The Hole — Chapter 5
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Elliot followed as the men dipped through streams, huffed over little hills, and jogged across a meadow. He got tight in his gut, thinking maybe this was a mistake, that he should have stuck to the path and seen where the cart tracks led.
Elliot held his course, praying they’d get where they were going soon. His stomach rumbled and his mouth felt dry. Every step he took deeper into the mountains, away from the road, was closer to getting dangerously lost. It might’ve been better, he thought, to stay by the truck and wait for Evajean to come back. But it was too late for that now.
Eventually they stopped. The terrain had grown denser, more rugged, and older. Thick trees, bent and weathered, grew between large rocks smothered with lichen. Near one of the rocks the man with the hat called a halt. He raised his hand to the others, crouched down, and brushed away moss and branches, revealing a gap between stone and ground. Elliot watched from behind his own large rock near the top of one of the small hills that formed a shallow valley.
Looking down he could see the group fan out around their leader. They spoke quickly and excitedly. Elliot wished he could hear what they were saying, but the distance was too great and a breeze rattled the fall leaves.
The leader handed the top hat and box to a companion. He fussed with his robes, bent down, and stuck his head into the gap. Inching forward, he squeezed in up to the waist. Another member of the group took hold of one his legs. The remaining members shifted nervously. They looked at each other and occasionally smiled. They don’t know what’s in the cave either, Elliot thought.
The leader wriggled and kicked his legs. Then he cried out. The men holding him pulled. The leader came out of the cave filthy, his hair covered with dirt and moss, clutching another box, smaller than the one they already had. It was too far away for Elliot to make out any details but from the way they handled it, he could tell it was valuable or old or both. The leader handed it to one of the other men. That man gazed at the box’s lid for a few seconds and handed it to a third man. The third man sat down and put the box between his legs. He pulled a large knife from his belt and forced it into the lip around the lid, prying until the box popped open.
There was a quick cry from all the men. The one with the knife held the open box above his head. The men cheered. From his hiding place up the side of the hill, Elliot could see into the box, could see torchlight ripple on gold.
Treasure hunters. That’s what they were doing out in the woods. The one with the hat had somehow been able to point them in the proper direction. Had he really used the stone to find where the chest was buried? If the world hadn’t been so screwed up of late, Elliot would have thought it was all a game or a trick. But now it just all seemed reasonable. Sure, the world was dead. And, sure, the folks who remained wandered insane in the street or psychotically attacked at big box stores. Or hunted for treasure with top hats.
Elliot, engaged by what he was seeing, failed to hear the noises behind him. He paid no attention to the footsteps and the chattering, gave no thought to the breathing. Then a hand came down on his shoulder and the woman in red screamed in his ear.
Elliot whipped around. He saw with some horror that it was no longer only the woman in red and the two suits, but at least a dozen more. They stood in a loose wedge behind the woman, and they stared at him with looks that were blank except for that same faint regret.
He screamed back at her. He could hear shouts from the men in robes.
Elliot flinched away. He tried to get up and run, but the two suits each grabbed an arm, forcing him to the ground. They made sure to pin him properly so he couldn’t kick his way out. The woman smiled. The suits lifted him to his feet. Two others from the flock grabbed his legs. As they carried him away, back along the path the group of robed men had taken, the woman’s new companions walked along beside, watching him with blank and regretful stares.
The treasure hunters continued to shout, but their calls grew faint. They were running away, leaving him. Not that they’d known about him. He was alone, helpless.
He twisted and writhed, knowing it would do nothing. These men were so damn strong, but he had to try get away from them. He had to find Evajean because what if she were out there running away from the crazies, too? What if she’d been captured and needed his help, like he needed hers? How could he keep her safe if he couldn’t even get out of the grasp of these four insane men and one insane woman and the threat from their new associates?
The others came in closer now, wanting to see him up close, like kids jostling for a view of blood on the playground.
Elliot hissed at them. He kicked and jerked his arms. The men carrying him slowed, adjusting their grip. They twisted and wrenched his limbs until the pain was terrible. Elliot cursed them — but they just continued on, picking up their pace.
He lost track of the distance. It seemed a long way.
Eventually he gave up entirely. This wasn’t defeat, he told himself, but rather a way to conserve energy, to prepare himself to fight free when the opportunity finally arose.
