Paula Ashton could hear everybody having a good time. It was nearly 5pm on Friday afternoon and her co-workers were enjoying after-work drinks in the conference room, to celebrate Graham’s engagement to that insipid floozie, Lilian, from Human Resources.
Paula refused to join them. It should have been her, she thought bitterly. She and Graham had been involved last year but he had ended it. The break-up was messy, especially since they worked for the same firm. Something about her being too ‘needy’. He had claimed she was too possessive, stifling him.
He just had commitment issues; she had retorted. And yet, here he was, engaged.
Paula tried to shrug off feelings of shame and self-loathing but she hadn’t been able to help herself this past summer. After the break-up, she had been guilty of spending hours tracking his movements so their paths would ‘accidentally’ cross, until finally he accused her of stalking him.
Stalking him? What a drama queen!
Anyway, she had a plan. Graham and Lilian were heading for Vegas after work today for a long weekend getaway to celebrate their engagement, and she knew what she had to do.
She was heading over to Graham’s place in the morning. To make some changes. She still had the key he gave her, even though he had demanded that she return it. But she had made a copy.
Paula parked discreetly at one end of the street where Graham lived. It was a nice rural area, with homesteads and farms dotted about and just a short stroll down the country road to his house. With no close neighbors, there was no one about and the privacy suited Paula perfectly.
She paused on his driveway. She knew it was wrong, she knew she was being weak, but she couldn’t fight the compulsion. Her dastardly plan included petty revenge like turning off the power so the food in their freezer would spoil, jamming a garden hose under the kitchen door and turning the tap on full before leaving, and maybe… worse.
Once she gained entry, she planned to destroy all the photographs of the happy couple. Paula knew where Graham kept his kitchen knives and scissors. And hopefully she would find his laptop and remove all their photos from there, too. She had a flash drive and planned to replace photos of Graham and Lilian with photos of Paula and Graham when they were together.
And just for good measure, she thought she might make some changes to Lilian’s wardrobe, shredding all her clothes and belongings. Oh, and one more thing! Graham just loved his gold fish. Let’s see how well they do with a kilo of salt poured into their tank!
She headed for the front door only to find that her copied key didn’t work!
“Crap! He’s changed the locks!”
Paula got to work circling the house, testing doors and windows looking for another way in. At the garden shed she spied a long, sturdy ladder leaning up against it. Looking up at the roof of the house, she focused on the brick chimney and recalled the large, stone fireplace in the living room.
After carefully propping the ladder in a stable location, she shimmied up onto the tiled roof. Wary of loose tiles, she took great care traversing across to the chimney stack.
After tugging and pulling at the metal chimney cap, she wrenched it clean off the top of the stack. Gripping the sides of the brick stack firmly, she peered down inside. It had a wide mouth but its depths soon became dark and mysterious. Still, way down at the bottom Paula could vaguely make out some daylight, so the shaft was open all the way down. That made sense, they had spent romantic winter evenings in front of the dancing flames back when they were dating, and the fireplace functioned perfectly well.
“Well, here goes.”
Paula hesitated a moment before strengthening her resolve and swinging her feet over the edge of the shaft. Holding onto the chimney crown tightly with both hands, she lowered herself feet first into the chimney flue. Swallowing an instinctive fear of being caught in tight places, she released her grip.
Straight as an arrow, she started descending rapidly. At first there was plenty of room; and then there wasn’t. The flue quickly narrowed and the flue lining was too smooth to get a grip to slow her descent. Feeling a sudden panic, she tried to steady herself with her shoes against the flue lining and before she knew it, one foot caught for a brief moment while the rest of her body was still dropping. Her leg bent at the knee and she was caught with her knee wedged against one side of the flue and her foot jammed up against the opposite side.
With a wrenching jolt to her trapped leg, Paula’s fall came to a jarring stop. She struggled to unwedge her knee, then her foot, but to no avail. Stuck fast.
Looking down, she realized she was close to the bottom of the shaft, hovering not far above the fireplace. Above, was the six meters she had already dropped, passing down through the ceiling space and the upper floor level.
Crap! She needed to get out of this tight predicament. She tried clawing her way back up the flue with her hands but it was too smooth and she couldn’t get a grip. If she could only haul herself upward even a little way, maybe she could straighten her trapped leg and keep going down.
Nothing worked. She couldn’t budge from her position. Her weight was hanging off her bent leg, putting tremendous pressure on her knee joint.
A terrible sense of fright claimed her. Trapped in a tight, dark space and nobody knew she was there. Graham wouldn’t be back until… when? Sunday? Monday? Paula bit back despairing sobs. No point in getting hysterical, it wouldn’t help.
Although there were no close neighbors, she tried screaming for help at the top of her lungs, yelling until she was hoarse. When she gave up, an eerie silence overtook the narrow space. It was warm and dank in the chimney but as night approached it would get cold at this time of year. Her Bermuda shorts and T-shirt wouldn’t help, but that was the least of her worries, she realized. Her knee was swelling, the pain was unrelenting and now she was feeling thirsty.
