“Fuck you!” Nathan Keene screamed at his grandmother. Her quivering lip stiffened and sucked in a gasp. The widening sclera of her aged vision looked as though they’d pop out of her skull. With all the strength his little hands could summon, Nathan slammed the door behind him. He could hear Nana calling his name as Gramps returned to his study with mumbled curses.
The seething ten-year-old cut through the neighbor’s backyard. He stomped over their vegetable garden and hopped over the small chain link fence to the street. One of the diamond-shaped wires slipped across his palm and opened a bleeding slit. The sting that followed was fierce but otherwise ignored by his screaming thoughts.
He made his way passed Oak Road and crossed the street with eyes to the asphalt. Gramps’ words rattled inside of him, acting as crazy as his father! An orange Camry deafened him with its blaring horn followed by an angry woman shouting, “Use both eyes, punk!”
Nathan raised a miniature yet powerful middle finger to the driver’s bumper. Screw everyone, he thought. Screw everyone in the world! This is where his mother left him with his grandparents, shoved in Leon County’s fat rolls, Tallahassee.
Nana said she needed a “mommy break” from it all. Of course, after all the shouting, all the sleepless nights, she needed a “mommy break”. So here he was, pawned off like the forgotten luggage from an airport’s baggage carousel. She was out there enjoying the vintage of life. She was out there soaking in the laughing sun. She was out there happier without him, happier without Dad.
Bitter tears pooled within the purple ring that encircled his bruised eye, a memento he received last week. The shiner was given to him by Marcus Miholl, an eighth-grader in his neighborhood with the athletic build (and looks) of Popeye’s Bluto.
Marcus spent his afternoons waiting for the school bus to round the corner alongside a misfit posse of skinny jeans and sagging asses. Once that yellow hinged door folded open, he was a lion deciding which prey had the weakest windpipe. It made him feel alive, as though the bus were an enormous capsule filled with a limitless antidepressant. But on the day he mistook Nathan Keene for a wounded gazelle, the dosage fought back.
Sidewalks lead Nathan to the gated entrance of Hollow Park, a mature chunk of karstic land amidst many homes in the community. Beneath its underlain layer of soft rock were subterranean drainage systems that formed caves. The landscape was pockmarked with sinkholes dry and wet, shallow and deep.
His shoes scuffed the grit that permeated the sloping path. He felt happier here, hidden beneath the groves that kept the May heat from beating him. Time felt elusive and life felt fair. Nobody could hurt him here.
He crossed the small bridge Dad once tripped over and peered into the soft stream. This was once their park. Every other spring, they’d always come back here while visiting his grandparents. The memories felt pleasant at first but soon started to sting again.
Those were the nights he could sleep, before the dreams became clots of empty spaces. Every night accelerating and expanding into a gash of dark energy like a galaxy without stars. No oxygen, no solid ground to tread, only the titanic darkness; hungry darkness that fed on his house, his room, his father, until everything inevitably disappeared.
Yes, the park was where he’d disappear as well, temporarily of course. It wouldn’t be difficult for everyone to guess where he ran off. Soon enough they’d all come running, sorry for what they put him through. Gramps would apologize for being an asshole. Nana would make her ambrosia pudding. Mom would see that her son wasn’t baggage. Dad would come back home. His plan was flawless.
Just right of him (near the restrooms), the pathway he was on lead guests to the park’s main loop, the Sinkhole trail. Any visitor could look straight down the throat-like chutes and see an array of colored pools. You could watch rushing water disappear and then pop up again in a river rise. Wooden posts announced your arrival at each sink as well as its given name. The surrounding trees were marked with green blazes that guided hikers to each sight.
Nathan scratched his head and pondered. Where could he wait it out? The painted blazes would lead him down a flight of stairs toward Shriveled Sink. Just beyond there the trail rose up to an overlook of Spinner Sink. He could then slide down the side path and circle left to Virtue Springs.
Then an idea struck him like a freight train. Within the luscious green organs of Hollow Park was a body of water separated from the collective path. A gaping sinkhole called, The Dismal Maw. Hidden beneath its dirty black water is a pit that plummets deep into the earth. Deep lightless catacombs branch out for miles and also connect to Virtue Springs.
There was his answer; the pay dirt he needed. He knew exactly where to find it too. On occasions where his mother didn’t join them, he and his father wandered off the trail to see the sinkhole for themselves. They weren’t overly impressed by the wide drink of water, but his father enjoyed humoring the title. Mom disagreed with him.
