Tunnel walls wrapped around Yelsin like a glove. Damp sand crowded beneath his fingernails and grains coated his lungs. The rifle on his back thumped against his spine with each advancing scrape. Pebbles and splinters chafed against his stomach, tugging the grimy tee-shirt plastered to his skin. At his heels, he heard Beri’s wheezing, the older man’s heavy huffs drumming upon the soles of Yelsin’s boots and urging him forward.
A faint gust teased through the pin-prick up ahead, hovering like a star. The wind swirled the stagnate air drowning in dust and kissed Yelsin’s cheeks. Keeping his gaze locked on the light, Yelsin crawled and shoved, pushed and clawed his way toward blossoming freedom.
Disgorging himself from the hole, Yelsin lay on the sun-warmed earth, sucking in one breath after another. A bubbling laugh worked out from his toes and poured through his lips in a manic wave. The vocal surge drew him to his feet and he scanned the horizon with sudden vigor.
Desert stretched before him, speckled with scraggly patches of brush and twilight shadows. Electrical towers loomed like parading skeletons, silhouetted against a violet sky. Grabbing his rifle, Yelsin lifted both arms above his head and let out a victorious howl. The weight of the gun, the confinement of the tunnel, the dust clinging to him inside and out, and the gashes earned from their squirrel through the final fence, all forgotten in face of liberty.
“Yelsin?” asked Beri.
The anguish staining Beri’s voice shattered Yelsin’s euphoria. Spinning away from the open desert, Yelsin crouched by the hole and slung on his rifle. He clasped Beri’s outstretched arm and pulled. Panting, Beri squirmed and kicked until the hole spewed him out onto the sand.
“I’m all right, I’m all right,” said Beri, shooing Yelsin away.
Yelsin gave Beri room as he wilted alongside the opening, his denim jacket frayed at the cuffs and hem, while rips cluttered the knees of his jeans. Sweat soaked through at each joint, but Yelsin latched onto the crimson stain pooling along Beri’s left side. An echo of gunfire from the last tower before the tunnel, rattled in his thoughts.
“What was it?”
“Sniper, maybe,” said Beri. He grimaced as they worked his left arm from the jacket, exposing a bloodstained tee-shirt.
“Watch it,” growled Beri.
Yelsin winced, bit his tongue and began examining the wound. Triage, which had become second nature in the Underground, took hold of his hands and he worked his fingers, investigating.
“I’m all right,” said Beri again, although torrents poured off his bald head.
“I need to look at it,” said Yelsin. Despite the older man’s grumbles, he laid Beri onto the ground. Prodding and poking discovered swelling and a probable broken rib, but failed to locate the exit hole.
Beri hacked out a cough, spitting scarlet drops from his mouth. “Give it a rest.”
“We have to get the bullet out.”
Beri heaved upright.
“Yes,” said Yelsin, grabbing Beri’s rounded shoulders, “that’s it.”
Beri smacked Yelsin’s hands and leaned against the dune, chest heaving with speeding breaths.
“What are you doing?” asked Yelsin. “We have to go.”
“Will you shut up?” Beri pressed a hand against the wound, hiding the sight beneath his hairy paw. “I have to tell you the rest.”
“When that bullet’s out.”
“No,” said Beri seizing Yelsin’s collar and yanking him close. “Now.” His chestnut eyes wandered, drifting in and out of focus, but after a growl, clarity snapped into Beri’s stare and rooted Yelsin in place. Maintaining the locked gaze, Beri licked his dust-smeared lips. “Go east, straight east. Get to Verda and ask for Timmon. He’ll show you the rest of the way.”
“All right, all right. We’ll get there.” Yelsin grabbed Beri’s arm, ready to haul him to his feet but the older man sagged into the sand.
Yelsin batted aside Beri’s fingers, waggling at the landscape. “We’re going together.”
“I’ll slow you down.”
“Then I can enjoy the scenery.”
With a grunt, Yelsin hefted Beri upright. His knees wobbled, but Yelsin shoved his shoulder into Beri’s armpit. Side by side, they steadied.
“You’re a stubborn, boy,” said Beri after another hacking cough.
“Where do you think I got that from?”
“Your mother, of course.”
Yelsin grinned, his smile broadening as he noted a glimmer rekindling in Beri’s eye.
“Why are we standing here?” asked Beri. He pointed to the lightening horizon. “East.”