Some time later, they set him down on hard earth. With so many of the crazies walking along side, he’d had little opportunity to see any of the journey. He could only glimpse the night sky and the tops of trees. They’d travelled at least a quarter mile, maybe as far as twice that. What that meant, he realized with sudden depression, was that he was lost. Even if he escaped, it’d only be into the deep mountains, after dark, without a compass, without a GPS, without a cell phone. Callie had been so young when they’d moved to Virginia and the constant pressures of raising her and working on his marriage had been overwhelming. The family never spent much time exploring the region, visiting the Appalachians. Elliot didn’t know how many roads went through here. He didn’t know whether finding water would be a problem, or how cold it got at night.
The crazies came up over a ridge and then headed down into a small valley. Elliot saw the mouth of a cave at the bottom, and this got him kicking and squirming again. The fear of enclosure, of that dark space, overwhelmed him. The crazies held him tight, carrying him into the cave and setting him down.
The cave was small but comfortably fit him, the men who’d carried him, and the woman in red. He was near the cave’s mouth, the opening plugged by the men and a phalanx of crazies looking in. The woman in red crouched near the back, poking at a burned down fire. The embers gave off a glow that amplified the color of her dress and cast her face in shadow. She paid Elliot no attention. The four men watched him with flat indifference.
He looked out at the crowd beyond the mouth of the cave. Unlike the woman in red and her companions, these crazies had the glazed look he’d seen in the swarm on the road. Blank stares and slack faces, with an occasional twitching of their mouths as each muttered and gibbered. These miserable creatures terrified him more than the woman in red, more than the men who’d hauled him through the woods. He couldn’t be sure how many there were — a dozen? They gathered like a pack of sick hyenas.
The woman in red said something. One of the men had walked over to her and they started talking in their strange tongue. Elliot looked at the roof of the cave. His eyes had adjusted to the dull glow of the dying fire and now he could see symbols drawn on the rough rock, lines and squiggles in ash and chalk. He recognized them immediately, the same symbols drawn in the circles on the trees. Had these crazies done that? Was it the treasure hunters? Or someone else entirely?
He wasn’t tied down and that was good. He wondered if they slept. He rolled onto his side. No one protested. When he sat up, the crazies watching him glared, but didn’t move to stop him. Slowly, keeping his movements as unthreatening as he could manage, Elliot stood.
The tall suit put a hand on his shoulder but didn’t push him back down. Elliot looked at him hard, without flinching. He wasn’t going spend the night cowering on the cave floor. The suit leaned in close and pulled his lips back from his teeth. Whether it was a grin or a snarl, Elliot couldn’t tell.
Up close, the man looked weathered but healthy. He was young, in his thirties. Elliot could see awareness in his eyes, unlike the other crazies just outside the cave. This one might be reasonable. This one might have needs Elliot could take advantage of. He just had to learn what they were.
The woman in red crossed the cave. She ran her hand along the tall suit’s back as she passed him. Elliot saw him stiffen at the contact. She was in charge. That was clear. This crazy bitch was their leader.
He wished he knew how the crazies were organizing themselves — and what they were organizing for. He wondered where they had come from. All he had was questions. Everyone he had seen before this trip had gotten sick and died, so what were these people?
The woman in red stopped in front of him. She turned back to the taller suit and mumbled several words. He handed her a small, pencil-like object taken from the pocket of his pants. Elliot saw that it was gold. She held it in front of her face. Gold and slim. It might have been a pen except there was no point, nothing to actually write with. A stylus.
The woman in red waved the golden stylus at him, like he ought to know what it was, ought to recognize its significance. He didn’t. He shrugged his shoulders. She flashed him a frustrated look, turned, and walked over to one of the walls. She began scratching at it with the implement, making white lines in the soft rock. She drew runes, like the ones on the trees and the roof of the cave. That, at least, answered that question. The crazies — though this woman clearly wasn’t crazy, not like the others — had left the marks on the trees. Or knew what those marks meant.
He was still thinking about this, wondering how it fit in the plague and everything else, when things went all to hell.
Shouts came from the mouth of the cave. The woman in red dropped the stylus. She yelled something at the short suit and he ran outside, the line of crazies opening to let him through. In that brief gap, Elliot thought he saw more crazies, a sizable group, running toward the cave, waving clubs. Were they fighting each other now?
