Their footsteps were loud against the stone and the sound of water had become further away again, but the air had turned cool and damp. Water dripped from the unseen ceiling and pattered onto the ground. The echoing sound of the droplets and their steps made her think of the time she had gone into a cave behind a waterfall with her friends as a girl. Alice’s mind was taken over by the sounds of water and the sight of George holding a gun, so when her foot slipped on one of the steps she didn’t notice until she pitched forward with a cry of surprise.
“Alice!” Phillip reached forward and caught the back of her shirt as she fell, and Alice heard the fabric tear.
I just bought this shirt, she thought, realizing as she did how ridiculous it was. It didn’t stop her falling, though, and George turned toward the sound of Phillip’s voice to see Alice coming directly at him. He dropped the lantern and caught her in his arms, an action that pushed him off the edge of his own step. The lantern crashed on the stone floor beneath them and burst in a splintering of glass and metal, giving off one bright burst of light before being swallowed by the darkness. Alice hoped that when they hit the ground he wouldn’t land on the mess. The last thing she wanted was for him to get hurt again because she wasn’t paying attention.
George was under her, so when they hit the floor together he broke her fall. Alice lay in his arms for a moment, trying to decide if they were really all right before she got up. The worst thing that had happened to her was her ruined shirt but George was coughing and trying to catch his breath.
“Are you all right?” She sat up and got off him but didn’t stand, waiting instead to make sure he was going to be okay. George pressed a hand to his chest and nodded.
“Just got the wind knocked out of me,” he said.
“Thank you,” Alice said quietly, not wanting the others to hear what she was saying. She wanted to keep as much between her and George as possible. “You could have just let me fall.”
“I could’ve,” George said looking up at Phillip and Nadir, who were coming down as fast as caution would allow. “But I won’t.” The light of Nadir’s lantern reached them, throwing shadows onto George’s face and he smiled. “As you can see, I didn’t even lose my glasses.”
“Are you okay?” Phillip knelt down beside Alice and she nodded. “Thank God. I’m sorry about tearing your shirt, I thought I would be able to catch you.”
“It’s all right,” Alice said. “Thank you for trying, though. I can forgive the loss of one shirt.”
“I’ll buy you a new one when we get back to the States,” Phillip said. “Whatever kind you like.” His words touched Alice but she knew she couldn’t let him do it. She had felt his feelings for her growing the longer they spent together, and he was a sweet boy, but that was all he was to her. Before she could reply, George started to get up.
“Let me help you,” Alice said, shooting up from her place on the floor and offering George both of her hands the way she used to. He gave her a dubious look and for a moment she thought he was going to tell her not to be ridiculous and stand up himself. Instead he took her hands and let her put on the old charade. Alice didn’t know if he could see it but she was smiling hard enough that it hurt. “You’ve definitely put on weight.”
“Age will do that to a man,” George said, standing up as she took a step backward to pull him. “Happens to the best of us.”
“I should say so,” Alice said. “I know I—” Her words were cut off before she’d really gotten a chance to say them as the stones beneath the heel of her shoe crumbled away under her slight pressure. When she realized she was falling again, Alice immediately let go of George’s hands so she wouldn’t pull him down with her.
“Alice!” This time it was all three of the men shouting at her as she fell backward and the fact that their voices were echoing made her realize that they must have come into an open chamber. She couldn’t sense the floor or more steps coming up at her and it dawned on Alice that she was most likely falling to her death.
She could hear her companions shouting again and this time they seemed much further away. It was getting darker and cooler by the second as she fell away from their warmth and what little light was left to them with the one lantern. It looked like one of the fireflies she’d seen while she was playing outside in summer.
This is it, Alice thought. I’m really going to die. Rather than try to look into the darkness, Alice closed her eyes and stretched her arms out to her sides like wings. I wonder if it will hurt?
Thoughts warred and spun through her head; images of her parents and her friends, the work she did for the translation company, her mother’s noisy little dog. Mostly she thought about George and how happy she was that she’d gotten the chance to tell him that she loved him. She hoped he would be able to forget everything that had happened since they met again in Nadir’s office and remember the time they’d spent together in Surat, only this time he’d know how she felt.
I’m sorry, George, she thought as she finally felt something rushing up at her. For everything.
Alice clenched her teeth and braced herself as best she could for the impact, hoping that she would die right away and not suffer. She didn’t know how far she had fallen so it was impossible to tell, but she knew that it wasn’t a question of whether or not she would die, more of how painfully she would do so.
Then, to her surprise, Alice plunged into water so icy cold that it sent a shock through her body. It wasn’t at all what she expected and she opened her mouth to cry out but nothing came out. A moment later her heart stopped and everything was black.
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