For those of you that enjoyed Midland, what follows is a short story based on the main characters. I wrote it as a back story for Midland exploring some of Sam Grace’s experiences. Enjoy…
IN THE DARK
What is the origin of fear? Where do the deep-rooted anxieties that accompany each of us hide when they aren’t causing hands to shake or sweat, or make the heart beat faster? For some people, fear stays submerged deep within their psyche only to emerge later in life on some random day. For others, like Sam Grace, fear had been there from the beginning just waiting for the right trigger, the right moment in time, and that finally came on a hot summer day just after her 15th birthday.
Sam, short for Samantha, had struggled all morning with the weeds that threatened the farm’s meager crops. Overhead, the relentless heat of the sun beat down unmercifully, baking the field’s spring growth and bathing her in sweat. After pausing to mop the perspiration from her forehead with a rag, she returned her sweat-stained canvas hat to her head and then dug the hoe’s blade once again into the rocky soil. At her family’s mesa-top farm, there was always plenty of work that needed to be done and never enough hours to do it.
“Sam! Sam! Ya’ gotta’ come quick!” The voice that interrupted her work came from a grubby, dirt-covered boy who sprinted to her side, his lungs still heaving from a long run. It was Sam’s twelve-year-old brother Cal.
“Whoa! Just slow down there,” Sam replied. “Take a breath and then tell your tale.”
“It’s Billy! He fell down a hole…by the old mine!”
“Darn it, Cal! Mama’s gonna whip your hide. She told us not to go over there!”
“I know we shouldna’,… but you gotta come get him,” he whined
“Alright, let’s go tell Mama then we’ll go bring him back.”
The boy’s reaction said it all. “No! Please don’t tell. Please!”
She studied him for only a second, but in that moment her heart had already decided to go along. Without a word and with the younger boy in tow, Sam sprinted to the farm house. Just outside the house, her mother was working the well’s pump handle, drawing water for her laundry tub. To avoid being seen, Sam skirted the edge of the old wooden barn until she reached the main house. Inside she quickly retrieved a candle and matches, and also her gun belt.
If I’m a-goin’ into that ol’ mine, Sam thought, I sure ain’t goin’ unarmed. Besides, I’ve heard sounds comin’ out of that ol’ mine. It probably ain’t nothin’, but just in case…
With Cal still following, Sam dashed to the barn and quickly set a lead on one of the horses. With a length of rope slung over her shoulder, she deftly climbed onto the horse and then pulled her younger brother on top with her. Without a word, she spurred the horse and it raced from the barn into the sunshine towards the abandoned mine.
No one knew how long the mine had been abandoned, or even what precious metal had been sought, but today, however, that far from mattered. In the years before he had died, their father had warned that the mine was dark and dangerous, but children often have a way of only hearing what they want to hear. Billy, in particular, was drawn to the old wooden head frame that still towered over the mineshaft. Both boys had often crept to the shaft’s precipice to throw stones into the black abyss, listening for the faint plop as the rock finally hit water deep below. Overall, the mine was dark and ominous, and most appealing to Billy and Cal, it was forbidden.
The old mine’s underground workings were far more substantive than the children could have ever imagined. Located near the edge of the mesa, the mine was dug deep into the mountain with long tunnels radiating from the mine’s main shaft in all four directions. At irregular intervals along each of these tunnels, small drifts had been cut by the miners as they sought veins of precious metals to make their fortune. Further, the tunnels and drifts were cut at varied depths from the shaft: some at thirty feet below ground, and even more at fifty and seventy feet in depth. Collectively, this left a maze of tunnels and drifts that would have been confusing even if fully illuminated under the light of the miner’s lanterns, but after being abandoned for over sixty years, the mine was now a labyrinth of seemingly endless pitch black.
The horse’s gallop made quick work of the several miles that separated the mine from the family’s farm. As they approached, Sam shouted over the horse’s footfalls to her brother.
“Alright, now where’re we goin’? To the shaft?”
“Nah,” Cal replied. “We weren’t nowhere near that. Ya see, we found a pit way over by the cliff.”
Cal’s outstretched arm pointed the way, so Sam eased the horse in that direction and minutes later brought it to a standstill adjacent to their destination: a five-by-five foot hole that was almost completely obscured by the surrounding scrub brush. Before Sam could advise caution, Cal vaulted from the horse, ran to the side of the hole and began shouting for Billy.
“Hey! Hey, Billy! We’re back,…and Sam’s here!”
