Stung by Bethany Wiggins

Page 29

  “There’s a way into the tunnels from here and you waited until now to bring this up?” Tommy bellows.

  Bowen glares at Tommy. “Sorry. I’ve been kinda distracted. But the Fec said there’s a way into the tunnels through the elevator shaft. If we can pass the raiders and get there before the militia gets here …” Bowen wobbles over to my side and drapes his arm over my shoulder, leaning most of his weight onto me. “We might have a chance. ”

  I wrap my arm around him and press my face into his shoulder. “Let’s go,” he says against my hair.

  “Wait. ” Tommy holds up a hand and cocks his head. “Listen. ”

  The deep, low throb of a helicopter pulses in the air. Bowen and Tommy look at each other and one of Tommy’s eyebrows slowly lifts.

  “They’re sending a copter for her? That means someone’s coming from inside the wall. ” Tommy turns his dark eyes onto me. “Why are you so important?” he asks.

  I don’t have an answer, but Bowen does. “She’s from the lab,” he says. His arm tightens on my shoulders, and he presses his chilled lips to my forehead. “Somehow she survived. And she’s a Ten, but she has no signs of changing. ”

  “I’m from the lab?” I say, staring at him.

  “We don’t have time for this!” Tommy snaps, shooting a spray of bullets out the doorway. I flinch and my ears ring. “You’d better get your mask. Can you share with her?”

  Bowen nods and pulls me closer, putting his lips against my ear. “Tommy’s going to drop a nerve-gas grenade. You can’t breathe the air, or you’ll have a mental breakdown,” he explains. “You’ll have to breathe through my mask. We’ll take turns. ” He unzips the backpack, still on my back, and removes a palm-sized mask that only covers the mouth.

  “When I say run, you two go to the elevator shaft and see if you can get it open. I’ll cover you,” Tommy says. He holds a pale-green grenade in his hand and then pulls the pin. He counts to five and tosses it out the door.

  Bowen presses the mask to my mouth, and I take a breath that almost bursts my lungs. And then I hold it. The grenade pops and hisses, and slow tentacles of eerie greenish fog creep along the floor and into the hotel room. Outside the room, a man calls a warning, “Green Hell!” and then starts to scream.

  “Run!” Tommy yells. I grab Bowen’s arm and hold it tight around my shoulders, pulling him toward the door. He takes the mask from my face and inhales a deep breath through it, then presses it against my mouth again. I gulp a breath of air and keep going.

  The hall is filled with green smoke, making it hard to see more than a few feet in any direction. As we stumble toward the elevator shaft, we pass a man who is panting and clawing bloody tracks down his own neck. We pass another who is weeping and clutching his stomach. He reaches out and grabs my ankle, and I fall to the floor. Bowen falls with me, landing hard, with a whimper of pain. The mask comes off my face, and I hold my breath, struggling to get out from under Bowen as he reaches for the dropped mask.

  I manage to put my feet beneath me and help Bowen to his. He presses the mask to my face with a trembling hand. I gasp air into my straining lungs, hand the mask back to Bowen, and we continue forward. We pass eight more men writhing on the floor, some of them crying, others talking gibberish.

  And then the elevator comes into view, a sleek metal door covered with grimy fingerprints, open just wide enough for a small person to squeeze through. I peer through the gap and my hope falters. A narrow ledge leads to a metal ladder. There’s no way I can carry Bowen down that. I look at Bowen. His eyes meet mine, and he takes the mask from my mouth, pressing it to his and sucking in a breath of air. But the sorrow in his eyes tells me he knows what I’m thinking.

  “Tommy will get you to the tunnels,” he says through the mask.

  He puts the mask back on me. “I’m not leaving you here,” I say.

  He shrugs and takes the mask from my mouth again, putting it back on his. “I’m not going to live much longer. You have to go without me. ” He takes one more deep breath, a final breath, and places the mask back on my mouth. Tears fill my eyes—tears of frustration. Hopelessness.

  Chapter 29

  A high-pitched wail fills the smoky air. “Militia’s here,” Bowen whispers, sagging against me as if he’s already given up. A dark shadow looms up out of the green fog beside me, and I almost drop Bowen. Tommy steps past me and shoves the elevator door twelve inches wider. With a satisfied nod, he turns to me and my hope bursts back into existence. He holds a coiled rope. I look between the rope and Bowen and smile, my cheeks pressing against the mask.

  “Take a breath, then come climb on my back, man,” Tommy says through his mask, which is strapped around the back of his head. Bowen hesitates. “What? You thought I was going to leave you? You’re my best friend. I’m tying you on, but hurry up before the militia get inside. ”

  I take the mask from my mouth and press it to Bowen’s. He takes a deep breath and then hands it to me. I strap it on behind my head.

