AfterWorld Part 4
Into the LowerLevel: The Conclusion
Missed a part? Start where you left off:
ShyShy’s adventure concludes
ShyShy dropped into the final level of the universe. The LowerLevel. Her lungs ached for air as she propelled herself through the inky black water. The world tilted and turned, and she lost sense of space and direction. Blind, she reached ahead in search of an end to the water, of air and land. The warm water of the puddle cooled. ShyShy feared she’d jumped to her death. Mother could be drowning just inches away from her, and she wouldn’t be able to see.
Then her fingers broke through the surface. The tension of the water separated, and ShyShy emerged with a gasp. Her feet slipped on wet stone as she oriented herself and waded to the edge. Out of breath, she staggered and dropped to her knees on the shore. The water lapped at her feet. She pushed hair from her eyes, and her jaw dropped at her first sight of the LowerLevel.
The water she’d just emerged from glittered in the twinkling darkness. It twisted around caverns like a river, and, along the edge, speleothem emerged from the rough-hewn stone and dropped from the cave ceiling above her. In the distance, ShyShy could make out depressions on the mountain surface which each glowed with a wavering light of fire.
ShyShy lifted her hands over her eyes and peered at the fires in the mountain grottoes. Their light illuminated the river's surface, but not much beyond. Behind her, the cavern disappeared into the darkness. The haunting beauty of it all sent a shiver up her spine. The place was so large, so quiet. She wrapped her arms to herself, momentarily unable to move. She’d never find Mother.
Something brushed against her leg, and ShyShy screamed and fell back into the water.
Spindly legs scampered along the water’s edge. The curves and grooves of the creature’s body made up a human ear, situated parallel to the ground. Legs protruded from the ear’s side, allowing it to scurry blindly on the cavern floor. Listing to-and-fro, the creature descended the riverbank and slipped into the cover of darkness. ShyShy quieted herself and stood up, staring into the inky blackness. The water smacked at her shins, and a sudden thought stopped her breath in her throat. What else lived in these watery depths? She rushed to the shore. Time to move on.
With a deep breath, ShyShy ran along the bank. She studied the jutted rocks and ran her hand across the bumpy surface. The rocks didn’t speak to her like the trees. Instead of sharing pictures of joy or regret, the stones were cold beneath her fingers, empty and silent. ShyShy should have been relieved. She felt no headaches or dizziness, no burden of the dead. Instead, she felt alone. Afraid. The small hairs on her arm stood on end and she looked over her shoulder.
The shadows played tricks on her eyes. The twisting, bulbous stones transformed into screaming faces and gnarled limbs. ShyShy scoured the darkness for movement, any sign of another living creature, but she only saw stone and water.
The shore narrowed and ended at the entrance of a large cavern. The globular formation above her yawned like a mouth. Finger-like stones forced the mouth open on the sides, as if emitting a silent shriek. ShyShy grimaced at the figure. She couldn’t shake the feeling that, somehow, the stone eyes above the opening could see her. What was this place?
The distant fires didn’t penetrate the darkness of the cavern. ShyShy looked back at the water bank. She could turn around and find her way back to the AfterWorld. There was no telling what was in this cave. The creatures who kidnapped Mother or something far worse. ShyShy steadied her breath and calmed her mind. Mother hadn’t disappeared into thin air. She was down here, and ShyShy couldn’t leave her behind. Raising her shaking hands in front of her, she stepped into the blackness.
Nothing penetrated the cavern. Even her fingers in front of her face weren’t visible. She walked with her arms outstretched, feeling in front of herself to find the stone walls as she willed her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Her toes kicked at small pebbles and her fingers ran across moist walls. Panic threatened to stop her every step, but she forced her legs forward.
With another step, her head scraped against the ceiling. She gasped. ShyShy felt blindly for the formation around her and discovered that the cave was shrinking. Crouching, she pressed forward. The rock crumbled between her fingers, and still, the cavern growing smaller.
