Purgatory: adj. Having the quality of cleansing or purifying.
“Where the hell am I?” was Grant’s first thought as he woke up in a sweat. He tried to sit up, only to be met with shooting pain from his neck down his spine and into his surgically-repaired back. After blinking several times, he looked around and tried to come to grips with his surroundings. All around him Grant saw nothing but darkness. As best he could tell, he was in some kind of large subway tunnel, the kind he remembered from his trip to New York City for the Heisman trophy ceremony.
Except that couldn’t be right, Grant thought. His head was still spinning. That trip was almost ten years ago. There were no subways in the Appalachian Mountains, which was the whole reason why he and his wife Jessica had moved here. No subways, no cameras, no tabloids. This was going to be the simple life, she always told him, the slow life.
As he finally rubbed the drowsiness from his eyes, he could tell that he was in a cave. A cave? Fragments of the scene from the night before began to play back in his mind. Images of Jessica shouting, sounds of slamming doors, the feel of rain on his skin. Why had he stormed off like that? It was his fault after all. It always was. Grant remembered walking into the wilderness that extended out beyond his backyard, walking and walking with no particular destination in mind, until he broke down exhausted and crying. How had his life come to this? He remembered the feeling of his rain-soaked t-shirt freezing in the frigid November wind. And he remembered some sort of mist rising from a certain hole in the ground nearby. Or was it smoke? He couldn’t recall, but the warm air was comforting and momentarily was able to stop him from shivering. In that moment he lost the desire to do anything at all, except curl up like a child and sleep. Was it all a bad dream?
Grant shook himself from the trance of memory and crawled toward the sound of rushing water, and was rewarded with the discovery of a large underground river in a nearby cave passage. As he bent down to take a drink, he instinctively reached to remove his trusty blue ball cap, which never left his head. It wasn’t there. That’s strange, he thought. He scooped the water into his mouth and took a drink, then took another, and another. The water didn’t satisfy his thirst at all, but he drank on.
Then he slowly and painfully stood up and began to walk along the bank of the river, careful to avoid the slick flowstone that threatened to trip him up and sweep him into the current downstream. How had he gotten here? After a few hundred feet he glanced up to find the culprit, a cloud of mist filling the ceiling of the cave. Beneath it he found a pile of rubble, the remains of what must’ve been a collapsed sinkhole. Falling directly into the water may have been the first stroke of good luck Grant received in his entire life, he thought to himself. He just as easily could’ve been impaled on the rocks.
Those positive thoughts were quickly erased as he stood in the cavernous tunnel, all alone, with the splashing and jostling of the river the only thing moving around him. The gravity of his situation hit him, and panic began to set in. How was he going to get out of this cave?
AsJessica awoke she reached her hand across the bed, hoping to touch the familiar bulging shoulders of her husband. She didn’t want to have to look at him, trusting instead that her reassuring touch would express the forgiveness that words could not. Her hand found nothing but empty pillows. She exhaled slowly.
Maybe he had already gotten up, Jessica thought, which wouldn’t be unusual. She rose and stepped into some slippers that were near her bed, making her way into the main hallway of their one-story home. She noticed a light coming from one of the rooms and approached. It was Grant’s trophy room, with the dim glow of an old lamp casting shadows on the relics of his football career. On the walls hung framed jerseys and commemorative posters, surrounding the Heisman Trophy on a pedestal in the middle of the room. Jessica walked slowly towards the lamp and underneath its light found Grant’s phone, wallet, and a stack of old magazines. Not again, she sighed. Why did he never reread the positive stories? She quickly leafed through the headlines, and it was all there. The injury reports, the lurid photographs, and of course the investigation into his money manager’s theft of all of his money.
