Aside from her slaves, of course. I didn’t know how strong I was, I just knew that I was conscious when I wasn’t supposed to be. I was supposed to be in a state of near-death until after she’d administered the mind-control drug. She was expecting to open the coffin, hoping to find me alive but helpless, and that would be that. I finally had something on her—my own fucking free will again, and I knew she wouldn’t see it coming.
The dirt and chanting continued until I couldn’t hear either anymore. The ground vibrated slightly with short bursts—they must have been pounding their shovels into the dirt. So much elaboration for a silly ritual, as if anything she was doing would appease the Voodoo Gods.
I needed a plan and I needed one fast. Her devotion to tradition was the only thing that was buying me time and saving me from my imminent slavery. But it was hard to make plans when you were trapped in a musty-smelling box, no bigger than your body, with the air slowly running out. My only plan was to get out of the fucking ground, but I could barely move my arms. If it were any other circumstance, I could have probably pulled a Hulk Dex maneuver and punched my way out of the grave. It actually would have been pretty awesome. But I was still weak, and I was losing time.
And maybe a little bit of my sanity. It was one thing to find yourself buried underground—fully alive and conscious with three feet of hard-packed dirt between the surface and you. It was another thing to realize you weren’t alone in the coffin.
The area beneath my bare feet, what I thought was the damp, gross sides of the box, just moved.
There was something beneath my feet, moving very slowly, like it was just waking up. Scales brushing against my soles.
Oh fuckity fuck fuck.
I knew exactly who I’d been buried alive with.
Her partner in crime, Li Grand Zombi.
The python continued to coil around at my feet, seeming to go in circles. I cursed myself for being 5’9” and having the extra space at the end of the coffin, although I suppose the alternative would have been to have the snake packed on top of me like sardines.
Now I had to think faster but the presence of the great serpent did nothing to get me into gear. All it did was put my already strained heart into overdrive, turn my tired brain into mush. I thought I’d run out of things to fear already, but it turns out there was a lot more.
I could only hope that it didn’t have the head of my mother this time.
Ignore the snake, it’s just sleeping, ignore the snake, I thought to myself. I hoped Rose was faring better than I was. I had been so happy to be myself again, to be alive, but now the alternative didn’t seem so bad.
The snake didn’t care what I was thinking. Perhaps it was feeding on my fear. I could feel it pressing its body up against my feet, pushing at them until my knees shot up a few inches and rammed into the top of the coffin. I’m sure I would have noticed it hurt, but all I could feel was the snake’s tongue skittering along the cut on my inner thigh, perhaps licking where the blood was. It headed up my legs and I immediately put my hands down over my junk, remembering what Ambrosia had said.
The python paid my hands no attention. It came up over them, over my pelvis, heading for my stomach. It paused there momentarily and I could hear it breathing, the sounds amplified in the darkness. It was watching me, sensing me, deciding what to do next. I wondered how much of the snake was just an animal acting on animal instincts and how much was someone else, a demonic spirit from the other world.
I was still trying to wonder that when the giant serpent resumed its movement. It came up all the way to my head and started coiling itself around my head and throat, forcing its body underneath me and the box, and looping back around again. It did this, winding around me, until it held me from head to toe.
And then it began to slowly, systematically, squeeze me to death.
My hands flailed, trying to pry it off of me, but there was no use. It was far too strong, its body made to choke the life out of its prey, to break their bones. My ribs began to crack.
Dex! I heard Perry’s voice in my head. Dex! I’m here, I’m here!
At least I thought it was in my head. It was hard to tell when I was losing consciousness again.
The snake stopped squeezing for a few moments, as if it had heard Perry as well. Then came the scraping sound of a shovel going into dirt, muffled and distant, but it was there.
“Dex!” I heard her voice again, this time it wasn’t in my head. Oh god, please let that be her, please let that be her.
I opened my mouth to yell. As if on cue, the snake began constricting again, choking the words from me.
The sound above the coffin intensified. I knew she was there, I knew she was coming to save me. I didn’t know how, but there she was. I just hoped I could hold on long enough. I could feel myself turning blue, my lungs burning for air they couldn’t get.
I also hoped that Ambrosia wasn’t within earshot, because things would get ugly for Perry, very fast. Unless my baby had the upper hand and already kicked that bitch’s ass.
Suddenly the coffin lid was hit, struck by the shovel and I heard Perry gasp, clear as day. The top of the box began to move, cracks of dim light coming in followed by dirt that fell on my body.
I looked straight up at her as she removed the lid. Though it was probably the middle of the night and dark as sin, I could see the glow of a flashlight nearby. After being in that box, everything outside of it was much clearer.
I saw her beautiful, sweet eyes staring at me, threatening to spill over with tears, so much longing in them, her dark, wet hair spilling around her. Then her eyes flashed with horror once she realized what she was staring at: a giant black python wrapped around me, trying to take my last breath.
