Patrick wasn’t ready to die, but he was beginning to suspect that he and the other salt miners would, long before help came.
“All you get is a sip,” he heard the foreman, Morales, say from the opposite end of the tight shaft, the man’s voice a dry rasp. Patrick directed his helmet light, finding the burly man amid the heavy salt dust swirling in the dead air. Morales handed the canteen down to the first man sitting against the wall, who gulped a mouthful.
Patrick dragged his tongue across crusted lips.
He believed it to have been two days since the cave-in. It had started with a deep rumbling that reminded Patrick of distant thunder. Then the ground under his feet quivered, building with intensity, until a series of explosions erupted farther down the shaft, followed by a cloud of salt dust that enveloped him. The lighting went dark, leaving them with their headlamps to slice beams of dusted light across each other’s wide-eyed faces, to whimper with voices that were as trapped as they were. A head count of nine men revealed Smitty, Harris, and Derickson to be missing—buried alive under the collapsed rock salt.
Patrick’s body throbbed with dehydration as the canteen of water crawled its way toward his position at the end of the line. Panic was steadily clawing its way out of the depths of his mind. There’ll be no water left, a voice told him. You’ll die first.
So Patrick let his eyes slip closed. He slowed his breathing and racing heart. He’d been working the mines long enough to know that down here—1,800 feet below the surface—the only thing a man had any true control over was his own mind. And panic was a miner’s death sentence.
Patrick opened his eyes to find Morales handing the canteen to the boy, Douglas, at his left, who drank greedily. Douglas was the youngest of them—not yet twenty years old—and this had been his first week in the shafts.
“Enough!” Morales commanded, snatching the canteen away from the boy, who cowered, a whimper escaping him.
Patrick took the offered bottle and sipped from it, the water delivering pure liquid relief. It took every ounce of resolve in him to pull the bottle away from his burning lips, to not just open his throat, let the remaining water into his body. But he also knew chaos would ensue if he did that. They would turn on him—and then each other.
Morales left, returning to the front of the line.
And another headlamp blinked out, its batteries gone dead.
Patrick felt the boy beside him stir in response to the deepening darkness. Eventually, when all the headlamps quit, a complete and total blackness would swallow them.
“We’re running out of air,” Douglas whispered beside Patrick. Patrick turned to the boy, who seemed to be grabbing at his throat, bloodshot eyes widening with panic.
“It’s the salt dust.” Patrick kept his voice steady for the boy. “Breath through your nose.”
He placed a hand on the boy’s quivering knee, feeling a fatherly urge to protect him, thinking of his own infant child at home. Patrick had never understood himself as a protector until the baby had arrived into his life, awakening something in him that replaced any doubts he’d had during his wife’s pregnancy. It also left him with no doubts that dying down here in this shaft was not an option.
“I can’t breathe,” Douglas coughed out, beginning to writhe, eyes bugging.
“You can breathe,” Patrick assured. He squeezed the boy’s knee harder as the other men in the line stirred, sensing the release of panic into the air, emanating from Douglas.
“Shut him up, or I will!” Morales commanded through the dim dark.
Patrick stood, reaching a hand to the boy.
“Come with me,” he said. “Let’s walk it off.”
Douglas didn’t resist being pulled up to his feet, and Patrick led him deeper down the shaft, the salt crunching under their boots, into the chamber where the ceiling towered above them and the sounds of their breathing echoed tightly.
“Just focus on taking slow, deep breaths,” Patrick said, recalling the same assurance he’d offered his wife during her labor.
They paced across the chamber, headlamps lighting the way. It was one hundred feet across and wide, and maybe fifty feet high. Patrick felt the oppression of the smaller shaft lift as he became less aware of just how trapped they were. He thought to suggest to the men that they should relocate from the shaft into the wide-open chamber, but also knew they wanted—needed—to be close to where the rescuers would come through.
At the far end of the chamber, Patrick noticed that whatever had caused the cave-in had affected the chamber too. A crack like lightning had travelled down from the chamber ceiling, where it had broken open a hole in the wall, down at his feet—a hole big enough that a man could crawl through it.
Patrick kneeled, shining his headlamp into the hole, seeing a long tunnel that went a great distance, farther than his light was able to penetrate.
“What is it?” Douglas whispered.
