by Jason Rush
The first thing I notice is that goddamn old-timey music, Suwanee River or some shit.
I smell stale peanuts and beer. Also coal and dirt, but that’s always there. As much my fault as anyone’s.
I’m already seated. My head sags, and my hands rest on a small, oak table. Car keys and cell phone in front of me.
My head pounds.
“Guys?” Danny says across from me. My brow creases as I look up. He, Johnson and Huck sit around the table. My crew. Why are their hardhats still on? Dirty work clothes. Smudges of grime on their faces. And how the fuck did we get here?
Johnson’s jaw hangs slack, and a bead of spit gathers in the corner of his mouth. He stares down at the table like he doesn’t know we’re here. Like he doesn’t know he’s here.
A trace of blood crusts Huck’s cheek below his ear.
“Guys,” Danny says again. “Where are we?” He’s the youngest–still a kid, really–and he looks like he’s gonna cry.
“The bar,” I say, and because giving Danny shit is what we do, I mumble, “Dumbass.”
“But…” Danny shakes his head. He looks to Huck, cuz Huck’s the one that doesn’t treat him like a kid, but Huck ain’t moving. Head down. Eyes blank. No one home. “I don’t remember coming here.”
There’s movement over my shoulder as the waitress walks up. Peggy. I know her. She’s always on the night shift. She ought to feel familiar, but she doesn’t. Nothing does.
She taps a pencil against her order pad, head cocked so graying hair spills over one shoulder. “Well?” she says, impatient, like she’s asked for our order already. Tap tap tap with the pencil.
I run a hand over my face, and my beard bristles. I look back at my crew. Johnson lifts his head like he’s just waking up, eyes filled with confusion. Shaggy gray hair pokes out under his hard hat. His crow’s feet flex as he squints. He wipes the bead of spit with the back of his hand.
I want him to take lead, tell me what’s going on, but he looks dazed, like a cartoon character that got whacked in the head.
Turning back to Peggy, I say, “The usual.” Anything to get rid of her.
She raises an eyebrow, then shrugs. “Okay, sugar.” She turns, but not before I see her eyes roll. Then she’s gone, back to the kitchen.
Old Mike stands at the bar, wiping the counter. The wall behind him is covered in antique crap. Six shooters and pickaxes and horseshoes. There’s a faded photo of Doc Holliday next to what Old Mike says is a bullet hole, shot by Doc himself when Mike’s great grandfather ran the joint. Or great great grandfather. Whatever.
A flatscreen TV flashes scenes of Butch and Sundance getting ready to jump, and the player piano in the corner hammers away on its own. Tourist bullshit. I hate this place. Hate this town.
Johnson looks around, then turns to me, face tight. “We were at work.” His voice is like a bucket of gravel. “When did we get here?”
A stab of cold pricks my gut. I’ve never seen Johnson lost before.
I shake my head. Last thing I remember is being underground with the drone of the continuous miner, blades churning, rock crumbling. The thunk of a six-foot bolt driven into the ceiling. The smell of dust and rock and coal.
(A dull, red light. Someone screaming.)
Then here. Looking at my hands. Peggy tapping her pencil.
Beside me, Huck groans and looks up. His eyes are jerky, like he’s concussed. They flit from Johnson to me to Danny. Back to Johnson. He opens his mouth, starts to say something, but cuts short with a gasp.
His head snaps back, and we all flinch at the movement. His eyes go wide. He clamps his hands to the side of his head. “Oh Jesus,” he says. I notice the crusted blood under his ear again. “Jesus, no.” His voice is higher. Shrill. Eyes squeezed shut, gripping his head like he’s holding it together. “Something’s coming.”
Then he screams.
And that’s when it moves, like a worm in my ear. It slithers, squirms, wraps the ear canal. Slime and ooze. I hear it squish, echoing in the dark of my mind. And, oh God, it speaks, whispers, Something’s coming. This is the end.
I jerk to my feet, and my chair topples. I clutch my head in my hands. “Get it out!” I scream. “Christ, get it out!” My heel catches, and I plummet, crashing to the floor. Something’s coming. I claw at my head, thrashing, flailing. Something’s coming. This is the end.
The worm is still. Can’t feel it. Can’t hear it.
I’m panting, hyperventilating, can’t fill my lungs.
The table behind me rocks on its side. I must’ve knocked it over when I fell. Huck’s still seated, eyes wide, gripping our table like he could dig his nails into it. He’s shaking. Johnson and Danny are on their feet, staring, first at me, then Huck, then back. Peggy and Old Mike gawk by the bar. Peggy has our pitcher of beer and four glasses, but she doesn’t bring them, just stands there, mouth open.
