John and Margaret are two scientists who have found the perfect way of spending more time with their two small kids, taking them to short exploration trips. This time their destination is the old mine up on Mt. Fearful. Everyone is excited to check out the rich biodiversity the area is known for but no one could have ever imagined…
It was supposed to be safe.
The mine was abandoned long ago.
EVERYONE thought all the miners were gone.
THEY WERE WRONG.
TYPE OF WORK: SHORT STORY
WORD COUNT/A4 PAGES: 12.000 / 29
PRINT LENGTH (PAPERBACK FORMAT): 48 pages
AVAILABLE FORMATS: EBOOK
Other Mt. Fearful short stories: ZOMBIE CURSE
Isolated in a boat in the middle of nowhere? Internet connection: signal booming. Lost deep below the surface of the earth? Internet connection: all bars green. Driving up a dirt road a few hundred miles from a sizeable city? Internet connection: down.
The connection was cut off like a candle flame in the wind the moment they started going up Mount Fearful. At least he had finished that story about the scientist who’d gone missing at the same mine they were about to visit. The last line of the article was: “He is presumed dead.”
Tommy’s eyelids were drooping and his usual foot tick had ceased much to his father’s great peripheral vision delight. Unlike Grace, he couldn’t muster up any excitement looking out the window. At least reading every sign they passed on their way to the top was a good distraction from the single disturbing thought going round and round in his head. No internet connection.
The first few signs seemed normal enough, warning them of dangers that might come, like the yellow triangle with the word ‘HAIL’ written on it, or the signs with pictures of animals on them. Most of those depicted a lone wolf or a single bear, which made sense. Subsequent signs though showed what looked like a pack of wolves followed by other signs of a lone wolf or a bear.
What that meant exactly Tommy wasn’t sure yet. He was still processing the possibilities. Could at this point of the road a pack of wolves block their way at any moment while at this other location only a single wolf might make an appearance? Was this other spot some kind of a single ambush territory only? No other wolves allowed? And how come it only applied to the wolves?
Tommy’s train of thought was interrupted by the creepy, unfamiliar with the flow of human speech female voice that was the vocal brain of their GPS.
“Turn left,” the voice said and Tommy’s heart skipped a beat. He knew he was facing to the right and right was where the solid mountain side stood, which meant that on the left was the cliff. Also, he did not need to have a direct view of said cliff or know the altitude of their current position to feel scared. Judging by Grace’s excited expression alone he could safely assume that the fall would be a steep one.
The car veered to the left just a bit as John followed the woman’s commands by default, but slipped back to its safer position on the road, away from the edge of the cliff, in no time.
As their van wobbled up the winding road round the mountain, the signs got weirder and weirder. Not that a sign of a wolf or a bear or a congregation of any carnivorous animal wasn’t weird enough, but those other signs, they barely even made sense.
Tommy perked up and started paying attention. They passed two rectangular signs which pictured a baby monkey with prolonged spider-like limps and the words “IF SEEN, FEED” at the bottom. In between those, he saw a smaller, circular sign with a picture of what appeared to be a swarm of bats. There were no instructions on that one so he made up his own. The first thing that came up in his mind was “NO FLYING ZONE”. But that didn’t make sense, “IF ATTACKED, COVER YOUR HEAD” sounded far more appropriate.
Tommy saw the next sign from several feet away. Apparently, his dad hadn’t. The van came to a screeching halt. A cloud of dust rose from the ground swallowing up the car, hiding it from sight like a magician’s trick before settling back down. With the seatbelt tight against her chest, Margaret bounced back into her seat, snapping out of her dream back into reality. Little Grace was not so lucky. She tumbled over on the floor, hitting her head on the seat in front of her.
“What happened?” Margaret said, ignoring her husband and glancing at the back seat instead. Grace smiled back at her.
John pointed out the window over to Margaret’s side. A bright red sign stood at the edge of the dirt path, flashing the word “STOP” back at her in huge white letters.
“John, you’ve driven all over the world. What an earth possessed you? The kids could have gotten hurt. It’s just a STOP sign.”
“I wasn’t expecting to see one up here,” John said trying his best not to look like he was acting in a sitcom.
