This was my first published short story and originally appeared in the Trapped! anthology by DreamFusion Press. I've come a long way since I first wrote this tale, but I've done no editing to the copy I had on my hard drive. In other words, pardon any slight editing issues. Enjoy!
“Is that a crater?” Stacy tucked her blonde hair behind her ears as she peered down into the hole in the earth.
Dave Evans stood on the edge and looked into the chasm. He shined his flashlight down in it as the hungry black below devoured the light. It was impossible to determine its depth. “Looks like a sinkhole.”
Big Rog, a 6’4”, burly bear of a man, walked around the hole. “A sinkhole? Here?”
Dave kicked a pebble into missing earth. “Not sure what else it could be. Odd place for one, but with all the uncharted mineshafts around here, I wouldn’t say it’s impossible.”
“Think they fell down it?” Stacy asked.
“If they came upon it at night, I’d say that was a real possibility.”
Dave and his crew, volunteers with the National Forest Service, were looking for three hikers – all experienced outdoorsmen – who hadn’t been heard from in three weeks. Even when they fell off the grid, they still checked in with their families. When one of their mamas hadn’t heard from her son in three weeks, she put in a call to the Park Ranger, who in turn sent Dave and his crew out for a look.
“I reckon we should go down and take a peek,” Dave said. “You brought the rappelling gear?” The terrain in Ouachita was, in areas, a bit treacherous.
“Yep,” Big Rog said.
“Alright. Let’s unload it and give it a go.”
While Big Rog and Stacy set up the gear, Dave called his boss.
Les answered the call with one ring. “You find them?”
“Not sure,” Dave said, “but we found a big sinkhole about ten miles from the station.”
“That’s a first. A little dry for a sinkhole, don’t you think?”
“You’d figure, but I don’t know what else it’d be. It’s about thirty feet wide, and boy does it look deep. Seems too deep to be a crater, and besides, we’d heard something if there was a meteor.”
“Huh.” The sound of Les taking a drag off a cigarette filled the earpiece. He exhaled. “Well, any sign of the hikers?”
“Nope, nothing, but we’re going to send Stacy down the hole for a look.”
“Let me send someone else out to help you.”
“Nah, we’re good. Only take couple of hours. And you know Stacy would be a little put off if you send someone else, anyway.”
“Yeah, yeah. Well, buzz me and let me know what you find. I got that kid’s mama to wait on calling the news folks until I hear back from you.”
Despite the half-year drought, the air was thick with humidity, the breeze nothing more than a sewing circle rumor. The forest was quiet, as if the creatures of the woods evacuated for more hospitable climates. Only the sound of Dave and his crew broke the vacuum of silence.
After the wench was secured, Stacy put on the harness and strapped herself to the rappelling line. She tested the light atop her helmet.
Dave checked the line. “You have three hundred feet of rope. If you don’t hit the bottom, we’ll pull you back up.”
Stacy nodded. She backed up to the hole and rappelled down.
After fifteen minutes, Stacy called up to the surface on the radio. “I’m at the bottom. I don’t see anyone, but there are a few things down here: A backpack, a boot, a flashlight, an empty water bottle, and a notebook.”
“What’s it like down there?” Dave asked. “Is it a mineshaft?”
“Negative. The floor is dirt, and it was solid earth on the walls on the way down. It’s really just the bottom of a hole.”
“Can you grab the stuff?”
“Yep, no problem,” Stacy said.
After three minutes, she tugged the line and Big Rog started the wench to bring her back up. They pulled her up over the edge and then walked away from the sinkhole. Stacy set the items she found on the ground.
“Only one boot, huh?” Dave picked it up and twisted it around in his hands. “It’s just so damn strange. Let’s take a look in the backpack.”
Stacy opened up the blue and green bag. Inside, there was nothing remarkable: a map of the area, a pack of gum, extra batteries, and a can of bug spray.
“Just normal hiking stuff,” Big Rog said.
“You’d think there’d be more if they were on a long trip,” Stacy said. “This is pretty light. Maybe someone tossed the stuff down there.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Dave said. “What’s in the notebook?”
Stacy picked up the red, spiral bound book and thumbed through the pages. “Looks like a trip journal. It’s about a third full.”
