Chapter 3: Going Down Six Feet Under
I held my hand up in front of my face. I moved my fingers.I couldn’t see anything at all. Nothing. I couldn’t detect the slightest hint of movement. The darkness surrounding me was perfectly complete.
I tried to keep my breathing under control. The faster I breathed, the more oxygen I used up, and the less time I would have to live.
That’s what I’d heard about being buried alive, anyway. I didn’t see why it wouldn’t be true.
Not that it really mattered whether I’d have just a few minutes to live or an hour. One way or another, this was it. I tried hard to accept the fact that I was going to die soon, that my life was going to end, that I was already beginning to suffocate. But it just didn’t seem like it could be real, no matter how hard it was getting to breathe the air.
I reached out and touched the rough wood only a few inches in front of my face. I could feel its raw, grainy texture. The scent of freshly-cut pine was overwhelming.
This was real.
When I was a kid I used to think that the most horrifying way to die would be to be buried alive. Worse than drowning, worse than getting killed in a car accident, worse even than being burned to death. The pain of burning would be unimaginably excruciating, I knew. But the horror wouldn’t quite compare to suffocating inside a narrow, hot box beneath six feet of heavy dirt.
I even used to promise myself that I’d never get close to a coffin as long as I lived. Inviting even the remote possibility of ending up trapped inside one seemed like a stupid risk to take.
And yet somehow here I was. I’d let it happen.
I felt around for my cell phone and clicked it on. The screen’s dim light glared.
The battery was now almost completely dead. I’d lost count of how many times I’d tried checking my phone for a signal. Nothing had changed; there was no service this far under ground, and there wasn’t ever going to be.
I clicked off the screen.
Once again I was lost in darkness.
It all started two days earlier when Morgan fell into a coma.
I don’t know if it was because her mind just shut down from the trauma of being attacked by Mr. Hershel, or if it was because of some other reason which I didn’t fully understand. But right after I saw her curled up in Ian’s lap in my car, his arms holding her tightly and their lips somehow pressed together, Morgan convulsed briefly, then she collapsed.
Ian tried to wake her.
“Morgan?” He shook her, and when she didn’t wake he lightly slapped her face. “Morgan? Sweetheart, you need to stay with me! Morgan!”
But she wouldn’t wake up.
I threw the spare clothes I’d grabbed into the back and squeezed beside Morgan, who was now lying slumped and unmoving in the passenger seat.
Ian raced us back to my parents’ house. All the way there I did my best to keep talking to Morgan and calling her name into her ear, like Ian told me to do. But every time I gave her another series of brisk slaps, my best friend’s head only rolled back down against her shoulder.
In the middle of all this, Ian tried to explain what I’d just seen going on between them.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “I don’t understand. I was trying to comfort her and suddenly her hands were all over me. And then she was kissing me. After everything she just went through.” He shook his head emphatically. “I don’t know why she would do something like that.”
Everything about Ian’s tone should have told me that he was telling the truth that Morgan had just started pressing her body against his and kissing him, out of the blue. But now, honestly, I couldn’t be totally sure. The Ian I knew was an extremely honest person, but that didn’t mean he was incapable of lying to me. I wasn’t naïve. After Morgan had told me at the fair that she was cheating on Jason with someone she couldn’t name, and after I’d found Ian’s hoodie and gun in my car where Morgan had slept, and after I’d just watched the way she’d been kissing him, I couldn’t shake the idea that Morgan and Ian had been secretly sleeping together before all of this had started.
For now, I tried not think about it. Somehow I’d find out the truth later, but not now. More than anything else I was terrified that Morgan might die. She still wasn’t waking up.
When we reached my parents’ house, Ian carried Morgan upstairs to my old bedroom. I pulled back the covers and helped Ian lay her limp body in my childhood bed.
Most of the blood that had spread from her face to her pubic hair was now dry and hardened. I ran downstairs to get a mixing bowl to use as a washbasin.
“What on earth is going on?” my mom called out.
“It’s Morgan,” I said as I hurried by the living room. “She’s hurt. Ian’s taking care of her.”
I grabbed a washcloth and filled the mixing bowl with soap and warm water. I could tell my mom was totally confused about everything that was happening. She didn’t ask any more questions.
While Ian kept watch of Morgan’s pulse and the rate of her breathing, I did my best to clean the blood from her body. I washed her face, her breasts, her tummy, then I began gingerly cleaning her pubic hair and around her vagina, part of which had actually been torn a little and had been a source of some of the bleeding.
“Oh Morgan,” I whispered, but I had no hope that she was able to hear me.
Almost as soon as I’d begun cleaning the blood off her tangled pubic hair, Morgan began to whimper. But she was obviously still deeply unconscious. It was almost like she was dreaming. The sound that came from her throat, though, was definitely not one of pain or fear.
Somehow, it was one of pleasure.
Still totally unconscious, she began grinding her pelvis, pressing against the washcloth and my hand as I did my best to clean the blood from between the folds of her vagina without hurting her. The whimpering started to grow into rhythmic moans.
“Morgan, sweetie,” I whispered. “What are you doing? Stay still, sweetie. Please wake up. Wake up.”
Ian touched my arm. Morgan was as cleaned up as she was going to be without putting her in a bath. I pulled the warm washcloth away from between her legs. Right away her moaning subsided.
“What the hell is this?” Ian took Morgan’s pulse once again. “Her heart’s racing,” he said. “She’s also burning up.” He gave me a confused, desperate stare. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Together we dressed her in sweatpants and a t-shirt, then covered her with the sheet.
“We have to take her to the hospital.” I looked at Ian. He was standing over Morgan, folding his arms, staring at her, not meeting my eye. “Right?” I said. “We have to take her to the hospital.”
Morgan lay almost totally still now. Other than her swollen eyebrow, she appeared to be sleeping more or less restfully. Ian placed his hand on her hot forehead, yet again. It was like he was trying to solve a puzzle, but missing some essential piece.
“The hospital isn’t a good idea,” he said. It was almost as though he was talking to himself. “Not now. I don’t know how safe it is there.”
I remembered what Ian had said about the armed guards surrounding the room of the girl who had been attacked at the fair. He’d told me they wouldn’t even let the parents in to see their daughter. Now that Morgan had been attacked too, would they do the same to her at the hospital? Would they take her away and lock her in some medical facility to run who knew what kind of tests? Or worse?
“Okay,” I said. “I understand.” Or I thought I understood. I tried to trust Ian’s instincts. “We’ll keep her here.”
“No one can know where she is.” Ian gave me a look that told me just how important this was. He was dead serious. “No one,” he repeated. “This is the safest place for her. But you have to tell your family not to tell a soul she’s here. You don’t have to say why. They trust you. Tell them that someone had burgled Morgan’s house, beat her up, then killed Mr. Hershel when he came to try to protect her. That’s the story.”
I nodded again.
