“Climb?” Shiloh looked up the rickety wooden ladder and back to Brett.
“I’m going to get some gas,” Tom called down. “Don’t worry.”
Don’t worry? Okay, she thought, glancing over her shoulder and pulling closer to her stronger counterpart. “Okay, let’s climb.”
Brett frowned. “Are you sure?” We can wait here until Tom gets back.”
“You kidding me? That – that thing is back there.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I’m not standing around down here like a lame duck.”
“All right.” He knelt and grabbed the ropes at her feet.
“What are you doing?”
“We’re going to be tandem tied. You don’t want to free fall if the ladder breaks, do you?” He began tying his elaborate knots around her legs and midsection. She remained silent, staring at the tunnels and praying for his hands to work fast.
“Okay,” he said after what seemed like an eternity. “I’m going to climb up a few rungs and get these into the wall.” Brett procured two hooks from his backpack. “I’ll tell you when to come up.”
“How long am I going to be standing down here alone?”
“I just need to loop the loose rope through. They’ll catch us if we’re falling. Look, just watch me.” Shiloh nodded, wide eyed. He grabbed her shoulders, drawing her attention. “Did I let it get you back there?”
“No,” she whispered.
He nodded and grabbed the rungs, hauling himself up with sure movements. She did as she was told, keeping her eyes on him. He stopped a quarter of the way up and drove the hooks into the solid wall, looping the rope through and securing it.
“Come on, Shiloh,” Brett called over his shoulder.
Swallowing, she gripped the first rung and lifted herself onto the ladder. It groaned and shifted under her weight and she gasped, flattening herself to the wall. A noise from the tunnels behind her made Shiloh jump and climb three rungs without hesitation, adrenaline pumping through her body. She’d rather plummet to her death than fall victim to that thing.
Brett waited patiently until she had reached him, simply relaxing with his feet against the wall and gripping the ropes for leverage. He shifted to allow her passage, but the rung under her foot snapped and Shiloh felt the world dropping away from her.
A strong arm caught her waist. Brett pulled her up against him as she gripped the rope desperately, gasping for breath. “Oh, shit,” she whispered as her heart raced.
“It’s okay,” he said softly. “I’ve got you.”
“I can’t…I don’t know if I can do this.”
He gripped her hips, spinning her on the rope until her back was to the wall. Brett had a secure grip on the loose end of her rope and she was suspended in mid-air as he leaned against the wall nonchalantly, smiling.
“Jesus Christ, Brett.”
“I think,” he said, still smiling, “that we need to take a minute to relax.”
Relax? I’m suspended in the middle of a tube between a monster and salvation. This is worse than purgatory. “I’d rather just get to the surface,” she said.
“Trust me. I know best.”
Shiloh rolled her eyes. “Oh, my god. Your ego is outrageous.”
“Tell me about it.” Brett winked theatrically, drawing a hint of a smile from her. “Want to hear a story?”
“A story?” she asked incredulously. “Shouldn’t we be climbing?”
“Tom will be back soon to pull us out. Let me tell you about this woman at our high school. We called her ‘the friendly librarian’, because she liked to pull all the boys to the archives and -”
“Okay,” Shiloh interrupted, her face burning red. “I really don’t need to hear about your lost virginity.”
Brett guffawed. “That wasn’t where I was going. She got fired and never worked with kids again.”
“Oh. That’s, ah…good.”
He smiled, pulling her a little closer. “Tell me something from your past.”
“Like what?” She swung forward, landing against Brett. He wrapped an arm around her, holding her in place as Shiloh’s breath caught in her throat.
“I don’t care,” he said softly.
“Ah…” His warm breath was on her cheek, fogging her mind. “I, ah…”
“Tell me about your first love,” he prompted.
“Okay. His name was Paul. We were in eighth grade, holding hands and all that jazz.” She giggled on the memory. “One day, he came over and we snuck out to my dad’s worksite. I took him into the excavator to show him the controls and he made his move. He was my first kiss.” She turned to look at Brett and their noses brushed. “That’s all.”
Brett reached out tentatively and ran a hand across her cheek, brushing away rogue hairs. Everywhere his fingers dragged sent a trail of fire across her skin and her breath grew ragged. He cupped her chin, drawing her closer still, and she felt his breath on her lips.
“Hey,” Tom called from above, breaking the trance as they leaped apart, sending Shiloh swinging madly. “I got the machine filled. You ready to be pulled up?”
Brett was chuckling to himself, tongue lodged firmly in his cheek. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered while unhooking the ropes from the hooks on the wall. Shiloh dropped a little, making her flail out and grab his arm for support. “I’ve got you,” he said, pulling her into him. “Yeah,” he called up to Tom. “Pull us out.”
As the ropes jerked and they began moving upward, Shiloh felt his fingers grip a little tighter to her hips.
The other magnificent flashers: