Tonight’s story is very special, because it is the first winner of our monthly contest. Donald Jacob Uitvlugt provided us with a delightfully disturbing tale that captured both the illustaration, and the this year’s Monster Corral theme: Monsters. We are very proud to present:
Offerings for the Dead
by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt
Ichiro made sure no one was looking before
he squeezed his way through the gap in the metal bars. The city lights reflected off the freshly fallen snow, bathing the graveyard in a soft twilight even though dawn was hours away. The snow muffled his footsteps as he searched for the right spot.
He rubbed his hands together and blew into his fingers. The main celebrations of the festival would start after dawn. But he had school and then work. He did not much like crowds anyway.
There. Ichiro knelt by his grandmother’s grave and brushed the snow off her simple wood marker. He traced the characters carved into the wood with his finger. Then he placed the incense sticks he had brought and lit them. He closed his eyes and pressed his hands together.
As he prayed, he felt a presence near him. He opened his eyes. A man knelt a few feet away from him, a plastic grocery bag in his hands. He did not see Ichiro watching as he opened the bag and drew out several items.
The man tied a pink scarf around one of the markers, a carved likeness. He draped a plastic bead necklace over another, placed a butterfly broach before a third. A half-dozen more graves, the man placed an item on or before each. All were of stone, most effigies of the deceased or images of a buddha.
The man clearly was wealthy, to judge by the markers. Yet how tragedy had stalked his family. He was not an old man, no more than thirty-five. Yet he made offerings before so many graves. Ichiro gave a soft cough.
An emotion Ichiro couldn’t read flashed over the man’s face. Surprise at finding himself not alone, perhaps. Ichiro gave a respectful nod at the graves the man had adorned.
“It is a good thing, what you did.”
The man managed a weak smile. His eyes may have even teared. “I come every year. Each time there are more markers.”
Ichiro nodded and pointed to where the incense burned. “It’s only my grandmother and me, and it still hurts. I can only imagine what you feel.”
“I do what I can to make things…nice. Every year I see their faces, right before they died. I live their passing all over again.”
Ichiro thought of his grandmother’s death after a long battle with cancer. He remembered how he had passed through the state foster system until he grew too old. He was forgetting what his grandmother’s face looked like. “They say our connection with the dead is stronger than ever during the festival. That’s one of the reasons why I come early. Before the crowds.”
The man nodded. He twisted the now empty bag in his hands. “Just because it is one’s sacred duty to pray for the dead doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be…intimate.”
“I know what you mean. I feel so close to my grandmother every time I visit.”
“Yes. It is good to be close to those we’ve lost.” The man rose, walked behind Ichiro and rested a hand on his shoulder. Ichiro did not feel entirely comfortable with the touch.
“How…how many of your family are buried here?”
“I never said they were my family.” Before Ichiro could speak, the twisted plastic bag wrapped around his neck. “They’re my victims.”
Ichiro clawed at the plastic. His world collapsed in on itself. Faded to black.
His murderer relaxed his grip. The body sank to the ground. The man sighed.
“At least he is with his grandmother now.”
Nimble fingers searched Ichiro’s body, looking for the offering to be presented to his spirit next year.
Donald Jacob Uitvlugt lives on neither coast of the United States, but mostly in a haunted memory palace of his own design. His short fiction has appeared in numerous print and online venues, including Necrotic Tissue, the Journal of Unlikely Entomology and the Wily Writers podcast, as well as the anthologies A Fistful of Horrors and Satan’s Toybox: Terrifying Teddies. He strives to write small stories with big impact. Find out more at http://haikufiction.blogspot.com.