Ron Barkley was a grade-A son of a bitch but he knew where to get cash and fast. Mind, his methods weren’t what anyone would exactly call legal. Much to my dismay, I had assisted Ron with one of these so-called expeditions last June, a breaking and entering job at one of the ritzy houses in Tifton Hills. It had been a simple job–the elderly couple who usually vacationed there had called off their annual summer trip due to a certain Ms. Rona–and had left me five thousand dollars richer and a whole heap of paranoia for my troubles.
I looked over my shoulder for a good month afterward. Anytime I heard the whine of police sirens my asshole went so tight you couldn’t get a dime through it. Granted, I was able to pay Mom’s medical bills with it and I had thought Ron Barkley was behind me (thank God for small favors).
That was before the complications. Chemo is a bitch in more ways than one. After an extended stay in Chez Memorial Hospital and a fifty-grand bill later, I was back where I started. You know that old phrase, “Up a stream without a paddle?” That implied the existence of a boat. Staring at that bill from those bloodsuckers side-by-side with the eviction notice for my apartment, I realized I didn’t even have a boat.
I paced the room, the bill on its trim-folded stationery resting on the desk next to my phone. Both the bill and the phone stared at me like vipers ready to strike. One resulting with the end of Heather Dawson’s treatments if unpaid, the other whispering promises of cash (if favorably) or prison (if unfavorably). Can’t tell you how long I stared back, running through the options (or, more appropriately, lack thereof). It all inevitably returned to one question—how would I, a graveyard shift clerk at 7-Eleven, raise fifty grand?
I picked up the phone and dialed Ron’s number.
“Yeah?” Ron answered on the third ring. I could practically smell the cigarette smoke waft through the phone. “What’s good?”
“Hey,” I said. My palms were already clammy. “It’s Aaron.” A lengthy pause. “Aaron Dawson.”
“Who?” Ron said, his words slurred and laced with annoyance.
“I did a job with you a while back…Tifton Hills?”
“Oh, yeah!” Ron said. “What’s up, Tifton.”
I had half a mind to correct him but remembered I was only referred to as ‘dude’ last time. Probably didn’t even bother learning my name. He could call me Hannah Montana for all I care. Just do the job—whatever it is—get the money, get out.
“You have any jobs lined up?” I asked. “I need a lot of cash fast. Thought you might need some help or something—“
“How much we talking?”
I swallowed hard.
Laugher burst through the receiver. I had to pull it away from my ear.
“Fifty G’s? Ron said through gasps. When he spoke next, his voice sounded far away, muffled, as though he held a slack grip around his phone. “Hey Crystal! Tifton thinks fifty grand grows on fucking trees!”
My face felt hot and my finger moved glided to the ‘end call’ button. Fuck this clown. I don’t know how I’d do it but I’d get the money. Take out a loan, rob a bank, something. Anything to be rid of this jackass.
“Who the fuck is Tifton?” Another voice, this one female, asked.
“Forget it,” I said.
“I’m just fucking with you, Tifton,” Ron replied. “Take it easy. Don’t get your panties all bunched up.” My thumb ached to end the call. Desperation held it in place. “Lucky for you there might be a job big enough for that. Get fifty grand and maybe a little extra. You in?”
I didn’t answer right away, letting the dead silence fill my ear. What would Mom think about this? It was a question I’d asked myself last time. The answer was much the same as it had been in June: She would go ape-shit, or at least, as ape-shit as anyone fighting lung cancer could. But she would still be fighting.
“‘Kay,” I said through a sigh. “I’m in.”
Ron wouldn’t talk about the gig. He just told me to meet him out at the old Skinner Mines off County Line Road. The doors leading into the cliffside entrance were padlocked and an informational plaque (worn with grime even since before I was a kid) was bolted to the rock beside it.
From what I remember—between the plaque and the general gossip about town—the mines had been opened during the Gold Rush of 1848 by local entrepreneur, Jack Skinner. Rumor had it that Skinner used a considerable chunk of his fortune digging deep into the Earth in pursuit of that ever-elusive gold splendor. Complications during the excavation, dwindling finances, and Skinner’s declining health put an end to his dream, leaving almost two hundred miners dead. Skinner died near the end of the Civil War, his expeditions leaving him nearly destitute.
