Damien didn’t care if the mango juice covered half his face and made his hands and cheeks sticky–he was starving.
He didn’t think about the various piles of feces he and his brother had left in the Androsian pit, having nowhere else to leave them, and nothing much to wipe with–surrounded by small, glossy leaves, mounds of damp dirt, and swollen ripe fruit.
Mango used to be Damien’s favorite fruit–both the smaller, ovoid, yellow ones and the large, multicolor, more rounded ones–but he wasn’t so sure he could eat them again if he and his brother ever escaped; his stomach now got sick from them, but they were the only food and drink besides the small, yellow pigeon plums that fell in from trees above.
Damien was grateful for the visible chunk of clear aqua sky and the armies of trees all around and above them, but he couldn’t see how it was possible to climb out of the hole he and his little brother had fallen into.
From day one he was sorry he had brought Mikey along–only six, Mikey couldn’t stop crying, although he pretended bravery sometimes, frequently offering up stupid, hopeful suggestions. At first, Damien got mad at him, but then he remembered the three years he had on his brother, so of course he was smarter. If Damien had fallen into a pit at six like Mikey, he, too, might have suggested that they practice jumping so they could jump high enough to bound out of the bushy pit one day. Perhaps he, too, would have thought one of them could stand on the other’s shoulders and that they could get out that way–although that suggestion wasn’t so stupid; Damien had actually tried it, managing to hoist Mikey onto his shoulders, but the pit was deeper than their combined eight-foot height. If Damien had been six, maybe he would have also kept saying that their parents would find them soon, then cried quietly in a corner when he thought his big brother wasn’t looking.
Damien had lost count of how long they’d been in the hole. He remembered night falling without their parents finding them, and then another day, then another night and day. Then, days and nights began running together in his head. Perhaps they were on day eight by now.
“Mikey, how long we been down here?”
His brother looked up from nibbling on plums.
“Six days,” he said with finality after a few seconds.
Damien felt surprised. But then again, what did a six-year-old know? Mikey couldn’t even remember not to put his hands in his hair after eating a mango, so that when he slept through the cool night, leaves wouldn’t stick to it.
“Maybe pirates hid some gold in here,” Mikey had said cheerfully their first day, running–unscathed–to check out the cave, while Damien was still rubbing his hurt arm. He had fallen first, and his brother didn’t understand in time to stop running.
“Maybe Mommy’ll find us today,” Mikey said when they hadn’t found any treasure chests of gold or jewels, and had spent their first night in the cool, damp pit. Luckily, they hadn’t found any beasties like snakes or crabs or worse in the cave, either.
“Maybe a helicopter will fly over and see us. Maybe…”
Maybe you should just shut up and stop picking boogers with the hand you hold mangoes and plums with, Damien thought as he ignored him, breaking off a piece of an aloe vera plant they had found in a corner of the cave. He hoped smearing its gel over their skin would help heal the insect bites they had gotten, and maybe guard against further bites–sand flies and mosquitoes were merciless once evening fell.
The land had been drenched with rain for days–rain that, at first fall, nudged crabs out of their holes. That’s how they had gotten into trouble–the land crabs were out in droves.
Damien had been too busy imagining the many ways the crabs would come in handy for his mom: the crab and rice, crab soup or crab patties she’d make, his grandmother’s warning about sticking to the roadways long faded from his ears.
“No reason to go in da bush lookin’ for crab–plenty right by the side of the road,” she had said as they left. And it was true–the island was crawling with crabs this time of year, tons for everyone for crab dishes all summer, with more than enough to spare and send to other Bahamian islands.
Their mother would have never let them go by themselves, but grandma knew he was a big boy. Damien liked when she babysat them, because she let them eat all the candy and watch all the TV they wanted. And now, he’d get to show everyone he could come home with a bag of crabs, just like the other big boys.
He had been following one big mama crab in particular–a shimmering blue and beige one with pincers that almost intimidated him out of the task–when he and his brother suddenly found themselves surrounded by trees, and unsure which direction they had come in, so distracted by strategizing how to get that jumbo crab into their crocus bag.
They tried to find their way back home before sundown as promised, but the pit swallowed them.
Damien was relieved that none of the crabs had fallen in with them–they had nothing to cook them with, so he would have to kill them, or else their pincers would get him and his brother while they slept.
Damien had been only three when Mikey was born, but he remembered his arrival–his mom suddenly too busy or tired to read to him like she used to, and his dad as missing as before.
He had to go to work, his mom would say whenever Damien asked for his dad.
Damien wasn’t sure what their father did–he wasn’t a policeman or fireman or teacher or anything like that.
He’s a businessman, his mom would say every time he asked.
