Stewartsville Seniors Forever

“I mean, they’re all just sto­ries, right?” I swirled the plas­tic straw in my soda, the sound of the ice clink­ing togeth­er lost in the con­ver­sa­tion and laugh­ter around us.

Kevin, the girls, and I were sit­ting in a booth at Calhoun’s, the old 1950s soda shop that catered to tourists dur­ing the day and packs of row­dy teens at night. It was the Fri­day before school start­ed, Labor Day week­end loom­ing up in front of us, and the place was over­flow­ing with rau­cous ener­gy. The group next to ours bounced in their seats and some­one yelled across the room, and the wait­ress shot them a scathing look that might have worked on some oth­er Fri­day night but did lit­tle to qui­et any­one down now. The end of our sum­mer was here and there was an elec­tric tinge to the air, the kind that comes moments before light­ning storms and Real­ly Big Mis­takes. Stew­artsville was bor­ing in the best of times, and a par­tic­u­lar­ly dull sum­mer had left us all feel­ing itchy to make it count for some­thing, any­thing before it was too late.

“The sto­ries got­ta come from some­where man!” Kevin slapped my back. I flinched and then burned red, and the group erupt­ed in laugh­ter. I turned away to hide my face and caught a glimpse of Sky argu­ing with his mom in the cor­ner, he in his let­ter­man jack­et and his mom in the crisp white apron that marked all the Calhoun’s wait­ress­es. The two were ges­tur­ing wild­ly at one anoth­er, till Sky threw up his hands and turned away.

He stomped toward us, and it didn’t take a decade of friend­ship to see that he was pissed. Kevin and his girl­friend Tiffany made room in the booth and Sky­lar sunk down onto the red vinyl with a huff. If life was a car­toon, steam would be shoot­ing from each of his ears right now. My mind drift­ed, pic­tur­ing us all in com­ic book style, lit­tle dots of black and blue and red ink form­ing Skylar’s sharp chin and the dense freck­les that lay across my nose, the begin­nings of a pim­ple I could see hid­ing at the edge of Kevin’s hairline.

“Every­thing ok Sky?” asked Ash­ley. She was sit­ting next to me, but we weren’t togeth­er any­more. Not since two weeks ago, when I caught her kiss­ing Jim­my McAl­lis­ter at his pool par­ty. It pissed me off that she’s still in our friend group, but I sup­pose in a town the size of ours, there’s not a lot of options. I wasn’t sure that they all wouldn’t choose her over me any­way, so I kept my mouth shut and was friend­ly enough when I had to be. Just one more year, and I wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore.

Laugh­ter from anoth­er table in the back, some­one cack­ling wild­ly. The nois­es set my teeth on edge. The bright flu­o­res­cents and the dis­or­der around me were mak­ing my knee bounce up and down until Sky shot me a look and I stopped. Most of the incom­ing Senior class was in Calhoun’s, shoot­ing paper straw cov­ers at one anoth­er and irri­tat­ing the staff. The kids would order noth­ing but Cokes and leave a ten-cent tip on the table, not because they’re try­ing to stiff any­one but because we’re all still kids who don’t know any better.

Sky and I made eye con­tact. I tilt­ed my head just slight­ly, and he nod­ded. “Yeah Ash, I’m good. Mom’s still try­ing to get me to move in with Dad.” He rolled a lighter around between his fin­gers as he spoke. Sky would nev­er smoke, not after mak­ing quar­ter­back this year, but he thought it made him look badass to car­ry the green and black Bic around.

“Dude it’s your senior year, it’s a lit­tle late for that don’t you think?” Kevin rest­ed an arm on the back of the booth around Tiffany. 

“You’d think. She thinks I’m going to get stuck here.” He tore lit­tle pieces off his nap­kin and kept his eyes down on the table. We knew what he meant. Stew­artsville was like a black hole, suck­ing every­one into it and nev­er let­ting them go. Every­one in our class swore they would move on to big­ger and bet­ter things after grad­u­a­tion, but I knew that if I came back to this same booth next year, half the staff would be kids I grad­u­at­ed with, and the oth­er half would be down at the bar, drink­ing warm beers with their eyes glued to the TV overhead.

“Hey, there are worse things. We can all meet for drinks on Fri­days!” said Kevin.

When the coal com­pa­nies left, the peo­ple of Stew­artsville had filled the hole left behind with two things: hope and booze. Every­one kept say­ing we’d hit it big when Ama­zon or Tes­la or Some­body Impor­tant found us, but I thought even if they did, the stink of des­per­a­tion would dri­ve them away again. Stew­artsville was a town of peo­ple not just liv­ing in the past but cling­ing to it with every­thing they had. It start­ed dying a cen­tu­ry ago, and the last death rat­tle was almost in its throat.

“Nah man, one of those big schools is going to see me this year, I know it,” said Sky. He picked up a fry and then tossed it down again, wip­ing his fin­gers on the paper nap­kin tucked under the plate. We sat here so long the grease con­gealed on the plates, nobody ready to move on quite yet.

“That’s why we got­ta do it, tonight,” said Kevin. “The guys skipped it three years ago, and look how that turned out.”

“They only won one game that year,” said Tiffany. Ash­ley nod­ded solemn­ly next to her.

