CHAPTER TEN: THE LAIR
Zelda remembered the name she’d seen on the poster in the grocery store the day before. She pictured the darling little girl’s face in her mind, her sweet smile beaming like polished silver, and it made her want to cry to think all she must’ve gone through.
“How did you get here?”
Susie reached up and touched Zelda’s cheek, hardly daring to believe she was real. She had effectively given up hope of ever being rescued. Now, although cloaked in darkness, her face filled with wonder. If Zelda could have seen, she would have thought she looked like a child taking in the sight of all those enticing packages piled beneath the tree on Christmas morning.
“One of the females brought me,” she said evenly. Her voice was detached and remote, drifting in the dark like a single, tiny star in the middle of a black, black night. “They need slaves to help them. I’m supposed to be for Dzhankah when I get old enough.”
The child was speaking nonsense. Zelda decided she was probably in shock and had lost all touch with reality. “Honey, what do you mean ‘they’? Are you saying there are two of these creatures?” She shuddered at the very idea.
“More than that,” Susie answered. Then her voice became very sad as the star winked out, smothered by the thick black blanket of despair. “You’ll see.”
The sound of soft, stealthy movement came from the big chamber, and both of them stopped talking and strained their ears to hear. Something large was approaching them in the dark, its feet scuffling along the floor like burlap bags full of cement. The two captives clung to each other tightly, and Zelda held her breath, afraid to make any noise.
Whatever it was stopped in the doorway. Zelda could hear it making sniffing sounds, and she could smell its animal odor in the stygian darkness just inches from her. Her skin crawled in anticipation of a heavy, wet muzzle being placed against her skin. But the creature didn’t touch her. Instead, just when Zelda felt she was about to burst, it moved on. Its footfalls faded off into the distant, echoing depths of the cavern.
After a time, Susie whispered, “Did he… hurt you?”
“No. It went away.”
“Not that one. I mean the one who brought you in. Did it — you know — have sex with you?”
There was a pause in the darkness. “No.”
“It will,” Susie warned her. “You won’t be able to stop it.”
Zelda contemplated this. After a time, she asked: “Is there a way out of here?”
Susie shook her head, and Zelda felt the movement in the dark. “If you try to get away, they just grab you and drag you back. They can see real good down here. And there’s lots of ’em.”
“What ARE they? Where do they come from?”
“They’re the monsters under the bridge. My brother told me about them, only he just said there was one. They live down here in these caves, and the caves go on and on. They hide in the woods and the corn fields during the day. Then at night, they come back down here.” Susie scratched her nose. She was beginning to relax, a little bit, but she still held on to Zelda’s hand.
“My brother says their favorite food is little girls, but they haven’t eaten me yet, just slapped me around some.”
Zelda sat in the dark, thinking. “Where do they go when the corn’s been picked?” she asked. “And how come nobody ever sees them?”
“I think they hibernate in the winter. You know — like bears? They don’t eat people too much. At least, they don’t bring ’em back down here to eat. They live mostly off of deer and squirrels and rabbits and stuff.”
“How long have you been with them? Since you disappeared? What do YOU eat?”
“I eat what they bring me — raw meat. I got sick a lot at first, but I had to eat something. You’ll get used to it. I don’t know how long I’ve been here, but it seems like a long time.”
Zelda had never heard such fatalistic despair in a child’s voice. She reached out and cradled the poor child’s head in her arms. “Well don’t worry, sweetheart. I’m going to get us out of here somehow, just you wait and see. We’ll get you home safe to your family, I promise.” She took Susie’s fingers and crossed her own heart with them, feeling like Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker.
A flicker of a smile crossed Susie’s lips, but the darkness of the cave was as deep as the darkness of her spirit and the smile was wasted. She squeezed Zelda’s hand and whispered, “I’m glad you’re here, anyway. How did YOU get here?”
“My husband and I —” Zelda stopped short at the thought of Nate. She could not reconcile herself to the fact that he was dead. What was it Susie had said? They didn’t bring the humans back down here to eat? Oh, God! Is that what happened to my husband? Did those beasts devour him?
It was one thing to be widowed, but this was ghastly. She bit down hard on her lower lip. This was not the time for grief; she would not allow the tears to come until later after they were safe. She cleared her throat.
“We were having a picnic,” she finally continued, her voice thick with emotion. “They jumped us, and they dragged me down here.”
“Will your husband come save us?” Susie asked without much hope in her voice.
“No, honey, he’s dead. I’m afraid we’re on our own, you and me.”
They huddled together in the pitch black, each lost in their own thoughts for a time. Susie thought of her brother, Doug, and how he’d probably got in real trouble for losing his little sister. It was the one comforting thought she’d had to cherish during this hellish nightmare. It wasn’t much, but she liked to return to it whenever she was alone. Suddenly Zelda interrupted her thoughts with a question.
“Susie, you say they need slaves. What for?”
“Oh, things like bringing ’em water and cleaning up the bones, things like that. Mostly, I think they’re just saving me for when I grow up. You know — to breed.”
“You don’t know that, Honey. Not for sure you don’t.”
Zelda thought for a moment.
“You DO seem to know an awful lot about these creatures, though. How did you learn so much about them?”
“They told me,” was her simple reply.