Had she known Grant had spent the previous day wallowing in his past tragedies, Jessica probably would not have brought up his recent firing from his job selling air conditioners. But money was tight, and her talent as a sports agent wasn’t exactly in high demand in rural North Carolina. She gathered herself and took another deep breath. Moving here was her idea, and she had to remind herself of that sometimes. This wasn’t the life she was expecting either when she was wooed by a professional quarterback, but she loved him and they had been through too much together now to turn back.
On the floor next to the lamp she found something else. A muddy footprint. Jessica laughed under her breath, as Grant often went on long walks when he was feeling sorry for himself. But he’d never not come home before, which she found strange. And why would he leave his phone and wallet? She exited the trophy room and walked towards the back of the house, finding the back door cracked open and a puddle of water collected below the opening. Goosebumps appeared on her skins as a gust of cold wind came through the doorway and sent a chill down her spine. Something was wrong. She grabbed her jacket, threw on her boots and headed out the door to find her husband.
Grant looked around impatiently. He had broken out in a sweat, but assured himself it wasn’t out of panic. The cave was hot and the air humid from the vapor coming off the river. As his eye followed the path of the water on past the crash site, he noticed it broke into three distinct branches. Surrounding the tunnels were large stone stalactites on all sides, forming what almost looked like the teeth of three separate animal heads. Grant attempted to peer down each tunnel, but could not make out anything in the darkness beyond. The passageways made him feel uneasy, and he turned back towards the direction he had come.
Grant walked and climbed and hiked for what seemed like hours, though time was difficult to gauge in the dark cave. It was strange, he thought, that he felt neither tired nor hungry despite having not eaten since the previous evening. His back, which normally ached severely if he went this long without taking pain medication, hardly bothered him. But there was an explanation for all of that: adrenaline. He was nervous and anxious and, if he was being honest, a little scared.
Finally, as he slid sideways through one particularly skinny passageway, he heard a noise. The distinct sound of a crackling fire was met with the low murmurs of voices as Grant got closer. He was saved! He turned a sharp corner and found them. A group of strange bearded men sat around a low fire, their skin dark with ash and dirt.
These men must be bootleggers, Grant thought. He had read about them in an article online. They used the caves to stealthily transport their illegal moonshine. But as he got a better look he felt that these men didn’t look capable of that, or much of anything. Their skin was pasty white and caked in soot, and what he could see of their bodies under their large dark garments was little more than flesh and bone. As Grant approached, the group didn’t even raise their heads to acknowledge him.
“Thank God I found you!” Grant said. The man closest to the fire with a long white beard let out a chuckle but didn’t seem interested in responding. Grant furled his brow and paused for a moment, but then tried to lighten the mood.
“You all been down here long?” he said jokingly.
“Seems like forever,” said the man in the same tone, causing apathetic chuckles to run throughout the group. “Who are you?”
“I’m…uh…I’m Grant Hamilton” he said timidly. He grimaced, knowing what would come next. “I remember watching you in college!” they would say, or, “man you would’ve been something if you hadn’t gotten hurt,” or if they were really feeling bold, “how’d you ever trust that manager of yours?” Instead, he got nothing but blank stares.
“Who’s that?” Said the man with the long beard. It was Grant’s turn to chuckle.
Grant assumed this meant the man still didn’t understand. Hesitantly he replied, “The one that got ripped off?”
Grant began to get frustrated and turned to leave. But as he glanced back, he noticed something. There was a light, or at least a fragment of one, hitting the wall of the tunnel behind the group of men. He spun around.
“Hey! Is that the way out of here?” Grant asked.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Grant Hamilton the footba — …nevermind. Will you let me past you?”
Grant stormed away, walking quickly in the opposite direction down the previous passages. What was that guy’s problem? Despite all that he’d been through, obscurity always hit Grant harder than criticism or pity. He was incensed, and before long found himself totally lost in the maze of cave tunnels. He wandered down several before he heard the sound of rushing water once again, and found his way back to the river. By now he was sweating profusely head to toe, but he refused to jump into the water. He hadn’t been submerged in water since the ice bath after his last football game years ago, as he waited to be taken in for an MRI. It will be good luck, the trainers told him. It wasn’t.
