I thought that maybe this would be that last entry, but it looks like there will probably be one more. If you have been waiting for the end, you can probably skip this iteration.
The line shuffled forward a few steps and Kaitlin shuffled with them. She was fairly sure that she had forgotten how her knees worked. Was she being awkward? Maybe? Oh god, she was. She absolutely was being the most awkward. All she had to do was walk a few steps and not act like a doofus. Hundreds of times, many hundreds of times, she had stood in this same line in front of this same counter in this same coffee shop waiting for the same low V-neck wearing barista taking his slow ass time. Sometimes she felt tired or irritable, sometimes she felt rushed and overextended, but never awkward. Now she was feeling judgemental and guilty for feeling judgemental. Or maybe she just felt anxious. Did it show? Could Malcolm tell? He totally could. How could he not? Anxious was leaking out of her pores. She pressed her arms a little tighter to her sides so the smell of anxious couldn’t escape from her armpits.
“Busy this morning.”
Malcolm's voice sounded so calm and easy. How could he be so comfortable when she couldn’t remember how to stand like a person. And he smelled so good. Just a simple clean soap smell with maybe a touch of wood, like sawdust. His smell this close to her made her tongue feel dry. How was that fair.
Kaitlin felt the words “Yeah, right?” croak from her throat as she looked up at his face. Malcolm's bright half smile, the deep brown of his cheeks, and those gorgeous almost black almond eyes.
Not. Fair. At. All.
The line shuffled forward again.
“I’m glad you- we- could, you know, finally make it out- get together.” Malcolm sounded a little less smooth just then. Kaitlin could feel her heart slow to a manageable rhythm. At least some part of him might be close to her level. Stumbling over a few words didn’t stop him from being so damned pretty though.
He added “I mean Medicine is demanding, right? Like timewise and workwise.”
“I’m only first year, but yeah I guess so. Engineering can’t be so super easy either.”
Kaitlin could feel her cheeks warming. She just hoped against hope that she didn’t look like a frickin tomato. This was the longest she had ever talked to Malcolm without the buffer of a group of mutual friends. Maggie had told her that she heard from Lane “that if Kaitlin asked Malcolm to go for coffee, that he would for sure say yes”. It was all very junior high, but it still sent Kaitlin’s stomach into backflips. Then she had gone up and asked him at Janice and Dean’s house party, well her and two beers had gone up and asked him. She felt floaty and hadn’t been sure that it was real, but here they were, saturday morning, standing in line for coffee. Together.
“I’m in civil, so I spent the last couple months reading about asphalt. Mostly we just memorize equations and play a lot of basketball” He said, laughing it off and looking up to the menu board.
“Same. Well, except it’s anatomy and tennis for me.”
“Tennis? I tried badminton, but I never played tennis before.”
“We should!” Kaitlin felt her voice jump in volume and she wrestled it back down. “I mean, if you wanted to try it out sometime, I could- I would be happy to teach you” Kaitlin fought off images of long brown legs and short white shorts. She closed the invitation with a weak grin.
“Maybe for a second, or third date?” Malcolm had replaced that half smile with a sly sideways glance.
If she didn’t look like a tomato before, there was no way she didn’t now. That heat had spread from her cheeks to the tips of her ears.
The line shuffled forward and they found themselves in front of the counter. Together.
Captain V-neck barely focused on them, wiped his hands across his ‘Burks’ apron, and tossed off a bored “So what’ll you have?”
Kaitlin was devoting an unreasonable amount of attention to the warm latte in her hands. She studied the tiny puckered pinholes in the lid. The the wisps of steam that drifted up and away into the crisp october air. None of it was interesting in the slightest, but she made a real effort to keep her eyes locked on that lid. People don’t die of nervous embarrassment do they?
