"It's not your fault; sometimes things like this just happen." There was not much Margie Sharper could say to console her twelve-year-old son; one of his best friends was moving away.
"It's not fair," the boy responded, his eyebrows knit in an angry pout and his arms firmly crossed over his chest.
"Aw cuddle bug," she said wrapping her arms around him and squeezing tight, "who told you life is fair?" Many contemporary parents would have called her words cruel, but she knew well that no one in the real world was ever going to consider his feelings; overly coddling him now would just make life more difficult for him later. Of course, as his mother she could at least console him in loving hug.
"But why isn't it fair?" Joey asked, his voice tight; he blinked back tears, but not for any reason other than because his older brother had told him that men don't cry, which was baloney.
"That's just the way life is, sometimes good things happen, and sometimes bad things happen; you can only control how you deal with it. That's why you should always be grateful for the good things." She knew about bad things happening; James, her husband of fourteen years, had left them all a little more than three years ago claiming that he needed to find himself, whatever the hell that meant. To make things worse, James had grown up here in Coal Ridge, where everyone knew everyone's business, leaving her with a lot of questions and no answers for anyone. He’d also left her with a car payment and mortgage and had done nothing to offer any support or made any effort to see the kids; she wasn’t even sure where he was and at this point and didn’t care. It was difficult, taking on extra shifts and a weekend job so that Jamie wouldn’t have to get a job while going to school, but she'd made it work because the two wonderful boys at the center of her world made it all worthwhile. "You and Mickey and Chris had a lot of great times together, think about those."
"I don't want to think about those!" He shouted pushing away. "I don't want him to move!"
Margie shook her head. "I know you don't, but there's nothing you can do about it." It was pointless to explain finances to a twelve-year-old, so she simplified it as best she could. “Their house is being sold by the bank, they have to move.”
“Can’t we buy it, so they can stay?”
“That depends, has Jim Hawkins shared his treasure map with you?”
“Jim Hawkins is a character in a book, Mom!” he said, placing his hands on his hips. “I’m being serious.”
She couldn’t help a small smile. “Well without Blackbeard’s treasure, we’re not going to be buying any other houses.”
“It’s Captain Flint’s treasure, Blackbeard isn’t even in Treasure Island.”
“I don’t care if it’s One-Eyed Willy’s treasure,” Margie replied, mimicking her son’s stance with her hands on her hips, “my point is that without a handful of gold, there’s not really anything we can do.”
Joey’s brow knit as he looked up at her. “Who’s One-Eyed Willy?”
Margie Sharper closed her eyes and let out a long, deep sigh. “Go play somewhere.”
* * *
Jamie's phone burped as his little brother stalked into his room and threw himself onto the bed. "Mom told me to go play somewhere."
"Go play somewhere else." He said, not bothering to look up from messaging.
Nick: [just got a text from crissy, sandy isn't with doug any more]
To Nick: [ask her to come to the basketball courts tonight]
Glancing over at his little brother who was staring up at the ceiling, he repeated, "Go play somewhere else."
"Do you know where I can find gold?"
"Not up your nose?" The older boy snorted a laugh as his phone burped.
Nick: [she can't she's grounded, but might be able to go to the football game tomorrow night]
"Jamie, I'm being serious! Where can I find gold?"
To Nick: [then miller's pond after?]
"This is good," he said to himself, grinning, then turned to his annoying little brother. "What?"
Joey slammed his hands down on the bed. "No one around here ever listens to me!" Jumping up, he stalked towards the door; his older brother grabbed him by the arm hard enough to make the other wince, holding him as he tried to pull away.
"What's your problem?" His phone burped twice in succession and he glanced down, still holding his brother's arm.
Nick: [she had to go, i'll hit her up on the pond later]
Nick: [you bringing the kid to the courts]
Joey jerked his arm free. "That's really gross Jamie! Why can't you just have a normal ringer?"
To Nick: [my mom says I have to bring him if he wants to go]
"Cause it's my phone." Burp.
To Nick: [yeah]
To Nick: [hang on]
"Wait, what did you say about gold?"
"I just wanted to know where I can find some gold." Joey said, he was absently rubbing his upper arm and looking down at the floor.