He walked on, beginning to lose hope. Of course this is how the story of Grant Hamilton would end, he thought. It was always going to be a tragedy. He approached the end of the tunnel, where the river ducked underneath a large wall of rock and presumably out into the outside world. He stopped and sat down, defeated.
Jessica stood frozen in the living room. She had made several attempts to follow the tracks left by Grant’s boots, but lost the trail within a few hundred feet and returned to the house. She’d done her best to fight off the tears that threatened as she thought of her husband, presenting a brave face as she was questioned by the police.
It had been little more than 24 hours since Grant’s disappearance, but the world knew about it. As soon as Jessica called the police, a few overeager local journalists caught wind of the situation, and before long there were national news helicopters circling the skies above their house. Jessica had refused all interviews, but could see out her front window the line of cameras aimed at enthusiastic reporters all staring into their lenses and saying the same thing. She flipped on the TV and found the same message printed in text on the bottom of the screen: Where is Grant Hamilton?
Jessica heard another knock on the front door, from CNN or NBC or someone else ready to stick a microphone in her face. The fence Grant had convinced her to install on the side of the house was proving brilliant to keep the camera crews at bay, she thought as she managed a smile.
Jessica put on her coat and escaped through the back door, letting her feet take her wherever they wished. She wandered on until she came to the stream that Grant and she had visited many times. She picked up a rock and skipped it across the water. It always bothered Grant how much better she was at skipping rocks, him being a star athlete and all. His competitive nature did not take kindly to losing, and when they first moved in they had spent hours skipping rocks again and again until there were no more flat rocks to be found. They were happy, or at least as happy as they could be, Jessica thought. She walked along the bank of the stream and got lost in her thoughts, until she reached the place where the water splashed against the side of the mountain and disappeared into a cluster of rocks.
She sat down and let herself cry for the first time, the tears flowing down her face. The sound of her long, loud sobs reverberated off the rock. She loved Grant Hamilton. She didn’t care about the football. She didn’t care about the money!
“I love you,” she said repeatedly into her hands, quietly at first in almost a whisper but building until she was shouting at the top of her lungs. “I’LL ALWAYS LOVE YOU!”
Tears and sweat mixed together and fell off of Grant’s face as he sat and reminisced on his life. He had dedicated his entire life to a game that had chewed him up and spit him out. He knew nothing else. Since he stopped playing football he was a lousy man and a lousy husband. He didn’t deserve a wife like Jessica, the most kind and loving person he’d ever met. And he loved her, though he didn’t always know how to show it.
He cried until he didn’t have any more tears and quieted down. Strangely, he continued to hear the faint sound of sobbing. He waited, assuming it was an echo. Was that…? No it couldn’t be. He figured he must be imagining things. No it was. It had to be the sound of his wife’s crying. Grant had always teased Jessica about the way she laughed and cried, both of which came in heavy sobs and snorts. It was an idiosyncrasy that Grant loved.
The muffled noise was coming from directly behind the cave wall. Without thinking twice, Grant dove headfirst into the river under the rock, his muscles rippling and he propelled himself as fast as he could through the passage. As the cool water washed over Grant’s body he felt refreshed, reinvigorated. He could see nothing in the darkness, but before long his hands found purchase on a stone wall. He rose out of the water and found himself in a small cave room. He quickly but unsuccessfully checked the area for holes through which he could escape. His heart dropped, but only for a second until he heard the sound of sobbing resume.
He put his ear up against the rock nearest to the noise, and heard something else. In muffled tones, he could make out words. Screaming even.
“I’ll always love you” he heard in his wife’s voice.
He screamed back, “I’m here! I’m here!” He put his ear back against the wall.
No response. “It’s me! It’s Grant! I’m in here!” Nothing.
