Nobody says a word to me as the SUV rattles along the dirt road. I can tell it’s dirt because the clouds of dust being kicked up are staining the windows a neat little sepia tone. Despite the rattling and the three guards holding shotguns – two sitting next to me, one in the front passenger seat – I am determined to enjoy this ride. Even riding bitch is a luxury when you’ve been in prison for ten years with another forty ahead of you. I let myself sink, as best I can, into the cool leather and savor the feeling of human clothes on my body. Jeans with an actual belt, a button-down flannel shirt with a white t-shirt underneath, tennis shoes with laces. For a moment, it feels like I am a person again.
Not like the all the trash in prison. The jumpsuits that were both too baggy and too tight, especially in the dick region. The shivs tucked uncomfortably into socks, the blades lightly jabbing your ankle, thirsting for the blood of a kidney or liver. The dealing and bargaining for perks and avoiding punishments. Go stab this guy. Don’t touch that guy. Here’s a new fish for you. Do drugs. Don’t do drugs. Why aren’t you doing drugs like I told you? I thought I told you to stay away from drugs! Beatings. Beatings. Beatings. This guard is a prick. That guard is a weasel. That big guy is nice but don’t say a word about his family or he will break your jaw. Fight for your brownie at lunch. Get your ass kicked but get respect. Get more respect when they learn what you’re in for. Fight off ambitious little pricks trying to make a name off of you.
It had only been a couple of days since I sent one of said pricks to the hospital after breaking literally every one of his ribs after he tried to slip a sharpened toothbrush between my shoulder blades after lunch. I figured that someone was going to come give me a talk since let’s just say that it wasn’t the first such incident I’d been a part of in my time in the clink. Still, it caught me off-guard when the warden himself came by my cell with a weedy little guy in a too-big sport coat. Well, and six guards loaded for bear, so that was comforting in a weird, familiar way.
“Afternoon, Myles,” the warden said, that corny-ass country boy drawl elongating the vowels, “Heard you got yourself into a bit of a tussle the other day.”
“Business as usual, Warden.”
“Sure. Well, this gentleman next to me is Dr. Seibert and he’s got a proposition for you that’d probably benefit everyone.”
“Go ahead and talk,” I said as I sat down on my bed. The doctor stepped forward and cleared his throat. I smirked since I was pretty damn sure he was intimidated by me, though I couldn’t blame him. I was a big guy before I got sent away and in the decade since, all I’d done is work out. Throw in a couple prison tattoos, shaved head, and nice, thick mustache and I was one scary sumbitch.
“Mr. Myles. The good warden has informed me of the nature of your past and continuing incidents, the accumulation of which will likely see you perish in this place.”
“You’re not telling me anything I don’t know. I’ve made my peace with it.”
“What if you didn’t have to?”
That got my attention. I hadn’t been lying. I had long since accepted that I wasn’t going to see the world outside again. With what I had done and what I did to those other inmates, the world was better off with me in here and, frankly, I was better off not having to deal with whatever crap lay out there. This guy, though…he was offering me a chance.
“What do you mean?”
“I am with the government, though not in any department you would have heard of even if you were not incarcerated. We have, in the last few years, purchased several properties around the state in order to more closely study some interesting geological formations located below them, all of which seem to connect to one another via some tunnels deep in the earth. You don’t need to know details, but there are certain minerals down there that we have been unable to identify from sight alone. Your task would be simple: enter the formations, retrieve some samples, and return to the surface. Now, in exchange for your cooperation, we have brokered an agreement with the good warden and the legal system. If you were to accept and complete the mission successfully, you would have 95% of your remaining sentence mitigated, with the remaining 5% being eligible to be served under house arrest. To expedite the math, that would remove 38 of the 40 remaining years of your sentence entirely and provide you only two years at home. In other words, Mr. Myles, you would essentially be a free man in two years. More or less.”
“Two years. You do know what I did, right?”
“Yes. That poor family. However, science sometimes requires the, let’s say, intentional overlooking of certain unpleasant truths in order to find something greater. While I’m sure we could have an edifying conversation on guilt and retribution and justice and all that, we are on, strictly speaking, a time limit.”
“You are not the first convict we have enlisted, and my superiors are growing impatient with the investments we have made without result. The sooner we get moving, the better. So, Mr. Myles, are you in or are you not?”
