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His Hold has Turned so Tight



His hold has Turned so Tight A storm had blown their boat into the middle of the lake. It had happened suddenly, out of nowhere, and with a sudden roar of thunder the sky became more water than air. “This is all your fault,” Alex sputtered, the intense wind throwing her short hair all about and into her face. “I thought you knew this lake so well you could practically live on it. ‘Get into the boat,’ you said. ‘I’ll get you out of here,’ you said.” “And I did, didn’t I?” Andrew’s slightly soft voice was almost lost in the wind. “It would have been dangerous too, walking through the woods by yourself, especially with Mitch’s sidekicks chasing you. But if you want, I guess I could drop you back off. Maybe if you ask nicely, Mitch will forgive you and you can make out with him like you wanted.” She frowned. “How did you know that’s what I was going to do?” “You’re wearing a dress,” he was glad the rain cooled the heat on his cheeks. “And I’ve been watching you make goo-goo eyes at him all summer.” “So?” “That guy’s bad news, Alex. You saw how he reacted when you got scared. And besides, he’s sixteen. Why would he even be interested in you?” “Maybe it’s cuz I’m mature for my age.” Andrew stopped paddling, and stared at her. “Oh yeah? Well, what would you know about it? Why don’t you wait to judge me until your voice drops? Hmm? Can’t even string a sentence together without cracking on every other word...” He stayed silent, looking down, and Alex knew she’d gone too far. “Just keep bailing,” he mumbled finally. For a few minutes, there was only the hiss of rain and the cracks of lightning to break the silence. Alex opened her mouth to say something, though she wasn’t sure exactly what, when Andrew perked up. “Is that... an island?” he asked. “Oh thank god,” she squinted, trying to see through the fog and haze. “Maybe we can find someplace to wait out the rain.” But Andrew hesitated. “I’ve been around the whole lake. I didn’t think there was an island anywhere...” And yet, there it was: a small piece of land jutting out from the waves, the few trees on its edge swaying heavily in the wind. “Well, it’s better than drowning out on the lake.” His eyebrows knitted together. Something about this felt very wrong to him, though he wasn’t sure what. But he sighed. “It’s not like we have any options, I guess.” Alex grabbed the extra set of paddles and together, they rowed, fighting against the howling gale. By the time the little rowboat bumped against the rocky sand, they were both nearly out of breath. With the last of their strength, they hauled the boat as far as they could onto the beach. Andrew had been rowing far longer, and just about nearly fell to his knees right there, not even minding the pelting cold that soaked his grey sweatshirt. But Alex looked around, and shouted. “Look! There’s a cave over there!” Andrew opened his mouth; there could be anything in there, but Alex was already halfway up the beach and he was too tired to argue. Somehow, he managed to pull himself to his feet and follow her. Inside, the rain sounded tinny, and echoed off the stone at strange angles. Shivering and drenched, they both collapsed onto the hard, rough floor. For a while, the only other noise was the oddly amplified sound of them both catching their breath. But before long, Alex sat up, and began to glance around, restless. “When do you think the storm will let up?” she asked. Andrew shrugged, hoisting himself up on an elbow, which was about all he could manage at the moment. “Who knows. Could be any minute, could be a few hours.” “I hope our boat’s gonna be alright out there.” “I do too.” .............. “Look, I’m sorry about what I said, alright?” “Huh?” “In the boat, you know, about your voice.” She played with some stray sand on the ground with her finger instead of looking at him. “I’m sorry.” “It’s alright,” he said, in a tone that indicated it clearly wasn’t alright. Then he sighed. “What’s so great about that Mitch guy, huh? From what I’ve seen, he’s a real jerk.” Alex looked surprised. “Well...” she thought. “Uh, he makes me laugh, and he’s really cute, and—” “He made your parents upset?” “Excuse me?” “From what I’ve seen of your life, he’s not really what your parents would probably consider ‘boyfriend material.’ Unless I’m wrong, I guess.” “I—uh, well... you’re... you’re not wrong.” Andrew sat up and looked at her properly now. “You seem to have a really good life, nice summer home, nice parents. Why would you try to throw it all away like that?” “I’m not ‘throwing it away,’” “You know what I mean.” “And just because we have a nice summer home, doesn’t mean we have a good life. In fact,” she paused, standing. “My life’s the worst! Those ‘nice parents’ you think I have? Yeah, right. They hardly even look at me. Every year they send me away to boarding school, did you know that? I barely see them at all, and when I finally do, when they finally agree to rent a cabin for the summer and be together, neither of them can look at each other, let alone me. I just... I wanted a good summer for once, you know? I didn’t want to be looked after by the nanny, I wanted my parents. And the only way I know how to get them to