Authors: Danielle Vega
THE ROPES BINDING HER TO THE PIPES CREAK. HER
body lurches forward, dripping fresh blood onto the dirt floor. I stifle a scream, terrified the ropes will unravel and send her crashing down on top of me.
But the ropes hold. Her body sways back into place.
Aya sinks to the ground, screaming. I should help her, but I'm frozen. I stare at Julie's curled fingers. Someone peeled the fingernail off her pinkie, leaving behind only raw, bloody skin. I wonder if she was alive when that happened. I wonder if she screamed.
“Holy shit!” Shana grabs my arm, her fingernails digging into my skin. Woody crouches at the side of the tunnel, vomiting. I feel a brush against my arm and jerk back.
“Casey.” Sam holds both hands in front of him, his voice steady. I get the feeling he's said my name a couple of times already. “We have to go.”
Go? I look back at Julie, careful to keep my eyes focused on her neck and hair so I don't see the wound. “We can't leave her,” I say. I picture the rats creeping from the shadows, climbing the walls. Another sob rises in my throat. Sam tries to touch my arm, but I pull away.
“We have to get her down!” I'm dimly aware of the hysteria in my voice. Julie's only a few feet off the ground, but I can't reach the ropes tied around her wrists, or the pipes jutting across the ceiling. I stand on my tiptoes. “Help me!”
“She's dead.” Aya hiccups, and lowers her face to her hands. “Oh my God. She's
Shana pulls her hands through her hair. “Damn it!” she yells. Her voice cracks, and she kicks the side of the tunnel. A trail of concrete crumbles from the wall.
Sam grabs my shoulders and spins me around. I try to pull away, but he holds tight.
“Let me go!” I pound at his chest with my fists. “We have to
“Listen to me,” Sam says. Fear rings his eyes, making them wide. Manic. He clears his throat, struggling to keep his voice steady. “Whoever killed Julie is still down here. We have to go. Now.”
His words shut everyone up. Aya chokes back a sob and stumbles to her feet. Shana wraps her arms around her chest.
There's movement in the darkness beyond Julie's body. I don't see it, but I feel the air shift around me and I hear something large and heavy drag across the ground. The reality of our situation hits me like a punch to the gut. Julie isn't just dead. She's been murdered. Someone murdered her.
My eyes travel to the wound in her stomach. Raw meat stares out from the gaping hole. The flesh looks shredded, like it's been put through a lawn mower. Blood clumps around her ruined skin, and intestines drip from her gut in a gruesome, glistening tangle. I can see the moldy walls through the wound. Something tunneled straight through Julie's body.
Julie's body rocks forward again and a bloody eyeball hits the ground with a sickening plop. It rolls across the tunnel, stopping at the toe of my shoe. The familiar brown iris stares up at me.
I scream, and fear makes my knees buckle. Sam grabs my arm and drags me back to my feet. He says something, his voice urgent.
Then we're running. Our shoes slap against the damp, trash-strewn ground and our breathing comes in gasps. My heart pounds in my ears, like a drum. We're so loud. Everyone in the tunnels must hear us. I glance behind me, but the darkness is perfect. It presses against our backs like a solid thing.
We run forever. My legs ache and my lungs burn, but whenever I think of slowing, I remember the sound of Julie's eyeball hitting the ground and push myself to move faster.
A familiar sound echoes through the darkness behind us, raising the hair on the back of my neck. It's so quiet I'm not sure it's real.
Footsteps. Slow, steady ones.
My heart quickens, and I push myself faster,
, ignoring the dull pain spreading through my bad knee. I think of how long it took us to get down here. It felt like we spent hours wandering around in the dark, calling Julie's name. The phantom footsteps seem louder now. Closer.
The tunnel opens into a wide space. The subway station. It looks bigger now that everyone's gone. Crushed Solo cups and beer cans litter the platform, and half the candles have blown out. The few still lit send ghostly shapes over the walls and fill the space with eerie light.
Sam and Woody dash past the platform, but Aya doubles over next to the wall, trying to catch her breath. Her sobs grow louder.
“Oh, God,” she moans. “Oh,
“Quiet!” I grab her trembling arm and listen for footsteps. I don't hear anything, but I can't shake the feeling that someone's waiting in the dark. Watching.
