Estimated reading time — 18 minutes
I lifted my head and stared into the surrounding darkness, completely unaware of where I was or how I had gotten there. I couldn’t see much of anything. It was very dark. Only two thin shreds of light came at me from the highest parts of the walls on either side of the room I seemed to be in. Not that my eyes could even find the walls with the pitch blackness enveloping my vision the way it did. The dizziness I experienced as I moved my head slightly to the side didn’t help matters much either. But move I had to, if I was to ever find out what had brought me to this strange place.
As I slowly began to rise from the cold stone floor beneath me, I felt a sharp pain in the back of my head. I planted my right knee firmly on the floor while my left hand anchored me to the gritty roughness of the spaced stones that supported me. With my right hand I felt the back of my head. It felt wet. I placed my fingers in front of my face, trying my best to see the blood that I knew was there. But it was still too dark and I was still too dizzy. My eyes hadn’t adjusted. But my mind was starting to. I began to remember things.
I remembered walking through town early in the morning, and finding the townspeople and their rag-tag shops to be a bit of a culture shock. The town had a sort of backwoods quality that was noticeable right away. It was my first time in Romania, but my fiancé, Gina, insisted I would fall in love with its old world charm. Gina and I had only arrived the night before. It was supposed to be our time. Work had kept us apart for so many months. With Gina’s promotion and my seemingly endless hours spent working the night shift, this vacation was supposed to bring us together in a country she was most eager to visit.
And what did I do, wonderful boyfriend that I am? First thing I did upon waking up was to leave her in bed. All so I could grab us what I had somehow expected to be some exotic type of Romanian breakfast. I didn’t even find a food shop. Just stores with trinkets and flowers and books and so many things not part of a balanced breakfast. I remembered thinking, as I perused the villagers passing by, that it might have been better to have stayed in Bucharest, a modern city, as opposed to the almost archaic country side of Brasov with locals that seemed to step directly out of a dated high school history text book.
I remember thinking this as I cut through that alley between the two buildings in my search for simply something to eat. That was where it had happened. The blow to my head had come from behind. And I had dropped instantly. Soon to awaken in a dark dingy basement.
The two windows above my head on either side of the room had grass and shrubbery visible. I was below ground and I knew it. I felt good about this. Not because of my location, but rather the fact that I was beginning to piece things together. My vision was coming back and so was my lucidity.
So I stood, or rather stumbled to my feet. I was still feeling weak. I looked around and tried to discern more of my surroundings as I held the back of my aching and apparently bloodied head. As my eyes began to adjust to the darkness, I noticed more aspects of the room. From what I could make out, the room had stone walls, the kind you would find in a church or castle. The room’s shape was partially circular, which made me think of the great turrets that castles were known to have. This was known to me only through books and documentaries I had seen on television. But here I was, inside an actual castle. I figured I was at the bottom of some tower.
Wonderful. My captors didn’t even think I was worth placing at the top of the building. Those rooms were usually reserved for the ever popular damsel in distress, similar to fantasies likely invented during medieval times. “Maybe I wasn’t pretty enough,” I thought to myself.
My mental attempts at humor calmed me. Because I was actually quite nervous. Most of you reading this would have expected me to go for a cell phone at this point in my adventure. But this was many years ago, during a time when cell phones were not readily available. No, technology wouldn’t get me out of the situation. I would have to rely solely on willpower and determination.
And truly, I was very determined at this point. Mainly because of the smell that I began to notice. It was faint, but strong enough to make me wince with disgust. It was something rotten—and all the urge I needed to leave. I used what little light I had available to scan the walls for a door. I couldn’t see anything that even resembled one. As I walked toward one of the windows, I noticed the dark object in the center of the room. It looked like a large crate or box resting on its side. I didn’t give it much attention as I was more interested in finding a way out.
I walked around the whole room and still couldn’t see any door. I felt along the walls as I walked around the room a second time, thinking that I might have missed a small opening of some kind during my first round. But I found nothing of the sort. No door, no grating, no cubbyhole—no entrance of any kind. I remember thinking to myself, “How the hell did they bring me here?” I then thought that I may have been lowered in somehow, perhaps from one of the windows. I looked up and peered closer at one of the windows above me and realized that there were bars within the space of the rectangular frame. I crossed the room, passing the box, and inspected the second window.
