Coal Ridge, July 1983
An eerily silent, dark shape coalesced in the dank basement of the old house on the corner of Hemlock Drive and Third Street. For the two men standing in a protective circle meticulously drawn from salt, feelings of rage, pain, and hunger rolled over them, causing them to exhale white plumes in the suddenly frigid room.
“This is it,” the older man whispered. Hank had worked in the coal mines before they'd shut down, toiling deep beneath the Earth in a sweltering darkness that left deep scars, both visible and invisible. There were eighteen of them working that day; none of them had any idea what they’d stumbled upon in that old steel box they dug up. Most were convinced that it was the treasure that would finally get them out of the mines forever. They were half right.
“This is worse than any trip, man. Is this actually gonna work?” Bruce Richards had never met a drug he didn't like, the most amazing thing about him was the fact that he’d made it through the 60’s and 70’s without overdosing. A man who looked much older than his thirty-five years and whose preferred style of dress was dirty jeans and a Grateful Dead concert shirt, two years ago he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time and that had led him to this damn basement with something much worse than his personal demons.
“It had better work, or those eighteen kids will have given up their souls for nothing.”
A wave of guilt rolled over Bruce that had nothing to do with the dark presence in the cellar. Finding eighteen people willing to give up their souls to seal the cage was never going to happen but turning the extraction into a game to see how many volts of electricity a group of teenagers could take, that was easy. The mild shocks masked the pain of having their souls torn from their bodies, the hardest part was building the mock electric chair so that the terminal sat perfectly where the spine met the skull. “Have I mentioned how messed up this whole thing is?”
“Every day since that night at Miller’s Pond three years ago,” the older man replied flatly. He took a deep breath; Hank long ago resigned himself to this course and thought that he had been prepared for what was to come next, but with the moment upon him his resolve was weakening.
“Hey man, why isn’t it in the cage yet?” Bruce asked, sweat beginning to roll down his face despite the cold. “Shouldn’t it be in there by now?”
The old miner took another breath and closed his eyes; the faces of all the friends who had died that day came to him, not the twisted, deformed faces they wore in death but the joyous ones that once shared a beer at the Corner Bar. This was his time, his chance to make amends for some of the pain and suffering they’d inadvertently released. “I’m on my way fellas,” he whispered to himself. Putting a hand on his companion’s shoulder, he leaned in close. “Don’t lose the book. Just in case this doesn’t work, or god forbid it gets out again, someone is going to need to do this again.”
“The book, man? Your book?”
“It’s not my book any longer, Bruce, now it’s your book and your responsibility.”
“Before we met, your life was listless; you had no direction. Now you are a guardian of sorts, and you have a purpose. The man I met three years ago could not handle this but the man you are now can.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Hank gave him a sad smile. “There’s something missing from the cage,” the old man said with a sad smile, “bait.” Stepping out of the circle, he moved quickly towards the old steel refrigerator in the corner.
“No!” The strength of his voice surprised him in the chaotic silence, and it caused Hank to pause and turn. In that moment, the dark shaped engulfed the older man and he disappeared. “Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit!” Bruce mumbled to himself as he plunged a trembling hand into the faded green canvas field pack at his feet and pulled out one of the pouches inside. His fingers fumbled with the gold tasseled drawstring of the purple felt-like bag.
The dark shape was beginning to fade.
“No. Shit. Shit. Shit. Come on!” The knot came free, but the form was almost gone. Reacting more on instinct than thought, he stepped out of the circle. It returned fully in less than an instant, seeming to fill the entire cellar along with a high-pitched wail of absolute terror. With his mouth open wide pouring out that scream, Bruce waved the open pouch around maniacally with one arm, while covering his face with the other. A cloud of salt filled the air.
Bright red rage exploded out of the dark form and Hank hit the ground hard. Bruce started to move towards him, but the old man held up a gnarled hand. “Get back in the circle you goddamned fool!” The old miner’s face looked like someone had put it in a vice; he pushed himself to his feet and stumbled forward, falling into the old fridge. With an effort, he pulled his legs inside and grabbed the makeshift internal handle.
The rage filled form rushed at Bruce, who stepped back ready to flee, and found himself once again inside the circle. It immediately reversed and charged the old man in the refrigerator. As it engulfed him, Hank pulled the door shut.
