Time stopped as Elbert’s head filled with the sound of his own rushing blood—a throbbing pulse that echoed down deep, reverberating off the marrow in his bones. There was a metallic, coppery taste on his tongue, but when he tried to swallow, his mouth was so dry that the gulp became lodged in his throat like a clod of dirt. Frozen immediately behind him in mid-step, he felt a warm puff of air on his neck as Abner let out a frightened whimper.
At the top of the stairs, the two strangers both had on dark, poorly-tailored suits with matching slender neck-ties. Elbert could tell they had been walking around outside as their shoes and trouser cuffs bore the ubiquitous pale-red dust of the vacant Sigbee Depot property. Standing to the left of the man in the white lab coat, the shorter of the newcomers had already been perspiring from the warm Georgia night air, and his curly black hair was pressed flat against his forehead in fat loops. Just above his rounded nose—pink and swollen from too many years of cheap gin— cold eyes narrowed menacingly towards the boys before darting sideways at his partner as his lips curled up in a sneer.
Still holding onto the handle after closing the door behind him, Elbert nearly mistook the other stranger for his Biology teacher. Most likely the eldest of the three men, his cottony-white hair was neatly parted to the side, and Elbert sensed an unnerving air of authority about him. While not as tall as the man in the lab coat, he was still of an above-average height and his athletic build belied the crow’s feet and grooves worn into the surface of his tanned face. Without returning his partner’s shifty look, the man calmly let his hand slide from the doorknob. As it fell, he allowed it to brush away the front of his jacket while smoothly withdrawing a large pistol in one deft movement.
Seeing the gun, Elbert’s heart sank; if there was any hope that the strangers might help secure the boys’ safety, they were now dashed. Taking his partner’s cue, the sneering man quickly—though far less gracefully—yanked his own pistol from beneath his suit coat with a satisfied grunt. Standing between the strangers, the tall man with the lantern recoiled in surprise at the night’s turn of events—thankfully though, it appeared as if he himself had no gun.
The sight of the two sinister looking black revolvers glinting under the stairwell light jolted Elbert into action. Turning quickly on the balls of his feet, he grabbed Abner’s arm and pulled him back down the hallway. “Run!” he yelled, his fingers clutching the fabric of Abner’s shirt.
They had only gone a few fumbling steps when the hallway exploded in deafening blasts accompanied by flashes of brilliant white light. Angry slaps hit the wall beside Elbert’s head with a percussive crack as bits of shattered brick peppered the air. Behind them on the upper landing, the tall man in the lab coat began to shout frantically—his thick accent rising shrilly over the gunfire.
Despite the tall man’s efforts, the gunfire continued, and, as the boys raced further down the hall, more bullets buzzed past—ricocheting off of the walls and floor with violent smacking sounds. Still pulling Abner’s shirt to the intersection, Elbert swung around the corner and collapsed, huffing for oxygen. He scrambled back against the wall as he tried to control his breathing, gasping in hoarse gulps of musty air.
Amazingly, neither boy had been hit in the erratic fusillade, and at any second they expected to hear the heavy footfalls of the men racing down the hallway after them. But as they struggled to catch their breath, the only sound they heard were the unseen endless drops of water. As Abner cautiously peeked around the corner, he could barely see the trio of men through the billowing cloud of brick-dust and smoke that filled the hallway; oddly, they were still at the top of the stairs.
“Oh, thank god—they stopped,” said Abner, panting softly. “Holy shit, who the hell are they?”
Elbert’s ears were still ringing from the gunshots and in between puffs of air, he said, “I don’t freaking know, what are they doing?”
Abner quickly peeked around the corner again and said, “the doctor-guy is yelling at them, pulling them back. They’re all arguing about something, they haven’t even come down the—”
He was suddenly cut-off by the sound of a high-pitch scream from back down the same hall they had just escaped. The piercing cry quickly grew in volume—rising impossibly loud—and both boys groaned as they dug the heels of their palms down over their ears. Then, as if someone had flipped a switch, the screaming abruptly stopped.
The boys looked at each other with renewed alarm in the amber haze of the subterranean intersection light bulb. Before either could speak though, a loud bang shattered the silence as a thick wooden door slammed against its frame—the heavy metal lock clanging back down against the aged planks with a dead thud.
Suddenly, from a different room along the hall, another shrill cry rose up briefly before being clipped off. There was brief pause again—only the drip-drip-drip into the unseen puddle—before a second loud blast rocked the basement.
