This wasn’t going to end well. Scrabbling at the ceiling, he knew he couldn’t get out. Creech was going to fall, and that meant he was going to fall. Sharp drop into oblivion. Meredith had yelled his name moments before – but reality was going at lightning speed. He looked over at her, regret settling into his chest. I never – he gave her a sad, regretful smile and then Creech was falling.
He braced himself for the impact.
Meredith stood at the edge of the deep cavern, eyes wide in shock. Behind her, she heard a muffled yelp. Tripp! The water in the cavern rippled as a glowing Creech brought Tripp to the surface and laid him out on a rock outcropping.
Rick reached the cavern opening, eyes searching frantically. “TRIPP!”
There had to have been over five hundred feet between Tripp and the cavern opening. But even with limited vision, Rick sensed something was wrong. Tripp wasn’t moving. Creech was making frantic noises of fear and alarm.
Meredith felt her heart beating too fast. She sensed rather than saw another form beside her, heard rapid breathing.
“Emergency services will be here in fifteen minutes. I’m trying to – find something to get down there.” Jim was visibly shaking; his own eyes blow wide with anxious tension. They had – won, gotten Creech and his family to safety, but at what cost?
Rick just sat, staring. Infrequently calling out to Tripp. But there was never a response. Only whines from Creech, who had crawled up beside Tripp, nudging him, trying to elicit some sort of movement, response, something.
Emergency services finally arrived, bringing with them a machine that allowed them to lower a human into deep crevices and holes. Useful in a place where oil was plentiful.
It took another ten minutes to set up before an EMT was finally lowered into the cavern. A tense seven minutes passed by, Meredith, Jim, and Rick anxiously awaiting at the edge, watching the EMT get closer and closer to Tripp’s unmoving form. Silence permeated the group and the gigantic cavity deep in the ground. The EMT reached Tripp and set to work, eventually signaling to his teammate to bring them up.
Ten minutes later, the EMT finally reached the cavern lip. Rick scrambled to grab his – what are you to me, Tripp? – son’s unmoving form, arms wrapping gently around a still chest. NO, NO, NO!
“I’m sorry, it’s been at least thirty minutes since – he’s in full respiratory and cardiac arrest.”
Meredith screamed. She tried to rush towards her – what are you to me, Tripp? – friend, but strong arms wrapped around her waist, holding her close. Jim was whispering in her ear, quiet ministrations to calm her. It did nothing to stem the ache in her chest – Tripp, no, no, no, Tripp! Tears cascaded down her cheeks and she turned, burying her heaving body and weeping face into Jim’s warm and welcoming arms.
Rick sank to his knees, Tripp’s body splayed across his lap. His gaze narrowed only to his son’s face. It was – lax. Grey and still and maybe a touch peaceful. Remorse seeped into Rick’s bones as he started to sob. I’m so sorry, Tripp. I’m so sorry.
A light touch to his shoulder brought Rick’s face back to the cruel sun, his eyes blinking back tears.
“Transport is ready when you are.”
It had nothing to do with saving Tripp. It had everything to do with getting him back to civilization and – Cindy. Tears clouded his vision thinking about his significant other, the mother of the boy lying dead in his arms.
Rick hung his head, squeezing his eyes shut and struggling to breathe. A sob shook his frame, hands lightly rubbing his son’s freezing body. I’ll get you home, Tripp. Won’t let your mom worry. Won’t let anyone forget you. Chest still aching, Rick took a deep breath, throat tight with grief. He shifted Tripp in his arms, gently resting Tripp’s motionless head in the crook of his neck, holding his boy close bridal-style as Rick got ready to stand. It took all his strength to eventually rise to his feet, Tripp’s head shifting forward from the weightlessness. Rick leaned back, careful to angle himself just right to keep his son’s head from slipping and hanging limp.
There was a waiting ambulance, the EMT guiding Rick to the small bench inside and gesturing at the gurney. But Rick wasn’t going to have any of that, slipping onto the bench and tightening his grip to keep Tripp in his arms. There was no way on God’s green Earth that he was laying his already-dead son on an impersonal gurney.
Meredith had dropped to her knees in grief, tears pouring down her face. She couldn’t get up, just watching as Rick carried Tripp away. Creech and his family – they were safe, as much as they could be safe while oil was still being harvested from the ground. Meredith could hear Creech and multiple other vocals screeching from far below, a mournful, angry sound. They were mourning the loss of life just like the humans were. But they were safe – that’s what Tripp had wanted all along. And he’d paid for that determination with his life.
The ambulance door closed with a racket. A few minutes later it took off down the road, back to town. Back to Cindy. Away from the impenetrable grief. And Meredith sobbed, a hand on her shoulder and a faraway look glistening in Jim’s eyes.
Two squad cars were already at the house when the ambulance pulled up. A third had escorted the emergency service vehicle through the backwoods and back in and through town. Rick couldn’t be sure if anyone had told Cindy what had happened. He prayed to whoever could hear him that he would be the one to tell her. She would need a sounding board with her son gone. It was going to be a very difficult day.
The doors were unlocked and swung open, the same EMT holding out a hand. Rick shook his head as he scooted out of the vehicle and into the blinding sunshine, Tripp’s complexion almost worse, grey mixed with a deepening blue, especially around the lips. Every feature was a ghostly pale. Rick had to hold back another sob as he took in a deep breath, arms shaking with the weight and the exertion. He shifted Tripp in his arms, one arm looped under his knees and his left arm cradling Tripp’s shoulders, head leaning against Rick’s shoulder. It threatened to fall, unable to hold itself up.
He took a step forward, trying to find the momentum to reach his Cindy, to grieve with her. He took another step. And another.
The screen door slammed open and Cindy ran from the house, one of Rick’s colleagues right behind her, fingers missing her blouse by a mere inch. Cindy dead stopped right before the porch stairs, breath caught in her lungs. A hand went to her mouth, eyes wide with fear. “Tripp – Tripp, honey, my precious – handsome – boy.” The last word broke into a million pieces as Rick reached the porch.
He gently laid Tripp out at the top of the steps, eyes gleaming with unshed tears. Tripp’s left hand fell from his lap when he was put down. It landed with a soft rap on the wood, knuckles knocking. The hand half-curled, blue fingertips, so very, very cold and lifeless. Just – lifeless.
“I’m so sorry, Cindy,” Rick whispered, reaching up for her hand.
She was on her knees in an instant, bare legs hitting splintering wood. She didn’t care. She needed her – her baby. She needed her son! Sobs wracked her body, hands gripping her son’s still-wet shirt. Cindy collapsed on top of her son, muffled pleas escaping her lips as she placed kiss after kiss on his forehead. Come back to me, Tripp. Please, oh please, come back to me.
A wet, slimy something slithered across his face. He was cold – so cold – and so damn tired. His lungs felt like lead. The wet, slimy whatever slipped over his arms and chest, a chuckle echoing in his ears. He coughed, water pouring from his lungs. Ew. He sucked in a breath, air flowing into his lungs. Still alive.
And then it all came back to him like a flash flood – Creech. Family. Truck. Poison. Rocks and hills and damn cliffs. Falling. Always falling. His eyes opened with a snap and staring down at him was a grinning sea creature, teeth visible through a crooked smile.
“Hey, buddy.” And Tripp laughed, eyes glancing up at the cavern opening, Meredith, Jim, and Rick all looking back at him from hundreds of feet away. He was okay. He was alive. And he laughed some more.