All Stories, Fantasy

Witness Mark by Emily A Garfield

A witness mark is a groove, a dent, left by people gone before. Sometimes they’re deep, gouged, gone over so many times by people, living and reliving moments on moments. Sometimes they’re just a scratch, easily sanded away.

It was Catia’s first time waking up in a coffin. It would not be her last.

She tried to call out, but her lungs felt as if they were full of dust. Her hands were cold, deathly cold, when she pressed them against the satin lining of the box – thin and cheap, she could feel the box through it, cold as wet earth. It was at the thought of dirt, miles of dirt above her, and worms, and tree roots, that she managed to cry out. Her throat felt as if it was lined with ground glass. She beat her hands bloody trying to punch her way through the solid wood. Her chest hurt.

She stopped struggling, lying as silently as her pounding heart allowed, when she heard something thud against her box. It sounded – metallic, almost a ding. A voice called out – to her?  – outside. She prayed that it was someone there to help her. 

Several more minutes of dinging and scraping and voices calling out, and then something was being forced into the coffin, prying the lid off. When they finally lifted it away, a bright, white light shined down on Catia, blinding her. She turned her head away from it, and a man’s voice called down to her.

“Hi, there,” He said, “Give me your hand.” He had a soft voice, deliberately soft, as if he was trying to comfort her. He lifted her out of the grave with some effort, his companion helping him. Upon inspection, he was a skinny and tall, with pale, freckled skin, and ginger hair. He had a gap in his teeth when he smiled at her, patting her on the arm. She didn’t know if she liked that smile.

The woman – also tall and ginger and pale, but with thick arms and legs – lifted a jacket around Catia’s shoulders, resting her hands there for a moment. Catia didn’t know if she liked that either. She wanted to ask them what was going on, but her mouth couldn’t seem to remember how to form words. The man put a bony hand around her elbow and led her away from the now gaping hole – the grave – towards the gates. She stumbled a few times, her feet unable to keep a straight line, as if she was drunk. But her head was clear. Clearer, perhaps, than it had been before.

The car smelled like lilies and musk, once they reached it, like a bad choice of perfume.

The man looked at her in the rearview mirror, his hands white on the steering wheel, “I’m Bobbie. This is my sister, Tara.” He smiled again. Catia definitely didn’t like his smile. It was strained.

His sister didn’t acknowledge her further, just sat silently, staring out of the passenger side window, moving her head only to turn the radio up. It was playing some awful rock song, the kind John used to listen to. It drilled into her head now just as much as it did then.

“I’m sorry,” Catia snapped, “Can you turn that down?” Tara made a face, but did so, “And can either of you tell me what exactly is going on?” She leaned forward, between the two seats. Before, cars had always made her a bit uncomfortable. There were so many ways for things to go wrong with them. Now, looking out onto the wet, dark road, which reflected the yellow headlights of the strange car back at her, she knew: there was only really one way for things to go wrong, and it seemed as if it had already happened to her.

“Um -” Bobbie shifted in the driver’s seat, the seat belt digging into his neck, “Why don’t you sit back, and we’ll explain when we get home, yeah?”

“Where’s home? Where are we going?”

“You’ll – just – just relax, okay?” He seemed slimey, to her, but nervous, too. She supposed that if she had a dead girl sitting in the back of her car, she might be a bit nervous, as well. She leaned her head back against the headrest and watched the lights move, forward, forward, ever forward. Tara watched her in the rearview mirror. She had fox-like eyes, quick and sharp. Bobbie lifted an arm to wipe droplets of sweat off the back of his neck, curling the sleeve of his grey hoodie over his hand to do so.

Tara opened her mouth to say something, but Catia couldn’t make out what it was, hearing instead only the squealing of tires on the wet road, the grinding of the breaks. The car seemed to fill with the warm, yellow light of oncoming traffic. She felt the car spin, and the familiar sensation of her neck snapping sideways, her hair flying into her face and her open mouth.

