Nicholas Belardes is a dual-ethnic Chicano writer. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the YA-themed edition of The Latinx Archive: Speculative Fiction for Dreamers (Ohio State University Press), Southwestern American Literature (Texas State University), Carve Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Barrelhouse, and others.
He illustrated map drawings for the New York Times best-selling novel West of Here, and is the author of the first twitterature in novel form, Small Places, which has been studied as part of digimodernism in literature by scholars who seek to discover the fusion of art with digital technologies, in specific, electronic fiction as a new literary current.
Sometimes a ghostwriter of contemporary fiction and YA, he currently lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his wife Jane. The 12 Rules of Survival is his first MG novel. You can find him at nicholasbelardes.com or on Twitter @nickbelardes
Artist: Timothy Banks timothybanks.com or on Twitter @teabanks
The Belly of the Beast
When the coast is clear outside the Family Tent I text Clayton I’m on my way and dart from the tent area.
The first thing I do is swipe a hardhat from the seat of a work truck. The hat is so big it slips over my eyes. I nearly drop another hardhat as I stumble and push up the brim.
My safest path is a ditch that runs along a gravel road. I slip into it hoping no one has seen me and head for our meeting place behind some boulders near the mountain entrance.
Pebbles beneath my shoes push into the dirt like little bones. Dusk slowly pulls the curtain of night. I want to keep running but this backpack is kind of heavy and I’ve nearly twisted my foot. I hurry as fast as I can.
I’m getting close to the rocks when an engine roars just ahead. Headlights appear at mouth of the tunnel. Even though I don’t think anyone will notice a short kid running in the dusky half-light, I dive in the dirt.
The hardhat slips over my face and my lungs, working overtime, crash in my chest and come to a stop. I hold my breath until the headlights pass over me. The bulldozer, or whatever, doesn’t stop. I get up, sucking air, and run the rest of the way to the meeting place.
Clayton, Denise and Mason, the last person in the world I want to be on a rescue mission with, cower behind the rocks. Clayton is the only one wearing a hardhat. He stole it from his dad.
I still can’t believe what we found out at Han’s Hideout besides two stowaways. It’s true. Denise and Mason like each other. Gross.
“Who needs a hardhat?” I ask.
“Not me.” Mason makes kissy faces from behind a goalie helmet that has a dragon’s head painted on the top and back. A shovel is strapped to his back.
“You going to keep your boyfriend under control?” I say handing a hardhat to Denise.
“What you really mean is, you can’t keep him under control,” she says. “I’ve never had a problem with Mason. When he’s wrong, I tell him. You two are the ones with a problem.”
“You try getting pounded by him twelve times then see if you can trust him,” I say.
“I’m standing right here,” Mason says. “I can hear you.”
“We just don’t want any trouble,” Clayton says. “Don’t think we forgot about your mole-man artwork and the fires.”
“You got me back!” Mason yells.
“Prove it,” Clayton says.
Mason’s eyes turn to points. “I know it was you.”
Denise has had enough. “Will you all just shut up? Everyone apologize.”
We all look at her. “What?”
“Right now,” Denise yells. “Or we won’t get anywhere.”
Clayton, Mason and I all look down at our feet. No one wants to make the first move.
Finally, I step up. “Sorry,” I say.
Clayton is tightlipped.
“Yeah. I guess me too,” Mason reluctantly says.
Denise gives her brother an eyebrow-raising glare.
“All right,” Clayton says. “Sorry.”
“There,” Denise says. “Now, can we get this party going?”
I actually do feel a little better even though I’m still freaked out that they like each other. I decide to change the subject. “Where’d you stash your bikes?” I ask.
“In a ditch about a quarter mile from here,” Clayton says.
“And nobody saw you?”
“Does it look like anybody saw us?” Mason says.
“Can you stop that?” Denise scolds him.
I nod toward the tunnel. “Welcome to the mountain. This is the thing that swallowed my dad,” I say.
