Story by Adrian Ludens / Illustration by Sheik
Nicolas Rossi opened his eyes but saw only darkness. He wondered if he had been struck blind. Nic flexed his fingers and found them swollen and slow to respond. He tried to sit up but his forehead hit something padded yet unyielding after only a few inches.
He jostled his elbows against the same type of resistance. Nic muttered a few choice Italian curses and assessed his situation.
None of the usual pain he associated with his gout or peptic ulcer.
He was lying in a casket. But was he dead? In his line of work he wouldn’t bet against having been buried alive. Nic pinched his nostrils closed with an index finger and thumb and covered his mouth with his palm. After mentally counting to 60 more than a dozen times he stopped being obstinate, dropped his hand, and admitted the truth.
Nic took pride in his reputation as “connected” muscle; someone who could and would perform certain services for business associates with funds to spend on endeavors they’d deemed necessary. He was also known for his addictive personality. When it came to booze, women, and gambling, no one accused Nic of not knowing how to have a good time. But Nic was also often blamed for having a short, volatile temper; in his opinion an asinine assertion that he often railed against at the top of his lungs. Sometimes plates of lasagna or even chairs were thrown as he defended his reputation against such slander.
Nicolas Rossi knew most of his underworld connections not-so-secretly referred to his angry outbursts as ‘Nic fits.’ Scowling, he balled his hands into fists and launched into one right there in the casket. He punched and hammered against the obstructions. He kicked his feet and jerked his head back and forth, writhing his body until–
Something tore. The seam of his suit jacket? No, that had seemed curiously loose at the outset, as if someone had already split that up the back.
Probably the mortician who prettied me up. Nic pushed the fingers of his right hand between the front buttons of his pressed shirt. Double damnitall!
He’d torn some of the stitches in the Y-incision crisscrossing his chest. Nic seethed in the darkness. An undefined amount of time passed. At last he let it go.
What, he asked himself, was he so mad about, anyway? Feeling ticked off about anything now was like parking your old ride at the salvage yard and then grinding your teeth because someone walked past and keyed the car.
Nic had nothing but time. He used it to think. Mostly he thought about being dead. It bored him. Nic wondered if he was in purgatory. Won’t be long now and I’ll die again—of boredom. Soon, with any luck.
But Lady Luck must have gotten stuck in traffic. She didn’t turn up for another eight months.
— ♦♦♦ —
Bored, bored, bored. Not just bored to death, but past it. Bored out of my gourd. Bored beyond belief. Maybe I’m bored beneath someone’s floorboards…
These thoughts repeated themselves in Nic’s decaying brain. He was crazy as a congressman by the time he first became aware of the sound, gentle as a ladybug’s sigh.
Nic had spent fter spending s ittheinShh, shh.
Now I’m hearing things.
My imagination is getting louder.
What the hell’s that infernal racket?
In the darkness Nic’s eyes widened. Hopeful excitement surged within him. He had a newly-buried neighbor! Sounded like the guy was using matches. He was lighting up!
Nic forgot his predicament and tried to sit up, thumping his broad forehead on the casket lid.
Please let him have good cigars. Hey, buddy! Nic didn’t truly vocalize his thoughts. The absence of air in his lungs made that impossible. Do me a solid, huh? I need a cigar! Whaddaya say, fella?
The scritch-scratching continued. Nic could only lie there and listen. The sound seemed to be coming from the vicinity of his left shoulder. At last, a pinprick of light came; shocking in its brilliance after he had spent so much time in utter darkness.
To exacerbate his discomfort, Nic’s pupils wouldn’t even constrict. He forgot all about the prospect of a good (or even mediocre) cigar and shrank away from the ever-expanding beam of diffused light.
As a result, he missed seeing the nibbling yellow teeth and scrabbling claws. A whiskered snout pushed through the hole in the lid of the casket. Perhaps three quarters of an hour passed before the rat had chewed away enough of the lid to attempt entry.
Nic sensed movement and shifted his gaze upwards. He caught sight of the plump rodent dangling midway through the hole, momentarily stuck.
Oh, hell no! Don’t even think about it you rat bastard.
The rat paid no attention. It dropped into the casket and brushed against Nic’s cheek as it passed, intent on exploring its new burrow. The furry newcomer scrambled around the casket, reminding Nic of a first-time homeowner measuring for furniture. He tried to seize it. Nic felt sure he could crack its spine or squeeze the life out of it, but first he had to catch the damned thing. It evaded his grasp with ease and even seemed to relish antagonizing him. The rat pushed its way up his pant leg as Nic squirmed and knocked his knees together, praying the interloper would leave his family jewels intact. Finding the slacks too tight to venture farther, the rat reversed course. Moments later it scampered across his midriff and perched atop his chest. Nic could just make out its beady eyes appraising him. He tried again to snatch the rodent with his hands but it evaded capture, nipped the end of his bulbous nose, and skittered up the casket lining and out the hole.
Don’t you try to come back, you rat bastard! Nic directed all his animosity at the gap where the rodent had escaped. I’ll be here waiting for you.