“I dun­no man, I don’t think it’s a good idea,” I said. My tone sound­ed high-pitched in my ears, but I didn’t know how to stop it. I hat­ed that I always fell into this role. Ben­ny, the voice of rea­son, the reluc­tant guy ready to say “I told you so” after every misadventure.

Ash­ley and Tiffany gig­gled and exchanged a look, and I knew what it was about. Ben­ny, who couldn’t kiss a girl with­out his back pour­ing sweat and his legs shak­ing, his eager­ness stink­ing up his pores.

Ben­ny, known coward.

            “Ben­jamin.” Kevin took his arm from Tiffany and leaned on the table, both fore­arms plant­ed. He stared at me and I shift­ed a lit­tle in my seat, the vinyl squeak­ing as I moved. “Are you telling me, you are uncom­fort­able with doing some­thing fun?” Kevin placed a hand on his chest and leaned back dra­mat­i­cal­ly. The two girls gig­gled again and I flushed. “Col­or me shocked over here.”

            I gave him a strained smile, pre­tend­ing to be good-natured for the sake of the group. 

            He turned back to Sky. “What do you say, Sky? It’s tra­di­tion. Can’t mess with that.”

            “I’m not even sure where the entrance is,” said Sky.

            “Gra­ham knows. His old­er broth­er showed him before he grad­u­at­ed. He’s babysit­ting his lit­tle sis­ter or some bull­shit, but he should be done soon.”

            Sky and I looked at each oth­er again, but I already knew what he was going to say before his mouth opened. I knew Sky as well as I knew myself. He was as afraid of the Stew­artsville mine sto­ries as I was, ever since we were kids and we start­ed trad­ing camp­fire tales about the Creep­er at sleepovers.

I could see it in my mind as he had described it when we were kids, slid­ing on its bel­ly and grab­bing men with dirty faces and rough hands from the edges of the dark, the spaces where the mine shafts met the nat­ur­al caves in the mountain.

They lay there in the bot­tom of the mine and get eat­en bit by bit, he told me.

            “Alright, fuck it. Let’s go,” Sky said, down­ing the rest of his soda.

            Kevin pumped a fist. “I’ll call Gra­ham. We can pick him up on the way.”

            My heart thumped. Col­or me shocked, indeed.

***

            “This can­not be it.” Sky was in the pas­sen­ger seat up front in Kevin’s old Jeep, hold­ing on to the oh shit han­dle and look­ing around. I was shoved in the back, braced against the tire well at my feet, and wish­ing we had brought some­thing more reli­able. Half the time the Jeep wouldn’t start and Kevin had to jam a screw­driv­er in the col­umn to use the turn sig­nal, but I didn’t have a car and Sky refused to bring his truck up here so we were stuck in Kevin’s heap of junk instead.

            I cursed a lit­tle when it had actu­al­ly start­ed up, hop­ing that the lack of trans­porta­tion would head this whole thing off ear­ly and I wouldn’t have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to chick­en out. Because when I did have the oppor­tu­ni­ty, I chick­ened out, almost every time.

            We drove up what looked like no more than a game trail, head­lights light­ing up a nar­row grav­el path ahead of us. Trees and bush­es pushed in on us from all direc­tions, scrap­ing the sides and roof like long fin­gers stroking someone’s cheek. I felt claus­tro­pho­bic. It was the same rea­son I hat­ed going through the car wash as a kid, the slap­ping noise of the brush­es and rollers caus­ing me to hyper­ven­ti­late no mat­ter how much my mom told me I was fine. 

Gra­ham was next to me in the back and he watched as I wiped my sweaty hands down my jeans. At least the girls weren’t with us. The tra­di­tion was just for the Senior Var­si­ty guys, so we dropped them off at home after the din­er. I tried not to stare at the way Ash­ley looked at Sky as we pulled away, but it was hard to miss and it made my throat feel a lit­tle thick till I could swal­low the lump down.

            A long fir branch scraped the side of the Jeep and I leaned back. The for­est was so thick I could almost pic­ture the faces of old min­ers pressed against the plas­tic win­dows as we drove, long gap­ing mouths and pale eyes that saw noth­ing as they stared at us. I was already anx­ious about this and my imag­i­na­tion was going into over­drive. I tried to plead my case one last time.

            “Can’t we just say we did it? Who’s going to know if we go home right now?”

            “We will,” said Kevin. “C’mon Ben­jamin. You want to be a wee­nie for the rest of your life? Or do you wan­na look back on tonight and think ‘Man, remem­ber that one time I was real­ly cool?’ “

            I doubt­ed this would end up in even the top hun­dred moments of my life, or hoped it wouldn’t any­way. But I didn’t say that. I was scared, not dumb. Kevin was going to be the type to refer to high school as the best years of his life until his liv­er gave out at sixty.

            “It didn’t look so grown over the last time I was here.” Gra­ham peered into the darkness.

            “The under­brush is thick up here, stuff grows fast out in the woods,” said Sky.

            “I think the turnoff already hap­pened, we’ve total­ly gone too far.” Gra­ham pressed his face against the win­dow as if he could see through the thick wilder­ness around us.

            “I swear dude, if you got us lost, I’m gonna be so pissed. This is scratch­ing the shit out of my paint job.” The Jeep bumped down into a pot­hole and back up again, and Kevin swore under his breath.

