Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.
A soft scraping sound came from above and woke me from a deep, dreamless slumber. Despite my eyes being open, I saw only darkness. The sensation was strange, like when you fall asleep too early in the day and wake up in the middle of the night, feeling as if it should be morning.
I blinked my eyes again and tried to rub them with my palms. My heart began to pound quicker as I brought my hands up to my face only to find that I could barely move. Rigid walls were firmly fixed on all sides of me, tight and unyielding, boxing me in on the left and the right and from above as well. My nose was just a few inches from the ceiling, nearly brushing against it from where I lay on my back.
Terrified, I tried desperately to break out of this confining, pitch-black prison. Pushing upwards with all of my strength, I attempted to lift the cover to whatever was holding me, but it held fast. I began to bang my fists against this barrier but all I managed to do was hurt my knuckles on the solid wood. They were soon aching and I felt blood trickling from them down my forearms.
Coughing, I realized that my movements were kicking up dust and dirt, and a cloud of it was now hanging around my head in this…
The word came to me suddenly and irrevocably. I knew that it was true and there was no taking it back. And then another word came to me just as suddenly. This time, a name: Vladimir.
Greasy hair, gangster fashion, cheap sunglasses and too many bulky rings – Vladimir. He was responsible for this, I knew somehow. He’d threatened me recently over a two hundred dollar gambling debt. A debt I explained I only needed one more week to pay. He was new at the bookie business but his position as a bet-taker for the mob was a symbol of his rise in the hierarchy of organized crime. I’d heard that he wanted to assert himself quickly. And that meant making an example of someone.
Realizing I was hyperventilating, I desperately tried to calm myself down, repeating over and over again that everything was going to be okay, like a mantra. But already I knew that it was not going to be okay. I was having trouble breathing and there was only so much air left. Whatever I was going to do, I had to do it fast.
Remembering to check for my belongings helped provide a new focus.
Digging through my pants, I managed to grab hold of my pocket knife. Good. Vladimir hadn’t taken it. He’d been too quick and too sloppy to check.
I managed to pull it out and flicked open the blade. Wasting no time, I gripped the knife as tightly as I could and thrust it upwards into the very center of the wooden coffin lid again and again. Swinging my arm with the mere inches of space available was difficult and exhausting. It was hard to get any leverage and my attacks felt meagre and weak against the sturdy wood.
At one point my sweating hand slipped and I grasped the knife blade tightly in my hand, cutting a gash into my palm. I howled in pain and considered giving up at that moment, weeping as I struggled for air.
No. I’m not going to give up. If I die, it won’t be in submission.
I picked up the knife again in my unbloodied left hand and used it to tear a strip from my shirt. Wrapping my bleeding right palm in the makeshift bandage, I gripped the knife again in my dominant hand and started driving it up into the wooden ceiling once again. Each time the blade reverberated, causing the horrible pain to flare up, worse and worse.
Eventually I heard the wood begin to split. Pieces broke off and splinters fell onto my hands and soon there was soil spilling through as well – a steady stream of it like grains of sand tumbling through an hourglass. The wood cracked under the weight of six feet of soil and cool dirt began to cascade in a steady stream onto my midsection from above, threatening to bury me anew. It was flowing in rapidly through the hole I’d made in the coffin lid. My heart rate had slowed briefly from its staccato pace with my focus on the work at hand, but this put me back into full-blown panic again.
I’d managed to break through the coffin lid, but now I had a new problem – dirt continued pouring in and I started coughing and sneezing uncontrollably. I breathed in the cloud of dirt and felt it coating my lungs with dust, agitating my throat and sinuses.
Remembering a survival tip I’d heard once before but never thought I’d have to use, I pulled my shirt up over my head and tied it shut at the top and bottom, making a fabric helmet of sorts. Then I started kicking the dirt towards the foot of the coffin. Wriggling myself towards the hole at the center, I tore at the splintered wood with my bleeding hands, pulling the boards apart piece by piece until the space was wide enough for my shoulders and waist to fit through.
The dirt was now threatening to overtake me and I kept shoving it down towards the foot of the coffin, packing it as tightly as I possibly could with my heels, knowing every inch of space could be my life or death. Pretty soon the soil was invading the space beneath me as well, causing my body to rise like a buoy on the high tide, lifting my face up closer towards the lid of the coffin until I was almost pressing up against it.
