First thing you ought to know is just because the Army says my brother is dead doesn’t mean he is. I’m counting on them being right about the gravesite and the body being intact-ish. Otherwise, Casey could be slowly suffocating in an entirely different cemetery. Maybe even buried back in Afghanistan. In which case my cousin Versal and I will be desecrating graves for nothing. It won’t be the first body we’ve ever dug up—sometimes us Januarys get buried accidentally—but it’s the first time our family forbid it so … yeah.
Second is that, regardless of the Star of David inscribed on Casey’s headstone, we’re not entirely Jewish. Mom says if you practice something even only a little, it still counts, but then Mom also tells people she’s a runner since she wears sneakers when she’s not at work. We Januarys pretend some about religion because it’s easier than explaining what we really are, and, according to my great-great-sorta-uncle Saul, a bunch of Jewish traditions were actually ours to begin with so it’s more like they’re pretending to be like us. But Dad says Uncle Saul can be a bit of a liar so who knows.
Oh, and Versal and I—mostly me, since it was daylight—stole her mom’s Chrysler Town & Country in Inferno Red Crystal Pearl—which is kinda apt and gave us the giggles for the first fifty miles, ’cause when everyone finds out what we’ve done, we’re going to be in a touch of hell water. And not just for grand theft auto.
We’re headed to the VA cemetery in Schuylerville. It’s about two and a half hours north of the town we live in—let’s call it Janville—and I don’t have a learner’s permit—Daniel January, age 15, pleasure to meet you—never mind a driver’s license. In the back of my aunt’s minivan, there are a couple of shovels and a pair of matching footlockers. Not suspicious at all if we get pulled over by a State Trooper. Especially if they search the matching footlockers and discover Versal napping inside one.
Versal and I have made contingency plans for all our worst case scenarios, but that doesn’t keep my brain from imagining how many ways this can go wrong. Like: what if the Army got their days mixed up and Casey’s shloshim is already up? What if my dad had Casey cremated like he threatened—the worst thing a person could possibly do to a January (unless they’re not a lunatic. But no one knows who’s what until the shiva’s sat.)
From the back comes Versal’s footlocker-muffled voice: “You’re thinking too loud again, January. He’s a loon.”
“You’re a loon,” I say because it’s required. A bicker so old all the fight’s gone out of it and now it’s security-blanket soft.
Versal has a smile so big you can hear it. “So’s Case. Bunch of loons, all of us. You’ll see.”
Maybe the first thing you needed to know is, for a January, being a lunatic is a good thing. I wouldn’t call it our religion, because it’s not about faith. We don’t worship the sun or moon or anything; we’re just real careful about our dead. Because sometimes they wake up. Belief doesn’t come into it. You either rise from the dead or you don’t.
And no, we’re not suck-your-blood vampires. Uncle Saul claims that whole mythos is a bastardization of our heritage by small-minded folk who can’t tell a mosquito from a firefly. Mom says Uncle Saul is a moth shy of a light and not beyond embellishing facts himself. But yeah, we’re lunatics.
At least I probably am. I’d have to die like Versal or Casey to know for sure, but three out of my four grands rose so chances are pretty good I’ll wake to see my moon years.
I’ve already made plans for my wake-week. Versal vowed to be my morner (as in waker-upper, not grieve-your-heart-out mourner) after I screamed myself awake a few nights into her moon life. Her dying and Casey’s Armying (which might as well be a near death experience) were a little too much stress for me.
“No one will put you in the ground but me, Daniel. I’ll watch you until you rot. Then I’ll Febreeze you until your bones peek through before I’d ever bury you.”
“And you’ll cut off my head before putting me in the ground, right? Just to be sure?”
Versal crossed her heart. “And put a stake through your heart, just to see Uncle Saul spit out his dentures.” The stake won’t make a difference (except to upset Uncle Saul and possibly my mother who doesn’t think jokes are funny) but no one can start a moon life without their head.
Casey better still have his head or I’m going to be really pissed at him. The thing about Casey is sometimes he can be over-the-top drastic.
