Published on 2012/06/24

Rubbed Out

Michael C. Keith

Language was not powerful enough to describe the phenomenon.
–– Charles Dickens

Following intense and often bitter debate involving town officials and local citizenry, the construction of the new Wal-Mart was approved by the slimmest of margins. The long-abandoned Gardner farm at the north end of Granby, New Hampshire, was to be the site of the giant box store. The house that stood in the overgrown field was so decrepit that it took only one push by a backhoe to make it collapse. In no time, everything but a small patch of dense foliage at the far edge of the property was cleared so construction could begin.

Things were going according to plan until several centuries-old tombstones were discovered within that thicket. Work was immediately halted while the state historic society conducted an investigation. Rubbings of the stones were taken and while there were no dates on the actual granite slabs, a date did appear in the lower corner of all six of the paper impressions––one that was three months in the future, August 11, 2012.

“Okay, let’s do it again,” said Corey Glenn to his assistant, Fran Kramer. “This didn’t just happen, right?”

Again, the mysterious date appeared on the rubbings heightening the bafflement of the historical society’s field researchers.

“This is really weird,” observed Fran, staring in disbelief at the numbers on the rice paper.

“Weird? No, this is just plain freaky,” replied Corey. “Shoot me doing a rubbing with your cell. We need to document this or nobody is going to believe us.”

When Corey finished, both he and Fran reviewed the recording several times.

“Pictures don’t lie. Damned if we didn’t just experience a paranormal event, or whatever they call it.”

“Whoa, this is really spooky,” responded Fran, her eyes darting from the cellphone screen to the headstones. “Now what?”

“We’ll take everything back to the office and see what Billings has to say,” answered Corey, rolling up the rubbings. “Let’s record this one more time to make sure we have it, okay? This time you do the rubbing, and I’ll play cameraman.”

* * *

Back in Manchester, the director of the historical society, Lionel Billings, was as perplexed by the inexplicable event as were his two preservationists. Since their return to the office, the legal representatives of the box store chain had called demanding to know when construction could resume. Reluctantly Billings attempted to explain why further inquiry needed to be conducted at the site, but his words were met with skepticism, and the society was accused of deliberately delaying the project.

“C’mon. We got forty men on payroll and you’re telling me they have to stand down because numbers are magically appearing on old tombstones. That’s a bunch of voodoo crap. We got to get going here. Time is money,” bellowed the box store’s project chief.

Feeling pressured, Billings decided to go public about the Granby graveyard occurrence to gain more time to probe the phenomenon. But he never expected the brief account he gave to the Manchester Chronicle to create a firestorm. Almost immediately the national press jammed the society’s phone lines and emails, and when Billings returned to the Granby site with Corey and Fran, they encountered a throng of television news trucks and reporters.

“Show us the invisible numbers,” shouted several reporters, and Billings decided to oblige them.

“If this doesn’t happen again, we’re going to look damn ridiculous,” he muttered to his colleagues. “Go ahead Corey. Do a rubbing. The cameras are rolling. This is your Hollywood moment.”

Corey gathered his materials and went to the nearest headstone, his every move carefully chronicled by several video cameras.

“You can see there is no date on this monument. I’ll now take a rubbing of its surface and you’ll see what happens,” announced Corey.

“Here goes nothing,” whispered a worried Billings to Fran.

As Corey moved his lumberman’s chalk against the paper at the bottom of the headstone, the now familiar date reappeared.

“It says August 11, 2012,” observed a reporter, causing a wave of murmurs among his cohorts.

“Thank God,” sighed Billings, patting Fran on the shoulder. “But how the hell is this happening?”

A long round of questions from the assembled reporters followed the demonstration. All three members of the historical society continued to be at a loss to provide a plausible explanation for the appearance of the date on the rubbing.

“Sorry, but we just don’t know what’s going on here. As you can see, there’s no date on the stones, but one appears when a rubbing is done. Perhaps one of you would like to try it?” inquired Billings.

“I’ll do it,” responded a woman Lionel recognized from a local television station.

“Great! Fran, give her a hand, would you?”

“Sure,” she replied, holding a piece of rice paper against a different headstone and instructing the reporter how to move the chalk against it.

“Oh my God, there it is!” exclaimed the newsperson as the cryptic alphanumeric symbols appeared. “Is this some kind of trick paper?”

