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Updated: Nov 30, 2021

This is the 1st installment of the short story series, to read the second click here. Remember to sign up as a member for up to date news and access. Also I love hearing what you have to say so have some fun in the comment section!

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“You ever seen it all the way dark?" Matt asked. I shook my head no.

Matt tilted the phone on his thigh, glanced down at it as he drove. He kept the steering wheel mostly straight with his other hand, and the truck didn't swerve one direction or the other like I feared it would. On the right hand of the interstate the ground sloped down and then down again until it finally gave way. The truck sprung up a little as the wheels hit the bridge, and when I looked over the railing all I saw were shades of brown.

The trees were dark under-cloud, and the Missouri river was a muddy, swollen vein filled with the snow melt of the Rockies a thousand miles away. There are no mountains like those tall, granite peaks here, but there sure as hell are high bluffs and tall, limestone cliffs. There are plenty of places in Kansas City to dig a mine, and mines they had dug. That's where we were going now, down under the earth.

"You'll see it today, I damn well guarantee it.'" said Matt.

I looked down at his phone where his thumb was quickly swiping at the glass. The screen was lit bright yellow, and there was a pixelated rabbit on it like something out of Mario Bros. Carrots were slowly falling from the sky, and when he dotted his thumb on one side or the other the rabbit jumped and ate the carrot. Matt was glancing at it over and over, and as the score went up his eyes flickered.

"What do you mean all the way dark?" I said. I ran my hands along my pants to get the mud off my fingers, and a new streak stained my jeans next to a dozen others. I didn't much care if they got any worse at this point. We'd been climbing around in mud all day, and nothing was going to save them now.

Matt grinned a little as we crossed over the end of the bridge and the truck bounced again. "I mean the mine's about as black as it gets. Like staring down Satan's asshole I expect. It ain't for the faint, that's the truth. FUCK," he shouted as his phone fell off his lap and bounced on the floorboard. He tried to grab the phone, and the truck swerved as he jerked the wheel. That's about the first time I got scared of him driving anything since I'd started surveying. I'd been in the truck with him that long now, and I guess maybe I'd gotten used to things I shouldn't get used to. Matt always drove that way, with his phone hiked high on his leg and the road a distant second thing for viewing when it needed it.

"I just ‘bout broke my damn score," he said. He reached his hand to the floorboard and rooted for the phone, one eye peeking over the dashboard to keep us on the interstate. A car honked next to us but he didn't look over.

"Shut the fuck up," he said, and kept fishing for it. "You ain't afraid of tight walls?"

I looked over at him and raised an eyebrow. "Tight walls?" He looked at me like I was dumb. In truth I wasn't, I just didn't care about what he was saying. My head was full with other thoughts, like the river was.

"Are you afraid-a enclosed spaces?" he said slower. He grumbled as he looked at me, and both his hands came up and grabbed hold of the wheel. His phone must have below, he'd come up empty handed. He dropped his phone a few times a week that way, and it always set him in a worse mood. That was really saying something, because Matt started every morning with a temper way south of anything close to cool and collected. I'd become mostly used to that, too.

"No, I guess not," I said, but I bit my lip after I'd said it. I chewed on my mouth a minute as I thought about the question. "But I've never been down in a mine either, I guess."

Matt nodded. "It's a thing, always is. No road down there. The ground's just gravel. We're going to slide around a little. Just keep steady and don't freak out on me. I had a guy ‘few years back, seemed fine ‘til we got in the mine. Then he heard one rumble and lost his shit.” He eyed me. "You the kind to lose your shit?" I shook my head no.

"Good," he said. "An abandoned mine is no place to lose any shit, believe me. If the ground shakes a little just stay nearby. You take off and flip, y’can get hurt or lost. It's a big place, no light. Could take me all night to find you. the whole place looks the same, lots of columns, lots of broke’ ground."

"What are we doing down there?" I asked.

Matt reached up and tapped a blue folder hanging over the edge of the dash. "Open it up and see," he said. I picked it up and looked inside. Maps spilled into my lap, I opened one.

"They want it surveyed with a scanner," I said, and Matt nodded. "What for?"

Matt pointed down towards the right hand corner of the folder. I looked down at it too.

"Funco Enterprises" it said.

I frowned a little. "Funco...the Amusement Park? Whirla World?"

"They're building an expansion for the park. Roller Coaster I think, a big ole' one I heard. The mine runs all the way under it. We gotta scan down there to make sure the columns are still holdin', see if the ground has eroded any..."

"Jesus H. Christ," I said. "They built roller coasters over a limestone mine? What if the damn thing collapsed?"

Matt shrugged a little. "It's been there a hundred years, oldest mine in Kansas City. Never had any cave-ins under the park. Had a few at the golf course five miles from it, that’s where we’re headed. None at the park though, not that I know of."

"Cave-ins?" I said

Matt slowed the truck at an exit and turned on his signal light. "Yes indeed," He said, a playful grin on his lips. He gave me that kind of smile a lot when he knew he was about to say something I wouldn't like. It was the kind of thing someone gave you when they were about to throw you off a boat, or knock you off a ladder.

I didn't hold that kind of thing against him. Surveying is lonely work, and Matt had been at it a very long time. He was slowly balding, his teeth jutting out at odd angles. He looked every bit the son of the farming stock he'd come from. His sense of humor was dry as dust, and usually involved putting me in some kind of nasty situation he could laugh about later. He had an underbite I could never stop staring at, but my gawking never seemed to bother him.