Then, like the tide reclaiming the sand, one by one the heavy doors came to life as a chorus of chilling screams flooded the air—so loud that the boys could feel the waves passing through their bodies. Soon, the entire basement became a cacophony of crashing doors, slamming locks, and inhuman cries as Abner squeezed his eyes closed as tightly as he could. Trembling, he felt an urgent tugging on his arm, and at first he resisted for fear of removing his hands from his ears.
“Come on!” Elbert was yelling over the noise as he pulled Abner with both hands, “let’s go! We have to get out of here!” Behind them, some of the doors sounded as though they were about to break into splinters, the cracks and pops of the dry wood echoing in every direction.
Reluctantly, he removed his hands from his head and followed Elbert back towards the room with the green light. “There’s nowhere to go down there,” he called after him as the darkness enveloped them both. Elbert didn’t reply however, and he continued shuffling down the murky hallway. They quickly passed the room with KM-426 inside—the ethereal emerald glow still oozing out from beneath the door— without stopping, and soon it was becoming difficult to discern anything in the fading light. As they continued down the hall, they could hear the creatures wailing and slamming against the doors behind them as the men shouted at one another over the noise.
“Whoa—” said Elbert, halting suddenly, but it was too late and Abner bumped into him from behind. Reaching the end of the hallway, they were stopped in front of another door. This one was unlike any of the other doors along the basement walls though. Rather than the heavy wooden planks and thick metal fasteners, it was more of the ordinary sort, and almost boring by comparison.
Elbert reached out gingerly and touched the doorknob. The rusty metal was cool beneath his fingertips and he could feel the tremors of the enraged monsters, manically trying to force their way out from their cells. He leaned his head against the door hoping to hear a clue from within the room, but the commotion further down the hall overpowered any other noise. Gripping the knob, he started to turn slowly it when Abner suddenly seized his wrist. “Hang on. How do we even know what’s in there?”
Elbert glanced down the hallway before looking back over at him. “What choice do we have,” he asked flatly.
Abner let go of his wrist and took a step back. Sucking in a deep breath for courage, Elbert twisted the knob and flung open the door. A rush of cool, sweet-smelling air swept through the boys as it escaped from the room, but otherwise, the inside was silent. At first, neither of the boys could see anything, and though they could sense the room was larger than the one holding KM-426, only inky shadows peered back at them. “Screw this,” said Elbert, as he began feeling his hand around the inside wall.
Finding the switch, he flipped it up with no real expectations. Surprisingly however, there was a short buzzing sound before a naked bulb in the ceiling flickered to life, drenching the room in a soft yellow hue. Inside, several industrial-sized metal shelving units stood stoically against the walls, their shelves empty save for a thick coating of gray dust. In the corner, a collection of worn-out brooms was leaned against the wall, their straw bristles long ago having been nibbled short by the resident mice. The rest of the sizeable room was vacant, and anything of use or value had likely been cleaned out when the depot closed down.
“Shit,” said Abner dejectedly as they stepped inside, “it’s just an empty storage room.”
Elbert was quiet for a moment and then said, “shh, hang on—do you feel that?” He cocked his head to the side as he lifted his hand in the air. “It’ a draft.” He searched between the shelves, waving his hand around as if he were trying to feel for something that he couldn’t see. Abner only stood there watching, a confused look on his face.
“Here,” he called from the opposite corner of the room, still holding his hand in the air, “look!”
In the ceiling above his head, a crude trap-door had been installed over a rectangular opening not much larger than person.
“What is it,” asked Abner as he shut the door to the room and hurried over.
“It looks like some sort of a chute, like a dumb-waiter or something. They probably used it to lower stuff down into the basement rather than take the stairs. It doesn’t matter, right now it’s our only chance out of here.”
Elbert reached up towards the trap-door but the hasp was just beyond range, and his fingers barely grazed the metal. He tried standing on his toes to get as tall as possible—stretching his arm until his shoulder-socket strained—but it was no use. After he began jumping up and swinging wildly at the latch, Abner put his hand on him and said, “here, let me try.”
He was only an inch taller than Elbert, but it was just enough for his fingers to reach the latch. As he swayed back and forth on his toes, he pressed against the aged metal with his fingertips but it was frozen hard with rust. He grunted loudly as he leaned what little weight he could into the hasp, but it still wouldn’t move. Exhausted, he dropped back down flat-footed with an angry huff. “It’s stuck,” he said, “I can’t get it.”
“Wait, help me move this closer,” said Elbert as he rushed over to one of the big metal shelves. If they could use the shelving unit as a ladder, he reasoned, they might be able to climb out before the men can find them. The boys got on opposite ends and tried to lift the heavy metal unit, but it didn’t even so much as budge. They were both grunting while they jerked and tugged, but it held fast in place. Crouching down, Elbert looked under the unit and growled in frustration. “Damn it, it’s bolted to the dang floor!”
