Two words that instill utter panic in the whole group. Gathered on a ledge looking down at the figure bringing up the rear.
“Em, are you sure?”
“Yes! I am fucking sure Michael, now do something!”
Her fingers hurt and her palms have removed all the chalk with sweat. Her shoulders are beginning to shake and it’s pretty much her legs holding her up right now.
“Shit-shit-shit. Okay, hang on, Em, I’m coming down.”
She looks up to see Mike pacing back and forth on the ledge. Then she hears murmuring from up top and Beth’s head pokes over the ledge.
“Emily, take a deep breath and listen to me. You can do this.”
“No, I can’t! Now just get me down or up or anywhere but here because I’m going to fall and die.”
“Em. Look at me.”
She shakes her head, sighs, then looks up. Beth seems so far away.
“Hey. We’ve done this before, okay? This wall is the same height as the walls we’ve done at the climbing gym. The only difference is that the rocks aren’t coloured.”
“That and there’s no fucking mats waiting at the bottom if I fall.”
Matt’s head pops into view.
“Did she say she wanted me to wait at the bottom?”
Mike pushes him out of view.
“Em, take a deep breath, you trust me, right?” Beth says.
Emily nods a little.
“Okay. There’s a crack by your left arm, try and fit your hand in there.”
She slides her palm along the coarse surface until she finds it, then gropes until it feels like a secure hold.
“Good, now feel that boulder by your hip? Try and get your right foot on it by shifting your weight to your left and taking a step. Can you do that for me, Em?”
She leans to the left and scrabbles with her right leg. It rests shakily on the foothold, then she stumbles and slips.
“Fuck! God, I’m gonna die!”
“Em!” Mike sounds like he’s about to jump. She hugs the wall and sobs.
“Beth, I’m gonna go down and get her. Mike, pull the rope when I say so.” Sam says.
Emily chokes out a sigh of relief.
“Hold on.” Beth says.
Emily hazards looking up and sees Sam’s uneasy silhouette. Beth is still staring down at her hard.
“You’re not a quitter, Emily. You’re not gonna die. You’ve got a 4.0 GPA and a portfolio that could get you into the Ryerson. But like getting into Parsons, this takes actual work. But, hey, if you’re going to give up just because it’s hard now...”
Rage flares up in her chest and hands, “Fuck you, Beth!”
“I guess you only want easy wins, Emily. Better get ready to settle for mediocrity.”
That rage pumps through her wrists and biceps. She grabs a rock above her head and pushes off with her shaky right leg. Her left foot finds a crevice. Left hand over right hand, she pulls herself higher.
“You can do better than that, Emily!” Beth says.
“I’m going to slap you in the fucking mouth.”
“Can’t do that while you’re clinging to a wall like a scaredy cat.”
Emily looks to her left, there’s a good ledge if she just jumps to it. Her muscles are screaming at her, but she makes it. Her shoes scratch at the rocks and she hauls herself onto the ledge.
When she looks up, she sees a sea of hands reaching for her, pulling her up one more ledge to the top. She pushes them away and hops to grab the ledge.
“I got it.” She says through gritted teeth.
When Beth offers a hand, however, she takes it.
“You shit.” Emily grunts.
She’s hauled into a shaky embrace. Beth scoffs as Emily takes a weak slap at her face. Mike and Jess are pulling at her clothes and making concerned noises. Sam’s got her nose pressed against Beth’s shoulder.
They’re right, this is better than a geocaching expedition with the nerds and Hannah.
Beth’s smile takes up her whole face, “I knew you could do it. You can do anything, Em.”
And that’s Beth’s super power. She can say things like that and you actually believe her.
She’s been tossed out a window, dangled off a ledge, fallen into a mine, been dangled by a wire, fallen again, had a rock land on her leg, fallen another dozen fucking times and is trapped in here with god knows what.
You can do anything, Em. She hasn’t heard Beth’s voice in a year and it still hammers against her skull like a chant. She wonders how much of the voice is actually Beth’s and how much is her own poor imitation.
