“What you think it is?” asked Evan. He stepped in closer to the mouth of the downward sloping tunnel before him, straining to look within. After several feet, it seemed as though the passage dropped sharply down, disappearing into dark earth.
“Think it’s maybe like a tomb or something.” said Joe, standing far back from where his friend stood, as if the opening might reach out at any moment to swallow him.
“Nah, a tomb’s made of stone and has angels and things all over it. Much fancier than this. Like a little fancy house for dead people. We ain’t anywhere near the cemetery. Just looks like a big animal hole or some shit.”
“What kinda animal makes a hole this big?”
Joe took a few more steps back, hands pushed into the pockets of his shorts. He walked around the mouth of the burrow, mounds of dug-up dirt rising almost as tall as him surrounding it. Near his feet were small gatherings of smooth stones, most piled neatly but some scattered across the grassless dirt of the forest clearing.
“And what’s with all them rocks everywhere? All put in little piles”
“Don’t know . . . probably just someone messing around.”
“C’mon, look at ‘em, they’re grave markers, dead people underneath ‘em, and that thing’s a tomb! Not like a fancy one, but like, ancient time shit.”
“Man, whatever it is, I’d like to get inside,” said Evan, crouching down and taking a few small steps into the tunnel, craning his head forward to see if there was a bottom to the plunging hole.
“Gonna rain soon, Evan.” Joe said – his refrain for the past half-hour, it had begun to gain weight, drab darkening clouds seeping across the once spotless clear sky, air growing heavy with moisture, droplets stinging cold on heads and hands.
“So what?”, said Evan. There were more important things than not getting wet. He took another step forward, stooped down, foot almost to the point of teetering on the edge. Evan kicked at a clump of dirt, watching to see how far it would fall. He listened to the clod roll down the incline – didn’t seem so steep, he’d climbed down worse before.
“Gonna level with you Joe.” Evan said without turning, still studying the hole. He held his voice steady, words low. “This place might be holding buried treasure.”
“Bullshit. Where’d you hear that?”
“Cal told me.”
“Cal’s full of shit.”
“Yeah, got proof this time though.” Evan pulled from deep jean pockets a thing that instantly caught what remained of the diminished sun, reflecting yellow as it flipped through the air toward Joe.
“What is it?” At Joe’s feet, half-buried in sandy brown soil, lay a golden disk, an unfamiliar coin larger than a half-dollar. Picking it up, holding it, the coin felt unusually weighted.
“Fuck you think it is Joe? Treasure, buried goddamn treasure.”
* * *
It was true, on most occasions, that Evan’s older brother Calvin was a liar, a notorious bullshitter, always looking for an opportunity to make his little brother look foolish. Two nights ago though, Evan had asked Calvin for a story. He couldn’t sleep, too worked up, kept looking over to Tim’s empty side of the room, more room for the two of them now but it was just empty, neither brother wanting to encroach on sacred space. “Tell me a story Cal”, asked Evan, in the dark, staring up at the bottom boards of his brother’s bed. “Okay, okay”, Cal gave in.
“Ever hear of the Hoek brothers?” Cal began, lowered voice, black-outlined face peeking from over the above bunk edge. Evan hadn’t, of course not, then again Cal pulled ninety percent of his stories outta his ass. “Couple of bank robbers,” Call continued, “back in nineteen hundred and whatever, pulled a ton of heists, never got caught either.”
“What about ‘em’?”
Calvin grew serious, the smile in his voice dying. He spoke of desperate men on the run, ruthless killers willing to perform any feat on their escape flight from the law. “Most naturally,” Cal said, “they eventually made their escape to the wilds of Indiana, delving deep into the marshy swampland.”
“Fuck off Cal…” Evan turned in his bed, wrapping covers tight and shutting his eyes.
“Fine, don’t believe me.” Ping of metal echoed high in the dark, something small and dense hitting Evan’s sheets. Groping in the dark, Evan’s hand settled on the cold disk of the coin. He felt the lumped imperfections across its face, the uneven ridges forming the circular wall.
