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Eve of destruction, p.4
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       Eve of Destruction, p.4

           Patrick Carman
 
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  “The others? Wait—what others?” Kate asked.

  “He’s been at this a long time, or did I neglect to mention that?”

  Ben Dugan peered inside the dark, damp space, and when he talked his voice had a soft echo. “How old is Rainsford, really?”

  Mrs. Goring wouldn’t say, but I thought I had an answer.

  “Seven vials for every time he went from old to young, only the seventh person keeps theirs on them. So all we have to do is divide the number of vials we find by six. If there are sixty vials down there, he’s ten times seventy. He’d be seven hundred years old.”

  “Are we getting this done or doing algebra?” Connor complained. “If there are a bunch of vials down there, how will we know which ones are ours?”

  “You’ll know,” said Mrs. Goring impatiently. “Trust me, it will be obvious.”

  “And why don’t you just get them yourself?” Alex suggested.

  “The way down isn’t for someone old like me, and the door is too heavy at the bottom. I can’t open it.”

  “Why do we all have to go down there?” asked Ben. “Why not just Will? He got us into this mess.”

  “Did not,” I said. Getting dumped on was growing old fast. “We all got cured, we all got symptoms. How is any of that my fault?”

  “I think we should all go,” Connor said, “Come on, it’ll be cool.” And that, more than anything, is probably what got us to do it. In the end it was like a dare no one wanted to miss out on. And there was the promise of a cure, even if the promise was made by an insane woman living all alone in the woods. It was something to hold on to.

  “At least make him go first,” Alex said. “That way if I fall I’ll land on his head.”

  Marisa didn’t come to my defense. She wouldn’t even look at me. It got worse when Connor started whispering to her, glancing over his shoulder as I fumed.

  She’s back on the market. Nice. That’s what his muscle-headed look told me, and Marisa didn’t do anything to make him think otherwise.

  “Fine, I’ll go first,” I said, blowing past everyone and arriving inside, where a metal door with a latch sat against the ground. Mrs. Goring knelt down beside me and grabbed the lever with her hand, shoving it sideways with a grinding noise that reverberated into places I couldn’t see.

  “He’s older,” Mrs. Goring whispered close to my ear, and I turned to her. “Let’s make sure he doesn’t see one more bloody year.”

  She shoved something in my hand and looked at me as if it was to remain our secret, whatever it was. Did I really think it was a good idea to conspire with Mrs. Goring again? She’d gotten me in a heap of trouble with Marisa and the rest, and yet I had a weird feeling I should let it pass. It crossed my mind to tell her about what I’d found in the woods, but there was no time.

  “Agreed,” I said, staring down a long, wide tube with a metal ladder on one side. There was faint, crackling light coming from somewhere far below. I slid what she’d handed me into my back pocket and listened carefully for any sound coming from the depths of whatever lay belowground at Fort Eden.

  “Good thing you’re not afraid of heights, Connor,” I said, imagining the old Connor Bloom, the one who had been terrified of falling.5

  I started down the ladder, feeling the rungs grow colder as I went, and immediately decided it was a bad idea. I stopped and started to complain, to reason with the others that we should go back, but Connor was the second one into the tube and he wouldn’t stop coming toward me. His body was a hulking shadow against the light of the world outside.

  “Go, man! I don’t want to be down here all day.”

  I didn’t move. I could feel the stupidity of what we were doing. It suddenly felt all wrong, just in time to have no power over what was happening to me.

  “I’m going to step on your hand,” said Connor. He was staring down at me from above with a resolve that bordered on psychotic. “I’m getting those vials, and you’re going to help me do it. Move.”

  He placed one shoe on my left hand and began pressing down with his weight. Looking down, I saw that it was at least thirty feet more to the bottom.

  “Okay, okay!” I shouted. “Back off!”

  Connor removed his foot and I reluctantly went down another four rungs as someone else came in behind Connor, I couldn’t tell who.