They started talking about school, since that was easy neutral territory. They both asked the same simple, customary questions, and gave the same, simple, rote answers. It felt to Kaitlin like they were participating in a conversational ritual with no clear goal, but it was better than the alternative. She was mostly thinking about just sinking into the cracks of the concrete and disappearing entirely. She kept her mouth moving so by the time they had walked the two blocks from the coffee shop to the river path, Kaitlin could feel herself relaxing a bit.
She started to realize how fast she had been walking and slowed enough to take in the orange and yellow crested trees. Malcolm slowed with her.
“It’s pretty down here.” He said, stopping to regard a group of vibrant poplars.
“It’s a nice place to run. Lots of people, but it’s not usually crowded.” It had been weeks since Kaitlin had gone on a proper run, but she wasn’t going to say that out loud. Besides, it wasn’t a lie. She really did like this stretch of the river path. She looked up at Malcolm while he closed his eyes and took a deep breath of cool air. Maybe this was going okay. She hadn’t felt like a complete disaster in at least four minutes. He had laughed at her jokes. That had to be a good sign.
“You live close, right? Maggie said you live on this side of town.”
Kaitlin was startled and felt her eyes involuntarily snap skyward. Had she been staring? Maybe. Did Malcolm catch her staring? Maybe.
“Uh” Kaitlin uttered. Seemed an easy enough question, but it took a second for her brain to change gears and process it. “Um. Yeah. Yeah. We live just over there. Like three blocks from Burks.”
“That’s convenient, for running I mean. I live way east. Past the university. It’s all just copies of the same couple of houses. Nicest place over there is the parks between the ‘burbs.” He smiled as Kaitlin walked her eyes back over to his. She could feel herself smiling back and only a little warm in the cheeks this time.
“I don’t really know much of the city. I just moved here for school.” Kaitlin trailed off. She felt like there was nothing interesting she could add after that, and her smile faded. The last thing she wanted to do was bore Malcolm with small town stories. Of course, he went and asked anyway, because that was the ritual, right?
“Oh yeah? Where are you from?”
They quickly drifted back into that same question/answer pattern, but more relaxed, maybe a bit more sincere.
They strolled past dozens of mid morning joggers and cyclists trying to shake off a week of sitting on their butts. The air was warming as the sun slowly rose in the sky. When they came to a small bend in the river path Kaitlin stopped short to take in the view. Shafts of sunlight were streaming through the trees and tiny spikes of gold formed on the ripples in the river.
“That deserves a picture.” Kaitlin breathed, and slid her phone from her pocket.
“I’ll hold your coffee” Malcolm offered.
She handed him the cup and took a couple quick shots. It seemed like maybe she was missing an opportunity here.
“Want one with us in it? I can send it to you.” She asked
“Yeah. That’s a good idea.”
Kaitlin stepped back off the path and felt the warmth of Malcolm sliding in behind her as he moved into frame. She was starting to hold it together. Only a tiny bit of her felt like sinking into the soil and blending in with the tree roots. He brought his face up beside hers and she tried to get both of them and the trees behind into one balanced photo.
She really didn’t feel like moving though. This was nice, just like this.
“Here you go.” Malcolm brought her cup up into view and she reached for it with her free hand. Her fingers wrapped over his and she looked up at her phone screen just in time to see Malcolm’s beautiful eyes, now fully wide with surprise, slide out of view over her shoulder. She gripped hard as she felt his hand slipping away, both of them crushing the remnants of the latte into warm spray. She felt herself being pulled down by the hand, then the shoulder, then the ground dropped from underneath her. She was being yanked down, butt first, still clinging to Malcolm’s hand. She opened her mouth in panic, but her voice was absent.
Kaitlin’s phone, still locked in selfie position, lit up in her hand. Her ringtone “Yakety Sax” barked out at her. She snapped up to sitting, her spine rigid. She had to detangle her other hand from something to mash at the face of the phone. Instinctively, she answered the call and slapped the phone to speaker mode.
“Hel-wha-Who? What is- Who is this?”
