THE DIRT CELL
I slowly regained consciousness realizing two things -- my head was throbbing in pain, and I smelled dirt.
As I cautiously opened my eyes, I saw nothing but dark gloom, but I could hear moaning.
I sat up slowly, trying to focus with nothing much to see. The agony in my skull nearly made me pass out again, so I propped myself into a sitting position with my back against a wall. It was a rough wall, like it was made of uneven wood. I could just barely see the outlines of several bodies -- whether they were dead or not was impossible to tell, but at least one was groaning.
Come on, Tia -- focus.
The pain seemed to slowly drain out of my head, but it only made me realize how much I hurt everywhere else. I allowed my fingers to gingerly touch my throbbing scalp, and I discovered a thick patch of crusted blood at the hairline.
As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, my nose took in the stench -- body odor, human waste, decay, vomit, and maybe decomposition. I shuddered as I tried to recall how and why I got here.
I hoped Finn was okay. He was not only my twin brother . . . he was my closest friend. Wherever he was, I prayed he was okay. As I lay on the dirt floor, I closed my eyes and tried to control a wave of nausea. The faces of my family came easily. Our time together felt like a distant dream, a time gone by, never to be experienced again. My thoughts drifted to a particular thunderstorm that caught Finn and me by surprise as we kayaked down the New River.
I wrapped my hand around my golden leaf pendant and re-played the day in my head. If I tried hard enough, I was convinced I could smell the spicy, resinous scent of the pine trees whispering overhead.
* * *
I felt less in control than usual as the unpredictable winds wreaked havoc on the rapids.
I got this!
I had been down the gorge a thousand times, even though the Class III whitewater felt like a Class VI -- much more jarring. I looked up briefly and gasped seeing the coal-black clouds and feeling the streamlined winds that whipped mercilessly across the bow of my kayak.
Earlier that morning, the sweet kisses of the sun had danced upon the lush autumn foliage blanketing the steep mountains on both sides of the New River. The storm caught us by surprise and to be honest, I felt powerless as the lightning bolts hit their mark just feet away on the shore. Torrential rain pounded upon my helmet like a relentless woodpecker desperately drumming for hibernating ants. I could see Finn shouting at me, but the thunder was deafening as it bounced off the canyon walls.
"Get in front of me! I can't see you -- get in front of me!" Finn shouted.
This time I heard him.
I mustered my strength to try and pass him, but the gale whipped me toward the most dangerous part of the rapids. I held on by the skin of my teeth.
Finn was quartering the water as best he could, but a squall took control, lifting his kayak and capsizing him under the unstable eddy.
I pictured him gasping for air and trying to recover his kayak.
"Finn -- FINN!" I screamed, my voice probably lost in the howling wind and roar of water. I'm not even sure I heard it.
For a fleeting moment, I imagined a world without my twin brother. We had turned 16 a few months earlier and I couldn't think of him not being there.
And then, as soon as it came, the thought was gone -- I saw the top of Finn's helmet bobbing on the surface several yards away.
I careened through the rapids, avoiding the dangerous eddy. "Finn! Pull out ahead!"
Finn raised his head and wearily looked my way, and we managed to navigate to a makeshift takeout.
Out of breath and visibly dazed, Finn pulled his kayak out of the rushing water, removed his helmet and life jacket, and tucked them into the cockpit.
I followed as the rain continued to pour down, a crash of thunder rolling around us.
"Let's go to Tackett's Cave!" I yelled, and he nodded.
Lifting our kayaks above our heads, we navigated through the dense trees, uphill on the slippery ground. After a half a mile, it leveled out a bit, and we entered the cave, setting down the kayaks and collapsing on the ground, exhausted and sopping wet.
The cave was relatively deep, and wide enough to hold at least thirty people. There were old drawings of running deer, fire, and stick people wearing feathers carved into the rock near the back. We were never sure if the carvings were authentic Indian markings from a time gone by, or carved as a joke by some drunken teenagers. Either way, I felt comfortable.
I turned to Finn. "What the hell were you thinking going straight down the meat grinder in this storm?"
"Guess I lost track of where I was. I was trying to keep an eye on you!" Finn said.
"Well, you scared the crap out of me. Don't ever do that again." I don't know what I'd do without you, I almost said.
"Yeah, yeah," Finn said, smirking.
We spent a few minutes in silence. I was still a little out of breath from the rapids, the scare in the water, and hiking up the hill to the cave.
I watched Finn as he squeezed the rainwater from his long hair . . . incredible how much we look alike. Even as babies, it was difficult to tell us apart. We were Irish through and through and shared the same blue eyes with little speckles of green, and long strawberry blond hair with loose, unmanageable curls. While he was as tall as a light pole, I somehow got the short end of the stick coming in just shy of 5?4?.
Teagan and Fionn are our given names, but ever since we were young'uns, our folks simply called us Tia and Finn. Well . . . that is until we got caught red-handed in the middle of some sort of mischief. In those moments, TEAGAN and FIONN were highly exaggerated and fully pronounced -- and in those moments, we would burn the wind and scatter like buckshots.
He was a big guy for his age and his rippled physique were the subject of dreamy looks from hopeful girls in their class and the envy of rival boys. Me on the other hand . . . well I was on the "lean side," as my Papa used to say. To be painfully honest, my physique failed to attract much attention in general from the boys in town, who were undoubtedly looking for a softer place to lie.
Finn had always been animated and high-spirited. At times, I was envious of his tenacity and self-confidence, though his reckless actions resulted in many broken bones along the way, starting with shattering his left ankle at the age of four when he'd tried to mimic the way his hero, Tarzan, swung from the trees.
"What?" he said.
It was my turn to smirk. "I was just wondering what's up with you and Miss Tinker Bell."
"Molly. Molly Tinder -- not Tinker Bell!" he said, his face turning red. "Wish you'd stop calling her that."
"Well, she's such a tiny little thing. I get confused," I said, smiling. "Really though -- is it serious, or what?"
"No. Not really. We have fun," Finn said with a grin. "What about you? Jake's had a crush on you forever -- says you're as cute as a button -- why don't y'all go out sometime?"
"Cause he's a creep." Truth was, Jake wasn't really a creep -- just not my type. Whatever that is.