It’s been a cool week. I got to spend a couple of days off of work with my Rosa before she goes back to school. I can’t believe she’s in fourth grade now. She can’t be in fourth grade, she just started third grade! Oh, that’s right, I forgot, time speeds up when you get older. That’s either physics or Murphy’s Law.
We got to go to the pool and swim, cook together, and just hang out. She’s completely into Master Chef, so that’s her new game. I learned that I am really terrible at impressions. My husband does a really great Gordon Ramsey impression, and Rosa does the most hilarious Joe Bastianich stare. As far as our actual cooking experiments together, we made homemade ravioli. It didn’t come out horrible, but I’m pretty sure I’d be sent home from the Master Chef kitchen for undercooking the pasta. Yes, I couldn’t boil pasta. In Chef Ramsey’s famous words, “Wha’ a shame!” Rosa, on the other hand, made the ravioli filling and sauce perfectly!
Getting to spend time with my kid made me think about how awesome it is to have people. I’m so surrounded by people all the time, that I take people for granted. I’ve been addicted to Orange Is The New Black, and they talk about solitary confinement on there, and some people who are introverts like me think ‘Oh, yes, to be by myself, how bad can that be?’ Except we don’t get how social animals are, even solitary animals, and being primates, we are anything but solitary, not really. So I don’t think most people get just how awful it is to be alone. When I read stories about immortal being and ancient beings I automatically think, ‘Wow how awesome would it be to be immortal and ancient like that!’ But then I wonder, because in the end, unless a being like that has another one to keep him/her/it company, eventually they wind up alone as the non-immortal world goes by. I guess if you’re a Greek god with a short attention span and can just snag any random human for a booty call then they manage to while away the time.
This next story is about an ancient being some unfortunate people found in a deserted mine.
The Lonely Miner
by Rachel Coles
Exhaust rose up through the windows, making Mark cough.
“Screw this! Let’s kick on the air, roll up that window.” Gunther hit the switch, and the windows glided up, as cool air blasted into the cabin. Santa Fe Blvd was a parking lot. Mark unrolled the window again and slid half his body out, balancing and peering into the wavery distance ahead of him to see what had caused the wait, as if it would help, with three 18-wheelers blocking the view around the curve. He flopped into the seat discontentedly, reached back and popped off the lid of the cooler and grabbed a bottle.
“Hey, get me one! Is that an IPA?”
“Yes it is, and no. You’re driving.”
“It’s an IPA, like 4.5% alcohol, give me a damn bottle! Besides, we’re only moving two miles an hour, when we’re going at all.”
“And if it’s a big accident, swarming with cops? That’ll look great, you sucking down a beer behind the wheel.”
“I’ll be done with it by the time we get around the bend, which may not be until midnight.”
Mark rolled his eyes and uncapped it. Hoppy vapors swirled at bottle lip and dissipated. He handed it to Gunther, who got in half a swig as the SUV in front of him suddenly began moving, and picked up speed to about 20 miles an hour. It kept going, slowly but steadily.
“Shit!” Gunther took one more long guzzle and handed the bottle to Mark, who finished it and stashed the empty back in the cooler, and grabbed another. In a couple of minutes, they drifted slowly past a workman in a bright orange vest and a big smiley face, holding up a SLOW sign, waving cars on. A huge flashing arrow sign ushered cars to
a trickle of one lane, while a line of aggravated drivers waited for their turn on the other side of the bottleneck, detained by another vested workman holding up a STOP sign.
“That job would suck.” Mark watched as the workman, or woman rather, stood bored and hot, uncaring as motorists glared.
“Amen. So now you can stop bitching about yours.”
“I don’t bitch. I vent. And I never said that it was bad. It’s just the bureaucratic stonewalling pisses me off sometimes.”
“And you work where?
Mark sighed. “For the state.”
“Like going to the tundra and complaining about the snow, and this big inconvenient glacier in your way.”
Mark scowled and watched the landscape flashing by.
Gunther kept talking. “Me, I live in Office Space. Milton Waddams is my cubicle mate. I know it, everyone knows it, and I don’t fight it. Because I do my job, make my money, and come the weekend, everyone can just fuck off! I have a job, in this economy, HURRAY! Though who knows how much longer that’ll last. My company sucks, but that’s something for now at least. You know what your problem is?”
Mark swiveled his head and waited.
“You been in emergency management for so long you can’t even have a thought without writing a strategic plan about it, every step for the next five years. How long did you plan for this day hike?”