Shana skids to a stop next to us. “We have to run,” she hisses.
“I can't,” Aya says, sniffling. Shana grabs her by the shoulders.
“If you don't move, you're going to die,” she says. She pushes past Aya and runs after the boys without looking back. Nerves crawl over my skin, but I shake them away and hurry after her. I tug on Aya's arm and she stumbles behind me, still sobbing.
“Hurry!” Woody shouts, racing toward the tunnel at the far side of the cavernous space. We tear past the tracks and down the tunnel, to the ladder that leads back up to the surface. A single lit candle remains, casting light over the bottom rungs. Aya reaches the ladder first, but her hands shake so badly she can't hold on to the rungs. She pulls herself off the ground, then freezes.
I step up behind her and touch her hand. “What is it?” I ask. Silent tears roll down her cheeks, smearing her blue eyeliner.
“We're gonna die,” she whispers.
“We're not going to die.” I fight to keep my voice steady, and clench my hands into fists so Aya won't see how badly they're shaking. “We're getting out. You have to climb.”
She shakes her head, tightening her grip on the ladder. Sam sucks in a breath.
“Even if you get her to climb, she won't be able to lift the manhole cover,” he says. Woody moves to Aya's side and gently pries her fingers off the ladder.
“Let me go first?” he asks. Aya nods and he eases her back to the ground.
“We're going to die,” she whispers again, but I think I'm the only one who hears her. I slip an arm around her shoulder and peer into the shadows. I keep expecting my vision to adjust, for the darkness to separate into a floor and walls and a ceiling. But if anything, it seems even darker than before.
Woody pulls himself onto the ladder, and the metal groans beneath his weight. A footstep thuds in the shadows. The sound is short and sudden and close. Woody freezes, and the rest of us turn to stare into the darkness. It occurs to me that we're all standing in a pool of candlelight that feels, suddenly, like a bull's-eye. I hold my breath, listening.
Woody swears and starts climbing again. Faster.
“Hurry,” Shana hisses. Her voice sounds more angry than scared, but her eyes cut to the shadows, and she can't stop tapping her foot.
One by one, my friends pull themselves up the ladder. The metal screeches and moans beneath their weight. I listen but hear nothing outside our circle of candlelight. I wish this comforted me, but instead, I think of a lion crouching in the tall grass, watching his prey from a distance. Silence doesn't mean we're alone.
Aya climbs up next, and I pull Julie's ring from my pocket as I wait my turn. The shiny black onyx catches the candlelight.
I slip her ring onto my finger and twist it so the stone faces my palm. I curl my hand into a fist, letting the onyx dig into my skin. Sharp pain shoots through my hand, but I don't stop squeezing.
Julie was special. Anyone who talked to her could see that. She was in Honors English with me last year. She sat next to me the day our teacher, Ms. Lipton, covered an entire wall with plastic wrap.
“Every day I'll write a new word on the wall,” Ms. Lipton explained. “If you use it in a paper you get one point of extra creditÂ .Â .Â .”
Julie was slouched across the desk next to mine, her dark hair covering her face. A pencil dangled from her fingers. I thought she was asleep. But then she tapped the pencil against her desk. Tap. Tap. Pause. Tap.
Morse code. She taught me over the weekend, so we could talk, secretly, in class. I grinned, and scribbled the message in the corner of my notebook.
Ms. Lipton has lipstick on her teeth
I don't realize I'm crying until I taste salt on my lips. I wipe my cheeks with the backs of my hands. Crying won't bring Julie back. Nothing will.
Something shuffles through the dark.
I'm suddenly alert.
, I think. But it sounded bigger.
Heart pounding, I pick the candle off the floor and step away from the ladder.
“Casey!” Sam hisses.
My candlelight illuminates only walls and floor and empty beer cans. I swing the candle away from my body, shedding the light as far as it will reach. There's nothing there.
Aya scurries up the ladder, leaving enough space for me to climb up behind her. I don't want to turn my back on the tunnels, but the other option is waiting down here alone. I carefully place the candle back on the ground. Aya climbs higher, and the space widens. I tighten my fingers on the rung and pull myself off the ground. I think I see something out of the corner of my eye, but I don't slow down long enough to look.
I catch up to Aya quickly. She's frozen again, staring up at the others. I hear pounding, and flinch. But it comes from above us, not below.
