Men like that shouldn’t be allowed to start a family, Emily thinks. What does he call all the daft things he’s done over the years? Free solo climbing. Base jumping. Wing suit flying.
Emily expected the cave to smell of earth and mildew, but it has a cool, clean zero-smell. She tries to pull her oversuit more firmly about her. Impossible, since it covers her everywhere, but the Krudera somehow convinces her hindbrain to make her shiver. She has not come two dozen yards into the notorious cave system – more than Elan would suspect she could, perhaps more than she should at her age. Like her grandchild, she never admits an impasse. Unlike him, she knows the meaning of responsibility. To no avail; Luaxanne and Brent will allow her no farther. “Are you cold, Mama?” asks Luaxanne. Emily quells the idea with a chop of the hand to the side. Luaxanne is not her real grandchild, but fills the role better than the real ones did, black skin or no.
“It’s too late for him, Grandma. If he’s in trouble down there, it would take weeks to reach him, weeks he doesn’t have.” The Krudera is the world’s most extensive system, far more remote from civilization than anything on the surface. Expeditions explore ever deeper for weeks on end.
An expedition like Elan’s could take weeks or months, but his friends know how many supplies he has taken, and they must be running out by now. She looks up the shaft down which they have come, no wider than a man’s shoulders, at the grey blotch that promises sunlight above. Leave it to Elan to find the only place on Earth where he cannot use a satellite phone in an emergency, call in a helicopter. For this very reason, no doubt, after toying with the idea of walking to the North Pole he changed it for the Kazakh cavern. Elan the Bold, always trying to remove himself further from the world, perhaps permanently. Running at first from mother, now running from wife and children.
“It’s one thing to say your goodbyes down here, Mama,” says Luaxanne. “But you can go no further. Elan made his choices.”
Emily looked off the precipice to her right, into the blackness. Perhaps the time really has come to leave Elan to his boldness and removal.
Brent finally speaks up. “It’s too late for him, Grandma. If he’s in trouble down there, it would take weeks to reach him, weeks he doesn’t have.” The Krudera is the world’s most extensive system, far more remote from civilization than anything on the surface. Expeditions explore ever deeper for weeks on end. “We will mount some kind of expedition, but it will take time to gather men and materiel. We should face the fact that it will be a search for his remains.”
Luaxanne implores with her eyes and hands. “If we go in half-cocked, Mama, we’ll get stuck next.”
Emily stands, dusts off her oversuit and heads off into the cavern. “Just down to the encampment. You promised.” Luaxanne and Brent exchange looks, but then come after her. Good.
The encampment is really just a level area big enough to serve as a base of operations for explorations deeper down. Also big enough for three sleeping bags. For Emily’s vigil. The children would humor their grandmother long enough.
The way was hard, but with their help she could manage it.
In a way it was her fault, forever rescuing that boy–from things not of his own making, like his mother, but also from all the things he inflicted upon himself. The enemies at school, his personal bankruptcy. But if Emily had allowed him to go bankrupt, to lose the Bugatti and the funding for his adventures, she could so clearly see that he would have gone larking off, leaving the family, running cross country and through the world, riding into the sunset every night. Wouldn’t he have? Or would he have manned up and faced reality?
Now he has never learned from his mistakes.
Emily thinks that her joints will snap, but they make camp after an eternity and lie down to sleep at the very edge of an abyss. She lays out her equipment and memorizes the location of each piece, also not as easy as it used to be. The two children mutter for a pace, thinking she could not hear. And slowly she does drift off. She feels her mind wander in and out of sleep, as it always does nowadays, and Elan is with her. In the house he grew up in, in that old park by the fountain, in the hospital again with that little heart of his.
When she was just a girl, her mother heated a kettle for her bath and scattered, as she would, her advice about life.
“Never let a child know you love them. Love them till you are spent, but never let it show. That’s when the real problem starts. Look at a spoiled child. You can be sure that he was ill for a goodly stretch at a tender age. If the child is ill enough to put a hole in his mother’s heart, she can refuse him no wish.”
The kettle whistled.
She awakes, as she knew she would.
She listens. The children’s single lamp cuts the cave into a bold contrast of light and dark. She hears only the sighs of sleep. Brent always snores initially upon sleeping, but not in deep sleep. He has passed the initial stage now. Without a sound, Emily stands and assembles her gear. She looks for a way down with her flashlight. Beauty and peril leak from every cranny. But she stands beside her madness and lowers herself down as best she can.
“I wanted to blow you a kiss,” Emily says. “But I was so distracted.” Tears run cold in the breeze down her face. The child drifts there as the Lord made her, perfect and beautiful like a baby.