“Uh-huh. That’s why you were packing a giant bag when I came to get you.”
Gunther turned and glared at him.
“We need emergency supplies, we’re going to an old mining town and tunnel!”
“Not two week’s worth of food and water. And what else do you have in that ginormous bag, a satellite dish, a parka and mukluks, a James Bond car, what, Captain Eagle Scout?”
“To radio whom? If they even work in the mountains. You’re not a ham radio operator, you never went through with the test, remember? You just wanna look cool with your little nerdy radio.” He grabbed Mark’s beer bottle and held it to his cheek, “CHHKKK, BREAKER BREAKER, this is Nerd Patrol, we have a 10-24 at the 246. OVER AND OUT!”
Mark snatched the bottle and drained the last swig before it could slosh out. “That’s not what it’s like! Ham radio people are cool! Have you ever seen those guys?”
“Yes, and you aren’t one.” He grabbed another couple beers as the industrial buildings and shopping strips gave way to slow rolling foothills.
The air as they pulled onto the Alpine Tunnel 4WD was brisk, like a different climate zone from the unseasonal May heat near Denver. The car jiggled and bumped as the gravel rattled in the undercarriage. The parking area was littered with weeds in clumps. There was one other car. Pale silver-leaved stands of aspen interspersed with clumps of spiky brown beetle-killed Ponderosas. Pine and fine beige dust from the parking area filled the air. Mark pulled some of the food out of the pack, and stashed a few chilled beers in next to the bottles of water, wiping the ice drippings onto his fleece vest. He pulled out his GPS, fiddled for a minute and pointed towards the left. “Trail head’s over there.”
Gunther stood in front of the big gaping break in trees and gravel walk that was the obvious trail-head.
“No kidding, Magellan? How could we have known without your New World gadget.”
Mark grinned and shoved the GPS in his cargo pocket.
The first ten minutes of the trail were mild, carpeted with sienna needles. It gave way to brush as the trail steepened, surrounded by sage and splashes of bright spikes of columbine, dots of aster and delicate blue bells. They skirted swaths of scree across the trail, refusing to seem out-of-breath or out-of-shape after less than an hour into the hike. A gully wound near the path and Mark caved in first. It’s a day off, dammit! I’m not here to impress anyone. I’m having a beer and sit-down. He clambered off onto a boulder, and pulled out a sweating bottle and some buffalo jerky, offering some to Gunther.
“Wuss.” He ambled over and took the jerky, and a beer. “Good jerky.” He grunted.
“This from a man whose favorite food is plain mashed potatoes and chicken-noodle concrete.”
The unapologetic Midwesterner flashed a white grin and gnawed at his meat leather. They sat, drinking the beers and eating in amiable guy-silence, and then packed in the
bottles and started back on the path. Mark stood a moment longer looking at the gully that had been a stream before the drought. Desiccated grey-green algae, like the crusted blood of a naiad, clung to the face of the rocks in the center, and sun-bleached twigs and debris choked in a winding line up and down the mountain in either direction. It looked like someone had dragged Jenny Greenteeth into the sun and baked her until she shriveled against the rocks. A couple of papery minnows lay in the granite nooks, like those Japanese dried fish snacks. As he started to turn back to the path, she moved, just enough out of the lee of a crag that he could see her diaphanous green hair. Her hollow moss-colored eyes peered at him as she moved sluggishly back into the shadows, the detritus behind her visible, as her long black talons withdrew into the merciful shade. He blinked, pulled out the beer bottle, sniffed the mouth, and put it back, and then turned on his heel and followed the dust motes to where Gunther had gone.
“Do you ever wonder what happens to the creeks up here?” Mark caught up, panting.
“What do you mean?”
“When they dry out.”
“They always dry out in the winter, we’re a high sierra state.”
“But it’s May, and we’re in the mountains.”
“Yeah, but it only snowed early this year, not recently. Dillon Reservoir was down by half since a couple years ago. The boats were all clustered in the middle, with LOTS of beach that wasn’t there before. It looked pretty wild. Like a little kid pulled the plug out of the bathtub.”
“That’s exactly it. What happens, I mean, don’t you think we’re in trouble?”
“Sure. We’ve been in trouble for years. That’s why we get all the cool rebates for putting in low water stuff in our houses. I got two new toilets for 50 bucks, and got in great with my wife!” He waggled his eyebrows.
“Glad to know the drought’s improved the frequency of your booty calls.”
