The way into the subterranean world was winding and dark, unraveling like a Grecian labyrinth. And it was, in a sense. False walls. Hidden passages. Trap doors. A monster lurking at its heart...but Lee knew the way. Even blindfolded, she knew every turn and step and obstacle.
Lingering briefly by a red pipe that ran like a limbless tree through the concrete, Lee readjusts her grip on the woman－self-aware of the shallow breaths tickling the column of her neck－and leaned an ear against the metal, listening for a reply to her message. So far, no one responded, which wasn't surprising. Most of the Underground would be asleep at this hour, but someone should have heard a distress call. The fact they hadn't was something she would bring to Mother's attention once the inevitable storm she was about to unleash upon her world blew over.
Unwilling to hold her position until an answer arrived, Lee soldiered on, pausing briefly to reposition her hastily tied hoodie around the woman's waist, cinching it as tightly as she could to help stem the steady trickle of blood.
Very quickly, the drab grays and blues of the upper tunnels shifted to warmer browns and reds, halls becoming rough-hewn and wide, the cold outline of industrial engineering giving way to hand-chiseled craftsmanship. Subtle hints of habitation surfaced if one knew where to look. Writing on walls－small murals left behind by curious children. Markers and arrows. Well-traveled paths. Stairs rubbed smooth by the passing of hundreds of feet over a lifetime.
Using her boot to unlock a false wall, Lee shouldered into an arguably rickety lift that was little more than a flat piece of plate steel ensconced in bands of welded rebar. It was a shortcut that would plunge her quick and dirty into the rest of her subterranean home. Mother knew about most of them, unfortunately, but Lee still had a few secrets.
With the flick of a switch, the cage gave a stomach-churning shudder and started its descent into a dark shaft, sparks flickering to life overhead like tiny shooting stars. The landing was a bit rough thanks to the added weight of another body, but she was where she needed to be, breathing a sigh of relief when the hidden door two hallways from her home rolled aside on well-oiled rollers to reveal an empty hall.
So far so good.
A wave of brewing peppermint tea and the remnants of dinner brushed past her keen nose when Lee stepped into the main room of her home. Mother always had a cup before bed while pouring over one of the thousands of tomes in her collection. Grunting with the effort, Lee hurried down the short flights of steps, unable to prevent her booted footfalls from announcing her arrival.
"I thought you turned in an hour ago," Mother said without looking up, turning a page smoothly. Her curly hair had been freshly washed and pinned off her neck in a messy up-do reminiscent of the 60's, a graying bandanna holding the smaller hairs off her face. When her comment wasn't met with an immediate reply, Mother pushed out a sigh and lowered her book only to startle, coming out of her chair as if a current had passed through it. "Leanna!"
Mother, please, Lee panted with a grimace, arms burning and hands slippery. She was quickly losing both her strength and grip, back bending with the effort to keep the woman from slipping to the floor. Help.
Despite her shock, Mother moved and cradled the drooping half of the body in her daughter's arms. Together, they carried the unconscious woman to an unused couch in a nook away from the main room. When Lee brought her hands away, arms weak and trembling, they were stained red, blood drying in the creases of her skin.
"Leanna." Mother's voice was soft but brittle, eyes locked on the stranger. "Who is this?"
I was...Lee paused, unsure if she should admit her guilt or try to dance around it, but it wasn't like denial was possible now. Not after what she literally dragged into her home. Defeated, she opted for shoulder-sagging truth. I was meeting Paul tonight. We had a delivery meet-up. I saw a van in the park on my way there. I didn't think anything of it until I smelled blood. When I went looking for the source, I found her at the bottom of a ditch. They left her to die.
"Yes, my dear, that's what they do," the older woman said with a slow nod as if Lee was supposed to understand. She didn't. Not because the ways of Topsiders were strange to her, they were people just like Undergrounders, but because what human could do that to another and still have a soul?
"But tell me," Mother said, gaze hardening. "What, pray tell, do you expect me to do about this?"
Apparently, the ponderance of a soul extended beyond Topside. The question rocked Lee enough she actually leaned back to get a better look at her mother, unsure the words had actually fallen from her lips. Heal her, she motioned frantically as if her hands could convey what she couldn't. Save her.
"To what end?"
What do you mean to what end? She needs our help! I couldn't very well leave her lying there bleeding to death, which she still seems to be doing on our couch!
"You don't understand the gravity of what you've done."
I don't believe this. Snarling at the dispassion, Lee crossed the room and snagged the Tap swinging next to a pipe, ready to make a call the Underground would be sure to hear. A sharp reproach from Mother, however, stops her mid-reach.
The older woman turned tightly, arms locked over her chest. "You brought a Topsider into our world. I want you to think about that before you make another move. What will happen once she wakes? What if she doesn't? What if she dies, and her disappearance leads the authorities to us?"
She needs our help! Lee shouted, rounding on her heels.
"She isn't one of us!"
Weren't you the one who made the vow to never turn a person in need away, regardless of station?
"You don't think sometimes, Leanna! She's a Topsider!"
She's a human and she's hurt. She's dying. She needs our help, not you and me arguing moral semantics about saving a person's life! You're a doctor. You took an oath!
Mother straightened, features turning to stone. "Watch yourself, daughter."
Either swallow your pride or I make the call. I'm not going to stand here and watch someone die because of your personal bigotry. That's not who I am. You raised me better than that.
The two women squared off like challenging rams, both believing they held the moral high ground. When the silence grew to the point of charged discomfort, nevermind a life hung in the balance, Mother eventually pressed her lips into a hard line and exhaled sharply through her nose.
A decision had been reached, and Lee knew she had won.
YOU ARE READING
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