Denise looks up at the peaks that seem piled on one another. “It’s really not just one mountain,” she says. “It’s a mountain range. The San Gabriel Mountains.” She’s one of the best students in Mrs. Lucas’ class. She always seems to know everything.
“So?” Mason says.
Denise grumbles at him but doesn’t stop. “So, like some kind of Hydra monster it has a lot of heads: Gleason, Cucamonga, Telegraph, Bighorn, Ontario . . . Some peaks have names like Timber Mountain and Thunder Mountain. The highest is San Antonio. You know it as Mount Baldy. 10,064 feet high.”
“Which is the one in front of us?” I ask.
“Gleason Peak,” she says. “It towers over all of Sunland.”
“I call all of it the mountain,” I say, thinking how it’s all the same, laughing with its tunnel mouth hanging wide open, beckoning us to run inside.
“Can we just get going?” Mason says.
“Finally, we agree on something.” Clayton pulls his backpack tight. “Let’s do this.”
We peek around the boulders. The tent camp is in the distance flooded with big yellow lights. We have no idea if anyone is watching in our direction. Since it’s starting to get dark, we take our chances and run toward the opening, disappearing inside like little bugs.
Right away the sound, air, everything feels muffled. I take out the flashlight Grandma Benita gave me and flick it on, lighting up our path and the edge of the conveyor built that leads at least two miles to Gabby’s cutterhead. Denise and Mason have flashlights too. They turn theirs on. Clayton flicks on the light built into his hardhat.
Pretty soon we’re so far in the tunnel we can no longer see the entrance. Not a drop of light can reach this far. “I wish Peter could be here,” I say.
“Who’s that?” Denise asks.
“His mom was just rescued,” I say in almost a whisper. If she hadn’t been saved he would be another brave rescuer ready to fend off every shadow. I wonder if he’d be as scared as me.
Right now this whole tunnel is one gigantic dark place. I feel tiny as it stretches in front of us. The gloom has weird sounds too. Water drips and plops. In some places a trickle of a stream seems to flow from out of nowhere.
“Look at the water marks on the walls,” Clayton says. “Looks like a river passed through several days ago.”
“There’s no telling what flood the earthquake shook loose,” Denise says.
Suddenly we all stop in our tracks. Somewhere far ahead comes a tearing and groaning like giant sheets of metal being crunched and ripped.
“What’s that?” Mason shines his light into the dark. It doesn’t reach far.
“I don’t know.” I can’t see very far with my flashlight either. Everything looks the same, like we’ve explored the same stretch of tunnel over and over.
“Whatever it is,” Clayton says, turning his headlamp off then flicking it back on, “if something hungry is guarding the deepest part of the tunnel then we’re headed straight for it.”
I turn my light off briefly, thinking that maybe in the blackness something will appear, a set of eyes, something glowing, a ghost, maybe even the wall of rocks where the first cave-in occurred.
Mason turns off his light too and yells. “Oogie Boogie!”
His voice doesn’t seem to travel far but we all shudder.
“Will you stop doing that,” Denise says.
“Doing what?” Mason flicks his flashlight back on.
“Yelling. Turning your lights off an on. All of you. This is serious.”
“She’s right,” I say. “We don’t want to get caught.” Satisfied that nothing is going to get me, I start walking again. Everyone follows.
Above us is the giant arch of cement Gabby constructed on her journey into the mountain. I shine the light as far upwards as I can. The others do the same.
The ceiling is a shadowy grey sky empty of stars.
“Maybe we will find passageways through the rocks,” Mason says shining his light in front of us again.
“Yeah, well, right now, we’re just four dumb kids walking in the dark,” Clayton says.
Somewhere, a mile or two away, I think, Dad and three others are waiting to be rescued. We’re on a path straight to them. I have to think they’re all determined to stay alive. We’ll get as close as we can to the heart of the mountain. I don’t say anything but I know it’s the only way I’ll be mentally strong again—doing what we’re doing—getting to the center of this place.