"Kids do go missin' sometimes in the park," he said. "You prolly heard about that, somethin’ like a legend around here, not that I believe it any.”

I frowned at him and folded the maps back in my lap, then slid the folder back on the dash.

"I'm not from here." I said, "Don't know the area well. " I’d come here with my wife only a couple years ago, and I’d only worked for Mason Survey the past year. I was a young man, turning thirty in May. I still had all my hay-colored hair, no white whiskers in my thin beard. I had blue eyes, and my lips were always dry, but at least I didn’t have an underbite.

I put my hands on my pants and scratched my thighs. We'd spent most of the morning hunting around the woods for property lines down in Shawnee, and the overgrowth was full of thorny green vines that dragged on my legs like the backs of porcupines. I was also allergic to poison ivy, and we’d waded through a swamp of it. I could feel my whole body going red from bow to stern, I’d have to swallow a whole bottle of prednisone to get rid of it, but that was nothing compared to what the goddamn tree branches had done to my head. My ears were raw from where they had dipped down and stabbed me, and when I reached to touch the skin I could feel the dried blood from where they’d cut. Every night I went home bloody and itchy like my skin was on fire, but Matt never seemed to get any of that. He had skin like a bear hide that kept him tan and healthy, and nothing seemed to stab or scratch or poke him in any way that mattered, and he always seemed ready for more. That's why at five-thirty in the evening we weren't going home again, instead we were going down into the Harrisburg Mine. I started thinking hard about how long we might be down there, it was not a pleasant thought.

"Did you hear me?" said Matt.

"What? Sorry, got lost for a second."

Matt rolled his eyes. "I noticed that ‘bout you, lost in your head. That's half your problem I expect. I was talking about the park legend and you said you don't know. Listen now, you’ll like this bit.” He stared at me for a long time, as if he wouldn’t look away until he knew I was listening. He saw I was and turned his eyes back to the road.

“So the deal is, every year, or every other year anyhow since 1948 when it opened, a dozen or so kids go missin’ in the park. Mostly they get back home ok and people never think nothin’ of it. Them boys n’ girls get fussy and take off towards the Tilta-Wheel 'cause their parents said they weren’t tall ‘nough to get on it. The park finds ’em pretty quick usually, once the parents get on the horn with security. That's most of it, like any place I expect. Then you got the real thing, and that’s not so happy an endin’. Some poor momma turns around to look for a bathroom and their kid gets snatched like that.” he snapped his fingers. “Happens quick, more and more often I hear too. It’s not a safe age we livin’ in, not anymore. You find pedophiles and sex predators and slave traders in any city I guess, it’s just a shame we can't shoot'em in the head or cut off their tallywacker before they come sniffing around babies. It’s a snowflake society ain’t it? Can’t hang’em or cut nothin’ off, I guess. Anyway that explains most missin’ kids, but not all. Sometimes one or two go up in smoke and no one knows why. That’s where the legend starts. That’s when they talk about the Harrisburg Mine.”

I nodded my head as if to say, "Yeah I guess so," but I didn’t speak, I was thinking about my own kids and what time I’d get to see them tonight. I watched as we turned off the main road onto a side street, half-listening to Matt, half wondering if he’d give this craziness up and we’d come back in the morning. The spring light of day was still bright around this time, only a few weeks ago it would have been dark already, but not now. The sun was tilting back our way and things were bright as they could be under the steel-grey horizon of the spring rain season. I was still only barely listening as Matt went on.I was more concerned with getting this over with than listening to ghost stories.

"Anyways, the story goes that them kids, them few boys and girls just disappear. I heard one girl was gone last year with her momma still holdin’ her hand. It was on the internet, I think, and in the news. I don’t remember their names. The mom said she just looked over and a hole opened up in the ground, ate right through the asphalt, black and empty and deep, round as a drink straw. She was so surprised, she let go of her baby girl's hand and she just went straight down in the hole, sucked-in like the earth’ed seen her standin’ there and decided it was hungry. Then the hole closed up and faded away, and the mom was all by herself, screamin’ and clawin’ at the ground ‘til her finger nails came off while the whole park just stopped and stared at’er. The police searched the whole length of the park and didn't see any sort’a cave ins, so they said she was just losin'er shit and someone up and stole'er. There was more to it, but I forgot the rest.”

"Jesus," I said.

Matt grinned and nodded, I could tell he was happy with the way I was looking at him.

"Now you gettin' it," he said, putting a finger up his nose. He started picking out boogers right in front of me as if I wasn't there.

"That one incident wouldn’t sound so weird if it happened only the once, but like I said that story came around a few times. One year, in 1985 I think, they had two within a few months. The police shut the whole park down for a week lookin’ for missin’ kids and never found nothin’, ‘cept one of ’em they found a shoe I think. It’s natural after’a thing like that the police suspected the parents. I expect they thought the parents weren’t right in the head or sumthin, and said they brought their kids to the park and then blamed the legend when they was gone, that they never brought their kids in the first place. That prolly sounded pretty true until they put up cameras in the park. They never found anything like that, except maybe once or twice. And the cameras never picked up any sinkholes or nothin’ either, but they don’t cover the whole park. Anytime anyone went missing, the camera wasn’t on’em,” he paused a minute, smirking like he thought himself wise. “Convenient, maybe. Maybe not.”

