He claws awake in close, utter darkness, the scream tightening in his throat. He has no idea how he’s gotten here, no thought for whatever he was before, only knows that whatever he was is now trapped in a little narrow box of a space. With a shove and a gasp he flies up, the coffin lid breaking apart in his flight.
The man shakes his head, stares about gasping with those panicked breaths that he’s gradually realizing do not draw air. His coffin floats in a pool of oil-black liquid under a dull grey sky; other coffins bump against his, floating alongside, just as dark as the substance that bears them.
In fact, with a yawning indefinably huge fear churning within him, he looks about and sees that there are nothing but coffins, coffins and shadow-black ocean stretching beyond even the concept of a horizon. He is dimly aware of something far off in the distance, set an eternity beyond any number of bobbing coffins, a light that is somehow dark, shining weak through the gloom.
Framed against this ambiguous light he sees her. A woman, clothed in what might be black or what might be white; her aspect shifts before his unblinking eyes. She’s beautiful in a way that he can’t describe, not beautiful in any way that he desires, but beautiful in the way that a storm cloud or a tumultuous ocean is beautiful.
Tousled black hair blows in a breeze he cannot feel, drawn totally horizontal as if some gale blew at her back. Her eyes glitter in his direction and he detects an alien version of what seems to be surprise. Gliding over what could be water, she comes his way, drawing fingers that dangle at the ends of arms that seem far too long for her body along the surface, the ripples gently tousling the coffins about them.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” she says, her voice far more casual than he’d expected.
“Where?” he says, trailing off, instinctively realizing the question’s useless.
She touches his face with a finger, and it does not feel like a finger. It feels like a tendril, like an insectoid proboscis, like some pseudopod made of something that could only fit the basic description of matter.
“Between life and death,” she mutters. “This happens sometimes. I do not know where you were destined for, traveler, but when one comes awake as you have, they have a choice. Your path may be set upon eternal glory or eternal suffering; I know not the deeper nature of either. What do you think? How did you live your life?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t remember.”
“They usually don’t, but I figure it’s worth asking in case one ever does,” she muses. “Would you like to go back? Back to your life, to what you know as reality?”
He wonders, wonders at what that’s even like. But something fundamental in him reaches for it in a desperation he could never put into words.
“Please,” he gasps.
“Fair enough,” she says, and the black waves wash over him, dragging him down. He looks up through the murk, sees her a moment more as one last lingering pinprick of something not unlike light before the darkness washes over him and he awakes.
Clawing awake in close, utter darkness.
This time, when he slams his hands against the coffin lid, it does not budge; dribbles of earth rain in between the cracks in the wood. He feels the bursting pain in lungs denied air, feels the sting in his throat as he tries to scream. He claws until his nails rip from his hands, screams that dry scream until he can feel his throat tear, and still he does not die.
Distant he hears what sounds like the woman’s otherworldly laughter, and his mind breaks beneath the looming weight of eternity.
When he is not writing weird fiction, Dennis Conrad is a high school language arts teacher, giving him the perfect captive audience for his bad amateur stand-up. His works have been published in Third Flatiron's Brain Games: Stories to Astonish anthology and the short story collection Gather Round: The Internet's Scariest Campfire Stories.