John always looked nice while he was driving. Catia’s mother had said he had a James Dean quality, once, but she didn’t know if she agreed. He had dark hair and wore white t-shirts, and that was where the similarity ended in her mind. He did have nice hair, though.

The radio was up very loud. She felt like she was in a dream, watching him through glass. She asked him to turn the music down, and he turned his face towards her. Maybe he did look a bit like James Dean.

“What?” He asked, raising his voice.

“I said ‘Can-you-turn-it-down?!”

He did and the car was suddenly almost silent, only the whispering strains of whatever awful song he was listening to still audible. Catia liked pop music, and he teased her for it, but he listened to it when she was around. When he picked her up from work, he always had the radio set to a Top 40 station.

Green hills rolled alongside him. She felt sick, “John,” She said, not knowing what else to say. He wasn’t really paying attention. His mind was somewhere else. He hummed in answer to her, and then turned his James-Dean-but-not-really face toward her, lips pressed together, and then his eyes went wide. She felt something coming towards her, inevitable, massive. He could see it and she couldn’t. Catia!

Her neck snapped again.

The second time she woke up in a coffin, she did not scream. Her throat did not hurt so much this time, but she was cold, her fingers aching. She beat the lid again, knowing it wouldn’t do anything. She struggled to remember the boys name, the boy with the bony fingers, the red hair…

“Bobbie!” She remembered, breathless, “Bobbie!” She cried, again, and then fell silent, listening for the scrape of a shovel. Nothing, so that she could hear. She wondered if you could hear someone shouting from under six feet of dirt, if it was muffled like when you threw a towel over a speaker, or if it made no sound at all.

Some time passed, she couldn’t tell how long, and then the somewhat familiar sound of the box being pried open, and Bobbie’s very pale, confused face leaning down towards her. He helped her out, again, but looking around, she couldn’t see his sister. Catia had dirt in her hair.

“Tara isn’t here,” He said, dreamily, as if he wasn’t really there, “Have you seen her?”

“No!” Catia snapped, “I have not seen her. I have very much been in a box since the last time we were all together!”

“I got out the car. She wasn’t there then. She was supposed to drive here,” He began to walk toward the gates, the gates that read Drummond Catholic Cemetery, before turning back to her, “She was saying something to you… do you remember what she was saying? I can’t -” He put a hand up to his head. She couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.

“I don’t know. I’m sorry. What’s -” But he was already gone, walking back towards the gates. He had very long legs, and she struggled to keep up with him, but eventually, they reached the car. He fumbled with the keys, “You really want to get back in there?! After what happened?!” She could hear herself getting hysterical. She supposed that shock or magic or drugs or whatever all this was caused by could only hold you together so long. She was vaguely aware that whoever had dressed her had put her in comfortable shoes, and thankful for it.

“I need to – she could just be at home, and if she isn’t, I have to call the police, or – or, something!”

“Something!” Catia laughed, “Something is certainly happening, but I couldn’t tell you what.”

“Just get in. Get in!” He waved his hands wildly and eventually she relented, climbing into the back seat. The engine sputtered, but started, when he turned the key. She could only hear Bobbie breathing, the radio silent. She had the absurd thought to ask him to put some music on and started to laugh again. He glared at her in the mirror, taking his eyes from the road – it was winding, picketed on each side by pine trees. He should have been paying attention, the road was wet. She was about to say so when they swerved to avoid hitting something, tires squealing. Bobbie was shouting something. Her! Her!

The car spun, stopping horizontally on the road, the headlights illuminating the deep green of the trees and the dark spaces in between them. Bobbie’s head was bleeding from a gash on his forehead, but Catia was uninjured. She turned, to see what he’d tried so hard to avoid, and saw: Tara, standing in the middle of the road, looking like a dejected child with her arms at her sides. She looked deeply unhappy. She opened her mouth to speak. Something large and bright and monstrous drove into the side of their car, and Catia’s neck snapped.

