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Cavity Leech

First appeared in The Ansible

I pulled away a tarp covering the bone and lay down, working with my smallest brush at first, determined to clear away just enough dirt to get away with. Dust like a sea breeze filled my vision and caked my nostrils, giving me the brown snot I craved after semesters surrounded by stainless steel and drywall.

The site kid’s head bobbed. He was in the cab between two men, I was bouncing in the truck bed, imagining how worse it’d be if the driver didn’t know every pothole in the country.

Thin strands of meadow separated the road from a woodland gloom that grew a deeper, more uniform blue. We were close to a land of never-between light, where the change from day to night and back again was an epiphany instead of a rotation and the folds in the land wrung out all other sorts of uncertainty.

Across from me was another man, a human slab of ham that smiled with an absentminded, cruel delight, his eyes only creases between black-hedge eyebrows and pitted cheeks. I didn’t know who these people were, just that they didn’t care if they were caught, their names mud to begin with. Nothing like how I thought of mine, though I’d grown to doubt I meant much of anything either. Deep down they had to know, as I did, that they’d be okay because no one would come looking for me.

What mattered was I offended them exactly as needed. They reciprocated, not exactly naturally, but exactly as expected. There was still pain to come, but I got my insults in, alright.

The road twisted more, and the twists were more extreme. When we slowed for the first switchback, I ran my tongue over my teeth and swallowed blood.

We were entering the foothills.

So why was I in the pit again the other morning?

Even then I had to recall.

#

I was flat on my stomach with the sheet over my head. I focused on my breathing, staring at my reason for being there. Essentials only. Deep inhalations, flowing blood. Blood and breath. Just me.

I must’ve fell asleep sometime between the bars closing and farmers hauling their product to market. Come morning, booted footsteps clomped on the duckboards overhead. I came to, shouted “Hey!” and clambered up the ladder, but by the time I got to ground level, they were gone, the gate swinging shut.

I stared and stared, and my stomach dropped like I reached for something and it wasn’t there, until I remembered I was looking at a human bone. It was polished smooth and torchlight bright under my headlamp, and when I shut my eyes and the world blacked out it stayed as a burning red phantom. Why was I there? I had an answer for that that didn’t terrify me. I was fed up with Dr. Guradi, that’s why, and I gave myself permission after what happened last night. The bone was supposed to make me feel better, more like myself.

Deep breaths. Essentials only. Blood and breath. And bone.

My wrist was sore. Apparently the whole time I’d slept I was brushing the bone. Brushing it. Like a long row of teeth.

That wasn’t the moment I knew I was wrong, exactly, but it was when the nervous energy pushing me forward metabolized into gummy, lead-heavy regret. The bone was surfaced from the compacted dirt, end to end like a submarine, and I felt no better. Last night’s worst suspicions, after having seen what happened to Steve, were confirmed.

#

They came back too early.

I hadn’t gone out, saw no good in more drinking. It’d been another light day; the dig on hold, Guradi still in Vienna. I killed time in the afternoon by walking the streets, passing through acrid pools of cigarette smoke, the tang of standing water, the dewy aromas of cafes.

At that point the exposed sliver of bone went ignored, waiting on me. A radial tubercle, as it turned out. We didn’t know that at first, only that it was bone. Guradi’s eyes lit up in instant recognition, and I was filled with a greedy, guilty joy. Years of dreaming had been paid off, only to be drawn out by Guradi’s pride.

Dusk put its seal on another wasted day. It was one closer to resuming the dig, but I couldn’t think of anything else. I was in bed, stalled out on the same page of some paperback thriller when the front door opened, followed by a gasp of fright. I dropped my book and raced down the hall to the common room.

Javon was there, grinning from ear to ear, swinging his fist into his palm. Aaron, Steve, and Charlie shuffled to the couch, Steve’s arms draped over their shoulders. A shiny gout of blood spilled from Steve’s nose down past his waist.

Margo and Halimah watched hands cupped to their faces. The other Cambridge boys and the rest of the BU’s emerged from their rooms and filed past me.

