The problem with young people these days, Matilda von Bingsley thought, was their constant need to question their elders.
Take her granddaughter as an example. Eleven-year-old Marlee von Bingsley was, right at this moment, questioning her grandmother’s proficiency and experience in the art of grave digging.
“I’m just saying, you’ve clearly done this before. I watched the gravediggers at grandpa’s funeral, and it took them two hours and a ruler to get the sides that straight.”
Matilda grunted and flung another shovel full of dirt over the edge of the rapidly deepening, perfectly rectangular hole she was standing in. “A graves got to be a nice straight rectangle,” she huffed. “Everyone knows that. You’ve got to do these things the proper way. Just because we're burying a stranger in the middle of the forest doesn’t mean we can just dump him in a raggedy uneven hole in the ground. Got to have some proper manners about it . . .” She trailed off, muttering.
“That is so not the point, Grandma” Marlee protested, a trace of a whine creeping into her voice. “How did you even learn how to do this?”
Matilda paused and wiped her forehead with the corner of her paisley shawl. She was an old, slightly hunched woman with curly white hair and a constantly grumpy expression on her wrinkled face. She wore wire-rimmed glasses on a gold chain around her neck, and was rendered almost completely round by the many layers of shawls, kerchiefs, and cardigans she wore. Her many layers of clothing kept the chill out of her old bones, while also providing the ideal hiding place for an impractical number of knives, not that Marlee needed to know that.
After a long, pregnant pause, Matilda muttered, “You don’t get to be my age without burying a few bodies. Most of them cats, but still.”
“Most of them cats?” Marlee asked. Matilda ignored her.
She really tried to avoid this sort of thing whenever Marlee came to visit. Her son was reluctant enough to let Marlee come to visit, given his feelings about Matilda’s line of work.
As she watched Marlee poking curiously at the human shaped bundle wrapped in garbage bags and duct tape, a voice in the back of her mind piped up that his reluctance might have been the tiniest bit justified.
“Shut up, you” Matilda muttered to the voice.
Was it her fault that a rival demon hunter’s guild had chosen today to storm the house? Of course not.
Was she to blame for defending herself and her granddaughter? No!
Should she be held accountable for letting Marlee eat ice cream for dinner? Matilda was forced to admit that yes, that one was on her. However, she admitted it grudgingly, the only way she knew how to admit anything, being a woman naturally inclined to stand firm in her decisions, be they dietary or homicidal.
“Well, if he wanted a babysitter, he should have paid me,” Matilda grunted between shovelfuls of dirt.
“Did you say something Grandma?” Marlee asked poking her head over the edge of the deepening grave.
“No, darling,” Matilda said with the somewhat guilty smile of someone hoping the events of the day wouldn’t get back to Marlee’s father. “I’m almost done digging, and then we can bury the body and put this whole mess behind us.”
“Can we get McDonalds?” Marlee asked eagerly.
“Of course we can, Dearie,” Matilda replied, recognizing an opportunity for a bribe, or at the very least, a distraction.
Marlee’s eyes narrowed, then widened as she realized the position of power she held over her grandmother. Matilda felt the chill of an emotion she hadn’t felt since that time she’d had to exorcise the spirit of Ronald Reagan himself from that creepy porcelain doll with the glass eyes: Fear.
“Can I order whatever I want?” Marlee asked.
“Then can we go to the toy store?” Marlee giggled.”
“Uh-huh,” said Matilda, not really listening.
“And then can we get ice cream?”
“Uh-huh” Matilda hefted her shovel to continue digging.
“And then will you buy me a kitten?”
“And then will you tell me who those guys with the glowing swords were?”
A lesser caliber of grandmother might have fallen for it. Matilda herself barely caught herself in time. She bit down on the “uh-huh” like it was a stale cookie she had forgotten to dip in her tea. She felt her teeth rattle in her gums.
Fortunately, Matilda had a mind sharpened by crossword puzzles and the riddles of sphinxes.
“Absolutely not!” she said firmly, “That’s grown up business, and you’ve no place poking your nose in it.”
“But Grandma . . .”
“No buts. You are too young for that kind of nonsense.” Matilda leaned against her shovel and surveyed her work. “Now stop whining and help an old lady up out of this grave.”
With some grunting, cursing, and a bit of scrambling, Matilda was soon standing on the edge of the grave she had just dug.
Marlee peered curiously into the grave. “How long do you think it will take him to decompose in there?”
“That,” Matilda said, “Is a most inappropriate question for a young girl to ask.” She paused. “Eight to twelve years.”
“Come along, lets role him in there and be done with this,” Matilda said briskly. She turned on the heel of her sensible orthopedic shoe and strode towards the body at the edge of the clearing.
With the hard work of digging the grave behind them, it didn’t take long to shove the body into the hole and shovel the dirt back into place. Marlee took great pleasure in tamping down the loose dirt, stomping and jumping enthusiastically. Matilda stood well clear and marveled at the vitality of youth.
After they had spread a veil of leaves and pine needles over the freshly disturbed earth, Matilda carefully brushed out their footprints and started the car.
“Buckle up, Dearie” warned Matilda, gripping the wheel with a toothy smile that made the words “my, what big teeth” spring to mind.
Marlee, familiar with her grandmothers driving, didn’t need telling twice. Her seat belt clicked into pace just as Matilda hit the gas.
A few minutes later, the blurred lights and rushing wind of the highway engulfed them. Peering over the steering wheel and flooring the accelerator, Matilda got her first real chance to slow down (metaphorically) and think all day.
She had hoped her fellow demon hunting professionals would at least have the dignity not to bother her at home.
In my day, demon hunters lived by a code, she thought. In my day a hunter’s family was off limits.
When she had started out, demon hunting had been about idealism and bravery. Roving bands of ragtag hunters had travelled the world, banishing demons with burning herbs gathered under highway underpasses, hitchhiking and hopping through portals smelling of brimstone and patchouli.
Yep, the seventies were wild, Matilda mused.
Before long, a sign informed them of a McDonalds at the next exit. Matilda pulled off the freeway and careened into the parking lot with a screech of tortured brakes that could only be described as demonic.
The McDonalds was exactly like every other McDonalds at every rest stop in every dimension in the known universe. Matilda knew first hand that one could be in the very depths of hell (literally), and one would still see those cheery yet insincere yellow arches flickering electronically in the distance.
“Chains these days. Drove out all the nice little mom-and-pop places.” Matilda groused under her breath.
Marlee rolled her eyes. “Oh, don’t start, Grandma.”
The hunched old lady and the little girl waited in line, the younger bouncing impatiently, the other with the implacable stoicism of someone who had waited in a lot of lines, and had learned that they would move when they damn well pleased.
“Hello. Welcome to McDonalds. How can I help you.” The words were spoken with such indifference, such complete lack of emotion and human sentiment, Matilda almost reached for her spectacles, thinking to check for the signs of a reanimated corpse. At the last second, she remembered se was speaking to a fast food employee and left her glasses where they were, hanging from the neck of her paisley blouse.
Marlee, suddenly shy, hid partially behind her grandmother and whispered what she wanted to her, who then relayed the order to the cashier.
Several minutes later, they were seated at a slightly sticky plastic table, Marlee digging into a double decker cheeseburger, Matilda nursing a black coffee. Watching Marlee twirl one of her fries in her milk shake, Matilda dared to hope that her granddaughter would forget all about the whole “burying a body” incident.