The sun was unbearably high in the sky, a glowing disk burning against an azure backdrop.
A group of people marched through the sandy, mountainous terrain with large, straw hats perched on their heads. Each wore a backpack, a massive force that weighed their steps deeper into the uneven, unforgiving earth. All of them clutched walking sticks in hand, a cord of rope tied around the wooden poles that gleamed with colorful sheets of paper that bore strange markings on them. At the head of the group was the oldest, a man with graying hair and forever tanned skin.
It was this man Adriana Lynch cursed for the thousandth time when she lost her footing. Like the times before, she pitched forward and slammed into the bulky backpack of the student in front of her, who, in turn, staggered under the sudden, unwelcome impact. Sniggers broke the otherwise hostile silence, and the student who Adria had fallen into turned, slowly, to toss a baleful glare at the darker-skinned girl.
Adria tried to pretend the look wasn’t the reason why she flinched away and looked at the ground with a renewed interest. A few students behind her laughed, their voices carrying over the group as Adria’s grip on her staff tightened. Her knuckles paled as her grip became painful, yet Adria said nothing as a few of the other students shouldered past her.
At the front of the group, Professor Merriweather turned and yelled, “What’s the holdup?”
A few of the students blinked, though none of them said anything. Not until Tamara Wilson spoke up, her voice carrying over the group with ease. “Lanie and the others are picking on Adria, Professor. Again.”
“Th-they’re not picking on me!” Adria stepped her way through the others until she was beside the tall, muscled girl. She glared up into a sunburnt face, her own cheeks spotting a soft, rosy hue. Her gaze shot to her teacher when he began laughing, his lips pulling back to show a row of white, white teeth. Adria flushed, cheeks puffing out before she declared, “I tripped, sir! I didn’t mean to fall into Lanie…”
She hadn’t meant to fall into the other girl. She never wanted to bring herself into Lanie’s awareness. The older, golden-haired girl was a terror to behold, a force of nature determined to destroy everything Adria worked so hard to build. Off to the side, the terror in question rolled her eyes and flipped long, shiny hair over her shoulder before swaying towards the front of the group.
‘I hate her,’ Adria turned her gaze on Tamara, glowering up at the brunette as she said, “Thanks for that.”
“You’re welcome, Adria,” Tamara smiled, gesturing her to step ahead of her. Adria eyed the path they were readying to cross, skin crawling as the other girl said, “I’ll walk behind you just in case you lose your footing. Wouldn’t want you to go over the edge, would we?”
Adria knew she didn’t want to go over the edge. From the ledge they were already walking, she felt the tendrils of vertigo trying to grab onto her. She kept her gaze directed to the pathway ahead of her as she said, “Maybe you should walk in front of me, Tamara. At least I know I have something safe to grab onto if I lose my balance…”
Tamara took the lead without question, something Adria was grateful for. She kept her gaze on the taller girl’s back, and Adria was mindful of where she placed her walking stick. The other girl was always a step ahead of her, pointing out dangerous ledges to ease away from and eager to offer a helping hand when something had to be climbed. Adria tried her best to not look over the lip of the path they walked on, her breath already coming in small, panicked gasps as they climbed a stairwell built into the walls of a cliff.
“Did the Professor tell you anything about where we’re going?” Tamara’s question carried on the wind, a soft request for information that had Adria’s mind whirling in thought. After a moment, the smaller, darker-skinned teenager answered, “It’s an excavation site, from what I read. Private pay. Professor Merriweather has a contact that told him about it, but to get ahead of the company coming next week…”
Adria trailed off, brow furrowing. ‘To get there first, he needed to be able to move without restraint.’
Tamara seemed to understand what was going through her mind; the taller girl didn’t press for her to continue, opting to, instead, continue in silence. Adria kept behind her, gaze on the ground in front of her and away from the perilous drop inches from her right foot. A cool breeze curled through the air, and she had to slap her hand against the top of her hat to keep it from flying away.