With a click, the long handle of the fridge locked in place and the cellar again became eerily silent.
* * *
Coal Ridge, October 2017
“You know, Bruce, I'm not even open yet.”
“If you let me just get it myself, I wouldn't have to bother you for a shot, man.” Time had not been kind to Bruce; a prison sentence for thirty-six counts of child endangerment had cost him the house his parents left him and most of his meager possessions. It hadn't mattered that all the kids had sat in the chair willingly. The other prisoners tortured him as retribution for running volts of electricity through them, and after he’d been released he suffered repeated beatings from still angry fathers.
He couldn't blame any of them, so he never fought back. He just found ways to numb the pain.
“Not a chance,” the owner of the bar said, standing up from his ledger to serve the drink. Tim Goodwin may not have been the most adept businessman, no one could argue that the Red Zone fared much better when his ex-wife was handling the books, but he knew enough to never trust a drunk. “Aren’t you supposed to be over at the stadium getting things ready for the game tonight?” he asked, pouring a shot of the cheapest whiskey he had into a glass of the cheapest draft.
In the time since his release, Bruce found work digging ditches and cleaning up roadkill, doing everything he could to stay close to Coal Ridge and not stay sober. His luck turned a little when one of the teens grew up to take a position of authority in town. Scott Webb had been one of the first to sit in the chair and had told all his friends about it; he’d always felt bad for what happened to Bruce and in his role as the Parks and Building Administrator, was able to throw some good work his way.
After taking a drink, Bruce looked down at the bar. “I saw John Bradley today.” Hank had told him that most people would be fine without their soul, likely never even missing it, but a few of them would know that something was missing from their lives and would spend the rest of their lives in a mad and futile search.
Tim pushed his lips together, nodding solemnly. “You’re not responsible for what happened to him, Bruce. Some people just break. It’s a shame, but it happens.”
He’d tried to explain it once to a social worker in prison; her response was to have him sedated and isolated, locked up in the lockup. Once was enough, now he just nodded and agreed when people told him it wasn’t his fault, knowing full well that he’d robbed John Bradley of his life and condemned him to a living hell that would end only in oblivion.
He drained the glass. “Another.”
Tim shook his head. “Kids are getting out of school, the last thing anyone needs to see right now is you stumbling your way through town, especially when you’re supposed to be working. If you want to get drunk, go home.”
After pushing himself up, taking a moment to get his footing, he offered the owner a tight smile that didn't touch his eyes. “Thanks.”
“That's one of the things I like about you, Bruce, you don't fight it.”
Another tight smile and Bruce stepped out onto the windy autumn day. Cool enough to know that summer was over, but still warm enough to go about in a tee, he thought about heading over to the stadium. If he didn't go Scott would cover for him, but who knew for how long that pity train would ride; then again, if he went and someone smelled the whiskey on his breath...no, the world had changed too much. People were offended by everything and there was no tolerance for those who needed a drink to deal with their demons.
Don't lose the book. The last words of wisdom that Hank had impressed upon him. That had been a lifetime ago. The old miner had seen something in him; he had been a mentor and a friend, more a father than anyone in his life. Through everything that had happened since that night, he remembered those words and he hadn't lost it. He didn't trust himself with it, but he hadn't lost it.
Sometimes he convinced himself that everything that happened in those three years was nothing but a long bad trip, but then he'd sober up.
“You look lost.”
Bruce looked up and winced; Mr. George Bradley was walking towards him. Shortly after the pictures the teens took of one another in the electric chair had been found but before he was arrested, John’s father confronted him and gave him a pretty good beating. Bruce never reported it to anyone. “No sir,” he replied, taking a step back. “Not lost, just…” There were no words to explain what he was. Floating seemed most apt; keeping his head above water with the ever-present danger of drowning.
“Just?” The older man inquired, stepping in close enough to strike.
With his chin on his chest, not daring to look the man in the eyes, Bruce managed a shrug.
“When you didn't show up at the stadium, I thought I might find you here.” After a very uncomfortable moment where Bruce expected to be hit, Mr. Bradley put two fingers under his chin and lifted it, forcing their gazes to meet. “You have suffered for this for too long.”
