Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had a number of well-intentioned people in my general orbit comment that they’ve noticed a large uptick in the amount of alcohol that I’ve been consuming. That’s a fancy way of saying that I’ve been drinking myself into a stupor every night. Now, I can’t say that they’re wrong. I also can’t say that their concerns aren’t valid. I also also can’t say that I’m not drinking enough daily to drown a fucking fish.
You know what I can say, though? I can look you right in the eye and say with absolute certainty that if you ever have to find out what’s in the dark waiting for you like I did, you’ll be inclined to knock back some shots, too.
There are two things that you need to know right off the bat about how all of this started. The first is that my father was the head of a very prestigious crime family. By prestigious, I mean that anyone with half a brain was afraid to cross it. Since I’m not an idiot, I won’t be providing either his name or the name of his, shall we say, business venture.
The second thing is that I never got involved with his dealings, not at any point in my life. My mother, bless her soul, made sure of that. I never had a desire to be a part of that world anyway. Sure, the money would have been appreciated, but when you grow up hearing stories about people that never got to enjoy the fruits of their labor because of the dangers associated with working for my father, you understand that there are better ways to support yourself.
The problem, at least in my case, is that there are other folks out there that couldn’t give two shits about the personal choices that you’ve made. This was a point that was made to me rather violently one Friday afternoon. One minute I’m walking down the street through my supposedly safe neighborhood, and the next I’m being snatched by two thugs that could best be described as living mountains. The smaller, and I use that term loosely, of the two shoved one gloved hand over my mouth, and they carried me into the back of a waiting van with no effort. A gag was shoved into my gullet and a hood was thrown over my head.
There was no way to know how much time had passed when the van finally came to a stop. It had definitely been a while. I heard the van’s back doors open, and a moment later I was being pulled out of the vehicle. The hood was removed. I gratefully breathed in the fresh air through my nose.
Standing in front of me was a woman about six inches shorter than me. She seemed even smaller with the two giant men flanking her. The expensive business suit and the gun holstered around her waist said louder than words that this was a woman that both demanded and deserved respect.
I felt the blood drain out of my face as I took a quick look around and found that we were standing in a cemetery.
The woman explained to me that she and her associates were employees of a certain business rival of my father’s. Her employer had come to the conclusion that it was time for my father to retire, and that part of his retirement plan should be to give up his territory. At the same time, her employer didn’t want to get blood all over the streets. It was determined that the best way to make the transfer of power nice and clean was to abduct me and use me as a bargaining chip.
She turned and started walking across the cemetery. The two large men gripped me under the arms and half carried, half dragged me after her. It was an old graveyard, with heavily weathered and broken headstones that were in the process of being reclaimed by the grass and weeds. Our little group came to a stop in front of a gnarled husk of a tree with an open grave in front of it.
I tilted my head to look inside the hole. It went down a good five or six feet, and there was a coffin at the bottom. Its lid was open, and there was a lime green oxygen tank placed inside of it.
The woman gave me a long look before asking me if I knew where I was. There were the beginnings of a pretty nasty smile at the edges of her lips. That didn’t bode well.
I couldn’t answer because of the gag that was still filling my mouth, so I simply shook my head. She proceeded to tell me that I was standing in front of the resting place of Tabitha Alden, a woman who had lived in the area almost four hundred years earlier. The local townspeople had claimed that, after being mocked and humiliated by a group of children, she had made a pact with the Devil. She used her newfound powers to enchant the children and force them to hang themselves in the nearby woods. The stories also said that she had helped a demon possess a minister, who had gone on to murder half a dozen of the town residents before they managed to subdue him.
She had been proclaimed a witch, and the sentence that came with it was death. The townspeople had carried out that sentence by burying her alive.
My captor informed me that, unlike in the story, she was going to give me a choice. I could choose to get into the waiting casket willingly, or I could choose for her to put a bullet in the back of my head right then and there. One of the men pulled out the gag so that I could respond. It wasn’t much of a choice. I picked the casket.
As I slowly lowered myself into the coffin, I was careful to avoid stepping on the oxygen tank. Like I said earlier, I’m not an idiot. Like Tabitha Alden before me, they were going to bury me alive for as long as it took for my father to agree to their terms. The last thing I needed was to accidentally damage the only thing that would be keeping me alive.
That was assuming my father actually gave into their demands, of course. I figured it was a coin flip at best.
I laid down in the casket. It was disturbing, to say the least. I barely fit inside of it; there wasn’t much room for me to move my arms or legs, and the top of my head bumped against the wood. The woman instructed me to put on the plastic mask attached to the oxygen tank, and I complied. It covered my nose and mouth, and it fit tightly against my skin. I once again did as I was told as she had me turn the tank’s valve to open the flow of oxygen into the mask.