Nathan recalled all the times Nana warned him to steer clear of the Dismal Maw.
“The path leads you away from that sinkhole because it isn’t safe. Children, especially you, should never play near there. The soil is very loose and may collapse beneath your feet. It is not a good place for kids to be.”
This was the only way he could make his mother understand. Really understand.
He wanted the weight of his world to compress her shoulders. He wanted the hot glowing embers that burnt his heart to singe hers. He wanted her to watch the swelling crevasse of empty space to gouge her dreams every night.
Nathan brushed away an escaping tear with his knuckles. He discretely followed the green blazes to the set of steps. They lowered into a depression with a wooden post that read in large white letters:
Shriveled Sink →
He crossed the observation deck that provided a clear vertical view down a slender chimney to sloshing brown water. He idly wondered if tossing in a coin would earn him a wish.
The trail climbed out of the crater and began its curvature towards Spinner Sink. His brown eyes traced along the sides until he found the cutaway that his father discovered. He paced his sneakers over the brushes of wiregrass that tickled his legs. Ahead of him was the oval rock they both pissed on once. Not too much further past that were the magnolia trees that resembled his teacher’s hairdo. Before long, he arrived.
The sinkhole stretched forty meters with a cascade of plants growing along its bowl-shaped walls. A bent cypress tree loomed over the edge he stood on, its branches curled like puppet fingers over the black water. Dead leaves voyaged across the surface. Nathan wrapped his fingers around the brown-gray bark and slid cautiously down the shallow slope. Dirt caked into his rubber soles and smeared over the white laces. A few rocks were dislodged and sent bouncing into the pond, falling forever beneath the dark.
He stopped himself just a few inches from the Maw’s stilled blackness and sat into the soil. Crazy, Gramps shouted, acting as crazy as his father! The thoughts bounced, bent, and shattered as though his brain were a small blender. Then he could just unplug it for a while. That would be nice, almost too nice. He clasped a handful of wet pebbles encrusted with dirt and skidded them across the water. White ripples pulsed over one another in seams.
“Who’re you?” A voice asked abruptly.
Nathan sprung up and nearly slipped feet first into the sinkhole. The question wasn’t demandingly spit by an adult. It was calm and spoken with childlike curiosity. His brown eyes combed the pit’s soil-lined walls to the surrounding rim. Was he followed here? No, nobody was there—until he looked down.
A face stared up at him, bobbing out of the black water. Nathan froze; it looked like a boy’s face. His skin was moon white with grime caked around the chin and ear tips. Strands of his short blonde hair swayed and danced beneath the surface. The water was too shady to spy any white neck or flowing clothes below him. He looked like a pale island with closed lips carved in the dry land.
The face then blinked and slid its bluebell eyes to their corners, facing him. “Are you crying?”
Nathan wiped his eyes and picked up his nerves into an unmoved bravado. “No,” He scoffed. “You aren’t supposed to swim in there.”
The boy’s soaked eyebrows perked. “But I swim here all the time. Isn’t so bad to me.” His eyelids wilted like partially closed curtains as though he were about to suck in a heavy yawn. “Why are your cheeks red and your eyes puffy? One of them is black too.”
Nathan ground his teeth and now felt self-conscious. This kid had some nerve showing up uninvited and now examining him. Was he on trial or something? “I wasn’t crying, what do you care?”
“I do care.”
“Why, we’ve never met before.” Nathan’s stare became slits.
“Good point; I’m James!” The face winded its lips into a misshapen smile. “Waiting for someone?”
Nathan scowled inwardly. The boy named James was strange, weird-looking, and very nosy. Yet behind that oddball persona was a pleasant voice, which baffled him the most. “My Mom left me here. I don’t know for how long, maybe forever.” The thoughts carried air pockets through him that threatened to rupture with anger.
“Oh,” James inquisitive look melted. “My parents left me here too.” A new weight carried his voice.
Curiosity veered Nathan back to those blue eyes. “Why?” he asked.
“They went away without me. I thought we were happy. But things always change.” James heaved a gloomy breath. “The world ends with change, doesn’t it?”
In that instance, Nathan didn’t feel alone, in the most ironic of all places. His inner wrath simmered to a mild boil. Yes, the oddball was right; change meant the finale of everything.
