Do you see him? Right there, between Mig and John? As if he’s part of the crew?
Nico drove up to the mouth of the cave. He got out of the truck and walked around to the other side. Normally, the young retriever would have hopped out of the open door in a rush. But Ruby lay there, still sleeping.
He walked to the back of the truck and pulled down the door to the bed. He had the camper shell on. He set down a bowl of kibble and a large bowl of water. He left the door down so Ruby could hop in and out once she woke. He glanced at the skies to the south. A crescent moon peeked through bare patches of the gray clouds that swept over the city. Soon it was blocked altogether. The clouds thickened and roiled, brewing a storm. The skies over him were still clear, but the storm would move north soon. Ruby would need cover.
He lifted the dog, her tongue lolling in the mild heat of the summer evening, and placed her on the truck bed.
Nico peered at her. “If I left you at home, you’d escape and come after me, and get hit by traffic or something. This way at least, if things don’t go as planned, Dad will find you in the morning. Maybe…the others too.” He rubbed her head, tousled her ears, and bent down to kiss her head.
If all went according to plan, he wouldn’t have to worry about her following him into the cave either. He shouldered the oversized duffel from the truck bed, took the safety off a pistol he barely knew how to fire, pulled on his helmet, switched on the headlamp, and walked into the cave.
At the cave mouth, there was a pile of dirt that had been hauled up from the mine. It had a distinct purple cast to it. Nico felt someone join him, keep stride with him. He glanced to his left and saw nothing, until he passed the threshold of the cave and caught the shimmer and shift in the air. Birch. He had come to guide Nico. But he hadn’t started off that way.
“Pierre, can’t you tell us anything about what we’re supposed to be looking for down there?” Miguel asked. It was about five months earlier, a pleasant spring morning.
The whole crew was gathered in the office trailer for free coffee and donuts on the morning of their first excursion into the mine, the cave really. It hadn’t been a mine for a century or more. Their boss, Pierre, had gathered them there for one final chance to remind them of their vague orders. Pierre had received his instructions from an intermediary who’d hired his crew on behalf of the mine’s mysterious new owner.
Nico wasn’t a coffee person, so he’d grabbed a custard-filled donut and watched with envy as Pierre’s son, Orson, who was wearing a button-down shirt, pressed slacks, and polished shoes went over the mine’s blueprints with them again. Nico had been doing manual labor jobs for five summers at that point. He didn’t want to sit behind a desk all day, and he didn’t want to dress up in business attire like Orson, but it would be nice to move on to a job that didn’t require such extensive laundering. A job where he wouldn’t have to shower after work every single day. Or worry that he smelled like an earthworm on dates. But he was lucky to have been picked for this crew and this particular contract. Since graduating, he hadn’t had any other offers, and this particular contract promised a hefty payday for all, especially if they found what their patron was looking for.
He’d worked for Pierre two summers past in an open pit excavation. He didn’t have much experience in caves or with underground mines. He wondered if they would be searching for veins of gold or turquoise. It came as a mild surprise to everyone when Pierre said they weren’t searching for minerals, even though the mine might have some. They were searching for something else.
“You’ll know what we’re looking for when you find it,” Pierre said. “So just report anything atypical.”
The mine might have been caved in. It might have needed reinforcing. They would handle that as they went, and search until they got to the end of every tunnel. They weren’t supposed to dig any farther however, even if they thought they saw something. They were just supposed to report it and await further instructions. They were also to avoid modern equipment. Shovels, pickaxes, and carts were all they were allowed. And one more optional thing, dogs. Any breed. Any number. It was yet another reason the job was perfect at the time. Nico didn’t have anyone to leave Ruby with. She wouldn’t be coming into the mine with them. Not farther than the upper tunnels anyway. But she’d be amusing company for those who were taking a break or stationed outside.
Freddy chimed in between munching on a cruller. “Rumor has it, this patron has acquired dozens of small mines all over the world, and he has teams like us searching them. All of them have been ordered to go it the old-fashioned way. Pickaxes and pulleys. He’s looking for something specific and something that he’d prefer to keep secret.”
“I hope that doesn’t mean we’re all going to get killed after the job’s over,” Freddy said. What would have been a quip from anyone else was a sincere albeit matter-of-fact sentiment from Freddy.
Orson shared a glance with his father and turned back to the rest of us. “Even if we don’t find the thing he wants, once we’re done searching, we can keep the money and run.”
Miguel turned to the crew then. He’d be the one in charge when Pierre wasn’t around, and that would be most days. “Well the job is paying far beyond what was expected, so that means the patron expects some danger. There might be toxic gas, or forgotten nuclear waste, who knows? So do your homework and preparation, safety first, and follow orders.”