  If I could just keep Marisa out of here. At least that would be something, I thought. But I kept on, Connor’s relentless feet at my head, until I stood on a slick concrete floor and stared up. I could see all of them marching down the ladder in a line like little soldiers.

  And at the very top, Mrs. Goring’s head, which suddenly disappeared.

  And that’s when the metal door at the top of the ladder slammed shut, before half of us were even off the ladder.

  I heard the handle turn way up there, grinding into the locked position, so it had to be loud. When everyone made it to the bottom, no one wanted to say what was really going on. We just stood there, still and quiet, and tried to come to grips with the reality of our circumstances.

  We’d driven two hours out of L.A., walked down a very long and steep path into a desolate wood known by only a few. We’d trusted a crazy woman and let her lead us a hundred feet underground.

  And we’d let her close the door on us.

  We were trapped.

  * * *

  1 I have recordings of all the cures that took place at Fort Eden the last time we were there. I’ve posted them at www.willbesting.com. To see Kate’s cure and understand a little more about why she is plagued by terrible headaches, visit the site and use the password hollander.

  2 Connor’s cure left him with an ailment that sidelined him from sports for good. He was bitter about it and still believed he’d be playing again soon, once the doctors figured out what was going on. To see his cure, use the password falling at www.willbesting.com.

  3 When I’d turned twelve, my mom introduced me to online college classes at a tech school in India. They were cheap courses taught by thickly accented Indian tech gods about stuff I actually had some interest in. First I took video game programming, then a series on electronics, then hardware integration. I failed approximately half of the classes I took, but my interest was sparked.

  I was an audio geek at heart, but I liked video, too. Homebrew degrees in electronics and programming pushed me over the edge. I ended up on craigslist buying up old iPods and digital cameras until my money ran out.

  Then I opened them up and started digging around.

  Sure, my Recorder was basically the same thing as a new iPhone without the phone part; but I’d built it myself, and it looked gnarly.

  4 To watch Rainsford transform, go to www.willbesting.com and use the password transformation.

  5 To see Connor’s cure and experience his fear firsthand, go to my site, www.willbesting.com, and use the password falling.

  3:00 PM–3:30 PM

  “It’s locked, and it’s unbelievably dark up there.”

  Alex was back, sitting on the floor like he’d run a marathon, complaining about how much pain he was in. He put his hand on that olive green fanny pack at his side, and I could tell he was thinking about sticking himself with one of the needles. We might have sent the wrong guy, given his circulation problems. He’d climbed all the way to the top and tested the door, just to make 100 percent certain that a lunatic had just locked us underground.

  “So we’ve got an insane witch holding us captive in the woods,” Kate said, shaking her head. “I didn’t wake up this morning thinking this was possible, but hanging out with you guys again, it’s starting to feel like it was inevitable.”

  While Alex6 had been climbing all the way up and back down the ladder, the rest of us had waited, too nervous to fan out or go very far from the entryway before knowing for sure what we’d gotten ourselves into. The biggest reason for the holdup, I think, was what the place looked like. Three hallways led off in different directions, each with a different-colored arrow on the floor
and a sparse set of words:

  RED ZONE

  BLUE ZONE / O ZONE

  GREEN ZONE

  But it was the shape and quality of the passageways that bothered me the most. When I was a kid, there was a round culvert that ran under a road near my house. It was big enough to crawl down the center of and end up on the other side, but there came a time when I wouldn’t do that anymore because it made me feel claustrophobic. There were a lot of bugs in there, plus I started thinking there might be a possum or a family of rats making a home out of it. The passageways under Fort Eden were like that, only a lot bigger. They were circular tubes, about fifteen feet around, with ridged edges like a Ruffles potato chip. They were also rusted out and gnarly looking, like acid and rotten water had chewed away at the integrity of the metal for a hundred years.

  They were lit with yellow lightbulbs that were crackling on and off with life or dimmed to near uselessness with grime. I half expected a zombie to come down one of the halls, followed by a whole army of them, hell bent on making us one of their own.