Ian rubbed his eyes. He looked totally exhausted. And scared.
“Stay here with Morgan,” he said. “Give me a call from the land line if she wakes up or if anything changes. I have to go take care of Mr. Hershel.”
Only a minute or two after I heard Ian’s SUV pull out of the driveway, someone knocked on the bedroom door.
It was Shawn.
Before I could stand up from the bed, my husband had already opened the door and stepped inside the room. He’d been sleeping on the couch, and he was in the sweats and t-shirt he used as pajamas.
“What is going on?” He was furious. “You have to tell me what’s going on!” He stepped directly in front of me as if trying to block me from running away. “Tell me now.”
I put my hands on his chest as calmly as possible and gently pushed him a step back.
“Just...” I began, trying to figure out what to say and how to keep him in a reasonable state of mind.
This is when Shawn finally glanced at Morgan. Her right eye was now completely swollen shut. Her breathing was regular, but now her breaths were coming a little more quickly than normal.
“Oh God,” he mumbled, turning away. “Ashley, what the fuck is going on?” He was no less upset, but now at least he was whispering and speaking a little more pleadingly.
“She was raped,” I whispered tentatively. “And beaten.” I lowered my voice even further. “She won’t wake up.”
I hoped this information would give my husband a sense of perspective. I hoped it would make him feel a little compassion for Morgan. But it only had the opposite effect. Years ago Shawn never would have acted like this. But ever since his mill accident something had changed. I don’t know what exactly, but he was more fearful. And after everything that had happened over the last twenty-four hours, his fearfulness was coming out in ways that were starting to frighten me.
“Didn’t I tell you it wasn’t a good idea to keep hanging out with fucking Morgan?” he snapped. “What if this was you? On this bed?” Indignantly, he added, “And why did you bring her here?”
“Because Ian thinks it’s safest here,” I said, gathering myself. “There’s a lot of shit going on, Shawn, that nobody understands.” I told him the story that Ian had given me about a burglar who had broken into Morgan’s house and killed Mr. Hershel. “That’s it,” I said. “That’s all I know. That’s all anyone knows.”
“Mr. Hershel?” Shawn looked at me like I was crazy. “Mr. Hershel’s dead? Ashley, what are you talking about? Mr. Hershel? He isn’t dead.”
But as my husband spoke I could tell it was starting to sink in that I was telling the truth about Mr. Hershel. He was starting to see that things were going bizarrely wrong. His eyes were beginning to tear up. I could tell he was struggling not to cry.
“I don’t give a fuck about Mr. Hershel!” he burst out. I didn’t expect this. “All I care about is what’s been going on with you! and where you’ve been! And who the fuck you’ve been with. You were gone all night. You’ve been gone for hours all fucking day. I’ve been worrying my fucking ass off! Tell me what the fuck is going on!”
I sat down on the bed beside Morgan. For some reason I felt safer being close to her. Shawn had never hurt me, but for the first time I was afraid that he might try.
“I’ll tell you everything in the morning,” I whispered. “It’s not what you think.”
I said this, but I had no idea of this was true or not. Maybe what had happened was more or less exactly what Shawn thought had happened. The problem was that I still didn’t even know exactly what had happened. I tried to keep focused on Morgan.
“Right now, Morgan needs help,” I said. “A lot of help. She’s in trouble. She’s hurt bad. She’s not even fucking conscious, Shawn. Do you understand? She may be in a coma for all I know. And I think she’s getting worse.” My voice started to crack. I took a breath and forced myself not to break down as long as Shawn was in the room. “And there’s nothing you can do to help! Is there?” I snapped. “Right now, you’re only in the fucking way.”
I could tell this stung. But I wanted it to sting. Shawn gave me a hurt look I’d never seen before. His face darkened.
He clenched both of his fists, and stepped toward me, putting his face right next to mine. He was breathing hard. He was furious.
He lifted his right fist.
I didn’t take my eyes from his. I forced myself not to look away. If he was going to hit me, he was going to hit me, and there was nothing I could do about it. Instinctively I grasped for Morgan’s limp arm and held it tightly.
He didn’t hit me; he stepped away, and a huge tear slipped down his cheek. He just shook his head back and forth, still furious.
He knew I’d betrayed him. And it was true. However badly he’d been acting lately, I had betrayed him. I thought about the old Shawn, and how we used to be together when we were younger, and I felt sick. Then I thought about the old me, and how somehow I’d changed. Whatever I’d done last night, I’d done it. And right now, I couldn’t afford to let myself feel sick about anything, even if I deserved to. All that mattered right now was keeping Morgan alive.
Shawn turned and stepped out of the room. He gave me one last indignant look over his shoulder, then he closed the door, surprisingly gently, and went back downstairs to sleep on my parents’ couch.
I must have slept, because sometime before dawn I woke sitting up on my old desk chair.
Ian had returned sometime during the night. He was sleeping on the floor, pillowless, his folded hands beneath his cheek.
I’d awoken because I could hear someone pulling into the driveway. What sounded like a large vehicle moved over the gravel, then it came to a stop outside the window.
Ian woke, leapt up, and looked between the closed blinds.
“Fuck,” he whispered. “Stay here.”
He left, hurrying downstairs.
Someone had started knocking loudly on the front door.
“Ian Craig? Shawn Young?” The gruff, official voice that called out paused long enough knock loudly three more times. “Are Ian Craig and Shawn Young on these premises?”
I peered between the blinds. Some kind of large, black military SUV was idling in the driveway. Three men in uniform stood beside it. I couldn’t tell what kind of uniforms they were, but they definitely weren’t local or even state police. The men looked more like soldiers at war. They were dressed in full combat gear. Each held an automatic weapon pointed at the ground. They must have been some kind of military police. They waited without expression while the fourth man, the one in charge and who I couldn’t see, called out to Ian and Shawn at the front door.
When I’d heard Ian’s name, I wasn’t totally surprised, even if I had no idea who these people were or what they wanted from him. But when they called out for my husband, too, I wasn’t ready to hear his name in the same breath. What could they want with Shawn? I didn’t understand how anybody could possibly know that Shawn and Ian were at my parents’ house. Neither my husband nor my brother-in-law had addresses registered here.
I heard Ian open the door, then his startled voice.
“What is this?”
It was hard to make out what the man who’d been knocking said in response, but there was something about “emergency conscription orders.”
I heard Ian say, “No one’s leaving this house.”
“Sir, you have one option and one option only. One way or another you’re coming with us. Time is extremely sensitive. You’ll be debriefed at the center. Here are your orders.”
Shawn must have arrived at the door while the man in charge was handing over whatever conscription documentation he had.
“Shawn Young?” he asked.
“I’m Shawn Young. What’s—”
“These are your conscription orders, son.”
After a pause, Ian said, “We’re not even wearing shoes. What is this?”
