"You ready for this?" Sonny asked. They'd made it to the cave entrance by dawn.
"Are you good at not getting lost?" Nancy replied, eyes traveling up all twelve feet of the mouth.
"Eh, no. Not really."
"Then no, but I guess I'm as ready as I'll ever be." She adjusted her backpack strap on her shoulder. "I'm okay with maps, but not when we don't know where to go."
"It's not as fun if you don't get lost at least once," noted Sonny.
"Kind of doubt that. If we get lost, we die."
"I doubt it's as black and white as all that. All the same, be careful."
Nancy scoffed. "You're telling me that?"
"Sure. Never hurts to be cautious." He stepped inside. "I hate to rush you, but we're on a deadline now. And as for where in the cave," his voice took on a lyrical tone, "I have an idea."
"An idea?" Nancy repeated. The notion made her skeptical.
"Mmmm-hmmm." He grinned and tilted his head at her. "C'mon."
"By idea, do you mean idea, or a shot in the dark?" she asked as she followed him.
"I'm guessing it's on the other part of that tablet we didn't see. You know, everything outside the corner." He said, trailing his hand along one of the walls. "And if this is what I think it is, it's going to be in the very center."
"That seems too easy," said Nancy.
"It does, doesn't it?" He glanced at her. "But there was a part of the ziggurat that Sitchin called the control tower. And that rose out of the center."
Nancy's head turned back to the entrance with apprehension. It was getting harder and harder to see. "Sonny, there are miles of cave in here. Maybe we should come back when we know. It's not like Claire is going to come here. She's just after the artifacts."
"But I actually have an idea." The corners of his mouth drooped. "Look, I won't get us lost. I promise. We'll just keep track of all of the turns we take. We'll make our own map. And then we'll always be able to know how to find our way out."
Nancy stopped. "You're sure it's in the center?" she asked. "Usually it seems like it'd be in the very back."
"Let me run it by you." Sonny turned to her. "It's part of the pattern I've been studying for the past few years. Sumer's the mother of all these other ancient civilizations. It predated everybody. I saw some concrete similarities in the artifacts we found. First there's the saying 'road whose course does not turn back,' which you say is a coincidence. But also, I've been studying the pictures. Remember when I said that the gods on the slab weren't Mayan? They're not. They're Sumerian. One of the gods was in the likeness of the goddess Inanna and depicted a story that I've never heard told outside of Sumerian folklore. Her journey to the underworld. And," he held out his hands and spun around, "look where we are!"
"Is this in your thesis?" Nancy asked as they walked further in. The air immediately became cooler, dryer.
"Yeah, but just in a paragraph or two." Sonny snapped immediately back on track. "She needed seven things to get there, and she gave each of them away to someone as she descended. First was her helmet. Then something over her ears that looked like spoons or earmuffs. Then a sapphire necklace. Then shoulder pads, a gold can or cylinder, straps that held a box on her back, and finally her clothes."
"And you think this happened?"
"I don't know if it happened."
"You're sure we're looking for something?"
"Bear with me," he said with understanding. "There's the Sumerian saying. The Sumerian gods on the artifact. Even if the Annunaki aren't real, they're real to them. Were real to them," he amended. "Some of them. This could be some sort of tribute site if they believed the stories."
Nancy heard something. She looked behind them. "You looked up the tour times, right? When does the first group arrive?"
Nancy took out her phone. "And it's… 5:57."
"Good. Gives us a couple of hours to get good and lost so they won't find us."
Nancy listened for the sound again.
It didn't come.
"Must've been the wind or something," she said to herself. One last time she peered outside of the cave. None of the grass or plants moved.
She frowned but turned again and jogged to catch up with Sonny, who was already far ahead. "How are we going to get to the center?" she asked. Soon the question proved to be a good one as they came to a split.
Sonny bent sideways to look at the one that curved around, going left and veering right. "Let's try left," he said decidedly.
"Got a feeling?" Nancy asked, although a second later she remembered she already knew the answer.
"Yeah. Don't worry. I'm writing it down."
"Good. And then give me the piece of paper so you don't—"
Sonny grinned and held up the back of his right hand for her to see. On it, right below the knuckle of his middle finger, was a small red L.
"Good idea." She hoisted her backpack in front of her and took a pen from it, writing the same on her left hand. Then she got out a piece of paper. "In case one or both of us rinses our hands without remembering," she said.
"You don't mess around."
