The mines had been closed since Erin was a child. Erin’s grandpap had worked in the gaping maw that led to black lung and death for years and years. He was probably the only reason she was able to go to college. He’d sacrificed his body to the earth for his family, fighting for unions, but lining the pockets of the wealthy who had long since abandoned this town.
Her chest tightened before the dark hole. The temperature dropped nearly twenty degrees as Erin shifted from the warm sun to the realm of never-ending darkness. The icy fingers of ghosts long buried beneath rubble and collapsed shafts circled around her, gripping her skin through her cardigan.
“I’m not scared,” she told herself through shivers, “just fucking freezing.” She flicked her flashlight on. There was a beam of yellow in the darkness, leading the way like the magical thread that saved Princess Irene from the goblins. The deep darkness of death threatened to tear her apart from every side.
“Too bad I didn’t bring a canary,” she said to herself. Her words came back at her from every direction, sounding less and less like her as they droned on. How many people had been led to death or madness trying to follow an echo down a mineshaft?
The mines were nothing but a house of broken bodies and depleted health. When she was younger she thought they were cool and spooky, but her grandpap quickly hammered it into her head that the mines weren’t a plaything. He’d traumatized her with stories of shaft collapses and suffocated miners.
“The mines are full of ghosts and bodies,” he wheezed, “and not many of them are old fellas like me. It’s full of kids and young men who never even got to live their lives. People who didn’t get to feel the sun because the rich wanted to get richer. Imagine how ornery they are. Stuck down there in the cold and the dark. That’s why you can’t ever go down there, you hear me? They’ll claw their way out of the rocks to crawl into your skin to steal your warmth.” Sometimes he would reach out and grab her after he talked about the bodies in the mines and she’d giggle, happy to break the tension. But most of the time they would sit in silence, the weight of the dead making the air heavy.
She knew that caves stayed the same temperature no matter how deep you traveled down, so the same had to be true for the shafts, but that knowledge didn’t prevent her from feeling colder and colder the deeper she traveled. She tried to see the mist of an exhale, but the immense cold she felt seemed to be mostly nerves. She took a deep breath, the air burning all the way down.
Have I been holding my breath?
The tunnel before her morphed and split. She stuck to the left. She waved her light along the earthen walls, illuminating the long grave she’d trudged through. It all looked the same.
She was close enough to her destination now that she didn’t dare turn around. According to Reddit, there was an underground lake mere feet away from her. She’d never heard anyone from her school mention it. She should have been proud of herself for being braver than everyone else in Deadwood, but nausea overwhelmed her senses.
“It’s just the pressure change,” she said aloud to remind herself. Pressure and the magnetic field. She almost wanted to laugh at how stupid she’d been acting. But still she had to force down the voice of her grandpap, calling down the mine for her to come back up. It was easy enough, after all, he was a ghost now too.
Blackness welcomed her deeper in.
The anonymous Reddit horde was almost right. The water that lay in the belly of the shaft couldn’t quite be called a lake, but it was certainly more than a puddle. Still, something about the water soothed her fear of the dark. Water was the greatest force of life, and if fairytales and legends were to be believed, it was a pretty strong deterrent to all kinds of ghouls.
A groan rippled through the shaft when her feet touched the water. She whipped her light behind her, half expecting to see a skeleton wearing a hard hat.
She took back the step that had placed her in the water. The ground swayed beneath her damp hiking boots, knocking her flat on her ass. The pain of a broken tailbone radiated up her spine. The ceiling and walls swayed around her like a funhouse tunnel.
Then the groans gave way to an overwhelming and all-consuming noise that accompanied the crumbling of the shaft. A wall of dirt and stone fell into the water. A mound of dirt, as though divinely aimed, smashed into Erin’s chest. Her legs were a useless mass of gore and bone splinters. The organs housed in her stomach were flattened against her spine. Her lower and mid ribs dug into her lungs, some piercing through in spots, while others simply scratched her as she struggled to catch her breath. Her flashlight had fallen beneath the wall, leaving her in a darkness as absolute as death. She wanted to call out for help, but she couldn’t manage to get enough air in her deflating lungs. The pain might be unbearable if she could get enough oxygen. In the petrifying cold, a warmth ran down her neck and face. Blood gurgled from her mouth, a rolling boil of red froth. Crushed beneath the earth itself, she knew that the worst had yet to come. On instinct her ruined adrenaline-fueled body tried to drag itself from under the unmovable wall.