“You have exactly thirty seconds to get what you need. Otherwise, appropriate footwear will be provided at the center. I will not repeat again that time is extremely sensitive.”
At this, the three armed men who’d been standing back actually raised their guns. Practically in unison, they took a few steps forward.
“You’ve got to me fucking kidding me,” Ian said.
“I assure you I am not.”
There was some shuffling in the entryway while Ian and Shawn must have been putting on their shoes and jackets. The uniformed men who had drawn their weapons didn’t move. They kept their guns trained directly at the front door.
“Our wives are inside,” Ian said. “My kids. We need to tell them we’re leaving. At least.”
The armed men stepped forward, marching up the front steps and onto the porch. They moved out of my line of sight. All I could see now was the idling SUV with its faint trail of exhaust visible in the coolness of the morning air.
“Sir, even the very fact of your leaving these premises has to be kept under the utmost secrecy. Do I make myself clear?”
Suddenly I saw Ian stumbling down the porch. Two of the armed guards were holding his shoulders. Right behind them came Shawn. He was being escorted toward the SUV in the same way, a guard at each arm. It looked like they were being arrested. Ian was in the faded blue jeans he’d been sleeping in, and Shawn was still in his sweats. His tennis shoes were untied.
The guards threw Ian and Shawn into the large SUV and climbed in behind them without lowering their guns.
I gave Morgan a quick glance. It was the first time I’d looked at her that morning. She was breathing faster than she’d been the night before. I put my hand on her forehead. She was still burning up. But she was still alive.
“Be right back, sweetie,” I whispered, knowing full well she couldn’t hear me.
I raced down the stairs. Haley had been using her coloring books at the base of the stairway, and I had to be careful not to slip on the crayons she’d left scattered everywhere. I opened the front door and ran out onto the porch.
The black SUV was already speeding away.
I stumbled onto the driveway in my socks. For a moment I considered following after it in my car, but that was obviously a stupid idea. There was nothing I could do. I looked back at my parents’ old farmhouse. Already I was worried about leaving Morgan alone.
I went back inside. In the entryway, I noticed that there was something stuffed into the pocket of the jacket I’d left hanging on the rack.
It was an envelope, partly crumpled. An unopened credit card offer. I turned the envelope over.
On the back was Ian’s handwriting in purple crayon. He must have taken the envelope from the mail piled in the entryway while putting on his shoes. He’d managed to use one of Haley’s scattered crayons to scribble out a message:
DO NOT LET ANYONE
TAKE MORGAN AWAY
I found my sister’s jacket and rifled through its pockets. Another note, this one written over a post office pink slip, said only:
How could he possibly know that he would be safe? After what I’d overheard that morning, there didn’t seem to be any reason to believe I’d see Ian or Shawn any time soon. Or maybe ever.
This fact swept over me slowly as I dialed Shawn’s number on my parent’s old rotary phone in the entryway.
No answer. His phone was off.
I tried Ian.
No answer on Ian’s phone either.
Their phones had probably been confiscated.
The house was silent. My parents’ bedroom and Danielle’s bedroom, where she was sleeping with both her kids, were both in the back of the house. They’d slept through everything.
I didn’t wake them. Before anything else I had to figure out what to do with Morgan. I’d barely glanced at her before racing out of the bedroom, but it was clear enough that she hadn’t gotten any better during the night.
And I was pretty sure, now, that Morgan wasn’t safe here at the house anymore. If someone was trying to find her—and Ian seemed to think that someone probably was—it wouldn’t be long before they came looking for her here.
And I had to keep her safe.
Touching Morgan’s forehead was like touching a hot water bottle freshly filled with boiling water. Her breathing was so fast now that it seemed almost like a dog’s panting. She was taking in short little breaths and releasing them maybe two times a second. She was sweating. Beads of perspiration had collected on her upper lip and across her cheeks. I was too afraid to take her temperature and find out how high it actually was.
I had to figure out where to move her, and how. But before anything else I had to get her some water. Considering how much she’d been sweating, I figured she was probably nearly dehydrated. There was a glass at the bedside table, which I took into the bathroom to fill.
On my way back through the hallway, I could hear my mom stirring downstairs. She was in the kitchen, cooking. Bacon and eggs, it smelled like. She was probably trying to create some small, homey comfort to lift everyone’s spirits after everything that had been going on.
But she didn’t know the half of it. She didn’t know that Ian and Shawn had been taken away, not yet. I was pretty sure she had no idea that Mr. Hershel was dead. I didn’t think she even realized that Morgan was still in the house, not at the hospital, and maybe dying in my childhood bed.
Briefly I envied my mom. I didn’t think that I’d ever be able to just get up one morning and do something as simple and pleasant as cooking eggs, not ever again.
I slipped back into my room, eased the door shut, and tipped the water into Morgan’s mouth. She was breathing so quickly that most of the water just spilled down her cheeks. I didn’t know if she’d even swallowed any at all. I tried tipping a few drops at a time between her lips while I figured out how to hide her in a safer place.
Suddenly, for the second time this morning, I heard someone knocking at the front door.
I hadn’t even heard anyone drive up this time. I was too focused on Morgan.
Through the blinds I saw a black sedan parked in the driveway. Its windows were heavily tinted. There was no way I could see if there was anyone else inside.
Another knock came at the front door.
This time it was my dad who answered. There was another male voice which I couldn’t make out. But I heard my dad say, “Oh, yes. Yes. She’s upstairs. She’s awake. I just heard her up. It’s the first room on the left.” He called out, “Ashley, someone’s here to see you! He’s coming up!”
I’d never been so frustrated with my father’s unquestioning trustfulness and his idiotic country hospitality.
Why hadn’t I tried to hide Morgan faster?
I’d wasted too much time not deciding quickly enough what to do, and now someone was already here. Ian had a hunch that someone would come for Morgan, but I didn’t think even he knew how fast they would arrive. Now it was too late. If someone was here looking for me, then it must have been Morgan who they were really trying to find.
Footsteps came up the stairs.
I dropped to my knees and looked under the bed. The space was mostly filled with plastic bins filled with my old clothes and school papers. It was too shallow anyway. I could never fit Morgan under there.
I threw open my closet door. It was filled with hanging clothes and shoes, but there was probably just enough room for Morgan on the floor if I bent her legs and closed the door.
It would have to do. I had no other choice.
I pulled back the sheets, slipped my arms beneath her body, and lifted her from the bed. She felt incredibly fragile, but she was heavier than I thought she’d be.
One of her legs slipped from my grasp. I had to set her on the floor before I made it all the way to the closet. Her head bumped hard against the carpet.
She started breathing even faster. She was still sweating, and she’d grown pale. She started to make little rasping coughs. A thin foam had appeared at the corners of her mouth. I was terrified that she was on the verge of death.
There was a knock on the bedroom door.
I grabbed the chair and wedged it under the doorknob as quietly as possible.
