31. The Mine

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A few hours later, we arrived back at the clearing. We climbed into the van, drove it to the pithead, and parked. Ash and Billy emptied their bags to make room for the explosives. Nip replaced the batteries in Colossus. I waited for Bitchmaster. When she arrived, I climbed down and did some more waiting while the others gathered around the electrical box that operated the cage. Billy punched the button. A rumbling started high above us, the pulley began to pull, then we all waited. That was the hardest part. Listening to the gears work in the pithead. Feeling the darkness below us. Knowing we had made our decision.

Heavy metal played about on the wind. Ash hummed along anxiously, drumming the fingers of her right hand against her thigh. Once every song, the pulley would stop for half a minute before sliding back into motion. We had exchanged less than ten words since committing to my crazy plan, and even that choice hadn't been spoken out loud. We had simply turned and started back up the mountain, Ash and I followed by Nip followed by Billy, who, despite whatever feelings he had for us, was still just a boy scared to be alone. Which was fortunate. Because we needed him to open the safe. To make our bomb.

After the pulley stopped and started again for the fifth time, a grinding sound began to build inside the pit. Soon the noise was so loud it competed for Iron Maiden's place on stage. Nip and Ash drew in close to Bitchmaster, the way they had in Carl Rascoe's bedroom so long ago. Billy pulled the hood up on his moldering sweatshirt, the same sweatshirt he'd been wearing since the beginning. He went on pulling the hood up, down, up, down, until a dark red spot appeared inside the shaft and widened like a bloody eye.

It was the ceiling of the cage.

It was covered in human remains.

Bones gleamed inside twisted arms and legs. Spines jutted from backsides, or what had been backsides and were now stomachs blown inside out, bodies ruptured like garbage bags, heads split like melons, everything as soft and moist as week-old compost. But that was not the worst part, and neither was the smell born up from the shaft. The worst part was that the parts were still moving. Fingers curled on broken hands. Eyes blinked on caved faces. Tongues twitched inside shattered and gaping mouths.

The cage rattled to a halt in front of us. Its door locked against the crossbars and swept aside, revealing a dim, drippy interior.

"Joel?" said Ash.

"Yeah?"

"Fuck you."

We climbed on board. The steel floor was slippery beneath Bitchmaster's wheels. I tried not to look down at it, or up at the wet strings and loops hanging through the overhead grates. I kept my eyes on Billy, because Billy knew what he was doing, or at least I hoped he did. He walked to the back of the cage and shone his flashlight on an electrical box like the one mounted outside on the pithead.

"There'll be another way to power it in this. I think."

He opened the box, and sure enough, there was a button. Two, actually. Red and green. Stop and go. Beside them rested a switch. It was currently pointed up. Billy flipped it down. He looked over his shoulder at us. "Ready?"

"No," Nip and Ash said together.

Billy punched the green button. A drop of moisture plopped heavily on the floor. He pressed the button again. Nothing happened. He tried it with the switch pointed up, then once more with it pointed back down.

"It's busted."

"So much for backups," said Ash.

"Well." Nip started back for the gate hopefully. "We tried."

"We're not done here yet," I said.

Nip slumped. "We're not?"

"No. The button outside works fine, doesn't it? This thing went down somehow."

"But it's only good for a one way trip," said Billy.

"That's why one of us will stay up here to bring us back up when we're done. And no, not you. We need you to open the safe." Also, I wasn't sure we could trust him not to leave us stranded a mile underground. I still remembered being his anchor the night he climbed down from the loft.

Billy crossed his arms. "Not you either."

I shrugged. "Fine."

"How will we know?" said Nip. "I mean, how will whoever stays know when to hit the button? What if it gets pushed too early and the cage comes back up and nobody's on it?"

"That won't happen," said Billy. "Because Joel here is going to leave his chair in the tracks of the gate so the gate can't close. And if it can't close, hitting the button won't do a damn thing."

"Okay then." Ash turned to Nip. "Rock, paper, scissors?"

They held up their hands. After a few false starts, Nip's paper covered Ash's rock.

"Two out of three?" she said.

"Yeah right."

Ash tossed him the car keys, a touch harder than necessary. "Fill up the tank while you're jerking off, will you?"

"You bet." Nip set Colossus in my lap. "You're going to want this."

"Thanks."

He walked quickly across the cage, avoiding the dampest parts of the floor, and stepped out into the clearing with a desperate little hop. Like he was getting off a rocky boat. Or a sinking one. I watched as he disappeared behind the frame of the pithead. His voice called out, "All right, guys. Ten, nine, eight—"

"Hit the goddamn button," Billy shouted.

There was a rumble. The door slid closed. As the cage groaned down into the earth, a snatch of vocals reached my ears. I recognized the song. It was Fear of the Dark. Of course it was. Above our heads the grates squirmed. Below our feet the grates stared down into nothing.

"Joel?" said Ash.

"Mmm?"

"Still fuck you."

There had come a point during Carl Rascoe's descent when lightbulbs woke overhead. No such thing happened on our way down into the mine. We dropped through darkness, into darkness. We passed the abandoned loading stations, each one black and drafty. We listened to a strained tick in one of the suspension cords and slowly, ever so slowly, we felt the chill of the deep give way to the heat of the true deep, where nothing lived that needed light to see. Was the eye watching us now? Did it know what we meant to do?

Colossus made long, swaying shadows of the danglers on the ceiling.

The walls outside the cage dripped water.

The water turned pink.

The water turned red.

____ ____

Author's Note:

We're now down to 6 updates left for Poor Things. What?!

Coming up next week, Billy takes a crack at the safe and things get a little creepy . . .

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