Huck is mumbling, “Jesus” and “Oh Jesus” and “Jesus fuck.” He buries his head in his arms and sobs.
“What the hell,” Danny says, a quiver in his voice.
Johnson is the first to move. He rounds the table and squats beside me. “You hurt?” I shake my head, and he says, “Can you get up?” Hooking a hand under my armpit, he lifts. My legs are jelly. I wobble, but he keeps me steady. At first I think he’ll set me back at the table, but he looks across the empty room at Peggy and Old Mike and says to me, “Let’s go.” He scoops up my keys and phone and says to Danny, “Get Huck and let’s go.”
I hear Peggy mutter something about “crazy”, and Old Mike grunts his agreement.
Then we’re outside. The light from the bar and a single streetlight across the lot push back at the dark. It smells like snow. I’m panting, and my breath clouds the air in front of me. The gravel parking lot crunches under my feet.
“What the fuck happened in there?” Johnson says.
I shake my head. No words could show him, make him see.
Behind me, Huck says, “It’s coming,” over and over, blubbering nonsense, “Christ” and “Jesus” and I want him to shut up, just shut the fuck up.
Danny tells him, “It’s okay, I got ya,” but his voice doesn’t match the words. It’s shaky, scared, like a kid that just got whupped.
Seeing my truck, I pull my arm from Johnson’s grip, but Johnson grabs me and yanks me back. “The fuck you think you’re going?”
“You think you’re driving?” He shakes his head and drags me to his pickup. The doors unlock with a beep-beep, and I jump at the sound. Johnson tugs the passenger side open and shoves me in, then jerks the seatbelt over my shoulder. Danny and Huck pile into the bucket seats in the back.
“It’s gonna be okay,” Danny says, and I hear the pat-pat-pat of his hand on Huck’s shoulder.
“It’s not,” Huck says, mumbles, sobs. “It’s not gonna be okay, it’s fucked, it’s all fucked.”
I can’t get a good picture of what’s going on around me. My vision is mackled. Everything’s jerky, like shitty cellphone video. “Where are we going?” My voice feels thick.
“Hospital,” Johnson says, sliding into the driver’s seat and jamming the keys in the ignition.
“I’m fine.” I close my eyes to stop from puking.
“You ain’t fine.” Johnson peers over his shoulder into the back seat. “Huck neither. We’re going to the hospital.”
I feel something warm and wet against my earlobe. I wipe at it, and my fingers come away with blood.
“What the hell happened, man?” Danny says behind us. I crane my neck to see him. His face is white–a ghost under the glare of the streetlight. He shakes his head. “I mean, what the hell?”
The engine cranks and shudders to a start. The dashboard clock blinks, then settles on 12:03 AM. End of our shift was four hours ago. Where the fuck have we been?
As the truck backs up, I put my face in my hands, trying to stop the world from spinning. We pause at the edge of the parking lot as one lonely car passes. Johnson pulls out. He glances at me but doesn’t say anything. He’s not a talker.
Huck has settled down a bit. Silence in the back seat. Just the hum of the engine. Hum of the road.
Then Danny screams.
Johnson flinches at the sound, jerking the wheel. Tires screech. My head thumps against the window. I thought I had my hardhat on, but it must’ve come off back at the bar.
With another jerk, the truck steadies.
Behind me, Danny screams and squeals. His shrill voice drills in my head, and I want to die.
I want to tell him to be a man, but the swerving has my stomach all fucked, and I think if I open my mouth I’ll vomit.
Then he quiets. I hear him sob, talking, yammering under his breath, voice choked with sorrow. “Something’s coming,” he says. “I can feel it rising.”
“You’re okay,” Huck says. “I’m here. I gotcha.”
The cold window presses against my forehead. My eyes are closed. I pry them open and see the reflectors on the road zip past us. The motion is unsettling, and I close my eyes again.
“Johnson,” I say.
He grunts. His response to most shit, but you get to know the tones, and this grunt says, Yeah, what?
“You shouldn’t be driving.”
He grunts again, and this one I take to mean, Shut the fuck up.
“You’ll be next,” I say, “and you shouldn’t be driving.”
“Well the hospital ain’t comin’ to us.”
The headlights make two overlapping circles on the road ahead of us, and the center line flashes through them, blip, blip, blip. I close my eyes. “Call a fucking ambulance,” I mutter.
He grunts. Shut the fuck up again.
