Edward Coronado looked up from his work at where Victor Perez stood grinning, holding up a human leg bone. The first few times Victor teased him with these relics, Edward tried to educate him about reverence for ancestors and respect for the dead. Now he just fumed in frustration with Victor's boorish irreverence. "Put that thing back, stupid!"
Victor laughed and tossed it aside to his pile of bones, further back where they had already dug the tunnel for the new light rail underground extension. He didn't get why Edward became so mad whenever he found a bone in his dirt and had a little fun with it. It was just a bone, right? Not to Edward, though. He always had something to go on about, how it was his ancestor or some story like that. Victor decided to be mean and push another of Edward's buttons.
"Hey, Edward, was that your grandma I just threw back there?" Victor's hyena laugh completed the aggravating act.
Now Edward had stoked up enough anger to waste his breath on trying to knock some sense into Victor's head. "Up yours, stupid! You know those are our ancestors! We're indigena, and this is a native burial ground we're boring through! At least show some respect when we come across a grave - these are our brothers and sisters!"
Now it was Victor's turn with his dull counterpoint to Edward's erudition. "There you go again with the Indian crap. Makes me laugh, Edward, makes me laugh. I'm Mexican, Edward, not an Indian! ¿Puro Mexicano, sabes?"
"¡Puro Mexicano! I told you there's no such thing! We're children of the Mexica and the Spaniards, and more on the Mexica side than the peninsulares."
"Oh yeah. Your fancy words again. You know you talk a lot of Español for a guy who doesn't speak Spanish." Another barb. Neither one of them spoke much Spanish, a sore spot for both in their families and communities. It was a bruise on their consciences, one they would push on from time to time because even though it hurt, it felt good when the endorphins kicked in. It was their common pain, and they would curse themselves and each other with it to remind themselves of who they were not.
Edward took it particularly hard because his family was more recently from South Texas, and he was only two generations away from pure Spanish-speakers in his family. When he was younger, he didn't want to be Mexican, or Spanish, or anything else. Later, at the Science Magnet, he picked up a love for physics and studied German to prepare himself for a career in that field. But always was the pressure from his mother, his grandfather, his uncles, his little sister, even his last girlfriend to be more Mexican and less trying to be someone else. After his former girlfriend broke up with him and called him a coconut, he decided it was time he became not just Mexican, but more Mexican than anyone he knew, and his conversation lately steadily employed references to la raza and Aztlan.
Victor didn't care as much as Edward, but he still felt a pang with his own words. His family had come to Dallas right as the Mexican Revolution got underway, and hadn't really emphasized learning Spanish. The patriarch of the Perez family dictated that English was the most important thing to know in order to do proper business and get ahead: to be white, in other words. That emphasis on English got his kids into Adamson High School when most Mexicans either dropped out or got pushed out. The Mexicans didn't really have separate schools in Dallas like the segregated blacks. They either learned how to be white and stayed in school, or dropped out. Not that Victor really knew or cared about all that history. He had dropped out of Sunset High School in the 11th grade and felt like a second-class Hispanic for not knowing as much Spanish as he was expected to.
Now Dewino piped in. Dewino Curtis didn't speak any Spanish and didn't care. He knew who he was and felt like Spanish had nothing to do with his history. He had his own version of the history of the graves, as well. "How do you two know this wasn't a Freedman's cemetery?"
Victor rolled his eyes and made a leering grin, a little happier, now that he could turn away from the pain he had created. "Ah hell no! Now we got Martin Luther King going!"
"Man, you guys need to learn to mind a man's heritage." Dewino remained calm. He learned patience from constantly having to explain how to pronounce his name ("… deh-WHY-no, as in 'da wino in da street'…") and endure the questions of why in the name of all that was good a mother would name her kid Dewino. He didn't know and didn't want to know. He loved his mother even though she had given him a weird name and died of AIDS before he graduated at Townview Magnet. He just lived with her legacy and asked that all his friends call him "D".
"Why do you think we're using these hand tools instead of the boring equipment? It's because a crew hit bones along this route and the City Council figured we should do right by them and get all the bones buried in a new cemetery."
"Aw, D, that's just more hard work for us." Victor hated the hand tools. He much preferred the power equipment used in normal tunneling operations.
"Yeah, but it's steady and the money's good, so I don't care." Mike Foster spoke up in the hope everyone else would just shut up and get back to working after his comment. There was no chance these bones meant anything to him. He was from Ohio, and had no idea where his family came from before that. It could have been New York, maybe London, maybe Samarkand. He didn't care. He just wanted to work in the quiet.
Victor Perez, therefore, existed as a constant irritant to Mike. D and Edward could carry on quietly and escape his ire. Both were studious and trying to earn money on this construction job to pay for college. Victor was just a loud, goofy half-wit, half-not-wit punter. Mike's favorite moments were when the foreman, Booker T. Garvin, stepped into the job site and told Victor to shut up and get back to work.
Mr. Garvin wasn't around, though, so Victor continued resting on his shovel and expounded further on the nature of the bones. "Hey, don't you guys think it's weird we haven't found any heads? What's up with that, huh?"
D shrugged his shoulders and muttered, "Maybe the ground shifted funny or something. I'm no expert on that."
"Maybe that's the way the tribe handled their dead. Decapitation. Do something totally different with the body than what they do with the head. We haven't found any other stuff buried with the bodies, you know. I think they were just tossed to the side." Edward had put some thought into this. This was the kernel of his pet theory about the site.
Victor recalled this theory from an earlier jawing session and pounced on its origin. "You talkin' about that crazy dream again, Edward? Give it up and just admit you were smokin' crack." The way Victor put it made D and Mike chuckle quietly, even though they didn't want to encourage Victor's jabbering any further.
Edward continued earnestly. "No trip, this one, Victor. I saw it all. Everything. It was at night on a mound and -"
Mr. Garvin approached the men and cut the jabbering off. "Edward, keep digging, and Victor, before you say anything else," he paused his speech as he turned, pointed a finger in an accusatory pose, and caught Victor with an open mouth. He paused long enough so everyone could turn and see the clown caught in the act, and Victor obliged because a clown always enjoys an audience for his act. Garvin smiled and finished the sentence with the obligatory, "Victor, shut up and get back to work."
Victor laughed. "Hey, we're just havin' a little break, Mr. Garvin, we're working hard, you know."
"I'll bet." Garvin's rich bass voice boomed nicely in the man-made cave. He liked the kids he had working on the project. Not a one of them was over 23 and he was just into his fifties, so they were like children to him. They didn't feel like his own children, but instead like the children of close neighbors or cousins that you take an interest in raising, anyway, because the community expected it of you.