talk to me is to do things they don’t approve of, so I thought—I thought, maybe if I found the most disgusting, white-trash asshole I could, maybe they’d finally be a little concerned about me. My life is the absolute worst!” “Don’t say things like that,” Andrew muttered quietly. “What?” This whole time, she hadn’t noticed the expression on his face darkening. “Don’t say that you’ve got it the worst when you don’t know anything about it.” Alex waited for him to continue, and when he didn’t, she asked. “You going to elaborate?” “No,” he said. “Forget it. Your life is pretty terrible.” He stood, looking suddenly small against the backdrop of the large cave. Grabbing the penlight out of his sweatshirt pocket, he peered down into the depths of the blackness. “This goes deeper than I thought.” “The hell? Where are you going?” Alex called as he started walking. He didn’t turn back to her. “Going exploring. It’s not like there’s much else to do.” “And you’re leaving me by myself?” “I mean, if you don’t come with, yeah.” She shivered. It was going to be colder the deeper in they got, but the alternative was staying here all alone. “Ugh, jerk,” she sighed, running to catch up to him. Slowly, the sound of the rain faded behind them, as the cave sloped deeper into the earth and they got farther and farther away from the entrance. “This is so strange,” Andrew muttered. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” “You’ve been bragging about how familiar you are with the lake all summer. You must come here a lot, huh?” Alex tried desperately to keep up human conversation. If she kept talking, then she could keep the fear in her gut down. “I don’t come here, I live here,” he muttered. “With my dad in a trailer on the edge of town, just like it’s always been. Happy?” Alex blinked. “Wait, live? I thought it was all summer homes and condos up here.” “Yeah, cuz none of you ever go to that part of town. Who do you think runs the general store where you get all your picnic sandwiches?” “Well, I mean, I knew people lived here, but I just never thought...” “That I would?” Andrew shook his head. “Yeah, there’re a lot of kids that come through here every summer. Eventually it just got easier to stop telling them.” “So you just spend all summer by yourself on the lake? Why don’t you hang out with your dad? Or your mom even?” “I want to spend as little time as possible around my dad,” he said. “And my mom...” He hesitated, but thankfully, at that moment they heard a screeching noise overhead, and Andrew raised the penlight to see a startled bat flapping away through the dark. He noticed that Alex had subconsciously wrapped her arm around his, and he elected not to say anything as they kept walking. The cave was damp, and drippy, covered in the faint smell of algae. The only light they had was the soft, blue glow of the penlight, and Andrew was getting a little nervous now. He’d expected the tunnel to end before long, but for some reason it just kept going and going, slopping gently downwards into the ground. If he just kept going straight forward, he shouldn’t get too turned around, but it was getting difficult to keep a mental map of this place in his head. “Maybe we should turn back,” Alex said, seemingly reading his thoughts. But he shook his head. “It can’t go on that much longer. Plus,” he squinted, looking forward. “I think the tunnel gets wider up ahead.” They continued down, and after a minute, Andrew proved to be right. The narrow walls disappeared, and the penlight wouldn’t have been much use if not for the hole in the ceiling that cast dull, grey light into the chamber. Rain still tumbled down into a pool of water that had formed beneath it, and Andrew sighed. Looked like they would still be stuck here for a while yet. “Wow,” Alex commented. “It’s pretty.” But she still shivered, even if it wasn’t particularly cold anymore. “I guess,” Andrew said, shrugging. There wasn’t much else there, to be sure, and Andrew was just about to turn to Alex and suggest they go back when something caught his eye. The small amount of light caught something just under the surface of the water. Something that shined. “Whoa, what’s that?” he whispered, approaching the edge of the pool. “What are you doing?” Alex asked, “You have no idea what that is.” “Yeah, that’s why I’m looking.” He squatted over the edge, and there, resting on the rough stone floor, was a key. “Oh, that’s cool.” Alex shuffled up beside him. “Weird. Why would there be a key in a cave?” “No clue...” he started to reach down for it. “Hold on, you have no idea who that belongs to,” Alex tried to stop him. There was something very strange about that key, something she couldn’t put her finger on. Andrew just raised an eyebrow at her. “It’s in a cave. I don’t think anyone’s going to miss it.” He reached downwards, the water sucking all of the heat from his fingers. “Crap,” he sighed, rolling up his sweatshirt sleeve. “It’s deeper than I thought.” “I still don’t think this is such a good idea...