artwork by Brian Selznick
I tell her, “If you love me, you’ll count the seconds only as slowly as you think I can handle them.” She laughs, pulls her fingers through her curls, and agrees—only as slowly as I can handle. Which, we both know, means as quickly as possible. I’m trying for under a minute, sixty seconds—to slip the cuffs off, pick the headcage, remove the gag and pull the noseplugs—all so I can swallow enough delicious oxygen to yell, “Tada” to my adoring audience.
Sara Wells sits crossed-legged in front of me like she has since the sixth grade. And really I should appreciate that, Sara sitting there, all grown up, ready to leave this small nothing town, but still here—all because I asked her to hold the key. Or maybe, I’ve convinced her she is the key.
Either way, the key is important.
If I go over a minute, Sara will reach across the grass, pat my struggling chest signaling me to stop. Then, gentle like the kiss I imagine she’d give, Sara will twist the key and let me free to suck in desperate gulps of life-confirming air.
But that’s not what I’m going for.
For the first time this month, I’m going to free myself, and Sara will lean over and kiss me on the cheek, dropping the key back into my hand where it really belongs.
I’ve been trusting her to help me for years, each escape increasing in danger until I landed on this one—and this one, it’s all trust. I’ve been telling her that, reminding her she’s reason I’m alive.
So I have to try.
I let my lungs suck in, hold and expand.
My arm extends. My hand opens.
The key drops from my palm into Sara’s own.
“Escapism is not for everyone,” Sara tells me as she handcuffs my arms behind my back. “Some people like to suffer, enjoy the pain sort of thing.”
I nod my head and attempt a smile. With the gag in my mouth, it looks less like gentle understanding and more like a hostage agreeing to anything Sara wants.
I motion with a nod to the noseplugs and Sara grimaces. She hates this part, she tells me, and wishes someone else could be responsible for it.
“It has to be you,” I try saying, but my reasoning is lost in the gag’s muffling.
“Why?” she asks—because she knows what I’m thinking.
I shrug, and Sara stares at the noseplugs.
“You’re asking me to temporarily suffocate you. Do you have any idea how fucked up that is?”
I inhale, attempting to breathe in Sara—and she slams the plugs in, shuts the headcage door with a click, and I’m on, twisting, slithering, contracting muscles and popping pieces of my body until I’m out of the cuffs. My hands rush my face, fingers performing ballet, and the lone pin dances into the lock of the headcage.
Instead, Sara slams the key in place, ripping the gag out, so I can scream, “God damn it, the pin bent!”
“I don’t want to do this,” she tells me.
“One more time,” I say.
She shakes her head no while I place the gag into my mouth.
With my back to her, I wiggle my wrist signaling her to lock me up.
And she does, one more time.
The cuffs snap into place and she stares hard when she plugs my nose, slamming the headcage door close—one more time.
And then it happens.
She does it.
After the struggle, after the pin clicks and I yell, “Tada”—she’s gone.
In less than a minute.
In front of me, where Sara Wells should sit, the key rests on a note.
And when I read it, when I mouth the word “Tada” for the second time that day, I know it doesn’t matter how much trust the trick depends on—it’s escapism.
That’s the art of it.
Avoid suffocation, and live.
CHRISTOPHER D. DiCICCO was born in Pennsylvania during the winter of 1981. He is the author of So My Mother, She Lives in the Clouds and other stories (Hypertrophic Press). His work has been nominated for Pushcart, Best of the Net, and Best Indie Lit New England, and has appeared in such places as Superstition Review, WhiskeyPaper, and Bartleby Snopes. Visit www.cddicicco.com for more.