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Department of First Stories

Down the Mine
by John Dziuban

Steven stood in the dirty gravel lot, staring at the sealed entrance of the defunct coal mine. He’d run straight here after the bell rang at the middle school to see for himself what Klingensmith told Steven he found there over the weekend. Klingensmith hadn’t really been able to answer any of Steven’s questions about it, and anyway, Klingensmith was one of those types of dudes who carries a skateboard around with him everywhere he goes but nobody’s ever seen him ride it, so he wasn’t exactly a reliable source.

So, Steven needed to come on down and check it out. What Klingensmith had been able to tell him was that he went in. And after maybe just a minute he felt, all at the same time, high on gas, like he was gonna barf or pass out or both, and like someone (or something) was coming out of the darkness in there to chase him down and pull him in. There was a hole. An entrance point, and if Klingensmith was to be believed—which he wasn’t—something else.

Did the hole look like it had been dug by a person? Steven had asked. I don’t know, it was a hole, Klingensmith had responded, and then the morning bell rang and they all stood up for the pledge.

As Steven walked around the concrete slab that had been poured here to seal the brick arch of the entrance years ago, after the fire, he saw it, exactly where Klingensmith said it would be. It didn’t look like the work of a person, more it reminded him of where the groundhogs used to dig under the fence in his backyard.

What do you mean it felt like someone was down there? Steven had pressed Klingensmith after first period. As Klingensmith shoved his completely unblemished skateboard into his locker, he closed the door, paused, and looked at Steven. I don’t know, man, I thought I heard someone, a voice, but it was like it was coming from inside my head and from down the mine at the same time, like, echoing. But like I said, I felt way high too, so it was probably just that. And Klingensmith had walked off to wherever it was he went for second period.

Steven got down on his hands and knees and looked in. It was maybe big enough for him to squeeze through, and where the dirt receded away under the concrete, there was total blackness. He sat up and looked around. The yard was completely deserted. The corrugated-steel one-story buildings were locked up and rusting away. Here at the back of the yard, the slab sat silently, trying to keep at bay the pollution and the fire that everyone assumed was still burning away down there even after a decade, but there was no smoke here, just a faint odor of sulfur, like someone had lit a whole book of matches. It got stronger the closer he got to the entrance. No, it didn’t look like a person had dug into the ground next to the concrete seal, it looked more like someone had dug their way out.

As he stood up, a thriller video came to mind—the part in the graveyard where the zombie hands start shooting up out of the graves—and he slung his backpack over his shoulder and ran back to the break in the fence where he’d sneaked into the yard. If he was going to avoid getting sick like Klingensmith had, he’d need to be prepared. He’d need to try on his dad’s old mining gear, full-body suit and mask, hanging in the basement exactly where it had been since the fire in the mine had ended his dad’s career back in the eighties. He had been just a little kid back then, hardly able to understand what had happened, but now, he thought he might just barely be big enough to fit into it.

*   *   *

The basement was cool and dark and smelled of moist dirt, like a bag of old potatoes. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in it, but things didn’t really change down here.

The old wooden shelves were still lined with dusty Mason jars that rattled every time a train went by. The toilet that sat in the corner, enclosed by no walls or even a curtain, still ran perpetually because no one bothered to stop it. The cracks in the concrete floor, maybe those had changed. Were they a little wider? Mine subsidence was a common topic among the old people in town. When you dig the ground out from under a place, would the whole thing just eventually collapse into the negative space underneath? Eventually, seemed to be the prevailing opinion, but what could anyone do about it? The companies responsible for it were a relic of the town’s past. Their names just a badge sewn onto an old work jacket. A tattered sticker on a long-disused hard hat.

In the far corner, beneath the stairs, his dad’s old work gear still hung. The mask with its smeared glass lenses and dual filtration canisters sat askew at the top like a lolling head. Under it hung the thick canvas suit, caked with soot and grime, some of which had fallen down to the floor and powdered the work boots below. More than once in his youth Steven had come down here for something or other, caught a glimpse of the suit hanging in the corner, been convinced that the suit had moved like a reanimated corpse, and gone running back up the stairs, no longer concerned with whatever he’d gone down there in search of.

