“Jenna, this one busted, too. Can you find another, I hate to say it but, more recent one?”
“These are like mirrors you know. That makes seven years bad luck.” She accepts the broken shoulder blade.
“Luck? What do you call this?” I wipe the grit from my face. “How much further, you think? Two feet? Twenty?”
I’ve been digging for hours. The landslide that has trapped us inside the crypt has upset even Jenna. I say crypt but really, the pocketed cavern, riddled with alcoves full of bones, resembled a formal crypt in function only.
“Could be a hundred feet for all we know. It was foolish coming in here.” She turns off her phone to save power. The blackness feels like ink poured into our eyes.
“I seem to recall this ad hoc spelunking adventure was your idea.”
“As suggested by your sister.”
“Yeah, well, ya got me there.”
With all this digging I worry that our air will run out or that the collapse in the ceiling will continue and bury Jenna and I alive. “I need another tool.” And I sure as hell hope the owners of these shoulder blades don’t come back to haunt me.
Jenna wanders off using her cellphone’s screen as a lantern. Mine has already gone dead.
“Hey,” Jenna’s voice comes from deeper within the cave, “come take a look at this, um, body.”
My first thought is that she’s just mixed up different terms for the dead, all we’ve seen so far are bone piles. But, Jenna wouldn’t make such a mistake. “Jeeze, that one looks kinda fresh.”
“He’s, newer, I guess you’d say.”
“Does he stink? Why doesn’t he stink? I mean, he’s all wrinkled and powdery.”
“He’s desiccated. Dried out.” Jenna is an EMT. Our whole three month-long trip feels like we’ve been bouncing from local emergency to emergency. If somebody is suffering, she’ll drop everything and help. Me, I’m useless that way. I can program your phone or fix your laptop. But I see blood and I’m gone. She starts prodding him.
“Oh, jeeze, he’s gonna fall apart, Jenna.”
She gives me a look, hands me her phone and proceeds to pilfer his clothing. She finds some silver dinar, and a few brass coins in a drawstring purse. The guy’s hair is shaved close, his beard is grey but well manicured and his stature seems like he would have been husky, when alive. His garments, in the local style, show that he’d been, if not wealthy, at least well-off. It’s his shoes that strike me as odd, slippers really, with turned up, pointed toes. Jenna starts to turn him over.
“Damn girl. What are you doin’?”
“I can’t get to his back. I think there’s something underneath him.”
“Oh, no, no, no. Leave the guy alone. He’s making me queasy.
Jenna struggles at the body and gets the guy flipped over.
“Whoa, is that a knife?” I start to reach for it.
“Don’t touch it. You remember what your sister said, right? About the origins of this cave.”
“You don’t believe that mythical claptrap do you?”
“Of course not but, this body could be booby trapped with explosives or something.”
“You just rolled the dude onto his face? Wouldn’t that set it off?”
She makes her fact-checking look. “Yeah, I guess that flies.”
I wave the phone over the knife. It’s one of those curved-blade type, a jambiya, the hilt is golden and has some fancy jewels set in the guard and pommel. “That’s a pretty nice dagger.” I’d like to take it but, Jenna’s warning makes total sense.
She yanks it free. It comes out clean.
“What happened to the IED buried in this guy’s belly?”
“Help me flip him back.”
“Hand me the knife, first.” I hold out my hand.
Jenna shakes her head. “I think I’ll hold onto it for now. It feels, I don’t know, odd.” She gives the guy a shove and over he goes, rocking a bit before he settles. He doesn’t look stiff anymore. Maybe moving him loosened him up a bit.
“Odd, right. Well, we still need to get out of here. We can’t use this guy’s shoulder blades.”
We leave Mr. Dusty and start poking into a side shaft. I scan the light back and forth, all I see are leg bones.
Jenna stands to the side marveling at the craftsmanship of the dagger. “I wish we had a shovel.”
I swing the phone again. “There’s a shovel right there. How did we miss it?”
“It’s a modern shovel, too.”
“Well, hell.” I grab it and start back toward the cave-in, handing Jenna the phone. “Maybe you could wish me a cold beer.”
“Beer? I need a bath and a gin n’ tonic, maybe three of ’em.”
We both pause waiting for what, we don’t know.
“Maybe you only get one.”
“And you made me wish for a shovel.” Jenna scoffs lightheartedly, turns the knife around and trades me for the spade. “I’ll dig for a while.” She watches me fondle the blade. “It is a nice knife,” she admits, “despite the fact that it just spent the last few decades in the back of some poor merchant.”
I take the phone, it’s getting dim. I heft the knife, it does have a strange vibration going on. “Eh, it’s probably one of those cheap stamped things you can buy in the market for a few… Did you hear that?”
Jenna is busy shoveling at the top of the pile of dirt. “Hear what? Keep the damn phone pointed at the problem.”
“There it is a again. Maybe there’s another way out.” I shine the phone back into the cave. It fails to penetrate the gloom. I pound it on my thigh. “I wish this thing had more juice.” With my next meaty strike the light brightens. “There we go.” I try pointing it again. “What the hell. Did you roll Dusty out onto the floor?”
“You saw me put him…” Jenna back peddles and falls into the pile of rock. “He’s… He’s… Moving”
“Oh, no, no, no.” I surprise myself and don’t even hesitate. “Give me the shovel.” We swap once again and I edge up to the thing that’s dragging its body across the sandy floor.
Jenna keeps the phone pointed at the spectacle. “You’re gonna smack it?”
“I don’t know. It’s just inching along.”
“Maybe the dagger was keeping it dead, or alive, or, I don’t know.”
“And you think it wants it back?”
“It’s fucking dead, James. How can it want anything?”
“That ain’t dead, honey. Undead, maybe.”
“Look. Its fingers are swelling up. So is its face.”
As we watch the corpse stops and pushes itself up on its hands and knees. It sits back, crosses its legs, crosses one arm and with the other, holds out his hand.
I’m ready to lay into the thing sitting there, but I hesitate. “I think he wants the knife back. Give him the knife back.”
“You give him the goddamn knife.” Jenna tosses it in the dirt at my feet.
Little by little, the flesh on the the merchant corpse fills out, becomes plump. His bent over posture straightens and his face puffs up and takes on a quizzical look as if waiting for an introduction.
“Yeah, hi there, sir. We believe this is yours?” With the shovel in one hand and the knife in the other, both held as innocently as I can, I shuffle forward and ease the knife, hilt first into his now fully formed hand. His fingers wrap around it without any indication of cracking or crumbling into dust.
In one smooth motion the man stands.
“Fuck me.” I back away and end up in the pile next to Jenna.
He strolls calmly forward and stands within a few feet of the rubble. He slides the dagger into a sheath at his belt, it had been hidden inside his flowing robes. He spreads his legs and once again crosses his arms. Slowly he holds up one finger and keeps it there.
“James, what does he want? A sacrifice? Pick one of us to take his place?”
“He could take us both. Look at him, he’s, he’s fit, now.”
“Then what, what do we do?”
“So, I don’t know where that shovel came from. It wasn’t there. We both know that. And the phone’s battery…”
“You mean, make another wish?”
“Like, we wish there was a way out?”
The man moves with purpose, he comes at us and stops with both hands out this time.
“Shit, now what?” Jenna and I move toward the wall.
“I don’t know. Maybe this.” I hand him the shovel and he begins to dig.