            “There!” Gra­ham point­ed towards a small turnoff on the left and Kevin steered up it. Sud­den­ly, we burst from the for­est and into an open grav­el lot. It felt too exposed after the dense tun­nel of trees, and for a moment I want­ed to hide back among them.

            “Yes!” Gra­ham slapped the head­rest and grinned. “Park over there.” He point­ed to an area where the grav­el lot flat­tened out, old con­crete curbs still vis­i­ble in the mid­dle of it. Kevin pulled to a stop. The head­lights illu­mi­nat­ed the tow­er­ing moun­tain­side in front of us.

            In front of us, the mine’s jaws gaped open, swal­low­ing the night and turn­ing it into straight black­ness that filled its mouth. The head­lights of the Jeep hard­ly pen­e­trat­ed inside, the floor of the mine only vis­i­ble a foot or two inside the entrance through the chain link fence and gate. Some­thing could be wait­ing in that black vel­vet on the oth­er side, sides heav­ing in excite­ment, and we would nev­er see it.

            “Holy shit,” said Kevin. I actu­al­ly agreed with him for once. He shut off the Jeep and we all climbed out. The three of them start­ed for­ward togeth­er, Gra­ham dis­trib­ut­ing the flash­lights he bor­rowed from his house’s emer­gency kit, and I reluc­tant­ly fol­lowed behind. The crunch­ing of the grav­el under our feet was loud and ric­o­cheted off the sheer face of the rock in front of us. Although it didn’t feel like we were climb­ing on the dri­ve up, I could see how high we were now. The lights of Stew­artsville blinked far below; the val­ley was bare­ly vis­i­ble from our perch.

            It was too qui­et around us. Not even a faint breeze rus­tled the veg­e­ta­tion that lined the edge of the park­ing lot. The mine seemed to be wait­ing and watch­ing us with a dis­in­ter­est­ed, lid­ded look, like a preda­tor crouched in the shadows.

            Sky stopped and wait­ed till I was even with him, match­ing my hes­i­tant pace. “The faster we do this, the faster we get back.” 

            “Yeah, come on, Ben­jamin,” said Kevin. “The Creep­er can get you out here just as eas­i­ly as it can in there.” He gave me a too-wide smile, all teeth and thin lips pulled back.

            “I’m not scared of the Creeper.”

            “Then what are you scared of?”

“Mine­shaft col­laps­es, nox­ious gas, tetanus?” I ticked the dan­gers off on my fin­gers. “And how about how no one even knows we’re up here. We could break down or roll the Jeep or some­thing.” Or the Creep­er could get us, drag­ging us down below and pulling us apart piece by piece.

I don’t men­tion that the idea of the crea­ture has been at the back of my mind the entire dri­ve up. It’s hard to ignore the sto­ries of your youth, the late-night tales shared around dying camp­fires or by flash­light in a musty tent in the back­yard. Min­ers dis­ap­pear­ing, ghosts call­ing out from the tun­nels below, a cave-in that revealed bod­ies torn apart by some­thing oth­er than the rocks around them. All of it stuck in my head.

Hear­ing scary sto­ries at a young age nes­tled them deep with­in your brain, nev­er to be dug out no mat­ter how hard the years may have tried.

The sto­ries got­ta come from some­where, man. That’s what Kevin said back at the diner.

“We’re just going to be in and out, real­ly quick. We don’t even have to go too deep, just to the first mine cart,” said Gra­ham. He shined his light up at the entrance, the yel­low beam no match for that kind of dark. “My broth­er says it’s pret­ty close to the entrance.”

Sky clicked his light on too and turned to me, his voice low. “One beer man, and then we’ll be back at the Jeep.” His eyes begged more than his voice. Sky was a star foot­ball play­er because of his ath­let­ic abil­i­ty, not because he was any sort of nat­ur­al leader. It had been some­thing he was wor­ried about this year, that the guys wouldn’t lis­ten to him when it mat­tered. He had a ten­den­cy to get sucked into the cur­rent of what­ev­er group he was with. His best friend back­ing out now would look bad for him. 

I didn’t real­ly mind being thought of as a cow­ard by the oth­ers. I was going to get out of this dumb town soon enough and nev­er look back. But I knew what this meant to him. For Sky, I could suck it up for a half hour or so. 

Besides, we were young and stu­pid, and the uni­verse usu­al­ly looked out for kids like that.

“Alright. One beer, then I’m gone,” I said, and Kevin cheered. Gra­ham hand­ed me a flash­light and we made our way to the open­ing. Stuck to the fence were signs warn­ing us of immi­nent dan­ger and death and hefty mon­e­tary fines if we dared enter.

“If they real­ly want­ed us to stay out, they shouldn’t have made it so easy to get inside.” Kevin grabbed the pair of bolt cut­ters that Graham’s broth­er had passed down to us. “Stew­artsville Seniors For­ev­er” was scrawled on the met­al in yel­low paint. Part of the word “For­ev­er” had start­ed to peel off, and it looked more like “Stew­artsville Seniors F ever” if you didn’t know what you were look­ing at. He snipped the cheap pad­lock and swung open the rusty chain link gate that blocked the entrance to the mine, then propped the cut­ters up against the fence.

