“I’m tellin’ ya, there ain’t no bottom to it,” Henry Knob said, peering down the hole into the darkness.
“That’s impossible,” Dave said.
“I’ve dropped rocks, a busted computer monitor, even that old refrigerator down there. Ain’t none of them ever hit bottom, at least not that I heard.”
Dave leaned over the opening which was about the size of a small car itself. Grass grew high along the edges and dirt spilled into the blackness making him wonder if they were in any danger, standing so close to the edge. If this was a sinkhole, they could be swallowed up at any moment.
“How did you find it?” Dave asked.
“I was driving my tractor out to the other side of my property and my back wheel got stuck. I gunned the engine, and it was a good thing I did because the ground had opened up. Far as I can tell, it ain’t got no bigger since then though.”
“That’s good. Hey, we can get some rope and lower a bucket down into it. Maybe it’s an old well and the reason you didn’t hear anything is because there’s water way down in there.”
“I already thought of that,” Knobs said. “I went through about a mile of rope and shit-load of kite string until I gave up. The bucket didn’t even come back wet. I just don’t get it.”
Dave just shook his head. He’d lived next door to Henry for ten years and he’d never known the old man to lie or even stretch the truth, but this was too bizarre to believe.
“I’ve got an idea,” Dave said. “Actually two ideas. I’ve got a million candlepower spotlight. If there’s something to see down there, we’ll see it. I’ve also got one of those luggage alarms. We can drop it down there and listen to it fall.”
“Sounds like a solid plan. I’ll go get us a couple beers and meet you back here.”
Dave limped across the rocky field between their two houses. His leg was bothering him again. The doc had told him it would hurt in the wintertime and when it stormed, but right now it was sweltering and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. This summer had been hellishly hot and the weatherman didn’t offer any relief for the near future.
The big flashlight was in the kitchen on the top of the refrigerator and the luggage alarm was in the junk drawer. Caroline had hated that drawer, hated clutter in general. It was little things like opening a drawer in a dimly lit kitchen that reminded Dave of his wife. She was always on his mind, but sometimes he would be watching television and would see a commercial she liked or a show she’d hated, and before he knew it he was sobbing like a little girl. Cancer took her six months after he’d retired as a local police officer. He remembered how excited she was that he was going to be home with her. Most wives would’ve seen it as an inconvenience, but not Caroline, she’d planned trips for them to take and projects around the house for them to do together. Now those trips would never be taken and the projects would never be completed. He was alone and there was nothing to do but watch DVDs, cut his grass once a week and drink himself into forgetfulness. But now there was this hole.
He carried the items back across the field and found Henry waiting for him with four sweating Bud Lights. It was early, but what the fuck, Dave thought. They were both retired and besides, it was close to a hundred degrees outside.
“Which one should we try first?” Henry Knob asked.
“Thought maybe the flashlight,” Dave said, switching on the strong light and pointing it down into the darkness. They both got on their bellies and looked into the pit. Pieces of dirt and a few small rocks fell in.
The beam shined down and reflected off rocky sides. Dave pointed the flashlight straight down, but saw nothing, so he angled it back towards the walls and followed them down, but eventually, the light just filtered out into the infinite blackness.
“Weird,” Dave said. “That’s just damned weird.”
“I told you, there’s no bottom to it.”
“Let’s try the alarm.”
Dave pulled the pin on the smooth black box which was about the size of a cell phone. Instantly it started shrieking out a falsetto howl.
“Drop the thing already!” Knob yelled, covering his big ears with his liver-spotted hands.
Dave switched the light back on, and then dropped the alarm. They watched it fall out of sight. It’s high pitched whine echoed back to them like a woman’s movie scream. The sound faded, growing softer and softer until the darkness turned it to silence.
“Oh shit,” Knob said.
“What should we do now?”
“The only thing I can suggest is to call the geological department at Vol State and see if they have any ideas.”
“Don’t really want nobody poking around on my land,” Knob said.
“I can understand that, but if you’re going to leave it be, I’d suggest covering it up. The last thing you need is for some kid to cut across your field and end up falling in.”
“Good point. I’ve got some plywood and a few cinder blocks. Give me a hand later?”