“What's wrong?” I shout. I can just make out the brown bottoms of Woody's Converse sneakers above Sam's head. He swears loudly, then bangs his fist against the manhole cover. The sound echoes through the tunnel.
“It's stuck,” he shouts. “We're trapped.”
Above me, Aya releases a horrified sob. “We're going to die.”
“TRAPPED?” I WHISPER. I'M ONLY A FEW FEET OFF
the ground, but I can't make myself pry my fingers off the ladder. Horror holds me in place. “Are you sure?”
The brown soles of Woody's sneakers shift on the rung above Sam. I stare at them, willing them to climb higher. Woody bangs against the manhole cover.
“Let us out!” he shouts. He pounds again, and the entire ladder shakes. I curl my fingers around the rungs and close my eyes. Shana swears and Aya releases another choked sob.
“Careful,” Sam says.
I barely even notice the shaking. I'm too distracted by the darkness pressing in around us. I cling to the ladder, like a worm dangling on a hook. I make myself count to ten. Quickly, first. Then slowly.
One. Two. Three
The last time I counted like this was the night Shana ditched me at Jasper's party. I stood frozen in the middle of that creepy living room, hands shaking as, one by one, everyone turned to stare at me. The men were worn out, like Jasper. They had watery eyes and cracked lips.
One of them leaned forward, and the bare mattress creaked beneath his weight.
“I heard about you.” He bared his teeth. It wasn't quite a smile. “Shana brought you to keep me company.”
He shook a whiskey bottle at me, like I was a dog he was trying to bribe.
“What are you talking about?” I asked him. Sweat plastered his hair to his head, and his jeans drooped low around his bony waist. He would have been cute, but drugs had hollowed out his cheeks and left his eyes vacant and cloudy.
“Just last week I asked Shana why she didn't share any of her friends with us.” He licked his cracked lips. “She said she had a real hot piece for me. And here you are.”
I cursed Shana in my head. “I have a boyfriend.”
The man stood and stepped toward me. I could see his ribs through his thin T-shirt. “Sure you do,” he said.
I raced for the bathroom without another word, pulling the door shut behind me. I crouched on the cold tile, trying to steady my breathing. I counted to ten over and over, and when that didn't calm me down, I dug a pill out of my pocket. Oxycodone, left over from my knee surgery. I bit into the pill, closing my eyes as it dissolved on my tongue. Then I pulled out my cell phone and dialed Sam's number with trembling fingers.
Woody bangs against the manhole cover, startling me back to the present. Sam says something, but his voice is too low for me to hear. I catch sight of a strand of Shana's pink hair and look away, angry. I don't know why I'm surprised when shit like this happens anymore. Shana ruins everything she touches.
There's a shuffle above us. Sam climbs up next to Woody, and both of them pound against the cover together. Hope rises in my chest, and I grip the ladder even tighter. But they stop pounding after a second. Sam swears.
“Climb down,” he says.
. I picture peeling my fingers away from the rungs, but it's like they've been glued into place. Julie was murdered down there. We can't go back.
“Casey,” Sam whispers. “You have to go down.”
I move my feet first, careful not to look into the shadows behind me. But the darkness seems to pulse. I picture it edging closer, the circle of candlelight growing smaller around us.
“Oh my God,” Aya says when she drops to the ground next to me. She curls over herself, her shoulders shaking. “Oh my God, oh my GodÂ .Â .Â .”
“ShhÂ .Â .Â . calm down.” I slide my arm around Aya's back, but she doesn't look at me. It's easier to feel strong when I'm comforting her. She starts to rock, and for just a moment, I forget my own fear.
“Oh my God,” she whispers. “We're gonna die, we're gonna die.”
She says this over and over again, until the words lose meaning. Or maybe I don't want to think about what they mean. Her voice carries through the silent tunnel. It bounces off walls and travels far into the darkness. Fear creeps back into my bones as I push the sweaty hair off Aya's forehead and try to quiet her. Her sobs will call Julie's murderer right to us. Unless the murderer knows where we are already.
“We're gonna die,” Aya repeats in a shaky, desperate voice. Shana crawls down from the ladder.
“Can't you shut her up?” she asks. She leaps to the ground, her boots silent on the concrete. I don't want her help, but she huddles next to me, anyway.