It was identical to the first. I stood below it and saw how high it was above me, about fifteen feet up from the top of my head, just below the ceiling. Even if I could scale the wall to reach it, how could I break the bars? Maybe they were old enough to bend and twist my way through, but again, getting up there appeared to be the real challenge. I thought of using the box in the center of the room for a boost, but at that moment I noticed the door I had been searching for.
It was about ten feet above the floor across the room. I walked as fast as I could, eagerness to escape driving me forward. I felt the wall directly below the metal door and noticed the impressions in the stones. There were about ten ridges, rough and concave, as though there had once been steps present. There were faded markings of a landing on the floor that seemed to confirm my theory.
I remember thinking “who in their right mind would remove the steps from this room?” But the answer seemed obvious when I thought of my dilemma. It was the perfect thing to do if you wanted to keep an American tourist captive in your Romanian dungeon if he’s dumb enough to let himself get captured in broad daylight.
That was when I thought of the time. How long had I been out? I checked my wrist as I remembered my watch. It hadn’t been damaged.
It was 11:12 AM. I had been out cold for about three hours. The thought of being knocked unconscious made me touch my head again. How bad had I been injured? Would I need medical attention? I thought of Gina. I knew she must have been worried about me at this point. But how close was I to the hotel? Did anyone witness this crime committed? Someone had to have seen me being carried away. The sudden realization that I had been kidnapped, and the subsequent thoughts of what those unseen kidnappers were planning to do to me introduced me to my first pangs of panic up until this point.
“Help!” I screamed it loud as I backed up from the door and stared up at one of the windows.
“Help me!” The words were coming out louder as they echoed throughout the room. “Please, I’m trapped down here in…”
I stopped myself with the thought that my captors would realize I was awake if they heard me and would try to silence me. I was quiet as I waited for something to happen, for someone to come. But no one did. I was alone—and this I found more frightening than being accosted. I actually welcomed a confrontation. Anything would be better than being stuck down here by myself for God knows how much longer.
I figured I could use the box I had seen in the middle of the room to help boost me up to the door. But I was struck with an unsettling chill as I neared it and realized what I was actually approaching. I hadn’t noticed it before because of both the darkness and my state of mind. But it wasn’t a box. It wasn’t even a crate.
It was a coffin.
A single coffin, long and ominous, greeted me as I got closer. I slowed with each step upon my realization. I stared at it, making out what I could with the light from the windows above assisting me. It looked old. Not at all a modern coffin. It looked to be black and wooden, something that seemed appropriate if used over a hundred years ago. Odd how I had mistaken it for a box. Although, technically, that was what a coffin was. I wondered what was inside—or rather who was inside. But because I had no desire to see the skeletal remains of some ancient Romanian, I decided against even touching it. I found it disturbing, and began to look around the room for another means of escaping. Perhaps a rock, or brick, that I could use to throw at one of the windows above me. If I got somebody’s attention, they could help me. So I scoured the room, feeling carefully around the floor and walls for anything that could come in handy. I checked carefully. I checked three or four times. But I found nothing.
I had been pacing for almost two hours, being sure to keep my distance from the box in the center of the room. So many thoughts raced through my mind during this time. Where exactly was I? Who brought me here? What were they going to do to me when they returned? When will they return? When would I get out of here? How would I get out of here? Would I see Gina again? Would the people that took me go after her?
“Help me, please!”
I screamed this and phrases like this over and over several times at the top of my lungs for what seemed like almost an hour. I didn’t care if my captors heard me. In fact, I wanted them to. I wanted them to come down here and show themselves so I could face them. I wanted a face to put to my predicament. I wanted to hit that face. I couldn’t bear being down here waiting for something bad to happen. I wanted it to happen now, this instant. I began pounding on the wall below the door that I couldn’t reach. My hand hurt as my fist banged against the wall. I knew it wouldn’t make a difference, the pounding, and the hollering. But I was frustrated. Who wouldn’t be in this type of situation? I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want to stay here. I didn’t want to…die here.
