CHAPTER TWELVE: IN THE HOLE
The limestone was cold and damp to the touch. Zelda shivered as she groped her way around the pitch-black room. It was as if she was the subject of a sensory-deprivation experiment. Total darkness was drawn across her eyes like a thick, black curtain. Except for the dismal, echoey plinking of water somewhere far-off in the cavern, there was no sound at all.
The one sense that was alive, brilliantly functioning and totally aware, was her sense of touch. Her fingertips traced the damp, crumbly surface of the floor around her, and the low ceiling above. In spite of the thick crust of dirt and limestone dust coating them, they sent back information about every nuance, each irregularity of the stone. She had been hesitant, at first, tentatively sending her hand out to scout before her; but, as she progressed, she moved with ever-growing sureness, searching out the perimeters of her confinement.
She and Susie had sat and talked for hours it seemed. Susie told her about the Monsters, then about the bridge and the path in the woods. She even spoke of “The Fort”, although she hadn’t mentioned what went on there. Susie was well on the way to blotting the memories of the abuse from her mind.
Susie wouldn’t discuss her abuse with Zelda or even allow herself to think about them. For the past few weeks, she had been alone, dealing with circumstances as they arose. The limited contact she’d had with other prisoners had not been very productive. Most of them seemed under a spell of some kind. They wandered around, rather listless and slow — like zombies from one of those old horror films.
Whenever she tried speaking with one of them, they either ignored her completely or grunted out one-word answers and brushed her aside. In some ways, they had been more terrifying than the creatures.
But Zelda was different — she was alert and active. Now that there was an adult in the picture, Susie would let her take over and she would follow. It was a great relief to her, knowing that whatever situation occurred, she could let her make the decision as to what their response was to be. It wasn’t a question of trust. Other than exhibiting sympathy for her plight, Zelda had done nothing to actually earn her trust. Susie was tired, on the verge of complete exhaustion.
Life had thrown her a lot of curves lately and her entire being had grown weary of coping. Her heart felt like an old and worn shoe. She ached to let someone else decide what to do and when to do it. In the meantime, she would drift along with the flow, content to allow events to take care of themselves.
Zelda, on the other hand, had benefited somewhat from her ordeal. For so long now she had let other people run her life. Her mother had made all the major decisions of her childhood: Which school to attend, what to pursue as a career, where to live. These and dozens of others in a long chain stretched back as far as she could remember. And then, after she married Nate, she had allowed him to take over, even going so far as to let him tell her what kind of car they should drive and where they should buy a house. All her life she had been a follower. But now, she was totally on her own with nobody to decide for her. In addition, she had little Susie depending on her. Suddenly, she was thrust into the role of leadership, and it suited her well. Having realized this, with some small feeling of satisfaction, she resolved to see them out of this conflict and to return the child to her mother safe and sound. She sat in the dark, trying to decide on a course of action.
Obviously, there was no way they could fight their way out. Susie said there were many of these brutes and they had no weapons. It was also apparent that they couldn’t sneak out past them if, as the child informed her, they could see in the dark. She turned her head, blindly scanning the darkness, and listened to the water dripping somewhere, far-off. Perhaps there was a way out of this cave that wouldn’t bring them in direct contact with their captors.
She asked herself what Nate would do in a similar situation, and she was struck by the realization of just how much she’d admired him. Why couldn’t I have told him that once when he was still alive?
Cold, heartless grief threatened to flood her mind, driving out all productive reasoning. She felt the need to break down, letting her thoughts drown in tears — to bathe in their cleansing depths like a weary traveler at a cool oasis pool. Perhaps, if she simply closed her eyes and cried herself to sleep, she might awaken to find this had all been a horrible nightmare. Bitterly, she cast these thoughts aside.
But Susie needs me… A voice inside — that hidden voice of power which she had started taping into — spoke to her.
No time for self-pity, she admonished herself. She had to get a grip on herself and keep it together if they were ever going to escape.
“Susie, have you got any idea how big this cave is?” Her voice, although a mere whisper, echoed softly, doubling back to swirl like wraiths in the darkness about them.