The questions started before the guys could ease Steve down on the couch.

No one asked mine. Steve? Seriously?

All at once, Javon claimed he was fine, Charlie rushed into the kitchen, and Aaron made the messiah stance to gain control.

“He got into a fight with the site kids.”

A mortified silence followed, broken only by Charlie coming back with a couple damp hand towels. Steve accepted one like it fell from space. Margo sat beside him while Halimah cut into his thousand-yard stare.

“What’s that mean, a fight?”

Aaron, Charlie, and Javon shared a look. They needed something convincing, which meant losing face.

I didn’t need to hear. To be honest, I knew what happened, and what’s concerning is that my knowing isn’t what scared me. It’s what led to Steve’s condition that scared me, which was becoming less and less of a mystery the more I thought about the bone, its afterimage glowing brighter the greater I wanted it to disappear.

Charlie volunteered. He passed the other towel to Margo and took a deep breath.

“The kids were at the bar. We thought they had fake IDs, so we tried getting them kicked out. The bartender must’ve told them, because they came over to start something. Steve was in the bathroom. He pushed his way past them and they started throwing punches.”

Outraged cries filled the room. It was scandalous enough. Javon talked up Steve’s haymakers while Charlie urged for a return to calm.

But seriously. Steve? Who invited him? Why’d he say yes?

Aaron slipped away to the kitchen, and I followed. Under a sickly yellow fluorescence, he washed his hands, going all the way up his arms, wiping sweat and checking for blood. I leaned against the counter, keeping my sightline on the hallway. I asked what really happened. He said I already heard it.

The towels were soaking up blood in the common room, so when he finished, he was left dripping wet, arms held out. I pulled open the drawer behind me, produced a dishrag, but withheld it.

“Steve started it,” I said.

He tensed, stunned by my confidence, before his shoulders relaxed. He checked down the hallway, then smirked and shook his head. We made an exchange, the dishrag for the truth. He swore me to silence and dried off as I listened.

According to him, the kids were outside the bar.

“We go in. Steve grabs an empty glass off the counter, goes to the bathroom, comes out with a pint of grade-P golden lager. He marches out the door, right up to the kids. They’re staring at him like what’s he going to do? Well, he pulls a handful of those shell casings we found near the courthouse out of his pocket. He tosses them at their feet and says, ‘For your grandpa’s tombstone.’ The main kid steps up, chest all puffed out, and Steve drenches him in piss.”

No dutch courage involved. Steve hadn’t had a drop. They managed to get away by backing into the bar, making a bottleneck and forcing the bar staff to intervene. They shouldn’t have been in the old town in the first place. I had to wonder whose idea that was, but I was rapt nonetheless. For Aaron’s benefit I acted more incredulous than I was.

Eventually the furor died down. Steve’s wits returned. He took a shower and Margo stroked his hair while they watched an old romcom.

It wasn’t midnight yet, and I was awake in bed, wondering how this happened, if I was responsible. Those kids—the ‘site kids’—had been pissing us off for weeks. My mind raced with meanness, daydreaming ways to get them without risking retaliation. But I wanted to twist the knife, consequences be damned. I wanted to hurt them bad.

And Steve just up and did exactly what I had in mind.

#

We were in the mountains, the road hemmed in by trees. The truck slowed down. The driver craned his neck, sat up in his seat and flicked on the headlights. The rising sun wasn’t any help here. Bushy-eyebrows leaned over the side to look ahead. We were getting close. The driver stopped avoiding potholes, crawling over them while Eyebrows and I lurched to and fro.

The driver pointed out the window to the left side of the road. He brought the truck to a halt, and the man sitting shotgun got out and scanned the area. He kicked away brush from the roadside, looked up and nodded. The driver eased forward until the ghost of a two-track appeared, leading straight into the woods.

