Count to sixty - Editor
by C.J. Miozzi
Dan scrambled to his feet. Disoriented from the fall, the teenager reached out into the darkness and touched the cold, stone tombstone he had tripped over. His heart raced -- his pulse throbbed in his temples.
"Mark," he whispered. "Mark. Where the hell are you?"
Dan spun about in the dim light of the crescent moon. Amidst the shadows, he spotted a small patch of grass illuminated by Mark's flashlight. The stocky teen kept low to the ground as he rushed over to the light. He looked around nervously, but couldn't perceive any movement in the large cemetery.
When he reached the flashlight, Dan saw Mark's prone form sprawled out on the grass beside it.
"Dude, come on, we got to get out of here." Dan nudged his friend with his foot. "That guard was right behind us. He can come around any minute."
Light fell upon the tombstones mere feet away from the two friends.
Dan dove into a mound of earth behind a tombstone.
The light scanned the area. "You punks aren't getting away this time," spoke the gruff voice of the night guard. "You're going straight to juvie, and your folks are going to pay for all those tombstones you kicked over." Footsteps shuffled closer through the grass.
Dan held his breath and squeezed his eyelids shut. Don't come this way, don't come this way, he pleaded in his mind.
The footsteps receded from earshot.
The teen mentally counted sixty seconds before letting out a deep breath. He rose to his feet and tried to brush moist soil off his new Philadelphia Eagles football jersey.
After ensuring the guard was nowhere in sight, Dan turned back to Mark, who still lay on the ground. As he squatted beside his friend, Dan held a finger near Mark's nostrils, and felt warm air pulse out.
Dan pulled out his phone and flipped it open. The cell's light colored his green jersey in an eerie blue. A message popped up on the screen: "No reception."
"Having difficulty calling for help?"
Dan spun around with a start.
A tall, lanky man stood beside him.
Dan staggered back and shone the blue light in the man's gaunt face. "Dude, what the hell?" He passed the light over the man's body to ensure he wasn't wearing a guard uniform. "You scared the hell out of me. You don't… you can't just sneak up on people like that, man!"
The man's hawk-like face spread into a wide smile. He stared down at Dan with his pale eyes, one blue, the other grey. A milky film clouded the grey eye.
Unsettled, Dan broke eye contact. "Look man, my friend here is hurt. Can you stay with him while I go get help?"
The man ran a pasty hand through his long, thinning hair. "My name is Mareus."
Dan paused at the unexpected answer. "Whatever, man. Just stay here with my friend, okay?" He glanced around, but there was still no sign of the guard.
"I can't do that, Daniel."
Mention of his name snapped Dan's attention back to the man. "How do you know my name?"
"I am the soul collector." The milky eye stares straight through Dan.
"What?" Dan said, incredulous. "Are you some kind of mental case?" He noted Mareus' worn vest, his patched-up pants, his veiny arms. He's a hobo druggy.
With a sigh, Dan reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. "You want money? Here." He grabbed a twenty dollar bill, and offered it. "It's all I got. Just please, stay with my friend, and don't tell anyone that I was here."
"I hold the key to the next world." Mareus opened his loose leather vest.
Dan recoiled at the sight of an antique key embedded in the man's skeletal chest. Blue veins snaked away from the key, visible beneath the waxy flesh. Green light poured out of a gem that protruded from the circular bow of the key. The light throbbed, and within the gem, Dan saw swirling clouds and flashes of ghastly faces.
"Dude, what is that?" Dan pointed a quavering finger at the key.
"Say goodbye to your friend, Daniel." Mareus loomed forward, dwarfing the stocky teen.
"What? No!" pleaded Dan. "He's not dead; we can still help him!"
"It's time." Mareus stepped forward.
"No, please, look, he's still breathing! Just let me get an ambulance. I'll stay here with him; I don't care if I get sent to juvie." Frantic, Dan waved his cell around. Why can't I get a signal? I'm outdoors, in the middle of the city!
"You cannot help him." Mareus extended a gangly arm and closed his knobby fingers around Dan's wrist.
The teen almost lost his grip on his cell as he trembled at Mareus' touch.
Mareus guided Dan's hand. He shone the cell's light by the tombstone that Dan had tripped on.
Dan's blood ran cold.
A stocky teenage boy wearing a green football jersey lay still on the ground, his head split on the tombstone.