Yesterday afternoon I messaged Tony to see if he fancied doing a random short story challenge for Halloween – as you’ll already have seen, he stepped up to the challenge and has posted his story 🙂 So, here’s mine now, posted on my own blog a few minutes ago, because I’ve only just finished it!
After deciding to do this yesterday, I’ve not done too badly with it, although I massively over-ran the original 2-hour timescale I’d given myself to write this. It ended up being more like 5-hours. But, overall, I’m quite happy with it – I’m never any good at writing short stories…every time I have an idea for something short, I end up fleshing it out so much that it becomes a whole new book idea! 🙂
Anyway, I hope you like it and you’ll have to let me know if I got anywhere close to spooky with it 🙂
I peered down into the dark rock crevice and took a breath. A deep one.
Why did I do this to myself? Why did I ever listen to that silly voice inside my head that told me doing something new would be fun and interesting.
Standing here now, with cool metal clamps in my hands; rope at my feet and an excitable friend bouncing at my side, I realised it was a mistake. And a big mistake, at that. Where was the little voice now, telling me this would be fun and interesting? It was hiding, because my tougher sounding logical voice was now yelling and it was scared.
I hate small spaces, I don’t like being damp, I’m not really the outdoor-adventure-girl-type… That’s what was running through my head right now. Rock climbing was one thing, but rock climbing inside the ground – that just seemed crazy.
“Can you tell me again why we have to go under the mountain, not over it?”
“Because it’s fun,” Emily shrugged, as if fun was some kind of explanation.
“Fun – OK,” I nodded, taking another look at the tall-ish rock face above us. “But, that looks pretty fun too. And we don’t have to mess around with all of this extra equipment, we can just carry on climbing.”
“Where’s your sense of adventure?”
“Exactly where yours is: standing here, waiting to get started.” I scuffed the toe of my boot against the stone ground. “I’m just more inclined to climb up and over than drop down, crawl, probably swim and possibly find a giant pile of guano poop that will give me bat madness.”
“Wow, you have a vivid imagination.”
“English student, what do you expect?”
Emily grinned. “Well, as a Geography student, I’m hoping for some nice rock formations, interesting post-glacial features and possibly some nice underground waterways.”
I pouted. “I told you there’d be swimming involved.”
“You’re such a freak,” Emily said.
Sigh. This was happening, wasn’t it?
“OK,” I said, resigned to the fate I’d inflicted on myself. “Get me kitted up and we can get going. I don’t want to be coming out the other side of the mountain in the dark.”
“Why? Are you scared because it’s Halloween and everything is s-p-ooooooo-kyafter dark?”
“Nope. I want to get back to the hotel and out to the pub at a decent time to drown out the symptoms of my guano madness.”
“Ha ha, oh yeah? Now you mention that, I think it’s more to do with that gorgeous bar man you noticed last night, than the bats.”
“Maybe,” I agreed. “Either way, I’ll need time to wash bat poop from my hair when we get back – so let’s get going!”
* * *
“How tight was that gap?” I asked Emily as I caught up with her in the next cavern. In the light from my helmet lamp I could see dark dusty-mud marks smeared across my chest – and I assumed I would have the same across my butt – where the widest parts of my body had squashed through the crack in the rock.
“I know.” She patted her stomach. “It made me wish I hadn’t had pie and chips on the way back from the pub last night.”
I laughed a little, waiting with my hands on my hips as I caught my breath. Although it was hard work at some points, the caves hadn’t been as bad as I’d expected really. Most of them had been large, round caverns, with the odd puddle and small pools of water, but nothing that needed wading through. I watched the beam of light from my helmet bounce around the latest space, taking in the dark crevices and dangling rock formations. It was mildly creepy maybe, but not terrifying and no bats – as far as I could see.
“What was that?”
I jumped at Emily’s sudden question, caught up in my own little bat-finding world. “What was what?”
“That noise. Sort of like a snuffling, grunting noise.”
My chest turned to ice. “Are you kidding me?” Please say yes, please say yes….
Emily shook her head and moved her gaze more slowly around the cave, allowing the light from her head lamp to spill across the rocky features. “It must have been me, just hearing things,” she said after a few tense moments of suffocating silence.