As he sorted through the piles of bones, making sure they were kept neat and orderly for the college professors to identify and tag, he remembered when he was younger and dealt with bones of a different kind.
Back in the early 70's, at the start of his 20-year career in the US Army, Booker T. Garvin served in Vietnam, seeing carnage and man's inhumanity to man just a few feet away from him. Sometimes it was only a few inches away from his face, especially when he ran into a VC in one of those damned underground burrows of theirs.
He shivered. That wasn't a good memory, but it came, anyway. The shouting, followed by the blaze of fire from the guns, the bullet that hit the dirt behind his ear, the bullet that hit the VC in the chest, exploding it in a mire of dark crimson horror.
The thought only lasted a moment. Garvin knew how to get the thoughts, the waking dreams, out of his mind. Either you learned how to put the demons of war behind you or they ate you from within. Once he had the nightmare behind him, he paused to reflect on how lucky these kids had been so far to not see combat. He hoped they never had to face it.
Like D, he hoped the bones were from a previously unmarked Freedman's Cemetery, such as the one discovered not too long ago when a construction crew turned it up in the course of the Central Expressway expansion. He was proud to be an African-American and loved history: finding a Freedman's Cemetery or something like that would be a great honor to him.
Garvin also noticed the lack of heads, and knew such a lack indicated this wasn't likely to be the resting ground of beloved ancestors laid to rest in peace, but he kept the vain little hope alive because it pleased him. Edward's theories about the place actually sounded the most plausible, but Garvin kept them out of his head and told everyone else to keep them out. He had learned in the jungles the lessons soldiers everywhere learn or die. One lesson taught the value of not imagining things, ever. You only become a nutcase when things get really red, gooey, and nasty and they start fueling your active imagination to drive your brain places you don't want it to go. Keep your mind clear and in a state of disuse, soldier, so your imagination never gets to fire it up and make you crazy.
"Keep digging, guys. Lunch break in about an hour." His own words and Victor's goldbricking groans put his mind back at ease.
Mike hadn't ever done underground construction work before, and he didn't want to do it again, if he could avoid it. The gruesome nature of unearthing bones haunted him constantly in the warm dampness of the cave. He didn't let his mind wander like Edward or D did at times. But when they started talking out loud about their thoughts, it would start to chill his veins and give him something unpleasant to think about until he caught himself and managed to put it out of his mind.
He had almost gotten the last bit of Edward-inspired grue out of his head when his pickaxe hit something in the dirt that wasn't a bone. It sounded like rock. Mike chipped away carefully at that section and revealed a sheer face of cut stone. The little bit of grue hung around the back of his brain, just in case it would be needed again after figuring out what the stone was doing there.
Mike called out to Garvin. "Sir? I think I hit something unusual over here."
Garvin ambled over to Mike's spot and looked long and hard at the stone. He didn't know what to make of it, so he told Mike, "Keep uncovering that thing. See how big it is. We're not supposed to have rock down here, but I don't know." Garvin shook his head as he stepped back so Mike could knock more dirt away from the stone.
As he worked at clearing the face of the monolithic stone, Mike's stomach began to knot with anxiety and trepidation. Seeing the cold, silent face of the stone sent him back to when he was a seven year old child watching his grandfather's coffin go into a mausoleum. When he had seen his grandfather's body at the viewing, Mike thought he was still alive and sleeping - that's what everyone had pretty much said, anyway. When his sleeping grandfather was put into the stone tomb, Mike worried about what would happen when his grandfather woke up.
Mike had nightmares for months after seeing his grandfather interred, all centering around being buried alive because he couldn't wake up. Seeing this much stone up close in the presence of all those skeletons behind him brought those nightmare visions to the front of his mind. He swallowed his fears and worked on as the bitterness churned his body's chemistry in unpleasant ways. Lunch was a terrific relief from the mental blackout he had gone into as he fought off the hauntings of his sleeping grandfather.
When everyone started on their lunches, they all looked at the area Mike had cleared. D and Garvin began to think maybe this wasn't a freedmen's cemetery. Victor thought it was trippin' and not much else. Edward had some concerns.
"You scratched it up some, Mike. You really should be careful with that stone. It looks like part of a building or something and should be kept as well-preserved as possible." Edward's tone was helpful without being condescending.
Mike saw a potential relief to his torture. "Hey, Edward, if you wanna switch jobs, that's fine by me."
"Great." Mike turned to Garvin, who nodded approvingly.
"If there's anything of historical significance here," Garvin lectured avuncularly, "it behooves us to do as fine a job of preservation as we can, and I'm sure Edward can do an excellent job in that respect."
"Aw man, what a load!" Victor made the others laugh with his keen observation.
"Just practicing for the professors," grinned Garvin. "They're supposed to be here later today." He thought some and then said, "You boys know to be on your best behavior, right? No jokes or goofing around or anything else like that. Got it?" He looked directly at Victor as he finished his statement.
"Yes sir," said Victor respectfully. He knew how to act in front of higher-ups. Garvin was a good boss and Victor didn't want to screw anything up with him. Victor knew the drill: higher-up shows up then Victor shuts up, fakes a sore throat, and exhales when the jefes leave. The plan was simple, flawless, and had stood the test of time.
Everyone else knew the drill, as well, and chuckled quietly as Victor popped a cough drop to add that menthol-scented detail to his brilliant disguise of mild sickness.
It wasn't much long after lunch when the archaeologists came into the tunnel to look over the bones. Garvin showed them around and answered a few of their questions as the others kept digging away. They were most interested in the fact that no heads had been discovered. That indicated, with a high degree of certainty, or so they said, this area had once been a religious center. When Garvin showed them the stone surface Edward was cleaning off, they raised their eyebrows and muttered excited speculations about the source of the stone.
The archaeologists took a few bone samples for some tests and made their exit. Once they left, everyone except Edward made a few light comments about the way this one talked, about the way that one was dressed, and about how the other one had a bad toupee. After a few minutes of chatter, they fell quiet and kept digging as the afternoon progressed.
Edward, though, never interrupted his earnest focus on clearing the surface of the stone. He heard the archaeologists remark on a few characteristics of the stone that indicated signs of human workmanship, and scrutinized every square inch he cleared for more of those stigmata of artifice.
As Edward cleaned the stone, his mind wandered into visions of tombs, as Mike's had done, but Edward felt much more at home in them. He saw tall, proud men climbing a hill at night, much as he had seen in his dreams. The men went to the top of the earthen mound and entered a great stone building. The building glowed strangely from within, the light suffusing through the walls of the structure. When the men entered the place, there would be a period of silence followed by a soul-shattering scream, then more silence. All but one of the men would then emerge, silently and solemnly, but with expressions of inner wisdom and peace on their faces.