Naturally, legends sprang up the decades since. About how you could hear old man Skinner or the ghosts of the two-hundred working away. Stories told to children around a campfire or with a lit flashlight held beneath a chin.
Striding up to the entrance, with the quarter moon half-hidden behind a stray cloud, it almost lent those stories credibility. The wind howled through the trees, making them groan and shift in the shadows. A chill ran down my neck. I shook it off and checked my watch. 9:59 PM. Ron said he’d be there by ten, yet nowhere to be seen.
“Figures,” I muttered, pacing. Ron had been high as a kite during the Tifton job. Why would tonight be any different? Not to mention a pig, I thought. Mom always tried to teach me as a kid to be judgmental, but goddamn if it wasn’t hard. Or true, for that matter.
Before the Tifton Jon. I met him at his place—an eyesore of a mobile home in the back of Willow Bay mobile home community. The trailer, white back in the day (or so I assumed), now a sickly yellow.
The interior was probably worse than that. Black patches discolored the once lime green carpet and the air was permeated with the distinct mixture of cat piss and marijuana. McDonald’s burger wrappers and styrofoam containers, complete with half-eaten remains, lay haphazardly about the living room. A large oak coffee table was the one thing in the ballpark of ‘clean’ (minus the lines of white powder lined upon its surface). Only three items in the whole place looked pristine: a fifty-five inch flatscreen, a Playstation 4, and a small Honeywell safe tucked into a corner.
My jaw tightened when I thought about the contents of that safe. Ron tossed something in before we headed out that night. Something about those slow, deliberate movements—the way pulled the silver key on a necklace out from within his shirt, how he kept the contents in full view for the rest of the room to see gave an air of boasting.
There must have been, at least, eighty grand in strapped stacks. Had half a mind to beat him over the back of the head and take it. But then what would that make me? It was the only thought that held me back. Funny how easily desperation and desire transform a man into a beast.
Something shifted in the undergrowth to my right. I turned toward it but I couldn’t see anything past the line of trees. Probably just a squirrel or a fox coming to share what he had to say. As rational as those explanations were, the hairs on the nape of my neck stood on end. I switched my phone’s flashlight on and swept the light over the dense wood. The beam was faint against the thick night, only revealing the area a few feet away from me.
“Just an animal,” I reminded myself. Tried to convince myself. Still, images of nightmare creatures and shadowy figures crept into my mind’s eye.
“Hey,” a voice whispered from the wood. I shifted back to the forest, sweeping my flashlight over the vacant undergrowth in frantic movements.
“Screw this,” I muttered. Ron could keep his job. Instincts were there for a reason, and mine were urging me—no, outright demanding—to get the Hell out of there—
A figure emerged from the night and darted for me.
I yelled, swinging in reflexive defense. The figure leaned back, just missing my fist…and then doubled over in laughter.
Ron Fucking Barkley.
“Very funny,” I said. Though my heart still thumped in my chest like a jackrabbit, the heat rising in my face was enough to cook an egg on. Ron rested his hands on his knees, his gaunt face stretching in his fit. The safe key dangled from his neck and swung seductively.
“Your…face…” he said through gasps of his distinctive HAHAHA laughter. I grimaced, partly from the lame joke at my expense and partly from the stench of stale tobacco wafting from him.
There was more rustling from the nearby undergrowth and two other silhouettes walked out into the clearing. The first was a woman about my age. Her blonde hair was tied back, revealing a heart-shaped face with an eyebrow ring, snake bit piercings, and a septum loop (something Mom called a cow wrangler). She wore jeans ripped at the knees and a black ACDC crop that showed a small muffin top. The woman wore several plain, black bracelets so that her wrists were completely hidden.
The second figure was a lanky man taller than the rest of us. The expression on his long face was one of caution with his deep-set eyes shifting between the three of us, the woods, and the padlocked doors. He wore blue jeans and a Hollister shirt that displayed palm trees against a cloud-speckled sky. Standing between the woman and Ron, he looked too…what’s the word…tidy—like he didn’t belong in the trio.
Probably like me. Another sad sack Ron found at Mike’s Bar, down on his luck and looking for a miracle to deliver him from his strife.
