Next installment, please!
| The smell of alcohol and the lingering ghost of cigarette smoke greeted me promptly as I stepped inside the dim bar. After my eyes adjusted to the change in lighting, I could make out two men sitting at the bar, both watching me over their slumped shoulders, as if I were some kind of Jehovah Witness on caffeine high.
The same, proverbial bartender stood behind the bar, his pudgy, hairy arms stretched out to his sides, supporting his weight against the solid wood of the bar, while he leaned forward, laughing and talking with his patrons.
“Can I ‘elp ya?” The burly bartender asked, adjusting a lock of his greasy hair out of his eyes. He stood, his large belly pushed against the edge of the bar, looking like a balloon that’s trying to be popped by a ruler.
I made my way towards him and the bar, and dropped my messenger bag onto the nearest stool. “Yeah, I’m looking for Gary Bellows?”
Burley Bartender’s expression changed from questioning, to concerned. “What the hell ya want with Gary?” He asked, his voice taking on a more stern, serious tone. The tone I’m sure he’s used on several occasions when he’s sensed a fight about to break out in his fine establishment.
His patrons turned their attention from their beers, and cast their bloodshot, tired eyes on me. I offered a half-hearted smile. “Well, I have an appointment with him.” I said, trying to remain calm, but let’s face it. My kind weren’t exactly welcomed into places like this, and offered a drink. In fact, in small towns like Salem Falls, there was maybe two gay men in the city limits, and they stayed as deep in the closets as they possibly could. It was more than safe to say, that there wasn’t going to be any Pride Parades booked for Salem Falls in the next twenty years.
Probably in the next thirty!
“Well, Gary didn’t say anything about meeting anyone in here, today.” Burley Bartender said, crossing his arms across his broad chest, which made his forearms look like slender ham roasts.
“Oh,” I said, sensing that what little courtesy of a welcome I had, was officially worn out. I grabbed the strap of my bag, and quickly placed it back on my shoulder, ready to get the hell out of Dodge, before I became the next Matthew Shepherd. “Well, thank you.”
“Jake, give the guy a break!” Came a low, raspy voice from the back corner of the dim barroom. Burley Bartender looked in the direction from where the voice had come from, as well as the two patrons, and myself. In the shadows of the corner, sat a smaller, silhouette of a man, his shape looked old and haggard.
Something told me, this was my guy. “Mr. Bellows?” I asked, Burley Bartender looking at me, as if he were watching a spider crawling across his sandwich.
“Yeah.” The figure in the corner booth said, slowly an aged hand raised into the air, gesturing for me to join him. “Come on back, and Jake, get the man a beer, why don’t’cha?”
Carefully, I made my way back towards the man sitting in the booth, and stopped as I was close enough to see him better. I had spent the past two days preparing myself for what to expect, judging from what I had read in Mr. Bellow’s letter he had sent my office, as well as, what little I could find about the event online. God bless the Internet, it really makes researching a lot easier! But who can really prepare themselves for standing eye-to-eye (at least one) with a man who’s been through what Mr. Bellows claims to be a witness and victim to?
His head rose slowly, his right eye (the one that was still functioning) looked me over, and then a faint, gaunt smile threatened the corners of his mouth. His dead left eye stared at me, not seeing me, looking past me, into the abyss of darkness that it would forever call reality. “I take it, you’re the guy from the magazine?” He asked, his voice sounding like sandpaper scraping against an iron pipe. Raspy, and yet, hypnotic, in a strange way.
“Yeah, Mike Johnson.” I said, offering my hand to shake. I could feel the weight of his right eye on my skin, it caused sweat to pop out immediately on my back. Carefully—and showing signs of discomfort—he reached out, and took my hand. His grip was solid, and strong, and yet weakened after a moment.
“Have a seat.” He said, gesturing towards the opposite side of the booth. I did, and a moment later, Burley Bartender appeared at our table, placing two bottles of Miller Genuine Drafts on the table, and taking Mr. Bellows’ empty one.
After Jake left us alone, again, I turned to Mr. Bellows, “He’s a little over protective, isn’t he?” I asked, trying to lighten the mood with some humor.
“Jake’s a good guy. He’s just tired of people coming in here, and bothering his friends. Can’t says that I blame him.” He took a long drink from his beer.
I reached into my bag, and brought out my tablet and pen, and my digital recorder. Facts and details were what made stories worth reading, just ask all of the most successful journalists. It was time to just get the fucking story, and get the hell out of there. I’d have more than enough of small-town Ohio, and was ready to get back to that crime-infested, sinful big city.