I lifted Morgan’s ankles. I had no choice but to drag her the last few feet to the closet.
There was another knock at the door. Now whoever it was quietly said my name.
“Ashley?” Another soft knock. “It’s me. Are you there?”
I recognized the smooth voice of a professional singer. I knew right away who it was. Bryce Tripp was in my parents’ house.
I practically collapsed in relief.
“I have your phone,” he said through the door. “I hope I’m not bothering you. Sorry for showing up so early.” He was playing it cool, but I could tell he was shaken by everything that was going on in town. He must have been stuck in Muldoon since the roadblocks went up. “I hope it’s okay,” he said. “Your dad said I should just come up.”
I set Morgan’s legs back onto the floor, moved the chair from the door, and opened it.
Right away Bryce saw Morgan on the floor. “What the hell?” He knelt beside her. “What happened? Is she okay?” He gave her swollen eye a closer look. “Oh my God. She’s not okay.”
“I can’t explain,” I said. “Not now. But I need help. Will you help me? Please.”
“Yes,” he said. “Sure. What? Anything.”
“Just don’t ask any questions. I’ll try to explain later. I have to get her someplace safe. She’s not safe here. I can’t carry her on my own.”
“Whatever you say.”
Bryce gathered Morgan’s limp body into his arms and lifted her. He was taller even than Ian, and he picked her up like she weighed no more than a pillow. He was wearing only a t-shirt and jeans, and when he stood cradling Morgan, the muscles in his arms tightened. He probably had to keep in such good shape for his stage presence and his album covers, but now all of his working out was paying off in a much more practical way.
When he looked at me with his icy blue eyes, casually waiting to do whatever I told him to do, the same wave of physical attraction I’d felt when I first spoke to him at the concert passed over me again.
I felt so guilty. Morgan was on the verge of death, and yet I was undeniably, if very strangely, turned on.
“Follow me,” I said. “We have to get her out of the house.”
I made sure no one was coming up the stairs or standing on the landing.
“Hurry,” I said.
I led Bryce quickly down the stairs and outside.
Like just about every other farmhouse in Colorado, my parents’ house is on a lot surrounded by pole barns, grain silos, and farming equipment.
I looked quickly at these options and settled on the old wooden building my dad just called “the shop.” It was where he worked on his swathers and bailers whenever they broke down, and it had a lofted storage area whose key he kept hidden under an old tin drum.
“This way,” I said to Bryce.
We trotted the fifty yards or so to the shop. I opened the large double doors, found the key to the storage area, and opened the lock.
The bottom level had only a dirt floor. Old engine parts, an abandoned deep freezer, and retired, dried-out saddles cluttered the space. Everything was covered in dust. Long shafts of light shined in through the cracks between the wallboards. A couple of pigeons flew out through a hole in the corrugated tin roof. Otherwise, everything was totally silent except for the sound of Morgan’s quick, labored breathing.
I grabbed an old saddle blanket and shook it out.
“This way,” I said. Bryce followed me.
A very narrow, very steep, very worn-out wooden stairway led up to the hayloft. As Bryce followed me, carrying Morgan’s weight, the wooden planks creaked. One even cracked a little, but the stairway held.
The hayloft hadn’t been used for years, but there was still loose hay scattered all over the floor. If I had to, I could cover Morgan with hay and hide her that way. It was the best idea I could think of.
I kicked some of the loose hay aside and laid out the saddle blanket in the loft’s farthest corner. Bryce lay Morgan on it. He felt her forehead.
“She’s really burning up.”
She was panting even faster. And now there was a new rasping sound coming from deep inside her lungs. It sounded like she was struggling just to pull in air. Her hair was so wet with perspiration and slicked against her scalp it looked she’d just been doused with water.
Bryce gave me an uneasy glance.
Maybe it didn’t even matter where we hid Morgan. It was hard to imagine that she could stay alive much longer in this state.
I didn’t want to think about her dying. But I was terrified that she would.
I tried to prepare myself.
Bryce stayed with me at Morgan’s side all morning. He pulled his car behind the barn where it wasn’t visible from the house or the driveway, and he sat with me in the loose hay.
I didn’t want him to leave. I was scared of taking care of Morgan all alone. I was also scared of being stuck with nothing else to do but worry about Ian and Shawn. But I didn’t want to push my luck and hope for too much from Bryce. He hardly knew me.
“My family’s going to start worrying about me,” I said. “I’d better go check in with them. They don’t really know what’s going on.”
Bryce nodded. “I’ll stay here and keep an eye on her while you’re gone. I don’t mind.”
“You sure you don’t mind? You don’t even know her. You don’t need to stay. Really. I’m sure you want to get out of here. You’ve done so much already.”
He shrugged and smiled shyly. “What else am I going to do while I’m stuck in Muldoon?”
I thanked him again and told him I’d be back in fifteen minutes.
At the house everything had changed.
Bacon lay cold and half-cooked on the stove. My Mom sat with Danielle and the kids at the kitchen table. They’d given up on breakfast. They’d obviously learned that Ian and Shawn were missing. Danielle was holding her crayon-scrawled note from Ian. My dad was on the phone. Ian must have told him the night before that Mr. Hershel had died, because he was busying himself by planning a funeral.
“Tomorrow morning,” he was saying somberly into the phone. “Yes. At their place. Make it if you can, Connie. We all understand.”
Everyone glared at me like I was some kind of traitor when I stepped into the kitchen. Once again, I’d returned from an inexplicable absence.
“Ashley, what is going on?” My mom demanded, standing as soon as she saw me. “Where have you been? Please, please tell me you know where Ian and Shawn are.”
I told them everything I’d seen and heard that morning. I described the dark SUV and the military police who took Ian and Shawn away.
My dad put down the phone. Danielle began crying hysterically. Tyler tried to comfort her, while Haley just stayed curled up in a little ball on a kitchen chair.
“Where have you been?” my mom asked again.
“I’ve been out looking for Shawn,” I lied. “With a friend of his,” I added, remembering that my dad had seen Bryce that morning. I decided that the best way to keep my family from telling anyone about Morgan was not to tell them that she was even still here on the property. “I’m going back to the house to lock up. I just have to have something to eat first.”
“Are you sure about that, Ashley?” My dad was concerned. “You be damn careful.”
I nodded. “I will.”
“There’s a service for Mr. Hershel tomorrow morning. I’d like you to be there.”
“Sure.” I nodded again. “Okay, I will.”
I hadn’t eaten anything for a day and a half. I was starving. Despite Morgan, and despite Ian and Shawn’s disappearance, I had a strange, intense craving for a hamburger and a milkshake. I couldn’t get these things off my mind, and yet it was hard to imagine ever having a chance to eat a hamburger again. It already seemed like some exotic, foreign meal. Instead, I had to make do with a roast beef sandwich and a glass of milk. I piled the meat high and skipped the mustard. I made a second sandwich and packed it into a plastic bag for Bryce.