Adults did it all the time, because they can’t hear it; the cries tugging at their pants from the floor. All that matters is them and only them. He couldn’t peg a word for what he was feeling, but an adult would have called it empathy. “I’m Nathan.”
James’ sinking expression reanimated. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Nathan! Parents treat us all the same, don’t they?”
“Then we lost boys should stick together, right?”
A pallid hand rose to the surface with wrinkled fingertips that presented themselves. “Whaddya say we shake on it?” he offered.
Nathan leaned over the pond and extended his arm to reach. The hand snapped forward and seized him. James smile withered. Thick pain welled from his wrist and twisted like an Indian burn. The grip plunged his hand into the black water. A paralyzing chill kissed his cut palm, as though his veins were becoming icicles. In his mind he yelled ‘let me go’, but his voice box shriveled.
His free hand snatched wildly in the air for anything solid enough to cling to. Freezing pain was prodding his submerged arm and climbing higher. This had to be a prank, a sick prank that a weird boy played on strangers. His roaming fingers caught something coarse and flakey. The drooping tree! He bent and dug his nails into the bark. With a good yank, he managed to wrench his arm out of the murk. Then he saw what had hold of him and felt his mind derail. What followed out was a cluster of branchlike tentacles, noosed around his arm. They resembled vines that were dripping and dead.
The rotten smell from their smooth gluey membranes induced vomit. Mental paralysis set in. His sanity untethered and drifted to freedom, somewhere far away from this.
The face that jutted from the abyssal water was no longer James. Its milky skin sank to bluish-green with prominent flabby bruises. Both bluebell irises were engulfed by pupils that were dilating like spilled ink. “What’s the matter, Nathan?” It crooned from receding lips and deformed teeth. “I thought you were a lost boy.” No, it wasn’t a voice at all, just sputters and gurgles from water-logged lungs.
Nathan’s fingers slipped from the calloused grooves. The raw tentacles dragged him towards the watery fissure. His sneakers dug into the earth to cement himself from the sticky knots unrelenting pull.
Black jelly that had once been its eyes drained into their sockets. The bruised bags of flesh slumped and split apart, releasing putrid bile. Green ichor infused with the black water and floated atop its surface like oil streaks. The weak skin further dissolved into greenish foam that reached the sinkholes rims. Its ears, nose, cheeks, and lips, all became liquefied mass to feed the cesspool. But the voice did not melt away; it rung like a siren from the discolored skull’s splintered fibers. “Come inside. The loneliness is over and never coming back. I’m calling for you; we’re all calling for you, Nathan-Naaathan-Naaaaathan!”
A pain was being ignited in Nathan’s shoulder. With every violent jerk and tug the internal fire outspread. It couldn’t be contained. Bone started to torque. His threshold of pain erupted from a churning pop from the socket.
He hoisted his neck and bawled mindlessly to the treetops. The world became fuzzy red grains. His mind short-circuited. In a gasping broken voice, he cried for help. He cried for his mother and father. He cried for his grandparents. Somewhere within the collapsing halls of his consciousness, a speck of solidity knew that he was yelling, but couldn’t hear anything. It was being drowned out by an amalgam of screams, children’s screams. They wafted from the Dismal Maw in a choir of mindless pleas and indiscernible moans.
“Come inside; meet the family. We’re all lost boys and girls here! It hurts to fight, doesn’t it? Just let go, why fight it?”
It jerked him ever closer to the dark green froth. Every sense of feeling left his dislocated shoulder in a numb veil. Howls of wailing children invaded his eardrums. He could gaze straight down into the Maw’s gullet now. No reflection stared back, only empty space. Yes, the infinite empty space that waited for him. The darkness was coming closer—hungry darkness. Horrific reality pitted his fleeting world. He was all alone, isolated from everyone. His parent’s silhouettes waned on the horizon.
“You’re slipping, I can feel it. The pain will stop, I promise. Aren’t you tired of them hurting you? Leave your parents behind, just like they did you.”
Nathan’s strength abandoned him. His body glided over the rim and dropped headfirst into the tainted fluid. Sharp chills stabbed every nerve they could reach. The water shot into his ears and nostrils. Invisible rip currents sucked him further into in the void. His lungs contracted and felt like they were tearing open. Screams bubbled out of his throat. Wake up, he begged. Wake me up! Please, PLEASE!