“Well, I’m starving,” Dave said. “Let’s grab a few chairs and the grub and you can read it while we eat. ”
Dave set up the chairs. He grabbed a sandwich and bottled water out of the cooler and handed one of each to Stacy and Big Rog. Dave took a seat and opened his sandwich. Stacy left the sandwich in her lap while she continued to read.
“Anything good?” Big Rog asked.
“Not really,” Stacy said. “Just a diary of their trip.”
“Care to read us a bit?” Dave asked.
This has been the best trip so far. The weather has been nothing short of perfect. Normally I would never be in favor of a drought, but it has kicked the August humidity in the teeth and left us with cool nights and warm, but not hot, days.
We found the Vista Trail this morning and decided to stick to it for a while. I’m getting a lot of good ideas for my article for Outdoor Life. I owe them 2000 words when we get back to Little Rock in a couple of weeks, and I don’t think I’ll have any problem meeting my quota.
Carl has been pleasant so far. The past two years, when we got about ten days in, he would get whiny and would become, quite frankly, a pain in the ass to deal with. This time, however, he has been not only helpful, but also adventurous. He even scaled a few slopes without crying about it. I’m glad to report he isn’t on his period. Yet.
I don’t have much else to say. I wanted to take a moment to say how pleased I am with this trip. Tomorrow, we’re hoping to do a little canoeing before we get back to the trail and drive further into the forest. There’s a guide there, I think his name is Dick, who would be a good interview. I’d like to get a feel for how the drought has impacted their business. It’s just one of many ideas I have for my piece.
Well, we didn’t go canoeing today. The trail split on us. I guess we took the wrong path. The map didn’t show the split, so it caught us a bit by surprise. Before we realized we went the wrong way, it was almost nightfall so we decided it would be best to call it a night. Besides, Carl thought today would be a good day to turn high maintenance. Old habits die hard, I suppose. When he went off to do some business, Will and I decided we wouldn’t bring him next year. He’s a good guy, just not someone you want to spend a couple of weeks with, especially out in the elements. I can only imagine if the weather turned south like it did two years ago.
Speaking of the weather, today started out warm and dry, but it got muggier as the day went on. Is it finally going to rain? It wouldn’t be ideal, but the forest is tinder dry and the brush could use a shower or two. We’ve been careful with our campfires, but each time we leave one, even if we put it out properly, it still makes us a little nervous.
Interesting note: we saw a sizeable herd of deer running through the woods in the opposite direction. Strangest thing I’ve seen in a long time. There were probably thirty whitetails, all hauling ass past us. Luckily, they kept off the trail so we weren’t in any danger. Still, if we would’ve been off the path, one of us might’ve gotten trampled. Maybe that wouldn’t have been a bad thing if Carl had been the one to get stomped. I’m kidding, of course. We would have to deal with his body.
It’s dusk and the sunset is beautiful. Despite the humidity, there isn’t a cloud in the sky. The sun setting behind the mountains is painting the sky pink, and purple, and gold. Sometimes I wonder if I could live off the grid permanently. I’m sure I could mail articles in for income. Computers and phones aren’t really necessary, are they? I’m glad I left mine at home.
Day 12 later
I wanted to make a quick note in the journal. We had dinner tonight, and settled into our normal evening routine of bullshitting around the campfire. After a bit, the forest got really active—more active than you would expect in the evening. It sounded like more than a few large animals exploring the grounds around us. It’s not something I’ve ever experienced at night. Carl, of course, made more out of it than necessary. What if it’s Sasquatch? Or aliens? Or witches? I told him it was probably just a mountain lion. Will and I got a good laugh out of his reaction to that.
Off to bed I go. Tomorrow we will double back on the trail and (hopefully) go canoeing. Or take a dip in the lake. I’m sweating just writing this. So much for the cool evenings.
Dave interrupted Stacy’s reading. “That doesn’t tell us anything.”
“Little strange about the herd,” Big Rog said. “And the night movements. Could be a mountain lion, but they usually don’t get that closer to campers. Do you think—”
Stacy cut him off. “Guys, I think this next part might explain it.”
I’m Austin Greer. I’m 29 years old. I don’t have my ID. My friends are Carl Peterson, 30, and Will Hagen, 29. We are all from the Little Rock, AR. We’re stuck in a hole. We’ve been down here for a day. Will is unconscious, but breathing. His head is caked with blood. His arm is twisted behind him. Carl isn’t hurt. I came to about an hour ago. My leg is broken. It’s daylight. I can see a sliver of light from the top of the hole, but it’s only a sliver. I shined the flashlight up the hole. We’re really far down. I don’t know how we didn’t die. While I have the energy, I wanted to write down what happened.