People in Janville think Casey ran away and joined the Army because that’s what my dad tells them, but Casey didn’t run. He just announced at dinner one night that he was going to enlist and then he went and did it. Everyone was worried what would happen if Casey went off to war and died. Except Casey. Casey said a January wasn’t the only thing he’d ever be.
When Dad threatened to have him sent home in an urn, Casey said, “We all have to go sometime.” I had nightmares for a week, dreaming about my big brother being set aflame in a people oven—but Casey promised me he’d make sure he was casketed. He showed me the forms where he requested not to be embalmed for religious reasons. “But, DanJan,” he said, “you can’t count on being a lunatic. We have to live our sun life as if it’s the only one we’ll get. Because it just might be.”
I grip the steering wheel tight. Closer we get to Schuylerville, the less an adventure this seems. I thought I’d be less scared, but I’m more. What if we’re late and we find my brother’s dead mooned corpse?
“Casey thought moon years were bullshit.” I say it softly, under my breath, but Versal hears me anyway. Guess footlockers aren’t really known for their soundproofing.
“Casey didn’t want to touch dead bodies.” Januarys tend to work with the dead—in funeral homes (my parents) and hospitals (Versal’s mom) and such. Jobs where you can transfer to a night shift and help relatives transition into their night lives are prized. Versal adds, “‘cause he’s squeamish.”
“I don’t think soldiers get to be squeamish, Versal.”
“Then enlisting instead of embalming seems an odd career choice. It’s not what I’d call trading up. Or out. Not wanting to be ‘Looney Tooney’”—Casey’s phrase—“isn’t the same as not being one.”
It’s funny—or maybe ironic—how we were all worried about Casey dying young and then Versal went and beat him to it. She’s been dead two years, but no one outside the family knows that she passed away in that car accident. We faked a coma for her during her shiva, because it’s easier to avoid a death certificate than explain the walking dead. Plus, this way we didn’t have to leave town and january elsewhere.
Casey being officially dead will complicate things a little. But I’d rather have complicated than not have my brother.
“I can’t smell the river anymore, Daniel.” This is Versal reminding me—politely—that I’m deviating from our plan.
The plan: sneak into the cemetery after hours, unearth Casey, and bring him home to Janville—without getting arrested. Except now I’m thinking it might be more ‘goal’ than ‘plan.’
But she can’t do much more than complain because the sun hasn’t yet set—won’t until six—so she can’t climb out of her box and yank me out of the driver’s seat without risking some nasty burns.
I was supposed to park along the bank of the Hudson, close enough so we can cut through field and forest to the ass end of the cemetery. There are a few breaks in the maples and locusts lining Route 4 where you can see the river, some places worn down to dust where vehicles must stop for photos and such. We spotted some on the street view when we mapped out our coffin break. Instead … “I just want to drive by the entrance. See if the satellite was right.” Street view showed Duell Road only had a narrow strip of shoulder, if that, and a gravel road off it that may or may not dead end in someone’s backyard. It would’ve been better if the images had been taken in winter when the trees weren’t so green and leafy. They’re mostly orange and yellow now, some trees already bare, and if I can find a better, closer place to—
Versal bangs on the lid of the footlocker. “Daniel! Stick. To. The. Plan. You cannot drive into a graveyard with shovels!”
I stick to the plan. I do some kind of lurching six point turn at the next cross street and take us back to Route 4 and the river.
“We’re here,” I announce.
“Yeah, I sorta figured that when you shut the car off. How’s the sun?”
The sun is sinking, colors streaking across the sky. “Still setting. Don’t forget the shovels. I’ll leave my shades on the front seat.” I climb out of the minivan. I’m heading out while there’s still some light to see and Versal will follow as soon as it’s dark enough for her. She’ll find me in the stand of trees near the edge of the cemetery—if I haven’t been arrested for trespass—and we’ll find Casey’s plot together.
I’m so thankful for Versal—for plotting with me, for coming with, for understanding why I’m doing this when everyone else—my parents, her parents, our grands, Casey himself—told me not to—that I blurt out, “Versal. There’s no one I’d rather dig up dead bodies with.”
