Authors: Janice Kaplan
I carefully unlatched the bracelet, and holding an end in each hand I held it against the taut rope segment that ran from my neck to the loop. I started sawing, half expecting the cord to shred like the string cheese I put in Jimmy’s lunch. But after long minutes of trying, I’d barely sliced off a few fibers.
Well, so what? This wasn’t much different than going to the gym and working out with weights. One set of reps, followed by a brief rest, then another set. Stick with the program and you saw results.
I went at it again. Fifty pulls back and forth. Rest. Fifty pulls. Rest. Fifty pulls. Rest. Fifty…
The last strands gave way and I touched the now-severed end of the rope. I’d done it! I felt a surge of triumph. I couldn’t wait to tell Dan how his birthday gift had saved me.
And then, just as quickly, the elation sapped from my veins. Tell Dan? How did I plan to do that? The desperate reality hit me, made worse by the brief fantasy of freedom.
“Help!” I screamed. “Somebody help!”
I’d never been claustrophobic before, but the tight space suddenly seemed intolerable. I pounded my fists furiously against the top of the casket and kicked my legs as frantically as a toddler having a tantrum. My knee smashed into the wood and a stinging pain coursed through my leg, but I just flailed more frenetically.
“I have to get out! Get me out!” I screamed to some unknown—and nonexistent—savior. Hysterical, I smashed my foot incessantly up against the coffin wall, willing the pointy toe of my pump to drill through the wood and let me escape. Saved by Dolce & Gabbana? But almost immediately, the shoe crumpled—boucle silk being no match for mahogany.
“Ouch!” I yelled, as my big toe suffered the impact. “Ouch! Help me! I can’t stand it!” A distant part of my brain heard the out-of-control panic but didn’t have a clue how to control it.
“I’m going to die here! This isn’t fair!” I hollered. Then, howling and hollering, I roared, “This isn’t fair! Someone save me!”
What greater dread could there be? I’d been buried alive. Inside a coffin, buried alive. The grimmest nightmare of every slasher flick.
could be a Disney Channel promo next to this.
“Get me out! I don’t deserve to die this way!” I screamed. Then I upped the volume, almost blowing out my own ears.
“Get me out of here!!”
Nothing could be worse than this horror. Nothing, nothing, nothing!
At least it’s you, not Jimmy.
The thought of my baby was like a glass of cold water dumped on my madness. I abruptly stopped flailing, and my screams echoed off into silence. Whatever misery I felt, I had one job: to get back to my three children. I couldn’t abandon them. I had to find Jimmy. I had to protect Grant and Ashley.
I lay very still, assessing the damage. My throat hurt from the screaming and my knuckles stung from being grated against the walls. Sweat dripped down my forehead and my blouse clumped against my damp back. But my emotions were back in check.
Which meant I could think—and make a plan. At home, I lived by making lists; I could do the same right now, organizing the options in my head.
First possibility: A white knight would come to rescue me. I’d always been lucky in life—from marrying Dan to finding my favorite Fendi for half price on eBay. Why not assume I’d be blessed now? Frat boys would choose tonight to scamper through the tunnels with mischief in mind and spray paint in hand. I’d yell, they’d save me, end of story.
Nice tale, but even King Arthur couldn’t find me down here. The tunnels wound endlessly under the campus, and the coffin sat hidden far off in a corner where nobody would be likely to prowl. Muffled by the thick wood of the coffin, my screams for help would travel just a few feet. Even if the heroes of my fictional frat heard yelping, they’d attribute it to ghosts (or rats) in the tunnel—and rush to get out.
As my mother used to say, You have to make your own luck.
Second possibility: Find a way to signal for help. If we could send messages to Mars these days, I should be able to tell someone where I was. But my pocketbook had long since disappeared, whisked out of sight forever by Elsa. I didn’t have a cell phone or a BlackBerry or even a whistle. I scrounged in my pocket, as if I might unexpectedly find one of those devices that locate skiers buried under thirty-foot avalanches. Instead, I came up with one embarrassingly scruffy used Kleenex. Something else Mother said: Carry a pressed handkerchief. If only she’d added, and bring an emergency flare.
