This is my winning entry from the 2015 NYC Midnight Short Story Contest earlier this year.
A little bleary and disoriented, I open my eyes and reach for my head. My brain pulsates as my fingers lightly caress a large lump where Regina struck me. I check my fingertips for blood, and there isn’t much. To reduce the discomfort, I pull the band from my ponytail and let my mother’s auburn hair fall to my shoulders.
The entrance to the tomb isn’t large, but the golden afternoon sun pouring through the door makes it seem bigger. The light isn’t powerful enough to penetrate too deep, so about thirty feet in it fades into a stark blackness I’ve only seen once when I visited the tar pits in Los Angeles.
I need to call the police, I think as I put my hand on my cell phone, but I freeze. If I call them, they’ll arrest me for trespassing and I’ll lose any chance of finding out what’s down here. I can’t do that, not when I’m so close.
As I stand, a spell of dizziness casts me against the wall and I lean there for a moment as if inebriated. I close my eyes and take slow deep breaths to abate the sickness turning my stomach. The smell of urine, common within pyramids, doesn’t make it easy but I finally succeed in keeping my lunch down. I wipe the sweat from my tacky forehead, and descend into the pyramid to pursue Regina and Kameron.
I reach into the satchel slung across my body and retrieve my flashlight. The bag feels lighter now because it no longer contains an ancient Egyptian device called the Sun of Ra. I suspect my partners stole it after Regina struck me. I silently damn myself for not realizing they would do this to me. It was a hard way to learn the lesson that you’ll never know who is capable of betraying your trust until it’s too late.
The powerful LED beam illuminates the corridor well, which reveals ornate and colorful Egyptian designs on the walls. It reminds me of when I used to excavate with my father as a young girl. He spent much of his life studying ancient civilizations and had always hoped I would follow in his steps. Before he died, he was quite dismayed to learn that his daughter chose instead to be a flight attendant and travel the world. Of course, life has a way of leading you to your fate because here I am, fulfilling a passion of which my father would be proud.
I arrive at a two-way fork and wonder which way they went. I remember my father once explained that the best way to track is to follow the actual tracks, but in here, the floor is clean and unmarked. I look up at the wall in front of me and study the hieroglyphs hoping it will point me in the right direction. Although I suffer from a poor grasp of the ancient script, a few phrases I recall deciphering on the Sun of Ra match some on this wall, and they point to the offering chamber near the tomb. So, I turn left.
I arrive at a room, which would normally be full of artifacts but archaeologists already scavenged it clean. On the opposite end is a door leading to another dark corridor. To the left of it, a decorative tile lays in fragments upon the ground, and behind its original resting spot on the wall is a small recess. It appears that either Regina or Kameron pried it off and inserted the Sun of Ra into it. The jar-like device rests perfectly within a cutout, and the metal rod that juts from the top of it appears to touch a metal plate at the top of the recess.
Hearing a soft hum coming from somewhere makes me smile because I finally found proof that the old civilizations—at least in Egypt—were far more advanced than we originally thought. I know the Sun of Ra is the first advent of battery power, but to see it actually work is breathtaking.
“Dad, if you could only see this,” I speak, and hope my words reach him wherever he might be.
I step through the far door and the beam of my flashlight reveals a stairway leading down. As I descend, I think for a fleeting moment that I might step into a tar trap. I feel lucky to come upon the hard surface of a small vestibule.
In front of me is another longer corridor—a quick automatic guess puts it about twelve or thirteen yards—but it isn’t just a hallway. It’s a trap, evidenced by—oh, God—Kameron’s crushed body. He lays rumpled at the mouth of it. My eyes begin to water with grief as I observe thick slick blood upon the walls and a distinctly sour stench that hangs heavy in the air.
I know he might have attacked me, but I’m still human. Despite the ability for people to betray, your feelings often stay—even if damaged. That’s what makes it so hard when someone destroys your trust in them. It’s because you care, and you can’t believe they’ve done what they did despite your feelings for them.