  “This is giving me the creeps, big-time,” said Ben. He kept working his hands into fists, like the climb down had really set off his arthritis. “Are you sure it won’t open if you push on it?”

  “Dude, I’m sure,” Alex said. He’d decided not to inject himself, shaking his legs awake instead. “She’s not letting us out.”

  “I bet she will if we find the vials,” I offered halfheartedly. Right after I said it I thought the same thing they probably did: how exactly is she going to know if we find them?

  “Let’s fan out in teams of two and see where these tunnels lead,” Connor said, leaning in pretty close to Kate as his chosen partner. “Three directions, six of us—meet back here in like five minutes. Maybe there’s another way out or a way to contact her from down here.”

  “I’m not going anywhere,” said Ben, “except back up there to pound on that door.”

  Alex stood up, rubbing his legs.

  “I’m telling you, man, it’s totally locked. And I already pounded on it a bunch of times.”

  “Well, I’m not going down one of those halls, no way,” said Ben.

  Marisa moved closer to him and put her arm around his shoulder. “I’ll go with you. We’ll protect each other.”

  “With what? Our shoes? Your smile? What if something’s down here with us? I’m not doing it.”

  But Marisa pulled him toward her, which really bothered me. “Come on, we’ll take the best-lit way. It’ll be easy. We just have to find this room, get what we came for, and she’ll let us out. No worries.”

  “Hell with that,” said Alex, looking down the passageway that remained, the one he’d have to go down with me as his partner. “I’m going with you guys. Light is my friend.”

  The three of them seemed to think if they got to the best-lit way first they’d have won the advantage to check it out, which turned out to be true.

  “Fine, I’ll take Connor and head this way,” said Kate, pointing down the corridor with the red arrow on the floor and a sputtering light somewhere around a corner. Connor was game, and before anyone could start moving, the two of them were laughing nervously, holding hands like two people in a slasher movie about to walk into a very bad situation.

  “Looks like you got the bad draw,” said Alex, pushing Marisa and Ben down the second round passage, the one with the blue arrow and the pretty good lighting, and smirking at me like I was the big loser in this equation. Which I was. The one remaining hall, with the green arrow, was basically pitch-black. There were no lights down there at all, just curved walls of rusted metal that were quickly devoured by total darkness twenty feet in.

  “You know what, I’ll go with you guys,” I said.

  “No, we got this fair and square,” said Marisa. “Just go, take a quick look. We’ll meet back here.”

  Her eyes said it all. You had me, Will. You really did. But I can’t trust you, not for a while anyway.

  “Marisa, seriously—I’m sorry. I didn’t know what else to do.”

  She didn’t answer, unless you count those brown eyes looking back at me like I’d made the biggest mistake of my life.

  “You guys would have done the same thing,” I said, feeling the fear of being alone rise in my throat as they kept on.

  “No, I wouldn’t have,” said Ben.

  “Me neither, bro, me neither,” Alex agreed.

  Marisa turned back for the briefest of seconds, and I had a glimmer of hope that everything would be okay. Her resolve was starting to melt. I knew this girl. I could win her back if I played it cool for a few hours. And I could see how tired she was, which was to my advantage. She needed my protection the most when weariness set in.

  I heard the distant echo of Connor yelling back from around a corner where I couldn’t see him: “Nothing yet! You guys?”

  “Nothing!” yelled Alex.

  Only ten minutes had passed since we’d been locked underground and I’d been ditched by my girlfriend and everyone else. I stood alone for a few seconds, glancing down both rust-infested tunnels, thinking about taking chase down one of them. Then I pulled out the thing that Mrs. Goring had given me and took a closer look at it.

  “What is this, a hotel?” I whispered to myself, barely hearing my own voice. It was a key card, green with a white arrow running down the middle. And there were words running down one side of the card, also in white:

  GREEN ZONE OBSERVATION. SECURITY LEVEL: 4

  “Just my luck,” I said. “Green would be the darkest one.”