On my way out I parked my car next to Bryce’s behind the barn where it was hidden from view. I made sure no one was watching when I opened the shop doors. I closed them behind me and climbed back up into the hayloft.
“How is she?” I asked Bryce.
“Maybe a little better,” he said. “I think. Just a little.”
Morgan’s breathing was still coming in quick rasps, and she was still running an extremely high fever. But it did seem like maybe her breathing had regulated a little. It was hard to tell in the dim light, but maybe some of her color had even come back.
It’s hard to explain how happy this made me.
“Brought you a sandwich.” I handed the plastic bag to Bryce.
He was sitting cross-legged, keeping a close eye on Morgan even while he began to eat.
I said, “So I have to confess something.”
“I don’t remember anything about what happened Friday night. Nothing. I drank way too much. Everything after the bar is totally blacked out.”
Bryce smiled sheepishly. “I remember. You really don’t remember any of it?”
I shook my head.
“That’s a shame.” He smiled again, but more wryly this time. “So are you asking me to tell you?”
I felt myself blush a little. I turned away. “I wouldn’t mind.”
“Well I guess I could give you a recap.”
“I was with you?” I asked, lamely.
He laughed. “Yeah. You were with me. You really don’t remember?”
I shook my head. “I was with you the whole night?”
“Most of it.” Bryce shrugged and smiled once again. He really was incredibly attractive, especially when he smiled.
I glanced at Morgan. I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation right now. But I had to know what had happened.
“Okay, so tell me,” I said. “After the bar. What happened?”
Bryce cleared his throat. “Well. After the bar. Let’s see. You and I went out for a smoke. And we kinda decided not to go back in. . . We thought maybe the motel would be a better idea.”
“I know this is a stupid question,” I said. “But we—well… we . . . slept together?”
Before he answered, Bryce gave me this long, cute shrug.
“Well. All I can say is that it’s a shame you don’t remember.” He nodded, obviously remembering back to the night I couldn’t recall. I was jealous that he could remember it and I couldn’t. “It wasn’t bad,” he said. Then he whispered, “Honestly you were kind of amazing.”
I felt dizzy. I felt like I’d turned into butter. It was all I could do not to throw myself at him right there on the loft, even while Morgan struggled to breathe. I’d felt the warmth of Bryce’s breath on my ear when he’d leaned over and whispered that he thought it was amazing sleeping with me. However guilty I felt for cheating on Shawn, I felt robbed that I couldn’t remember my night with Bryce. I forced myself to suppress this new surge of attraction. I couldn’t believe how strong it was. What was wrong with me?
I turned away and forced myself to focus solely on Morgan. I checked her pulse. I was starting to worry that her breathing hadn’t actually slowed.
“And then what?” I asked Bryce pragmatically. “I woke up alone. Without my cell phone!” I slapped his arm. “Where’d you go?”
“Yeah, sorry about the phone,” he said. “I got out of there when your husband showed up.”
What was he talking about?
“I’ve learned the hard way that if a guy from the military shows up when you’re in bed with his wife, it’s better not to stick around.”
“Wait,” I said. “What do you mean the military?”
“Well, it said Army on his sweatshirt and he had a big fucking gun. I kind of put two and two together and crawled out the back window.” He added sheepishly, “That part I’m glad you don’t remember.”
“Shit!” I whispered. “Ian was there?”
So all this time Ian knew I’d cheated on Shawn. He’d just been too gracious to say anything. I couldn’t believe it.
“That wasn’t my husband,” I explained. “He’s my brother-in-law. Didn’t I say so when I introduced him at the bar?”
“Nope.” Bryce shook his head. “I guess all you said was that your husband was in the bar somewhere. I just assumed it was him. That guy really wasn’t your husband? He sure was looking at you like he was.” Bryce laughed, amused. “And he sure did come after you like he was, too. But I admit I didn’t exactly stick around long enough to confirm one way or the other.”
It had been a mistake to hope that Morgan was improving. By noon she was breathing much harder than ever before. Her whole body was starting to convulse.
Not only this, but now we couldn’t keep her hand from making its way down into her sweatpants. Bryce tried to hold both of her arms to her sides, but as soon as he let up a little, she just pulled away and started . . . touching herself and doing something that would have looked a lot like masturbation if she weren’t unconscious. It was bizarre, and terrifying. It was horrible. I didn’t know how to react to seeing my best friend this way. It was like Morgan had been replaced by somebody else.
I’d gotten so used to the sound of her quick, raspy breathing that when it stopped it was like the whole world died with her.
There wasn’t even the sound of pigeons tip-toeing on the tin roof. Everything was suddenly silent and still. Bryce just sat there staring at Morgan’s motionless body.
I remembered playing with Morgan on this very hayloft when we were kids.
We used to hollow out nests in the loose hay and call them our “houses” and pretend we were visiting each other and that we were grown up. We used to plan out who we’d marry.
Now, just like that, she was dead.
Without my best friend, I felt numb. Not just numb to Morgan’s lying dead in the hay at my feet, but numb to everything. Numb to my family, numb to Bryce. Numb to myself. Suddenly I didn’t care if anyone lived or died.
Then something happened which, at the time, I had no explanation for.
Morgan’s body was lying on its back, her head thrown back at an awkward angle. When she’d died, she’d frozen in that stiff position, her slender white neck exposed and her mouth tipped open. She’d been lying like that for ten or fifteen minutes while I’d just been sitting there, shocked, trying to comprehend what had happened.
But then, very, very gently, she moved.
As if she’d been simply sleeping peacefully, she stretched her shoulders. Then she slowly turned onto her side and rested her head on her hands.
“What the—” Bryce turned to me, stunned, then he stared back at Morgan.
I placed a finger on her neck and took her pulse.
Her pulse was strong and fluttering away normally. Her awful panting hadn’t returned. Now she took slow, even breaths and released them without any rasping sound at all. Even some of her color had come back.
I collapsed on top of her and sobbed.
“Morgan,” I whispered. “I thought you left me. Don’t you ever fucking leave me again.”
I still couldn’t rouse Morgan to consciousness, but I was almost sure now that she was going to be okay. She suddenly looked extraordinarily healthy, almost angelic.
“Jesus Christ,” Bryce whispered. “I’ve never, ever seen anything like that.” He shook his head in disbelief. “I’m no doctor, but maybe the fever just had to break? I thought she was gone.”
“So did I,” I whispered, holding Morgan’s hand.
“I guess you just never know about things like this.” Bryce laughed softly, still amazed at what we’d witnessed. “A little while ago I was held up in the hospital overnight. They thought it was dysentery or something. I guess I had a bad chicken taco in El Paso. I was in bad shape. But I woke up feeling totally fine. They wanted to keep me there at the hospital, but I didn’t want to have to cancel my concert here in Muldoon. So I just walked out and left.”
