It’s been a weird long time since I’ve last been able to post anything. Between family life and a job that was exceedingly difficult for a variety of reasons, I didn’t have much energy for writing for most of the last couple of years. Fortunately, I am now in a new job with steady hours (and more money) and the creativity is starting to creep back in, albeit slowly.
NYCMidnight ran their Short Story contest, starting in January. If you’ll remember, they give the participants a genre, a person, and a situation/object. They set a word limit and a time limit and off you go!
This time, it was a 2,500 word limit in 8 days. I was assigned to action/adventure with pretending and a contortionist.
The results came out yesterday. I was given an Honorable Mention and, while I don’t get to advance to the next round, I am very pleased with this result since I found this prompt to be particularly challenging.
Anyway, here it is.
Hide and Seek
Julia’s talent, her past, was widely known, but was seen as a quirk, an oddity. Certainly not anything useful. Most people only mentioned it to ask her to perform at parties.
She always said ‘no’.
She couldn’t say ‘no’ this time.
Julia’s heart sank when she saw the press had already gathered. There had been a public outcry to permanently barricade the opening to the unstable mine for ages and it was sure to get worse after this. Regardless of the outcome, her name would be forever associated with yet another tragedy.
“Julia, thank God you’re here.” Sheriff Lockett strode up to her, long brown braids bouncing against her back.
“How long have they been down there?” Julia shrugged off her jacket and began pulling her hair back into a low, tight bun.
“Over an hour, as near as we can figure. Did you feel that small quake earlier? That’s when it happened. We got the call at 10:07. Jake Capelli, you know him, right? He managed to escape and ran to the 7-11 for help.”
“Is he okay?” Images flashed in Julia’s mind of torn flesh and cracked skulls. And her son Aiden’s face, eyes closed forever.
“Not a scratch on him. He says he jumped clear when the wall came down. He’s at the station with his mom, eating ice cream.” They walked past the reporters, ignoring their shouted questions. “We don’t have a visual on the others. The engineers are afraid to shift the rock in case the whole thing comes down. We’ve dropped a mic into where we think they are but can’t hear anything.”
“How many are there?”
“Four. Will Arjen, Kevin Karamack, Owen Stevens, and Julius Robinson.”
Julia closed her eyes, breathing deeply through her nose. Aiden’s friends.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. What do you need me to do?”
The sheriff spread out a blueprint on a small folding table. “This is where we think the boys are.” She pointed. “A vent shaft drops down into the next room here. There’s a corridor leading to the other side of the mine and another exit. No one’s been out that way in decades, so they’re checking now to see how stable it is.” She took a deep breath. “We need you to try and squeeze through the vent and see what’s going on down there. Lead them out the back way if you can. Fuck, Julie. That shaft is tiny. Do you think you can do this?”
Julia squinted as she looked toward the top of the mine. “I don’t really have a choice, do I?”
The vent was impossibly dark and smelled of rot. After the floods last year, Julia wondered how much mold she was about to crawl through. The little dust mask they had given her sure wasn’t going to offer much protection.
She should have a HazMat suit for this, she thought.
She wouldn’t have to contort much for this, not really. It wasn’t going to be like putting herself in a box like she used to back in Vegas. She just needed to pull her shoulders in a bit to get through the shaft. Easy peasy.
After double checking her safety harness (she didn’t need one, but the Sheriff insisted), she eased herself feet first into the vent. It wasn’t as tight of a squeeze as she had expected, but she could see why they didn’t have someone else try to navigate it. No one else would have fit.
As expected, the tube was only about 25 dark and dank feet long. Her headlamp barely pierced the gloom. Once she felt her feet hit open space, Julia wriggled a bit more and grabbed the edge of the pipe, swinging her body out into the chamber.
“Hello? Is anyone here?” Her voice carried into the dark as her arms quivered with the strain of holding on, though she knew her harness would catch her if she fell. She couldn’t see further than maybe a foot in any direction. “Lower me down.” The headset she was wearing made her voice sound tinny, but acknowledgement from above echoed back to her.
The drop was only about 20 feet, or so they thought, but she had no idea what she might possibly be landing on. If the whole chamber had collapsed….
