To relieve the stress of a couple of my readers, I am posting Chapter 25 early this week.
To catch up on the rest of the story, click HERE.
Jason’s breath caught, and he braced himself for the worst.
“She’s in a hole or a shaft or something,” Alex said. “I can see the top of her head and her shirt.”
They ran together, but Alex grabbed the back of his shirt before he reached a dip in the ground. “Wait! The wood’s rotted out. I don’t know what this is, but it was covered by boards. I almost fell in with her.”
Jason stood back, frantically scanning the boards for the weak spots, his eyes moving to the hole in the middle of them. “Did she answer you?” He tossed his backpack to the side.
“Ellie?!” He dropped to his knees next to the boards and started lifting them, tossing them to the side. Alex joined him until a wider gap was open, revealing a large swatch of darkness.
“Is this an old well?” Alex asked.
Jason shook his head, stepping gingerly toward another row of boards. “Old mine shaft.”
“Why is it still here? I thought they filled all those in.”
“They should have but a lot of companies abandoned them when the coal rush was over.” He tossed another board behind him and inched forward. “Ellie?!” He didn’t hear a response. “This is Old Man Barkley’s land. He died two years ago, and his kids sold off the farmland in sections. I don’t know who owns this land now, but they probably have no idea the shaft is even here. Ellie?!”
Why wasn’t she answering? Had she hit her head on the way down? Was she —
His heart rate increased, and he jumped across two boards to the other side of the hole, flopping into the dirt next to the entrance. He flicked the flashlight feature of his cellphone on and pointed it into the darkness. The light barely reached four feet down.
“Alex, there’s a flashlight in my backpack.”
Alex tossed the light to him, and he caught it, though he wasn’t sure how with the way his hands were shaking. He flicked the light on and tilted it into the darkness, terrified at what he might find.
A sob choked out of him when he saw Ellie’s dirt-streaked face looking up at him from maybe 20 feet down, her eyes blinking in the light’s brightness. A faint smile pulled at her mouth, her eyelids drifting closed.
“Hey.” He laughed through the tears. “You’re alive.”
He couldn’t even believe it. He’d been planning her funeral an hour ago while they hiked up a hill, and now he was hearing her voice.
Her laughter was the most amazing sound he’d ever heard, even if it was barely audible. “Yeah. I am. How did you even find me? I didn’t think anyone would ever find me.”
He looked over his shoulder. “Alex, call Cody. Tell him where we are and how to get here. We’re going to need more rope and a backboard. I’m going in.”
“We should wait for the first responders,” Alex said, lifting his phone to his ear. “What if the shaft caves in?”
Jason hesitated, pushing himself back from the edge. He hadn’t waited at the Weatherlys. If he had, they would have been digging two bodies out of the rubble. Ellie wasn’t in as desperate of a situation, though. What if he made the situation worse? He sat up and kicked another board back, then laid back on his stomach and felt the side of the shaft. The dirt and rock seemed solid enough. He was going to risk it, just like he’d risked carrying Ann out of the burning house. He only hoped that this time his choice wouldn’t result in the loss of another life.
“Cody, can you hear me?” Alex practically shouted into the phone as Jason turned himself to move backward into the shaft. He grabbed Jason’s flashlight and directed the beam of light into the shaft. “You’re breaking up. Yeah. We found her.”
Jason gripped the dirt next to the shaft entrance, swung his legs in, and lowered himself by bracing his boots against the side. Hard rock pulled up his shirt, ripped at his stomach, but he barely noticed. He lowered himself until he was gripping the grass and dirt without only the tips of his fingers, moving his feet, trying to find a place to grip with his feet.
The dirt broke under his hands at the same moment it broke under his boots, and he felt himself sliding down the shaft wall, dirt falling down as he moved toward the bottom. Darkness enveloped him. A searing pain shot up through his lower back to the space between his shoulder blades as he slammed against solid rock. He gasped in a breath, but nothing came. No air. Nothing but sheer panic surging through his body as his chest tightened even more.