Had there been any blood still present in his circulatory system, he might have flushed at such a superfluous assertion. Nevertheless, he vowed to remain vigilant.
Nic whiled away the hours by mentally reliving the highlights of his life, his ‘Hit Parade’ as it were.
He thought about the mime he’d confined to an invisible box for knowing too much. (The fellow starved to death rather than break character.)
Nic remembered the organ grinder he rubbed out for knowing too much. (He had no idea what had become of the monkey.)
He recalled the day he used chopsticks to kill a concert pianist and piano wire to slay a Chinese takeout delivery boy. They had, of course, both known too much. (Nic felt chagrined at his clumsy choice of murder weapons; his post-death state had created a newfound appreciation for irony.)
He had relished killing the hot dog stand attendant, an informant who could no longer cut the mustard. This one, despite the expectations associated with his duties, knew too little.
There was even an occasional kill that no one had paid him to make. He’d pounded a nail through the skull of the guy re-shingling his house. The smartass had been up on his roof hurling insults, foolishly assuming Nic wouldn’t recognize “you paranoid freak” pounded out in Morse code.
— ♦♦♦ —
Days passed. Nic began to mark the passage of time by the wax and wane of the ghostly gray light that shone down and infiltrated his casket. On the third evening he heard the sound of distant thunder. Heavy rain followed. Water funneled down the rat’s tunnel and into Nic’s casket. He threw another fit, slopping around in his flooded tomb and cursing circumstances beyond his control. Serenity prayer, my waterlogged ass! Nic kicked and flailed so much that he felt his casket shift and sink deeper into the wet earth.
The next day the rat returned, appraised the situation, and perpetuated a stereotype by promptly re-abandoning the proverbial sinking ship. Nic stewed in his own juices (a literal undertaking). After a long wait the water soaked down through the bottom of his rotting casket and into the earth.
A few days later, Nic noticed a change in his surroundings. Clusters of tiny mushrooms had sprouted in the corner where outside light occasionally reached.
Ever the compulsive snacker, Nic used his right hand to reach past his left shoulder, plucked one of the mushrooms, and tried to eat it. He met with resistance inside his mouth and for a panicked moment wondered if the rat had somehow built a nest in there while he’d been daydreaming. He needn’t have worried. His exploring fingers only found a wad of cotton. He pulled the stuffing out of his maw and popped the mushroom in. Then he contemplated his ma and pop and wondered what had brought them to mind.
An hour later the rat returned at last and set to work building a nest by shredding the silk lining of the casket’s interior. Nic didn’t notice. He was too absorbed in watching the wondrous spectacle of a tyrannosaurus rex’s futile attempts at wrapping Christmas gifts. Nic guffawed at the creature’s ludicrous antics. He laughed so hard, in fact, that he wet his pants. When Nic paused to consider the state of his bladder he realized it wasn’t urine soaking the fabric, it was embalming fluid. He’d laughed hard enough to spring a leak. At this realization, he shook with renewed fits not of anger, but of silent laughter.
The gift-wrapping T-rex stopped its nest-building and regarded him with mistrust, its whiskers twitching.
— ♦♦♦ —
Only once did Nic experience a bad trip. He’d been in a foul mood before ingesting. Distorted mental images of people he once knew gathered and mocked his situation.
“Say, is that Nicolas Rossi?”
“I’m not sure. His mug was always red. That fellow’s is gray.”
“Sure that’s him. No one else would be caught dead buried in a suit jacket that revolting.”
“Nice coffin, Nic!”
“It looks like they had to custom-build it for the big galoot.”
“Sure does. But look; Nic fits! Am I right?”
Nic tossed and turned under the barrage of their derisive laughter for what seemed like a lifetime. When at last the visions subsided he vowed to be more cautious.
— ♦♦♦ —
Overall, Nic couldn’t remember a time he’d ever been happier. The rat’s activities, enhanced by the ingestion of psilocybin mushrooms helped pass the time and kept him entertained. Nic found that by rationing, and allowing himself only one mushroom per period of sunlight, the fun fungi replenished itself at his rate of consumption.
One morning the rat, busy decorating its burrow with a motley assortment of collected riches and rubbish, entered the casket with a still-wrapped stick of chewing gum. Nic had eaten a mushroom and had just started feeling its effects. The gum wrapper looked dazzling and vibrant red. He couldn’t see it well but his brain embraced his initial impression with gleeful abandon. This, he noted, was Clove, the kind of chewing gum that came wrapped in pheasant feathers. His favorite, as he mentally pictured it, boasted a wrapper more akin to the neck of a peacock. Black Jack, they called it. Given his line of work, that always made Nic chuckle. The rat disappeared from view taking the stick of gum with it, but Nic’s fancy had already taken flight.
He strode among the living, armed with a new innovation: lethal chewing gum. He set about dispensing death one stick at a time. Nic offered a piece of arsenic gum to a man who meant to testify in court against one of Nic’s business associates. He gave a stick of strychnine gum to an upstart who tried to encroach on his territory. And to a rude woman who cut in line ahead of him at the grocery store, he offered a stick of cyanide gum.