Her feet touched down and she braced herself, feeling grit crunch under her shoes, waiting to see if what she was standing on would bear her weight. When it appeared safe, she spoke again into her mic. “I’m unhooking from the tether. Send down more lights.”
Another line dropped from above, a large flashlight nearly conking her on the head. Flipping it on, the beam landed on piles of rubble and dust, lots of dust.
But no boys.
“I need more light.”
Her request was answered swiftly with a bucket loaded with lanterns and safety flares. She turned on a couple of the lanterns and the whole chamber came into relief.
“Hello?” She eased around the piles of fallen rock, shining her flashlight into the crevices the lanterns couldn’t quite illuminate. “Will? Kevin? Julius? Owen? C’mon out, guys. Let’s get you home.”
There was nothing but silence in response.
“Sheriff? Um…There’s no one down here.”
“The boys. They’re not here. I’m going to move down the corridor.”
The mic squawked and fell silent but not before she heard a muttered ‘God damnit’. Tucking some safety flares into her harness and grabbing an extra lantern, she took another look around the chamber before starting off into the black corridor. Rocks littered the way, although the ceiling appeared to be solid. In a couple of places, she had to scramble over small piles of rubble. One was larger than the others and as she was easing down the other side, a rock gave way underneath her.
She tumbled to the ground, crying out as a sharp edge cut into her calf. Blood ran down her leg. She let out a short scream, more surprised than anything. In the shaky light, the wound looked like it might require stitches. She had nothing to staunch the flow of blood with, so in the end she continued on, leaving a trail of blood after each limping footstep.
She kept calling out for the boys. There was no response.
The corridor seemed to stretch on forever. How big was this mine, anyway? She had to have been walking for at least a quarter of a mile.
“Hey, Sheriff Lockett?”
There was no answer, just bursts of static.
A couple of more tries and Julia realized she was probably too deep for the signal to cut through the rock. Well, shit. She was on her own with no idea where the kids were.
The further she went through the tunnel, the more rubble she encountered and, in a couple of instances, actually had to crawl over piles on her hands and knees, whimpering each time the cut on her leg came in contact with, well, anything.
Her breath came in harsh gasps. Even when she stopped to rest, it felt like she was trying to breathe underwater.
She couldn’t do this. They needed to find someone else, someone with more experience, better equipment. What the hell was she thinking, coming down here with nothing but a dust mask?
Where the hell were the kids? There was no sign of them. No kids, no clothing, no blood except her own. Just broken rocks, sharp pieces of metal, and dust falling from the ceiling. She was going back.
She had only retreated a few feet when a rumbling came from all around her.
And suddenly, it wasn’t just rumbling, it wasn’t just dust. Pebbles were now falling as well, stones, pieces of tile from the ceiling, crashing around her, on her. She dove to the side, covering her head with her hands. She could see a small alcove lined with shelves just a few feet away.
Dodging falling rocks, she moved as fast as she could, her leg screaming in pain, and squeezed herself under a shelf, her knees up around her ears.
The shaking seemed to take forever to stop. When Julia was able to finally crawl out, unfolding her protesting body, she was horrified to find the corridor blocked, floor to ceiling, with fallen rocks in both directions.
She was trapped. And it was getting even harder to breathe.
Her voice echoed as she tried to call through her radio, but there was nothing but static in return. No response when she shouted for the boys, either.
She was alone.
She set up her last lantern, illuminating her predicament. But wait… what was that?
She had gotten turned around. Which way was which? But up near the top of one of the barricades, it looked like there was a small opening. Maybe she could get through. She had certainly gotten through smaller holes, albeit when she was much younger.
What other choice did she have? She could stay here and wait to be rescued, if that was even possible. Or she could try to save herself and find the missing boys.
Up she scrambled, searching for handholds, places to put her feet. Anything strong enough to support her weight.
Suddenly, the pile started to shift under her. She froze, clinging to a large stone jutting out from the pile. Small rocks rained down on her, cutting into her face and arms. She could feel tears start to trickle down her face.
She hadn’t cried since Aiden’s accident. Not since she had been unable to save him.