“She's scared,” I say. Shana raises an eyebrow, giving me a look halfway between “duh” and “what the hell are you talking about?”
“Or don't you remember that we found one of our best friends
a few minutes ago,” I snap.
“I remember,” Shana says, her voice pure venom. She steps past me and takes Aya's chin, tilting her head so the candlelight illuminates her face. Aya's eyes are rimmed in red, her pupils dilated. “She's high.”
“Aya doesn't get high,” I point out, even though I saw her stoned off her mind just a few hours earlier. Aya usually avoids drugs and cigarettes, claiming they're bad for her skin. And whatever she's on now is a lot stronger than pot. “Did you drug her, too?”
Shana doesn't look at me. She bends down, and her pink-tipped hair sweeps over her forehead. She looks like she's going to kiss Aya on the cheek or whisper something in her ear.
Instead, she slaps her across the face. The sharp sound of skin hitting skin echoes around us.
“Hey!” Fury rears inside me. I grab Shana's shoulders and shove her back, angling myself between her and Aya. Aya releases another hysterical sob. “What the
is wrong with you?” I hiss.
Shana pushes her hair behind her ears. “I thought it would help.”
I glare at her as Aya crumples against my shoulder, sobbing and rocking.
“I'm pretty sure you made her worse,” I say, patting Aya's hair. Shana shakes her head and stares up at Woody and Sam.
“How could any of this be worse?” she mutters.
A drop of water hits the ground, sending every nerve in my body on edge. I whip around and stare.
It's nothing it's nothing it's nothing
, I repeat, like a prayer. Shana flinches and grabs my arm, her icy fingers circling my wrist. We wait like that, frozen. But nothing happens.
Woody climbs back down the ladder next, breaking the spell.
“That manhole cover isn't budging,” he says, wiping his grimy hands on his jeans. “We should find another exit.”
A short, nervous laugh bubbles from my lips. “You mean go
“It'll be okay.” Sam kisses me on the forehead and warmth flickers through my skin. “We'll stick together.”
“You're kidding, right?” I scoot closer, and Sam wraps his arm around my shoulder. It makes me feel safer, if only for a moment.
“We don't really have a choice.” Sam squeezes my arm. “The manhole cover is stuck.”
Water drips from the tunnel's ceiling and hits my elbow. I flinch and huddle closer to the candle.
“We can't go back there.” I glance up at Sam, wanting him to take my side. He stiffens.
“Caseyâ” he starts, using his “you're being unreasonable” voice. I step away from him, suddenly annoyed.
“She's right,” Shana says before I can defend myself. She tries to catch my eye but I avoid looking at her. She always does this when she pisses me off. For the next hour or two she'll agree with everything I say, just to soften me up.
But I don't want to be softened up this time. Shana's the reason we're down here. She's the reason Julie's dead. I squeeze my eyes shut to keep the tears from leaking onto my cheeks. I meant what I said to her before. I'm done being her friend. I'm done with all of this.
Shana clears her throat and looks down at the toe of her boots. “Who knows if we'll find another exit?”
“That one is stuck!” Sam says. “We can't just stay here and bang on it like a bunch of idiots!”
“We could spend more than two minutes trying to get it open,” I insist.
“Someone could walk by and hear us.” Aya stands, wobbling a little on her heels. Tears stream down her face, but she brushes them away with her palm. “They might stop to help.”
“No one would help,” Shana mutters. Even I can't bring myself to agree with Aya. It's somewhere around four o'clock in the morning in a shady neighborhood in Lower Manhattan and we're pounding on a manhole cover.
“I tried everything,” Woody says.
“Shit.” Shana tries to look at me again, but when I don't meet her eyes, she turns to Sam. “There are still some candles left burning. If we go now, we might be able to find another exit before they go out.”
So much for being on my side. “I'm not going back there,” I say.
“Jesus! What is your problem?” Shana snaps, shoving her hands in her pockets.
Sam drops a hand on my shoulder and squeezes. “Guys, drop it,” he says. “We have bigger issues right now.”
Shana stares at his hand. Her eyes narrow.
