Mr. and Mrs. Samson had been married for more than 50 years and knew each other so well that one practically could read the other’s thoughts without exchanging a word or gesture.
One day, amid a thunderstorm that twisted and tangled and snapped the willows, Mrs. Samson fell ill and then into a coma. She died three days later.
After the funeral, Mr. Samson slept alone for the first time in decades. That night, he dreamt his wife was calling to him for help. He woke up in a panic and quickly called everyone he could think of.
“We must let her out!” he begged relatives, the doctors, and the mortician. “We made a mistake!”
No one paid him any attention. But after nearly a week of increasingly frantic nightly calls, everyone finally agreed to exhume Mrs. Samson, if only to reassure her grief-stricken husband that there had been no mistake.
And when they opened the coffin…
…Mr. Samson turned away and immediately shouted for them to close the lid again. Because it’s one thing to say, “We need to dig up my wife’s body right away!” but quite another to actually do it, to dig up the dirt, to pry open the coffin, to see again the body of the woman you loved, who you visited and prayed over in the hospital, whose hand you held in your own as she died.
He could feel everyone’s eyes on him—the doctor, the mortician, the man in the excavator, the young man with the shovel.
“I had 53 years to get used to the idea of her dying,” he said. “I thought about it every single day. But still.” He made a gesture toward the sky, a thought floating away.
The men stood silently watching him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, turning to meet their eyes with his. “There’s no, I can’t—”
The young man with the shovel nodded. “No, yeah. Totally,” he said.
“It’s weird to think that anything means anything,” Mr. Samson said. “I’m sorry.”
Behind him, at the edge of the cemetery, the willows nodded and bowed.
…there she was—slightly damp, slightly decomposed, and very, very cross.
“Damn it, Wilfred,” she cursed, “Why can’t you leave me alone?”
Mr. Samson was shocked and confused.
“What do you mean, dear?” he asked.
“I thought you knew me better than to dig me up like this,” his zombie wife complained. “Now I’m going to have to bite everyone here, including him.” She gestured toward the priest, who was frantically crossing himself. The gesture caused her decomposing hand to creak, snap, and fall to the floor. Something oozed from her wrist. Mrs. Samson sighed. “Damn it, Wilfred,” she said again.
“But,” said Mr. Samson. “But—” His jaw flapped up and down, but no words were forthcoming.
She gestured toward the priest, who was frantically crossing himself. The gesture caused her decomposing hand to creak, snap, and fall to the floor.
“Spit it out, Wilfred, for pity’s sake.”
Mr. Samson finally got his brain and mouth working in tandem.
“I heard you in my mind,” he told his dead wife. “I heard you calling me for help.”
“I said I was going to HELL, Wilfred. ‘I am going to hell.’ That was the message I sent you. Damn it, Wilfred.”
She pulled her remaining good hand out from behind her, revealing an iPhone covered in blood and gore. She held it as far from her face as she could, squinting at the screen. Being a zombie does nothing for presbyopia.
“I could’ve sworn…” she muttered.
Then she laughed, so hard that one side of her jaw became unhinged. She held the phone aloft, and cackled.
“Damn you, autocorrect!”
“Are those … doubloons?” asked the mortician, picking up a shiny gold Spanish coin and biting into it like an assayer from the Old West.
“Jesus H. Christ in a Tennessee flat-top box!” Mr. Samson declared, staring wide-eyed into the coffin. “Doubloons. Why, there must be thousands of them. A casket of solid gold doubloons.” He, too, grabbed one and chomped down.
“How about that…”
“Wow, that’s a lot of doubloons!” the accompanying doctor pointed out before also biting into one of them. “So, I guess your wife turned into a bunch of doubloons?”
“She’s in a better place!” Mr. Samson raised his arms in triumph. “Oh, thank you, honey! Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Mr. Samson navigated one lap around the open casket with an Irish jig and then did the splits. He was lithe for his age.
Three days later, Mr. Samson bought a 40-foot deep-sea fishing boat, which he’d always wanted. He dubbed the vessel Mrs. Samson—he owed her that much.
Money really does change everything.
…the silence in the room hung heavy around the assembled company.
It was empty. As expected.
Mr. Samson stood, stooping, over the earthy box. His mouth hung open and his eyes and head made little rotations of desperate incomprehension.
Mr. Cecil Amos, the undertaker, and his sons, Edward and Cecil Jr., looked at their feet. Something wasn’t right, and the error seemed to be very much in their purview. They hoped the coroner, Anthony “Sandy” McTeer, would break the awkward silence.
Mr. Samson made a slight, almost imperceptible shrug, and then his spirit deflated like a balloon, with a long, keening whistle coming from his throat. It was painful to hear. Cecil Jr., just three weeks and two bodies into his apprenticeship, let out a sob. His father shushed him, a stern hand on his starchy dark-suited shoulder.