“Sure, no problem. Gonna be hot this afternoon. You sure you wanna wait?”
“I’ve got to run to town and get a few things at Wal-Mart. You wanna ride along?”
They got back to the house around noon and finished boarding up the hole. The sun was high in the blue sky and the temperature hovered right around a hundred and five. Cicadas buzzed from nearby trees and grasshoppers flitted through the high grass. Both men were covered in sweat and they’d gone through a twelve pack of Bud Light between them. Knob had brought out a cooler but it hadn’t taken long for the ice to melt. Empty bottles now floated in the water.
They had placed four pieces of plywood over the pit and then stacked twenty cinderblocks on top of the boards.
“There,” Knob said. “If anyone falls in there now, it’ll be their own fault. You want lunch. I’ve got some leftover Hamburger Helper in the fridge. I love that stuff, but it makes a shitload of grub. I can never eat it all myself.”
“Naw. Thanks though. I’ve got my own leftovers to get rid of. I need a shower anyway.”
When Dave got back to his house, the air conditioner hadn’t kicked on.
“Shit,” he said to the empty, humid farmhouse.
He called the heating and air conditioning place in town and of course they told him it would be the day after next until they could get out there.
“It’s our busiest time of year,” the man said. “Everyone waits until their units go out before they call instead of getting them checked once a year.”
“I did get a checkup, two months ago,” Dave said, beginning to get pissed.
“I know, Mr. Avery.” the man said, I was talking about everyone else. “Your service is covered. We won’t charge you, but it’ll still be Wednesday before we can get out there. I just don’t have anyone available. My techs are working twelve hour days as it is. I’m really sorry.”
Dave hung up the phone and sat down in the kitchen chair. At least his water still worked and he had some fans up in the attic. He’d just have to deal with the heat for a couple days.
After opening all the windows and positioning his two box fans on either end of the house, Dave stripped down and jumped in the shower. He didn’t even bother to turn on the hot water. The cold stream soaked his hot skin cooling it back down to a comfortable temperature.
He felt a little better when he got out and decided to sit out on the porch and read the new Joe Lansdale book he’d picked up from the library the day before. It was cooler outside under the shade of the porch than it was inside. The old wooden farmhouse had trapped the day’s heat and it probably wouldn’t cool off until well after sunset.
The porch swing creaked under his weight as he swung back and forth and read about Hap and Leonard’s adventures in East Texas.
Something caught Dave’s attention out of the corner of his eye. Someone was walking up on the top of the gently sloping hill to the west of Dave’s property. He couldn’t tell who it was, but he knew it wasn’t Henry. The gait was all wrong. Henry walked slightly slumped over. The man on the hill with the sun behind him, stood up straight like a young man and something was familiar about his stance, but Dave couldn’t put his finger on it. He watched as the figure disappeared over the crest of the hill. Despite the heat, Dave’s arms broke out in gooseflesh.
The phone rang as Dave was frying two hamburger patties for his supper. He wanted fries, but there was no way he was going to use the oven. The house was still as humid as a sweatbox and the sun had been below the horizon for an hour.
“Hello,” Dave said, and at first all he could hear was breathing.
“Hello?” he said again.
“Dave,” Henry’s voice said out of the receiver, but it didn’t sound like Henry. Look out your kitchen window, the one that faces my place, and tell me what you see.”
Dave suddenly realized why his friend didn’t sound like himself, fear had crept into Henry’s voice making it high pitched and jittery.
The window was open and a cool breeze that felt to Dave like heaven blew in. He pressed his nose against the screen and glared out into the dusk colored evening.
There was movement in the field between Dave’s farm and Henry’s, a figure walking through the high grass. At first, Dave thought it was the man who he had seen earlier but this person was much smaller and dressed in what looked like a white dress. It was a little girl, probably about ten by the looks.
“Yeah, I see her,” Dave said. Who is she and what’s she doing on yo—?“
“You see it too, don’t’cha?” Henry said. “By God, you’re seeing what I saw.”
“Yes I see her. But…Oh my God. Oh my God!”
Dave nearly dropped the receiver but knew if he did, if he severed the tie to the real world, he’d surely pass out.
