This story is by Ann Worthington and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Even with my eyes open, I see nothing but blackness. It’s a darkness that paralyzes, begging for the flicker of a candle or the hint of a shadow. The weight of it compresses my head and chest, forcing a tear from my eye. The ache in my gut pushes bile into my throat.
As I lie on my back, arms at my sides, I concentrate on breathing. Inhaling through my nose, the pungent scent of lacquer and pine tickles my nostrils. Or is that cedar? Either way, I know it’s wood, surrounding me and supporting my head, back, and legs. One by one, I move each finger and count to ten. I want to sit upright, but the space hinders me.
To distract myself, I hum a childhood song, feeling the vibration in my throat, but the sound remains trapped with me. How long have I been in here? I count my fingers again, struggling to remember how I ended up in this predicament.
Yesterday morning, I was sitting on a bench waiting for the bus. Without a car, I always took the City Metro to work. As I sat there, fingers caressing the lottery ticket in my pocket, I overlooked the trash in the gutter and the homeless person slumped in a nearby doorway, envisioning a jackpot worth millions. If I won, I would purchase a plane ticket to Hawaii and lay on the beach for a month. Or I would buy a silver Mercedes with leather seats and tinted windows. While I daydreamed about winning a fortune, a long black car pulled up next to the curb. I stared at the shiny vehicle, wondering if the driver missed a turn. Vehicles like that didn’t pass through this neighborhood. A tinted window descended and a gray-haired man wearing sunglasses asked me if I wanted to make some quick money.
I frowned and told him he had the wrong girl.
He shook his head and told me it didn’t involve sex.
Feeling a bit flirtatious, I remember telling him, “You can’t afford me anyway.”
The man had smiled, revealing dimples and a row of straight white teeth. “The job pays extremely well.”
“How much?” I had asked, glancing down the empty street. My job stocking shelves at Walmart paid minimum wage, and I was already late on this month’s rent.
“One hundred thousand,” he said.
I leaned forward, nearly falling off the bench. “Dollars?”
The man nodded.
I swallowed my disbelief. “What’s the catch?”
Another man, dressed in a crisp white shirt and slim black necktie, appeared beside the limo. He nodded to me and opened the door.
I bit my lip and scanned for the bus. What kind of crazy game was this? I was late for work anyway, and the lure of all that money compelled me to leave the bench. My legs wobbled and my heart thundered as I peeked inside the vehicle. Tan leather, polished burl veneer, and crystal glasses with amber liquid gazed back at me. I could smell the cash as I lowered myself onto the seat, thinking this would either be a wild adventure, or I would end up dead.
When the driver closed the door behind me, I surveyed the cavernous interior of the car. Only the gray-haired man and I sat inside. “You look like my wife,” he said, handing me a drink.
“Is that good?” I asked.
“With a wig and a little makeup, you’ll be perfect.”
I felt a crease form between my eyes. “What do you mean?”
The man raised his glass. “We’re going to fake her death.”
I stared at him and took a sip of the liquor. It hit my tongue with a fury of acid and burned as it slid down my throat.
“Here’s the plan,” he said.
I gripped my drink and watched his lips move, focusing on his strange accent and rapid-fire delivery of words. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down making the large mole on his neck quiver. After several minutes, my stomach felt queasy. I should have eaten breakfast.
“You’ll take a sleeping pill,” he had said. “And lie in the casket during the funeral. No one will be close enough to know the difference. Afterwards, they’ll put you in the family vault for a few hours and you’ll wake up and be free to go.”
I tipped my head back and drained the remaining whiskey, setting the glass in the nearest cupholder. “When do I get the money?”
The man smiled again, but no dimples had appeared, and his teeth showed yellow stains from tobacco or coffee. He lifted a briefcase onto the seat between us and clicked open the latches. The neat stacks of crisp hundreds beckoned me, while fantasies about a shopping spree engulfed my brain. Although I had tried to keep my mouth closed, it fell open, revealing my astonishment. The man never removed his sunglasses or told me his name, but the greenbacks had spoken volumes, like I had already won the lottery.
After I had examined the loot, I remember feeling the flutter of excitement about a new adventure before dizziness set in, like a spinning rollercoaster ride.
Now, as I lie trapped in a coffin, I’m certain the man drugged me. The wig on my head starts to itch, and I slide my hands up my body towards my ears. A ten-inch gap exists between the tip of my nose and the lid. I tell myself it’s a low ceiling and close my eyes, but the space feels like it’s shrinking. What if the guy never comes back to open the vault? What if he left me here to die?
I pound my fists on the lid and shriek. “Help! Let me out!”
More tears slip from my eyes as my chest heaves up and down, while a whimper escapes from my lips. I’m going to suffocate. I kick my legs up and smash my knees and feet into the coffin lid. My effort produces dull thuds and daggers of pain. Dammit. Why did I climb into that car? I extend my arms several inches to the sides, pounding on the wood. “Is anyone out there? I’m alive!”
After my outburst, I calm myself, listening for a response. A buzz, a scratch, a thump. Anything to let me know I’m not alone. When I prepare to kick again, I feel a puff of air on my face, and hear a voice like someone singing or chanting. Maybe they’re praying?
“Can you hear me?” I screech again. “Help!” As I pause, waiting for a reply, the steady drumming of my own heartbeat dominates the space. I pound my fists again, cursing and choking on my tears, until I feel the sticky ooze of blood on my knuckles.
When I lower my fatigued arms, ears straining for any sound other than the thump in my chest, silence floods the casket. No one answers my plea. A sob sticks in my throat as I wish I hadn’t behaved like a fool. Why did I believe this plan would work? And now I’m trapped. I’ll never taste chocolate again, or witness a summer sunset, or hear my mother’s comforting voice.
As my brain scrolls through a list of regrets, a gentle breeze kisses my cheek, and a ghostly woman’s face hovers above mine.
“Mom?” I whisper. “Is that you?”
“No, my child,” says the apparition.
“Who are you?”
“I took your place,” I say.
“I was already here,” she says.
I stare into her misty gray eyes. “When did you die?”
“Were you sick?” I ask, hoping she’ll say she had cancer or heart trouble.
“I was trapped in a coffin, like you.”
A wounded moan slips from my throat. “Will you stay with me?”
The woman nods. “I’ll guide you and answer your questions while we wait.”
“For someone to help us?” I ask, gasping for breath.
“For the next victim,” she says.
The woman’s face disappears, and I shutter my eyes, wrapping my arms around myself. I feel cool air envelop my body as my breathing slows and pastel rainbows dance in my head. My body floats in a misty cloud, a final tear sliding down my cheek, as I embrace the darkness.