“No ma’am. It’s standard Aqaba gravestone rubbing paper. If you have a regular piece of paper, you can try it,” responded Billings.

“I do,” said the reporter, tearing a sheet from her notebook.

“Go ahead, Karen . . . rub it.”

“You know my name?” responded the correspondent as she moved the chalk across the paper.

“Watch you on the news,” answered Billings.

As soon as the first few letters of the date appeared, the gathering rumbled in astonishment.

“This is . . . amazing. What does it mean? The date must have some significance!” exclaimed the dumbfounded reporter.

“Like I said, we’re as much in the dark about it as you are, but we’re going to continue our investigation of the site in hopes of coming up with some answers,” offered Billings.

* * *

That evening the local media, as well as the national networks, carried accounts of the incident unfolding in Granby. By the next day the number of reporters at the cemetery had increased three-fold and police had to cordon off the area. By week’s end, media from across the globe had descended on the small community. Droves of curiosity-seekers showed up as well. Inundated by requests for information, the historical society held a news conference, headlined by the state’s lieutenant governor, Max Harrington.

“At this point, Mr. Billings and his staff continue to investigate this unusual occurrence. A team of paranormal experts and forensic specialists will join them in an attempt to solve this mystery. Mr. Billings, would you like to add anything?” inquired Harrington.

“Ah, not really. I think you’ve pretty well covered . . . things,” replied Billings, stepping away from the microphone.

The lieutenant governor watched Billings as he receded to the background and then he added, “Well, okay. I guess that’s it. We’ll let you know what’s going on as soon as we know, er, . . . what’s going on. Thank you.”

“What the hell else can I say about this thing? Maybe we need to bring in David Copperfield,” mumbled Billings into Corey’s ear.

The crowd at the site increased substantially each day as teams of investigators from a host of universities and government agencies attempted to discover the secret of the Granby apparition. As the weeks passed, nothing was resolved, but great speculation as to its meaning flooded the Internet and airwaves. Most were apocalyptic in nature. August 11, 2012 was declared the new End Time, and millions of people around the globe were preparing for it.

Meanwhile, national leaders attempted to mitigate the fears of their citizens, but reason was supplanted by growing panic and in many places order began to breakdown. There were skeptics, but the incomprehensible manifestation of the headstone’s date was proof enough for most of the planet’s inhabitants that Earth’s days were numbered. Even The New York Times proclaimed, “This one is different,” concluding that no prediction of Armageddon was ever preceded by such a mystifying and supernatural communiqué.

In an effort to disburse the vast crowds that had flocked to Granby, state officials decided to remove the headstones from their site. The town had run out of food and other essentials and locals were in a dither. When authorities appeared to dig up the gravestones, they were met with opposition. The multitudes surrounded the half dozen state workers and threatened to harm them if they so much as touched the ground around what it termed the “sacred markers.” Fearing for their lives, the would-be gravediggers quickly threw down their shovels and departed.

By the time the sun rose on August 11, 2012, in Granby, the world had experienced a level of lawlessness and chaos never before seen. As the appointed time unfolded, the civil unrest subsided, and as it approached midnight on what most of the world’s population believed was doomsday, crowds gathered in city squares and parks and waited for human existence to end. But it did not. The hands of the clock continued to move, and it became August 12, 2012. Conceiving that it was just another false prophecy, the assembled masses breathed a sigh of relief and returned to the routine of their lives.

* * *

Fifty light-years away on Gliese 667, six trillion spectators––watching eight hundred ten-mile long JumboTron screens––roared with pleasure at the finale of “Galaxy Gotcha’,” a reality show presented by the Office of Giliesian Amusement. In the Imperial Stadium, the viewers chanted “More! More!” with their limbs outstretched toward their monarch. King Groidro Phrobe rose and signaled for silence with his six glimmering appendages.

“You wish more? Then more you shall have,” proclaimed the king, pointing his royal scepters in the direction of Earth.

At the Granby graveyard, the crowds had departed, leaving only Billings, Corey, and Fran. They had returned in the off chance that something might have changed when they took a post-August 11, 2012 rubbing.

“What the . . .?” exclaimed Billings, as his chalk moved across the bottom of a headstone revealing a new inscription––November 14, 2012.

On Giliese 667, the cheers of satisfaction were deafening.

Michael C. Keith is the author of an acclaimed memoir, three story collections, and two-dozen nonfiction books.