“ But he ignored her, instead plunging his arm in and grabbing it. He pulled his hand back as quickly as he could, for the water was incredibly cold, maybe colder than it should have been. Andrew shook the key, and got a closer look at it. It was of fairly simple design, maybe made of silver or iron, but it had something unusual on the end. It almost looked like two squares intersecting, but that wasn’t quite the right description, because Andrew couldn’t tell where one square ended and another began. “Hey, Alex, look at th—“ Andrew turned to show her, but as he did so he saw that her eyes were wide, gazing at the key in his hand. It was glowing, casting an eerie light upon the cracked stone walls. “What the...?” He panicked, dropping the key. It landed on the ground with a hollow ding. “Well, that’s awfully rude of you,” said a voice. Andrew jumped back, and probably would have fallen had Alex not grabbed his arm. They both looked wildly around for the source of the voice, and got their answer as the key picked itself off of the ground and began to float in front of their faces, forcing them to squint, as it had only gotten brighter. “Throwing a person’s only link to this realm is just tacky, even if I did spook you a bit.” “W-w-what’s going on here?” Andrew asked, waving the penlight around as if it was a weapon, not quite able to believe what he was seeing. “What did you do?” “Me? I didn’t do anything. It was all you, buddy boy. And I’m uhh... floating right here, ya know?” The key wiggled in the air a bit, as if to demonstrate. Alex’s grip on his arm increased in pressure, as she finally said something. “What are you?” The key, or rather, the thing that was speaking through the key, chuckled a little. “If you need a name, Daisy-Chain, you can call me... hmmm, Mr. M. But that’s not really important. What is important is that you two are in a lot of trouble, aren’t you? That’s one hell of a storm, but even when it ends I don’t think that Mitch guy is going to be happy to see either one of you.” “How do you know about that?” Andrew demanded. “Questions, questions, so many questions.” Mr. M laughed. “Listen, I know that I’m speaking to you through a floating key, but get with the program, kids.” "Andrew, I think we should go,” Alex looked at him pleadingly. “I don’t know whether we’ve gone crazy or what, but I want to go home.” The key wiggled, nearly jeering at them. “And just how do you think you’re going to get out of here? How far away is the mainland, do you think? How do you even know you’re in the lake anymore?” “Who cares, anything is better than being here with you!” Alex was shaking now. “Alex, maybe we should hear him out, he is right,” Andrew shrugged. “Now this kid’s got brains,” the key swooped in between them. “You don’t think there’s something even a little off about this whole thing?” Alex ignored him. “Blah blah blah, so annoying.” The key glowed brighter. “Let’s put a pause on this whole thing, shall we.” “Wait, wait, everyone, calm down. Alex, let’s just—“ He turned to her, but shortly stopped dead. Alex wasn’t moving. Her mouth was open, her hand extended out to him, but she was as still as a statue. Andrew suddenly realized just how quiet it was. He turned back to the water, and the rain had stopped. No, not stopped, frozen, suspended in midair above the pool. There was no wind, no thunder, no breathing, save for his own. The whole world had stopped. "What... what just happened?" “She was getting annoying, so I decided to hold everything.” “Well, stop it!” “Aww, but that would be no fun. Besides, it was you who I really wanted to talk to. You’re, uhh, you’re striking out there, kid.” Andrew found himself flushing red, even though he wasn’t quite sure what the key was talking about. “What... what do you mean?” “That girl. You’ve been mooning over her all summer. And hey, I for one fully support you in your... endeavor. I mean, her parents are loaded, huh? In a couple years she could be your ticket out of this backwater bumhole.” “Tha... that’s not—” “Oh, but wait, she’s dating that dickcheese Mitch, huh? What a jerk, amirite? She would have gotten really hurt if you hadn’t been there to save her. But lookit that: she’s not even grateful! You must just be a really big loser, huh? No money, no friends, with that squeaky voice high as the stratosphere to boot.” “I mean, I guess... you’re right...” Andrew hung his head. He’d never had someone just come out and say the things he was thinking like that. On the one hand it was scary, but on the other, it was almost... a relief. Someone got it. Someone else understood things that he’d never be able to say out-loud. The key floated closer, a little coy. “Listen, kid. I like you. I want you to succeed, and I think lil Miss Daisy-Chain over there is the perfect start.” “But she won’t even look at me half the time. How do I—?” “Don’t rush me, I was getting to that! Kids these days don’t know how to hold out for a dramatic moment. Listen, I may be linked to this key, but I’m not the key, if that makes any sense. And I’d like very much to get out of here. If you help me, I’ll help you, capiche?” Andrew paused. “Well, how do you know I can even help you in the first place?” “Oh, kid, that’s easy. You’ve just gotta let me in.” “What?” “Into your body. I’ll hitch a ride until I find something better, and in the meantime, I’ll be there to give you advice, help you out a little.” “That seems, um, kind of invasive.” Mr. M chuckled. “Hard sell, I know. But it’s not just with her. I’m