“June!” Lawrence screamed. His voice ricocheted down the tunnel, stirred up a single echo, and quickly died away.
“Well, come on,” Abigail said. “We have to find her.”
They jogged back up the tunnel. After a minute or so, Abigail thought she heard something.
“Lawrence,” she said. “Lawrence!” He spun around. “I think I heard—”
A scream exploded from the bowels of the mountain. It ended abruptly, but its reverberations went on and on.
Lawrence said, “What the hell?”
“Was that June?” Another scream ripped through the cave, this one farther away. “She sounds like she’s in agony,” Abigail said.
They rushed up the tunnel as the screaming continued, arrived after two minutes of hard running at a split in the passage.
A woman’s voice shouted, “WHERE ARE YOU?”
“I can’t tell which one it’s coming from,” Abigail said.
“PLEASE, GOD, JUST KILL ME!”
“This way,” Lawrence said, and he started into the larger of the two passageways.
“I’M SO THIRSTY!”
They moved through a series of grottoes, the screams getting louder.
“I’M STILL ALIVE! PLEASE! FINISH IT! KILL ME!”
“What’s wrong?” Abigail whispered.
He shook his head. “Thought I saw something in that room up ahead.”
“I’m not sure. It moved fast. Forget it.“
“I don’t hear her anymore.”
Lawrence shouted, “June, where are you? Help us find you!”
The cave seemed to hold its breath.
“I hate this place,” Abigail said.
They worked their way through a forest of stalagmites interspersed with pillars of bedrock, coming at last into a stagnant room with feathery blue fungi clinging to the walls and moving in slow-motion waves, like underwater sea grass.
Three steps into the next room, Lawrence froze, and Abigail heard him whisper, “My God.” As he sank down onto the floor, his headlamp shone on the expanding pool of dark blood that flowed out of June Tozer’s head.
She lay on her back beside the small boulder she’d used.
“Everything’s spinning,” she mumbled. They knelt at June’s side. Abigail took her hand, laced their fingers. In the poor light, only the volume of blood hinted at the extent of damage June had managed to self-inflict. She groaned, her lips moving, searching for the strength to form words. “I couldn’t . . . stand it. They were all around me, trying to use me. Where’s Emmett?” She tried to call out to him, but his name miscarried in her throat.
“He’s not here right now,” Lawrence said.
“I’ll be with him soon?” she mouthed between wet breaths. “And Ty?”
“Their son,” Abigail said. “Yeah. Ty, too.”
“I wanna hear him laugh again.”
“You will, sweetie.” Abigail was crying, overcome by June’s deathbed desperation—wishful thinking and unanswerable questions begging answers, any semblance of truth be damned.
“He’s always been a little boy in my mind. You think he’s grown up into a—” She choked, then coughed, a mist of blood sputtering through the gaps between her teeth.
“Try not to talk,” Lawrence said.
“Will I still be his mom? I was for six beautiful . . .” She moaned, her eyes closing. Abigail placed her ear on June’s sternum, listening for the rise and fall of lungs expanding, deflating.
“I’m so sorry.” Lawrence wept. “This was my fault.”
June’s chest swelled, Abigail’s head lifting.
Then it fell—down, down—one long exhalation, all air expelled, and never rose again.
At three in the afternoon, Abigail heard Lawrence say, “There’s light up ahead.”
The two of them entered the largest cavern yet, more than a hundred feet across, filled with enormous spires that rose from the floor. A spring bubbled out of a crack in the wall, speleothem deposits hanging like curtains from the high ceiling. They stood in the luminous shaft that angled down, bathing them in daylight. Forty feet above, a chimney bored through the ceiling, and Abigail saw a distant patch of gray at the end of it.
“Never get there,” Lawrence said. “Don’t even get your hopes up.” He walked over to the spring. “Abigail, bring your empty water bottle.” She went to her father and dug the Nalgene bottle out of her pack. Lawrence held the plastic lip against the rock, and with the bottle halfway full, he strode into the middle of the cavern and held it up to the natural light.
The water was cloudy, sediment already settling on the bottom. He sniffed it. “Potent sulfur smell.” He sipped the water, winced, and spit it out. “Very mineralized. Tastes bitter and acidic. Much stronger than the hot springs in Pagosa. I don’t know if this is even safe to drink.” Abigail gazed up at the window in the ceiling, beating back the despair. This was far worse than traveling through the dark zone, she decided. This was throwing it in your face, a glimpse of the unreachable—heaven from hell.
When they finally stopped for the day, a smothering depression had descended on them. It was suppertime, but there would be nothing more to eat than a nibble from the last granola bar, a sip or two of water. They would sleep in their damp and filthy clothes, in the cold, on a hard rock floor, and when they awoke, it would still be dark.
Abigail and Lawrence sat against the wall in a small room with a low ceiling, a space that resembled fifty other rooms they’d passed through during the last fifteen hours.
“We shouldn’t have left her there,” Abigail said.
“What could we do? Dragging her through the cave with us won’t bring her or Emmett back, will it?” Lawrence switched off his headlamp.
Abigail, desperate to hear his voice, anything to break the uncompromising black-hole silence, said, “You’ve found the remains of Abandon and you now know how they died, but you still don’t really understand what happened, do you?”
“Nope. And Quinn—if that’s really his name—throws a new wrench into the equation.”
“But knowing they all died in this cave?”
“My gut tells me that, like us, they were locked in here. Maybe by Oatha Wallace and Billy McCabe. But the fact that the gold was locked in as well kind of refutes that theory.”