From deep below a timid voice replied: “Yeah, I’m still here.”
“You okay, little buck?” Sam asked as she peered into the hole trying to make out the speaker in the darkness below.
“Purdy much. My pants are caught on somethin’, and I can’t move.”
Dang it, Sam thought. She’d hoped it was going to be as simple as throwing down a rope, having Billy tie it around his waist, and then pulling him back to the surface with the horse’s muscle. With him caught on somethin’, ain’t no choice but to go down there!
“Alright Billy, I’m comin’ down. You just hold on a tick. Okay?”
“Yeah, but hurry! I keep hearin’ something.”
This worried Sam, but it didn’t dissuade her from going: it was her brother and she’d do anything needed to protect him. In fact, she would do the same for anyone in her family whether it was her mother, either of her twin brothers, or even her nine-year-old sister. You see, family was just that important to her. However, Sam didn’t relish the thought of descending into the dark hole: it was disconcerting in a way she just couldn’t describe. In fact, she disliked the dark so much that, whenever possible, she kept to the comfort of either fire or candle light, relishing how it drove back the shadows.
Um…it sure is…dark…down there! But…I got no choice.
Even with her forced bravado, Sam couldn’t help but notice the knot in her stomach. Fighting back her growing angst, she strapped the rope around her waist while Cal tied the other end of the rope around the horse’s neck.
“Hey there, Billy-boy. I’m a-comin’ down.” Sam looked to Cal and nodded. Slowly, he backed the horse towards the hole, and with each footfall the girl was lowered until she completely disappeared into darkness.
The hole was small and descended at a forty-five degree angle, but what Sam couldn’t have known was this ‘hole’ was really a ventilation shaft placed to assure adequate air in the underground tunnels. Oblivious to its purpose, as Sam descended her back scraped painfully on the wood bracing that lined the shaft, but this pain didn’t concern her as much as the growing dark. To calm her increasing nervousness, she tried an old trick her father had taught her and counted aloud as she was lowered, but it only had limited success leaving the seconds to creep by while she was gradually consumed by shadow.
Fumbling in her pocket, she retrieved her matches and candle and carefully lit the wick. The light wasn’t very bright, the flickering flame only illuminated a circle no more than several arm lengths across, but as it did the ventilation shaft was revealed showing large wooden beams covered with both dust and bird droppings. Finally, Billy’s face appeared into the flickering light, leaving Sam to shake her head as she tried to figure out why her brother looked so odd, and then it became clear: he was hanging upside down, his pant leg snagged on a protruding nail.
“Sam! My leg’s caught and I can’t get it free!” The boy cried as he began wildly shaking his pant leg.
“Hold still, you darn fool!” Sam scolded. “You shake that leg loose you’ll fall and break your neck.” Glancing down the shaft, she could see the tunnel floor ten feet below. As the boy quieted, what remained was the difficult trick of freeing his leg without letting him fall.
Hmmm, she thought as she considered his predicament. Well,…first things first.
Sam hollered to Cal to hold the horse stopping further descent. From this position, she was within an arm’s length of Billy, though completely inverted: her feet dangled directly across from the boy’s face.
“You doin’ okay there, Billy-boy?”
“Sam,…don’t be mad at me,” he pleaded.
“We’ll worry ‘bout that later.
The boy’s pant leg was caught on a large iron nail. Boy, howdy! If that nail hadn’t caught him, he’d been a goner! However, getting him free without letting him fall would be tricky, especially while still holding a candle in one hand. After considering the problem for a few more moments, Sam arrived at a plan.
“I’m gonna climb up on this here timber and take off the rope. After I’ve got it ‘round you, I’ll pull your leg free. The rope’ll keep you from fallin’. Okay?”
Sam reached for a nearby wooden beam and placed the candle in a knothole where it wobbled but stayed upright and kept burning. Moving carefully, Sam swung her legs onto the beam, but as she put her full weight upon it she felt the beam sag as it creaked loudly.
Just hold on a bit more! That’s all I’ll need.
“Alright Billy, here we go.” With the rope wrapped in a figure eight around Billy’s shoulders, Sam yanked on his pant leg but the first attempt didn’t free the boy. On the second try, the pant leg suddenly jerked free leaving gravity to take over. Fortunately, the rope arrested any further chance of fall, and when its gyrations finally diminished, Sam hollered to Cal and slowly his twin was pulled up to the surface. Billy had no more than disappeared up the shaft when the beam began to creak loudly, and with a sound akin to a cannon shot it split, dumping Sam feet- first down the remainder of the shaft.
