Both of us already gave up on the “where.”
Recently, the “how” no longer matters.
In fact, only the “why” became of any concern, for the “when” was an inevitable as taxes.
“Lisa, I am still cold. Can you warm me?”
“Don’t speak. We have very little oxygen remaining.”
“But I don’t want to be alone. I don’t want to die alone. Lisa, are we ever going to…”
I gave her a reassuring “Shh” like my mother once gave me at Rene’s age. Soft and sweet. Almost a whisper. The kind of “Shh” where the adult has to stay brave so the child will remain calm. At least that is what I hoped for. I mean, besides the rescue I could not believe would occur. Such curious words; hope and believe. Almost synonyms. Almost worth caring about.
I refocus when I hear my companion sobbing softly.
“Rene, let’s play a game. Don’t tell me, just think real hard. What color is your hair? If I guess correctly, tap me twice on my hand. If I guess incorrectly, tap me once. Would you like to play?”
I felt two light taps from her left hand on my right hand.
Since our predicament, I think I have become Rene’s surrogate mother. I can’t see her and she can’t see me, but I believe her to be no more than eighteen. Compared to my age of fifty-one, I understand why she would want a surrogate mother. If I were in her shoes, I would.
Even before today, my thinking dominates my speaking. I can conduct entire conversations in my head solely as a series of monologs or diatribes. I say conversations, because I think for both participants. This could be a left-brain right-brain thing with vocabulary alien to my duties as a court stenographer. Under the circumstances, this will have to suffice. No grammar police here.
Rene’s sobbing slowly is becoming crying and I am powerless to prevent any further emotional response. So I go back to thinking.
Maybe I am here because of a clearing house of court personnel who can identify a specific suspect who committed a specific crime prior to a specific court date. Maybe someone from my less-than-sordid past believes I know more than I am willing to say. My age permits a host of possibilities with smart money on the former.
But what I cannot understand is why she is here. Rene should have her whole life ahead of her. She wears no wedding or engagement ring and her vocabulary still suggests attendance in high school. She should participate in proms, graduations, weddings, and baby showers. She should get to see Paris and Milan. Whatever sin I may have committed, I am positive Rene was not an accomplice, before or after the fact. The only word that comes to mind is “innocent.”
And I may never have enough air left to understand her role today’s events.
“Are you a brunette?”
After what seems an hour, I feel a single tap on my hand.
I want to roll over to make use of any light to comfort this child. But I can’t. The wooden ceiling is low and moist. I know water is seeping (maybe dripping is a better word) in. Cold water. The kind you encounter when below the frost line. If we do not succumb to hypoxia, we will to hypothermia, or drowning.
“Are you a blonde?”
I have rattled my brain for more time than I believed we would have. We should have died already. My research in late-night trashy black-and-white films suggests people in these conditions lose track of time quickly. How long is “already”? Can I think of a way to stave off the inevitable?
Rene taps my hand once. This time, however, her hand remains in contact with mine. I allow it to remain. I hear her begin humming a faint nursery rhyme. I could order her to remain silent, but she shares in my difficulty, so why not its scant resources? I wait patiently until she finishes the entire song.
My choices are now one. “Do you have red hair?”
This time I wait even longer than before. I am having trouble feeling my legs. Prolonged contact with the cold water has numbed them. Rene must also share in my discomfort although she does not speak of discomfort, or of anything else.
She should have given me two taps by now. I foolishly allow a few minutes for her to think.
By now I know what has happened but will not accept what has happened. Her hand is colder than mine. By default, I am now warming her.
And I wait again for those two taps.
And for something new to think about.
Or, for just one tap.
Or, for anything to think about.
With degrees in Physics and Chemistry, Andy Betz has tutored and taught in excess of 30 years. His novel (The Lady in Red Quilt), his short stories (“The Copy”, “November,” “My Bucket List”), and his poems (“Lonely,” “Long Enough for Chocolate”) are works still defining his style. He lives in 1974, is married for 25 years, collects occupations (the current tally is 95) and currently teaches high school physics.