That question had only come yesterday and now here I am, in the middle of nowhere Texas, driving to what was described to me as an abandoned homestead. Everyone is edgy, except for me. I figure that whatever wild goose chase they have me on is still going to be preferable to the retribution I’m facing for the whole hospitalizing the kid thing. He is or was a part of one of the nastier gangs that I usually tried to avoid. Whatever. They fed me pretty well on the drive, so I’m not complaining.
Eventually, we pull up in front of a broken-down house and I’m ushered out with multiple guns pointed at my head. Overkill, I think, since I’ve seen the damage just one of those can do with even a glancing shot. I’m not gonna run, but it’s cute to see them believe I have the stones for that.
Seibert’s at the front entrance, looking at his watch. As soon as he sees us, he rushes forward, takes me by the arm, and hurries me inside. The interior of the house is, if anything, in even worse shape than the outside appeared. Boards and dust are everywhere, the walls are covered with scrawled numbers and other words I don’t recognize, and there’s a feeling that this place died years ago but just hasn’t had the good damn grace to collapse yet. I can understand Seibert’s desire to get things going quickly. It’d be a nice setback if this place turned into splinters while they were doing their work.
I’m looking around as Seibert throws me a backpack. It’s heavy and I move to open it but he stops me. I look at him and I can see him shrink back just a little. Thank goodness for being intimidating.
“My apologies, Mr. Myles, but there is no need to open the pack at this time. We have provided you standard supplies. Food and water to last a week, though you should not need that amount of time. A hammer to retrieve the samples and a solid lead box in which to place them. We have also provided you a…firearm, should that be required. You can understand my reticence to expose that information.”
“Yeah, I bet they’d be pissed to learn you’re giving a violent criminal a weapon, huh? Don’t worry, Doc. Your secret’s safe with me. I get a rope or anything?”
“Yes,” he says, clearly relieved that I’m going to squeal on him, “It’s over by the hole and has already been attached. If you’re ready, we can adjourn to that.”
He motions for me to follow him and I do. The floor creaks and cracks and sounds altogether really damn unstable. I almost feel more comfortable with the idea of going into the ground than I do standing on the wood. That is, I do until I see the hole.
It is ragged. Sharp. It doesn’t look like a carefully excavated entrance into the lower levels of the planet. It looks like a chunk has been ripped out of it. Almost like a bite. I stop and I hear Seibert sigh without even looking back at me.
“Mr. Myles, may I remind you that you readily accepted this task?”
“Just…took me a bit off-guard, that’s all. I’m fine.”
“Good. If you would come over here, we’ll get you fully kitted out.”
I don’t want him thinking I’m some kind of crying bitch, so I walk over, even though the bottom of my stomach is howling something fierce at the intense blackness of the hole only feet from me. I can’t help but stare at it as they attach all sorts of things to me. A belt that wraps around my waist a few times. Thick leather gloves tied to my wrists. A helmet that’s more like one I used to wear while on my bike than a mining helmet. LED lights all over on straps and a big one across my chest. For a sick moment, it feels like I’m bait rather than an explorer. That feeling soon passes in favor of a seizing fear as the belt is attached to a thick iron cord from a reel that appears to completely fill the next room.
“You will be tethered with this cable. We have literal miles available to us, so do not concern yourself with being cautious in your exploration. Once you hit the bottom, tap your chest to turn on the lights. Do you have any questions?”
“Three. One, what am I looking for down there? Two, do I have to worry about something attacking me? Three, can I tap out now and just serve my sentence?”
Seibert laughs, but it isn’t full of amusement.
“The answer to all three, Mr. Myles, is that you will know when you see. Down you go.”
Before I can argue, Seibert shoves me – actually shoves me – into the hole. I feel myself drop into nothingness as the scream of the cable spooling out echoes around the stone. I descend for what feels like hours but has to only be a few minutes because why in the hell would this take actual hours? Finally, with a thud, I feel my feet hit something solid and I stop the drop. As instructed, I thump my chest and the lights all over my body blaze into active status.
It looks like a cave, to be honest. I’ve been in enough in my pre-prison life and this one doesn’t appear to be much different. The walls are a little more uniform than I expect, but other than that, it’s just a cave. Looking behind me to see only more stone, it appears like this particular tunnel goes only one way – forward. I would say fortune favors the brave but, come on, this isn’t fortunate.
