It was the little things I missed the most, like a smile or colour or twisting my ring around on my finger—my ruby rose. Mike would be so sad I couldn’t wear it. And I once thought David would be so sad that I did. But I guess time changes our assumptions. Or our hearts.

“I wonder what he’ll do—David—when Jason shows him the memory of what he did to us,” the imagination said.

We didn’t need to wonder, though. “David will hate me for letting Jason hold me the way he did in the tree.” That was supposed to be David’s right. He told me once, so long ago, that the touch of human skin to a vampire was like a thousand kisses of ecstasy; like satiating an eternal hunger with the warmth of one breath. He’d never forgive me for giving that to his brother.

I wished I could go back—tell him I was sorry. I should have stayed on the dance floor with Mike; I should never have gone with Jason.

“But you knew that then, didn’t you?” she asked. “You went with Jason, knowing deep inside that he was dangerous. You tempted Fate, tempted danger, so David would realise how precious we are to him, and stay with us forever.”

I thought about it for a second. “If that’s true, then I am one big, epic fail, and I will never see David again—never find out why he didn’t show for the last dance.”

“Don’t you remember?” the imagination said, smiling. “He told you that vampires leave and move on without saying goodbye—without telling people why.”

I nodded. “Yes, because it raises more suspicions when questions are asked. They simply send a letter resigning from jobs or schools and they’re never seen again.” As I finished the sentence, realisation struck me worse than shock. “Is that what he did to me? Did he leave me, and I never saw it coming? Did he convince me that he’d come back so that I wouldn’t try to find him?”

“I think you already know the answer to that question, Ara.”

“But it is right. David didn’t come…because David never was coming.”

The remains of my existence suddenly gave up in that one moment. If I could have been speechless or stared blankly, I would have. “Then he really is just as nasty as the memory Jason showed me.”

“Yes,” my imagination snickered, “and you were just another victim of his cruelty.”

An alarm clock set my mind on wake; its incessant bleeping stirring me before I was ready. But the sun, usually always up at this hour, was missing. I blinked a few times, thinking maybe my eyes were still closed, and as my breath came back hot against my own lips from a flat surface right above me, I jumped suddenly. Dread filled my lungs out, making my world sink backward. I placed my hands in desperate layers over the sides, the top, the base of this space I was laying, folding my toes down, pushing against the hard there, making my head hit the firm surface above it.

“Hello,” I called, but my voice came back dead absorbed by the wood it fell against. And the tiny box got hotter and smaller around me, my shoulders folding in, narrowing my lungs.

I felt my heart—placed my hand right over it to see if it was beating, but I couldn’t feel it—couldn’t feel the wound on my neck or my wrist or anywhere. They’d healed. They were healed and I was in a box.

A chain of fierce screams burst suddenly from my lips, blocked only by the forcing drive of each blow of my elbow, my knee, my foot being cast down on the solid surrounds. “Please don’t leave me here.” I scratched the wooden roof, my fingers splintering. But I didn’t care. “Please. Please, God. Please.”

I coughed out suddenly, the air leaving my lungs in a vulgar bark, fine particles of earthy powder spiking the back of my throat. The box compressed my shoulders on both sides, stopping my lungs from expanding, denying me the breath of relief I fought for.

I stopped moving then. Stopped kicking, breathing, everything, and laid perfectly still, listening to the flow of dirt rain down in a heavy pile over my ponytail, cooling my head through the strands of hair.

The first rule in this situation would be to not panic. But my chest moved in quick hitches. My fingers balled up so tight my thumb cut my hand, I was sure, and I couldn’t stop the thoughts entering my mind, things David told me—vampires, buried alive for seven days. They survived. They lived through that, tortured, alone, unable to breathe.

“David!” I bent my knee to the highest angle it could achieve and jammed my foot against the floor, pushing on the lid of this coffin, thrashing about like a beetle caught on its back. “Ahh!”

“Ara,” a muffled voice came gloriously through the wood then, thick with grief.

“I’m in here!” I screamed. “Mike. Get me out. I’m in here.” I banged on the roof, making the dirt pile grow. But I didn’t care. Mike was there. He’d get me out. He’d—

“Just squeeze my hand,” he said, cutting off my thought. “Please. Just once. That’s all I need.”

“Mike. I can’t,” I screamed. “I can’t get out. I’m in a box.”

I waited, listening, but this container seemed to be soundproofed—from the inside. I tried to sit up, to move, to struggle against the pine confines, but the dirt formed a mound under my head as I lifted it, pushing my nose closer to the lid, arching my neck at an awkward, unnatural angle. And panic returned with a layer of sweat, turning the dirt to mud around my temples and nose. “Oh God.” I looked up, shutting my eyes tight. “Please. Please get me out of here.”

My thoughts halted at the sound of another voice.

“No. Doc says her heart’s not coping,” Mike said.

“Time will tell.” The other voice sounded void of all emotion.

“Where are you going?” Mike’s tone peaked with incredulity.

“She needs rest, and my being here is....” There was a long pause. “Pointless.”

Only a sigh followed that, leaving me by myself again, confined in a space made for those not living. I shut my eyes tight and took slow, deep breaths through my mouth, tasting the raw, almost freshly-cut pine against my lips. I tried to imagine pretty things—butterflies, the sun—not the crawly and possibly undead creatures that might be buried beneath me. I would run out of air soon if I didn’t calm down.

And strangely, as my belly lifted and fell with each breath, the air trembling out of my tight lungs, so too did the panic.