I laughed. “Remind me not to eat the tacos in El Paso.”
I was feeling elated. I hadn’t thought that I’d ever laugh again. A moment earlier I honestly wouldn’t have cared if I died, but now that Morgan was not only alive but getting better, I had a new hope that maybe things might turn out okay after all.
Bryce was here with me too, and he didn’t seem to want to leave. I would have been happy just to sit here talking with him all day about anything other than whatever crazy shit was happening in Muldoon.
After a moment I let go of Morgan’s hand and sat back in the hay.
“So you never miss a concert, or what?” I asked Bryce, suddenly happy enough to make conversation while Morgan rested.
He shrugged and smiled. “Not if I can help it.”
“How’d it all happen for you? You just loved country music so much you couldn’t stop playing it, and suddenly you were on tour?”
He laughed. “Not exactly. Tell you the truth, I don’t really care for country.”
“My mom used to make me play it. She had me playing professionally by the time I was a teenager. Honestly, I’m kinda tired of it. I actually really like some of the indie stuff they’re doing lately.” He laughed. “Don’t tell anyone this, but who I really, really like is Lady Gaga. I can’t stop listening to her.”
I couldn’t stop laughing. “Are you kidding?”
“And you know what else? You know what my real name is?”
“It’s not Bryce Tripp?”
“Nope. It’s Reggie Wislowski.”
I laughed even harder at this.
He laughed too and tried to put his hand over my mouth while I swatted it back.
“Don’t laugh!” he said. “I’ve gone by Bryce since I was a kid.” He sat back in the hay. “Don’t tell anyone my secret.”
Bryce glanced at Morgan again. She was sleeping peacefully, and still breathing strongly. Even the swelling around her eye had gone down.
“I guess you must really regret coming to do this concert here, after all, now,” I said. “Don’t you.”
For a moment there was a distant look in Bryce’s blue eyes. But then he looked right at me and gave my shoulder a soft, playful push. “Not so far, I don’t.”
I didn’t know what to say. For a moment I’d forgotten all about Mr. Hershel and Ian and Shawn. It really was a shame that I’d actually slept with this staggeringly attractive country singer who had a secret passion for Lady Gaga, but couldn’t remember a thing about it.
“Thank you,” I said. “Really. Thank you so much for everything.”
“It’s nothing,” Bryce said. “Look. You need to get back to your folks tonight. Why don’t I stay here and look after Morgan?”
I didn’t want to accept, but I didn’t want him to leave either. I wanted to get a good night’s sleep for once and wake up to find Bryce still waiting for me, watching over Morgan as she healed in the hayloft. And he was right. I did need to get back to my family.
“You really don’t mind?” I asked him. “Really?”
He shrugged and smiled. “What else am I going to do with myself?”
The next morning I woke up at dawn to the sound of a text message on my phone.
It was from Bryce.
I slipped out of my old bedroom, tiptoed down the stairs, and ran to the shop.
All the way there I thought about how at one point when I’d thought that Morgan was getting better, she’d only ended up getting worse. What if this time too she’d slipped back into that awful, feverish state of labored breathing? What if this time she really had died?
I ran up the rickety stairs that lead to the hayloft. I was moving so fast that one of the steps cracked. My foot broke through, and I stumbled.
But I caught myself on the next step, which held, and I peered into the loft.
Morgan was awake, sitting up, talking with Bryce. She was smiling.
I rushed to her and hugged her.
“I see you’ve been getting yourself into trouble while I wasn’t around to watch out for you,” Morgan said. She smiled at me then raised her eyebrows in Bryce’s direction. “Don’t even try to tell me you two behaved yourselves while I was out cold.”
“Shut up!” I laughed.
I hugged Morgan again. Less than a day earlier, I’d thought that Morgan was dead. Now she was glowing. I tried not to start crying, but I did.
“I’ll give you two a moment,” Bryce said. He climbed the stairs and left us alone, sitting in the loose hay.
“How do you feel?” I asked. “Honestly, you look great.”
Even the swelling around Morgan’s eyebrow had almost completely gone away.
“I feel great,” she whispered, confused. “I shouldn’t feel great, I know. Not after everything that happened. But I do. I don’t understand it.”
“You remember what happened? Everything?”
Morgan nodded. “I think so,” she whispered. “I remember everything up to Ian shooting Robert. Shooting Mr. Hershel, I mean. I remember that.”
“What happened after I dropped you at your house? Did he break in?”
Morgan looked away. “Not exactly.”
“What happened then?”
She took a deep breath. “Okay. So,” she said. “You remember how I told you I was sleeping with someone else besides Jason?”
“It was him. I was sleeping with Robert Hershel. I had been for a couple weeks.”
I couldn’t believe it. It was true that Mr. Hershel had always been one of those classically handsome cowboy types, or at least he was before his death, but he was at least in his sixties. He had a wife and grown kids. I couldn’t think of him as anything other than a sweet old man—before he cracked up and went totally insane, that is.
“You were having an affair with Mr. Hershel?”
“You have no idea how much we never knew about Robert,” Morgan said. “I couldn’t believe the secrets I learned he’d been keeping. Did you know he used to have an account on this web site for married people who want to cheat on their spouses? I know that sounds creepy. It is, I guess. But at the same time, he was actually, like, the sweetest guy I’d ever met.” Now Morgan started to cry. She wiped her eyes. “I think I was a little bit in love with him. I know it sounds so stupid, but I was.” She heaved a sigh. “But, then, I don’t know what happened. He started getting more and more distant. Then he started getting really rough with me. And then, that night, I got home, and he was waiting for me there in nothing but that stupid holster he liked to wear when we were fooling around. But this time he was completely out of his mind.” She shrugged and looked into the distance. “And now he’s gone. So that’s the end of that.”
I wondered if Morgan would say anything about Ian, or about kissing him. But either she didn’t remember or she didn’t want to say anything. I let it go.
“Morgan,” I said. Mostly I couldn’t stop thinking about how much pain she’d been in when Ian and I got to her house. “I’m so, so, sorry what he did to you.”
She shrugged. “I lived.”
I put a hand on her knee.
“Look. A lot’s happened while you were unconscious,” I said. “Someone—the police or the military or someone, I don’t know exactly—they took Shawn and Ian from the house. We can’t even reach them. Their phones are off, and they’re not calling.”
Morgan shook her head. “What the fuck is going on around here?”
“That’s not all,” I said. “I’m so sorry, but I don’t think you’re safe, Morgan. Before Ian got taken away, he was really worried about you. He thought someone would come after you. I don’t know why, or who. But that’s why we’re here.” I gestured at the hayloft. “Bryce has been helping me keep you hidden.”
“But . . . what? I don’t get it,” she said. “What would anyone want with me?”
“I don’t know, not exactly. But I think it has something to do with how you got so sick. I know you’re feeling better now, but Ian didn’t want to take you to the hospital because he was worried about what they’d do to you there.”