I walk for a while. A long while. This time it probably is hours. Occasionally, I sit down, take a drink of water, eat one of the snacks they gave me, rest a bit, and then get up and do it all over again. Rinse, repeat, over and over until I don’t know how far I’ve gone or for how long. I’m about ready to give up when I see something around the curve. Something glowing.
Making my way over there, I turn the corner and nearly go blind. This room, almost a cavern, is filled with glowing, iridescent, impossibly-bright blue crystals. From floor to ceiling, these crystals sparkle and illuminate everything around them. It’s stunning in the most literal sense of the word.
Without thinking, I touch the nearest crystal. I don’t have the gloves on because they were making my hands sweat. That was a bad idea. As soon as my hand connects with the stone, a surge of electric pain races up my arm and into my veins. I yell. The echo bounces off the crystals with a musical ting, over and over again, to the point that it almost sounds like the room is laughing at me.
I can’t move my hand. Every pulse of energy makes me nearly pass out. I grab my wrist and try to pull myself free. My skin stretches. My fingers stretch. I’m moving away but my hand itself is still stuck. With as much strength as I can muster, I yank myself from the crystal. Something gives and I tumble to the ground. When I look at my arm, I can scarcely believe my eyes.
My fingers are elongated and warped, almost like those of a bat within its wings. It feels the same, but it is most certainly not. I scramble back in terror and run into another crystal, this time against my back. The same surge of pain envelops me, worse this time, and I have to rip myself free before it gets more agonizing. I feel something stretch, something tear, and I don’t want to look. I can feel the spike of skin on my back where none used to exist.
To hell with this. Prison is at least understandable. I get up to run, turn around, and am stopped. In front of me now is something hideous. Something I can’t recognize. It’s large, white, and fleshy and it has four arms, all grasping the walls, all preventing me from moving. It shrieks and its mouth opens and a wet, black tongue runs hungrily over a load of jagged yellow teeth.
I almost forget myself, but then I remember the gun in my bag. I reach in, frantic, and feel the heavy steel against my head. I tear it from the bag and hear fabric rip in protest. Without thinking, I flip the safety off and pray that this damn thing is loaded. It is.
The chamber rings painfully as I fire shot after shot into what I can only assume is the face of this bastard. Bullets gash the creature and it stumbles back, howling. I pull the trigger again and again and again until it goes click. I can’t imagine that they gave me a second magazine, so I let the gun clatter to the ground. I hope this thing is dead. It has to be. It’s not.
It is still braced against the walls, whimpering and muttering, but alive. Something about it looks strange, though. I mean, beyond the whole appearance. Something in its mouth. Barely understanding what I’m doing, I walk over to it. It can’t move so I don’t worry that it’s going to hurt me anymore. With a shoe, I push its mouth open. Instead of the hungry darkness I expect to see, there’s a rip there. Yes, a rip in the darkness. Inside the rip, I see colors. Light.
I don’t know why I do what I do next. I reach in and pull the rip open further. It looks like a room. A room? How? My arm goes in and I see it inside the room. My other arm goes in. I put my feet in and climb inside. It feels right somehow.
I’m in a room now and I regret what I’ve done. The carpet of the room is a dull gray, worn from years of use. The wood paneling on the walls is dirty and a generic painting hangs limply from the right wall. Old lights dangle from the ceiling and a sconce near the painting. Across the room, a couch, cream-colored and dusty, waits for me, flanked by a clearly-dead plant. Finally, a white panel blocks my view from anything else. What is this place? What am I doing here? I hear a voice behind me. I don’t want to turn. I turn.
Who are you? Wait, what…? No, don’t! NO! You-
The remains of Marcus Myles were retrieved in September of 2018 from the caves beneath Langdon Homestead in central Texas. Details of his demise remain unclear, but he was clutching the attached photograph in what remained of his hand. The fact that he did not enter the caverns with photographic equipment will continue to exist as a mystery. Recommend no further exploration of the caves. We’ve lost enough time. Move to Plan C. – Dr. Carl Seibert
Here is where I''ll post random stories that aren't, as of yet, in a larger book. Call it a free ride into the mouth of madness, yo.