiped a small pool from the bar. “I think you’d just finished burying your first body, and digging up another.”
Lou put down the towel and nodded at Frank, “You look much better tonight, the suit fits you well. I hope there’s not a naked corpse in that yard you mind.”
He shook his head. “Nope, same old thing I’ve had for ages, only worn a few occasions. Like yesterday.”
“I saw the card, sorry for your loss.”
“Thanks, Lou,” he replied. “That’s why I’m here, forty years and you haven’t changed one bit. No lost flesh, all in one piece among this motley group. I figured it out a while ago.”
The barkeep leaned closer across to the old man. “What exactly are you looking to know?”
“What do I got left, Lou? Do you know twenty years? Thirty?”
“Nothing is ever certain,” he said and looked down at his clasped hands. “All goes well, it’d be twenty-seven.” He looked back up into Frank’s eyes, “But you’re looking to not leave here tonight at all, right?”
Frank nodded and closed his eyes. “You guessed it.”
“The package by the door looks a little lighter than usual. I thought the weight was getting to you after all these years.”
He shrugged. “Got to bring a corpse to get into the dead man’s party. That’s what Jimmy told me all those years ago, right? May look like the smallest I’ve brought, but it was the heaviest load I’ve ever carried.”
The bartender sighed. “Show me,” said Lou.
They walked back to the table. Frank took the hat. “He was only ten,” he said and pulled back the shroud. The boy was cold as stone and pale marble. “Can you give him back to his parents?”
Lou put an arm around Frank. “For you, I’d go two for one.”