THE PARISH – CHAPTER FOURTEEN

January 2, 0100

The Parish

“I’ll do it.”
“What?” Oscar demands in utter disbelief.
His ‘I’m-going-to-lock-myself-in–the-hole-of-a-bathroom-and-starve-myself-until-you-agree-to-join-them’ attempts ended when the guards arrived with our daily rations.

“I’ll join the Atheists.” Enoch explains.

“I can’t … wow.” Oscar gapes, perched on his haunches, chewing on a mouthful of crusty bread. When Enoch thinks we’re not watching him he banishes the arrogant grimace from his face. “Jeeze Hitha, what did you do to the boy?” Oscar’s eyes are as big as saucers and his grin looks like it hurts his face.

When the guard returns to collect our dishes we stand to deliver our decision.
“Well, I sure am glad that you decided before the death threats started.” Despite his joking tine shivers still prickle my spine. “I’m Ahmet,” He says with a goofy grin, shaking hands with Oscar,
then me. When Ahmet extends his arm towards Enoch he just glares at it in repulsion.

You aren’t the king of Incarceration anymore. This isn’t your palace.

“You’re gonna have to take a shower before y’all meet Zebulon. He won’t accept no such filth in his presence.” Ahment drawls, adjusting the coal-dusted goggles on his head. “Who’s Zebulon?” Oscar inquires in an eager, almost childishly excited voice as Ahmet leads us out of the cell and into a corridor. The walls are constructed of craggy, dark rock veined with glittery sediment.

“He’s the head hauncho, and he’s particularly interested in you, girlie.” He explains. We follow him down the tunnels lit by candles held in rusted sconces. “Are we underground?” I ask, trailing my hands across the dank, stone wall.

“Of course, Atheists are thought to be extinct … mostly. If the Parish knew of a colony, especially one of this size, flourishing this close to their main headquarters it’d be raining bombs.” He
turns decidedly down another tunnel.

How does he navigate this maze? Everything looks the same.

“Why not just live in the sewers?” I ask, glancing up at the jagged arch of ceiling. “It would have been easier than digging out all these tunnels.”
“The sewer’s too obvious. And close to the surface. It would take some pretty gnarly bombs to reach us down here. The main cave formation was a natural occurrence, we just … renovated.” He says.
“How deep are we?” Oscar asks.
“Almost four hundred feet.” He says with a smile.

My stomach pitches.

“Ah, here we are. Ramona will be along shortly with an appropriate change of clothes. Gents, if you’d come along. Quickly now, quickly. You’re soldiers, for God’s sake, soldiers don’t drag their feet!”

I stand there for a second, suddenly alone in a strange place, before I slip into the shower chamber.

The hot water cascades down my battered body, the tendrils of steam snake around my ankles. I listen to the water pitter-patter against the tiles as I soap my hair. The muck and blood and Skin Eater ichor whirlpool around my toes.

I shut off the water and crack the stall’s door open and peer into the cloudy chamber. Lying beside a sink is a heap of patchwork fabric and a pair of weathered boots. I slink across the room on tip toe and snatch the clothes. I dry and dress quickly.

My boots echo on the dirt floor of the corridor as I look for Ahmet. Or somebody.
But no one is to be found as I tentatively explore the bowls of the Atheist’s headquarters. Soon a drunken symphony of voices becomes clear, I follow the sound down a particularly narrow tunnel to a door. Big and oak and looking ridiculously out of place in this underground maze.

I crack it open and peer into a cavern, illuminated artificially by candles dangling from the ceiling in iron chandlers. Dancing below are pools of people, some bald, some with heads of hair, all tattooed with the Atheist’s mark.

I’m an intruder, eaves dropping on their celebration. I sink back into the shadows of the tunnel, feeling nauseously homesick. Bracing myself on the wall, the stone oozes water from some underground reservoir. I slide down to the floor.

I miss my home, the way it smelt of stewing potatoes and parsley. My mom’s wispy hair, her shaky fingers and gentle smile. How Dad started carrying her up the stairs when her arthritis became too severe for such straining activity. Lilia, Tobias, Astrid, the incessant, squeaky voices of the four year old quadruplets.

Enoch finds me crying.

“Hitha?”

“Where’s Oscar?” I ask, scrubbing at my cheeks.
“I don’t know.” He says.

He stands there and stares down at me with something wordless in his eyes … before walking away.

EMMA IRVINE

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