I think every horror writer has written a buried alive story. This is mine, originally published in the anthology, 90 Minutes To Live.
An Eye for an Eye
When Lewis awoke, the darkness was so thick that he thought it might be a real thing, and his first inclination was to scream. When the truth became apparent, when he realized why not even a single shard of light lifted the gloom, then he did scream. And he didn’t stop screaming for a very long time.
Lewis had been dreaming, right before his flickering eyes opened to that darkness. A simple dream, but not one he would have left willingly. He was in a park, with his daughter. With his Julia. It was a kite that had brought them there. I great, big, butterfly kite that Julia had seen and fallen in love with immediately. She hadn’t begged him for it. She hadn’t needed to. She looked up at him with those sparkling blue eyes and he saw it in her face. He’d never been able to resist that look, the one of pure joy and pure hope and pure, unending innocence. He rubbed his hand through her strawberry blond hair that smelled of peppermint and vanilla. Then he opened his wallet and bought the flimsy piece of plastic without a second thought. Then they had driven out to this park in the middle of a little, nondescript town they had never been to and didn’t really know just to see how it flew.
The park was little more than an empty field and a few rusty, metal benches. A lifeless and desolate one at that, as too much summer heat and too little rain had turned the blades of grass a dirty dead brown that crackled and then collapsed beneath their footsteps. The constant breeze kicked up the dust that was left behind, stinging Lewis’s eyes and leaving grit in his teeth. But the kite flew high, and Julia didn’t seem to mind. So Lewis didn’t either.
How long did they stay there? Hours it seemed, until the sun began to set in the western sky and Lewis started worrying that they wouldn’t make it back to Denver until late in the evening. He didn’t remember leaving though. In his dream, it was as if they would linger in that place forever. He thought that was not an altogether unpleasant fate.
It was strange. He was dreaming, he knew that. Or thought he knew it, at least. It had that unreal feeling, that floating outside of yourself sensation that he had come to expect from the sleeping world. But in other ways it seemed less like a dream. Too real. Too solid. More like a memory. But one that was hazy and heavy. Shadowed and shrouded, like he couldn’t quite see through the gloom that weighed on his brain and his vision. But yes, much more like a memory than a dream.
He even remembered how they had come to that place. They had been driving back to Denver, back from a trip to some place he couldn’t recall. And they had stopped for lunch when they saw the little toy store with the butterfly kite that she wanted and he couldn’t refuse her even before she could ask. He remembered all of that. And he remembered the man. The older one in the brown duster and hat, the man that looked familiar to him. The one he had seen in other places, too.
It had not been an easy passage from the dream world to the one of reality. Sleep had been thick and unrelenting, and he had to fight through it. It reminded him of a time from his childhood. He had almost drowned back then on a camping trip with his Boy Scout troop. His canoe had flipped in rough water, and when he sought the surface, he found himself trapped underneath the boat. He had seen the end then, in the midst of that struggle. Seen his life spread out before him. Not only where he had been but were he might have gone. And that vision had inspired him to fight. Now the waking sensation was not unlike the struggle against the surface of the water that he had nearly lost all those years ago. But just as he had eventually broken through to fresh air, so too did he wake from his stupor. But he knew immediately that he was somewhere he shouldn’t be. Not yet at least.
It wasn’t just the darkness; it was the cold silence that hung over him. He had never heard absence of sound like that, the complete and utter stillness, but what scared him the most is that in his heart he knew that no one ever really had. Had he been anywhere else, he would have sat up in shock and in fear. Instinctively he was aware that such a reaction would be a mistake, and through some preternatural sense he felt that the thick darkness above him hid something very solid only a few inches from his face. When he reached up and touched it, when he felt the coarse bite of unplanned wood, that’s when he screamed.
He might never have stopped. Till the air was gone and screaming he passed into oblivion. But as he cried out and beat upon the cold, pine roof above him, dirt and dust covered his face and mouth. Something about the acrid taste of the soil brought him back, made him stop and think. “Get a hold of yourself,” he said. “Think this through.”