"You know there's gold down in the old coal mines, right?" He asked, standing up and crossing his arms over his chest, ignoring the burp from his phone.
"Oh yeah! No doubt. People don't go down there because they think it's haunted, but it's not, they just say that to keep people out."
The boy’s eyebrows knit together as he peered up at his older brother. "You're making that up."
"I'm not. You've heard that the Watson's have a summer house in Florida?" Joey nodded. "How do you think they bought it? Gold from the mines." Jamie looked down at his fingernails. "Yep. The problem is you have to find an entrance that isn't closed off."
"How do I do that?"
Looking back to his little brother, Jamie said, "The bike trails behind the park. People forget about those."
"Wait. If you know so much about it, why don't you go get some gold?"
"What do I need gold for," his phone burped again, "besides I would have to give it to Mom to do anything with it, but after I graduate and move out, I'm totally going to get some." He reached down and put a hand on his little brother's back. "Now, go play somewhere else." He pushed him out the door hard enough to send the younger boy stumbling towards the stairs, and slammed his door shut.
From Nick: [kk]
From Crissy: [So you’re into Sandy?]
To Crissy: [yeah she's cute]
To Nick: [no little brother tonight]
From Nick: [woot]
* * *
"It says right here," Mick Santana said, pointing to the text on the computer screen. "Gold is not uncommon in coal deposits, and there's a YouTube video about finding gold in old abandoned mines." Leaning back, he turned to Joey. "Wow, he wasn't lying."
"Yeah, but we still have to find a mine entrance that we can get into."
"I know where one is."
"Yeah, you remember when David Hecks pushed me off the picnic table down at the fields and I threw a water bottle at him and accidentally hit Rick Tucker."
Joey snickered. "Yeah, Dick Tucker, he was so mad."
"Yeah, except I was put on restriction from my phone for like a month for that."
"At least you have one, my mom won't let me have a phone until I start high school."
"Anyway, he came after me, so I ducked into the trails and ended up down by the creek, but he kept following, so I was going to climb up to Park Side."
"You already told me this."
"Yeah but I didn't tell you about the cave."
Joey's brow furled, and he leaned forward, "What cave?"
Mickey looked down at the floor. "You can't laugh or tell anyone."
He hesitated, still staring pointedly at the floor.
"Really, I won't."
Hesitating for another moment, Mick finally continued. "I ran into it by accident when I went to climb the hill, but I could hear Dick Tucker yelling. Since it was dark inside, I thought it would be a good place to hide. It was hard to see, but there was a fence like this one." He pointed to a picture of a gated mine entrance on the computer screen. "I didn't know what it was, and it was creepy dark in there, like after the sun goes down when it's cloudy dark. I could just see the shape of the fence." He paused. "I think Jamie's wrong about it not being haunted though. There was definitely something in there. It was looking at me from the other side of that fence, I could feel it."
"Did you see anything?" Joey asked, leaning even closer.
"No, it was dark, I mean really dark, I couldn't see anything...but I heard it."
"What did it sound like?"
Mickey hesitated a moment and then looked up at his friend. "Remember, you promised not to laugh or tell anyone!"
"I won't. I swear."
Dropping his voice to a whisper, he said, "It sounded like..." Joey leaned further forward, and Mick jumped at him, his hands contorted into claws. "RAAARRGG!"
Joey fell back, hitting the floor hard; Mickey began to laugh hysterically.
Mick cackled so hard that he nearly fell out of his chair. "I wish I had my phone that would have gotten like a million likes on YouTube!"
A voice shouted up from downstairs. "What are you two doing up there?"
Controlling his laughter, Mick answered. "Nothing Mom!"
"Well do nothing quieter."
Sitting on the floor, his brow furled, and his pride wounded, Joey asked, "Did you make all that up?"
"Only that last part. I did hide in there until Dick Tucker went by and then ran back the other way. Not that it mattered since my sister told my mom and I had to apologize to him anyhow. But I really didn't realize that it was a mine entrance until I saw this picture," he said, pointing again at the image on the screen.
"Do you think you can find it again?"