  The one nobody else would choose.

  It was starting to feel like Mrs. Goring had set me up from the start, all the way back when she’d told me the truth about Rainsford and the cures a year before.

  I thought about calling everyone back to me. It stood to reason that I held in my hand the key to a room that would hold the vials we were supposed to retrieve. But a bigger part of me felt like this was my chance to redeem myself. They’d find nothing, locked doors at the ends of tunnels, probably, and I’d find the treasure we sought. I’d find what we needed, get us out of here, and better yet, get them all cured. They’d be sorry they ever treated me like a disease.

  I started down the hall with the green arrow on the floor and was stunned by how quickly it became disorienting and dark. My hands touched the ridges of metal and it made me think of a Slinky laid out along the carpet in my room. Looking back, I could still see a faint light shining around the hole that led up and out of the underground. Turning a corner would mean total darkness.

  I’m going to find these vials and show these guys, I thought.

  You tell ’em, bro! Keith’s sarcastic voice filled my head.

  You’re darn right. I got this.

  I started moving faster, hands in front of me like a blind man, and soon found another wall. This one felt like the surface of an empty swimming pool, smooth and flat, and it ended in a hard turn to the left.

  I was dangerously close to feeling like I might get lost in the dark and end up starving to death or killed by the unseen creatures I felt sure were lurking everywhere.

  In the distance I saw something small and green and glowing, like the soft light of an exit sign at the end of a darkened hall. It was lower than an exit sign, doorknob height, and when I reached it more quickly than I’d expected, I understood what it was.

  I held the key card in my hand, turning it over like an ace of spades, staring at what looked like a Visa card reader stuck to the wall. In the soft glow of green from a strip of light on the reader, I could see the thick handle of a sturdy metal door.

  “I’m so finding these vials,” I said, elated at the prospect of getting the job done that no one else could take credit for. I was equal parts exhilarated and afraid as I slid the card through the reader like I’d done a thousand times before paying for groceries at Walmart with my parents. The locking mechanism on the door clicked solidly, as if whatever bolt had just moved was meant to keep everyone on
the planet out.

  I swung the door open and found that it was heavy, like the bomb shelter door in the basement of Mrs. Goring’s place.7 It was dark inside—too dark—so I stood in the doorway, hoping my eyes would adjust with the help of the paltry green glow from the card reader.

  “Well done, Will Besting.”

  “Whoa!” I yelled, my shoulder flying sideways and connecting with the doorjamb. The pain was sharp and hot, but the shock was nothing compared to having heard Mrs. Goring’s voice from inside the room. I started backing away, stumbling over my own feet.

  “Come inside,” Mrs. Goring said. It sounded like she was in the room, walking toward me.

  “Turn on the lights and maybe I will.”

  “I can’t turn on the lights, Will. They turn on when you close the door.”

  “Where are you?”

  “Does it matter? Just come in. You’re very close now. Don’t you want to save your friends? You owe them that much, after lying to them.”

  “I didn’t lie to them! I just . . . I didn’t tell them every little detail.”

  “And you spied on them, too. Didn’t you, Will? You spied on your friends.”

  “I don’t care!”

  And I didn’t, not about most of them. What did it matter anyway? But Marisa, that was different.

  “I didn’t want her to be afraid,” I said, taking one step into the darkness. “I didn’t see the point.”

  I’d dug into her files and listened to her deepest, darkest secrets. And as if that weren’t bad enough, I’d deliberately chosen not to tell her what I knew about the cure. How do you not tell your girlfriend that stuff?

  “I don’t think that’s the way they see it. I mean really, Will, come on. You lied, withheld, cheated. You’d have to murder them for it to get any worse.”

  “You’re a bad person, Mrs. Goring.”

  “I’ve been called worse.”

  I heard someone yelling my name from far away. Was it Marisa? I couldn’t tell for sure, but I was done dealing with Mrs. Goring alone.

  “Down here!” I yelled. “Down the green hall. I found the room!”

 
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