"Better not to, when this is what we're up against," she said simply. "You know, I really hope this cave isn't booby trapped. Always seems to happen to me."
Sonny murmured a response, squinting at rock about fifty feet in front of them where the cave must have turned abruptly.
"Not that it would be, since we're dealing with technology that's thousands of years old—"
"You'd be surprised," Sonny put in, still looking forward.
"Reassuring," Nancy replied.
"Isn't it?" his eyes finally darted away. He tilted his head and grinned at her.
"Either way, way too tired for something like that. So let's be careful. I wish I had more time to look into the area and see what our biggest obstacles are."
"Well, the cenotes are basically sinkholes. So that might be something."
Nancy stopped, pursing her lips. "Hmmm."
"Hey, they were formed a long time ago," Sonny said. "Just keep an eye out. I'm sure we'll be fine."
As they continued, Nancy got a distinct sense of foreboding. The most irksome thing about those feelings was that she couldn't tell if she should look behind, if someone was following them, or ahead, if some sort of trap lay just around the corner. These feelings were always too vague. Of course they mostly proved to be accurate eventually, but they were seldom helpful, and they only made her nervous without giving her any direction. "Who knows we're here?" she asked. "No one, right?"
"No one!" Sonny repeated too cheerfully.
"You didn't call Jamila?"
"Shouldn't you have called her?"
Her mouth tightened.
"Lou knows where we are," Sonny said, almost as if he could see her. But he was still looking ahead.
"He does his own thing. You think he's going to help us?"
"He will. He's trustworthy."
"You're determined to kill both of us here, aren't you?"
Shock filled Sonny's face. "No!" he said emphatically. "Geez, Nancy. If there's any real risk of dying, I'm not gonna stick around."
"Not even to find what you're looking for?"
"Of course not! We die, and there's nothing left to believe. Or act on. I like dangerous, not deadly."
"Lots of times, dangerous is deadly."
"Quick thinking can get you out of a lot of tight spots."
"I see," Nancy said without missing a beat. "And how many times have people had to rescue you?"
"Probably a bunch," he shrugged. "Why?"
"Because you're not too useful in a bind."
This conversation mollified Nancy. Or maybe it did. Some part of her felt dismayed.
"All right." Nancy surveyed the space with her hands on her hips. "Try not to press anything or step on anything that looks suspicious."
"What does suspicious look like?"
"I don't know," she said, not wanting to explain herself, "just… let me know, I guess."
"Don't I always?"
"Well just keep doing it."
A good amount of time passed, as well as a good amount of turns. Nancy checked her phone. 8:07. "The first tour group's here," she said. "Or if they're not, they will be soon."
"Okay," said Sonny, and nothing else.
The funny feeling if being followed dispersed with time, and it was no longer as potent. She had just started to forget it until…
"I can't move my feet."
She looked down to the ground and found that they'd stepped into sand deep enough to almost cover their shoes. In alarm she tried to jump back, hoping that Sonny had stepped in a patch and she could pull him out from solid ground.
No such luck.
Sonny kept pulling. "What is this, quicksand?"
"Yeah. And don't do that. It'll make you sink deeper."
He stopped abruptly. "Doesn't quicksand kill you?"
"In cheap matinee flicks, yes." Nancy looked ahead, trying to determine where the quicksand ended and the ground began. If she knew how far they had to go, it would help. "In real life, no."
"Oh, so you sink and somehow don't die?" His voice was level, but he spoke more quickly.
"No. Not sure if you've noticed, but it isn't that deep. Quicksand usually isn't."
"I'm sorry about this. Was legitimately not expecting quicksand."
"Don't apologize. It's hardly your fault."
"Yeah, well, still not dying today. Once we get out, we can keep an eye out for quicksand. Or a foot, rather. Or a stick. Yeah, a stick. It doesn't matter if the stick gets stuck."
"Sounds like a plan."
"Huh." He attempted to shift and look around him. "Well, we could always shout for help. But I don't think we need to."
"We don't need to," Nancy agreed adamantly. "There are ways to get out of this. It might take a while, but we don't need to turn back. Get rid of the backpacks."
Nancy threw hers backward.
Sonny looked at her, confused.
"We'll figure out some way to get across," Nancy said. Because I can't handle the curiosity if we don't, she added to herself. "We don't know how far ahead of us the quicksand goes. Don't want the backpacks stuck."
Reluctantly Sonny tossed his backpack next to hers.
"Good. Now wriggle your feet around."