Though covered with several inches of fine dust, when the girl landed on the tunnel’s dirt floor it felt like hardened concrete. After several painful seconds trying to catch her breath, she finally sat up and looked around but saw…nothing! Waiving her hands in front of her face, Sam first assumed that her eyes simply needed to adjust to the dim light, but finally her mind recognized the obvious: she couldn’t see anything because the tunnel was pitch black!
Oh my gawd! I’m… I’m…trapped! Gotta…get out of here. Gotta get out of HERE!
Without even thinking, she began crawling forward and immediately collided with a wooden post drawing blood on her cheek. To her great good fortune, this errant collision slowly brought back enough composure to allow the return of rational decisions. That, of course, and the sudden sound of her brother’s voice.
“Sam,…you okay?” It was Billy’s voice from far above. Her brothers: a direct reminder that even in this dark, awful place she wasn’t completely alone.
“Yeah,…(cough, cough). I fell purdy hard, but I’m more or less alright, I guess.” Sam replied. “You get out okay?”
“Yep, I’m right as rain. What do you want us to do? Um,…you want me to back come down?” The boy’s voice betrayed his apprehension.
“Hold on a bit. Gotta find some light first.” In her pocket were her last two wooden matches. Striking one, the shadows immediately retreated, but only a few feet leaving most of the tunnel still cloaked in black. Struggling to her feet, Sam looked for something she could use for light, but didn’t find anything: no candle, no lantern, nothing at all. As the match’s flame was quickly burning towards its wooden end, she had to think fast but only one option came to mind, so working quickly she ripped long strips of canvass from her pant leg and wrapped it around a piece of scrap wood she had found. Using her last match, she lit her make-shift torch and slowly, grudgingly its flame spread until it burned brightly. Even with the light, the air within the mine was dank and still bringing on a growing feeling of claustrophobia.
“Hey up there! Go ahead and send the rope on down.”
“It’s on the way,” Billy yelled back but nothing appeared. Try though they might, they couldn’t get the rope to reach Sam; it kept getting tangled up in the ventilation shaft. After ten minutes of trying, they all had to admit failure.
“Ain’t no way I’m gonna get out this way. Tell you what: go get the extra long rope from the barn and meet me back at the main shaft.” Moments later, without argument or complaint, her brothers departed for the farm leaving Sam alone.
Which way to go? Sam thought as she looked each direction down the length of the tunnel, but still she couldn’t decide. I think the shaft is that-a-way (to her left), but I can’t be sure. Well,…only one way to find out.
With the make-shift torch held high overhead, Sam hobbled down the tunnel. To say the tunnel was monotonous was an understatement: seemingly endless grey rock walls interspersed with decayed and crumbling wood bracing. Occasionally, Sam would have to step over piles of rock that had fallen from overhead, but other than this she encountered nothing of note. That is, until the tunnel suddenly ended in a sheer rock wall.
Dang it! I went the wrong way!
With no place to go but back, Sam turned and retraced her steps until once again encountering the ventilation shaft she had fallen from. Continuing on, not more than two dozen steps beyond the ventilation shaft she was confronted with three tunnels: right, left and straight ahead.
Which way to go? Sam wondered as she stared at the three tunnels.
A metal-on-metal sound echoed throughout the tunnel. With the sound’s sudden appearance, Sam’s focus was distracted from her decision on which way to go to speculation on the noise’s origin. After several seconds of consideration, she finally conceded that it was just a random noise within this long-abandoned mine. With a smile to herself, Sam returned to her choice of tunnels, but not for long.
A low, anguished moan filled the tunnel. It started in an almost inaudible tone and grew louder until it reverberated throughout the mine. However, just as quick as the sound arose it was gone, once again plunging the mine back into silence.
What in the world was that? Sam wondered as she glanced back and forth down the length of the tunnel.
The sound rose up again, though louder this time, and as it did fear took hold of Sam: the hairs on her neck stood on edge, and a lump filled her stomach. Her mind began to imagine unknown adversaries creeping towards her, and as her anxiety grew, her right hand reflexively drew her Colt pistol from her gun belt. Unable to resist fear’s temptation, Sam wheeled about first facing one tunnel and then turning to face the opposite only to find each empty. Again and again she turned only to see nothing until finally, after several minutes, composure began to return.
