Breaking out of the corridor at last, doubling over from the weight of the open air, Sher finally flicked on her lantern. Just ahead inside the tunnel, a stone’s throw away, four blue-grey faces.
Sher screamed and dropped to the floor.
Four bodies, four yellow coats, running toward her, lit now by their own lanterns. Bright and bobbing as buoys.
“You were late and didn’t report,” said the one in front.
“Where’s your lead?” said another, and now she was the one in front.
Sher steadied herself, let go her stomach, trailed a hand in the direction she came. “He’s straight ahead through there,” she said. “A room at the end with a crater. It doesn’t hold. He fell.”
The group reached a decision using their frowns.
“We’ll hurry,” said the one in front.
And, handing her a map, “Follow that. There’s an elevator not far.”
Their coats brushed Sher’s arm as they passed.
Somewhere far above, water slithered through the layers of rock. Ceiling shifted against soil. She waited for the determination to follow them back to Birg, to go to him, and make sure he heard her voice; though she panted for water, for above-ground air; though her body ached for rest.
She followed their map.
The elevator was crude but thankfully mechanized. It was a wood plank with no safety rails, strewn with ropes. Probably it was meant more for freight than people. Sher sat down and wrapped a rope round a couple ways to attach herself. There was no need, the rise smooth and easy and slow. In her ears the buzz of a motor buried away somewhere behind the dense quiet of dirt.
In her head, as if he was stuck there and not forever back in the cave, Birg’s waking scream of breath. A drowner bursting back up for air.
In the morning two men came to Sher’s door. A broad man with dark hair and a thin man with the same hair and glasses. They gave their names and their names were too similar for Sher to remember. They sat down at Sher’s foamcore table without being asked and unpacked paperwork from their carrycases. Sher did not turn off the televisor; it stayed on as it had all night.
This would not take long, they said.
“Where’s Birg?” she asked.
They were pleased to say he had been successfully extracted. He was being treated by medical personnel and would need some rehabilitation. Naturally his health plan would cover it all.
“How was he,” she asked.
They apologized, but they did not have an answer for her on that front. She was welcome to take a week, or more if needed, to visit him and to recover herself from the stressful experience.
Sher kept track of her program out of the corner of her eye. The handsome woman from wagon times was heading up a riot over the price of flour.
There were some particulars of the experience the men wished her help with, in order that they might better understand what had happened. One: The decision to continue past the twenty hours’ exploration period had been made at the sole discretion of her lead, under no direct or indirect suggestion from management. Two: Birg’s exploration of the crystal area (the site of his fall and attending injury) had been undertaken voluntarily. Her answer was strictly a matter of legal record and would not in any way affect Birg’s current medical coverage, which, again, was comprehensive.
Sher thought this sounded right and answered with a nod. She thought, belatedly, of pouring the men something to drink. She owned no proper glasses.
The men appreciated Sher’s response, they said while writing it down. They understood that she may not wish to go into further detail so soon after the experience. They or others might return later to obtain a more thorough account. They pointed their pens at the pages they’d brought, made the sweeping X. They handed a pen to her. The papers were tapped into alignment on her table and replaced in their carrycases. The men brought out new ones to take their place.
There was the matter, also, they said, of the particular tunnel Sher had found. Congratulations! It had been identified as a powerful attractor for new clients, perhaps even the public. The right of first mapping was hers, as per her contract.
“Birg too?” she asked.
They were not at liberty to discuss with Sher the terms of others’ contracts. Of course, measures had to be taken first to secure the route and to safely isolate the crystal area. Construction might be required to make the area more accessible. He hoped that Sher would lend her expertise and experience to help with this work.
The wagon woman slung a handful of flour in the shopkeeper’s face. Demanded justice.
There was also the matter, they said, of training leads who could navigate people to the crystal area, who could make the experience pleasant and engaging. They needed skilled, knowledgeable, safety-conscious individuals in such a position, they said. Someone more reliable.
They had a proposition.
Four years later
Sher waits at the bottom of the trunk for the glass elevator to arrive, lightly sweating in her regulation khakis and kerchief. Over time a small crew joins her, let off from the excavation bus, the gift shop shuttle. Some also in uniform, still blinking off the dark from the tunnels, but almost no one she recognizes: the other leads have gone to the clubhouse for drinks, visitor hours being over. She is surprised to see a yellowcoat among the crowd. Over time the yellowcoats have been turned invisible, put away somewhere, out of visitors’ sight. This one looks uncomfortable to be in public and, after a time, removes her coat, folds it into a square to hold under her arm. Stares emphatically, in silence, at her shoes.