Avoiding looking at Kameron’s remains, a little deeper in the hallway I see piles of fragmented and powdered bones. I suspect that the walls had crashed together and smashed anything between them, which included not only Kameron but also the dry remains of ancient grave robbers.
It’s no secret the Egyptians used specific means to stop grave robbers from removing valuables. My father told me about grand mazes, deep pits, and even rumors about mechanical crossbows in the Qin Emperor’s tomb in China. However, I never thought I would come to find an elaborate trap like those only encountered by Indiana Jones, but here I am.
I swallow to keep the sickness down as the serpents swimming violently in my stomach become even more ferocious. My heart thumps in my ear, and I wonder for a moment if it’s safe to enter that hallway. There’s no sign of Regina, which means she made it through—at the cost of Kameron’s life—but I can’t be certain the hallway is harmless. I know the artifact powering the door to this place isn’t nearly strong enough to work this trap as well, which means that this must be mechanical—something I might be able to deactivate.
I see no pedestal on which to place a bag of sand, no grimy bug-infested hole with a rusted lever, and there’s no writing on the ground to indicate the correct tiles on which to stand. The tiles probably react to a certain weight, but how much is a mystery to me.
Would a rock do it, I wonder. Probably not.
I shine the light down the trapped corridor and wonder if I can jump far enough to avoid the trigger floor. Even if I had enough room to get a running start, my long jump record in P.E. was a mere fourteen feet, so I wouldn’t make it. Thankfully, Regina is hardly athletic and wouldn’t have made that jump, either, which means she had to have found another way around it.
After another long study of the hallway, I finish by examining the ceiling. It’s there I find several oblong rungs carved from stone that follow the length of it. While not obvious or visible without light, they’re brilliant. The slaves never actually had to deactivate the tiles; they went around them using one of the oldest means of traveling past danger: monkey bars. Some of them are broken or missing, and I realize the dry remains in the hallway aren’t from grave robbers but unlucky slaves who fell victim to their own invention.
I worry I’m running out of time and look for a way to reach the ancient rungs. They’re far too high, but there are small protuberances on a nearby wall that I can use to climb. I put the flashlight in my mouth, place my foot on one of the nubs, and shoot up toward the first hold.
My left hand snares the rung tight, but my right hand falls free. I unintentionally bite harder on the flashlight, which causes my jaw to burn with pain. I loosen my mouth to let out a small moan, and the light falls to the floor.
“Shit,” I utter as I hurry to grab the rung with my free hand. Though I lost my light, I sigh with relief, glad that I didn’t fall and that the flashlight didn’t activate the walls.
As I did with monkey bars when I was a little girl, I swing my body, reach with my strong arm, and grab the next rung. I did this six times, and I came upon one of the broken holds. The next one beyond isn’t too far but I have to let go of this one before I can grab the next. I swing and swing until my false confidence supersedes my sensibleness, and I let go. My fingers wrap around the next rung and I quickly grab onto it with my other hand to stabilize.
I take in a long deep breath of the now unsour but stale air, which is oddly satisfying. I made it halfway across with only eight more rungs to go. Well, seven, because there’s another broken one toward the end. So, I travel across, easing along making sure not to swing too greatly since I’m not sure how much abuse the holds can take. I reach the next missing one, and—as before—swing hard to reach the next to last one. I let go of the rung, soar through the air, and land a strong grip. Then the rung cracks and gives way. I fall to the ground.
I land hard, and a sharp pain screams from my left ankle. The deep sound of hollow thunder booms through the corridor. I scramble to my feet as I watch the sections of wall—starting from the entrance—slam shut. Bang. Bang. Bang. They close faster and faster, and I hobble toward the far exit. I feel the hairs on my neck stand straight, my skin pinching with gooseflesh, and when I reach the final foot of the hallway, I close my eyes and jump.