That first day, Orson drove up to the mine with them, though unlike his dad, he wouldn’t be working in the mine. He pulled a camera from his glove box. Something that looked like it was from the 1970s. He had everyone stand in front of the cave mouth. He said he’d take another one after the job was done. Nico wasn’t surprised that Ruby wasn’t the most fidgety. That was Miguel, who just wanted to get started. Orson didn’t ask them to smile. He just warned them when he was going, so they’d try not to blink, then he snapped the picture.
A couple of months later, they were all back in that trailer, enjoying coffee and breakfast sandwiches.
“We’ve used the maps you gave us to clear out the areas that have gotten caved in,” Miguel said. “We’ve been searching for weeks and all we have to show for it is piles of purple dirt.”
“Yes, I reported that to Mike,” Pierre said. Mike was the intermediary who spoke for the mine’s owner. “He said the patron was encouraged. We need to keep searching, maybe focus on the areas where we find purple dirt.”
John sighed and crossed his large-muscled arms. “That would be all the areas, sir.”
“Nico found something a couple of days ago,” Orson said.
“Oh?” Pierre raised a brow.
Nico shifted in his chair. He had hoped it wouldn’t be a big deal, wouldn’t be what their patron was looking for. He wanted to keep it and study it. Finding it had made him feel less like a miner and more like an archaeologist. There had been plenty of other remnants from past miners. Bits of drills, dented canteens, rusted pickaxes, and the like. But Nico had found something he hadn’t expected to find in a mine. He had brought it with him to the meeting. When he lay it on the table and watched Pierre lift it and examine it, his heart sunk. This was probably what their patron was looking for. The mine’s owner was probably also interested in archaeology, but unlike Nico, had the means and maybe the time to delve into it.
It was a wooden prosthetic hand with a leather cuff. The fingers even articulated. When he’d shown it to the others, they all thought it must have belonged to someone who was well-to-do, who happened to be visiting the mine. Perhaps a previous owner. It couldn’t be a miner. None of them would have been able to afford such a fancy prosthetic. If they lost limbs, they likely could only afford a peg as replacement.
Pierre at last looked up at Nico and nodded. “Good work.”
“Is that what the guy is looking for? Stuff like that?”
Pierre shook his head. “I don’t know, Don. But I’ll find out soon. Until then, carry on everyone.”
“Wait, what about the rest of the story on that thing?” Freddy said, glancing at Nico.
Pierre looked at Nico and waited.
“It’s nothing,” Nico said. “Just…we’re getting deeper. I’m not used to it. I got punchy, that’s all.”
Still Pierre said nothing.
“He saw something.”
Nico sighed, wishing the others would stop trying to help.
“I think it was just the heat,” Nico said. “You know how the air shimmers above a dirt road when the sun is beating down on it? I saw something like that.”
“Is that all?”
“I thought I saw something moving in the corner of my eye, when we were down the secondary shaft, where we found the hand. But like I said, I was punchy. Probably didn’t have enough water. And it was near the end of the shift.” Nico shrugged.
“Any word on what the deal is with the purple dirt?” Miguel asked. Pierre had collected some and supposedly passed it on to the intermediary so it could be tested.
Pierre shook his head. “Nothing unusual about the dirt, or the dust, I should say. But Mike says that by the time he got it to a lab for testing, it wasn’t purple anymore. So maybe there’s some microbe in the dirt that doesn’t like sunlight.”
“A vampire bacteria?” Miguel asked. “That doesn’t sound too healthy.”
Everyone chuckled. They’d been wearing dust masks, but had no doubt inhaled much of the dust from the purple dirt over the past few months. No one had gotten ill from it yet. But Nico would remember those words later, when Freddy got that awful cough that sounded like he had water sloshing around in his lungs.
Nico got the prosthetic hand back. He was surprised, as were the rest, that it wasn’t what their patron was searching for. Even if it wasn’t, he was surprised that their patron didn’t keep it anyway, to have something to show for all their searching, spelunking really. As the miner’s owner, it was technically his property. But he had allowed Pierre to return it to Nico.
The whole time they had been searching the mine, nothing terribly unusual had happened. There had been accidents, minor ones because of all the precautions they took. Pierre was strict about safety. A man could get fired from a job and never hired by Pierre again for even a minor infraction, if that infraction involved safety, and even if it was only that man’s own safety. So sometimes someone dropped a shovel on their toe, or slipped on their descent down a shaft, or even tripped over their own feet on the way out of the cave after an exhausting shift. But nothing happened that would make them believe in the rumors of hauntings they’d heard around town. No one saw anything unusual. Nothing unusual happened.