  “You take my mask off when you need air,” Tommy says. “You think you can manage that?”

  Bowen nods and steps behind Tommy. Tommy removes his backpack and drops it down the elevator shaft, and then hoists Bowen up, like a dad giving his kid a piggyback ride. He swings the rope behind Bowen, just under his armpits, and ties him into place. Next he loops the rope under Bowen’s butt, then around his waist, careful not to put it directly over Bowen’s wound.

  “That gonna work?” he asks.

  Bowen, face covered with a sheen of sweat, gives him a trembling thumbs-up and then takes the mask from Tommy’s mouth for a breath of air.

  Tommy steps up to the shaft and climbs over the side, working his way around the minuscule ledge to the ladder. Without hesitating, he starts down.

  I follow, easing myself onto the inch-wide ledge, and cling to the wall, hoping that my heavy pack won’t pull me backward. Millimeter by millimeter, I start my slow way toward the ladder, wondering how Tommy did it so fast. When I get to the ladder I grip it, panting into my oxygen mask. Slowly, I start working my way to the bottom.

  Four rungs down, the sound of pounding feet and men’s voices drift to me. I peer up through the gaping elevator door, into the smoky corridor, and see men in black uniforms, wearing oxygen masks, run past. The Inner Guard. I freeze and hold my breath, trying to blend in with the wall. When their voices fade to silence, I start climbing down once more.

  Even though Tommy is burdened with Bowen, he’s far enough below me that I can’t see him or hear him. After a while, my sweaty palms begin to slip on the rungs and the muscles in my arms start to burn. Down and down I go into darkness, the ladder rubbing blisters on my palms, yet the shaft never ends. Twice I pass hotel floors with no elevator doors but never see another living person. Minutes drag by and my palms are rubbed raw, yet still I can’t see the bottom in the fathomless shadows below.

  By the time my legs are burning almost as much as my arms are, and my palms are wet with blood instead of sweat, the air changes. Dry heat is replaced with sweltering damp that clings to my skin and makes it hard to breathe. The lower I climb, the cooler the damp air becomes, taking on the smells of rock and dirt. And the tunnels.

  I take another step down, and my foot doesn’t land on a rung but on solid ground. Hands grab my shoulders and pull me backward, but it is too dark to see who it is. A callused hand tears the mask from my face and clamps down over my mouth. I sag with defeat, for I am certain I’m caught. Whether by the militia, the Inner Guard, or the raiders, I can’t say.

  I struggle against the hand, catch the calluses between my teeth and bite, but the hand doesn’t release. “It’s me, Tommy,” the owner of the hand whispers into my ear. “We’re not safe yet. So shut up, stop trying to bite me, and hurry. ” He releases my mouth and takes my hand in his, pulling me slowly through the dark.

  “Where’s Bowen,” I whisper. “He’s gone. And shut up!” To
mmy hisses.

  Gone? As in dead? I can hardly walk. All I want to do is fall to the floor and weep. Bowen is gone, and now I have nothing to live for and nowhere to go. I hang my head and let Tommy lead me.

  We don’t walk far, but with every step the fetid smell of the tunnels grows stronger, the air thicker with moisture. Mist coats my tongue with each breath, and the hard ground gives way to water. Cool liquid oozes into my shoes and soaks my socks, filling the spaces between my toes.

  Tommy slows his pace. “Stop splashing! You’ll give us away,” he warns. Do I care if I give us away? I care if I give Tommy away, but not myself. I silently ease my feet through the ankle-deep water. After we’ve taken too many steps to count, we stop.

  “Duck,” Tommy says, clasping the crown of my head and pushing down. I fall onto hands and knees, slopping slimy water onto my face. “Crawl. ” We slosh through the water. The hard floor grinds against my knees and stings my torn palms.

  Tommy stops and then light fills the dark. A single match burns between his fingers. We crouch in a low-ceilinged cement tunnel filled with stagnant water and cobwebs. And huddled on the side of the tunnel are Arrin and Bowen.

  Bowen’s eyes meet mine and he smiles. I stand and throw myself at him, framing his face with my hands. He sags backward against the stone wall, totally limp, and I press my lips to his. His arm comes around my waist and lies lifelessly there, holding me gently to him. And then he returns the kiss like I’m the blood transfusion he needs to stay alive.

  His lips are cool, yet spill warmth through my entire body. I hold his face firmly against mine and feel as if I’m going to burst with the knowledge that he lives.

  Quiet laughter fills the tunnel. “Now I see why you’re so attached to her, Bowen. You’re gettin’ sugar,” Tommy says.

  I pull away and look into Bowen’s eyes. “I thought you were dead. Tommy said you were gone and I thought …”

  The match flickers out, and I use the darkness as an excuse to kiss him again, deeper, slower. Another match scratches, and light flickers on the tunnel wall.
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