Any other possibilities? When there’s nothing left, you have to do something. I rummaged around until I felt the tennis bracelet that had dropped at my side. If it worked once, couldn’t it work again? This time, instead of ripping through a rope, I had to cut a big enough hole in the side of the casket that I could slip through. It might take some time—but I didn’t exactly have a bus to catch. I sucked in my stomach, to convince myself that the hole didn’t have to be so big. Then I pinched a few of the diamonds on the bracelet between thumb and forefinger and, with jaw set, began scraping at the wood. And scraping and scraping. And scraping.
In the pitch dark, I had no sense of how much time passed, but the narrow bracelet didn’t seem up to this task. My fingers got swollen and sore. My nails cracked and began breaking. I touched the hard wooden panel on which I’d been working and felt only the slightest indentation in the area. I had to stay positive. Keep going.
An hour and you’ll be out
, my best cheerleader voice insisted.
I started scraping at the wood again. Quantifying the passing time might give me some perspective, or at least a moderate sense of control. Easy enough.
One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand.
When I reached
I said “One minute” out loud—then started the chant again.
Rub, scrape, count.
Ouch. I stuck the sorest finger in my mouth and licked off the blood. No time to feel sorry for myself. Keep going. I wouldn’t get discouraged.
Nothing existed anymore except my little ritual.
I pictured myself shimmying through the hole. Pictured Dan kissing me and the children hugging me.
I took a deep breath and allowed myself to stop long enough to assess my progress. I tentatively touched the wood again. Tears popped into my eyes. The definition of futility. Almost an hour, and I’d made only the smallest ridge. After so many years exposed to heat and vapor underground, shouldn’t the wood have softened just the teensiest bit? Apparently, a coffin ready to carry its occupant into eternity didn’t surrender to a steam pipe.
I lay very still, crossing my hands over my chest. The classic movie pose for a corpse. I brought my hands back to my side. No sense prepping for my own funeral.
The make-a-hole strategy had been reasonable enough. It just hadn’t worked. Time to reconsider. Everyone always talked about thinking outside the box. I had to think—and get myself out of this box.
Okay, I’d just pretend this was one of those “Ask Marilyn” logic problems I read every week in
. Maybe Marilyn was in the
Guinness World Records
book for having the world’s highest IQ, but I’d been number three in my class in Rural Oaks High School. Or maybe number four.
Problem: Lacy is trapped in a locked casket.
Wait a minute. A coffin didn’t usually have a lock. I’d been to enough funerals to know that after the lid came down, nobody worried that the corpse could climb out.
But I’d heard Elsa throw the bolt. Just to be sure, I gathered all my strength and heaved upward against the lid. Nothing. I pushed again. No movement. It was locked tight.
I assumed that no funeral parlor had a sideline in locked caskets, so Hal had probably made the creepy alteration before he brought down Derek. A simple enough fix for someone moderately skilled with tools. I’d watched my handy husband Dan do plenty of projects at home like this. All he’d have to do was drill two holes in the right spots, slide in the screws, then fit the lock across them.
I ran my aching hand up and down the edge of the coffin where lid and bottom met. Nothing but smooth wood. But who could really tell? My fingers seemed to have lost all feeling during their hour-long assault on the wood. I tried again with the palm of my hand, slowly covering every inch.
And got stabbed by the sharp edge of a screw.
Perfect! Never had a cut felt so good. I focused all my attention on that thin screw. An eighth of an inch from the end, pressed against the wood, were two small metal pieces, spread from the screw like tiny wings. My heart beat a little harder, but I tried not to get excited. I could be wrong, but my best guess said it was a toggle bolt. I used them all the time (or had the contractor use them) when hanging a heavy picture on a Sheetrock wall. Like when I hung the Rothko in Roger Crawford’s study. The wings lay flat against the screw until you pushed it through, and then they spread out to grip either side of the hole. They worked perfectly when trying to secure something to a hollow space—which Sheetrock happened to be.
And what could be more hollow than the inside of a coffin?