When his breath finally came, it came with a sound that reminded him of the bray of the donkey his uncle Walt had owned years ago.
His shirt was sticking to his back, and he had a feeling the warmth wasn’t caused by sweat.
“Jason?!” The panic in her voice sliced through his heart, making him more desperate to get to her, touch her and make sure she was real.
He felt along the wall with his hands, on his knees, the light from the flashlight suddenly gone. “Alex? Where’s the light?”
Alex didn’t answer, so he kept feeling the wall until he felt skin soft against his fingertips. He stood slowly and in the next second, a hand clutched the front of his shirt, and he felt a body warm against his. He slid his arms around the body, the smell of Ellie’s shampoo pushing through the smell of dirt and mold and possibly something dead a few feet away. Leaning back against the rock behind him, he held her against him, afraid he was trapped in a dream, and someone would wake him up soon and tell him Ellie really wasn’t alive, but dead under her car in the creek.
Daylight was bright above them, but the shaft seemed to suck the light away so he could only see the light above, not around.
The light from the flashlight illuminated the section of the shaft where they were sitting. Jason glanced down at Ellie and saw tears streaking through the dirt on her cheeks.
“I was afraid to get too close to the edge,” Alex called down. “The ground was giving away, and I didn’t want more dirt coming down on you guys. I’m leaving the flashlight here while I give Cody directions. I have to move down the hill. I keep losing the signal.”
Jason gently cupped his hand behind Ellie’s head, feeling along the back of her neck. “Are you hurt?”
She shook her head slowly. “No. Just my ankle and my pride. I’m sorry I left the scene. I know I —”
His mouth smothered her words as he kissed her hard, trying to convince himself she was real. He dragged his mouth away a few moments later, and she gasped for breath and clutched at the front of his shirt again.
“You’re alive,” he repeated, his throat thick with emotion.
“Very much,” she whispered. “Alive and feeling very stupid for thinking I could take a shortcut to get help. I ignored all those driver’s ed videos that told me never to leave the scene of an accident. I was a total idiot.”
He kissed her again, softer this time. “You’re alive. That’s all I care about.”
The small smile pulling the corners of her mouth upward let him know she hadn’t minded the kisses and maybe even welcomed them.
He could hear Alex on the phone above them. The beam of light tilted toward the opposite wall. Jason titled his face upward and felt her arms slid around his neck and her palm against his cheek. When he looked down, she curled her fingers in his hair at the top of his head and pressed her mouth to his. The kiss was soft, slow, and spine tingling, making him forget about the pain he was in. He could only imagine the pain she must be in, and he hoped the kiss was helping her forget it, too.
“Cody said they’re going to use your phone’s location signal to find us,” Alex called down, causing Ellie to draw back and tilt her head back to look upward. “They’re heading up with four wheelers the Bradley family is loaning them.” He pointed the light down more directly. “I’ll hold this until they get here. Is she injured?”
Jason focused his gaze on her, smiling. “Just her ankle and her pride.”
She smiled and pressed her cheek against his shoulder, closing her eyes.
He pressed one hand against the small of her back, the other behind her head, sinking his fingers in her dirt-peppered hair. “How did you even get here?”
Her head remained against his shoulder as she spoke. “I was so stupid. Once I got out of the car and dragged Brad to the bank, I looked for my phone but couldn’t find it under the water. It was too dark. I knew where the road was but thought I could get to the Bradley’s faster over the hill and call for help. The moon went behind the clouds, though, and I got turned around and then I got more than turned around. I got completely and utterly lost. I thought I could see lights in the valley, so I started walking that way and that’s when I must have hit the rotten boards and fallen through. I don’t remember much other than coming to with pain in my ankle and the moon shining above me through a small hole in the wood.”
He kissed the top of her head and leaned back against the wall, marveling at the fact he was holding her, that God has answered his prayer and she was still alive.
