We had been standing around the yawning hole in a shared reverie. My eyes were tracing the way the dirt splattered carelessly around the edges and the walls fell away sharply towards the centre. I shuffled closer to the rim, reflexively wiping the sheen of sweat that coated my upper lip. The heat was oppressive and getting more so the higher the sun rose. I looked down into the hole, apprehensive. It was deeper than I had expected, more a tunnel than anything.
“You sure about this?” I murmured after a few seconds. My brother was squatting on the side across from me, his head bent as he gazed meditatively into the dark void. He was holding a large torch and its beam fell solid and lonely down the tunnel. After a moment, a breath escaped from him and he got to his feet, smiling a little. He tossed the torch to me.
“More sure about this than anything else,” he muttered. He slipped off the rope that had been wound around his small shoulder. I couldn’t fathom how he had dug the tunnel or how long it had taken him. It struck me as strange that I hadn’t even noticed him spending so much time in the woods.
Connor had moved away from the mouth of the tunnel and was examining the trunks of the trees that circled the clearing. He was looking for a good, strong trunk to tie the rope around. I swallowed, glancing up. Sunlight was splashing through the gaps in the canopy like a barely contained waterfall; it coated the ground in thick, undulating patterns. I could feel the sweat building up on my skin, clinging to the inside folds of my pants. I shook my head, trying to relieve the looming head spin. I inched as close as I could to the hole and knelt down. I sure as hell didn’t want to go down there but a gnawing curiosity compelled me to crane my neck to get a better look. The steel door was snuggled comfortably at the bottom, lying horizontal in the dark mud. Connor had expertly levelled the ground around the door. I glanced up at him; he had tied the rope around a trunk and was yanking it back and forth to test its strength. The action was apparently absorbing – he did it again and again while staring blankly ahead. He had been like that a lot lately – occupied. I had no other word for it. Terror was bubbling away somewhere inside of me as I watched him and waited. I tried to ignore it, looking back down at the steel door. A tiny glass window, stained with dirt, was built into the upper half of the door. It didn’t make sense – what was there to see?
Connor yanked on the rope one final time and then, satisfied, nodded.
“Alright, let’s do this.”
He threw the coil of rope down into the tunnel – it unfolded like a snake and dangled there expectantly. The length of it landed on the steel door with a thud. I slowly rounded the edge towards him. He bent down and grabbed the tool box and slung the makeshift handle over his shoulder. I felt the head spin nag at me again and I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to shed it.
Connor leant down and grabbed onto the stretch of rope.
“You keep a watch on the rope…Remember Frank, nice and easy.” He yanked on the rope and it straightened easily. He slapped my broad shoulder. I nodded, eyes wide, and went over to stand by the tree trunk as I watched my brother sit down and swing his legs over the edge. He closed his fists easily around the rope and then fixed his legs around it. With surprising agility, he began to shuffle down into the wide tunnel. He was already halfway down before the knot in my stomach had a chance to grow.
“How’s the rope?” Connor called. I turned rapidly, inspecting the rope.
“Good. No strain.”
He didn’t reply. I looked down into the tunnel and spotted the tip of his blonde hair. A second later he was enveloped in shadow. I looked on apprehensively. I couldn’t see the bottom from where I stood so I didn’t know how far Connor had left to go. I opened my mouth, about to question worriedly what the problem was but the sound of Connor’s feet thudding onto the steel door stopped me.
I edged closer to the hole, shining the torch down.
The air in the tunnel was dotted with dust and dirt that had been stirred up by Connor’s descent. He dropped the toolbox to the ground and kneeling down beside the window, he rubbed his long fingers across the dirt encrusted glass window. For some reason, Connor had waited for this moment so that I could be here, under the pretence of watching the rope. It was looped happily around the trunk, and the tree had not sagged or whined.
Connor stood back onto the levelled dirt platform beside the door and took a steady hold of the steel handle. He looked up at me.
“No going back now baby bro.”
I was bigger than him. I was bigger than most guys Connor’s age. But watching him standing there in the gloom, not knowing; I felt small.
“Nothing to go back to,” I replied.
Connor fixed his eyes on mine, and I noted the way the sharp blue of his eyes was offset by a blur of what I thought were tears. Connor looked away quickly, setting his jaw and focusing his attention back onto the door.
He yanked the handle up, using all the strength he was good for. A few seconds later the heavy door started to budge. The dirt rolled off it as the door swung towards him and he doubled back into the wall. I looked down eagerly, feeling both afraid and curiously hungry to see what lay within. Connor’s lean face was coated in sweat and dirt, but his eyes were alight and his excitement was so palpable, it could’ve been mine.
