Garrett Roth hadn’t slept more than four straight hours in as many days. He could not. Even pure exhaustion couldn’t overcome the anxiety that kept him awake. All he could think about was Kiersten, where she was, was she in pain, was she afraid.
*Is she even alive?*
He’d started to have auditory hallucinations. He heard her voice, calling for him. He knew it wasn’t real, but…
“Boss, you look like hell,” Saint had said to him. When? Yesterday? Earlier today? “You’re gon’ be a liability on this trip. You’d best stay here.”
No. That had been only a few minutes ago.
“Your funeral, boss.”
Maybe he should have listened to Saint? His heart was pounding ninety to nothing; his stomach churned. His legs felt like they’d turned to lead.
“Are you okay, Mr. Roth?” the girl asked him.
“I’m fine, Kiersten.”
“Mr. Roth, I’m Arlana Youngblood.”
“Sure you are! I know that!” *It’s just that I keep hearing Kiersten sobbing, you see. She’s down here with us, somewhere in the darkness.*
The tunnel; the breeze against their faces; the sound of their footsteps, their voices in the humid air; their breathing; Kiersten sobbing…
“Give me a drink, they’s lions in my bed,” Saint said.
“What?” Roth said. Had he shouted? He couldn’t tell.
“I said I think I see light up ahead,” Saint repeated. “I’m glad we’re not tryin’ ta’ sneak up on anybody, boss, as much noise as you’re makin’.”
“Papaw, help me!” Roth thought he heard Kiersten say.
“I’m coming,” he promised under his breath.
He’d been hearing things. Now he was seeing things, too.
The tunnel opened up into a larger chamber, about the size of his kitchen back in the Governor’s mansion. No, no, they never ate in the kitchen. The dining room, he meant.
“There’s no table,” he muttered. No chairs, either. There were chandeliers, though. Several of them.
*Wait. Those are stalactites, aren’t they?*
Yes. And they were glowing. Different colors, almost neon, but muted, not too bright. Pinks and greens and yellows. They reminded Roth of coral, like at the bottom of the ocean, only these were on the ceiling. The floor under their feet remained smooth and flat, flat black stone.
“Am I really seeing this?” Roth leaned in to ask the man. The man who wasn’t Saint.
What was his name again?
“I was just about to ask myself the same question,” the man said.
*Corelli! That’s his name.*
“So this is real?”
They were able to shut off their flashlights; the stalactites were bright enough. Roth unscrewed the cap from his aluminum water bottle, poured a little in his hand and splashed his face. *Wake up, goddamit! Pay attention!* He smacked himself in the face to rouse himself.
The chamber seemed ovular in shape, the floor and walls almost flat. And yes, there were numerous stalactites protruding from the ceiling above their heads. Some of these were six feet long or better, as big around as Roth’s forearms; some were as thin as soda straws. All of them were glowing in different hues that painted the entire chamber in rainbow colors, made it look like a disco.
“How is this possible?” the girl asked.
“So we are all seeing the same thing?” Roth asked.
He knew he had to be hallucinating the door, though. The door couldn’t be real. It looked just like an elevator door, in the wall ahead of them. There were even little glowing neon buttons in the cavern wall beside it, one for “up” and one for “down.” What a silly thing to imagine, Roth thought.
Only the others seemed to see it as well.
“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” Corelli said.
“Somebody put in an elevator down here?” Roth said. The door looked just like a sliding elevator door, but it also looked like it had been carved out of the same stone as the cave walls. It was too big, though. Bigger than an elevator door. It reached all the way to the ceiling. Fifteen feet high, Roth estimated.
“It’s an elevator.” The girl stood with her hands on her hips, shaking her head.
“I can’t believe this,” Corelli said.
“I told y’all I’ve seen some strange things in my life,” Saint said, “but I do believe this here takes the prize.”
“I went to Carlsbad Caverns once,” Roth said. “They have elevators installed to take you back up to the surface.”
“This here’s not Carlsbad.”
Saint walked to the elevator and pressed one of the buttons. It lit up even brighter with a musical chime, like a doorbell.
“What are you doing?” Corelli asked.
“Goin’ up,” Saint replied. “You comin’?” The door slid open.
“Arly?” Corelli said. “Come on. You’re not getting in that thing?”
“I think you and the Governor better stay here,” she said. “I want to see where this goes.”
“I’m going!” Roth pushed past them to step into the elevator.
“I’m not leaving you, Arly,” Corelli said.
“All aboard, then,” Saint said. They all loaded into the oversized elevator. And it looked just like an elevator, any elevator Roth had ever been in, except bigger. It even had a bank of buttons. Roth counted them. Thirty-six. Each one of them had a strange glyph or symbol on it.
“Beau, look!” The girl pointed to one of the buttons. “That looks just like your tattoo!”
“What tattoo?” Corelli said.
“Reckon that’s the one we ought ta’ press, then,” Saint said, doing so. The door slid closed and the elevator took off with a lurch.
The elevator even had music playing, nice and soft.
“What’s that song?” Roth asked.
Saint laughed. “That’s Robert Johnson.”
“Who?” Corelli said.
“Only the greatest Blues guitarist who ever lived, boss,” Saint replied. “Reckon that settles it, then.”
“Settles what?” Arly asked.
“This here experience is customized,” Saint said. “All of it.”
“What do mean, Beau?” she asked.
“You’re on a first name basis now?” Corelli said.
“Think about it,” Saint said. “What are the odds we’d find an elevator down here? One that has an image of my tattoo on a button on the wall an’ jus’ happens ta’ be playin’ my favorite music? Nah, this here set-up is jus’ for me. Somebody else comes along, I expect he’ll find somethin’ different, maybe not an elevator at all.”
“We see the elevator, why, because it’s something we recognize?” she asked.
“How?” Corelli said.
“Conceptual reality, mon ami. We’re at a crossroads, see? A crossroads between places. Maybe a crossroads between worlds.”
The elevator stopped. The door slid open.
“Where do you think we are?” the girl asked.
“Wherever we are,” Roth said, charging past them, “Kiersten is here!”