I open my eyes to absolute darkness and to a stale woody smell just inches from my nose. I don’t remember being here, how I got here. I don’t even recall where I was last. My amygdala is setting off internal alarms. I’m not in full-blown panic state yet but I’m getting there. I have a tendency to succumb to claustrophobia in a matter of seconds. I always have. I remember that. I turn my head left and right but that tells me squat. I move my arm to feel around. In just a few inches, my knuckles hit wood all around me. So close. I push on the sides. The sides are so close. “Hey! Someone! Let me out!”
Calm yourself, James. Caaalm.
James. My name is James McKinney. That’s a good start.
This wood is so close – right in my face. My breath bounces right back to me. Do I have enough air in here? Stop it. Stop it. Don’t hyperventilate. Figure out where you are. Think. Think. Think. Think.
I bite my lower lip to take my attention off the panic. Grit is covering my mouth and I spit. Well, that wasn’t too bright, James. It dripped right back onto your face. I move my hand up along my body to wipe off the spit and…dirt. It feels like dirt. Tastes like dirt. Where the hell am I?
I hear muffled voices.
“Hey! Help me!” But, then, they are gone. “No! Come back!”
I feel around and the damp wood is enclosing me on all sides. I can barely move my arms. That means I can’t move. I can’t move around. I can’t turn over or sit up. Let me out, let me out. I thrash my body around in hopes of, what, breaking free? But it doesn’t do anything. What is this? “Hey! Where am I?”
I feel sick. Oh my God. Don’t get sick in here, James. Don’t get sick.
I take a few calming breaths and talk myself down. Don’t become hysterical, now. I slide my right hand back up my chest and rub my eyes. My hand swipes something long hanging above my face. Is it a worm? Bugs! Oh, my God! What is it? What is it?! My hand brushes it again and I hear a faint tinkle. My fingers search for whatever the hanging thing is. It’s not slimy; it’s a string. A string hanging in a box. What the…?
Well, pull it, you moron. See what it does!
I yank on it and I hear a bell ring far away like. “Heeey!”
A string in a box – with a person. I know why this is familiar. Yes. This is like those Scare-the-Shit-Out-of-You nighttime stories I read before bed. They used to bury people with a string attached to a bell just in case they weren’t really dead. Someone would sit by the grave and the person in the coffin had three days to ring the bell to let them know they buried an alive person. After three days, I guess they supposed you were actually dead as dirt and – whoop – they’d yank the string out and well, there you have it.
I wrap the string around my fingers several times.
Is that where I am? Am I dead? But I’m not dead because I’m here. Here. In a box.
Oh, boy. Oh, boy. Here it comes. My hands are tingling. Don’t think about your breathing, James. Don’t think. Ignore it. Don’t take short breaths. In through your nose, out your mouth. Someone buried me thinking I was dead. I don’t remember being in an accident. I wasn’t sick, I don’t think. I feel around my body. No pain. All in one piece. Why would they think I’m dead? I’m not! I’m not!
I pull the string again and again, “I’m here! I’m alive! Let me out! Please! Please!”
But they don’t hear me out there. And the air is getting thinner. Less for me to breathe.
Ha! If I wasn’t dead when they put me in, I will be soon, and I start to laugh. Laughing uses more oxygen. Don’t laugh. But I can’t help it. I keep ringing the bell. Why don’t they hear it? I can.
And then I hear them again. Closer this time, clearer. Tight. It’s so tight in here. I pound on the sides, “Hey, out there!”
“He’s dreaming again, Doctor. He’s pulling at the restraints.”
I’m not restrained.
“He’s not supposed to be doing that. Give him another dose of pentobarbital and fix his earphones. And keep playing that Buried Alive recording. His incarceration is well deserved.”
Incarceration. I remember now. Fifty years to life.
“This one’s not eligible for parole, is he?”
I hear the doctor laugh. He laughed. “That’s what I was told.”
“Wow. We’ll all be long gone when he wakes up, huh?”
But I’m awake! And I pound on the sides. “I’m here!”
“You bet. At least my tax dollars won’t be going to his cable or food, and he won’t play basketball all day like he’s at some resort.”
A buzzer goes off. “Bed 735C is waking, too.”
“Which way is that?”
“That way. At the front of the building.”
No! Don’t go!
“God, I hate all this walking…”
Rows and rows. Rows and rows.
“Who thought making this warehouse so big was a good idea? All right, come with me, then. Which one is C? Top or bottom bed?”
“Top, Doctor. And this one should be back in coma-state in a few.”
I wait, hoping unconsciousness would kick in and this will disappear, melt away like they promised. The stale air is suffocating. Minutes pass that feel like a forever wait.
And then I hear the nurse, “Okay, he’s out.”
Out? I’m not out. I’m not out! I’m still here, in this box! Coma people are not supposed to think anything, feel anything. That’s what I was told at sentencing.
“After the next one, Kate, you wanna grab a bite at Finnegan’s?”
“One of their juicy burgers sounds…”
And they’re gone again.
“Wait! No!” I yank on the bell. The more I scream, the more air I use up. Less and less air. The dark is oppressive and liquid tar fills my lungs. I can’t breathe. There’s nothing left!
Check off all the boxes that apply: I am most uncomfortable when… Psychological profile, my ass.
“Mr. McKinney, the prosecutor has given you the option to forego your prison sentence for Alternative Sedation, which you have taken. Congratulations.”
Congratulations, the judge said.
“Piece of cake, Judge. You bald bastard.”
Ha! Ha-Ha! Hold it together, James. You’re starting to lose it.
Joke’s on me, isn’t it? They know. They knew all along what a coma person goes through. A permanent state of elsewhere.
Hold it together. You have a long way to go, James.
This is my fifty years to life. Fifty years in a box, underground, covered in six feet of dirt, ringing a bell no one will hear. Oh, my God. No air. No air. No air.
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