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Going Down

Check out the exclusive audio narration on Septic Theory!

The elevator shuddered violently, and the soft white lights flickered out for a moment before being replaced by faint red ones.

I swore under my breath as I realized that the elevator had broken down.  I waited for a few minutes, but when nothing happened I began to become impatient.  Going over to the panel, I bent down to examine the buttons.  None of them were lit up, but I tried the Door Open button anyway.  The metal doors remained shut.

I repeated the colorful language I had spat out moments before.

Being stuck in the apartment building was the absolute last thing that I needed that day.  At the same time, it wasn’t much of a surprise.  Things had been going so badly since the moment that I had woken up that it was a bigger surprise that the elevator cable hadn’t snapped so that I had plunged to my death.

With a sigh, I set down the box that I was carrying onto the floor.  There was no point in just standing there holding it and letting my arms get tired.

I immediately went back over to the panel as a thought occurred to me.  I hadn’t even considered that there might be an emergency phone.  I had seen them in hotel and office building elevators.  Less than a second of searching confirmed that I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up.

I took out my cellphone and looked at the screen.  The words ‘No Signal’ were plastered in the center of the screen.  Of course there wasn’t any signal.  I was standing in the middle of a metal box inside of a metal shaft.  Just another indicator of how… wonderful my day was turning out.

There was a faint thud from outside the elevator doors.  It sounded like a door being closed somewhere in the distance.  It came from an oddly high angle, and it took me a second to work out that the elevator car must be stuck in between floors.  I listened for a bit, but when there wasn’t any followup noise I went back to my sulking.

I shouldn’t have even been in the apartment building in the first place.  It wasn’t like I lived there.  I had just been there to visit my wife…

Ex-wife, I mentally corrected myself.  Isabel had made that very clear when she had ambushed me with the divorce papers the moment of my arrival.  To say that I hadn’t been happy about that would be an understatement.

We had been married for over a decade, and together as a couple since junior high.  Sure, we had gone through our ups and downs, and our marriage hadn’t been where either one of us had wanted it to be, but we had agreed that we both wanted it to work.  Even when we decided on a trial separation it had come with the stipulation that we would get marriage counseling.

Trial separation.  What a fucking joke, right?  Hey, let’s find out if we like being apart since we clearly don’t like being together!  That’s not a trial.  It’s an admission.

I think I knew that, too.  That’s the part that was so damn frustrating.  I should have known better, but I got my hopes up anyway that Isabel was asking me to come over to, I don’t know, talk things through or something.  Maybe to say that we needed to try something else.  I’m not sure what I thought.  Anything but what actually happened.

I started to pace in the elevator, angrily wiping at the sudden moisture in my eyes with my shirt sleeve.  I refused to cry like a lovesick child.

I had showed up at the apartment expecting something good, but instead she had taken me into the kitchen and sat me down at the table before putting a stack of papers in front of me.  She had told me that she had spoken to a lawyer, and that because we didn’t have any kids the divorce could be quick and painless.  All that we had to do was agree on how to split our assets.

She had been so matter-of-fact about it.  It was like everything that we had been through together didn’t matter anymore.  She had just wanted to be done with the marriage, be done with me, and she had figured out the most direct way to get what she wanted.

In that moment, I think that I hated her.  It had been like I was seeing her with this… this clarity that I never had before.  Either she thought that I wanted the same thing that she did, in which case she had never really known me, or she was a spiteful person that didn’t care how her actions affected me.  It would have been one thing if she had discussed things with me before going to a lawyer.  At least then there would have been some kind of warning.  I would have known where her mind was at.  This was different.  This was cold and calculating and without remorse.  It was all about her.

I had started yelling.  I had told her exactly how she was making me feel.  I don’t think that I made a lot of sense.  Most of it was probably incoherent rambling.  I didn’t care, though.  If she was going to act like this towards me, she wasn’t going to get to do it with no consequences.

After I was done screaming, I grabbed my things that she had in her apartment.  She was yelling back at me at that point.  I had lost my shit, and now it was her turn to lose her head.  By the time I left the apartment my ears were ringing and she was no longer speaking to me.

