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Elisha's Bones Part 22

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The two of us strain against the weight of the box and it seems like forever before it moves, just a hair at first, but then a few inches, then a few more. Finally we push the ossuary from its dais, revealing a two-foot-wide hole with a depth of less than four feet.

"Tomb building 101," I say. "Always have two exits."

My back hurts as I straighten, and I'm breathing heavily as I scoop up the bones.

"Ladies first?"

"Not on your life."



The flashlight is worthless, most of its glass parts smashing to pieces on the floor of the larger chamber when I threw myself onto Espy. I hate the thought of entering this exit passage without a light, but this is one of those occasions when complaining accomplishes nothing.

I sit on the edge and then lower myself down, and my head and shoulders are still in the room when my feet touch bottom. It's cold in here, but at least it's dry. I crouch and step deeper into the tunnel so that Espy can join me. As we start moving, it doesn't take long before the light is lost behind us. I feel my way along with one hand, the other holding the treasure we've crossed the world to find and are now ferrying with what is probably an inappropriate lack of ceremony.

While shuffling forward, bent at the waist, my foot hits a rough spot and I'm forced to slow down. This far into the tunnel, the darkness is as complete as it's going to be, and Espy, unaware that I've slowed my pace, walks into me just hard enough to send me to my knees.

"Watch where you're going," I say.

"Funny."

Deeper into the tunnel the air is stale and still and I feel sweat beading on the back of my neck, making my shirt stick to my body.

It goes unnoticed at first, but when I recognize that the tunnel is constricting I realize it's been happening for some time. It's not much, maybe six inches, yet enough to slow us down.

Stopping, I say, "Keep your hands on the wall."

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing." I start off again, content that I've not really told a lie because it could very well be the truth. By my foot count, we've traveled about fifty yards, and since this passage almost certainly comes up somewhere within the house, it has to reach an end soon. At the rate the tunnel is narrowing, we should be out before it becomes impassable.

A moment later I'm sitting on the tunnel floor and my face feels as if George Foreman hit me, then held me down and rubbed the tender spots with a scouring pad. White dots dance in front of me and I try to blink them away, but they hang tauntingly out of reach. I touch my forehead and wince as fire spreads out from my fingers. It's sticky, but it doesn't feel deep. Similar sensations run along my nose and right cheek.

"What happened?" Espy asks.

"I hit something."

"What?"

What, indeed. I put my legs under me and feel along the ground until I find the bones, still wrapped securely in the cloth. Once I have them I stand and, with my hand straight out in front and at head level, I take a tentative step forward until I'm stopped by solid rock. Like a blind man, I search around for meaning, for shape, and determine that the tunnel has become a crawl space. In the darkness it's hard to tell the exact dimensions but it's enough to go in headfirst and shimmy along on my elbows. I release an explosive breath and turn, placing my back against one of the walls.

"There's a little problem."

"I'm turning around and going back."

"The tunnel shrinks just past me. It's large enough to get through in an army crawl."

Espy doesn't respond. After several seconds, I wonder if she was serious and is now making her way back the way we came. I reach out for her.

"Watch it," she says and slaps my hand away.

"We have to be near the end," I say in my most reassuring voice.

"You're going first, and you're bigger than me. So as long as you don't get stuck, I guess I'll be fine."

"Thanks."

I feel my way back to the start of the crawl space. After a few deep breaths, I slip in, clutching my cargo like a football. Here, the heat is stifling, and fresh beads of sweat run down my face and my arms as I shimmy forward, scraping my knees and elbows.

I hear Espy following close behind me. I talk to her, to calm her, when my voice catches and I can no longer speak. Before I know what's happening, the walls of the crawl space close in on me, pinning me within the rock. The stone is like a living, breathing organism, compressing and holding me in its grip. In the dark, fear is a physical thing, with long fingers that can wrap around the heart, an insidious voice that whispers terrible things-hot breath on the ear. I can't move, can't even feel where my limbs end and the stone begins. Somewhere deep in my chest is a need that manifests as pain, and it occurs to me that I'm not breathing.