“So, Mr. Bellows, first, I want to say thank you for agreeing to this interview. It’s not every day that I get a hot tip on a story this fantastic.” Hoping flattery would score me some points.
He tipped the neck of his beer bottle towards me, toasting to my attempt to kiss his ass, and laughed. “Fantastic?” He laughed, which echoed throughout the barroom. He tossed the bottle back again, taking another large drink from it, and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “I’ve never thought of it as ‘fantastic.’ But, that’s just me.” He said, scratching at the stubble of his beard, tiny flakes of dandruff falling to the table below.
That dead eye continuing to stare at me. My skin crawled.
“So, how did it happen?” I asked, taking the first swig of my own beer, and fighting the urge to spit it out. I hated the taste of beer. Nonchalantly brushing away a fleck of dust that had landed on my tablet.
“Well, son, let me ask you, are you a religious man?”
I pretended to consider his question for a moment, out of respect—and mainly, to avoid any further talk or lecture about saving my soul—and then shook my head. “Never really gave it much consideration. I figure I’m doing just fine without pissing off God, too.”
“That makes sense.” Bellows said, another swig of his beer. “Well, all the answers to the questions you have, can be found in the Good Book. ‘In those days, there were giants that roamed the land.’”
I hesitated, trying to absorb what he had said, trying to figure out what the hell any of that had to do with the questions I had to ask.
“What do you mean?” I was intrigued…slightly. Confused…definitely.
He sighed, and pushed his worn, tattered trucker’s cap back on his head, revealing more of his matching worn forehead. “You see, most people think that what happened to us in that mine was an accident, but let me tell you, it wasn’t. I don’t know what the fuck it was, exactly, but I know it wasn’t any goddamned accident!” Tears filled in the corner of his right eye—his living eye—and he blinked them away. The expression on his face told me that he could still hear those ghostly voices of the past, much like the look on Viet Nam veterans’ faces, when they’re experiencing flashbacks to the hell they endured.
Finally, he spoke again. “It wasn’t supposed to happen. I had been the one in charge of securing the blasting sites, but that morning, George Rich—he was the supervisor at the time—told me that we needed to get the southern section blown open, cause the test results were showin’ large amounts of ore in the lower quads.”
Another swig of his beer. Rubbing his temples, I couldn’t help but wonder if he felt uneasy recognizing his dead eye? His fingertips, aged, tobacco-stained, ever so gently touching the wrinkled skin around that eye.
“So, than the supervisor knew that the blast site wasn’t secure?” I asked, making sure that I was getting the facts straight. It was one thing to write fiction for our magazine, but it was entirely different if you’re writing fiction on a true-life story that had made the headlines years ago.
“Damn right, he knew that it wasn’t secure, but like they say, ‘money talks, and bullshit walks.’ Besides, he didn’t care about it, since his ass was never down in that mine.” He began scraping away at the corner of the label on his beer bottle. His ragged, brittle fingernails chipping the foiled paper away fleck by fleck.
“What eventually happened, was that he gave the go ahead to blow the wall, and after the dust settled, the mine seemed fine as frog hair. So, back down we all went, making our way through the dirty dark, and finally, we got to the blast site. Well, the first thing that’s gotta be done after a blast, is that all the rocks and rubble and shit’s gotta get cleaned up, and taken out of the mine, otherwise you can’t get any work done. So, we sat to it. Four teams of us, two working together at a time, stacking the debris into the carts, and sending it out. Then the other two teams get the carts when they come out of the Hole, and get ‘em emptied out, to send ‘em back in. That’s how it worked.”
A small pile of foiled paper clippings were gathering at the bottom of his beer bottle, but still, his attention stayed on his task, as if it were the only sane action he knew to take. The grounding fuse that kept his mind from wondering into the abyss of the past.
“Like I said, I was one of the first ones down the Hole, and it took us about two hours to get a good path cleared. Plus, we had to keep checking for any signs of possible cave-ins. Well, we’d been down there a while, when Marty Keller—a nice guy, and one helluva worker—asked me if I heard something. Of course with all them guys working down in that Hole, it was impossible not to hear something, unless yer as deaf as a goddamn post.”
He took another drink, again, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “I asked him what he was talking about, and he said, ‘it sounded like the hole’s shifting,’ which was a concern, seeing as how sometimes blasting seemed fine and dandy, but when yer down there cleanin’ it up, the whole fuckin’ thing can come crashing down on ya. So I told him I’d check it out.”