Had you asked him before, in the calm light of day where such a hypothetical was an intellectual exercise only, he would have thought it impossible to think clearly at such a moment, that the sheer magnitude of the situation would overwhelm him. That he would never be able to accept where he was, and that without acceptance, there could be no solution and no escape. But now, here, in that wooden tomb, some unknown distance beneath the surface of the earth, acceptance came easily. He was sure that if he could not figure this out, if he could not reason it through, he would die there.
A thought came to him, a half-remembered bit of trivia he recalled from something he had seen on television once, one of those survivor shows that had tackled the very unlikely—oh the irony of that now—scenario of being buried alive. It wasn’t much, but it was all he had. So he told himself he knew a few things. He probably had sixty minutes, maybe an hour and a half worth of oxygen, less if he struggled or panicked. That was ninety minutes, tops, that he had left to live. The standard grave is eight feet deep, eight feet so that the coffin can rest comfortably with six feet of dirt on top of it. Most people don’t know that. Most people think graves are six feet deep, which meant that whoever dug this one probably would have left at the most four feet of dirt above him. And if they were lazy or incompetent, maybe even less. Likely even less, especially if they didn’t have the right equipment, and something told him he wasn’t dealing with professionals. He rubbed his hands along the pine roof and pushed it gently. It gave a little, and more dirt rained down on his face.
“Can’t be four feet,” he said to himself. He didn’t know much about the subject, but he knew four feet of dirt probably weighted a lot, enough to crush the flimsy box in which he lay. He had a feeling that if there were four feet of dirt above him, he’d be dead already. So that was a start.
Lewis was pretty certain he had little space to move. He didn’t think he could turn over even if he wanted to. The cold grip of claustrophobia fell over him, and he was paralyzed by it as much as if the wooden planks had held him fast on all sides. When he was ten years old, his cousin had locked him in a storage space underneath the stairs in his parents’ home. It had been all in fun, a game that his cousin had meant to last only a few minutes. But when he tried to open the closet, the door would not budge; it had jammed. Lewis spent an hour in there, in the darkness. With the rats and the bugs and the shadows. Screaming and beating against the door as they tried to free him. He heard things that day in the little space beneath the stairs, saw things in the darkness that he couldn’t explain. He had been afraid of tight spaces ever since. It was not for his health that he had always chosen to take the stairs.
But the fear of death was greater. To lose control now was to surrender to that fate. So he lay there, fumbling over in his mind how this had happened, hoping that finding the truth in that explanation would also present an escape. He thought back to the dream, the fantasy world that had seemed so real. That vision would not be silenced, as inconsequential as he told himself it must be. But then the memories came flooding back, and in the deluge he remembered the truth; it had been no dream. It was Sunday. They had spent the weekend at the Hoover Dam, just him and Julia. They were supposed to have been home Sunday night, but they never made it. There had been a detour. They had been in that park, he and Julia, somewhere in southern Utah. The elderly man had been there, too. The old man in the hat and the duster. But it wasn’t the first time he had seen him. No, there had been other instances along that journey. He had been at the diner where they stopped for breakfast. He had been in the mall where they bought the kite. Never too close, always at a distance. If Lewis had thought on it at the time, he probably would have found the man’s presence strange. But back then, before he came to be buried in what he hoped was a shallow grave, Lewis had only considered it in the back of his mind, in that reptilian part of the brain left over from an age when such observations were the difference between life and death.
But what role had the man played, if any? His presence could not be a coincidence. He had been following them. He was Lewis’s last, true memory. In between then and now, somehow he had come to this, left to die, entombed within the earth.
Suddenly he noticed a tingling on his lips, an unusual taste that he couldn’t quite place. But it wasn’t the soil. No, it was too acidic, too metallic, too chemical. He had never experienced ether or chloroform before, but it was no matter. Lewis was sure he had been drugged. It was a conclusion drawn from many a bad movie and Saturday morning television show, but he knew it was right either way. It was then he felt the presence, and he was suddenly aware that there was something in the coffin with him. The electromagnetic hum tripped some sixth sense and caused him to rub his hands down the wooden sides as far as he could, until he felt the sterile, artificial touch of plastic. He grabbed the walkie talkie and pulled it towards him just as the man began to speak.
“You awake yet boy?”
The man spoke almost in a whisper, but the sudden sound split the silence like booming thunder.