Edward longed to see the insides of that place in his dreams, to see why there was a scream and why all but one returned, peaceful and calm. In one dream, the faces turned to him and acknowledged him before they turned and continued their silent way. It was the happiest dream Edward ever had.
As he cleaned and thought of his dreams, Edward felt a sense of familial ancestry about the stone he was uncovering. These are my people, he thought, this is what my ancestors made, long ago, before the Spaniards, before even they left Aztlan. He knew without any logical reason and beyond any doubt his ancestors were responsible for the place. He knew this was not any outcropping of bedrock: this was a man-made thing. Eagerly and deliberately, he scoured the surface of the stone for evidences men had handled it in the long-distant past.
Towards the end of the day, Edward found one of the best evidences of human workmanship: a rounded, chiseled corner a foot to the left of where Mike originally struck the stone. Edward called Garvin over to take a look.
"That's a corner, all right. Huh." Garvin didn't know what to make of it. He scratched his head, then rubbed the corner with his thumb. It had obviously been cut out of a quarry, and then worn down with use. "Must have been a door or something."
Edward was a little puzzled. "You think? How did it open?"
"Could have been on hinges or maybe opened from the top or bottom with a counter-weight system. We'll know more when we see the whole outline." Garvin figured something like this would be really big, bigger than the boneyard recovery the other guys were doing. He looked over the others to see who would be a good candidate for helping Edward finish the task off. He didn't look long: Mike wouldn't step any nearer the stone than he had to and Victor was a first-class goof-off at times. "D, you help Edward on this door thing tomorrow, hear?"
"Yessir, Mr. Garvin." D didn't mind helping Edward. In fact, now he was curious about what lay behind the door. When it was just a rock, it wasn't much of anything to him. Now that it potentially had another side, it had a certain mystery about it that drew him in.
Edward, though, was positively enraptured. He wasn't just unearthing a door to some long-buried structure. He was opening a door to his heritage.
It took two days to get all the dirt cleared from in front of the door. It was 6 feet wide and 9 feet tall - a huge slab of rock, by any measure. Edward and D had to finish off the top edges while perched precariously on the top of step ladders in flagrant violations of workplace safety regulations. Garvin didn't care. Those two young men had good heads on their shoulders and wouldn't do anything goofy like what Victor could do if you turned your back on him for more than half an hour. Garvin glanced over at Victor as his thoughts wandered his way. Victor was just finishing a "break" and got back to work as soon as Garvin shot him a mean, one-eyed glare. Garvin smiled when Victor got back to work and then looked at what Edward and D had uncovered.
"Nice rock you boys uncovered. As perfect a rectangle as anything that size has a right to be. Unbelievable."
D answered back, "The top edge goes under the wall, here, and -"
Garvin cut him off. "And there's the right kind of bevel down here, so this thing must swing up with counterweights. The wear on the sides is probably from folks forcing it back down into place."
D cut in as Garvin drew a breath. "But that ain't the get-all. The wall up here: it's glass, Mr. Garvin."
Garvin furrowed his brow and cocked his head back in a sudden, snapping motion. His puckered mouth indicated he found D's statement hard to believe.
"It's true, Mr." Edward pointed to the thin strip of the upper wall they had revealed.
"Let me get up there and see." Garvin motioned for Edward to step down. Edward got off his step ladder and Garvin mounted it carefully.
"Don't fall and split your head open, big guy!" Just hearing Victor made Garvin wobble a bit at the top.
Garvin didn't bother turning around to yell at Victor. "You just keep breathing, pal. Keep breathing. You'll be where I am some day. Old and fat."
Victor tried again. "Yeah, but I won't be as fat as you."
Garvin steadied himself and half-turned his head. "I've seen you drink beer, Victor. You'll be twice as fat as me because you don't work out."
"What do you think this is I'm doing here?"
"You're working now, but when you get a sitting job, you don't have enough get up and go to get up and go work yourself out."
"So why are you so out of shape?" Victor had absolutely no innocence whatsoever in his hyena voice.
"I'm big boned and I can kick your butt so shut up and get back to work before I show you what I learned in the army, Victor!" Garvin's bearish command did the trick and Victor was yes-sirring himself back onto Garvin's good side.
Garvin shook his head and grinned. That boy was sure a handful, but he was all right. He looked at the top wall and furrowed his brow again in disbelief. "That stuff is glass. You fellas weren't lying."
D nodded and looked at the glass. It wasn't polished or very clear, but more like a translucent candle holder that gave off a smoky light through its sides when its candle was lit. Nobody had any idea how it got to be there.
Garvin decided to experiment. "Gimmee a pick." Everyone looked at him funny. He got more insistent. "Give me a pick!" Edward handed him one. Garvin took a hard swing at the glass and nearly fell off his step ladder when the pick struck the glass. Victor brayed out loud and Mike chuckled nervously. D held on to the stone for balance and Edward jumped back so as to be out of the pick's swing distance.
Once Garvin had recovered from his near-embarrassing fall, he looked at the glass where he had chipped it. Only a few small flecks came off of it. The rest of the glass looked fine, with no shatter marks other than the few around where Garvin had struck it. Garvin was incredulous. "How in the…" he just shook his head as his sentence trailed off. "We're getting a geologist in here tomorrow. This is weird. We ain't digging through this stuff, I promise you that."
Garvin stepped off the ladder and motioned D down. "In fact, we're quitting today right now. Everybody go on home and I'll see you here tomorrow."
"We still get a full day's pay?"
"For today? Yes you do, Victor. Or maybe everyone but you…"
The others laughed at Garvin's joke and Victor's initial serious reaction. When Victor saw Garvin crack a smile, he realized the joke was on and appreciated it, even if it was on him. "Aw, you're just playin', Mr. Garvin! I hear ya, though. I'll be here tomorrow so I can torture you some more!"
They all walked out laughing as Garvin got on the phone to the DART people to get in contact with a geologist about the stone and the glass wall.
"Vitrified rock." The geologist's assessment of the glass was as rapid as it was decisive.
"What the hell is that?" asked Garvin. He and the geologist were on top of step ladders, looking at the glass-like substance above the doorway.
"Rock that got so hot, it turned to glass. Common in industry, not very common at all in ancient cultures." The geologist began to climb down.
Garvin got down as well, asking a question as he descended. "So what are you saying?"
"Well, given the presence of the bones here and the door thing, I'd say you've got a major archaeological find. We both know nothing since the 1800s would put anything like this together this far underground. The strangest thing is that no native cultures really ever did anything like this."
"So who did?"
"Celtic peoples, mostly. There's a really good example of an entire fort that got vitrified up in Scotland."
