We continued our long descent for several minutes before the warm beam of her flashlight flickered and died, plunging us into a deep, empty darkness that forced its way into my lungs and filled me with it’s heavy presence, drowning me in its frozen suffocation.
I could clearly hear the sound of her hand slapping the flashlight’s heavy metal corpse in the otherwise silent space. Her attempt was futile; the batteries were dead and buried.
“Did you remember yours?” her voice asked me from the darkness to my right.
I instinctively reached behind me, searching for the large object protruding from my back pocket. Its cold metal body met my warm fingers willingly, sucking the heat from my hand like a vacuum. I pulled it out, automatically flicking it on.
Its wide white beam illuminated us and the stairs below our feet. The light bounced off the wall, giving them the impression of glowing crimson.
We stood still for a moment, simultaneously fascinated and horrified by the sight.
She took the first step down, the toe of her sneaker making a soft tmp on the ground. I turned towards the sound out of instinct. I followed her out of habit.
The only sound of our descent was the soft thumping of our shoes. My heart had long since quieted down. Its loud hammering had turned back into the soft, steady beat it was used to.
A dozen minutes after we had started walking again, the temperature suddenly skyrocketed. It had been a cool 60 degrees Fahrenheit or so on this winter afternoon, and suddenly the seasons fast-forwarded to summer, sending us 100 degree heat.
“We must be getting close!” Lori exclaimed, turning to me. Even in the dim light, I could tell that the excitement in her eyes was fake, merely a mask to conceal the fear I’d caught a glimpse of.
If my voice hadn’t died in my throat, I would have suggested turning back and heading home. It refused to come out, choosing instead to avoid the possibility of being called a “chicken.” I took another step down, pretending I was as fearless as her.
Lori followed, quickly taking the lead once more. Her pace was a bit quicker, either trying to convey her fake excitement or trying to prove her leadership.
It was during this short, hot section of the stairs that, as I stripped off my sweaty hoodie and used it to wipe my forehead, I cursed my extreme, insatiable need for acceptance. It was the need that got me into this mess in the first place. It was the need that murdered any logical reasoning which once existed in my retarded brain.
The flashlight’s beam flickered, same as Lori’s had. I shook it, desperate to keep the darkness from creeping back to us. It shone bright and steady again, much to my relief.
The relief was premature. It flooded through me again at the next sight–a blank, stone wall a foot away from the last step. I figured she would be disappointed; our whole, long journey had been for nothing, but, when I cast a discreet, sideways glance at her, I saw an expression that mirrored my own.
It vanished back into her mask a moment later. The tentative, almost shy smile turned into a well-constructed frown. Her eyebrows, which had been relaxed, scrunched into a shape similar to anger.
She crossed her arms over the tied-together sleeves of her hoodie and said, “What the hell is this?”
I have to admit, I was surprised too. I had been expecting a huge, wrought-iron gate with imps sitting on the flaming spikes, waiting for for new arrivals. I never once thought the “entrance to Hell” would be a grey, stone wall.
“I guess the rumors were false.” I said casually, honestly believing that there was nothing there. Boy was I wrong.