“Gray, wake up! It’s Eli!”
“Wh, what!?” I gasp. Krista’s familiar voice pulls me from my nightmare. Cold sweat stings my eyes as I rub them frantically. At last, her face comes into focus, and I see her emerald green eyes are wide and pleading.
“Krista? Sorry…I was having that dream again. What’s going on?”
“Gray, you have to come now! Eli’s on the ledge of the chasm and won’t let anyone near him. He’ll listen to you though. Come on!”
“Eli?” It takes a second, but then the name registers. “Oh God, Eli!”
In a flash, I rush out the dingy steel door of the barracks and down the corridor to the chasm. The scene pulls me up short – a crowd of my fellows watches nervously as Eli, a brown-haired boy of about 12 years teeters on the edge of the expanse.
“Eli!” I call out. “Eli, everything’s gonna be OK. Just don’t move. I’ll come get you.”
“Gray?” Eli’s voice indicates some recognition on hearing me but he’s entranced in a catatonic state we all know only too well.
“Eli, listen to me,” I continue as begin inching closer to him. “Eli, it’s the Darkstone. You have to fight those thoughts! They aren’t real. Everything’s gonna be OK.”
“It’s no use, Gray. There’s no point. No hope. I just want to sleep.” Pebbles careen down the chasm wall as Eli leans a little more of his weight forward. A tearful cry escapes his mother’s lips, underpinned by gasps from the crowd.
“Eli, we’ve all gone through this! The Darkstone makes you think bad thoughts. Just hang on. I’m coming to get you.” I’m almost there but he’s about to fall whether he jumps or not. “Eli, wait.”
He’s raising his arms from his sides as my shuffle widens to a stride. “Eli…” He’s leaning forward. There’s no more time! I break into an all-out run. “Eli!”
“Bye, Gray. Thanks for everything.”
He jumps off the ledge just in a dive just as I catch the back of his shirt. I dig my feet into the last bit of gravel before the drop, but I’m unbalanced and starting to topple forward. I give a desperate glance back at the stunned crowd. People are rushing to my aid, but they’re too far away. I strengthen my grip on Eli as best I can, reach my other arm behind me, and pray I can grasp something sturdy as I go over the edge.
My hand finds purchase on a large rock just as I feel Eli’s weight come to an abrupt halt below me. The jolt nearly undoes my grip on the rock, but I hold tight. I look down at Eli – the stop seems to have shaken him to his senses and he’s starting to panic. “Don’t worry, Eli! I’ve got you!” I look back up at the ledge, relieved to see Krista and my bunkmate James reaching for my arm.
“It’s OK, Gray, we’ll pull you up!” shouts Krista with confidence. I can’t help but crack the slightest smile at this. Krista is beautiful, spirited, and kind but she can no more pull me out of this chasm than I can fly out. James, on the other hand, is a sturdy dark skinned man, strong from years in the mines, so I know I’m in good hands.
“’K, Gray, here we go!” calls James as they begin to pull me up. I tighten my grip on Eli and try to be as light as possible until my feet finally find something to push off of. In a few seconds, I’m back on solid ground. A few more and we’ve hoisted a shaken but sound Eli up as well
His parents rush over, sandwiching him between them as they thank me profusely. I offer some self-effacing reply I don’t remember, because in the same moment, Krista takes my hand, squeezes it tightly and pierces me with a look I can’t quite place. Her eyes glaze over like she’s going to cry and she opens her lips to speak, but then over comes Ethan to ruin the moment.
“Gray! I see you’re following in your ‘old man’s’ footsteps!” offers Ethan light-heartedly. This is something of an inside joke among the miners who know me best. The memory that started it isn’t exactly funny, but the reference still makes me chuckle.
I have no idea who my parents are, or were, rather. I don’t really remember from my past, but Ethan was the one who saved me from jumping off this very same chasm years ago. The Darkstone – this dull purple gemstone they have us down here mining for – puts bad thoughts in your head. Evil, unspeakable things. Most people start to go mad after a few weeks of handling the stuff. The lucky ones try to off themselves when people are awake to help them, and eventually, they figure out how to block out the thoughts.
The same happened to me a few weeks in – here I was about to leap off the ledge when Ethan saved me. After that, I followed him around every chance I got. Before long, people started joking that he was my dad, and seeing that he was the closest thing I had, I eventually followed suit.
“Hey, Pop!” I answer back with a smirk.
“Gray, I wish you’d quit calling me that.”
“Sure thing, Pop. No big deal, really. I was just…” Ethan nods behind me so I turn to see Eli looking ashamed.
“Gray,” he begins softly, “I’m so sorry for what I did.”
I kneel down and put my hand on his shoulder. “Eli, it’s OK. Did you know I did the same thing a few years back?” Eli’s eyebrows rise as he seems to internally debate whether this can really be true.