“Probably nothin’ but the wind blowin’ through this old mine,” Sam spoke aloud. “C’mon girl, ya’ gotta take hold of yourself. Ain’t nothing down here but you!” Though said with conviction, deep down Sam knew that these were just words: fear still remained in control of her. Finally, she chose a tunnel and moved on, though still with her gun in hand.
Might as well stay prepared. Just in case!
Sam pressed on, moving as silently as possible, hoping that in the quiet she might hear any approaching attacker, but heard nothing. Fortunately, the next few minutes passed uneventfully and soon she was again immersed in the monotony of the tunnel until suddenly the rock walls on either side stopped: the tunnel had once again come to an end!
Dang-it, not again! Another dead-end! Hmmm,…dead-end? Don’t think I like callin’ it that.
Once again Sam turned and retraced her steps until several minutes later she was back at the intersection of tunnels. Right or left, the two choices seemed indistinguishable in value, so with a smile and shake of her head, she entered the left tunnel.
Sam froze, completely unnerved by the return of the sound. This time the anguished sound reverberated off of the tunnel walls as if it was just ahead. It’s just the wind, Sam kept repeating to herself; however, these words did nothing to calm her mind. Without even thinking about it, Sam cocked her pistol, readying a bullet, just in case.
Another sound came, but this time from behind, and unfortunately, with the sound echoing off the rock walls, there just was no way to tell how close it was. However, the sound’s impact on Sam was dramatic: her heart raced as blood pumped to her muscles, the ancient fight-or-flight physical reaction. With her heart pounding and her gun leading the way, step-by-step Sam moved forward.
Just ahead, she again found herself confronted by two side tunnels: one stretched into the distance while the other was covered with wooden boards. Before she could decide which way to go, the moan came again but even loader now.
Seconds later, another moan echoed down the tunnel seeming to answer the first.
These anguished sounds were followed by another, and then another, all loud and all seemingly nearby.
Dear Lord, help me!
She was about to turn and run the way she had came, when out of the corner of her eye Sam caught sight of something completely unexpected: daylight! Down a side tunnel that was mostly blocked with boards, daylight could be clearly seen. Peering through a gap in the boards, she could see both rays of sunshine and what looked like the timbers of the main shaft.
“I want out of this nut house,” Sam whispered to herself as the moan came again. With her pistol returned to its holster and the still-burning torch shoved into a gap of a nearby post, she started yanking on the tunnel’s boards. After a short struggle, one of the boards grudgingly gave way, but the resultant opening wasn’t large enough to crawl through.
Sam pried at the next board, pulling on it as hard as she could, but it wouldn’t budge. As beads of sweat dripped from her brow, she adjusted her footing to help her leverage and with muscles straining from the effort, again pulled on the board.
“Dear Lord, give me the strength,” Sam shouted towards the approaching sound, no longer caring about giving her location away. With arms shaking from the strain, she pulled with all her might, focusing all of her energy on the old wooden board until finally, with a loud creek, the board came loose. It came free so quickly, in fact, that Sam fell backwards onto her rear even as she still held the board.
Tossing the board aside, Sam dove through the gap in the barrier, her shoulders scraping painfully against the small space until she finally wiggled through, but with her torch and its meager flame left far behind, she was quickly plunged into almost total dark. With only the token light coming from the shaft to guide her, Sam was relegated to crawling on her hands and knees. Inch after inch, foot after foot, she crawled forward in the dark, her hands and knees were quickly cut by the jagged rocks that covered tunnel’s floor. However, she didn’t pay this any notice. After all, safety was just ahead, if she could just get to it!
After what seemed like an eternity crawling in the dim light, Sam finally reached the edge of the shaft: a twenty-by-twenty foot hole that both opened to the daylight thirty feet above and descended into darkness a hundred feet below. Getting back on her feet, she examined the shaft’s timbers hoping for handholds that could be used to climb to the surface, but unfortunately none were found. Not only was there no way to the surface, she could neither go forward nor could she get across the shaft. Sam was cornered: she could go no further!
The sounds, almost deafening now, were coming toward her from the tunnel she had just crawled down. Trapped, Sam drew and cocked her gun: she was ready to fight!
“You can just come on cuz’ I ain’t goin’ nowhere!”
“Sam,…that you down there?” A voice unexpectedly hollered from above: it was Cal!
“Yeah, it’s me,” she yelled. “Hurry up and send down the rope!”
Seconds later, a rope appeared from above but from where it dangled it was just too far away to be reached. There was just no way Sam could get to it!
“Hey! You gotta move the rope. It’s too far away to get to.”