Mick looked away, considering it for a moment. "I think so, but it's probably sealed up like this one, with locks and stuff."
A sly half-grin spread across Joey's face. "So, we're going to need some tools."
Mick leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes, all remnants of humor abandoning his features. "Aw man, I'm never gonna get off restriction if my dad finds out I took his tools again."
"Do you want Chris to have to move?"
"No! But I..."
"Then we need gold."
"You don't even know if there's really gold in there."
Joey stared at his friend with a half-grin writ on his face. The silence didn't last long.
Mick reluctantly agreed to bring bolt cutters, a big flat head screwdriver, and two hammers; the two friends then spent the rest of the evening talking about the gold they were going to find and arguing about who would buy the house to save Chris from having to move away.
* * *
The next day, time seemed to drag on through the morning classes until lunch. Since his mom had called Chris out of school for the day to work on packing the house, the two friends sat alone in the back corner of the lunchroom on red plastic chairs at a long, pressed wood table. Joey ate from the sacked lunch that his mom had packed for him, while Mickey picked at the food on his cafeteria issued tray.
"How do you get mac and cheese to be gray?" Joey asked.
Setting his fork down, Mick responded, "You let Don't Doris make it." Lunch lady Doris had worked in the school cafeteria long enough that she was now seeing a third generation of kids from the same families. She had long ago stopped providing corrective details when kids acted up and just said don't; leading to her onomatopoetic nickname. "You got any of them chips?"
Joey reached into the small brown paper bag and pulled out a baggie of Lays Bar-B-Que potato chips, sliding them across the table. "Why don't you just ask your mom to make you a lunch?"
"She says I'm old enough to make my own," he replied around a mouth full of chips.
"Yeah, my mom said that about laundry the other day. Jamie told me to put way too much detergent in and she won't let me use the washer after that."
"Your brother's pretty cool sometimes."
"Not really. He's always telling me to go somewhere else and is mostly interested in girls and going to Miller's Pond now," he replied, his eyes dropping down to look at the table.
"Better than my sister who constantly rats me out to my parents, sometimes for things I didn't even do!"
The two friends sat in silence for a moment, each glancing over at the empty chair next to Joey. The air around them felt somber.
Breaking that silence in a flat tone, Mick said, "I hid the tools on the side of the house, I'll put them in my backpack after school, but I couldn’t take any of my dad's flashlights, he'd know."
"Yeah," Joey mumbled, remembering the time they'd decided to explore the creek tunnel that ran under Bur Oak Drive, where Chris had dropped one of Mr. Santana's flashlights in the water and caused it to short out; the man was so angry that the vein bulging on his forehead looked like it was going to explode. They were all convinced that he was going to actually kill Mickey, and possibly all of them. "My mom keeps flashlights in the towel closet for blackouts; I'll get those after school and we can ride down to the trails. We just gotta get to the game before halftime is over so I can check in with my mom."
"Yeah, me too."
Mick pushed the half-full baggie of chips to the middle of the table and Joey stared down at his partially eaten sandwich. "You sure you can find it?"
"Yeah, Joey, I can find it."
They sat in that somber silence until the bell rang to end the lunch period eighteen minutes later.
* * *
Mickey was the first to arrive at the basketball courts where they planned to meet. There was a group of high school aged kids milling around the bingo pavilion, probably waiting to go over to Miller's Pond after most everyone else in town had gone to the stadium. Unwilling to risk a chance encounter where he might have the tools in his backpack taken, he rode over to the field on the far side of the courts, parked his bike, and began checking on the tools.
"What are you doing down here?"
Startled, he turned at the feminine voice to see Janey Lincoln walking towards him. The new girl in school, she was in his class, but Chris had been the only member of their social group to have conversed with her. Janey played on the same soccer team as Chris and was apparently a killer forward. Mick had heard that her family had moved to Coal Ridge during the summer from somewhere south, perhaps Tennessee. He shrugged in response to her question, acting as if he had been expecting her all along. "Waiting for Joey."
"It's amazing how you can answer a question without actually providing any information."
Chris had also told them that she was very sarcastic; he seemed to like her. Mick shrugged. "We're going down to the trails."