Until Nico found that hand.
Some of the others began to see something, or thought they saw something. John and Freddy saw it in the secondary shaft. Shimmers, just like Nico had described. Then a figure, briefly from the corner of the eye. Don spotted something too. It was always at the end of their shift (and they only had the one, the day shift) and always after dark.
They talked about it one day at lunch over some amazing BLT sandwiches that John had made them. Nico shook his head at Ruby, who ecstatically wagged her tail in anticipation of bacon that she was not going to be receiving. He listened to the others.
“Maybe it’s a ghoul,” John said.
Freddy frowned. “What’s that?”
“They’re these little gray men that only come out at night to eat your soul.”
“Is that like those things that sit on your chest and steal your breath?”
“You mean cats?”
“Man, you better not be saying anything bad about cats.”
“You guys ever hear of the miner’s shadow?” Miguel asked.
“Isn’t that the stuff John gets on his face when he doesn’t wake up early enough to shave…three days in a row?”
After the chuckling died down, everyone went silent while Miguel explained.
It was an old superstition among miners that if they died while working in the mines—especially from—or only from—something violent, like an explosion or cave-in, their shadows would remain. In some instances the shadow was benevolent, watching over his fellows, pricking primal instincts to warn of impending danger. Whenever a miner got a “gut feeling” that something was about to go wrong, followed his instinct, and avoided disaster, it was said one of these shadows must have warned him. In other instances, that shadow was malevolent, causing danger, haunting the mine, seeking vengeance and lashing out. Some mines were haunted by ghosts, the actual spirit of the departed, trapped on earth somehow. But these shadows weren’t ghosts. They were copies, dark doppelgangers of the soul.
A few days later, they found some tattered rope in the pulley system for a deep natural shaft they were searching. It was the deepest one yet. They repaired it and no harm was done. Then Don accidentally got his foot stuck in a strange pit or depression that was covered in fine purple dust. He was spared a twisted ankle, or any damage worse than a bruise and all the quarters he’d owe his daughter for the obscenities he spouted. It happened down one of the new shafts they were searching. They made note of it and watched their step after that, though they didn’t find any more. Don speculated that they were dealing with some kind of trickster ghost who was setting booby traps for them.
A few days after that, as they broke for lunch, Nico stood apart from the cave mouth and tossed back his head to take a welcome swig of cold water he’d pulled from their shared cooler. As he lowered his head, placing the side of the bottle on his neck, he looked down at his shadow. It was noon. The shadow should have been short and close to his body, but it stretched considerably farther than it should have. He glanced at the shadows of Freddy and Joe as they walked side by side toward Joe’s truck for some lunch, followed by a hopeful Ruby. Their shadows were shorter than his and lighter. His was unnaturally dark and as he stared at it, at his head, he thought he could make out a pair of eyes, just a bit lighter than the rest of the head. They blinked.
Nico gasped and stepped back.
“Did you just jump at your own shadow?”
Nico spun around.
John was smirking at him.
The following week, John and Freddy found something worth reporting to their patron, for the first time since the prosthetic hand. Roots, purple roots burrowing through the hard rock walls of the mine. They couldn’t have been tree roots that deep down. Based on their orientation and where they emerged, they seemed to be coming from underneath. They thought that the roots, if that’s what they were, might explain the purple dirt.
Pierre wasn’t onsite that day, but when Orson called him, he seemed encouraged. The rest of the team went into “crossed fingers” mode, refraining from giving John and Freddy any premature pats on the back. If they had indeed found what the mine’s new owner was looking for, they had earned a significant bonus to their payday, not just for themselves, but for the whole team.
While they waited for Pierre to get back to them, they kept to their schedule. John and Freddy kept searching the tunnel where they’d found the purple roots. They cut away some of the roots to collect for testing, and some more purple dirt and dust. But just as it happened with the dirt, the roots lost color and turned gray by the time they got to their destination. But the deeper into the tunnel they searched, the thicker the roots were and more vibrant the purple. They picked away at the walls of the cave and uncovered roots that were thicker than John’s thighs. They hadn’t received any word from Pierre, or permission to take pictures or video. So all they could do was note and describe what they saw.
The rest of the team continued to search the remainder of the mine. Nico and Joe were the last to exit one night at the end of the shift. They were near the bottom of the main shaft, where the cage waited to lift them up. Nico was beat and he lagged behind. Joe was already in the cage, laying down his lantern and shovel.
Nico glanced up to see a wide-eyed Joe staring past him, behind him. He turned around and saw it. In the light of their lanterns. A dark figure, like a man, but a blank. There was no face, no clothes. There was no expression, but Nico didn’t need to see an expression to feel the shadow’s emotion. It’s intent.