"You just told me not to do that."
"Horizontally. Move them horizontally. Before you were trying to step out of it, so you were pushing against the ground—in this case, sand—and probably digging yourself in deeper."
"And what afterward if that doesn't work?"
"That's not going to happen."
"You sure about that?"
"Just try it. It'll take a while, but this stuff's a foot deep. We just have to work at it."
They tried it for a few minutes with little improvement, although Nancy felt a little bit of movement.
At some point Sonny stopped and sighed, tired. They stopped moving for a few minutes. Nancy noticed that they weren't entirely parallel to each other when walking forward, that she had been turned slightly inward toward him, and him toward her.
Maybe if they worked on turning inward, the sand would loosen more quickly, at least around their outer feet.
Or maybe, she thought, annoyed with herself, that it was distracting wishful thinking.
Sonny seemed to notice the same thing. For a second he shifted from foot to foot, forgetting for that second that they were both stuck. He scratched his ear and proceeded to start fidgeting for the next few minutes.
"What is it?" Nancy asked tiredly.
"What's what?" He asked. The slight tremor in his voice overpowered any attempt at nonchalance, Nancy noticed.
"What do you want to say?"
"What do you mean, what do I want to say?" His voice rose slightly in pitch.
"I mean, your fidgeting is annoying me." She paused, trying to collect her patience. "If you're afraid the quicksand's going to do us in, it's not."
"Is isn't that..." he began, craning his head downward. His eyes flickered up to meet Nancy's for a fraction of a second. His face seemed to blend in with the darkness.
Was he... blushing?
Finally, after another few agonizing minutes, he spoke. "Nancy, when we get out of here—" He leaned closer.
So did she. "Yes?" she asked.
"Can I have some of your Koko Kringles?"
Nancy bolted back. "What kind of a question is that?"
"A serious one."
"You can have all the Koko Kringle you want!" Nancy balled her hands into fists. "I hate them!"
Sonny whirled around, eyes wide. "What?! But how can—"
"Because I ate too many of them and became grievously sick, okay?"
"Oh, dear. Everything in moderation." Sonny leaned in again confidentially. "How old were you? Six? Seven?"
Nancy winced. "Eighteen."
Sonny froze. "Eighteen?" he repeated.
"This creepy old woman in New Orleans had a whole case full of them in her nightstand. And then she tried to lock me up in a crypt. I got mad, I was tired, I was soaked from getting rained on the past few hours, I love chocolate—or at least I thought I did—and I was there, and the candy was there…"
Sonny nodded sagely. "Revenge is sweet… in more ways than one."
"Yeah," she said with a puff of air, "tell me about it."
Nancy went back to trying to free her feet.
"I also was wondering, um, if you'd want to go out with me sometime."
Sharply she looked up at him. "Go out? Like, on a date?"
"Does 'go out' mean anything else?"
Her eyes moved sideways. "You don't need to be sarcastic."
"No sarcasm. I'm genuinely curious."
"Does go out mean anything else?" she repeated, going back to his second question and ignoring that it was rhetorical. "I don't think so. And to answer your question, yes, Sonny, I would like that."
"Great!" she could hear his wide, excited smile. "Oh, and I don't actually need any of your Koko Kringles."
"I figured," she said with a smile of her own.
"And I don't know," he said, trying again to move his feet. "Probably should tell you that I'm kind of clueless in relationships, but I don't know maybe, you, we, me, uh, give it a shot." Sonny's voice trailed off in the dark. "I know for you I'd put some thought into things."
Nancy laughed. "You're terrible at relationships? I'm away all of the time. I promise you, I'm worse." She froze, realizing what she'd just said. Somewhere along the road she'd become so comfortable around him that she spoke without thinking about it first. "Offer still stand?" she asked, trying her best to sound like she was joking. It'd been so long since she'd dealt with entering a relationship with somebody, and she was so rusty…
"Yeah. Why wouldn't it?"
Her shoulders, holding a tension she didn't know she had, relaxed.
"Equal footing is always nice." He continued. Pause. "Speaking of which, we should probably figure out this current predicament."
"I'm feeling the sand start to give a bit," Nancy began, "But what if the tour group comes around here?"
Sonny froze. She guessed he hadn't thought of that.
And now she heard some far-off sound that might've been whistling, whether from air or a human voice she couldn't tell yet.
She turned to Sonny as much as she could without moving her feet. Even then, she felt the sand start to give. "There might be another opening to the cave."