The woman with the cow wrangler slid her arm around Ron’s and rested her head on his bicep. Now that I got a better look at her, she looked about seventeen or eighteen.
“So, who’s the new guy, Ronnie?” She asked in a high-pitched, baby doll voice.
“Babe, what did I tell you about calling me that in public?” Ron snapped. The woman’s lip quivered (once again, reminding me, uncomfortably, of a little girl) before she buried her face into Ron’s arm. Ron shrugged her off, but when he spoke again, it was absent of aggression.
“Everyone, this is Tifton,” Ron said, gesturing toward me.
“My name’s actually—”
“This here,” Ron said, bulldozing right through what I was about to say. He grabbed the woman by the waist and pulled her toward him. She giggled. “Is my girl, Crystal.”
The other man waited expectantly for Ron to introduce him, though Ron had turned his attention to squeezing a handful of Crystal’s ass.
“I’m Evan,” he said with a half-hearted wave. I nodded in return.
“So, you going to tell us why we’re out here or you going to play fondle her all night?” I asked.
“If you had a piece of ass like this, you wouldn’t let it go either,” Ron replied, giving her backside another squeeze for good measure. Crystal bit her lip, giving him bedroom eyes that made my skin crawl. Evan seemed to share the sentiment, shifting nervously from foot to foot.
“We’re here because of a letter,” Evan said.
“A letter?” I asked, frowning.
“Yeah. From my great-grandfather…Ralph Adler? He and Skinner were business partners before the mines. I guess Skinner wanted to do the mine and my grandfather thought it was a stupid idea. A fool’s idea. Skinner tried to hide the mines and embezzled a good chunk of their business to do it. When my grandfather found out, he lost his shit. Cut off all ties to Skinner. Even tried to take him to court but the old bastard died before my grandfather could do it.”
“How do you know all of this?”
“Bunch of old letters I found in my grandma’s attic,” Evan responded with a shrug. He reached into his back pocket and withdrew a folded sheet of paper, yellowed and frayed by time. “This was one of them. The envelope hadn’t even been opened. Lucky Adler didn’t shred it—”
Evan almost had the sheet fully unfolded before Ron swooped in and irreverently flicked it open.
“To Ralph,” Ron read in a high lisp stereotypical of gay men. “I know it’s been several years since we talked civilly to one another. As a younger, more arrogant man, I might have continued fanning the flames of your resentment until I was in the ground. Truth is, Ralph, I’m not young anymore and far less arrogant. Age has grayed my hair and softened my ego—like a dick,” Ron said the last bit looking up at them, waiting for them to share in a laugh. Only Crystal snickered. “Age isn’t the only thing that softens a man’s arrogance, I’m afraid. Death has a way of creeping in like water through rocks in a shifter, carrying away all the little, insignificant bits we cling onto. I hate to say, though I’m sure you’re glad to hear, I’m dying. Water has shifted through my sentiment, leaving me with nothing but the few days I have left.
‘You were every bit as hurt by my venture as I was. Words are useless without action for men like us. I’ll save you from the apologies. I still would have done what I did, and saying sorry won’t change what happened between us. What I can do is make amends. Perhaps to make up and awaken on the other side of Death to much sunnier shores. As above, so below, as the old saying goes.
‘I have no more workers down there. They left, either claiming the place was cursed or when the pay went dry. That leaves only me down here, a sick man with a pickaxe trying to convince himself he hasn’t pissed away his legacy. Or so I thought.
‘I found it, Ralph. Gold. More than you could ever dream of. More than enough to keep your kids wealthy until the Lord Almighty ends this world, and it’s all yours. It’s down there, the doors padlocked and waiting. My way of making amends. I just hope that, when you use it, you’ll remember me more fondly. —Jack.”
Evan snatched the letter back just as Ron finished reading. Anger flashed across Ron’s face. I tensed, half expecting him to lunge. Evan was taller than Ron by a good few inches, but I was sure Ron could tap into ‘crazy person strength’—the frenzy druggies usually fly into when their supply has either been stolen or run out.
“So, you think this gold is in there?” I asked. “All mined and ready for us?”
“We’re about to see, aren’t we, Tifton?” Ron asked. I felt the heat rise in my face again. All this cloak and dagger bullshit and for what? Speculation?