John was not driving the car, but they were still going, barrelling down an empty road, with the white, anemic sunlight casting down on them. She couldn’t bear to look at the seat where he was supposed to be – she didn’t understand, where was he? He’d picked her up, they were supposed to be going to her friend Molly’s. They were going to smoke and drink and watch old episodes of Moomin.

The radio was still blasting that awful music, but louder than it had been, eardrum-shatteringly loud. She couldn’t bring her hand up to turn it down, fast as they were going. She felt like she was plastered to the seat. She had to keep her eyes on the road, which seemed to go on forever, waiting for the junction, for the large and terrible thing that would kill her.

She was less afraid of dying than she was of having to sit in the car forever, trapped by the seat belt and listening to shit music for eternity. She wondered where John was. She wondered if she was in hell. She didn’t want to be alone in the car anymore.

The truck did not take her by surprise this time. Her neck snapped sideways.

Catia was holding a shovel. They were standing in a graveyard.

“What am I doing?” She said, absently. Her face was wet, as if she had been crying. She didn’t know anyone else was even there until Tara spoke.

“You’re digging,” The other woman said. She was holding her phone, the white light illuminating her face, “Dig!”

Catia had the thought that Tara and her brother gave orders in the same tone. Tara was better at it. Bobbie seemed a little afraid of everything.

“Who am I digging?”

“Don’t ask me that!” Tara snapped, “You know why we’re here -” She looked as if she herself had forgotten, “Do you know where Bobbie is?”

“Why would I know?” She wondered if she’d been sent to hell for being too snappy with people. It’d always been an issue for her.

Tara looked panicked, casting around for her brother, “Keep digging. He should be awake by now. I’m going back to the car, Bobbie might be there.”

“Who, Tara?” She asked. Tara spun back around to point at the headstone, and then swept off. Long strides.

The grave was illuminated only by the moon, and headlights that seemed a long way off, casting shadows every now and then. The stone read John Armstrong. She could feel him breathing, under the earth.

Catia threw the shovel down, calling after Tara.

When she found her, there was glass everywhere and the other woman’s hand was bleeding.

“I locked the keys in. Bobbie isn’t here,” Her eyes implored Catia for an answer. Catia didn’t even feel like she knew what the question was.

“He’s at home. Come on.” She went to the other side of the car, climbing in the passenger seat. A cold wind whipped her hair over her face, making her screw her eyes up. She brushed glass off the seat before she climbed in, a tiny piece becoming lodged in her palm. It didn’t bleed so much as it should’ve.

“What about John?” Tara asked. She still hadn’t got into the car.

“It’s fine. Let’s go find your brother.” She put her seatbelt on. She tried to keep her voice steady.

Tara took her jacket off and laid it on the chair, as there was no hope of getting all the glass out in a timely manner. The air coming in through the broken window was fresh and cool, and welcome. Catia felt too warm, her hands tingling.

They were going around the corners too fast, and she knew it, but didn’t say anything. Tara began to speak, but her eyes caught on something in the rearview mirror, and she screamed, and swerved, instead. Catia did not look behind them.

The headlights blinded her as the truck came towards them. It was incredibly loud and fast. She screwed her eyes shut just before her neck snapped, backwards.

The car was rolling to a stop. John had both his hands on the steering wheel, gripping it, white knuckled.

“Why are we stopping?” Catia asked. Her head felt clear.

“I don’t know where we’re supposed to be going,” John replied. He had dark circles under his eyes that Catia had never noticed before. He sighed, leaning his head back against the headrest.

“No, me neither.” She smiled at him. He smiled back. Catia thought, If this is hell, at least I have someone I love with me. She did not feel guilty for thinking it.

They looked out onto the empty road. Green fields and hills on either side of them. Grey clouds rolled overhead. It was going to rain soon, and the road would be slick.

