Did you know that caskets aren’t buried “six feet under” anymore?
One Christmas not long ago, I returned from a family party with a white elephant gift (thanks, Aunt Julia)—a book for the toilet tank, meant to be read mid-shit: 1,000 Quick & Fun Facts to Brighten Your Day! In immense boredom, I skimmed through part of it before I remembered I had a smartphone to keep me busy instead. This particular fact, however, was near the front of the book.
I found it neither fun nor day-brightening. It’s a bit morbid, actually. See, in the old days, people were buried in wooden coffins, which offered little protection from the elements and the worms. Sometimes they even became so water-logged they’d make their way to the surface. As you can imagine, the smell was intolerable. Six feet was decided upon as the appropriate depth to avoid this unpleasantness. But six feet is a long way down, and with modern advancements in casket technology, such a dig is no longer necessary. Most caskets today sit a mere four feet (if that!) from the surface.
So? Has your day been brightened?
Some things, it’s better not knowing. Surely you’ve wondered—what’s the worst way to die? Well, I’d like to enter my candidate. You see, last year, I was buried alive. I’m only now gripping my psyche firmly enough to tell my story. The worst part is, it could happen to you too. How do you think you’ll react, when you’re four feet under? Four feet from freedom, from life? I’ll tell you how you’ll react. The same as everyone else did. The only way you can.
You’ll scream, and scream, and scream some more.
But they won’t come.
No one will come.
I should have known the second I woke up that I wasn’t in my bedroom.
Normally, a faint glow from my window is present at all times. It is by this glow that I traverse the perilous assortment of junk on my floor when staggering to the kitchen for a midnight snack, or, more often, to the bathroom for a midnight shit. But I awoke in darkness. Total darkness.
Once, some friends and I took a tour of a local cave. Timpanogos Cave, in the heart of Utah’s American Fork Canyon. It’s a beautiful natural structure, one of those places you just can’t believe you live so close to. There’s a lot of those places in Utah.
When we were deep in the cave, the tour guide told us to put our hands in front of our face. Then she turned off the lights. There was instant commotion. We think we know what darkness is, but there aren’t many places in the world to truly experience it. Usually, there’s some kind of shadow, star, some slit of dim light to reassure you. Even with our eyes closed, We’re not used to real dark. I don’t think we’re meant to be.
The cave, even in all its touristy splendor, was jarringly devoid of light. Unnerving. But I can’t say it was the darkest place I’ve ever been, because once my eyes had a minute to adjust, I realized a kid standing next to me was rocking faded glow-in-the-dark shoelaces, skinny luminescent worms crisscrossing over one another…
What time is it? I rolled over, toward my nightstand, and reached for my phone—or at least, I tried to. My head was barely six inches off the pillow when it smacked against something. I cursed and flopped back, raising my hands gingerly to examine the obstacle my forehead had met. It was a felt surface, a bit cushioned, but beneath that, solid through and through. I ran my fingers up and down, from side to side, and found that I was totally surrounded by it.
The claustrophobia set in immediately. I flailed my legs and found them both met by the same obstacle. And I seemed to be wearing dress shoes. I wiggled my toes inside them. Yep. Definitely dress shoes. What the hell.
Actually, I was wearing a full suit. It smelled expensive—definitely not the one I owned. And believe it or not, I hadn’t yet pieced together my predicament. Perhaps my brain had subconsciously known, but tried to spare me. It pieced together dozens of alternative scenarios, none of which were quite as horrifying as the truth. At one point, I was sure I was in the trunk of a very large car, and that I was being sped off to the driver’s house, where I was sure to be tortured and degraded and finally, mercifully killed.
That idea didn’t hold up, though I almost wished it had. The truth, when it finally came to me, came all at once. I’m in a casket.
I am so fucked.
Of course, the first thing I thought of was that stupid toilet book of Aunt Julia’s. The thought brought with it a small glimmer of hope—hey, I’m only four feet under!—but that didn’t last long. When you’re faced with the prospect of getting out of a locked metal box and climbing through literal tons of earth, two dozen inches are scant comfort.
So I did what you’d do—what anyone would do. I screamed, and screamed, and screamed some more.
But they didn’t come.
At one point, I thought there was a chance I might still be in a mortuary. Did they close the caskets at night? I had no idea. But after making such a racket and failing to be rescued, I became confident that I was actually underground. If I had really been in a building, someone would have heard me.
I started to cry. I was so overwhelmed. You know that feeling, where your mind is racing a mile a minute and you can’t even slow it down enough to form a coherent thought because your brain is chasing seventeen trains at once and none of them are even slightly related but you just have to think of all of them right this minute? It was even worse down there. The most dreadful, inexplicable situation of my entire life, and I didn’t even have a world going on around me to distract from it. Just me, my suit, and my racing mind, shouting at me with a voice louder than God’s.