I knew my sore fingers couldn’t budge the screw. I needed traction. I grabbed the edge of my blouse, but it was too short to reach. I tugged at the buttons, then squirmed around until I could get it off. See, I really was lucky. I happened to be wearing a linen Calvin Klein. A silk blouse would have been too slippery.
Whispering a little prayer, I wrapped a corner of the blouse around the screw and turned. It took a few tries, but finally the metal gave. I pushed hard—and sure enough, the wings retracted and went through the hole. I heard something clank on the outside of the coffin.
Heart in my mouth, I found the second screw and repeated the process. Turn the screw, push. Nothing happened. Push again, harder. Nothing.
In my excitement, I’d angled the screw sideways instead of straight ahead. I took a deep breath and carefully tried again. As if by magic, the wings pulled back and went forward. The other side of the lock had been freed. I pushed again, and this time the screws and toggle bolt gave way fully—and the lock they held in place clattered noisily to the ground.
Thrilled, I clapped my hands together. Bravo! I deserved a round of applause. But I didn’t want to get too exhilarated yet. Almost afraid to try, I reached up one more time and gave a firm shove to the coffin lid.
Which groaned and squeaked—and lifted.
I did a half sit-up and kept raising the top.
Just like that, I was free.
autiously, I swung my legs over the sides of the coffin. My legs felt stiff and sore and my arms ached, but I didn’t seem to have any permanent damage. I pulled my blouse back on, kicked off my broken shoes, and stepped onto the hard ground. I hesitated for a moment, listening. But Elsa would have left long ago, confident she’d finished her job. And determined to protect Hal rather than make him an accomplice, she wouldn’t have shared her plan.
I took a few shaky steps. After escaping the coffin, I felt oddly calm, confident that I could find my way out of the tunnels. I stubbed my toe, hit a few dead ends, and bumped into wire-strewn walls—but eventually I turned the knob on a door that opened.
A moment later, I emerged into the cool night air.
The campus still seemed lively, and, finally able to look at my watch, I saw it was just after 9
I’d been trapped for hours—though it felt like days.
I had no car keys, no phone, no money. A student hurried past me in the opposite direction, and I reached out to stop him.
“Excuse me, could I bother you for a moment?”
He looked at me, then shied back. “Are you okay, ma’am?” Unwittingly, he touched his hand to his neck, and I realized I still had on the noose necklace.
“Oh, this.” I untied the ends I’d so painstakingly cut and let the rope drop to the ground. Looking down, I realized that in the pitch dark, I’d fastened my blouse like a madwoman. Buttoning it now to get everything lined up wouldn’t make me seem any saner.
“Should I call the campus police for you?” he asked.
I shook my head. Not the campus police—they would just warn Elsa. Not the Westwood police, either. I’d track down McSweeney and Wilson. But first things first.
“Listen, do you think I could borrow your phone to call my husband?”
He handed it to me, and shakily I dialed. Dan must be frantic with worry. Jimmy gone. His wife gone. I imagined the police had been mobilized and Dan would be out desperately combing the neighborhood. Poor man. Whatever I’d just been through, his night must have been equally filled with panic.
“Hello?” Dan said, picking up his cell phone on the first ring.
“Dan…” My voice broke. An hour ago, I didn’t think I’d ever hear my husband’s voice again.
“Hi, babe. How are you?” he asked. He sounded unexpectedly cheerful. I could hear a mariachi band in the background.
“I’m…fine,” I said. His question had been generic, without any edge of concern.
“Want to join us at South of the Border? Tacos are better than usual. I’m here with our three fabulous children.”
Dan’s Mexican night with the kids. I’d forgotten. He must have figured that was why I hadn’t come home.
“Jimmy’s with you?” I croaked, hardly able to speak.
“He’s one of our three children,” Dan laughed.
“Bingo. You got the other two.” He turned from the phone. “Hey, kids, Mom remembers all your names,” he teased. I heard giggles.
“Did Jimmy…” I hardly knew what to ask.
“Jimmy had fun on campus this afternoon,” Dan said helpfully. “Great that you arranged it. Grant brought him home. We had a little confusion because you hadn’t mentioned anything, but it all worked out.”