“I can’t believe it.”
My heart leapt unnaturally and the torch sagged in my sweaty hand.
“What is it?”
Connor frowned, rounding the entrance.
“It’s a ladder,” he said.
The light of the torch revealed the first few steel rungs, bronzed with rust and age. But then those disappeared too, this time into real darkness. Solid, thick, foreboding; the kind of darkness untouched and unmoved for who knows how long. Connor had already shuffled through the tool box and taken out a torch, flicking it on. Its light bounced frantically about the dirt walls of the tunnel until it found the ladder. Unease was throbbing intensely under my skin and it felt like bugs were skittering along its surface. I stared at Connor for a few seconds, noting the way the air around his face was so dusty and how, so suddenly, I felt…déjà vu. The feeling struck me so oddly that I shook myself.
Connor hoisted the toolbox on his shoulder, tossed the coil of rope through the entrance and started to climb down. His feet found the first rungs easily. He stopped, maybe on the second or third rung, and stared at the dirt wall in front of him, as if his previous resoluteness was having holes punched in it by the voice of hesitation. He blinked, and it was gone. Then that head of spikey blonde hair disappeared down into the musty, steel encased darkness. I stood up and returned to my post at the tree. The rope had no strain on it and I guessed the rungs must have extended all the way down to the bottom of…whatever it was.
“Talk to me Connor,” I called out. Connor coughed.
“Fucking dusty,” he said. The following minute passed in silence. I stared down at the tunnel fixedly, feeling as if I could hear the thud of my own heart. The heat had become almost unbearable and beads of sweat were running little rivulets down my back. I shifted around uncomfortably.
“All good…almost at the bottom I think.”
I heard the thump of his footsteps on steel. I grit my teeth, wondering what would come now.
“I’m going in Frank.” His voice sounded faint and distant. He said nothing after that for a good while. I didn’t keep track of time; for the life of me, it felt like time didn’t exist at all. I found myself pacing around the hole, thinking about how it was going to be okay. I didn’t have to be afraid because Connor was a smart kid who could take care of himself. He always had, even after all our problems. He came out of it and he was okay; I didn’t have to be afraid.
And yet I was.
My thoughts had started to whir feverishly in my mind until they morphed into images of what could be down there, what could be happening. The images felt so vivid, almost touchable, and I crumpled to the dirt floor and stared blankly at the hole. I could see it in my mind’s eye…Darkness, and then maybe…a flickering light, going on and going off like a small red eye in the gloom; a shadow on the wall, moving slowly; a fleeting, hollow clanking sound somewhere from the depths, and then what? Shuffling feet down winding corridors, following the sound, muscles tensed, chest heaving, sucking in breath after shallow breath, the light from the torch bouncing shakily ahead, and around it just black – and after? Someone, or something, lurking there, waiting, like it had been waiting all of this time, waiting for a man like him…
I heard a faint shout. It rose through the tunnel, through the door and bounced around the dirt walls up to me. “Connor!” I yelled, running to the edge. I shone the torch down but the light revealed nothing.
There was another shout. And then words, garbled and unintelligible. I strained my ears, my eyes scanning the tunnel entrance frantically. What was Connor saying? Who was he talking to? A long, agonizing scream pierced the silence.
“Connor!” I was screaming too. I heard the clamber of feet. My vision was swimming.
“Connor!” I yelled hoarsely.
“Frank?” Connor shouted back. His voice was strained and there was a tremble in it, but it almost sounded like he was standing right next to me. I knelt down as close to the edge as I could, feeling my head spinning violently. Suddenly, the dirt beneath my left hand crumbled away from me and I slipped forward. I let out a cry, grabbing a nearby root as I almost tumbled head first into the gloom. A sudden but familiar jab of pain screamed in the side of my torso. I yelped, pulling myself up. After a very long, hazy moment, I heard the sound of Connor’s footsteps on the rungs.
There was a loud clatter – it must have been the torch falling down the ladder. I wanted to climb down to Connor but I could barely stand up and my heart was still thudding so loudly. The leaves of the trees were suddenly becoming undefined; all just a great, green blur. I swallowed, my head lolling forward, and then suddenly the world turned sidewards and it felt natural that I should lie down instead of stand up straight. My vision blackened and I was swimming in a formless, shapeless vista, the sound of shouting fading…
Connor’s face was the first thing my eyes could focus on. He was standing over me, looking intently into my face with an expression of thinly veiled terror. I groaned, trying to lift myself off the ground. My head ached and all at once I was unable to grasp what was happening. Connor’s shirt was stained with blood but he didn’t look injured. We were in the woods and there was a big hole dug out in the clearing. Why was I so dirty?