I was staring at him now, he had me curious. “So what do you think it was?” I said.

Matt shrugged. “They say those kids went down in the mine. That the mine took'em, swallowed'em up. I don't know about any of that shit, but the mine sure as Satan runs all the way under the park, and that's where we going now." He gave me another Kansas grin from ear to ear, and my eyes fell back down to his underbite, and I swallowed. I didn't tell him straight that I didn't like enclosed spaces, not one bit. This wasn't the kind of job where you said no a lot, because they called you a pussy. Once you got called a pussy you were marked for good. I had no intention of being marked for anything, not with a family at home.

The road turned one last time, in to a parking lot. A double-story white country club blotted out the east side of it, the kind of place pompous assholes frequented in the 80s, but didn't get much business now. The roof was bleached white and hadn't been replaced in awhile, and the bricks had that odd-ball look to them that made it look like something they'd used in CaddyShack. An old sign swung from rusty hinges under a rotting, wooden frame. "Fifty Acres Golf Course," it read. I frowned at the sign and looked at Matt.

"The entrance is on the Golf course?"

Matt nodded, he drove through the lot towards the south end, where the curb slanted down to a road you wouldn't notice unless you were already looking for it. "The entrance to the mine’s off the utility road, runs along the side of the course. It’s pretty bumpy through here so hold your butt. This truck'll make it down though. That’s the great thing about Mason Survey, they give us all the fun toys. This truck's a 2015, damn good 4x4."

The light poles in the parking lot were just turning yellow as we hit the utility road, maybe a five foot patch of broken concrete that led through a pine tree thicket on either side of it, winding past the sweep of golf green by the club. I looked back once and saw the light of day spindle through the pines as we passed the course. Night was coming in a hurry now, and I began to wonder why I was so worried about looking like a pussy.

Suddenly I wished I’d said no and gone home instead, better than spending all night in a mine. I looked down at my phone and saw only one message, my wife asking me when I'd be home. I flicked my fingers across the surface and said I wasn't sure, but it'd be late. I knew that wouldn't be good but we needed the money, and she knew that as well as I did. I put my phone back in my pocket and breathed a little. No use worrying about it now, I was in the truck and the choice was made.

The entrance to the mine was about what you'd expect. It was a dark, big hole carved into the rock face of a hillside. A metal gate stood across it, locked at the center with a thick chain and a padlock. The gate looked rusted and beat to shit; an old soldier still at its post. The headlights shined against it and I tried to see through the grate, but I couldn't see a thing inside.

“Where's that damn key?" said Matt, and he started moving things around in the truck.

For a moment I thought maybe he wouldn't find it and we’d get to go home after all. The truck was full of gas station trash, food boxes, folders from jobs we'd done and hadn't turned in to the office. God knows where he’d find a key, probably wedged under his seat with his phone, lying in a cemetery of old candy wrappers and empty soda bottles. A few minutes later he'd found the key, and with a heavy grunt he opened the door and slid his gut between the wheel and the seat until he was out. He grabbed his phone from the trash graveyard on the floor and shoved it in his back pocket, and looked at me.

"Right back" he said, and I watched him in the headlights as he walked up to the gate, twisted the key in the lock, shook it, and popped the padlock. Even in the truck with the engine on, I could hear the hinges on the gate shriek as they came open.

Then what I saw next made me worry. Matt flung the gate wide open, but he wasn't coming back. He was just standing there in front of the entrance, looking down into the mine. I thought maybe the light would shine down into the open hole now that the gate was gone, but it didn't. The headlights didn't go any further than the gate, like the beams had hit a wall and were just reflecting back. It looked like the dark was its own kind of beam and it shone at us as if it were too bright or too thick for the light to see through. I felt afraid then like I've never been afraid before. The fear came up real sudden in my gut, and I could feel it all the way down in my feet like insects had broken in and nested there. The bugs crawled slow up my legs and into my balls, and I felt them shrivel into me. Then the bugs came up into my gut and didn’t stop climbing until they were in my throat.

I rolled down the window and I stuck my head out. I tried to shout, but for a moment the words caught in my chest and I couldn't speak. I heard a sound from down inside the mine, like a choir of low voices in the throat of the world, and I thought it must be the wind singing.

"Matt!" I yelled. "Matt!"

Matt didn't turn to look, he was just staring down into that hole like he'd turned to wood.

"Matt goddamn!” I said. Finally Matt seemed to snap out of it, and he turned around. He ran a hand over his face and then walked back to the truck. His steps were slow like he wasn't sure where he was.

"What the hell were you hollerin' about?" he said.

I frowned at him. "Why the hell were you just standing there?"

"I was just checkin’ out the entrance, makin’ sure nothin’s collapsed. It’s a good idea before you go driving down there, and believe you me it happens. One day I was down in there settin' a control point for the scanner. It's a bitch to get one in that rock, you gotta drill into the limestone just to get it six-inch flush with the floor. Anyways I set it down there and picked up and came out the mine for lunch. Wasn't gone more'n twenty minutes or so. By the time I came back in there the point was gone, a thousand pound’a rock’d fallen down and covered it. If'd been standin’ there I'd be dead, one more soul they'd say the mine took. That's why I don't go down here alone anymore.”