Ambulance takes too long, he’s thinking. Maybe an hour, out here in the boondocks. He thinks he can get us there faster, but he can’t. He won’t. We won’t make it.
“I felt it,” Danny says behind me, voice shaking. “Moving in my ear. A fucking worm. Something. What’s happening to us?”
“I know,” Huck says.
“I don’t want to die.”
“We’re gonna be okay.”
I want to tell Huck to stop coddling that goddam kid. Time for him to man up. But then I see the glow of lights over the next ridge.
“No,” I say, lifting my head to look at Johnson. “Not this way.”
Johnson doesn’t answer, but if he did, he’d say this is the way to the hospital, and tell me to shut up.
“Not this way, man. Stop. Don’t go this way.”
The road snakes, and we round the last curve before the mine. The lights are blinding after the dark of the highway. I squint and hold a hand up to shield my eyes. The giant sign by the road reads, “Gleed Industries”.
(A dull, red light. Someone screaming.)
“No!” I reach for the wheel, don’t know what for, what I’m expecting to do. Jack it to the side? Swerve us off the road? Anything but pass the fucking mine. But before my hand gets there, Johnson lets go. His eyes bug out. He slams his hands to the sides of his head and screams.
We careen off the asphalt to the dirt shoulder. The truck lurches, throwing me against the seatbelt strap. Huck is shouting behind me. Danny cries out. The world outside the windshield is a blur. The “Gleed Industries” sign races toward us. Johnson grips his head and screeches. I grab the wheel and crank, and gravel spins under the wheels as the truck fishtails, slides sideways, the sign growing bigger and bigger in Johnson’s window. I grit my teeth, squeeze my eyes shut and brace.
The side of the truck crumples. My head whips to the left. The seatbelt cuts a line across my shoulder. Johnson’s skull hits the side window with a crack. Shattered glass sprays my face. The truck rocks. Glass tinkles. Danny and Huck pant and gasp in the back.
I taste blood.
My shoulder hurts where the seatbelt dug in.
I open my eyes a crack. I’m twisted to the side, hung up by the seatbelt. My neck hurts. My head lolls. I sit up, and pain flares in my side as a rib shifts. Groaning, I slump back into the harness.
No one says anything. Are they in shock? Unconscious? I’ll have to sit up to see, but I’m scared of that rib shifting again.
I close my eyes and take a breath. When I’m relaxed, I put a hand on the seat and push, straightening my body. My rib aches, but I take it slow and manage to get all the way up.
Behind me, Danny says, “It’s time,” with the voice of a man being walked to the noose.
Johnson leans against the crumpled door. His face is splattered with blood. Eyes closed. I nudge him. “Johnson?”
Danny says “oh God” over and over behind me.
“Hey, Johnson,” I say, and nudge him again.
Johnson’s eyes snap open. “It’s time.” And there’s nothing in his expression, like Johnson’s gone, and there’s a puppeteer with a hand up his ass. He grabs the handle of his door and pushes, but it’s jammed against the “Gleed” sign. The door thunks, and glass tinkles. He pushes again. And again.
“Okay,” I say. “This way, let’s get out my side, man.”
He keeps pushing.
“Johnson.” I put a hand on his shoulder.
His head whips to face me, and Jesus Christ, there really is nothing behind those eyes.
“It’s time,” he says.
In the back, Danny says, “It’s here.”
And Huck says, “This is the end.”
The worm moves again, slithers, squirms, the squish squish echoing in my ear, in the darkness inside me, and I scream, but my mouth doesn’t move, and there’s no sound, and I grab my head, but my hands lay still at my sides. My muscles flex, but they don’t. I convulse, thrash, bash my head against the window, but nothing happens. My body doesn’t respond. All the movement is in my mind. Impulses that are never sent. My body is relaxed. Quiet. Seated. Still.
“It’s time,” I say, and it’s my voice, my mouth moving, but it isn’t me speaking, it’s the worm, and oh God, it whispers in my head, Something’s coming, and my mouth moves again, and says, “It’s here.”
My mind goes black with panic. Can’t move, can’t scream. The worm slithers and whispers, and through my terror, I feel my hand shift. It slips the seatbelt off and reaches for the door, pushes it open. My legs slide out. The cracked rib pops in my side. I want to double over from the pain. Want to scream. Collapse. But I step out of the truck and walk.
Behind me, the others crawl out, and I hear their footsteps following me across the lot.
“Something’s coming,” I say.
“Rising,” Johnson says.
“Coming,” Danny says.
“It’s here,” Huck says.