“This shit real?” Evan held the coin against the barely moonlit window outline, glimmer of gold apparent in the bright snatches of shine caught by the tiny relic.
“You tell me. Found it out in the marsh off Morris Road, just lying buried half-inch under mud for anybody to find.”
“You’re full of it.” Evan stared into the shifting dark. “Think there’s anymore?”
“Probably all been found, that’s probably the last of it.” Cal said distantly, turning over, disturbing creaking bedsprings.
“You don’t believe that.”
* * *
“So you coming with or not, Joe?” Evan stood entirely within the tunnel’s entrance, beginning to lower himself down onto the decline.
“Hell no. Might get stuck or something.”
“Nah, you ain’t gonna get stuck, it’s a big-ass hole. I can almost stand in it, see?”
“Yeah, you’re right, we’ll just get caught when we’re six feet underground, too cramped to even turn around. Best part is, won’t be nobody to hear us screaming.”
Evan clenched his jaw, should have never asked Joe to come with, not this far out. No one else around though, none of the guys willing to come this far out into the marsh – only reason Joe did was ‘cause he had no friends, nothing better to do on a Saturday morning. But after not even a half-hour of walking, Joe had started complaining about his being hungry or about getting scratched up by branches. Probably didn’t realize how far a mile was when trekking through wooded terrain, probably looking for any excuse to turn around. Joe was the kind of kid that’d be happier left sitting at home, air-conditioning blasting to keep his face free from sweat, a game controller tight in his hands.
“You go on ahead, Evan. Think I’ll just wait out here for ya. Lemme know how it is.”
“I sure will.”
Digging his shoes into the moistened earth, Evan slowly began his descent. The burrow was wide and tall enough going down that he could move while crouched, pushing hands against the ceiling of the tunnel to steady himself. From behind, Evan could hear Joe calling for him to stop, but the boy’s voice sounded far off, blown distant by the winds blowing from deep within the ground – most likely coming from another passage somewhere deep within leading above ground.
Truth was, Evan was glad to have Joe waiting and watching his back. He didn’t want to come out to the burrow alone, beginning to get a bad feeling about the place. But he needed to explore it, same feeling he always felt inside like something catching fire and keeping his legs from moving still, kept him pacing back and forth in his room all night wondering what could be down that one game trail he never took, what was hidden inside that abandoned mill at the edge of town, or what waited inside the old Laninga farmhouse just beyond the marsh. It was that same fire that forced him downward, that urged him to explore every musty inch of this darkening, deepening hole in the earth.
After twenty feet or so, the steep downward slope leveled off, the dark tunnel opening up into a wider chamber. Joe’s calls were becoming more incessant, though quiet from such a great height. Evan was determined to see something, to find anything strange or unbelonging before he had to call it quits and make that long bike ride back to town. Bending down, he stooped through the entrance of the larger underground room, cool air rushing past his face.
Evan straightened up to a full standing position, his height easily fitting within the open space, wind whistling from the tunnel entrance above. He walked slowly and carefully, eyes unable at first to cut through the darkness of the burrow, essentially blind. But slowly, his eyes adjusted, allowing the texture of the walls around him became clear, dim-outlined shapes appearing. Evan couldn’t think of a better place for treasure to hide than this strange burrow. Who else would have built it so large but people? Really, what critter was large enough to dig it otherwise? Inspecting the chamber, making a careful path around its perimeter, Evan’s sneaker touched something on the dirt floor – a small, pale object among many others, all strewn about. Evan bent down to touch it.
“Evan! Evan! Evan!”
Joe’s voice came down frantic and echoing from above, the boy shouting as loud as he could. Evan jumped at the sudden noise, tripping over the scattered mess and falling forward on his arms. From above, Evan could hear the sound of scrambling, dirt rolling down the hole towards him. Something landed hard on the dirt floor behind.