I nodded but didn't say anything. I was still scared from looking down that hole, hearing that noise. What he said made sense, but I couldn't get the thought out of my head about how he'd just been standing there with his arms out by his hips, looking down into that dark place we were about to go in and explore. It had scared me something stupid.

"What do we do now?”

Matt grinned a little and put the truck in drive. "Now we get us some overtime." and the truck lurched forward across the asphalt, hopping up and down as it got closer to the entrance. The truck hopped and hopped and the tunnel got closer and closer, then we went down into it and I felt the road drop away and become gravel. I thought for a minute that maybe the headlights wouldn't shine inside the mine the way they hadn’t from the outside, but they did. Matt flicked on the brights and the walls of the tunnel were a moving glow. The walls were brown like the Missouri River, and the ceiling of the mine was higher than I'd expected, but not much. The top went up maybe twenty feet and stopped, and the whole thing looked like a sideways crack in the earth. I felt like a worm inside there, wriggling through the ground as it swallowed us.

"You see the columns?” Matt pointed at the top of the windshield. I don't know why he said that, we both knew I could see them just fine. They were gargantuan, some thirty or forty feet across, massive pillars that they'd dug out of the bedrock a hundred years ago to keep the mine from falling down on top of them.

"You ever seen anything like that?" He said with that grin again.

I shook my head no.

"I thought not," He said.

"How far down do we have to go?"

Matt shrugged a little as the truck passed between the first set of pillars. I turned around to look for the entrance, but it was already gone.

"Five miles maybe. The mine's way deeper, but that’s where we goin’ tonight."

"Five damn miles?" I said. "Underground?”

"Well it sure as hell ain’t in the sky." He seemed sharp now, he’d lost the grogginess he’d had when he’d gotten back in. His eyes were dead set on the path ahead, and I thought that was just fine. I didn't mind too much when he went on auto pilot on the road, but the further we went inside the earth, the more I felt those bugs just crawling up my legs, threatening to eat my insides. I remembered what he'd said about the last fella he'd had down here, going nuts, trying to run out of here full-sprint toward the entrance but never finding it. I clinched down on my legs with my hands to keep them from shaking too hard while I thought about how much more rock was atop me every second. I imagined what would happen if one of the pillars gave out like a bad knee on an old man, and all that dirt came in to fill the hole with me inside.

Then for some reason I started thinking about Whirla World. Where did the amusement park even begin? If the ground did drop in, would some of the park rides come down? If I was going to get squished to death by rock, it’d be nice to see a rollercoaster or two drop their carriages in with it. That must be a hell of a thing to see before you die, even more for anyone on the rollercoaster. Imagine getting on one, slowly climbing into the heavens, getting ready for that high drop as you ascend slowly into a streak of blue sky. Then the breaks release, and down you go! The wind blows by and you rocket down like a thunderbolt. Your butt lifts in the air and the seat belt rides into your gut. You grip that shaky bar until your knuckles turn white, having that thought we all have, the one that makes you get on those things in the first place.

Say! What if this goddamn thing is about to punch my ticket? What if it’s got a loose piece of metal or a faulty clasp somewhere? What if the wheels come off the track and I go woooo! Right off the edge a few hundred feet down on the asphalt? Woooo! Wouldn’t that be something?

Just you and your family and twenty or so strangers that drew the short straw; the one hiccup out of a million. Someone call the lawyers, we’ve got settlements to draw. Not that you’ll be there for that, your relatives will have that job. You went leaping over a high edge on a bird made of steel, your last ride before men with latex gloves picked you off the boardwalk with a spatula. Woooo!

That never happens of course, almost never anyway. But accidents do come now and again, don’t they? What if instead of the track coming apart, or the carriage growing wings, the ground just gave in? A sinkhole forms a mile wide under the foundation, where you thought the ground was nice and rooted, but that ain’t a fact, Jack. They’ve got tunnels down there, the meat got cut out. Now the whole earth under you just gave up and slipped in and swallowed you whole, and suddenly it really is your ticket punched straight down to hell. That would be a ride alright, a trip to tell the devil about. You’d get to do it, too. You’d get to tell him all about it in no time flat. You’re headed down to his house in a hurry, streamlined.

I don't know why I thought about that then, and I tried to shut it out but I just kept picturing it. I started to breathe a little faster, but I kept it quiet so Matt didn't notice. It was damn hard, but he hadn't seen it yet. I pictured him standing there outside the entrance, just looking down this tunnel like a deer in headlights, staring in that black hole that made noises like a choir. I was scared now, and my legs were in jitters, but I kept it in. No use losing it down here, like the guy before me.

About two miles in Matt stopped the truck. "Ok," he said, eyeing me with his grin. "You ready?"

"Ready for what?" I said, looking outside the truck. "You said it was further than this, we aren't five miles in yet are we?"

"Hell no," said Matt, throwing the truck into park. The truck hummed as we sat there, and I kept breathing as best I could. I could smell the earth, the air was full of dust and rock and water, and I felt like I was buried in the soil.

"To see the full dark." He said, and then he reached over for the keys. "I asked you earlier, and you said no. It's really somethin’, wasn’t lyin' when I say that. Ready?"

I wanted very much to say no. I could feel all those bugs just fucking and multiplying under my skin, spreading in all directions at once.

“I’m ready.” I said.