 

The man walked ahead of us, scouting out the ground. Once we passed into the trees, the headlights illuminated a ramshackle wooden gate barring the way. No sign attached, as if its silent decrepitness best deterred curious passersby from what lay beyond. The man began pulling at one of the crossbeams. After some effort, he prised it loose and worked on another.

I sighed. Maybe he’d forgot his crowbar because he was nervous, too.

It made sense. I started out nervous. I still was. A part of me wished, Let him take it all away and leave me in peace. Before I knew it, the wish was gone. I hopped out of the truck.

“Oh!” Eyebrows cried. He leaped after me, but I reached the door in plenty of time and reached inside.

The kid’s eyes bulged as the crowbar nearly grazed his nose, the result of my arm having been clutched and pushed away from my body. Eyebrows’s other hand was around my throat. He had me pinned against the open door. The driver gawked, a wrinkle of shame in his forehead, knowing he’d underestimated me.

All I had to do was wait. I didn’t resist, but I didn’t drop the crowbar either. Eyebrows eased off my throat, but not my arm.

“Come on,” I complained.

His creasy eyes turned to the driver, then to the man by the gate. After a final threatening second, he pulled me off the door and stepped between me and the open cab. I limped toward the gate. The man there watched as I pried loose the rest of the crossbeams.

He dragged them away, and when we were done I handed him the crowbar.

Eyebrows helped me back into the truck bed.

#

I couldn’t fall asleep after the big Steve surprise. If things kept going in this direction with the locals, our time on site might be in jeopardy. The higher-ups would likely solve the problem by revoking our permit rather than pay another cent for security. If I wanted time in the pit, I couldn’t wait any longer.

The goddamn site kids. They looked like they were in their mid-teens. Our best guess was that they were the sons of construction workers forced to wait on the dig, intent on avenging their family’s lost paychecks. We ignored them at first, laughed them off next, but getting frustrated, returned fire. It was immature, but it started out sporting, to see if the competition was all they wanted. Then they grew meaner, and they started targeting the girls. Halimah in particular.

The shit they said. The gestures. Chasing her down the street. If it weren’t for that bone I would’ve spent all week plotting the kids’ demises. But it’s like I said. A busted-up Steve came along and the bone became everything.

I slipped into the hall just after one a.m. and checked that everyone’s doors were closed. Margo and Steve’s movie murmured in the common room, which was enough to cover my movement.

We hadn’t talked about a moratorium on leaving the hostel, but they’d all lose their minds if they caught me. It wasn’t a stretch to believe that anyone besides the few of us in the know about—and delighted by—Steve’s actual actions wished Guradi was there slap some sense into us. Even if they believed Steve wasn’t at fault, they heard enough to reinforce the usual American stereotypes, and no masters candidate was supposed to exemplify that.

I checked that my tool apron and sheets were in my duffel bag and slipped out the back door. Once in the fresh air, a kind of solidity returned to me, like I was rooted back in myself. I pulled up my hood and headed downtown, walking below the repetitious sniper’s-pick windows of poured-concrete apartment blocks. The closer I got to the municipal district, the more imposing the structures, with more overhangs and adornments, pillars with Corinthian bouquets squashed by sarcophagi lid roofs.

Traffic was light, and the few locals I passed mostly smoked outside bars, lost to the night whose cover I coveted for my fiendish busywork.

When I reached the dig site’s locked fence gate, I came to a full stop and stood dumfounded. The bloody key. I must’ve forgotten it. But it was there, in my right pants pocket. My fingers ran over it, explored its shape through the fabric, like detective work was the only way to identify it. I unlocked the padlock and squeezed past the gate.

I marched ahead, the duckboards clopping underneath me. The site’s excavated upper strata only held items of recent historical significance: shell casings and slugs, tin rations and fabric, even shards of bone. Nothing more than the usual wartime detritus kicked loose by locals with grim disinterest. Nothing that compared to the bone.

Bloody key. What a relief to think that. ‘Bloody’ came from our Cambridge buddies. That kind of thing usually annoyed me, and not just because I sometimes stole expressions from people I didn’t like. Every unconscious little theft chiseled away at me, like a rebuke to the notion of free will or a desirously lazy caving to fit in. It’s worse when you got teased for it.

