It was dark, cold – a little damp. The darkness was proper darkness too – no light sources at all. Just her and the dark. Her legs pressed against soft wood and earth, the grains of it crushed against her. She was wearing a dress; it was threadbare, uncomfortable, dirt flecked. She could feel splinters through the holes in it.
It took her very little time to weigh up what had likely happened to her and where she was.
‘You can’t be serious!’ Her voice reached her ears flat. ‘They buried me?’
It was understandable. She’d been stabbed, hurt, and then there’d been lights she assumed were a car. And that impact – but really? No-one had checked? It was like something out of a horror movie – buried alive with no contact with the world above.
Buried alive…The words took root in her skull alongside the realisation that she was in a tiny wooden box six feet under the earth. The air would be running out, and she had no way of letting people know – no-one could hear her, no-one could see her…
Part of her muttered well you did want people to leave you alone and it’s your bloody fault for not actually being dead isn’t it? The rest of her was kicking and banging on the box, trying to punch through it and out and up. Her nails dug into her palms.
Her throat ached, her lungs burned. Fuck, she needed a smoke, the harsh sweet-bitter scent of one, and then a good glass of bourbon to cut her oesophagus to shreds. Her stomach decided it was time to join in the litany of complaints from creaking muscles and ligaments and say that it was a damn long time since she’d eaten and shouldn’t she fix that?
She felt something give in the wood above her, a sting in her knuckles as a wood dug into her fingers and then dirt was pouring towards her, a thick wet tide of it, onto her face and chest and up her nose and she thrashed more frantically then, trying to pull herself up into the onrushing wave and it’s just like swimming she told herself, ignoring the bits of her which were pointing out that it was thicker and tougher and oh god there was going to be dirt all over her if she got out of here; tunnelling, breath held – am I even going up? – then something wet and of a different texture against her fingers and she thrashed, ribs aching with the desire to breathe, to inhale, even dirt, just as long as she could breathe –
She surfaced, gasping, to cool green grass and starlight. A pine tree stood nearby, a coating of orange needles across the ground around her. She pulled, hands clawing into the soil, her torso rising from the ground, then one battered leg, then another. Somewhere in all this her shoes had fallen off. Whatever colour her dress had been was now disguised under a thick layer of mud – her skin was similarly caked and in the cool night air she could feel it settling and drying against her.
For a moment she lay against the ground. The air was cold, freezing, but it was air and not dirt and that was enough. She gave a little grin at the cold and distant stars and languidly stretched an arm.
It brushed across stone, and looking up she saw a gravestone perched above her – a solid block, with her name carved across it.
Vivien Carpenter, 1996-2014 it read.
Half amused, drunk on oxygen, she crawled to it and kissed the stone. ‘How many people can say they’ve got a gravestone, eh?’ The words were almost too loud, but she hugged it regardless. The adrenaline was dying, and with its disappearance other thoughts rushed in – people standing around her grave in funeral garb, her parents, Ern the shopkeep, Andy…
Of course, that lead to thoughts of how they’d likely felt about her death. Her murderer’s russet eyes glared at her from memory and she shivered. Shivered more, anyway. She was suddenly aware of how cold she was, how wet, and how cold the night itself was.
‘Fucking shit, fuck.’ She staggered to her feet, and swore again as her feet were tickled by the pine needles, and further stung by the cold.
She needed somewhere warm. She needed somewhere safe. And she needed, craved, an inhalation of smoke, an exultation of spirit.
‘Ern’s shop it is.’
When she’d made that resolution, she hadn’t considered how she’d get there. She was wearing a flimsy mud soaked dress, had no shoes, and the stars glimmered down from a freezing sky. She had no money or travel card to leap onto a bus or onto a train, and she was in a part of the city she didn’t recognise at all. At some point, wandering from street sign to street sign, puffs of vapour pouring from her mouth and nose as the nails of cold dug into her skin, a cloud swooped over the sky and began to dump rain on her – a thin, miserable chilling drizzle that left her feet numb enough that she didn’t stagger drunkenly from the pavement digging into her soles.