“Please don’t move.” A calm, businesslike voice. Female maybe? The voice echoed like whoever it was, they were speaking to Kaitlin through a culvert.
“What? Why? What?” She felt immobilized from the tongue down. Kaitlin wasn’t sure she could move even if she hadn’t felt scared out of her mind.
“Sorry to interrupt. I’m Gina and I was wondering if you might need some help.”
“What?” Kaitlin screamed into the phone.
“Who is that? What-” Malcolm screamed up at her. Or maybe he was screaming at the phone, it was hard to tell. Either way, she flinched when she noticed his face lying right beside her hip. For a second there, she had forgotten that he existed. No, that can’t be right. Some hollow static from the phone cut her off mid thought.
“I’m sorry that I interrupted. I just wanted to know if you might need some assistance. Kaitlin Doyle and Malcolm Aldridge, is it?” The voice on the phone pattered back at her. The sound of Kaitlin’s name caught her attentions. That was something real she could latch onto. “ I just want you to stay put for a second while I access your accounts.”
“What accounts?” Malcolm spluttered.
“What accounts?” Kaitlin parroted.
“If you could just hold on for one second, and again, please try not to move.”
There didn’t seem to be anything Kaitlin could do at the moment. Gina, the voice on the phone was saying to stay put. Her legs were in total agreement, so they stayed frozen to the ground. Looking. She could probably look around? That didn’t count as moving right?
So she looked around. Aside from her phone screen there seemed to be a dim red orange light filling the cavern. Okay, cavern! That was a thing! This definitely looked like a cavern. A big one. What else, what else? Stone floor. Smooth stone floor. Tile? Nope. Bigger. Huge stone blocks, mostly smooth with cracks and imperfections. So stone that has worn smooth, not stone that has been machined smooth. Okay. Good, good. Malcolm! There he is. He doesn’t look very calm. Rapid breathing, dilated pupils. Maybe a panic attack? He’s not looking back at Kaitlin. He’s looking straight ahead at something right behind her. What? She turns her head and glances over her shoulder.
Not ready for that yet. What else, what else? Some dirt on the stone floor. Hmm, dirt? So probably not water. What wears stone smooth? Water. But if it were water the stone would be wet and there shouldn’t be dirt. Okay, that’s sorted. She should probably check again. She didn’t really see what she saw, right?
A nice slow turn of the head. Nothing flashy. Just a nice slow glance. Really take it all in.
Yeah. Still there.
“What?” Malcolm whispers the question, but Kaitlin understands every nuance of that one syllable. It’s not just “what am I looking at?” - it is that, but not only that. It’s what to everything. What is this place? What are we doing? What happened? What is happening?
Kaitlin reached out to Malcolm’s hand again. There is no infatuated fumbling. There is no heart stopping, electric moment of contact. She needs an anchor. She can tell by his “What?” that he needs one too. Her fingers mesh with his and she whispers back an answer.
“Yeah. It’s a giant skeleton.”
She Turned her head to take it all in. She probably could have done just as well only moving her eyes, but the ridiculous enormity of the thing seemed to warrant some neck movement. It was maybe a block or so away from them. Were city blocks a useful metric in a cavern? Didn’t matter. Kaitlin knew blocks and so blocks it was. The skeleton must have been 12 meters tall, with arms splayed out at least twice that wide. Oh, wait. It was only the top half of a giant skeleton. The bottom half disappeared down in some sort of hole. There was steam or gas belching from the hole, along with that red orange glow that filled the cavern. She figured it must be a volcanic vent or geyser, but something about it didn’t seem entirely natural. The whole scene looked staged like an amusement park ride. Meaning what? The Skeleton was stuck? It was climbing out of the hole? Maybe it had fallen in. Maybe it had been put in. In any case, the part that was visible was only half of the thing.