“You’re my favorite grave robber, too, January.” She pauses. “But if the cops show, you’re on your own. Leave the keys in the cup holder.”
We find Casey’s marker in section seven exactly where the map said it’d be, but it’s like I took a wheelbarrow to the solar plexis.
CAESAR E. JANUARY
OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM
JUL 11 1992
OCT 8 2016
Christ, I grew up in graveyards. But shitshitfuck knowing my brother’s body is under that star and those solemn, black cap letters …
Versal shakes me, but I’m re-living nightmares in my head. “I can hear his heartbeat. We’re at the right grave,” she says, but she’s relatively new to moon life so it’s not as comforting as if Uncle Saul said it. (Uncle Saul may be a liar, but he’d never prevaricate about an emergency disinterment.)
The thump of her shovel piercing sod gets me moving.
Versal looks about as tough as a boiled strand of linguini, but she out-digs me easy. The moonshades she’s wearing (which served as my sunglasses on the drive up) give her a whiff of badassery, but the riot of polka dots on her pedal pushers ruin the effect.
Still, it takes us four hours before we hit casket. I let her break it open and then she steps aside to let me lift the lid. I hesitate. Lunatics aren’t always completely lucid when they wake. It’s why we usually dig as a family—and why my parents forbade us from coming up here. But this is Casey and I couldn’t leave him to rot. “Casey? It’s me—Danny. And Versal. We’re going to let you out now. Close your eyes. Full moon’s tomorrow and Versal already claimed my shades.”
Versal shifts closer to me, reacting to the nerves in my voice, ready to throw herself atop Casey if he isn’t himself. I hear the body shift atop its silks. I nudge Versal and do the one, two, three gesture Uncle Saul and Gramps always use. Heave the thing open.
The guy in the coffin raises his forearm to block the moon’s light from his sensitized eyes. But not before I see it isn’t my brother. Not Casey.
“Who’re you?” I yell and he flinches at the loudness of my voice. Versal flings me up out of the grave as if I were a length of pasta and stands between me and the prone stranger.
“Name!” she barks and even I’m impressed by her imperiousness.
“Sergeant Rafael Muñoz,” he says as if reporting for duty. “Who—” But neither I nor Versal are paying him any attention. We’re already pouring over our list of other fallen soldiers to find Muñoz’s info. Army must’ve mixed up the bodies and buried Casey in Muñoz’s grave.
“He’s not on the list!” I hear the frightened whine in my words. What if his grave is in a completely different cemetery? What if the Muñozes went for cremains?
“Shut up!” Versal snarls and I step back, trip over my dropped shovel and land on my ass. “I’m trying to listen.”
I shut up. I hold my breath. I hear crickets, maybe tree frogs. I see glints of searching fireflies. Let her hear a heartbeat. Let her—
“I hear something … I think.”
I want to shake her until she’s certain, but know better. The moon’s so bright, not a cloud in the sky, and since moonlight isn’t anything but reflected sunlight, it has a strange effect on lunatics. It won’t burn her, not at night, but … Versal’s about to go full-blown Looney Tooney.
Versal creeps down the row of grave markers. She’s in hunt-mode, blending into the nightscape until she all but disappears, my eyes unable to pick out her shape.
Behind us, Muñoz climbs out of Casey’s grave. “Who are you?” he asks. “What’s—”
I wheel around and scoop up a shovel. Hold it like a bat I’m about to swing. His arm is raised, shielding his eyes—the night is blinding to him. To me, he’s a looming silhouette of a saluting soldier. “Shut up,” I say, hitching the shovel in what I mean to be a threatening manner and not a signal that my grip is sweaty. “She’s trying to listen.” But it might be futile. Without a plot number to go on … There are more than three hundred acres of dead here. I angrily whisper, “What were you doing in my brother’s coffin?”
Right now he seems confused, but that could change easy. And he’s not family. I walk backwards, hoping the moonlight will illuminate him better. Give me a headstart if I need it.