"So how did those Scottish people get down here, Mr., uh…"
"Krenytsky. Would you believe there's two of us in the phone book? Call me Rob if it's easier for you."
Garvin smiled. "OK, Rob, how did whoever did this get here? What are we dealing with?"
Rob smiled back. "Only one way to tell. Find out for ourselves."
Garvin furrowed his brow and cocked his head.
Rob nodded. "We just go in there," he pointed at the stone door, "and step into our 15 minutes of fame."
Victor piped up, giving the lie to his ersatz sore throat. "You mean we'd be on TV if we go in there?"
Mike muttered darkly that he had no intention of going in there. D and Edward looked back and forth between Garvin and Mr. Krenytsky for some kind of response.
Rob spoke up. "TV? Sure, pal. We just open it up and in we go. We just have to get there today, before anyone else finds out and tries to take credit for himself."
Edward had a puzzled look on his face. "We just walk on in there, like that, and claim credit for discovering this site?"
"We find out if it was native or Scottish or whatever?"
"Sure thing, big guy." Rob smiled eagerly. He never had anything like this before and felt like a kid in a candy store.
"Wow. Is it safe to go in, though?" Edward turned to Garvin for an answer.
"Well, uh,…" Garvin thought for a while. "We should open it first and let it ventilate, in case the air in there's no good… assuming the door still works and can swing up and clear… sure, let's get it on!" With that, the six men began tugging at the base of the stone portal to swing it up.
After several strong heaves, the door began to give a little. Two more strong pulls and it swung up beautifully, striking the ceiling of the cavern with great force, knocking prodigious amounts of black Dallas dirt on the triumphant celebrants below.
The men were bowled over, though, by the thick smoky vapors issuing forth from the mouth of the cave. The fumes were positively unbreathable and forced the men to a recess of the cave where they could catch their breaths.
They watched in awe as the smokes curled upward to perch in the high areas of the cavern, brushing and caressing the walls with their ethereal fingers that curled around invisible eddies and currents in the subterranean atmosphere. Perhaps an hour or so later, the smokes had clambered upward to stay and no more sallied out of the breach. A thick, brooding blackness invited the men inward to explore the secrets it had kept for untold thousands of years.
The men instinctively hung low as they gathered their shovels, flashlights, and oxygen canisters for their trip beyond the stone door. Garvin had each person fit on a face mask under his hard hat except for Mike, who refused to go in. Garvin didn't force the guy into the newly opened cave, although Victor teased Mike about it mercilessly until the others shut him up.
Just before they entered the cave, Edward called their attention to a detail he just noticed. "Hey, wait… the smoke is all wrong."
Garvin was a little impatient. "The smoke?" He looked upward, then back at Edward. "The smoke is fine. What are you talking about?"
"Well, sir, smoke only rises when it's hotter than the air around it."
"So? You -" Garvin caught himself in mid-sentence. "You're saying that smoke up there shouldn't be hot, huh?" A twinkling of realization crept across Garvin's face.
"Yessir. That's it. All that stuff should have settled when it cooled." Edward was scientifically earnest. "And look at it -- it's still moving."
The men looked up at the smoke at the top of the cavern. It moved about in a groping, tentative way. The cloud was more a tenebrous thing than a collection of gaseous wisps. Now that Edward had mentioned it, it looked like no smoke any of them had ever seen. After a while, it began to dissipate along the roof of the cavern.
As it broke up, Garvin spoke his mind to calm his nerves. "There's a perfectly rational explanation for this. Something caused it to act like that, and I'm sure it's nothing we can't figure out. As long as we got these things on," he tugged at his oxygen mask, "we got nothing to worry about."
Victor was awestruck, though. "Suppose it's magical, huh, mister? Suppose there's zombies and mummies and stuff down there controlling it?" He looked genuinely worried.
Garvin shook his head. "No way, Victor. If there's folk buried in there, they were worm food ten times over before we came along. There ain't no mummies or stuff down there."
Victor wouldn't let go of his fears so easily. "Well, I still think it could be like that mummy movie with Billy Zane in it and all, where it like started getting wicked on all those people."
Garvin furrowed his brow. "What mummy movie are you talking about?"
"The one where Billy Zane played the mummy and it had that guy that was in 'George of the Jungle' in it, too."
"Huh? You mean that Brendan what's his name? That mummy movie?"
Garvin and the others (except Mike) laughed. "Man, there wasn't any Billy Zane in that movie!"
"Uh-huh! He played the mummy! He was bad, man!"
"No way was that Billy Zane. I know it wasn't him."
"Betcha a hundred dollars it was, mister." Victor was extremely sure of himself. "I got it on video and we can watch the credits."
Garvin was never so sure of himself as he was when he accepted the bet with Victor. "You're on, Victor."
D spoke up. "I'd like a piece of that, too."
Victor grinned deliriously. "You see, mister! You're wrong! You're gonna pay double!"
D laughed. "No way! I'm with Mr. Garvin, here. He's sure enough right more often than you are. I got another hundred that says it ain't Billy Zane in that mummy get-up."
Victor cackled. "You punks are gonna buy me a new pair of boots!" He shook D's hand and sealed the bet. He turned to Edward. "You wanna buy me a hat?"
Edward was dividing his attention between the dissipating smoke and the black breach and had completely zoned out. He did not respond.
Everyone else, though, was relieved at this lighter turn of conversation. They laughed to mask the creeping fears welling up in their hearts, the fears that came from places they knew little or nothing about.
To get things moving again, Garvin changed the subject slightly. "Victor, the only things lethal in that mummy movie were the special effects. And if that," he pointed at the almost-gone smoke, "is an example of the special effects we're about to be treated to, then we're gonna be pretty safe."
Victor was still hesitant. "You think so, mister?"
"Damn skippy." Garvin bulged his eyes at Victor and smiled like a first sergeant on the eve of battle.
Victor smiled and knocked fists with Garvin.
Rob was getting impatient. "Come on, now. We only got to the end of the day to make our discovery. You guys coming?"
Everyone except Mike agreed and followed Rob into the cavern, creeping under the low opening the stone door afforded them. Mike hung back, refusing to go into the cavern, wishing he was back at home, above the ground, surrounded by wallpapered drywall and hollow plywood doors. This place was putting him into a stress worse than when he saw his grandfather buried because he not only had to endure the sight of the ground swallowing up more people, but he also had to re-live the childhood traumas he dreaded so much.
Mike gasped for air and looked nervously about as Dewino, the last in line, vanished in the darkness of the cavern. Although not a religious man by nature, he began to pray the way a child prays when a wasp hovers over his head.
Inside the dark cave, Garvin asked Rob, "Just a quick hit, right? In and out after we take pictures?"
