Chapter 22: Tunnel Snakes Rule!
So many years of lying in bed with a rifle teaches you things. One, barrel pointed down. Two, no seriously, barrel down. And three, just because you’re asleep doesn’t give you an excuse to not be aware of what is happening around you.
My brother’s crying had faded some time ago, and I could still hear Tally murmuring to him as I roused myself to wakefulness. Jones’ boots made only the slightest hint of noise on the hard stone floor of the tunnel. I waved him off as I felt him lean down to shake me awake, shrugging loose the muscles that had tightened instinctually as I tried in vain to grab the little sleep I could. “We’re going to want to spread the weight out among the packs. I can take the lion’s share of the load, as I’m clearly the worst shot here.”
Jones’ chuckle held little mirth, “You’ll take the lion’s share because it’s the only way to wind you enough that you’ll shut your damn pie-hole.” I felt the change in direction of his voice, more than saw him speak. “I trust your eyes have adjusted some to the lack of light? We’re going to use barely any of the powder, if we can avoid it. We have a couple of hand-cranks, but using them is a last resort.” I heard the sigh even over the sound of water, “This next part is going to be hard to ask, I need you in the front, just behind Whiskey. Your brother is going to be bringing up the rear, with Tally, and I’m going to keep him disarmed.”
“You what now?” I was standing, and before I knew it, I had a knife pressed slightly against my side.
Jones’ voice changed timbre, no menace, no real emotion at all, just cold steel on a Winter day. “He has spent the last two hours you’ve been asleep crying and switching between suicidal and depressed and everything-is-fine-and-dandy acceptance of his situation. He’s on the ropes, and I do not want him deciding to shoot himself or anyone else. So, you are going to calm yourself, and show me you’re cool, or I’m going to disarm you as well.”
Every second that I listened to the roaring silence seemed to drag on for years, but there was no other answer to give, “Fine. Just tell me why I’m up front where I can’t make sure he’s ok?”
The knife vanished as fast as it had pressed into my side. “Because every time he looks at you he starts panicking and goes morose again.” A finger jabbed me in the chest. “Believe it or not, I’m trying to keep everyone alive. Him included.”
“Right.” I swallowed the rest of the retort. “Right.” The second time was more convincing, I had to admit, I had no idea what I was doing, but this was my other half. How could he not be ok? What did I do? Did I fail him? Worse, did I disappoint him? I picked up my ruck, slid it into place, and settled the weight along my shoulders. A second later, Jones handed me another pack, which we wrapped around my front, settling more onto my shoulders.
“This is Wesson’s, I’m going to have him carry Kim’s gear, she’s going on point and has barely anything in her pack.”
“Heh, yeah it’s all in her ass-“ Without warning, I felt a slap on the back of my head. “Hey, what the-“ The knife reappeared, this time at my throat.
“Smith, this is your first and only warning. You need to shut up, keep quiet, and stay in line.” Jones’ voice edged towards menace and anger. “The slightest noise carries in a cavern like this for miles, and if you can’t exercise noise discipline, I will mute you permanently.”
Jones held the knife a moment longer, then turned and moved away quietly. Jesus McFucksickle Christ, like I’m a god damn rook. Whiskey Lead walked over, limned by a soft white-blue glow, grabbed me gently by the sleeve and started forward. In the receding darkness I couldn’t catch sight of Wesson, Tally, or Jones.
A slight tug on my shirt sleeve pulled my attention back to the front. Whiskey Lead nodded, then slid me into line just behind Kim. The dark, dank, air seemed to press in on us all the more as we crept through the caverns at a half-march. I wanted to say something, anything, to someone just to distract myself from the thoughts worming their way through my mind.
Kim’s pace was steady, and the footing seemed reasonably easy. I could hear Whiskey Lead at my back, his breathing even and deep. What had I done to cause Smith to break down? I couldn’t bloody well rely on him being able to shoot me at the exact moment I shot him. Were we supposed to count to three and pull the trigger? Were we supposed to stab each other and bleed out? There wasn’t any other way; I had to be the one. He knew that, he had to. If I wasn’t going to do it, it’d force him to shoot straight for once in his life.
I caught myself opening my mouth to chuckle and poke at Wesson, I turned my head, and all I saw was the blackness pressing in on us. The light barely allowed me to see Kim; I could almost make out Whiskey Lead’s frame, and anything beyond either person was a shadow on a moonless night. It is like being in the hole again. Where’d that thought come from? I hadn’t thought about pipeline in forever.
That isn’t all you’ve neglected to remember, daddy. Upon hearing her voice, whispering in my ear, I lost my balance, tripped and damn near fell into Kim. Whiskey Lead grabbed my backpack and hauled me upright, patted me twice on the arm to let me know that he understood, and let go. It’s so dark in here, daddy. Can’t you turn on the light? You know I can’t sleep without the light on.
Clenching my jaw, I tried to focus on my footing. My mind is just fucking with me, just like they said it would at Yakima. It’s dark, it’s cold, and my eyes and ears have nothing to do so my mind is filling in the dead space with static. An appropriate term dear. I wasn’t ever much but dead space to you, was I? Empty thoughts, static, it is all just filling the void in sensory perception. Same as feeling dizzy when someone suddenly turns the lights out. Zero, one, one, two, three, five, eight, Oh dear, that isn’t going to help. We’re here with you now, a nice little walk. This time without the cars, though. thirteen, twenty-one, thirty-four, Daddy, wouldn’t it be better if you joined us? You almost did back there. I miss you so much, daddy. fifty-five, eighty-nine, one-hundred and fourty-four, two-hundred and thirty-three, ENOUGH. My mind suddenly went completely silent, my hand tightened around the hilt of my sidearm, and in one practiced, smooth pull I placed the muzzle under my jaw and pulled back the hammer.
a principle or belief, esp. one of the main principles of a religion or philosophy : the tenets of classical liberalism.
a person who occupies land or property rented from a landlord.