“Shhh,” Patrick said. “Do you hear that?”
An intoxicating sound had caught Patrick’s ears, coming from the hole. “I can hear water.”
“I don’t hear anything,” Douglas whispered, his voice high with anxiety. “I’m going back to the shaft.”
Patrick was barely aware that the boy had left his side. He’d already stuck his head into the hole, his light shining along the length of the tunnel. Alone now, he listened, letting his eyes slip closed, waiting for the sound.
He gasped as he heard it once again: the unmistakable plop of a droplet, like a tap dripping in the middle of the night.
His shoulders squeezed through the hole’s diameter, and Patrick began shimmying along, lying flat, pulling himself with his elbows and pushing with his toes. The only sound was the drag of his body across the salt under him. It was slow going, but he was making progress; the end of the tunnel—a dark hole—was getting closer.
Patrick’s mouth was coated in salt, his tongue so dry he thought he might choke on it. His vision fluttered. Or was it the helmet light?
He began to fear that he’d misjudged the distance to the end. He questioned if he had the strength to make it. The salt dust in the air was thickening, making Patrick cough as it burned his throat. He retched, but there was nothing to come out, and no saliva in his mouth to make throwing up possible.
The salt tunnel became rougher, the edges sharper. I should go back. But turning around was impossible, he realized, as his arms burned with exhaustion.
Patrick gritted his teeth and kept pushing. His helmet light had dimmed and could not penetrate the thick blackness hanging just beyond the exit. But finally, when he thought he could go no farther, he was pushing himself through the end of the tunnel.
There was space to stand up.
On his feet, Patrick ran his hand along the wall of another chamber.
No, not a chamber. A room.
He was inside a room, one with solid walls the color of pitch and not terribly large—about the size of the bedroom he shared with his wife and their little one.
It was impossible that there could be a room down here. And yet here Patrick stood, savoring the smooth, cool surface of the room’s black walls, perfectly constructed. He tilted his headlamp toward the ceiling.
What he saw there could not be true: tree branches snaking down.
They were covered in spade-shaped leaves that were so exquisitely green they seemed to shimmer. All that was missing was a gentle breeze to caress the leaves, make them flutter in the wind.
Patrick was convinced he must be hallucinating. Or that he had died.
But the ground was too solid under his feet.
This was real. The tree branches were growing down from the ceiling—out of the ceiling.
He reached up to touch one, but stopped.
Because everything about this simply couldn’t be.
He took a few steps into the room, scanning over his head, marveling at the strangeness of it all, until his eyes caught color within the leaves: a flash of red. A luscious red. Patrick adjusted his position, shuffling his feet forward, until the red object came into view.
It couldn’t be.
But it was.
A piece of fruit, perfectly spherical and plump with ripeness.
A droplet of moisture—like dew—slipped from the fruit’s surface, striking the floor with a plop.
Patrick dragged his sandpapered tongue across his chapped lips. The fruit looked like the purest he’d ever seen. Juicy and sweet. Filled with nutrients. Waiting to be plucked. And he knew, even as he reached up toward it, that it would be smooth and supple.
It came off easily, the stem eagerly popping from the branch.
Patrick had forgotten that he was deep underground, inside a room made of black walls. The fruit in his hand became everything, pulling him into its red ripeness, its promise of nourishment just below the smooth flesh.
It wanted to be eaten.
His teeth sunk into it. Juice caressed his tongue, filling his mouth with rich, decadent sweetness. Nectar dripped down his chin as he devoured it, savoring every moment, until his lips reached the pit at the center, and he slipped that into his mouth too.
It was not solid like a peach pit, but soft and jelly-like, and it slipped down his throat with ease, gliding along the walls of his esophagus.
Until it vanished into his stomach.
Eyes closed, Patrick licked the nectar from his fingers. But as he opened them he saw, through the beam of his headlamp, that it wasn’t nectar.
It was blood.
Patrick wiped his mouth and chin.
He inspected his hands, wondering if he’d cut himself somehow and the blood was his. But the sweet taste in his mouth told him that the blood had come from the fruit.
A hot sensation spiked in his stomach. He recoiled, clutching his belly, tuned in to the pins and needles prickling inside him.
And the prickling seemed to be spreading.