Amusement park. That notion came rushing back through Kaitlin’s head. Why? Something wasn’t right. Giant Skeletons are not normal, sure, but this tableau was really false. What was it? Skull, orbital bones, Zygomatic Process, mandible, C4-5-6-7, Clavicle, scapula, humerus. Human. It was a human skeleton, but on a massive scale. She could name and label every single bone. Nothing surprising there, aside from the size of the thing. It took a moment to click. The skeleton was moving. A slow gyrating dance that repeated every couple of seconds. Not really a threatening display, but unsettling in a metronomic sort of way. Here is the part that really gave Kaitlin the willies though. Every single one of the dozens of visible bones was absolutely crawling with human scale skeletons. The left humerus of the thing was composed of 6 - no - 8 regular human skeletons crawling, moving, and gyrating in their own unique rhythmic pattern. All of them gripping onto the hands or feet or ribcage of the skeleton next to them. The entire surface of every single bone writhed and undulated like liquid. Kaitlin looked at the ground for a while.
“Hello? Are you still there? I apologize for the delay. I had a little trouble pulling up your accounts. Seems that they are very new. Like ‘today’ new. They are still being filled in. What are you two doing?” The phone signal had cleared up significantly , but Gina sounded confused. Kaitlin figured there was more than enough confusion on her own end of the phone and she didn’t really need to be getting more of it from elsewhere.
“Well. I think maybe I’m looking at a giant skeleton. Like three stories tall. Might be made of smaller skeletons. A lot of them. Other than that, not much. You?” Kaitlin placed her own tone at somewhere between caustic and simmering rage.
“Yeah. Sorry about that. You’re really not supposed to be there.”
“Ya think!” Malcolm Bellowed. He snapped up to standing, completely neglecting to let go of Kaitlin’s hand first. With one hand in Malcolm’s and the other gripping her phone that left no hands to stop her from toppling forward and bouncing off the stone floor. It might have been worn smooth, but it was still stone, and it still hurt.
“Ow! What the hell?”
“Oh my god. I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” Malcolm stooped back down to help Kaitlin to her feet. She could see the genuine concern in those dark eyes, but even that wasn’t enough to thoroughly drain her of confused, directionless, anger. She had some left to vent, so she scowled back at him as convincingly as she could. Everything she wanted from today was slipping away from her. She wasn’t even sure what it was that she wanted, but falling into a cave populated by a massive skeleton creature wasn’t part of it. She was pretty certain of that.
Kaitlin took a second to brush the dust off her jeans, her new pullover, and attempt to organise her tangle of red-brown hair into something bordering on presentable. She noted that both she and Malcolm kept their feet rooted to the spot. Not even a tiny shuffle. They both kept a portion of their attention on the skeleton.
Gina chimed in from wherever she was calling from. “Is everything okay? You didn’t move anywhere did you?”
“No!” Kaitlin and Malcolm fired back simultaneously.
“Good. Good. This guy has decent range, but terrible awareness. Still, if you get much closer you’ll pull aggro for sure.” Gina spoke in a halfhearted singsong like everything she was saying was completely obvious.
“Wait. What? Did you say pull aggro? What do you mean, pull aggro?” Kaitlin responded and tossed a sheepish look at Malcolm.
“You know what she’s talking about?”
“Maybe.” Kaitlin sucked the breath in through her teeth and winced slightly. “In my second year of pre-med, I almost lost a semester playing this game. An MMO. It was the only game I could get to run on my laptop. I played it with a bunch of friends, and you wander around this fantasy world and, you know, fight monsters.” Kaitlin pointed gingerly toward the hulking heap of gyrating bones in the distance, “Like this guy.”
“My brother and I only ever had consoles” Malcolm gaped at the skeleton, fully taking it in for the first time. He raised his voice slightly, speaking mostly to Gina over the phone. “So are you saying that this is some sort of game? Are we in a game right now?”
“Oh. No. No this isn’t a game. This is real. I suppose you could say this is the source material.” They could hear the frustration in Gina’s voice. “So you two really should have gone through the tutorials. I just work on the help line. You know, like ‘tips and tricks’ that sort of thing. You are both way underleveled for this encounter, and you are both specced as support classes. I don’t even know how you got partied up without a fighter or ranged class. Why were you together at the gate anyway?”