Something brushed up against her. It registered in the final electric currents of her mind that what displaced the darkness around her was at least a singular spirit, but probably many. Mistakenly, she thought of the miners who had been crushed like she was, or who had suffocated on poison air.
The darkness moved like a curtain, pulling back to reveal her grandpap, sunk into his recliner with her in his lap. Her body shuddered as her spirit exited, her mind at peace despite the brutality to her mortal shell.
The fog that rippled through the dirt corridors had been buried for longer than the mines had even existed. In the mine’s heyday it had hungered against the walls, begging, daring the miners to break through the wall, hoping to grow strong enough to burst like a tick drunk on blood.
And now it was free. The rolling wave of hatred and malice swelled through the mine’s screaming mouth, fanning outward toward the town. Flora wilted beneath its wake.
Ms. Berman watched the fog roll through the playground’s chain link fence. It was her second year teaching kindergarten. She’d gotten the job right out of college, mostly due to her uncle being the superintendent. She wanted to think she was a good, gracious person; more importantly that’s the kind of person she wanted people to think she was. But teaching had taught her that she hated children. Moreso, there was a deep hatred that burned her throat like bile– a hatred of herself for feeling this way, and for trapping herself in a job she hated.
She wondered if maybe the fog was a gas leak from one of the factories. She’d heard of a cloud of zinc creating a poison bubble over a town not far off years ago. Even with that in mind, she didn’t try to wrangle the kids back inside. She was too entranced by the carpet of dead grass that mirrored the cloud.
The other kindergarten teacher on duty, Mrs. Sullivan, blew her whistle, signaling the children to line up to go back inside. The kids were too young to really be able to keep track of time, but still, something didn’t seem quite right, and they eyed her wearily but obeyed. The sound of the whistle snapped Ms. Berman out of her hypnotic trance. Instinctively, she checked her watch. They’d only been outside for ten minutes.
The sound of little shoes slapping the concrete filled the empty air. Ms. Berman rushed to the back of the line, one teacher in front, one in back, like the kids were used to. “Deadwood Kindergarten! Let’s go!” Despite the approaching haze, Mrs. Sullivan delivered the end of recess call in her best singsong voice. She even managed to do a little skip toward the door, her shin-length jean dress slapping her calves as she went.
A few of the kids were still looking over their shoulders as they skipped, the fog pressing the fence in smoky diamonds so thick they could be solid. A cold dread washed over Ms. Berman. The fog was reaching up now, milky tendrils clawing to blur out the sun. The temperature was dropping rapidly now, and the new teacher could feel beads of sweat freezing against her forehead and back.
Mrs. Sullivan swiped her teacher’s badge, holding the door open for the panicked, but still skipping, children. She waved her arms at them wildly, the fear finally creeping into her face and voice. “Keep going, keep going! All the way down the hall!”
Ms. Berman could feel the cold wall of death against her back. She screamed, only realizing she’d been crying when a string of snot dripped onto her upper lip. There was no way that they would all make it. In a few seconds the fog would be against the school. She shoved the young children out of the way, rushing in her ballet flats to the closing door. Kids fell to the ground around her.
Ms. Berman slammed against the glass doors, her mouth agape. She pounded against the door, screaming. Mrs. Sullivan sobbed. “Let me in! Let me in!” The fog wrapped around the young teacher like a thick cloth. Ms. Berman swiped her badge, pulling on the doors as hard as she could at the click of the lock switching, but Mrs. Sullivan held fast, leaning her body back to use her entire weight.
Ms. Berman tried again and again before slamming into the glass hard enough to rattle it. “You bitch! You stupid old fucking bitch!” Teeth chattering, the young teacher ran along the side of the building, looking for the fence’s gate so she could run to the front of the building. Children cried blindly around her, begging for her care.
“I’m scared!” A girl wailed.
She couldn’t tell if it was one of her students, and she didn’t care. Their little legs weren’t going to get them far enough to escape whatever surrounded them.
A sudden quiet fell over the school grounds, but the iron maiden freezing her lungs still gripped her. Has Mrs. Sullivan let the kids in? Can I sneak through now? She wandered blindly, nearly tripping over a toy truck. It wasn’t totally quiet, she realized. The children were no longer screaming and crying, but instead sounded like they were vomiting. She felt a pang of guilt. She had certainly cried to the point of throwing up, and not all that long ago.
