Death. Darkness. Ralph’s entire world revolved around those two things. It had always been so, and he saw no reason to believe it would ever be otherwise. And yet, he expected more. He needed more. There had to be something beyond the corpse stench, the eternal night filling everything. Hadn’t there been more, once… before?
Before what? He shook his head. If this had always been, how could there be a before? Ralph hammered a fist in frustration. A muffled thud answered. Shouldn’t that hurt? But what did it mean to hurt? Memory stirred, rose and sank beneath dark waves, offering only a bright glimpse of a brown-haired woman weeping at his side. He clutched his chest and nodded. That flare of remembered agony. That was pain.
Who was the woman?
He growled and tried to lash out. Questions provided their own pain. They droned and needled incessantly, but nothing he did could drive them away.
Something kept him from venting his anger. Every blow landed on a soft, yielding surface that boxed him in on every side. His hard-soled shoes drummed top and bottom. His fists beat a steady tattoo to either side. Even his head knocked on something when he tried to sit up. No matter how hard he struck, it failed to yield more than a soft thud. He tried to weep, but no tears came.
Vanessa cried enough for us both.
He twitched at the thought. Vanessa… was that the woman? It felt right. Another memory surfaced. The woman–Vanessa–sobbing and begging: “Don’t leave me, Ralph. Never leave me.”
He could hear his own voice, frail and barely audible: “I won’t.”
That vow burned through him. It spoke of a world beyond the darkness. It promised him more. If only he could reach her.
Roaring, Ralph rammed both feet against the top of his prison. It refused to budge. He struck it again. Again. Again. The wall creaked. He rained blow after blow until wood splintered and shattered. Flesh tore under the onslaught, but he didn’t care. He felt no pain. Indeed, he felt little beyond a growing need to be out in whatever world existed beyond this box. And underneath the panic, hunger.
He found dirt. It poured inside. He clawed his way through thick, gooey earth, frantic to climb free. Hunger and alarm grew with every stroke. Vanessa’s tear-streaked face filled his vision. She begged him over and over again not to leave her. She needed him. He’d promised. So he dug.
His right hand broke through first, followed by his left. He emerged and looked around. He had never dreamed of such space. A bright circle overhead spread silver light over an otherwise darkened world. Stone crucifixes and other markers surrounded him. Ralph climbed unsteadily to his feet. Now freed, hunger gnawed at him, driving him forward. His steps hurried. He stumbled over tree roots and headstones, but he had to keep moving.
Vanessa needed him. And he needed her.
Jeff Parish is a 30-something native Texan. He and his wife have a girl and two boys. He started writing in middle school, where he concentrated mostly on (bad) fantasy tales and (even worse) poetry. His writing skills developed over time, much to his delight and the relief of everyone he forced to read his work, and he gravitated to prose over poetry. He eventually decided to make a living as a writer, starting work at a small newspaper in Greenville, Texas, nearly a decade ago. His newspaper career was suffocated in its sleep in 2006 after he realized journalism might be a noble profession, but slowly starving his family to death was not. He’s had stories selected for Flashing Swords, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Triangulation: End of Time, Gryphonwood and Courting Morpheus, among others.