“I took my flashlight, and began checkin’ the walls and ceiling, makin’ sure there weren’t any cracks that could lead to a cave-in. I made my way towards the blast site, and checked all around, makin’ sure I didn’t miss any nook or cranny, cause I didn’t want any of the guys getting hurt because of my stupidity. But, I swear to Jesus, Mary, and God, Almighty, I didn’t see any damned cracks. Everything looked fine! As I was moving deeper into the hole we blasted open, Marty came walkin’ up behind me, askin’ if I found anything. I turned around, and was tellin’ him I didn’t see anything, but that I hadn’t gone into hole yet, so I wasn’t for sure what was on the other side. And that’s when it happened.”
He closed his eyes, and leaned back in his seat, his head resting against the vinyl leather cushion. I continued jotting down notes from his story, allowing him to take a moment to think. Finally, he raised his head, and continued his story. “Marty said that he’d go into the hole, and check around, and although it was my job, I let him. After all, a man has a certain instinct for self-preservation, don’t he?” He looked at me, searching my face—my eyes—for an answer. I nodded in agreement, giving him the answer he was so desperately looking for. That answer that would ease his guilt ever so slightly, if even for a moment.
“Of course we do. And don’t think that I don’t lay awake at night, wishin’ I had done my job, and went into that goddamned hole instead of Marty. Maybe then I wouldn’t have to live with hearin’ that man’s screams echoin’ in my mind every night. But, what’s done is done, as my momma always said. I gave him my flashlight, and he climbed into that hole. I stayed there with him, watching the light bouncin’ off the rocks and walls. I asked him, ‘how’s it lookin’ in there?’ And he hollered back at me, ‘it looks alright, from what I can see.’ And then he hollered, ‘hold on, I think I see something…’”
“I could hear him stumblin’ around in the darkness, tripping over the rocks and stones in his way, and then all the sudden, I heard this loud, screechin’ sound. It sounded like a mixture of a train screechin’ against his rails, and when my fourth-grade teacher—Mrs. Shirley—used to get our attention in class, by scrapin’ her fingernails down the blackboard. It was so loud, and so intense, that it made me shutter, and my teeth chattered together. After that noise finally stopped, some of the other guys came runnin’ in our direction, tryin’ to find out what the hell that noise had been. I waved at them to shut up, and I started hollerin’ in the hole for Marty to answer me. ”
“That’s when I could hear Marty runnin’ towards the openin’ of the hole, back towards me. He was shoutin’ something about a ‘creature,’ and askin’ God to save him. I could see the flashlight’s glow frantically bouncin’ on everything, lookin’ like it was on the end of a jackhammer. And just when I could see the outline of Marty runnin’ towards me, I saw it!” He closed his eyes again, causing me to drop my pen when I saw the tears that were streaming down his sullen cheeks. Even his dead eye was crying. I sat there silently, waiting for him to continue.
“It was huge, about the size of my brother’s German Shepherd he had once, and it was white-gray, it looked like the tentacle of an octopus or something. All covered with scales and suckers on the underside. It came snaking out of the darkness behind Marty, and before I knew what was happin’, it wrapped around Marty like a cobra does a mouse. Marty’s eyes filled up with fear—sometimes I close my eyes, and I can still see his staring back at me, still filled with sheer terror. I reached out to grab him, but I was too late. It was like he was on some kind of demonic yo-yo, cause what ever the hell it was, just sucked him right back into that darkness. I stood there, lookin’ into the dark, and all I could see what the faint glow of his flashlight in the distance. I hollered his name, prayin’ that he would answer me, but he never did.”
Jake, the bartender, suddenly appeared at our table, and having been caught up in Mr. Bellows’ story, the initial shock of his sudden approach caused me to jump back in my seat.
“Another one?” He asked Bellows, who shook his lowered head, and then the burley man turned to me. “You too?”
“Yes…please.” I stammered. He took our empty bottles, and disappeared. I turned back to Bellows. “So what happened then?”
He looked at me, as he nonchalantly wiped away the tears that had ran down his cheeks. “I stood there, hopin’ that Marty would answer me—and, God forgive me—also hopin’ that he wouldn’t. Imagine starin’ into the black nothingness that I was lookin’ at, where I had just seen a good friend get stolen away like a baby in a carriage, by…something. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t move. I was frozen in place by fear, and confusion. I was still thinkin’ that it was just a joke or a bad dream or something, and that’s when it came after me. That same scaly, tentacle that had jerked Marty into it’s lair, was shootin’ out of the darkness, towards me. I had managed to get out of the way, just at the last moment, and I fell to the side, landing hard against the rock wall. That tentacle reached past me, brushin’ against my leg, scraping away the fabric of my pants, while it went after the others who had gathered around. They screamed, and took off runnin’ towards the main section of the mine, that led out. One of the guys—Tom Breker—actually took a pickax and whacked the tip of it into the tentacle, as it slithered past him in a fury. As soon as he did that, the mine filled with that screechin’ sound again. And that tentacle wiggled and squirmed and jerked around, crashin’ everyone in its path against the walls. Then, all the sudden, it raised up, and hit against the ceiling with so much fuckin’ force, that I was sure it was gonna bring the whole damn thing down on us. Which it did.”
