Lump in my Throat

Flight… delayed by another four hours… due… weather conditions…  

I put my headphones back in, resolving that there wasn’t a chance in hell I was getting back to Chicago tonight. I cringed as the left earbud kept crackling and going out, only for it to finally cut out for good and leaving me getting only half the song.  

Frustrated, I yanked them both out, now fully exposed to the noise of an airport terminal. The snoring of the man next to me, somehow sleeping through the chaos. The ‘I’m a platinum member’ complaining loudly to anyone who will listen about how he gave the airline too much money to be stuck in this backwater town. The mom who was talking way too loudly about personal matters on her phone while her three children screeched like banshees and got in everyone’s way. The guy refusing to cover his mouth while sneezing and coughing, and he did both a lot. The arguing couple about how this was ‘all your fault’ and ‘maybe this trip was a mistake’. And in the background of it all, the rain pounding on the roof above us, preventing anyone from taking off.  

I decided to put my headphones back in to at least muffle the sound when the middle child zipped right past me and ripped them right out of my ears with one of his flailing arms. “Will you watch where you’re going!?” I snapped.

This finally got the attention of the inattentive mom, who looked at me like I just took a dump in her latte. “Don’t you shout at my child!” She yelled, shaking her finger at me.  

I responded by getting up and heading right for the bathrooms. If I stayed another minute I might just snap and slap the bitch.  

I slammed open the door and just stood by the sinks, taking several deep breaths and counting down from ten. I could not lose it out there, if I lost it out there, I might get kicked out of the airport. And in a small town like this I’d probably be shit out of luck when it came to getting a motel to stay at.

It probably took a few too many seconds to realize that the smell in the air wasn’t just the likely disgusting toilet stalls, and that I wasn’t alone. I turned to see a woman in the flight attendant uniform, holding a lit joint in her hand.  

We just stood and stared at each other for a moment before I laughed. I just shook my head and laughed. “Rough day?” I asked.

A nervous smile spread across her face. “Yeah, you could say that. Er, don’t tell my boss and I’ll let you have some?” She asked.

“Nah, I don’t smoke, but thanks anyway.” I sighed and rubbed my temples. “I was going to hit someone if I stayed out there for another minute. How do you handle it?”  

“Um?” She lifted the joint up and now we were both laughing. The kind of laugh that comes when you’re tired, there’s nothing left inside, so it’s either laugh or cry. When the laughter died down she coughed quietly. “I’m Fiona,” She introduced herself.

“Zoe.”  

Fiona nodded before extinguishing the joint and throwing the remains in the trash. “Well, that’ll help me get through the rest of this. Let’s hope the weather lets up so we can get back to Chicago,” She said.

“Preach. It.”  

We both walked out of the bathroom, I was feeling a bit better, I turned to thank Fiona for chatting with me when the ground shook beneath my feet. Before I could even react, Fiona shoved me, sending me flying into a wall.  

It was like Armageddon- the ground churning and tilting, the growl of the off white floor splitting and opening up right beneath Fiona’s feet, the horrified scream that ripped from her lips as she dropped into the abyss, one more glimpse of her bloodless face and then she was gone.

The shaking slowed and came to a stop, and it would’ve been like nothing happened… except there was now a canyon in the middle of the terminal.  

I stumbled to my feet, my ears still ringing from the sound, before I looked out into the airport. I recognized the sleeping man from earlier, milling about while he stared at the chaos, the sneezer helping the woman arguing with her boyfriend earlier up off the ground, and the mother, screeching at the top of her lungs-

“Where are my babies!? Where are you!? Reece? Declan? Maisie, where are you, baby?! Oh my god, they fell in! They fell down there!” 

There was no sign of the platinum member either. Feeling like I was in the middle of a dream, I milled over to the group, looking for any sign of the children. Some pieces of the roofing had fallen down, but I didn’t see any sign of those kids. Sure, they were obnoxious, but… I glanced down the crevice. I knelt down and looked for any sign of the bottom. Could kids really survive dropping down that?

I heard someone clear their throat and I glanced up to see the sleeping man from earlier. He pulled a small flashlight from his pocket, clicked the button, and threw it down. It spun around before it clattered on the bottom. It might’ve been dark, but it seemed that it wasn’t nearly half as deep as I’d thought. It just looked that way because of the dark.  

Either way, it wouldn’t have been a great fall.