“We should go now,” She said, “We don’t want to get stuck in the bad weather.” John nodded, turning the keys in the ignition. He swallowed, and turned the radio over to the Queens of Pop station. Catia laughed.

“You like it, really,”

He only smiled at her, and put his foot down on the gas pedal. They were driving towards something big and terrible, but she wasn’t afraid. She put her head back against the headrest, and closed her eyes.

Catia could definitively say that she was sick of waking up inside coffins.

The eerie calm she had felt at the moment of waking was washed away by the frustration of opening her eyes and seeing that she was, again, in the box, with the cheap satin above her, waiting to be rescued.

She lay for a long time in the still silence, waiting and breathing and waiting. No one came; there was no digging, no sound of the shovel hitting the coffin, and no harsh light as the lid was taken off and Bobbie offered her his hand.

Eventually, she began to bang on the lid of the box, calling for Bobbie and Tara with rising hysteria. Her hands pulsed from hitting the wood. She could feel blood begin to trickle between her fingers from beating it so hard.

With that in mind, and hissing through the pain, Catia began to hit out again, until the wood broke and earth spilled in, getting into her mouth. It was wet and rich, soil made for growing things. She spat as much dirt out as she could, and took a deep breath, and dug her fingers into the soil, and kept digging until they hit the cool air.

There was no one waiting for her. Catia was alone in the graveyard. She had twisted her ankle climbing out of the grave and it throbbed, so she sat on the wet earth gasping for air for a few moments for a few moments. The stars were very bright. She wondered what would happen if she just stayed there for a while. Would death come and collect her? Or would she have to go and find it?

She rose to her feet, dusting her hands off on her thighs, and began to walk toward the gates of the cemetery. She could feel a headache building at her temples.

There were no people in sight, but the car was there. The keys were inside. She balled her hand into a fist and drew the sleeve of her top over it.

The sound of breaking glass was obnoxiously loud in the still world. It made her heart hammer under her ribs. She turned the key in the ignition anyway.

Catia had never been a very good driver. She had anxious tendencies that were exacerbated by other people’s driving. The road was blessedly clear that night, clear and cool, and she took the bends slowly and surely, knowing now where she was going.

She stopped at the turning where Tara had first appeared, where Bobbie had swerved as if to avoid hitting a deer. She waited, fingers flexing on the steering wheel.

She could hear the truck coming. Catia closed her eyes and swallowed. Then she turned the radio up. Terrible rock music blared through the broken window, out into the world.

She gripped the steering wheel, and, looking forward, into the bright, white headlights, she smiled, and put her foot down.


Emily Garfield 

Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay


5 thoughts on “Witness Mark by Emily A Garfield”

  1. Great story, a sort of Dead Groundhog Event. Will Catia ever escape the cycle?
    “It was Catia’s first time waking up in a coffin. It would not be her last.” This is a fantastic sentence as it sets up the whole story forcing me to read on. I enjoyed how as the reader I shared the suspense with Catia, she was not sure what was going on. When we found out, it made sense.


  2. Hi Emily,
    The thoughts that came to me more than anything was them wondering about cause and avoidability being the reason that they were in the loop.
    Them living their perception of the accident, again allows alternatives to be explored.
    This is an excellent piece of audience participation writing. You give us enough to let us consider the unsaid. And it is brilliant when this doesn’t puzzle, it makes the reader strive to understand.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love how this story hops between the moments. It’s always the same, enough to let you know what’s happening, but each time a little unexpected and surprising. Definitely didn’t lose its intrigue as it went on!


  4. I was pulled in, had to read, as James McEwan said, by your sentences, “It was Catia’s first time waking up in a coffin. It would not be her last.”

    And the notion of the witness mark, the deep-gouged groove, intrigued me. I loved the way you worked with that, all the variations of the story. Some details stood out for me: the thread of the radio and the choice of music, Catia’s neck snapping and her own snappishness, and of course the inside of the coffin, and the inevitability of the car ride.


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