There is only darkness. She blinks, trying to focus, but the black presses in: a warm presence, engulfing, suffocating. She reaches out, wondering if she is floating in a vast, starless sky...and her hands connect with wood. Reaches up...and her hands connect with wood. Hard wood, she realizes now, supports her back. She takes in a great quivering breath, wondering how much air is left for her. This is too unreal, she tells herself and once more reaches around herself, fingers groping like subterranean insects, sensing only by touch.
The box in which she has been trapped is little bigger than she is. At best, there are only a few inches on either side of her, above her. Before the panic sets in, she touches the holes drilled in the top of the box.
But even with the assurance of an air supply, she is terrified. Bile rises up to lodge and burn in the back of her throat. Although she trembles with cold, her body is covered with a slick veneer of sweat. She swears she hears blood pounding, constricting her temples. Her chest feels tight, as if too great an intake of air might cause her heart to burst.
And then the panic takes over, the adrenaline pumping through her like an electric current and she is slamming herself from side to side, lunging upwards, clawing the box's top with her fingernails. Clawing and clawing until she can feel hot points of pain at her cuticles and the warmth of blood there.
She's screaming, but she might as well be gagged. Her shrill cries carom off the box's interior, bouncing around inside. Her hot breath is sour, leaving a bad taste.
"Please!" she shrieks. "Please, you have to let me out! I can't stand this!" She kicks until her breath is ragged, until it's coming so fast she begins to hyperventilate and it's not just the box that's closing in on her, but her own lungs.
And then, and then (and this is the part where everything goes cold), she hears a key being fitted into a padlock above her. The soft clicking of the key as it turns suddenly becomes the only sound. No more cries. No more pounding heart. No more blood rushing in her ears.
Just a key being turned in a lock and then the rush of cold air as the box is slowly opened.
She scrunches up her eyes and wills her body to disappear into the wood
She will not look at him. Will not. Cannot. Look.
But her eyelids flutter anyway.
A dark hand draws closer, above her, closer, until nothing exists but that hand pressing down on her face.
Miranda awakened sweating, the sheets twisted in a ball next to her. The striped ticking of the mattress, with its topography of stains, looked dull in the gray light pouring in from the bedroom window.
Miranda sat up and ran a hand through her spiky red hair, another trembling hand across her cold, sweat-slicked face. Her temples throbbed, her throat was dry.
Outside, the el train rumbled by, carrying commuters south, to their jobs in the Loop: downtown Chicago.
She recalled the date: just a couple days before Christmas and the scattering images of her nightmare and the simple chronology make her tremble. Miranda reached out to the milk crate beside the mattress and shook a Marlboro out of the pack, lit it with trembling fingers.
It had been four years. Miranda stood and walked to the window. Outside, Lawrence Avenue was already bustling, the cars like insects, busy and hurrying, the buses roaring and throwing plumes of dark exhaust into a cloud-choked sky.
Four years ago. Miranda had made the papers then, so had Jimmy, War Zone and Little T, a girl she never knew, a runaway called Julie Soldano. They had all been kidnapped by a sicko called Dwight Morris. Kidnapped and imprisoned in his basement on the west side. The dream was already growing murky, but not the memory: how she had been kept, like the rest of them, in a coffin-shaped box crafted of plywood. It had been Dwight Morris's intention to rid the world of street kids, mere children who kept his passion for them alive. By eliminating them with the cleansing tool of fire, he must have thought he could rid himself of his own personal demons.
Whatever hell Dwight Morris now rested in, she hoped, was filled with demons.