"I would have thought you'd be getting ready to go to the stadium,” she said, looking down at the backpack; Mick hurriedly closed it up. “I like riding bike trails; it's a shame I got grounded from my bike...wait, you weirdos up here call it being put on restriction, right."
Mick shrugged again. "That's what my mom and dad call it."
"Yeah, like I said, weird. Anyways, if I weren't on restriction from...nope, don't like the way that sounds at all; if I weren't grounded from my bike, I'd school you two on some trail riding."
Normally this would prompt several back and forth challenges leading to ever more dangerous stunts and possibly a race, but as Janey was a girl and since his sister's bike rarely left the garage when she still had one, Mickey wasn't quite sure how to proceed. "No way!" was the best response he could muster.
"You are an amazing conversationalist," she replied, rolling her eyes. Mick seemed like someone with whom she might like to hang out, but when she saw his friend Joey approaching, she looked past him and remarked, "Looks like your boyfriend is coming." Sometimes her mouth seemed to open of its own volition and mean things poured out; it was probably one of the reasons she'd had trouble making friends, especially among other girls.
"Hi Janey," Joey mumbled as he rolled up.
"You two better go practice up, cause when I'm off restriction," she winked at Mick, "I'm going to show you boys how trail riding is done."
"Oh yeah," Mickey said, his tone defiant, "well, we're not going trail riding at all, we're looking for..."
"Crayfish!" Joey said, cutting off his friend.
Mick turned a questioning glance on him and seeing the severe look on his friend's face, turned back. "Yeah, crayfish."
She rolled her eyes again. "Sure. Keep your stupid secret. I got better things to do anyhow."
“Well, what are you gonna do?” Mickey asked.
“I’m just going to walk around by myself, that way at least I'll enjoy the company,” the new girl replied with a grin as she walked away from them, heading towards Buckeye Drive. Glancing warily towards the group at the bingo pavilion, she turned the opposite direction. Walking around town was a way of avoiding the fighting and yelling at home, so there was no way she was going to walk towards a rowdy group of older kids.
After she was out of earshot, Mick turned to his friend. "Why didn't you want to tell her? She might have been able to help."
"What if she told someone? I'm pretty sure your parents would be pissed if they found out about this and my mom would go crazy."
Mick looked down and shrugged. "She might be able to keep a secret."
"How good is your sister at keeping secrets?" After Mick shrugged again, Joey shook his head and began riding towards Hemlock Drive. "Come on, let’s cut through the park."
* * *
A couple of city workers were hurriedly prepping the fields for a litany of little league games scheduled for Saturday morning, one of them was Mickey’s uncle. Since the city truck that Uncle Rudy drove was parked by the lower field, way too close to the trails for them to slip past without being seen, the two boys opted to ride through Parkside and walk their bikes down a steep grade to get to the trails.
Pedaling slowly along the creek, Joey asked again, "Are you sure you remember where the cave is at?"
Mickey didn't respond. He wasn't sure, and he was beginning to get frustrated. His flight from the older boy had been a lot more frantic than he'd let on, partly because Rick Tucker had a reputation for picking on younger boys, but mostly because he was one of his sister's friends, so he was over a lot. Last weekend he had been at their house acting like a big man, showing off a baggie of marijuana. When the older boy pushed past him hard enough to knock him down, Mick threatened to tell their parents about the baggie. Since they were alone in the living room, Rick had punched him in the gut and threatened him with a more severe beating if he said anything. That pain was still fresh in his mind when he'd accidentally hit the older boy in the head with the water bottle; as they ran through the woods, Rick continually and loudly threatened him with one of those severe beatings. That fear was the reason he hadn't told Joey or Chris about hiding in the cave.
"Come on, Mick, where is it?"
"I don't know!" he finally snapped, throwing his bike to the ground and spinning around. "I don't remember all right. It was summertime and a lot brighter out. And...and..." His voice broke as he shouted but trailed away before he admitted to being so scared.
"But you said..."
"I know; I thought I could find it, but I can't. All I remember is that it wasn't too far from the creek and the hill above it was really steep."
"Steep enough that I didn't think Dick Tucker would be able to follow me if I climbed it."
