Monsters Page 2

A sudden lurch. Something had snagged. She felt a jolt between her shoulder blades, and then a vicious cut as the Uzi’s strap sawed her throat. Lifted by the current, her legs went nearly vertical. She was still underwater—on the brink of drowning—but she wasn’t spinning anymore, at least for the moment.

I’m caught. The Uzi. The metal plate barrel must’ve jammed into the rocks. If that was true, and the Uzi was locked tight and didn’t move . . . If I can get myself turned around, I’ll have something to hang on to, get my head out of the water. Straining against the current, she hooked her left hand around the Uzi’s strap, still cutting into her neck, and reached back with her right. All she grabbed was water. She tried kicking herself closer. Come on, come on, come on. Her chest was one bright blister. Her throat was doing that urk-urk-urk, battling with her to give it up already, stop fighting, let go. Please, God, help me.

Her fingers scraped rock, and then there was the Uzi, jammed in a V-shaped cleft of stone above her head, not by an inch or two but at least two feet. No way to get her head above water, not while she was tangled up in the carry strap and on her back. She would have to flip completely over. In order to do that, she would have to release the death grip she had on that carry strap and trust that she was strong enough to counter the pull of the current. That she could hang on with only her right hand for those few seconds. Otherwise, she would drown.

She tried to let go of the carry strap; she really did. But her left hand, frozen in a rictus of panic, refused to obey. She couldn’t do this. No way. She wasn’t strong enough. The water was going to get her. One last second of blind fear and then she would have to mo ns ters breathe. Her mouth would snap open and her life would be over. Then there came a voice, a phantom of memory, so small and distant, barely audible over her terror: Come on, honey, let go of the gun or you’ll die. Jump, Alex, jump—

But then, all at once, it was too late. It was over, and even her father, as strong and sure as he was, couldn’t save her.

What was left of her air boiled from her lips, drawing with it the thin, fiery ribbon of a final scream. Her mind shimmied, and she bled from her body, her consciousness detaching, letting go, hurtling up and away until she saw herself as if from a great height and through the wrong end of a pirate’s spyglass: faraway, helpless in the chop and churn, red hair streaming like bloody seaweed. With no conscious thought at all, no planning whatsoever, her left hand slipped off the Uzi. The greedy current instantly snatched her ankles. If not for the hump of her right shoulder, she’d have been torn free of the strap to swirl away and drown. But it held, and then, somehow, she was twisting, flipping herself around. Her right hand was locked tight, and the Uzi held; her left hand found the weapon, and the Uzi held; and then she was surging up with a mighty kick, the sudden shear in her ankle only a twinkle against the greater agony in her chest, because she had no air, she was out of air and time; but the weapon still held—

She shattered through, breaching the surface like a clumsy whale. She managed a single, wheezy, strangled aaahhhh, and that was all. No match for the pounding current, her elbows unhinged, and she instantly submerged, her head going completely under.

Hang on, hang on, hang on! A drill bit of fear cored straight into her heart. As far as she could tell, the Uzi was locked tight. With every shudder of the earth, however, the gun bucked like a bronco, and it was so far below the surface, she had to work for every breath.

Another kick, another gulping razor of air, and then down she went again. The burn in her chest was less, which was to say that her lungs weren’t on fire and her mind was clearing, slewing back into place. But she couldn’t do this forever. Although it felt like a century, she probably hadn’t been in the water more than two minutes. Her waterlogged clothes and boots were so heavy she might as well have been wearing chains. She was tiring, her muscles going as shivery as Jell-O, the icy water burning her skin, leaching heat and the last of her will. Another kick. A sobbing breath. There was an almost continual stream of stone: small rocks that bit her arms and nipped her scalp and drew blood, which the water washed away as soon as she submerged. Much larger chunks rained down, too, some so close she heard the whir and sploosh.

Maybe try to rest somehow, wait this out until things calm down. Which was almost funny, in a bizarre way. Calm down? She’d be a Popsicle long before then. If she hadn’t needed the air, she might’ve laughed. Kicking for the surface, she opened her mouth for a breath—

And that was when she realized, as she sucked in not air but water, that the tunnel was still filling, the water level rising—and fast.


No. Flailing, she fell back with a splash. Her left hand slipped from the gun, and she was nearly swept away. Kicking, she fought, got her left hand around the Uzi, and surged up for a breath. She only just made it. The water was now so high, she had to tip her head and still, water slopped over her chin to lick at her lower lip.

Got to get out. But how? She dropped beneath the surface again. From far below came a strange heaving, as if the earth was a shell that a giant was trying to crack. An instant later, there was a dull boosh as another boulder bulleted into the water just off her right shoulder. God, what if this tunnel broke up, or a wall collapsed? That might happen, too, and then it would be like the Titanic. It was that damn physics again, water displacing air. The sudden rush of water out of this tunnel and into an adjacent, dry cavern would be too much. She’d never hang on then but be swept away to spin and drown in the dark.