He heard his wife continuing to yell, though it didn’t seem to be directed towards him. Grant grabbed a loose rock and began pounding the side of the cave. He threw it into the water. He grabbed another rock, and another, hurling them into the place where the water disappeared under the wall.
Soon the noise stopped, and Grant sat alone once again in the cave. Grant looked down at his hands, cracked and bloodied from the violent motion. In that moment he didn’t care about his failed career, his lost money or his recent unemployment. The only thing he wanted was to be with his wife. He wasn’t Grant, the football failure, he was Grant, the husband, the person.
He fell to his knees. It wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t his fault! There wasn’t one thing he could’ve done. And his life was fine, he was just fine. What more did he need besides people who loved him? He could feel the weight of a lifetime fall off his shoulders, and he took a deep breath for the first time in a long time.
essica’s voice was hoarse. She sat in silence and listened to the soft burbling of the stream. Then, a splash.
“I love you!” Another splash.
“I love you!” Another splash. Small waves began to form as water poured out of the cave. Tears rushed to the back of her nose and throat and she tried another scream. Nothing came. She ran to the side of the mountain, getting down on her hands and knees and putting her face as close as she could to the tiny opening. She knew it was ridiculous, talking to a mountain, but she managed one more scratchy “I love you” before her voice gave out entirely. It was as if she was speaking it out into the entire universe, hoping that it would find Grant wherever he was.
She stood up and brushed herself off. Her cellphone buzzed. She didn’t recognize the number but answered anyways.
She cleared her throat and weakly replied. “That’s me.”
“There’s something you’re going to want to see. Please come back to your house.”
Jessica hung up the phone immediately. She could tell by the tone that this would not be good news.
Twenty minutes later Jessica sat on a cold metal bench inside a search and rescue helicopter, soaring over the landscape. It slowly descended on a clearing in the trees. She peered over the side of the vehicle, and saw a large, jagged hole in the ground with steam rising from it. She shivered as the helicopter landed and Jessica got out, surrounded by several men in jackets and dark sunglasses. Near the landing zone was the base of a huge crane, it’s arm extending out and into the cloud of steam. She hadn’t been told much on the ride over, other than she needed to come along. When she got close, she could see large boulders that had already been excavated from the hole. One of the men glanced back at the crane operator and waved his arm in the air. The crane arm descended into the hole. Slowly, she followed the metal as it rose from the ground, until the basket was visible.
Jessica’s knees wobbled and she fell forwards onto her stomach. She tried to rise to her knees but immediately vomited all over her shoes. No tears came as she brought her hands to her eyes and covered them. She sat in shock for several seconds before looking again.
There, in the basket of the crane was the remains of a bloody body, unrecognizable from the blunt damage of the rocks that had fallen on top of it. Its torso was ripped open, and fragments of rock were still visible protruding from the chest. Jessica knew immediately it was her husband, because of the large, muscular frame, and the blue ball cap perched atop what remained of its head.
She closed her eyes, hard, and dropped her head into her hands.
Grant knew exactly where he was going. Somehow he knew. He navigated the complex cave tunnels effortlessly, and within minutes was sliding sideways down the skinny passage and heard the familiar crack of the fire. He rounded the corner and approached the bearded men.
“Let me through.” He said confidently.
“Who are y — “
“I’m Grant Hamilton. Son of Richard and Lisa Hamilton. Husband of Jessica Hamilton. I love listening to U2 and eating blueberry pancakes and curling up next to my wife and watching romantic movies. And I know this all sounds incredibly cheesy but you need to let me past you all because I need to get home to see her. Now.”
“Sure thing, boss.”
The men stepped to the side, opening a lane for Grant to walk past them. He didn’t look back, and broke into a jog and then a sprint towards the fragment of bright light in front of him. He could see it getting larger as he got closer, and he picked up the speed the way he had running for touchdowns years before. Thirty yards away, twenty-five yards, twenty, fifteen, ten, five…