But there’s always one person who doesn’t notice. The person you stole from. They’re blind to it, unaware of who they truly are, even when they’re being repeated in others.

My blindness was leaving me. It’d been going on for over a week, since after we found the bone, but before Guradi left.

My friends were lifting from me, piece by piece. Aaron overtightened jars. Javon made more absurd proclamations, and used this theatrical hand flourish for comedic flair. Margo pressed the pinky-side of her hand to her mouth when she cleared her throat. All that was me.

I couldn’t begrudge them. I stole, too. But why did I have to notice? Why weren’t those things mine anymore? Why was I convinced that unearthing this anonymous hunk of skeleton was making me less me?

I might have brought it up with Margo or Aaron if I thought it was worth it, but my imagination hadn’t failed me. I wasn’t in the middle of that bell curve between the mundane and the insane where serious problems became plausible. I had prosaic explanations for the paranoia—boredom, bad diet, no exercise, whatever—and I had idiotic ones. All I really knew was that it started with the bone, and grew worse after I stopped digging.

So what, was the bone cursed? Or had its owner possessed me? Maybe the whole site was haunted by rebels bent on punishing the death squads who put them there. If any of those were the case, they were like no movie I’d seen. If you’re going to haunt me, haunt me. Don’t give me this sleight of hand shtick, this disassociating by degrees bullshit or crash course in Alzheimer’s.

I did the little things to satisfy the prosaic issues. I walked, I shunned junk food, so if it came time to spill my guts, I could claim I was living well. On the insane side, I had to finish what we started and free the stuck bone before we were kicked out. And if we weren’t? Would Guradi take it for himself? Would he be the one to fully subsume me? Yeah, I could be getting metaphorical, the boss chewing me up and spitting me out.

My heart soared when I stood over the pit’s perimeter. I climbed down and turned on my headlamp, shining a crisp white circle on a plank-and-dirt wall that reached higher than two basketball players stacked end to end. A slight increase in pressure came with being in the pit, pricking my ears to some muted echo.

I pulled away a tarp covering the bone and laid down, working with my smallest brush at first, determined to clear away just enough dirt to get away with. Dust like a sea breeze filled my vision and caked my nostrils, giving me the brown snot I craved after semesters surrounded by stainless steel and drywall.

Relief washed over me. Guilt, too, for breaking the rules. Only technically, though. I was the grounded kid who ended up on the roof. In bounds, but crazy to do it, and afterwards, crazier for having done it.

#

The two-track was worse than the road, and with no end in sight.

Eyebrows and I clung to the sidewalls and braced ourselves against the wheel wells to stop from bouncing out. The darkness in the woods turned back the clock another two hours. Frequently, the driver slammed the brakes for some obstruction and waited while we cleared it. All the while the men were expressionless, so I tried to relax in their certainty that this was the right path.

We must have rode that track for two hours by the time we stopped, based on how the light matched its earlier brilliance under the open sky. The driver slid open the rear window so the men could confer. The kid looked back at me, his face unreadable.

I looked for whatever landmark stopped them. All around was pine woods. The ground dropped slightly to our right. To our left was a craggy outcropping that’d grown to an un-yet-seen prominence. The rock was light gray, and gleamed all the brighter in a spot just ahead. I stood, attracting Eyebrows’s attention, and noticed the brightness was near the top of an ovoid gouge partially blocked from view by a rise in the ground.

The trees had been cleared nearby.

It was an entrance.

I stepped next to Eyebrows and jumped out of his side of the truck. Their conversation stopped. As I limped through the undergrowth, the truck’s doors opened and shovels slid out from their brackets.

#

The bone went with me.

I wasn’t delicate about it, stabbing my trowel along its length, digging like a badger til it popped loose. Preservation didn’t matter. Only possession. And I could do without anyone else sneaking up on me.

Did it perform the miracle I hoped for? No. If anything, I was more drained.