Matt shut off the truck. The lights stayed on for a moment, and then they went off. And then everything was blacker than I'd ever seen before in my life. I raised my hand to look at it, but I couldn’t see it. I put it right up next to my face until my fingers touched my nose, but I didn’t see anything. I waited for a trickle of light to help my sight adjust, but it never came. My eyes were so useless I could pluck them out of my skull and I'd be none the worse for not having them.

"See what I mean?" came Matt's voice. I could tell he was nearby, and I could hear him breathing through his underbite, but otherwise he was a ghost. He moved around in the truck, adjusting his big old body around so that the cab shook.

"You weren't lying." I said, and I pressed my hands in my armpits to feel the warmth. I was very cold even though the truck had just shut off, and the heat had been on. Through the window I could hear that choir sound too. I told myself that there weren't people outside my window, wailing at the glass in that low note, that the sound I heard was just wind coming down the tunnel. I was scared they were there anyway. I knew then I hated the mine and I never wanted to go in another. It was the way the air tasted like copper in my mouth, all that wailing, or how the dark seemed to seep into every pore of my body. Those bugs were crawling in my skull and in my ears. I say again, I never felt so afraid and I didn't know why. A mine is a dark place, all the way dark, like Matt had said, but that isn't the reason I was so scared. I didn’t know what the reason was.

Then I heard the keys jingle, and I was never so glad to hear that noise. Matt turned on the truck, and the light filled the cabin and reflected off his eyes. He was staring at me as if he’d been able to see me the whole time, looking right at me. His face looked like a stranger’s to me suddenly, like his skin was a mask and I was looking at the eyes of someone else, peering through Matt’s eyelids. “I told ya,” he said, his grin got a little bigger. “It’s somethin’ ain’t it?”

I looked at him a moment longer, and he never blinked. Finally I nodded. “It’s something,” I agreed. “I don’t know what, but it’s something alright.”

Five miles we drove down in the mine, but we had to go slow. There were no roads down here, just a flat horizon of columns and emptiness, and the ground was so rocky that we were bouncing now worse than ever. Every so often Matt would hit a rock way too big and I swear I felt the whole vehicle go up four feet and crash back down. Once I bit my tongue and tasted blood, but I wasn't sure how much of that was my own fluid or the taste of the air, it all tasted like copper to me.

"Can you take care?" I said to Matt, reaching in my mouth to touch the cut. I pulled my finger back out and saw that it was red.

"Ain’t my fucking fault," he grumbled back at me, jerking the wheel in his hand to avoid another boulder. "These rocks come out of nowhere, I can barely see ‘em ahead."

And that was true enough, I saw.

It felt like five years, not five miles and I don't know how Matt could tell the difference between one place and the next. Everything looked the same to me, like we were walking through one of those houses of mirrors where every image you see is the same as the last, and pretty soon you’re confused and can’t remember where you came from or which way you’re going. The rock columns appeared in the headlights and then disappeared behind us, looming over us like towers. Pretty soon I felt dizzy from trying to keep track of them.

Matt didn’t seem concerned at all though, like he’d been here a hundred times and not just a few. He didn’t say a word as he drove, and every time he turned he seemed sure of the path.

Finally the truck slowed, and then we parked between two of the big columns. Matt pulled out the map again and spread it across the steering wheel, holding it up with his hand, mumbling to himself as his fingers hit the page and walked down the paper. "8B," he said, nodding at it. As he touched the paper, all I could think about was how he'd just used that finger to dig around in his head for his own snot rocks.

"You wanna see?" he said, and tried to hand me the map. I looked over and saw how the mine was a wide labyrinth with tunnels spreading from a main passage like tentacles from an octopus. We’d come north at some point, all the way down into the far reaches of one of the smaller tentacle arms. The ground through it had been even more wild than before.

I shook my head no, I had seen enough and I didn't need to touch the map where his snot stains had become permanent residents.

"I was watching," I said, and Matt took the map back. He looked it over again, and spread the paper out on the dash so that it hung over the edge.

"Ok," he said finally, and opened the door of the truck. "Lets not linger here more'n we gotta. I don't like sittin' too long." That wasn't true, I’d been around him long enough to know he liked sitting plenty, but I didn't say so. I thought maybe he was regretting coming down here as much as I was, and that gave me some hope we wouldn't stay too long.

I opened my door too and let in the stale air. The sound of the truck echoed off the walls just enough that I couldn't hear the cavern singing its low note at me from emptiness, and I was glad about that. I took a step on the ground like I was about to dip down into a pool, and for a moment I thought about climbing back in the truck and shutting the door again. Then I heard Matt's door creak and slam shut, and that got me going. I got out and walked to the back of the truck after him, no need to sit there looking like a pussy.

Matt pulled out a big, yellow case and sat it on the cave floor. He undid the clasps, opened the top, and pulled out the scanner. If you've never seen a scanner before, or a survey instrument (what we call a gun), the best way I can think to explain is, imagine one of those 1800’s cameras they had on tripods that made smoke and a big flash when they took the photo, that’s kind of how it is. I hadn't used this one before, but Matt explained it to me as he set it up.

"This thing here takes a million pictures," he said, screwing the instrument on top. "It has a 360 degree motion, like our regular survey gear. It looks in every direction and maps out the cave with lidar, makes a big, bright colored picture of the walls so they know how it looks back at the office. Takes about an hour per scan, and that'll work fine since it'll take us awhile to put in the next control point. You can set this up ok?"

I glared but he couldn't see that behind the truck, the only light back here came from the tail lights and that left our faces a deep shade of red.