Connor tilted his head to one side, his eyebrows raised and his mouth open.
I scrambled to my feet, wincing from the pain in my side.
“What the hell…”
I lifted my shirt and gazed at the gaping wound in my side. It had split open completely as if it had never been stitched up. Blood was sluicing out freely, red and hot and angry. I pressed a hand to it and looked up at Connor, who was talking to me rapidly, telling me something about waiting outside the tunnel, watching the rope, pulling him out. It sounded familiar. Connor was interrupted by the sound of soil crumbling in the tunnel, like the trickle of a waterfall. I froze.
“Connor,” I said slowly, “the hole is going to cave in.”
Connor looked on with barely an expression of surprise; he looked relieved actually. I put a hand on my brother’s shoulder and he flinched, looking at me as if he had not expected me to be there. Frowning, I turned back to the hole with a mixture of fascination and terror as it completed caved in. The ominous steel door was covered by a mass of soil and rubble. Now I could recall, in flashes, the morning, but what stood out in my mind was the screaming. Such a terrible sound…
“What happened down there?” I asked him, absently noting the blood dripping between my fingers. Connor just looked at me with wide eyes, his mouth one thin line. He wasn’t saying a word.
We left after that. At home, Connor stitched up the wound on my side. Then he took a quick shower and told me to take one too, before the doctor came around. He said he didn’t want to explain what happened that day to the doctor and while I understood, I couldn’t shake the unsettled feeling that was plaguing me. Connor had always been honest to the point of being blunt, so why was he acting so different?
When the doctor came up the drive, Connor was watching the front window.
“Don’t say anything about it Frank,” he said quietly. I nodded anxiously.
Connor let the doctor in. “Thanks for coming,” he murmured, showing the doctor into the sitting room. I followed slowly, wincing with any big movement.
“What seems to be the problem Connor?” the doctor asked, leaning closely and watching Connor with keen eyes. He treated us like most people in the town did – with sympathy.
Connor glanced over at me.
“Frank got this bad cut on his side doc.”
The doctor looked at me, alarmed, and motioned for me to sit down. I eased onto a chair and lifted my shirt gingerly. The doctor inhaled sharply.
“How did you get this?” he asked. I opened my mouth to answer, but then suddenly my mind was blank again and I felt that overwhelming loss one gets when they are trying to grasp at something that is just right there.
Connor interrupted me, clearing his throat.
“My brother was working out back, moving a few of the tools from the work shed and one of the shovels got loose and hit him in the side.”
I frowned. Was that how it had happened? I looked down at my hands, trying to regain some sense of familiarity, but there was none there. The doctor nodded. He had accepted that explanation. Of course he would; it was the truth. But my inability to remember made me uneasy.
The doctor gave me painkillers and antibiotics, made sure the stitches were done right (and they were), praised Connor for his handiwork and made to leave.
As he went to the front door, I felt like calling him back for something, but I didn’t know what; I just didn’t want him to leave. Then there would be nothing but Connor and me and that heavy, menacing silence.
But he did leave.
Connor began cleaning up the room he had used to stitch me up. I stood at the door, leaning against the frame to take the pressure off the wound. It hadn’t hurt this bad before.
“What happened in the tunnel?”
Connor sighed. He kept tidying up for a few seconds, and then he stood up straight and faced me.
“Nothing happened. Before you blacked out, when you heard me shouting, I must have been imagining something was down there with me. But it was just the fear. That was it. Nothing to be worked up about.” He looked at me with wide eyes.
“Okay?” he asked. I looked at him, really searched his face, his round blue eyes, his smooth creaseless expression. I wanted to believe him. Maybe he was right; fear could do crazy things to you. But then Connor started chewing on his bottom lip and my heart leapt a bit. That was his tell: he was lying. And yet he was watching me with such attentiveness, looking for any flicker of disbelief in my eyes, and hoping that I would agree, so I did.
“Yeah, you’re right. I’m just glad you’re okay bro,” I said, punching his shoulder lightly. Connor grinned, but the grin didn’t reach his eyes. They just stared back at me, cold and hard, then Connor side-stepped me and went upstairs.
