By Liam Hopkins
I dreamed of death. Shadows of my dreams flitted by me, pulling along pieces of memory, but when I reached out to grab hold of them, they shattered in my hand. Forced to float listlessly, I glimpsed the past—or possibly the future: a foggy night made of the kind of mist that clung to your face and closed you in. I thought I saw a man, but when I asked him his name, my words pierced the mist and all was silent. Then I heard a heartbeat. I had heard it all my life, but now it was different; it echoed. First, a familiar sound then second, a vibration of a hammer striking the head of a nail. The warm tune of my existence hummed, then the indifferent and cold note of metal on metal sounded. I sank back under the silence of death—no, of sleep.
I awoke. I opened my eyes, but it was as if I had not. Darkness rested heavily on my chest and made me cough. The air had the taste of dirt: not the kind that nurtures trees, but of dirt tinged with metal. It stabbed my tongue. Overpowering this, however, was a flavor I had become familiar with: one of death; a rotting, dripping death, but for me, it was the fragrance of my normal life. I had known nothing else for so long.
I shivered in the darkness and I moved my arms to the sides, only for them to scrape against rough walls of wood. I tried to sit up, but almost instantly my head slammed against another wooden board. My thoughts were tossed and dashed as if against rocks, until, with a moment of calm, I realized what my discoveries meant: I was in a wooden box.
The darkness pressed heavier than ever as. I pushed against the unyielding wood, but to no avail. In my fit, my right arm pushed against another, softer mass, but I took no heed as it was not a way of escape.
I soon stopped fighting. I breathed hard and with much labor in the stifling blackness. There was a metallic taste in my mouth. A drop of blood had run down my face and slid into the corner of my mouth, awakening my mind to my thirst.
I lay still and forced myself to exercise my reason. I slowly reached out and ran my left hand along the side of the box, feeling the fibrous wood. This box was rectangular in shape. Endeavoring to find some handle or hinge to indicate a door to my prison, I returned to the mass I had felt before. It was not rough like the splintery walls; when I pressed on it, I realized it was more cushiony in some places, and several of these places had some kind of substructure with the hardness of stone. I pinched the mass and pulled my hand away, and the softness stretched with my fingers: a fabric of some sort. With a curiosity that pushed away fear, I ran my hands around the mass. My hands felt—no, it couldn’t be—an ear, a nose, lips, and feathery spindles of hair. All my senses failed and I was overcome by darkness. I returned to the deathless death.
My foot must have struck the wall of my box-prison in my sleep, seeking escape still: the roof shifted and dirt sprinkled onto my face and into my nose, causing me to sneeze. I awoke once more, back in my pitch-black nightmare. I sneezed again and brushed off my face. The sounds seemed far too mute, fading away in the void of the box. And the earth, and the smell of earth, everywhere … With reason returning to me, I realized at last that I was buried in a coffin with a corpse. I dreaded touching the body again; I tried instead to remember how I arrived in this place. However, my memories scurried away like rats from the reach of a torch. I decided I must be somewhere in Florence, as I hoped I was not far from my home; anything more was impossible to remember.
There was no alternative. In order to clear away the mist in my mind, I focused on the body beside me. My shaking hands crept over its garments and its cool skin. I judged that it was that of a male. Shorter and thinner than myself, most likely only the body of a boy. Then, around the wrist of the body’s left arm, a sticky liquid—I jerked my hands away, but already they were covered with blood and pus from the sores. I wiped my hands and shuddered. Or rather, no; my body had not moved; only my right shoulder. The shoulder pressed against the body. Then I heard it: a whispery breathing that was not my own.
Its small arm shifted, discharging terror into my body; it was now touching my side. In my earlier panic, I must have not heard its breath. Fear caused madness to overtake my mind. It was no longer the body of a boy, but of a creature of nightmare; I heard its muscles rippling underneath its garments. The soft groan that escaped his lips was a rumbling growl to me. If it awoke, it would surely tear me apart, for I could not escape the coffin. I could not control my body. My hands stretched out to my side and found the creature’s neck. The space was so cramped, so dark. Soon the body began to convulse. I had a great flash of frenzied pleasure, and laughed at the invisible wooden walls. It was hours; I think it was hours; perhaps not. Finally my hands fell away. My ears listened for any sign of life, but there were none.
There was still a beating in my chest. I had only done it to protect myself. It was just a body, but I was still in danger from it. I could have been infected if it had coughed. No, that’s all wrong. I had saved the boy from a slow death by the plague. I had done it for him. I was in a worse place than he was. I was in a coffin with a corpse. In the dark.
I felt around in the darkness again, keeping away from the corpse this time. To my surprise, up behind my head, I discovered a rope. I followed it up to the corner of my coffin; from there it disappeared. It had some slackness to it, so I pulled. Faint and muffled, I heard the ringing of a bell. Wait, I knew this device—I was in a safety coffin! I did not know why I had been thus buried with a corpse, but it was a mistake and someone above could rescue me from my doom. I pulled frantically at the rope, hearing it sound above me over and over again. Suddenly there came another muffled noise, a crunching sound. A weight above me pressing down, then letting off, then pressing again. Footsteps.
They stopped somewhere above. I yanked on the rope harder and harder. However, something had changed as I heard no bell. The crunching of feet in the dirt slowly faded. I stopped pulling. They had left me. There was a moment of silence.
Then I screamed. I howled, I clawed at the sides of the coffin, kicked the wood, tore at the corpse beside me. I punched the roof which caused more and more dirt rain down around me.
When I began to feel light-headed, I realized, too late, that there must be almost no air left in the coffin. I fell back to the hard, wooden bottom and swooned. The dream shadows flitted past, faster than before and in greater numbers. A cold wind swept across my face. I heard them whisper as they grabbed me and carried me along on their dark flight. Then I gasped and my eyes fluttered open. The moon … her bright white face shone upon me and the figures surrounding me. I swooned once more.
Liam Hopkins is currently a junior at New Covenant School in Anderson, SC. He enjoys reading, playing volleyball and ultimate frisbee, and listening to music, with his favorite genres being indie pop and modern rock. He is a Boy Scout and loves outdoor activities. Liam has not decided for certain what he wants to pursue in college but is considering dentistry or engineering.
Student contributions to the Journal (essays, short fiction, and poems) are written by just a handful of outstanding CLT examinees: less than 1%, from the uppermost score range on the day they took their test, are eligible. Well done to Mr. Hopkins for his outstanding score, and his excellent story! If you liked this story, take a look at some of our other pieces here on the Journal—these student essays on the problems of utopianism and hospitality in The Lord of the Rings are exemplary, and you might also enjoy this post on comedy among the great ideas, or this profile of the ancient Greek poet Hesiod. And don’t miss out on the official CLT podcast, Anchored, which just surpassed a grand total of 250,000 downloads!
Published on 10th February, 2023. Page image of a headstone from Plymouth County, Massachusetts, photographed by Dee E. Warenycia (source).