Last night, we heard a rustling. It was like what I wrote about earlier. Will woke up first and started yelling for Carl and me. Will was standing by the fire looking east. He said our gear was gone. He said he wasn’t sleeping well. It’s been so muggy. He heard sticks cracking. He thought it was a coon. He got up to scare it off and saw our stuff gone. I grabbed my pack and flashlight. We decided to do a quick search.
I don’t know how long we walked. Will spotted something. I shined the light where he was pointing. It was Carl’s pack. It was empty. Carl freaked out. There was more rustling. I pointed the flashlight at the trees. Something was there. It was tall, like a man. Will yelled at it (him?) and took off after. I yelled for Will to stop. He didn’t. Carl and me ran after him. He was ahead of us. I kept my flashlight on his back. We came to a clearing. Will kept running. He grunted and disappeared. A second later I found the hole and fell down it.
I don’t know what this hole is. Why is it here? It’s not a mineshaft. It’s just a hole. It’s so high up to the top. I don’t think we can get out. I’m scared. I think we might die down here. I hope someone finds us.
Dave chewed the cuticle on his thumb. “That explains how they got down there. Still doesn’t explain where they are.”
“This has got to be some kind of joke. There ain’t no way those boys got out of that.” Big Rog nodded towards the hole.
“You think we should call Les?” Stacy asked.
“How much more?” Dave asked
She flipped through the red book. “Just a few more pages.”
“Keep going then. I’d hate to cry wolf if this is just a prank.”
Stacy nodded and continued reading.
I took off my boot. The ankle and shin are swollen. I’m burning up. There was a full water bottle in my bag. It’s half empty now. I’m still thirsty. Carl is losing it. He can’t find a way up. Will woke up for a minute, but just for a minute. He won’t last much longer. None of us will. I wish we had the pistol. It was in Carl’s pack. If we did, we might take another way out.
Day 14 later
In and out of sleep. Carl heard noises. He yelled for help. Nobody responded. He thinks we are trapped down here for a reason. He might be right. Who took our stuff? I’m going to rest.
Carl stopped talking. Will is still alive. There are bloodlines up my leg. There’s an infection. I wish it would hurry. This is the definition of hell.
Day 15 later
Carl shook me awake. He was hysterical. He said Will was gone. I told him to say a prayer. Will was lucky. He said I didn’t understand. Will is gone. They took Will. I asked who “they” was. He said he didn’t know. He fell asleep and woke up and Will was gone. I pulled myself up. The pain is terrible. I shined the light across the hole. Will is gone. I don’t know what’s going on. Am I hallucinating? Who took Will? I wish we had the pistol. Maybe I won’t wake up next time I go to sleep.
The water is gone. Carl is talking to himself. He’s saying he is next. He says they took Will and they would get him next. I asked him who took Will. He just says them. I can see the terror in Carl’s face. I have to stay calm. I continue to wish for a quick death. God isn’t listening. I am now paying the price for any of the bad things I’ve done. I’m sorry God. Show some mercy. Put an end to this hell. I’m sure Carl is sorry, too. At least I know the infection will take me soon. Carl needs more help than I do.
Day 16 later
Carl tried to climb out. He didn’t get far. He started looking for something to kill himself. There is nothing. What happened to Will?
Day 16 later
It’s nighttime. I can see the crescent moon at the top of the hole. I’ve been in and out all day. I woke up to the sound of screaming. Carl is gone. I’m next. Please God help me.
This will be my last entry. Either the infection will kill me today, or they will come get me. I’ve saved up all my energy for this last bit of writing. The flashlight is almost dead. Carl and Will are gone. I don’t know who took them. I hear noises. Sometimes rustling, sometimes humming. I wake up and there’s dirt on me. Who’s digging? There is something else here. This was a trap. If I’m next I hope it’s quick. It’s so hot down here. I am in the mouth of the devil.