"Come on, Garvin," Rob bubbled, "where's your sense of adventure?"
"It's still in the Vietnam jungle where I left it." Garvin got terse. "We're not going too far. I'm not risking lives in a hazardous situation."
Rob countered Garvin's terseness with his own peevishness. "This place has stood fine for the last several thousand years. I hardly think it's going to collapse on us because we're the first humans to set foot in it since Columbus or earlier."
"Never mind that. It's the air holding out that concerns me."
"We got eight hours on these babies. You guys will be home and in bed before your eight hours are up."
"I'll make sure of that, Rob. I intend to keep breathing so I can see another sunrise, and I think these guys here have similar plans."
Victor's "yeah" strengthened Garvin's position just enough to get Rob to relent.
"OK, Garvin, in and out. We look this place over from right where we are and we won't go down any side passages."
"Cool." D sounded relieved.
"And I'll take personal responsibility for anything that goes wrong. If someone's in trouble, I'll see to it he gets back alive."
"Strong words." Garvin sounded aloof. "Hope you can back them up with actions."
"What do you mean?" Rob was off-guard.
"Only I've seen butter-bars like you talk a good game and fall apart when the enemy started a live-fire exercise."
"Hey, I've pulled people out of cave-ins, pal, I've been up to the task before. I know the responsibilities of leadership." Rob was still friendly, but more assertive.
Garvin looked aside and nodded.
Rob took offense. "Hey, what is it with you? You don't know me, but I will back up every word I say."
Garvin backed down. "No big deal. I've got nothing against you. I just hope nobody has an opportunity to prove those strong words of yours."
"OK, no big deal. Let's take a look around, now." Neither man had really resolved the conflict, but none wanted to pursue it any further.
They started to shine their flashlights on the walls of the cave. The light reflected strangely off the primitive glass-stone walls. Scorch marks were evident in a number of places and the floor was covered in ashes, indicating the place had quite likely housed an infernally hot flame at one time.
The cave itself was roughly eight feet high and covered a circular area twenty feet in diameter. Along the far edge of the cave, three rectangular openings indicated secrets darker still lay within the recesses of the man-made cavern. Rob and Edward cast tentative flashlight beams down their rough corridors, but Garvin forbade setting a single foot on their pitch paths.
The group had just begun to examine some strange glyphs on one side of the room when the ground lurched ever so slightly. After the lurch, they could hear the patter of a few clods of rock falling to the floor of the tunnel outside. Garvin's reflexes took over as he dashed down and under the stone door to check the state of the tunnel and the man he left behind in it.
Mike was standing up against the far side of the cave. The cavern roof was giving way. Garvin shouted out to Mike, "Get under here, now! That's an order!"
Mike shook his head. Increasing fallout from above began to obscure the path of vision between him and Garvin.
"Get in, NOW! That's an order, soldier!"
Mike tried to back away into the wall and looked up at the liquid ceiling. A general cave-in threatened and started to become a reality.
Garvin dove back in under the door. The place they were in had stood a long time and would stand a longer time to come. Once he was inside, he cursed Mike for being so scared and hoped to whatever God there could possibly be that he was somehow all right.
The others saw the collapse of dirt and rubble, then darkness. Only their flashlights provided any light at all in the vitrified chamber. "Where's Mike?" D was dead frightened when he asked Garvin about the quiet guy that didn't like caves with doors.
"I hope and pray the boy's all right." Garvin was visibly shaken.
"Why don't we all say a prayer for him?" D offered.
Garvin was a little taken aback. "What good is that going to do?"
The others were a little shocked, D and Rob more so than the others. Rob asked Garvin, "What do you mean?"
"I mean, it's not going to do any good and probably give us a false sense of hope. Let's just try to focus and deal with reality."
"You don't believe in God?"
"No. I don't. No heaven, no hell, when you die, you're worm food and that's that. I hope Mike ain't dead, but there's nothing we can do about it if he is. We got a cave-in just outside our door and no way of contacting the surface."
"Use your cell phone, mister," offered Edward.
"I wish I could, but it's on a workbench back out there."
Rob grinned, "Well I have mine. I'll use it after those of us that choose to do so offer a prayer on behalf of that poor guy out there."
Garvin relented. "Whatever gets you through the night, man. Just pray short and get on that phone, pronto."
Rob and D each offered a prayer. Rob had started to dial 911 when Garvin's pager went off. The number on the pager was his own cell phone. He tapped the number in the display as he showed it to Rob. "Hey, man, call this number! It's my cell phone!"
Rob dialed it. Mike answered. His words were steady, but his voice shook uncomfortably. "Hey, are you guys all right in there?"
Rob and the others were jubilant Mike was OK. "Yeah, we're all fine. We were worried most about you, buddy."
"Oh, I'm OK, the cave-in was just between me and y'all." A silence came across everyone when they realized it wasn't Mike that was really buried alive.
Mike came to first. "I'll call 911." His voice was less shaky, but still full of fear.
"Thanks, buddy. I'll keep the line clear." Rob hung up. Everyone stared about in a daze.
D tried to be positive. "At least the prayer for Mike worked."
Garvin became acerbic. "You should have been praying for us, if anything was going to work from it. All we got now is just more proof there ain't no God."
Rob and D both tried to argue against Garvin's position, but were cut short by a cry from Edward. He stood, pointing down the left opening into blackness.
"What was it, Edward?" asked Victor.
"A light. I swear I saw a light."
Garvin turned a flashlight beam down the corridor and penetrated nothing but smoky blackness. Garvin wondered where it had come from, as the corridor had been clear before the cave-in. Maybe it was more of the weird gas that came out when the place was opened: maybe it had been trapped somewhere and the tremor shook it free. It moved in that almost-random way everyone found so disconcerting and Garvin was positive no one here was going to mess with it. "I don't like the looks of this. Light or no, there is definite danger in that stuff. I do not want to breathe it. Everyone got their masks on good and tight?"
Rather than say, "no", Victor adjusted his mask and got his oxygen running. Garvin just shook his head and was glad he had a presence of mind to ask before someone got asphyxiated.
"OK, all we can do now is wait." Garvin's manner-of-fact demeanor went a long way towards soothing the nerves of his fellow prisoners. He wished secretly that someone would soothe his nerves, somehow. He was afraid the drilling equipment wouldn't get to them before the oxygen ran out. He looked over to Rob. "Hey, Rob, call Mike again and see what the status is."
Rob didn't like taking orders like that, but dialed the number, anyway. Nothing happened when he dialed, though. "Can't get through… something's wrong with my phone." He tried dialing another number, and another, all with the same result. "Nothing!" He was starting to panic a little.