As soon as I thought that, I stepped back. The bottom of my hand was throbbing. My throat felt hoarse from all the screaming. That was the first time real fear had hit me. I thought of my vulnerability. What could prevent the men that kidnapped me from opening the door and firing a gun at me? I’d be a sitting duck. I’d have nowhere to hide. Unless I crouched behind the box. I looked at it. It laid there, like a silent beacon of what was to come, where I was to end up. That thought shut my mind down. I sat in the furthest end of the room, away from the creepy box in the center. I fought against staring at it as I rested my head in my lap. I began to cry. The tears flowed until they drifted me into sleep.
I woke and looked around the room. Nothing had changed. I was still alone, still wanting so desperately to get out of this dungeon room. I stood up and started to pace the room again. My wrist watch let me know the time, and the late afternoon sunlight that seeped into the room through the two windows confirmed it. I had been here for over four hours at least. I needed out. Now.
So with as clear a head I could muster under the circumstances, I started to think. The windows were too high up. The only chance was the door. But I could only reach it if I used that box to my advantage. I didn’t want to touch it. It was like there was some bad omen I felt would befall me if I desecrated that person’s resting place. I didn’t like the idea of stepping on the box, that dead person’s box, to get me closer to the door. It seemed…wrong somehow. But I really didn’t want to remain here any longer. So I stared at the box. I debated. And I stared even more. And I finally decided that I had no choice.
I stepped in front of the box, right above where the person’s head would be resting. If there actually was a body, or the remains of one inside, I didn’t know. Nor did I want to know. I hesitated before finally placing my hand on top of the box. The freezing sensation I suddenly felt shot through my hand and up my forearm and I pulled away instinctively. It was cold in the room but not as cold as the box I had just touched. It was as though the box was the cause of the coldness. Like it was some kind of a generator, keeping the chill persistent throughout the room. I shivered, my eyes unable to unglue themselves from the mysterious box before me. Was there something inside? Would I have to look? All I had to do was push the box toward the door and use it as a means to escape. There wasn’t really a need to peer inside.
I took two deep breaths and walked over to the base of the box. I touched the wooden top, and though the cold struck me again, I didn’t pull away this time. I grasped the box at both edges and began to attempt pushing it forward off of the wooden pedestal it rested upon. The box wouldn’t budge. It was one of the heaviest things I’d ever tried to move. I took a step back and stared at the pedestal it was on. I wondered if it was attached to it somehow. I inspected the base of the box and saw that it didn’t seem to be attached. There was space in between. Yet the thing just wouldn’t budge.
I thought it may be lighter if the contents were emptied. There had to be something inside. More than just skeletal remains. Perhaps, this particular box was used for storage.
I let a few minutes go by before I decided I had to open the lid. I stood on the right side of the box and placed my hands on the edge of it. Once I curled my fingers under the lid, I began to lift it open. I worried I wouldn’t be able to just as I hadn’t been able to move it from its perch. But the lid began to rise without difficulty. The lid creaked as I slowly raised it, and as I did I caught a whiff of that scent I had noticed earlier. The scent had remained for the past few hours, lingering throughout the room like a faint unwanted specter, but I had grown accustomed to it. What I had a problem dealing with was the sudden waft of putrid air that seemed to shoot directly at my face as the lid opened wider. It occurred to me rather quickly that the scent had been coming from inside the box the whole time. I lifted the lid as far as it would go and looked down at the thing that lay inside.
I couldn’t call it a man. It had the figure of a man, yet the face was that of some hideous ghoul, its green hued skin more visible than anything my eyes had struggled with in the darkness of the room up until this utterly nightmarish point. I stepped back as I took notice of the thing’s mouth and the razor sharp teeth that protruded from it. Its eyes were shut, as though it were in the deepest of sleep. I dared not wake it. I couldn’t help but scan the rest of this beast. It was dressed in a black cloak similar to what a monk wears. The pallor seen in its face was also present in its hands, which lay crossed over its chest like it were some deformed man, long since deceased. But this was no man. Men didn’t have talons for fingernails. Men didn’t emit such foul odors like that of a rotting corpse. Well, I suppose dead men did. Was there actually a corpse in front of me? I felt sick. I closed the lid and limped toward the wall to throw up. Soon after, I gazed back at the box in disbelief.