But I tried. I’d dug the damn thing out, just like I’d eaten my greens and got in my exercise. It didn’t end up fixing anything, but I went all the way to make sure.

A bottle smashed in the street and startled me. Might’ve been a drunk getting in his last kicks or a sanitation worker shaking off sleep. Morning was here, the sky an embarrassed blue. They’d be waking up at the hostel, and who knew if the site kids were out early looking for us.

The pit’s cocooning pressure forced me to move slowly. My headlamp showed a mesmerizing white blob crawling the walls, and I struggled all the more to get out.

As I walked the duckboards, it suddenly seemed best that I arrive after everyone was up. Nothing ended up fixing my problem, so I’d force a confrontation with the only sane people left.

I’m unwell. Digging up the bone didn’t help. You’re all turning into me.

I’d lay my madness at their feet and make them deal with it, a comforting thought up until I opened the gate. There were five of them, plus a grown-up one with an actual beard instead of the ball-sack tinsel a couple of the older kids wore, all dark-eyed and vengeful.

They wouldn’t have recognized me from last night, and before they could realize they didn’t care, I ran down the street and zigzagged through alleys until I was sure they weren’t behind. The rest of the way, I speed-walked, tuned in for running feet on pavement.

When I reached the hostel, I was huffing and puffing, sweating through my clothes, and didn’t get a second to myself before the questions started.

“Chase, did you go looking for him?”

Margo and Halimah were on the couch flanking Steve, red-nosed, his cheeks bruised, looking shamefacedly at the floor. Charlie and Javon leaned against the wall, frowning and bleary-eyed.

Halimah looked from me to Steve like she was in a mirror maze, unsure which of us was the real deal.

“Or… did you go together?” she asked, amending Margo’s line of questioning.

My gap-mouthed silence was taken in reply to Halimah, and amounted to maximum guiltiness. Margo’s face darkened.

“What were you thinking?”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

As Margo unloaded, Steve looked at me. His eyes flashed anger, which I didn’t understand. He was the meek weirdo to begin with, cowed into shame and embarrassment by a bunch of kids. That wasn’t on me.

If I’d been given the time to think, I would’ve realized. He hadn’t picked up some tic or expression. He picked up something big. Big enough that he came to the pit, too. He’d been compelled by reasons that weren’t his own, driven in fits of clarity that knitted together with my fits of confusion, and had only turned back when someone started shouting and climbing out of the very pit he’d been attracted to.

I couldn’t help him with that. My going out had nothing to do with him. And this wasn’t the confrontation I had in mind. I faced Margo, determined to bring it around to where I wanted.

With the exception of Steve, who only furrowed his brow, everyone’s mouths dropped when I held up the bone like a king’s scepter. Before I got to the really crazy ‘the-bone-is-eating-me-alive’ part, I explained my suddenness for going to the site, that our funding was hanging on by a thread, that when Guradi got back, he’d know what happened with the kids, and then the donors would know. I glared at everyone to emphasize my point.

Margo cut in. “When who gets back?”

Icy water ran down my back.

“Dr. Guradi,” I stated.

Now I was the actor who’d paused too long for the audience to believe it’s part of the act.

I said more slowly, “When Guradi gets back, the dig won’t go on. We’ll get kicked out. All thanks to—”

“No, no.” Margo waved me down. “Who on earth is Dr. Guradi?”

#

A rail track led into the entrance, barely noticeable under a blanket of mossy pebbles.

Nearby were the foundations of an office, and piles of rusted buckets and coiled cables were scattered near the rock face.

 

Footsteps crunched around me. Each man had a shovel, two also held a pickaxe. Eyebrows had a sledgehammer. His creases met my eyes, and instead of delivering a threat they seemed to ask, Are you sure about this?

I nodded toward the entrance.

“Zinc?”

The word elicited a glimmer of recognition.

“Da.”

Good. I hoped they’d bring me here. I willed it as hard as I could. If my classmates were turning into me, why couldn’t these guys?

I limped onward.