Unfortunately, her plea was only answered by quiet leaving Sam to foolishly wonder if her brothers had abandoned her. Just as she started to yell again, the moan returned but this time it sounded as if it was only a few yards away and getting closer.
This is it, she thought as fear coursed through every cell in her body.
“You want me?” Sam shouted. “You’re gonna have to take me. So c’mon! Come on!”
“Sam,” her brother Billy shouted. “It’s as close as we can get it. Try now!”
The rope had moved to within a few feet of where she stood, but the only way she could get to it was to jump into the center of the shaft. However, with what felt like death at her heals, Sam just didn’t care about the risk, so jumping as hard as she could, she sailed into the black abyss, hoping that she would find the rope, and praying that her reach would be enough. At the last second, just as gravity began to take over, she grabbed hold of the rope.
“I got it.” She hollered and slowly her brothers hauled her to the surface. Not surprisingly, those last few seconds dangling in the shaft were the hardest as her fear-consumed mind envisioned all sorts of terrors circling the shaft ready to spring towards her, but no attacks came. Only as she reached the surface did the fear finally retreat and the racing beats of her heart diminish. Not coincidentally, her fears withdrew as she felt the wind blowing against her shoulders.
It was the wind, after all!
“This wind’s sure blowin’ a might bit, ain’t it?” Sam asked. “I even heard it down there.”
“Yeah,” her brother replied. “It’s been kickin’ up all afternoon.”
“You should have heard all the strange sounds the wind made down there.” Sam glanced again at the shaft’s gaping hole and smiled: her ordeal, including the origin of the terrifying noises, finally resolved. “Well,…let’s get on home.”
As the sun was fading towards the horizon, the three siblings finally rode away. Focused on returning home, none of them glanced back towards the mine. If they had, they might have noticed several pairs of angry red eyes peering from the edge of the shaft, greedily watching as the children rode away.
This short story was the runner-up in the 2011 Scary Story Competition in the Las Vegas Review Journal.
DEVIL ON THE DOORSTEP
Ding-Dong. Like a lonely call for attention, the doorbell’s sound echoed through the house.
“Martha!” Gus yelled. “You gonna’ get that?”
“I’m busy with dinner,” Martha cheerfully replied from the kitchen.
“Ah, man, I’m gonna’ miss my show,” Gus grumbled as he pulled himself out of his favorite recliner and headed to the front door. Almost by cue, the door bell rang again:
“Alright, already! I’m coming. Geeze-Louise!” Gus opened the front door but found nothing but the weak light of the energy-efficient bulb that illuminated the porch. No visitor, no salesman, no one at all. He stuck his head out the door and glanced to the left and right, but still saw nothing but the trees and bushes of the front yard’s landscape. With no moonlight, the dark of night seemed to wrap everything in shadow. Shrugging, Gus shut the door and returned to his comfortable chair.
Startled, Gus jumped at the sound. “Ah, Geeze!” Grumbling, he again went to the front door, swung it open but found no one there. His annoyance gave way to anger as he shut the front door.
“Gus!” Martha stuck her head in from the kitchen to see what was going on. “Who was at the door?”
Shaking his head as he went, Gus returned to his chair. “Got to be some dumb kids playing… What was that game we played as kids? You know, the one where you rang the doorbell then ran off…just to annoy people?”
Martha thought for a second then smiled: “Wasn’t it…Ding-dong-ditch?”
“No, it was something else.” He thought for several minutes but the name eluded him. Finally, he got it: “Devil on the Doorstep. Don’t you remember; it was Devil on the Doorstep. You would ring the doorbell just to lure someone out onto the porch to scare them. A big joke, that’s what it was.” Satisfied he had found the right name, he retrieved his television guide to see what else was on to watch when….
Gus threw down his magazine and rushed to the door throwing it open in a fit of anger, but no one was there.
“You darn kids aren’t gonna scare me. No sir, you’re not!” Gus left the light of the porch and stomped out into his yard, and as he did the shadows from the trees seemed to grow, lengthening first by inches until they completely surrounded him blotting out all of the light. Only now did fear completely overtake him. He turned to go back inside, but the welcome warm light of his house was nowhere to be seen. As Gus spun about, wildly trying to get his bearings, a black shadow enveloped him…and he was gone!
Inside, Martha wandered into the living room looking for Gus but found nothing but the open door.
“Honey, you left the front door open.” She shut the door and headed toward the kitchen to finish making dinner when the door bell rang.