“If what the letter says is true,” Evan said. “It should still be down there. That lock’s been on the door since Skinner died. No one’s been in there since.”
“And what about tools?” I asked. “Pickaxes? I doubt Skinner was kind enough to dig the gold out and smelt it into bricks for us.”
“Chill, Tifton,” Ron said, holding out a hand as though I were about to deck him. “Got it covered, dude.”
He nodded toward Evan, who pulled a backpack off his shoulder. He unzipped it, revealing two small picks in the beam of Ron’s phone light.
“Any other questions, ladies?” Ron asked, slipping one of the pickaxes out. He turned toward the doors, twirling the tool in his hand for good measure. Ron brought the ax down upon the rusted lock and chain. It made a loud clang in the silence that made me wince. The chain snapped on the second blow. The corroded metal fell to the ground, where it lay coiled like a snake in the grass.
Ron heaved against one of the wooden doors. The hinges groaned in protest, echoing down the passage beyond in a low howl. A black hole stood beyond. The darkness was so complete that it seemed to rebuff the flashlight’s beam. Eating it. The smell that seeped out was worse—a sick brew of earth, mold, and the musk of age. Like how a coffin smells six feet under.
Now wasn’t the time to start shitting myself like a toddler in the dark. Still, I felt cold, as if someone had dumped a bucket of ice water over me. Or the fact that some small, primal facet of my mind demanded that I drop the whole business right then and there. It was shut down immediately, of course. Oppressive logic won out every time.
Everyone filed into the mine, leaving me to bring up the rear. Those dirty, illogical thoughts of the dark pressed in. All I had to combat it was the logic I clung to like a safety blanket.
The temperature dropped, making what had been a comfortable sixty-two degree night into, what felt like, a thirty degree nightmare. I wore a cotton long-sleeved, something light but enough to be comfortable in the sixties. But this cold seeped in until it stiffened my joints. I flexed my arms to fight it off. No luck. So, I wrapped my arms around myself. Still, no cigar.
That smell was worse now that I was in the thick of it. I tried to take shallow breaths, though even then it felt like it stuck to the back of my throat like mucus.
The worst thing was the silence. Every minute noise—from my sneakers treading against the dirt floor to the reverberating of a far-off rock shifting—rattled my senses.
“So,” I said to Evan. Anything to break that overbearing stillness. My voice felt still there. unwelcome. I coughed, pushing that thought away, and continued. “How’d you get roped into this?”
Evan laughed nervously.
“I kinda owe Ron.”
“Yeah?” I asked, trying to surprise the look of disgust threading to commandeer my expression. The thought of owing Ron Barkley anything made my skin crawl.
Almost as bad a relying on him.
This time a scowl did cross my face, but luckily the dark hid it.
“He helped me out of a rough spot a couple of months ago,” Evan replied, bowing his head. I suspected if it wasn’t so dark, I would have seen his face beat red.
I just nodded. I wondered what that rough spot was, but since I just met the guy, it wasn’t kosher. Not that I had much time to ask. Just as soon as Evan finished talking, we walked into a large cavern. The rock sparkled with moisture and my foot sunk into the ground.
“What the fuck?” Ron said.
There was something in his voice that instantly made the alarm bells go off. It wasn’t that cool arrogant, dude-bro speech, but a quivering, uncertain tone. It toggled the switched in my brain from annoyance to uneasy. There was a thickness to the air and it made the hairs on my arms stand on end.
That overwhelming sense of adult logic cascaded over me, propelling me forward on stiff legs to find the source of the commotion. Probably just a cave-in or something, I thought. Some mundane, stupid thing that Ron’s pea-brain couldn’t handle—
A man stood on the ceiling two yards away.
I blinked and squinted my eyes as though that would change the scene. You know how when you come across something your brain can’t pick up right away, you just keep staring at it. Like how a shadow seems to move on its own or when you spot a human-shaped figure in a darkened room. You stare at it, refusing to accept that there’s anything out of the ordinary. Eventually, the light shifts or your eyes adjust and you see that it’s just a pile of clothes. This time, it wasn’t clothes.
