“Boo-yeah! Top of the class again!” Ryder bellowed, savagely ringing the bell affixed to the gymnasium ceiling with one hand and holding himself aloft on the rope with the other. The bulky boy slid down the rope like one descending a firepole, eliciting a wince from a few of the students who imagined the friction burns he surely gave himself. Ryder shrugged off their pained expressions and presented his raw palms. “Hey, no pain no gain.” he grinned. “I beat my old record up and down the rope, and you owe me ten bucks!” he clapped a skinnier boy on the back, nearly bowling him over.
“No way, I can’t believe this! You’ve gotta be doping!” the boy accused him.
“Fair and square. You can pay up at Lunch.” Ryder chuckled, meaty hands behind his head.
The sounds of squeaking sneakers on the varnished floor filled out the gym as the students who had either completed their exercises or had free time off of other classes dribbled across the basketball court, sectioned off from the rope room by a line of white tape.
“I’m all done here, right coach?” Ryder grinned.
“You’re clear. Go to the court if you want. Those of you who’ve finished are free to play. Otherwise, hit the showers and get out of here.” their portly instructor grumbled, marking Ryder’s time and crossing him off the checklist on his clipboard. He chewed on his worn pen while he read off the remaining names. “Ok, who do we have left? Has anyone seen Claire?”
“No one’s seen her since this morning.” a girl called from the back.
“Again? I can count the times that young lady’s shown up in my gym on one hand, I tell you that much.” the coach buried his head in his palm.
Dares fidgeted a little, feeling his blood pressure rising. Frustration like this was palpable, and in a way, louder than the hootings and hollerings down the basketball court to Dares.
“I wonder why she’s absent so often?” another girl pondered.
“Three guesses!” Shunpei said playfully with a cheshire cat grin. He held out his first two fingers together and cocked his wrist. “Look at me, I’m a hardcore goth rebel.” Shunpei mimicked somberly, and exaggeratedly exhaled a whistling stream of air, his eyes narrowed to disinterested slants. With his other hand, he flipped his hair, covering one eye. “You are all equally boring to me.”
The girls around Shunpei erupted into a helpless giggling fit. When Shunpei started counting imaginary slits down his wrists, Ryder changed his course from the court to march up to him with lumbering footsteps. The coach threw out an arm across his puffed out chest to hold him at bay.
“Easy, tiger. How about you just go cool off?” he implored Ryder. Reluctantly, Ryder did, cursing under his breath.
“I sound just like her, don’t I?” Shunpei fished for praise, eyes alight with cheer.
“Shunpei, fifty push ups right now!” the coach bellowed, his face strained and turning purple, a vein bulging out on his sagging forehead.
“Sir, yes Sir!” Shunpei saluted humorously and dropped to the ground.
“You know, I just don’t think I’m getting through to this one.” the coach sighed to himself.
Dares’ head pounded. He could tell his teacher was having a pretty bad migraine, and just wanted to go home early and have a few beers, a handful of motrin, and a long nap. Dares’ nose tickled as the scent of cheap malt floated into his nostrils, mixed with the perpetual musk of sweat that hung around this place in a thick haze. He swayed a little on his feet and his head sloped to one shoulder.
“Huh?” Dares snapped to attention.
“You’re up next! Come on, sport, let’s wrap this up!” the coach tapped his foot impatiently.
Dares wobbled on his feet, swaying as if a reed in the wind. A brief spell of lightheadedness. He buried it and jumped up, clamping his body to the rope, and began his ascent. Higher and higher he pulled himself, feeling the world below shrink as he reached towards the bell at the top. A brief slip, a scramble, a catch. The rope shook, Dares dangling off of it, and a wave traveled down the bottom where it exited the tip, flitting back and forth like the tail of a rattlesnake.
Keep moving forward.
Dares climbed, and pictured his ceiling, the cosmos stretched wide and vast and calling to him. The ceiling rippled like water, and Dares realized it was the cosmos. Unreal cold swam over him and the color drained out of his vision until everything was a muddled gray. The chittering thing descended from the starry space above, crawling face-first down the rope to meet Dares. Dares’ breath froze in the air, his head spinning.