I stopped pacing and leaned up against one of the elevator walls.  I closed my eyes.  There was obviously no point in going over things again and again in my head, but the wound was too fresh.

I’m not sure how long I stood there waiting for the elevator to decide it was time to start moving again.  The momentary flare of anger that I had experienced when thinking back on what had happened was gone.  The only thing left was exhaustion.  I wanted nothing more than to crawl back to my small one bedroom apartment in a bad part of town and go to sleep.

I briefly considered trying to get the elevator doors open, but I quickly dismissed the idea.  If the car really was trapped between floors, it would be dangerous to try to leave.  Even if there was room for me to crawl out through an opening, what if the car started moving again when I was halfway out?  That wasn’t something I wanted to think about.

I looked up as I heard a man’s voice outside of the elevator.  My first thought was that a maintenance worker had come to get me out.  That was proven to be incorrect when a second voice, a woman’s, became audible.  I opened my mouth to call out to them, but I closed it again when they began yelling at each other.  I wasn’t the only one having a bad day, it seemed.

A door slammed shut, and once again there was silence.

No, that wasn’t quite right.  There was a series of quiet noises that I could barely hear over the faint humming of the elevator emergency lights.  They were footsteps walking across the cheap carpet in the hallway.  They came closer before veering off to the left.  A loud metal clang echoed off of the walls, and it was soon followed by the sounds of someone walking down the stairwell that ran down the inside of the building to one side of the elevator shaft.

I tried calling out to get the person’s attention now that they were closer, but there was no answer.  The footsteps faded away as they descended further down the stairwell.  I sighed and sat down on the cold floor.  It had been worth a shot.  My hip bumped against the box as I settled in, so I slid it a bit further away from me.

It wasn’t long before I heard someone coming back up the stairs.  It was the woman that had been arguing in the hallway; I recognized her voice as she talked to herself as she climbed the steps.  I yelled again, and after a moment I followed it with a second yell.  There was still no answer.  Either she couldn’t hear me, which would be strange given how I had no problem hearing her, or she was so lost in her own thoughts that she didn’t realize someone was screaming.

The stairwell door opened and shut.  As her footsteps passed by the elevator I detected a new sound.  I wasn’t sure what was making it, but it sounded like liquid sloshing around inside of a container.  A water bottle, maybe, or fluid in a plastic container.

If enough sound was getting into the elevator for me to hear something like that, there was no way that the woman would hear me now.  I quickly stood up and moved close to the doors before calling out for help.  There was no answer once again, but this time I was determined to make my presence known.  I cleared my throat and shouted at the top of my lungs.  When I paused to listen, though, all that I heard was her muttering as she continued further down the hall.

I couldn’t believe it.  Either she was hard of hearing, or she was purposely ignoring me.  I turned away from the elevator doors with no clue of what to think of what had just transpired.

I spun back around when a shrill shriek pierced the elevator doors.  It was coming from some distance away, but there was no mistaking it as anything other than a cry of fear.  Not sure of what to do, or even if there was anything that I could, I placed my ear up against the crack between the elevator doors and listened intently.

Something was definitely happening down the hallway from the elevator.  The scream was followed by a series of others, both male and female.  I could just make out a series of rhythmic pounding noises that I couldn’t identify.

Over all of the clamor was a high-pitched laugh that made my blood run cold.  It was the woman.  She was taking joy in the suffering of the other people I was hearing.  The laugh momentarily turned into a cough before it returned.  It increased in volume as the woman drew closer to the elevator.

I backed away from the doors and up against the far wall.  Her tone was that of someone that had come completely unglued.  There was nothing resembling sanity in her laugh.  Something had caused her to snap.  I had never heard someone in that state before, and I fervently wished that she would just go away.

I felt like a frightened child, and I cowered against the metal wall.  I’m not sure how long I huddled in that state before I became aware of an odd smell.  Forcing myself to take control of my own body once again, I raised my head and sniffed the air.  The scent was acridic and heavy.

It smelled like smoke.

The laughing stopped when the woman was less than a dozen feet from me.  I expected to hear her use the door to the stairs again, but instead there was a thump followed by a sigh.  It was impossible to know for sure, but I thought that she was leaning up against the wall next to the elevator.