The elevator arrives, and all crowd on. Stopping every half minute to pick up hot springs patrons, giggly field trippers, young singles in outfits like hers, overstuffed packs protruding like missiles from their backs, as if they are going on a weeks-long journey. Dripping children breaking into intermittent chase, draped in bright-colored towels, the wet smack of their bare feet across the tile. Sher presses herself against the glass, watches the thousand windows of suites pass as the elevator slowly climbs. The fragility, malaise of survival that she thought marked everyone she knew, now erased by this noise, this press and itch and hum of population, this carefree commotion. One would no longer know there had been a disaster. Sher watches their reflections vibrant in the glass, the patterns in the trunk shifting each floor, replicated infinitely up.
Still the canopy is a solitary place, still the elevator eventually empties, and Sher can be a person by herself a moment. Can feel the old way settling back in.
Being lead is different. There is order always to bear in mind, a constant count of passengers in her head, of their needs and tendencies—this child might bolt, this couple might linger, this man might have compulsions to announce the ways in which any given thing fails to live up to expectations. There is the ghosting pressure of the company’s liability. There is, too, the job of being their image, of being a voicebox for other people’s promises, of being alone in such moments, of being bigger than herself and not herself at all. Sher expects eventually she will adjust.
In her apartment everything is as it has been—quiet, plain, the ochre walls lit pleasingly by setting sun. She takes her shoes off, leaves them at the door. She clicks on the oven light, runs a pot of water to a boil, pours a boxed pasta into it, stirs. Browns some beef. She takes two slices of bread from the refrigerator, toasts them and spreads them with a health butter. Drains the pasta, stirs a packet of sauce mix into the meat. Pours a glass of wine and another of a green vegetable-fruit-and-vitamin shake.
“Dinner,” she calls.
Out of the back bedroom he comes on his crutches, swinging through the hallway to meet her. “You’re so quiet. Give me a ‘hi,’ why don’t you, or a little door slam, something so I can know you’re home.”
He says, “Thank you for dinner.”
He sits with her help at the dinner table and eats what she has prepared. He does not ask about work. He is very good about this.
Sher prefers to eat in front of the box. Birg finishes, comes to join her on the couch. When she’s put her plate down on the floor, when her hands are unencumbered, he lays himself beside her, his head just shy of her lap. He gets awful headaches, must rest often.
“This is still on?” he says.
“It’s a re-run,” she says.
The teenage god of wind has really gotten himself into trouble this time. He has decided at last to reveal himself to the girl of his interest. No slight display of magic will work on her: always there is another semi-plausible source, always someone interferes with an outlandish explanation. This time he will make it undoubtable. He will climb with her to the town’s tallest tower. She is stricken when he mounts the stone window ledge, when he casts his arms out wide, when he lets himself fall. But her suffering shall be momentary. He will use his power to save himself, to unfurl his god’s wings shimmering before her. He will rise and take her with him to the skies.
But something is wrong. He keeps falling when he should rebound in flight. He has so thoroughly practiced being human that he can no longer take his flying form at will. He begs his wings to come out. He is furious, desperate. It is an awful feeling, one he has never experienced: to have something he wants, and to have his body reject the command.
Cruelty, his god’s eyes still work; they send him to the top of the tower, where the girl of his interest has clambered after him onto the ledge. Punishment, she reaches after him, leans out over nothing, though he is far from her grasp, though he gets farther from her every second. She leans too far, her feet have slipped; the ground approaches; the wind god despairs for her and for himself. They are two fools who cannot fly.
There is a commercial break. Birg clasps the fingers Sher has set on the back of his head. “You’ve seen it before, haven’t you?” he says. “I bet he makes it.”
Sher snaps out of her absorption, finds she is grazing Birg’s low risen scar.
Birg tends to marvel when it comes to his fall, finds the whole ordeal sweetly astonishing. A stage play watched from high above, so far from feeling it, from remembering. “You forget how resilient the body really is,” is a thing he often says. “You see the bandages, you feel your legs give out from under you when you finally get out of the hospital bed, and you think, ‘That’s it, I’m done.’ But the body has ways of holding on.”
To reassure her when his headaches hit, “I feel good, Sher. I get to be with you.”
When she has a rare good day, “Maybe they’ll let me go back down there sometime.”
Says, “What if I go petition them, prove I can handle it. You can lead me, that’ll make them feel better. Say you’ll walk out unless they take you off tourist duty, give us someplace to survey. We can look for something new.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen this one,” Sher replies. “Everything turns out.” She reaches over to the wall switch, turns out the lights. The program is back from commercial.
Door locked, blinds drawn, sitting in only the dark glow the box scatters. Her soles flush to the floor, body melded to the couch cushion. Fingers running through Birg’s thin hair, toes worrying at the heavy seams of his jeans. This is a good program, Sher thinks, the best really; honestly, her very favorite thing on the box. She sits entranced, strangely peaceful though she is tense from jaw to knees. Almost asleep, her breathing so shallow.
The god’s body splits the air. The ground rushes up to receive him. The god pictures what he wants. Who he wants to save.
Out from the cloud of dust, a careening skyward streak, a fleet and holy flash. Just in time.
Images courtesy of Florida Center for Instructional Technology.