All eleven of us walked down the hallway again, but this time in the other direction.
I was feeling so tense that my headache came back. I put a hand to my head as a low groan escaped my throat.
Ree noticed me and paused. “Alex…” she whispered, pointing at the heart-shaped pendant hanging from her neck—a shiny pink pendant made of enamel. She grabbed my hand and made me touch it, then closed her eyes. Maybe this was her way of telling me to relax.
Ree apparently treated that heart-shaped pendant as her amulet. She seemed to be trying to let me know that as long she had it, we would be safe. I saw a gentle radiance well up in her large black eyes. She’s a kind girl, I thought to myself. I nodded in thanks, and then we quickened our steps to catch up with the others.
Huey and Yang, walking in front, suddenly gave a shout. Everyone halted in surprise.
“It’s blocked off,” murmured Huey.
“What do you mean?!” cried out the Hungarian girl with the wounded cheek. She pushed through to the front, and the rest of us fell to either side to let her pass. I was walking at the very back, but through the newly formed gap in the crowd, now even I could clearly see what stood before us.
It was a wall.
The hallway was blocked off by a black wall that reached to the ceiling, and there was no way to bypass it. When Yang saw it, he turned around, his face pale, and ran back down the hallway.
“Yang?!” I yelled.
He looked back at me. “This shouldn’t be the only hallway on this floor. We need to find out if there’s another one that leads us to the bow!”
Everyone nodded, and ran after him.
But all of the hallways were cut off by the same black wall. The Hungarian girl was the first to reach the next one, and she burst into sobs, which prompted some of the other children to also start crying.
Huey and Yang conferred together in low tones, then looked up at us. “Let’s go look for an elevator!”
The rest of us turned our gaze to them.
Huey declared reassuringly, “We can try the lower levels; they might not be blocked off. Agreed? OK, let’s go!”
Yang pointed at the other end of the hallway. “We’ll go that way.”
The two of them took off, leading the way without bothering to wait for any dissenters.
The elevator was located in a corner even more brightly lit than the rest of the hallway. The metal cage gleamed eerily black. Next to it was a stairwell lined with sparkling white tile, but the lights inside were turned off for some reason, plunging it into a darkness that made for a stark contrast with the surrounding area.
Huey eyed the group of children. “There’s a staircase, too. What do you think we should do?”
We all turned to look at each other.
Maybe we were just scared of taking the dark stairwell, but everyone suddenly started scrambling to get inside the elevator. For a moment, Huey stared open-mouthed at the elevator, filled to bursting with children, then seemed to compose himself. “There’s room for two more…. Yang, Alex, can you two guide them one floor down?”
“What about you, Huey?” I asked him.
He tugged Ree’s hand in the direction of the stairwell, and answered, “Me and Ree will take the staircase. See you down below.”
Ree looked back at me, and waved her hand at me enthusiastically—she looked cute when she did that. I locked eyes with Yang, then ran to get inside the elevator.
The metal latticed doors closed after us with a coarse clank.
The elevator began its slow descent, groaning all the way.
We stayed silent, suffused with anxiety. The elevator’s lights shone starkly upon our faces.
But all of a sudden…
A girl screamed. It was Ree’s voice.
Yang frantically tried to pull open the latticed doors. The elevator stopped on the next floor down, with a few seconds of shaking and creaking. Then the doors slowly opened, and we all came tumbling out.
“What’s wrong, Huey!?”
I took a step into the dark stairwell, but it was immersed in an almost palpable darkness, and I hesitated, finding myself unable to do more than call out for them. From above, I heard the muffled sound of someone weeping.
I was just about to run up the stairs when Yang came after me, carrying a small emergency flashlight that he had found in the elevator. He flipped the switch, and lit up the darkness of the staircase with a faint white circle of light—which then fell upon a corpse.
We uttered a low cry, going rigid in shock.
…Huey was lying there on the floor. His body was sprawled over the landing of the staircase like a broken marionette. He was lying face down, and his left hand was hidden underneath his body, with his right hand held to his waist.
Ree was slumped down next to him, as if her legs had given out.
“What happened?!” the German boy shouted at Ree. He was a heavyset boy of intimidating size, and looked far older than the fourteen years that he claimed was his real age.
But no matter how much he shouted, Ree was unable to give any explanation. She tried to explain via gesturing that she had followed Huey down the stairs, but then he collapsed here.
The German boy yelled at her angrily in accented English, “I don’t understand what you’re trying to say!”
I ran up to Huey and tried to check his pulse by taking his right hand, which was facing outward, and putting a finger on the inside of his wrist.
…But his pulse had completely stopped.
“How did he die?!” someone yelled. Ree shook her head, trying to tell us that she didn’t know.
Yang’s flashlight was the only illumination in the pitch black stairwell. But his shock overwhelmed him, and he dropped it. The round ray of light tumbled down the stairs, the rolling sound echoing, echoing… and then the staircase fell once again into darkness.
The silence that followed felt as heavy as death.
Then someone suddenly uttered a shrill scream. “No! I can’t take it anymore! I’m going back!”
The voice belonged to the Hungarian girl with the wounded cheek. The next thing I heard was the sound of her running down the stairs. I started to rush after her, but Yang gasped, and yelled at us, “Hey, where are you going?! Don’t get lost!”
She didn’t answer. Yang yelled with even more urgency, “We have to stay together…. It’s too dangerous out there!”
I reached the floor below. I looked around, and caught a glimpse of the girl running away in terror. She turned the corner, and disappeared from view.
“Hey!” shouted the other children who followed on my heels. They exchanged a look between themselves.
There was no way we could just leave her by herself. We decided to rendezvous at the elevator, and started down the stairs, looking for her.