Next to us running the length of the tunnel is a conveyor belt with rocks and dirt on it. “What is that?” Mason asks. “Did it used to move? I bet that was creepy.”
“The guts of the mountain. Gabby chewed them up,” I say. “They’ll be carried out if she ever gets turned back on.”
“I feel sad about her,” Denise says.
“Maybe she’ll be scrapped,” Clayton adds.
This gives me a sinking feeling. Maybe the tunnel was never meant to be finished and it’ll all end up a mausoleum, a sad hole to nowhere except where a giant Tunnel Boring Machine is forever buried.
Just then we hear a new sound. Headlights bob in the darkness like will-o’-the-wisps above a swampy graveyard.
“Shut off your lights,” I say, turning off mine and scurrying beneath the conveyor. “Under here—hurry,” I squeak as everyone dives under the conveyor, huddling like ghosts, hoping that whoever is coming won’t see us.
This time it’s a truck. I hold my breath as it passes us and continues a ways. Just when I start to breathe again the truck’s brake lights brighten into two bright orbs. My heart throbs rapidly. Has the driver heard or seen us? The engine idles and the truck slowly backs up. I flatten myself against the ground like a cat. So does everyone else. The truck doesn’t reach us when it stops again. It just sits there, idling. A man half hangs out the driver’s side window, taking a look back down the tunnel.
We can hear his voice over the engine as he yells into a radio. “What’s that, Mike? Say again? A boy? I thought I saw something but you know how everything in here looks like someone in hiding in the dark.” The worker pokes his head back out again before talking back into the radio. “Nothing. It’s nothing. You know how it gets down here—you see things. Yeah, I’ll keep looking.”
Finally the truck continues down the tunnel. We all cough at the dust. I pull out the bandana Dad gave me at Big Bear, cover my mouth and nose.
“Got any more of those?” Clayton pulls his shirt up over his mouth.
“Shoulda brought a gas mask,” Mason coughs.
Denise is the first on her feet, jumping to some new groans, clunks and echoes from further down the tunnel. “Hey, what’s that?”
“That’s no truck,” Mason says.
After a really loud crash, I duck, thinking the cement over my head is shaking loose. “I don’t know,” I say. “Machines of some kind. Let’s just keep going.”
“Are you serious?” Mason says. “I’m not going down there.”
“What do you mean you’re not?” Denise says.
Mason’s voice is in a panic. “Didn’t you hear that? That could be us being squished. I’m not going.”
“What? You can’t?” Clayton says.
“Look, you guys wanted a lookout—I’ll be a lookout,” Mason squeaks.
“Hey, that works.” I take out the walkie-talkies and turn them to the same channel. “If anyone’s coming, just whisper, “Echo-echo, repeat, echo-echo. We’ll know someone found you.”
Denise looks at me. “I’ll stay here too.”
“Aw, man,” Clayton says. “You too?”
Mason ducks under the conveyor and Denise follows. “Leave behind some sandwiches, would you?” he says. “I know you have some in your backpack.”
“Oh yeah,” I say and offer some cookies too.
Mason tears into his right away. “Can you leave those sodas too?”
“They’re our only two,” I say.
Mason shrugs. “We’re thirsty.”
I hand them the sodas. Clayton and I each take a drink first.
“Hey, don’t backwash,” Mason says.
“Don’t forget to turn off your lights if anyone’s coming.”
“We won’t forget.” Denise hugs me. “Good luck, okay?”
“We don’t need luck,” Clayton says. “We got this.”
“Whatever,” Denise says. She hugs him too. “Now get out of here.”
I push up my hardhat as we walk away. Pretty soon I can hardly see their lights.
“It’s just us now,” Clayton says.
“I guess it was pretty brave of them to go that far.”
I agree, shining my light at every crevice and crack. “Your sister really is the bravest one here. Look who she’s sitting with.”