The screaming grew louder. The line of crazies at the mouth of the cave flexed in the middle, falling back as the attackers charged in. Elliot watched as a huge man dressed like a farmer smashed the head of one the crazies with a shovel. The blade, shiny in the firelight, caught the crazy below the ear, sinking in. Elliot was glad he couldn’t hear the blow, that he didn’t have to listen to the bone break and grind on the shovel’s steel.
The farmer pulled it free, laughing. More farmers, dressed in a similar down-home style, soon joined him. They carried bats and scythes and axes. Some had torches. One took aim with a rifle. The gun went off. Elliot flinched against the far wall of the cave. The tall suit, who had remained nearby, fell. He coughed and clawed at his throat. The bullet had torn a hole as big as a coffee cup.
Elliot was yelling now, “I’m not one of them!” over and over. He had his hands over his ears from the sound of the gun. The attackers descended on the broken line of people guarding the cave, smashing the crazies’ arms and faces, breaking backs, shattering knees. The violence overwhelmed Elliot. He cowered against the rock and dirt, looking away. He shouted his plea not to kill him. He screamed that he wasn’t with the woman in red. He wasn’t crazy. He just wanted to get the hell out of here. “I’m not one of them!” he said again, nearly crying as the man with the shovel stood over him, holding the weapon high, ready to bring it down.
The short suit had somehow made it into the cave through the heart of the melee. Now he grabbed the large farmer around the shoulders and wrenched at his chin, yanking the man’s head back, just short of breaking his neck. The two fell, kicking and clawing. Elliot reached for the shovel, snaring it and pulling it to him. He clutched it hard and backed away. The suit climbed on top of the farmer and gibbered, babbling out his insane language in long strings of nonsense punctuated by spitting and, a few times, biting. Now he looked like one of the true crazies, like the mad beasts who’d stood in the mouth of the cave.
Near that mouth, the crazies had grouped. They’d organized themselves into a fighting force, several wielding the dropped weapons of their attackers. Elliot saw bodies, but in the uneven light of the few torches and the madness of the brawl, he couldn’t tell which party each belonged to. Not that it mattered. He didn’t know who to root for. He wished only for an opening to let him run back into the forest. Run until he passed out.
The fight beside him ended. The short suit had made it to his feet and, as Elliot watched horrified, he kicked the life out of the enormous farmer, his dirty dress shoes colliding with the man’s kidneys, with his neck, with his head, and stomach, and chest. The farmer tried to roll away, but that only gave his attacker more targets for his blows. The farmer coughed blood. He spasmed. He wet himself and shit himself and lay still. Elliot raised the shovel and said, “Get away from me,” but the short suit ignored him and headed back to the cave’s entrance.
Elliot’s mind teetered on the edge of shutting down. The shovel felt too heavy, and the heat from the fire, concentrated at the back of the cave, made his vision blurry. His face hurt. His legs wobbled. He couldn’t let himself fall. He had to be ready to run. He fought the urge to put his head against the cave wall and cry until the carnage ended.
Screams echoed. Blood muddied the ground. Crazies hurt each other, killed each other. It was like pouring two wasp nests into the same paper bag. A few would tumble into the cave, get hauled out again. They couldn’t all fit, but they tried, and the ones that fell were driven into the dirt and rock by the feet of their fellows. The rest fought outside, in the moonlight and the flicker of torches. They murdered each other with enthusiasm.
Elliot held the shovel and screamed.
And the fighting ended. The sounds of combat fell away, leaving only moans. Elliot still held the shovel. He had no idea what to do. He had no sense of their intentions. Would they turn their weapons on him? It was silly for him to consider anything else, he had seen what these people had done. But he had to believe they would spare him or he’d go mad.
A young man, with blood on the side of his face and his hair dirty and sticky, came toward Elliot. The man held his hand out. Elliot shifted the shovel. He tightened his grip.
The young man said, “Thank God we found you.” He grinned. He beamed. “Are you okay?”
Elliot blinked. The crazies didn’t speak English.
“Are you okay?” the man said.
Elliot shook his head.
“You’re hurt? Where?” The man took a step closer. Elliot lifted the shovel. “No, wait, no,” the man said, backing up. “It’s okay, we’re here to help.”
Elliot didn’t believe him. He stayed ready to attack.