a thousand years old, kid. I have tricks for everything. I could turn your shitty little life around in just a couple of days.” He was about to turn him down, about to tell him to hit the road, but just then, Andrew paused. What had he just said? That he could change his life entirely? Maybe even get him out of this town, and he wouldn’t even have to think about it. If he just followed what Mr. M told him, he could be free? “How do I know you’re telling the truth?” Andrew asked finally. “Well, frankly, you don’t, and I’ve got no way to prove it to you,” the key admitted. “But really, what have you got to lose?” That was true. Andrew’s time on this earth was going nowhere, and fast. So if he had one opportunity to change it, maybe he should take it. “Is it a deal?” Mr. M leaned in closer. For just one second, Andrew felt frozen in indecision, but it was now or never. “Alright,” he said. “It’s a deal.” The sharp metallic clang of the key hitting the floor made Alex jump. Looking around, she scratched her head. Hadn’t something strange just happened? She remembered something, a key, that strange key that had just landed on the floor next to Andrew, and a voice, but... maybe that was just her nerves playing tricks on her. “What was that?” she asked him. Andrew shrugged. “Oh, nothing really. I just saw this neat key in that puddle over there, but it was really cold so I dropped it. Oops.” He knelt down to pick it up, and shoved it in his pocket. “You’re taking it with you?” “Yeah, who knows what it might open. Maybe there’s a hidden chest around here or something.” Though she couldn’t quite place why, Alex suddenly began to feel a chill on the back of her neck. Something was... wrong here. Very wrong. Why was Andrew grinning like that? She didn’t think she’d seen him smile the entire summer. “Anyway,” he continued, “The rain’s coming down a lot less hard now, so we should probably head back to the boat.” “Right...” she hesitated to follow him. “What’s the hold-up? Let’s go, Daisy-Chain.” The chill turned into a full-blown freeze. Alex didn’t think she breathed for a full minute. “Why did you call me that?” she asked. “What?” “Daisy-Chain. You’ve... never called me that before.” Andrew paused. “I don’t know. It’s kind of a cute nickname. I thought it suited you.” But Alex just shook her head. It was still fuzzy, but she remembered that phrase. It was the key, it had been talking, just a second ago, it said its name was Mr. M, and it had just called her Daisy-Chain. It was impossible, unbelievable. But from the way he was talking, to the odd saunter he’d just adapted. There was no way. “You’re... not Andrew, are you?” Spinning on his heel, Andrew, no, Mr. M, smiled a little too wide. “Oops. Guess ya caught me. See I froze you because I thought you would have talked him out of it, letting me invade his body, that is, but I guess I should have taken my chances in convincing you too, huh?” “W... what have you done with him?” Alex started shaking. “Oh he’s still in here,” Mr. M took a step towards her, and Alex took a step back. “He’s screaming a lot for sure, kind of annoying if I’m honest. But he’s not in any pain. Well, maybe a little pain. Well, maybe he’s having to struggle every second I’m in here to not have his very soul torn apart at the seams, but he’ll be fine for a while. He’s a tough cookie.” She couldn’t believe this. She couldn’t believe any of this. Just a couple of hours ago she was running away from some teenagers because she wouldn’t go to third base with one of them, and now her savior was being held hostage by... something. Something horrible. It wasn’t fair, not at all. He saved her easily with his little boat, but she wasn’t going to be able to repay the favor. What could she do, after all? But then she looked at his face. Through the grin, and the laughter, there was something in his eyes, something that resembled pain. That wasn’t Mr. M, she knew it must be him. He was watching her, Andrew was watching to see what she’d do. She couldn’t just abandon him. “L...” words failed her for a moment, but she clenched her fists and shouted. “Let him go!” “Or what?” was the only response. “Or I’ll... I’ll... ” There was nothing she could do, really. Her eyes darted over to a loose rock on the ground. Well, there was one thing she could do. One thing that she could take from him. She wouldn’t, she couldn’t. But if she could convince him that she would.... Alex was a good liar. That came from years of Catholic boarding school. She knew that she couldn’t overdo it. No doubt he’d already seen her eyeing that rock. Glaring at him, she took one step towards it. He watched her the whole time, his face turning in question. At the very point where she felt that her heart might beat out of her chest, she made a mad dash for the rock, and out of the corner of her eye, saw Mr. M make a step in her direction. “Wait, wait just a moment, little missy,” he said, the desperate edge in his voice unmistakable. She picked up the rock, holding it threateningly above her head. “I’m taller than Andrew,” she said. “I can outrun you.” “No need to go that far,” he held out his hands. “Tell you what, let’s make a little bet. I like betting.” “I don’t,” she snarled. “But alright, what’s this bet of yours?”