My world is made up of darkness and silence, a sensory deprivation chamber that keeps me from counting the seconds or feeling the pain in my knee. My mind gropes around for an anchor, and I seize on the only image I can conjure: my brother. He's sunburned, covered with sand, and flashing a raffish grin- the same one he wore when I last saw him alive.

I feel a sob somewhere in my throat, but it won't come up because I'm locked down and it's choking me. I think I hear someone calling to me, and I think it might be Esperanza. Yet the sound is fighting a fierce wind to reach me and I lose it on the gusts. I'm buried in sand, pawing at the stuff as it gets in my mouth and in my eyes. I'm calling for help, and I think I hear someone talking to me from above me but it's unclear. All I know is sand, and that the people up above will not reach me in time.

Whatever this is, it's killing me. So, with as much effort as I can muster, I force Will from my mind. I push him out, knowing the Will in my head is nothing more than guilt. Guilt is killing me. I seize on the only thing that makes sense; and while my grasp of the idea of God is not a firm one-a tenuous handhold-it's something that feels safe.

Somewhere along the line, I come to believe that fear has brought its best game. It is roaring like an ocean in my ears and I take as deep a breath as I can and force the sound of waves crashing on rocks to fade. The icy fingers of fear still threaten to wrap around my heart, but I can exercise some control over the air entering and leaving my lungs.

Sweat covers me and I'm shivering. I focus on the idea of God, something I have never latched on to before, and yet it's all I have right now. I force my hand to move. A small thing.

I hear Esperanza's voice.

Before I pop the grate up and push it aside, I'm sucking fresher air into my body. The light hurts my eyes, but I refuse to squint against it. Instead, I let it hurt. With leaden arms I pull myself up until I'm sitting on the edge, then swing my legs over and lie on my stomach to help Espy. Once she is out, we both collapse on the dirt.

It's like a rebirth, this emerging from the hole, and I soak in every sensation.

"What happened in there?" She's raised herself onto her arm, her face close to mine.

I appreciate the concern in her eyes but we don't have the time I would need to answer that question. Back in the tunnel, once I could move, it was only a dozen hard-fought yards before the straightaway ended and forced us up. Had I concentrated, before the fear took hold, I would have noticed that the darkness was turning to gray, a subterranean sunrise. But those last yards seemed like a marathon as I processed what happened, this episode that mirrored the one in Quetzl-Quezo. It's too similar for me to dismiss the claustrophobia theory so easily this time around, yet I know there's so much more to it than that. Grief, disbelief, anger-too much to think about just now. I wonder, though, at how I latched on to God. Maybe I have more in common with my father than I realize.

My only answer to Esperanza is to lift my head and kiss her, a drive-by. I roll to the side, climb to my feet, and extend my hand. With something between a smile and a look of irritation, she takes it and I pull her up.

I make a mental note to always try to emerge from a scary tunnel into what amounts to a pruned jungle. Exotic flowers, thick vines, and verdant shrubs surround us, and medium-sized trees whose topmost branches brush against the glass ceiling of a greenhouse.

We came out of what must double as a drainage hole. Before we pushed the grate aside, I noticed a trio of smaller drains beneath my feet, to keep water from pooling and trickling back down the tunnel.

We have to be somewhere on the northeast corner of the building, which puts us at the back of the estate. We will have to either cut through it or go around to make it back to the van, assuming the vehicle is still there. I opt for outside, principally because there should be fewer opportunities for someone or something to surprise us.

"Ready to go?"

I clutch the bones to my chest and head out, not waiting for an answer. When I reach a solid wall, I realize we're not in a true greenhouse, set off from the estate, but a section built into the existing frame, the glass ceiling providing the only light for the thriving plants. I move north along the wall, passing a line of orchids in full bloom. I hear a small gasp from behind me as Espy sees the plants, and I toss a glance over my shoulder to make certain she hasn't stopped to investigate.