“There’s nothing there? It wasn’t bats, was it?”
Emily sighed. “For the fifteenth time, there are no bloody bats!”
I held up my hands. “You were the one that heard snuffling, grunting things – not me.”
Emily looked around again. “Yeah, well – I’d hate to see the size of the bat that would make the noise I heard.”
Apparently satisfied that there were no giant bat-things crawling around the cave we were standing in, Emily pulled the cave map out of her pocket and clicked on a hand-held torch. I watched over her shoulder, as she swung the light over the plastic-wrapped page, following the path we’d taken to get here.
“We’ve only got another three caverns to go through then we’ll be at the passage that leads to the hillside.” Emily said.
“Sounds good to me – I should have plenty of time to clean up AND get to the pub!”
“Come on then,” Emily flicked off the torch and began folding up the map. “The middle cavern looks like it’s got a river running through it. You may still get wet.”
“Great,” I muttered and set off, following Emily’s silhouette as she began leading the way to the next cave.
We walked and climbed in companionable silence for a long while. I was happy to follow in Emily’s shadow, as she bounded off into the unknown darkness ahead of us. In some ways – being the jumpy character that I was – I didn’t like being at the back of the group, as much as I would have hated being at the front. Although, with just the two of us down here, there wasn’t much choice in the matter, was there?
Emily’s voice broke the silence.
“Don’t you find it weird how quiet it is down here? You could imagine that there was nothing else left in the world except us, right now.”
I pulled myself up the last couple of metres to join Emily at the top of the small outcrop she was standing on. “Yeah. That’s not a comforting thought, you know. Remember my vivid imagination? Saying things like that tends to send me in to a mini-meltdown – especially when we’re alone, in a cave, in the dark….”
“Don’t worry, we’ve not got far to go now.”
She set off again as soon as I reached her.
“Watch your footing as you come down this bit.” Emily said. “It’s a bit – “
Her words cut off, followed by a surprised squeak and then a moment or so later, there was a loud splash.
“Emily!” I stumbled, trying to find a safe pathway forwards in the dim, bouncing light from my lamp. “EMILY?” I saw shiny black ahead of me and knew it must be the river from the map. Stepping carefully, but quickly, I made my way to the nearest edge and scanned the water.
“It’s OK, I’m here.”
Emily was standing on the opposite side to me, drenched from head to toe, but otherwise she looked fine.
“What happened? Are you alright?” I noticed her helmet was missing.
“My feet just went from under me,” Emily waved her arm in the direction we’d come. “I slipped straight down and landed in the water. It wasn’t that deep though.”
I nodded, watching as Emily’s face waved in and out of the shadows made by my light.
“Your helmet’s gone.”
“I know. It came off in the water – I don’t know if the light went out or got broken when I fell, but I can’t see it now. Can you?”
I looked away and tried to see anything other than the empty blackness around us. I couldn’t find anything in the water at all. “It must have sunk or floated away. I can’t see anything down there.”
“Perfect! I’d borrowed it from a girl on my course.”
“Sorry.” I told her, scanning the water again. “It’s probably going to be expensive to replace.”
“Yeah well, at least it wasn’t the map that got washed away.”
Holy shit. My stomach immediately knotted up at the idea of being lost down here. “You still have it?”
I saw Emily patting her pocket as I flashed the light back onto her.
“Don’t worry – it’s here. And I’ve still got my torch.”
With those words, she clicked on the small, bright handheld torch she’d been using to read the map earlier.
Shaking my head around, I found a narrow point in the stream a few meters further on. I headed in that direction, thinking it should be easy enough to jump across where my side was slightly higher than the opposite bank.
I cleared the narrow gap easily enough and began walking back in the opposite direction to where Emily was standing, consulting the map. “Which way now?” I asked as I drew closer.
There was no answer. And I noticed Emily wasn’t actually looking at the map at all.
“Em, are you OK?”
Emily didn’t move and her eyes stayed blank and staring – looking past me to a far corner of the cave.
“Emily?” I tried again. “Did you bang your head or anything when you fell? Do you want me to take a look?”
For a long moment nothing happened. Emily stayed silent, eyes glazed over.
“Emily!” Her sudden behaviour was making me panicky.