She coughed again as thin wisps of smoke began to drift into the car through the crack between the doors.  I covered my mouth and knelt down.  That was what we were always told as kids, right?  Smoke rises, so get down close to the floor.

I was starting to sweat.  The temperature inside of the elevator had risen noticeably, and the heat was reaching uncomfortable levels.  There was a new sound as well, one that I recognized as the same sound a burning bonfire makes as it pops and crackles.

The part of my mind that was still thinking rationally instead of simply panicking started to piece things together.  The woman had gotten into an argument with a man.  She had gone downstairs and had come back up a few minutes later, and that was when I had heard that odd liquidy sound.  I had thought it was water, but now I was pretty sure that it had been gasoline splashing around inside of a gas can.

The woman had used the fuel to start a fire.  From the sounds of the screams that were still reverberating off the walls, the blaze had trapped at least two people, and unless something changed they would burn to death.

I’m not necessarily proud of it, but I decided that I couldn’t worry about the people that were trapped.  There likely wasn’t anything that I could do for them, and I needed to look out for myself.  I looked around the elevator.  There wasn’t a hatch on the ceiling or floor, and if there was an emergency panel anywhere I couldn’t see it.

That just left the elevator doors.  I had dismissed the idea of forcing them open before, but I didn’t have any other choice.  I would have to do whatever I could to open them, and once that was done I had to hope that the car was far enough between floors that I could escape onto the lower one.

The downside to this plan, of course, was that by opening the doors I would be exposing myself to both the fire and the insane woman that had started it.  I might be trading a slow death for a quick one.

I had to take the risk, though.  Taking a deep breath, I went over to the doors and put my fingers into the small gap between them to try to pry them apart.

I gasped in pain and quickly yanked my hands away.  The metal was extremely hot, and it had burned my fingertips.  Thinking quickly, I put my hands into the arms of my shirt and used the material to protect them from the heat.  While I was now able to get a better grip on the doors without scorching my skin, it ended up not mattering.  No matter how hard I pulled on the doors, I couldn’t make them budge.

I tried to come up with another plan as the elevator grew hotter.  The air world around me started to move and swirl in front of my eyes.  At first I thought that I was becoming delirious from either the heat or fear, or more likely a combination of both.  It wasn’t until I felt sweat dripping off the end of my nose that I grasped that I was seeing the same effect that happened when intense heat radiated off of a sidewalk.

The woman in the hallway started coughing loudly.  Within moments she was making choking noises.  More smoke was filling the elevator.  It rose up to the ceiling and built up like a dark storm cloud as it slowly pressed down towards me.

The blaze had reached the outside of the elevator.  I had never heard a large fire up close before, and as I pressed myself against the floor I couldn’t help but compare the sound to water rushing up against rocks.

The pain of the hot metal against my skin was almost unbearable, but I couldn’t stand back up.  If I did, smoke inhalation would kill me before the fire could.  I ground my teeth together and shook violently in agony as a moan escaped my throat.

The woman only screamed once.  Somehow that made it worse.  The scream was thick and barely human.  It ended with a repulsive gurgle.

The metal on the elevator doors started to glow crimson.  I tried to lie to myself and say that it was just from the emergency lights.  It wasn’t, though, and it was no use telling myself otherwise.  The flames were heating the doors.  I could actually see them flexing ever so slightly.  Thermal expansion, it was called.

I barked out an involuntary laugh.  With everything that was happening, how in the fuck had I remembered thermal fucking expansion?

The laugh became a cough.  There wasn’t much time left.  I idly wondered what was going to get me first, the constantly lowering ceiling of smoke, the burning metal, or the flames outside the doors.  I hoped it would be the smoke.  It would make me pass out quickly, maybe within a minute or two, and from there I simply wouldn’t wake up.  There were worse ways to go, right?

The burning metal floor had become too much for me to continue to bear.  Coming to a decision, one that I was sure would be my last, I pushed myself up off the floor and into the cloud of smoke.

I was nearly thrown from my feet as the elevator lurched.  The red lights turned off, and the soft white overhead lights replaced them.  There was a loud hum as the car began to descend down the shaft.

