It was pitch black inside the hole. Clara had fallen asleep, her forehead resting against a muddy wall, and was woken up with a start, forgetting where she was and screaming for help until her throat was sore. This cycle had repeated three times since she last saw her cousin. She found it impossible to keep track of time. Seconds, minutes, hours all passed in what felt like an eternity. There was no underground sun – she wished there was.
Her cousin, Maurice, had promised he’d come back for her. Clara believed him with all of her heart which meant he had either lost his way back or something had happened to him. She fiddled with the buttons on her cardigan, haunted by both thoughts.
During her first week in the hole, her stomach ached and groaned. The rationed drops of water from Maurice’s water bottle did nothing to satiate her. She’d bitten her nails until she could taste blood and chewed her hair just to give her jaw something to do. It drove Maurice crazy, but he wasn’t much better. He hummed classical piano pieces, stopping because he swore he heard someone humming the harmony.
“It must be an echo,” Clara suggested.
Maurice called her stupid. “There’s no echo,” he said. “Nothing of that sort this far underground.”
She pouted. “Do you think they’re still looking for us?”
Even though she couldn’t see him, she imagined his brown eyes wide and distant. She searched for his clammy hand in the darkness and clasped it.
Before he left, he showed how to hold her own hand if she got scared. But Clara didn’t like doing that because it reminded her of him and made her feel even more alone. Instead, she felt for the opening in the wall. It had become a habit – a hobby, almost – to stretch her arm out as far as she could and try to feel something. A cool breeze. Maurice’s curly hair. Another hand, ready to pull her out. A raspberry jam sandwich. Anything.
Maurice hated the dark – hated it more now than ever. But Clara… Poor six-year-old Clara was waiting for him in the chamber, hungry and alone.
If he didn’t make it, she’d die.
If there was one thing to be said for darkness, it was that it was private. He could cry without her knowing, so long as he was quiet, which was good because he suddenly had a lot to cry about. Maurice was starving too, of course. He was also dizzy with thirst because he felt Clara ought to drink more than him. But above all, he blamed himself. He had accepted his friends’ dare to enter the archeological site, knowing that it was off limits because the earthy roof was unstable, and he had told Clara he was doing it.
Of course she would follow him. She was six.
Their survival was something of a miracle. When the earthy ceiling started collapsing, he barrelled himself and Clara into one of the solid chambers fitted with an oxygen pipe. The problem was that the weight and mass of the earth filled the chamber up and up, making it small and dark and claustrophobic.
Even if his school friends had noticed he was missing and told the teachers or his parents about the dare, there was no way that they would know where to find him. After a few days of going crazy in the darkness, he’d come up with the idea of digging a passageway to escape. The passageway was without an oxygen pipe and even more claustrophobic than the minimized chamber. Mud fell into his mouth and he was in a constant state of covering his eyes.
When he’d first started digging, he was fueled by adrenaline and a will to live. But it had been, what, two or three days? The air was thick in his lungs, his stomach was empty, his arms and legs were jelly from digging. And the likelihood of finding someone soon enough to save himself and Clara…
He sobbed aloud. It turned into a guttural, gasping breath, followed by a wail. He wailed as loud as he’d cried “help” on the first day when the mud had trapped them and they still thought they had a chance.
“Make someone find me!” he prayed coarsely, not for the first time. “Bring me a flashlight and some food, give me fresh air and let Clara live the rest of her life and not pay for my one stupid mistake. I’ll never do anything stupid ever again!”
He gripped the biro he had been using to pry chunks of rock out of the mud and threw off the lid. It was too dark to see what he was doing but he did his best. He wrote: IF YOU FIND ME AND IT’S TOO LATE, I’M SOR… No. He couldn’t finish it. He wouldn’t finish it. If it was too late for him, it was too late for her and it couldn’t be. He wouldn’t let it.
He raised his hands and bared his teeth, then attacked the earth, digging and scraping with his nails.
“I’m going to make it!” he yelled.
He plunged his fist into the wall. It fell through, making him lose balance and fall face-first into the dirt. When he retracted his fist, he was blinded by the first ray of light he’d seen in what had possibly been weeks. He scrambled forward, pushed his head through and crawled with scrawny arms into the outdoors. The sky was a dull blue, hanging between daytime and nighttime. Maurice couldn’t tell if it was morning or evening. The mud he’d emerged from was surrounded by long grass and jagged rocks. He panted in the fresh air, giddy with laughter, trembling with cold in his school shirt and trousers. Then he opened his mouth as wide as it would go and screamed to the sky with all the energy he had left: “HELP ME!”
Clara didn’t remember being rescued. She woke up in the hospital, feeling the soft sheets against her skin and smelling the cleanest, most wonderful smells.
Three people surrounded her bed. Her mother stroked the back of her hand, eyes glistening with tears, her father held giggling baby Charlotte in his arms and a woman dressed in blue clothes checked Clara’s temperature with one hand whilst holding a clipboard in the other.
“Is Maurice okay?” Clara asked croakily. Content with an answer in the affirmative, she smiled. “Can I have a jam sandwich? I’m starving.”
Deborah Rose is the Managing Editor for Hey Young Writer. She is the author of YA, fantasy novels Dragon Pearls (2019) and Crown My Heart (2020). You can follow her on Instagram at @authordeborahrose or visit her website, deborahrosegreen.co.uk!