Garvin reached over and took the phone from Rob. Rob looked on with knowing frustration as Garvin got the same results. "The phone's broken." Garvin's voice revealed the smallest hint of fear.
Rob's anxiety got the better of him and he became abusive to redirect the tension. "No? Do you think so?"
Garvin saw it coming, though, and was prepared. Scared men get combative. Fight or flight, and we sure ain't got any wings on… "Save it, Rob. We can kill each other later, once we get out of here." For the second time, they both just let it go.
Garvin looked all around for any opening that wasn't choked with swirling vapors. Nothing of the sort presented itself. The roof, walls, and floor were intact after the tremor. No use hiding the truth, he figured. "And it looks like we're going to have to wait it out, like I've been saying."
Rob lost his edge as he thought out loud. "Think we'll have enough time on this equipment?"
Garvin wasn't optimistic. "We've got to preserve oxygen. No sudden moves, getting excited, or anything like that permitted. We should just sit down, get as comfortable as possible, and maybe sleep until they get through to us. Shouldn't be long, anyway, but we got to stay on the safe side." He wasn't sure of the part about it not being long, but knew it needed to be said.
"Sleep? Here?" Victor expressed his reservations with that plan in no uncertain terms. "You gotta be kidding, Mister!"
"I'm not kidding, Victor. I'm d-", Garvin caught himself before the -ead came out, "-amn serious about it. We preserve oxygen that way and we'll know when the equipment gets through to us. Besides, it's dark, anyway. You wanna play dominoes instead?"
"Yeah, man. Much better than sleeping."
"Well, I don't have a set handy, let alone one that glows in the dark, so it looks like it's nap time." Victor was enjoying the argument too much and Garvin decided to try a different angle to get him calmed down for the long hours ahead. "That is, unless you're frightened and need someone big and strong to hold your hand…"
Everyone got a good laugh out of that one, even Victor. "Fuh-GET you, man!" Victor pretended to stretch and yawn. "I'm not afraid of the dark, but if you need someone by your side, bug someone else. I'm going to sleep and I don't cuddle up with anyone else but my girlfriend."
After a few comments from the others about Victor's girlfriend, Garvin got them quieted down and settled for a rest. Rob sat where he could study the writings on the walls and take notes on them. When Garvin made the last call for lights out, though, he followed orders willingly. He knew just how dangerous their situation was and the need to conserve the breathable air. He also knew if they were asleep, there would be no panicked, choking end when the air ran out: death would steal them away silently and mercifully.
Garvin did all he could to fight back the demons from Vietnam that kept trying to haunt him. He diverted his fears to thoughts of how much Rob reminded him of his very first observation of a butter-bar First Lieutenant in a combat situation. He chuckled as he remembered how the guy tried to crawl into his helmet and die there. The guy didn't last long, though. He got flown home on a stretcher after losing a leg to an AP mine.
Victor tried to think about his girlfriend, but his mind kept going back to the skeletons and how they didn't have any heads at all. He kept wondering when they were ever going to find the skulls and what would happen when they finally turned up. He wasn't really afraid, just morbidly curious.
Dewino just counted down from 10,000. He always did that when he knew he would have trouble sleeping, and the total darkness had his mind going a thousand miles an hour. After getting to 9800, he couldn't take it anymore and turned on a small flashlight and pointed it at the rock just beyond the stone door. Nobody complained about it, and was glad someone had turned on a night-light.
Dewino glanced at the strangely-curling smoke before closing his eyes again and wished that he hadn't done that as he started counting down over again at 10,000.
Edward was the most peaceful of them all as he wondered what it must have been like to have lived in this land long ago. He imagined what the tribe that built this place must have been like, and fancied it was peopled with characters from his dreams.
Outside in the dusty aftermath of the cave-in, Mike had finally given up on making the cell phone work again and hoped someone would get worried and come looking for them when they didn't emerge from the cave at five o' clock. He cursed the rotten luck that made the phone fail before he could dial 911. He decided to go to sleep on his own, but his last thoughts before he slid into Morpheus' realm were troubled by the way the dust moved in the air around him. It didn't seem right, just like the way the smoke didn't seem right. He fell asleep as he lay there, praying.
One by one, the men in the stone enclosure settled down and dropped off to sleep in the pitch blackness of the vitrified chamber. Some dreamed strange and disturbing things, some did not dream at all. Edward was one that did not dream. He had a vision.
He saw, suspended and glowing in the blackness, the stern visages of the eyes that watched from the billowing smoke. These were faces reminiscent of the ones from his dreams, but not all identical. He looked deep into their eyes and learned what they had to teach him. The eyes spoke a language he never before so much as dreamt of, but spoke that language with clarity and authority so Edward understood every nuance, every detail.
They spoke of great mounds, terrible sacrifices accompanied by wild dancing and ululations into the night. They spoke of sacred secrets their grandchildren had abandoned. They spoke of rituals, chants, and motions for the preservation of certain things in this world for time far beyond their mundane allotment. They spoke of ancient power, sacred and terrible, holy and nightmarish. They spoke of a desire to see their children again, to bring them back to the ancestral secrets and glories. Their words were vivid and bold, kindling the fires of enlightenment in Edward's mind.
He saw himself, standing before a great mound with a tunnel carved in its side, descending into a great underground stone chamber with three further paths to follow, paths for the initiates. He saw himself walking in the darkness to the first chamber, taking every step with joy, for every step brought him closer to freedom and joy. He saw himself, naked on an altar, surrounded by scorching flames, a priest's knife hovering tantalizingly over his neck, threatening the freedom it was about to unleash on its welcoming victim.
The visages commanded him to rise and open his eyes, but remain silent. Edward obeyed.
When he opened his eyes, he saw the material avatars of those visages: ten jawless skulls in the air in front of him. In unison, the skulls turned toward the passage on the left and began to move into it. Edward followed and began to remove his mask, clothing, and boots. He knew what would happen next and no longer felt a need for things of the world above. He was returning home to his people. The smoke parted to let him enter, then closed behind him. Edward now understood his dreams and smiled with the inner peace that belonged to the men who exited the glowing stone building on top of the great earthen mound.
Victor sprang awake in a cold sweat. Rising suddenly, he staggered with dizziness for a moment, recovered his balance, and looked madly about for the source of the scream that shook him out of his dreamless sleep. Dewino's light had gone out, its battery run down, no doubt, and the place was full of cold, damp blackness. He was completely disoriented in the darkness and fumbled desperately for a source of light.
When he finally got his flashlight on, his blood pressure had reached the point where his vision was colored red and the pounding, slamming beats reverberated in his eardrums. Spinning furiously, his beam shot all around the cavern like a maddened, angry bolt of lightning, disturbing the silence of centuries with its rude photons.