The man wore a three-piece suit, finely pressed and tailored to fit his lank frame. I even spotted the silver chain of a pocket watch connect to the middle button of his waistcoat. It might have been weird enough to come across someone in that kind of outfit, but it wasn’t what freaked me out. It was the fact that he was standing on the cave’s ceiling.
Gravity didn’t affect him—his coattails didn’t fall toward the ground nor did the top hat on his head topple off. It was almost like he were the one right-side up. My skin crawled when the thought flitted through my mind.
Ron’s flashlight beam wavered over the man’s face. A porcelain theater mask stared back—the one showing a wide smile and squinting eyes. I think they call it a Thalia mask.
“What the fuck, man?” Ron repeated. A laugh rounded the end of his sentence and that carefree timbre crept back into his voice. “Look at this shit,” he said, turning back to the rest of us. His face split into a grin as if the man was the funniest thing he ever saw. Except for his eyes. Those were wide and darted between each of us. A hope in them that one of us would burst into laughter with him. Just a joke on good ol’ Ron.
No one did.
Crystal clung to Ron’s arm, her gaze transfixed upon the man on the ceiling. Evan’s eyes darted around the room—like a rat trying to find a means of escape—and only returned on the figure for brief moments. As for me, I couldn’t tell you what I looked like. There was only one thing on my mind: Getting the fuck out of there. If only my legs would move…
“We should leave,” I croaked.
“Oh, come on,” Ron said, the confidence quickly filling out his voice. “You bunch of pussies! It’s just a queer doing a Houdini. You really going to let this fag—“
“get in the way,” the man said.
Those of us who weren’t looking at the man turned so that now all four pairs of eyes stared at him. It wasn’t so much that he spoke that shocked us all. It was that his voice was Ron’s. Everything from the inflection, the tone. An exact replica.
“Funny man!” Ron said, taking a step forward. “Got anything else to say? Polly got a cracker?”
“Fuck man,” the man said. “You ever noticed how hot Evan is?”
Despite my fear, I nearly snorted. Ron’s face slackened and his head cocked to one side—something I’m sure he thought made him look intimidating. I glanced at Evan, whose face was crimson even in the darkness.
“What the fuck?” Ron muttered. “You wanting to get shot tonight?”
Ron’s hand gravitated to his backside, where I noticed the outline of a handgun tucked within his waistband.
“Ron—“ I said, taking a step forward.
“I lay up at night, picturing him taking off his clothes bit by bit,” the man on the ceiling said in Ron’s voice. Each word echoed through the chamber and cut me to the bone. The man cocked his head. “How I’d love to suck his—”
Before I had a chance to stop him, Ron wretched out his handgun and shot three rounds at the reverse man. The blasts shook the earthen walls. The ringing that followed pierced my eardrums like daggers.
If the bullets found their mark, it didn’t show. The man stood as he had been, not a fiber of his waistcoat misplaced. That pale mask grinned in the darkness, his squinting eyes black, expressionless pits.
Ron grunted, tossing the weapon aside and stomping toward the reverse man. My chest tightened. I could barely breathe. I opened my mouth to call out but the words wouldn’t come out.
Ron jumped and grabbed the man’s arm. His feet didn’t even touch down when the man fell landing face first in the dirt. Ron spat a string of white phylum on the man’s top hat, then spun back toward them with a triumphant grin.
A gloved hand reached up and clutched Ron’s wrist. That grin vanished, replaced with the vacant look of confusion.
The man’s arm looked like it had grown twice its length, bent in unnatural angles at multiple points. Then, it lifted its head. The smile was gone, replaced with a grimace and a malevolent glare.
Ron pulled against it, inching toward the discarded gun feet away. The man never moved from his spot, but his arm grew longer and longer with each step Ron made. By the time Ron’s fingers slid over the .45’s handle, the man’s arm was nearly as long as his body.
Ron swung the gun back around. Two more rounds cracked through the cavern. The man’s head arched back, ripping half the porcelain mask off with it and the top hat slid back. The man’s hair was sandy. A lot like Ron’s, I thought. There was a reason for that, one that became apparent when the rest of the mask fell away.
It was Ron’s face, dark and bloated. The face of a corpse.
That’s when Ron screamed.
That’s when we ran the other way.
