The Cathedral, Part II
I wake myself up coughing. I’m lying on my back and there’s something heavy on my chest: a small pile of stones that shift with my breath. One of my feet is twisted beneath me. Light sifts down through tumbling dust. I remember that I fell, can’t tell how deep.
Raising myself on my elbows, I come to a seated position and move the debris trapping my right foot. Flexing it makes me wince a little, but I can move it. On my wrists and knees, I navigate the rock slide, find cool mosaic tile beneath the rubble, the floor of the cathedral.
I clear a spot and rest for a moment, closing my eyes. My heartbeat seems to fill the darkness. I hope Decker and the kids didn’t see me fall.
There’s a lump in my back pocket, and I remember my phone. It didn’t have service when I first woke up, back at home, but I brought it along anyway. Now the screen is cracked and I can’t read the time. Could be hours I’ve been out or just a few minutes.
Something skitters, and I sit up straight. My knees and the rubble around me are dim shapes. If there’s a rat down here, I won’t be able to see it until it’s on me.
Carefully, I get to my feet, putting most of my weight on my left knee. I have to stoop so I don’t hit my head on jagged beams that loom suddenly in my face. The loose stones where I was laying shift, and I move away from the pile. Too unstable. I need to find a way out.
Ahead, a patch of the mosaic floor is visible as if spotlighted. When I get to it I can see a circle of sky above, about two stories up. Goosebumps crawl across my arms and I rub them through my sweater. I could be stuck down here.
With my phone as a dim flashlight, I scout the darkness and find a cracked font for holy water. It’s been years since I was in a church. Is the holy water at the back or the front? I’m not sure. I was never inside this place before it fell.
The water is muddy with silt in it. No good for drinking. Thankfully I’m not parched yet.
Something rustles behind the font. I step back, wincing when my right foot lands. Please be a pigeon. Nothing emerges from the dark, and the light of my phone screen is dying. To get out, I have to go into that dark.
I’m debating a direction to take when I hear something like bare feet slapping on marble, and a soft, distant light comes into view. A way out.
I limp in that direction, hoping I’m not hallucinating the light. Every step hurts. If I were above, I’d take off the boot and get some ice on my ankle. Most of the shops still had power. Decker and I stopped in a corner shop and got Cornettos because no one was stopping us. It’s a good thing the electric still runs, because I don’t know how I’d take care of the kids otherwise.
They’re all so trusting. Even Decker, though he plays rough. It’s like they know what happened to me, before, that I was almost a mum.
I trip over my own feet and curse, and the light ahead swings off to the side with the unmistakable sound of steps. It disappears in the shadows.
“Who’s there?” I call. Maybe it’s an alien, but it’s a small alien, and it’s scared of me. Whatever it is, it might be my only hope of finding a way out.
I follow the footsteps and the path grows dimmer until it’s completely dark. For a few minutes I grope ahead, shuffling my feet so I don’t trip again. My hands, raised before me, meet a ragged chunk of stone, and I stop. If I turn full circle, all I can see is darkness. I’m not even certain of the way back to the hole.
My ankle throbs like a beating heart, sharp while my other senses are useless. I pat out a circle on the ground and sit, and blink away tears. If Decker or the others were here, I’d never let them see me like this. But there’s no one here to be strong for.
A gold haze creeps into the left corner of my vision, and I hear breathing. Sniffling, I turn my head. A small face peers at me, out of the gloom, something over its head shedding light. The longer we look at each other, the clearer the boy’s face becomes, and I can see round shoulders and hands clutching at a big rock that obscures the rest of his body. He doesn’t blink, and even in the dark I see that he has golden eyes.
“H’lo,” I whisper.
He ducks and the light above his head moves with him. But his eyes are still visible just above the rock, and I smile at him. He’s got to be only about three years old.
“What are you doing down here?” I ask.
He doesn’t answer but doesn’t disappear. My eyes are playing tricks on me, trying to resolve the light into a ring. Strange to find a kid with a headlamp down here.
“If you come over, we can walk together,” I say, patting the tile near me.
I turn to examine my legs spread before me, pull my injured ankle closer and dip my fingers inside the boot to feel my hot skin. If I don’t get out soon, I may have to cut the boot off.
The glow comes near enough that I can read the brand name sewn into a seam of the leather. I stare at my hands until the soft breath is nearly at my ear. With a side glance out from under my fringe, I see tiny toes, chubby bare calves and knees.
I turn to ask the boy how he’s managed to run around without cutting his feet up, but instead blurt, “Oh, you’re naked!”
There’s not a speck of dirt on him. That’s the only thought my brain allows at first, because softly glowing, feathered wings, and that hovering light that, no, is not a headlamp, those are much harder thoughts to accept.
When I swallow, the noise sounds ten times louder. The boy tilts his head.
“I’m, uh, I’m Chiswick,” I tell him. Then I remember I’m wearing a sweater over my t-shirt and offer it to him.
“You must be cold,” I say.
He takes a step closer but not for the sweater. Instead, he points at my foot.
“Hurts,” I say, “but I’ll be okay.”
His brow draws down and his lips in, and he puffs his cheeks out slightly. Then he reaches for the tip of my boot. When his hand comes to rest it is so warm I can feel the heat in my toes, and something like relief washes over my foot. It feels much better.
“Wow,” I breathe. He giggles and darts off.
“Wait!” I scramble to my feet, still holding out the sweater. He stops and looks at me over his shoulder. As soon as I’m a few steps away, he darts ahead again.
So the boy leads us out of the rubble, taking my hand when I stop in fear that the roof will come down and leading me around cavernous openings in the floor. He never speaks, and he refuses the sweater because it bundles his wings against him too tightly. We find a torn white cloth that I drape around him instead, and this he keeps on.
We find light again and a last broken wall to cross before we’re on the street. The boy pops his head into a small opening and crawls through effortlessly, leaving me to stare at him out on the street in the gray light, waiting for me.
“I can’t.” I’m convinced that if I nudge the stone, everything will come down.
He comes back to the hole and presses his upper half into it so that he blocks out the light from the street and it’s just his own glow illuminating the stone. He holds out a hand to me. I have to crawl to him to take it. Gently, he backtracks and I come forward. The rubble presses against me.
“I’m stuck,” I say, trying to pull out of his grasp.
He tugs, and I come forward. I close my eyes, and the boy pulls on my hand, and I slip though even though it’s impossible. Behind me, the slab shifts and the tunnel collapses.
I fall to the ground, all of my energy gone, spread out in the middle of the street and open my mouth, though no sound comes out. The boy walks off a few steps, yawns and finds a square of grass that used to be part of a sidewalk. I get to my knees and crawl over to him. He curls onto his side and falls asleep.
The sky lightens a little as I come to his side. A blue patch appears, and I close my eyes on it, thinking that we’ll call the boy Cathedral. I lie down and dream about a woman with wings who was crying and has stopped.
Stay tuned for extra content from Audrey next week. Check out Anne’s answer to the prompt on Monday.