“Alex, call Judi,” he shouted. “Her number is in my recent calls. She called me about 20 minutes ago.”
Ellie lifted her head and he looked down at her. “Judi called you?”
“Yeah. Right before we found you. She was practically hysterical. She wants you to know she’s sorry and loves you.”
“Oh.” Her eyes swam with tears, and he used the palm of his thumb to wipe them as they spilled from the corners. She drew in a shaky breath and let it out again. “Jason, I need to talk to you about something. I need to —”
Jason shook his head. “I should have told you long ago about what happened in college. I should have let you deal with it in your own way, not pressured you to forgive me.”
Ellie laid her hand on the back of his neck. “I know, Jason, but I need to talk to you about something el—”
“Cody’s coming up with hill with the rest of the guys.” Alex’s voice spoke over hers. “Tom too. He’s on one of the ATVs”
Jason looked down at Ellie as the rumble of engines drew closer and smiled. “Time to get you out of here.” He tilted his head, so he was looking at Alex again. “Tell Cody that there is dirt around this section, but there might be soft spots over the tunnel farther back. He’d better keep the four wheelers back some.”
“Will do.” Alex disappeared from the opening.
“Jason, please, before they get here, I need to talk to —”
“There will be plenty of time to talk when we get out of here.”
He kissed her softly again.
“I know we can talk then, but Jason —”
Shouting voices and the roar of engines drowned out her voice and Jason felt rather than heard her sigh as she leaned against him.
She tightened her arms around his neck. He saw the pain in her face, the exhaustion in her eyes, and he knew there was something she wanted to tell him. Right now, though, all he cared about was bringing her to safety. Now that he knew she was alive, everything else could wait.
Everything had happened so fast after Jason and Alex found her. Once the fire fighters had figured out a way to safely lift her, after determining her only injury was to her ankle, they’d helped her on to an ATV with Jason behind her. Riding down the hill her back against his front, her dad on an ATV behind them, she felt secure, calm, somehow at home.
All her concerns about who he’d once been had disappeared in the mine shaft when she’s thought she’d never see him again. Sitting in a small hole underground for ten hours had given her a lot of time to think.
To think. To talk to God.
And to listen to her heart, which ached at the thought she might die without telling Jason how much she loved him; how much it meant to her he’d been nothing but wonderful since they had met. Yes, he’d kept part of his past from her, but he could have easily told her without the apology..
“Sometimes it takes almost losing it all to realize what we have,” she whispered to her mom later that night as she drifted off to sleep in the hospital.
Rena smiled through the tears at her daughter, kissed her forehead and sat back in a chair next to the bed. “I’m still afraid if I fall asleep, I’ll wake back up in the nightmare I was living all day when I thought you were dead.”
Ellie’s eyes fluttered closed, but she forced them open again. Her Dad and Judi had gone home an hour ago.
“I want to go home,” Ellie whispered.
Rena pushed the hair off her forehead. “Sleep. The doctor said you can go home tomorrow. He wants to be sure you ‘re fully rehydrated and that there are no complications from that bump you took on your head. I still can’t believe you only managed to fracture your ankle when you fell in that old mine. It could have been a lot worse.”
Ellie’s eyes were closed. She had curled up on her side, hand under her chin, as if she were thinking. She could barely think, though. Sleep pressed down on her. “Jason . . .”
An amused smile tugged at the corners of Rena’s mouth. “He’s fine, honey. I already told you. Some stitches in his back and a muscle or two pulled, but they released him and he’s coming back in the morning to see you.” She laughed gently. “Of course, he wanted to stay, but I made him go home. He was a mess. Exhausted, blood-shot eyes, covered in dirt, arms and face all scratched up.” Rena rubbed Ellie’s hand. “You both need rest. There’ll be plenty of time for you to talk to each other later.”
Ellie managed a nod and then she was quiet, her breathing slow and even.