Lewis fumbled with the machine in the darkness, dropping it once. He found his bearings and clicked the button on the side.
“Who the hell is this?” he shrieked. “What the hell is going on?”
The man laughed, chuckled really. “Now, now there son. I’ve got no use for such language. If you’re gonna talk like that I might just have to leave you alone to your own devices. We’ll see how things work out for you then.”
“No, no, no,” Lewis begged as he felt the panic and fear overcome his anger. “No, no, no, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” And as he said it he felt stupid and small. Stupid and scared. “Look, look you gotta help me.”
“Me? Help you? How do you think you got where you are? Who do you think put you there?”
“It doesn’t matter. Nobody’s ever gotta know about that. Nobody’s ever gotta know. You just get me out of here and I’ll pay you whatever you want. I’ll do whatever you want. Just don’t leave me here.”
“Oh, you’ll pay me, will you? You’ll pay me? Pay me for my labor of digging you up. Is that right?”
“Yes,” Lewis said, “yes. Whatever you ask. Whatever you want.”
The man laughed again. But there was no joy there, no humor. The laugh scared Lewis. It was one he had never heard before. It was a laugh of hatred, and it was a laugh of pain, and it was a laugh of anger. There was no soul in that laugh. There was only death.
“Ohhhh my boy. If only you knew. That’s the thing about money, isn’t it? It’s only worth what you can buy with it. Got no value of its own. Only what you can purchase. Fact is, I got a house, and I got food, and I got a car. Which means, the only thing I need to spend money on is entertainment. And let me tell you, Lewis, right now, I am entertained.”
Lewis pounded his fist against the coffin lid. It cracked slightly and another rain of dirt fell on him. His anger masked the pain in his hand. “What the hell is this you sick son of a bitch! What the hell is this!”
“Is entertainment not enough? Do I need another reason? Maybe I just enjoy listening to you squirm.”
Lewis flew from one emotion to another, from fear to anger to desperation and back to fear. “I’ve got a family,” he cried. “I got people who are waiting on me! They’ll know I’m missing. They’ll know I’m missing and they’ll find you!”
“You think so? Here, a hundred miles from where you are supposed to be? I don’t think so Lewis. But, just for the sake of argument, let’s say you’re right. So what if they do? You’ll be long dead by then. Long dead. And do you think that anything they do to me will be as bad as what you’ll suffer? As the air grows thin and you breathe in your own waste. As your throat and your lungs burn from lack of oxygen. As your brain cells die, one by one. As you slowly, painfully, slip away? Do you think anything they do to me will be worse than that? Hell, it’ll take them fifteen years to kill me. Even if they do find me, even if they do prove that I did this to you. And even if they do, they’ll send me off on a nice, white cloud. I’ll go to sleep and never wake up. You know, I always said I wanted to die in my sleep. Seems to me, I get the better end of this bargain. You’ll die in pain, Lewis. I’ll just be taking a nap.”
Lewis had always believed that you could reason with anyone. He was a business man. It was his job to negotiate. People always want something. If you have it and are willing to give it away, two people could always reach an agreement. But as he listened to the man cackle on the other end of the line, somewhere above him, somewhere beyond him, he began to realize that maybe, maybe that wasn’t always true.
“There must be something you want,” he whimpered. The man laughed.
“This is what I want. This is what I want. And you are giving it to me Lewis. Oh yes…you are doing a fine job.”
“You’ll burn in Hell for this,” Lewis spat. “God will judge you for this.”
“Ahhh, now you want to bring God into it. Is that it Lewis? Is that it? God. Yes, I do believe God will judge me. But God judges us for the things we do that are wrong, Lewis. And God condemns us when we do evil, Lewis. God gives justice when injustice is done. But he rewards the righteous. He honors those who punish evil. And I tell you this, there is no greater good than a man who rights a wrong. Did you know that Lewis? Or maybe I should call you Adam.”
Lewis felt a shiver run from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet as his blood ran cold at the sound of that name. The name he had not uttered for some time, the name he hoped he would never hear again.
“Oh, are you surprised?” the man asked, reading Lewis’s thoughts. “Did you think no one remembered? I remembered. I never forgot. You could run, Adam, you could run for the rest of your life. But I would have found you eventually. I would have found you one day.”