That night I dreamed feverishly, shapes and sounds blurring together until I could not distinguish what began and what ended. But I did recall the fleeting image of a young man walking down a long corridor. I was woken in the middle of the night from the throbbing in my side. I swore, realising I had forgotten to take my painkillers. I got out of bed slowly. The bedroom door was ajar and I found myself peering through the small gap. There was a light on at the end of the hallway; Connor was in the bathroom. I padded along to his room and switched on the light. His bed was untouched. I started to feel warm and I knew I was getting nervous again. I crept downstairs. I didn’t want to be near my brother but I couldn’t figure out exactly why.
I swallowed the tablets and went outside into the yard to wait for them to work. The moon was almost full, hanging like a pregnant orb in the black sky. It shone down happily on the few lines of crops. I thought again of the events that had transpired, and they swam around in a murky pool of memories in my mind. I thought of the door, the way it was nestled so comfortably in the cool void – so expectant. But it was concealed now. I sighed, gazing around the yard. It was then I spotted the shovels, laid out in a pile beside the work shed. I rose out of my chair immediately and went over, holding my hand against the wound. The work shed was open. That didn’t make sense. I had seen Connor put everything away when we got home and yet here everything was, as if taken out in preparation for another expedition. I thought of my brother upstairs, not having slept a moment that night. Maybe he was planning on digging the hole again. If nothing remarkable had happened down there, why did Connor want to dig it up again? How dare he not consult me about going back! Unless it was something that he just didn’t want to share. I felt afraid, but more than that, I felt outraged, and desperate. The fear lingered so strongly still but I knew that eventually the curiosity may come to surpass the terror.
The door behind me creaked open and I whirled around, my heart thumping wildly. I flinched from the pain that had shot up from the sudden movement.
“Frank, what are you doing?”
Connor was standing barefoot on the grass, staring at me with what I sensed was suspicion.
“Just waiting for the meds to kick in,” I explained, turning back to the shovels, trying to settle my heartbeat. I wanted Connor to go back inside.
“That all?” he asked softly. I frowned. What a strange question to ask.
Connor stood for a few moments longer.
“Actually,” I started. “Why are these shovels out?”
Connor looked as if he had just noticed them, but it was an almost exaggerated gesture.
“What the hell? I put those away!”
I raised an eyebrow. Connor came over and started picking up the shovels and placing them back inside the work shed. Then he turned to me with wild eyes and said,
“We should go back inside Frank.”
Frightened, I went up the steps and sat inside the back room with the curtains drawn. I was afraid to sleep. Connor finished putting everything away and shut the work shed, looking about him warily. Then he came inside too and went back upstairs. I was glad he had gone. I didn’t know why, or how, or from where the fear sprung, but there it was so solid and real. I stayed up all night like that in the back room staring at the closed doors of the work shed, feeling the horror and curiosity alternatively wash over me, wave over wave, until the first light of day broke through my reverie.
In the morning, Connor prepared breakfast. He didn’t look at me when I came into the kitchen.
“Did you stay up all night?” he asked. I put two plates on the table.
“Yeah…I couldn’t sleep.”
Connor didn’t say anything to that. He was quiet the entire meal and moved as if he was a machine. We ate silently, forks clinking on the china. I could barely taste the food.
“I have to go out for a little bit today,” Connor said, putting down his cutlery.
“I thought we had to fix the water system.”
Connor stood up and shook his head. “I need to go out and get some medicine for you.”
I tilted my head.
“What? I have the medicine the doctor gave me yesterday.”
Connor began putting the food away.
“Other medicine he forgot. He called me and told me to come and pick it up.”
I stood up too, grabbing my plate.
“That doesn’t sound right.”
“What do you mean?” he asked offhandedly. Suddenly I felt like the terror had taken a hold of me: a tight, inescapable grip.
“What the hell do you think I mean? I didn’t hear a phone call yesterday Connor. Why are you lying?”
My voice was rising. It almost sounded unfamiliar to my own ears.
“Are you just gonna go on and pretend that nothing happened yesterday? Because it did! That tunnel is out there, that door is still there!” I was shouting wildly now, rage and fear rising in me, intertwined in some deadly dance. Connor was looking at me now and his eyes were full of fear too.
“And whatever the hell is down there…it’s down there Connor…it’s waiting…”
Déjà vu hit me. Hadn’t I thought that before?
“Waiting for what?” Connor asked shakily. I grit my teeth, feeling the world swim again. Connor was confusing me, deliberately sabotaging my thought process. My side had begun to throb again. I growled loudly and slammed the plate down. A loud crack and the plate shattered all over the table. Connor flinched. Then he quickly put the things away and left the room, leaving me to pace the kitchen madly, my chest heaving.