“Where is she?” Each word was stretched out to an eternity.
“She died, Mr. Samson. She died.”
The space in the coffin pulsed like a black hole.
Mr. Samson spoke softly.
“But she spoke to me, Sandy. I heard her. She spoke.”
The younger undertaker’s shaky composure finally gave way. He turned and shuffled, snuffling, out of the morgue.
“I buried Mrs. Samson. I know that I did, as God is my witness.”
“I know, Mr. Samson. Jim. I know. We all hoped you’d stop hearing her.”
“She was right there, Sandy. Right beside me. I could feel her.”
McTeer looked at Amos. The understanding was innate. The next step had to be taken. Amos Senior cleared his throat.
“I buried Mrs. Samson. I know that I did, as God is my witness.”
Mr. Samson looked at him with red-rimmed eyes. Uncomprehending.
Amos continued. “That was 30 years ago, Jim. Thirty years.”
Thick, peaty silence. The clack of the mortuary clock.
“The doc thought that we should do it again, have another service. The reverend agreed. We came together last week to lay Emily to rest one more time. We all want to give you some peace.”
Perhaps 30 seconds passed before Mr. Samson finally found his voice.
“Thank you, gentlemen, that’ll be all. You’ve wasted enough of my time already. I’m going home. I’m going to have dinner with my wife.”
…they found it empty, save for a small plant that seemed to have sprouted from the wood itself. Amidst much panic—the jewelry she’d been buried with! Wolves! Lawsuits! Insurance premiums!—Mr. Samson removed the plant from the coffin and took it home.
He inspected it later that night, alone in his drafty house. It was a small sapling that looked familiar, though Mrs. Samson had always been the horticulturist of the family. He planted it next to the old willow tree.
Now, Mr. Samson was not a young man, and after the trauma of his wife’s death and disappearance, his family was sure he wouldn’t last much longer.
But he did.
For 30 miraculous years, he tended the little tree, which grew into a mighty willow that dwarfed the existing one. His house quickly became the spooky one on the block, as Mr. Samson was alone but for that tree.
One night, which featured a thunderstorm not dissimilar to that fateful one many years before, there was a deafening boom in the middle of the storm. A few neighbors checked their boiler systems, some their roofs, but it wasn’t until a week later that everyone realized the spooky house had fallen even quieter than usual.
The police were called, and they found Mr. Samson—his body pinned up against the tree trunk, his face a gruesome purple. The tree’s gnarled branches had twisted tightly about his neck and body, and an inscription was carved—or had formed—in the twisted wood:
Next time, dig me up yourself.
Mrs. Samson lay there, still and lifeless. Mr. Samson threw himself to his knees, keening and wailing, “Why? Oh Beverly, why? “ Mrs. Samson betrayed no conscious response. She was dead. Mr. Samson beat his fists on the coffin, shaking its dearly departed contents. “No! I thought you were still alive! Damn it!” Mr. Samson bellowed, grabbing her and pulling her limp frame from the coffin.
“Harold, stop that!” called his sister.
“Mr. Samson, please no!” shrieked the mortician.
“Oh, snap! That is messed up!” said one of the gravediggers, leaning on his shovel.
“It wasn’t supposed to end like this!” Mr. Samson screamed, pulling his wife’s corpse closer to him.
Mrs. Samson’s body, having filled with fetid decompositional gases in the week since her burial, expelled a large portion into a surrounding miasma when Mr. Samson squeezed her, creating a long, high-pitched, then flappy fricative sound as it passed out of her loose, dead anus.
“For the love of God, Harold!” his sister pleaded.
“Damn it, Dad, stop it!” his son scolded him.
“Oh my God, dude,” the second gravedigger said to the first. “Are you seeing this?”
“Damn, son!” the first gravedigger responded, “Stinks like a dead mother!”
“That’s my mother!” the younger Mr. Samson interjected.
“Oh my God,” the second gravedigger said. “She’s still farting! Holy crap!”
“That is seriously so messed up,” the second gravedigger said.
“I’m sorry, everyone!” Mr. Samson wailed. “I’m sorry and I was wrong! Beverly is gone!” He released her body, letting it fall into a twisted jumble; a whimpering moaning from the bowels resumed as her head slumped down between her lifeless legs.
“Jesus!” his niece said.
“That is seriously so messed up,” the second gravedigger said. The two gravediggers held up their smartphones to capture pictures and video of the scene.
“Oh, for crying out loud,” the mortician said as he moved to replace the small body properly inside the coffin, but instead stumbled and fell on top of Mrs. Samson.
“This can’t be the end!” Mr. Samson cried. “There surely must be some way out of this sad bargain! Our bodies can’t just become lifeless props displayed in cruel pantomime for the sick amusement of blithering jackals!”
“I know, man.”