On that long walk, she had plenty of time to think. If she’d woken up in her coffin having been mistakenly declared dead, it had probably only been a few days since her funeral, her death. Her family would probably still be in that stage of grief which was mostly blank shock. It was probably better if that was the case. She could slip back into their lives with little to no problems and get on with the dull business of living.
Yet some things didn’t quite make sense in that scenario. If she’d been mistakenly declared dead, then that was nothing short of criminal negligence by whichever doctor had examined her. And…
She wasn’t hurt at all. Other than the thick cuts and scrapes and bruises from her exit from the coffin – and she needed to get disinfectant or her miraculous resurrection would be cut short by tetanus – there was no sign of her stab wounds, or the broken bones from the car. Nothing.
Maybe I’m the daughter of God. Hail the Second Coming! She chuckled, and that warmed her enough that her fingers began to hurt again.
She was going to kill whoever had thought it’d be a good idea to bury her in a short-sleeved dress. Honestly. It was like they’d had no consideration for what might happen if she wasn’t dead. The lack of underwear wasn’t exactly a godsend either.
Why the fuck was it so cold anyway? It had been summer, and a boiling one too, full of thick glaring sunlight. Even at night it’d been warm – warmish, anyway.
‘It’s got to be the rain,’ she muttered. It had thickened in intensity now, droplets stinging off her skin like spears, dripping off her nose and eyelashes. It was, at least, making some progress in removing the caked mud from her skin.
That was when she saw it. That Londis, with the ATM next to it, and the strange brickwork pavement out front, rising like the dome of a tortoise. She knew where she was. Ern’s shop was around the corner, across a road, and there it would be, golden and warm and with blessed tobacco inside. And alcohol, but he’d never let her put that on the tab.
She staggered into a limping run, legs so numb she could barely lift them properly, eyes half shut against the wind. Never mind – she’d run this street ever since she was fifteen when she’d managed to blag up a good enough fake ID to buy from him in the first place. She could run it now, freezing and undead and soaked to the bone. Her feet slammed onto tarmac, little slices of skin and flesh being ripped off with each step. The dim glow of the shop grew closer, the green fluorescence of the sign above like some angel descending from above.
The door opened outwards, but it took her a few seconds of staggering into it to remember that, to grasp the steely, biting handle and push herself through the door, shaking and rubbing the water from her eyes. Her hands and feet and nose began to warm, the pain of transition from one temperature to another burning her. The pins and needles in her skin vanished, the aching hardness of her hands beginning to vanish, the skin beginning to redden.
She looked up, chuckled, and croaked out, ‘The dead rise!’
Ern raised an eyebrow from behind the counter, and went back to flicking through his magazine. He was wearing one of his hideous aqua Hawaiian shirts, eyes bagged with lack of sleep, coffee mug steaming beside him.
She’d have expected more of a reaction. She’d been dead, for fuck’s sake. And given the whiteness of her dress and the rain, only a few streaks of mud were keeping her modest.
But then again, that was Ern all over. He’d had his store robbed five times, always with little more than a raised eyebrow. She wasn’t entirely sure he was capable of more emotion. And, honestly, she was ok with that. Her parents would be messy and wailing in likelihood and she wasn’t sure she could deal with that. She still wasn’t sure what SHE felt about the whole damnable thing. Better to simply get some sugar and nicotine in her system for now – not think about it, let things happen as they would.
In other words, slack off muttered the edged part of her brain that replaced Andy when her friend wasn’t –
She slammed a tonne of bricks on that thought, grinned sheepishly at Ern and staggered over to the rack of sweets, pulling off a handful of winegums and cheap fruit flavoured bubblegum. A moment’s thought also had her grabbing a bottle of water. She turned to the counter, pulled a cheap plasticy lighter off a rack and shoved the whole mess towards Ern. ‘And a 20 pack of Marlboro Reds. Put the whole damn lot on my tab.’
Ern looked up from his magazine. ‘ID.’
The fuck did he mean, ID? He knew her. He knew her ID. He hadn’t asked for it since that first day. Maybe his policies had changed. Maybe the government had installed CCTV or something. The fact was, though, that she obviously wasn’t carrying anything remotely like ID, and she needed her goddamn smokes.