No no no, I scream in my head, trying to stop from speaking again, to stop walking, to fall to the ground in a ball, stop the pain in my side, stop the slither in my ear, in my head, but all I do is say, “This is the end,” and march through the lot with my crew.
There’s no one else in the parking area, but there are cars, and I hear the noises of the night shift operations. The buzz of the conveyor belt, the white noise of the coal-washing plant. Our bodies wind through the vehicles, feet shuffling over gravel, until we stop in front of the elevator. It stands alone at the edge of the lot, away from the buildings, away from the man-trip vehicles at the main entrance. The fastest way in. Right above the deepest part of the mine. Right above where we were digging yesterday.
(A dull, red light. Someone screaming.)
I don’t want to go back, can’t go back, won’t go back, and the worm whispers, psss psss psss.
Johnson hits the button, saying, “This is it.”
And I say, “It’s coming.”
The elevator dings and slides open.
No no no no.
My feet step for the door. I will my hand to move, and finally, my body reacts. Grabbing the side of the cage, I push back, stumble, trip, fall to my ass, and a cloud of dust sprays up around me.
The worm shifts, squish squish in my ear, tightening, and my body belongs to it again. I’m sitting on the ground, trying to flail and scramble away and run, but instead I stand, my bad rib grinding in my side, but I can’t cry out, can’t scream, can’t fight it as I follow the others into the elevator and the doors slide shut behind me.
Gears whine as we descend. My breath rasps. My heart pounds.
No one speaks. We stand and sway as the elevator drops through its shaft, down into the darkness that’s rising around us. My eyes flit left and right, searching for a way out, a way to move, hit the emergency stop button, smash the panel, pry the doors open, jump, run, but we just stand and sway and descend into the pit.
“This is the end,” Huck says, and the elevator slows to a stop.
The door slides open.
The room is a grid, giant paths we’ve dug out, with pillars left untouched to support the ceiling. We exit the elevator (no no no), rounding the first pillar, and the cavern opens up a hundred yards in front of us. At the end, the continuous miner sits dormant, engine silent, rotors still. Beyond it, a crack gapes along the wall, a couple feet wide, and a dull, red light glows through.
I remember now. Remember the wall crumbling, Johnson killing the engine. I remember peering through the fissure, the walls flush with red light, thinking, Why didn’t we know this was here?
Huck screaming behind me.
Then nothing. Peggy tapping her pencil.
I don’t want to go back. Can’t go back. The red gets brighter as we march through the mine. I feel its heat on my face. Sweat trickles down my forehead, gets in my eye, but I can’t wipe it away, can’t move anything but my feet, marching, marching forward.
I hear distant operations–machinery, engines–but it’s quiet in this sector. The night crew isn’t here. No sign of them.
As we approach, I hear footsteps echoing down one of the corridors to the right, and someone rounds the corner next to the miner.
“Sigmund?” he shouts, and his voice echoes in the dark acoustics. I recognize him but don’t know his name. Some night-crew guy I’ve seen in passing. The name he’s calling, though, Sigmund, that’s the foreman of the crew that should be here, working this area.
“Sigmund?” he says again. “Ops has been calling. Where the fuck are you guys?”
Hope sparks in my chest. He can save us. Stop this. Call the police. The ambulance. The army. I try to scream for help, but the worm slithers and tightens, and I’m lost. I groan inside, but on the outside I’m calm, marching forward.
The night-crew guy rounds the edge of the continuous miner and draws up short. I hear him gasp as he sees the fissure. The dull, red light. He leans forward and mutters, “What the fuck?”
I want to tell him to run. To save himself.
We’re almost to him. He hears our footsteps behind him and spins. He squints, eyes jumping from Johnson, to Huck, to me, to Danny. He shakes his head. “Johnson?” He checks his watch. “The fuck are you guys doing here?”
“Something’s coming,” Johnson says.
A shadow passes over the guy’s neck. A thin, dark line, slithering upward, and I want to reach out, grab it, stop it, but I’m too far, and I can’t move anyway, I just march forward, my body focused on the fissure.
“What the–” the guy says, and swats at his neck, but too late, and the shadow slides across his earlobe and disappears inside him. “No.” He grabs his ear. “No!” And then it’s all screams. Pleas to God, to Jesus, to us, for anyone to get it out and make it stop.
His knees drop out from under him, and he slams to the rock floor. He convulses, hands gripping his head, back arched, eyes squeezed shut, kicking and howling, all nonsense now, no words, just unintelligible screeches.
We walk past him. Our bodies are calm, but inside, I want to run, charge the wall, bash my head into the rock. Anything to stop this placid march.