When I called out this time she reacted at least. With the slowest and smallest of movements, she gradually turned to look at me. Her eyes still looked weird – a little confused, surprised maybe – but blank at the same time. She looked like I’d just woken her up and she wasn’t sure where she was.
It was a small relief. “We need to get you out of here,” I told her.
I need to get out of here. I cast my eyes around the empty darkness, which suddenly felt small and close, like there was something I couldn’t, and wouldn’t want to, see hiding in every shadow. The vague discomfort I’d felt coming down here and been holding in check whilst we were climbing, was now moving full throttle towards terror. There was obviously something wrong with the competent, confident leader of our little party, which left me to sort things out.
I have sarcasm, metaphors and a wild imagination – not orienteering skills and bravery.
Why did I agree to this?
I knew full well that I preferred reading about adventures and living vicariously through feisty, daring characters in books.
Get a grip. It’s not too far from the outside now, just get your friend sorted, work out which way you need to go and then get the hell out of here. And never listen to your fun, exciting side, ever, ever again.
“Em,” I prompted, using my extra calm voice, as she’d still not said anything whilst I had a mini-breakdown. “Do you want to show me the way we need to go to get out? I can take the map.”
When she didn’t answer, I moved around to stand beside her and peeked at the map in her hands. Whilst I was there, I checked the back of her head and other visible parts for any sign of injury, but couldn’t see anything obvious.
Turning my attention to the chart now, I was surprised to find it was easy to follow. It looked just like a normal map really, only with some markings, which I imagined showed depth, rather than relief as they would above ground.
“There’s the river…so, we need to be heading straight across there to where that passage is…” I glanced across the cave in that direction and could just about see the outline of the next tunnel. It was quite large and didn’t look like it would be quite as tight as some of the previous ones. I looked back at the map. “And then, once we’re in the last cavern, we follow the wall around to the left and then come up the main passage that leads to the surface.” That sounded simple enough, although the size of the upward tunnel did not look too large or appealing.
I took the map from Emily’s hand and she made no move to stop me. Folding it and putting it into my pocket now, I pulled out a plastic-wrapped silver thermal blanket from my backpack. Freeing it from the small package, the sheet billowed out, crackling loudly in the echoing space. Taking one edge, I wrapped it around Emily’s shoulders and held her close to my side.
“Let’s get you out of here and into some dry clothes, OK. You’ll feel better soon.”
I thought Emily nodded, but I couldn’t quite be sure. We set off together, me pulling Emily along slightly, as she walked forwards with unsteady, mechanical steps.
* * *
“Are you sure you don’t mind me going downstairs for a bit? I can bring you some food back up, if you don’t feel like sitting downstairs.”
Emily was lying down in bed, her face turned towards the window. She didn’t answer.
“Emily?” I prompted.
This time Emily’s eyes moved to look at me, her head turning slowly to follow the direction of her gaze.
“Yes?” She said, pronouncing the word in a drawn out sigh.
“I asked if you minded me getting some food. I can bring you something back, if you like?”
Emily stared at me for a few seconds, almost as though she’d never seen me before that moment. I was about to say never mind, when she spoke again.
“I want you to go.”
“To the bar?” I asked, not exactly sure what she was trying to say.
“I want you to go.” Emily repeated; still in that slow, drawling voice.
“OK – if you’re sure. Do you need me to get you anything at all? You still seem a bit – ”
Emily swivelled away from me, looking out the dark window again. “I am tired, I want to sleep.”
I was going to say a bit weird, but to be honest, this isn’t just a bit weird…it was a lot weird. Maybe there had been bat-poop in the water and she was getting a strange guano-flu…? Or, maybe Emily was right and I should leave the bats alone.
“I’ll be an hour – tops,” I told her back, as I picked up the room key and headed to the door. “I’ll just grab something warm to eat and come back up to keep you company.”
There was no response.
“Alright, well, see you in a bit then.” I closed the door behind me, hearing it clickand began walking towards the lifts.
The corridor was long and empty. Decorated in a deep maroon and cream colour scheme, the only features in the corridor were the occasional windows I passed by, which gave a view of black nothingness. All the windows faced onto the mountain we’d crawled through that afternoon, and with nothing much between the hotel and the hillside, there were no lights out there at all.
