Andrew did not give up. He started to unfasten the coiled rope from his cowboy pants. It was hopelessly short, but it gave him some form of hope.
George stopped him.
“Wait,” he mumbled, breathing heavily. Then he balanced a coin on the tip of his finger.
Mark nodded, signaling for George to drop it.
Holding their breath, they all strained their ears.
Ten seconds. Twenty seconds. Then thirty seconds.
They looked at one other, horrified.
Mark pulled out another one. He gave it another try.
Andrew stared at his watch.
A minute went by.
Logan quickly pulled out a flashlight from his backpack. Even with the powerful beam, they still couldn’t see a thing.
“Diana!” he screamed.
From the abyss, a sound answered, not from Diane but from Logan’s echo.
“Diane!” cried a shrill voice behind Andrew. It was Mark’s.
Andrew broke out of the trance at once. It was then that he started to feel his legs, now weak and shaking.
The others were already kneeling there by the hole.
“Jesus!” muttered Andrew after a while. “Jesus!”
He couldn’t believe his eyes. There was nothing but deep darkness below. He hadn’t expected it to be that deep. It was like a bottomless abyss.
Andrew’s heart thumped wildly, for he knew clearly that she alone could not prevent the fall, unless someone lent her a hand. Him. He also knew very well that he ought to pull her back as she had done for him a moment ago.
He couldn’t. All of a sudden his body became as heavy as lead.
Then the moment Andrew dreaded came. Diane lost her balance and plummeted right into the darkness. Within seconds, she had vanished from his sight.
He mustered all the strength he got, twisting his arm and shrugging off her hand. “Git off me!” he roared.
Diane’s hand fell away.
The cowboy felt very much alert now; his fighter’s instinct was high. He braced himself for a blow. But none came.
He waved the torch on his hand around, his face reddened and distorted with fury. At once, his surrounding became clearer. He gasped with horror.
Time seemed to slow almost to a stop as the cowboy stood, gaping at the scene before him. Diane’s arms were swinging wildly, and below her was a dark hole that he hadn’t notice there before. It was the biggest hole he’d ever seen – as big and as wide as the room they were in a while ago.
Diane, however, persisted in following him.
The cowboy could hear her footsteps a step or two behind him, before they were walking abreast again. Except this time she remained silent.
Andrew saw no point in speeding up, since Diane wasn’t about to leave him alone. He slowed down to a walk. Try as you might, he thought. But ya ain’t gonna made me talk or do things your way.
Upright and self-assured, he continued down the passageway with his head held high.
Just then, a hand seized him by the sleeve and yanked him backward. Confused, Andrew staggered back but soon regained his balance.
He thought that Diane couldn’t have picked a better time to fight. He felt the anger boiling in his blood. This time he wasn’t about to let her get away with it.
A moment later, Diane caught up with him.
“Look,” she said apologetically. “I am really sorry about what happened… I guess everyone was jittery and eager to get out. I’m sure none of us really mean it.”
Andrew snorted. He didn’t believe a word she said. Then he remembered his own plan. He gritted his teeth, reminding himself not to reply.
“So,” she said, taking a quick sidelong glance before she went on. “Would you like to listen to the plan and tell us what you think?”
Andrew drew his brows together. She didn’t mean it, he told himself. Some good actor she was. Or else, why didn’t she ask him first about what he thinks? He bet she was only here to discuss about her own plan.
Andrew walked on defiantly, a lot faster than before.
Mark cleared his throat several times. “Um, Andrew,” he went on as if nothing had happened. “We’re about to go through the passage. Guess I’ll tell you about the plan along the way.” Mark gestured stupidly toward the passageway, inviting his former friend to join the rest of them.
The others, Andrew saw, were gathering beside the passageway. Someone had lit the first few torches on the walls so it was no longer a dark, gaping hole.
He kept his mouth shut – though he was tempted to mumble or grumble a few words under his breath. But he wouldn’t want the others to hear that. It was all part of his plan. To act unconcerned and independent. To let them know that he didn’t need them and he could find his way out of this place alone.
And, speaking of that, Andrew felt anger rising from the pit of his stomach again. I’ll tell you about the plan along the way. It was just as he suspected. They didn’t even want him to take part with the planning.
Before he knew it, his feet began to move of his own accord.
For a while he kept his eyes staring straight ahead, allowing his feet to direct him. And, just like the way he’d planned it, he pretended not to see Mark’s gawking face. Served him right. He pretended not to hear the gasps coming from the others, either.
The cowboy brought down one of the flaming torches off the wall and marched on without a single backward glance.
Andrew fixed his eyes on the marble soldier without really seeing it. He was deep in thought. He did not hear the approaching footsteps. Nor did he notice a sudden hush in the room.
“Andrew,” said a voice suddenly, coming from somewhere behind him.
The cowboy jumped.
He turned to growl at the intruder, only to find that it was Mark, who was rocking on his heels and looking positively awkward. The cowboy didn’t want to admit it, but he was really more relieved than irritated. Still he knitted his brows to give Mark an impression that he hadn’t much time to chat. And, yes, he didn’t want Mark to think he was a coward, either.
Andrew was very much determined to walk away without a backward glance. Looking at Mark, though, he decided to go easy on his former friend. He waited.
“Uh,” said Mark slowly, avoiding Andrew’s eyes. But he was stopped by a fit of coughing.
The cowboy remained taciturn, his nostrils flaring slightly.
Suddenly he was shocked with a full realization that he loathed them. Every one of them. He despised them because no one bothered to pay attention to what he had to say, even though they knew he was absolutely right. He despised them for disrespecting him – or, treating him like a dog was more like it. And he despised the ones who watched in silence as the others bullied him.
Andrew felt a shot of pain in his stomach. He shoved his hands into his pants pockets. Hard. Cowboys never show their pain.
He realized that he had, in amidst of the heated argument, all but forgotten that he hadn’t had any lunch yet. A real cowboy won’t even think about self-pitying, either. He’d rather starve than beg food from them.
Andrew, of course, didn’t need anyone to remind him that they were all his rivals. But with that coming from Mark… He just couldn’t believe it. He stared bitterly at Mark, who was nodding eagerly at everything Diane said. This was his best friend and only friend who once understood and respected him. And now his pet horse was all he got.
Still he found it easier to lay all the blames on Diane. After all, she was the one who had taken his place.
Hot jealousy shot through him as well as rage.
Diane was everything that ruined his friendship with Mark. Andrew was sure of it.
So now, he had her all figured out. He wasn’t about to let her ruin his cowboy show, either.
He stole a quick glance at the others huddled near the table. They were whispering about something.
Probably about him.
Let them whisper, he thought bitterly, his fists shaking and his face twitching with anger. Andrew knew it was a waste of breath to get furious at them. Yet he couldn’t help it. Anyone would have done the same thing.
Andrew was circumnavigating the room. In a fit, he had gotten up and left the octagonal table. Now he found himself standing before one of the statues and pretending to be interested.
The marble soldier was one of the eight that guarded each corner of the room. It was as huge as the ones outside of the building. But instead of holding spears at its side, it held a flaming torch. From the austere look on its face, it was as if it, too, had many secrets to guard. Secrets that some of them Andrew would probably never find out.
But never mind the secrets. Andrew wasn’t really concerned about that. He was more concerned about his own well-being.