“Well, now that I’m floating around in his brain, I know everything about this kid,” Mr. M poked himself, maybe a little harder than necessary. “You’ve been spending the whole summer with him, so you should know almost more than I do, hmm? Let’s play a little game of Andrew Trivia. I’ll ask you four questions about this young man right here. You guess all the answers correct, and I’ll let him go. I’ll go back to my key and cry myself to sleep.” “And what happens if you win?” “Oh that’s simple. I walk out of here with this body, unmolested by little girls with rocks.” She observed his outstretched hand. This was a trap of some kind, it had to be. You never made a bet like this if you didn’t think you were going to win. But what choice did she have, really? Alex dropped the rock, and took a step towards him. “And you’re not lying.” “I’m a man of my word,” he grinned. This was a mistake, a huge one, and she knew it. But nevertheless, she took his hand. As she did so, the cave rumbled. “Oh yeah, guess I forgot to mention. Now that I’m in a body, this cave is going to sink back into the lake. So you’ve only got a couple of minutes.” For a moment, she wondered if he was lying. It would be a great way to put pressure on her. But now she could already see the water falling from the hole in the ceiling a little faster, and the ground vibrated. He was telling the truth. “Then start already!” she growled. “Alright, alright, we’ll start off easy,” he grinned. “Anyone who knows him at all would be able to tell me this one: what’s Andrew’s favorite color?” She hated the smug look on his face. Because Alex realized with a start that she didn’t know. She had never bothered to ask. In fact, what did she really know about him? They had kept running into each other around the lake, and had even spent a couple of afternoons together, but all she’d done during that time was talk about herself. And he’d sat there and listened. The whole time. Despite the situation, she felt her face turning red. Just how conceited could she have been? “Wow, that uh... that one’s already stumped you, huh?” Even Mr. M raised his eyebrows in pity. “I was uhhh, really expecting you to get further than that.” Alex glared a hole through him, right through Andrew’s dumb, grey sweat... That sweatshirt. The lake was a little cold, being of course, a big body of water, but even on the couple of days when it got too hot for sweatshirts he’d never taken his off. It was a long shot, but maybe he was fond of that one not just because of its comfortability... “Is it... grey?” she said. “Ahahaha, I’m sorry, that’s... no wait, that is right. Wow, that’s... a choice. Really great color to be a favorite. Grey. Okay, now I’m judging you, kid.” Mr. M seemed to be speaking to himself more than to Alex now. Another big rumble ensued. Alex gritted her teeth. She had no idea how she was going to get through this, but at least she had her fantastic memory on her side. “What’s the next one?” “Alright, Daisy-Chain, I’m gettin’ there. When did Andrew’s family move to the lake?” “That’s not fair!” she retorted. “Andrew didn’t talk about his life on purpose. I only found out he even lives here at all today. So how the heck am I supposed to know that?” “Hey, we made a deal,” Mr. M sidled right up next to her, a strange glint in his eyes. “I could ask you anything I wanted, remember? I never said it had to be something that you knew.” Alex scowled. “Gimme a minute.” Think. Think back to everything he had said to her today. About his family, his life. Was there anything there that could indicate when he’d moved here? I don’t come here, I live here; with my dad in a trailer on the edge of town, just like it’s always been.” That’s what he’d said. Just like it’s always been. She smiled. “Trick question. He’s lived here since he was born. He never moved at all.” He never moved at all,” Mr. M imitated her, clearly annoyed. “Yes, yes, that’s right.” Alex’s ears popped as the cave dipped lower and lower into the water. A large boulder cracked off the wall and fell just a few feet away from her. “Alright, come on, keep moving.” “Well, hold on a second,” he yawned. “I hadn’t expected you to get this far, so I hadn’t thought of any more.” “Why you little—“ She picked up a rock, but he just laughed. “Kidding, kidding. Don’t get your panties in a bundle. Two more and then you’re done, I suppose.” Mr. M sighed. “Alright, kid gloves are coming off now. How many years has Andrew’s mother forgotten his birthday?”