Where he expected to see judgmental rage in the older man's eyes, Bruce found an unexpected softness. “I-I…”
“You made a mistake. You built that thing, but the boys chose to sit in it; you didn't force them. You paid for your crime. What happened with Johnny is not your fault, it's time you stopped destroying yourself over it.”
“No!” The tone didn't leave room for argument.
Bruce wanted to explain that it was his fault, that he did more than hit them with mild electric shocks. He wanted to admit that he had stolen their souls and that was what was wrong with Johnny—he wasn't sick or crazy or whatever clinical term fancy doctors used, a part of him had been stolen and he couldn't deal with it. He wanted to admit this, but he couldn't. The man in front of him, a man who had beaten him and threatened to kill him, had forgiven him and that hurt more than any of the beatings. Lowering his eyes, Bruce managed a nod. “Thank you.” George had managed to find peace in this mess, it would be a crime to take that from him.
“Now go home,” the older man said, “you're not going to do yourself any favors in this condition. Scotty wants you to help with the cleanup at the stadium tomorrow morning.”
That was when it happened. The sound, like glass breaking in a giant empty room, rolled across Coal Ridge; all over town people turned towards it, but with so much in their lives to distract them it was quickly dismissed. It was a sound that Bruce hoped he would never hear. Hank had described it to him, though now that he’d heard it, he realized that no description could do it justice. Becoming instantly sober was a trope used too often in stories and movies, but it wasn't a thing. Bruce was just as drunk as he was a minute before, the only difference was the addition of abject terror.
The change in his demeanor did not go unnoticed.
"Bruce. Are you still with me?" George Bradley was holding him at the elbow. "How much did you have to drink?"
"Not enough," he replied, his gaze far away. Although he couldn't see the bike trails that ran through the woods behind the park or the old mine shaft that delved down beneath them, he knew that was from where the sound originated. It had been, after all, where Bruce had taken the old fridge, pulling it on an old dolly up and down hills and over exposed roots. It had taken him more than ten hours to get it there, using the strap on the dolly to lower it inside, and sealing it behind a chained gate under a sign that threatened extreme danger. The effort was so great that afterward he'd slept for most of two days.
Paranoid to the point of extreme anxiety, he'd checked that mine entrance almost daily, terrified that someone might go in there and inadvertently release it again; then he'd gone to jail. For the first few years he would wake in a panic, certain that someone would find it while he was in the locked up, but they hadn't. He'd checked on it a lot less than he meant to since being released, the danger sign had faded but the entrance was well hidden and the trails that used to run past it had been reclaimed by the park.
"I, um, I need to..." Bruce toppled, but the older man still had him by the elbow, easing him to the ground.
"You need to stop doing this to yourself."
"This is nothing." He put his head between his legs. "It's going to start again," he mumbled, beginning to sob. "It's going to start again, and I have to stopit, but Hank was the one who stopped it last time, I was just along for the ride, but Hank is gone and now its back and it's up to me, and I'm not Hank."
"Hank? Hank McDonald?"
"You know what happened to Hank McDonald?"
Several cars drove past on Shannen Street. "Did you kill him?"
"No!" Bruce nearly shouted, looking up, his brows knit closely together. "No fucking way, man, Hank was like a father to me." He dropped his head again. "I miss him."
"Alright Bruce," the older man said, grabbing an arm and pulling him up to his feet, "talk to me."
"Man, you don't want to know this; hell, I don't want to know this."
"I can see how scared you are, talk to me."
Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, he turned to George, wiping the tears off his cheeks and looking at him with red rimmed eyes. Normally he would make an excuse and step away, but in addition to feeling more scared and alone than he had in a long time, he'd had a lot to drink. "Fine, but you gotta take me to the library in McMahon."
* * *
For the twelve minutes it took them to get to the library, Bruce spoke for eleven of them, summarizing the three years between the events at Miller's Pond, of which most people had at least heard rumors, and what happened in the cellar in July of 1983. He'd left out the real reason he'd built the electric chair.
“So, you and Hank McDonald were what, Ghostbusters?”
The prison psychiatrist had asked if they were ghost hunters; he decided to answer differently this time. “You wanted me to talk to you, man, this is what I have to say. No one is going to question that I ain't right in the head, but you lived here in the 70s, you know what kind of weird shit went down. People don't talk about it; they act like nothing happened, but it did. The kiln in the elementary school. The boy at Miller's Pond. Mrs. Dedidnado going crazy. Those kids that disappeared playing kick the can. That's only the stuff Hank couldn't stop.”
