Bloodied and battered, suspended between this world and hell, I could barely catch my breath. Cool air struck my face and my eyelids fluttered open. Pure blackness enveloped my body, stuffed inside a steel drum. Metal scraped my bare back. Sharp pain shot to my knees, ankles, and neck, bent at such an angle moving was not an option. No longer did I control my breathing, my chest heaving much faster than I could regulate. Within this sinister trap, the oxygen thinned with every patter, patter, patter of my heart.
Animals shrieked outside the barrel. A throaty rattle shuffled in the trees. Croaks and crickets. A far off screech owl’s predatory cry increased the blood coursing through my veins.
Where am I?
A throb pulsed at my forehead. I reached to assess the damage, but pulled back. Part of me didn’t dare. With a deep inhale—not too deep or I’d deplete what little oxygen I had left—I allowed my fingertips to brush my eyebrow, now flopped over one eye. The bridge of my nose seemed off-kilter, shoved over to the right. Tiny bits of bone swam under my cheekbone and my lips swelled to the size of the wax candy Chloe and I played with as children.
With an open hand, I banged the metal wall. A clang from my wedding band echoed in return. “Help.” My voice coiled against the steel. Water lapped against my unforgiving grave—rocking, swaying me from side to side. “Help,” I called out, louder this time, tears flooding my throat. I couldn’t die like this, trapped, no one to discover my remains. If I couldn’t escape, I’d never see my family again. Our thirteen-month-old son hadn’t matured enough to understand death. He’d grow up without a mother, without a crucial piece of his life. Niko would starve. During our nineteen-year marriage, all he ever made were reservations.
Above all else, I must survive. If not for me, then for my family.
Tears warmed my frigid cheeks. Colt and Ruger would never understand why I didn’t come home. Who’d walk them? Who’d keep their coats silky smooth? Did my family know—inherently grasp, deep in their soul—how much I loved them? They’re my whole world, my everything. Their unconditional devotion enhanced the very breath I breathed.
Had I prepared them for the day I stopped walking through the door? No. I’d taken my life for granted, maybe theirs too. How many “I love you’s” did it take to last a lifetime?
Dear God, don’t let me die this way.
With my last unbroken fingernail, I picked at the curved metal walls, clawed at the lid, and scratched the bottom of the steel drum that trapped me from my life, death, or whatever cruel cosmic joke. Nothing worked.
How did I get here? The memory blurred.
A woman’s whispering shriek sliced the crisp evening air. “Help me!”
Hope soared like an unexpected burst of energy on a never-ending hike. “Hello? Can you hear me?”
She pleaded with me to free her.
“You’re trapped too? Do you know where we are? Who did this to us?” I fired off questions faster than bullets left a fully automatic pistol.
She said, “The man.”
Water trickled on my bare shoulder, and my gaze shot to the right. A streak of moonlight lasered through a tiny crack, metal shavings shimmying onto my bent knees. Little by little, inch by inch, I peeled back the layers while my chest constricted like a boa firmed his grasp.
“Are you still there?”
“Yes.” Where else would I be?
“Sage, Sage Quintano.”
“Yes, but we need to conserve oxygen.” As much as I adored my fans, talking about my books was the last thing we should do. “Can you find a way out?”
Think, Sage, think. If an average oil drum held fifty-five gallons, then I had about seven-point-three-five cubic feet of air, but with each expelled breath I traded one molecule of oxygen for one of carbon dioxide. I didn’t have long before the confined space won this battle. If only I could widen the crack. Or maybe, if I wedged my fingers under the lid, I might be able to pop it loose. That is, if the metal bung wasn’t secured.
With the back of my head and flat hands against the cold steel, I thrust against the lid, and it moved. Not much, but enough to define my chances of survival. Fortunately, whoever trapped me forgot to lock the clasp. Perhaps he intended for me to escape. Did he lurk outside, ready to ambush me?
“I wanna go home,” she cried, her words laced with panic. “I’m so scared.”
“I know. Me too.”
“The man said he’d be back.”
“Man?” For a moment, I stopped fighting to free myself. “Did you see his face?”
“Not really. He wore some sort of mask. I only caught a quick peek before he blindfolded me.”
“Did you say mask?”
“Oh. My. God. Where’s Noah?”