32. Praying

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Darkness filled the space around me like solid matter, like invisible, untouchable bedrock leaving no room to breathe. Yet here I was, curled up in the most remote corner of the cave.

Farid was dead, and all I wanted was to die, too.

My body hurt, and the cold bit into my bones from lying in the mud for countless minutes, hours, or days. Time was no guest in this black hole.

Not even the chatter of the birds reached me here. Only the occasional plop of water broke the silence.

Water, of all things—such a scarce resource on this hellish rock. And I had crept right into what probably was the only fresh source of it.

I had drunk some. Its sulfuric taste was revolting, but it didn't make me sick.

It had made me pee, though, later. And there was no toilet here.

No lavatories, as Chris would have said—and no plumbing. Not even enough room to squat.

So there I was, a being of misery, mud, and stench. My mind wanted all of this to end, to curl up, and to die. But my body just kept going, pestering me with its menial aches and with its pedantic hunger.

After they had shot Farid, they had searched the valley. I had heard the terse words of the soldiers and the impatient barks of their dogs. As the day's light vaned, they had pulled back. And so had I, deep into the cave, all the way to its upper end.

Images had haunted my sleep. Images of bullets that tore through tissue to shatter bone and mind. Blood sprayed over the backdrop of a cobalt blue sky.

Later, images of Adriana, the flight attendant back on the plane, haunted me. She watched me while she was drowning, her hand squeezing mine at her end. And, as if in defiance of Adriana's wet death, there were Chris and Nita—burning.

Then I had lain awake, murmuring into the dark, reciting the first paragraphs of Titus Alone, the book I had quoted with Farid, way back on that plane. The words were a prayer to a god who wasn't there for me, who didn't listen or didn't care.

More sleep, more dreams, and praying in the blackness followed.

All of this was veined with the ever-increasing complaints of my aching, starving body.

As if of its own volition, that body now uncurled and crawled down the tunnel, seeking light like a sprouting seed searching the surface.

And light there was. It seeped through the gap ahead. The stone slab was still jammed in its place.

I tugged and pushed it, and it didn't budge. My mind didn't care, but my body panicked, sending up the visceral fear of being confined in this narrow, unyielding space. I hit the rock to the thumping, urgent rhythm of my heart. I burrowed and scrabbled in the mud. Finally, something gave. The slab moved. I pushed, and it fell outwards.

Following it, I crept through the opening. My mind still didn't care, but my body was eager for the fresh air and the open sky. I tumbled out of the recess, rolled, and stopped when I hit a rock.

Lying on my back, panting, I squinted at the bright sky above me. A pale, featureless lid of clouds shrouded it like a pall.

I pushed myself up and stood on shaking legs.

The valley was deserted, the soldiers were gone.

I moved a greasy strand of hair from my face. My fingers were torn and bloodied from the digging.

Who cares, my mind said.

I do, my body replied. I hurt, and I am hungry.

I started walking uphill, one step at the time. As I reached the upper end of the valley, I turned left and climbed the ridge. This brought me into plain view of anyone interested to find me. But there were no soldiers and no people in yellow overalls. The sea was empty. The ship and its spawn, the dinghy, were gone.

My descent towards the campsite was a series of stumbles, skids, and falls. When I finally arrived at Chris Pond, I had bruises and blood all over my body.

I searched the shrubs for fruit. None of them were ripe, but I ate what I found, hunger moving my hands.

Later, I went down to the beach. There was no one in sight. I was all alone.

I stepped into the water without taking my clothes off. They were soiled and rank, and so was I. The sea would wash my pants, my blouse, and my skin. But it wouldn't cleanse the true me.

The salt burned in the wounds of my hands, yet I scrubbed arms, legs, and hair, trying to rid them of the stench—and of the memories.

The clouds tore as I climbed back to the shore. The sun was in the south. It was around noon.

As I sat there and waited for the warmth to dry me, I contemplated my options.

I was alone—hurt, starving, and miserable.

The others were dead and gone as if they'd never been here. Had they? Had I dreamed all of this up? Was Farid but a figment of my imagination, of my yearning for a meaning to my life and for a break in boredom? Was this stupid tale of vampires no more than a mirage that my restless mind had come up with? Nothing but a false memory?

Memory. I touched the pockets of my pants. There it was, the hard, compact contour of Farid's memory stick. I pulled it out. It was housed in a solid piece of steel, reassuringly real. All I needed was a computer to prove that I hadn't dreamt this up.

And a password.

It started with 1910. Next were an R and a C, as in Red Cross. But then?

There were many more letters and digits following.

None of them came up.

I had forgotten the bloody password.

But wait! I had written it into the muddy wall of the cave. I had to go back, to make sure that I had it even if I couldn't use it now.

My muscles were unwilling and unsteady from hunger as I climbed up the campsite's ravine, but I owed this to Farid. He had entrusted me with his legacy, and then he had died while distracting the soldiers from my hiding place.

Died for me.

Killed by the people whose names were on the memory stick.

The same people who had killed all the others.

Up through the campsite's ravine, up to the ridge, my breath labored to support my failing strength.

When I reached the valley of the cave, I almost tumbled down to the entrance and crept in, head first.

The stench of sulfur and of my excrements hit me like a fist, making me want to pull back and to gag.

I gritted my teeth and stared at the wall where I had carved in the password, waiting for my eyes to adapt to the gloom.

There it was, the 1 and the 9. The next digit was almost rubbed off, likely from my efforts to move the slab out of the cave's entrance. And the rest of the password was completely gone. Scratched or rubbed away.

By me.

I had failed Farid.

He had died in vain.

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