She held her breath as long as she could before struggling up for another precious sip of air. She tried to think of what she could do to save herself, and came up empty. Her only tools were the Uzi to which her hands were locked tight, the Glock 19 at the small of her back, and Leopard’s tanto strapped around her leg. While great for dirt or even chopping handholds in ice, the tanto was useless here. The Glock was an option, but only if she wanted to go out with a bullet. Could she risk butting the Uzi free, reseating it higher? Submerging again, she forced her eyes open. The cold was a blowtorch against her corneas. Couldn’t see a thing, not even her hands resting on the weapon. Working blind, going by feel alone with numb, icy fingers— that was a nonstarter.

No tools, then. Just numb hands and clumsy feet. Resurfacing, she eked in a meager snuffle of air. High above, the tunnel seemed to have closed down, gone black. Moon must’ve set. But the space also felt dense and . . . crowded. Something jammed up there, probably rocks sealing the tunnel’s mouth to cork her in like a genie in a bottle. And that was it, wasn’t it? Up was a dead end. Probably just as well. She truly did suck at climbing.

But life is precious and the body is stubborn, and so was she. Dad is right. You have to try. Surfacing again, the peak of her nose just barely clearing, she pulled in another panicky breath. Maybe two more and that was it. Her mind kept doing that swimmy slip, a mental sleight of hand that gave her brief, bird’s-eye views of herself, waaay the hell down there. Jump, Alex, jump. Climb, and do it now before you lose your nerve.

Eyes shut tight, she let herself fall back. Water closed over her head. Then, gritting her teeth, she scissored her legs hard at the same moment that she pulled with her arms. Shifting her hands as fast as she could, the right first and then the left, she went from an underhand grip to overhand. Her elbows locked, and then she was swinging her left boot up so fast and hard and high, her hip joint shrieked. She jammed rock, felt the jolt in her knee and then metal under her foot, and thought, Push. She hung on, driving up, locking her left leg as she straightened. Her head broke the surface, followed by her chest and now her torso. Panting, she hugged stone, balanced a quick second, then bent her right knee and repeated the process. There was a white blink of pain in her ankle before the sturdy toe of her boot stubbed rock. She managed an awkward, sidelong shuffle, gradually easing onto her right foot, testing the joint, her knee. Easy, easy, go slow, don’t push your luck. She gradually relaxed, let her legs mo ns ters take her weight from her shrieking hands. Her ankle held, and her knee, too. And so did the Uzi. “Oh God.” For the first time since the ladder disintegrated, she let herself enjoy a tiny squeak of triumph. There was no relief, not yet; if she was right, there was a lot of distance to cover and, oh yes, all that rock jammed in the mouth of the tunnel besides. Pain sparkled in her ankle, and her temples throbbed, a rapid puhpum-puhpum-puhpum in time with her pulse. Water streamed from her hair and clothes. Air stroked her cheeks, her neck, and she was starting to really shiver. But she was standing, clutching razor-thin rock, precariously balanced on a thin ridge of metal as the tunnel shook and water bulled and sucked and eddied around her knees. The shuddering was much stronger than before, the rock sawing at her fingers. Between the water pounding and surging into minute crevices and cracks, and the continual shifting of the earth itself, the rock had to fatigue sooner or later. She didn’t think she had much longer.

“Okay, come on, Alex,” she whispered. “Get going, honey. You can’t stay here.” But, oh God, she was so scared. A fit of trembling grabbed her. Her eyes pooled, the first tear swelling, then trickling down her right cheek. Don’t cry, come on, stop—

A sudden swoon swept her brain. In her skull, the monster shimmied and twisted and stretched. Beneath her hands, the rock seemed to evaporate as a black void opened in her mind.

No, not now. Her knees were unhinging with the faint. Not when I’ve made it this far . . .

And then a hand spidered onto her shoulder.

That touch snapped her back as crisp and sharp as a slap. Shrieking, Alex flinched. Her left leg shot off slick metal, like a cartoon character skating on a banana. Her full weight dropped onto her battered right ankle. She screamed again, this time with pain. Her vision purpled. Off-balance, she scrambled for purchase, fingernails frantically scratching stone. Just as she was about to peel away, the hand on her shoulder grabbed a fistful of her parka and yanked her back. She righted, blundering onto the precarious ledge of that Uzi.

“No,” she gasped, horrified, her heart a hard knot in her chest— because now the pieces fell into place. Everything fit: the slip-slides of her mind; the monster, so suddenly awakened; that sensation of a crowd and swarming shadows above her head.

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