I shivered. Knowing that there was something so big, made invisible by the darkness just a short distance away, was odd somehow. It felt as if anyone who left the lights of the hotel behind them, could be swallowed up by the world outside, never to be seen again.
The lift stopped on my floor, with the usual ping and I stepped inside, pretending that I wasn’t checking my reflection in the mirror as I reached over to press the button for the ground floor. I felt quite drained after our expedition this afternoon and was glad that I didn’t have to put on a show and go on another drinking binge tonight. Emily normally wouldn’t pass up an opportunity for going out, she must be feeling really ill. And it was no wonder she was behaving oddly: she’d done everything I had, but soaked to the skin for the last part after falling in that stupid river.
“Bloody geography students,” I muttered to myself. They always had to get into the middle of everything.
The lift doors opened directly into the main reception. Flicking a polite smile at the older lady standing behind the ornate reception desk, I turned in the direction of the bar, following the muted sounds of people and smell of warm food.
There weren’t many people sitting around in the bar tonight, although, from further along the corridor I could hear the faint pulsing beat of music and the sound of a lot of voices.
I should have brought my book. I didn’t really like sitting on my own in public with nothing else to do.
I turned toward the voice – a lovely, warm deep voice, with a hint of a Scottish accent – Mister Barman was back.
“It’s pretty quiet in here tonight,” he said, needlessly waving his arm towards the empty room.
“Halloween party?” I guessed.
“Yeah – they’ve got their own free bar in there, so there’s no way anyone’s going to come and pay for drinks in here.”
“Probably not. I just wanted to grab something quick to eat, if that’s OK?”
“Sure,” he started fiddling behind the counter, then produced a small, folded cardboard menu. “It’s just the basic bar menu tonight, but there’s a decent choice on there if you’re just looking for something quick.”
“Do I have to sit at the bar?”
“You want to sit and talk to me?” Mister Barman threw me a cheeky smile.
Wow. I was being pretty brain-dead this evening. Of course you didn’t have to sit at the bar to have the bar menu. For someone who was pretty good with words, I didn’t use them well sometimes! I was about to turn away and pick another seat, when I realised there was no point. Why not talk to the cute guy behind the bar while I waited for my dinner? At least I might have something interesting to tell Em when I got back upstairs.
“I’m pretty tired,” I said, pulling out a stool from the end of the bar and lifting myself onto the seat. “So, maybe I can have a drink and you can talk to me about interesting things.”
He laughed. “Deal. What are you drinking?”
I tried not to notice how handsome he looked, when his eyes crinkled up with his smile. Instead, I turned my attention to the drinks and began scanning the shelves and fridges behind the bar. “A large glass of rose would be good.”
He turned around, reached into the furthest fridge and pulled out a half empty bottle of a pale-coloured rose wine. As he stood up, I noticed the name badge on his waistcoat. Tom.
“So,” Tom said as he began pouring my drink. “What kind of interesting thingscan I talk to you about this evening?”
“Anything you like really,” I shrugged. “Although, maybe not anything too spooky, even though it is Halloween. I’ve been creeped out enough for one day.”
He placed a white paper coaster in front of me and slid the glass of wine onto it. “Creeped out – with what?”
“Oh – it’s just me being a big girl I suppose. My friend and I went pot-holing this afternoon, up on Pendle Ridge – it’s not really my thing and those caves just got a little bit… eurrrgh…after a while.”
The barman whistled through his teeth. “You’re not being girly – that place creeps me out: above ground, during the day.”
I snorted quietly and took a long sip of the wine. “I don’t believe that. You look like you spend plenty of time outdoors doing adventurous things.”
“Yeah, well, not there I don’t. I know it’s stupid, but I think it’s the history of the witches that used to use the caves on that hillside that bothers me.” He shrugged his shoulders in a miniature shiver. “Half the time I don’t really like working here, just in the shadow of those hills.”
Tom nodded, leaning forwards on his arms and lowering his voice, as if he was going to tell me a secret. “There have been a number of covens over the centuries that have used the caves on that hillside – there’s a whole section about it in the village museum. If you go down there tomorrow, you can read about them.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“No, it doesn’t. But, there are other stories I’ve heard, from people who’ve lived around here for a long time. They say that there’s been a history of people – women – disappearing on Pendle Ridge, ever since the last coven of witches were driven out and burned at the stake, by the old crossroads.”