"Really?" His eyebrows shot up over his frames. "What makes you say that?"
She raised her head, eyes going sideways towards the sound. "Listen."
He tilted his head. "It sounds like a person," he said.
Now that it was closer, Nancy agreed. A female voice.
Some tuneless humming floated to Nancy's ear. It wouldn't have been out of the ordinary—aside from the oddity of anybody else being this far out—but she knew that melody.
"I don't hear voices," Nancy whispered. "Just the one."
"Sounds like someone wandered away from the tour group," he said, agreeing. "We've got to get out of this." He wriggled his feet along with the rest of his body, trying to loosen the sand around his ankles. Along the way he forgot what she said and started moving vertically rather than horizontally.
Nancy placed a hand on his forearm. "We're not going to get out in time," she told him. "We'll just hope she takes a turn and goes away from us."
"At least we can try."
"Don't dig yourself in any deeper. This is annoying enough as it is."
"Fine. You be calm. I'll focus on using my—oof—" he lurched forward— "well-founded fear as a momentum."
"Look, whoever it is, they're not with the tour group anymore. Probably left intentionally. They might not rat us out."
"Fine." Sonny stopped. "I trust your judgment."
Nancy didn't know why she felt like glowing after he said that, but she did.
The humming came close.
They waited, still.
Luck was not on their side today. A girl with shoulder-length blonde hair stepped into view, still humming. When she saw them she stopped short. "Oh," she said, face contorting into an amalgamation of disappointment and disgust. "You're going to tell on me."
Nancy's eyes popped. "Jane?" she sputtered. "Jane Penvellyn?"
Jane stepped forward, squinting for a second. Then her own eyes widened. "Nancy?" she asked tentatively.
"What are you doing in Mexico?"
"My dad's the ambassador. What are you doing in Mexico?"
"Digging. Long story."
The mistrust returned. "Are you going to tell on me?"
"Well, I can't exactly," Nancy admitted.
Jane followed her eyes down to her ankles. The rest disappeared under the dirt. "Oh," she said again. "I suppose you want to get out, then."
"Yeah, that'd be nice."
Jane's eyes narrowed. "What are you doing here, anyway?" she said as she approached.
Nancy and Sonny exchanged glances. "Breaking the rules," she said. "More or less."
Jane broke into a grin.
"Can you get us out of here?" Nancy asked, a bit impatiently.
Abruptly the grin left, replaced with some inscrutable dark expression. "You won't tell on me?" she asked, almost as if that was what was troubling her. But Nancy knew it wasn't. Not for something that dark across her face. The question was a distraction. "As long as you rejoin your tour group," Nancy said. "It's dangerous in here. Very easy to get lost."
Jane crossed her arms. "Like you did?" she asked.
"I'm not lost. I just got stuck. And now I need a rope or something."
Her face became more imperious in the piercing quality of her blue eyes and definition of her high cheekbones. In that moment she carried her Penvellyn heritage, every one of her ancestors. She looked regal, like the medieval lords and ladies her ancestors were.
Honor was something held highly in medieval times. This was visible on her face, and only then did Nancy remember that she had saved Jane's life. Now Jane felt she needed to repay the life debt.
Nancy peered at Jane. When Jane averted her eyes with a bit of a scowl, Nancy saw she was right. And while she didn't care about the repayment of any life debt, it would be nice to get out of the sand, she thought.
"I have a rope," said Sonny, distracting them both.
"You have a rope?" Nancy asked, turning toward him as much as the sand would allow. "Why?"
"For situations like this," Sonny said blankly. "Are you complaining about it?"
"No!" she snapped, frustrated. "But why didn't you say something?"
"Didn't seem particularly useful before. What would I do with a rope in the middle of quicksand?"
"I... argh," Nancy said. Quickly she tried to formulate a better response.
"Toss me the rope," Jane interjected. "I don't have all day."
"It's actually in my backpack. The green one."
"Wait." Nancy interrupted. "You promise you'll rejoin your group?"
Jane sighed exaggeratedly and rolled her whole head with her eyes. "Yes." She knelt and unzipped Sonny's backpack. After finding it, she straightened and took one end of the rope, preparing to throw. "Catch."
"Careful it doesn't get in the sand," Nancy warned just as Jane threw it.
Fortunately Nancy caught it. It took a few minutes, but she was able to safely make it back to the side they'd started on. Jane gave her the end of the rope, which Nancy then threw to Sonny.