I looked at my phone. I was going to be late for the funeral.
“I have to go to Mr. Hershel’s service,” I said. “There’s no way I can get out of it. I don’t really know if you’d even want to go or not, but you don’t really have the option. We can’t let anyone know where you are right now. You’ll have to stay here with Bryce. I promise I’ll be back in a couple hours. We’ll figure out what to do then. Okay?”
Morgan nodded. “Okay,” she said. “I won’t go anywhere. Look, I trust you. Just hurry back. Seriously. Hurry back.”
Mr. Hershel’s service was at the farmhouse where he’d been born, grew up, and had spent his entire life.
Because the roads were blocked off surrounding Muldoon and nothing could be shipped in or out, my Dad had volunteered to build a coffin from scratch. Mr. Hershel had been well over six feet tall, and the large, rough-hewn box dominated one end of the living room. Its lid was closed.
Hardly anyone came. Mrs. Hershel sat silently throughout the service in the front row of the plastic chairs that someone had set up, but otherwise there were only a few close neighbors. Anyone who’d been able to leave Muldoon before the road blocks went up couldn’t get back into town now, and most people who were trapped here were too afraid to venture out of their homes.
Not only were Ian and Shawn not there, there wasn’t a single male who wasn’t elderly or a child. I wondered if all the able-bodied men were being whisked away, just like my husband and brother-in-law.
I tried not to think about everything that was happening. I just needed to get through the funeral so I could get back to Morgan and Bryce and figure out what to do next.
But the pastor was going on and on. Just as he was finally completing his closing prayer, I heard someone rush into the room behind me.
I turned, terrified that I’d see another military police officer sweeping into the room.
But it wasn’t the military police. It was Bryce.
He kneeled to whisper into my ear. I was embarrassed. I could feel the eyes of everyone at the memorial service. Just about every one of them had seen me drunk and dancing with Bryce at the bar, and now here he was disrupting the pastor’s prayer by talking to me.
“What are you doing here?” I demanded as quietly as I could. “Did you leave Morgan? Is she alone?”
“We have to get out of here.” Bryce was scared. He was trying to pull me from my seat. “Someone came to your house,” he said. “Men, armed. I heard them calling out for Morgan. But not just her, Ashley. They were looking for you too.”
The sound of boot steps suddenly came up the porch. “Now,” Bryce said. “We have to go now.”
He pulled me into the adjoining kitchen just before a troop of armed military police filed into the living room.
“What is this?” the pastor complained.
“There has been a warrant issued for the immediate detention of Morgan Hall, Ashley Young, and Reginald Wislowski. If any of these individuals is present on these premises, make yourself known.”
I turned to Bryce. “They’re after you now, too?”
He whispered, frightened, “What do they think I have to do with any of this?”
Thankfully, my dad had the wherewithal to lie to them. “I’ve never heard of any Reginald whoever,” he said in the other room. “But Ashley Young’s my daughter, and she’s not here. You know where she is? She’s out looking for her husband. Her husband who you people detained without any God damn good reason.”
“Sir,” the military police officer said. “You’ll need to cooperate. If arrests are necessary, we won’t hesitate to make them.” He shouted, “Everybody out! One line in the driveway! Single file. Any personal identification you can provide at this time, have it ready.”
We kept as quiet as we could in the kitchen while the living room emptied.
But now another squad of military police appeared at the back door. One peered in through the kitchen window. We had nowhere to flee other than back into the living room.
It had been mostly emptied to make space for the rows of plastic chairs. Otherwise, the coffin was the only object in the room.
We had barely a few seconds to figure out what to do before the military police finished searching the kitchen and pantry and then came into the living room.
Suddenly I flashed on something Ian had said before he’d been taken away. He’d said that he’d had to “take care” of Mr. Hershel’s body.
I still didn’t really understand what that meant, but on a desperate hunch I lifted the coffin’s lid.
It was empty.
My hunch had been right. Ian must have hidden the body for some reason. But who was he trying to keep it from? And why? For now, I couldn’t waste time wondering.
“In here,” I said to Bryce, holding the coffin’s lid open.
This was our only choice. We were surrounded. The only other option was to give ourselves up.
“No fucking way!” Bryce stepped away from the strangely empty coffin.
At any moment the military police would be in the living room.
“It’s your choice,” I said.
Without any better plan, I hopped up into the coffin.
In the kitchen, one of the military police shouted, “Clear!” Footsteps approached down the hall.
“Fuck it.” Bryce scrambled into the coffin beside me. He landed facing the opposite direction, with his feet at my head. I lowered the lid.
From the darkness inside, we could hear the sound of scrambling boots and the shuffling of the plastic chairs that had been set out for the service.
Now there came a tapping on the coffin. It was the tip of an assault rifle.
“We checking in here too?” said a voice.
Another set of footsteps approached.
“I’ve seen way too much lately to open up another fucking coffin,” said a second voice.
There was a pause. Neither of the men outside moved.
Finally, the first voice very quietly said, “Me too.”
Their boots scraped away as the men left the room.
“Are they gone?” Bryce whispered. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
I listened. Another set of footsteps, softer than the last, was approaching.
“Someone else is coming.”
Now the softer footsteps approached the coffin. They stopped right beside us.
We heard someone set something on top of the coffin’s lid.
There was the sound of someone going through a bag.
Then, next, there was the loud, grinding whir of an electric drill.
Someone was screwing the coffin’s lid shut.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck.” Bryce started hyperventilating. He couldn’t speak any louder than a terrified whisper. He pounded three times on the coffin’s lid.
Then he stopped. His body went limp.
He’d passed out.
“Hey!” I yelled. “Hey!”
I started pounding on the lid. It was time to give myself up. I was ready to get out of this already over-heated, cramped space. The game was up. Whatever was going to happen to us after they arrested us couldn’t be any worse than getting locked inside a coffin.
But the drilling didn’t stop.
I heard a second screw biting into the wood and felt the lid tighten. The meager light that had been making its way beneath the lid dimmed.
I pounded again. “Hey! I’m in here. I’m in here!”
“Shit,” someone said. It was a male voice, young. Maybe a teenager. “This is a loud one.”
“Don’t listen to it,” said another voice. It was another teenager. “You keep forgetting what they said in training.”
“I didn’t forget. It’s just loud this time.”
“Well, don’t even fucking say anything about it. When you say something it just makes it worse. Just pretend like you don’t hear anything. Let’s just get this over with.”
I pounded twice as hard on the lid. “Let me the fuck out! Someone’s in here!”
The drilling paused.
“It’s an illusion, remember?” the second voice said. “They’re dead. They’re not really conscious. It just seems like they are. They’re like puppets, remember? The bodies will die later. If we don’t do this, the disease is going to keep spreading. Give me the fucking drill.”
