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That Which Could Be

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    They were little more than tiny clay people in the pale, dim light of Joseph's old gaslit lantern. The rusted iron gates were clay. The half-splintered wooden beams were clay. The tram and the rails and the wires were clay. The only color seemed to come from the golden flicker of the lantern's flame, and from the blue-white sparks that dripped from the buzzing wires above.

    When they turned off the tram, the mine was so silent that Conway could have sworn he could hear Shannon's heartbeat. Then she sighed and swallowed and shifted nervously, the muffled clink of her boots on the metal tram echoing through the mineshaft.

    "You alright, old man?"

    "Fine," he lied. "You?"

    "...Fine," she echoed. She squeezed her eyes shut and pinched the bridge of her nose, and her breaths came in small, stifled gasps, and Conway stared fixedly at the clay walls of the mineshaft. He tried not to think about his aching leg, about Shannon, about the apologetic breakfast he had eaten with Lysette the morning before. He tried not to think of the soft, sad, gentle way Lysette had smiled as she set the biscuits on the table. He tried not to think about the disparaging buzz of Ira's old radio, or about the long, desolate silence after Lysette turned it off, or about the bittersweet (though mostly bitter) coffee on his tongue. He stared at the walls and tried not to think of these things, and tried, instead, to think of the endless expanse of clay.

    Shannon smeared tears into her sleeve and stood, avoiding Conway's eyes. She peered through the gate. "Do you think there's really anything back there?" she asked steadily.

    "Only one way to find out," said Conway, gingerly lifting himself from the tram.

    "Hey! Sit down!"

    Conway faltered. He lowered himself back into his seat.

    "You're staying off that leg, old man. You heard what the doctor said."

    He sighed and gave her a small, sideways smile, and she nodded approvingly at him and turned back to the gate.

    "There's not, you know."

    Conway gave her a quizzical look.

    "Not anything back there," she wrapped a hand around one of the bars. "We went through this gate before, Weaver and I, when we were little. We were told not to, so of course we did. We were young and...well, I suppose Weaver's folks would have called us 'foolish.' Mine would have said 'adventurous.'"

    "What did you find?" asked Conway.

    "Oh, you know. Dirt. Torn-up rails. It had all caved in at the end."

    "And what was past that?"

    "It caved in, Conway. There was nothing past that."

    "But past the cave-in?"

    Shannon looked back at him dubiously. "What did the doctor prescribe you, again?"

    "Well there had to be something back there once, right?"

    She paused. "Weaver thought so. Dead ends never satisfied her. But if anything's there, it's just equipment and bones." She looked back at Conway. "I guess it can't hurt to check, can it?"