The afternoon slowly dragged by, night rolled in, and her prison became inky black. Her stomach was growling with hunger, her throat was becoming parched and her mouth was unbearably dry. She craved a nice hot cup of tea and a hot, roast dinner. Or even some rice. Anything, really.
Worrying thoughts crowded in, about what everyone would say about her. She couldn’t imagine the embarrassment when she was rescued by Graham and his bimbo. What would they tell people at work? She would become the laughing stock of the office. The mocking derision of her co-workers was too awful to contemplate so she banished the ghastly thoughts back into the furthest reaches of her mind.
What was that? Eerie night sounds echoed down the chimney shaft. Her spine tingled and the hairs on her arms stood up. Could anything get her down here? There it was again, a furtive scratching. What if rats found her and started eating her? Or bats?
Pull yourself together, Paula! She struggled to fall asleep to escape her torment, even if just for a little while. But sleep eluded her and the endless, empty hours dragged by.
It was birdsong that woke her. Morning light filtered down from the chimney opening. She realized she must have eventually fallen asleep during that long, cold, scary night. But now she wished she had never woken at all. Her leg was in agony, her mouth was drier than a desert and her empty stomach had become a gripping pain.
What was today? That’s right. Sunday. Paula’s mind was operating in a fog. As the morning dragged by, with dehydration setting in she found it difficult to form lucid thought. If she moved her head too quickly, she felt light-headed and dizzy. A dull headache had become a steady throb and all her joints were aching, especially her swollen knee.
Sunday marched on into evening and Paula’s thoughts were becoming more confused. Why wasn’t Graham home yet? Were they staying over until Monday?
Paula tried to yell for help again, but her throat was so terribly parched that only strangled coughs came out. Visions of her workmates derisively laughing at her, pointing fingers and sneering, crowded into her feverish mind. Was she back at work? No, she was still trapped in her own private hell-hole.
How her throbbing head hurt!
Those wretched birds woke her again. Why wouldn’t they let her sleep? What was today – was it Monday already? Hope stirred. Graham would be home today and her torment would end. He would rescue her and realize that he had nearly lost her forever. Realizing who his true love was, he would send Lilian packing, and they could be together again.
At least today she wasn’t needing to relieve herself anymore. Nothing in – nothing out! Relieving herself down Graham’s chimney shaft over the weekend had been mortifyingly embarrassing. How would she explain that to Graham? But he would understand.
He would soothe her. “It’s okay my darling, don’t fret, it doesn’t matter. Just so long as we can be together.”
Paula shrieked, the fractured sound tearing its way out her parched throat and swollen, dry lips. Something just ran over her hand! Forcing her eyes to focus, Paula saw a huge spider crawling up the flue wall, parallel to her face. In blind panic she started smashing the creature against the wall with both hands, the flailing movement tearing at her trapped knee joint with every jerk.
Its battered body dropped to the fireplace below and Paula tried to sob but no tears fell. The bricks were warming the space inside the chimney as the day advanced but another cold, painful, delirious night lay ahead.
All day, Paula strained to hear sounds of people arriving but her hopes were cruelly dashed by the ominous, endless silence. Nothing but the taunting calls of the birds, gaily celebrating their freedom.
The afternoon light had turned grey and Paula heard a pitter patter on the tiles of the roof way above her.
It was raining!!
Inside the shaft the temperature dropped, bringing welcome relief and better still, with the chimney cap removed, some rain could splatter down inside. Paula felt a few raindrops land on her head. She tilted her face upward and opened her mouth but she could only capture a few stray droplets.
Paula was beginning to hallucinate, imagining a deluge of rain pouring down into the chimney shaft, running down the inside of the flue wall. Frantically, she tried licking the flue lining and miraculously it was vaguely damp. She plied her swollen tongue to the flue wall wherever she could reach.
But it was almost worse than no moisture at all. It couldn’t possibly quench her raging thirst. The rain soon passed and night claimed Paula’s prison. She shivered endlessly in the cold. The inky darkness amplified furtive night sounds into terrifying apparitions that were set on feasting on her where she hung, trapped and helpless in her tomb.
When she awoke sometime the next morning, she discovered she had become a banquet for mosquitos and midges brought on by the recent rain. She swatted the ones she could reach but they swarmed over her anyway, and any movement sent daggers up from her trapped knee, so, soon she just let them feed.
Was it Tuesday today? How long can people go without food and fluids? She recalled news reports of people buried alive or trapped deep down wells and mine shafts. It never ended well for them. She cried herself back to sleep with wracking dry sobs. Another afternoon was packing up for the day. It would soon be dark again.
Paula thought about how her jealousy had gotten her into this mess. She promised to redeem herself when she is rescued, to stop harassing Graham if he didn’t want her. She had been out for spiteful revenge and she knew she needed to become a better person. She vowed to make a fresh start with a clean slate.
Then the prospect of her humiliation when she returned to the office came crashing down again, scattering her finer intentions. It would be better to die right here, rather than face the taunting laughter and condemnation of the people at work.