One of the men reached down into the grave and, with a snort of amusement, slammed the coffin lid shut.
I had done my best to stay calm when my kidnappers had been able to see me. I was determined not to give them the satisfaction of seeing me afraid. They obviously wanted me to be, because there was no other reason to pick this particular location for the burial and to tell me the story behind it. The moment the wood closed down over top of me and I was plunged into darkness, however, the fear began to overtake me. It was the sound of the dirt being shoveled onto the lid that really pushed me over the edge.
I screamed for them to let me out. My voice was muffled by the mask, and what noise did escape sounded flat in the confines of the coffin. It started out as a demand, but it quickly turned into a plea. I yelled that they didn’t need to do this, and that I could speak with my father on their behalf to get him to give them whatever they wanted. I told them that they didn’t have to do this.
The only response was the thudding of more earth slapping against the lid. Each thud grew fainter and fainter until they stopped entirely.
I tried to push against the top of the casket with my hands, but I couldn’t get much force behind it due to the limited space. Changing tactics, I bent my legs as much as possible to push with my kneecaps. The wood creaked as I pressed into it, but it didn’t budge.
They had actually done it. They had buried me alive. My mind reeled at the thought. Intellectually I had known that it was going to happen, but the reality of being trapped under half a dozen feet of dirt was something else entirely. I couldn’t get my mind wrapped around it.
I was panicking. My body thrashed as I unsuccessfully fought against the confines of the coffin. I kept crying out loudly, although I don’t remember what I was saying. It doesn’t really matter. The words weren’t important. They were just a byproduct of the terror I was experiencing alone in the dark and unable to move.
I think it was the hissing of escaping air that brought me back to my senses. My struggling had caused the plastic mask to slip off of my nose. A new fear began to creep in: if the mask came all of the way off, I would likely suffocate. Forcing myself to move slowly, I managed to slide my hand up my chest and to my chin to grip the plastic. It took a few minutes, but I was able to get it back into place.
The near disaster made me understand that I needed to keep a clear head if I had any chance of surviving. Continuing to panic would only make me go through my limited supply of oxygen faster. I didn’t know how long the tank would last, and I really didn’t want to test the limits. Allowing myself one deep breath, I exhaled slowly and waited for my heart rate to slow back to something resembling normal.
I laid silently in the dark for an indeterminable amount of time. It could have been minutes, or it could have been hours.
I had never been in total darkness before. Sure, I had been in rooms with the lights off or other places where it was hard to see, but this was the total absence of light. It felt like the darkness was physically crushing against me. It was thick and oppressive. It was alive.
The silence was another matter. In some ways it was worse than the dark. Instead of feeling like a living organism, it was a cold nothingness that swallowed everything. Any noise that I made was instantly cut off. There’s no way to put into words the sense of isolation I was experiencing.
For a long time the only things I could hear were the air being released into the mask and my own heartbeat in my ears. My limbs started to tingle, and because of the close quarters I wasn’t able to stretch them to relieve the uncomfortable sensation. I noticed that my body was itching in multiple places. I was able to scratch a few of them on my upper body, but the majority of them were out of reach. Worse, they became more and more irritating. The thought occurred to me that this must be how people went insane.
I was momentarily distracted from my discomfort when I heard a new noise. It was very faint, and it only lasted for a moment. Between the volume and the brevity I wasn’t completely sure that I had heard it at all.
IT’S BEEN SO LONG.
I instinctively tried to sit up at the sound of the voice. My forehead slammed painfully into the casket lid, and for a moment the darkness was filled with bright lights that flashed before my eyes. I blinked a few times to clear them.
It was a woman’s voice. It didn’t sound like the woman with the gun. The pitch was different, and it was dry and raspy. I couldn’t tell for sure. It was like it was coming from far away, like I was standing at one end of a tunnel and the speaker was at the other end. I smiled broadly and sighed in relief. There was someone near the gravesite. My father must have cut a deal and my kidnappers were back to dig me out.
I listened intently and waited.
There was nothing. I felt the hope start to slowly drain out of me.
That hope was quickly replaced by unease. I knew that I had definitely heard the woman speaking. There was no question in my mind about that. Had someone just passed near enough to the grave for their voice to penetrate down through six feet of dirt?
The itching returned as I contemplated the other possibility. Hearing voices that weren’t really there was a sign of going insane, wasn’t it? I clenched and unclenched my fingers. Would I even know if that was happening to me?
I suddenly felt absolutely certain that I was no longer alone. I tried to tell myself that was impossible. I was buried in a fucking casket, for God’s sake. Of course I was alone. I was being stupid, and that was all there was to it.