Abner just leaned back against the wall and slid to the ground, his chin resting on his chest. Further down the hallway, they could hear the tall man alternately shouting at the two strangers and then to his creations; imploring one group to wait and the other to settle down. Not willing to quit, an idea suddenly came to Elbert and he sprang to his feet. “Hey, come over here, hurry up.”
He raced back over to the trap door and dropped down onto his hands and knees. “Stand on my back,” he said urgently.
Abner climbed on top of his back, wobbling as he struggled to keep his balance. From the floor below, Elbert asked, “can you reach it now?” Abner’s boots began to dig and bite into his shoulder, and he had to grit his teeth to keep from crying out in pain.
Abner grabbed ahold of the rusty latch and finally pried the hasp apart. The door immediately swung down, showering them both with years of accumulated dust and bird droppings. He hopped down off his back, coughing as he brushed dust from his hair. When the cloud dispersed, they gazed up through the hole in the ceiling with relief as they felt the cool breeze on their face: there, far above, they could finally see the tin roof of the depot building.
Elbert wasted no time basking in the modest victory, however. “Okay, now you climb up. Then when you get up there, find something to lower back down to me.”
Abner glanced over at the closed door: outside in the hallway, the noise had begun to die down. Now, only intermittent banging could be heard amongst a staccato of half-hearted cries. When he turned back to face Elbert, he looked exhausted and the color had drained from his face. “It’s no use, we won’t make it—they’ll be here any second. We’re going to die down here; I knew it.” His voice had begun to falter and the last few words came out in a trembling whisper.
Elbert grabbed him firmly by the shoulders and looked into his eyes as they began to well up with tears, “no, hey—listen to me, we’re not. We’re not going to die down here. When you get up there, I need you to find something to lower back down to me; a rope, a board, a pole, anything. You understand me? Say it back to me so I know.”
Abner took a deep breath and shook his head to clear his mind. He swallowed hard and, when he finally spoke, there was only a shadow of the old friend that Elbert remembered. “I-I’m going to find something, and then I’m going to lower it back down to you, Elbert.” He was nodding slowly, and Elbert briefly searched his eyes for sincerity before nodding his own head in reply.
“Okay then. Come on, hurry up.” Dropping back down onto his hands and knees beneath the chute, he looked up at his friend and nodded curtly one time. Abner stepped onto his back and began climbing up into the chute as far as he could, but the smooth interior walls left nothing to hold onto. He knew that if he could just grab the upper rim then he could pull himself up, but it was still just beyond his reach.
“I need to get up a little higher,” he said, grunting as more dust rained down on Elbert.
Struggling to maintain his position on his hands and knees, Elbert said, “okay, move closer to my shoulders.” Once Abner did so, Elbert growled with exertion as he started to rise up, arching his back carefully to keep Abner from falling. Seeing dizzying stars, it felt as though his hamstrings and tailbone were going to explode. His knees started to buckle painfully inward as flecks of spittle flew out of his lips. Just as he was about to collapse from the effort though, Abner excitedly cried out, “I got it!”
Immediately, the pressure lifted off his back as Abner’s feet wiggled and kicked further up into the chute. When he finally reached the top, Abner pulled himself over the edge and called back down triumphantly, “I’m up!”
“Good! Now look around; there’s got to be—” Elbert stopped mid-sentence and looked over at the door as his eyes narrowed. He could hear the men still talking excitedly in the distance, but their muffled voices now sounded more in agreement, and there was no longer any screeching and banging from behind the doors.
“What is it?” called Abner down from above.
“Just hurry up and find something,” said Elbert without taking his eyes away from the door. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Wait—what? Where are you going? No, just wait there, let me find something.” There was panic in his voice again, and Elbert looked up at him sharply.
“If I stay, we’re both dead. Find something and lower it back down. If you don’t see me again in five minutes, or you hear something bad, get the hell out of here. Get back to town and bring whatever help you can find.”
“’Bert, no, wait—”
“Do it!” he quickly shot back up at him. “Do it or nobody will ever know what’s going on down here. They have to know, and you have to tell them, Abner.” Looking up at his terrified friend with tears streaking down his dirty face, his expression softened, and he said more gently, “don’t worry, I don’t plan on dying down here. Now go. Find me something to climb up. I’ll be back as fast as I can.” And with that, he trotted off, disappearing from Abner’s view.
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