The shadow crackled. It crackled with malevolence.
Nico turned and ran for the cage. Because no machinery was allowed, they had to pull themselves up. Or be pulled up by the others. Nico’s muscles were already spent from a full day, but he pumped his arms up and down on the thick rope that passed through the middle of the cage. He soon felt the help of those who were above and let go, letting himself and Joe get pulled up to safety.
When they spilled out of the cage, breathless and agitated, the others gathered around. Nico saw his own terror reflected in Joe’s eyes. Neither had come to harm. But they would have. They were certain of it.
It was the end of the day, and it was Friday. They would have two days away from the mine. The others left, Miguel regretting that he had filled everyone’s head with that miner’s shadow story, but assuring Joe and Nico that he believed they had seen something, and something disturbing. Orson was in the trailer office as usual. He too trusted that the men were seeing something and assured them he would pass on their report to his father.
Orson stopped Nico and asked him stay. Nico had no interest in being onsite any longer than he had to that night, even though the office was half a mile away from the mine. He and Orson ended up at the nearest bar in town, where Orson shared with him the latest on his research.
He’d been looking into the mine. The mine had been so long abandoned, its records lost, or never kept well in the first place, that he couldn’t even be sure of the mine’s identity, other than that it was an old gold mine. He’d started after Nico found the hand prosthetic, which they kept in the trailer. Nico had wanted to take it for himself at first, and maybe offer it up to a museum. But for the time being, he felt it should remain at the mine. Orson hadn’t found anything about the identity of the man who had owned the hand. Nico had started calling him “Birch,” even though they didn’t know what kind of wood had been used in the hand’s construction.
But he did have one thing to show for his efforts. He lay a photograph on the counter and slid it over to Nico. It was a black-and-white version of the picture he’d taken on the first day of the job. There was a color version tacked to the office trailer bulletin board.
“Do you see him? Right there, between Mig and John? As if he’s part of the crew?”
Nico peered at the picture. Against the black mouth of the cave, between the shoulders of two living men, there was an outline of another figure.
“First week of the dig,” Orson said. “First day. He was already there. You can’t really see him in the original color print. You can’t even see him in the negative. For some reason, he shows up in black-and-white.”
“I thought that unearthing the hand may have done it,” Nico said. “I thought I’d woken the spirit of the man it belonged to.”
“I think just reentering the mine did it,” Orson said. “I just hope Miguel’s not right about that miner’s shadow, because if he is, it seems we’ve awoken one of the malevolent ones.”
A few days later, John and Freddy were late checking in. Don and Joe went to check on them and found them both passed out, their masks off. Don and Joe pulled them out and rushed them to the nearest hospital. They were still breathing. They looked like they were just sleeping, but they couldn’t be roused. They were covered in purple dust. Their faces were streaked with it. Their mouths and noses were crusted with it.
The hospital team didn’t seem phased by the dust, even after Miguel warned them that the miners had been exposed to some kind of root far underground that they’d never seen before.
None of the testing done on the roots and the dirt had revealed anything dangerous. No new toxic compounds or elements. No never-before-seen fungus or bacteria. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t dangerous. It might mean that it was something new, something human science and medicine wasn’t prepared for.
John and Freddy were admitted. Their families were called. Tests were run and they seemed fine except that they wouldn’t wake up.
Without consulting their patron, Pierre shut the mine down, just to be safe. He called everyone and told them not to report to the mine or the office trailer, but to meet at his office in town the next morning.
When the early riser Don didn’t show up before everyone else, they got worried. Orson tried calling him. Don lived alone. He might have just overslept. But no one really believed that. They drove to his place and convinced his neighbor, who recognized most of them, to use his spare key to let them into Don’s house. They found him lying on the couch, a spilled plate of food on the rug beside him.
Joe was next, and they saw the pattern. The ones who’d fallen first had been closest to those strange roots. Don and Joe, who had gone into the tunnel to rescue their colleagues were next.
Orson and Pierre had been in the tunnel too. Only for a few hours on one day, to see what John and Freddy had uncovered. They’d worn masks. They’d all worn masks.
But when Pierre found Orson slumped at his desk over some research on pandemics and mysterious illnesses that had affected miners in that area in past decades, he became desperate and reached out to their patron for help.
He, Miguel, and Nico all got check-ups and passed. They all felt fine, other than the helplessness at seeing their crew, their friends, laid out in comas.
That night, standing outside of his son’s hospital room, Pierre told Nico and Miguel what he intended to do. He would go visit the intermediary in the morning, Mike, the man who spoke for their patron.