Graham paid the airport parking fee and loaded their luggage into the trunk.
Lilian belted herself into the passenger’s seat and Graham took the wheel. He tenderly leaned over and kissed Lilian, before starting the car.
“How are you feeling, Mrs. Grimsey?” he asked with a broad grin.
Lilian returned his smile. “I had a wonderful time. What luck we won that meals and accommodation prize, courtesy of the hotel.”
“Yeh, that was a surprise. All we did was enter their casino and next thing we knew; bells were ringing and lights were flashing!”
Lilian laughed with him. “Their one millionth visitors! And what a brilliant prize; a free wedding at the Elvis chapel and three nights in the honeymoon suite?!!”
“Well, we were intending to get married, anyway. And luckily, I could wangle us some more vacation leave from the boss so we could stay in Vegas the extra three days.”
“Everyone at work will be sooooo jealous! Like, it was really romantic, getting married in Vegas on the spur of the moment like that.”
Lilian’s eyes were sparkling and Graham couldn’t resist planting another kiss on those lovely, laughing lips.
“Right! Let’s get home,” he declared, as they headed out of the parking lot.
The newly-weds pulled into their driveway and parked. Graham collected their luggage while Lilian unlocked the door and forged inside. She headed for the kitchen to get the kettle boiling.
Graham carried their belongings inside and dropped everything in a heap in the dining room.
“I’ll sort out what’s got to go into the laundry before I put this lot away,” he said.
“What’s that smell, Graham? Can you smell anything?” asked Lilian from the kitchen, a frown wrinkling her brow.
Graham stopped unpacking and paused; one eyebrow cocked. He took a couple of sniffs. “Now that you mention it…” He looked about. “Where is it coming from?”
“Can’t tell. Smells pretty stinky. Maybe a roof leak? There’s been rain while we were away.”
Graham headed into the lounge. “Nope. Can’t see anything damp or moldy. But the odor is stronger in here.”
Lilian began preparing their lunch, going through the cupboards looking for inspiration.
“Honey, could you get a fire started, the rain has brought on a chill in the air. We can snuggle up after lunch and go through our photos to choose the ones we want to download.”
Graham abandoned sorting the luggage, shrugged on his jacket and headed outside to the shed to collect firewood and kindling, which he stacked beside the hearth.
“Got a lighter, love? Lordy, it’s quite smelly in here.”
Lilian tossed him a lighter and he set to, building the fire. The kindling caught fire easily. Within moments the lounge was filled with dark, choking smoke.
Lilian joined him. “What are you doing?” she cried.
“The chimney must be blocked!” said Graham with a curse. He threw water on the fire to put it out but that stirred up a lot more smoke. Gradually it subsided and they could see each other again.
“Something fell down there, maybe a squirrel or a pigeon.”
“Have to be a bloody big one,” said Lilian. “Anyway, forget about it. Let’s have some lunch. We can sort it out later.”
“But, Lil, the stink is abominable. It’s coming from the fireplace or up in the chimney. It smells like a toilet in there.” Graham struggled to reach a hand up into the chimney stack and recoiled in horror.
“What, Graham? What is it?”
White-faced, he turned to look at Lilian. “I felt a shoe. With a human foot in it!”
Lilian gasped, eyes round.
He peered back up into the chimney. “Who’s there? What are you doing in our chimney?”
Only a mocking silence.
He reached back up into the stack, dislodging more soot, and the shoe came away in his hand.
“That foot was moving, Lil. It was cold, but it definitely moved,” he said in a dull, flat voice.
“Good Lord! I’m calling 911!”
It wasn’t until late afternoon that the authorities could remove the person trapped in her brick mausoleum. They carefully lower her down off the roof.
Graham and Lilian kept out of the way, watching the recovery from their driveway. The paramedics got to work as soon as they had the woman on a stretcher.
The local Sheriff approached them. “We’ve removed the intruder from your chimney, sir. There’s a bit of damage to it, sorry.”
Graham shrugged. He was insured. “Will – ah – will she live?”
“Probably. The medic said any longer and she would have been a goner. Lucky you came home when you did.”
He urged Graham to look at the patient before they loaded her into the ambulance.
“Anyone you know?”
She was limp and unresponsive, her skin a deathly shade of grey, but the features were unmistakable.
Graham felt the color drain from his face. “Yeh. Fraid so. It’s my stalker.”
The Sheriff frowned. “Why would you have a stalker? It’s not like you’re a celebrity.”
Graham shook his head in disbelief. “That’s my crazy ex-girlfriend.”
Karen Court was a place-winner in Inkitt’s big Feb 2022 “Turn Off The Lights” competition, with her amateur sleuth novel and won a publishing contract for that 3 book series on Galatea. In March 2022, her short story “Serengeti Karma” was selected to feature on Havok Magazine’s platform on 28th April. She enjoys writing vivid stories that stir emotions and deliver impact. She strives to explore the heights and depths of the human condition in her writing.