I hug myself to cushion the fall, and I expect—at the very least—for the walls to crush my legs. They thunder to a close with a sudden clap, and a spray of sand showers me. For a short while, I lay there in the fetal position counting my blessings as the walls rumble back to their original spots.
The hallway is dark now; the life of my flashlight snuffed out by those wicked but effective walls. I comically imagine the flashlight flattened paper-thin and let out an uncontrollable laugh. It really isn’t humorous, but I survived, so you can say my laughter was born from borderline hysteria.
When finally upright, my left ankle stings, but I can walk. Just beyond this new antechamber, there’s another hallway I recall seeing when I shined the light down here. At the end of it, there’s soft amber glow on the right. I walk to the end, limping on my left foot and using the narrow sandstone walls to steady myself. I peer around the corner. Inside a small chamber, I see Regina standing before a black pit.
I turn the corner and enter a room. There’s a ghostly whisper and a mysterious howl I can’t quite place—maybe wind. The room has a strange fuzzy feeling to it as if the air is thin and making me light headed.
Before I can say anything, Regina spins around. “I thought you’d die in that hallway.”
I merely stare at her, surprised with how cold she sounds. If we hadn’t worked closely and on good terms for the last six months, I might have guessed we were lifetime enemies. It’s as if she suddenly changed.
”Isn’t it beautiful?” She says as she turns back to the pit and looks into it.
The sight is beautiful. It’s a square pit with hand-carved stones around it. There are steps leading into it, and there’s some sort of liquid inside. The surface is choppy as if a creature swimming within disturbs it. The light from Regina’s halogen lamp glistens from the tiny waves, and gorgeous refractions dance upon the walls of the room. On the farthest wall, a cluster of hieroglyphs warns that the son of Ra lies within the murky fluid and that he shouldn’t be disturbed—at least I think that’s what it says.
“Was it worth it?” I ask her. “Was it worth smashing me over the head and getting—” tears choke me a bit, but I continue, “—getting Kameron killed?”
She looks back at me, her brown eyes icy and dark. “Don’t you dare. He knew the risks. Just like you and me.”
“No one should have to anticipate their friends turning on them. There isn’t even anything here. It was all for nothing!”
It’s true. All that effort flying from place to place looking for the treasure followed by the loss of Kameron’s life, and all I find is a pool and ultimate betrayal.
“Nothing here?” She softly chuffs, “God, open your eyes.”
Regina’s smile broadens into a dark grin, shadows from the light make her face appear sinister. I lean against the wall to take the weight off my ankle. The fuzzy feeling is still there, so I welcome the rest.
I say, “It’s nothing but superstition. Whatever you’re thinking, you’re wrong.”
“Liar! You know what this is; I know you can feel it. This pool is… is immortality.”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing. It’s pure madness. The enchanted look in her eyes is that same one you get when you’ve made up your mind about something and resolved to ignore all reason. This definitely isn’t the Regina I know.
She takes the first step down toward the pool. I step away from the wall, grimacing from the stab of pain in my ankle, and move to grab her. She hears me shuffle closer and hurries into the liquid.
The whispering in the room becomes louder, and Regina looks up at me. Her eyes turn wide and blur with tears. Her wild grin soon turns up and twists with terror. The whispering gets even louder, and then she screams. Bubbles appear in the pool and when they pop, sinuous threads of smoke snake into the air.
“Get out of there!” I call, but she stumbles back. The liquid splashes onto her face and her skin turns red. Boils appear and her eyes roll back. She begins to convulse as she submerges, and I turn away from the pool. The acrid smell twists my stomach, and I fall to the ground. My knees sting as I vomit. The whispers soon become softer, and that unknown howling returns.
Wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, I look at the glistening pool. The dazzling swells twinkle at each arc. The whispers beckon me, and so I crawl to the edge, unable to take my eyes off it.
It’s so beautiful.