Hellworld 1 NOW
There exists a darkness so deep, so profoundly absent any light or hope, it causes dizziness and nausea. In this cave, with no source of light and the bodies of the dead surrounding us, there are already plenty of reasons to experience both.
I think we are in Hell.
What have I done?
Charlie’s voice drifts to me through the black. “Abby?”
His breath comes out ragged, as if from between strips of flesh. I shut my eyes against the image. Open them. At least when I blink, I can feel my eyelids moving. That’s something. But there is no difference between open and closed.
“Yeah?”I whisper. The sound goes only as far as my lips. It feels like being in the deep end of a pool, blindfolded, all sensation muffled.
“Selby?”Charlie says, but hesitantly.
Why did he ask for me first, when Selby’s supposed to be his girlfriend? Because I had a better chance of being alive.
No response from Selby.
I listen hard, straining as best I can, trying to ignore the sound of my own heart attempting to fight its way out of my chest. Rocks and pebbles grind into my palms and knees. Finally, to my left, a miniscule whimper needlepricks my ears.
“Selby, say something,”I whisper.
Another whimper—louder, but only by degrees.
“Charlie, she’s here. She’s alive.”
“Okay,”Charlie says. “Okay. I’m going to try to make my way over to you.”
“My stomach . . . ,”Selby moans.
I try to resist a memory of the knife plunging into her. “Don’t move,”I say. “Just don’t move—we’ll come to you.”
Panic whirlpools in my torso, twisting every organ inside me to the south. I discover that teeth really do chatter if you’re scared enough. Mine clack rapidly as ice water replaces the blood in my veins. Selby’s bleeding, we’re all effectively blinded, and we’re trapped in here. Trapped, with what remains of them . . .
No, I tell myself. No, Abigail. You can’t lose it. Work the problem. You lose it now, in here, and you die.
Death in here would not be a good way to go. Less painful than crucifixion or being drawn and quartered, sure, but the darkness . . .
Every moment we swim in it, I feel myself getting closer to terror and insanity. Buried alive. We’d likely die from dehydration. That would be the official cause. Not that anyone would ever find us. Dying of thirst will take two or three days. Two or three days to die.
But the darkness.
The hope that somehow, miraculously, we can inch our way in the pitch-black to find the cave entrance, the way we came in, and be free . . . but that hope is the worst part. Outside, we’d still die from lack of water, but we’d die with the sun or stars overhead, and fresh air in our lungs.
But the darkness . . .
“Stay where you are,”Charlie says from some nebulous place in the black. “Keep talking. I’ll make my way to you.”
“The pit,”I stutter through my quaking teeth. “You’ll fall in.”
“I’ll go slow.”
We can’t have been in this chamber of the cave for very long, yet an eternity has passed since we found them.
Them . . . still in here with us . . .
Stop, stop, stop, I tell myself. They’re destroyed, they’re dead, they can’t hurt you.
But they were dead before we got here, and that didn’t stop them. They’re still in here with us, still close enough to reach out, grab an ankle, a wrist, a throat . . .
No! Stay calm, Abby. Stay calm. Work the problem. Work the—
“The camera,”I say.
I hear Charlie stop his slow slide across the gravel floor. “Huh?”
“Do you have it? Is it working?”
Selby whispers, “I wanna go home.”
I ignore her. I hate to do it, but have to. “The viewfinder. If the camera’s working, open the viewfinder. It’ll be light. Not much, but something.”
Charlie makes a sound in the darkness, like a sigh of realization. I hear more scuffling.
“Go slow,”I say.
Time goes blank again. Now that I’ve oriented my ears toward Selby, I can hear her breathing. Shallow, rapid, and very much like my own.
But I haven’t been stabbed in the gut.
“Hang in there, Sells,”I say. Then I realize I’ve used Alex’s nickname for her, and hold my breath. Will it push Selby over the edge? Is there an edge for us anymore, after what we’ve seen? What we’ve done?
“Got it,”Charlie says with a relieved, exultant note in his voice. In the underwater muffle of the darkness, I feel more than hear the electronic whine of the camera booting up.
Please, I beg, unaware that perhaps I might actually be praying and not caring if it’s ironic or not. Please just let it work. Just that tiny blue square of light, please, please, without light I will go crazy, I will go insane if I’m not already, because insanity pales in comparison to this all being real.
Gray-blue light appears, no more than ten feet from me; tiny and pathetic in the black, yet offering hope like the sun.
“Thank you,”I say softly, but not to Charlie. The taut skin of his face glows in the light. He was so handsome two days ago. Confident and relaxed. Now fear draws tight lines down his features, distorting his good looks.
Charlie slowly slides toward me, pointing the viewfinder at the cave floor to make sure he doesn’t slip into the pit in the center of the cavern. I don’t know how long it takes; maybe a minute, maybe a year. Maybe eternity. When he reaches me, he sets the camera down carefully before surrounding me with his arms. I can feel by the strength and weakness in his embrace that he is as grateful for the contact as I am. Warm, living, human flesh. We bury our heads into each other’s shoulders, trembling.
“Okay,”Charlie breathes. “I have to get Selby.”
“I’m coming with you.”
Staying close, we tell Selby to start talking so we can get to her.
“Selby, come on,”I urge. “Please, you have to talk so we—”
“Hydrogen,”Selby says at last. “Helium. Lithium. Beryllium.”