The group was slowing. One student ambled up next to her, a teenage boy with porcelain skin and black hair with eyes outlined in black. The black stud pierced through the underside of the middle of his lower lip caught her eye – surely getting a needle pushed through the skin there had hurt, a small part of her mind rationalized. She couldn’t picture herself getting any kind of piercing, not even her ears.
“Well, this fuckin’ sucks,” Emo-Boy stated calmly as he eyed what was coming up. As Adria turned to get a glimpse of what caused such a comment, Tamara whispered, “I wouldn’t look if I was you…”
The words came seconds too late – Adria had already seen what was coming.
The ledge they walked on wound ahead, connecting with another path from the other side of the cliff. In the darkness that was a very steep fall was the roaring river and it was over that very fall that the path was heading towards. As she let her gaze rise, she noticed she couldn’t see very far. The two sides of the cliff curved inwards, rounding off until it tapered off into what she could only guess was the entrance to a cave. It was that place they were heading, Adria realized.
And at the same time, she also came to a horrifying conclusion:
They would have to travel through the gorge to get to their destination.
Adria inched away from the others, skin crawling as this realization dawned on her. It was one thing to creep along a path that had a sharp drop to one side, but to walk on a path that had nothing on either side was suicide. A strong hand caught her shoulder and Adria’s eyes widened. Behind her, she heard another student snap, “We’re moving forward, Lynch, not backward. Get your head in gear.”
“I’m not going,” Adria shook her head, eyes wide and skin dropping a shade or two as Emo-Boy and Tamara turned to face her. She backed into the young man behind her, head shaking rapidly. “There’s no way I’m going to walk across a tiny bridge that stretches across a long canyon into a cave! I’m not that crazy!”
“Miss Lynch,” her professor was making his way to her, the students easing out of the way and then regrouping once he passed. Her instructor’s gaze was kind, eyes warm and welcoming. He stopped by Emo-Boy and Tamara, his voice soft as he said, “We both know there’s no turning back, not today. We can’t make the trip back until there’s enough light to guide us. It will dark soon. See reason.”
She shook her head. “There’s no reason to go across that bridge, sir. We don’t even know if its sturdy!”
Adria knew that traveling back the way she had come, while dangerous, was safer than trying to cross a floating bridge of stone held up by a bunch of rock between two larger pieces of land. From where she stood, she could see the arching piece of long, worn stone was thin. She wasn’t going to walk on it.
Her professor, apparently, disagreed. He hauled her to the front of the group, tying her belt to the back of his with a series of loops and knots that left her shaken and afraid. Her staff was shoved through the straps of her teacher’s backpack and one of her hands was clasped in his, her skin damp and clammy compared to the dry, rough skin that belonged to a man who thrived in death-defying work.
There was enough slack between the rope connecting them that he could turn to look her in the eye. She held his gaze, unwilling to look anywhere else, as he said, “Watch where I put my feet and follow my lead, Miss Lynch. You’ll be okay. Hold onto the straps of my pack for support. Remember, one step at a time.”
‘One step at a time,’ Adria repeated that sentence like a chant as they stepped from the wider path onto the narrow, rocky bridge. Her stomach lurched, and she grabbed the back of Merriweather’s backpack with shaking hands. She focused on his feet. Left foot, then the right. She mimicked his pace, focusing on exactly where his foot had been seconds before she placed hers in the same spot. ‘One step at a time. I’m okay. I’m fine. Follow his lead. One step at a time…’
Adria focused on her breathing, on the way the stone bridge held under her. It didn’t sway like a bridge made of wood and rope would. The sides, while worn and cracked, were hard and resolute. This bridge, it had sat here, for countless centuries, weathering one storm after another. A group of humans, all with several hundred pounds of one another, wasn’t going to be an issue. Not against something that had been here for a long time. Adria nodded to herself, then.
The bridge would hold up. To think anything else other than that one thought would send her into a wild, blind panic attack. Adria told herself the bridge would hold, that they would be across it before she knew what was going on. It would be like going to the dentist – while she would be nervous and panic about the shot that was coming, it lasted only for a second and then there was blissful numbness. She was fine.