"Sure can," I said back. I'd been here over a year, I knew about how to set a level and how to make it stand right. Matt knew that, but he asked every time I did anything, like it was still my first day.

"Dig those legs into the rock, step on'em real good. If that leg slides we gotta start over." I nodded and took the instrument, but then I realized he couldn't see me nodding, so I said, "Yep."

Matt pointed towards the front of the truck, the edges of his arm were silhouetted that faint, bloody color. "Last control point should be there, set it up so we can get going. Should be able to see it in the headlights.”

I walked around the truck and winced at the light, then I walked in front of it, glancing at the ground as little spots bounced around in my eyes. When my sight finally adjusted, I found the point easy enough. It was marked with pink spray paint, and the top of a half-inch bar poked up from the rock. I dug the tripod's feet into the ground, then leveled the scanner until it was sitting perfectly flat. I looked down through the second lense where the reticle pointed at the floor, and made sure that the crosshairs were right on the center of the bar.

"Point it this way," said Matt, and I moved the lense toward him so he could backsight another control point. I saw the light of his phone dangling from his hand. He took the pole and set the tip of it on the control point. A small, cylindrical prism on top of it flashed at me.

"Alright," he said. "Now the damn thing knows where we are. Come on, we'll have to set a point down inside there." I frowned and looked where he was pointing. "Where?"

Matt grumbled a little. "Grab the flashlight from the truck," he said. I did, and then I flicked it on. A shaft of white shot out of it, and I slowly circled it around the room. The air was thick with dust and the light didn’t travel as far as I thought it would. After a short distance, all I saw was brown rock and the black air above it. I heard Matt's boots echo on the ground as he came up next to me. I flashed the light at him, and the hazard orange on his shirt reflected back at me. He winced as the beam hit his eyes.

"You fuckin' mind?" he said, and I took it off him. “It’s over there,” he pointed at the dark.

"Sorry," I said, and pointed it over his shoulder. I could barely see the walls behind him, hovering just on the edge of the flashlight like the background of some old painting. I could see a gap between two sides of it filled with the black, and that is where Matt was pointing.

"We're going in there?"

“You scared now?" Matt grinned.


"Good," said Matt, and then he started walking toward the gap. I followed him, and the chasm rolled towards me from the distance far quicker than I wanted it to. There was more shadow in there than there was out here, it came down like a fog, laying inside those walls like a sleeping dragon, ready to pop open a red eye at anyone foolish enough to come too close. The walls of the chasm zigged and zagged like an upside down thunderbolt, where that shadowed-thing was resting, lurking.

Soon we got to the chasm and started walking through it. Matt looked back now and again to make sure he could still see the instrument. It sat in the headlights of the truck, a lonely, yellow thing pointing off towards us, ready to work, watching us go.

The gap between the walls was big enough for both of us to walk side by side, and both edges went up above us toward the ceiling where I couldn't see. I said something to Matt about how tall it was in here, but he didn't say anything back. I could hear him, huffing and puffing next to me with the tripod resting on his shoulder.

"This doesn't look like something they drilled out," I said.

Matt laughed. "No, this area ain’t somethin’ they mined, sure enough. But that's why they want it mapped I guess. We're right under where that new roller coaster is going to be, and if the ground is too thin a sink hole could open up. I’m sure they'd like to know about it before the ground gives way and a bunch’a kids go screamin' down a thousand feet. That'd be the last park ride they'd ever take." He laughed again, and I didn't like it. I remembered picturing that very thing not long ago. I didn't see anything funny about little kids excited, running in front of their parents to jump on a little tea cup ride and then screaming as they fell down into this place. I had kids, and when you have kids it gets harder and harder to think about little children getting hurt. Matt didn't have any kids, maybe that's why he thought it was funny.

I could hear that whistling sound again, playing like the ground was full of wind pipes. I thought it sounded louder than before, and I remembered what he'd said about the legend in the park. While we walked I suddenly wondered if I might take a step and hear something snap. The dry and brittle noise of some dead thing, and then I’d shine my light down and see little bones shattered under my feet. As I thought about that, the bugs inside me came and went.

The chasm wasn't long, and then we were in a new chamber. The whole thing was a lot bigger than I'd thought it would be. I could see back to the instrument still, but it was a long way to where it sat. Then I shined my light around the room, and what I saw freaked me out. The walls here were strangely smooth, bowing out from the floor, and then arching backward away from us like the edges of a bowl. I flicked the flashlight along them as far upward as it’d go, and where the light shone I let the beam climb up the sides of it so I could try to see how far it might be to the top of the cavern. Once again the light didn’t climb all the way, and at some point the cloud of dusty air got too thick and the beam wouldn't go any higher, but what I could see made the bugs inside me go crazy.

"Purple," I said, and reached up to scratch my hair under my hat.

"Matt are you seeing this shit?" I asked, but he was still quiet. I could hear him setting down equipment, and I shined the light down on him. He had crouched next to a black, plastic container, and was fumbling with the clasps on it.

The ground was a deep shade of purple, like a varicose vein on someone’s leg, or a bruise that won’t heal. When I shone my light on it the ground seemed to glimmer strangely, like it was moving and swollen. I stamped my foot down hard, half expecting it was soft, but it was hard as marble.

"What kind of rock is this?" I asked.