“I saw one… one of those kids, at least, fall down there.” The man stuck his hands in his pockets, glancing at the floor. “Some guy tried to grab him before he fell but he ended up going to. I think that’s a cave down there.”

“They really built an airport over a cave?” I mumbled.  

The man shrugged. “Maybe they didn’t know. Either way, I’m going down,” He shrugged off his jacket, “I think I can climb on down. Coming with?”  

Without even thinking about it I nodded. “I’m Zoe,” I said.

“Roger,” He said before hopping right down, someone clambering down the walls like a spider.

I got up, brushing off my jeans before looking around. “Hey, I’m going down there to look for the kids! Anyone else coming along?” I shouted.

Having everyone’s eyes on me at once was intimidating, but the sneezer and the woman both joined me. “Ma’am, stay up here until the emergency crews get here. Don’t worry, we’ll go get your kids,” The sneezer said before he began the descent.  

I was reminded of the rock walls I climbed all the time as a teen as I lowered myself down the crevice. There was more than enough space for me to clamber down, but without a harness I felt completely out of my depth. Each time my foot slipped on the way down I thought ‘this is it, I’m gonna fall and break my fucking neck’.  

The wall didn’t go down the whole way, I only figured out when I started dangling. I glanced down and saw the light, I only had a few feet to fall. Those few seconds of dropping made my heart fly into my throat, and I never felt so glad to have wet shoes as I dropped into the water that was nearly up to my calves in depth.

Roger was already on the ground, sloshing through the water and shining his light on the stone walls. “I’ll be damned. It really is a cave,” He said.  

The Sneezer dropped down, almost falling on his ass on that last jump down. “All right, I heard you two introduce yourselves,” He sniffled and wiped his nose, “I’m Archie. Sorry, I got a cold. Where do you think the kids went?”  

“And I’m Payton- fuck!”  

I barely caught the woman tumbling down, taking several steps backwards and nearly twisting my ankle in the process. She glanced around before putting her hands to her mouth. “Gabriel! Babe, are you okay!? Where are you?!”  

As far as I could see, we were the only ones down here. I grabbed my phone and flicked on its light. “Maybe they went down this way. It’s downhill, maybe they took off in the dark?” I suggested.

Roger shined his light the other way, revealing it was a dead end. “Probably. Good news though- I didn’t find any bodies in the water. They didn’t die in the fall,” He said.

Payton shuddered as she grabbed her own phone. “Jesus Christ, the last thing I said to him was that we were over. If that’s the last thing he heard-”

“Like Roger said, they’re not here, meaning they got up and walked away,” I interrupted, setting a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s get moving, they’re still probably hurt and those kids are probably scared half to death.”  

The four of us walked in silence for a few minutes, the only sounds being Archie’s sniffles and the splashing water beneath our feet.  

I broke the silence first. “I saw one of the flight attendants fall down here too. Fiona, we talked in the bathroom a bit. She shoved me out of the way before I went down this hellhole too. So we’re looking for three children, two men, and one women… why haven’t we seen anything?” A shoe, a piece of clothing, I could barely ignore the chill going down my spine.

“Maybe the attendant hurried them out,” Archie offered, sniffling and wiping his nose on his sleeve, “Afraid it was going to close up on them. Oh jeez, you think another shake will take this place down on us?”

Mental images of being crushed underground flooded my brain and I nearly went weak at the knees, but Roger shook his head. “I don’t think it was an earthquake. This cave’s only got a little water in it now, but with all the rain, I think it was a flash flood. Just weakened the ground under the terminal and well, you saw what happened. Maybe the smallest ones could’ve been washed away, but not the adults. They probably did just get right back up and chose to high tail it out,” He said.

Archie coughed and groaned. “Tell you what, this sure isn’t going to help me get over the flu,” He groaned.

“Sure it’s not the coronavirus?” Payton weakly joked, to which I could just about feel Archie rolling his eyes at.  

“Not the coronavirus. Just a stuffy nose and a sore throat.”

Payton laughed and shook her head. “Sorry, that’s… that’s just what Gabe would say. Always made stupid jokes like that.”  

Archie coughed again, groaning as he pounded his chest. “Air feels weird down here,” He wheezed.  

“Maybe you should climb back up? Wait for the emergency crews?” I asked.

Archie shook his head. “I’m not going to wimp out when there’s people hurt and scared down here, especially the kids,” He said.  

Roger cleared his throat loudly. “Thanks, Archie, but if you really need to turn… back… what the fuck?” He flashed his light over to the side of the cave, where there was dirt rising out of the water, just enough for some plants to grow.