The ground rum­bled around us, just a lit­tle shim­my that jos­tled me into Sky and caused Kevin and Gra­ham to have to rest their hands on fence posts for bal­ance. Earth­quakes weren’t any­thing new for us, but late­ly, they were hap­pen­ing more often, and we’d even had a big one last week. My mom had start­ed using muse­um put­ty to stick her porce­lain fig­urines to the shelf in the kitchen. I found the paint­ed smiles of the lit­tle fig­ures creepy as hell and wouldn’t mind if one or two took a nose­dive off, but I nev­er said this to her. After my dad left, few things brought a smile to her face anymore.

“Let’s get this over with,” Sky said, grim deter­mi­na­tion on his face. Kevin went first, fol­lowed by Gra­ham, and me. Sky was last and I was grate­ful for it. I didn’t like the thought of my back­side exposed to noth­ing but the dark mine behind us as we descend­ed inside.

I was pre­pared for the cold and even expect­ed the musty smell of damp soil and rot­ting wood. What I didn’t expect was how loud the mine would be. The wind, absent from out­side, was gust­ing in here. It whis­tled through old shafts, past lean­ing columns and rafters that looked like they were one good shake away from crum­bling around us. From some­where up ahead there was a con­sis­tent tap tap tap­ping of water on met­al. Even our foot­steps on the grav­el and dirt floor sound­ed too exag­ger­at­ed in the small space. The noise echoed off the drip­ping stone walls and came back to us dead­ened and hollow.

We walked to the side of the old cart rails that ran along the ground, Kevin’s flash­light trained ahead and Graham’s flash­ing around all above us. He turned wild­ly this way and that, look­ing up at the ceil­ing and along the wood rafters that ran per­pen­dic­u­lar across the top.

“What the hell are you look­ing for?” asked Kevin.

“I dun­no, bats? Don’t bats live in mines?” Graham’s beam flipped this way and that, too fast to see any­thing sol­id. I was breath­ing fast. I could too eas­i­ly imag­ine the light slid­ing past some­thing pale and slimy cling­ing to the ceil­ing. My imag­i­na­tion was great for writ­ing, but it also meant that I could pic­ture the mon­sters hid­ing around every corner.

“I think you’re think­ing of caves, my man. Bats live in caves.”

“Caves, mines. Prob­a­bly all looks the same to a bat, doesn’t it?” But Gra­ham switched his flashlight’s beam to the ground in front of him and I breathed a sigh of relief.

We walked in silence for what felt like for­ev­er but was real­ly only a few min­utes accord­ing to my watch. The deep­er we went, the qui­eter the wind became, although the groan­ing of tim­bers around us inten­si­fied. The mine was a sick­ly old man, rid­dled with rot and groan­ing in his hos­pi­tal bed. It was decay­ing around us, and I knew there would come a day when it all came down and the moun­tain took back the emp­ty spaces again.

The mine had stood for a hun­dred years, sure­ly it could stand for thir­ty min­utes more.

“Where’s the mine cart, Gra­ham? I thought your broth­er said it was right inside.” Sky’s voice sound­ed too loud behind me. I want­ed to ask him to whis­per, but couldn’t think of the rea­son why, except that I didn’t want any­thing to know we were here.

Like some­thing hid­ing deep in those tun­nels, curled up and lis­ten­ing down at the very bot­tom.

Like bats, I told myself. Just bats. My light found an old min­ing hel­met and a lantern on the ground, the glass of the lantern smashed and twin­kling on the grav­el. They looked aban­doned, thrown off as some­one raced for the exit.

“I mean, he didn’t give me exact instruc­tions, just said it was real­ly close. Maybe it was fur­ther than he thought. He was prob­a­bly already drunk before they went in last year.”

“Hey look at this,” said Kevin. He stopped ahead of us and ges­tured down­ward with his light. I scanned the ground with my own flash­light and noticed flakes of rust sur­round­ing the rails, the met­al on each one shin­ing clean as if some­thing had scraped along them. “Maybe some­one moved it?”

“Why would some­one come in and move it?” Sky turned and looked at the rails behind us, and I could see that the met­al a few yards behind was still coat­ed in red. If the mine cart had been here, it was gone now.

“I dun­no, maybe like, a muse­um or some­thing want­ed it.”

“Who­ev­er moved it pushed it fur­ther into the mine, not out,” I said. The rails led off into the dis­tance. I looked up ahead but the tun­nel had a slight curve to it and quick­ly dis­ap­peared around a bend. “It went deep­er inside.”

There was a dis­tant rum­ble, less intense than the last quake, just a lit­tle shake that would be hard­ly notice­able if the earth above us didn’t groan in relief at it.

In the bel­ly of the beast, I thought. And the beast is hun­gry. My heart picked up its pace.

“It’s all these quakes, it just shook itself loose,” Sky said with con­fi­dence, like a kid recit­ing a fact in his­to­ry class. I took com­fort in his tone and shined my light down the tun­nel. There was a slight angle to it, a tiny slope down­wards as the mine shaft pushed down into the mountain.

“Alright, well obvi­ous­ly it used to be here, so can we just do this now and get out of here?” I said. Sure­ly that ful­filled the intent of the rit­u­al, good enough for what­ev­er gods of high school foot­ball may exist.