The thing breathed in, its flap of mouth pulled into that concave jaw. The dimensions of the room melted away to a shaft of light encasing the writhing rope, and outside this narrow well of light was nothing but endless darkness. In this vertical dark tunnel were only Dares and the creature. Numbness claimed him again as it had the night before, and his hands fell away from the rope. He fell down through the air, into the abyss, feeling every particle of air move around him and make waves up the shaft.
Down, down, down, ever down. As Dares fell, that shaft of light constricted, becoming smaller and smaller until it was but a line, and this too blinked out.
A little boy was lost somewhere dark and claustrophobic. Rolling black fog grew and grew behind him. There was something in the fog that wanted him and was calling out his name, compelling him to come closer. I don’t want to go back there…
The boy turned and ran, but could not put distance between himself and the living shadow behind him. It pulled the speed and energy out of him, and his legs felt thick and heavy like lead. He was running blindly through the dark.
Dares. a comforting voice called him.
Dares saw a circle of light ahead of him at the end of the infinite dark path. An indiscernible, feminine figure stood there in the light, reaching out her hand. There was safety in the light, there the thing could not claim him.
Mother! Mother, help me! Tendrils of black smoke curled around his ankles. The light and his mother within began receding. Hot tears rolled down his young, frightened face.
I’m going now, Dares. the figure smiled sadly.
No! No, don’t go! Please, don’t leave me alone in the dark!
Come back! Help me, please! The boy pleaded desperately as the smoke began to wrap around his chest and under his arms and around his neck, pulling him back, pulling him away from the light and his mother. He could hear the faint whispers inside the cloud, the cold breaths of the underworld on the nape of his neck, raising his hairs.
No, no, I’m not coming with you, ever! Let me go! Dares screamed at the writhing, whispering shadows.
Goodbye, Dares… her voice echoed towards him. Even as she called her farewell, a hand still reached out for him to take hold of, if he could only reach it. He seemed so much closer now.
Mother, wait! Take me with you! Please, take my hand!
Their fingers brushed each other. I’m almost there!
And the little boy was yanked away and piled under the weight of the shadows, growing and growing over him, pressing his face into the cold ground. A veil of shadow covered half his face, and with one eye he saw his mother pulled away from him. Futilely, his arm still stretched out.
Please… don’t go…
Warmth and serenity. Dares felt his entire body at peace. He was enveloped in the tender sun, shining through the screen of a beautiful pink tree, raining petals down on him.
Its warm. Soft. His head lay in someone’s lap, and a gentle, slender hand stroked his hair tenderly.
“You were murmuring in your sleep again, Dares. What’s wrong?”
This voice. So familiar… “...It’s nothing…” - it didn’t matter where Dares was. He felt contentment and peace.
“It’s so quiet here, you can hear each petal touch the lake.” that ethereal, heavenly voice floated down to Dares’ ears again.
“But… I don’t hear anything…” Dares murmured up to his protector. He couldn’t make out her face. It was that same shining pale white, contrasted by her veil of hair like dark water. He saw only the gentle smile looking down over him, but the eyes were hidden. His vision was blurry.
“Don’t listen with your ears.”
“But… how am I supposed to…?”
“Shh… hush now…” one of those delicate hands slid Dares’ eyes closed. The other grabbed his reluctant hand in hers and raised it to her chest.
“Hey, wait,” Dares felt panic overtake him.
“Trust me.” Firmly, the hand pressed Dares’ hand between her breasts, palm down onto her smooth flesh. “Tell me what you feel.”
With his eyes closed, Dares tuned out everything else around him. “Your heart.” he answered.
“That’s right.” her hand slid over his chest and stayed there, warm and welcome. “And what do I feel?”
“My heart.” said Dares.
As long as we have that, we don’t need the senses to see and hear and feel. Let everything else melt away. Can you feel it?
Tranquility. In his mind, Dares saw the petals falling like pink ghosts into the azure well of souls, a spring of Avalon. And even with his eyes closed, he felt the pulse of the ripples across the pond where the leaves kissed the surface. The ripples of the pond, the smell of her hair and feel of her flesh, and the beating of their hearts to the same rhythm all melded together into a single sensation.
Is this Nirvana?
Wherever you are… I am always with you…
The gentle ripple. The drop from the crack in his ceiling. The rain. Drip. Drip. Drip.