The mortician successfully pulled himself up and moved Mrs. Samson’s remains back into her coffin. He shot a mean glare at the two gravediggers before storming off.
“Is there nothing more? Did I dream it only? Is there no respite from this mummer’s farce? No meaning? No comfort of anything beyond this world of suffering and humiliation? Is there no illusion can rescue mine senses from the cold hardness of death?”
“Dad, did you bring notes?”
Harold Samson fell once more to the ground, turned up, raising his fist and threatening the sky with scorn, then turned back groundward, prostrate and shaking in agony. “Leave us,” he sobbed.
“Yo, look, you can see up her dress in this one.”
“Oh my God, dude, you’re so wrong for that.”
“Made you look.”
The small crowd generally dispersed, leaving Harold and the two gravediggers at work reburying Mrs. Samson’s casket.
“Were the dreams some kind of subliminal exhortation, then? Perhaps a projection of my grief transferred into a form I could recognize? Have I never truly accepted the inevitability of my own mortality, and Beverly’s death has thus shaken me from a thoughtless complacency?”
“Dude, you are hilarious, but you really have to leave.”
“We’re tryin’ to work here, man.”
The late afternoon began casting shadows around them.
…Mr. Samson noticed, for the first time, that it was lead-lined.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” he heard Mrs. Samson’s voice say inside his head, as he looked upon her corpse. “I can’t even get peace in here.”
…it was repellent and unsightly, clinically empty, even—like it came out of a scratch-and-sniff medical forensics textbook. You’d think seeing his beloved wife’s body staining her coffin’s satin lining would have given Mr. Samson something along the lines of PTSD, but it did the opposite. It knocked him howlingly, birth-like into the present. She is no longer here, he saw, he literally saw. Though her imprint is in your every cell, when your cells too rot away, something lasting and intangible, something that can never be trapped within or let out of a coffin, will endure.
…she was not there.
They began a search party. All the townspeople locked their doors at night, changed the passwords of their fancy alarm systems, and insisted children as old as 18 sleep in their parents’ bedrooms, to little protest. The security company could tell something was wrong and its workers used the employee discount to install extra-fancy alarm systems in their own homes. Even those who worked at call centers in India bought sturdier locks.
Nobody actually expected her to be alive. They expected her ghost, but of course ghosts can slide through walls, undetected by alarm systems and even the most observant of people. The locals’ sense of security became more false than tall tales of ghosts.
Since they expected a ghost, every corner, every crevice—no matter how small—could contain a grown Mrs. Samson. Is she in the Keurig? Does she prefer Meyer’s Geranium to Meyer’s Thai Basil? Does Meyer’s even have Thai Basil? Why not? It’s a great scent.
A suburban legend about the moon had circulated the town for centuries. Those inky blemishes you see on the moon—like on the face of a wide-eyed teenager—are the shadows of children trapped there. A lonely witch lives there, and when she notices a kid stare at the moon for too long, she captures him and makes him live with her. Maybe the witch took her, too, people mused after Mrs. Samson had been missing one, two, three months. Maybe Mrs. Samson is the witch, people mused four, five, six months later. Maybe Mr. Samson will die, too, and make us stop thinking of that creepy lady, thought no one ever, except in the dark side of their subconscious. But he was still around, sometimes at Whole Foods, sometimes at bingo games, always on his own but not really.
She continued to call out to him for help throughout the next few months, but her voice had grown muffled. Sometimes other voices joined her: children cackling on pogo sticks, people too old to play mini golf playing mini golf and laughing about how they are too old to play mini golf. But hers was still there, somewhere in the background, like that instrument that opens up a song and continues playing throughout but is eclipsed by other instruments; you can almost hear it grumble about how it was the first, it was the first, all the others sounds would unravel without it. Mr. Samson knew that he could never get to his wife without first finding her voice amongst the rest. It was in hiding, resentful, but it was still there. She was still alive.
…all they saw inside was the little silk pillow and Mrs. Samson’s shoes.
The excavation team stood hunched over the grave, mouths frozen open. Mr. Samson let out a whimper and clambered into the casket. No one moved to stop him. As his feet hit the bottom, he noticed the gaping hole in the side of the box.
Without thinking, he pushed himself into the hole. The group shouted for him to be careful, but he was beyond listening.
“No,” he moaned. “No!”
Without thinking, he pushed himself into the hole. The group shouted for him to be careful, but he was beyond listening. He saw the dress she’d been buried in, the one he’d picked out himself, twisted and ripped away. Then her undergarments, abandoned. He wriggled onward.
“Marie!” he cried.
The tunnel widened slightly. It gave him a jolt of hope, but with his next push, his hands touched her cold, bare leg. He moaned again, long and low, a sound swallowed by the damp earth.
Then his hands seemed to find…what was this? Mr. Samson groped forward to discover the weight of a second cold corpse, tangled with his wife.