Clayton and I both laugh.
But the laughs soon disappear. Now that Denise and Mason aren’t with us, it quickly feels scarier in here. We start seeing things. The grey feels like it’s closing in. All the rocks on the now dead conveyor seem like the heads of things.
“Man, those rocks are creeping me out,” Clayton says.
“This tunnel is starting to feel like it’s going to end at the fangs of something very large.”
Pretty soon my brain starts working overtime. I keep thinking about what the guy in the truck said—that he keeps seeing things. I keep thinking ghosts are hovering in here. Clayton does too. Long shadows drift into our beams of light, including something that seems to have fallen off the conveyor.
“What’s that?” I say as we both jump. For a second we think we see a face.
“Just a rock,” Clayton says. “How does your dad do this job?”
“The control room has lights,” I say, shoving the rock aside. “He only sees the darkness when he changes shift and drives back down through the tunnel.”
“Yeah, well that’s still pretty creepy,” Clayton says as we slowly walk on.
. . .
Before I know it, I start daydreaming. I see images, memories. Dad and Snapers and baseball games and birthday parties, Christmases, and trips to the beach to take surf lessons. I replay so many happy times that I promise myself to write them all down. Then the memories turn dark. I see a mountain road. I see myself and Dad going up, up and up, laughing at first, sharing an orange Gatorade, talking about bears and lakes, then finally stopping at a cabin. The cabin. David is there in his Dodgers cap, smiling and telling us how much fish we’re going to catch.
Then everything in the image turns neon red, a deep bright orange. I’m transported to the fire again. I hate seeing it. I hate Big Bear and cabins and mountain lakes, and smoke. I’m sick of being reminded constantly that I lived through something fiery and terrible, but I can’t stop the images. They come as if I’m there instead of here in the tunnel, as if an orange glow awaits me. Then the tunnel seems to shrink and I imagine the much smaller Hobbit hole and Dad and David in it. I smell smoke though there is none. Maybe it’s something lingering in this bandana. I see Dad in the dim light as if he’s here. I want to hide under the conveyor again as if I’m beneath the cabin. But I don’t. I keep walking next to Clayton. I see David too. He’s frightened more than any person or creature I’ve ever seen. Something awful dims in his eyes and I wonder if I got that look too. Dad doesn’t say anything. He just has an arm around me as the hole makes its own sounds like it wants to burst at the seams. I feel the heat rising as the fire rages at the cabin, turning it into cinders so hot I imagine coals sink into the earth, catching roots on fire, and those roots, inch by inch, flame by flame, eating wood and oxygen from the soil, burning upward through buried tentacles, into the tree trunks themselves, transforming green pines into fiery hot cinders, infernos eating their way inside-out, bark becoming the last to catch, the last to be consumed. We are all about to die though Dad doesn’t accept that. I can remember clear as anything what he says next.
“This is the part that takes the most strength,” he says as we sweat in the immense heat. “All faith has come into motion. Right now we have to wish the fire away. Do you hear me?” I nod. He continues: “Wish the fire away, Cameron. Wish it. Will it away.”
With all my strength and willpower as if I’m back at the fire I wish the fire away. “Go away, fire. Go away,” I say in the tunnel, walking. I wish it into oblivion as I slip alongside the conveyor, step after step. Still, I am also wishing with all my might, sweating in the heat as the temperature increases more and more as if still at the fire. I glance at David. He puts his face in his hands and cries. I can’t cry. Not then. Not now.
I imagine myself as a boy made of water rising up like a giant waterspout and carrying Dad and David into the sky. But Dad wraps a wet arm around me. I feel his heart thrumming. And then outside the door of the hole a great rush comes like a rainstorm followed by a blinding hiss as if the air of the world escapes all at once.
“What’s that?” I remember David saying as if it’s all still happening around me.