I hit the door at the end with a firm thrust of my forearm, and the controlled air of the estate replaces the warm, humid air of the greenhouse. To the left is a set of double doors and I angle in that direction and push them open. Just as I suspected, we're in the back, stepping out onto the terrace. I turn right and start running toward the wing on this side. Reaching the far edge, we round the corner on our way to the van. The bones, still wrapped in the purple cloth, thump against my chest as I lope along in the heavy work boots.

When we reach the front, I am cheered to see the van still in its spot. We run toward it, and I feel as light as I can remember feeling, which is a state that comes from achieving the impossible. I'm holding the bones of a biblical prophet, having liberated them from something more daunting than dirt and time.

It's when I turn my head to smile at Esperanza, to share the conspirator's nod, that I see the figure emerge from the front door. He has his good arm raised, and he's sprinting across the stone toward the stairs. We are almost at the van before Victor fires the gun; I hear bullets slam into the side of the vehicle in uniform sequence. I lunge for the passenger door and yank the handle hard enough that I can feel my fingernail start to rip away, and then a mist of blood hits the paint. Espy crumples next to me, her hand slipping from the handle of the sliding door. When I look down, only half registering that Victor is still shooting, I see a small, neat hole in the back of Esperanza's head. Time seems to slow and I can almost see each individual cavity appear on the side of the van as the Aussie fires another salvo, but the odd thing is that I can't hear the shots, or the impacts. A growing rumble fills my ears like an angry white noise.

I am a statue, frozen by weariness, and horror, and grief anew. She's come to rest against the side of the van, her eyes hidden by strands of dark hair. The bullets pop into the van-a staccato death song. Without thinking, my hand goes to the pocket of the borrowed work pants, to the gun that felt uncomfortable beneath me as I crawled through the tunnel.

Turning toward Victor, I see him as he reaches the bottom of the steps. There's a look on his face that, if I make it out of here, I will never forget. It's a look of malevolence on a scale of which I wouldn't have thought another human being capable. I pull the gun from my pocket as Victor raises the one in his hand, and I pull the trigger, knowing I want this man dead, knowing I'm firing with malice equal to his.

My shot misses, but Victor's is true. The bullet enters my much-abused leg; it burrows through the soft tissue and shatters my kneecap. The impact staggers me back against the van, almost blinds me. Shock is a swift worker, so I don't feel it when another bullet hits me in the chest. I can see a shadow of Victor coming toward me, and as I drop to my knees I level the gun and squeeze the trigger. The kickback sends the piece falling from my fingers, clattering on the stones.

I must black out then, because I open my eyes at some point and Victor has been dead for at least a few minutes, judging by the pool of blood beneath him. A fire burns somewhere deep in my body as I bleed out, as some vital organ succumbs to the second bullet. I cry out as I try to push away from the van. I catch a glimpse of Esperanza, her face pressed against the van door, blood congealing around the wound that killed her. She's almost within reach, but I find that I can't move my legs. Although it's growing harder to draw breath, there's enough left in me to release the strangled noise that has gathered in my chest.

A wave of grief strikes me, a hot and curdling feeling that wrenches my muscles and makes my stomach roil. I feel as if I'm going to throw up. The bones lie on the ground, somewhere on the stones, but I can't look away from Espy. All at once I am hit with a range of emotions I cannot hope to decipher, except to understand that the prong of anger is sharpest. I embrace the emotion, let it wash over me, and it shoots to the surface with such force that I know it's been with me for a long time-an old friend that I've known under an assumed name.

Esperanza's face is ashen white, growing cold. I want to pull her to me but it's an impotent desire, and for the first time in my adult life I begin to cry. For the immensity of loss. For the anger that is like a second flesh. For never holding on to anything so tightly that it would kill me to lose it.

I did not cry at Will's funeral. I've carried that guilt around with me.

I'm crying not just for Espy but for Will, too. And, to be honest, I'm also crying for myself.

