When you wake up on the red-eye, the plane is just touching down. But not in Chicago. “No,” the woman next to you says, angling her way into the aisle as if those three inches will get her anywhere faster. You look out the window, confused. You could be anywhere. “Chicago is frozen,” she says. “This is Indianapolis.”
You don’t believe her until you are schlepping your luggage up an escalator, under a mural welcoming you to the Crossroads of America. You follow the other red-eyers down the carpeted, Muzak-filled hallways. You don’t realize you’re now in a convention center until you see Unioners rolling boxes and chairs through open double doors.
As you walk by, you see booths and tables inside the cavernous hall, and at every one of them is a casket or two. You nod in solidarity, feeling dead yourself. At some point, the convention hallway becomes the hallway of the hotel where they are putting you up. You are past exhaustion but once showered and in bed, you can’t sleep.
You go to the lobby, but the free coffee isn’t out yet. On a table near the cold fireplace, there is a lavalier and convention badge. No one is around, so you slip it around your neck and find your way back to the convention center. At the empty registration booth, you grab a beige tote bag filled with brochures and magnets and, while your badge doesn’t indicate early bird, the security guard waves you in without looking up from her phone.
There are hardly any people in the hall, just a few other early-birders, and workers straightening tablecloths and filling bowls with hard candy. After a few aisles, you pause at a booth that has two open, child-size caskets set up on a table. One has pink lining, the other powder blue. The inverse of newborn bassinets. You don’t remember your sister’s casket, only the feeling of your dad’s strong hand and the sound of your mother crying.
You move to the next aisle and stop at a booth called Family Values at Rest. The casket closest to you looks to be made of particle board. You run your hand along the fake wood and cheap ivory satin.
“That can’t be comfortable,” you mutter.
“Never had a compliant.” A man drinking a Dr. Pepper comes up beside you. He is wearing a seer-sucker suit with suspenders and a straw boat hat. Not something usually seen during a Midwest winter.
“How can someone rest in peace in something so flimsy?” you ask.
“You’d be surprised.” He gestures to another casket, identical to the one up front but with black satin lining. The table has a step stool next to it. “Be my guest,” he says.
“Why not,” you say and set the tote bag inside where your feet will go.
The man helps you climb over the edge of the casket. You aren’t a claustrophobe. In fact, you’ve always loved the feeling of closeness. As a kid, you hid in the smallest closets and crannies you could find. Wrapped yourself up in blankets like a mummy at night. So when the man offers to close the top, you agree.
He was right, you think as the lid comes down. It’s not uncomfortable. You are average size and, arms crossed over chest, your elbows just brush the sides. It’s dark. The darkest, most comforting dark you’ve ever been in.
Suddenly you feel something on your left pant leg. You shake the leg but whatever it is only rests with more pressure. You raise your right foot to scrape it over the left but in doing so you raise the top.
“Ready to come out?” The man’s voice is muffled.
“No, I just—.” Whatever was on your leg is now on both. You imagine spiders, a snake, the Grim Reaper himself, and reflexively kick both legs, which punches out the bottom of the casket. The man yells. Light comes in but you can’t see what’s on your leg so you push out with your arms, and you are free.
You and the casket—now just pieces of wood with satin stapled to them—are at the man’s feet. He is yelling and gesturing and red in the face and you don’t wait to hear how much a broken casket costs. You see the tote bag on the ground. Not the Grim Reaper, just burlap straps that fell onto your leg.
You scoop up the bag and run down the aisle toward the doors. You flee into the carpeted hallway. The commotion behind you doesn’t break your stride. The hotel lobby—maybe the coffee is ready—is just in sight as you are tackled from behind. Hitting the ground knocks your breath out and you feel ribs crunching. The tackler has you pinned down and is talking very fast.
You wonder if there is a convention hall jail, identical to the windowless airport and mall jails you’ve been in. As you pass out from pain, you think how even those days weren’t the worst you ever had.
Jen McConnell is a fiction writer and poet. Her work has recently appeared in Sequestrum, Bookends Review, Buck Off Magazine, No Extra Words, and others. Her debut collection of short stories, Welcome, Anybody, was published by Press 53, and she is currently working on her second. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College in Vermont. She currently lives in Ohio and works by day as a copywriter in the corporate world. Her website is jenmcconnell.com.