“No man, that’s not what the tra­di­tion says. We got­ta have a beer in the minecart, not where the minecart used to be.” I nev­er hat­ed Kevin as much as I did at that moment. I clenched my jaw and for a moment debat­ed just leav­ing with­out them. I’d be ribbed about it all year, but I wasn’t sure that I real­ly cared. I want­ed to get out of there so bad­ly that I could prac­ti­cal­ly feel the mine clos­ing in around us. The tun­nel had been grow­ing small­er the longer we’d been walk­ing, and I could almost brush the walls and ceil­ing with my fin­ger­tips now. I wor­ried that if we kept going, it was going to nar­row until it was noth­ing more than a closed throat, ready to open and swal­low us into the black nothing.

            Sky turned his flash­light behind us and then for­ward again. “C’mon, we’ll go just a lit­tle far­ther. If we can’t find the cart soon, we’ll turn around.”

            I want­ed to grab him and scream how much is a lit­tle fur­ther? I need­ed the con­cept defined in the hard terms of min­utes, feet, breaths, earth­quakes, some­thing I could actu­al­ly count down to, oth­er­wise, I was going to have a pan­ic attack right here in the grav­el in front of every­one. The hys­te­ria had start­ed in my stom­ach and was now spread­ing through my limbs, so intense I could feel it buzzing in the tips of my fingers.

            Sky­lar sensed my fear threat­en­ing to boil over, the ben­e­fit of being friends with some­one for so long. “Five min­utes. We’ll walk five min­utes more, and then we’ll turn around, okay?” I took a deep breath and checked my watch, the face light­ing up and com­fort­ing me for the moment in the darkness.

            We only need­ed about three and a half. The hulk­ing shape of the cart appeared around the next curve in the track, where it had come to rest just before a small cave-in. Col­lapsed beams poked out of the pile of boul­ders and dirt at the end of the tun­nel. Anoth­er ancient-look­ing lantern stuck half out of the rub­ble, this one still intact. I shined my flash­light on it and could see a small hole direct­ly in the cen­ter of the cave in, with noth­ing but dark­ness show­ing on the oth­er side.

            “It is a throat,” I whis­pered. Near­ly in the bel­ly of the beast, I thought.

            “Ben­ny, you’re so god­damn weird,” said Kevin.

            We climb with­out dis­cus­sion into the minecart, the four of us shoved tight­ly togeth­er in the cramped space and the whole thing rock­ing back and forth with our move­ments. I took the spot fac­ing the cave-in, not want­i­ng to turn my back to that emp­ty hole that was star­ing back at me. Our knees and legs were jammed togeth­er, and I made myself as small as pos­si­ble to give the oth­ers room, half perch­ing on my toes and lean­ing back against the inside of the cart. My legs were already start­ing to tin­gle and fall asleep, and I shift­ed around until I could feel the blood flow returning. 

Kevin set his flash­light upright in the cen­ter, the beam illu­mi­nat­ing the dirt above us and cast­ing all of us in a pale glow. My hands were coat­ed in red from grab­bing the sides of the car. The rust had com­bined with sweat and made a mud­dy paste that had a cop­per scent and a grit­ty feel. I wiped them off on my pants, leav­ing two red streaks on the den­im the col­or of old blood.

            Tetanus and cave-ins, I thought. I wasn’t so far off after all. I shined my light on the hole again and hoped I wasn’t right about all of the dan­gers I had imag­ined. A lit­tle bit of fresh-look­ing dirt was lying under­neath the emp­ty space as if a giant worm had tun­neled through and emerged on our side. I glanced around, but the shaft here was qui­et, just the occa­sion­al sound of drip­ping water com­ing off the walls and the breeze rac­ing out the hole and towards fresh air at the sur­face. It car­ried a heavy smell, like rust and earth, and some­thing sharp that I couldn’t quite place. I won­dered what tox­ic gas smelled like, or if you could smell it at all.

            Sky unzipped the back­pack he car­ried from the Jeep, pulling out a six-pack of Miller he swiped from his fridge. I’m sure this wouldn’t help his case with his mom when she found out, but maybe she’d be too exhaust­ed from her shift to remember.

            He hand­ed each one of us a beer and we opened it. The crack of the top and the hiss of the car­bon­a­tion were both dead­ened in the tun­nel air.

            “Stew­artsville Seniors For­ev­er,” said Sky and raised his beer.

            “Stew­artsville Seniors Fever,” I mut­tered and the oth­er boys gave me a look, vis­i­ble even in the low light.

            “Class of 2005, next state champs!” cheered Kevin, so loud next to me that the sound rat­tled in my chest. The four of us clacked our cans togeth­er and drank. Kevin, Sky, and Gra­ham threw their heads back and gulped the cold beer down. Their Adam’s apples bounced up and down in the light from the upturned flash­light, and for just a moment they were all syn­chro­nized, bounc­ing up and down like a trio of Olympic divers on the board.

            I sipped at my own beer. I’ve always hat­ed the taste of it, the bit­ter mixed with the bub­bles, the way it feels cold in a sharp and bit­ing way. The oth­er boys fin­ished theirs and looked at me.

            “Bot­toms up, Ben­ny,” said Kevin. “The faster you drink that, the faster we can get the hell out of here.” I blushed at their stares and then blushed hard­er because I was embar­rassed about being embar­rassed, even though it prob­a­bly wasn’t even vis­i­ble in the dim light.