Nico wondered if federal investigators would come and seal off the area around the mine, going in with hazard suits, to study the things that had afflicted his friends.
He hoped for his friend, and he worried that he would fall ill soon, even though he had never been in the tunnel with the strange roots. Miguel told him to go home, but Nico didn’t think he could sleep anyway. He was afraid of not waking up again.
Nevertheless, Nico did doze off for a few hours in a chair in the waiting area. He hadn’t wanted to bother his friends’ families as they watched over their loved ones. Miguel handed him a cup of vending machine coffee and told him not to worry. He’d noticed that Nico’s breathing was different from the men who were in comas. So he had a feeling Nico would wake.
Nico did. But Pierre, asleep beside his son, did not.
“Maybe it’s not the roots,” Nico said. “Maybe it’s the shadow.” He and Miguel stood outside the hospital’s main entrance. Neither of them wanted to risk falling asleep in a chair after finding out about Pierre. Astoundingly to Nico, the doctors had let him and Miguel go. They were confident that whatever was happening to the miners wasn’t infectious. But they instructed Nico and Miguel to report any unusual symptoms.
“Whatever it is, we can’t do anything about it. We have to let the doctors do their work,” Miguel said.
“I don’t want to fall asleep not knowing if I’ll wake up again. If it’s going to happen anyway, if we’re already exposed to whatever it is that’s doing this, I want to do something.”
“We don’t know that we’ve been exposed. You and I never went down that tunnel. And you and I are the only ones still awake.”
“Well if the roots are the problem, then we should be fine as long as we stay away from them.”
“What are you thinking?”
Nico had been thinking for a while now. About the roots and the shadow. About whether they were related. And how.
They drove up to the cave entrance. Nico got out of his truck. He didn’t have Ruby beside him on the passenger side as he usually did. He had Miguel.
“I don’t think this is going to work,” Miguel said. “We’re just risking ourselves.” Nico had told him his theory. That the shadow they’d all been seeing might have been trying to ward them off, to warn them away from the mine, more specifically from those roots.
Miguel asked him why, if that were the case, the shadow hadn’t appeared to and frightened John and Freddy.
“Maybe he was afraid. If he’s a spirit or a shadow, whatever he is, he was once human. I’m guessing he died in the mine. Maybe he was killed by whatever has made the rest of our crew sick.”
“If we’re presuming that the story I told you knuckleheads has some truth in it.”
“Don’t they all?”
Miguel shook his head. “You’re counting on too many coincidences and ‘what ifs,’” he said, glancing down at the pouch that hung from Nico’s hip. It contained the prosthetic hand. The one that may or may not have belonged to the shadow in life. Nico had brought it in the hopes it would help them summon the shadow. And he hoped to summon the shadow to try and communicate with it—with him. If he was trying to warn them away from the root, maybe he knew some way to counteract it. It was worth a try. Before too long, the mine would surely be swarming with researchers. Or it would be shut down and sealed up. He wasn’t sure how the authorities would respond. But if he didn’t get sick, he had to do something other than watch his friends fade away. John and Fred had started looking pale, their skin had turned powdery. Their cheeks were sunken in, after only a week. And it was subtle, but Nico could have sworn he saw a tinge of purple in the veins of John’s neck.
Miguel and Nico put on their masks. They turned on their headlamps and lanterns, and they headed toward the mouth of the cave that led into the mine.
A figure appeared before them as they marched on. A shadow flickered into view. It held up its hands toward them and floated backward. Nico stopped. Miguel took a few more steps, forcing the shadow back farther, before he too stopped.
Nico wanted to say something. To ask if the shadow was friend or foe. Or to ask about the roots. But he was transfixed by the flickering, swirling shadow.
The shadow waved his arm, gesturing them to follow. Nico started walking again, overtaking Miguel.
“This isn’t a good idea, Nico.”
“I’ll go alone. If I don’t come back before morning, go get help.”
Miguel shook his head. “I’m in charge of you, kid. Do you know what your dad would do to me if I left you here to save myself? I’ll go, and—”
Miguel nodded and they followed the shadow expecting him to lead them into the cave. He led instead toward a bare patch of earth that was indistinguishable from any other bare patch of earth in the area. He pointed to the ground. Nico walked over to it. He pressed his foot on the solid earth.
“I guess he wants us to dig,” Miguel said.
Nico retrieved a couple of shovels from his truck. They’d brought some equipment with them, expecting to go into the mine and chip away at the roots until they found something. Maybe a seed or a flower, or some part that they might be able to take away and give to someone to find a cure from it. They knew it didn’t really work that way. They also had the impending sense of time running out. Their friends only appeared to be sleeping, but something more insidious was happening to them, inside them.
