His breath sawed in his chest, straining to pump the last remaining dregs of blood through his veins. His life ran in thick rivers of clotting maroon down his side and into what was left of his jeans. Sweet Christ, how much further is it? Is it still behind us? Turning over his shoulder, shell-shocked eyes scanning the greasy reflected light of the tunnel for some sign of pursuit, finding nothing but the skeletal form of his brother, hot on his heels.
“Oh, God, Mark… it’s there, isn’t it? Tell me it’s not. It is..” Joel’s voice was weak and thready, the toll their captor had taken on his body painfully obvious with the way he was burning through the last of his energy. Mark shook his head absently, not daring to slow down as they rounded the corner, squinting against a narrow beam of light piercing the grimy cavern air.
“I see an opening. Fuck, Joel, keep moving!” Their legs pumped like pistons, bare feet screaming against the layers of sewage and broken glass they tramped over, all fucks withheld in the name of self-preservation. The pair rounded the corner, following the hazy glow through the labyrinth of corridors and shrieked with mad delight seeing the ethereal glow of storm grating over their heads. Mark hit the ladder running and scrambled for the top, the sunlight beating blazing heat on the exposed muscles of his jaw, the skin stripped from his face in precise ribbons by something he prayed to God he’d never see again.
“Hey! Hey! We’re down here!” He reached boney fingers through the grate, clawing at the gridded gate that separated them from salvation. “Oh, God, please…someone! We’re down here! Fuck sake! Help!” He was barely coherent, his words echoed by his brother beneath him on the ladder, hugging Mark’s calves like a frightened child. Between frantic pleas, Mark’s eyes darted back to the corridor, praying to every deity he could remember and some he was pretty sure he imagined that they’d not been missed yet.
“Shhh! Did you hear…?” He trailed off, his attention momentarily taken away from escape. Sweet God in Heaven, no…
“Oh, God.. he found us! Mark he found us!” Joel clambered up the ladder around his brother, strength renewed by panic channeled into beating on the grating. “Somebody! Jesus Christ, help us!” He pounded viciously, the metallic clang resonating back into the tunnels. Along with the pounding of heavy boots through the filth.
“What in the hell are you doing in there?”
The voice came from above, a grizzled savior in an orange vest, with a hard hat for a halo peering warily through the slats in the iron.
“Oh, thank fuck! You have to get us out, he’s coming! Hurry!”
“Who’s coming? What the fuck…?”
“No time! Move the grate!”
Something in Mark’s face through the storm cover said it all and the savior stumbled back, a frenzied run carrying him out of sight. Let him come back… please, Jesus, let him come back… Mark closed his eyes, exhaustion taking over to leave his emaciated limbs clinging desperately to the rungs of the ladder. Until he heard it. The deep roar of a diesel engine and the squeal of brakes. The savior reappeared in a flash of fluorescent nylon and coiled a hook around the slats in the grating.
“Steve! Gun it! Double time!”
There was a creaking scrape of metal on stone and with a crash, the cover was pulled free, an age-spotted arm reaching in to take Mark’s hand.
“Move your ass, boy! I can’t lift you!” The savior clamped a strong hand around Marks wrist and pulled, nearly jerking him through the hole in one tug. Mark’s eyes stung in the streaming sunlight, the boney outlines of his knees grinding into the asphalt while he spun on them to reach back to his brother’s outstretched hand. He held on with everything he had, feeling the savior band an arm around his waist to take their combined weight, pedaling against the rough surface to free the pair.
“Joel! Fuck, come on, man!”
“He’s coming.. oh, God, I can see him… Mark, I can see him!”
“Come on! Joel! Joel!”
Mark was dimly aware of a muttered prayer over his shoulder when his brother’s face appeared in the opening, his eyes shining with the crazed light of an Auschwitz survivor, wide and lidless over cheekbones nearly stripped of skin.
“Mark! He’s right… Oh, God… hurry! Mark!”
There was a shriek and Mark wrenched with the last of his ebbing strength, the sickening sound of tearing drowned by a piercing shriek of terror and pain as he fell back against the savior, cradling his brother’s arm to his chest. Tossing the horror aside, he crawled back toward the hole in disbelief, ignoring the screaming of the utility workers at his back trying to pull him away from the subterranean nightmare. The men surrounding him now thrown into a flurry of horrified panic and adrenaline-fueled bravado, their voices weaving into a tapestry of shock and disgust.
“Is that an arm… what in the hell… where is he… did you see…?
There was nothing but the softly rhythmic drip that Mark once thought would drive him mad, his heart slamming against his cracked ribs while he fought to get free of his rescuers.
“He’s gone, damn it! He’s gone!”
“No. NO!” Mark threw them off, head and shoulders disappearing back into the storm drain.
“Joel! God damn it! JOEL! Give him back, you son of a bitch!”
The dripping seemed to stop and the world behind him ground to a halt, a growled threat snaking its way up from the tunnels to fill Mark’s head.
“Come and get him, Marcus. I’ll be waiting.”