“Oh God, Dex, no!” she cried out. Her tiny hands flew to the snake, trying to pull it off of me to no avail. The snake squeezed harder. If I could have gasped, I would have at the pain of my lower rib breaking.
This couldn’t be the way I was going to go, after all of this, to die in front of Perry’s eyes. I tried hard to hold on, to stay awake, to stay alive but everything was in her hands. I was helpless. Only she had the ability to save me, to save me from death, from myself, from everything.
I love you, I thought.
She smiled as if she heard it, tears streaming down her face and falling onto me. Then she straightened up, grabbed the shovel, and said, “If this hurts you, I’m really, really sorry.”
She raised the shovel in the air, looking like a divine warrior princess, perhaps of the gardening variety, and brought it down.
I shut my eyes and the edge of the shovel pummeled into the snake, pressing hard into me but not breaking my skin. I opened my eyes to see her bringing the shovel back out of the snake, guts and blood dripping from the edge of it, raining down on me. The snake was still holding on, not fully severed, but it had loosened enough that I could get a small amount of air into my lungs.
Perry raised the shovel again, and from the crazy determination in her eyes, that kind of determination I only ever saw in her, I knew she was going to finish him. I just hoped she could do it without making me a part of the snake kabob.
She brought the shovel down sharply, and with a sick squelching sound the snake suddenly released me. I gasped loudly for air, trying to pull it off my neck. Perry stared at the severed snaked for a few triumphant moments before she dropped to her knees and reached down into my grave to pull the upper half of the snake off of my neck. Then she reached beneath my shoulders, as far as her fingers could go, and slowly pulled me so I was sitting up. The python’s dead body dropped to my waist, freeing me.
“Dex,” she whimpered, taking my face in her hands and peering into my eyes. I wanted to tell her so many things, but air wasn’t my friend yet. My throat and lungs were too bruised and raw. The only thing I could do was lean up as far as I could and kiss her, just a brush of our lips, but enough. Just to remind me that this was why I was alive.
It also reminded me that she was kneeling on the ground, soaking wet somehow, and I was sitting upright in a coffin, half-naked, a severed black python wrapped around me. It was then that she looked down at me and gasped. Her frightened eyes went from the markings on my chest, legs and feet, to the gash on my jaw, to the place where the top tip of my ear used to be.
“What the fuck happened to you?” she whispered, terrified. “Where is your ear?”
“I’ll explain once we get out of here,” I said hoarsely, finally finding my words. With her help, I got unsteadily to my feet and climbed out of the box. I knew I looked quite the sight, now covered in dirt and snake guts. At least the mix was deterring the mosquitos for the time being. “How did you find me?”
“It’s a long story,” she said. “I came with Maximus but I…I don’t know what happened. I lost him. The zombies, they’re out there. They tipped our boat. I swam…I don’t know what happened to him. I…I think maybe I heard him drowning. I’m sorry.” She was near tears again and I put my arms around her and held her to me, grunting quietly through the pain of the cuts and my broken rib.
“You did good, kiddo,” I told her, whispering into the top of her head. “You did good.”
She sniffled and then pulled away. “I just had a feeling I knew where you were. I could sense you.”
“What about Rose?”
She shook her head. “I don’t sense her. What happened?”
I chewed on my lip. “She’s buried somewhere here too.”
“Then we have to dig her up, she might die we if we don’t.”
“I think she’s already dead.”
“No,” she said determinedly. “It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. If I gave up hope on you, I wouldn’t be here now.”
I looked over her shoulder, at the shape of Ambrosia’s small cabin in the distance. There was a light flickering in one of the windows, but I couldn’t see or hear anything else. Perry was right. We had to try.
“Okay,” I said. I tried to bend over to pick up the flashlight, but the pain was too great. She quickly got it for me and I shot her a grateful smile as I took her hand in mine. It definitely wasn’t the time to get sappy and we definitely had a lot to talk about and we definitely didn’t know where we stood as a couple, but I wanted to take the moment and hang on to it. At this point, I wasn’t sure if it would be our last.
She nodded at the flashlight. “Come on, let’s get Rose. Then we’ll find Maximus and get out of here.”
For once I wished the big red giant really was immortal. I hoped Ambrosia’s minions hadn’t found him, though the bayou was still quiet aside from the occasional splash or bird cry. No gnashing of the teeth to be heard.
I shone the light into the area around my shallow grave. It did look like it had been an ant hill at one point, and then had probably been turned into a compost heap. Though it was maybe only twenty square feet and wildly uneven, it looked like it was the only land around. Everything else that my flashlight caught beyond the mound shimmered like water.
“Over there,” Perry whispered, pointing to her left. I shone the light over and we quickly crept forward. The ground had been disturbed recently, but it looked more like something had been dug up rather than buried. We looked over. It was a grave alright, but it was empty.