Charlie and I look at each other, and seem to realize at the same time what she’s reciting: the periodic table of elements, by order of atomic weight. Selby and I are both sixteen, yet she sounds infinitely younger right then. Or maybe I just feel immeasurably older.
We slide toward the sound of her voice. “Boron. Carbon. Nitrogen.”
“We’re coming, Sells.”
“Oxygen. Fluorine. Neon.”
“Almost there,”Charlie says. “We’re almost there; keep talking.”
“Sodium. Magnesium. Aluminum.”
“I hear you. We’re getting closer.”
“Silicon. Phosphorus. Sulfur . . .”
Finally, we see her. Selby sits against one of the cavern walls, curled into an upright ball, squeezing her knees to her chest and shivering, both hands pressed against her side. A far cry from the militant teen scientist I met two days ago.
Selby reaches out as we near, and the three of us huddle close together. Maybe crying, I don’t know. I hope not. We need to retain the water.
“Wanna go home,”Selby says into our cluster. “I wanna go home.”
“We are,”I say, sounding much more confident than I would have thought possible. “Let’s get to the bags, see what we’ve still got left, and we’ll work our way out of here. Okay?”
I think Selby nods, but can’t tell in the grim, cold light from the viewfinder.
“How’s your stomach?”I ask.
“Uh, stabbed, thanks.”
I take her tone as a good sign. “Okay. Do you have your lighter?”
I can still smell cigarette smoke on her clothes from before we entered the cave. How long ago? How long now?
Selby pulls a small pink cigarette lighter from her hip pocket. She winces as she does it, keeping her other hand pressed against her side where the blade went in.
“How much battery in the camera?”I ask Charlie. Now that we’re together and have at least a few square inches of light, the urge to run hard and fast from the cavern is overwhelming.
“There’s one bar. So not much.”
“We better hurry, then. But careful.”
Selby’s lighter and the dim glow from the camera don’t offer much light, and neither will last too long anyway. I don’t honestly think we’ll have sufficient illumination for enough time to navigate our way back out of this godforsaken labyrinth. Yet we can’t rush, either. Rushing might get us killed. We’ve already lost one person on this trip. One, and so many more.
Which brings up a question. “What about . . . them?”
Charlie and Selby both give me shocked looks. Charlie says, “We can’t . . . We’re not bringing them out. No.”
“Okay. Just wanted to make sure we agreed on that. Let’s go.”
We scoot back the way we had come, toward our equipment bags.
The news isn’t good when we reach them, but could be worse. Some of our stuff fell in the pit when it opened up. Left over in the camera bag, we find two full batteries for the camera, Charlie’s iPhone with about half its life left, and three bottles of water. Since we didn’t have to do much climbing into the cave—we never even needed ropes—this might be enough light and water to get us out. It just might.
It also just might not. If we lose all sources of light between here and the entrance to the cave, we won’t find our way out. We will not. That’s the math.
We spent almost eight hours hiking to get this far, to get to where the pit opened up. We had flashlights and headlamps, moving at a careful pace with breaks and food. To find our way out with a viewfinder, a cell phone, and a lighter will take much, much longer.
Not to mention whatever will be waiting for us outside if we even make it.
The three of us stand together, with me helping Selby up. We stare up the steep incline that will take us to the first leg of our escape.
“What if they’re waiting for us?”Selby whispers. “What if those things are just waiting for us to show up?”
“We don’t have any choice,”I say. “We can’t stay here.”
Instinctively, I cast a nervous glance over my shoulder, waiting for the dead to spring back to life.
But they don’t. Everything is silent.
“Okay,”Charlie says, adjusting the bag over his shoulder. “Nice and easy.”
He takes one last glance behind us in the darkness, as if he can spy Alex. Even though he can’t possibly see him, Charlie whispers, “I’m sorry, man. Love ya.”
I consider saying something too, but the darkness is too oppressive, and I can’t think. We start hiking up the incline, needing to use our hands as much as our feet, not knowing what the world will be like if we find the entrance. We may wish we’d stayed in the dark and died.
Part of me wants to run through the cave. I’m able to shove the instinct down, but it’s not easy. Another part of me wants to crawl, because it would be so much safer. We end up splitting the difference, staying on our feet, walking close together, supporting each other over dry gravel that’s as slippery as water.
I noticed the dryness of the cave as soon as we entered. Even as we went deeper and farther into the labyrinth, following the signs and symbols in Charlie’s dad’s book, we found no water. Now, as we shuffle along the floor of the cave using the dim light from the viewfinder, I start wishing for a distant dripping sound. Something other than the sound of our breathing, our shoes in the dirt, the thunder of our hearts. Hearts that I’m sure can’t take much more stress.
“Oh, God,”Charlie says softly.
My impulse is to ask, What? but I figure it out almost as soon as he says it.
At our feet, off to one side, a boulder has been crushed. Crushed to powder and pebbles, like nothing more than chalk. I remember passing the round rock about as tall as a coffee table, right before we’d reached the slope we’d just hiked. It would take a team of men with sledgehammers and jackhammers to put that rock into its current pulverized state.
“It was stepped on,”I say.
We don’t stop to examine it.
Without discussing, we start to move faster. I try not to imagine we are being followed by anything alive or dead.
God, what have I done. . . .