Lewis knew now why the man was familiar. He could admit it now. He had lied to himself, almost convinced himself that it was all because he had seen him in other places those past few days, because the man had been following him. That was the story he had told himself, but now he was painfully aware that no, Lewis had known him much longer than that.
* * *
Malinda Jackson called herself Lindy, and that’s how her friends had always known her. She was a cute girl, not beautiful, but pretty enough that the boys always noticed. Her teachers in high school commented amongst themselves that she was a particularly clever young lady, and that with time she would find a nice man to marry, one that would take care of her and build a world for her in which to raise her children. And that, in the little town she called home, was the highest aspiration for a middle class girl such as herself.
But college came, and it came fast. In it, far from the little town where her daddy was the pastor at the local Church of God, she found herself in a world she did not understand, and it scared her. She made friends slowly, and at times she was desperate in her loneliness. So when an older boy she had met in her Calculus class asked her to a party at his fraternity, she accepted without question or qualification.
He was to pick her up at 7:00 sharp, though he was early. He waited in the lobby of the all-girls dorm, the severe-faced matriarch of the place never ceasing to scowl at him over her librarian glasses. He smiled when he saw Lindy, told her she was lovely in her light pink dress with a matching bow in her hair. He even held the door open for her, like a gentleman should.
He had picked a place on the river for dinner. But it was crowded and he was foolish and the waiting list was long for a couple who did not have reservations. His fears evaporated as she just smiled when he told her about the wait, and for the next hour they fed the ducks bread and watched the barges of coal float down the sluggish brown water of the Choctawhatchee River and laughed at each other’s awkwardness. When dinner finally did come, the two of them sat outside and watched the sun dip down into the water as it set. They were both too young to drink, but he knew the waiter and for a cool twenty he brought them a bottle of gently sweet, bubbling Prosecco. She had only had alcohol once before—at her cousin’s wedding when she was twelve—and then only for a singular toast that she was permitted to give. Lindy didn’t tell him that now. It was funny, she had known him only for a few hours, but she was terrified that this new boy would find her boring or naïve. To prevent that, she would do anything.
So she smiled and sipped her wine, though she was surprised by what she found. It was not as harsh and bitter as she remembered. It did not burn her tongue or make her scrunch up her nose in disgust. Instead it simply tickled a little, while different flavors seemed to dance like fire on her tongue. As it sat in her stomach, warming her from the inside, the sensation of flame was complete. Everything was going so well.
The party was different. The fraternity house sat on a hill overlooking the main boulevard. The pure white columns and ornate brick façade conveyed a message of wealth and power, of future influence and past glory. But not that night. That night the very structure seemed to be alive, and it pulsated with energy and sound. The house breathed in the young and stole their youth. And when Lindy left the porch and stepped through the front door, she felt an overwhelming sense that she should flee, that turning and running was the best thing, perhaps the only thing to do. Back to the romance of the night’s beginning, away from the debauchery of its end.
But she told herself that was foolish, and when Lewis offered her a beer she took it. It was the first of several, though she promised herself that she would stay in control, that she wouldn’t let the drug take her. She probably would have succeeded, but in the end, it wasn’t the alcohol that she had to fear.
Lewis would later swear that he wasn’t the one that slipped the pill into Lindy’s drink. Lindy didn’t notice, not really. She simply felt herself float away, but not like she was falling asleep, not that peaceful. It was a total collapse of her mind and her will. She fought against it, but her struggle was futile. She disappeared, and whoever replaced her, whoever looked out her eyes and took control of her body, it was not Lindy.
But Lewis really didn’t care who she was or who was responsible when Lindy fell into his arms and looked up dreamily at him before pulling his head down into an open mouth kiss. He just accepted it and counted his good fortune. When he looked in her eyes, he saw only desire. And if that desire was masked by the chemical haze of drugs and alcohol, he either didn’t know or didn’t care.
What happened next was a frenzy of activity and energy, all directed at one goal. They stumbled up the winding steps of the house, past amused coeds and their dates, up to a place where they would not be bothered. A semblance of privacy. By the time they fell into one of the senior’s rooms and collapsed into the bed, her shirt was on the floor and her bra unclasped.