He stumbled back, gasping as a burst of panic flooded his mind, until he came up against the wall. The tingling trickled up his chest, and across his back. It moved down his thighs, crawling toward his toes. The tingling moved up past his shoulders, along his neck, down his arms, and to the tips of his fingers.
He was electric, every cell in his body prickling with heat.
Patrick closed his eyes and wished with all his might that he was home in his bedroom, lying with his wife, their baby cooing in the crib by their bed. But when he opened them again, he was still in the black room. The tree branches still reached down from the ceiling above. And the tingling was moving up his neck, to the inside of his skull.
Patrick began to see things in his mind that he’d never seen before, things he would never do, things he didn’t want to think about, but which intruded into his mind anyway.
He thought about clutching a small animal in his hands and tearing into it with his teeth as the animal squealed.
He thought about holding a child’s head under water as her little arms and legs thrashed against the sides of the bathtub.
He thought about a woman, stripped of clothing, tied to a bed. Her name was Sandra. He saw her mouth, torn open in a silent scream as he pulled a straight razor across her breasts.
Faster and faster, the thoughts intruded into his mind. They violated him over and over and over.
He thought about holding a shotgun in his hands and aiming at his sleeping parents. His finger pulled the trigger, the shotgun exploding, kicking back, splattering blood and gore against the headboard.
He thought about the young woman he held down as she fought against him, pine needles sharp against his bare knees as he fucked her on the ground of a dark, lonely park.
On and on the thoughts intruded, needling into Patrick’s mind. He pulled at his hair. He screamed in the black room. But they wouldn’t stop.
Until his mind began to change—and he felt the first flicker of pleasure.
He felt the edges of his lips curl into a smile.
The delicious pleasure grew, flooding him with dizzying joy, as the thoughts reeled through his mind.
He thought about stomping on a man’s face with his boot and not stopping until nothing remained but a gory mess of blood and bone and teeth.
The sick pleasure enveloped his mind, and his own memories began to blink out. He tried to remember his wife’s name. But then pop, and it was gone—and he didn’t care.
Now, he no longer knew that he had a young child.
His body slid down the wall, and by the time he came into contact with the ground, it was no longer his body. It belonged to something else.
The man rejoined the others in the shaft. He’d learned his name was Patrick by the ID card in his breast pocket. He learned he was a miner, and that he and these other men were trapped.
And he learned that he’d been gone a long time, because death had taken the other miners, their bodies strewn about in the darkness, curled up into balls of pain.
His dimming headlamp uncovered the only one who remained alive—a young man whose ID card read, “Douglas.”
“Who’s there?” the survivor croaked.
“Douglas, it’s Patrick.”
“Where have you been?”
“I’ve been here all this time.” Patrick sat down by Douglas and held the young man’s head on his lap, stroking his hair. The dying boy trembled and whimpered as dehydration racked his body. The boy was defenseless, and it was simple for Patrick to intrude into his mind.
He pushed past the black shroud of despair, then past the tender part of the boy that wanted to be at home with his mother, and swam inside his innermost thoughts until he found what he wanted.
Patrick slipped into a terrible lie hidden inside Douglas, a shameful secret that had grown heavier as each year passed. Douglas fantasized about things, perverted things that he’d never dare to share with anyone. Not even his priest. The fantasies demanded to be acted on, and though Douglas was resisting them, he was finding it harder and harder not to succumb. And Patrick licked his lips as he took hold of the boy’s shame and let it fill him up with wonder and pleasure and nourishment.
“Why do you hide?” Patrick asked the whimpering boy.
“Why do you resist what your soul aches for?”
Douglas began to cry in his lap, though no tears fell.
As the boy cried, Patrick tasted the fear he carried inside his shame, fear that he would be caught, castrated, taken from his mother, and locked inside a cage where other men would beat him and rape him for what he was.
Within an hour, Douglas’s life finally slipped away into the black nothing, but Patrick stayed with his body, waiting. He waited until a day or two or three later when the rescuers came pouring in through a hole they’d dug out. They moved quickly, their voices high and excited, shining lights down on Patrick.
Patrick saw the suspicion written in their expressions as they stared down at him, wondering how he’d managed to live while all the others died. Patrick saw in their eyes that he was entering a dangerous world. A world that would lock him up too if they knew what was inside him.
And so they wouldn’t know. He would hide.
Hide in plain sight.