Matt shrugged a little as he opened the container. I tried to keep the light shining on the floor over his back so he could see what he was doing. "Dunno," he said. "Ask a fuckin' geologist." He opened the container and pulled out a drill, then he took a half-inch bit and snapped it into the head. He hit the reverse button and the clamps tightened on the bit. The metal was shiny and sharp, and I could see it was brand new. He'd bought it especially for this, to put a hole in this purple stone.

"You've been in here once?" I said, but he didn’t reply. He pressed the trigger and I heard the drill whirr, and when I heard that sound, something surprised me so bad that I nearly dropped the light to the ground. The sound of the drill was echoing off the walls and coming back to me, like someone had driven a semi-truck down here and gunned the engine, or maybe one of the coasters really had fallen through the floor and was crashing on our heads. I put one hand over my right ear to try and keep that noise from making me go deaf, but it didn't do anything.

"What the fuck is with that noise?" I said, but Matt didn't hear me and I couldn't blame him. He'd stuck the drillbit against the rock. I watched as it went down, and for a moment I thought it wasn't going to do anything but dance on the skin. Part of me hoped it would snap right off, but slowly and surely it started to spin down through the top of that shiny surface, spewing bits of rock at my face as it went. I felt little pieces hit my face, but I did my best not to let the light shake. The way the drill kept at it I thought we'd be down here at least an hour before it went through, while that loud whirrrrrrr echoed off the walls, making my head pound until I thought I’d never hear again. It irritated me greatly that It didn't seem to bother Matt, who had both hands pressed hard on the back of the drill and was shoving that goddamn bit down like a man dying of thirst trying to dig a well.

WHIIIRRRR went the drill, digging and digging and Matt glared down at the purple rock with eyes so crazy I thought maybe he'd lost his marbles. Then suddenly the drill shot down and buried to the hilt, and I could hear the whine of its motor as it kept reaching for something to cut but couldn’t find anything. It surprised Matt so bad that he crashed down on the drill. His body fell forward, and I could see pain on his face like I'd never seen before. He slanted to one side and dropped to the ground, holding his ribs where the drill had shot into his chest.

"Fuck me!" he shouted. His face was flushed, and he looked ready to cry.

"You ok?" I said, and walked over to him. I gave him a hand, but for a long time he just laid there and held his ribs.

"Fine," he grumbled back at me, and finally he took my hand. I pulled him to his feet as best I could without staggering, but it was a hell of a time. He lurched to his feet, one hand still holding his chest.

"Can you pull that damn thing out?" he asked. I grabbed hold of the drill, clicked the button, and reversed it. The metal dragged a bit at first, but then slowly it started to come out. Half way through, I stopped.

"What is it?" said Matt, and I frowned up at him.

"You feel that?" I said.

"Feel what?”

"The ground shook a little."

Matt blinked at me. "I didn't feel nothin',” he said. "You're just feeling that drill shake.

Don't say shit like that unless you sure somethin’s wrong.. A mine ain’t no place to talk about shaky ground unless that fucker's really shakin'. I mean like you're sure the whole mud fucking heaven is about to come down ontop'a us. You got me?"

I opened my mouth to reply, but I couldn't think of anything to say. I looked down at the drill and frowned.

“What?" said Matt.

"It just went right through there," I said. "The end of this thing's got slime on it."

Matt wrapped his hand around the drill bit and slid his palm down the metal. He rubbed the liquid between his thumb and his forefinger. "Yeah, I guess so," he said. "Nothing to balk at, I've seen weird shit in this ground. Go get the instrument, let's get this thing crackin’. I already regret coming down here 'night and we ain’t done jack shit yet."

I nodded to him, and picked the flashlight up. I followed the white beam back out of the chasm where the truck sat, still running. He always left it idling no matter where we'd go, but for once I was damn glad of it. Something about the truck being on made me feel safe, like it was a lone little island on the sea and the rocks in the shadows were the waves, crashing down on me. I got to the instrument and I picked it up, then I put the tripod over my shoulder and walked back into the shadow, doing my best to balance the light as I went. I made it about half way there before I realized that I'd left Matt completely in the dark with no light. "Shit," I thought, and I called back into the chasm. “I'm coming Matt." I said, and my voice echoed down the walls. The flashlight bounced in my hand, and a few times I tripped over loose rock, cursing as I righted myself again. I didn't let the instrument go down though, fuck that. If I dropped that sucker I knew Matt really would turn into a bear, he'd bust black fur right through his skin, his eyes would turn gold, and he'd get teeth in his mouth big enough to bite my head clean off. That made me laugh a little as I walked, and the sound of my voice carried down into the chamber beyond me.

That's when I realized Matt still hadn't said anything.

"Matt?" I said again, but all that spoke back was the choir. I picked up my pace, wondering if he'd fallen down or something.

"MATT?" I shouted again, but nothing called back. I flicked the light around and saw that the ground was opening back up into the chamber, and that was when I first noticed that the brown limestone rock cut off right at the edge of the chamber into that purple rock, and where it began, the limestone just stopped and turned into that shiny deep bruise where the bowl started.

"What the fuck is this?" I muttered under my breath.

For a moment I couldn't find him, and that freaked me out too. I thought that maybe he'd moved, but finally the beam cut through the dark and parked on him. He was standing there, just staring off into the dark. His body looked frozen again. His shirt was stuck to his body and I saw that he was sweating really bad through it. That didn't seem right, it wasn't exactly cold down here but it was good weather, I can't imagine he'd been doing anything since I'd left that'd make him sweat.