We pass the continuous miner. I think I see blood pooling at the foot of the driver’s side door, but I can’t turn my head to look.
Behind us, the screams silence. I hear the man shuffle to his feet, suddenly calm and quiet. “Something’s coming,” he whispers, and his footsteps tap down the passageway toward the elevator.
He’ll move on autopilot, go wherever he would go–the bar, home, somewhere–until the worm in his ear decides it has control. Decides it’s time and brings him back.
We’re stopped in front of the fissure now. Not close enough to see in, but I feel the heat. It pushes at me like a wall. Smothers me. My eyes water. Sweat drips down my brow.
Huck steps forward. He stands for a second with his back to us, silhouetted against the red opening in the rock. Squatting, he shoves at the rubble. I hear the loose rocks shift and thunk, echoing through the cavern. My heart pounds. I know what he’s looking for, what he wants, what the worm in his head wants. I don’t know how, but I know, I see it in my mind before Huck stands and turns to face us, an eight-inch knife in his hand.
I shake my head, but it doesn’t move. I tell him to drop it, to run, but no sound comes out.
The blade is old. Ancient. Iron, with dents and imperfections from where it was hammered on a forge. It’s been waiting for us. For so long, it can’t be measured in time. Forever. Strange characters are etched across the blade, no language I’ve ever seen, but somehow I know what it says, and I say it too, “This is the end.”
Huck backs to the edge of the crack in the wall, still facing us. I see the fear in his eyes now, the only thing that tells me he’s still there, deep inside that body. Red glows around him on all sides. Through the fissure, there is emptiness. The ground drops away behind him. I can’t see the far wall. Huck steps back. His heel hangs over the brink. He raises the knife. A tear spills down his cheek as he presses the blade against his throat.
No no no, I think, but I can’t move, can’t stop it, and Huck slices.
His throat opens beneath the blade, red pouring down his neck and chest. He gags. The knife drops from his grip and clatters to the stone floor. Huck’s eyes roll back in his head. He teeters, then falls through the gap, into the red abyss.
I want to reach for him, but I can’t, and he’s gone.
I scream, but there’s no sound and my mouth doesn’t move, it’s just my voice in my head, howling and howling into the silence.
The worm wraps around my ear canal and squeezes. My feet move, one step, two, toward the dull, red light, and oh God, I want to stop, but it moves me, marches me forward.
I bend and take up the bloody knife.
“It’s rising,” I say.
“This is the end,” Danny says.
I turn to face them. Please don’t let me die, don’t do this, don’t take me, I don’t want to die, I say, but it’s only in my mind. My jaw is set. My grip squeezes the hilt of the ancient blade. Huck’s blood slickens my fingers.
I raise the knife to my throat, touch it to skin. Oh God. I tense, will my arm to throw it, will my fingers to let it go. No! But the worm whispers, psss psss, and I slice.
Pain rips across my neck. Breath doesn’t come. It gurgles in my open throat. Warm blood washes down my chest.
My fingers release, and I hear the knife hit stone.
I stagger back one step. The edges of my vision tunnel.
Suddenly I’m free. I’m myself. No worm slithering in my ear, whispering, telling me what to do, driving me forward.
I grab my throat, put pressure on it, I can stop it, stop the bleeding, I can survive, if only Johnson or Danny can help, call someone, get me to the hospital, I can survive, I’m not dead, I’m not dead.
“No,” I say, the word drowning in a bubble of blood.
I teeter, fall, grab for the edge of the fissure, miss, and my leg gives. I plunge into the dull, red light, into the abyss.
An eye watches me fall. Watches from below. Rising. Coming. An eye that’s a mouth. It gapes, yawns, ready to swallow me, this is the end, the inferno pulsing heat beneath it, pushing it toward me, the beast, pushing it toward the fissure, toward the world, and I don’t want to die, I pinwheel, grapple for the walls, but there’s nothing, just the fall, and the dull, red light, and that eye that’s a mouth, waiting below to swallow me as it claws its way up.
This is the end.
About the Author
Jason Rush lives in Colorado with his wife, Shannon, and dog, Freckles. When he’s not writing, he snowboards, snowshoes, hikes and climbs mountains. He is currently working on his first novel, Mad Maddie, which took first place in the Zebulon contest at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. He blogs here and his Twitter is @diminish7.
About the Narrator
Hollis Monroe is an award winning radio producer, opera and jazz singer and Shakespearean. He served as executive producer and also read for Iowa Public Radio’s “The Book Club” for many years and is an active voice actor, emcee and singer.