Samantha lost hold of Michael’s left arm and he used it to push back at Rob while Samantha tried to grab it again. Gary slipped out of his row of seats and went to stand next to Marcello. There were now two Vitruvian men at the mouth of the tunnel.
“Great,” Rob said. “Come on, man, fight it. Help us a little.”
“I can’t,” Michael said. “I’m sorry. I have to go into the light. Hey you, there, you’d better move aside.”
“Like hell you do,” Bianca growled. She slid her arms lower to where Michael’s torso thinned towards his waist and clasped the wrist of her right hand with her left one. “Listen whoever is in charge of all this. I will do whatever you want me to do for as long as you want me to do it but let him stay. I can’t do it without him.” She paused, fighting for words. “I thought I could do everything without anyone’s help but I can’t, okay? I can’t. I need help. I need Michael.”
The progress along the aisle slowed down as Michael stopped walking. Bianca did not relax her grip. Samantha grabbed his left arm again and squeezed his wrist tight with both hands.
“I will collect people from plane crashes and I’ll help them get on their way but not without him.” She took a deep breath and let it out, propping her head against Michael’s back and closing her eyes. “Please.”
Silence followed, and stillness. Michael wasn’t moving. Bianca enjoyed the rest and even relaxed her grip a little for a moment, before Michael moved forward again and she had to tighten it, stifling a sob. It wasn’t fair.
“It’s closing,” Gabrielle said from behind Rob’s back. “It’s closing!”
Bianca redoubled her grip on Michael’s body and tried pulling back.
“Snap out of it, Mike,” Rob yelled and pushed at him. “Snap the fuck out of it. It’s closing. You’re not going in. Got it? Stop fighting.”
“Hey, look.” Gary laughed. “It’s shrinking!”
“It’s getting smaller,” Samantha said as she peered around Michael. She turned to smile widely at Bianca. “It’s shrinking. He won’t go in now, it’s too small.”
“Stop fighting, damn you,” Bianca said. She dared peer over his shoulder. The tunnel was indeed much smaller, half of its original size and it was shrinking before her eyes. “Michael!”
Michael stopped moving.
“Is it over?” Gabrielle asked. “Can I please let go before my arms fall off?”
“Hold on for just a second more, hon,” Rob said. “Mike? Are you all right? Back to normal?”
“Aaand gone!” Gary said when the tunnel snapped shut and burst into laughter.
Bianca peered over Michael’s shoulder without letting go of him. The tunnel was gone. Marcello and Gary, both grinning, gave each a high five.
Samantha let go of Michael’s wrist and stepped back.
“We did it, captain. We saved him.”
“Yeah, I think you can let go now, captain,” Rob said. “He’s not going anywhere.”
Michael moved and Bianca tightened her grip for a second before letting go. Michael was trying to turn.
“Beans?” he said when he faced her. “Is that you?”
Alarmed, she reached up and touched his face.
“Yes, it’s me. Of course it’s me. How’s the itch?”
“Gone,” Michael said. He stared at her. “It’s really you? You’re here?”
“I’m here,” she said, choking on the words. Her arms trembling with exhaustion, she reached around his neck and clasped them around it. “I’m here and so are you and you’re not going anywhere.”
He hugged her tight, lifting her off the ground. The air escaped from her lungs with a whoosh as she wrapped her legs around his waist.
“Ooookay, this is where we leave,” Rob said. “Come on, everyone on the ground, come on, come on.”
“Gary, let’s go. You could do with a walk.”
Bianca could hear them but she couldn’t see them. Michael’s face filled her field of vision. He carried her backwards to the cockpit, fumbled for the handle, flung the door open and shut it with a kick.
“You’re here,” he murmured against her mouth. “You’re here.”
The waning gibbous moon shone like a bulge through the clouds that the wind chased up high above the lake. Bianca turned on her side and slid her arm around Michael’s chest. A flashback of this same body pushing relentlessly forward despite the efforts of four people made her shudder. He rubbed her back.
“No. I was thinking how set you were on going into that tunnel.”
Michael tightened his grip around her.
“It didn’t feel like I had a choice. At first yes, I just really wanted to go in, see what’s in there, see what’s on the other side. If there was one,” he added after a pause. “And then when you tried to stop me I just… stop seeing and hearing anything but the tunnel.”
“Hearing it?” Bianca raised her head, frowning. “What do you mean hearing?”
“It was humming.” Michael looked up at her. “Just a low, constant hum, I don’t know how to describe it exactly. Like a kitten purring into a loudspeaker but quietly. A pleasant sound.”
“And you couldn’t see us?” she asked, masking another shiver with a movement that brought her tightly pressed to him. For some reason, the air felt chilly tonight, for the first time they’d landed here.
Michael shook his head.
“Everything but the mouth of the tunnel was a blur. It was really annoying, to tell you the truth.”
“Oh, well, there’s always next…”
The crunching of feet on pebbles silenced her.
“I used to believe,” Samantha’s voice drifted to them. “But then I didn’t.”
Bianca raised an eyebrow. Michael shrugged.
“There’s always what?” he whispered.
She pressed her finger to her lips. Samantha and someone else were coming towards the rock that hid them. They hadn’t told anyone where they spent their nights, except Gabrielle and Rob. It would be embarrassing to get caught so randomly. Bianca glanced at her shirt and then back at Michael only to see him roll his eyes. She punched his shoulder.
“Something must have happened to make you give up your faith.” This was Marcello, his voice quiet and level, not unsympathetic. “Something terrible.”
Bianca tried to grab her shirt but Michael caught her hand and stopped her. He was grinning and the voices were coming closer.
“I lost my daughter,” Samantha said. Bianca stopped trying to free her hand and froze, Michael threw his own shirt over her bottom. “She didn’t even live a week after she was born. I had to wonder what kind of a god would let babies die.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“It was a long time ago.” Samantha spoke curtly. The footsteps stopped right in front of the rock that hid Bianca and Michael from view. “You asked me if I was religious and I answered your question. I hope you won’t try to convert me, for the sake of common courtesy.”
“I won’t try to convert you,” Marcello said. “I can understand why your tragedy would push you away from any beliefs you might have held before. It happens to a lot of people.”
“Thank you,” Samantha said.
“But I was going to ask if now, in these circumstances, you might have wondered about death and what it actually—”
“No,” Samantha snapped. A pebble crunched under her feet. “I haven’t wondered if I will see my daughter in the afterlife. I will not wonder about it.”
Behind the rock Bianca shifted her shoulders as if dislodging an insect crawling up her spine. But it wasn’t an insect.
“Shit,” she whispered and reached out for her shirt.
“I didn’t mean to be disrespectful. I just…” Marcello tried again.
“It doesn’t matter,” Samantha said. The pebbles crunched again. “We have to go back, it’s starting again.”
“What is starting?”
“Don’t you feel it? An itch all over your body?”
“Yes but I thought it was just an itch.”
“It’s not. It means we have work to do.”
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