I fumbled my way through the dark. My phone’s flashlight passed over the cavern walls and my shaking hands couldn’t keep it upright. All I could focus on was my frantic breaths, the echo of running footsteps, and the face behind the mask.
And Ron’s screams.
They rattled inside my head, filling my mind with images I won’t go into here. Just, if any of them are true, it would be one time in my life I felt sorry for Ron Barkley.
If only I could get outside—breathe in some fresh air—I could make sense of it. That ‘grown-up’ part of my brain could take over, rationalize anything back to normality. But here, in the dark…this wasn’t reality. It was some horrific landscape crafted by the darkest images in my mind. I was never going to get out and help my mom. I was trapped here, underground, with the monster under my bed. The man in the closet. And there was no end in sight.
A wall appeared from out of the darkness. I crashed into it before I could stop, the impact forcing all the oxygen out of my lungs. I fell back and hit the ground hard. My vision doubled. Two figures leaned over me. I thrashed out at them until one of them spoke—
“Dude, calm down!” Evan said. His voice felt like a momentary slap back to reality. A quick sliver of reality ebbing through the dark.
“What the fuck was that?” Crystal asked, pacing to and fro. I grunted in reply.
“Hey,” Evan said, his gaze darting between me and Crystal. He snapped his fingers as though trying to check my vision. My eyes followed his movements. “It’s going to be alright. We just need to get out of here.”
“Oh my God. Oh my God,” Crystal said. Black streaks of running mascara lined her face. “What was it?”
“We can worry about that later!” Evan said, his voice firmer than I think anyone felt. Still, there was a confidence about it that made the panic ebb from me slightly. It seemed to work on Crystal too, as her gait slowed. “Can you stand?” he asked me.
“I…I think so,” I replied, extending a hand. I took it and he helped lift me up.
“So…what do we do?” Crystal croaked.
Evan and I scanned the corridor with our lights. It turned out not to be a passage at all but a room only a little bigger than Ron’s living room. Something glistened in the wall. I brought the light back to the spot.
“Holy shit,” I muttered. Another beam of light met mine and Evan snickered in disbelief.
Evan walked toward it. I glanced over to Crystal. She didn’t seem to be paying us any attention, instead just absently pacing again. In the dark, with her hair down and her make-up askew, she looked no more than a teenager.
Poor kid, I thought. Dragged into this bullshit.
I filed it away for later and joined Evan. He peered at the piece of rock, rubbing it with his finger.
“I can’t believe it,” he said, letting the mineral twinkle in the flashlight. It gave me hope—my light at the end of the tunnel. I brought my hand up and slid my finger against the stone.
The smile fell away.
When I was a kid, my mom used to take me to this place where you could dig for rocks for an afternoon. Granted, when I say dig, I mean they had us searching through a sandbox for stones. Thought I had hit gold back then too.
“It’s pyrite,” I muttered.
I coughed, but the lump in my throat wouldn’t go down. Hope evaporated like smoke in the wind.
“What’s the matter?” Evan said, edging away from the wall like a spider had crawled out of some crevice.
“It’s fools gold.”
“It’s…no…” Evan bent in, his eyes narrowing as he inspected the piece of pyrite.
“Touch it,” I replied. “It’s rough. Real gold is smooth, round. This is…its just rock.”
Evan did as I instructed him. He slid his finger against it for half a second before recoiling.
“Son of a bitch!”
“Thanks, Ron,” I muttered before I remembered our situation.
“Do you think he’s—”
“I don’t know,” I replied, not wanting to hear the end of that sentence. I just know that when someone screams like that, it wasn’t because they were handing you a cave full of gold.
Why would that man—if it even was a man—taunt Ron like that. It was a weird thought, but in this place, it seemed even the weirdest idea had equal footing. If it just wanted to kill him, then why didn’t it?
“Do you think what that thing said is true?” I asked. Evan turned back to me, his brow tight with confusion. “About…you know…”
Evan’s face brightened a rose-red before he shifted away again.
“Why does it matter?” Fair point. What did it matter? “Although…it would explain why he kept patting my ass at his place. I thought it was a basketball thing.”
I would have laughed at the comment if it were a different time or place.
Or if I hadn’t turned around.