The girl had just emerged from the high grass and Dave had seen what had prompted Henry to call in the first place. She floated across Dave’s back yard, missing her legs from her knees down. The gown she wore ended where her shins should’ve been, but there was nothing below the hem, nothing at all. She glided across the lawn and reached the rotted red barn near the corner of the property. Then, just when she should’ve collided with the structure, she faded right through it, disappearing.
“Holy shit!” Dave said. “Did I just see what I think I saw?”
“Either that or we’re both crazy because I saw it too.”
Dave’s gooseflesh was back.
“Can you come over?” he said.
“Be right there,” Knobs said. “Got anything stronger than beer?”
“Well, that’ll have to do. Hey, watch out your window while I’m walking over, okay?”
“Sure,” Dave said.
Thirty seconds later, Henry was sitting in Dave’s kitchen drinking a Bud Light and shaking like a man with palsy.
“Was that really a ghost, Henry? Was it really?”
“Yeah, it was. Had to be.”
“Maybe the light was just funny, maybe—“
“I knew her”
“What! Knew her from where?”
“I’ve never told you this story I don’t think. I don’t talk about it much. My wife and I had a daughter just after we were married. Her name was Sylvia, beautiful child. This was back in 56 when we lived on the other side of town near the old rail yard. Sylvia would wander off sometimes, mostly just over to the neighbor’s house or down to the corner store to get an ice cream. Back then you never had to worry about it much. Then one day suppertime came and Sylvia was nowhere to be found. My wife and I went looking for her.
“I found her on the tracks,” Henry said, his chest hitching. “Her legs had been cut off. She’d bled to death. I don’t kn…know why she was down there, but when I think about her lying there, dying, all alone, probably crying out for her daddy and her momma, I..I just…”
Henry was now sobbing, hunched over covering his face and rubbing his red swollen eyes like a child. Dave put a hand on his friend’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Henry”
“A man forgets. If you want to get on with your life you have to. You put it out of your head and convince yourself that things like that happen sometimes and…I really did forget. I mean yeah I think of her from time to time, but I never thought I’d see her again. It was her Dave. It was her, and I’ll never forget again.”
Dave handed Henry another beer and sat down beside him. “Could it be that hole? Could that be how she came back?”
Henry looked up, his eyes, still rimmed with tears. “You mean to say she was in hell?”
“No, no, nothing like that. I just mean, maybe that hole is some kind of vortex. Like a portal between this world and the next.”
“You believe in that kind of thing?”
“No, not usually, but after what we saw, maybe. I mean, how could that be a coincidence? You found that hole this morning and tonight we start seeing ghosts?”
“What do you mean ghosts, plural?”
“I may have seen someone earlier. Didn’t get a good look, but…It’s not important. I think we should go and have a look, make sure those boards are still in place. Not that a ghost would necessarily have to move them to get out. You saw how your dau…the ghost went right through the side of my barn.”
“I’m not sure I can go up there right now. Not in the dark,” Henry said. His hands were still shaking.
“We’ll wait ‘til morning. You wanna sleep on my couch?”
“Naw, but just watch me walk back to my place, okay?”
“You want one for the road?”
“I better not. Hey, why is it so hot in here?” Henry asked, just now noticing the sweat which had stuck his t-shirt to his chest.
“Air conditioner’s broke. I’ve got fans though.”
“They ain’t helpin’. Why don’t you walk over with me and sleep on my couch?”
“I’ll be alright. It’s started to cool off. I might take you up on that come tomorrow night. It’s supposed to get up to a hundred and seven tomorrow.”
Henry just shook his head, drained the last few drops of his beer and walked out into the sweltering night.
It took a long time for sleep to come. Dave had stripped the bed down to the sheet and had moved both fans into the bedroom, but it was still hellishly hot. The day’s events tap-danced through his brain, pushing any hope of sleep even further away.
Why would a hole in the ground call up spirits? It just didn’t make sense, he thought.
He thought about tossing that luggage alarm down into the darkness and wondered if they hadn’t woken something up. Or a couple somethings.