Her hands and feet find holds, but the wall is too slippery, too steep. She slides down with a whine.
Where is Matt?
What time is it?
The heels of her palms press hard against her eyes, pushing back tears. Her sinuses hurt. Her whole body hurts. Breathing needs to be done in little shallow pants. Her ribs are either sprained or broken and that could really fuck her up when running from… whatever the fuck is down here. A maniac, a bear?
The sound of rippling paper catches her attention. It’s a photograph perched on a barrel. Hannah. The back’s taunting Beth of when she’s going to get her tattoo.
Emily wets her lips. Were they here? Are they still here?
Maybe, maybe they’re being held hostage and she can save them and Beth will look at her like she can do anything and say something like.
“I know you wouldn’t give up on us, Em.”
And Hannah would cry and they’d hold each other and get out of here together.
Emily leaves the photo and follows the icy path, caught in the fantasy of her own heroism when her boot connects loudly and painfully with a plank. Well, two planks nailed together like…
Like a grave marker.
Emily swallows hard. It’s probably just a support beam. It’s probably a memorial for one of the miners.
She lifts it and feels cold for the first time in hours.
No no no nonono. This isn’t real. Isn’t true. It’s just a memorial someone made that fell in a cave in. Beth isn’t actually dead, but that didn’t stop the Washingtons from holding a vigil for their daughters.
Not that she went, Sam gave her the invitation, lips set in a hard line. Her hands were shaking. Emily spent the vigil lying on the floor under her bed sobbing.
Adrenaline is pouring out of her. She feels like a sieve, all of the energy, the heat, the survival instinct. She’s cold and tired and this is all her fault.
Beth can’t be dead. She just can’t. Beth didn’t cry when she broke her leg and couldn’t compete at Nationals. Beth who could easily bench press Ashley. Beth who can’t tell a joke for shit and looks at Sam like she is the human equivalent of fat free ice cream.
Even if she did fall down here, she would have climbed out in a few hours, days if she or Hannah was injured. Hell, she’d probably carry Hannah out of here.
She ignores the sound of her pounding heart amid the sound of dripping water and that weird screeching wind. She follows the wind. It should lead to an exit.
That’s when she sees something out of the corner of her eye. Something a different texture than the walls of wood and rock. Something soft, like a hat.
It’s a pile, almost human shaped and she feels her heart pushing its way up towards her trachea.
Oh god please no.
Her fingers twitch towards it unsteadily like reaching for a rock just out of reach. Unfortunately, it makes contact, knocking the top of the pile over.
She screams because she’s getting to see Beth, to look her in the eye again, but it’s nothing like her fantasy.
“Oh god, Beth, please god no!”
That little voice in her head seems to die in the reflection of those long glazed eyes.
It looks like her, but it isn’t her. There’s no warm smile or pained eyes. It’s just… meat. And someone treated it like meat.
The rest of the pile is her clothes, folded neatly and with care. She wants to touch the sweater, soft angora fur that she remembers pressing against her cheek when they last hugged.
Whoever is down here is a sick fuck and they are gonna pay.
She sinks to her knees and wants to keen but the noise gets caught in her throat. The head is staring at her from the floor.
If Beth couldn’t make it out of here alive what makes her think she could stand a chance?
She might as well just lay down and wait for death.
You can do anything, Em.
The head stays silent, that’s coming from within her.
She needs to get out of here. She needs to tell people what happened so they can finally bring Beth home to rest.
She needs to find Sam and tell her about what happened.
Breath caught, Emily throws her shoulders back, then winces because there’s probably a broken or bruised bone or three in her shoulders and back.
She can’t give up. She has a 4.0 and is on the Parson’s waiting list. If she dies here today that will be quitting just as life gets a little hard. Just as it gets a little interesting.
You can do anything, Em.
She runs and falls. She gets caught by a man with a flamethrower who gives her a flare and tells her to run. That thing is chasing her and all she can think of is Beth holding a hand out to her, pulling her up and over that ledge.
She can do this.