Damien missed his mother, and hated the stranger-baby who kept calling her away from him. That’s what she’d tell him: “Your brother’s callin’ me” when the stupid chubby thing would cry. But Damien was also fascinated by the creature who couldn’t do anything for himself. Mikey hadn’t yet learned to control his wee-wee and his pee would fly into the air–one time, right in his mom’s face when she was changing him. That made Damien laugh.
The baby also giggled sweetly sometimes, and at others, sounded like he was at least trying to talk, but knew only vowels. Damien decided he would help him form words so that he wouldn’t be so dumb for too long; Mikey had just arrived, after all, and probably needed more help than just his mother could give.
Once, when the baby was bigger, and better about not crying so much, his mom got so tired she fell asleep and didn’t hear Mikey cry out tentatively, and then burst into tears. Damien didn’t want to wake her, so he did what he had seen her do: first, he reached his hands through the crib bars and peeked into Mikey’s diaper to see if it needed changing. He was glad it didn’t, because he wasn’t sure how to do it properly. Plus, he didn’t want to get pee in his face. Then, he looked around for bottles. He found one with what looked like milk in it, and then realized he couldn’t reach it through or over the bars to get it to Mikey. He dragged a chair to the crib, and then climbed up and over into it with Mikey. Lying next to him, Damien figured out how Mikey liked him to hold the bottle, and while Mikey sucked at it, Damien sang a song his mom used to sing to him. Mikey’s eyes started closing.
Damien kept the bottle in place until Mikey stopped sucking, and white stuff spilled out of the sides of his mouth. Damien watched his brother sleep for a minute, wondering what he dreamt about, and not realizing when his own eyelids fell over his eyes. When he awoke, he was glad he didn’t get into trouble for what he had done.
Damien’s mom kept telling him not to expect Mikey to talk like him for a long time. You didn’t start talking until you were almost two, she had said. He’s only ten months–it’ll be a while. Damien didn’t know what ‘a while’ meant. He just knew he’d keep trying to get Mikey to say at least one word.
“You remember your first word?” Damien asked Mikey suddenly, disturbing his game of arranging pigeon plums into circles. Mikey looked at him strangely, and Damien felt silly–of course he wouldn’t remember.
“Well, I helped you with it,” he said. “Mummy was on the phone when you said it, then you wouldn’t say it again when I tried to show her. Anyway, I was showing you my blue toy car. I said, ‘car!’ You said, ‘cah!’”
The sky looked very blue today–clear, with a few fluffy white clouds. One sort of shaped like an elephant eventually drifted out of sight, turning into something else as it left.
Damien was glad that it hadn’t rained since they’d been in the pit–they would get wet and dirty from lying down in mud, and it would be even harder for a helicopter to see them. They’d probably look like trees–all brown and green, leaves stuck to them with mud-glue.
“Maybe we’ll become part of the forest,” Mikey said suddenly, and Damien was struck with fear.
He hadn’t really thought about death before–not when it came to people.
Once, he’d poured salt on a frog he had caught to see if what his friend, Robby, had said was true. He wished it wasn’t. He buried the frog only after it had gone from still, to skin and bones, to just bones a few days later.
He also remembered his dad killing a garden snake because his mom got scared when he told her he’d seen one in the yard. His dad grabbed his machete and went to find it. With its color, the snake was hard to see against the grass but its movement got his dad’s attention, and the next thing he knew–wham! The snake was chopped in two. Damien remembered the tail part wiggling for a little while before going completely still.
He looked over at Mikey who was now eating some of his plum toys.
“Gal, you know they fall in a blue hole–das why no one find dem yet.”
Patricia wanted to slap the woman ahead of her in the checkout line. She knew that she shouldn’t expect the woman to just know who she was, but the other woman with her nudged her, as if she knew. It was a small town and a big story–people were bound to figure it out.
The lady who’d spoken turned after her friend’s nudge and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, miss–they’ll find your boys, soon. And they’ll be alive and well.” She smiled a stiff smile while her silent friend smiled more genuinely.
Patricia said thanks and kept her eyes down until she was out of the store. She was sick of hearing pieces of conversations about her boys. How dare people talk about spirits carrying them off? About them being speared and eaten by wild boars? She knew about the oversized forest iguanas with their razor-sharp claws, the large snakes hanging around berry bushes, the sand flies, mosquitoes and everything else her boys could be scratched, bitten or eaten by.
She also knew her boys couldn’t swim, and that Mikey was actually afraid of the sea, so there was no way they would’ve wandered to the shore, gone for a dip, and gotten swallowed by a blue hole, like so many seemed to think.
But most of all, she knew it probably wasn’t wild animals the boys really had to worry about.
I told you so, she imagined her sister saying to her. I told you he was shady, and that you better think twice about marrying him, but no. Now look at you. This the family you wanted? You like this kind of game with your boys? Having them as collateral?