The hum of the box fans eventually lulled him into a fitful sleep. He woke just one hour later covered in sweat. Something had woken him, a sound either in this world or the fading dreamland he had just left. He sat up in bed and listened hard but it was impossible to hear anything over the drone of the fans.
Then he did hear something, just a whisper of a voice, but it was there. Someone was speaking his name over and over again.
“Davedavedavedavedavedavedave,” sounding like a mantra in the sweltering darkness.
“Who’s there?” He called out with a voice that sounded weak to his ears.
Dave wished for his gun, but it was in the safe downstairs. He started to get out of bed but then froze as the dark form appeared in the doorway. Instantly the temperature dropped and Dave could see his own breath.
The man was dressed in the same dirty overalls he had died in. His face was pinched with rage, eyes too close together, his mouth set into a snarl. It was Mick Tamblin, the man Dave had shot and killed on a dusty roadside nearly five years ago.
Mick was Macon County, Tennessee’s only murderer in fifty years. The drug dealer had been a thug his whole life and had been arrested several times. When two out of town kids tried to rob him of some money and his drugs during a deal, Mick had wrapped the teenagers in barbed wire and buried them alive under the floor of an old barn.
Dave had been the arresting officer. He’d shot and killed Mick when he pulled his own gun, but Dave took a bullet in his own leg, shattering the bone.
As he watched the dead man approach, Dave’s mouth went dry, and his bad leg began to throb with a pain he hadn’t known since the first few days after the shooting.
Tamblin crouched down like a small but dangerous animal. He raised his fists and Dave noticed the man’s hands were wrapped in barbed wire. As he clenched his fists tighter, drops of shadow dripped onto the hardwood floor at his feet.
The shadow-blood slithered like two dark snakes across the splintery floor. Dave backed up to the headboard, vaguely feeling his bladder let go and warm wetness spread beneath him.
“What do you want?” Dave asked, finally finding his voice.
Tamblin didn’t speak. He just kept glaring at Dave a look of pure hate on his face.
The snakelike shadows flowed up onto the bed and wrapped themselves around Dave’s legs. He watched, breathless, as they wrapped themselves tight. When they reached his chest he tried to brush them away, but his hands passed right through the serpentine shapes.
He could think of only one thing to do and he prayed that it worked. He extended his arm over to his end table and pulled the chain on his bedside lamp. When he blinked against the light, the snakes were gone, but Tamblin remained
He walked slowly across the hardwood, his eyes were locked on Dave’s and he waved his razor wire hands in the air as if trying to slice the air.
“Them boys had it coming. They cried like little girls when I piled that dirt on em. They cried for there mommas. Now I’m comin’ back for you. I’m gonna wrap you in my wire and throw you down the bottom of that hole.” Tamblin said.
Time suddenly sped up and Tamblin was inches from the bed. Dave could smell his sickly sweet aftershave and cherry tobacco snuff. “Are ye ready?”
“Your dead,” was all Dave could say.
“So. You won’t be far behind. Everyone goes to the same place anyway.”
Dave blinked once and Tamblin was gone. The temperature returned to a humid ninety degrees and Dave’s heart felt as if it was keeping time to a marching band.
“Son of a bitch!” Dave exhaled loudly and he took several deep breaths, trying to slow his pulse back down before he had a heart attack.
The alarm clock read 3:15 A.M. It was still dark outside, but there was no way Dave was going to be able to go back to sleep. He got out of bed, stripped off his piss soaked boxers and turned on the shower. He was in and out in a flash, worried that Tamblin would come back while he was naked. The boys were naked when they were found, naked and wrapped in razor-wire, their lugs filled with barn dirt.
As Dave headed downstairs to make coffee, he turned on every light in the house. He kept expecting to see Tamblin around every corner, sitting on the stairs perhaps or standing in the living room staring out the window. Perhaps he would be sitting in Dave’s kitchen sharing leftovers out of the fridge with his shadow-snakes. Dave kept turning on lights.
It had to be that fucking hole. They had to find some way to cover that damned thing back up; apparently the plywood and cinderblock method didn’t work for keeping the ghosts where they belonged.
The phone suddenly rang, splitting the silence and making Dave jump. He knew who it was before he even picked it up. Henry had seen all the lights on and was checking to see if he was alright.
