Underground Current Episode 2 – The Survivors
On a bright June morning, Sim left camp in high spirits, never suspecting his life was about to change forever. Things seemed the same—the humid air against his cheek, the weight of Slith across his shoulders and the familiar path that led to the rock walls.
“Where to, boy?” he asked, as the snake’s head stretched forward. “Any clues?” But Sim knew the answer. They scoured the Ball every day and rarely found anything new, though occasionally it happened, especially in the perilous upper reaches.
The year before, they’d happened on a crevice that led down to the underground river. It was slippery and steep, but fascination drew Sim in inch by inch until he reached the end, 10 feet above the water…he’d never been on the ceiling of the river before, so he wedged his feet against the sides of the rock, found indentations for his strong fingers and bridged downward far enough to see the extent of the grotto with its lacework of vines and stalactites…but he overstayed and the weight of his body and Slith’s made it almost impossible to back out. He considered dropping into the water, but feared it was too shallow, so he gritted his teeth and, straining every muscle, barely managed to escape.
But that fateful June day, there were no new discoveries, although climbing high on the sheer walls, Sim felt like a king surveying the interior of the vast stone “Ball” with its cap open to the sky…and thankfully saw Lena, who drifted through his life like an exquisite butterfly.
Sim made his way back through the brush and scrambled up the dome of rock that was home. His father Garth was still in his bed just as he’d left him.
“How was your day, Sim?”
“I explored the mossy ledges,” Sim replied, pointing to a smudge on the distant wall. “I don’t get it. Water is seeping from somewhere…there must be another tunnel or crevice, but I can’t find anything.”
“That section is perilous,” Garth cautioned.
“Not really,” Sim said. “The ledges are wider. It’s a snap.”
“Be careful. You’re too cocky for your own good.”
“Father, I know what I’m doing.”
“Perhaps, but I worry anyway. Did you see Lena out there?”
“Yes, once. Walking across the plain with Keever.”
“How old is she?”
“13, I think.”
“You should spend time together,” Garth said.
“I want to, but usually her father’s around or she runs away.”
“Keever is disgusting,” Garth said. “I think he abuses Lena, but she doesn’t know any better.”
“Maybe she does,” the boy said, studying his father.
“Why do you say that?” Garth asked curiously.
“I don’t know. It just popped into my head.”
“Really? Well, he’s been the same for years…even before Lena was born. Your mother knew some of his women.”
“What women? What do you mean?”
“It’s a long story. I’ll tell you sometime…not now.”
“Were the other women teachers like Mom?”
“Sim, let me rest. My stomach is giving me trouble.”
“Father, you need to tell me more, please!”
“The memories are too painful…not today.”
“But that’s what you always say.”
“Maybe it is,” Garth said, laying his head on the moss and closing his eyes.
“Slith and I are going for a swim,” the boy said, scrambling down to the stream at the base of the rock. It meandered through jade-green pools, then cascaded into a crevice.
Sim released Slith, undressed, and eased his sleek body into the water. The snake cruised off looking for fish while the boy dove and cavorted. The cool water felt exhilarating coursing over him, swirling the long hair into dancing strands. He crisscrossed the pool again and again, then climbed onto a rock and stretched out. He looked down his smooth chest past his protruding ribs to his organ, which swelled comfortably in the sunshine.
Slith slid from the water and lay draped across Sim’s legs. They dozed in the heat.
Suddenly, a twig snapped in the underbrush. He looked up to see Lena leaping away…merging gracefully with the shadows. He hardly saw anything except black flowing hair and graceful legs. “Lena!” he cried, but she was gone. She was spying a lot lately, but he didn’t tell Garth. It was too interesting. Often she stood at the base of the cliff and watched as he climbed.
“Wait for me,” he yelled. But she never did.
After his swim, Sim scrambled back up the rock to find his father drenched in sweat, squirming in pain. He knelt helplessly beside him. “What is it, Father?” he cried. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m in agony,” Garth groaned. “My stomach’s on fire.”
Sim was stunned. “You were okay when I left.”
“The cramps came on all of a sudden. Try rolling me on my side.”
Sim leaned down to help, but Garth gritted his teeth and waved him away. “Wait! Not now!” His eyes widened and his withered torso tensed. For what seemed an eternity, he remained frozen in pain, then fell back exhausted. “Now try,” he whispered.
Sim shifted him gently, then placed spare clothing under his head. “Is that better?”
“I don’t know,” his father sighed. “Can’t you spend more time with me? It’s such a comfort to have you around.”
“I guess so, but it’ll be hard to see Lena. She rarely comes around here.” Sim felt a twinge of guilt…didn’t want his father thinking he could stay rooted to the rock forever.
“You’re right, but don’t leave me all day. You don’t realize how dreary my days are.”
“Maybe you need to eat more. You’ve hardly touched food in weeks.”
“My stomach’s sensitive and our food is terrible…all fruit and roughage…even when you make fish stew…there are bones and skin.”
“We eat the same stuff,” Sim said, offended. He was the cook.
“You can’t compare the two of us,” Garth said sharply. “I’m 40 and you’re 15, and look at me. I’m a goddamn cripple!”
“I know. I’ve got to take you with me more. I’ve been collecting vines and I’m going to weave a mat and pull you around the Ball.” His father had once shuffled around like a caterpillar, but lately hadn’t left the Nest, his hollow in the rock.
“Maybe when I feel better.”
Garth lay back and closed his eyes, but Sim was restless. As night fell, he decided to look in on Lena and Keever, and waited for his father to doze. He felt guilty sneaking away but couldn’t stop…feared his father would be repulsed by his behavior and see him as a deviant. Maybe Lena would too. It was okay for a girl to be spying. Girls did things like that…giggling, conspiring, gossiping, but boys? He didn’t think so. People didn’t observe neighbors in secret. Part of him consciously wanted to see Lena and talk to her, while another part urged him to spy. Almost unconsciously, he found himself walking toward her home, or “camp,” as they called them in the Ball.
“Why do we call our homes camps?” Sim once asked.
“It’s the only thing Keever and I agree on. Camps are temporary. Homes are permanent.”
“But this is my home.”
“I know, but if we can get out, we will. Conditions here are primitive.”
“When did you decide that?” Sim asked indignantly.
“It’s an inescapable fact.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You’re young. You don’t appreciate the difficulties.”
Sim glared at his father. “Thanks a lot.”
“It’s true. You think you know everything these days.”
“It’ll never happen.”
“Never is a long time.”
But Sim’s idea of home was changing. The camps were places where adults gave orders and demanded chores, but to Sim home was becoming something different. A wonderful “in between” place where he and Lena could be free. More and more, Sim felt a compulsion to see her. In the evenings he’d think of her and his organ would grow painfully stiff…it became an arrow he had to follow. What started as one night a week became every night…some nights even twice. What he saw was shocking, but fascinating. Unlike his father’s, Sim’s body was complete like Keever’s, and he longed to experience the same things, yet all he could do was stare and pretend it was her hand touching him.
He glanced up at stars twinkling in the opening of the Ball. He knew the trail by heart, and made his way quickly to Lena’s camp by the underground river.
Next Time: What will Sim see at Lena’s camp? Will her father (Keever) catch them? Will their relationship advance to a new level?
Read Episode 3