Free Read: Underneath
by Sylvia A. Winters
It’s a nice, slow Sunday, so I wrote a thing. Enjoy!
Chelsea hunched her shoulders against the drizzling rain and quickened her pace. Her train had been delayed by nearly two hours and she was eager to get home. Not that there was much waiting for her except the usual soap operas, dinner and a bottle of wine for one. It was exactly a year, almost to the hour now, that Raina had disappeared, gone out to the shop for tortilla chips and never returned. For a while, Chelsea had been hopeful. She’d worked with the police, she’d handed out posters, attended meetings, even done her own searching, but there was nothing; it was as though Raina had vanished into thin air. The phone had gone silent, and now the meetings Chelsea attended were support groups. She’d stayed in the flat, despite the rent hike, just in case Raina came home. Chelsea wanted to be there. She didn’t want Raina to come home to some stranger. She’d gotten a cat, to keep her company on the longer nights, but the cat was only in when Chelsea was out. Like Raina, it wasn’t much of a people person.
She paused outside the carpark, glancing behind her, then left and right. There was nothing except a three foot high pile of rubber tyres and an overturned shopping trolley. There was no one following her, no one anywhere near her. Still, she shivered, goosebumps prickling up and down her arms and along the back of her neck. She went in, crossing the empty spaces quickly, eyes scanning left to right. She jumped as a shutter squealed across the street, a shop closing up, and laughed at herself. The laugh didn’t sound quite right, a little breathy.
It was okay now. She was almost home. She turned the corner, the muscles in her shoulders loosening as she caught sight of her car, the silver paintwork glistening with raindrops under lamplight. The ground vibrated under her feet. A lorry, maybe, going too fast on the main road.
And then her stomach bottomed out as the road fell away beneath her.
She fell. She was falling. Her breath came out in a rush, her chest feeling empty, like she weighed nothing at all. Gravity knew different, of course. Her arms flailed, hands grasping for anything, anything to stop herself falling.
She hit the ground with a thump, gasping for breath. Tears sprung from the corners of her eyes, and she clawed herself up onto her knees. The ground was cold underneath her, hard like stone. Yet she wasn’t hurt. Nothing twisted, nothing broken. She couldn’t see the light from above. She was in total darkness. How far had she fallen? For how long? It had felt like forever.
An orange flame flared into being. Then another, and another, until she could see the walls of the cavern around her, dark and slimy with damp.
She could see a figure in the distance, walking towards her. Chelsea wanted to move, to hide somewhere, but there was nowhere to hide, and her body wouldn’t cooperate. She was frozen, every muscle disobeying her desire to run.
Chelsea’s brain wasn’t working right. That was her name, wasn’t it?
And she knew that voice.
As Raina knelt down in front of her, Chelsea’s body sagged, her head falling against Raina’s chest. She cried, then, gasping, noisy, and Raina held her close, one hand in her hair. Chelsea could smell her perfume. There was still half a bottle of it sitting on their dresser. Every now and then she’d spritz a little onto the pillow, breathe it in and pretend.
She calmed herself now, caught her breath and pulled back, staring into Raina’s face. There was something harder about her, her cheekbones and jaw more defined, a few more wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, like the last year had been hard.
In the distance, Chelsea could a shuffling sound, the slap of something wet against stone, like someone with large, bare feet had just walked out of a deep puddle.
The lights went out.
“What–” Chelsea started, but Raina clapped a hand over her mouth and whispered, “Quick.”
Raina was on her feet, then, pulling Chelsea up with her and moving through the dark like a mole, blind but with every pathway mapped out in her head.
Raina’s hand was tight around hers, and it wasn’t like the times they’d strolled through the park, or twined their fingers together while sprawled out on the sofa, but it prickled at those memories. Chelsea savoured the touch, even though this Raina’s hand was rougher, callused in a way it hadn’t been before.
Something moved past her, a chill draught ghosting against her arm. Then it was gone.
“Here,” Raina hissed, and tugged her through an opening in the rock. Chelsea could feel the walls squeezing against her shoulders, and she twisted sideways, never letting go of Raina’s hand. She didn’t dare speak. What were they running from? Would it hear her?
Light flickered up ahead and a minute later they broke out into a wide, open cavern. Orange light bounced off the walls, although Chelsea couldn’t see the source of it. People milled about, a group playing cards, a few sprawled out asleep on mats, a couple eating what looked like potatoes.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” Raina said then, turning and dragging Chelsea into a hug. “How did you find me?”
It wasn’t what Chelsea had ever pictured. Months and months she’d searched for Raina until finally she’d given up and now… Now the ground had fallen away and dropped her almost right on top of her. “I don’t know,” Chelsea said, wishing the truth was something they could work with, something they could use to get out of here. Had Raina been down here for a whole year? Was getting out even possible? “What is this place?”
Raina shrugged. “No-place. No one really knows how they got here, they just… fell or slipped or slid. Same for you then?”
“Yeah. The ground just…” She opened her arms wide.
“Me too. Some kind of sink hole maybe. I’ve been all over and there’s nothing, no way out. Not one that I’ve found anyway. Most of this lot aren’t bothered. They’re happy to rot down here. Or they’ve given up, but… Let’s not think about that. Maybe you can help me now. We’ll find a way out together.”
“What about… I felt something out there? Was that something?” Chelsea wasn’t sure if it was real or imagined.
“Yeah. They’re… They keep us here. If I go too far out there, they come and… they took Svenn. I don’t know if they killed him or what but I never saw him again.”
Chelsea shivered and stepped closer to Raina. A year. A whole year she’d been trying to survive down here. “I’ll help you,” she promised, wrapping her arms around her. “Of course I’ll help you.”
Raina sighed, letting herself sag against Chelsea. They held each other, bodies conforming to one another’s shape, remembering each other perfectly. “We’ll help each other. There’s a way out, I know it. There has to be.”
Chelsea hmmed against the top of Raina’s head. Her hair still smelled like the cheap blueberry shampoo she’d always used. Chelsea wasn’t sure how that was possible. But it didn’t matter, she didn’t care. She had Raina. She was right here, in her arms. Nothing mattered except that.
“We’ll find it,” Chelsea said, and just like that, she knew they would.