I kicked at the surface of the tree and pushed myself up to my waist. I leaned over, half my body inside the hole. With another shove, I rolled all the way in. The guy beside me came hurrying after. I moved down the tunnel, groping at the next opening, and felt someone move inside the tunnel and help their neighbor up.
“Tarsi!” I yelled. I patted my way down the line, wondering if the sound had come from the other direction, when I bumped into more bodies. I felt lost, alone, confused.
“Who was that?” someone yelled.
“What the fuck?” screamed another. I tripped over someone lying across the tunnel, patted them, then screamed Tarsi’s name again, selfishly unconcerned about everyone else.
Others did likewise, yelling individual names out as they tried to make contact with each other in the darkness.
“Porter!” someone shouted nearby—a gruff shout. I felt strong hands clasp my arm, pulling my face close enough to see.
“Where’s Tarsi?” I asked.
He shook his head, and I read it to mean that she didn’t make it, not that he didn’t know. Someone screamed for help further down the tunnel. I pushed away from Kelvin and moved to the next opening; I dropped to my knees and patted along the lip with my hands.
I felt knuckles and reached down for the wrists, my fear of losing another person rising up like a film of metal in my throat. Kelvin landed beside me and fumbled for the other arm. Together, we pulled. I willed my tired and numb fingers to close like two sets of vises, fully prepared to never use them again if it meant dragging that person to safety.
Whoever it was kicked with their feet to help. The fearful energy of all three of us propelled the person over the lip and inside, sending us all flying back toward the core of the tree. We crashed in a heap of quivering, tearful humanity.
Hands groped, discerning identity. A palm on my cheek, a face brought near.
I closed my eyes and wept, sobbing like a terrified child. Her lips fell to my cheek and stayed there, quivering against me, panting and gasping. Both of our bodies shook with grief, with exhaustion, and with guilt-ridden relief.