But something happened then, something that changed what should have been merely one of many drunken mistakes made that night into a far more terrible thing. In the back of Lindy’s mind, something snapped. A voice emerged from under the drug induced shroud and it said one word, “No.” And then Lindy said it, too. Mumbled at first, and then louder and more clear. Then it grew to a word and finally a scream.
But Lewis didn’t hear it. He was too drunk and too high to notice. That’s what he told himself in the weeks and years that followed. The thing he would repeat in his mind on most days. But in the darker moments of the many nights to come, he would know differently. When it was over, he sat on the side of the bed and she cried.
Lewis had just pulled on his jeans when there was a knock on the door. It was a senior, one he recognized only from the tortures of Hell week. The boy looked over his shoulder and smiled.
The combination of the alcohol and the adrenaline and the look in the other boy’s eyes made Lewis sick.
“No, man. She’s my date.”
The boy cursed and pushed Lewis out of the way. He would have fought him; Lewis had made the decision. He wouldn’t have let it happen, as much for his own sake as for hers. But when he turned around the other boy was just standing there, staring out towards the small balcony that jutted off from the side of the house. Lindy was crouched on the railing, most of her body over it, but with her face turned back towards the boys inside. The cat calls of the people below, who saw nothing more than a naked girl, trickled in on the breeze as it whipped the curtain up in the air, alternately obscuring and revealing the terrified child beyond.
“Lindy!” Lewis cried. “Lindy, come back baby.” He held out his hand to her and crept forward, though she seemed to inch closer to the edge with every step he took. Lewis was afraid, for in her eyes he saw a wildness, a lack of reason or rationality, brought on by alcohol and drugs and fear and pain. He started talking to her, but even at the time he wasn’t entirely sure what he was saying. Perhaps he was merely telling her that it would be OK, that he was sorry. He had crept to only ten feet away from her, but every step seemed like a mile as she leaned farther and farther—impossibly far—out over the ground below.
He was almost to her when his world ended in a crescendo of tragedy. Another second and he would have been there. All it would have taken was a few more steps. But it was a few steps too far. The police investigators could never be sure exactly what had happened. Whether she slipped. Or whether she jumped. In that last moment Lewis lunged forward and grabbed. For one singular instant he held something, and in that one instant Lindy’s fall was halted. But it was only for an instant. Then she gave way, and Lewis was left with only a clump of her brown hair and a bloody bit of scalp in his hands.
The trial was a sensational affair. The district attorney wanted blood while the judge smelled fame, and Lewis faced a life sentence for second degree murder and rape. Truth was, the actual evidence against Lewis was thin at best. Nobody could prove he drugged Lindy’s drink, and a dozen different witnesses testified she was throwing herself at him during the party. And there was no one to testify about the rape, no one alive at least. The path to his freedom was clear, and Lewis took it. He watched as his attorney painted a picture for the seven women and five men who sat in judgment of him, a picture of a lost girl. He listened as Lindy was described as little more than a sorority harlot, an immoral seductress who dressed provocatively and got exactly what she was asking for. Hell, she probably took the drugs herself, just another delinquent chasing a high and losing her life. Why compound the tragedy by stripping Lewis’s future away from him as well? The lawyer talked and the jury nodded. Even the judge seemed convinced. It had almost worked too. But there was one witness that they hadn’t counted on. One witness who would not be denied.
By the time Lindy’s father had left the witness stand, Lewis thought he was going to jail for sure. The old preacher poured his passion and fire and love for his little girl into his testimony, and the fact that he never took his eyes of the boy he swore had killed his daughter was simply unbearable. Lewis could not match that gaze, even though he knew to look away from it was to admit guilt. Lindy’s father damned Lewis, and when he had finished, the easy path to freedom no longer seemed so assured.
But the prejudices Lewis had counted on were too much to overcome. Most of the jury were swayed by the old man’s vehemence. But there were three who weren’t. Three who were not convinced, or perhaps even blamed Lindy’s father for what had happened. For the disappointment his daughter had surely become. The jury hung, and the television cameras and newspapers moved on. The DA didn’t have the heart to retry Lewis, and Lewis didn’t have the stomach to fight any more. He never wanted to feel those eyes upon him again. Lewis agreed to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter. He served less than a year.
