Well the production schedule is back on track. Today we check in with our baseball players in the aftermath of losing one of their number, and Bethany and Claudia go out of the donut shop and into the fire.
Eddie looked down at the dead young man and felt nothing. His act had been merciful, a hastening of the inevitable. And if not merciful, it had at least been just. Franklin still lay in a bloody heap behind Eddie, his blood and brain matter plastered all over the back wall. This young man had shot his teammate. It didn’t really matter if he’d meant to do it, or if Franklin had goaded him into it, the young man had taken a life and so his was forfeit. Accounts were kept short at the end of the world.
If Eddie felt anything it was anger, but not toward the young man at his feet. Conesta had been the one to deliver the truly fatal blow. Rather than face his actions and take some share of the responsibility for what to do next, Conesta was curled up in a far corner of the concession stand, rocking back and forth with his head in his hands.
Stankowsky wasn’t acting much better. He hadn’t curled into a ball, but only because his body was frozen in place. His arm had been limp when Eddie dressed it, and now hung uselessly at Stan’s side. Eddie knew the wound hadn’t been that bad; Stan’s arm worked. But Stankowsky didn’t seem to think he had any use for it. He just kept staring at nothing, trapped several inches deep behind his eyes.
These two men had seen the lives of thousands, maybe tens of thousands, all snuffed out in an instant. What did one more matter?
Eddie shook his head. He couldn’t believe the way he was thinking. He wondered if they all could see it on his face. Was that why Manny wouldn’t look at him?
“What are we going to do with the bodies?”
The question had come from Belanchek. He’d been crouched next to Conesta trying to get him up, and had given that up to walk over to Eddie.
“Nothing we can do. We leave them,” Eddie answered flatly. His dead tone snapped Conesta out of his daze.
“What the hell, Eddie? What if that was you lying there?”
“I’d expect you to leave me too,” Eddie replied.
“You heartless…” Conesta had gone from being withdrawn to being on the verge of tears in a matter of seconds. Eddie hadn’t really realized before just how young Conesta was. He was maybe five or six years older than the kid.
“Hell of a time to be talking like that,” Eddie continued. “You and Stan didn’t seem to mind turning this kid into a human piñata. And don’t pretend that any of you would have gotten too sentimental over me if I’d been the one to buy it instead of Franklin.”
Conesta seemed about to protest, but instead looked down at his feet.
“What would you have us do, anyway? Do we drag Franklin and this kid back to the stands and toss them into the sky? We can’t bury them, and we can’t hide them. This stadium is a tomb, and we’re grave robbers trying to grab whatever we can before this place comes down around our heads. Franklin understood that much at least.”
Conesta had shut down, and Stankowsky just kept staring blindly forward. Eddie could feel Manny’s stare without turning around, but he suspected, hoped, even Manny knew he was right.
All of a sudden Belanchek got a wicked grin. “You’re wrong, Eddie. Franklin wouldn’t have left you. He probably would have eaten you.”
Eddie raised an eyebrow, “Excuse me?”
“Better WE eat you than somebody else,” Belanchek replied. “Meat’s not going to be easy to come by.”
Eddie chuckled, “When did you get such a sick mind, Bellie?”
“I’ve always had a sick mind; I just kept it to myself. And it’s Bella, not ‘Bellie’. Y’know, like Bella donna.”
“You’d rather we called you a beautiful woman?” Manny asked.
Belanchek shrugged, “Better than being called a stomach or a tiny bell.”
They all laughed. Eddie should have felt terrible, yet if felt good to get some kind of a release. If he couldn’t laugh he’d become bitter like Franklin, or broken like Stankowsky and Conesta.
He turned to Stankowsky and clapped him on the shoulder. Stan’s eyes refocused abruptly, like a room full of static resolving into a single note. “You okay?” Eddie asked.
Stankowsky swallowed. “Yeah,” He said hoarsely. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
The ramps to the skybox seats were about fifty feet out and around from where they were. They had a gun but they were already down six bullets, and they still had little in the way of water or medical supplies. For those things they’d need to go down before they could climb up to whatever safety the sewers offered.
