This story is by Kimberly Dawn Rempel and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
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The four had been searching for a way out of the windowless, hinge-less room for hours. Jordan paused her fingering of the padded wall to check over her shoulder. The other three searched at the far end of the big open room.
“Yes! Found something! It’s a button!” one of them said.
“Push it!” said another.
CHHHSSSHHHT. CLICK-CLANK. A panel emerged from the wall like a pocket door and slid across the floor. Everyone froze, watching it lock in place to create a new wall in the big open room.
They had arrived suddenly and mysteriously that day; no one knew how, or even where they’d come from. In their search, they had discovered no air vents, no daylight, no hint of escape from this tomb.
For hours they’d come up empty.
The button pusher gasped, “Oh! Okay! I got it — I got it! The buttons move the walls!”
Before more discussion could happen, a third called out, “I found one!” and pressed it.
CHHHHHSSSSSHHHHHT. CLICK-CLANK. Another panel emerged, this time from the ceiling, and locked into place across the room, next to Jordan.
She stepped out of the way, but it caught the corner of her shirt as it sealed. Jordan pulled hard, but the new wall gripped her shirt. “Guys!” she called to the others, “GUYS!”
Their frenzied button pushing drowned out her cry in the hiss and clank of wall panels. The large open room was quickly becoming a series of tunnels and boxes.
Her shirt was locked in. Jordan would have to ditch it. Just as she pulled an arm out of a sleeve, a second wall panel slid into place beside her, creating a corner. Her heart pounded as she turned around to unwrap herself from the shirt and began pulling her second arm out. A second panel rose up from the floor right beside her, boxing her in on three sides.
She had undressed before and knew how to remove an arm from a sleeve. In that panicked moment though, with heart racing and adrenaline pumping, she was fumbling. The pull of the arm and tug of the shirt refused to coordinate. Still tugging, she called out again, “GUYS! HELP!!”
Caleb, one of the three, turned when she called. From across the room their eyes locked as he took in her situation and she continued to wriggle her arm.
Just then a panel rose up from the floor in the opening. A wave of electric fear surged through her, and the moment unfolded in slow motion. She pulled and tugged on the shirt. The shirt wouldn’t let her go. Caleb’s eyes widened. She thought he yelled to the others to stop, but sights and sounds blurred together as if underwater. She watched Caleb raise a hand as if to stop the panel from afar, mouthing, “NOOOOO!!!!”
Jordan wriggled free of the shirt and darted for what was left of the opening. But it was too late. Caleb disappeared as the panel slid closed, encasing her in a floor-to-ceiling lightless box. CCHHHHSSSSHHHHT. CLICK-CLANK.
The box was eerily silent except for the sound of her own panting. Jordan stilled her breathing in the darkness, and slid her fingers across the walls. They surrounded her on all sides. She raised her hands and felt nothing above her.
Suddenly that dreadful sound thundered in the box. CHHHHSSSSSSHHHHT! Her hands felt the pressure of a ceiling panel pressing down on them. She pushed back against it in the dark, panicked. The panel was stronger and slowly descended on her. With one hand pressing back on the panel, she got down on her knees. The panel kept coming.
“No!” The word seemed to die, muffled in that shrinking space.
From on her knees, she pushed on the panel with both hands, but it continued to descend. She flipped onto her back, now pressing hands, feet, and knees against the panel. There were no words for such a moment, just gasps and grunts in the darkness.
The ceiling panel stopped just short of crushing her, leaving her in an upside down fetal position with no room to move. Catching her breath, she traced the walls with trembling hands, searching the darkness for a handle, a button, anything.
That’s when she found it. There on the ceiling panel she felt two metallic buttons, side-by-side.
As she considered her options, an icy shiver ran down her spine. If she pressed one, it might release her from the box. Or it could crush her. Her breath quickened at the thought. If she didn’t press any, she could suffocate or die of thirst in this black place. Was this thing air tight? She worked to pace her breathing as she traced the buttons with a finger, first the right button, then the left.
Which one? Which ONE?!
Jordan felt for some difference, some clue about which was better. They were identical.
“Please, please, please,” she whispered, then held her breath.
With a trembling index finger, she pressed the left button.
Hot tears burned her eyes as she blinked and searched in the darkness, seeing nothing. That second of silence lasted an eternity. Was it over? Did it move a panel elsewhere? She kept her fingers pressed against the ceiling. Every limb tensed, pressing against all sides of the box.
Then she heard a throaty metallic sound in the distance, like something unlocked. She felt a jolt in her fingers as the ceiling panel shuddered against them. Yes! This is —!
Before she could finish the thought, the panel lowered against her hands.
No. NO! She heaved against it but it kept coming. She wondered which of her bones would break first. Will this feel like suffocating? Or being squeezed so hard I explode? She groaned and pressed against the panel.
The ceiling lowered slowly. In less than a second and less than an inch it pressed her legs against her chest. Air pushed out of her lungs. Please, no! Shallow breaths became throaty gasps. Her knees pressed hard against her ribs. Harder. Her lungs wouldn’t take air anymore.
The box was silent.
Suddenly the panel shuddered against her shins and reversed direction. As it rose, her knees lifted from her ribs. She gasped as if surfacing from underwater. Her eyes fluttered in the darkness and hot tears slid down her face and into her hair. The panel continued to rise higher. Farther. The panel hissed as it moved away. Jordan pulled herself to sitting and let out a laugh-cry that sounded like a messy gulp.
The panel locked into place overhead and she was once again in a floor-to-ceiling box. Jordan’s whole body trembled, and she pulled herself to sitting.
Now what? After all that, she was still trapped in a lightless, possibly air-tight box. She fingered the walls again, searching for another button, unsure she wanted to find one. Minutes passed. As she searched, she heard her breaths become short. Was the air thinner in here now? Maybe it was airtight after all.
Then, near her shoe, her fingers found another metallic button. Just one this time. Her hands trembled and legs turned to Jell-O at the thought of doing it all over again.
She slumped her back against the wall and let out a hollow sigh. Maybe suffocation wouldn’t be as bad. I’d pass out. It would be peaceful.
But she couldn’t shake that relentless hope — that senseless, baseless hope that maybe this time. . . .
I have to.
Jordan braced herself. With back and feet pressed against opposite walls, and hands ready on the others, she reached a finger to the button.
I have to try.
She tapped the button. A wall jolted.
What have I done?!
The panel behind her unlocked and began moving. She pressed her feet against the wall and pushed hard, willing her feet and legs and back to be stronger than the panel.
The panel moved upward. Light spilled into the box as it lifted. Before Jordan realized what was happening, she tumbled backwards out of the box. For a moment she lay on her back sucking in oxygen-rich air. Then, as she rose to her feet and scanned the room, she blinked and squinted, adjusting to the light.
Three things were different in that maze of tunnels and boxes. Everyone was gone, for one. Also, she noticed an opening had appeared in the outer wall. It seemed to lead to a white florescent corridor. The exit! They found it!
Then she noticed a floor-to-ceiling box in the middle of an open area. It looked big enough to fit three people.
Or maybe they didn’t find it . . .
She eyed the exit, aching to run for it.
She glanced at the box, sighing at the thought of their possible trials inside of it.
Jordan bit her lip, scanned the room once more, and stepped into the corridor.