I waded over, bending over to get a better look at the plants. Each a muddy brown, the stems bare until the top, where there was a trio of wide leaves and a bright blue bulb in the center. “I’m not really a botanist, but these are freaking weird,” I said, teaching up to give it a poke.

Roger caught my hand last second. “Don’t. They might be poisonous,” He scolded, sounding like a worried parent.  

I stood back up sheepishly. “Anyone know what they are?” I asked, getting only a bunch of head shakes and shrugs in return. “Okay then. Let’s just keep looking for the others.”

We only took a few more steps before Archie stopped coughing and started gagging. He stumbled to a stop before collapsing to the ground with a splash. Roger bolted back to Archie, supporting him and preventing him from falling backwards into the water. “Archie? Archie, what’s wrong? What’s happening?” He said.

All Archie got out was “There’s something in my-” before his neck snapped backwards with a painfully audible crack. I ran up to him next, shining my light in his open to look inside.

I froze when I saw a familiar blue bulb right between his inflamed tonsils, surrounded by those muddy leaves. The shock of seeing that in his throat made Roger drop Archie, who dropped back into the water, head disappearing below the surface before the plant sprouted above it, its leaves unfolding around that bulb.  

I ran. I fucking ran down the cave, screaming at the top of my lungs. Payton was right on my heels, while Roger was just frozen, kneeling there next to Archie’s still body.  

I heard the gagging behind us before we turned the corner and found the original people who fell down there.

I recognized the platinum card member first, leaning up against the wall, the stream bubbling over his legs with his neck bent sideways at a ninety degree angle, the plant sprouted from his gaping mouth. I stumbled back and away, nearly tripping over what I thought were just rocks under the water until I looked down.

The plants were sprouting from three tiny bodies under the water. I fell to my knees and grabbed one of the children by the shoulders, pulling them up to reveal it was the same child who’d ripped my headphones out not even an hour before. His body was cold, still. Far too still.

But their eyes were still wide and alive, stricken with terror as they stared at the plant sprouting from beneath their teeth. I dropped them back, watching them fall beneath the brackish water before looking up.

Payton was knelt next to the body of her boyfriend, bawling as she stared into his far too alive eyes. She looked at the plant before getting a steely look in her eyes and getting back up. Grabbing the plant by the stem, she screamed at the top of her lungs as she pulled with all her might, ripping out the plant… and most of Gabriel’s esophagus with it.  

I heard the most disgusting gurgle as the boyfriend fell forward, his neck lolling in an unnatural position as the light in his eyes faded and blood flowed out of his mouth. Payton was left holding onto the plant, staring at the roots that intertwined with lumps of bloody flesh. She then dropped to her knees, laughing the kind of laugh that only came from someone who’d lost their fucking mind.

I turned away the moment that laughter turned into gagging and continued running downstream, feeling tears rush down my face and my chest seizing with sobs. I ran and ran, my fingers growing numb while they dug into my phone case, and I didn’t stop running until I saw the light that signaled the exit.

I stumbled out of that cave onto a rocky beach. The rain had finally slowed to a light sprinkle, and I collapsed on the ground as I desperately inhaled the cold fresh air.  

I listened to the waves for a few minutes before I realized I was hearing something else… someone’s wheezy breathing. I pulled myself up and looked up to see a body slumped right by the exit. I recognized Fiona by her uniform first, her face had turned a shade of bluish green and eyes popped wide with such horror I couldn’t recognize the woman who’d shoved me out of the way and saved me from falling down the crevice.

I crawled over to her, intertwined my fingers in with her ice cold ones. Her eyes stared into mine.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” I coughed in an attempt to clear my throat, “I’m sorry this happened to you.”  

I heard this desperate whine and maybe it was just the wind, but her head shook a little. I coughed again, that lump in my throat growing stronger. “This was my fault. You shouldn’t be-”

With movements slow and jerky, Fiona grabbed onto the stalk growing from his throat and ripped, ripping out several inches of the plant, still so much more down her throat. My face was sprayed with her blood, and I stared at her eyes.

“Breathed in… the spores… run,” She hissed before ripping the rest of the plant out, taking her tongue with it. With that, she flopped to the ground lifeless.

I got up. And I ran, ran away until I was far away from that fucking cave. But I think it’s already too late for me.  

That lump in my throat isn’t going away.

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