Suddenly, a voice came from further inside the tunnel: “Ronald!”
The group jumped. Mr. Samson blinked. Shapes were moving on the other side. He yelled, “Flashlight!” The mortician, braver than the others, slipped in beside him and turned on a small beam. It revealed Mrs. Samson’s body, naked, with a man on top of her. Even stranger, a woman’s face was poking through a hole on the other side of the bodies.
“Who are you?” she whispered.
“I’m…” Mr. Samson stammered, “I’m… my wife… I had a dream…”
“So did I,” she said.
“Marie…she was buried last week. She clawed a hole…”
“So did my Ronald.”
They stared at each other in amazement. The mortician broke the silence. “They found each other.”
Two excavation teams were now sticking their heads and flashlights in the tunnel.
“Yup,” said the doctor. “And from the looks of things, they were pulling a 69.”
Murmurs of assent came from both tunnels.
Two police officers on the other side scratched their chins. “Can’t blame them,” said the younger one. “Two people find themselves stuck here, knowing they’re done for, what’s the last thing you’d want to do before your air runs out?”
“Especially some sweet 69 action,” said the older one, nodding. “That’s what I’d choose. Nothing finer.”
“Look at his hands—they’re still locked tight on her bee-hind,” said the mortician. “Just think how hard he was gripping her. He musta been real close to the end, no pun intended, Mr. S.”
“Oh yeah,” the older cop said, “And her too, I’d wager. That’s the beauty of the old yin-yang—the closer you get to the whammo, the harder you work at your end. It’s pure giving.”
“Hey, how many graves over were you guys? Can’t believe we didn’t run into you.”
Later, while the police and coroner milled about, Mr. Samson stood awkwardly next to the widow, sipping coffee.
“So…do you think maybe the deeper message was for the two of us to, you know…?”
The widow sighed.
“I mean, Marie never seemed interested in changing up the routine, but sometimes a death can teach us—”
“Go to hell.”
…they found a stairwell leading deeper into the ground and ending at double mahogany doors underneath an archway. Mr. Samson was the one to ring the buzzer.
“What took you so long?” asked Mrs. Samson, answering. The embalming fluids had not failed her; her flesh looked the same as it had looked when alive, and her hair, immaculately done by the mortician’s assistant, retained its matronly poof, not a strand out of place.
“It took some time to get everyone together, and the backhoe rental place didn’t have one available right away.”
“Dear, it took some time to get everyone together, and the backhoe rental place didn’t have one available right away.”
“Well, if you can believe it, my internet’s dead.”
“Have you checked your router?” asked the sheriff. “It’s usually the router.”
“I did. I unplugged and replugged it—the modem, too—and everything’s still dead.”
The sheriff and the mortician gathered around the small box on her desk to decipher the row of blinking lights.
“Don’t worry, honey. If we can’t fix it now, we’ll get Scooter to come down and look at it. You remember him, right? Penny’s kid? Good with computers? “
“I’ve only been dead a week. Of course, I do.”
“OK. Just making sure.”
He looked around at her new home. It was half the size of their house, but the new furniture—bought last year at one of the showrooms downtown—made it seem more put together, rather than accumulated. They had taken out a loan to add a third bedroom, for guests and future family. “More people die every day,” the salesman had said. “Better to make sure you have the space than be sorry later.”
“How are the Hendersons?” he asked her.
“They come to visit every now and then, but we haven’t played bridge in a while. Those games really do go on and on.”
“I think we got it,” said the sheriff. “Loose cable. All it needed was a wiggle.”
At the top of her tablet’s screen, four solid bars rose like a small mountain.
“Thanks, Sheriff Willoughby,” she said.
“At your service, Mrs. Samson.”
“Is that everything?” asked her husband.
He was disappointed the problem took no time to solve. He would have liked to linger for another hour or two, maybe enough to venture with her out to the tunnels, where the dead roamed and drifted and sipped cappuccinos in subterranean piazzas. It would be like when he first courted her. They had met at an automat around the corner from the old bank—now a glitzy pharmacy—where she worked as a teller. He had bought her coffee and an egg sandwich, and asked to do the same the next day.
“Yes, that’s it.”
“OK, then. I guess we’ll be going. See you later, honey.”
He leaned over for a hug and kissed her. Her lips tasted the way he remembered it, but with an aftertaste of formaldehyde.
“Yes,” she said. “See you in three years, 40 days, and 16 hours.”
He didn’t want to let go, but he did. He walked with the others out to the stairwell. The afternoon sun burned a rectangular halo at the top of the grave. He turned to take one last look at her with his live eyes. She blew him a kiss, her face lit white by the glow of the tablet screen cradled in her arm, before those beautiful, optionally upgraded mahogany doors shut close with a thud, as if forever.