“I’m fine, just keep walking,” Adria exhaled, slowly.
Ahead of her, Merriweather said, “You’re doing great, Miss Lynch. We’re halfway there.”
She made the mistake of looking up. The bridge was narrow, the sides of it inches from either side of her body. Banners, wrapped around massive columns of stone rising from the darkness on either side, danced in the wind. Her vision dimmed, her knees weakened, and then the world lurched and pitched to the side.
Adria had a distinct impression her teacher was cussing and that the students behind her had screamed, but the only thing she noticed was a rough hand around her wrist and another grabbing onto the back of her pants. Below her was nothing but empty air and the sounds of a distant, roaring river. No one blamed her for screaming, not when she was dangling halfway off the bridge with a few students, and her teacher, holding her aloft.
After that, she kept her gaze on her teacher’s back. The rest of the way across, he offered soft, gentle words of praise and encouragement she had never heard him give without a hassle. She wondered if it was pity that brought them out of her or a simple device to keep her mind on him and the road they walked and not the dangerous, treacherous ground they walked on.
A part of her suspected it was both. By the time they crossed the long, sprawling bridge, Adria was ready to call it a day. She was ready to haul her backpack off her bag and toss it on the ground, ready to find the energy bar she was allowed for that day, and to take a few sips of her water. She was ready to unroll her sleeping bag and crawl inside, to drown out the day and awaken the following morning with something other than a headache and a sick stomach.
She wanted to go home.
Tamara caught her shoulder, bringing her close for a one-armed hug. “You scared me pissless when I saw you tipping over the edge, Adria. God, I tell you not to lose your balance and what do you do?”
“I lose my balance?” Adria let her forehead fall against the taller girl’s shoulder, frizzy hair coming undone from the thick braid she had forced it into three days ago. She was tempted to drag her baggy coat out her backpack at this point, conscious of all the people staring at her. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to slow you down, Tamara. I just looked up and…and…”
“The world pitched to the side once you realized how high up you were?” It wasn’t Tamara who said it but Emo-Boy, who had one dark eyebrow arched up. She wondered how his eyeliner wasn’t running. It was hot out, yes, but the sun was sinking and casting them into darkness. Was his eyeliner sweat- and waterproof? Emo-Boy, dressed in cargo pants and a black shirt, adjusted the beige shawl wrapped around his shoulders as he tipped his hat back. “I’m surprised you didn’t make that kind of mistake earlier. Then again, that was the worst place to freak out.”
Before she could say anything, Professor Merriweather drew their attention to him with a long, shrill whistle. She turned with the others, seeking him out. She found him standing on a ledge overlooking the rest of their group, the black, gaping mouth of the cave’s entrance behind him. He had his arms held up, as if waiting for magic to haul him up into the sky. Despite the picture presented, his face was devoid of emotion and his eyes hard and serious.
“We will camp here, for tonight, but, in the morning, we will venture into the cave behind me,” His gaze swept over the group, and, once he was certain he had their undivided attention, let his arms lower and fold behind his back. “There is a hollow, just below me. You will sleep there. You will not leave that shallow depression until morning, when all of us are awake. We will begin the process of reliving our bladders behind that rock, over there – Jay, don’t say a word. I have no intention on hearing you complain again.”
Adria eyed the place he mentioned, seeing the large boulder that acted as a barrier between prying eyes and the curved wall of the mountain wall the cave was pressed against. The students paired up in teams, each vanishing behind the barrier to take care of their business. Emo-Boy and the other young man went before she did. When it was her turn, Tamara rose with her and popped her back.
“Come on, lets go squat and piss on some stones,” the brunette was already climbing her way to the top, Adria on her heels. As they distanced themselves from the group, Tamara said, “You can go first, Adria. If anyone walks up, I’ll punch ‘em in the face. Then I’ll go. They won’t try to start anything – oh, god, why did the sick bastard have to shit in the middle of the space? Seriously!”
Adria wrinkled her nose. “It’s not all that bad, Tamara.”