Alex’s heart dropped a little. She sincerely doubted he’d give her two trick questions in a row, which meant that at some point, she had. No wonder he liked to spend so much time on the lake alone. But this was bad. How in the world was she supposed to answer this one? Not once in the entire summer had he really mentioned his mother... Oh. She understood now. This wasn’t a trick question, but it was close enough to one, really. “All but one,” she said. “He’s never mentioned her, so I can only assume that she hasn’t been there since he’s been born.” “How?” he said. “How in the cosmos above did you figure out that one?” The shell was crumbling, just like the cave around them. Alex coughed as dust got in her mouth. Bits of water started splashing through the hole at the top of the cave. Mr. M’s, no, Andrew’s face was contorted in anger, anger that a child his age should never have. Violent, red hot anger. He began walking towards her, his hands outstretched, but then stopped himself. “No, we had a deal, didn’t we?” he asked, and she nodded stiffly. “Alright, final question then,” he spat, but swiftly, a smile returned to his face. Alex gulped. She had barely made it through the last three, so if he was smiling now... “Final question,” he repeated. “This one’s for the gold, so think carefully now. What are your feelings towards Andrew?” “Now that one is absolutely against the rules,” Alex said. “That’s not a question about him at all, it’s a question about me.” “Yes, the question might not be ‘about him’, but it is a question about him, now isn’t it?” he chuckled, and somehow she was able to hear it over the now violent shaking. “I don’t know what you’re complaining about. Since as you said, this one’s about you, the answer should be easy, shouldn’t it?” Not in the least, not in the slightest. Alex had been so concerned with Mitch the entire summer that she hadn’t even given Andrew a second thought. What did she even think about him? They were acquaintances, sure, but would she even consider them friends? There was so much she hadn’t known about him until today, until this very minute even. And that wasn’t even mentioning her “feelings”. Alex was still a kid. Sure, she pretended that she was grown up, that she was capable of adult feelings, but deep down, even she knew that it was all a lie. And yet, he was cute. He was kind. He had even made her laugh occasionally. Weren’t those all the things that were reasons to like someone? Was that her answer? That she loved him? Certainly not. She barely even knew him. But what if that was the feeling deep down, and by answering in the negatory Mr. M could call her out. Did he know her mind better than she did? He certainly looked like he did, grinning at her like that, but that could be a bluff as well. She’d circumnavigated all his mind games thus far, but it seemed like he’d pulled a fast one on her here. She could outwit all but the best, and unfortunately, she was the best. But wait. The cave was about to collapse and she still didn’t have an answer. Maybe, just maybe, she could win this after all. “Fine, you want to know?” she asked, and Mr. M nodded with delight. “Alright then. Here you go: I don’t know.” The cave stopped moving, the water stopped dripping, and the dust started to settle. All was silent for a moment. “What?” he asked. “That’s your answer? Really? ‘I don’t know?’” “It’s the truth. I don’t. I might need several months to puzzle out my feelings, I think. So yeah, at the moment, I’m entirely unsure how I feel about him.” “But, but that’s a cop-out,” he complained. “You can’t just say ‘I don’t know’ and be done with it. That’s not fair!” “Like you’ve been fair this entire time,” she rolled her eyes. “It seems like you have some way of determining whether I’m lying or not. You know that it’s the complete truth.” “Well, but, I don’t—” “Now, Mr. M, I believe we had a deal, didn’t we?” she said. “I answered all your questions. Give Andrew his body back.” He sighed, heavily. “You’re right, I suppose we did.” A small grin crept onto his face, and Alex’s heart dropped to her knees. “But I never said I’d let you two leave here alive.” With a crash, several large stones fell over the entrance to the cave, the rumbling started anew, and just when water began to pour from the hole in the ceiling, Mr. M laughed long and hard, and then simply collapsed. “Andrew!” Alex shouted, rushing over to him. He gurgled as water from the ceiling splashed into his mouth. It was coming down like a spout now; clearly the cave had sunk below the level of the lake. If he didn’t wake up soon, they were dead. They