How did I get here?
That was the question that came back most, but I could never answer it. I couldn’t remember. The last thing I remembered was…what? I had memories from the last few days but couldn’t order them, couldn’t piece together what I was doing that had left me dead—or at least, had left everyone thinking I was dead. Did they have a funeral for me? That process took a while, didn’t it? How long was I out? I must’ve been hurt bad.
I scanned my body for injuries. Had I been in a car crash? That was the only thing I could think of that made sense—a serious impact could account for the amnesia—but I didn’t seem to have a scratch on me. So I was stuck, perpetually at square one, trying to solve an unsolvable mystery.
Looking back on the last days and weeks I could remember…that was the most painful part, I think. Every new memory was like a punch in the gut. I was quickly beginning to accept my fate. I would never get stuck in traffic again. I would never pet another dog, dread another shift, binge-watch another show. I cried softly as the world continued on above me. People, perhaps walking directly overhead, oblivious to the terrible fate of one of their own right below them. They would have saved me if they had known, of that I felt sure. Even the most self-serving among us would have realized that saving somebody from a filled-in grave is a great way to end up on Oprah or Ellen or whatever show covers that kind of thing.
And isn’t that strange? Every day, you get stuck in traffic, snuggle your dog, and dream up ways to get out of work. And you don’t think anything of it. But every day, there is someone, somewhere in the world, who is suffering one of the worst fates imaginable—and at that moment, they would give anything to be you. I thought of all the people whose lives I would never think to envy. And I envied them: they were above ground.
In fact, just think of that for a moment. Because obviously, I made it out of this situation, so writing about it feels hollow somehow—what I thought, how I felt. It doesn’t seem to be of much consequence. I wish I could do the horror justice, but the very fact that I’m able to write it makes that impossible. So before I tell you how I’m still alive, I want you to put yourself exactly where I was.
Picture yourself, waking up, with no idea where you are. In complete darkness. Complete. You realize you’re in a casket. You’ve been buried alive. Where does your mind go? Confusion, obviously, and fear too. But where else? Your entire life flashes before your eyes, not in an instant, but for hours upon hours. All the great memories, and even the not-so-great ones, seem to be a dream, or maybe a movie of a different person’s life altogether. All the loved ones, all the kind words, the kisses and the good grades and the Christmas trees and that one time you made that one shot to win that one game. All rushing through your head like a tornado, mostly happy memories, but drowning in sadness, for you know they are the only ones you will ever make. Soon, you’ll be dead, not breathing, not living, not thinking. You are being suffocated by the realization of your own mortality. You always knew death intellectually, but now…it’s here? It’s happening? To me? Didn’t you always, somehow, think you’d be exempt? Your memories, which at present seem the most substantial things in the world, are completely dependent upon the neurons firing wildly in your brain. Soon they’ll be nothing at all—less than nothing, perhaps—and the only miserable time you have left will be spent here, god knows where, waiting for the air to run out.
And why hasn’t the air run out?
I was down there for what felt like days. I dozed in and out of consciousness several times. I thought I might be dying of hunger, or certainly thirst. I had taken to moaning to myself…water…water. It was all I could do. I had exhausted my throat from screaming, my tear ducts from crying, and my mind from wondering what the fuck had happened to me. I barely had enough energy left to wish for the end.
But somewhere in this mental haze one word appeared: Murdock. I couldn’t place it, yet I felt sure that word held everything—the key to all the answers. It was as though my mind was trying, feebly, to help me remember. But there wasn’t much time to remember.
A hissing noise made me nearly jump out of my skin—it was the first noise not made by me that I’d heard in quite a while. But where was it coming from? I couldn’t see anything, of course, but the smell in the casket was rapidly changing. Whatever gas they pumped in there worked quickly—I didn’t even have time to hold my breath.
I came to in a wheelchair, being rolled down a tile hallway by a woman in aquarium green scrubs. With great effort, I turned my head back to look at her. She was wearing a name tag. DARLA.
“Where…where am I?” I managed, through a mouthful of cotton.
She laughed. “You’re just getting out of surgery. You’re at Dr. Murdock’s Research Center.”
Murdock. Research Center.
“No…I was underground,” I said. How she could understand me through all that gauze in my mouth is anyone’s guess.
“Oh, really?” she asked in mock surprise. She was clearly used to patients saying strange things while still in the throes of her medicine. “Well, you’re back now; that’s a relief. That anesthesia will completely wear off within an hour and you’ll feel like yourself again.”
She didn’t understand. Had I really just been dreaming? It was impossible. Far too vivid. Too emotional. And my throat felt raw as hell from screaming. But what was I even doing here, recovering from an anesthetic, in the first place?
My mind, blurred though it was, went straight to the cotton balls jammed in the back of my jaw. Right over my wisdom teeth.
