Al took the call from his dead friend at four in the morning. “Who’s there?”
“Al, it’s Zeb.”
“Zeb?” Al said. He jumped out of bed, away from the sleeping form which woke and muttered, “Al? What is it?”
“Nothing, hon. Go back to sleep.”
He stepped out of the bedroom and hissed into the phone, “Who is this? You’re sick, whoever the hell you are!”
This couldn’t be happening. Zeb had died last week, killed in a motorcycle accident.
“But we buried you…”
“I know, I know. Only, I wasn’t dead. What I feared, all those years… Well, it’s happened.”
Al stared at the phone. His best friend, Zeb… back from the dead? “You’re kidding me, right, whoever the hell you are?”
“No joke, Al. I’m alive. Feeling pretty damned shitty, I can tell you. But alive.”
“Okay, okay… So, where are you?”
Zeb sighed. He always did despair of Al’s lack of common sense. “Where the hell do you think I am? Where did you leave me, last week? I’m six feet under in Driver’s Ferry cemetery. It’s pretty damned hot down here. And I’m running out of air. Fast.”
“Jesus Christ. You had a name for it.”
“I didn’t have a name for it. There is a name for it. Taphophobia, the fear of being buried alive.”
“So here’s what I want you to do. Get the JCB out of the compound, drive down to the cemetery and dig me up. And be real careful. Use the fifty kilo shovel and scrape at the ground little by little.”
“I know how to use the damned thing, Zeb.”
“And Al – not a word to Cheryl until I’m out of here, okay?”
“Fine, okay.” Cheryl had walked out on Zeb a couple of weeks back, which accounted for the bender Zeb went on, which in turn accounted for the fatal accident.
Or, as it turned out, not so fatal.
“Well, what you waiting for? I’m dying down here!”
Al stared at the woman in his bed. He’d have a lot of explaining to do, later.
* * *
Dawn was cracking when Al started up the JCB and bucketed down the coast road.
After a few beers, Zeb had always returned to the same subject. His greatest fear. Being buried alive, mistaken for dead and interred six feet under.
Then waking up.
“Imagine it, Al. Waking up. Realising where you are. The panic. The utter fear. The knowledge that you’re imprisoned and you’ll never get out! Jee-sus!”
“Quit it, Zeb.”
“It’s happened you, know. Graves’ve been dug up, the coffin lid linings found shredded by the poor bastards who woke up and tried to claw their way out.”
“I said quit it.”
“That’s why I’ll be buried with my cell, Al.”
And now Zeb’s greatest fear had come to pass. He’d been buried alive.
And Al was riding to his rescue.
* * *
The cemetery was deserted in the grey dawn light.
Al steered the JCB through the gates and churned down the gravelled pathway towards Zeb’s grave. He had to work fast. He didn’t want to be stopped halfway through the dig by curious cops who may have a question or two about excavating a grave at daybreak.
Zeb’s plot was on the second row off the central path, and Al had to churn over a few graves – skittling headstones – to reach it.
His mobile buzzed. “Al, that you? I can feel the digger’s vibration.”
“It’s me, pal. Hold on tight. I’ll have you out in no time.”
Al cut the connection. He positioned the JCB, lowered the shovel in a series of hydraulic jerks, and scraped the turf from Zeb’s grave. He worked fast, but carefully. Fifteen minutes later he’d excavated a neat rectangle in the ground, perhaps three feet deep. He reckoned he had another foot to go.
He looked around. The town beyond the cemetery was still asleep.
He thought he heard a noise, a wailing sound. The cops?
Concentrating, he clawed the last foot of soil from above Zeb’s coffin, then felt the shovel’s tines scrape the cheap pine lid. A minute later he’d uncovered the coffin.
His mobile went off again.
“You done it, Al! You brought a screwdriver?”
“Shee-it! Look, I got an idea. Lie still…”
“As if I…” The rest of Zeb’s reply was lost as Al thumbed off his cell.