I looked around the dark box for what felt like the first time, and instead of pitch black staring back at me, I could make out the ridges in the panels and the oddly-angled nail sticking out beside my eyebrow.

They’d put me in a box—not a coffin—just a pine box; laid me down, closed me in and nailed it shut. But I would find a way out of here. Come Hell or high water. This would not be my death, and if it was already my death, I’d be damned if I’d let it be my eternity.

“How is she?” The voice echoed through my endless night, resonating from somewhere behind me.

My eyes shot open and space, cool and airy, greeted me. I brushed my arms, feeling as though there’d be dirt there. But I was clean. I couldn’t remember where I’d been or why I’d be so dirty, but I felt dirty and starved for air.

“Pardon?” I said, looking up, searching the empty room for a crack of light to mark my position.

“Her monitor changes when I speak. See?” he said, and I got the sense then that they weren’t talking to me.

“It’s just static.” As soon as that man spoke, I knew it was Mike. The other one sounded almost too smooth to be Mike; liquid, if that was the right word.

“It’s not static. Look, she can hear me.”

“Fine,” Mike said in a tone that indicated a set of folded arms to go with it. “From what I know, the doc says she can.”

“Ara? My love.” Mr Smooth sounded closer than before. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “Please? Please come back to me?”

“Excuse me. Are…I’m sorry, are you talking to me?” I called.

I blinked a few times, noticing only as I looked down at my feet, that my feet weren’t actually there. I held my arm out and ran my fingers over it, feeling the soft skin, but couldn’t see it. There was nothing there to identify me; no nails, no skin colour, no age spots or bracelets. Not even a bed or a surface to show what kind of room this was; maybe it was a prison, a hospital, a bedroom—a padded cell, perhaps even a ballroom with no people. Could even be the White House, for all I knew. But that word, Ara, rang a bell somehow.

I dropped my arms to my sides, quickly yanking my hand back when it touched something cold. It stung, like dry ice, sticking to me even as I shook my fingers.

“Did you see that?” the stranger said. “I think…I think she just squeezed my hand!”

“It was probably just a flinch. She does that from time to time.” I heard the silky pages of a magazine turn.

“Maybe,” the smooth voice said, dejected. “It just seemed almost like she was shaking me off. Do you think she…?”

“She what? Knows you’re here? Hates you?” The pages flicked again, and it sounded as though a metal-legged chair scraped along vinyl. “Chances are, she was shaking you off. Maybe you should stop touching her.”

I frowned, looking down at where my fingers were supposed to be. And, like a puppet master, I focused on them, closed them tightly and squeezed the nothing, letting go when that voice laughed, cheering with praise again.

“She did. She squeezed my hand. Look.”

“What do you mean she squeezed your hand?” Mike’s voice came from closer than before and, though it was still dark, I felt space around me—felt him near me. The echoing mist of eternity flowed out through the cracks in my subconscious, leaving me solid, heavy. Really heavy. I didn’t remember being this heavy. I didn’t remember having laid down, on my back, but when I tried to get up, my chest stayed stuck, glued to my spine against this flat surface.

“Ara.” The smooth stranger interrupted my moment of confusion.

“Ara,” he said again, as if I hadn’t answered him.

And now I was getting cranky. It had been God knows how long since I’d eaten, felt the sun, slept, or even seen my own toes, and now this person was talking at me and not answering. I just wanted to get out of here—wherever here was. I just wanted to go home to Mike and lay in his arms. I was tired of the dark—of the black. I couldn't even remember where I'd been all this time or even why Mike was important to me.

“She’s not in there, man,” Mike said. “And if she was, she’s not gonna come to the surface for you.”

“Oh, I see, so you think she’ll wake suddenly to your soft, whispering confessions of love, do you?” Mr Smooth said sarcastically. “Do you have any idea what she and I—”

“Stop it. Both of you,” a woman said. “It’s three o’clock. Take yourselves home and get some sleep.”

“Fine,” the other man said, and I heard his breath, felt it suddenly close to my face, though there was no one in this room. I held my own breath, scrunching my eyes. “Ara?”

But before I had a chance to answer him again, the surface quaked suddenly under me, my legs tilting through the earth, angling my entire body away from existence. I reached out, panicked, grabbing at imaginary branches as my head followed my feet, sliding downward. There was no wind and no trees for which to show my descent, but I felt it—felt the earth rising up under me.

I tensed all over, ready to hit the surface, but nothing ever came—only the emptiness of my eternal, hollow Hell.

I didn’t bother to cry this time as the darkness swallowed me, and hope had been lost so long that I’d never truly allowed it back in. I simply existed. In the dark. Alone. My body alive out there somewhere, an empty vessel in their living world, while my soul was slowly dying beneath it.

I frowned, clearly having woken to the middle of a conversation.

“I know,” Mike said. “They’re gonna put her on a breathing thing.”

The smooth voice sighed. “I don’t want that for her—she’s been through enough.”

“I know, mate, but it’s for the best.” Mike’s warm energy emanated from his voice somewhere near. I wished I could feel him, like, actually touch him. “I can’t lose her. I’d rather see her with a tube down her throat than in a coffin.”

“Don’t you think that’s a little selfish—prolonging her life merely to save your own grief?”

“Only as selfish as to wish she’d die so you don’t have to wonder where she is, what she’s doing, for the rest of your life,” Mike spat.

“You know nothing about what I wish for this girl,” his smooth voice cracked like a volcano erupting. I could hear the rumble of anger raging too close to the threshold of release. “If I could heal her, I would, but you don’t know what she may be suffering in this sleep, Mike. For all we know she’s—”