“I get it.” Her mouth twists into a cruel smile. “The lovebirds talked things over and decided this is my fault. Everything's my fault, isn't it?” She turns to Sam, narrowing her eyes. “You're acting like I forced you into something but I was
. You wanted it just as bad as I did.”
You wanted it just as bad as I did
? The words repeat in my head, like a math problem I can't figure out. I frown and cross my hands over my chest. “What are you talking about?”
Shana's eyes widen. She looks from me to Sam. “I thought youÂ .Â .Â . shit.”
“What do you mean
?” Something nags at me, but I brush it away. I'm being paranoid. I turn to Sam, but he won't meet my eyes. “What's going on?” I ask. The nagging feeling gets stronger, more insistent.
“Nothing.” Shana shakes her head. She stares down at her boots. The nagging feeling is different now. It's panicked and uglyâdesperate. I turn back to Sam, heat rising in my face.
“You said you were with someone.” My voice shakes, but I force the words out, anyway. “When we were broken up.”
“CaseyÂ .Â .Â .” He reaches for me, but I slap his hand away. I feel dirty where I let him touch me.
“Shana?” I hiss. “You were with
I wait for him to deny it. To tell me I'm crazy, that he would never hook up with my best friend. But he can't even meet my eyes. Dread forms a lump in the pit of my stomach. I picture him looking at her, touching her skin, and my stomach turns. Sam's face looks ashen. Guilty. “I tried to tell you,” he says.
“You were giving me shit for hanging out with her. And all along youÂ .Â .Â .” I can't even say the words. I'm going to be sick.
“I know,” Sam says. “That was wrong, I'm sorry.”
I close my eyes. His words mean nothing to me. They're static. White noise.
“You were broken up,” Shana adds, like this explains everything. I round on her. All the frustration and anger I've felt since she spiked my drink bubbles up inside me. I'm an idiot for thinking she actually cared about me. She doesn't care about anything or anyone but herself.
“Everyone said you were a bitch. I actually thought you were my friend,” I say.
Shana stares at me for a beat. Then her lips curl into a smirk that's halfway between embarrassed and proud. “Don't be a tease. You like me
I'm a bitch. You wish you were more like me.”
I have to curl my hand into a fist so I don't slap her.
“Shana, stop.” Sam shoots her a look.
“Shut up, Sam,” I hiss. I don't want his help. I don't want anything from him.
“Oh, calm down, Case.” Shana frowns. “It didn't mean anything! We were just having fun.”
“Of course you were!” I shout. “You're always having fun. Fun's the only thing that matters to you.”
Sam takes a step toward me. “Casey, please,” he says. “As soon as we get out of here, we'll talk. I can explain everything.”
My whole body shakes with anger, but my voice is steady. Cold, even. I turn on Sam. “I
Sam hunches his shoulders and stares at his feet. I see his lips on her neck. His hand slipping beneath her shirt. Disgust rises in my throat.
I have to get out of here.
I push past Sam and climb back onto the ladder. Anger propels me forward, and I move up the rungs two at a time, until the manhole is directly above me. I loop one arm around the ladder to steady myself, and run my fingers along the cool metal. There has to be a latch or a grooveâsomething that Sam and Woody missed. But the surface is smooth. Frustration bubbles up inside me. I grit my teeth and bang against the cover with all my strength.
A dull ache forms at the back of my head. I close my eyes, trying to calm the steady beat of pain.
I feel like I'm at the clinic again. I'm huddled in the corner of my room that first night, sweat drawing lines down my back. I can't stop shaking. Tremors of pain roll through my body. My stomach churns, even though I haven't eaten since this morning. My arms trembling, I crawl to the foot of my bed and fumble for my sneakers. The painkiller I snuck in clatters onto the cold tile floor.
The door to my room creaks open, and a nurse walks in. My heart pounds wildly. I grope for the pill, but it slips from my sweaty fingers.
“Where did you get this?” The nurse kneels and picks my last pill up off the floor.
“I need that,” I say, grabbing at her hands. She shakes her head and leaves the room, shutting the door behind her.
“No!” I shout. I crawl over to the door and bang against the wood until my knuckles bruise.
My eyes flicker open again. I'm in the tunnel, not rehab, and my knuckles are raw from pounding at the manhole cover. But it hasn't budged.
The headache seeps into my skull. I imagine it like a wild creature, its long tentacles pressing against my brain and temples.