Those acting classes he’d taken had really ruined John’s speech patterns and body gestures as far as Margaret was concerned. Now, whatever came out of John’s mouth, whether they were discussing the kids’ performance at school, work-related nightmares or reminiscing about good past times, it all sounded like silly made-up lies.
John went on undaunted. “Besides, the kids are all buckled up, right, kids?”
John looked at Tommy over his shoulder and then moved on to adjust the rear view mirror. Grace scrambled up on to her seat, buckled up and put a huge grin on her face just in time. One of these days little Grace would learn to keep her seat belt on, so far though, whatever trouble her habit of disobeying her parents’ rules brought on, she seemed to weather it fine. It always ended with her uninjured, and much to her mother’s dismay, undeterred. John just found it cute.
A big black sign towered over them like a blackboard from their worst school-themed nightmare. The sign was screwed over a trunk-like wooden pole, not hammered into the ground but growing out of a rock in the middle of the forked road ahead of them.
John stooped over, hugging the steering wheel, and stared up at the sign, mouth agape.
“What is it daddy?” Grace said, hopping over to her mother’s lap on the front seat.
Tommy grabbed the headrest in front of him and pushed himself forward as far as his size would allow him, which, as it turned out, was a lot.
The oversized sign was chockfull of information.
Tommy began reading aloud. “Dangerous Species,” he said, slowly reading the heading that was crammed on the sign’s right side. A long list of names, both familiar and alien-sounding, filled the space below it all the way to the bottom.
John, Margaret and Tommy stayed focused, mumbling random words as their eyes shifted from name to name and various warnings and notes scattered all over that blackboard from hell. Grace who had only recently joined the ranks of those who could read was more interested in the pictures. There were only two, one of a black flower that apparently had teeth and one of an animal that was neither a bird nor a rodent but looked like both, namely it looked like a big, fat rat with wings.
Grace focused her eyes on the rat picture. “Mommy, mommy look at that,” little Grace said, eyes beaming.
Margaret closed her eyes and seemed to be praying while John laughed.
“If we find one can I keep it?” Grace said.
“Turn right,” the GPS voice chimed in.
“It’s a rat, stupid,” Tommy said. “You can’t have a rat as a pet.”
“It’s not a rat. Rats don’t have wings,” Grace said.
“Tommy, don’t call your sister stupid. And Grace, we already agreed to get you a puppy. We discussed this. You can’t have two pets, OK sweetie?” Margaret said.
Grace climbed back to her seat and sat close to the window, eyes filled with tears.
Margaret took a deep breath. “OK. John, I know the GPS says we should turn right, but I think we should trust the sign for now and go left, what do you say?”
“Left it is,” John said without pause for thought, as if Margaret’s voice, or, evidently, any female voice, had a Siren-like effect on him. He turned the steering wheel, glanced in both directions and steered the car up the dirt path with caution.
“Recalculating,” the GPS voice said calmly. Then it said it again. And again, at which point John turned the thing off.
Under the weight of the slow-moving van the gravel turned noisily into dust. The car stopped and silence took over. The sky was of a deep dark blue now, stars already flickering above them. Soon it would be blind black.
With the ground coming to an abrupt end on one side and the mine’s entrance on the other, gaping at them crippled by time and abandonment, its wooden beams on both sides struggling to keep the pile of dirt from collapsing, their camping site couldn’t have looked smaller.
John turned to Margaret. “Cozy,” he said.
Margaret gave him one of her venomous looks without commenting.
John was trying to play it cool but a strange fear was suddenly growing inside him. He parked the van on one side of the entrance with the front of the car facing the dirt path that had led them here. He did it instinctively, as a safety measure. A quick getaway had been proven life-saving in the past. It was bizarre though. Never before had he felt fear such as this upon arriving at a location they had chosen to explore. The silence worried him. There was something about this place. They were alone, even nature seemed to be absent, and yet he felt the presence of many, many…things.
John and Tommy collected rocks and used them to form a big circle in the middle of their camp. They hurried, quickly building a fire within the constraints of the rocks as Margaret and Grace slowly unloaded the camping gear from the back of the car.