They had parked while he was ranting. George stared down at the steering wheel but didn't say anything. The silence grew uncomfortable.
“Look, Hank gave me a book that describes how to deal with these things. He found it in something they'd dug up. I hid it here after Scotty tipped me that the pictures had been found.”
Bruce opened the door to get out.
“Why the library?”
“I was going to jail, where else you gonna keep a book?”
* * *
It was right where he left it 22 years ago, stuck between the shelves in the horror section. A thin leather-bound book about the size of his hand that looked like an old diary held closed with a rubber band...and covered in dust.
“That's not what I expected."
A thin smile creased the other’s lips; Bruce had said exactly that the first time Hank showed it to him. He tugged the rubber band and a piece of it broke away; glancing at George he shrugged. "They found it in a steel box in...I don't know, an old seam or something, someplace in the mine that had been closed off that they were reevaluating. The crew that found it thought it was a treasure or something and managed to sneak it out and then opened it in Mike Birding's garage."
"Wait, I know that name...the Birding Fire?"
"Yep." He put the book in a back pocket and they headed to the car.
"The one that burned down eighteen houses?"
"And killed fifty-three people...yep. Hank was running late, and they opened it without him. He didn't like to talk about it, but we got plastered one night and he just started talking. Man, I didn't believe half the shit he told me until a lot later."
"So, what's in that book?"
Another shrug. "Mostly symbols and stuff, Hank called them wards. The book was all that was left in the steel box; I'm not sure how he got it or how it survived the fire, or how he understood any of it. I asked him once and he got pissed. He did teach me about most of it though."
At the car, George stepped in front of him. "And just what do you plan to do with it?"
"I'm going to go get some salt, stop at home to get...a couple of things, then I'm going to find a way to lure it back into that fridge and hope I don't die."
"This is insane."
"Welcome to my life, man."
* * *
Having collected a few things from the room he rented from Mrs. Coletry, he picked up the faded green field pack that had belonged to Hank. The old miner served in the military during the Vietnam War but neither he nor the pack had ever left the country, and yet it was well traveled having accompanied Hank across the country twice. After that nightmare in his basement, the field pack and its contents became his; admittedly it had aged better than Bruce, with just a little fraying on the straps, some rust on the buckles, and several copper colored streaks on the flap. The pack felt heavy, he reached in and pulled out a nearly full bottle of Old Crow Kentucky Straight Bourbon.
Wiping his mouth, he started to open the bottle, convincing himself that a little liquid courage was exactly what he needed at the moment, and looked down at the pack. The first time he’d seen the old man, he was carrying it by the canvas handle on the top of the flap; it had a shoulder strap at one time, but Hank had been forced to cut it off to use as a tourniquet before they’d met. The day he was released from prison, they returned the canvas pack to him and it held the only possessions he had left in the world. The pack reminded him of Hank, and Hank had trusted him to deal with this mess. Taking a deep breath, Bruce put the cap back on the bottle and set it down on the dresser.
After filling the pack with items he would need tonight, Bruce picked it up and made his way down to the trails the only way he could given the amount of alcohol he'd consumed earlier—he walked.
Trying to get his mind off Hank and what they’d faced that night in his basement, Bruce thought about the drive back to Coal Ridge. George had not said a word when they’d gotten back into the car, finally mumbling a polite pleasantry after dropping him at the driveway. The older man seemed genuinely distraught after their conversation, which meant that he hadn't thought Bruce was completely out of his mind. That was at least something.
According to the schedule he’d seen in Scott’s office, there wasn't anything going on at the ball fields today, and with the football game tonight it was unlikely anyone would be down there, which was good. The last thing he needed was to have people around, especially kids. Therefore, he was surprised to see a car down by the little league field near the entrance to the trails. Even more surprising was to find George Bradley standing next to the car.
"George is fine."
"George. What are you doing here?"
"I want to see this?"
"Trust me man, you don't."
The older man pointed towards the woods. "One of two things are going to happen when we go in there, either I'm going to see what you are telling me I'm going to see, in which case I'm not going to leave it to you alone to keep my family and friends safe, or I'm going to see that you are truly as crazy as you sound."