might be dead anyway, but if she could just get him moving, then maybe they could make it. “Come on, come on...” she poked him a couple of times, then sighed. “I’m sorry about this.” She slapped him, hard, and Andrew cried out in pain, waking immediately. He blinked. “Wha...?” he started, but the water was already up to their knees, and filling in the cave even faster now. “Get up!” she helped him to his feet, just in time to avoid getting too much water down his throat. “The cave’s sinking, and I don’t know what to do.” “Um...” he blinked, face scrunched up like he was still in pain. “The... the hole, the one in the ceiling.” He said finally. “If we wait for the water to fill the cave, we might be able to get through it.” “It’ll be tight,” Alex muttered. But Andrew just shrugged in disbelief. “Well, we have to try, don’t we? Can you swim?” “I’m on the swim team, you idiot.” “Cool, cuz I don’t think I’d be able to carry you.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” “Nothing!” he panicked. “You’re just really tall!” They were both having to tread water by now, fighting against the odd current that splashed off the walls. But they could almost reach the hole. Andrew went first, kicking upwards through the murky water, towards the faint light overhead. His sweatshirt caught on a rock briefly, but he tore it and made it through. Alex gulped, partially due to nerves and partially to counteract the increasing need she had for air. She swam upwards, her heart pounding. The hole looked small. Almost too small. But Andrew had made it, hadn’t he? Her shoulders were too wide. Not by much, just a little bit. She scrunched them inwards, constricting her chest even more, which made her start seeing spots. She pushed through, scraping them along the rough rock. She almost opened her mouth, almost screamed or swore in pain. But she didn’t, she could see Andrew above her. They were almost there. She broke the surface and flailed in a panic, gasping desperately for air. The sun had come out suddenly, and it was so bright after that dark cave that Alex almost sank back down under the water as it stunned her. But she managed to keep kicking, and turned this way and that, looking for Andrew. “I’m here!” he called, and she followed the voice, and smiled. He’d found their boat, just floating in the middle of the water. After one final, hard struggle, she pushed herself over the edge, almost capsizing them in the process, and collapsed, her breathing ragged. They both lay there like beached whales for a minute, just catching their breath. After what seemed like an eternity, Andrew broke the silence. “Are your shoulders okay? Looks like you scraped them pretty bad.” “I’m not going to bleed out or anything,” she said. “But yeah, they sting pretty bad. We should probably get back if we can. I wonder how many jumbo bandaids I’ll need?” “I think you might need a little more than that.” They laughed together for a minute, utterly euphoric. But then Andrew’s face dropped a little, contemplating something. “What’s wrong?” Alex asked. He hesitated, then sighed and decided to speak. “Nothing really, it’s just... well, now you know more about me than I’ve ever told anyone before.” “Oh...” she looked down. “I’m sorry, I can’t really forget it now.” “No, it’s alright. It actually feels nice, a little, that someone else knows now,” he shrugged. “But... would you do me a favor and just... keep it to yourself. I don’t wanna, you know, make it a big deal.” If she was older, she might have had a solution for him. If she was wiser, she might have been able to comfort him. But as it stood, all she could do was nod and say “Yeah, sure thing.” “Thanks,” he said, gazing off over the water. Then, suddenly, he jolted, like he’d been shocked. “Are you alright?” Alex asked. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just a... a little cold,” he said. She should have prodded him more. Even at the time she knew she should have. But at that moment, all she wanted to do was go home, take a long shower, and fall asleep for a long time. So she didn’t. She’d just ask him later. The summer wasn’t quite over yet. When Alex turned away to start rowing, Andrew looked down at his palm. There was now a distinctive burn-mark running right down the middle, exactly in the shape of the key that he’d been clutching in his pocket. It seemed to keep stinging for longer than it should have, but Andrew ignored the pain and picked up an oar himself. Slowly, they made their way back to the lakeshore, and agreed never to speak of this again.

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