Jack ran as if he could feel the devil’s breath on his neck because, frankly, he could feel the devil’s breath on his neck. There was nothing quite like a hefty dose of fear and adrenaline to make up for all those cigarettes and procrastinated workouts. Running for your life is one thing, but running for your soul is quite another.
Of course, none of this was going through Jack’s head at the time. All he was concerned with at the moment was trying not to trip and drop his makeshift, hollowed-out vegetable, aglow with the mysterious ember from below. Without its light he would be lost in these depths forever. In all likelihood, it was his first, his last, his only shot at freedom.
It was strange to think what strange succession of events had brought him to this death chase. It hadn’t seemed like that big of a deal to go into the cave. After all, it had been for a good cause, or at least it had seemed that way at the time. Lily’s hair had seemed all but luminous in the moonlight. But it was not his privilege to touch that glowing hair. That belonged to Vincent. All that was beautiful belonged to Vincent. Vincent, with his perfect white teeth, his charm; oh, why did he have to be so good-natured? If he’d been some kind of jerk, Jack wouldn’t have felt bad at all about trying to steal Lily away from him. But if he’d been a jerk, then Lily wouldn’t have been with him in the first place. It was all very frustrating.
They’d been friends for some time, Jack and Lily. But it hadn’t been until she and Vince were official that Jack had finally realized how he felt about her. It wasn’t until she was out of his reach that he realized how much she meant to him, how much he had valued their time together. Oh, irony. So when they were on a walk, the ever-present Vincent tagging along, of course, and Lily’s ring had rolled down into the cave, Jack didn’t give a second thought about going in after it. Vincent had hesitated, and Jack leaped at the prospect of distinguishing himself. Vincent probably didn’t even know the story behind the ring. He probably didn’t realize what it meant to her. But that was a truth to be discovered and subtly exposed later, in the hope that she would finally realize how much more in sync she and Jack were.
The cave was cold. Jack felt no doubt that, if there had been light, he would have seen his breath crystallize and fall to the ground before his very eyes. He shivered as he bent down stiffly to feel around for the ring. Soon he was on his hands and knees, his body racked by the arctic atmosphere, but determined not to emerge without his quarry in hand.
Just when the numbness of his extremities was beginning to make its way toward his torso, he found the ring. Letting out a relieved sigh, he muttered, “Thank God,” only to hear a voice whisper darkly into his ear: “You won’t be saying that again anytime soon.” Jack screamed.
Afterward, he wouldn’t have been able to tell anyone just what happened next, only that it happened quickly. He felt a strong hand grasp his wrist, while others pushed him from behind, deeper into the darkness, away from the moonlight at the cave’s entrance. He stumbled, but instead of falling to the ground he found himself caught in an endless plunge into darkness. Terrified, he tried to scream, but the cold had become so great that he felt as if his voice had been frozen inside his throat.
Finally, he hit the ground. For all the distance he felt he’d fallen, the impact was significantly less than he’d expected. But maybe that was just because he had little feeling left.
“What’s this?” a second voice inquired, surprised.
“What’s it look like, half-wit?” the first responded.
“No need to get huffy,” the second said defensively, “I’m just wondering why you brought a live one. Isn’t that ‘against the law’?”
The first voice laughed derisively. “As if that stopped any of us before.”
The second voice laughed along with the first.
“Wait,” it said, its tone suddenly serious. “What’s that in its hand?”
“What?” the first asked, trying to mask his concern.
“Get that away from it!” the second yelled, its voice abruptly booming like a thunderstorm.
Though Jack had no idea what was going on, he knew that he wanted to keep the ring. It was Lily’s. He slipped the ring over his pinky with the last bit of dexterity left in his hand. Suddenly, to his surprise, he could move. He was still freezing cold, but he was no longer paralyzed. He opened his eyes and saw the outlines of ugly creatures, and all around there were dim blue flames. But instead of projecting warmth, this fire was colder than the wind in winter. “Grab him!” one of the creatures yelled. From nowhere, a hundred hands seized him, and before he knew it he was in a cell, and the door was closing behind the last of his captors. The frigid fire was here too, and sharp-edged icicles hung from the ceiling. He sat shivering in the corner and wondered what was to become of him. Eventually he started to doze off. Somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness, he thought he heard Lily’s voice calling him from a distance. He would have responded, but he wasn’t awake enough to move his mouth. Suddenly, unexpectedly, something hit him on the head and thudded to the floor. It was a turnip.