Dares awakened. Something cold and wet was dripping down onto his head. Distantly, he noticed his arm was reaching out. His eyes scanned the darkness that enveloped him. His tailbone was sore. He felt the floor he sat on. It was moist and smooth, solid rock carved deep over countless years of the water from above cutting through its path.
Dares craned his neck and tried to widen his eyes to let in more light. From above him, a fading tunnel of sun poured in through a hole fifty feet high. Across from the hole, a stalactite hung, water trickling down its sides and concentrating at the tip, where drops like tears fell onto Dares’ head.
So, I’m underground. How did I get here? Dares hung his head, straining. He hadn’t even noticed that he sat in a shallow puddle that had congealed in the cradle of rock until he tried to stand and faintly heard the slosh of water. Sediment that had settled at the bottom was stirred up as the water rushed to fill the gap Dares had made. The puddle swirled and churned, mixing up with the sediment into a murky, blooming gray. Dares stood too fast on his untested legs, and felt a sudden shooting pain run from his feet to his spine. He flopped forward, face-first into the grimy puddle. His eyes opened against the murk, where he saw the bottom was gone, and there was only endless black ocean.
He burst out of the puddle, choking and wiping silt out of his eyes, his hair grimy and caked with mud. Dares stared at the fluttering fabric of the pond, disbelieving, until it at last settled and smoothed over. The sediment separated again, falling to the bottom and resting there. The water was clear, and less than a foot deep.
I’m delirious. Did I injure my head? Dares massaged his temples. What’s the last thing I can remember?
“You two! Get away from there! It’s dangerous!”
Dares startled. That’s right! We were fighting on that cliff when it collapsed under us! The memory came rushing back. Dares rushed to stand, and fell again. “Shit!” Dares’ curse echoed up the cavern.
Okay, stay calm. Check your body. Dares methodically looked over himself. He had a few scrapes and bruises, but overall seemed -
Just great. - There were two large gashes down his shins. I don’t think the tendons have been damaged. Dares carefully erected himself on his bleeding legs. There was a weighty pressure pushing down on them. They wobbled a moment, but ultimately held. Okay, the bones aren’t broken, at least, not much. But they’re definitely bruised. More importantly, I need to apply a tourniquet.
Dares wished he had paid more attention in anatomy. He didn’t know if he had severed any major arteries or not. Somehow, not knowing was worse than being certain he was bleeding out. Was it just his imagination, or was the puddle beneath him filling with way too much blood? It turned a dark crimson, and the sickly smell of iron drifted up to Dares. He was cold too.
Dares scanned the cavern and noticed a jagged edge at the mouth of a branching tunnel. Tentatively, he waded through the puddle to that edge. He looked down at his blood-soaked jeans, at the rip in the fabric where his legs had been cut.
Good, it’s already started for me. - staying optimistic was the best idea in this situation. Dares made a pained effort of removing his jeans, which seemed to have shrunk and tightened around his swollen legs in the water. He bit his lip to stifle a grunt as he agonizingly grated the fabric over those purple-splotched and weeping limbs. After an eternity, the jeans were off, leaving Dares in his matted boxers. He felt silt rub irritatingly against his bare skin beneath the underwear. Dares pushed the pain and irritation down beneath his consciousness. Stay clear-headed!
Dares began sawing the cuts in his jean-legs wider and wider against the sharpened stone, until the circles reached around the backs and the legs detached. Dares swayed. His vision was getting cloudy again. He shook his head until the world focused back into clarity. He was freezing. The ruined jeans were still wet, so it probably wasn’t wise to put them back on, which would only accelerate the cold. However, Dares let himself buy into the illusion that they would provide him a modicum of warmth. The pants went back on. As for the detached sleeves, Dares ripped them open into long strips of fabric, which he wrapped around his gashed legs and pulled them taut.
That should stop the bleeding. But with the numbness spreading through his legs, it was hard to tell how tight was too tight. If I cut off the circulation, I’ll be in bigger trouble. Though, that was a long-term problem. Now was what mattered.