"And if I am?"
"We'll deal with that if the time comes."
Dusk was fast approaching, and the voice of Charlie Dodge was already echoing from the stadium loud speakers. That sound would be lost once they entered the woods. Bruce began to shiver as he thought about was going to be in that old mine and had to admit to himself that he was glad for the company.
"Are we going to do this?"
Bruce turned to the older man. "Alright man, we'll go in there together, but when you see this thing you can't run." He set the field pack down on the hood of the car, lifted the copper stained flap, and pulled out a leather cord necklace with a large charm on the end. "Hank gave this to me the first time I went with him. It will make you invisible to them as long as you don't run." That was a lie. It was just an old charm that once belonged to Mrs. McDonald, but from experience he knew that George would need a little extra courage tonight.
The older man looked at him, his brow knit in skepticism, but he took it and put it on.
"Good. It is going to want to get as far away from that fridge as it can, but so long as Hank is still in there, it's going to be linked, so we can pull it back and trap it again." He was hugging the field pack to his chest as he spoke.
"Cause before we started that night, he swallowed a binding ward. I didn't find out until I read the note he left for me afterward. He intended all along to use himself as bait to trap it, man." A tear rolled down his face as Bruce again tried to push the events of that night out of his mind.
"What is it?"
"Evil man," Bruce replied, wiping his cheek, "Pure evil."
* * *
Their journey through the woods along the creek in the growing darkness was longer than Bruce remembered. He was afraid he wouldn't be able to find the old mine entrance, and wouldn't that just piss off old George, but his feet carried him right to it, with only a few minor stumbles and one fall along the way. While he’d added a new mud stain to the bottom of the pack, George had fared much worse.
As they approached, something twinkled in the fading light ahead. Fishing a flashlight out of the pack, he had to slap his hand against it a few times before it turned on.
"Why didn't you use that to help us get here," George asked, wiping at the arm of his windbreaker that was covered in mud from his third or fourth fall.
"It's a piece of shit, man. I was hoping it would work in the mine, otherwise we'd have to use a candle and it's hard to see anything by candle." He swept the light ahead of them. "Besides, those fuckers like to blow out candles."
The light fell onto a couple of BMX bikes. "Oh no, man. No."
George glanced at him questioningly.
"Kids man, if kids found that thing..." Without hesitation he pushed forward, keeping the flashlight focused on the bikes. "Shit. Shit. Shit. This is not good, man, not good." After pausing at the bikes to shine the light around, he continued forward, moving towards a steep hill that led up to the newer Parkside houses.
"If there are kids involved, shouldn't we call the police or someone?"
Bruce spun around. "You don't really believe me do you.” He shook his head. “What the hell are we gonna tell the cops, that a couple of kids have freed a demon and it ate them? No man, this is on us now, we gotta get in there and hope we ain't too late." Holding the pack with one arm, he reached under the flap and pulled out two full Ziploc baggies. "Take these, if you see it throw that salt all around; it don't like salt."
"I don't even know what I'm looking for."
"Trust me, man, you'll know it when you see it."
Stepping into a mostly hidden depression in the slope, Bruce disappeared; George hesitated, fingering the charm he wore around his neck, and then followed shortly after. Just inside were a series of broken boards lying on the ground and about ten feet in there was an old metal gate sitting open; the flashlight was shining on a pair of bolt cutters sitting on a floor next to a half dozen locks. Bruce stared down at the locks for a moment longer and shook his head.
"There's a pit ahead, Hank called it a winze I think, it's a pretty steep grade." He reached into the pack and pulled out a rope. "Tie this to the post by the wall; make it a bowline."
"Is that a type of knot?" George asked, reaching for the rope.
Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, Bruce pulled the rope back and said, "Never mind, man, I got it."
"I haven't had much experience tying off ropes," the older man offered defensively, an unfamiliar lack of authority in his voice. He held the flashlight while the other man tied the rope off, with the pack sitting at his feet. "Did Hank teach you to do that too?"
"Nah man, my dad had a dock on Mosquito Lake, he'd take me fishing in the summers; taught me a bunch of knots." He left out the drunken berating, occasional beatings, and the holes he'd kicked in the hull of the boat to put an end to the miserable outings. Once the knot was tied he picked up the pack and turned to George. "Are you ready for this?"
