Heather glanced around the GraveSecure office, at beige walls, a desk of unvarnished pine, and two brown plastic IKEA chairs, one of which she currently sat in. The only decorations were framed photos of families gathered at gravesites, their faces somber, yet satisfied.
The door behind Heather opened and in walked a man in gray robes that swished softly as he approached the desk. He sat down and offered a salesman’s smile, white teeth behind a short black beard. His features were as nondescript as the office. You couldn’t call him handsome or ugly. You couldn’t call him anything.
“Mrs. Gallego,” the man said. “My name is Calder Freeman. I am the head arcanist at GraveSecure. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Uh, thank you,” Heather said. The term head arcanist caught her off guard, mostly because how casually Mr. Freeman had said it. Like someone offhandedly mentioning they were a garbageman or an accountant, not an honest-to-God necromancer.
Mr. Freeman pulled a file from the desk—plain manila—but did not look at its contents. “I understand your husband, Edwin Gallego, is currently in hospice care. Is that correct?”
Heather had just come from the facility. Dr. Sheffield said it was probably a matter of days. He also advised her to start thinking about what happened after. “Yes, that’s correct.”
The salesman’s smile melted into a plastic mask of sympathy. “I am so very sorry, Mrs. Gallego, and I must commend you for coming to us before your beloved requires pacification. Many families don’t, and, as you can imagine, it creates more difficulties during an already trying time.”
Heather shuddered. As insincere as Mr. Freeman’s words might be, he wasn’t wrong. Her neighbors hadn’t taken precautions, and they’d ended up putting two people in the ground instead of one. “Thank you. I just want to make sure Edwin is taken care of.”
Mr. Freeman reached over the desk and briefly touched Heather’s arm—fake sympathy and salesman schtick combined. “Of that, I can assure you. Our arcanists are licensed and accredited by the Department of Necromantic Affairs and trained to handle the unquiet with the utmost care.”
“That’s good,” Heather said, wringing her hands. Now the hard part. “It’s just, the funeral was expensive, and we’re on a budget.” Used to be all you had to do was bury someone when they died. Now additional arrangement had to be made.
“I see,” Mr. Freeman said. His smile wavered. “How much does your budget allow for?”
“I’d rather you tell me what it would cost to keep Edwin at peace.”
Mr. Freeman scratched his beard and looked at the file for the first time. “Basic quiescence rituals start at ten thousand dollars.”
Heather uttered a short gasp. After funeral expenses she’d be lucky to afford groceries for her and the kids. Ten thousand might as well be ten million.
“I take it this is beyond your current means.” The warmth, artificial as it was, drained from Mr. Freeman’s tone. His smile hardened into a flat line.
Heather’s face burned with shame, but she pressed on. “Can’t you just put him to rest, like . . .”
“Like what, Mrs. Gallego?” Mr. Freeman said, leaning forward. He was going to make her say it.
She swallowed hard. “Like with a bullet.”
“This is a common question that arises from older depictions of the unquiet from movies and television,” Mr. Freeman said with an exasperated sigh. “But, no, only a quiescence spell will put the unquiet to rest. Destruction of the corporal form may create a specter, and, as you know, is quite illegal.”
“I can’t afford the spell,” Heather said, hating how small and weak she sounded.
Mr. Freeman placed his hands on the desk and folded them, long fingers precisely interlaced. His plain face crinkled up in a look Heather didn’t like, a belittling, condescending look. “There is another, more inexpensive service that provides the adequate state-mandated pacification.”
“Oh, god, I don’t want to put him in one of those things,” Heather said, unable to meet Mr. Freeman’s eyes and the awful truth in them.
“If you cannot afford a quiescence spell, it is your only option.” Mr. Freeman’s said and the salesman’s smile returned. “I assure you our installations are more secure and pleasing to the eye than those provided by the state. We have a range of options.”
The funeral felt more than a little absurd. Heather could barely hear the priest over the music they played to drown out the noises from inside the coffin, which Edwin’s parents insisted she purchase. When it was over, Heather asked her sister to take the kids so she could be alone at the gravesite. She wanted to be there the first time.
Her husband’s grave had a plain granite headstone carved with his name, the dates he’d lived, and Loving Father and Husband. In front of the gravestone lay a cage of strip steel with bronzique finish, the cheapest of GraveSecure’s aesthetic options. It extended beneath the ground and held the coffin in an impenetrable envelope. A foot of clearance remained between the grassy sod and the top of the cage.
Heather stood silently and waited. It didn’t take long. First came a muffled splintering—the coffin coming apart—then the mole-like shuffling of earth being clawed aside.
Edwin Gallego’s hand emerged from the ground, the fingers squirming like fat, gray worms. His head and shoulders followed, bursting from the sod in a shower of dirt and splinters. His watery gray eyes rolled, and his slack mouth hung open in a low, breathy moan.
Heather stumbled back, grief giving way to revulsion. The things she’d wanted to say to her husband evaporated from her mind, and she hurried back toward the car. She covered her ears to blot out the awful moans from a dozen other grave cages dotting the cemetery, their occupants reaching for her through a dozen shiny faux finishes.
Aeryn Rudel is a writer from Seattle, Washington. He is the author of the Acts of War novels published by Privateer Press, and his short fiction has appeared in The Arcanist, On Spec, and Pseudopod, among others. He occasionally offers dubious advice on writing and rejection (mostly rejection) at rejectomancy.com and on Twitter at @Aeryn_Rudel.