“Look,” the man said, hands up, “we came here to get you, to help you. Do you understand?”
Elliot nodded. He loosened his grip on the shovel. He cursed himself for doing it.
The man said, “You’re lucky we found you. These people, they’d have hurt you or worse. We’ve seen them before and that’s what they do: they’re mean and evil. But you’re safe now.”
Elliot asked the question that had plagued him since he first climbed from the overturned truck. “Where’s Evajean?” he said. “Where’s Evajean Rhodes?”
The man looked over his shoulder. An older fellow approached. His shirt was torn, but he was dressed in the same simple and well-tended style as the rest. His left leg sported a painful looking gash. It sagged when he put weight on it. He carried himself like a leader and the young man deferred to him in a way the reinforced the impression. His weathered face was lined and leather dark. He nodded at the younger man.
The younger man continued, “She’s fine. She’s being taken care of. She’s got some scrapes and bruises, but she’s doing fine.”
Elliot dropped the shovel and fell to his knees. He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. She was safe. That was all he needed to hear. He trusted these men, because they’d saved him, because they’d rescued him from the lady in red and her crazy companions. But also because trust let him believe what they said was true. Evajean was safe.
“The dog’s okay, too,” the young man said, laughing. “In case you were wondering.”
Elliot smiled and coughed and blinked. “I wasn’t,” he said. “But thank you.”
“Oh, nothing to it.” The young man turned to the elder. They conferred in whispers while Elliot struggled to his feet, using the shovel for support. The adrenalin rush of the fighting left him wobbly and weak.
“We should be leaving now,” the man said and put his hand on Elliot’s forearm. “It’s safer back in town than out here. We’ve seen a lot of these things.” He nudged the corpse of a crazy with his boot. “There’s probably more out there and we’ve lost men.” He didn’t sound upset by this. He sounded excited.
“Okay,” Elliot said. “Okay, right. We should go. Where?”
“Nahom.” He grinned. “Our slice of heaven on earth.”
The men gathered their dead, while the wounded were patched up enough to make the journey to town. A younger boy poked through the bodies of the crazies. He turned out their pockets, collecting whatever trinkets he found.
Four of Elliot’s rescuers had died.
“You’ve fought them before?” Elliot asked the older man, who had done nothing during these post-battle chores — nothing but stand in the middle of the cave and watch his fellows, his hands clasped behind his back. The old man gave a curt nod without looking at Elliot. Elliot walked back to the mouth of the cave and looked out at the darkening sky.
The emerging stars and full moon threw white light over the tiny valley. Some men dragged enemy corpses into piles while others, armed with torches, set the bodies alight. The smoke from the pyres rose in thick, greasy columns. The smell made Elliot hungry — and then sick.
Shortly, the men finished their work. They carried their dead by the arms and legs or across their backs. Elliot thought of Evajean hauling Henry. He thought of seeing her again when they got to Nahom.
The somber group walked out of the valley. The one who had spoken to him earlier approached, the sadness of loss finally visible in his eyes. “These men fought well,” he said firmly, as if Elliot had questioned it. Then he nodded. “They fought with the righteousness of blood atonement.”
That didn’t sound good, Elliot thought. He changed the subject. “I’m Elliot Bishop,” he said, holding out his hand.
“Elder Andrews.” They shook. Up close, in the twilight and torchlight, Elliot figured Andrews couldn’t be more than twenty-eight, maybe younger.
“You live out here?” Elliot asked.
“And you’ve run into them before?” Elliot said.
Andrews looked back toward the cave. “Yes,” he said
“The crazies,” Elliot said.
Andrews laughed, a bright sound that was startling in the heavy night. “Is that what they’re called?”
Elliot shook his head. “That’s what I call them.”
Andrews said, “I like that word. Crazies. It does fit. But to answer your question, yes, we’ve had quite a few dealings with the crazies in the last — Oh, I’d say in the last month. A few showed up in Nahom, walking down our little main street, babbling. You’ve heard them do that?” he asked. “I assume, with the time you spent — ”
“I heard it,” Elliot said. “It’s like another language.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. They’re sick, is what I think, and disease has made them mad. That’s all it is.”
That’s not all it is, Elliot thought. And Andrews knows it. He knows it’s a language, not babbling, but he doesn’t want to say so.