And then he settled his attentions on the leftmost passage and saw the footprints at its opening. The terror mounted in his mind as he followed them back to the pile of clothes Edward had worn. He tried to let the others know about his concerns, but the scream stalled in the back of his throat. All he could let out was a choking gurgle.
The others started to move and stir, but Victor did not wait for them to get up. He charged at the left passage to save his friend Edward. Just before he entered, though, he froze. A voice spoke to his mind just then.
In the 24th of a moment, Victor heard all he needed to hear, and even began to see a little. He stood flabbergasted and slack-jawed at the entrance as the others got up and wondered what all the commotion was about.
"Victor, what in the hell has got you all upset?" Garvin's voice sounded strange and muffled through the mask.
Victor didn't answer.
"Victor!" Garvin's voice revealed a touch of worry under the earnest shout.
Still no reply.
D went up next to Victor and snapped his fingers in front of the dazed man.
Victor remained calm, but now he turned to regard the others.
"Edward's gone, man." Victor's voice was calm and resigned.
"What?" Garvin didn't believe Victor until he looked around and saw Edward's clothing on the cavern floor.
"He's gone, man. He's with his people, the people of this place. He told me everything."
Garvin started to get angry. "Why didn't you wake us up when he started talking crazy like that?"
"He was already gone when he talked to me. I know it sounds crazy, but I'm telling you the truth." Victor shook his head as he said those words, knowing he wouldn't be believed.
"That's crazy." Garvin proved Victor's suspicions correct. "You're talking crazy, Victor."
"No, mister, it's for reals!" Victor lost some of his calm and stood his ground in front of the opening. "He's gone in there (he motioned behind him) and he ain't coming back. He's joined them, his people. He told me somehow in my head and we ain't supposed to go back there. We can wait it out here, but we don't go no further."
Garvin looked at him with great concern. He appreciated Victor's earnestness, but didn't believe a word of it.
Rob and D didn't buy it, either, and started to try and talk Victor out of believing it himself.
Victor remained firm. "Hey, say what you want, but I know what I went through and I'm telling you the truth. We shouldn't be messing around here at all, but most of all that place back there where Edward went. Edward told me it's not a place for anyone except those who belong here." Victor's voice became strained and commanding. "They don't want to be bothered!"
D was about to argue further with Victor but some influence cut him off in the middle of his first word and D didn't finish what he had started to say. Instead, his face softened in appearance and he turned, calmly, to face Garvin and Rob. "Victor's right, yall."
Garvin didn't like this latest development. It caught him off-guard and almost got him started thinking about weird stuff again. It was already clear to him these young men had already started to get the spooks, and he'd have to change the subject quickly to keep them from losing it.
Rob didn't share Garvin's avuncular manner. He made to go down the left passage and get Edward back, dead or alive, with or without the blessing of the others. Victor tried to stop him, but Rob pushed on past him and into the thick black vapors of the passage.
He's a man of his word after all, Garvin noted admiringly and approvingly. He hoped Rob could find Edward before it was too late.
Victor and D did not follow Rob into the tenebrous blackness, but Garvin was already going over to them to pull them further back into the main cavern. He already had his speech planned: he was going to tell them how Rob was a big guy, a guy who could certainly handle himself, and he was going to get Edward back. Garvin was also going to say whatever was necessary to convince these two young bucks Edward had lost his mind and they were going to be all right as long as they didn't dwell on what was happening. Everyone needed to clear their minds, settle down, and wait for the crews outside to break open the passage and let them out.
Garvin never got a word of it out.
The vapors in the passage suddenly dissipated, letting the beams from Victor and D's flashlights find their way to the surfaces immediately in front of them. The light fell on Rob's back, some 30 feet down the passage, and a seething wall of skulls immediately in front of him.
Rob could not slow down in time and struck the wall, reeling backward and falling to the ground after hitting it. The skulls in the wall retained their composure. They all were upright, purposeful, and jawless.
They were also moving. They were moving steadily forward, in rough formation, filling the entire passage. They did not glow or cackle or shine, for theirs was a world of perfect darkness and silence. They bore down hard, catching up to Rob, who was now backing up in quiet, terrified panic.
Victor and D fell back a few steps, not daring to get any closer to the scene in the passage. Garvin kept his ground, but said and did nothing as a voice impressed upon him the urgency of not violating the holiness of that ground.
It was Edward's voice.
He had gone to his people. Edward said it was where he needed to be. This was a holy place, though, and those who did not heed his warnings would be severely punished. There was sorrow in Edward's voice, but it was nonetheless calm and authoritative.
Garvin then saw the punishment meted out on the hapless Rob Krenytsky. It had only begun when Garvin realized, deep in the back of his consciousness, there would be only one Krenytsky in the Dallas phone book next year. All he, D, and Victor could do was watch on as Rob fell victim to the punishment reserved for those who broke the taboo, those who were not part of the people who dared disturb their silent, deathless rest.
The silence was ripped apart by the pealing screams from Rob's throat. As the skulls touched him, his clothes first began to dissolve and fall away, then his flesh became altered.
It boiled and bubbled, then left his bones and clothed the skulls nearest him in unnaturally-gained skin, this skin spreading outward on the surface and slurping inward to the rest of the mass of skulls, covering all the skulls in an indescribable reddish-pink, pulpy mass.
He continued to shriek as the rest of his body left him and began to clothe the skulls. Streaks of white appeared in the mass as bones, too, now joined the gelatinous procession across the skulls of Edward's ancestors. They moved on, covering where Rob's body should have been.
Rob ceased his screams as his lungs were annihilated, leaving him only able to choke out a few desperate gurgles as he and the others watched on in helpless horror.
The skulls finally covered his head and continued their advance to the entrance of the passage, stopping just before they entered the cavern itself. When they stopped, one skull was pushed out and let to roll about on the dead floor under its own power. No one said anything, but all knew whom it once belonged to. No one dared touch it. No one dared move any closer to the guardians of the passage and the mysteries beyond.
Silence reigned as the three men gaped haplessly upon the eyeless, jawless skulls. The fleshy coating on the skulls remained for a while, then began to sublimate in a strange, brackish steam. The three men did not speak a single word as they tried to come to inner terms with this stark embassy from the realm of the ancient dead.
Edward is somewhere in there, they all realized without speaking to anyone. It was no speculation, merely a logical conclusion from the macabre evidences surrounding them, not the least of which being Edward's testimony from wherever his spirit now resided.
After an eternity of silence, a skull emerged from the wall and floated through the air to within a few feet of the three men. Three others emerged and took up station alongside the first. Without any communication, they all knew Edward's was the second from the right in the line.