“I don’t know exactly.” Susie sounded tired, sleepy. “That room out there is big… real big. That’s where they sleep. It’s kind of like the main hall or something. And there are tunnels going all over. When they first brought me in kept me penned up in rooms all over the place. But, after a while I guess they realized I couldn’t really get away, so I’ve pretty much been able to go wherever I wanted and they more or less leave me alone.”
Zelda was hopeful. “That’s good. Maybe we can use that to our advantage.”
“Problem is, though, it’s so darn dark down here I can’t really see anything. It doesn’t much matter where I go, it all looks the same.”
“I see. Well, you and I are getting out of here, kid! To start with, let’s see if we can’t get an idea how big this room we’re in is. We know it’s not very tall…” Zelda said as she gingerly touched the knot on her head. “Tell you what: You work THIS side of the doorway…”
Taking Susie’s hand, she guided it to the wall in front of them, groping around until she felt the opening. She slapped the crumbly limestone and positioned Susie in front of it, facing the wall. Running her own hand along the top of the doorway, she crawled on hands and knees over to the opposite side.
“And I’ll go… this way.” So saying, she began sliding her hands along the wall in front of her, advancing to the left and moving up and down the wall so as to judge its height. She felt her spirits lifting a bit. It was good to be moving. As long as she kept doing something or taking action, she stayed ahead of those poisonous thoughts — the ones that threatened to wash over her and pull her down in a whirlpool of self-doubt and utterly black grief, much darker even than the lightless void she now explored. With every step she crawled, she made a mental note. She could hear Susie, sidling along opposite her and quietly making little slapping sounds as her tiny hands connected with the hard surface of the cave wall. Apparently, it was larger than she would have guessed as her steps added up and the sounds Susie made began retreating from her.
Suddenly, her world was illuminated in a blinding flash and she sat back hard on her haunches. Her first response was startled, unreasoning anger; and then it slowly sank into her consciousness that she had collided with another wall, running at right angles to the one she had been following. Something warm slithered down her face and she reached up to feel blood, slick and moist, between her fingers. She hissed softly through clenched teeth.
Pulling herself back up to a crawling position, she quietly called across to Susie to be careful. “Okay.” Whispered the child, her voice sounding tiny and lost in the pitch black.
Following the new wall, she continued on, noticing that the ceiling was getting a bit higher as she went. Soon she was able to rise up into a crouching position, giving her protesting knees a break. But, as she moved on, it started to go back down again and she was forced to resume crawling. To her, this indicated that the room must have a slightly domed ceiling, tapering down to the floor in the back. Her theory was soon proven by her searching hands. If she were any judge, the room seemed to be about twenty feet across, and maybe five feet high at its peak.
A sudden, cold ball of apprehension erupted in the pit of her stomach as Zelda became aware of the silence around her. Susie was no longer slapping the wall. This thought barely had time to sink in before a sharp cry, emanating from somewhere across the room let her know her little friend was in trouble. The cry was followed by a scuffling noise and what sounded like rocks sliding and falling in a well.
“Susie!” She called, afraid to raise her voice too much, lest she call attention to herself. There was no answer at first, and then the child’s quavering voice drifted eerily out of the darkness: “Uhh-Zelda!… Helllp!… UH!… Mph!… I’m gonna fall!” She sounded like she was calling from the bottom of a barrel.
Her heart hammered. “Hold on, kiddo! I’m coming. Damn!” she cursed the dark. Throwing her hands straight out before her, she waved them frantically around, feeling her way across the middle of the room. She tried to direct herself to the point where she had heard Susie’s voice, but it had been so distant — so strangely muffled. Scrambling as quickly as she could, she charged across the chamber until, unexpectedly, the floor disappeared beneath her. A startled bleat escaped her throat as she pitched headfirst into thin air. Then, with a bone-jarring force, her out-stretched arms struck another wall and stopped her fall.
Gasping and panting heavily, she took stock of her situation for a moment. Apparently, there was a hole in the floor, a sort of rock cistern into which her upper body had fallen. Undoubtedly, the rest of her would have followed, had her hands not connected with a small outcropping on the other side. So now she lay, with her hands on one side of the well and her lower thighs, right above the knees resting on the opposite rim. Her head was about a foot lower than her legs. This was an extremely uncomfortable, if not dangerous position to be in. But, at that moment, Zelda wasn’t so much worried about her own safety as that of her new friend. After a moment she took a deep breath and called.