Almost six feet down, they hit metal. They dug around it and found a metal chest, maybe one-and-a-half by one feet. It was padlocked, but Nico used bolt cutters to cut away the lock. Inside was only one object. A book.
Nico lifted it out and saw that it was more like a folio. The pages were sewn together with a leather cord between two pieces of cut leather. He flipped it open to find a page of neat print and drawings.
The shadow’s hand moved over the page. Nico felt something from the shadow, like the sensation of air sweeping over his skin, but he didn’t feel any emotions from the shadow. No malice. But no friendliness either.
The shadow pointed to one of the drawings, a line drawing of roots wriggling out of a cave wall. Then he reached his hands up and put them on his neck. Nico couldn’t actually see the hands once they rejoined the rest of the shadow, but he got the idea.
The shadow vanished.
Miguel and Nico went to the trailer to look over the book. It was…everything they needed to know.
The common history and lore that Orson discovered had it that the mine was abandoned because of ghosts, or because it’s resource went dry. Though what specifically that resource was, no accounts would say.
According to the unnamed author of the book, the mine was abandoned because it was befouled, by a creature that was found by those who first excavated the caves.
Whether it was one of a kind, or one of many was unknown. Whether it was of earth or another planet or another dimension was unknown. All that was known was that it was a thing of darkness. While it thrived in darkness, it still needed to feed as all living things do. The problem was that no food source had gotten close to the mine for a long, long time. The creature had retreated into hibernation. Nico wondered if their patron knew about it, if that’s why he had them use tools from a bygone age, for the book’s author thought that the creature was probably first woken by the sounds of mining. The explosions, the drilling, and the hammering.
The creature fed by making a filament that attached to a host, then drained the host of simple elements, causing what appeared to be a wasting sickness. In bygone times, it was sometimes mistaken for other illnesses like tuberculosis. When the creature was at full strength, the invisible filament could branch off and invade another person, though too much branching could leave the creature exhausted, so it usually just moved the filaments it had already created from host to host.
The roots, the filaments, had invaded the miners without their knowing, had gotten past all protective clothing and gear. The filament was so fine and small that it couldn’t be seen by the human eye, and was almost impossible to see in sunlight. Without a connection to a host, the filaments and tendrils withered and died, but with a host, they could survive even sunlight and feed the mother organism.
There was a special kind of treated glass that allowed one to see the filaments crudely. Finer observation would require attaching the treated glass to a microscope.
The book even indicated where they might find such glass. There was a piece embedded in the hand that Nico had found, or perhaps had been led to. He couldn’t recall, because it may have been one of the first times he saw it, but he might have caught a shimmer in the air in a spot within the tunnel, the very spot where he found the hand.
They examined the hand, and the seam that had been so finely made and cleverly hidden. They gently pried open the hand and found a piece of rounded glass inside, tinted a yellow-orange.
The sun was rising as they drove to the hospital, sleep-deprived, sore from digging, and not knowing if they would be able to trust what they saw through the yellow glass, if they saw anything.
John’s sister was taking her shift watching over him, but she had fallen asleep in a chair. Nico held the glass up to his eye and gulped.
Glowing a soft purple, fine tendrils covered John’s face. They passed up into his nose, pried past his eyelids, wrapped around his cheeks and reached into his ears, but they were densest around his mouth. From the tangle of tendrils, only one thin filament branched away, lying on his chest and trailing to the ground. Nico and Miguel followed it out of the hospital, onto the road that led north, most certainly all the way to the cave, the mine. The filament was invisible to their naked eyes. Nico didn’t think he actually saw it, even with the yellow glass, but just its ghostly purple aura. The filament was too small for it to be crushed under a boot or by passing traffic. Miguel poured alcohol, then bleach, along a length of the filament. It seemed to dissolve, but then the remnants began to react. The filament thickened at its broken ends until they became visible to the eye as dark purple fingers, squirming toward each other. They rejoined.
Nico and Miguel realized then that they couldn’t just destroy the mine in a cave-in. If the creature survived, the filaments would survive. They were small enough to pass out of the caved in mine and continue sucking the life out of their friends. But if they followed the filaments with the glass, they could find its heart and kill it. If they killed the creature, the filaments would retreat. They would wither.
The book seemed to agree with them. They had found a few pages, near the end, where the author had made drawings of dynamite and piles of black powder alongside calculations of how much to use, and diagrams of the mine to indicate where the creature might be.
“Looks like we’re going to be finishing what this guy started,” Miguel said.
