The Coal Yard

February 17, 2016 at 12:00 AM

The estimated reading time for this post is 17 minutes, 22 seconds

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It was the summer of 1987. I was 25 years old and a city boy by nature. A product of the sounds of persistent traffic and bustling people on the move. I liked the bright lights and the conveniences of never having to stray too far from home to find anything I needed. Grocery, barber, post office, you name it. Rarely would the need arise for me to venture more than a couple miles from my midtown apartment and that’s how I liked it. Young and single, I often joked that had I not the need for a paycheck I would have no use for a vehicle. In fact, my preferred mode of transportation was my Yamaha V-Star 1100 classic. Nothing too fancy, but an all-around decent bike that I managed to pick up on Craigslist for under four grand. The summer months had come to an end but I was still taking full advantage of the warmer weather to ride my bike at every opportunity.

By contrast, I had recently taken a job as a security guard at an old retired coal fired power plant thirty miles out of town. The plant had been abandoned over a decade and remained fairly unchanged from its operating days. Large metal framed buildings and storage silos were covered in overgrowth and surrounded an enormous black pile of coal. There were a multitude of covered conveying belt systems that appeared to run from under the ground below the coal pile, working their way up to the tops of several of the buildings and structures. I would find out later that these conveyers were connected by underground tunnels beneath the coal pile. From there they would run the coal up to the tops of the other buildings where it would be crushed down and then transferred to the silos before being used as fuel for the boilers.

I was hired to work the night shift (6pm to 6am) but the pay was surprisingly good, twice that of similar jobs, and I didn’t mind the change of scenery to be honest. Beautiful night skies full of stars and things I hadn’t the privilege to notice among the incessant lights of the city. It was quite the peaceful setting with 80 acres of remote property along the river at my leisure. On top of that, the work itself didn’t get much easier. All I had to do was drive the perimeter every few hours, keep the teenagers and vagrants out, and generally just keep an eye out for anything unusual.

“You see anything unusual and you call me immediately.” I remember my boss saying to me at least three times during the hiring process.

Seemed like a dream job at the time.

Unfortunately, this would be the beginning of a series of the most “unusual” events I have ever been prone to experience.

The very first of these events began occurring by my second week on the job. Not all that unusual at the time, but looking back, I can see now that it had been watching me. Observing my routine. Looking for any weaknesses to exploit. Anything it might use to put its plan into action. Its plan to lure me into the coal pits.

It happened on a Friday night during my second week on the job. Right around 4 am, I had just set out on my final drive around the perimeter when I heard it. Not more than a mile from the little guard shack that was akin to my home base, I had been driving the small Ford Ranger that I used for rounds when I heard a sharp and terrible sounding shriek. It was short and crisp and immediately made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I can only describe it as otherworldly and lasted only a brief moment but was enough to divert my full attention toward the origin of the sound. It had come from the coal pile.

My vehicle now at a full stop, I paused, silently staring into the darkness toward the mass of black coal. It wasn’t until that moment that I noticed exactly how much silence there was at this particular spot. No crickets chirping out the night. No frogs bellowing. Nothing but dead silence. At the edge of the coal pile I could just make out what appeared to be a bunker door that presumably led to the bottom of the nearest coal conveyer. I sat for what must have been a good ten minutes just staring, head cocked, listening for anything, hoping to hear any sign of life whatsoever. But there was only the sound of the breeze carrying on through the darkness. Must have been an animal of some kind. At least that is what I was trying to fool my mind into believing. I conveniently ignored the fact that not a single other animal sound could be heard. Shrugging it off, I finished out my rounds before retiring back to comfort of the guard shack.

Shortly after, the morning light began filtering out the shadows and I could see the regular day shift guard was pulling up in his sporty new Mazda RX8. His name was Dillman and he was the flashy obnoxious type that I had learned early on was in my best interest to minimize any interaction with. I wasn’t even sure if Dillman was his first or last name and didn’t really care. You see, Dillman was what you might refer to as a one upper. Any story you had to tell, he always had something better. If you had been to Alaska, Dillman had been to the North Pole.

Other than Dillman, the only other person I regularly interacted with at the site was Jim. Jim was kind of the fill in guy, rotating between days and nights. He filled the shifts that allowed Dillman and me to have time off. I always preferred to turnover with Jim rather than Dillman. You see, Jim and I shared a common interest.

Motorcycles.

In fact, he had been promising to ride his Harley in to work and show me exactly why my lowly Yamaha was outclassed in every which way. His love for his Harley went even further as he had at least a couple different jackets, caps, a zippo, and even wore an earring adorned with the Harley Davidson logo. All this and I had yet to see his bike, which he had assured me he would be riding in on Monday so I could have a look.