“Hello,” Dave said, surprised at the shrillness of his own voice.
“She said it was all my fault,” Henry whined, his voice weak and sad.
“Henry? Are you okay?”
“She said I left her there. Said she called for me and I didn’t come. She needed me Dave. She needed me and I wasn’t there.”
“Henry, listen to me,” Dave said. “Everything is gonna be alright. Turn on your lights and she’ll go away.”
“She’s already gone. She whispered in my ear all night, but she’s gone now. She said I needed to find her mother. She said she couldn’t find her in all that darkness and I had to do it.”
Then he was gone. Dave went to the window and looked out toward Henry’s place. All the lights were off and the dark shape of the house stood like a hulking beast against the lightening sky. Henry’s front screen door creaked and then slammed and Dave saw the old man walk across the yard. He thought Henry might be coming over, but he was headed in the wrong direction. He was headed toward the—
“Henry! Henry, no!” Dave ran out his front door, cursing his bad leg, limping while trying to intercept his friend. “Henry!”
Dave raced through the field but knew he would be too late. Henry wasn’t responding to Dave’s shouts, wouldn’t even turn and look at him. The old man walked like a zombie across the high field toward the bottomless pit.
Henry had just reached the edge of the hole. The boards and cinder blocks had already been moved aside, perhaps by Tamblin or Henry’s daughter.
Henry gave Dave one last pitiful look, then without hesitating at all, he stepped into oblivion. Dave heard one of the old man’s bones crack as he hit the rocky side on the way down but Henry never even cried out.
Dave dove, reaching for his friend, but Henry was already out of sight.
“Henry!” Dave’s voice trailed after him into the suffocating darkness.
No answer came from the pit. After several minutes Dave finally lifted his head. The sun had begun to rise in the western sky, painting the world red. Silhouetted against the dawn were several shadowy forms. They wandered the hillside several yards away. Dave couldn’t make out any of their faces, but none of them appeared to be Tamblin. There was no sign of Henry’s legless daughter either.
Heavy sighs and deep breathing came from the hole behind him as if the black pit had suddenly come alive. Dave turned and saw several dark shadows slither out of the ground. When they reached the edge of the hole, they took on human form, each one different; men, women, and children. They settled on the grass and began to walk, heads rotating, as if they were looking for something or someone.
Dave recognized one of the men; it was Jason Simms, a police officer who had died of a heart attack while chasing a perp last year. Jason walked away from the hole as if he were in a daze. He was still dressed in his uniform, sweat stains stood out around his armpits, darker than the rest of the material. Thick veins bulged from his neck and his eyes looked too big for their sockets.
“Jason!” Dave called out not expecting his old friend to hear him let alone respond, but Jason did turn.
“Dave? Dave Cooper? Is that you?” the spirit asked, a confused look on his red face.
“Yeah, Jason. It’s me.”
“Why am I here? Where is here? Is this heaven? It was so dark. So dark and so cold. We saw a light so we swam for it, swam through the darkness. I didn’t know what else to do. There was nothing else to do. I know I’m dead. I’ve got to find Ruth. She’ll know what to do.”
Dave let his old friend walk away. He knew Ruth was the man’s wife and perhaps it was best to just let him go.
More spirits flooded out of the hole and then walked away toward town. There were dozens, perhaps hundreds all of them, all with glazed over eyes and slack mouths. Some had tears streaming down their cheeks, and others had looks of rage or pain etched upon their milky faces.
Dave walked back to his house, brushing past or rather through several of the beings, it was impossible not to. They were everywhere. Their skin felt like icy pockets of chilled air against him, and he was shivering violently by the time he reached the front steps. He was so tired. Each step was a monumental struggle and he barely made it into the kitchen. His body felt as if it were filled with liquid lead. He finally managed to sit down on the creaking rattan chair and lay his head on the table.
Dave stared, bleary eyed, out the window against the glare of the rising sun. He knew she was coming, knew it was only a matter of time until the temperature in the house dropped despite the broken air conditioner and he smelled her perfume. His wife would return to him and he would ask her to take him back with her down into the bottomless inky depths of Knob’s Hole.