The ramp was smooth cement, lined on either side by tight meshes of rubber coated squares. Long electrical line pipes ran down the middle, broken up by evenly spaced bulbs in cages. The floor above them was rougher, designed for the slow shuffling of hundreds of pairs of feet on their way to the upper decks before making the rest of the schlep up to the nosebleed seats.
Eddie was surprised at how reluctant he was to take that first step down. They’d all felt relatively safe nestled in the cement hallways of the stadium, which looked largely the same right-side up as down. But now Eddie was convinced the floor could crack at any moment. Despite the ramp’s gentle slope, he took every step cautiously with both arms outstretched, and the rest of the team followed his example.
They climbed down three levels before Eddie suggested they take a break, stepping off the ramp and back into the catacombs of the stadium. His heart was pounding in his chest, and he leaned against a wall to try to focus on something solid. His mind was creating all sorts of nightmare scenarios. His hands were tingling, and he told himself it was just his own blood rushing through his palm and not the building beginning its death throes. What if he was right about this being a tomb, their tomb?
Belanchek shouted, and Eddie’s eyes snapped open. Even though they were only a few levels down, the distance between the ramp and the seats was a lot smaller, and he found Belanchek standing right on the edge looking out. Eddie walked up beside him and Belanchek turned, a rueful smile on his face.
“Wives, girlfriends and mistresses,” He muttered, shaking his head back and forth.
“What?” Eddie asked.
“Down there’s the complimentary seats. Y’know, for our families. We couldn’t see them from the dugout, never even saw them go.”
Eddie frowned. He’d given his seat to a woman he’d been dating for three weeks, one of the few moves he had left to impress anyone. And for the life of him, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t remember her name.
* * *
The service hallway was dark, the only light cast by the exit signs in dim red flickering cones. Several 50 gallon trash cans had toppled over, spilling garbage everywhere. Each step brought another new sound and another unpleasant sensation on Bethany’s stocking feet. She’d left her shoes behind in the donut shop. Heels weren’t very good for climbing, but they were better than bare feet for stepping on half-eaten pizza. Claudia gave Bethany’s hand a reassuring squeeze as they moved slowly down the hallway. Her hands were smooth and felt like they had a permanent thin layer of flour from hundreds of hours of baking.
The service stairwell was about 100 feet down the corridor, but it felt like it had taken hours to reach it. Bethany turned back to look at the small circle of light at the other end of the hall. She told herself that no one could see them even if they were looking, but she wasn’t so sure. Claudia, meanwhile, was examining the double doors to the stairwell before letting out a snort in disgust.
“Locked,” Claudia vented. “We can’t go back out there and look for one of the maintenance guys with those maniacs running around.”
Bethany replied calmly, “It’s alright; let me give it a try.”
“You hiding a crowbar under that skirt?” Claudia whispered, her voice tense and coming out in bursts.
“Not exactly,” Bethany said as she produced two small pieces of metal. The first was slightly curved and flexible, the other firmer and straighter. “Never had to do this upside-down before, but I think the concept should be pretty much the same.”
Bethany inserted the thin piece into the lock, and started probing gently. Claudia’s face was a mixture of surprise and amusement. “That something they teach all lawyers?”
Bethany shook her head, “It’s something you’re expected to know before you go to law school. I learned from my mom, actually, or rather from her keeping a lock on the liquor cabinet. A determined teenager with an afternoon to kill can accomplish wonders in the face of such adversity.”
She smiled as she remembered Grace taking the brute force approach, pulling on the lock until her hands were sore and sweaty. Bethany on the other hand, had been calm and methodical, and had the lock open in less than ten minutes with a couple of hairpins. The memory of what happened afterward was largely obliterated by the quantity of gin consumed, though she did remember her father trying to hold back both of their hair as one threw up in the bathtub and the other in the toilet.