The temperature dropped a good fifteen degrees inside. The kid distributed flashlights. Five thin beams darted in all directions and were swallowed by the dark gullet ahead.

We didn’t need to go too deep. The mine might not even let us. If there was a total cave-in, or if the slopes were too steep or ladders too slimy or rusty to use, we’d have to stop and make do. Any instance of subsidence would work, any instance of groundfall, where the mine collapsed under the weight of its roof and left behind a pile of fragmented rubble.

The kid’s breathing hitched. I think he was whimpering. I grinned, and in the dark no one could slug me for it.

Well, kid, this is what you wanted.

Technically. Now he knew the price I was willing to pay. He knew it didn’t matter to me if they were spared.

#

Dr. Guradi was not a product of my imagination.

I googled him immediately after Margo asked, and he’s known well enough that the auto search supplied a thumbnail image of his BU faculty photo. I ran to my room, pulled papers from my backpack, showing Guradi’s notes and initials. His name was plastered on printed documents of all kinds.

They were quizzical and calm, which made me by comparison raving. Again, this wasn’t the fight I had in mind.

 

They understood our dig was on hold because our leader was out of the country. They simply didn’t think it was Guradi. According to them, we were waiting on Dr. Krulik, who was taking over from our last professor.

“So who was the last one?” I demanded.

“Schultz.”

Krulik and Schultz were both BU faculty.

I couldn’t meet their certainty. I looked from one to the other.

Steve’s gaze darted between them, having gone from on their side to on edge. Of course he knew about Guradi, or at least believed in him a little more. Not that he’d jump to my defense. He was a victim here, too. Somehow. He’d soaked up more of me than anyone else, which is how it dawned on me that I wasn’t the victim of some schlocky curse. I had no mystery to solve, no spirit to put to rest or totem to restore to its rightful place. If I hadn’t been so caught up in my own fear, maybe I would’ve noticed bits and pieces of him surfacing in the others, too.

My next mad thought had me staring at a room full of vampires. The farther away I was, the more they’d turn to Steve. I didn’t wish that doom on him. I just didn’t want it for myself.

So I ran out the door.

Only two people had spent as much time in that pit as me. Steve and Guradi.

Given the rate at which movie cliches were failing me, what had become of Guradi was uncertain. He wouldn’t have pixellated into dust as photos showed him fade from view. No, there was something left of him wandering Vienna, unsure of itself, no longer a vessel for whatever he’d been before.

That was my only prospect.

#

When the last pinprick of light was pinched out at the mine entrance we might as well have been at the bottom of the earth.

We pushed into the cold, dripping gloom, tripping over rubble and ducking under beams while the kid quivered and whimpered.

I took no time to see if the surrounding earth and sparse company slowed down the seepage. I was getting drained through the sideways chimney of the mine. After all my false suppositions of curses and hauntings, I forfeited any chance of understanding why this happened to me and what was to blame. Being in the pit had done it, and that’s where my inquiry ended. I was being excavated, same as the pit. From a greater vantage point, what occurred to me wasn’t the effect of the pit’s cause more than it was a coincidence of proximity. You don’t ask why two types of insects get washed away by the same flood. If neither can swim or fly it makes no difference. I simply found one common trait between me and a pile of dirt, the two of us so indistinguishable from some great vantage point that our unmaking was unquestionably mutual, logical, and of total disinterest to anyone or anything greater than what I once perceived myself to be.

Thankfully, the men took up the slack when my amnesia flared, so at all times someone knew why we were here.

I found what I was looking for deep into one of the side passages and told them to stop. Their flashlights shined in my face, then to where I pointed, at a groundfall not far down an offshoot passage which completely blocked the way.

The kid and I illuminated the area while two dug and one hauled away ruined support beams. The closeness of the tunnel made the shovels’ rapping at the pile sound like a knife on a whetstone right by my head. They glanced nervously at the ceiling, and I willed some more resolve into them. You’re punishing me, remember? You want this. Not me.

