I seized Malia’s hand and sprinted toward the mouth of the tunnel. I ran ahead, dragging her behind, her feet catching on the pulsing membrane that served as a floor. Even as I ran, I felt the strain on my thighs as I sank in with each step. I erased everything except a single word. Run.
We drew nearer the entrance and the forest of tentacles thickened. I began to dodge and weave to avoid each drunkenly waiving limb, jerking Malia so her breath came as sobs. Her joints were delicate from long imprisonment, but I had no choice. I wondered, a distant academic wonder, if I’d need to reset the ball of her humerus into its shoulder socket when we made daylight. If we made it.
A feathery shriek and Malia stopped moving. I cursed my own mind for wandering.
“Marshall! No!” she begged. The pallor of her face spoke in green and grays of pain, exhaustion and sickness. She flailed her left leg against a tentacle and her fingernails bit into my skin.
I withdrew a knife from the sheath around my waist and swiftly scored the throbbing tentacle entwining her calf. Its blood oozed and sizzled on the blade, but thankfully, the grotesque limb loosened. I grabbed her waist, careful to avoid touching her with the disintegrating blade, and yanked her free.
Her ear fell against my mouth and I could smell her, her sick scent like spice cake and pepper. I wondered how ill she would become as I drew her farther and farther from her only source of survival. I wondered how much she was hiding behind her weary gray eyes. She was loathe to disappoint me, because she believed I’d come to rescue her for love. And I had, just not the love of her.
“We must go faster now,” I whispered. “The blood will run and the contractions will begin. You have to give me everything.” She didn’t respond in voice but I felt her push with greater determination into the pulpy floor. I tossed the knife away, which was by now eaten down to the hilt by acidity and we ran. Malia kept up with me for a while and the triangle of exit light expanded. We ran with a stream of gray Trangleblood oozing behind us, and promise of sweet reward drawing us on.
I had been six months in finding her, one of the snatched children alive and incubating a vaccine for the Trangle’s toxic spores. She was from a distant town, one on the opposite side of the mountain but had been desperate enough to believe I had come for her and her alone. It was the only way she’d risk the exit, the desperate dash we were making right now. In fact, it had taken me a week to convince her, every day of which I had silently cursed her for making Glorya wait. Glorya had waited long enough.
When I’d left the village, her pain had been growing slowly, like tendrils, infiltrating Glorya’s muscles, and every day was another of clinging by fingernails against it the toxin’s tide. This girl, Malia, brewed the antidote inside her sink and never had I held something so precious and hopeful in my hand.
We were within scent of free air, when the message was finally transferred to the rest of the wandering arms that an intruder was afoot. The tentacles shifted from aimless wave to systematic search. They still flailed, sightless and senseless, around the cavern but I sensed a subtle difference in their speed and direction. More often they explored inward, along the main corridor of the tunnel.
I increased the erratic pacing of our flight. We dodged and ducked. I yanked poor Malia high and low as searching tentacles grazed her face and arms. We detoured around thigh fat tentacles erupting from the floor, marginally missing the measured capture of their tips. Ironically, the organized search made it easier to calculate when and where each tentacle would pass, thus easier to evade.
Malia slowed. I willed her to keep going, saving all my breath for myself. She stumbled and fell with the weight of a body no longer alive. I tugged her arm, hoping, praying she’d rise. It was like tugging a tree branch or a shipping rope.
An electric terror surged up my spine but I couldn’t allow it to rule me. If Malia died, the antibodies surging through her bloodstream would congeal in her vessels within the hour and she would be nothing but the stiffening meat of someone else’s lost girl.
I ducked a searching tentacle and slung the girl’s dead weight over my shoulder so her matted hair hung down my back. She moaned, a desperate sound, but it was enough to propel me forward. We burst through the triangle of daylight. For the first time since I’d crawled inside the living mountain, I sucked in a hopeful breath. I imagined Glorya rising out of bed, pale and slender, with Malia’s antibodies pumping through her veins. It would be like we planned again, I knew it, and Malia, who hung like laundry folded over my shoulder was the key opening the way home.
My feet skittered on the talus littering the hillside. My knees, gone soft like heated tallow, folded long enough that, like a seaman trying to find his land legs, I stumbled. The weight on my shoulder pulled me forward and we finished the decent at a tumble.
I lifted my head, ears still ringing, and checked for Malia. She laid crumpled, two feel from me, her forehead opened up by a sharp stone on the talus field. Her eyelashes struggled to shed the running blood but breath still pushed in and out between her lips.
Never mind, I thought, hoisting her once again to my shoulders. Once we reach the village, she’ll be bled dry anyway.
Copyright: © 2010 Christie Isler
Copyright: © 2010 Christie Isler
Christie Isler is a poet, writer and teacher in the Pacific Northwest. She has seen her short fiction published in online collections included Infinite Windows and Every Day Fiction. She has also published poetry in online and print collections. Christie makes her physical home outside of Seattle, Washington and her online home at thetriptakesyou.wordpress.com.