“It’s true! Pop, here…”
“Dammit, Gray” grumbles Ethan.
“…grabbed me when I tried to dive off the ledge.”
Eli looks up at Ethan questioningly and Ethan replies with a good-natured bob of his head.
“Look, Eli,” I continue, “it’s hard for everybody down here. We all know how it is. We just have to stick together. We…”
“Gray, you’d better pick this up later,” says Ethan forebodingly as he motions down the corridor. I hear the telltale tromping of heavy boots echo across the stone walls and know what’s coming.
“Eli, go get in line with your parents. Quickly now!” I look up to see that most of my fellows have already fallen in. Eli and his parents rush to their designated spots in the lineup. “Krista, get behind me!” I say in a rushed whisper. Ethan runs off to his spot and Krista files in quietly behind me not a moment too soon – the Centurions are just clanking into view, clad as always in that ridiculous purple armor.
In another minute, the Centurions are lined up in front of us all for “inspection.” This usually means their caveman of a captain, Jonas, finds someone to harass while the rest of them cheer him on.
Clank, clank, clank. The weighty measured stride of Jonas is unmistakable. No matter how much a fool he may be, he’s a horrific beast of a man, and the mere sound of his footfalls is enough to make most of us quiver. My pulse quickens as he draws nearer. I silently beg and pray that today will not repeat so many other days in the recent past, but he slows just to my left and I cringe at what I know is coming.
“G’day there, love!” Jonas, leans in toward Krista, taking care to look her up and down. My body shakes with fury, but Krista gently touches my hand and inexplicably calms me somewhat.
“I SAID, G’DAY, LASS!!! Ain’t you gonna greet me back!?” His thick gravelly voice drips with anticipation.
“Good day, sir.” Krista murmurs softly, careful to keep her eyes from meeting his.
“SHE STILL AIN’T GOT THIS DOWN, GENTS!” Jonas bellows to the nameless Centurions beside him. Some guffaw loudly beside him, but others appeared to only force a nervous chuckle to avoid becoming the objects of Jonas’ violent temper. By now, my anger is, once again, burning to the tips of my fingers, my hands shaking in anticipation.
Jonas turns to Krista again, “Guess you’re gonna make me do this the ‘ard way, love.”
In a second, all of my previous failures at stopping Jonas’ advances flash through my mind, but I don’t care – I can’t bear to watch him hurt her again.
His massive hand shoots forth to grab her, but I am faster. I lunge at Jonas with all my strength, slamming him to the opposite wall of the corridor. My hands press hard at his throat, intent upon his destruction, and, for a brief moment, I see a hint of fear in his eyes. In another, he leers past me, a broad grin spreading across his face, just before I feel the first baton strike my back.
Pain sears every inch of me, burning like hot irons against my skin. I convulse violently as the Centurions strike me again and again. Fire scorches through my arteries, my blood scalding me from within. My heart is ablaze, stuttering once, twice, and again in its struggle to beat faster. The pent up pressure of each moment feels like a sledge colliding with my rib cage as my blood forces its way through the chambers. The pain is beyond reason – I think I must surely die, but history has taught me better. I’m choking up blood and gasping for breath when the burning finally dies to a smoldering ache that wraps itself around me.
“You never learn, do you freak?” Jonas mutters.
He nurses the cut lip I gave him as he resumes his usual arrogant stance and turns back to Krista.
“Now…where were we, lass?”
“JONAS!” The voice of the Overseer echoes threateningly through the hall.
“We are not to injure the workers – there is, after all, work to be done.” Each syllable is enunciated perfectly, the tone, deadly smooth.
“Ye’sir.” Jonas is standing at attention now.
“You will receive punishment this evening for your continued lack of judgment.”
“But, sir! I…”
“SILENCE! Certain standards of civility must be maintained. After all, we are the future and our example must precede us into the new era.”
I’m appalled at the hypocrisy in every word, but my indignity begins to subside as I relish the idea of Jonas getting a taste of his own medicine.
“Ye’sir,” replies Jonas, a slight tremble in his voice.
He steels himself and turns to address us.
“ALL RIGH’, YOU SCUM! MOVE!!!”
We all turn reluctantly to face the darkening corridor at the right and begin the tiresome journey into the mines below. Each step comes with a measured cost, my muscles still protesting under the pain of my encounter with the Centurions, but I do my best to hide it – the last thing I want is for Krista to feel guilty.
“If you keep trying to protect me, they’re going to kill you!” Krista hisses from behind me.
Damn. So much for being discreet.
I smirk unconvincingly at her and turn to continue down the tunnel. I know the aching will only worsen as the day wears on, but I don’t care. Today is a good day. Today, I stopped him.