When the shaking stopped, she resumed her climb, wondering why on earth they felt compelled to make the top of the tunnel so fucking high?
At the top, she peered through the opening. She thought maybe, just maybe, the other side didn’t seem quite so dark as where she was, which could mean there was a light out there somewhere.
The hole was slightly smaller than a medium-sized doggie door, but big enough for her to wriggle through.
She switched off her flashlight, plunging herself into a darkness she never thought possible this side of the grave. She peered through the wall again and, yes, it did seem slightly brighter on that side of the rocks. She pulled the tab on one of the safety flares, setting it alight, and tossed it through the hole.
She blinked, trying to clear the dust and tears from her vision. There was a large, open space on the other side of the rocks and then what seemed to be another barrier. More rocks? Or perhaps the door to the outside Sheriff Lockett had pointed out to her?
She had definitely fit through tighter gaps before, but this felt different. No matter how she pulled her shoulders together, she couldn’t quite make the squeeze. She could feel her ligaments and tendons straining, her arms nearly coming out of their sockets. She pushed hard with her feet, popping through to the other side. Skin tore from her arms and she lost her grip. She braced herself for the fall, but in that instant a rock came loose, landing hard on her leg, which was still halfway through the opening.
The abrupt stop caused her to slam into the wall and her right shoulder popped loose from the impact. She screamed and scrambled hard with her left hand, trying to find something to support herself with. She pushed with her free leg and pulled with her hand until suddenly, her trapped ankle came free and she tumbled down the rock face, crashing onto the ground. Her head cracked on the floor and she lay there, dazed, hardly believing all that had happened to her.
And the worst part? She had failed. She had failed to find the boys. She prayed that they had already found their way down the corridor and to the door she had been promised was there.
In that moment, all she could do was cry. Cry for the boys. Cry for Aiden. Cry for herself.
And then the time for crying was over. She tried to stand but collapsed when she tried to put weight on her injured ankle. Probably broken. She cradled her right arm close to her body, not wanting to jostle her dislocated shoulder.
Looking around, she could see a wall at the end of the tunnel, not more than 100 feet away. And in that wall was a door with a grime-covered window that let through a meager light. That must have been what she had seen earlier.
Freedom was so close.
She pulled herself over to the wall and heaved herself onto her good leg, struggling not to pass out from pain. In an odd type of symmetry, it was her left ankle and her right shoulder that was injured, so she could hold onto the wall with her left hand for support and hop on her right foot. It was only for a short distance, she kept telling herself. She could do this.
When she reached the door, she leaned her forehead onto the cold metal surface and retched, bile splattering at her feet. She pressed the button on her radio.
“Is…is anyone there?”
“Hello? Sheriff? Anyone? I need help.”
Silence and Julia could feel the tears welling up again when the radio screamed into life.
“Oh, thank God, Julia! Hang on, okay? They’re almost ready to try to open the door. Are you okay?”
“No. My ankle and my shoulder and my…” Her voice trailed off. “And I didn’t find the boys. There’s no sign of them anywhere down here.”
She could hear the Sheriff sigh, hearing disappointment in her voice. “Let’s just get you out of there.”
She had failed everyone.
“Julia? They want you to move away from the door as far as you can.”
She hopped backwards, screaming when she tripped on a rock, falling back to the floor.
With a cloud of dust, the door crashed down and sunlight, bright glorious sunlight, poured in. As Julia shielded her eyes from the sudden glare, she was aware of people rushing to her, calling her name and yelling for EMTs.
They lifted her onto a stretcher and carried her out into the day. Sheriff Lockett bent over her, brushing the dust from her face. “It’s going to be okay now, Julie. I’m so sorry about everything.”
Black started to creep around the edges of her vision and her voice was a rasping whisper. “Sorry for what?”
The sheriff turned her head and Julia followed her gaze.
Standing off to the side were the boys. Kevin, Julius, Owen, and Will. All looking perfectly fine. And terrified.
The sheriff patted her hand. “They thought it was a funny joke. Something Jake dared them to do.”
Julia tried to sit up and darkness overtook her. As she fainted, she heard the sheriff speak again.
“They were never down there at all.”