The second strange thing was how Helena stood, afterward, like her body was all salt worn and sun dried, too stiff to subside. Her fingers pressed into the wound as though into dough, digging for the bullet probably, or for what that bit of toothed lead failed to find.
That Helena was standing at all was the first strange thing. The bullet’s path was as clear as the white contrails formed by taxiing planes. Blood spilled into her hands and onto the floor. More out of shock than concern, she tried to force the tide back into her chest.
“We’re even now, yeah?” Sarah asked. “You hurt me, I hurt you.”
“Even” Helena echoed. Almost mocking. She paced slow and dazed like a drone-bee on the sidewalk. Potentially harmless.
Sarah shifted, surveying what she thought would placate her. Guessed.
“I wanted us to be family, too.”
Helena kept hiding the wound with her hand tucked beneath her armpit, pretending like nothing happened. Sarah knew better—Helena’s thoughts were on a conveyor from the wound to her brain. A vein in her jaw pulsed wide and thick and the flesh around her teeth pulled tight. That fury would soon be as touch-less and incandescent as molten glass.
Sarah refocused on the haze crowning Helena. Torpid violet smoke spilled from the flare torch as it died and illuminated a small, dark passageway. She needed that light. The dark never frightened her before, but she could hear death in those sparks. Killing was a task that required diligence, faith, desire.
She could not, as she had hoped, simply pull the trigger and leave the rest to Nature. Nature did not feel beholden to Helena. It had acknowledged Sarah's request and with a long sullen stare, turned the other way. Now she could either run or force nature in the dark.
"You're looking behind me." Helena said. She unbuckled her belt. "But as far as I can tell, I'm still in front of you."
Sarah rolled onto her knees.
"I don't understand why it came to this," she said.
"Why? I've told you why," Helena snapped. Amelia shifted as if she'd received the final insult, as if after all the willpower she'd expended enduring the labor and pain of death, all anyone could think to do was nudge her in the afterlife. By now, Helena had coiled the leather belt into concentric rings around her fist.
"Kira wanted you. We were going to keep you, Helena. You knew this, you had to have known this," Sarah said. "We weren't enough for you."
Helena resisted the temptation to dream at first. Her knees buckled and she wagged still. Memory was as fragile as tissue paper; even a gentle touch turned the surface oily and thin. The signs for things you wanted were all too eager to appear... Her mind became like a buoyed shell-- then, seeming to hear a siren, it dragged below the surface like a sailor who drowns for the voice of someone lost.
Sarah jolted up like a gut-shot antelope. She ambushed the torch and careened into the dark corridor behind Helena.
Helena screamed after her until blood thickened her throat and fused her jaw shut. For a couple hundred yards all Sarah could feel was the impact of the ground against her knees. Their shadows danced after each other, reminiscent of another world. Girls chasing on an open field.
She gained ground, but could hear Helena clamoring after her, sprinting blind. Helena crashed against walls and leapt over soft mounds of dirt.
“Just stop! Go back!” Sarah shouted.
Her only response was the sound of labored running.
A reel of stick figures unfolded along the tunnel walls. Three incarnations of the same lonely character: a red woman with wild hair, a caged creature, a child. They accompanied Sarah and performed a pantomime of horrors.
Helena didn't last long at her pace.
The sounds Helena made against the walls were painful. Wet, collapsing echoes, like a bad cough. It became clear she was falling behind. Panting replaced her running feet.
“Sarah,” she cried. A deep well of sound.
She'll get lost, Sarah thought. She'll hound this maze until it swallows her whole.
Maybe she deserves it.
Sarah slowed to a fast walk and sparks sputtered onto the floor like breadcrumbs. Her eyes watched the darkness, wary of the tunnel’s wide mouth. She felt like a child checking beneath her bed for monsters.
"Helena, if you go back now, you won't need the light. It's a straight line."
The response was to be expected, she supposed. A long moan followed by dragging feet.
Kira had pinned Helena as the kind of monster you find at the end of a storybook, or a pleasant dream. Something dark and shapeless yearning for someone to mold them. But storybook monsters are unformed, begging imagination. Certainly, nothing connects those red eyes, not a wrinkled brow, or a patch of dry skin. Those sharp teeth have no lips to spread around them.