To my mom and dad, thank you for all your support. I know I was never the easiest kid to deal with. I hope my writing makes you proud. Find my computer and notebook. There are stories. You can sell them. It won’t bring me back but it’s something. To my brother Alec, keep playing, dude. The world needs another musician. And to Tessa: you’re the love of my life. I know I’ve dragged my feet. There’s a box in the middle drawer of the filing cabinet. It’s yours. I’m sorry it took so long. I hope you wear it for the rest of your life. You’ve made me the luckiest man in the world. You’ll make another guy just as lucky. I love you, little bear.
I am putting my journal away. Napoleon once said, “There is no such thing as accident; it is fate misnamed.”
Dave rubbed his sweaty palms on his jeans. “That’s it?”
Stacy flipped through the rest of the notebook. “Appears so.”
Big Rog's eyes darted around the forest. “This is some weird shit, boss.”
“Maybe it’s like you said,” Stacy said. “Maybe it’s just a joke.”
Dave nodded. “I don’t know, perhaps. Whatever it is, it gives me the willies. Mark the coordinates on the map. Let’s blow this joint. I’ll call Les on the way.”
“Good idea.” Big Rog stood and folded up his chair.
The crew packed up the gear as dusk settled over the forest. Joke or not, Dave would be damned if they were still there after the sun completed its journey down the horizon.
Big Rog put the wench in the back of the truck and shut the gate. “I think that’s all of it.”
Dave looked around the area while he wiped the sweat from his brow with his fingertips. “Oh, wait. We might want to take that with us.” He walked to where Stacy had been sitting and picked up the notebook off the ground. A folded piece of paper fell out.
“What’s that?” Stacy asked.
“What’s what?” Dave said.
“That.” She pointed to the piece of paper at his feet.
Dave picked up the piece of paper and unfolded it. “‘Day 18. Join us.’”
“What the fuck does that mean?” Big Rog's voice cracked like kindling on a campfire.
“I don’t know,” Dave said, “but let’s get out of here. Now.”
To their left, on the other side of the hole, the sound of underbrush being trampled filled the stagnant air. The three crewmates looked at each other, and in unspoken agreement, ran to the truck.
Despite his shaking hand, Dave was able to get the key in the ignition. He turned it, but the truck remained silent. “Shit.”
“Look.” Stacy pointed to the other side of the hole.
“What the hell... ” Big Rog said.
Dave locked the doors. “God help us.”
The wheels of the ATVs crunched across the forest floor as the rumble of the motors filled the stagnant air. County Sheriff Spencer Smith and Ouachita National Forest Park Ranger Les Watts had ridden atop the ATVs for three hours looking for any sign of Dave Evans and his crew.
Spencer pointed to a break in the tree line, just to the right of the path. He turned the ATV in the direction of the break. Les followed behind. They crossed through the gap and came to a clearing in the woods. The men slowed to a stop, killing the engines on the ATVs.
“Well, there’s his truck,” Les said.
“Let’s go take a look.” Spencer got off the vehicle, took off his helmet, and set it on the seat.
They walked over to the red Dodge. In the bed was a wench and a variety of other equipment. Les tried the handle, but the door was locked. He put his face to the window and peered through the tinted glass into the cab. There were a couple of mobile phones on the seats, a wallet, and a red backpack on the floorboard.
“Huh. There’s their stuff.” Les shifted his face around the window. “And the keys are in the ignition."
“Odd.” Spencer walked around the truck. He saw tire tracks in the dirt behind the pickup, but none in front. He knelt down and ran his fingers along the tracks. The dirt was dry and loose.
Spencer stood and brushed his hands on his pants. “Tracks behind, but none in front, so they were here and haven’t left, at least not in the truck.”
“Huh,” Les said again. “Damndest thing.”
Spencer walked into the middle of the clearing. He turned back to Les. “Say, didn’t Dave tell you there was a sinkhole?”
“That’s what he said.”
“Well, I hate to break it to you, Les, but I don’t see any hole.”
Les glanced around the clearing. “Neither do I.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Les caught a twinkle of silver just outside the clearing. He walked over to the brush and picked up a red, spiral notebook. He brushed it off and walked over to Spencer.
“What’s that?” Spencer asked.
Les thumbed through the book. “Looks like a journal of sorts.”
A small, folded piece of paper fell out of the notebook. Spencer picked up the slip of paper.
“What’s it say?” Les asked.
“It says, ‘Day 20. Join us.’”