Eventually the sloping groundfall was cleared of wood and stones and hollowed out into a proper hole with a neat pile of dirt next to it. I went closer to inspect and instead became gripped by curiosity one last time, if only to justify what I was trying to avoid: an afterlife, a half-life or nothing-life, of spreading in all directions and absorbing all that’s unbound, never gaining mass because I was unbound too, only passing myself along in an endless passing drill, all the while suffering an eternal imminence of being torn and spread farther apart forever and ever.

Call it a survival instinct. I had to try explaining this to myself, no matter how much I failed. With limited time, I had to shut out all those doubts.

#

I slept in a culvert outside the city.

I thought I might make it as a hermit, not let anyone steal from me again. No one would know me, but I’d have myself to count on, to retain.

When I woke the next morning, it was clear distance didn’t matter. It took over an hour to recall what I was doing there.

A police car passed by slowly, maybe looking for me. Odd they didn’t check more closely. The culvert made a decent place to dump a body.

By evening, I had a plan.

I needed help, but I didn’t have the guts to do it alone. I might not even be able to.

This time I climbed the fence.

I didn’t have the key. Bloody key. Who’d first said that?

Remembering why I was there. Moving on. As luck had it, I found three shell casings in the upper level near the old courthouse.

Next, into the old town, where none of us should’ve set foot even before Steve’s deed. Into the roughest dive I could find, where I waited to be seen.

A head popped up at the bar. Then another. The bearded man from the street. They turned on their stools, their nativeness to the milieu threatening enough that it should have sent me packing.

I threw the shell casings in front of them.

“For your worthless ancestors,” I pronounced as best as I could in their native tongue.

Then I spat.

#

My flashlight beam was swallowed by the darkness leading back to the main tunnel.

Deep enough.

I hoped once they were done they’d do as I asked and close off the passage from the main tunnel. When I led the way into the passage, I’d gestured that they should cave it in with the pickaxe and the sledgehammer. They looked at me like I was crazy. Either they didn’t understand, or they did and knew it was downright suicidal.

It was what I wanted, though. Didn’t that matter to them?

Maybe not. But don’t think that way.

I climbed into the hole.

The groundfall ended up being a blessing. Much of the mine’s structure was intact. Not so worthless ancestors after all.

It was the right insult though, to convince a truckload of guys to go to so much trouble to make an example of me. To pummel me first, sure, but then to scare the shit out of me with this trip into the wilderness, assuming I’d think I was getting dumped, but really to show off their ancestors’ work. I did wonder how much of this was my doing. Was I really willing this into them? Or would they have taken things this far on their own? Maybe my cavalierness came off as arrogance, and they fully intended to do this without my consciousness bleeding into theirs. In which case, the doubts surfaced.

It’s murder. You’re a lamb to the slaughter.

No. It’s much worse that murder. They’re actually saving me.

The sides of the hole came up higher than me. The pressure even underwent a detectable change. It would make a good cocoon. Or was that a womb? Or tomb? I should’ve avoided any such comparisons. It was a cavity. A cavity started this, and it needed filling.

The pit itself would’ve been best. That’s where this all started. But it would’ve been dug up again. I would’ve come spilling out. My only hope was that whatever was behind this appreciated the symbolism, that a cavity filled was an entity bound.

Before I could stop myself, I nodded for them to proceed.

Eyebrows took my flashlight. The kid, now sobbing, was instructed to point two flashlights right at me.

Two shuddering balls of light were blinding me when the first shovelful of cold dirt landed in my lap.

Two shuddering balls of light were blinding me when the dirt blotted out my vision.

I could’ve fought. I could’ve stopped this.

It’s murder.

No.

It was now or never. I would never be the same if I stopped it. I wouldn’t be anything. The pressure built around me until nothing escaped. Not breath, not blood, not bone. Not me.

I was for now and forever what remained of me.

If only I could have had one last confirmation before it was too late.

Take away one more little piece of me.

Let me see it in them.

One more time.

Make me wonder.

Why am I here?

And then I would know this was right.

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