Lost in the playground, she wandered toward the noises, hoping to console a child in their final moments and absolve her sins. She was halted by something thick and wet. The teacher’s shoes had no traction, and whatever squished beneath them sent her sliding onto her back. A dull pain throbbed through the wrist she’d caught herself on. The chipped bone might have been worse outside of the cold. She lifted the wrist tenderly, cradling it to her chest.
And that’s when she noticed the blood. Bright red splattered her cream skirt. She lifted her wrist, expecting to see the bone punctured through the skin, spraying like a hydrant. But the culprit of all of the blood was wrapped around one of her shoes. It was solid, but overwhelmingly wet. She ripped it from her shoe, rubbing it between her fingers. The sensation felt familiar, but she couldn’t place it. There was too much blood to see the underlying color, but it reminded her vaguely of one of those sad blob fishes that people dredged up from the ocean.
The vomiting noise rang through her ears like tinnitus. She looked all around her in the fog for the source, but the vapor was so thick she could barely make out her hand if she held it out in front of her face.“Hello?” She’d almost forgotten she could speak.
The vomiting changed direction, accompanied by a rough shuffling sound. Finally she could see a dark outline to her left. It was definitely a child, but something about it wasn’t quite right. Her mind struggled to comprehend the humanoid thing shuffling toward her, close enough to reach out and touch now, but the cold slowed her functions.
Warmth radiated off the red creature, and she could see that it was dragging the same thing that had been wrapped around her shoe. The bloody mess was attached to it, strung out behind it like a fallen cape. She reached her fingers out to the figure, hitting a firm wall of stickiness. The creature pulled back as though in pain, disappearing again like a spirit in a vision. The teacher rose to her feet, pushing forward toward the thing. She followed a shuffling noise that ended in a splat.
I’d rather die knowing.
She stood above the thing, now certainly dead. She knelt beside it, her knees aching awake from the pool of warm blood. She touched it again, but her suspicions of its death were confirmed. Crawling on her knees, she reached to see what had tangled them both up.The horror that crept up her spine finally reached her mind. She was looking at a skin suit of a former student.
She drifted through the impenetrable wall of white. Retching as she walked, she was not sure what direction anything was anymore. Suddenly, she slammed into the glass doors.
Mrs. Sullivan stared into the youngest teacher’s shell-shocked face. Silent tears fell down her cheeks, but she didn’t seem to register that she was crying. It was like looking into the face of a zombie. The older teacher had managed to tie the door handles together, but she still reached out to grasp them at the sight of Ms. Berman. Her gaze bored through Mrs. Sullivan, her eyes focusing on the walls lined with hand-drawn smiling suns the kids had been so excited to decorate the halls with.
Finally gathering its fill of the small bodies that it could consume, the fog settled onto its first full course. The fog possessed the young teacher, snapping her eyes back in her head, the fog forcing itself in through the openings, replacing the whites of her eyes. Fog swept up her nostrils and into her open mouth. Her body seized against the glass.
Ms. Berman’s mind began to shred. The fog pushed her flesh away from her bones, filling her with hellacious knowledge of a never-ending darkness. She had a last vague thought of the kind of evil accompanied by darkness in fairytales, combined with an image of her mother, before cold life gave way to warm death. Blood poured down Ms. Berman’s face like a fountain. It seemed an impossible amount of blood, but as the skin peeled further and further down, taking her clothes with it, Mrs. Sullivan saw how much blood an unwrapped body had to offer. Peaks of muscle-bound breasts heaved with effort as the skin fell to the ground.
Ms. Berman gave a death rattle, which to the older teacher sounded like a heavy sigh. The fog relinquished her, allowing her mutilated corpse to drop to its knees, forehead resting against the glass. Steam rose from the exposed muscle.
Across the town the fog spread like a virus, blocking out the sun as it rolled. Men, women, and children split from their skins. And at the school, the fog crept through the vents, spraying out like a fine mist.
Kourtnea Hogan is a horror hound who was brought up in Southern Indiana, but transplanted to Pittsburgh. Raised on Stephen King novels and 80’s horror movies, she fell in love with the genre at a young age and never looked back. She has graduated with an MFA from Seton Hill’s Popular Fiction Program, and studied film at the George A. Romero Film Program where she worked with Tom Savini and had her film final feature in Rue Morgue. Her first novel, Consume, is available now.