I spot a blur of purple not far away, half under the van between Espy and me, one of the bones poking out from a separation in the cloth. The bundle draws my attention-a magnet for emotions running wild. I field a sudden urge to destroy them, to vent my anger on the ancient, brittle relics. And I feel brave enough, or maybe despondent enough, to recognize that it would be as close to punching God in the nose as I can get. Maybe the reason I accepted this job-this task that could only result in either the proof that He is a figment of human rationalization, or that He truly exists-is because of the opportunity it offered for a moment of reckoning. Either He steps up to the plate, or I am justified in giving Him no thought whatsoever. Or maybe it was so that I could stoke an anger I never thought possible, from which I could rail against a capricious being that revels in the misfortunes of others-who would take first a father, then a brother, then a friend, and now a woman I once loved so much I had to leave her.

My strength is going as I reach for the bones. My fingers brush the fabric and then fall away. I strain again, my pointer finger almost hooking the cloth. When it slips off, a curse leaves my lips. It's vehement and ugly and aimed straight toward heaven. It's a dare of sorts, uttered by a man who is maddened by the presence of these bones, and his inability to secure something so tantalizingly close.

With one last wrench of my body, I fall away from the van, coming down on my side. I stretch out my arm, and my fingers come to rest on the purple fabric, the bones held safely within. I'm not sure what I'm thinking, but there's a small part of my fading mind that clings to some kind of newfound faith-a belief system espoused in earnest by my father-and the person of a God whom I've never wholly forgotten.

I'm falling into a dark tunnel. With my dying breath, and with a faint sound that is neither a curse nor a prayer, I nudge the bundle until the exposed bone-yellowed with age, its marrow dried and dead-touches Esperanza's lifeless hand.

CHAPTER 26

I wish I could have watched as life returned to Espy. She's tried to describe what it was like when she returned the favor, but she hasn't been able to find the right words; only that there was nothing overtly magical, like bright lights or music or angels- just an absolute knowledge that she witnessed something otherworldly. wish I could have watched as life returned to Espy. She's tried to describe what it was like when she returned the favor, but she hasn't been able to find the right words; only that there was nothing overtly magical, like bright lights or music or angels- just an absolute knowledge that she witnessed something otherworldly.

That was two weeks ago. Two weeks of trying to clean up the messes we've made.

When Espy and I walked into the office of the consulate general of the United States in Melbourne, I was convinced that we were bound for long jail terms. We'd left a trail of bodies behind us, two of them prominent members of the business and political communities. We had little going for us, beyond the fact that the two men killed at Jim's house would eventually be identified as drawing from the Manheim payroll. That, and the discovery that the younger Manheim had powder burns on his hands, and the gun found with his body was determined to be the one used on the father. Still, I thought the odds were good that I would have a long tenure within the Australian penal system. About all I could hope for was that our respective embassies would provide gratis legal assistance, and a way to shield us from at least a portion of the punishment we were sure to receive. We decided, together, that we could not tell anyone about the bones-no matter the cost.

Then it just went away. One day the Australian Federal Police were interviewing us, for the twentieth time, and the next day we were free to go. No explanation. I would find, days later, that none of it had wound up in the press. Not a single mention, beyond the murder/suicide that killed a prominent family in Ballarat, and the death of an elderly couple in a house fire near Laverton. I am angered that the story surrounding Jim and Meredith was spun to be a lie; I have my suspicions about who made it happen. I wonder when the people of the oblong S S will come calling-looking for the bones to hand over to the next caretakers. will come calling-looking for the bones to hand over to the next caretakers.

Espy sits next to me in the Humvee. She's quiet. She has been this way since the police let us go. I think, though, that it's not a bad quiet as she's going over in her mind everything that has happened, and I imagine it will take some time. I know how she feels. There is much that I need to ponder in the coming days, much of it related to responding to a God who has proven himself to be something other than fiction. For the first time in years, maybe I can do it without artifice, without cynicism. But I sincerely hope that's not a spiritual prerequisite, because I might be sunk.

Right now that's not important. There's only one thing that is.

