Barry buried me in the Escape Cube, six feet down. Though it’s not a cube. It’s a plexiglass casket, more of a rectangle. I built it, Barry named it, and he convinced me to test it, but it’s been too long since I stopped hearing dirt shush against the plexiglass top. Maybe he’s still pissed about the time I misplaced the key and after a half-hour of writhing we had to knife him out of the straight jacket in front of the San Bernardino Lion’s club and all their booing grandkids. I said I was sorry. I didn’t complain when he docked the jacket’s price from my pay. Now I’m thinking bygones aren’t all gone.
My phone reports its twenty-percent battery life left, and maybe I should turn the light off. But everything inside the Escape Cube seems louder in the dark—my breath, my skin squeaking against the plexiglass, the whispering dirt grains piling at my ankle. I’ll probably keep the light on until it dies.
Staring into a plexiglass wall of dirt, I confront the fact that I’m in my forties, earning an income subsisting of whatever scraps Barry feels like paying me. I can’t even get the under-the-table construction jobs anymore, and they sure as shit won’t let me build anymore stunt props on the studios since the accident. You know the one. Video went viral—the kid’s shiny red shoe twitching for too many seconds under all those sheets of collapsed OSB. Barry embraces death. Mortal inevitability—he told me when he hired me two years ago—infuses the show with a necessary pulse.
Should I have crammed myself inside this box even though I’m terribly claustrophobic, which Barry is certainly aware of? Jokes on him. After thirty-three minutes down here, I’m feeling much better about small spaces. I’m sold on exposure therapy. I glance down at my bare toes, my twitching feet. I think of the trapped kid’s shiny red shoe and rehearse the regret of how I should’ve used twice as many deck screws, that goddamn director rushing me. Next comes pondering plexiglass joint strength, that acrylic cement clear as water against however many tons of earth, against so much weight stacked over my face. I’m aching to stretch my limbs. So maybe traces of my claustrophobia linger.
Probably I deserve this. I told him an escape-from-the-grave act didn’t seem best for an elementary school. What about rabbits in hats and bright bouquets erupting from thin air, I’d said. I could hack together a flashy trap-door box for a disappearing act, I’d offered. He clapped a hand against my cheek, pulled my forehead against his, and said so slowly I thought I’d melt: We are not magicians. We are escapists.
Yeah, Barry. Of course, Barry. My bad, Barry. But I would like to point out that I am not an escapist. I’m strictly props. I’m the hammer and nails, the measuring tape and drill bit behind the curtain. I’m the saw.
But this all might be about Kate. Miserable Kate who I didn’t even fuck. It never got anywhere near that far, and it’s not like they’re married anyway. A ring, a promise, stretched over five years, until we get a Las Vegas deal, does not a commitment make. Yet still I refrained. Kate snotted all over my car about how Barry doesn’t trust her, still hasn’t introduced her to his dying grandmother Poleski, about how Barry only goes down on her for thirty seconds, exactly thirty, every time, and then makes a joke about how Houdini could hold his breath for four minutes but he was the master. Worst of all, she uttered through tears, is that Barry won’t even tell her the secret to how he escapes from the grave.
Me too, Kate. Me too.
I’ve already kicked and punched my hands raw, but, what the hell, I’ll take up another round of flailing. I’ve also already screamed my throat raw as gravel, coppery with blood, so this time I just howl, high pitched, as long as I can hold the note, which is much less than Houdini could hold his breath and probably about as long as Barry’s cunnilingus.
The trickling dirt has completely buried my feet now, and that’s on me. Bad seal somewhere. I’ll probably die in here, suffocate or be crushed like the kid and their twitching red shoe. I thumb a few texts to my mom, my favorite English teacher, my sisters, all about the same: Thanks for the good times. Guess you were right about Barry. I never thought I’d hurt anyone. If you find my body, please don’t bury me again. Set it all on fire.
My ears ring from all the howling, or maybe they’re not ringing. Maybe it’s some kind of subterranean echo. Maybe the worms have taken up my hymn. Maybe that kid is siren-singing me to join them. I clamp my lips and hold my breath to test the sound’s reality. It rings. It sings. It begs me. It rises and falls. Metallic. Beautiful as a shovel exhuming earth, as my salvation. The kid and their shoe won’t stop twitching if you just keep replaying the video and never let it end.
Dustin M. Hoffman is the author of the story collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He painted houses for ten years in Michigan and now is an associate professor of creative writing at Winthrop University in South Carolina. His stories have recently appeared in The Masters Review, The Adroit Journal, Washington Square Review, The Journal, and The Threepenny Review.