Dares tested his bandaged legs, rubbing warmth into them. The blue wrappings were stained a deep purple as his blood seeped into them. But, the blooming patches grew only a little, and then stopped. Dares didn’t have to worry about losing any more blood. The problem now was finding a way out. Once more, he looked to the patch of sky in the rocky roof. There were a few footholds and outcroppings on the wall, but it curved into a dome-like shape near the hole. To get within reach of the hole, Dares would have to hang upside down at some point. From this distance, Dares couldn’t tell how close the holds were to the opening. There was no telling if he’d even be within five meters of the hole. What was more, the cave walls were slick and moist.
Another drop from above scattered ripples through the pool.
I’m wasting too much time thinking about it. Dares consigned himself. Nothing’s ever easy. He moved to what looked to be the easiest access point, a bulge of rock with deep grooves that marked the base of the close wall. Moving carefully over the sections of rock overgrown with slippery moss, Dares straddled atop the rock, and pulled himself up. A splayed hand reached for a groove. But, when Dares squeezed, his arm spasmed and seized up. “Shit!” Dares lost his grip and tumbled backwards, rolling off the bulge and back into the pool.
After a few moments, Dares pulled himself back into a sitting position and examined his right arm. It was convulsing, the fingers twitching like the dying legs of a crushed spider. I was so focused on my legs, I didn’t notice my arm. I think the wrist is sprained. I can’t climb like this. What if I do make it to the top by some miracle, and my arm gives up on me again? I doubt I’ll be so lucky twice.
Any hope of climbing up was dashed to bits upon the rocks. Dares turned toward the yawning tunnels stretched out before him, twisting and turning into deeper darkness and the unknown. There was no way up, only forward, deeper into the cavern. But which way to go? Alright, let’s roll the dice.
He froze. Something was in the cavern with him.
“Dares!” - a walrus bellow. No, a blustering human voice.
Dares’ eyes flitted open. He was staring into the swollen, mustached face of the gym coach.
Talk about rude awakenings. Dares shifted on the ground. His tailbone was sore. “What happened?” he heard himself ask in a daze.
“You ate shit.” Shunpei stated bluntly. The boy was flat on his back, giggling with a pained expression on his face.
Dares looked at him, past their unwashed instructor. “What do you mean?”
“I mean you just bailed at the top.” said Shunpei, clutching his side.
“You’ve taken a fall, son. That’s what the floors are padded for. Even so, Shunpei threw himself under you to block the impact as best he could. You were going to land on your head, but he managed to redirect your course a little just before you landed. You’re a lucky one, kiddo.” said the coach.
Shunpei blocked his fall? Dares stared at him, unblinking. “Why the hell did you do that?”
Shunpei stared back and smiled wide. “I told you already. I’m just securing my interests. And now you owe me a life debt. Never forget that for as long as you live! Ahaha- ow.” Shunpei winced, clutching his side again. “Good humor hurts.” he grunted.
“Look me in the eyes, kid.” the coach spoke down to Dares, who tried to prop himself up. “No, don’t try to stand just yet, we don’t know if there’s been any serious damage.” he stared into Dares’ green gems for what amounted to an uncomfortable length of time. Dares felt his watering eyes threaten to blink.
“Ok, pupils are both the same size, we can probably rule out a concussion. But Shunpei, I think you may have a cracked rib or two. I’ll call the nurse, have her take a look at the two of you.” said the coach.
“No. I’m alright.” said Dares, standing up against the coach’s judgment. “See? Perfectly okay.”
“Still, we need to make su-”
“I think” Dares snapped unintentionally, “I’ll just take it easy the rest of the day, if you don’t mind.”
The coach frowned and stood, shrugging, to his full height. “Alright kid, suit yourself. Go get some rest, but keep a phone by you.” the coach paused. Then his eyes were on Shunpei. “And as for you, I imagine you’ll want the day off too, tough guy?”
Shunpei smirked. “Maybe. But I think procedure calls for you bringing in a couple of guys to carry me to the medical office on a stretcher, right?”
Dares couldn’t believe it. Shunpei sat content in the stretcher that was called for him as if he were a king being carried aloft by his servants, paraded before his lowly subjects.
“Remember, you owe me one!” Shunpei flashed Dares a thumbs-up as he was lifted out of the gym.
Dares looked as though he had bitten into a lemon. Hell no.