It was easy to prove, too. All that I had to do was reach up with one hand and touch the wooden lid. It would take less than a second.
Instead, I pressed myself as tightly as I could against the floor of the casket and put my hands at my sides. No matter how logical I tried to be about it, I couldn’t convince myself that there wasn’t something horrible directly above me in the infinite darkness.
I heard a scratching noise from below me. It was coming from outside of the casket, down deeper in the ground.
I’VE BEEN SO ALONE HERE. HERE BELOW THE WORLD.
The woman’s voice wasn’t coming from the outside world. It was in my head.
The blackness above me shifted. It wasn’t anything that I could see or hear. I can’t explain how I knew it had happened, but it did.
The scratching grew louder. It was still below me, but it was slowly getting closer.
I thought about what my kidnapper had said about where I was being buried. She had told me that the coffin was above a witch’s grave. I had dismissed that as a mere scare tactic, but I was starting to believe that there was something to what she had said. A chill ran down my spine and I shivered.
The scratching drew even closer.
LET ME SHOW YOU.
I felt tiny spots of cold against my forehead. It was like icy fingers being pressed against my head. The darkness erupted in red light, and my eyes opened wide as images flashed before them.
I saw a woman with long dark hair walking through the woods. She was wearing a gray dress with a matching bonnet. In her hands was a piece of rope that was tied to a dark sack that she dragged behind her. It looked heavy, but she didn’t seem to be bothered by the weight.
She came to a clearing in the trees. There were stone slabs and monuments that formed a ring, and in the center of the ring was a raised platform made of rock. She dropped the sack in the center of the platform before untying it. There was a moan from inside of the bag, and the small hand of a child reached out through the opening.
My vision blurred. When it cleared, I was looking at the same woman standing in front of a small house with wooden sides and a thatched roof. Just beyond the cottage was a wide river that raced off into the distance.
She was surrounded by dozens of people dressed in shabby clothes and holding large torches. They were pointing and yelling at her. They leveled accusations at her that she was a witch, and that she had defiled their town.
The woman tried to reason with them, but when it became clear that it wasn’t working, she shrugged and smiled wickedly. She raised her arms, and the river rose up into the air and diverted course towards the gathered mob. The water slammed into them and rushed over them as they tried to break free. When the river retreated back into its banks, most of the people were left dead or dying in the mud.
Everything went blurry again, and moments later I was looking into a deep pit. The woman was lying at the bottom of it, thick iron chains wrapped around her body. Men were using ladders to exit the hole, and after they were all out the ladders were pulled up after them. As a haggard-looking priest loudly recited prayers, the men began to shovel large mounds of dirt back into the hole. The woman screamed obscenities at them as they worked. Soon her shouting stopped as she became covered in soil. The men continued their task as the sun began to set over the horizon.
I was suddenly back in the darkness. I gasped as I released the breath that I didn’t know that I had been holding. Below me, the scratching was louder and closer.
I would have been questioning my sanity if the time for that hadn’t long passed. Sanity had gotten off the elevator at the ground floor. Down here in the basement there was only the void and the nightmares that dwelled inside.
Tabitha Alden was free of the heavy chains she had been wrapped in, and she was clawing her way up through the earth towards me. Maybe she was still alive somehow, or maybe death simply wasn’t enough to stop her. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that she was coming and there was nothing that I could do about it.
DON’T BE AFRAID. THERE’S PLENTY OF ROOM FOR TWO.
Manic laughter filled the void. My terror got the best of me, and I began to kick out my legs to strike the side of the casket as I screamed incoherently. In that moment my rational mind was gone, and in its place was only primal instinct.
I could hear the digging below me even over my screeching. The rhythm had gotten faster, as if it was more eager now that it was getting closer. It took a huge amount of effort, but I was able to take back control of myself and quieted down. The scratching sounded like it was only a few feet below me now.
I was hearing something else as well. At first I didn’t notice it over the echoes of the fading laughter, but eventually it was loud enough for me to detect it. It was a faint metallic jingling coming from up above. It sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.
The witch must have heard it as well, because the digging stopped and everything was silent except for that noise. I could feel that the presence inside the casket with me, which I was now convinced was the spirit of Tabitha Alden, had turned its attention upward. The temperature inside the coffin began to rise. She was angry, and her rage was radiating off of her spirit in waves of heat.
IT DOESN’T MATTER. THEY’RE TOO LATE.
The scratching began again, but this time it was more frantic than it had been before. It took me a moment to process what she had just said. Once I did, things clicked into place and I felt a small glimmer of hope. The metal jingling was the sound of a shovel striking dirt. My kidnappers had returned and were beginning to dig me out. The witch’s assault had turned into a macabre race, and I was the grand prize.