They split up to gather supplies, get some food, and maybe even say something nice to loved ones. Nico expected that Ruby would be waiting, though once again, she wouldn’t be coming along. He expected his dad might be home, though he had no intention of saying anything. Neither he nor Miguel had mentioned it, but they didn’t have much time to calculate and set up an elaborate but safe means of blowing up some underground monstrosity and get out alive themselves.
When Nico got home, he saw that his dad’s car wasn’t in the driveway and was sorrowful and glad at the same time. Ruby didn’t come running up to him when he opened the door. He got a sinking feeling in his gut. His dad had probably taken her to the park. He tried to think of what day it was. He called out to Ruby.
He found her lying in her favorite spot, nudged against the sofa where he usually fell asleep watching television. She was breathing. Nico had the glass. He took a breath and held it up to his eye, sickened when he saw the tendrils, the filament, the purple glow.
Ruby would be going with him after all. If they made it out of the cave, he might be able to know if they succeeded, if Ruby woke up. But if he didn’t succeed, he didn’t want his dad to have to deal with taking care of her as she faded away.
He retrieved his dad’s gun from the safe in the den that had once been his dad’s but had become Nico’s study room. As he loaded the gun, he spotted the photograph stuck between the pages of a book on ghostly phenomena that Orson had lent him. It was the black-and-white photograph of the crew on the first day of the job. Nico lay it down on the table. What he needed was coffee, but instead he poured himself a drink from the den’s liquor cabinet. He downed the whiskey, thought better of leaving his dad a note, and left.
He drove to Miguel’s to pick him up. Miguel’s wife answered the door. She looked mildly worried. She knew the other men on the crew were in the hospital. But Miguel had assured her that he’d been nowhere near the area they’d all gone through. He assured her that the men were weakened and fighting off whatever they had, but they weren’t in pain, and they weren’t dying. So she only looked mildly worried when she told Nico that Miguel had lain down to rest.
Nico’s heart sank when he saw Miguel. He’d left his door and windows open, but Ruby was still in the truck. He couldn’t leave her there long. He searched Miguel’s pockets and found the keys to the office trailer and the supplies locker, where he would find all he needed.
He drove to the mine. He put Ruby in the truck bed, sheltered by the camper shell from the storm that was coming. He left the door to the truck bed open, in case it took more than a day for someone to find Ruby, whether she woke or not. A part of him realized he should have left her by the couch. If she didn’t wake, she might die from the elements. He had brought her for selfish reasons. He had brought her out of the need for comfort in the midst of fear.
At the cave mouth, there was a pile of dirt. It had a distinct purple cast to it. As Nico walked deeper into the cave, he felt someone join him, keep stride with him. He glanced to his left and caught the shimmer and shift in the air. The shadow. Birch. He had come to guide Nico.
“I’m going to kill it,” Nico said aloud, just in case the shadow forming beside him wasn’t sure of his intention. He had his piece of yellow glass, and aimed to start with the secondary shaft, but the shadow led him down the main shaft.
Nico was surprised at his lack of fear now that he was in the mine. Now that he was doing what he came to do, instead of just anticipating it. The shadow too seemed to have lost its fear, if it was fear that had kept him from appearing near the roots, and the creature that they were attached to. Nico scattered ammonium nitrate, fuel oil pellets haphazardly as he walked down one of the deeper tunnels. When they reached the tunnel’s end,the shadow pointed to the ground. Nico didn’t understand what the shadow wanted. They were at a dead end. Nico carefully stepped on the ground where the shadow was pointing. He stumbled as his foot went through a fine layer of purple dust. There was a hole, and an opening there. He remembered then that one time Don’s foot had stepped into a small pit that had looked like solid ground. He peered at the shadow, who pointed to the hole.
Nico climbed head first into the hole. It was just big enough to fit him and he crawled a distance, pulling his heavy supplies behind him, and regretting that he hadn’t first pulled out the gun in case something came toward him. The tunnel was too narrow for him to reach for it now.
At last he reached the end and crawled out of the opening into a vast underground cave. He swept his lantern back and forth before him. There was no light, save the light of Nico’s headlamp and lantern. Stalagtites hung from the ceiling of the cave like ready rows of dragon’s teeth. He was on the jagged rocky shore of an immense lake. He brought the piece of yellow glass up to his eye.
Nico hadn’t expected to actually see it.
It covered the surface of the lake, a hundred yards across it must have been. A gelatinous translucent purple dome. Thorns erupted around a small opening at its center that pulsed obscenely. Dark purple patches, like bruises, covered the dome’s surface in places. Tendrils as thick around as a cow grew from the rim, tapering to a tree-like roots before they pierced the sides of the cave.