Another screw. Then another. The lid tightened again. The dim light vanished.
For a while I went into a state of disconnected shock.
I just couldn’t really believe that this was actually happening. I had this irrational sense that I was like some character in a video game who’d lost, but who would now just get to re-start from the beginning and try again. There had to be some way out. This wasn’t how I was going to die.
But when I felt them move the coffin into a vehicle, I started pounding on the lid again and screaming. I didn’t stop, not even when I heard an engine start and felt myself being driven away.
I paused only long enough to try to catch my breath and pull my cell phone out of my pocket.
In small towns in the middle of nowhere, coverage is spotty. As soon as you get outside the city limits, you’re lucky if you get a signal. We were already out of range.
Who would I have called, anyway? Ian and Shawn were unreachable. My Dad? What could he have done, even if I’d been able to reach him? The coffin was being escorted under armed, military protection.
I kept pounding and screaming, even though I was pretty sure there wasn’t anyone in the back of whatever truck or transport vehicle they’d put us in.
Bryce’s legs began to stir at my shoulders. My head was wedged against his shoe. He was waking up. My arm was burning from pounding the lid, and I was going hoarse, but I didn’t stop pounding and screaming. When Bryce remembered where he was, he started pounding too. He was crying.
I felt the vehicle make a sharp turn, then we started jostling over a rough road. We came to a stop.
There was the sound of a sliding door opening. Then, in the distance, I could hear a large diesel engine and a slow beeping.
It was a backhoe. I was certain of it. It sounded just like the one my dad had. The only reason anyone used a backhoe was to dig large, deep holes.
Bryce started sobbing harder and pounding the lid ferociously. For a moment I had a glimmer of hope when the wood splintered slightly under his fist. But realistically I knew there’d be no way he’d be able to break through. My dad was a good carpenter. The coffin was too strong.
“Fuck you! Fuck you!” Bryce was sobbing. His legs were flailing around, knocking into my shoulders. “Fuck you!” he screamed, again and again.
We felt the coffin being lifted by the backhoe. Someone must have put a rope or a strap around it, because we started swaying.
Then we felt ourselves being lowered. We dropped farther, then farther down.
Finally, the coffin came to a rest.
Neither of us stopped pounding and screaming. “Please!” I heard myself shouting. “Pleeeeease!” I said it over and over again.
Then there came a deafening whuuuf as the backhoe dumped a load of hundreds of pounds of dirt over the lid. The coffin jolted. The wood creaked. There was another whuuf of falling dirt, this one muted and barely audible.
And then there was only silence.
For a while neither of us spoke.
I could hear Bryce crying to himself quietly.
A moment later, I felt him slip a hand under my knees. He drew a deep, shaky breath in the darkness. He wrapped both of his arms around my legs, hugging them. He was kind of like a little boy hugging a teddy bear in the middle of a dark night.
It’s hard to explain what I felt then. Mostly I didn’t want to think about the reality of what was happening. So maybe I was in denial. I don’t know. But there’s just something about the presence of the last human being you’ll ever be with in the world. You share something with that person that no one else could ever understand.
I put my hand on Bryce’s knee, then I hugged my arms around his legs too.
For a moment claustrophobia seized me intensely. But I closed my eyes so the darkness wouldn’t be as consuming, and I forced myself to pretend that I was just lying in bed beneath thick sheets.
What I’m going to say next will sound absolutely crazy, and probably perverse. But when you’re desperate to escape a horrific experience in any way possible, you find a way.
I felt for Bryce’s belt buckle in the darkness.
I unclasped it, then I unbuttoned his jeans.
He froze. His entire body went rigid.
I’m small, and the coffin was made for a large person, so I was able to bend my knees a little and maneuver myself lower in the narrow space.
I reached into Bryce’s underwear and brushed my fingers through the coils of his pubic hair. Then, very gently, I slipped my fingers around his penis. It was warm. I could feel his heart beating.
His breathing deepened. He squeezed my legs tighter.
I was terrified of dying, but part of me felt more alive than I’d ever felt. A wave of obliterating attraction passed from my lips to my knees, then another. I didn’t want to think about anything but Bryce’s warm body.
He shifted his weight, and there was a moment of scooting his body around so that he could move his head inside my knees. Then he put his hand between my legs. I rotated my pelvis and pushed back against his touch.
I pulled his pants and underwear down around his thighs as fast as I could. I put his penis in my mouth. For a moment, all I could think about was making him come. If I could focus on just this and the pressure of his fingertips between my legs, then it didn’t matter where I was.
He was breathing harder now, and he was moving his hips, but very, very gently.
I felt him unbutton my pants, suddenly, and in one motion he straightened my legs, pulled my pants and underwear together down to my ankles, and spread my legs.
His breath was suddenly on my naked vagina. Very softly, I felt his tongue begin to trace my labia. In the next moment it twisted around my clitoris.
I couldn’t help but let out a gasp. His hands spread around my waist and down over my butt. I squeezed his penis, slid my lips over it again, and matched the rhythm of his tongue.
I came before he did.
For a moment I wasn’t trapped inside a narrow box. For a moment my world hadn’t gone to pieces. For a moment I was just a girl again. Unafraid. Alive.
He came right after. He must have been waiting for me. I felt his semen flow across my tongue. I squeezed my grip around his penis as tightly as I could. I hoped I’d made him feel as happy for a moment as he’d made me feel. I hoped I’d let him escape.
I held his semen in my mouth and tried to catch my breath. In a moment of strange, irrational self-preservation I thought about Mr. Hershel and the horrific infestation of larvae that had filled his skull cavity. I thought about the illness that had almost killed Morgan soon after she’d been attacked. I thought about the body I’d help Ian carry from the locker room, and I thought about what the boy who’d locked us into the coffin had said about keeping the “disease” from spreading, and I quietly spit out Bryce’s semen.
I knew I was about to die anyway. I knew that I’d already had sex with Bryce, maybe even without a condom, and if he was carrying whatever terrifying disease that was causing people to act so bizarrely, he may have already passed it to me. Or maybe I’d even passed it to him. But there was something that just wouldn’t let me let go of keeping every chance for life open, no matter how small it was.
Bryce hugged my legs again and rested his head on my inner thigh.
“I don’t want to die,” he whispered. He was no longer crying. It was just a simple, quiet statement.
I pulled one of his knees up and lay my head on it. I rested my hand on his leg and very softly rubbed my thumb back and forth, just to let him know I was still there, and awake.
He reached for my hand in the darkness and held on to it.
I clicked on my phone. Squinting in the sudden glare of the screen. I kept it on just long enough to see that there was only two percent of the battery left, and no reception to speak of.
I turned off the screen, lay my head back down on Bryce’s knee, and tried to prepare myself to die.
It occurred to me that if I kept turning on my phone, one time soon it wouldn’t turn back on, and after that I wouldn’t ever see any kind of light again.