I pulled back and picked up my wine glass again. Women disappearing…. Mister Barman was beginning to sound slightly creepy himself now. Maybe he was trying to spook me after all?
“Surely, the police would investigate if people were disappearing.” I pointed out.
“They have and they still do. They just don’t ever find anything much.”
I picked up on his words. “Still do? How recently has this happened?”
“There was a girl last year, on a field trip from college: Jessica Farley. During the day, she’d fallen into one of the rivers that runs through the hillside – it goes into the caves and comes out over land on the other side. At first she seemed fine, but by the time the group got her back to the hotel, she was barely talking, not moving properly. It was like she wasn’t working right or something.” He looked away, across the room as if he was picturing her. “I hadn’t been here that long – seeing the way she was, so…strange and blank…I’ve never forgotten her.”
“How did she go missing, if her group brought her back here?”
“In the morning, the girl she was sharing with found the door to their bedroom wide open and Jessica was gone.”
“And no one saw her leave?”
“She was seen,” Tom pointed over his shoulder towards the reception area. “In the middle of the night, she walked out of the hotel on her own, in her pyjamas – they found it on the CCTV.”
That sounded so bizarre. “Where was she going?”
He shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “She walked off into the darkness beyond the hotel grounds, in the direction of Pendle Ridge.”
I shook my head. It was such a weird story, but in fairness, the bar man seemed genuinely bothered by the story he’d repeated to me.
“In the museum, it tells you about some of the rituals the covens had. They used some of the rivers on the hill to baptise new members of the coven when they joined. It was a ritual that bonded the new witch with the rest of the coven – washing away their old life, joining them with their new family, which like the river, would flow forever.”
I shivered. This was getting a bit intense. “You seem to know a lot about this stuff.” I tried to diffuse the tension.
“I just have a good memory for things I’ve read,” he said. “Nothing major. Anyway,” he clapped his hands together, making me jump. “Enough of this morbid stuff – you said nothing spooky, didn’t you?”
“Well, I’ve already kind of messed that up, haven’t I? Let’s get you a menu and some food sorted.”
I smiled. “That sounds good.”
He smiled back at me, placing the menu on the bar near my drink. “Are you going to wait for your friend to come down to order, or do you know what to get for her?”
“It’s just me,” I tapped the menu. “She didn’t feel like coming down for anything.”
“Yeah, she was a bit tired and flat when we got back. In one of the last caves we came through, she managed to fall into a small river and got soaked through.”
Tom’s eyes widened. “She fell into one of the rivers in the caves?”
“Yes. She was OK: I had one of those thermal sheet thingys, so we got her warm and back here pretty quick. I think she was just tired.”
I heard my own words come back as me. She was just tired…
Suddenly, everything felt…wrong. A sliver of ice cut through my chest, sending freezing currents up my spine. I shouldn’t have left Emily alone; I should have made her come with me.
“I – just – give me a minute.”
“Are you OK?” I heard Tom call out, as I bolted from the room.
I didn’t wait for the lift. Half of me felt stupid – crazy, even – as I ran up the stairs two at a time. But, there was another part of me that felt scared, as if there really was something to the stories I’d heard tonight…something that could affect us.
Reaching the fourth floor, I was fumbling for the room key in my pocket as I opened the door from the stairwell to the main corridor. Pulling it free, I looked ahead to our room – number 418 – and realised that I didn’t need the key: the door was standing wide open.
“Emily?” I called out as I ran towards our room.
There was no answer.
Banging into the doorframe as I entered, I scanned the small space quickly, seeing no sign of my friend. “EMILY?” I shouted, moving forward to knock on the bathroom door. “Emily – are you in there?” The door opened onto a dark, empty room.
I screamed, jumping out of my skin in surprise at the voice behind me. It was the bar man – Tom – from downstairs.
“Are you alright?”
My hands were shaking as I looked at the empty bed, where Emily had been, ten minutes before when I went downstairs. “It’s my friend,” I told him. “I think she’s gone.”