Crystal stood a few feet away, staring up at the ceiling. Above her was the man (No, not a man. A creature). It sat cross-legged on the ceiling and its head bowed as though examining something in its hands.
Cement replaced my joints. I couldn’t move. I could only watch and listen to Crystal’s soft, shaking sobs. It took me a moment to realize she was staring at the thing on the ceiling’s hand. I slowly lifted my light.
The creature’s porcelain mask was barely recognizable in the darkness. After a minute, I realized it wasn’t wearing a top hat, so that its own long, dark hair fell over its face. The same dark shade and length as Crystal’s.
Something glinted in the thing’s hand, its fingers lightly twirling it around—a rectangular razor.
“Crystal,” I croaked. “Crystal, you need to get away.”
“No,” she replied, but not to me. It was at the creature. The thing on the ceiling turned its head, miming the act of looking between the razor and its wrists. Crystal held her own protectively against her breasts. “I’ve…I’ve been good. I don’t want to.”
The creature slowly raised one of its bare wrists as though presenting it to the rest of the room. Slowly, deliberately, it raised the razor in its other hand toward the exposed flesh.
“Stop,” Crystal sobbed. “Please. I’m…I’m not like this…”
My throat closed up. So…that had been the reason for Crystal’s bracelets.
The creature brought the razor’s edge across its wrists. Crystal took a step back and gasped. Blood, so dark it looked black, flowed. Droplets fell upward, as though the ceiling were the floor. It switched the razor to the other hand and ran it across the other wrist. The creature slumped back, crimson ebbing from it like a faucet. It raised a hand to its face, letting the mask fall away.
Crystal’s face, gray and bloated, stared back at them. Then, it leaned forward and extended the razor to the real Crystal.
“Don’t,” I said, but it was barely a whisper. It was like whatever was doing this had pressed the pause button on the world. I felt powerless.
Crystal reached up and plucked the instrument from the thing’s hand, sliding her finger against the flat side of the silver piece.
“Crystal.” Evan’s voice. He crept toward her, his hands held up. Like he was talking to a person about to jump off the edge of a building. “It’s okay. It…It’s trying to get in your head. You saw how it was like with Ron. Just put down the razor and step away.”
“No,” she said so quietly that I barely heard her. “I…I want this. I always have. I was just…too afraid.”
A glance up revealed the creature sitting, watching.
“You don’t want this,” Evan said, inching forward.
“I do,” Crystal said, her voice eerily calm. “I have ever since I was fourteen.”
She extended her arm and brought the razor up. Evan lunged. His hand clutched onto the hand that held the safety razor. My limbs unlocked. I darted toward them as they fought for the blade.
Crystal ripped free of Evan’s grasp, bringing her arm back in a wide arc. Evan stumbled back with wide eyes. He brought a hand to his neck but the blood already dripped down to his shirt collar. Black panic clouded my vision. I sped past Crystal, tearing at the edge of my shirt.
Fear comes in stages. There’s that distant fear, something far off but strong enough to seep into your nightmares. Creeping fear, like walking into an abandoned cave at night with a bunch of idiots. Then there was outright panic—the kind that renders your senses useless. Two hundred thousand years of evolution and rational thought went out of the window. You become an animal again, bound by instinct. There’s no more feeling, no more thinking, only action.
I wrapped the torn bit of fabric around Evan’s neck, barely thinking about what I was doing or where I was. I don’t think I even cared at that point. I was a robot, flying in a haze of necessity.
“Oh no,” Crystal said. “Oh, my God. I’m so sorry…”
I didn’t look back. All I could look at was Evan’s wide, blue eyes. At the way the color seemed to drain from his face. There were footsteps and I briefly noticed Crystal disappear into the darkness.
I pulled the strip tight. Evan gave a grown. There wasn’t much blood seeping through. I wasn’t much of a religious man, but I prayed that was a good sign she hadn’t hit an artery. Evan stared blankly around the chamber. I couldn’t tell if he was actually looking at something or was just going through the motions during his last moments of life—
The voice broke through my fog of panic. Ice coursed through my veins.
“Mom?” I whispered.
I turned slowly, my heart pounding against my breast. I didn’t want to see what made the voice but my body turned against my will.