“Susie!” she grunted into the hole below her. “Are you down there?”
The child’s voice floated up to her from somewhere below. “I — I’m here… unh… down here! I’m scared, Zelda. I think I’m gonna fall some more.”
The child sounded like she was going to cry, and right now, Zelda needed her to be brave. “Sh-h-h! Honey, don’t cry. I’m going to get you. Just hold on now.” She tried to sound calm and confident, hoping it would rub off on Susie. In truth, she hadn’t the slightest idea how she was going to reach her. Susie sounded like she was about six feet below Zelda’s current position, as she was becoming pretty good at judging distances in the dark.
Perhaps there was a way to reach her, but the first obstacle she had to overcome was her awkward position at the lip of the well. She tried to take her left hand loose to reach up and pull herself from the well, but her remaining hand couldn’t find a secure enough purchase to hold her weight. She began to slip into the hole. Frantically she spread her legs farther apart and shoved her hand back into the rough limestone wall, cutting it a bit, but stopping her fall. So, it was painfully apparent that she couldn’t move her hands.
As if proving the point, Zelda felt a huge insect, probably a millipede, crawling endlessly up her bare leg. She didn’t dare thrash around to shake it off, for fear she would lose her grip and plummet, head-first into the chasm. All she could do was grit her teeth and wait for it to traverse her body and move on. The thing was only about four inches long, but, in her helpless position there in the depths of the darkened cave, it loomed much, much larger. She could feel its tiny legs, tickling their way with agonizing slowness across the surface of her skin. An image of its slick, shiny, segmented body played with cruel clarity upon her mind’s eye.
She knew that there were creatures that lived in caves that, deprived of light for their entire lives developed differently from normal species. Their bodies were pale and colorless, and they grubbed around, sightless, feeling their way with long, hair-like antennae, waving in the eternal darkness. God only knew what weird variety of creepy-crawly thing had been hiding in this hole and was even now slithering its way along the length of her bare calf. Beads of sweat broke out upon her upper lip, and her muscles locked in rigid tension. Her mind reeled with revulsion, and she fought back the giddiness that threatened to overcome her.
When it and the insect had passed, she began to slowly and carefully ease her way, one inch at a time, alternating hands, up the wall. She could hear Susie sobbing beneath her; and when she could get her breath, she sent encouragement down to her. But the process was agonizingly slow, and she began to pray that her strength would hold out. The skin on the palms of her hands burned and stung from being scraped and ground into the rough stone, and her arms trembled with exertion. A warm, numbing sensation began slowly creeping up from her wrists, and Zelda was sure that when it reached her shoulders she would just buckle and plunge into the pit below. Her teeth clamped down hard on her lower lip, and small, mewling squeaks squeezed their way out of her throat.
At last, just when she felt her arms were going to break off at the elbow, she reached an angle where she was able to push herself back out of the hole and roll over onto the flat surface of the cave floor. She lay in the dark, panting for a moment and then she returned to her rescue efforts, realizing there was no time to waste. Scooting back over to the hole, she called down, “Honey, are you still with me?”
“I’m h-here.” came the tremulous voice.
“Sweetie, tell me about your position… Where are you? Can you stand up?” Blood had rushed to Zelda’s head, making her ears sing, but some feeling was rapidly returning to her arms. Her skin prickled with pins and needles.
“I’m up against the wall, and there’s like a… a ledge, or whatever. I’m standing on it. But Zelda, I’m scared! How’re you gonna get me?”
There was a note of quiet desperation in Susie’s small voice, and she didn’t like it. What it said was, “I’m scared, yes… but, more than that, I’m on the verge of panic. At any moment, I may try something desperate and stupid that will send me sprawling into space with a shrill cry that will haunt you until the day you die. As long as you live, you will hear it in your dreams and it will drag you screaming and sweating from your sleep to ponder why you couldn’t have done something — ANYTHING to save me!” She had time to consider this for just a moment and then she shook it off.