‘Does it look like I have ID on me?’ She paused for a sec. Maybe it was the mud. Maybe he really didn’t know who she was. ‘It’s me, Viv. Uh, Viv Carpenter.’
‘No ID, no cigarettes.’ He looked back down at his magazine.
‘Fuck’s sake, you know me!’
The look he gave her was one of concentrated disbelief and indifference so sharp it almost felt like she was on that street being stabbed again. Ern didn’t seem to know her, didn’t seem to care that his most loyal customer, who’d never illegally bought alcohol and cigarettes from anyone else, had died and was back. Maybe she’d never been that important to the shop after all.
‘One moment.’ She turned away and started pacing. Maybe she was in a parallel universe where she’d never existed – no that was too silly. You just came back from the dead. And found one of the people who you’d thought was one of your friends can’t remember you at all.
Fuck this, roared something in her brain. Why waste time thinking?
‘Fuck this.’ She spun back to Ern, fist coming up and around with her, knuckles smashing into Ern’s head. He staggered, and fist burning she swung round again, catching him in the temple and sending him sprawling.
Fuck you just punched Ern, you maniac, you maniac, you lunatic the fuck are you doing, what the fuck what the fuck, shut the fuck up just grab them and run, grab and run grab and run run run. Her hand snatched round the carton and pulled it to her, and she was grabbing the sweets and the stupid water bottle and the lighter – and she didn’t have jeans or her jacket or anything to stow these goddamn things in. She grabbed a bag, then with sudden inspiration grabbed two more.
She hit the door at a run, feet flurping strangely in their new plastic bag shoes. At some point, the desperate jerky march of her legs became even, her breath levelled out and she realised she was jogging, bag clad feet slapping the pavement one after another. She slowed to a walk and braced herself on some house’s porch and laughed into the rain, shaking desperately with cold.
Adrenaline her mind pointed out. You robbed Ern you crazy bitch. You crazy crazy bitch. What the fuck.
She laughed again, fumbled in the bag for a few desperate seconds till her hands closed on the plastic wrapped carton and she tore at it with her slightly too long nails, plastic peeling and falling away till she could rip open the lid and pull one out.
She put the thin stick of white and orange up against her nose and just sniffed. That thick, rich smell. Honey and old leather. Gently she slipped the end of it between her lips and fumbled in the bag again. The lighter was a cheap shiny purple in the orange of the streetlights. She had to roll the wheel twice before the flame flickered into being, and even then it played over her thumb, and she lit the damn thing awkwardly, the glow lopsided at one end.
The first cigarette she’d ever had had tasted like she was inhaling ash. It was so unexpected, so brilliantly what it blatantly should’ve been if she’d thought on it, that she’d dropped it and pulled out another to see if it was the same. Since then she’d learnt to draw – sort of – and now they just burnt inside her throat and mouth with a pleasantly unpleasant stench and a thick taste like a mouthful of smoked salmon.
She exhaled, the taste leaving her and she caught a hint of that marvellous unburnt smell again and smiled. That was what she came back for.
Well, that and you’re addicted to the euphoria tingles in your throat, Viv. You just decked Ern for a red pack. She grinned. Crazy, crazy bitch.
She finished in five minutes, focused only on the smoke and the rain crashing down beside her. Once she was done she ripped open the winegums, forcing herself to chew them one at a time, to slow down.
Even ignoring the weirdness of events with Ern – and she’d forgotten to rob the register, damn, but did she want to do that to him? – she had nowhere to go in the freezing rain. Her skin had gone back to rigid and cold to the touch, humming and numb. She could go home – but parents, and talking, and crying and it was too much trouble. She took a sip from the water bottle.
Where then? No money for hotels. Relying on random strangers seemed like a bad idea.
What about Andy?
Her brain shied away. She could still remember her, furious and roaring with a completely uncharacteristic lack of calm.
She’s your friend. And besides you hadn’t died when you had that argument.
Feebly, she tried to point out that there would have to be just as many explanations to Andy and her parents (if they were there) as with her parents. But, of course, there wouldn’t. Andy would let her get away with it if she said she would talk about it later.
Andy it is, then.
She finished the last sickly sweet piece of gum, lit another cigarette, and dashed into the rain.