Connor did go out later. I watched him from the front window as he climbed into the truck and retreated down the drive. I knew he was lying and it was so out of character. I tried desperately to think of where he could be going. I found myself rushing out into the yard. I hurried over to the work shed, pressing one hand tightly against the stitches. The fear only made it worse.
I flung the doors open and scanned inside for shovels. I knew what I had to do. The curiosity was killing me. I had to know what it was that Connor was hiding. I wrapped all the things I would need in a tarp and hoisted the bundle onto a cart. The exertion was painful but I ignored it. This was more important. I had to be quick. Connor could be back soon and he would try to stop me; I knew he would. I went back inside. I rifled through the medicine cabinet until I found bandaging and tape and bound my torso as tightly as I could. I couldn’t move as well, but the pain was less and I didn’t need to keep pressing the wound. Besides, I needed both hands.
I was going to leave immediately, but then I realised if I wasn’t there when Connor returned, he would know where I had gone. And he would come after me to try to stop me. No, I had to stay at the house and reason with my brother. Reasoning always surmounted fear.
Connor came back after perhaps twenty or thirty minutes. I didn’t know precisely. I just sat in the kitchen waiting for him, thinking of how I would dig up the hole again and I would get down to the steel door and climb down the ladder and finally see, finally know…
The door opened slowly. Connor padded softly into the living area. He was carrying a small brown bag in his hand. He froze when he saw me.
“What are you doing Frank?”
I stood up.
“Connor, come outside with me.”
He didn’t move for a moment. I had already made my way to the door. I looked back and Connor followed hesitantly. We went out into the yard to where the cart was.
“What is that?” Connor asked, his voice higher than usual.
“I’m going to dig up the hole again Connor.”
Connor was shaking his head, again and again. “No Frank you can’t do that –”
“I will Connor,” I said.
“Frank, you don’t understand what’s happening!” he exclaimed, and then he started to wheel the cart back to the work shed.
“Stop that,” I instructed him calmly.
He froze and turned very slowly to face me.
“Frank…Frank listen to me.”
Now I was spectating myself. That’s how it felt.
Connor put his hand on my shoulder.
“I haven’t been honest with you.”
“You think I don’t know that?” I said, pushing his hand away. “I know you’ve been lying Connor. You’re trying to stop me from finding out the truth. You want to keep it all to yourself.”
He was looking at me incredulously.
“What the hell are you talking about? This isn’t you Frank. You – You’re not yourself. Something happened to you.”
I was taking the cart back out, wheeling it slowly across the yard; all the while feeling like my mind was crowded with voices, first whispering then shouting, each competing to be heard.
“You dug the hole…you went down the tunnel.”
I kept walking, although each step was a concentrated effort.
“That’s how you got the cut on your side Frank, when you were in the tunnel, something terrible happened and you blacked out… when you came to, I just…I didn’t want to tell you the truth…”
He was ranting like a madman, the true extent of his insanity revealing itself. And yet there was something in his words that I couldn’t put my finger on, and the harder I thought of it the further away it moved, and the desire to dig got stronger…
“I lied to you about not going down there because it was just…it was so terrible…don’t you remember?” he was pleading. For a moment, I wondered – did I? He seemed to have sensed my pause.
“That’s why when the doctor asked you about the cut you didn’t know how you got it. You thought you had it from before…you didn’t know Frank…”
Yes, when the doctor asked me I had been struck so ominously by the distinct inability to recall or grasp the memory. There had been other things too that couldn’t readily be explained, but then suddenly I could only think about my dream of the young man walking down the corridor, and it filled me with a terrible gnawing hunger. I stopped the cart and fixed my hand around the handle of one of the shovels. It was a swift movement, and with the binding around my torso, it was almost painless. The head of the shovel landed square on top of Connor’s head. I half expected his eyes to go up or do something, but he just stared at me as his body jerked violently. Just stared – I don’t know with what expression, but maybe he was thinking that he should have never dug that hole. Somewhere inside of me, a terrified, anguished cry nagged at me, and it reverberated around for a few seconds and then disappeared. A bit of blood was trickling down the side of Connor’s face, staining that golden blonde hair. How heavenly his hair looked, like sunlight…sunlight…how I had missed sunlight. But I had it now, and I tilted my face up and felt it dance wonderfully on my skin. Connor raised one hand to his head, and his knees buckled and he crumpled to the floor. I could bury him later. I replaced the shovel under the tarp and started towards the woods that edged the property. Then the answer came to me.
When Connor had asked what it was waiting for? I knew the answer. It was waiting for a man like Frank.