Following that Friday evening, I had the rest of the weekend off and was happy to spend some down time back in the city. The familiar sights and sounds were a pleasant respite from the long nights alone in the darkness of an abandoned coal yard. Any concerns I had soon faded as I shared my experience with some of my friends from the local bar and we all had a good laugh.

“You better watch out for the boogey man!” they joked while I tried to put my best foot forward.

“Shit” I retorted, “I AM the boogey man!” a half smile showing on my face. I was somewhat embarrassed about getting spooked and was intent on redeeming myself.

“If you’re the boogey man then we’ve all got nothing to worry about!” they floated back, my redemption not going over too well.

Later that evening I found myself drunk and staring into my bathroom mirror. They were right. I looked about as intimidating as a 12 year old girl dressed for church. I was going to have to upgrade my image. I plopped myself into bed and passed out thinking of various tattoos and locations to promote this image.

Armed with a new purpose and a brand new hand held spotlight I had purchased at my local hardware store, I was fully prepared for my Monday night shift. I had even brought along an old bowie knife that my father had given me as a teenager. It had served the sole purpose of looking cool on my bedroom shelf for years but would now provide the backbone to my new determination to man up.

Arriving to the job site at my usual time just prior to 6pm, I noticed that Jim was not there to meet me. This was unusual because we weren’t supposed to leave the place unsupervised. I assumed he must have gotten his schedule mixed up or possibly had to leave early for some reason. Being the new guy, I didn’t want to cause a fuss and get anyone into trouble so decided it best to just keep quiet about it.

That night, as I passed by the area where I had heard the shriek, I slowed to a crawl and listened intently. I had become more aware of my surroundings since that last episode and realized that it was here that the edge of the coal pile was closest to the perimeter road. It was also the only area that seemed devoid of any sounds of the usual night critters. I couldn’t help but feel a creepy chill roll down my spine thinking back to that horrible sound I had heard but was still fully determined to prove my manhood.

I decided to have a closer look.

Placing the truck in park, I grabbed my knife and spotlight and headed out toward the bunker door. It wasn’t until I was a few yards away that I began to notice the odd odor. A sort of mixture of sulfur and decaying flesh is about as best as I can describe it. It was faint enough to keep me from gagging but distinct in its own unusual way.

I directed the spotlight to the door of the bunker and saw that it was ajar by a few inches. A cool breeze emanating up from below and out the door was seemingly the source of the odd smell of decay. As I moved closer to the opening, the strength of the odor awakened a reflex that caused me to cover my nose and mouth, positioning my face into the elbow of my shirt. There most certainly was a dead animal inside this structure.

Focusing the light through the cracked doorway and into the bunker, I angled the beam back and forth so as to maximize my view without actually moving the door. Something inside my head, call it instinct or just common sense, did not want me moving this door. Opening a door that goes who knows where and harbors who knows what did not seem the brightest of ideas. Anything that might be in there would undoubtedly come flying out after me through the invitation of an open doorway. Bowie knife or no bowie knife, this door was staying put.

Unable to make out a whole lot through the small opening, I could see that the floor was sloped at a downward angle and the concrete walls were filthy, covered completely in black coal dust as far as I could see. The only thing of real note was that there appeared to be fresh scrapings on the floor leading down the passage and out of sight.

I backed away from the door and inspected the surrounding area with my light. Being this close to the coal pile brought some new perspective. The coal conveyors were much larger than they looked from the road. The nearest conveyor was a mere 25 yards away, rising out of the ground from the pile as if it had been shoved into the pile by some giant hand. It steadily rose until ending at the roof of one of the boiler buildings behind me to the south. I briefly envisioned the massive belt in operation, delivering coal from the pile all the way up and up to eventually be used as fuel for the boilers.

The smell again diverted my attention as I ventured around to the back side of the bunker and came upon what appeared to be a dead animal of some kind. If I had to guess I would have said it was a raccoon but it was in an unrecognizable state. Blood and fur littered the area around its mangled body.

At least now I had an explanation for the crazy shriek I had heard the other night. A coyote or something must have gotten it.

Satisfied with my findings and bordering the limits of my manhood, I made my way back to my truck and finished out the night uneventfully.

The next evening my boss was waiting for me at the guard shack when I showed up for my shift.

“Didn’t expect to see you here tonight.” I said a little confused.