“Jack!” Vince’s voice called, slightly more distinct than Lily’s. Dazed, confused and freezing, Jack focused on the turnip. He’d never seen one quite so large before. For a brief moment, he thought about eating it. He had no idea how long he’d be down here. But he hated turnips. And as he stood up to walk over to it, his head knocked against an icicle, knocking it to the ground. It shattered, and one of the shards impaled itself in the vegetable. It gave him an idea: he would make a lantern! It was dark down here. The fire was mysteriously stingy with its light; though you could see it clearly enough in the darkness, it only vaguely illuminated its surroundings. So he wrapped his handkerchief around half of the ice shard, grabbed the turnip with his numb hands and set about carving a lantern.
Once it had been carved to his satisfaction, he used his foot to knock an ember out of one of the fires around him. Even though the fire itself was colder than ice, he was still skeptical about touching it. But once the ember was separated from its fellows, it began to lose the little light it had. “Crap,” he muttered. He reached down and tapped it with his fingertips. It felt like an ice cube. But as he picked it up gingerly, he felt its cold begin to diminish with its dull blue glow. Intrigued, he brought it closer to his face. To his surprise, as its light went out entirely, it began to get warm. He saw his frosty breath touch it, and it started to look more and more like a living coal. In fact, he had to drop it into the turnip soon afterwards, because it started to hurt his hands. He blew on it, and it glowed brighter and brighter, and got hotter and hotter.
That’s when he heard the scream. “Kill it!” it screamed. “Aaaaaugh, it’s alive! Kill it, kill it, kill it!” The first voice was joined by others, and they were moving toward the cell door. Their feet began to make the floor shake. Jack shrank back into the corner furthest away from the door. But then, somehow, over the din, he heard Lily’s voice calling again. She sounded worried. He could just see her face, crinkled up so endearingly, her eyes wide with concern. What if she goes into the cave? he wondered to himself. That thought was enough to motivate him to action. The coal glowed even brighter. By its light, he saw a hole in the wall. Just as the pounding feet and angry voices were getting far too close for comfort, Jack kicked at the wall. It crumbled just enough for him to squeeze through, though he got very cold once again, because he had to get through the freezing flames.
He didn’t wait around to hear the anger of the creepy little demons. He took off down the nearest upward-oriented corridor. Soon enough, he heard footsteps behind him. His orange, glowing turnip lit up the way, helping him to avoid obstacles. But even without light, whoever was behind him seemed to be gaining on him. There was a point where he was sure he felt its rank breath on his neck, and he would have screamed if he’d had the breath for it.
Just when he thought he couldn’t stay ahead for even one more step, he saw moonlight ahead. All thoughts of failure fled, and he ran with renewed vigor. He laughed raggedly, gasping out a taunt to his pursuer. “You’ve failed! You…you…can’t stop…can’t stop me!” With a snarl, he saw something fly past him and appear ahead, blocking the beautiful moonlight. He skidded to a halt, his lamplight falling on the imposing figure before him. “Can’t stop you?” the figure asked calmly. It leaned in toward him. “I could break you,” it breathed. Jack’s lamplight flickered. “Drop the lamp,” it continued. “Even if you get out, you know she’ll never be with you. That boat sailed a long time ago; your time passed. You let it slip through your fingers, like you’ve done so many times before.” He felt as if something was dying inside of him. His lamp grew dimmer. He fell to his knees, the familiar cold beginning to grow again. “No,” he protested half-heartedly. “No, I…she…sh…she’ll never love…me. She’ll never love me.” His voice cracked. He could almost hear the smile on the creature’s face. “Yes, you’re right; she’ll never, ever love you. Now, drop the lamp.”
“Jack?” her voice called faintly. He looked up slowly. He could hear the tears in her voice. “Jack, where are you? Come back.” He stood back up, his face more determined. “I know she might not ever love me back,” he said softly. “But I don’t care. At least I’ve loved; at least I’ve lived. And I won’t stop. You won’t stop me.”
The coal glowed bright as Jack walked up to the moonlight, and the shadowy figure held its arms up to shield its face from the heat before retreating back into the cold, dead abyss.