His shape narrows—he turned to his side, facing away from me, toward the headstone. He’s reading the inscription. “Wait. January’s your brother? You’re Danny? Am I … dead?”
I swing the shovel at the back of his head. I don’t know why. I wasn’t thinking I want to hurt this man or I need to protect myself. It just happened, like a reflex. Hearing him say my name … Him not being Casey … Casey not being in his grave … Swing batter batter.
Maybe Versal isn’t the only January feeling moon mad. My brain feels too noisy, all dark, so crowded and I’m not sure I’m even me anymore.
“Danny!” Somehow Versal grabs the shovel before it makes contact with Muñoz. I try to tug it free and we end up in the shortest game of tug of war ever. Because I hear Versal shout, “Danny!” again and her voice comes from much farther away. She’s not the figure I’m tussling with and it wasn’t her voice the first time.
It’s— “Casey?” My hands relax. The shovel’s shaft is torn free. I hear it clatter against granite somewhere off to my right, but my gaze is busy trying to make out my brother’s features. Make sure my ears aren’t messing with me.
“Yeah, DanJan. It’s me. Why are you trying to brain Rafael? Who’s here with—”
“Casey!” Versal throws her arms around my brother and the two of them stumble around in a clumsy waltz.
“Versal,” my brother says. “Man, Verse, it’s good to see you.” And he probably does see her. Everyone can see what’s going on but me. Casey disentangles himself and points at her face. “Nice moonshades, kiddo.”
Versal says, “Watch it. I’m older than you now, newborn,” and Casey says she’s right—because she has two moon years to his none, even though he was womb-born six years before her. Then he and Rafael fill in the grave while he interrogates me and Versal about how we’re wandering around by ourselves at zero dark thirty. But I want to know about him. So we start this weird game of competing twenty questions where no one gets any answers.
“How did you get here?”
“How did you get here? Why was he in your grave?”
“Why did you dig up my grave? Do Mom & Dad know you’re up to?”
“Does everyone know you’re back except for me? Why didn’t you call? I thought you were dead dead!”
“Aw, DanJan, no. I promised you I’d take care of things. The guys morned me in country. When Rafael bit it before I could ship out, we switched tags and put him my box so he wouldn’t get urned. The Muñozes are so freaky about ‘must be cremained,’ I thought Rafael might be Looney Tooney. But like the anti-Januarys, you know? Must. Not. Moon. Year—and all.”
And then he hugs me. He smells sorta musty—like gravedirt—but that’s not a scent a January minds. I hug him back. So hard it makes me cry a bit, then I laugh ever harder. “Welcome back, lunatic,” I say and he smiles.
Versal crushes us both in a January group hug, then says, “We only brought two footlockers so I hope you and Muñoz don’t mind sharing a box again.”
Casey laughs, really laughs, and it’s been ages since I’ve heard that happy sound. Even before he left, he’d lost his funny bone. So it’s extra great to hear it now—even if I’m deep-down disappointed he didn’t tell me he was waked. At least I didn’t find his dead mooned corpse. “The Moms are going to be so pissed at you two; Danny’s not supposed to know how to drive. Whose car did you take?”
It occurs to me that Casey had to have some plan for rescuing Muñoz—and that plan might not involve returning to Janville. “You are coming home, aren’t you, Casey? With us?”
My brother looks over at his friend, then back at Versal and me. “Yeah, Danny. We’ll all go to Janville together. But Rafael and I are not sharing a footlocker. We won’t fit, for one thing. And second? I’m driving.”
And the last thing you ought to know is Casey didn’t drive us back; Versal did—she beat everyone back to the Inferno-van and no one wanted to wrestle her for the car keys.
We made it home before sunrise and no one got arrested that night. Except for Uncle Saul. But those charges are unrelated. In addition to being a bit of a liar, Uncle Saul also has occasional trouble with thievery.
H.L. Fullerton writes fiction—mostly speculative, occasionally about moonlit misadventures—including the recently released novella, The Boy Who Was Mistaken for a Fairy King. On Twitter as @ByHLFullerton