“Ya, Jim hasn’t been in to work since Saturday.” He offered. “He didn’t even bother to clock himself out. Just up and left and won’t return any of my calls. I swear keeping this position staffed has been a real challenge lately.”

I didn’t know Jim that well but he didn’t seem the type to just ditch like that, I thought to myself.

“Happens every summer. Guys get tired of working out here alone on a nice day I suppose.” He tossed me the keys to the Ford Ranger. “Anyways, I may need you to cover some extra shifts until we find a replacement.”

He headed toward his car. “And keep a close eye out for anything unusual.”

Unusual.

Right.

As he left I couldn’t shake the thought that something wasn’t right. From the few short conversations I had with Jim, I was under the impression he really liked this job. Certainly he wouldn’t up and quit without a good reason.

The week passed and having no one to fill Jim’s spot, I found myself working the weekend. It was Saturday evening and the sun had just dipped below the horizon when I jumped in the Ranger for my first perimeter check of the night. The past week had gone by without a hitch and now that I had settled in to the routine I could see how the boredom might get to some people.

As I approached the bunker that had been the focus of my attention just a week prior, I barely gave it a passing glance. I had grown more accustomed to the layout of the structures and buildings and had actually developed a curiosity for what I might find in some of the old buildings. There was obviously still a lot of equipment and things that were worth something or they wouldn’t bother having a security guard on site. I decided on my next round I would do a little more exploring. Little did I know that my next round would be my last.

It was getting close to midnight when I headed out ready to do some exploring. There was no moon in the sky on this night with the only natural light resulting from the multitude of stars that I had become accustomed to seeing.

Passing by the old coal bunker without a second thought, something caught my eye in the driver side mirror of the Ford Ranger. I saw it only for a moment but it was enough to jolt my senses in to overdrive. Movement. Coming from the direction of the bunker. Or was it just the shadows playing tricks on my mind? Instantly and instinctively I hit the brakes and poked my head out the window looking back toward the bunker, finding myself in an all too familiar situation. There it was again, just for a moment. I strained to see through the darkness as the pace of my pulse picked up speed and thoughts began to stream through my head. There was definitely something moving over there.

I fumbled for my spotlight and thrust it in the direction of the bunker only to see the darkness transform into a bunker door. Nothing more. Only this time the door was open. Wide open.

“What are you doing in there!?” I yelled out. Only it came out more like a high pitched squeal than a commanding tone. Pictures of a 12 year old girl on her way to church bought me a few moments of false courage.

Realizing my emotional state was getting the best of me; I let out a long exhale, gathered myself, and exited the truck. Knife in one hand and spotlight in the other, I marched toward the bunker door in a trance like state to face the unknown.

As I approached the bunker, the now familiar odor of decay filtered into my nostrils and I felt my already uneasy stomach turn. I did nothing to quell the smell, just continued on, letting the intensity of the fear and adrenaline propel me forward until I found myself directly in front of the door and thrusting the light down the passage.

Nothing.

Just an empty corridor leading down into a black haze of coal dust.

My light tried to penetrate the haze but could manage no more than 15 feet or so while I listened intently, unsure of my next move. The fear and adrenaline that had gotten me this far was beginning to betray me. I needed to get out of there. Every fiber of my being was screaming at me to get out of there. Run. Yet I didn’t run. There was something there in that passage and I needed to know what it was. I knew if I ran now I would never come back here again.

With a brief glance behind me I began shuffling my way in to see further down the passage. Left foot forward, right foot up to meet it, with my upper body lagging behind as if to beg the question of my feet’s intent. My focus and my knife were directed toward the extent of passage floor that was the furthest visible point. I knew that at any moment something was going to come barreling at me from below. Following the scraping marks that I had noticed previously, I continued my shuffling motion a short way into the passage when the unthinkable happened.

A sharp slam and quick wind gust followed by an audible click sent a shockwave of emotion through my body as I knew instantly what had occurred. The door had slammed shut behind me.

Instantly, I flung myself around and put my full force into the bunker door to no avail. It was locked solid. Scrambling for a knob or any device to release me from this terrible place, I could find nothing but a smooth door held tight against the concrete walls of the bunker. Again and again I threw myself into the heavy door until my shoulder could take no more.

Panic began to well up inside my body as I felt my grip on both the knife and my spotlight tighten. I put my back against the door and faced the passage, knife at the ready, for whatever may come scurrying up from the depths to get me. I did my best to force out the pictures of nightmarish creatures running through my head. Some teenage kids pulling a prank, that’s all it was. Minutes seemed like hours as the only sound was my heart rapidly beating in my head.

Nothing came.