"Like that one," Joey pointed back the way they had come at a sheer section of stone.
"No, I can't climb that."
They both took a moment to look around, and then Joey asked, "What about that one?" The hill he was pointing at was pretty steep, but it looked climbable.
"Um yeah, that might be it."
The two boys followed along the creek until they were parallel with the hill and then approached it together, walking their bikes. They spotted the cave in the same moment, grinning and shouting, "I found it!"
As they moved closer, ditching their bikes in the foliage, Mickey paused. "Um, it looks like a mouth."
"It doesn't look like a mouth."
"Look at it, it looks like a mouth."
"Stop it, it doesn't look like a mouth. Besides, you were already in there once."
"I wouldn't have gone in there if I saw that it looked like a mouth."
Joey pulled off his backpack and retrieved a pair of flashlights, before putting it back on. "Come on." Leading the way and acting far more confident than he felt, he crunched through the fall foliage to the mine entrance and shined the flashlight inside. The beam fell on a gate that looked like the ones they'd seen online. Below it and set on the ground was a wooden sign whose letters were faded but still legible--WARNING: ENTRY INTO THE TUNNEL IS PROHIBITED. TUNNEL COLLAPSE IS POSSIBLE.
Mick stepped up behind him. "Um, maybe we should look for a different entrance."
"That!" Mickey replied, pointing at the sign.
Joey waved away his concerns. "Jamie says that people put up fake danger signs all the time just to scare people away. Besides, you were already in here. Come on." Stepping slowly inside while moving the beam along the interior walls, he cautiously moved towards the gate. Mickey's story about something being in the mine suddenly felt very real, so much so that he could feel his heart beating rapidly. He could almost see something on the other side of the gate waiting for them. Only a few steps in and the darkness already felt oppressive.
"I don't like this." Mickey whispered the words, but they still seemed to echo into the mine.
"Why?" was the whispered response.
"Cause, collapses is possible," Mickey replied, again pointing the flashlight at the sign.
That was when Janey's voice exploded into the darkness. "Collapses ARE possible, you illiterate yankees."
A couple of loud yelps echoed deep into the mine as both boys spun around to see her standing behind them. "You scared the crap out of me!" Joey shouted, his free hand balled into a fist.
"The sign says IS," Mickey responded.
"That's what you’re mad about?" Joey asked, turning on his friend.
"Well it does!"
"Oh my god," she said, looking between them, "are you two actually dating?"
"No!" Mick shouted, his heart racing.
"Shut up!" Joey snapped at her. "What are you even doing here!"
"I was walking down Elm and saw you two taking your bikes into the woods in your fancy search for crayfish. I was curious." She made a show of looking around. "So, these must be special cave dwelling crayfish, huh? What are you guys really doing in here?"
"We're looking for gold."
"Mick!" Joey faced him with his arms open in a questioning stance.
"What? She's already here."
"This is what you're hiding?" Janey asked. "You idiots think you're going to find gold in here?"
Mickey turned to her. "The internet said that gold is not uncommon in coal deposits. And Jamie said that there was gold down here."
"Don't be dumb; did Jamie show you any gold he found down here?"
Mick look at Joey, who replied, "Well no, but..."
"Seriously guys?" Janey said, again looking back and forth between them in the glow of the flashlights.
Joey set his jaw, his brow deeply furled. "You don't know anything!" He turned to Mickey. "Gimme the bolt cutters." They all stood in silence while Mickey dug them out of his backpack; Joey took them and stalked over to the gate.
"What's his problem?"
Mick shook his head. "He really doesn't want Chris to move."
Janey stared for a moment, and it all suddenly made sense to her. She and Chris had talked about him moving away; he'd wanted to know how she dealt with it, explaining that his dad had been laid off and they were moving to Pennsylvania so he could work with another coal company. Before she'd moved here, her friends had come up with a lot of crazy ways to try to keep her from having to leave. Of course, none of them had worked, but her mom had explained that it gave them something to do and had encouraged her to join them. They'd had a lot of fun together before she moved away; she felt like it was a shame that Chris wasn't here with them. "So, why aren't we helping?"