Sonny, though, opted to keep going forward in the opposite direction. His knees shifted alternately as he tried to move his feet.
"What are you doing?" Nancy asked him. She turned to Jane. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you so much. You don't have to stick around."
"I want to," she said lightly. "What are you up to? It's much more exciting than some tour."
"It's also very dangerous, Jane."
These words did not have the intended effect. "Oooh!" she said as she brightened.
"Jane, there's something else," Nancy said after some consideration. She needed to get rid of Jane, and she trusted her to be able to help. "A lot of bad stuff going on at Usrique, the dig site forty-five minutes west of Tekax. Ask your father to get the authorities down there immediately. It's really important."
"Oh, all right," she said. Her smile disappeared, but Nancy could tell that she would do what she was asked.
After she'd scampered off, Nancy returned her attention to Sonny, who had finally given up on trying to move his feet.
But now he was untying his shoes.
"Oh, Sonny, no," Nancy pleaded exasperatedly. "You'll be walking the rest of the way in your bare feet!"
"I don't care." He tried to shimmy out of them, pumping his knees again. "And you won't have to listen to me complain about it, if that's what you're worried about."
"Give it up!" she said. "Do you honestly think there's anything on the others side? Why would the Mayans want to cross quicksand every day to get to their place in the cave, wherever it is?"
"Because maybe they're as crazy as I am?" Sonny joked with a smile. "They were here a long time ago. Maybe the quicksand is relatively new. Or," a new idea appeared on his faraway face, "they probably had something here to get across and now it's gone because it's been such a long time. But if you think of the symbolism…"
"If we cross the quicksand and there isn't a way out, how are we going to get back across?"
"Is that your answer to everything?"
"Nancy, after that first sharp curve right this path went sharp left and has been going the same direction, relatively straight. I think it's going to lead right to the middle. And honestly, I think that the quicksand shows we're going in the right direction. If something's really here, right in the center of the cave, it seems like somebody would have found it by now. But not if they had to put up with quicksand. They would've stopped and turned back. But this road has a course…" he trailed off, expecting her to finish the thought.
She did, at least in her mind. This logic made a little sense, she had to admit.
Meanwhile, Sonny had gone two more steps in his socks. Undeterred, he rolled them down to the surface of the sand and tried to slip out of those, too.
Nancy winced. "This is really risky."
"If it doesn't work out, there's the rope. Or you can get hel—" he got cut off as he lost his balance and fell forward.
Nancy started. Then saw to her delight that his ankles were out of the dirt. He must have reached the end of the quicksand in his socks. "You're free!" she exclaimed.
"I'm also all right. Not that that, you know, matters."
"A landslide couldn't kill you," Nancy replied straightly, refusing to fall prey to his fishing for sympathy. Maybe someday she would, but today he was annoying the hell out of her.
"If you're afraid of the danger—" he began, getting up and brushing himself off.
"I'm not afraid of the danger," Nancy said quickly. "I'm afraid of us not finding anything."
"Well, I'm thinking about the danger for one thing. And 'improvise' in this instance means dropping the backpacks and using those as stepping stones on the way back. Look, the stretch of quicksand is about three or four feet long. That's it."
That seemed satisfactory. "Honestly, I don't even care about the answer to that question," she admitted. "I'm just not sure whether—"
"—we're going to find anything," he finished. "Yes, that's a possibility, but I promise we aren't going to get killed for it."
Nancy nodded and gripped the rope. "You holding on?"
"Yep. Come across. I've got you."
Against her better judgment, she jumped. The force would push her feet in deeper, but now she was impatient. She landed in a spot just behind where Sonny had been when he fell. Even at the end of the quicksand, pulling her feet out turned out to be extremely exerting. By the time she got to the other side she was stopped over, red-faced, panting.
"Here." Sonny slung an arm around her shoulder and they slid down the wall of the cave. "Time for a break."
For a little while, Nancy was so exhausted that it didn't register that they'd made it to the other side. As she slowly came to realize it, a spark of excitement jolted through her. One step closer.
They sat without saying anything, Nancy catching her breath and Sonny looking out contemplatively over the sand they'd just crossed. After a minute or two, Nancy stood.
"Never feeling bad. Just a little winded." Nancy wrote a Q on her hand and the paper and continued forward. Again the craving for an answer overtook her. The muscles in her throat tightened, and she hoped against hope that they'd come away with one.
Otherwise she'd be caught in limbo for a long, long time.