Eventually, she was forced onto her stomach. She dragged herself along the rough earth. The claustrophobic space left her light-headed. She wheezed shallow breaths, and dirt coated her teeth. The ground pressed against her chest, and her arms became wedged in place. ShyShy couldn’t turn her head to look behind her, not that she’d have been able to see anything through the darkness. Tears accosted her vision and she coughed out a broken sob. The rocks closed in on her and she gasped the limited air left around her. She grunted, urging her body forward, but couldn’t break free. Rock above her and dirt beneath her, she was stuck with her arms pressed to her body.
Her lungs ached for a breath. She’d wedge herself in this black cave with no way out. She’d die there, her skeleton warning the next person to turn back.
With a whimper, she wiggled forward an inch. Her chin scraped against the stone floor as the cave walls pressed on either side of her. Her eyes bulged in her skull when a cry was stifled in her chest. She’d never get out. Her chest burned. She attempted to take a breath, but nothing reached her throat. ShyShy inched further into the suffocating darkness. It was either move forward or give up and die. She dragged loose dirt along with her as she moved painstakingly forward. Her body ached, but she kept Mother in mind. Mother needed her.
A cry echoed from ahead and ShyShy choked on a gasp. She pushed herself onwards with newfound energy. Another call made it to her ears.
The earth below her finally relented. ShyShy yanked one arm out from under her and pushed the dirt aside, releasing herself from the chokehold of the tiny passage. With a grunt, she pushed herself forward. Dirt and stone fell away and she tumbled out of the tunnel.
Air had never tasted so sweet. She gulped it greedily and lifted herself on her shaky arms. The tunnel had deposited her into a small grotto where a crystal pool of water shone along one side, and a fire crackled on the other, creating a warm glow. Shadows from the flames danced on the smooth cavern wall. Three creatures, bald-headed with long, spider-like arms, hovered around the flame.
ShyShy stood and faced them. The creatures’ red eyes locked on to her. With a hiss, tentacles erupted through folds of skin that made up their stomach and whipped in her direction. The same tentacles that had pulled Mother into the LowerLevel and left ShyShy’s skin flaming with burns. ShyShy jumped back to avoid the venom.
Mother cried out. She sat tied up against a curved slab. Her gown had been ripped open down the front and hung loosely off her shoulders. She shook her head wildly from side to side. ShyShy shouldn’t be there. She should run.
“I’m not going,” ShyShy said, climbing to her feet.
The creatures were using Mother to open the portal, the same ritual ShyShy had read about in Silvio’s book.
She stood a couple of feet taller than the hunched gremlin creatures. The three of them bounced on their toes, hissing and flailing their tentacles. ShyShy approached them fearlessly. They wouldn’t hurt Mother. She wouldn’t allow it.
One creature stepped in front of Mother while the others stood like a barrier between her and ShyShy. She reached for her short’s pocket, for the small knife tucked inside.
Not her shorts, but the dress she’d gotten from Silvio’s apartment. Her knife was back at the redwood tree with her drying clothes. Her heart dropped as her hand swiped over the fabric of her dress.
A tentacle smacked against her ankle, and the hit burned her skin. She dashed out of reach, avoiding its grasp as it lashed again.
The second creature held a crude blade over Mother. With a swift motion, it sliced the inside of Mother’s arm. ShyShy gasped. The third creature scurried closer to her, whipping its tentacle and striking ShyShy in her side. She staggered backward and Mother cried out. The creature pounced onto ShyShy, wheezing and grunting as it wrapped its tentacles around her ankles. It trapped her arm against her waist. ShyShy yanked her other arm out from under her. She stole a glance at Mother.
The other creature continued slicing down Mother’s arm, and across her stomach, and then stabbed her several times in each leg. Blood coated Mother’s ivory skin and dripped onto the stone floor. The second creature slid a bowl between her legs to catch it.
ShyShy wiggled under the third creature’s grip. Her skin sizzled, pain springing blind spots in her vision. The fire crackled ominously next to her. Mother’s cries rang in her ears as she reached for the flames and found a charred piece of wood. The creature lashed another tentacle at her outstretched hand.
Mother kicked. The two creatures around her screeched. One shook its head, cradling the side of its face, while the other nestled the bowl of Mother’s blood like it was a baby. Mother kicked again, loosening restraints around her leg. She glared at the creature on top of ShyShy.