Joey paused in what he was doing and turned. "Cause you called us dumb idiots."
"Not technically," she replied, "I called you idiots and told you not to be dumb, but that was before I understood what we're doing." She grabbed the flashlight out of Mickey's hand and moved towards the gate. "What ARE you doing?"
"I'm trying to cut through these," he said, pointing at the six locks between the gate and the post, "but the stupid cutters won't work."
"Wow, someone really doesn't want anyone in there," she said, examining the locks and holding the light up to the base of each. "I mean, they really don't want anyone in there. Look," she glanced back at Mickey who was hugging his backpack to his chest, "the keys are broken off inside the locks."
They all huddled around gate post. "Why do you think they did that?" Joey asked.
"Don't know." Mickey retorted.
In a casual tone, Janey replied, "Obviously because there's gold in there and they don't want anyone else to get it.” The excitement that showed on their faces, especially Joey's, brought her a wide grin that she couldn't suppress.
Newly invigorated, Joey tried once again to cut the lock. His grunted efforts netted him only small lines in the metal. "Stupid bolt cutters!" he finally shouted, throwing them down on the floor. “Why didn’t you get ones that work!”
"Joey!" Mick shouted, carefully picking them up. "These are my dad's. How would you like me to smash your mom's flashlights?"
"Well they don't work."
"I'm sure they work fine," Janey offered, "you just need more leverage."
"I know what she means," Mickey's anger was forgotten. "My dad talked about it when they were trying to get a stuck lug off my mom's tire. My Uncle Rudy pushed down on one side of the T-bar and my dad pulled up on the other. We can do the same thing." After handing Janey his backpack, he placed the bolt cutters on the lock. "You pull down and I'll push up."
Working in tandem, they strained with the bolt cutters while Janey, now wearing Mick's backpack, stood back holding the flashlight beam on the lock. With a deep echoing pop that seemed to carry on for way too long, the blades cut through the metal arm. Joey and Mick slammed into one another and ended up in a tangle of limbs on the cave floor.
"I guess it's not the cutters," Mickey declared, between labored breaths.
* * *
As they learned how to leverage the bolt cutters, the two boys found that each of the five remaining locks was easier to cut than the last. Using the screw driver, they twisted them just enough to slip over the post bar and set them on the floor so that they could readily slip them back into place afterward. After dropping the tools into the pack on Janey's back, Joey pushed the gate open. The metal-on-metal screech echoed deep into the mine.
"Um," Mick whispered, staring into the darkness beyond.
"What's the matter," Janey asked with a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes, "are you scared."
"Kind of, yeah," Mick replied.
"Well, we can close it up and come back later," Janey offered, silently hoping to never again be standing here staring into this particular abyss. If that had been the end of it, if she had just kept her mouth shut, things might have worked out that way, but instead she continued with, "After you two have your diapers changed."
With a muffled grunt, Joey pulled the flashlight out of his pocket and moved forward into that yawning darkness.
"Joey, what are you doing?"
He glanced back at Mick. "I'm going in." Moving slowly the boy continued into the tunnel, swinging the flashlight around to look at the walls.
Janey and Mickey looked at one another. "He's going in," she repeated, her normally confident tone a little shaky.
Mick grabbed the flashlight out of her hand. "I guess me too."
She sighed. "I can't let you two go alone, who knows what kind of trouble you'll get into; besides, I have the tools." Squeezing Mickey's hand, they started forward slowly.
Everything went dark ahead as Joey's light disappeared. "Shit!" his voice echoed in the darkness.
Moving quickly forward, they were forced to stop suddenly as the flashlight clicked back on and they almost tripped over him. "What happened?" Mick asked.
"There's a steep drop," Joey cautioned, I dropped the flashlight when I was looking at this." He pointed the beam at gouges in the stone, slowly swinging it down to reveal a trail left by wheels that had been stepped over a few times.
"It looks like somebody dragged something heavy up the slope," Janey concluded.
"I think down it," Mickey corrected.
"It would make more sense to drag something heavy out," she said, shaking her head.
"The footprints going down are all between the wheel tracks, but the ones coming up cross over them."