Screw it, I thought, for once not want­i­ng to think about every­thing so hard. I tipped my head back and drank like I meant it, los­ing half of the can on my face and shirt and a lit­tle up my nose, but the boys start­ed to cheer and Kevin slapped me on the back and I hat­ed how much I loved the feel­ing of fit­ting in. I emp­tied it and sput­tered for a moment but man­aged to keep the beer down after a weak belch.

            “Alright let’s get out of here,” said Kevin. He stood up and Sky opened his mouth to say some­thing but closed it again with­out a word. I won­dered if this pow­er strug­gle between the two of them would last till we grad­u­at­ed and went our sep­a­rate ways. I stood up too and turned my light back on. 

A scratch­ing noise start­ed up and I turned to look at the hole. The dirt around it was shuf­fling a lit­tle, tiny peb­bles and soil tum­bling down the side and col­lect­ing on the tilt­ed ground below.

            There was some­thing pale slid­ing through.

            Point­ed white nails appeared, the tops to spindly pink fin­gers, which quick­ly led to two thin fore­arms. The limbs wig­gled a lit­tle to make space for the body that I knew would fol­low in just a moment.

A trapped min­er, my mind thought first, although the mine hasn’t been oper­a­tional in gen­er­a­tions. A prank. A worm. The Creep­er. I flipped through a thou­sand pos­si­bil­i­ties in the space of a heart­beat, each more improb­a­ble than the last.

            Kevin paused, and for a moment I knew we were all hold­ing our breath togeth­er, trap­ping the stale air inside of us. A bald head began to crown out of the rub­ble. The mine was birthing some­thing unholy and pale in the light of our cheap dol­lar-store flash­lights. It was flecked with bits of dirt and rock, and I could see the thump of its heart­beat through a thick vein on the top of its head, the speed so much slow­er than my own. 

            The sto­ries have to come from some­where.

            The silence was bro­ken by some­one shout­ing “Shit!”, and sud­den­ly it was chaos, all of us scram­bling to get out of the minecart and keep hold of our flash­lights. Beer cans and Sky’s back­pack were sent fly­ing as we tried to get away. Someone’s Chuck Tay­lor hit me hard in the jaw, and for a sec­ond, I thought I may have bit­ten off my tongue, but then I felt it rolling around and pok­ing at my teeth like a thick wet lar­vae, the taste of blood mix­ing with the sour fla­vor of the beer and stom­ach bile.

            I was up and over the side of the minecart after the oth­ers. I glanced back as I ran, try­ing not to trip over the rails and the uneven ground. The head was out and it turned in my direc­tion, a flat face with large white eyes and pale blue iris­es that didn’t con­tract in the beam of my flash­light. The thing opened and closed its mouth at me, and I could see the tips of sharp teeth inside. It swung its head back and forth and I real­ized it couldn’t see us, was prob­a­bly blind from liv­ing in the dark (At the bot­tom, where it ate things bit by bit). It let out a scream, a flat, wild cack­ling in the night that rushed down the tun­nel towards me and filled me with dread.

The crea­ture pushed against the earth, squirm­ing to free itself and sud­den­ly I was ter­ri­fied of what would be on the oth­er side. If I saw it scur­ry­ing up the tun­nel in the dark, I would lose my mind and nev­er escape what was hap­pen­ing there.

The oth­er boys were right in front of me and kick­ing up dirt and small stones as they bolt­ed down the tun­nel, but I caught up quick­ly. I could iden­ti­fy them from behind after years of lag­ging dur­ing drills on the field. Sky mov­ing with his easy, lop­ing stride, Gra­ham with short and quick steps. Kevin thun­dered behind them in the back, huff­ing and puff­ing like he’d like to blow someone’s house down right about now. He land­ed heavy with each step, his mass rock­ing side to side. They may have out­paced me at first, but I had the endurance they lacked, and soon was even with Sky.

Behind us, the tun­nel was qui­et, no sounds of any­thing scur­ry­ing up the shaft in the dark. We were breath­ing hard in the chilly air, lit­tle puffs of fog curl­ing in the light of the flash­lights in our hands. The beams were bounc­ing with every step, send­ing light flash­ing all around the tunnel.

            We ran, each sec­tion of the tun­nel look­ing the same. I lost all sense of time and won­dered if we would make it, if we would burst into that fresh night air just in the nick of time before that thing could slash our ten­dons from behind and sink sharp teeth into our calves thick from sum­mer practice.

Anoth­er screech echoed behind us, and I knew that it was out. The sound was so much fuller now that it could fill its lungs, unob­struct­ed by col­lapsed rafters and piled stone. I heard Gra­ham start­ing to gasp right behind me, an uneven hob­ble appear­ing in his stride. I knew he had a stitch in his side and for just a moment I thought good before I filled up with shame.