“Anyway,” Andrews said, “some of them came into Nahom and they hurt one of the children. Began beating him, and badly too, until a few of the town’s menfolk saw what was happening and stopped it. We kept watches then, each night for a week, but none came back for awhile.”
“They did eventually?” Elliot said.
“Oh, yes. Quite a lot of them. You could almost say they laid siege to us. Perhaps fifty, maybe more, gathered on the ridge and waited. We sent men up to talk but they got chased off. The crazies aren’t friendly, not at all.”
“Did they attack? I mean attack the town?” Elliot asked, as he and the rest of the party ascended a small hill. He was panting now, exhausted physically from the events of the past several hours, but also deeply, emotionally spent. He needed to see Evajean.
“The following morning, they did. As the sun came up, a few dozen crazies came down that ridge, screaming and charging like Indians. I wasn’t there,” he added, “but that’s what those who were told me. We had a mighty brawl but the crazies don’t fight well and we were able to turn them back without any deaths. Not like this time.” He trailed off. They walked in silence for a while.
The woods had grown cold. Elliot wasn’t sure if it was actually cold or if he finally had the opportunity to notice the chill. They walked several miles, through terrain that was now familiar: dense trees, moist soil, low vegetation, and copious mosses. Elliot could smell the forest, heavy and wet. The other men in the party stayed quiet, with no minor conversations to pass the time and no recounting of the battle. They stared ahead, concentrating on the hike, a few burdened by the bodies of the dead, and many others supporting the wounded. Why had they saved him? Was it at the request of Evajean? He had assumed she sent them out to look for him, but why would they risk so much for two strangers? They knew the crazies were in the area. Was there something else, something hiding in the conversation he had with Andrews?
He decided that it was too late tonight to find anything out. Best to wait until morning, when he could think on it with a clear head, unencumbered by the afternoon’s madness and his overwhelming exhaustion. A bed was what he needed. Elliot hoped the people of Nahom had high standards for bedding. He fantasized about what it would be like to slip between the sheets and blankets, to lay his head on a soft pillow, to stop resisting and let weariness win completely.
“Is it far?” he asked.
“Only half a mile more.” Andrews laughed. “And then you can eat and sleep. Not far, but everything seems a lot farther when you’re in the woods.”
“It sure does,” Elliot said. He stomped along with the men, letting the jarring impact of each step keep him awake.
“You’ve lost people, too, in this?” Andrews asked some time later.
Elliot blinked, and stared forward.
“To the disease?” Andrews added.
“We all have,” Elliot said.
“But family? Was anyone dear to you afflicted?”
“My wife. And my daughter.” Why was he telling this man about Clarine and Callie? That blissful moment of trust from earlier had faded, and it felt somehow damaging to his family’s memory to discuss them or say their names among this violent crowd, no matter if the men had saved him. Callie and Clarine didn’t need to be here, not in this place.
“I’m sorry,” Andrews said. “I lost one of my wives myself. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have lost a child, too.”
Elliot nodded. It was still difficult for even him to imagine fully.
“This is still painful for you, I see that,” Andrews said. “I apologize for bringing it up. We should be in Nahom presently, just over this hill up ahead. It is a beautiful place and you can rest safely there.”
“That will be wonderful,” Elliot said. The talk of Callie and Clarine and the thought of going up another hill drove his exhaustion deeper, into his core. He didn’t know if he could make it.
But he did. Eventually they were over the ridge and he saw the lights of tiny Nahom spreading out beneath them. He heard the breathing of the men relax and their pace improved. Enthusiasm for home carried them forward.
Elliot let the men fall away from him, content to stand a moment at the top of the hill and watch this mundane scene. How long had it been since he’d seen the twinkling lights of human habitation, the normalcy of that simple sight? This wasn’t quite the world as it had been. Those lights below weren’t incandescent bulbs or fluorescents or neon. They were lanterns and candles and braziers. Nahom wasn’t Charlottesville. But for now, for this moment, it was close enough.
Andrews turned back and saw him still on the ridge. He trudged up and put his hand on Elliot’s back. “Come down,” he said. “Evajean is safe. You can see her. And then we’ll get you something to eat and a soft bed. What to do next can wait until morning. For now, there’s just this one short descent remaining.” Then he jogged away, toward Nahom. After a moment, Elliot followed.