He walked right over to it, reached up, and lifted the mask off of the nail. He held the mask in front of his face, saw his own distorted reflection in its dusty lenses, and turned it around to pull the strap over the back of his head. From inside the mask, the basement looked brown and yellow. He swiped his hand at the lenses, clearing away some of the grime, but still everything had taken on a hue like old Polaroids. When he breathed, it sounded like Darth Vader, and the sides of the mask pressing against his ears amplified the sound of his own beating heart. It smelled like a condensed, aged version of the sulfur smell at the entrance to the mine. He tore the mask off, pulled the suit down, rolled it all up into a bundle, and stuffed it into a duffel bag that sat on the ground beneath the stairs, along with a flashlight and the boots.

Upstairs Steven stood, leaning against the doorjamb in the kitchen, looking at his father in the living room. His father sat in a recliner in a tattered brown robe. The room was darkened by thick drapes to keep the sunlight out. The lights of the television played on his father’s face and projected an elongated shadow of his head on the wall behind him. This is where his father had spent most of his time in the years since the accident, or accidents, as it had turned out, since just a few days after the explosion his mother had drunk-driven herself into a crash and a coma. Machines kept her alive in a room in a building on the other side of town. His father was incapable of making a decision about what to do with her. He sat there day and night, aging and smoking, in full retreat from reality. His mother had been like an aftershock to the disaster. The explosion, the fire, the collapsing tunnels. The bodies. The people who died. Burned, buried alive, asphyxiated. They were still down there.

Steven’s father turned his head and looked at him and Steven swore he could hear his neck creaking like a rusty door hinge. His father’s eyes glistened as if on the verge of tears. His moustache was yellowed with cigarets and his skin was the grey of old newspaper. His father held his gaze for a long, pregnant moment, and just when it seemed he’d take a breath and say something, he turned his head back to the TV, where an episode of COPS played. Steven turned and headed for the back door with the duffel bag slung over his shoulder.

*   *   *

He pushed the bag through the hole at the bottom of the chain-link fence and crawled through. Crunching along the gravel toward the entrance, he looked up at the sky where grey clouds sat low like a lid. When he reached the concrete seal, he set straight to work pulling the suit on, knowing that if he took a moment to stop and think about what he was doing, he’d stop doing it. When he was zipped up in the suit, he pulled the boots from the bag. They were far too big for him. He left his Converses on and pulled the boots over the top of them. It made him feel like he was walking on someone else’s legs. With flashlight and mask in hand, he approached the hole beneath the slab. He took a breath, looked around, saw no one in the yard, and pulled the mask on. He switched on the flashlight, lay down on his stomach, and shined the light into the hole. It revealed little more than what he’d seen when he looked in earlier.

He crawled in headfirst. Burrowing between the concrete and earth, he felt the air being squeezed out of his chest, but after a moment he was through and he began sliding down a rocky incline. He felt jagged rocks clawing at the canvas suit. He waved the flashlight around, but the light failed to land on anything but black rocks and more darkness. When the ground leveled out, he came to a stop and breathed. This was the quietest, darkest place he’d ever been. He shined the light in all directions and saw nothing but more and more black rock receding away down an expanding corridor that went on beyond the reach of his light.

He heard his heartbeat in his ears and something quieter, more piercing beneath its quickened pace. It was a shrill, constant squelch, and he wondered if his ears always rang like this, but he was never anywhere quiet enough to hear it. He breathed in deeply and felt the air coming into his mouth through the filters attached to his face. It had the sulfuric smell from earlier, but he couldn’t tell if that was the air or the inside of the mask or the suit and for a second he panicked about how stupid he was for trusting this rotten old thing to work down here and keep him from getting sick like Klingensmith had, and Jesus Christ, he should turn around and get right the hell back out of here and he turned around and saw a sliver of light at the top of the incline where he’d come in and it looked so far away he had to squint to see it and was it retreating farther away from him no, it couldn’t be—he was standing still and come to think of standing his legs felt like they were filling with helium.

When his legs gave out, he fell straight back onto the hard ground and his head bounced and came to rest. The flashlight rolled away from him and pointed down the length of the black corridor, where at the edge of its reach a black wisp of smoke curled and was pushed away back into the darkness.

Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2022. Down the Mine by John Dziuban

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