The thoughts entered the minds of D, Garvin, and Victor. The thoughts were angry, but willing to forgive. They had only defiled the initial chamber and did not need pay the utmost price for that transgression. They merely had to pledge their lives to preserving the sanctity of the entire location. The thoughts declared they did not wish to receive any more uninvited visitors.
The thoughts let it be known they had nothing further to communicate to Garvin and D. Garvin and D then passed out. Victor remained standing, to receive a few more thoughts. The thoughts told Victor he did not need to repent, as he had not defiled the place, but could not tell the others. He was told of a different role he was to serve in and then joined his associates in unconscious oblivion before he had a chance to wonder in stark confusion why he wasn't in trouble and why that meant he had the more terrible task to tend to.
When the other workers opened up the passage, they were relieved to find three survivors, although disappointed there were not five. Mike was physically unharmed, as well, but would speak nothing of what had happened to him as he waited for the rescue teams to arrive. Wordless glances and gestures between Mike, Garvin, and D let each of them know they had seen something similar and they all had the same responsibilities. None of them knew the exact penalty for failure, but assumed it would not be a beautiful end. Victor was substantially more shaken of the group and did not make contact with the others as he looked around at the air, jumping every time he thought he saw it move in a manner suggestive of the tenebrous smokes of the cavern.
The wall of skulls was gone and the seething, curling black smokes had returned to the entrances. Garvin assumed the leadership of the whole assembly and convinced them to all abandon this place and bury it under as much dirt as they could. Something about the way the smoke moved in an almost-random manner helped convince the rescuers of Garvin's point, and they agreed to bury the place.
To the surprise of the others, Victor volunteered to help out.
"Why in the world would you want to come back down here after all that?" asked Mike in hushed tones after he took Victor aside.
"I want to help bury Edward. He was a friend, and I owe it to him. That Rob guy, too. He wanted to help. He didn't know. He deserves a friend to help him get buried. He gave his life, trying to help, even though he didn't know not to go there."
D joined in the quiet conversation. "I know you want to do right by him, but there ain't nothing left of Rob to bury, and I don't think Edward needs burying…" He quit talking when he noticed how Mike's eyes were widening still further with new-found fear.
Victor was stubborn about his decision. "They both need it, man. I'm going to help out."
Garvin sensed Victor was lying about that being his only reason for wanting to help and expected it had something to do with what the voices must have surely said to him after he and D were let go, but didn't want to press to find out what secret Victor kept. Victor didn't want to help; he needed to help. "Leave him alone, guys. Victor's got his reasons. He won't do anything crazy, will you Victor?"
"No sir." Gone was Victor's hyena laugh and wry smile. He had the face of a combat veteran. Garvin knew that serious visage, for he had seen it in the mirror many times before.
Too many times before.
The place was eventually buried and marked on all maps as an area of extremely unstable soils around impenetrable bedrock. Care was taken to collect all the bones that had been removed and return them to the site. The underground light rail project was diverted along another path. There was some initial controversy over the project change, but the arguments in favor of the change were bolstered by Booker Garvin's persuasions and carried the day.
No one could explain fully why the pagers and phones did not work after the initial conversation between Mike and Rob. Some rescue workers had their pseudoscientific theories, but none of the survivors of the cave-in speculated on that matter. They all had suspicions they wanted the benefit and blessing of not confirming.
None of the four surviving men ever worked in underground construction again.
Mike stayed in the general area and became a successful general contractor. After working underground, Mike no longer preferred to work in quiet areas, forsaking them for spots near extremely loud equipment, preferably as high up on a building or scaffold as he could get. He never attended another funeral.
Dewino went on to college and got an engineering job downtown. He studied Spanish as his foreign language in college and concentrated his engineering studies in the area of civil engineering. He excelled in skyscraper and bridge design projects. He remained a bachelor and lived in a fashionable loft in Deep Ellum.
Garvin continued to be a foreman on construction projects, and stayed in fairly good contact with Mike, as they worked a number of jobs together. He stayed in touch with Dewino, as well. The three of them would get together on occasion and have a drink or two. Garvin eventually became active in his neighborhood Pentecostal church.
The three kept an eye on the ground above the cavern of the skulls every now and then, making sure no-one profaned its silence. They only had to do this until they died and were released from the burden of atonement. No one ever built anything on that lot, and it became tangled and overgrown with weeds and tall grass. Hardly any creature ever disturbed it.
Victor's story went along a different line. He went back to night school and got his GED so he could enlist in the Marines. Garvin heard about Victor's enlistment and took D over to visit him. This was no fond farewell. Garvin and D went to remind Victor of certain obligations he had to honor. Victor told them he had a different row to hoe and he'd be back to do his somber duty after his time was up in the service.
He knew he'd be back and spoke with a faith and conviction behind his words so strong, Garvin was convinced Victor was being honest and real with them. He had heard Victor speak like that before, and knew when Victor told the truth. Victor's responsibility was different, even if he never explained exactly how. Garvin and D recalled how Victor got more instructions than they did, and correctly surmised without confirmation Victor had even more to do than whatever he had to tend to when he assisted in the burial of the place.
Victor never did tell any of the others how his responsibility to the skulls in the cavern was different, or why he had volunteered to help fill in the cavern, or why he had to leave town for an extended time. 20 years later, he returned, honorably discharged from the USMC. Shortly after that, he moved in to a house uncomfortably close to the site of the terrors in his past.
Victor hated living there, but he had no choice: his responsibility demanded it. Now that a sufficiently long time had passed and most everyone had forgotten anything ever happened there, Victor was called upon to fill his duty in darkness and anonymity.
The others noticed Victor in the overgrown field every now and then, always in the hours of the deep night. Sometimes, he was moving toward the center with one or two dark companions. Other times, he was moving away, alone. Always, he was with a shovel and pick in hand or across his shoulder. They never stopped him when they saw him because they knew he wouldn't do anything stupid, not after that time in the vitrified cavern. He had his reasons for going there like he did and that was good enough for D, Garvin, and Mike. They never knew if Victor was aware of them watching or not, as he never turned his disturbingly peaceful and emotionless face in their direction.
Edward's people only told the others to keep uninvited guests out. Now they had had their first visitor in ages, they were desirous of more of their children to return home. Victor hated every time he was called upon to let an invited guest in, but what could he do about it? At least the thick vapors kept him from seeing anything and he was usually able to seal up the entrance before he heard anything from below. He somehow managed to make it through the times he didn't seal the entrance in time, but the stress wore terribly on him. Every time he went digging there, he came back a grayer, older man. At least he could join them when his time came. It comforted him to know his people accepted him and were waiting patiently for his return at the end of his days.