We spent the first few hours after the collapse trying to stay human. There’s a change that takes place in people when death encroaches- the flickers of animal nature at the back of your brain kick in, the scripts that say, if I kill the man next to me there will be more air, and meat to boot. We spent that first hour insane; each in his turn hyperventilating and thinking of everything we’d miss and lose, some of us crying, all cursing, some quietly and some not so much, the fact that we were desperate or stupid enough to think smacking the walls of an underground cavern with heavy equipment was an acceptable way to make a living.
We consoled each other, which is something men do more often than you think- then deny later. And then someone had the brilliant idea to sing Koombayah while holding hands- which we immediately realized had been a mistake, as it both depleted our oxygen and made us all feel like women. And then we set up shifts to take turns banging against the wall- so that rescue crews could find us, and know we were still alive down here. Pete was first, because Pete was that guy who wants to be the alpha male too much but doesn’t quite have it in him, all that nurturing but without that lion’s pride to push it through.
We collected the water- around a half-gallon for each of us, to share. Alex didn’t want to throw his in, but I convinced him that he had less water, on the average, than the rest of us; it was a damned lie, but it was important we all throw in together. We put Charlie in Charge of rationing it; the new guy, Reggie or something, made a joke about Charles being in charge, which normally would have gotten him teased mercilessly, but instead there was this eerie, calm silence before someone faked a chuckle. Everybody followed suit, until it became something heavy and almost raucous, booming off the too-close walls; I think we all figured we were going to have to humor one another or none of us would last.
Next we shut off all the lamps except one. It was dark, and it made us huddle closer than we might have liked, but it was better than spending the rest of our time down here without any light at all. We put Reggie in charge of the lighting, probably because no one else wanted to do it. After a while we started shivering; when you’re working hard, 58 degree dampness is a cool breath on your neck, but when your sitting on moist rock in the blackness, feeling like you’re attending the crappiest sleepover ever- well, after a while we didn’t mind so much huddling together.
Pete was still tinking against the wall when I made him stop; his arm was an overcooked noodle and he was sweating; he’d worked himself half to unconsciousness because that’s who Pete is, and hell, even then, he wouldn’t have stopped if he hadn’t been so weak from tapping that I could force him to. My mind switched off sometime, but I just kept pounding; I didn’t stop until my hand was too weak to hold the pick any longer, and it slipped out of my hand, making a sound like the death of a churchbell that echoed without ending despite the smallness of the cave. Reggie broke the silence after that, saying he remembered his watch had a light on it, and asked if we wanted to know how much time had passed; he was lucky Charlie was closest, because he did it about as gentle as anyone might have. He grabbed Reggie by the collar and stared into him, and said that if Reggie told him he’d choke the life out of him. There was a grumbled agreement. I waved him over to the wall, and told him to take over, but to set his watch so every four hours someone else could switch off.
I don’t know if he listened to me, because as soon as I laid back against the rock I passed out. I’m not sure how long I was gone, but Reggie was still tapping against the wall. The light was out, which made it feel like night. When I asked if we were out of fuel for the lamps, Reggie turned on his watch and waved me over. He told me everyone else was taking a nap.
He yawned. I heard it, because his watch light had already shut itself back off. I asked if he wanted me to take over, and he did. I pounded on the wall of our little cavern until my bad arm was numb, as much from sleeping on it wrong and the cold as from the pounding, and only then did I realize I still heard the tapping even though my arm was limp at my side. I followed the sound a few feet away to a drip, drip, drip drip in the corner. As small puddle had already formed at the base of it, wide but not deep, and my pants and shoes were moist before I realized it.
Without thinking, I dipped my hand into the water and tasted it. The water was horrid, not just dirty, but filthy with something not meant for humans to drink. I spat the water out, and the noise must have woken Alex because he crawled over to me. I think he planned on comforting me, until his hands slipped in the water, and he landed face-first against the rock.
I heard him pull his head up, the acrid water dribbling off his beard a few seconds before he managed to reply to me wondering if he was all right. “I will physically destroy you if this is your piss in my mouth,” he muttered before telling me he was all right, bleeding, but not dead or anything. I told him unless we’d started a bathroom in this corner, we had a leak into the cave. He listened to the plopping of the water a moment before saying he needed to take a piss, and sending me away from the pool. I had started away when the tinkling began, but the noise reminded me that I hadn’t relieved myself in, well, however long it had been, and that I needed to. Really need to. Like right now.
At first Alex protested, turning away from me, until I explained to him that I couldn’t see any better than he could, so there was no point at all in being shy. That seemed to sooth him enough that he relaxed, and moved his stream off the wall and back to the pool; “but no talking,” he whispered. After that he crawled back to the others and laid down. By the way their bodies muffled the sound of his pants on the rock, I could tell they were snuggled together for warmth.
After a few hours, the puddle spread to where we’d been pounding on the wall. At first I avoided, but after some time there was no helping it. Reggie’s watch went off, and my body nearly collapsed from gratitude. No one moved, not even Reggie. I sighed. The world was heavier than it should have been, grinding against my spine until I could feel it exposed to the cold, wet air, but I kept on bashing the tool against the wall. I heard buzzing I would have swore came from a drill, until I stopped pounding; I covered my ears, and the buzzing came from inside my brain. It was the protest of my ears after so many hours so close to the clack clack clacking of the tool against the wall. I hauled back and slammed the pick into the wall and it stuck, letting out a shriek I’m surprised didn’t even wake my possibly dead coworkers and fell to my knees, too exhausted to cry or even whimper, just panting as the water soaked into my jeans.
I sat there a long time; I couldn’t bring myself to care that I had at least two men’s urine soaking into my pants, and finishing up the ruining of my boots. It wasn’t until the moisture hit Alex that anyone made any noise. And once he was up he woke everyone else up- supposedly so no one would drown in pisswater, but more likely because Alex likes to share his misery. Reggie yawned. Alex shook Charlie so hard he farted, which seemed to wake him up; in the small space the smell seemed to stay forever, and as Charlie stirred Alex asked Charlie if he’d shat himself, and of course he replied “Only a little.”
The water continued to come. Pete had taken up pounding after me, but he was cold and wet enough that he had to stop to shiver between every tap. I know less than an hour passed before I tapped him on the shoulder, and told him to go back to the others for warmth. Before Reggie’s watch went off again I had to stop myself. My arm convulsed so badly I couldn’t stop dropping the pick, and I went back and put my arms around the other men. No one took my place.
After a long time, through gritted teeth and lips that were blue even if we refused to use precious fuel to see them, one of us spoke. If it had been anyone else, Pete, or Reggie, hell, even Alex, it wouldn’t have been the same; any of them might have cracked, or fallen apart. “I want you all to know, I’ve never felt closer to another human being than I do to you guys right now,” he said, and I felt a tear roll out of my eye before I understood it; “so I want to know, why do I feel so goddamned alone?” No one said anything