The hor­ror movies Sky and I loved to watch were always filled with scenes of scream­ing vic­tims, peo­ple cry­ing out as the mon­ster caught them. But when the thing (The Creep­er, The Creep­er, what else could it be?) caught Kevin, there was lit­tle more than an oof and the sound of two hun­dred and fifty pounds of high school senior smack­ing into the damp ground. He might have moaned a lit­tle, but if he did, it was cov­ered up by wet, slap­ping sounds as it tore into him, and though I didn’t like him, I said a prayer that it was over quick, not even paus­ing to look back. Sky hes­i­tat­ed and I grabbed him and we sprint­ed full out, lean­ing into the curves and match­ing each other’s pace at a speed I didn’t know I was capa­ble of. Sky slipped a lit­tle at one point, loose dirt giv­ing way under his sneak­er, and I caught his elbow and right­ed him. He dropped his flash­light and it rolled away, stretch­ing our shad­ows out down the tunnel.

It got Gra­ham next, but that time I did hear his cries. He start­ed sob­bing before it grabbed him, his stride falling off into lit­tle more than a quick limp down the tun­nel. The sound of it scur­ry­ing across the ground had got­ten loud­er but had time to let out a sad “No,” before he was down too, cry­ing out for us as it opened him up. In the back­ground was the sound of cloth rip­ping and his body slid­ing on the grav­el as it tugged on some piece of him. He was still cry­ing a lit­tle when we turned the cor­ner, faint whim­pers com­ing from the dark­ness behind us as we left him behind to the mine. 

Sky and I kept going.

We arrived at the exit abrupt­ly, a slight curve took us uphill, and sud­den­ly the open­ing was in front of us, a great cir­cle of night sky show­ing us stars and the out­line of dis­tant trees. I was head­ed for free­dom, ready to pass beneath the wood beams that lined the over­sized door­way and breathe the fresh air of the moun­tains when Sky grabbed my shirt from behind. 

He raised a fin­ger in a shush­ing ges­ture and point­ed at the exit. The light from my flash­light was point­ed up at his face, and all I could think of was telling scary sto­ries in his bath­room, the only room in his house that didn’t have a night­light or the glow of a street­lamp invad­ing it.

I sud­den­ly real­ized we weren’t kids any­more, not real­ly. We were old enough for Real­ly Big Mis­takes, and the uni­verse wasn’t inter­est­ed in keep­ing us safe after all.

The wind began to whis­tle again, the mine whin­ing beneath us, but there was anoth­er noise now too, the faintest shift­ing of grav­el up ahead. I didn’t want to look, but I had to, so I raised my flash­light beam and scanned the dark areas on either side of the door.

It was there, high­light­ed in my white light, crouched down next to the door. Its spindly legs were fold­ed under­neath it, and I could see its knees were back­ward, set more like a dog’s than a human’s. The whole crea­ture was pale, blue veins and red mus­cles bulging under a thin lay­er of wet, translu­cent skin. The tor­so was thin and long, branch­ing off into the arms I’d already seen, with a long neck and an oval head set on top. Those two pale eyes were still, but two flaps of skin on either side of its head were lift­ing and set­tling back down slight­ly like a fish’s gills, and I knew it was lis­ten­ing for us. As we watched, it tilt­ed and turned its head, open­ing its mouth wide. Teeth encased in strong jaws slid out, the thin lips peel­ing back to reveal thick gums like a gob­lin shark. A too-wide smile on its face, car­ry­ing the promise of death inside it.

How did it get past us, I wondered.

This was a crea­ture made for hunt­ing in the dark, for eat­ing meat in nar­row spaces, for slip­ping through tun­nels with its slimy skin.

I could hear a scuf­fling from behind us, and I shined my light back from where we came, not want­i­ng to take my eyes off it but need­ing to see what was com­ing next.

A sec­ond crea­ture was crawl­ing up the tun­nel on all fours. Blood and lit­tle bits of tis­sue clung to its arms and head. It paused behind us, rais­ing its head in the air, flaps mov­ing in and out softly.

The oth­er one had been wait­ing for us this whole time, had prob­a­bly been hid­ing there at the start of the tun­nel since we first came inside.

Sky looked at me and mim­ic­ked throw­ing some­thing down the tun­nel and I nod­ded and hand­ed him the flash­light. He cocked his arm and threw it as far as he could, his quar­ter­back arm send­ing it sail­ing down the shaft and rat­tling as it hit the wall and tum­bled down.

I felt a whoosh of dis­placed air as the crea­ture near the door scut­tled past us and joined the first, the two rac­ing off down the tun­nel. We turned and ran so fast my legs felt as if they’d burst apart. We raced through the door­way and into the bright moon­light. Sky bent to grab the bolt cut­ters from where Kevin dropped them on the ground. He tried to wedge the chain link door shut, but it was no use. We backed away from the gate but kept our eyes on it for one minute, then two, wait­ing for some­thing to appear from the darkness.

The mine sat in silence.

“Maybe they can’t leave it?” Sky said in a whisper.

“If they could, some­one would have seen them, right?” Stew­artsville wasn’t that far away, and these hills were full of week­end back­pack­ers and day hik­ers from Seat­tle. If some­thing was hunt­ing peo­ple, we sure­ly would have heard about it by now, an urban leg­end more real than any­thing we’d heard before.

“Bet­ter be safe,” said Sky, and he bent down and unlaced his shoes. Sky, still try­ing to lead, though we were the only ones left. We approached the gate qui­et­ly. I held it shut and he tied the laces around the top and bot­tom, giv­ing the door a lit­tle shake just to be sure.