I stood there, crouched in the corner of the door on the defense for who can say how long. Time had ceased to exist beyond my own breathing and heartbeat.

Waiting.

As I continued my defensive posture, listening intently, a glimmer of hope shot through my head.

The Conveyors.

If I could make my way to the bottom of the conveyors, I could climb up and out to the top of whatever building it happened to go to. It was enough to provoke an immediate sense of relief that I had a way out. I simply had to proceed down the passageway and find one of the conveyers leading out. This paired with the logic that whoever had locked me in here was undoubtedly outside the bunker, provided enough courage for me to begin working my way down the passage.

I slowly followed the passage downward about 30 yards or so before it leveled out and made a sharp right turn. The scrapings on the floor continued along in front of me while my imagination dreamed up various ominous sources for its existence. A dead carcass drug down into the pits? A human? Thoughts of Jim bounced around in my head. Could he have been a victim of something sinister?

Pushing forward, the passage eventually opened up into a square room that stepped down another several feet of which was full of filthy water. Leaning into the room, I directed my light from one side to the next. Taking up the center of the room on a raised platform was a large motor and as I moved the beam of light upward, I could see metal grating above me. It was another level. This was it. The bottom of the conveyor that represented my way to freedom. I could see it rising up at an angle toward the ground above.

Surveying the room further, I located a stairwell on the opposite side of the room. This is where I needed to be.

I took one last glance behind me for assurance and dropped a leg into the murky water to test its depth. About 3 feet down I found the bottom and eagerly waded in to make my way to the other side. I barely noticed the cold water clinging to my lower body as my eagerness to leave this place had overridden any lack of comforts from my surroundings. Halfway across, my foot caught on something under the water and I tripped headlong into the murkiness. I managed to regain my footing almost immediately but in the process had lost my grip on one of the two items that were most dear to me at this moment. It was the bowie knife. A brief query of the bottom with my feet came up empty as my desire to leave this place called a quick end to the search.

My now fully drenched form continued forward until I reached the stairwell on the other side and pulled myself upward, clawing my way out of the water. My flashlight, now wet from the ordeal, began to flicker creating a new form of dread in my already stricken mind.

As I gained access to the stairs, a flash of light from the corner of the room alerted me to something else in the space. I immediately went into my defensive position and flashed the light toward the corner in question just as a bolt of light flashed back toward me. It was a small mirror jutting up out of the water and was reflecting my light. The call to keep moving took precedence and I was just about to continue up the stairwell when it hit me. Following the mirror down to the water’s surface I saw it plain as day. It was a motorcycle.

I could barely make out a portion of the logo. It was a Harley Davidson.

Panic once again rushed into every pore of my mind and body. Flinging myself up the stairs I could finally see my ticket to freedom. The bottom of the conveyor rose upward and out of this horrible place like a highway to freedom. That was all I needed to know as I thrust myself up onto the belt. Scrambling upward, I had barely moved 10 feet before I saw it. Up ahead, halfway up the belt, it sat there motionless. Grinning at me with an elongated mouth like it knew it had won. Too hideous to even be real but there it was. It looked like a shriveled up humanoid with skin that was a hairless gray and shiny like that of an amphibious creature. It’s teeth glared through the smiling lips. I saw its chest heave as if annoyed by my flashlight and it took in a volume of air before letting out a god awful shriek. I now knew the true origin of that unworldly sound. My light flickering, it began to move.

I felt my heart drop into my stomach as the panic turned to horror. The grotesque form was moving rapidly down the belt toward me on all fours, the flickering light creating a strobe affect as it approached. I could see its bony features and long skinny legs scaling down the conveyor with that bellowing grin on its face. I was stricken motionless with terror at the sight of it and as it fell upon me I could see the grisly details of its face. It was disturbingly human with thin and matted hair atop the head, large sunken eyes, sharp jagged teeth that adorned the grisly smile, and large circular ears jutting out to either side. Attached to the left ear there was something small and shiny and as I felt its teeth penetrate my neck, I made one final recognition. It was a small round earring with an embedded logo.

Harley Davidson.

I awoke who knows how long later. Hours. Days. Weeks? No way to tell. All the pain and fear had exited my body and was replaced with something new. Something even more primitive.
I could tell it was daylight as the light was penetrating from the top of the conveyor and hurting my eyes. Looking behind me, the darkness was inviting. I slipped quietly down into the blackness of the coal pits. The darkness now my greatest ally, a craving rose from within. An incredible urge to hunt.

I thought back to those words I had announced to my friends only a week before and a grim smile spread across my face.

I was the boogey man!

Credit: Randal Ray