The commotion had distracted the third creature for just a moment. It eased its grip on ShyShy enough for her to reach for the flames and latch on to a burning log. Her hand seared against the hot wood. She screamed and struck the creature on top of her with it. The gremlin screeched and scrambled away. ShyShy pushed herself back onto her feet.
A few feet away from Mother, the other creatures huddled over the bowl of blood, dropping powders and herbs inside while muttering harsh whispers. ShyShy rushed to the unholy beings and jabbed fire at them, but they remained huddled over the bowl, unaffected. She felt a twinge in her stomach. Mother sat bleeding beside her.
They’d finished the ritual. ShyShy lowered the flame. The twinge twisted into guilt as she realized: she wanted them to open the portal. ShyShy would never hurt Mother. She should get that bowl and toss it into the flames, but she didn’t move.
The air behind the tentacle creatures wavered. The cavern wall disappeared, like a curtain opening to reveal the world outside.
Just like the view from Silvio’s window and the bright scene through the Siren’s portal, the OtherWorld gleamed before her.
She dropped the burning log. Her feet carried her to the portal before she had a chance to think. Her arm extended to the sunlight, real sunlight. A car rolled along the road beyond the grassy hill. The surface glimmered in the light, slick and smooth. A car ShyShy had only seen during cartoons. Silvio had told her she wouldn’t recognize the OtherWorld. Decades had gone by since she’d last seen it.
Trees along the road blocked ShyShy’s view beyond the park, though the tops of buildings towered over them, just as smooth and shiny as the car. How tall were buildings in this new OtherWorld? A man laid against a tree, barefoot and topless. A cardboard sign leaned against his sunburned skin. ShyShy expected the sign to be a call for peace, an end to the war in Vietnam. Instead, it read: Veteran. Homeless. Hungry. Please help.
Did the war not end?
A woman jogged past the man, a rectangle strapped to her arm. ShyShy squinted. There was white in the woman’s ears. What was it?
She stared open-mouthed at the portal. Behind her, the bowl the creatures had used skidded against the stone ground. They shuffled to the OtherWorld, watching her as they slinked through the portal. On the other side, they crept across the grassy hill, their pale skin glowing in the OtherWorld sunlight. No one in the park had noticed them run by. They disappeared in the trees.
ShyShy couldn’t move anyway. She couldn’t look away.
She was face to face with the OtherWorld.
A humming noise permeated the portal as a father and son came into view. The father held some sort of large black box. ShyShy frowned. The box reminded her of the tv remote in her old home. But there wasn’t a television outside. Both father and son stared at the sky.
It all took her breath away. All she saw was the green and blues of the OtherWorld park. Her world. This was her world. Her home. It was right there. All she had to do was step through.
The blood that had spilled from the bowl seeped beneath ShyShy’s foot. She tore her attention from the portal and looked over her shoulder. Mother watched her, a small smile turning up the corners of her mouth. ShyShy read her face as if she had actually spoken to her.
Mother nodded her head, Go!
ShyShy looked back to the OtherWorld. Everything she’d worked for was right in front of her. She could finally go home.
A breeze from the OtherWorld came through the portal. It smelled of the ocean. ShyShy inhaled and closed her eyes, taking in the crisp smell of the saltwater and pungent scent of rotting weeds. She’d forgotten about the ocean.
She looked back to the banshee who had cared for her. She turned from the portal and crouched beside Mother. She’d take Mother into the OtherWorld. They’d learn the new world together. They’d find an apartment like Silvio’s and live quietly and peacefully.
“Come with me.” Her fingers already worked on the knots that tied her to the rock.
Mother smiled and shook her head. She squeezed ShyShy’s hand, gently, and nodded towards the portal again. Go!
A seagull called out through the portal and ShyShy looked back at the scene unfolding on the other side. The boy and his father stood next to each other, eyes still on the sky. Now, the boy held the box. The father pointed and the boy lifted the box higher. What were they doing? She could go through and see for herself. All she had to do was stand up. Stand up and walk through the portal. She’d find her actual mom, if she was still alive. It had been decades. ShyShy had to remind herself.
She turned back to Mother. The ropes were untied and Mother had pulled her ripped gown over her body again. ShyShy lifted the hem of her own shift dress and pressed it against a wound on Mother’s arm. The banshee’s eyes had sunken farther into their sockets.