Was it a man? Was it a mannequin of some kind dressed up in some grotesque costume, placed there to scare me? My captors would have expected me to look inside. It was the only thing inside the room, so of course I would have looked eventually. But to what end? To lead me to disgust? They had succeeded in that. I knew this to be true as I reasoned that the thing in that box was some poorly decomposed person. It truly was a corpse. Another scary thought entered my mind as I wondered if this was the last man that had been left alone in this room. Was that my fate? To rot as he had? That was the last reminder that I needed to get out of this place. I was sick to my stomach, I was cold, I was tired, and I hated every second I remained entrapped within the confines of this horrible room.
But the only way out was to move the box toward the doorway. I couldn’t move it before, and I had exactly no intentions of removing that thing from its resting place to make it lighter. So how could I escape? What could I do? I paced some more, thinking of every possible move I could make, hoping that someone would show up in the interim, even if he was a threat. Threats I could deal with. Dying of hunger in the dark I could not. I was desperate to find a solution.
Time passed and I had come up with nothing. I glanced up at the window and realized that the sun would be setting soon. I had a little over an hour left. At about six, it would be dark. I didn’t want to be stuck down here with this thing in complete darkness. I rubbed my arms as I felt colder, staring at the box, dismissing all the crazy things that passed through my mind.
I thought of all the insane theories that you, dear reader, have already entertained: That what lay in that box would rise up when the sun went down and feed on me like some bloodthirsty monster. But that was nonsense. The people that took me were hoping for those very thoughts to haunt me. This was some type of sick joke. Maybe all Americans were treated to this type of hazing in this country.
“Damn Romania and damn you, Gina, for making me come to this crappy country!” I made my plans to get even with whoever was responsible for this travesty. I was so angry that I banged on the top of the box’s lid.
“Wake up and eat me!” I screamed. “I hope you choke on me, you son of a bitch!” I kicked the base of the box but that did nothing but injure my foot. I thought I had broken it. I limped over to the wall and sat down, rubbing my foot and ankle as I hurled expletives at the air around me. I sat there for several minutes, slowly allowing my anger to fade.
The sun was beginning to lower. I could tell as the room grew dimmer. I couldn’t let the sun disappear without trying one last time to escape. I didn’t know how, though. Moving that box was my only hope and it was too heavy. It didn’t help that I had just hurt my foot. Now I wouldn’t have leverage. Not that I had it before. I lowered my head, and with defeat entering my mind, I was starting to convince myself I could somehow last in this room overnight. I was so hungry and thirsty, I didn’t know how I could manage that. But what choice did I have? I felt hopelessness wash over me. The tears began to well up in my eyes again.
Until I heard a noise come from inside the box.
A fear like I had never experienced enveloped my entire body, chilling my very soul. I knew what I had heard. It sounded like a grunt accompanied by a slight rustling. Like somebody was stirring. Like somebody was about to wake up.
I shot up from the floor, not caring that my foot still hurt. I made a move toward the door that was still out of my reach as though I had a plan. I stopped in my tracks when I realized that I did not. But what plan could I employ other than the unthinkable? That I would have to place my hands on that box, that terrible box that I was certain a noise had emanated from only seconds ago, and move it toward the door. I already had tried that to no avail, and even if by some miracle I was able to get it to budge on a further attempt, I simply had no desire to go near it. Not after that noise. After that…
No. I was hearing things. I was in the room all day and my mind was starting to play tricks on me. There was no noise. It was hunger. It was fatigue. Not some…thing, just my imagination. But what was fact to me was my need to leave this place now. Before the sun set.
So I hobbled over to the base of the box, bad foot and all, and placed my hands upon the cold wooden edges and strained with all my might to push the box forward. I gritted my teeth and kept my feet planted in place on the stone floor. Pain shot through my ankle, up my leg as I pushed with everything I had in me. I shook so much I felt the vibrating of the box’s lid as I finally, after a great deal of moaning and heavy breathing, felt the box give way ever so slightly. The box moved. I had dislodged it. I felt a moment of triumph come over me as I began to get the box to slide over the pedestal.
Then I heard the growl. It was faint. But definitely a growl. It had come from within. I let go and stepped back, my blood running ice cold as I stared at the box. I saw it move. I know I had. The lid had moved slightly. I waited a few seconds but nothing happened after that. All the crazy thoughts that I swore not to think, flooded my mind. The thing in the box was waking up. The sun was going down. I looked at my watch which I could barely make out due to the very little sunlight that remained.
