Title of your work: 1770
She woke to complete darkness, thick and black and impenetrable. Fear of being alone in the dark flooded her, and she reached out for the lamp that sat on her bedside.
Her hand hit something solid, inches away from her body. The blow, unexpected as it was, sent pain jarring up her arm and into her shoulder. She tried to bring her other arm round to massage her shoulder, but as she lifted it, she hit something else with her knuckles, hard wood, directly over her head.
Trembling, she moved both hands upwards, palms towards the heavens, until they touched the hard, knotted surface. It was no more that six inches from her face. Panic rose in her throat like bile, quickening her breathing and sending hot shivers through her shaking body. She moved her hands slowly to her sides and outwards until they hit solid wood again, less than six inches from her sides.
I am dreaming.
It was her first thought as her fingers curved against the rough wood, exploring the dimensions of the darkness. I am dreaming. It was what she’d always told herself when she woke up in the dark, alone and afraid. I am dreaming. She would chant it to herself until the lights came on, or the sun came up, and she could admit she was awake and safe. I am dreaming. And so I can wake up.
She closed her eyes and red and green lights swirled under her eyelids, making her feel dizzy. It was hot in this darkness; sweat trickled down her forehead and when she felt it, she knew she wasn’t dreaming.
A soft moan bubbled past her lips and in her mind she was in dozens of places all at once. She was trapped deep beneath the earth. She was locked in a cupboard. None of the scenarios worked though: none of them fitted the heat, her horizontal position, the tiny space she was in.
She remembered, oh so vividly, the tiny cupboard at home that her sister had revelled in locking her into, exploiting her confessions of claustrophobia and achluophobia. She remembered pounding her fists against the wood until splinters lanced her skin, screaming for release and hearing only hysterical laughter answer her. Hours, sometimes, she’d been locked in there. All night once, until she was shaking with fear and abject misery and had vomited all over the floor, until her father had let her out and whipped her for her foolishness in getting herself trapped.
That same threat of vomit taunted her now, coating the inside of her throat with a sugary, orange-juice taste. She swallowed it. That same terror of being trapped, alone, lost, flooded her and she couldn’t banish that.
She sought desperately for some logical part of her mind to cling to, told herself all those little things she told herself every time this fear gripped her. There’s nothing in the dark that wasn’t there before the light went out. But she didn’t know where she was, so that was no comfort.
She placed her palms flat on the wood overhead and began to pound, rhythmically. Someone will here, someone will come and let me out of here before the darkness gets me. Someone will come. Someone will come. She beat the message out, listening for the telltale signs of rescue: muted laughter, perhaps, or the steady thump of approaching feet.
There were no sounds except the sound of skin smacking wood, the sound of her own breathing, pushing past her dry lips hotter and harder and faster with each passing second. Nobody was coming. Nobody had heard.
The shrill sound of her own voice bounced off the close walls, hitting her ears like a physical assault. She lashed out with hands and feet, kicking, punching, scraping, smacking, howling. She pummelled the wood until her fingernails snapped and she felt blood running down her palms, hot and sticky, trickling down her bare arm in slow, horrible rivulets.
She shrieked until her throat was raw and tears streamed down her face, dripping into her hair in tiny, salty pools. She screamed until her breath wouldn’t come anymore and she was stifled by lack of oxygen and she knew she would suffocate long before anyone heard her screams.
That sudden black burst of knowledge cut her now-strained screams dead. She was wasting oxygen. This wasn’t a cupboard, with thin cracks of light and air at the edges. This place was tightly sealed, black, airless. To scream was to kill herself.
Moaning, she pressed her bloody fingers to her mouth, biting down on her splintered nails to keep herself silent. Coppery-sweet blood coated her tongue, making her gag and choke. Her head lolled to her side as she vomited onto the cool, smooth surface she lay on. Wet and slimy, it matted in her long hair, creeping towards her neck and making her writhe and bang her sides on the thick wooden wall as she tried to move away.
In her mind, the mocking laughter of childhood bullies roared and echoed, blocking out her own shallow, gasping, sobbing breaths. Under their laughter, her own voice chanted endlessly: there’s nothing in the dark that wasn’t there before the lights went out.
Except the only thing in this darkness was her. And she didn’t know where she’d been before the lights went out.
A full moon sailed, fat and solemn, across the cold November sky. Not a single cloud to block its path or cloak its light. It was a dangerous night for a resurrection man: Jack and Will knew that. They had left their lanterns at home tonight; the moon made them redundant. But they stayed cautious because the moon also made them vulnerable. Anyone passing by the graveyard might see them. Normally they wouldn’t work on the night of a full moon, but Doctor John Hunter was paying them double for this run, eager for a fresh specimen for his medical students. It was worth the risk.
‘Here,’ Jack whispered, beckoning his partner to a headstone untouched by the elements, free of moss or lichen. ‘This one looks new.’
Will, the literate member of the partnership, bent to examine the headstone, reading the inscription aloud for Jack’s benefit. ‘ “Mary Sheppard, 1739 – 1770.” Looks fresh,’ he added, pushing his toe into the damp, freshly turned earth. ‘Must be the girl they buried last Friday.’
‘She’ll do then,’ Jack said eagerly, jamming his shovel into the earth.
They began digging together in a quick, established rhythm, every now and then looking around to check for passers-by. As they dug deeper, they turned up worms with each spadeful of earth, and the graveyard smell of decay and damp, mouldy wood, perfumed the crisp night air. They worked in silent, always alert for the smallest noise. The penalty for grave robbing was death.
Before long, Will’s shovel hit wood with a dull thump. They knelt down to scrape the last layer of wet soil away with their hands. It was a simple matter to punch their shovels through the wooden lid of Mary Sheppard’s coffin. As they did, new smells rose to fill their air: the stench of vomit and blood.
‘Shit,’ Will breathed out as moonlight fell across the coffin. He turned away, covering his mouth with his hand.
Jack, hardened and of less imagination than his partner, leaned over the coffin, snapping the wooden panels with grunts of effort. In the silver beams of the moon, he saw hands, curled into claws and coated in blood, raised as if poised to attack. Eyes, dull now, but stretched wide with terror. The mouth open in a horrible grimace, a bloody parody of a smile. Vomit was smeared across the floor of the coffin and plastered to one side of the woman’s face.
Jack met Will’s eyes. His voice was strangled as he asked, ‘not this one?’
‘No,’ Will whispered, dropping his gaze to the broken panels Jack had pulled from the coffin. The knotted wood was dented and scratched and smeared with blood. ‘Not this one.’