A hospital bed hung from the ceiling. Within it lay my mother. She didn’t wear a mask so that her thin face was exposed to all. Her body looked shriveled in the polka-dotted hospital gown, making her look like a child in a woman’s dress. Her eyes were dark in the dim light but they weren’t looking at me. They shifted, watching something just at the edge of my flashlight’s beam.
The masked creature stepped into the light. It held a pillow in its hands.
“Baby?” My mother asked, her voice cracking. “What…what are you doing?”
My eyes felt hot. I trembled violently. I wanted to look away but it was as if some magnetic pull kept me still. Maybe part of me knew that I had to watch it. I watched my mother gaze up at the masked figure with dark eyes. I watched as the masked figure raised the pillow and brought it down. I watched my mother’s weak thrashes, her last struggle to hold onto life. My eyes burned, but I didn’t blink them. Not even as the struggle subsided, her flailing lessened, and my mother finally lay still.
The masked thing left the pillow over her face and turned toward me. Its blank eyes stared down at my and its grin mocked me. Slowly, it raised a hand to its face. The fingers found purchase on the porcelain and pulled the Thalia mask away. My pale face stared back inches from my own. Waiting.
What could I do? Deny that what it did was what I wanted? Because…I couldn’t. How many times had I sat at my mother’s bedside, holding her hand and watching her struggle for breath from a cannula?
Her clammy, fragile hand in my own. The hospital stink of antiseptic and piss. Waiting for that phone call; the one from a nurse telling me I needed to hurry to see my mother alive one last time. My mother’s suffering, my anxiety. Wouldn’t it be easier—no, kinder—to end it for the both of us?
My dead imitation cocked its head, expression blank. What did it want from me? I opened my mouth but nothing came out. I remember what Crystal said—“I…I want this. I always have.” Maybe that’s what it was about. Ron wanting Evan, Crystal wanting death, I wanted my mother to stop suffering. For the end of my own suffering. It knew what we wanted.
“I’m afraid,” I whispered. The creature straightened but its expressionless face didn’t change.
As above, so below, as the old saying goes.
“I want it but I’m afraid.”
“What is it you fear?” My voice, raspy and cold, came from the thing’s mouth. I waited for a moment, trying to align my thoughts. Finally, I said—
Being an orphan.
The man on the ceiling said nothing. It raised the mask to its face, covering the ghastly imitation of my own.
“Then you are free.”
The man on the ceiling was gone. It had happened so suddenly, I had to stare into the darkness for several seconds to realize it was gone. It had been like a nightmare and I was waking up. The only proof the creature had been there was a silver key on the ground beneath where it had stood.
I don’t know why I grabbed the key. Maybe some part of me wanted a memento from that night. A reminder. Or maybe my tiny primate brain wanted it because it was shiny. Regardless, I scooped it up, put it in my jeans pocket, and forgot about it.
Evan clung to my shoulder as he and I made it out of the gave. Blood seeped through the torn bit of shirt around his neck. I wasn’t sure he was going to make it. The mines felt endless and winding and my phone was on two percent. Not to mention useless underground. But, just as the thought crossed my mind, I turned a corner to see the ghostly moonlight at the end of the passage. I don’t think I’d ever been so glad to see the night sky.
I got Evan to a hospital. I just said that I found him in an alleyway like that. Once he was taken back, I slipped out before they got the cops in for the police report. How would I even begin to explain that night?
I scanned the obituaries for a week. Luckily, I didn’t find him. I randomly came across his Facebook about a month later. Looks like we had a couple of friends in common. He seems to be doing well, even found him a boyfriend. Still, I noticed a tiny, thin scar next to his jugular in his most recent pictures.
As for Ron and Crystal, I never heard from them. Whether they made it out of those caves or not, I’m not sure. In fact, I hadn’t thought of Ron for a couple of weeks. Not until I found the key in my jeans pocket while doing laundry, anyway. It took me a moment to realize from where I had got it and a second more to realize why it looked so familiar.
It was the key that Ron always wore around his neck—the one to his safe.
The payment deadline for Mom’s bills was only a few days away and I hadn’t a chance in Hell of paying it.
On second thought—as I stared down at the key and thinking about the stacks in that safe—maybe Hell had given me a chance.
Credit : Steven Winters
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