The wind feels warm against my cheek and I squint to keep the sand from entering my eyes. The sun is in that place just above the horizon where it seems to hang forever before beginning a grudging descent, as if having second thoughts about allowing the moon to replace it in the sky. For a few moments I stand and watch the dunes form and then re-form themselves, the grains of sand as fluid as water, making the desert an inconstant thing.

The Humvee is behind me, packed with enough water and food to last two weeks, along with extra gas, a radio, a tent, and anything else I could think to add to the manifest. But the most important item is the shovel, which I hold in my hands. It's old, pitted and worn, and seems appropriate to the task.

While the sun disappears, I dig a hole in the solid ground beneath the sand cover. It is hard work, but I don't mind. It's a penance of sorts. I dig it deep, each shovelful of earth like an offering. And when I've finished, when the desert air has turned cool and sweat runs down my body, I pick up the bones, wrapped in burlap, and drop them in the hole. And as the disturbed dirt falls back on them, I do not feel any guilt, no sense of loss. I work until the earth is packed down.

When I return to the truck, I toss the shovel into the back and then take Espy's hand in mine, and we stay there until the light is gone.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS.

Many people deserve my heartfelt thanks for helping to make Elisha's Bones Elisha's Bones a reality. But I'm going to start with those who have the power to say yes or no to more books! I'm grateful that Dave Long decided to bring a reality. But I'm going to start with those who have the power to say yes or no to more books! I'm grateful that Dave Long decided to bring Elisha's Bones Elisha's Bones to Bethany House, and especially thankful for all the hard work he did to make it a better book. Luke Hinrichs did the same-editing this thing until it became respectable. Thanks, Dave and Luke, and everyone else at Bethany House, for all the effort you put in. I'm looking forward to doing it again! to Bethany House, and especially thankful for all the hard work he did to make it a better book. Luke Hinrichs did the same-editing this thing until it became respectable. Thanks, Dave and Luke, and everyone else at Bethany House, for all the effort you put in. I'm looking forward to doing it again!

I signed with my agent, Les Stobbe, in 2004, and he spent the next four years sending out one manuscript after another. Thanks, Les, for sending that last one out, and for your constant encouragement through the process.

Almost fourteen years ago I wrote a book with my friend Rob Heidel and, while that one never found a publisher, working with Rob taught me a lot. Thanks, Rob. It's quite possible I wouldn't be sitting here typing up an acknowledgments list if we hadn't written that first page.

Back in 2004, Michael Snyder all but dragged me to a writers' conference, where I met and signed with my agent. A year or so later, he introduced me to a little online community called Faith in Fiction, where I first met Dave Long. So I guess it's fair to say that if you don't like the book, Mike bears almost as much blame for that as I do. Thanks, Mike-especially for the countless critiques I've asked of you over the years.

If anyone has waded through more of my writing than Mike, it's Ryan Burkholder. Ryan has slogged through one manuscript or short story after another and has offered needed encouragement, advice, and a literary perspective. Thanks, Ryan.

Sarah Wood, Angela Fox, Jerry Fox, and Chris Ude have also been helpful critics over the last few years. Thanks, all, for reading the pre-published stuff.

Thanks to the Laufer clan-Chris, Patty, Matt, Lisa, Bill, Kathy, and Tim-and Russ Gullekson, and Dave and Mary Ferrini, for late nights and much laughter.

Thanks to author par excellence Jeanette Windle, who was kind enough to say some nice things about a very poorly written book of mine (not this one!) years ago. Encouragement like that can make a guy keep writing until he gets it right.

Mike Rajczak was the first person who encouraged me to become a writer, way back in middle school. Thanks, Mike.

Thanks to Mandy Peitz for contributing to the cover artwork.

Finally, to Alyssa and Aidan-thanks, kids, for making it a whole lot of fun to be a dad. I love you.

ABOUT THE A AUTHOR.

Don Hoesel, when not writing, works in the communications department of a large company. He holds a B.A. in Mass Communication from Taylor University and has published short fiction in Relief Journal Relief Journal. Don lives in Spring Hill, Tennessee, with his wife and two children. Elisha's Bones Elisha's Bones is his first novel. is his first novel.

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