“You say that because you lived in the country.”
“I still do,” Adria pointed out, her mind shifting to the pale-skinned woman that was her adopted mother and the warm cottage that was their home. She stepped over the pile of human feces, hands already unbuckling her belt. She eased them down to her knees, underwear in tow, and squatted above a depression in the ground that curved through the stones to vanish down a crevice that she guessed was the open air of the cliff. Squatting, she willed her bladder to relax as she said, “I might height heights, but I do love being out in nature. Mountains are alright, if there’s foliage and trees and bushes. This place, though? I don’t like it out here. It’s so…barren.”
“God, you piss like a pro,” Tamara’s comment caught Adria by surprise and she looked over her shoulder to see the taller girl staring at her. Adria’s jaw dropped. Her cheeks flushed with color and she would have tried to cover herself if the action wouldn’t have resulted in her getting urine on her pants. She huffed instead, looking forward once again as Tamara continued, “I guess you get lots of practice taking a leak out in the wild, don’t you? Do you even have running water at your house?”
“We have a well,” Adria stayed still even after her bladder emptied, waiting for the air to dry her off a bit. Once comfortable, she stood and pulled her clothing back together. Trading spots with the taller girl, Adria continued undaunted, “There’s a limit to how much we can use, though. We usually only shower once or twice a week, depending on what’s going on. If we’re desperate, we’ll go and bath in the river. We clean our clothing and our dishes there, too. Sometimes.”
“How do you do it?” Adria mused over the question, chewing on one lip as she thought over the answer.
Then, after a moment, she finally said, “I do it because I’ve never really known anything else. When I was in the orphanage, we were allowed only so much to eat every day that it wasn’t all that unusual to go to bed hungry. If we misbehaved, we’d often find ourselves without food for a few days. I tended to bathe only when I had to – I never liked being naked in front of the other girls. I was bullied.”
“Because of your skin and weight,” Tamara had the knowing smile on her face when Adria turned around, happy to see the other girl’s pants were almost fastened. Tamara wiggled her hips a bit, looking a bit put out, but said anyway, “You’re still bullied because of that. You’re the only girl that has a deep tan in our school that lasts from spring to winter. And who gives a fuck if you’re a bit overweight?”
“I do,” Adria ran her hands down her stomach, feeling nothing but soft, squishy skin under her hands. She frowned, knowing the rest of her was much the same. She cast a quick look at the tall, lean teenager across from her as she said, “A little overweight isn’t right. I’m one-hundred and seventy pounds, Tam.”
“And I’m two-hundred and eleven.”
“You’re over six feet tall, though…”
Tamara brushed the comment aside. Adria followed her away from the ‘Bathroom’ and to the hollow they would be sleeping. Emo-Boy was already there, sitting on his sleeping bag. Their bags were on either side of him, safe from the other girls. He offered a lazy wave as they neared.
As they sat, Tamara said, “You might be a bit on the heavy side, but that’s because you have an intense abhorrence for anything that’s related to exercise.”
Adria unrolled her sleeping bag, opting to save her rations for that day. She did take a sip out of her water canteen, silent as Tamara unrolled their sleeping bags so they rested side-by-side. When she settled on top of the soft surface, her sore muscles gave a sigh of relief. After all that hiking, she was tired and ready to rest. Rolling her neck, she let the cool water sooth her burning throat.
What little conversation that was drifting steadily vanished as each student drifted into a deep slumber, their dreams hopefully pleasant as their teacher watched over them. Adria sank into her own sleeping bag, content with the warmth rolling over her body. Tamara’s head ended up on her chest, and the smaller girl couldn’t help but smile as her friend snorted in her sleep and burrowed close.
As Adria sank into a fitful sleep, a low, wailing cry escaped from the cave’s yawning mouth. It followed the small, dark-skinned girl into her dreams, tormenting her with visions of darkness and terror. As she slept, the canyon they rested in became still and quiet as if something dark, and deadly, was awakening, for the first time in a long time, that very night.