“Get up,” Joe whispered, raspy, “get up, Evan!”
Hands under arms pulled at Evan, propping his body up. Evan turned to see Joe, breathing heavy, his eyes wide. “Don’t talk.” Joe’s voice was hardly audible, hardly recognizable. Joe pulled Evan away from the light of the day, into the chamber, grabbing tight onto Evan’s shirt with sweaty, dirt-covered hands. For several moments they were silent, Joe shivering as he gripped tighter onto Evan.
Then he heard the thing, that which had so terrified his friend. From above, the sound of deep and throaty gurgling seeped in.
“What is that?” asked Evan, his voice strained now too, fear catching dry in his throat. He was answered only with shushing, a small and sweaty and dirty hand placed over his mouth.
For several minutes, the two boys listened to the strange sounds of murmuring liquid – sound like a person drowning in shallow water – the occasional hollow noise of something thumping swiftly back and forth across the ground. Suddenly it seemed to move very quickly away from the burrow entrance, the sound of its weight moving across the ground disappearing. The two boys continued waiting without a muscle twitch or exhaled breath. After many more moments, the gurgling thing seemed to be gone.
“It was something…a beast. Taller than a man, much taller, and wearing dark ragged clothes, had a face like…like a skull but…the mouth was-”
Evan crawled to the bottom of the slope, looked up into the sunlight.
“Sounded like somebody choking on something, sure it wasn’t just a weird guy?”
“Wasn’t no fucking guy.” Joe’s eyes were stuck open, rolling side to side within his head as he backed himself further into the chamber. “We need to find another way, not going back up there, hell no.”
“Don’t hear nothing now.” Evan said, wishing he’d brought along his dad’s old twenty-two rifle like he had originally intended. “You can probably run home if you’re fast enough…”
“You ain’t still thinking ‘bout gold?”
“Whole reason we came out here, ain’t it?”
“Look at the ground,” Joe’s voice dropped, words pushed out as harsh whispers as though his throat was constricting, “those are bones Evan, animal bones, this is probably where it eats.”
Joe turned, “we gotta go Evan!”, he was fast running away to the far end of the chamber, kicking at the bones as he went. Evan watched him run out of sight, listening to the scrapes of his shoes grow quiet.
“Think I see a light over here!” called Joe, echoing through the blackness.
“Damn Joe, wait up!” Evan yelled, running blind, arms out to guide him through the narrowing passage. Soon enough, he could see the light as well, distant and faint. Dammit Joe! The other boy ran faster than Evan had seen him run. Never should have brought him so far out, not his element, only did it because mom made me feel bad. His mother had told him that Joe still new in town and far from home, that he should make friends, be nice.
From close-by, Evan heard a high-pitched scream. Closer to the light, Evan saw what could only be the beast, body bend straight down at its middle in a sharp angle, long dangling arms held wide against against the light as if to balance itself as its head and upper torso bent down, nearly touching the floor. Evan saw something fleshy and small lying on the ground beneath it. He watched as the skull-head began to change, enlarging, the white gleam of something sharp reflecting in the sparse sunlight.
Evan ran now, hearing the sounds of ripping meat, a liquid-filled growl following him through the winding underground avenues. Dark on all sides, the smell of fresh dirt and stale air in his nose, Evan reached into his pockets, feeling for the familiar square of smooth metal. Thank god he remembered to grab it on his way out the door, lucky lighter. Tim gave it to him just before getting on that army bus, dressed up in his battle dress and triangle hat, looking so serious. Why’d you have to be gone Tim? Evan cried when Tim left on that bus, weeped and weeped, silent so Cal wouldn’t hear it but then he thought he had seen the middle brother tearing up into before climbing up to his bed that night.
In the newly ignited flickering flame of the lighter, Evan saw the size of the place enclosing him. He was in another chamber, different from the first one he had been in, the ceiling lower and walls stretching out into pitch blackness. The room was filled with the same strange pale objects that he could now see were clearly bones, long ones, some human-looking. Shreds of clothing and pieces of boot lay among the remains along with something thin and wooden – the long, smooth handle of a wood-cutting ax, its rusted head still attached.