He tipped the shovel so that the tines caught the top edge of the coffin, then pulled. The shovel lifted and the lid splintered. Seconds later Zeb batted aside the debris and stood up in the grave, swaying.
He didn’t look too good.
Al jumped down from the cab and stood over the hole in the ground.
Zeb beamed up at him. “Christ, man, am I glad to see you.”
* * *
They sat against the big wheel of the JCB and drank. Al stared at his friend, back from the dead.
“My man!” Zeb said. “You forgot the screwdriver but remembered the beer!”
“Thought you might be thirsty, Zeb.”
“You’re not kidding.”
“How’s the neck?” Al asked.
Zeb slapped the back of his neck and cricked an upper vertebrae. “Stiff, Al. Sore as all hell.”
“Doc said you’d broken your spine. Died instantly.”
Zeb laughed. “Always told you the medics know jack shit.”
He looked pale, with blue bags under his eyes. His co-ordination was shot, too. He moved the beer to his lips in a series of odd, jerky movements.
Al looked around, expecting the cops or the cemetery authorities to find them and ask “What the hell…?”
Christ, some story. It’d make the front page of the Gazette.
He heard a noise, a muffled shout.
He looked at Zeb. “Hear that?”
Zeb cocked his head, listening. “Nope.”
Al shrugged, took a swallow of beer.
Zeb asked, “How’d Cheryl take it?”
Al shifted uncomfortably. “You know… she was pretty pissed with you.”
“She was pissed with me? Hey, she walked out on me, bud.”
“I know that, Zeb.”
“So… did she come to the funeral?”
Al murmured, “No.”
Zeb swore and tossed his can at his headstone. Zeb Grundy – 1975-2015 – Gone to a better place…
Al sat up. “There it is again. Someone’s screaming. Wailing.”
He climbed to his feet and looked around. He moved towards the source of the noise but couldn’t see anyone, though the wailing was getting louder. He stared at the ground, then knelt.
His stomach flipped. “Jesus Christ, Zeb…”
The scream was low, muffled… buried.
And then he made out more than one scream; others joined in, terrified shouts, wailings, imprecations and pleas from all around the cemetery.
“Zeb?” He turned.
Zeb was standing beside the JCB, clutching the crowbar that Al kept behind the driving seat. “Zeb?”
“Think about it, Al.”
Al swallowed. “Think about what?”
“The return of the dead.”
Oh, Christ, Al thought.
* * *
Zeb smiled, smacking the crowbar into his open palm.
“I could never work it out,” he said. “So the dead come back to life. Zombies. All rotting and falling to pieces. But – how the hell do they have the strength to claw their way out of their graves, Al, what with rotting muscles and missing limbs?” He laughed, sounding deranged. He looked around the graveyard, gesturing at the plots.
The screaming increased in volume.
He said, “The answer is, Al, that they can’t. The poor fucks can’t claw their way out. They’re stuck down there. But me… thanks to you, Al, I’m free.”
Al backed away. “You weren’t buried alive, were you?” he said. “You were really dead…”
Zeb winked. “You’re quick, Al.”
“What do you want?”
Zeb took a couple of steps forward, a regulation zombie shamble. “Not a lot, Al. I’m not greedy. Just a little… meat from time to time. Preferably live meat. But don’t worry, Al. I really appreciate what you’ve done for me. And I wouldn’t harm my best friend, would I?”
Al backed off and came up against a cold headstone. “So… what now?”
Zeb gave a ghastly smile. “We’ll drive back into town and hole up at your place. And then I’ll eat.”
Zeb gestured with the crow bar towards the JCB.
Sweating, Al climbed into the cab and started the engine, and Zeb climbed up beside him.
“Now get on the phone, Al, and call that bitch, Cheryl. Tell her to come round and we’ll have ourselves a little party. Like I said, I’m getting real hungry.”
Al started the engine and drove from the cemetery.
He thought of Cheryl, asleep in bed where he’d left her, and the idea of Zeb walking in and finding her there…
There was a hammer behind the driver’s seat and Al knew that, before the journey was through, he had to use it.
Eric Brown asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.