A satisfying thunk indicated success. She pushed the door open triumphantly, only to take in a sharp breath of air as she looked down.
“That’s not a skylight down there, is it?” Bethany whispered.
Claudia looked over cautiously, “I don’t think they build skylights in maintenance stairwells.”
Bethany looked down, speaking almost absently. “Either the stairs are going to fall out from beneath our feet, or they won’t.”
Claudia frowned, her mouth pulling to the left in consideration, “I guess you’re right. Lawyers first.”
Bethany took a deep breath and sat down on the door jam. The ceiling was low in this part of the building so from a sitting position all she had to do was hop down about a foot. The cement was slick and she almost lost her balance when she hit the ground, but Claudia steadied her with a hand on her shoulder. When Bethany was sure of her footing she stepped to the right, leaned on the wall for support, and put out an arm to catch Claudia as she jumped down.
The floor was definitely moving. One of Bethany’s first temp jobs had been on the second floor of an office building. There was a passageway next to her cubicle and every few minutes when someone walked by, her monitor, the desk and the floor moved ever so slightly. By lunch her stomach was often queasy from all of the low-level earthquakes. This floor felt like a hundred people were running a marathon down that passageway.
She took a tentative step toward the stairs, then stepped back as she nearly lost her balance again. The stockings weren’t going to cut it. She’d never much liked going barefoot as a child, but even she could admit the evolutionary advantage bare feet gave her over slick nylon. She hiked her skirt up around her thighs and tried pushing the material down. She hadn’t realized until that moment how much she’d been sweating, and the nylons were stuck to her like a second skin.
Claudia let out another grunt of disgust and without any warning stuck one of her long fingernails about an inch down Bethany’s thigh. She pointed her finger outward and pulled, the sharp nail tearing a hole about the size of a quarter. She took both hands and tore downward till the material split at Bethany’s foot. Another tug upward and she tossed the stocking unceremoniously down the center of the stairwell.
“Bet Jared wishes he could see us now,” Claudia smirked as she worked on the second nylon.
Still a little surprised, but grateful to be free from the clingy and slick material, Bethany flexed her toes and felt the cool metal and cement beneath her feet. The climb was much easier, her foot almost sticking to the stair with each step.
“Can I ask you something?” Claudia said as they climbed onto the next landing.
Bethany chuckled, doubting an answer of no would actually stop this woman. “Sure.”
“Why donuts? I mean, you don’t exactly have the figure of someone who eats the food of the common man.”
Bethany smiled, “Just something my dad and I used to do when I was a kid. He worked long hours, 12-14 hour shifts to be able to provide for all of us. He’d get off work at one in the morning on a Friday, and be waking me up around 5am to go with him for a donut and coffee. He should have been exhausted, but he was always so excited for the opportunity to spend time with his girls. We’d sit in the donut shop and talk for hours, watching the sun come up.”
“That’s nice. All my dad ever did was sit on the couch in front of SportsCenter. My mom used to say that keeping a constant vigil wasn’t going to give the Browns a Super Bowl.”
“Or the Cavs a national title. I wonder if King LeBron is happy he came back,” Bethany said.
“Miami has too many open spaces. He’d have been a goner for sure,” Claudia answered.
Claudia and Bethany were nearly out of breath by the time they reached the top of the stairs. Bethany leaned against the wall for a moment, taking in air in big gulps before pushing tentatively on the double doors. To her surprise, the doors swung wide open, and she fell forward on her face.
Looking up she could see thick black boots mostly hidden underneath baggy jeans. A young man in his teens with a buzz cut and scraggly facial hair gave her a toothy grin. Flanking him on either side were two equally unappealing characters. One had a noticeable red stain over the whole front of his shirt, and the other was running his hands up and down a baseball bat like he was trying to rub it out.
“Well,” the young man said softly, crouching down so he could meet Bethany’s gaze directly. “What do we have here?”
All text in The Sky Below is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, PO Box 1866, Mountain View, CA 94042, USA.
Copyright © 2015 Ben Trube