There was a small thump just below my head, and the scratching ceased for a brief moment. The witch’s body had reached the bottom of the casket. I could actually feel the fingers scraping against the wood as it started to crack and splinter. The boards were slowing her down, but they weren’t going to stop her for long.
The darkness above me didn’t seem quite as complete as it had been just minutes earlier. The shovels were close enough now for me to hear each scoop as they cleared away the soil.
The witch made a sound like a growl. It was filled with frustration and desperation.
The soft hiss of air in my mask stopped. The oxygen tank had run out of air. That probably should have concerned me, but I figured that my fate was going to be decided one way or another before I would have a chance to suffocate.
I had a new and more immediate problem to deal with anyway. The temperature in the casket had risen so much that it was starting to burn. I felt like I had a sunburn across my entire body, and the pain was slowly increasing as the shovels drew closer. Not having any other choice, I grit my teeth and tried to relax as much as possible.
My head moved down about half an inch as the first wooden board broke away. The witch’s spirit laughed in satisfaction. I quickly lifted my neck so that the back of my head was no longer touching the coffin floor. I was horrified by the prospect of her fingers coming into contact with me.
A shovel struck the top of the casket lid. There was a shout from above, and I could hear more of the dirt being quickly removed. At the same time, a second board snapped.
The third board shattered, and I felt fingers grab the back of my head. They were freezing cold against my burning skin. I felt them flex as they dug past the hair into my flesh. My mouth opened wider than I would have thought possible and I screamed wordlessly. The spirit’s laughing turned into an exalted cry.
I clamped my eyes shut as the casket lid was thrown open. The presence was gone, the fingers were no longer gripping me, and I was once again alone inside the wooden box. One of the large men that had initially taken me pulled me out of the grave and set me down on the cool grass. My eyes gradually adjusted to the light and I was able to open them again. I had never seen a sight as welcome as the faces of my kidnappers.
The exchange went off without a hitch. My father had promised to give up his territory in exchange for my safety, and he was a man of his word. After a brief handshake between him and his now former rival, I was handed over and that was that. My kidnappers’ employer was now significantly wealthier and, more importantly, had a stranglehold over the city’s organized crime.
I think my father was secretly happy about the overall outcome. He had been thinking about retiring for quite some time, and now he was able to do that while guaranteeing that his employees would be taken care of. Besides, he had his big stacks of money to cry into if he ever missed the life of a crime boss.
And me? Me, I got a parting gift.
I had come out of the casket physically okay. My skin had been red from the heat, but I hadn’t suffered any lasting burns. When a doctor had looked me over I hadn’t told him what had happened, and he said that he thought the odd redness was from hypoxia. Apparently a lack of oxygen can cause your skin to change color, anything from blue to red. Weird, huh?
Mentally okay? Not so much.
A few days after my ordeal, I started to hear it. It was that same scratching and clawing noise that I had heard coming up towards me as I laid inside that casket. Instead of coming from below, though, now it was in the back of my head. I could hear it scraping against the inside of my skull.
I tried to ignore it at first. I tried to convince myself that it was just some kind of PTSD, and that the sounds only existed in my imagination. That didn’t work, so I tried therapy. The shrink told me over and over again that what I was hearing was just a manifestation of the trauma that I had suffered, and that none of what I thought had happened inside the coffin actually had. His words rang pretty damn hollow.
At three in the morning on a cold November morning, I woke up standing in front of that gnarled dead tree marking the grave of Tabitha Alden. There was a shovel in my hand and a freshly dug pile of dirt next to me. At my feet was a hole leading down into the earth. It was still dark out, and the only illumination came from the headlights of my car. It had been driven far enough up the small hill for the lights to reach.
I had no idea how I had gotten there. I didn’t know the “how”, but I was pretty sure that I knew the “why”. The witch was in my head. She had waited until I fell asleep and marched me back to her grave like a puppet to dig up her body.
I got in my car and started driving back home. I passed by a bar on the way, and, deciding if there was ever any time that I had needed a drink it was now, pulled the car into the parking lot and went inside. I ordered the strongest drink the bartender had and downed it in one swallow.
That was when I figured out that drinking helps with my little problem. It stops the scratching noises, and I haven’t had another sleepwalking incident since I started getting plastered on a nightly basis. I guess my brain’s no use to anyone when it’s turned to mush, not even a witch.
There’s only so long that I can keep this up, though. The way I’m going now, if Tabitha Alden doesn’t get me, my liver will. I’m going to have to sober up soon, which means I’m on borrowed time.
There won’t be room for two in my head much longer, and I’m the one that won’t be staying.
Credit: Tim Sprague
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