“Okay, now be a brave girl. Susie, don’t look up, I’m going to drop a rock into the hole so we can see how deep it is. Hang on now and flatten yourself against the wall, okay? Okay!”
She dropped a small pebble into the void and waited for the sound of its fall to come echoing up to her. After a few seconds of silence, all she heard was Susie’s voice. “I don’t think there IS any bottom. This one’s just like the one they throw the bones in, only it’s out by the entrance where there’s enough light to see it. Don’t fall, Zelda.”
The cavern room felt suddenly claustrophobic. What a horrible way that would be to die, falling endlessly until the air ran out and you suffocated, or until you picked up enough speed that a brush against the wall shattered your skull… She pictured herself tumbling over and over, plummeting toward the center of the earth. The walls were whizzing by at enormous speed and abrading pieces of her body away bit by bit as she fell until there was nothing left but an irregular-shaped bloody chunk.
Vertigo gripped her and she shook her head, trying to clear out the nightmarish images. Sucking in a deep gulp of the cool air, she called again: “Susie, are you wearing a belt?”
“Good. Take it off, and toss it as hard as you can straight up in the air.” She waited, listening closely to the sound of Susie’s movements in the dark.
“Here it comes.”
The belt flew through the air and hit Zelda. The metal buckle raising a small welt where it struck the corner of her eye. She was able to snatch at it before it tumbled back into the hole. She rolled over and worked on her back, connecting it with her own belt, which she had removed while waiting for Susie. This gave her about a six-foot extension on her arm-span. She lowered the belt into the hole and leaned in as far as she dared.
“Susie,” she whispered. “I’m lowering the belt to you, do you feel it?” Nothing. She must be lower than Zelda had thought. Removing her sweat-shirt, she tied one sleeve through one of the belt buckles and lowered her “rope” back into the hole. Still, it came up short.
“Sweetheart, take off your shirt.”
There was no movement below her.
“Honey, are you still there?” she asked, anxiously. Panic gripped her voice and made it squeak.
Susie didn’t answer, she was hearing voices in her head: “TAKE YOUR SHIRT OFF, SUZE… C’MON… TAKE IT OFF… WILL YOU DO ME NEXT? WILL YA… TAKE YOUR CLOTHES OFF FIRST!” The voices swarmed around her like little demons, echoing and resounding, bouncing off the walls and piercing her skull to float achingly inside. They dug their claws into her brain and scratched at the back of her eyeballs. She felt as though she were going to vomit, and she shut her eyes tightly, forcing the demons to go away.
Snatching off her tee-shirt, she tossed it high into the air. “Here comes!”
Zelda breathed a sigh of relief and joined the shirt with the other. This time when she swung the flimsy ladder into the hole she was rewarded with an answering tug on the other end. Bracing herself, she coaxed Susie off the ledge and began slowly drawing her up to safety.
Then, just as she was about to reach down and grab the little girl’s arm, Susie stopped. “Zelda,” she whispered. “There’s a tunnel here.”
She leaned down into the hole once more, and this time she connected with Susie. Grabbing her beneath the arms, she hauled her on out, where she held the shivering child tightly in her arms. After a few moments, the trembling abated, and she could tell the child was overcoming her fright.
“Here,” Zelda said, untying the tee-shirts and belts. “Put this back on before you catch your death.”
When they were dressed again and had rested a minute, Susie showed her the tunnel, running horizontally away from the shaft of the well, which it joined at a spot about three feet beneath the floor they were lying on. The two of them were reaching into the hole, flailing their arms in the darkness.
Facing Susie, she said, “Sweetheart, this could be a way out. Are you up to risking it?”
Silently in the dark, Susie nodded, and Zelda sensed it.
“Atta girl. What’ve we got to lose? We’ve pretty much outgrown this room anyway, right?”
With a reluctant sigh, she turned to the task of lowering them both safely into the tunnel.
Above them, in the doorway to the room they were quitting, a large bristle-haired creature sat watching them with eyes that pierced the cave’s eternal night. After a moment, it grunted once, low and menacingly. It shuffled into the room where it poked its head in the hole and stared after them down the tunnel.