Loopholes, Chapter 12

(Previous chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4567, 8910 and 11.) (And ©—for real.)

I heard them outside the door and I had the sudden awful thought that I’d walked into the mop closet and they were about to come in. I moved backwards, putting my hands out to feel my way. The floor was gritty and the whole place smelled of dirty metal. Something skittered by my face way too close and I reared back and smacked the side of my head on something hard. I swallowed back a scream and dropped to the ground, holding my head. It felt like it was on fire, and I couldn’t help whimpering. I rested my head on my arm, the only soft thing there, and rocked back and forth, while the voices in the hall swam in and out, until little by little the pain began to recede. When it was just a hard throb I sat up. It was dark—so dark I couldn’t see anything. The voices were still outside. The darkness made me dizzy, and my stomach heaved. I put out my hands. Nothing, until I reached a metal pipe, the smooth side of a tank, a cement wall. I felt around the floor till I touched a metal bar bolted into the cement. The pain in my head settled to a heavy ache. My hand touched something that wasn’t the floor and I almost screamed, but it was just fabric, the side of the backpack Phoebe made me. I grabbed it and felt the hard plastic of a pen. I tried to fish it out, but I couldn’t get it. I scrabbled around until my hands found a slit in the fabric, and slipped in. Inside was the plastic pen, except it wasn’t a pen. It felt too wide, too thick. I felt all over it for the clicking thing, and a beam of light streamed out. A flashlight! A white plastic flashlight, molded to look like a pig. The light came out its snout, which was gross but I didn’t care because I had light! Phoebe had secretly stocked the backpack—of course she had! It was an utterly Phoebe-like thing to do. I silently thanked her as the shapes of a hot water heater and a big whirring compressor took form. Beyond them a shadowy space. It wasn’t a closet at all—it went somewhere. My head ached where I’d banged it. I pointed the tiny beam of light into the darkness, and walked a few steps.

One of the guys outside the room laughed, a big round laugh like he was really happy, and this somehow made things seem better. I pointed the flashlight with one hand, and held the other hand out to touch the walls and pipes and weird metal things near me. I had the Phoebe backpack slung over my shoulder. I wondered if anyone would come looking for me.

It was hard to hold the little button on the flashlight down, but when my finger weakened and the light wavered you could see just how dark it was. And there were… sounds, little quiet skitters and scratches. I kept walking. The tunnel, if that’s what it was, kept going. The ceiling wasn’t even low—it was high, with pipes running along the top, and valves, and even a sign that said SHAFTWAY. And probably, I told myself, there weren’t any rats. Or lizards. I tried to shake off the thought of lizards. I just had to walk faster, that’s all, and I did, moving so fast I couldn’t see exactly where I was going before the tiny beam of my flashlight got there. It was cold, but I was getting hot, almost running, and sweating both from running and from being freaked out. The tunnel kept turning and I kept running. I just wanted to be out of there. To be above ground with grass and light and phones. I would call Phoebe and she would tell me what my mother had left. Or maybe I would even find out that my mother was here in Florida! Maybe the house got broken into or something, and she finished whatever it was she’d been taking care of, and all the lizard stuff was just stress hallucinations. I’d heard of those—people think dogs are talking to them and it’s all because they have too much stress. But it turns out if they drink green tea or something—.

A light was streaming from under a closed door, a faint fluorescent light. I stopped, because if there were people in there, I was sunk. But if there was a phone in there—. I was staring at it when something scritched next to my face. I reared back. It wasn’t really a surprise when I saw it, more of a sick certainty: a tiny green lizard clinging to the wall. “Alyssa, you’ve done well,” it said in its faint raspy voice. “Come and speak with the others.”

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