I was going to die if I didn’t get out of here. That box was my only chance. If the thing was what I thought it was, if that thing was going to do to me what I thought it was going to, I needed to push that damn box over to that door and climb. I needed to do that now. I grasped the base of the box again, ignoring how badly I was shaking. I continued to push. The box began to slide forward. In a few seconds it would fall off the pedestal.
Would the impact wake it up? I thought of the teeth I had seen in its mouth.
Push, damn it. Push. Push, because either way you would be dead. Better to take the chance. Better to get the box over to the door and escape with minutes to spare than allow that thing to wake up and have its way. I shoved, straining, shaking, sweat freezing on my cold brow. The thud that the box made when it hit the stone floor after sliding off the pedestal echoed throughout the room. I paused only for a moment, expecting something to happen. Nothing did. So I continued to push, knowing that I wouldn’t feel satisfied until the box was level with the floor. I cursed myself for not doing this earlier when the sun was still up.
Thinking this, I looked toward the window. There was barely any light left. The bottom of the box hit the floor and I shoved it, having to lean further forward now that I didn’t have the wooden pedestal for the extra few feet of leverage. My back was aching but I didn’t care. I pushed with all the strength I could muster.
“Come on, come on,” I muttered under my breath, trailing off at the end of the sentence, worried that the thing would hear me. A few steps was all I needed. Just a few more steps. The head of the long box reached the wall just under the door where the stairs used to be. I evened the box out, pushing it at the base so it was parallel with the wall. It would give me an extra four feet once I stepped on top of the lid. The box would be my stairs. Somehow I had managed the impossible. The fear was motivating, but the energy I had expended had been too great. I collapsed, landing on my side. I think I sprained my right wrist, but I didn’t know it, didn’t care. I was too tired. Too scared. So scared I couldn’t stay on the floor a second longer.
As I stumbled back to my feet, I looked at my watch for one more reassurance that I had time left to make my escape. I shook so hard I could barely make out the time. But it was indeed six. There was no sunlight left. Nothing I could see anyway. I wasted no time. I stepped on top of the box’s lid. The lid felt light, like I may fall through if I didn’t step carefully. I got onto my tippy toes and reached for the base ledge of the door.
The tips of my fingers touched the base of the door ledge that once had led to stairs before the thing in the box had them removed so that people like me couldn’t escape. People like me were grabbed by its minions during the day and dropped here like food. I pieced all of this together, like a reluctant narrator, as I clawed at the base of the door. That’s what the mind does. It constructs logic, even when logic is nowhere to be found. There was no logic in this room. Just a thing in the coffin below my feet. Just the growl that erupted as the lid of its resting place flung open, propelling me back onto the hard floor.
I clutched my arm, now feeling the pain of a fracture as I watched the thing emerge from its hiding place. But it was no longer hidden. The faint sliver of moonlight seeping in through the window made everything clearer than it should have been. It moved like sleek liquid as its black cloak appeared to dance out of its box like a cobra reacting to a flute, the green face of pure evil and malice turning its attention to me slowly. Its eyes were luminescent as were its ruby lips, curling back to reveal the sharpest fangs with a menacing growl that rivaled the most ferocious dog I had ever come across. It glided out of its resting place as I backed away on the floor. I held my arm up to ward it off as though that would stop its advance. I had never been so scared. And I never would be again.
Before it hovered over me, the foul odor returned. It clogged my nostrils so that I couldn’t help but choke on the sickening stench of a thousand corpses. I tried to breathe, but coughed out bile, never again to suck in air as it pounced. It sank its razor sharp fangs into my throat. I remember trying to fight it off, but feeling my limbs break under its weight. I saw Gina’s face, clear as day, her loving smile a beacon for me to cross over to.
Everything got dark after that.
My eyes opened, wider than they had ever been before. It was still the same night, still the same room. But the darkness didn’t exist anymore. I could see the room clearly now. Every stone, every bit of grain in between, was clearly visible. I gazed toward the window. And what only a few hours prior might as well have been a million miles away, was within arm’s reach now. I burst through the window like a missile, knowing my destination well. I would reward Gina for suggesting we come to Romania with the greatest gift I could give her.
The kind of gift no box could contain.
Credit: Jayson O’Neill
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