It was at this moment, that he decided to take a break from his story, and look at me, as if search my face for any sign that I believe what all he had just shared with me. If I hadn’t seen the sincerity in his eye, I would have thought that it was merely a bullshit story he came up with, just to get his fifteen minutes before kicking the bucket. Apparently, my expression was enough to indicate to him that I believed his story. Still trying to make up my mind if I truly believed it.
I’d be lying if I said that some part of me didn’t want to fully and completely believe his tale of creatures in the dark, but I guess that was merely my inner-child that’s always scared of the proverbial monsters in the dark.
“It took them a day and a half to get to us. And the rest of this story, is a matter of public record for the most part.” He finished off his second beer—which I was sure wasn’t his second one for the day. “I remember wakin’ up in the dark, hearing silence around me. Scared to fuckin’ death that that goddamn tentacle was gonna sneak up on me in the dark, and crush me to death, without me even knowin’ what the hell had me. My head hurt like a motherfucker! I couldn’t see in the dark, which was how I didn’t know that my right eye was gone. I tried to crawl through the dark, bein’ as quiet as I possible could, cause I didn’t want that damned thing to hear me movin’ around. After awhile, I thought that it was all some kind nightmare or figment of my fuckin’ imagination. I prayed to God, Almighty, that He’d get me out of that mine, but I felt like Judas, when I thought about what I had allowed happen to Marty. That poor guy.” He shook his head.
“Some of the other guys started comin’ too, mumblin’ and a couple of the younger ‘uns were actually crying—which I can’t say that I blame ‘em. If I had enough sense about me at the time, I would have probably joined them in sobbin’ my fucking eyes out. But, instead, I did my best to keep ‘em quiet, and we worked together to get out of that mine. One of the guys—Harry, I think—still had a workin’ flashlight, so we all gathered around him, and worked as quietly as we could to get the blockage out of the way.”
Gary Bellows finished telling me how he and the other miners were rescued from their premature graves. In the aftermath of the cave-in, only one life was claimed in the tragedy: Martin Keller. The rescue team finally pulled out the survivors thirty-two hours after initial cave-in. Bellows also smiled when he told me that George Rich—the supervisor—was fired for negligence. The next year, the mine was closed, and left Gary Bellows out of a job, and handicapped, making it almost impossible to find a job.
Finally, when he finished, I had a tablet full of notes, a recorder over half full of his truly fantastic story, and a headache that left me feeling drained. The feeling that I was being lied to, was faint, feeling more like that nagging feeling that I had left the air-conditioner on at home—which really wasn’t a problem, but it was going to cost me on the electric bill.
Fifteen minutes later, I left the bar in a daze, a tingling sensation running down my left leg that had fallen asleep while I sat at the booth, listening to Mr. Bellows. The sun was sinking into a bath of pink and orange champagne sky, casting long, hollow shadows behind everything in its sleepy light.
I found my car, and quickly unlocked it, my stomach was churning from the combination of adrenaline from Bellows’ story and the beer that I had consumed. My thoughts were swimming in and out of the swamp of confusion and fantasy that had pooled in my mind.
Inside my car, I jabbed the key into the ignition, and started the engine. Needing a familiar habit to perform, to return my mind to reality, I turned on the air in the car, and foolishly adjusted the knobs. As I sat there, I couldn’t help but wonder just how terrifying it would be to be trapped underneath the earth, in the darkness of a mass grave, and shuddered from the overwhelming sense of fear that engulfed me. My stomach churned, and I was certain that the few contents therein were going to force themselves back out into the world against my will to keep them in place.
Once I was able to contain my urge to vomit, I picked up my digital recorder, and looked at the blinking icon on the LED screen, which I had forgotten to turn it off after I left Bellows. Out of reflex, I pressed the rewind button, and flinched when Bellows’ voice filled the interior of my car. That same raspy, aged voice that I had just left, repeating to me, what he had said only moments earlier.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Johnson. The Good Book said, ‘In those days, the land was roamed by giants.’ And that’s exactly what we woke. A giant that God forgot about, and the same one that I’ll never forget about.”
I pressed STOP, and tossed the recorder into my bag, and fastened my seatbelt.
—May 30, 2008
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