The older man nodded but didn't say anything.
Using the rope as a rail, they descended the angled shaft around twenty feet to a stope—a mined area between levels. Swinging the flashlight around, Bruce stopped it on the bottom of the open fridge; there was an old and well abused dolly lying on the ground next to it. Swallowing hard, he raised the light to shine it into the open door.
"My god...what did you do to him?"
The body looked like it had been stretched and twisted around the inside of the fridge, with tatters of shredded clothing hanging down.
"It did that to him, man, not me." Moving the beam away from that particular horror and setting the pack on the ground for easy access, he swung the light around. "Do you see the kids anywhere?" A loud click echoed into the depths. Bruce turned to see the older man holding a gun on him. "Hey man, is this what you meant by deal with it?"
"I just wanted to see if you would lead me to where you hid Hank's body. I never imagined that you would have done that to him. I was such a fool. Recently I’d thought a lot about that confrontation in your driveway all those years ago, I always expected that you would tell the police and that I would find myself in jail, but you never said anything. I started thinking that the monster moniker had been misplaced, that maybe you had built that chair as a prop and when the kids got interested in it, you let them talk you into letting them sit in it. Maybe you were lonely, and you liked the attention it brought. I came up with a whole series of scenarios and I convinced myself that you might have been just someone who made a mistake."
Bruce lowered the flashlight to point at the floor. "Listen man, I'm not innocent in all this and I probably deserved that beating you gave me and all the others, but I didn't kill Hank. He was like a father to me, man."
"You want everyone to feel sorry for you, that's why you never fight back; that's why never argue and just go along with whatever anyone says." His lip turned up in a snarl. "Your little ghost story is over, the only evil in Coal Ridge is you, and you led me right to the proof." George gestured up the slope with his gun. "Now move it."
The light of the flashlight went to the older man's eyes and then switched off, a moment later George was knocked off his feet, hitting the unforgiving ground hard. The gun clattered away in the darkness. Bruce didn't wait around, he scrambled a few steps away and switched the flashlight back on; he didn't bother saying anything because nothing he could say would make a difference, he just made his way up the slope as fast as he could. In his haste he left everything else behind; for a moment he considered going back for the pack, but Hank would have told him to get out now and come back for it later. It physically hurt him to leave it behind, but he wasn’t going to be able to lure that thing back into the fridge from jail, so he kept going.
When he reached the top of the slope a bright light hit him in the face, causing him to lose his balance and smash sidelong into a wall. A moment later two sets of strong hands grabbed him and pushed him to the ground. "No, man, no! You can't do this. It's out, don't you get it; it's out!"
* * *
Thirty minutes later, Bruce sat in the back of a Coal Ridge police car parked near the little league field in front of the car owned by George Bradley. He'd been escorted by Greg Rogers, easily the largest man on the small police force—he was a recent addition to the town with no history. All he knew about the townsfolk was what he had been told. That was not good for Bruce, especially in this situation.
He was trying to figure a way out of this mess, some way to get back to the mine to retrieve Hank’s pack—which held the book—when George walked past the cruiser. The older man hadn't even bothered to look at him; there was blood on the side of his head and his eyes stared rigidly forward. It was at that moment that he realized exactly how screwed everything was; not just for him, but for everyone in Coal Ridge. Maybe everyone in the whole world.
"Unit two," a voice over the police radio said, "we have a 10-57 at the stadium." Bruce knew that was the code for a missing person; Hank had told him to stay familiar with the police lingo, sometimes they didn't know what they were hearing.
"Missing kid?" He could see Officer Rogers speaking into the radio on his shoulder, while leaning against the hood of the car.
Bruce braced himself for hearing that two kids were missing.
"Husband reporting his wife missing," the voice over the radio said; a wave of relief rushed over him—it was short lived, "says that she disappeared from her seat when the lights blinked out."
"That's what the husband says, corroborated by several eyewitnesses; be on the lookout for…"
The voices went on speaking, but Bruce wasn't listening any longer. He'd seen this happen before. People disappearing. Soon twisted bodies would begin showing up in strange places. This was only the beginning, it was going to get so much worse…and the one person who knew how to stop it was going back to jail.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Bruce wondered what had happened to the two kids who belonged to those bikes at the mine entrance.