Oh, shut up, you bitter, lonely spinster, she said to the disembodied voice. I prefer what I’ve got to what you don’t have any day. Besides, her boys were alive, dammit, and no one could tell her otherwise. Despite the rescue units having diminished significantly since the first six days, people were still looking–although the search and rescue mission had morphed into one of body recovery. Still, she felt the boys in her core–they still had a chance.
Mikey woke up screaming. Damien ran over to comfort him, but it took some time for him to calm down–Mikey was convinced they were surrounded by hordes of crabs encircling them, ready to pinch them to death.
The next day, Damien suddenly noticed how skinny his brother looked. He reminded Damien of that frog right before it was all bones.
Damien didn’t care how muddy they got–he wanted it to rain now. He wanted to tilt his head back, open his mouth and drink from the sky.
Their dad had warned them that, no matter how nice they seemed, not to go anywhere with strangers, so when they heard strange voices and calls on the second and fourth day, Damien made sure that Mikey was quiet, and they hid deep in a corner of the cave. He listened for his mom’s or dad’s voice, but heard neither. When a voice entered the cave as if someone had leaned over and called into it, he almost ran toward it, but knew that they could get into big trouble. His dad had told them over and over again that bad things could happen to them, and he wouldn’t be able to help. Stay close to home, don’t wander too far. Don’t let anyone take you. They had already disobeyed the first two–Damien figured they’d better listen to the last.
The voice was like a whisper, even as it echoed through the cave, making both Damien and his brother shut up immediately. They hadn’t heard the man coming, so they weren’t able to trick him like everyone else who had showed up in groups, and probably took any chatting sound they’d heard as having come from the group or a forest echo; groups were easy to fool. But this man had snuck up on them, and probably knew right away their voices hadn’t come from around him or from inside his head. Especially since Damien and his brother had been agitated by the discovery of two crabs in the pit after a night of rain.
“Hey,” the man said again, a little louder. “I here on behalf of your daddy.”
The boys ran to the light of the gaping hole.
Damien saw the mouth of the light brown face looking down transform into a dinghy-toothed smile, a single golden tooth among the yellow. Although he was smiling all friendly, the man made Damien uneasy. He had thick, long dreadlocks, a few of which stretched down past his face like falling ropes into the hole. Damien imagined climbing one.
“Where’s Daddy?” Mikey said, noticing the man alone. The rasta-looking man looked off for a moment, as if at someone else standing where they couldn’t see. He gave a quick nod, and then turned back to the boys.
“Daddy?” they both called to the unseen person.
The Rasta grinned wider, yellow and gold teeth gleaming.
“I said I’m here on his behalf. I’ll take you to him,” he said.
The other person came forward and they didn’t know him at all. His skin was much darker than the Rasta’s–even darker than their dad’s–tightly curled hair cropped low, teeth super white.
“Phillip’s boys, aye?” he said, and then laughed.
Then the men worked on getting the boys out. Forming a human chain, they pulled one out, then the other.
The dark man made a sound and they saw him fanning in front of his nose.
“Christ, y’all stink! We can’t take y’all to your daddy like that.”
The Rasta smiled at the man, then nodded.
“Right. Plus, y’all must be hungry–how ’bout some pizza?”
The thought of pizza made all of Damien’s uneasiness disappear. So much so that he thought nothing of it once they broke out of the forest, and instead of seeing familiar roads and houses, they ended up on the white sands of the beach heading toward a boat.
“We’ll bring y’all back to your house after y’all get cleaned up, and eat some food…and your daddy gives us what belongs to us.”
Damien barely heard him as he thought about whether he and his brother would get pepperoni pizza or just cheese. Maybe even supreme. He self-consciously wiped away the moisture leaving his mouth.
The men were right–his daddy always said cleanliness was next to godliness, after all; they couldn’t go to him looking and smelling like this.
“Man, that pretty, aye?” the dark man said with reverence, looking at the sea as the boat glided along.
Mikey was afraid of the sea, so he wasn’t looking up at all. He was balled up in a corner, knees to his chest, arms covering his face.
But Damien wasn’t scared. He looked in the direction of the dark man’s gaze.
They were sailing past the edges of a blue hole, a stark difference between its circle of sapphire blue and the sparkling, aquamarine sea surrounding it. Damien wondered what kind of animals lived in its deep blue depths.
“Don’t worry about that,” the Rasta said, looking at the blue hole, and then at him. “Your daddy will save you.”
BIO: Born and raised in The Bahamas, T.N Collie now lives in southern California penning fiction under various pen names. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in “Another Dimension” (previously”Wily Writers”), “Expanded Horizons,” “On the Premises,” and “Big Pulp.”