Mother needed help. ShyShy studied the cavern. Was there another way out? Or would they have to crawl through the tunnel?
ShyShy held Mother as she teetered to her feet. Mother’s knees trembled under her weight. She sighed and her eyes began to shut, seemingly against her will. ShyShy lifted Mother’s arm over her shoulder and guided her towards a curved corridor.
The banshee shook her head. She grunted and pointed to the portal with a trembling arm.
“No,” ShyShy said.
Mother attempted to pull her arm from ShyShy’s grasp. A moan passed her lips as she gestured to the portal again.
“I’m not leaving you.”
Tears filled Mother’s eyes. Her soft white hair hung limply in front of her face, blood staining the ends. She pressed her pale lips tight together and shook her head again.
“Come. On.” ShyShy tugged gently.
Would she have to physically drag Mother back to the AfterWorld?
Mother leaned back one more time and gestured to the portal.
ShyShy peered through the gateway again. The OtherWorld shined so bright, so welcoming. She may never get this chance again.
Mother’s cool hand rested on ShyShy’s shoulder. It was as white as paper against ShyShy’s skin. Those hands had fed her when she was too weak to lift her own. They had run through her hair, untangling her curls with a gentle touch. They had cured her and comforted her.
ShyShy turned to the now strange OtherWorld. The boy and father. The man dozing against the tree. Another sleek car sped silently down the road. It was all so foreign. The sight left ShyShy light-headed. It had been so long. Was that still her home?
She met Mother’s tearful gaze, the banshee’s clouded eyes red and puffy. ShyShy dropped Mother’s arm and stormed purposefully to the portal. She moved quickly before she could change her mind.
The bowl she’d pushed away settled just in front of the gateway, wooden unlike the stone ones in their home. She picked it up, turned around, and tossed it into the crackling fire.
With a moan, Mother staggered forward, her arms outstretched and ready to catch the bowl, but in her state, she couldn’t move fast enough. ShyShy rushed to her to keep her from falling forward. Mother’s mouth hung open, the banshee’s wail sang the pain of her heart while her eyes remained fixed on the burning bowl.
“It’s okay.” She cupped Mother’s cheeks in both her hands and smiled.
Tears spilled down Mother’s face and ShyShy brushed them away.
“It’s okay,” she reassured her. Her own eyes pricked, threatening to cry along with her. “You’re my home now, you know? I’m not going to leave you.”
ShyShy looked behind her at the portal. The fire sizzled, burning off Mother’s blood and the creature’s herbs. Finally, the portal faded into a cavern wall once again.
Mother watched ShyShy. Her sorrowful wail fell silent. ShyShy studied the wall, waiting to feel loss or pain, but it never came. She turned back to her with a gentle smile.
“Let’s go home, Mama.”
She lifted Mother to her feet. Mother wrapped her arm around ShyShy’s waist and leaned on her. ShyShy dug her fingers into Mother’s flesh to keep hold of her. She’d lost so much blood.
ShyShy chewed on the inside of her cheek again and frowned at the stained gown hanging on Mother’s thin frame. She lifted her mother into her arms like a child and Mother rested her head on ShyShy’s chest. ShyShy stepped carefully over the uneven stone floor, moving to the rhythm of Mother’s breath on her skin. This time, the dark caverns of the LowerLevel didn’t scare her. Her heart pumped energy to her arms and legs. She knew she’d get Mother back to the AfterWorld. There wasn’t a doubt in her mind that she’d get them home.
After finding a less oppressive passage on the other side of the cavern, ShyShy carried Mother through the cave. Back on the river’s shore, she admired the twinkling fires in the mountains. Mother stepped down from her arms and into the water. ShyShy held her waist and they ducked into the water together.
For the first time since coming to the AfterWorld, ShyShy knew she was exactly where she was supposed to be. There was no need to find a portal, no need to escape. She’d get Mother back to their home, visit Silvio, and wait to see what the AfterWorld would bring her next.
Thank you for reading AfterWorld. Let me know what you think by commenting below or share Part 1 with a friend.
Stay tuned for more from ShyShy in my upcoming novel, Son of Horus, out October 25th. Subscribe to my newsletter to stay up to date.