“Umm,” Kaitlin found herself turning to look into Malcolm’s eyes as she spoke. She didn’t know if she needed confirmation or confidence or just an ally. “We’re, um, we were on a date?”
To Kaitlin’s relief Malcolm nodded and returned her gaze. “Yeah. Yeah, a date.”
“WHAT?!? Well no wonder you’re in here!” The sudden volume of Gina’s voice snapped them both out their reverie. “This was my first call of the day, and you’re both on a date with a party member! This is why people are supposed to go through the tutorial! I have to submit a ticket to admissions now, but I can’t because I have to get you two out of this encounter first. Okay. Okay. Let’s just all calm down.”
“We’re calm. I think? Are we calm?” Kaitlin replied, doing her best impression of a calm person while keeping one eye on the colossal pile of wriggling bones.
“Sure. Yep, we can be calm. Placid even.” Malcolm chorused in.
“Hmm, okay.” They could hear the sound of drink sipping and glasses being placed on a desktop over the phone. “Okay. We can do this. Alright. Lets see. That big guy over there is Gashadokuro. Like I said before, his perception is very poor but his attack range covers most of the cave. He shouldn’t be able to climb out of that hole, so I don’t think you have to worry about him chasing you. Let me pull up the drawings of the encounter space.”
Malcolm looked quizzical and asked “What’s a Gash -a duke, doke, toka. What?”
“He’s a japanese version of the bone golem, or giant skeleton. There are 15 or 16 of them around the world. We have Gashadokuro here on an exchange from Arashiyama. They have the Wendigo there for the rest of the year. We’ve run exchange programs since the 50’s, but this is one of the biggest construction sites. His whole cave was moved stone by stone. It’s really quite impressive. Okay. I have a path for you. So, do you want the good news or the bad news?”
Kaitlin eyed Malcolm. He took in a deep breath and blinked heavily like he was trying to shake off a dizzy spell. She could feel herself doing the same.
“Good?” Kaitlin asked with dread.
“There is a path most of the way around that skirts his projected zone of perception. You just have to hug the left wall of the cavern when you exit the entrance area, and don’t move more than about a meter and a half from the wall all the way around. So hug the wall and you should be able to reach the exit without fighting.”
There was a short silence before Malcolm asked “And the bad news?”
“You have to move slow, like nothing faster than a leisurely walk, so the path to the exit will take around two hours. Also, there is a spot at the end where the rock juts out. There is no way that he doesn’t see you when you reach that point. It’s also within his attack range and neither of you has earned a weapon or any defensive equipment. So, okay, are you ready for this?” Gina didn’t wait to find out if they were ready. “When you hit that spot, you are going to have to run. Like I mean run. You will have to flat out sprint to the exit. But good news again, the exit is only about one hundred seventy meters from there. So the path is this; slow, slow, slow, book it. Sound doable?”
“Can’t we just go back the way we came in?” Malcolm said.
“Nope. That path is closed, besides it’s straight up and no one is carrying any climbing gear. Through the cave is really the only route. I can talk you through it.”
Kaitlin gulped back a breath. “Oh. No. Oh no. I didn’t plug in my phone.”
Malcolm looked confused and rubbed his knuckles along his temple. “What. Okay. Why? Why does that matter.” Half a beat later. “Oh.”
“Oh, okay.” Gina chimed in with a practiced reassurance that only slightly sounded false. “How long do you have left?”
Kaitlin pictured last night vividly, listening to music on her phone while she reviewed the muscles of the forearm. She remembered lifter her head from the book sometime later, shutting off the music, and dragging herself off to bed. Nowhere in that memory did she plug in her phone. “10%.”
“Well that won’t last two hours. You’ll just have to listen carefully, and I’ll talk to you again when you reach the other end.”