To his dismay, none of his intended victims died, or even fell ill.
The vivid Technicolor film in his mental projector kept rolling. He pictured himself lifting the packs of gum in turn and examining them each more closely. He read the labels, thunderstruck.
The Palooka Joe gum flavors that he’d obtained—Agonizing Arsenic, Sickening Strychnine, and Cemetery Cyanide—all bore the same disclaimer: ‘artificially flavored.’
Well, hells bells! THAT was sure a waste of effort.
At this, Nic gave way to lunatic gales of silent laughter. He might have feared laughing himself to death—fatal hilarity is no laughing matter—had he not already been buried. The casket dictated the scope of his existence now. He’d traded one type of underworld for another and had learned to make the best of his downgraded status.
— ♦♦♦ —
Then it came to pass; the worst day of Nic’s life since his death.
His only companion, the rat, died. It lay down and never moved again. Nic waited. He had nothing better to do. Time passed. The rat started to bloat. Carrion beetles, somber as pallbearers, crawled in through the hole above his shoulder and marched across his chest on their way to perform their grisly duties on the rat’s carcass. Nic refrained from ingesting a mushroom during the proceedings. He tried to convince himself that this came out of respect but in truth he felt leery of the beetles’ presence. What if they started chewing his flesh too? He didn’t want his paranoid frame of mind amplified by the hallucinogenic properties of the mushrooms. Nic had learned that panicking while trapped in a casket was the ultimate way to have a bad trip without going anywhere.
Hours slipped away. The dead rat burst and the released gases made the air in the casket downright putrid. Nic grimaced and waved his hands in a futile attempt at clearing away the stench. He knew he didn’t exactly smell like roses, but much like the times he broke wind while still living, Nic never found his own odor as offensive as that of others.
Stuck inside a casket with a dead, decaying rat? Eff this all the way to Jersey and back! I don’t deserve this–
He let the sentence drop, took a non-existent breath, and vowed to stay calm. No more ‘Nic fits.’ He’d flail himself to pieces one of these times if he didn’t show restraint.
Then, without warning, the faint light faded and disappeared. Nic heard someone, a groundskeeper perhaps, working above him. Dollops of what seemed to be wet cement pattered into his casket.
The groundskeeper had apparently chosen to seal the rat’s tunnel in the most expedient manner possible. Nic recalled all the blubbering snitches he’d tossed into the river, their feet stuck in buckets of dried cement, and grinned in the darkness at the irony. Though he feigned insouciance Nic felt a wretched sense of loss.
He’d grown used to the light, and looked forward to the rat’s comings and goings. Now he’d lost both. The next several hours became a taxing test of willpower and fortitude as Nic did his best to look on the bright side of the pitch black.
When he could stand it no longer, he reached for a mushroom. Instead of finding a means of blessed escape, his fingers met with hardened clumps of cement. His questing digits gave him the bad news. All the mushrooms were encapsulated and the chance of any further growth had been eliminated.
Nic threw his entire body into a prolonged fit of rage that broke bones, cracked the casket’s panels, and left his burial clothes in tatters. He lost a few desiccated fingers and smashed his nose to jelly.
Then an idea presented itself. The rat had made an entrance to its burrow above Nic’s head. But rats, he remembered, almost always followed instinct and created exits in different locations. Though he’d never noticed the rat entering or exiting the casket except through the now-sealed tunnel above his head, it stood to reason that there could be another egress. Perhaps down by his feet. That would explain why he never noticed it before. He’d been so fixated on the one that he’d never even considered the possibility of another.
Rejuvenated and hopeful, Nic began exploring the lower edge of the casket with the sole of his shoe. He thought better of this method, realizing he risked crushing any fungi present. He kicked off the disintegrating remains of his footwear and pushed his foot against the panel.
Nic silently rejoiced. His foot had encountered something that matched the size and shape of a small mushroom. Now he had to get the coveted item from the lower corner of the casket to within arms reach.
He rolled the mushroom cap along the bottom panel of the casket, moving right to left. Once it reached the left corner, he crossed his right leg under his left and used his heel to nudge the mushroom up toward his outstretched left hand. The cap rolled against his thigh and Nic spent several frustrating minutes twisting and writhing until his efforts were finally rewarded.
Nic clasped the mushroom in his shriveled left hand and popped the morsel of morel into his mouth. He immediately felt calmer and more at ease. He smiled, knowing everything would soon be right with the world.
He felt happier than anyone else who had unwittingly eaten one of their own detached toes would have felt.
It seemed the placebo effect worked even on the dead—at least for a while.
But when Nic realized his mistake, he threw a fit of such ferocity that his soul finally tore free from the confines of his decomposed remains.
Feeling foolish for idling for—how long had it been? Months? Years?—Nic made himself a vow. If anyone in the Next Place asked, he’d only just died today.
Just died today…
“Five Crisp Tens” by Chris Bauer
Illustration by John Waltip