I never had them out when I was a teenager, like they say you’re supposed to, so by the time I was in my mid-twenties they were giving me some trouble. Pushing against my other teeth, poking through in strange places and causing pain…they were quite big, even as wisdom teeth go, so I didn’t have much choice. I had to get them removed.
But how? I was finishing up my last year of grad school. Not only did I have no money, I owed money. A lot of it. My health insurance was worse than shit—it was nonexistent. I couldn’t handle the pain nor the payments. I was basically screwed.
Enter Dr. Matthew Murdock. I was driving down the freeway, just south of Salt Lake City, when I whizzed past a billboard. FREE Wisdom Tooth Removal! it read. There was a phone number below, but I passed it too quickly to read. I did see one word before the billboard ended up in my rearview, though…Murdock. I got home, Googled, and found that the Matthew Murdock Research Center was indeed removing wisdom teeth free of charge for, well, research. This was the answer! I got in touch, and the rest is history.
The last thing I remember is lying down, waiting for the anesthesia to kick in. The nurse (the same lady, in fact, who was wheeling me out of the office) was telling me to count backwards from…I assume ten, but I never made it that far.
I slammed my foot on the ground, stopping the wheelchair in its tracks. The impact sent a painful jolt through my face, but I didn’t much care. I turned around and glared angrily at my nurse.
“Darla,” I said pointedly, as clearly as I could with a mouthful of cotton. “Take me to Dr. Murdock.”
She looked a bit flustered. “He’ll be getting ready for another operation soo—”
“Now,” I demanded.
“Alright,” she said, “but I could’ve passed along your thanks to him just fine.”
Oh, I’m not interested in thanking him, I thought bitterly. Darla was right—my mind was coming back to me rapidly.
After we weaved down a couple hallways, she knocked on a door to her right. A sweaty, portly man answered the door. He looked at me with surprise, then feigned delight.
“Dylan!” he exclaimed. “How wonderful to see you awake. Now, you’ll probably experience a bit of pain in a few hours, but as you check out, our nurses will make sure you get set up with the medication you need. Do you have someone to drive you home?
I stared intently at Dr. Murdock. “What did you do to me?” I demanded.
He laughed. “Well, I can show you video of the procedure, but most patients find—”
“You know what I mean,” I interrupted, pausing to remove my gauze. I tasted a few drops of blood splashing against my tongue. “Where was I?”
Dr. Murdock’s smile faded. “Ah…Darla, why don’t you leave our patient here with me. I’ll see him to the front desk when he’s ready.”
The lady in aquarium scrubs left, and Dr. Murdock wheeled me into his office.
“If it’s any consolation, you weren’t supposed to remember,” he said airily. “We’ve been working on a few drugs to repress painful short-term memories, but the one we gave you seems to need a few kinks worked out…ah, well, that’s why you sign the waivers, right?”
I stared at him, baffled.
“I suppose there’s really no harm in telling you this, as you’ve essentially signed your life away to us without bothering to read what you signed. We are primarily a psychological agency working on emotional trauma and its after-effects. Soldiers coming home from war, that kind of thing. We simulated an experience for you that you were sure to find traumatic, studied your internal and external reactions carefully, then provided you with an experimental medication to help you forget the experience altogether. Our nurses would have asked you some well-placed questions on your way out to determine its effect.” He paused. “And then, of course, we removed your wisdom teeth, free of charge.”
He said all this very matter-of-factly.
I had a thousand things to say. But “where the hell was I?” was all I could manage.
He considered this for a moment, then wheeled me over to his computer. He pulled up a window and showed me. “In the basement,” he said. I looked at the monitor and saw a video feed streaming in. I could see a casket resting on a table, with a couple men in white coats sitting nearby, notepads in hand.
I gaped in horror at what I saw. Dr. Murdock flipped the monitor off.
“Of course, you won’t be telling anyone about what you’ve seen here,” he said, still jovial as could be as he wheeled me out of his office and down the hall. “The non-disclosure agreements you’ve signed…my God, you’d be sending us your paychecks for quite a while, Dylan. You don’t want that, surely…” his voice trailed off as we reached the front desk. He seemed supremely confident that I wouldn’t tell anybody what had been done to me. What he’d done to me. But what he didn’t know is that within a couple years, I’d be making a lovely income, some very rich family members of mine would kick the bucket, and money wouldn’t be much of a concern for me. Sue away, doc.
“LeAnn, make sure young Dylan here gets the pain medication he needs, will you?” Dr. Murdock transferred control of my wheelchair to a nurse, then began to walk down the hall.
“Oh, and Dylan?” he said, calling back. I turned around. He pointed at a jar on the front desk. “Your mouth should be feeling better in a couple of days. Feel free to take a lollipop on your way out.”
He gave me a small smile and headed back toward his office.