The tide drew him lower into the Maw’s suffocating trenches. Deeper he sank from the oval-shaped twilight that shrank above him. Inevitably everything disappeared for Nathan Keene. Until all that remained was the bottom he’d never reach.
The countdown commenced in Hollow Park. A group of kids ranging from ten to twelve scattered. Cindy frantically separated from the bulk of them; their hysterical giggles and hushes would surely get her caught. The grey sky looked like bundles of fine lint. She formed a mental map of all the dead giveaway spots. Be it seeking or hiding, she was the best, but this time Jeremy Brier was it. And Jeremy Brier is a cheater.
Of course, he thought the opposite was true. Every cheater always did (Mom told her so). “Squinty Eyes is peaking while she counts!” He wined every time it was her turn to find everyone. That was his favorite nickname for her. It used to make her cry but has since diluted into a faint annoyance. A close second was the obnoxious reminder of what his father called her Mom, Mrs. Nip. She hated every atom that boy was made of.
But this time would be different; she’d wipe the floor with him. She crossed an old-jeep road and circled right around three deep dark throats of Sabal Sink. The water used to look clear and blue, before groundwater contaminated by nitrates seeped its way through Tallahassee’s loins over the years.
Thirty, her instincts warned, definitely reached thirty by now. Out of time! She leapt over a family of wildflowers and abandoned the trail. There was no doubt he’d heat seek her.
The first one caught was branded the worst hider of the bunch. That was the glowing red iron Jeremy Brier reserved with her name on it.
Cheaters are the scum of the earth. None deserved even a thread of sympathy in this world. That was why her father left for Osaka when she was three (Mom told her so).
She stopped. There were bands of bright yellow in between the trees that tangled around their trunks. POLICE LINE – DO NOT CROSS was scribed in pitch capital letters. Caution tape, she’d seen it before, mostly downtown for strayed voltage warnings. Why Hollow Park though? Curiosity overwhelmed her as she maneuvered past the barricade.
The earth in front of her dipped into a round crevice. A pool that resembled tar gathered at the bottom. It was a sinkhole, but not just any other run-of-the-hill sink for tourists to gawk at. This was the Dismal Maw. She and the others use to play here a lot, before the accident two years ago. The body of a ten-year-old was discovered by a hiker named Barry Moss who heard the toddler’s screams. By the time he arrived the boy had reportedly fallen in and drowned. Ever since then parents and authorities have cracked down even harder with Hollow Park’s safety.
Mom didn’t have to know though. Everyone else would be too chicken, especially cheater Brier. How could she throw away this trump card? She mindfully slid down the incline towards the dark water.
Cindy knew all the stories that swashed around the Maw’s lips. Loren Hudson says it was caused by a meteorite and that their city was built around it. Billy Bracken says a witch’s house once stood here before she cast the wrong spell and caused the earth to swallow her.
The fattest grape on the vine was that the sinkhole is haunted, riddled with human bones inside its limestone cavities. Remains from an old graveyard that was built over the terrain, before sinking into the earth and being swallowed whole, souls and all. The pit plunged so deep into a lightless shaft that no ghost could ever swim out of. But Cindy knew they were all just flim-flam stories.
She waited in the dirt and traced white creases in the stilled water.
“Are you hiding?” someone asked.
Cindy panicked, expecting to find someone trying to leach her for her spot. Her monolid eyes met a small face that plopped out of the black. It was a boy that looked like a glistening sheet of white. Droplets of water sailed down his black brows and pasty cheeks to rejoin their kin. She’d never seen him in the park before.
‘Are you hiding?’ Oh no, just admiring the nothing that’s all. “Yes, I’m hiding. Are you going to rat on me?” she groused at him.
“Whaddya mean?” The boy looked confused as though an invisible hand scratched his drowning hair.
“Shhh!” Cindy blew a finger against her lips. “Haven’t you ever heard of hide-and-seek before? I’m hiding. Someone else is looking. Get it?”
His puzzled stare lit up. “Oh! I love that game! Can I play too?”
Cindy crossed her arms. “As long as you don’t cost me this spot I don’t care. But you have to be quiet.
“I can do that.”
“Good,” she smiled, her voice dimmed in a whisper. “My name’s Cindy. What’s yours?”
She watched the corners of his mouth turn up in an asymmetric smile. “It’s nice to meet you,” He quietly trilled. His bluebell eyes broadened with excitement, a grim black and blue ring encasing one of them. “I’m Nathan.”
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