She stared at Mickey for a moment before replying. "I think that's the first smart thing I've ever heard you say."
Mickey blushed into the darkness.
They turned back to see Joey sliding down the grade on his butt and in unison shouted, "Joey!"
"What are you doing now?" Mick called down into the depths of the mine.
"I see something," his voice carried up from the darkness.
"Great, he sees something," Janey said, her voice shaky. "Does he always do stuff like this?"
Mick nodded and after a tense moment, called down into the darkness again, "Well, what the hell is it?"
There was no answer.
"Joey?" Mickey's voice cracked.
Turning to him, Janey took his hand. "I don't really want to, but I think we should go down there."
A sound like glass breaking in a hollow room washed over them like a wave. It was cold and heavy, carrying an odor of rotten eggs. Mick and Janey felt themselves being pushed down to the ground with a sensation of pinpricks in their hands and feet.
The flashlight went out, leaving them in complete darkness.
Engulfed in silence, Mick felt Janey's hand ripped out of his; he tried to shout her name and realized that he was screaming, but he couldn't hear his own voice. It was like something was pulling her away. The black that surrounded him was so complete that he could almost convince himself that all of this was happening to someone else. A rock rolled under his shoulder and down his back, sending a wave of pain through his body.
It took a lot longer than it should have for him to realize that he was being dragged down the slope, and deeper into the mine.
Janey felt the pressure on her fall away. On the ground next to her was the flashlight; its beam was pointing back towards the gate. The pack felt awkward on her back, forcing her to readjust it. "Mickey?" her voice sounded muffled in the darkness and did not echo. Picking up the flashlight, she scanned the floor. "Mickey?" She'd felt his hand being torn out of hers and now, sitting on her knees at the top of the slope, she was alone.
Feeling cold rising up out of the mine, she turned the beam down the slope. A horrid face, something shadowy that seemed part pig and part owl, stared up at her from the darkness. Its hunger washed over her and long talons seemed to reach up the slope, changing into gnarled bony fingers as they drew closer. Janey had never felt such hunger; she was paralyzed by it and did the only thing she could, she opened her mouth to scream.
A translucent white form stepped in front of the face, forcing the gnarled hands back. The scream welling in her stomach died in her throat. That feeling of hunger still surrounded her, but it was joined by one of intense frustration as the monster faced the white form between it and Janey. Rage replaced hunger as the two forms faced off, the emotions buffeting her like a sour wind off a raging sea.
The moment seemed to linger in time, and then the monster violently lunged up the slope towards her, but the white form was faster, engulfing and embracing her. Wrapped in a lavender warmth, the roiling emotions faded as Janey felt her surroundings dissipate. Another place began to take form and for just a moment she was inside an old wooden jungle gym on a playground. It felt like a safe place, a sanctuary; she inhaled the odor of freshly turned gravel and maple and was comforted by the happy sounds of children playing in the distance. When Janey looked up, the translucent white form was there, and the kindly face of an older woman offered her a sad smile. Elizabeth.
In the space of a blink she found herself kneeling on the grass in the field between Bur Oaks Drive and Whiteoak Rd. Mickey was lying next to her in a fetal position, with his hands curled at his chest, whimpering. Joey was standing a few steps away, facing her but staring blankly. His face was soot stained and there was crusting blood on his nose and around his mouth. In the distance she could hear the loud speaker from the stadium calling out player names.
"What just happened?" she asked aloud, as she slipped the backpack off her shoulders and dropped it on the ground. "How did we get here? Who was she?"
Joey took a step and then turned away from her. "There was an old fridge with a belt around it down there. It was like a treasure chest; there was supposed to be gold in it." He paused, staring southeast towards the park. “It’s not fair."
Mickey whimpered again; she scooted over to check on him. "What was in the old fridge?" she asked Joey; he didn't reply. Mickey's wrists were both soot stained, the same as his friend’s face. "Joey!" He turned that blank stare back down to her. "What was in it?"
The soot stains would fade, but the experience would haunt the three of them in different ways. Down in that mine they inadvertently released something that hungered; fortunately, it seemed that the people of Coal Ridge had a protector. Elizabeth. And Janey was determined to find her.