David wipes away tears. “Are those water tanker planes?” he says, laughing. “Have they water-dropped on us? Are we saved?” He laughs harder and puts his hands near the door. “It’s not as hot,” he says even though the room we’re in feels two-hundred degrees. “Do you hear the steam venting?”
“Don’t open it,” Dad says. “Fire could still be right outside the door.”
David backs away.
A few minutes later comes another rush and hiss.
“They’re making a stand,” Dad says.
“They’re really saving us,” David adds. “We have to get out now before it flares back up.”
“No, wait,” Dad says.
This time David doesn’t stop. “I can touch the door. It’s cooler.” He kicks away the towels and forces the door open before Dad can do anything. A rush of steam and smoke pours in and we all start coughing and dive to the water along the floor.
When some of the smoke disappears we can see everything is black and burnt and full of ash swirling upward. An orange glow lights the charred edges of everything.
Dad tries to grab David. “It’s not safe. It could flare up. Everything might collapse. We have to wait for them to get in here.”
But David doesn’t care. Within seconds he disappears into the smoke and steam. I’m too scared to make a sound. I feel like all I can hear is Dad yelling after him, his voice echoing in my head, begging him to come back. “David, don’t. David!”
The last we see of him is his blue Dodgers cap like it’s floating through a cloud.
Then Dad jumps back. He shuts the door as a huge section of the ceiling in the basement starts to collapse. “Get down,” he says to me, choking on smoke.
I don’t know how many hours go by as we huddle close to the floor in the hot water, barely able to breathe, waiting for fire crews to reach us. Over the next few hours I am terrified. I try to tell myself it’s all a dream. At the same time, I realize how mentally strong Dad has to be in this moment. He has to be strong and patient rather than be like David and run away into the crumbling cabin. I’m still confused though. Should we have run too? Has there been time? When I ask Dad, he says, no. He doesn’t say anything else.
Finally, after forever, we hear digging outside. When Dad opens the door, firefighters are surprised to see us. They wear fire-resistant suits, masks, and helmets. “I thought you were going to be dead,” one of them says too honestly. “There’s not much left of this building.”
Half the cabin has crumbled, including huge parts of the ceiling. We can see sky where walls have been. Smoldering debris lay in huge piles.
Another firefighter motions for us to follow. “Hurry. It isn’t safe.”
As he leads us to safety, Dad asks, “Is there another man outside?”
“Only some more from our crew,” the firefighter says. “Is someone from your group missing?”
Within seconds we’re out on the burnt mountain. I don’t recognize anything. The entire landscape is blackened. Embers and bits of stumps glow where trees stood. Dad hugs me. That’s when I notice the blue cap, lying like the wind has just tossed it outside the cabin into the ashy dirt. “Dad,” I say, pointing.
He picks up the cap.
“Do you think he made it over the mountain?” I ask.
Flames line the mountain above us like the atmospheric halo around the earth.
“No,” Dad says, holding onto the hat. “David didn’t make it.”
. . .
As I lead Clayton through the dark tunnel I no longer see the orange flames of my imagination. I don’t want to think about the fire ever again. I’m done with it.
David died and I have to live with that. I’ve somehow been blaming myself for it, but now I know the truth. I know that I wouldn’t have been mentally strong if it weren’t for Dad. I would have run into the burnt cabin too.
Like David, I wouldn’t have made it.
Instead of being scared, I feel numb right now. Numb because I need to remember that Dad lost a friend that day of the fire.
“Hey,” Clayton says. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I say thinking about how Dad has always been there for me. I don’t want to lose him. I have to continue on and on through this tunnel. “I’m okay,” I add.
Clayton is the first to notice the noises have died down. “Hey, what’s that?” he points to a dim light glowing like a tiny white halo in front of us.
“We’re close to the end of the tunnel,” I say.
Clayton breaks apart one of the cookies. He hands me half just as we hear a whisper over the radio. It’s Mason.
“Echo-echo. Repeat. Echo-echo.”
Then the radio goes silent.