Holding On By My Fingertips
I was literally holding on by my fingertips in a cramped, dark little space surrounded by thick brick walls on all sides. It felt as though I was suspended in a vertical tomb. I heard the sound of footsteps approaching from somewhere above meófootsteps that I hoped would pass by without stopping or (worse yet) noticing I was there.
I couldnít see how anyone could possibly notice me, but I wasnít taking any chances, so I lowered myself into the narrow brick opening as far as I could go until I was completely out of sight. My fingers burned painfully under the weight of my body, so I braced my feet against the walls to take the pressure off. It helped a little, but I didnít want to push too hard and risk knocking another piece of masonry loose so that it could crash down on me and alert someone of my presence. That was, after all, the exact reason I found myself in my current predicament. The brick walls around me were a hundred and fifty years old, and even though they were as solid as rock in most places, they were still remarkably fragile in othersóa fact that Iíd learned the hard way just a few minutes earlier.
I shifted my weight carefully to take a little pressure off my fingers, and I winced in horror when a tiny pebble broke loose and plunged into the dark abyss beneath me. I braced myself for its impact and soon heard it plop almost silently into the pool of water below.
I breathed a deep sigh of relief that it hadnít made more noise than it did, but it also wasnít much comfort to know that the empty black space below me was actually full of water.
I thought the cisterns werenít in use anymore, I said to myself as I clung for dear life with even more earnestness now that I knew there was a deep pool of black water lurking below. If I fell down there, not only would it make a lot of noise, but I would surely drown before anyone could reach me.
The crackle of a handheld radio from close above startled me, nearly making me jump and lose my grip. The sound of footsteps suddenly stopped, and I heard voices echoing off the thick walls.
"Citadel, Citadel, this is Cuba Librť, over," a faint crackly voice on the radio said.
"This is Citadel, go ahead, over," replied another voice that sounded like it was coming from directly above me.
I panicked. The voice sounded so close. Oh my god, oh my god, oh my godóplease donít see me, please donít hear meóplease, bricks, donít break off now.
I remained completely frozen in place, terrified to move a single muscle. My fingers burned from the pressure, but I didnít dare move to alleviate the pain. If even a tiny pebble like the one that just fell was knocked loose now, there was no way the person talking on the radio just above me wouldnít hear it.
Oh god, please donít hear me, please donít hear me, I repeated to myself over and over in my head like a mantra as I listened to the radio conversation taking place above.
"Citadel, you need to advise us about whatís going on," the voice at the other end of the radio said. "And tell us what to do out here, over."
"I lost them," the voice just above me snapped back in reply. "I have no idea where the hell they disappeared to, and I canít find any trace of them anywhere."
There was a long silence, and my heart jumped into my throat as my imagination ran wild.
What if he just noticed me and switched his radio off, I said to myself in a panic. Maybe thatís why itís suddenly so quiet.
"Okay, Citadel," the voice at the other end of the radio finally answered. "In that case weíre going to abort any further operations and get the hell out of here right now."
I breathed another sigh of relief and stayed frozen in place, waiting for the conversation to be over and for the person above me to continue on his way.
"Understood," the voice replied. "Iíll sort things out at this end, and weíll see you at rendezvous in a few days."
"Roger that," the voice at the other end replied, peppered with static. "Over and out."
There was silence for another long, tense moment, and my imagination raced with crazy, stupid panic all over again, convinced that at any second I would see a pair of hands reach over the ledge and grab me.
There was another burst of radio static followed by another long silence before I heard the sound of footsteps again, this time echoing and making their way briskly into the distance. I wondered for a moment where they were heading but quickly decided that I really didnít care as long as it was somewhere far away from me. My fingertips were on fire, and as soon as the sound of the footsteps faded away, I counted slowly to two hundred and then very carefully pulled my body up and out into the open.
I knelt at the top of the ledge and massaged my fingers while listening intently to make sure that no one was hiding just around the next corner or doubling back to catch me. But there was nothing to hear except the sound of the wind wailing mournfully through the labyrinth of archways and openings that surrounded me. It was such a desperate and hollow sound. It sent chills down my spine, but unless there were ghosts somewhere in the vicinity, the emptiness of the howling wind meant that the coast was clear. I wasnít taking any chances, however, so I made myself count to two hundred very slowly before climbing all the way out and into the open air.
Once I was free, I took a second to stick my head back into the opening to see if I could spot the surface of the water below. I strained my eyes to see in the darkness, but it was impossible. In fact, the space was so small and narrow that I doubted I would have been able to see anything even in daylight, much less in the middle of the night.
Thank god, I didnít fall down there, I said to myself, shivering horribly as I stared down into the inky well of darkness. It was the idea of dying a horrible death by drowning in that enclosed black space that bothered me, not the idea of getting wet. I was already planning to go for a bit of a risky night swim of my own in another minute or two.
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