"What's with you?" I said, and I put the tripod down on the point.

"Matt," I said. "Hey!" and I put my hand on his shoulder.

He came alive suddenly and nearly jumped out of his skin. "Don't walk up on me like that," he said, and this time I didn't shine the light in his eyes.

"You weren't answering me!"

"Like hell I wasn't," he said, and went over to set up the instrument again. "You must be deaf the way I was shouting back at you."

I just stared at him, and kept the light beam on the instrument so he could see.

"I didn't hear you at all," I said, but he just grunted.

"Stay here, I'll backsight the point. The rod is at the truck. Gimme the flashlight."

I hesitated when he said that, I didn't want to be alone in here without the light, but finally I did.

"Be right back," he said, and he left me there. I could see the flashlight bouncing back and forth while Matt waddled out of the room, shining on all that bruised rock as he went through the chasm. Then he was out of that and back on the limestone. Soon he was at the truck, our little island out in the sea, and I was stuck down here in the dark water with the choir. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and turned on its little light, but if the flashlight didn't cut far in the screen of dirty air, my phone wasn't even scratching its surface. I shined it at the ground to make sure it was still there, and waited. My feet ached already from walking all that way. I stepped harder on one foot and then the other, and felt the blood swell down into my toes. I tried to think about anything other than where I was and what I was doing, but it was getting harder and harder to do that.

Then I tried to think about Whirla World again, sitting on top of me god knows how far above. I hadn't been there in years, and that wasn't an accident. The last time I did I went on a coaster called the Shakin' Snake. The Shakin’ Snake is a big, orange track that goes up in a loop, spins you three-hundred and sixty degrees, and then shoots you through the air, tossing you hard until you weren't sure what your name was. Then you hit the bottom again, Whoa! The whole thing reverses hard and pulls you back in the sky like someone just hit the fast forward button while it shakes and spins and loops like a hurricane. When I got off the coaster I told my wife I'd be alright, we'd come together alone on a date, this was before we married, you see. But wouldn't you know it? I face planted on a big, green trash can and threw up until I had nothing but acid in my gut. Then I did it again until that was gone, while she stood there and laughed.

I was still in the dark, wondering about whether I might be right below the Shakin' Snake, when I started hearing things. At first I just thought it was a loose stone that had come tumbling from the ceiling and skipped across the ground. Then I heard it again. Something moved, something that shouldn't. It sounded like naked little feet slapping the rock, running beyond my sight, bounding past where my phone light could reach.

"Who's that?" I shouted. "Who is that?" But I got no answer.

I waited for a bit, and just about the time I thought I was going crazy and nothing was there I heard it again.

Slap slap slap...

Slap slap slap...

While I heard it I started thinking about what Matt had told me about the kids. They couldn't be down here though, could they? Running through the dark, fucking with my head. If any kids had fallen in the mine they'd be long dead and they'd have bones around here some place, if nobody found them.

I thought about that and then all I could see in my head were those same kids, but their shirts were in tatters and they were just bones; little baby skeletons running and whistling because they didn't have vocal chords anymore and bones were all they could sing with. The bugs were crawling on me something awful and I knew I wasn't going to be able to stand there much longer. Any second now my final nerve would snap from all those bugs eating me from the inside out, and I'd come sprinting out of here like a loon, screaming my head off like the last guy Matt had brought down here. Then he'd call me something for sure, and I'd fucking be marked.

"Matt!" I shouted, and when he didn't answer I looked back at the distant glow of the truck lights. "MATT!" I shouted, and my own voice echoed back at me instead. I was damn near shrill when I screamed his name again, and the sound of my voice once more came back.

"Fuck it," I said, and I started walking back towards the truck. I didn't run, not yet anyway. I decided unless the Devil came up and stuck his hand down my pants, I was gonna hold onto that last shred of decency and try to march out of this horrible place with my head up.

I had just reached the edge of the chasm when the truck lights turned off. All the way dark.

The shadows came in to strangle me. I could hear the kids running around, whistling. That's when the real panic set in.

I remembered a magazine I'd read once about when people get into the pitch-black their mind starts filling it with shapes. Your brain starts drawing it’s own illustrations of whatever lurks inside you. The barriers come down between what is and is not, and pretty soon the difference doesn’t matter anymore. Your mind is a tricky little shit, and it has needs. What it needs is light and shapes, and in the absence of real ones it draws its own, like paintings on a canvas.

I blinked at the dark for a long time, listening to those skeleton kids scamper about, their bones clicking and clacking as they ran, and slowly my eyes began to adjust to the pitch, and then I really could see them. Only they didn't look like skeletons at all. A white light appeared while that low hum echoed across the cavern, and then I saw the girl. She was in a little red shirt with Whirla World written on balloons, she was wearing faded blue jeans and little white sneakers. Her mom was there too, holding her hand, dressed just the same as her daughter. They looked just alike, and they both looked nervous as they walked around the park, very nervous, afraid even. They had bugs running up and down under their skin the same as I did.

Then the mom opened up her mouth and spoke, and this is what she said.

Copyright © 2020 by Kenneth McIntosh

All rights reserved. No parts of this short story may be reproduced or

 used in any manner without written permission of the copyright owner

 except for the use of quotations in a review.

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