The smoke was gone.  The temperature inside the car was the same as it had been when I had first gotten in.  There were no signs of anything that had happened.

The car reached the ground floor and the doors slid open.  It was a surreal moment; it didn’t feel real, and I was convinced that it couldn’t possibly be happening.  Not sure what else to do, I picked up my box and stepped out into the lobby in a stunned daze.

A voice from my left asked if I was all right.  I turned towards it and found myself looking at a short older man in a security guard uniform.  He was staring at me with an expression that was a mixture of both concern and suspicion.  For some reason that I still don’t understand, his gaze shook me out of my stupor.

I hurriedly told him that there was a fire up on one of the higher floors.  I wasn’t a hundred percent sure where the elevator had stopped, but I thought that it was between the fourth and third floors.  When I had finished, he frowned at me for a moment before telling me to follow him over to a small desk in the corner of the lobby.

Above the desk was a bank of monitors attached to the wall.  He carefully examined them all before shaking his head and waving a hand towards them.  I gaped at them stupidly.  They were showing live feeds of all the hallways in the apartment complex, and there was no fire on any of them.

That couldn’t be right.  I looked over each of them again and again.  No matter how hard I tried, though, I couldn’t find a single piece of evidence of the fire that I knew was raging upstairs.

The guard seemed to take sympathy on me, and when he spoke it was in a sympathetic voice.  He said that he was going to tell me something that he shouldn’t, and that I probably wouldn’t believe it.

Six years earlier, there had been a fire on the fourth floor.  A woman named Bethany Taylor had come home from work to find her boyfriend cheating on her with another woman.  She had broken her key off in the lock of the apartment’s front door to jam it closed, gone down to her car, and retrieved a half full gas can from the trunk.  Returning to the apartment door, she had poured gasoline all around the area and set fire to it.  It had quickly gotten completely out of control, and the entire floor was devastated by the flames before the fire department had arrived and managed to get the blaze under control.

Eight people had died as a result of her actions, including herself.  Her body had been found sitting up against the wall next to the elevator, burned beyond all recognition.  It had only been able to be identified through dental records.

The guard lowered his voice further before continuing.  He told me that ever since the fire, weird things had happened on the fourth floor.  Residents had reported hearing strange noises or seen glowing lights.  He himself had been helping an elderly resident to her apartment when he had smelled smoke coming from the hallway.  When he had investigated, he had seen a figure sitting by the elevator.  It had disappeared when he tried to approach it.

He silently pulled up video footage on the monitors.  I watched myself step into the elevator on the sixth floor, the doors closing behind me.  They opened again in the lobby shortly after, and I exited the elevator.  I looked at the time stamps.  Less than a minute had passed between the two videos.

I thought about what the guard had told me as I left the building and walked to my car.  I had no explanation for what I had experienced.  Taking one last look at the building, I raised my head and stared up at the fourth floor.  The windows were dark, and there was no indication of anything strange going on.

A part of me wanted to go back inside.  I felt a need to verify that I had really gone through what I thought that I had.  Another part of me wanted to put as much distance as possible between me and there.

I opened the passenger door and slid the box inside.  I winced as I felt a stab of pain.  Examining my hands, I found that the tips of my fingers were red, like they had been recently burned.  I didn’t have to go up to the fourth floor to know that it had all been real.  The proof was right there in front of me.

There was something wet on my fingers as well.  I rubbed them together curiously.  The substance was warm and sticky.  I retrieved the box and held it up so that I could see the bottom of it.  The cardboard was dark and soaked with liquid.

If I had known that Isabel’s head was going to leak so much, I would have left it up in her apartment.  I smiled crookedly as I closed the trunk.  Who would have thought that dismembering my ex-wife would have been the second strangest event of the day?

Room for Two

NOTE: Room for Two will be narrated EXCLUSIVELY on the YouTube channel Septic Theory. It’s a new but incredible channel for horror narrations and stories, so be sure to check it out at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCbk8RkvntXridf4he37-6YA

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.  Not the woman with the gun.  The pitch was different, and it was dry and raspy.  It sounded 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?  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.