The corridor opened into a maze of channels, each darker than the last. Sarah threw light into each of them and found more stick figures along the right-hand tunnel. The child figure dominated there, sometimes holding hands with the wild woman.
"Helena, please" she called one last time. "I don't want you following me anymore. If you don't turn back, I'll choose a different path and leave you alone."
No sound followed. Helena was leagues behind, yet she suddenly felt too close, smothering. She couldn't breathe. She thought at first Helena had knocked all the air out of her stomach, but it was just her body's response. A body of loneliness clung to her, as warm as blood and as heavy as the ocean. She could almost feel Helena's hair tickling her lip.
Sarah waited for Helena to turn the corner. Her hair caught the light first. She'd sheared the left sleeve of Sarah’s London Calling shirt and used it as a bandage and retrofitted her belt into a tourniquet. The walls seemed to deflate around her.
“Sarah,” she called softly.
“I’m here,” Sarah said and started down the tunnel on the right.
Helena followed a couple paces behind. They walked for a quarter mile before Sarah tried to speak again.
“You’ve been here before,” Sarah said. “You know where we’re going?”
As though answering her question, a gentle wind stirred through the tunnel. Promise of an opening somewhere close. The air smelled of seawater.
“Have you ever been to the beach?” Sarah asked. Took another deep breath. “I took Kira once.”
At Shite Beach, an inner layer of clay glared beneath the threadbare sand like an exposed nerve. She and Kira could trace where the tide was headed by the foamy rind it left behind, dappled by bits of plastic, sanded glass, and the soft, translucent bodies of jellyfish. She placed Helena there, in her memory, wearing cutoff jeans and wading behind Sarah and Kira. Her laughter collapsing beneath the waves.
"Once. Too much space," Helena said.
"Space isn't a problem at Shite Beach," she said. "We will go as a family one day."
Helena breathed heavily. Her hands cupped her knees so that she walked like a woman in labor.
“I will teach Kira to fish” Helena said at last. Each word taxed her strength. “One day.”
When the tunnel reached its end, Sarah and Helena were shoulder-to-shoulder. The room was shaped like a cylinder and had no conceivable ceiling except for a single beam of light. A steel ladder extended into the pale beyond.
“A manhole?” Sarah asked.
Helena had collapsed beside the ladder and arranged her legs in a V-shape. Her hand curled around a low rung. She looked up at Sarah and then at the ceiling.
No one who sat like that, with feet spread wide, could kill.
They breathed in unison, watching as the torch dwindled into a glowing ember. The last of Helena’s stick figures flickered in a palindromic structure so that the child, the wild woman, and the caged creature were interchangeable. Each becoming the other, seamlessly.
“I never wanted to hurt you,” Helena said.
A sharp heat set in Sarah’s eyes. Her hand darted reflexively to her throat.
She took another breath of sea air and wondered if that was what waited above them. The thought of leaving Helena down here when there was an entire ocean outside bruised her someplace deep.
"I wish you could have let her go," she said.
She traced the pale light and nodded with sudden resolve. As solid as the day she chose to return home. She would wait until it was over: Whatever this was and for however long it took for Helena to accept it.
“Which one?" Helena asked.
She wheezed suddenly: "Me or you?"
A light smile nicked Sarah's lip. There was something so absurd about asking which life should've been spared. Both, all.
Sarah looked at the figures on the wall. She wondered how many loads of charcoal Helena carried down here, in large burlap bags, only to carve these unhappy stories for herself
As the torch light diminished, Helena’s figure receded into darkness. All that was visible now was her damp eyes and her blood slickened shirt. She pushed out her tongue to keep the tears from slipping into her mouth.
Sarah placed the torch on the ground so that its pale halo enveloped them both.
“I’ll tell Kira you said hello,” she said, then grimaced. Helena gave a little wheeze. She opened her mouth to say something more, probably I love you, but stumbled into another, louder wheeze.
They basked in their own exhaustion, stretching the moment to its fullest extent. Knowing that when it was over, they would take the next step alone. For now, they tasted salt on their lips and ached for a time that resisted memory. The light faded without either noticing.