Lewis did his time. He had a bit of an epiphany between the cold gray walls of the penitentiary, and he swore that he would atone for what he had done. He promised Lindy, as he hid his tears from the men who surrounded him, that he would live his life in her honor. And in the years that followed, he liked to think that he had kept his word. After nine months, he was a free man. Lewis disappeared then. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that Lewis was born that day in front of an Alabama prison. He changed his name, and his parents paid to enroll him at a small college in the mountains where no one had ever heard of Adam Langston. It was there he met Sophia, and it was there he made a promise to himself and to his new wife that he would leave the past behind. But every night when he turned out the lights, he still saw the image of Lindy on the concrete below, her neck broken and her open eyes empty of life.
* * *
“Please,” Lewis said, “please.”
“Ohhhh, so now you’re begging me? No more talk of right and wrong, huh? No more talk of what’s right and God and my damnation. Now you want mercy. But the truth is, you’ve had mercy. You’ve had a reprieve. All these years, you’ve been living on borrowed time.
“I waited for you, you know. I had it all planned out. The day you walked out of that prison I was going to be there. The day you tasted freedom, I was going to take it away from you. I bought a gun and I waited. Do you know why you lived? A stupid thing, really. A simple twist of fate. They publicized your release date wrong, and you got out a week early. By the time I realized it, you were gone. You cover your tracks well, and it took a long time to find you. But I didn’t give up. And now here we are. Together.”
“Mr. Jackson, please…”
“That’s what I like to hear son. Now you know who I am. And I know exactly who you are. You’re the man who killed my daughter.”
“Mr. Jackson I promise you I did not kill your daughter. I did not kill your daughter. It was an accident sir. It was an accident. It was an accident. I wish I could take it back every day. I wish I could stop it. I wish I could trade places with her. I’d do it gladly if I could.”
“Well that’s just the problem isn’t it? You can’t trade places with her, and you can’t go back. You might as well join her. Cause I tell you what, you did kill her. You killed her as much as if you had pushed her out of that window.”
Neither man spoke then. Thomas Jackson, standing over a mound of dirt, staring down at it with a walkie talkie in his hand. And Lewis Freeman in a coffin beneath. Lewis Freeman, who had been Adam Langston many years before. Both men thought back on that night, the night that had come to define their lives. The night that now threatened to end the life of one, and the night that had, for all practical purposes, killed the other. When Lewis spoke again, Thomas could hear him sobbing, and the sound of it made him smile.
“Please, Mr. Jackson, this is not justice. Killing me is not justice for your daughter.”
Thomas stopped smiling. It was time to end this.
“Justice?” he said through clenched teeth. “You speak of justice? Funny, Adam, I guess we can agree on something can’t we? On this one thing. Killing you is not justice. Do you know your scripture, Mr. Langston? Have you read your Bible?” Lewis didn’t answer and Thomas didn’t wait. “No, I don’t guess you would have. Well there’s one verse I’m sure even you are familiar with. ‘You shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.’ You’ve heard that one, haven’t you Adam? Haven’t you? An eye for an eye? But you didn’t just kill my daughter that night all those years ago. You killed me too, just as sure as if you shot me in the heart. No, justice for you requires something more.”
Thomas paused for a second and let his words wash over Lewis. He felt it, in his bones, when it all came together for him.
“You found the walkie talkie,” Thomas said. “Did you find anything else?”
But Lewis hadn’t waited on Thomas to speak. He had already started feeling around the coffin again, franticly searching for something. What, he couldn’t say. He only hoped he didn’t find it. But then he felt it. Soft, but coarse all at once. Solid and separate, thick and thin all the same. His hand started to shake as he breathed in peppermint and vanilla when he brought the thick lock of hair to his face, the one that he knew was strawberry blond, even in the darkness that smothered him. Lewis lost it then, started screaming and beating against the pine walls that enclosed him. He would do so until the air ran out and the final darkness took him.
He didn’t hear the last thing Thomas said, before he dropped the walkie talkie and left Lewis to his fate. But he didn’t need to hear it, for he already knew.
“No, Lewis. Two lives were lost that night. Two lives. An eye for an eye Lewis. That is justice.”
- * * *