After an hour the pain in her joints feels like knitting needles, and they burn red hot. She cannot go quickly, each movement claiming the whole body of her concentration. She may not get far, but perhaps the fact of her perseverance will be enough. That has worked until now.
In her mind’s eye she sees herself again leaving the two sleeping figures. This time, in her mind’s eye, she blows Luaxanne a kiss as she approaches the precipice. As she should have. Should she die now on this errand, she will not have said goodbye. Luaxanne learned to run early. Such a tiny thing. But agile enough to frolic and jump in the park fountain. So little, Emily let her run as naked as Eve, without even a fig leaf to cover her beauty. At such times she accepted, even embraced Adie’s infertility and liberal views. After each minute passed, Luaxanne would throw a glance at her mama to see herself admired.
So adorable, Emily resolved to have one over on the little elf. With Luaxanne’s things still under one arm, she tiptoed into the bushes to see what would happen ad waited, tummy trembling with humor.
Luaxanne turned again towards the place where Emily had been standing and froze, or rather melted, in place. All joy and animation deserted her in a trice, her hands fell to her sides and her face slackened, even her neck failed to support her head, which listed to one side.
The utter desolation Emily saw there hit her in the gut. She lurched out into the open, arms outstretched, her grandchild’s garments fluttering to the grass, forgotten. “Here I am, sweetie, Mama just had to go tinkles!”
Emily jerks back to the here and now. Even in the cold air of the cavern, sweat dribbles from her nose and washes her oversuit. Brent complimented her hardiness and determination on the way in. As if he had not seen them a hundred times. But perhaps those have now become just a comforting fairytale, a lifetime of tough, now sublimed away from her rickety bones. That Emily Carter moxie, now grown yellow and crumbling.
When the inevitable moment comes, she is not even sure what has happened, her hands or feet slipping from the rock, things hitting her as she falls to the end of her rope and hangs there.
She tries to extricate herself from this dilemma, but something in her left arm will not cooperate. Blood also runs into her eyes and mouth from somewhere. When finally she can move no more, she cries.
When she has done that enough, she stops and composes herself. Perhaps it is better this way. She closes her eyes and nods. As long as she lives until the children arrive.
She can feel them moving her, speaking urgently, quarreling and then cooperating, moving her back up to a horizontal place. Their hands scurry about her, checking her every part. Pain jolts through her when they find her left arm.
“There, there Mama! There, there!” Luaxanne cries.
Emily manages somehow to reach for the girl with her right hand. The other child darts about, always busy, he. Something from a plastic box, something to stick her with. Soon the pain diminishes and things lose clarity. She finds a face before her with tears to wipe away and fights for voice. “Elan…” she manages.
“I know Mama, I’m sorry…Brent and I will find him right away. We’ll bring him back no matter what. Just hang on!”
She doesn’t know if her words are even audible. “He…doesn’t mean to be selfish, dear…he. Needs us.” She strokes the skin blindly. It is an inch from her mouth, now. “Promise. Swear.”
“God, I promise, Mama, I swear!”
Emily’s job done, she lets herself drift off. So weak. Is she bleeding somewhere?
Sounds and lights move about as though behind frosted glass. Finally the dawn air touches her face. Smell of vegetation, a Kazakh cow patch come through more than any sight or sound. The boy urges someone on the phone. Come right away. Right away.
And Emily thinks they do come, with a wind and clatter from the sky turning violet now from black. There is talk of hemorrhaging and blood clots, and Emily knows these words without putting them together. The lights of these people soften and cluster closer about the center of her field of vision. They join into a single glow above her. She and it draw closer to each other. It is a glass egg. Within hovers Luaxanne, not a baby anymore, but with umbilical cord still. Don’t go away, Mama, she seems to say.
“I wanted to blow you a kiss,” Emily says. “But I was so distracted.” Tears run cold in the breeze down her face. The child drifts there as the Lord made her, perfect and beautiful like a baby. Such a good child. And Mama has pulled a fast one on you. Her final work. Throwing good money after bad.
“Baby!” she calls out. Does it really make a sound? But she feels a hand on her shoulder, a warm breath on her cheek, voice from beside her.
“I’m here, Mama.”
Above her, in her egg, Luaxanne nods in affirmation. Emily struggles to find words. Why should the cave swallow two children, rather than one? “Please…” she begins.
“What is it Mama?”
The girl before her fades, leaving only the light, but she knows it is the girl’s face, and she can see the desolation there. So alone. Fading, swallowed by the cave. What must she say? What are the words she wanted to say? The words that will save this good one, the neglected one, and not that other, pull her back from the cave? From the hopeless rescue?
She calls out to the light: “Here I am, sweetie, Mama just pulled a fast one. I won’t go away again!”
The light drifts away.