We backed slow­ly away and turned for the Jeep, but some­thing Kevin said was itch­ing at me, song lyrics right on the tip of my tongue.

The Creep­er can get you out here just as eas­i­ly as it can in there, he had said. I glanced around. The near­ly full moon was shin­ing sil­ver across the park­ing lot, the area just as still as it was when we entered a half hour ago. We crunched across the gravel.

Steps away from safe­ty, I saw some­thing pale ease itself from the trees on our right, and I knew Sky saw it too because he launched into a sprint. We made a play for the doors of the Jeep, but Sky tripped as his unlaced ten­nis shoes slid off his feet. I froze and so did he on the ground, the two of us silent as the two crea­tures crept up closer.

They were going to get us, I knew. And all I could think was I’ve got to get out of this dogshit town.

Sky start­ed to rise slow­ly, but the loose grav­el shift­ed under his foot and that’s all it took before the crea­tures were bound­ing across the lot and on him, one bury­ing a gob­lin jaw around his meaty calf, the oth­er latched on to his arm. They pulled away from each oth­er and then it did sound like those hor­ror movies, Sky scream­ing OHJESUSOHJESUS as the two fought over him. His right arm gave first, the good throw­ing arm that was sup­posed to get him a schol­ar­ship and get him out of Stew­artsville for­ev­er. The joint sev­ered with a pop and his skin stretched until the meat tore apart with a rip­ping noise that car­ried off into the night. His tor­so at the shoul­der was jagged mus­cle and ten­don and lumpy fat, and he went silent, his mouth work­ing open and closed like a fish as he stared at me.

He began to slide away, the crea­ture latched onto his leg and drag­ging him. Sky began to dis­ap­pear into the under­brush with a crack­ling of branch­es. His eyes rolled around and set­tled on me, and all I could do was stare back in shocked hor­ror, slack-jawed and use­less. The ferns set­tled back into place, as if he was nev­er there at all, except for the Bic lighter lay­ing on the ground where he fell.

The oth­er crea­ture was lis­ten­ing. I flung open the door and threw myself in the dri­ver seat, the thing’s claws scratch­ing down the door with a metal­lic screech as I slammed it shut. I was tear­ing down the road before I even under­stood what I was doing, a buzzing in my head, a dis­con­nect between my mind and the night that I knew wasn’t going to go away any time soon.

Ben­ny, known cow­ard, run­ning away from his friends and the scary things in the dark.

I drove too fast for the dirt trail. I didn’t dri­ve much and was unused to steer­ing on any­thing except pave­ment. I lost the back end around a cor­ner and sud­den­ly I was rolling down an embank­ment, the Jeep com­ing to a sud­den stop against a tree at the bottom.

It was qui­et in the for­est around me, just the tick­ing of the cool­ing engine and the scent of moldy leaves. I tried to start it up, but the engine was toast, smoke pour­ing out from the sides of the hood. I climbed out. I had lost my flash­light, but I could just make out the out­line of the trees and oth­er veg­e­ta­tion, and I set off down the moun­tain as quick­ly as I could. I hit my head on the steer­ing wheel pret­ty good and as I reached up and felt the goose egg on my fore­head, I cursed Kevin for not get­ting a god­damn vehi­cle with airbags. An image of him flashed before me, laid open in the dark.

“Stew­artsville Seniors For­ev­er,” I mut­tered and pushed some ferns aside. I took anoth­er step, and sud­den­ly the soft ground beneath me gave way, the earth open­ing up and swal­low­ing me as I tum­bled down and land­ed with a thud on some­thing hard below. I felt some­thing in my back snap and the wind was knocked out of me, my lungs con­vuls­ing as I thought I’m going to suf­fo­cate. But after a moment I sucked in a giant, wheez­ing gulp of air. I tried to sit up, but I couldn’t. I was numb below my chest, and so I laid on the cold ground and stared up at the sky above me. A mem­o­ry from years ago came to me, as pain pulsed in and out of my chest.

Just before my dad left, he had tak­en Sky and me camp­ing. We were head­ed up an old log­ging trail, bored of sit­ting around camp and tired of watch­ing him drink one beer after anoth­er at the edge of the river.

“You kids stick to the trails,” he said, crush­ing one can and reach­ing over to the cool­er for anoth­er. “There’s old mine shafts all over around here. Kids fall in them all the time, and nobody would find you.” He took a hearty swig. “These hills are prac­ti­cal­ly hollow.”

A dan­ger more real than any­thing else, one I hadn’t even thought of.

I heard some­thing shuf­fling in the dark at my feet, and then some­thing bumped me. I start­ed to slide across the ground, my back grind­ing into the dirt beneath me. My hand found an old mine cart rail and I tried to hold on, but the crea­ture tugged hard­er, and it slipped from my grasp. The stars dis­ap­peared above me as I slid down into the darkness.

Down, down, into the bel­ly of the beast, where I’ll lay in the bot­tom of the mine and get eat­en, bit by bit.

What’s scarier than short horror fiction?

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Con­tribut­ing Author // thewriterannewoods@gmail.com // Author Web­page // Oth­er Sto­ries

Anne Woods (she/her) loves all things spooky. When she is not writ­ing hor­ror or falling in love with a new book, she can be found tend­ing her gar­den and hav­ing loud argu­ments with her orange tab­by cat, Franklin.

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