Gasping for air, with the shirt over my head like a funeral shroud, I tried to spin and then sit up in the tight space to push my head up through the hole I’d made. For several panicky moments I thought I’d made a fatal mistake, not performing this maneuver earlier when I had more room. I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to do it, as my muscles were pulled and twisted and pains sprung up like fire in my shoulders. All I thought about was continuing to breathe as I meditated and tried to focus on contorting my body.
Finally I wedged myself into the hole in the ceiling, forcing my head and torso up into the dirt-filled gap. I began to dig around my head desperately to create a pocket of air, pushing the soil down towards my feet as it tumbled more and more from above.
I began to dig with my hands and kicked the dirt towards the head of the coffin to get it out of the way. My fingers scraping rocks and pebbles, I began to elbow and climb my way upwards until I was sitting on top of the coffin lid.
The air was so thin and the oxygen so sparse in my T-shirt hood that I was dizzy and starting to feel unfocused. Every so often I would find I had stopped what I was doing and I would remind myself to keep going, that what was at stake was too important.
I kept clawing at the grave soil, using the unturned earth bordering my tomb, creating handholds in the clay to climb upwards. The action of digging became a mindless motion as I heaved endless piles of dirt aside and shoved the earthworms, soil, and bugs downwards, kicking the loose soil into the broken coffin lid beneath me.
Despite the shirt over my head I could taste the sand and grit as it crunched between my teeth. Millipedes and spiders crawled down my pants and bit my legs in the darkness, scurrying and getting stuck in the folds of clothing. If I’d had the air in my lungs to scream I would have done so, but my breaths were coming in weak, raspy gasps now. I could hear my dust-coated airways rattling and could feel my heart’s beat – bounding faster and harder than I’d ever thought possible.
And then suddenly my hand reached up and I felt it gain purchase on something above. Something which was flat, sturdy, and strong. I realized after a moment that it was wet grass which I had clutched in my fist. Fat, refreshing droplets of rain plopped down onto my hand, giving me a moment of hope and triumphant gratification.
But then a second later it was all gone. My bodyweight was causing me to sink back down, deeper into the dirt. Desperately kicking my legs at the sides of the grave, I tried to slow my descent, but still I could feel myself going deeper. Until eventually my feet rested on top of the coffin lid once again, stopping me from descending further down into the mud.
That’s when I realized what the problem was. It was raining up above. The water was making it even more difficult to dig my way out – turning the grave soil into quicksand. I tried desperately to think of a solution using what little supplies I had – only my knife and the clothes on my back. And my boots.
The boots were sturdy and had a steel toe. I pulled the right one off and wedged it into the harder soil ahead of me, around waist level, facing the bottom upwards so that I could use it as a stepping stone. With the other boot in my hand, I put my foot on top of the impromptu foothold and held my breath, hoping it would hold. If it didn’t, I was going to die. I was sure of that. What little air I had left would be almost gone by now.
The boot held fast, the boomerang shape of it serving as a wedge which gave leverage and support. I did the same thing with the other boot next, driving the toe of it into the hard clay and then pulling myself up onto it.
After several long minutes, I found my hand free once again, touching grass up above and feeling the cleansing patter of rain pouring from the sky and washing away the mud. With the boot now serving as a foothold beneath me, I pulled my head up out of the hole, balancing on it precariously, terrified of falling back into the loose earth.
I imagined what it would look like to a passerby, seeing my gasping visage sticking up out of the ground in the rain-slick soil – a dead body born anew, bulging upwards like a mushroom growing in a graveyard. In the rainy night air for several long moments, I began to work at freeing my shoulders one by one. Then, after a few more minutes of struggling, clawing, scraping and pulling, I wound up on the cold, dew-slick grass above. Pulling the shirt from my head, I looked around to see I was in an old rural cemetery. There were rows of tombstones stretching off into the distance, farmhouses and fields beyond that. The sounds of pouring rain and a cold, gusting wind were loud in my ears.
And there was the sound of something else, as well.
The soft sound of one man clapping came from nearby, beneath a tree.
In the shadows under a weeping willow, sat Vladimir, his back resting up against its wide trunk. He was smoking a cigarette, shielding it from the rain with his hand like an umbrella, watching me. The tip blazed orange as he inhaled and puffed out a cloud of smoke. I saw his bemused smile briefly in that flickering orange glow and he nodded, as if impressed.
“Good work,” he said in his thick, broken Russian accent. “You are the first one who do that. I like to hear the sounds they make when they wake up and try to escape. But you are first one to really do it. Congratulations. I will have to dig hole deeper next time.”
There was the sound of rustling clothing and then a distinctive click as he cocked his .45 Magnum.
“On second thought, I am tired of digging. You make hole this time.”