Little Grace was already fast asleep in the tent she was sharing with her brother when everyone else got ready for dinner. Margaret knew her husband would fall asleep the moment he lied down in their tent so she ate fast and excused herself in order to beat him to it. Falling asleep first was the surest thing to a good night’s sleep next to a separate room.
Even after his parents had settled in their tent Tommy, tired and disappointed he wouldn’t get to tell his ghost story around the camp fire (for what was the point if Grace wouldn’t hear it?), sat by the fire, lingering on until he could no longer keep his eyes open. Slowly, he dragged himself to his tent and pulled the zipper down to get in. He jolted back. Grace was standing inches away from his face. Tommy stepped aside and Grace, barefoot and with her long hair covering most of her face, stepped outside the tent and began wandering around.
Tommy watched her until Grace had set a clear course toward the edge of the cliff several miles away from their camp.
He took a deep breath. “Mom,” he said, calling out with all the strength he could muster. “Dad,” he called out and paused, waiting for a response.
Grace’s nightie, though white, was barely visible now that she was so far away from the fire.Wolves howled somewhere up in the mountain top that looked down on them not much higher up than their camp site.
“Mom, Grace is sleepwalking again,” Tommy screamed like one would when trying to communicate through walls.
Margaret sprang out of the tent and looked around the camp. Grace’s dark silhouette had vanished in the distance.
“Where is she?” Margaret said, veins popping in her stark-white face.
Tommy raised his hand and pointed toward the darkness waiting just a few feet away from the fire. Margaret grabbed the flashlight lolling about her feet, turned it on and began running.
As Margaret ran, the light shone briefly all over the place, changing direction like a panicked bee. It spotlighted things that made Margaret’s heart skip several beats. Thick, tall undergrowth at the sides and red dirt mixed with small rocks beneath her feet, but no Grace in sight; all she had to go on was the feeling that she was running out of ground.
“Grace,” she screamed. Her breathing was heavy, though she looked like she could run all the way down the mountain without so much as a pause. She didn’t want to scream, the doctor had advised against that. But Grace hadn’t sleepwalked in two years now…and this was not their apartment. That advice just wasn’t applicable when you were running toward a deadly drop in the midst of a wolf and bear habitat.
“Grace? Can you hear me? Grace? Grace wake up honey, Grace…” Margaret stopped, and stood, eyes shut, for just one moment, trembling in the cold night. She was barefoot and she was bleeding. “Grace,” she said. Her voice was weak, her breath turning into steam on the spot, forming circles about her as she pivoted around herself.
Margaret closed her eyes again, this time taking a deep breath. Her face turned icy calm, the veins on her neck smoothed and all her tears dried up. She looked around to establish her position. The fire was nothing but a weak flame in the distance behind her. She turned around again and flashed the light about with organized slowness. “Grace,” she said, this time just to hear her name, and began walking forward, canvassing the area.
The light dropped on a small figure, lost in the undergrowth. “Grace,” Margaret said and burst into a run. Little Grace was standing amidst the flowers, the weeds and the bushes, eyes all white staring into the darkness. Margaret dropped to her knees and hugged her, clinging on as if it were the rope that held her up between the roof a skyscraper and the pavement below.
The flashlight slipped from her grip and rolled on the ground, shining its light on Margaret’s bleeding knees.
“Mommy,” Grace said. “I’m cold.”
Margaret stood up, one hand firm around Grace’s arm. “Oh, Grace, don’t worry, sweetie,” she said. She quickly wiped her tears off her face with her free hand and bend down, picking the flashlight off the ground. A retch-inducing stench surrounded her here at below-flower level. “Come on Grace, give me your hand,” she said, slipping her hand from Grace’s arm to her little palm. “Let’s go sit by the fire where it’s warm, OK, sweetie?”
“OK,” Grace said, nodding. She began taking small steps alongside her mom, the weeds crunching under her feet.
A noise behind them stopped them cold. Grace turned around but without any light all she could see was the darkness. Margaret squeezed Grace’s hand and took a small step forward, her eyes frozen. She stopped. No sound. “Come one Grace. It’s OK, there’s nothing there. Let’s go,” she said and moved on with a quicker pace, dragging a wide-eyed Grace along with her.
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