Nico wasn’t going to kill it with a few rounds from a handgun. He tried touching the thing, the dome. It gave no reaction. He applied the welding torch to one of the tendrils. The tendril was scorched. Still, the creature did not respond. He applied the torch to the dome and almost fell over when the creature shuddered. The earth around him shifted and slid as tendrils retreated from the cave walls. The spot where he had burned the dome looked familiar, like seared flesh, red and raw.
He pulled out the pistol and fired at the dome. Again it shuddered. The bullet pierced the gelatinous flesh, and a milky liquid came oozing out of the wound. With each shudder, Nico was able to see the creature without the yellow glass.
But now the tendrils not only retreated from the cave walls but moved to the wounds, covering them. Some of them went seeking the air before the wounds, whipping back and forth as if searching for whatever caused the wounds, for Nico.
The tendrils were tough. If the creature covered itself with them, he might not have a chance to destroy it. Nico had an idea then. He climbed to a higher point in the cave, lying down on a thin rock outcropping, so he was as directly above the creature as he could be. He pulled the heavy bottles from his duffel. It wasn’t anything fancy. Bleach had worked on the filaments when Miguel tried it. So he had five gallons of bleach. It might do something if the creature swallowed it. He also had seven or eight gallons of gasoline.
He started with the bleach. Each bottle seemed to take hours to drain. He dropped them as he went and they struck the dome, sliding down. That sphincter-like mouth pulsed and drank in a good portion of the bleach. As he was pouring the last bottle, the dome began to shudder and vibrate. Nico lost the yellow glass as it slipped from his sweat-soaked hand.
A deep droning that vibrated through his skin to his bones began sounding. He heard splashing from below as the creature struggled, and a cry like the grinding of giant teeth. He had affected it, hurt it. Tendrils whipped past him. He pulled a bottle of gasoline from his duffel. He started pouring the gasoline. The droning intensified. With two bottles left, Nico was slipping from his perch. He clutched the two remaining bottles in case he fell. He held his hand out, holding the most reliable lighter he could find in the store on his way to the mine. It lit on the first try. He had three more if it failed. He dropped the lighter.
The lake of water below erupted into a lake of fire. Flames rippled out from the purple dome. Fire splashed out of the lake and onto the rocky shores. There was no place for Nico to go. Nothing for him to do but to hang on until a seeking tendril knocked him down and he plummeted into the swelling mouth of flame.
The cavern was so bright now that he could see everything. He could see the figure on the far end of the lake. The shadow that waved and beckoned to him.
Nico didn’t know what the shadow expected of him now. The creature below was screaming and writhing. He dropped the two bottles of gasoline, expecting them to explode in his face, but they hit the dome and then burst. He expected to burn to a crisp as the flames burned up toward him, but while the heat was intense, it was bearable. It was as if the creature was absorbing it inward. There was no smoke either. He saw the creature through the flames, its gelatinous form searing and peeling to reveal red and black, just as burned human flesh would. He looked behind himself and was amazed to see that there was a clear path down from the outcropping. The creature was reacting by instinct, pulling all its tendrils, hugging them to its core body, containing the fire that should have been consuming the whole chamber.
Nico scrambled down and edged his way to where the shadow stood. He hesitated. The creature was suffering, but he couldn’t tell if it was dying. He had to make sure it died.
Suddenly a tendril came shooting toward him. He was knocked to the ground and as he turned, he saw the tendril pierce the shadow’s chest instead of his own. The shadow was corporeal. The tendril whipped and slammed him against the wall.
Nico pulled out his gun and fired wildly. He didn’t hit anywhere close to the tendril. The shadow slumped to the ground and vanished. Nico wouldn’t leave until he was sure. He looked at the outcropping where he’d just been lying. He’d left his bag there, under the stalagtites. It contained only one last thing. A few packages of the ammonium nitrate, fuel oil. Maybe, if he was lucky, it would explode and knock lose some intact stalactites, to impale the creature.
The shadow appeared before him again. He pointed to a tunnel. Nico couldn’t see far down the tunnel, even in the firelight.
“I have to see it done,” Nico said. He started to feel the heat of the fire more intensely. The chamber was filling with smoke.
The shadow loomed over him. He reached his hand out to Nico’s chest, and pushed.
No one in town heard the blast. No one saw a figure stumble out of the cave that led into what was once a mine.
No one saw him collapse onto the bed of the truck beside the gently breathing form of a sleeping dog. He didn’t wake, even hours later when the sun began to sink.
He only woke in the middle of the night when he heard the sound of cars approaching, his face sticky from the unrelenting licks of the young retriever who sat faithfully by his side.
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “The Whole Mining Crew” by Sanjay Patel.