She came awake gradual, eyes fluttering open lazily, confused to find herself standing, rather than lying down. She breathed deep, taking in the rich smell of earth, and this more than anything brought her to wakefulness. Not really standing, but upright, vertical, with dirt beneath and on all sides of her. The hole in which she stood was small enough that her knees hit the side and prevented her from sliding down. Checking quickly, she found herself naked, the soil soft and cold beneath her feet. She craned her neck, saw nothing but darkness overheard. She knew that up there, somewhere, was the sheet of plywood that kept this makeshift tomb closed. High enough that she couldn’t reach it, might as well be high as the moon for all it mattered.
She worked to fight the fear that was kindling in her heart, knowing that eventually she would be pulled out, roughly. This was the story she’d heard countless times, the story she’d told around so many childhood campfires, delighting in the thrill of the story, so long as it was happening to someone else, the friend of a friend, or the cousin of someone down the holler, not even caring if the story was true, secretly hoping it wasn’t but she knew, everyone knew, that sometimes folks went missing and they had to end up somewhere, and this was that place, that awful place, where bones hung from trees and the wind made them sing and ain’t no one ever come back from that.
She could feel the walls pressing against her; breath quickening and not a sliver of light to be found in the darkness surrounding her. She could smell the richness of the earth beside and beneath her, could hear the things that crawled and slithered through the soil, sightless in the eternal dark. Packed earth, cold and mean, compressed against her as she clawed, desperately, trying to climb through it, even as her frantic scrabbling brought rivulets of dirt down upon her, raining down into her eyes, her open mouth, tasting it on her tongue as panicked reality constricted her chest, straining her already overworked lungs, blood vessels and capillaries in full flow as adrenaline coursed through her veins, desperation taking the place of reason, bleak resignation not yet lurking on the near horizon.
She tried to slow her breathing, to take control of this most desperate situation, believing beyond reason that she could fix this, make it better somehow, make it all better, if only she could slow down and breathe. Little by little, she could feel herself relaxing, her respiration deeper now, less shallow, as she fought the greasy slick of terror that had settled in her mind.
She felt herself becoming lightheaded, and that’s all it took.
Being lightheaded meant suffocation, that much she knew, and the panic came raging back, a crazed bull rampaging through her chest, hammering against her battered ribcage, setting off another adrenal surge, more vicious this time, demanding its due like a demon rooked in a bad deal. Frenzied, she renewed her clawing at the dirt, determined to get out of this crypt, or die trying.
Heart beating so hard she heard it in her ears, she felt a fingernail crack and break as she dug frantically at her earthen tomb, the sheet of plywood too far overhead to reach, knowing that even if she could touch it, too much weight sat upon it to be moved. The narrowness of the hole pushed her into full panic, as small flashes of light sparkled like distant fireworks on the periphery of her vision. I’m dying, she thought to herself calmly, curiously, without emotion. The very thought was a crooked comfort, a sly, winking con man of a thought, the promise of salvation at a price because there was always a price, you goddamn well better believe it, but dying also meant release, not just from this damnable life, but from the daily reminders of choices made poorly and failures too many to number.
And as it will, the acceptance of this simple fact caused the panic to ebb, subsiding like the tide on a distant shore, rolling back to the sea.
She was dying, her grave already dug, weary tears of understanding tracing clean lines down her filthy cheeks, which inexplicably turned upward in a graceful, grateful smile. This was the end, the end of everything, and she knew without knowing that her grave would go unmarked, that none would come to mourn, but the pain would be over, and that was worth everything. It didn’t matter, she would die as she had lived, filthy and unloved, stripped of warmth, denied happiness, and bereft of simple human dignity. She welcomed Death with weary arms and a loving heart, happy to be shut of all pain and heartache the world had put on her, that she had invited upon herself.
I’m dying, thank God.