He took a step back, and another, disoriented. Evan’s left foot caught empty air and he stumbled, nearly letting the lighter slip from his shaking hand. He looked back, another step and he would have fallen, a steep decline gouged into the flooring – another burrow passage leading deeper still underground.
Evan held the tiny flame against the deep hole. He watched the light bounce across an expansive array of small and large bones, many fragmented and some intact, littering the sloping walls of the hole as far as he could see. They were animal bones mostly, Evan knew their shapes well from hunting trips with his brothers. The big, long, and thin bones of deer, toothy bottom jaws; the heavy-looking vertebrae, and the tiny sharp and fragile parts of a rabbit – not much meat on a rabbit but enough to stew up, get all them bones out and make the most of it, what Tim would always tell him and Cal; Evan could see the beaks and clawed feet of birds as well, and even the elongated head of a horse skull way deep down.
Evan felt movement, something large making its way through the tunnels, felt it in the earth beneath his feet. Evan backed away, too fast, tripping upon his own feet and losing balance, falling down hard to hit the back of his head, causing a white glare all around his vision. All those bones, it really was just like in that one old story Cal had told about the old man, the crazy animal skinner out in the woods, where did all the bones go? There was that old scary legend – “can’t sleep Cal, tell me something cool” – told about the old hunter living deep in the marsh, in a cabin all alone. He would hunt and skin animals, all sorts, skin them alive because he wanted to see how long they could live before dying from pain and bleeding. He started with small critters, rabbits and squirrels, moving up to stray cats and dogs, then deer and coyotes and wolves, until even that got boring for him.
Evan watched as bones the rattled, listening to the noise behind grow closer, a sound of dragging claws, of that same throaty gurgling. Whatever was coming was coming too fast to run from. Then, when the beast seemed to be upon him, the clawing and throat gurgles halted, only the sound of rasping coming around the corner, the beast just beyond the reach of the tiny flame. With his free hand, Evan reached for the discarded woodcutting ax, heavier than he thought it would be. Evan struggled to lift it with the one arm, dropping the head against the floor with a great thud.
“Who’s there?” Evan called out, loudest voice he could manage.
The beast stirred and at last Evan could see its skeletal form appear like smoke from depths of the tunnels, black outlines dancing, cast-off from the erratic lighter fire.
“What’d you do with Joe?” he asked, knowing the answer, voice drying into a hoarse whine. Was it only a few weeks ago that short little Joe had grown taller than him? Grew a head higher in a few nights it seemed, suddenly stood and Evan was staring at his chin. Joe tried standing up to Evan, feeling brave, feeling big, getting mad when Evan called him out – called him a limp-armed girl – on not being able to put a spiral on a football. Height wasn’t enough for Joe to take on Evan though, still got knocked flat by a good tackle, all about catching the bigger guy off-guard, taking him off his feet with a quick moment of force. Standing real tall now Joe, thought Evan, what the hell happened to you?
It was no use trying to lift that ax with one hand, far too heavy to swing. The flame was hardly carrying its weight, only distorting the room and the monster in it. Evan dropped the lighter, throwing the room into pure darkness for a moment, before what little light remained from the outside trickled through, casting a thin layer of gleam onto the outlines of the tunnel and beast.
Evan raised the ax above his head with both hands. He watched the blackness in front of him, waiting for the rush of pain, waiting to drop the weight of the blade down from his arms while his shaking legs threatened to collapse. Then, at last, the monstrous face appeared dimly before his own – too-long skull, white eyeballs seemingly without sight – and its jaw unhinged, the entire head looking to open up wide from a slit into a gigantic maw. The beast’s mouth hole opened large enough to swallow up Evan’s head down to his neck bones in a single gulp, the hot air rushing out from within the black innards smelling of rancid meat.
Down came the ax.