“It doesn’t count as a booty call if she’s married to you. But thank you! Look, this happens every ten years or so. Next year, we’ll probably get totally buried in a blizzard and the levels will be back to normal. That’s the way it works. You wanna change it, talk to the golfing snow birds in Arizona. Get our water rights back.”
A crane fly floated by, and disappeared into the parched shadows of the woods.
“What the hell, did you see the size of that mosquito?! How is it there’s no water, and there’s still mosquitos. If that isn’t a sign the world’s gone to hell…”
“It’s not a mosquito, city boy. It just looks like one. They don’t bite.”
“Well, that’s good because it’d suck us dry in five minutes. Thing was huge!”
“Actually, they do that on purpose, fly around like mosquitoes to get all the whiny little girls to flee the outdoors.”
Mark kicked pebbles at him. “Ok Ranger Sven, let me know when you’ve finished skinnin’ the bear and building the log cabin.”
Another crane fly whirred gently around them, dancing in the lazy bright light, and vanished in the dappling at the edge of a stand of trees. Mark glanced back and they were bobbing a few feet back. For a second, as they flitted through a patch of shade, the slender thoraxes expanded and the proboscises shrunk, and a pair of homunculi hovered, observing them. Then a breeze exhaled their delicate forms into the distance, sticklike legs dangling.
They hiked in silence for a while. Every few hundred feet, Mark would look back, and the crane flies were there, weaving among the brush, coming sometimes closer, sometimes farther. Finally, the entrance to the tunnel loomed. He glanced back. The flies were gone.
The famous Alpine Tunnel had been completed in the late 1800s as a cheaper and shorter way to get supplies and mail to and from Hancock, by burrowing right under the Continental Divide. Over two miles hewn through stone and earth, reinforced by timber, costing what in those days was a small fortune. By the mid-fifties, the nearby mining operations and the traffic that had accompanied them dried up. And the passage was empty, except for hikers and sightseers. The lighted entrance bore a sign: East Entrance. Proceed with caution. The mouth yawned, and the timbered braces receded into the dim lighting like the ribcage of Jonah’s whale. They looked up at the structure and stepped into the frigid dark. It took their eyes a minute to adjust to the tiny amount of light put out by the bulbs. Their breathing and footsteps echoed slightly, as they padded deeper down the long hallway, veering slightly here and there.
After a while, the slight buzz of voices emerged from farther down the tunnel, the other car, other hikers. They followed the murmurs around bends in the tunnel, but the acoustics bounced the sound so it was hard to tell how close they were. They seemed to be the same distance away as they had been a while ago. Then the voices died away. So did the lights, leaving them in oppressive Stygian blackness. The weight of tons of granite pressed in from all directions.
“What the FUCK!” Gunther exploded, feeling for the rough wall.
Mark knelt and rummaged in the pack and drew out a wind-up LED flashlight. The whir of the torch filled the passage, along with a weak bluish light that grew stronger. “Prepared.”
“Oh great, Mouseketeer, let’s get the fuck out of here before something else goes wrong.”
Mark rummaged again, drawing out the radio. It spit back nothing but static.
Gunther rolled his eyes.
He pulled the GPS out and shot Gunther a smug look. “Prepared.”
“Yeah, yeah! I get it! Why don’t we just go back the way we came.”
“Wanna make sure we are.”
He groaned in exasperation, and leaned back against the wall, arms crossed, waiting for Mark’s little experiment in technology.
Mark toyed with the controls, frowned, twirled a knob, turned towards the wall Gunther was leaning on, then stopped.
Gunther raised his eyebrows and started singing “’I’m the map, I’m the map, I’m the map, I’m the map. I’M THE MAP!’” …So Dora the Explorer, what does Map say?” He was grinning fiercely.
Mark grimaced. “It says the exit is here… this wall.”
“Awesome. Do you have a magic ring or anything? Maybe it can lead us to Mount Doom and an Eagle can fly us back.”
“Not helping!” He resisted the urge to hurl the device against the wall, put it back in his bag, and stomped past Gunther. “Alright. Seems like we came this way.”
“Sure you don’t want to consult your magic eight-ball some more?”
The unrelenting mountain sun sank towards the horizon, casting copper rays over the terrain, illuminating a wind-weathered sign at the mouth of the cave: Tunnel Closed. Danger of Collapse. A rotten timber poked like a greenstick fracture from the edge of the darkness inside, a bare light socket peeking down from the craggy ceiling.
Back the way they had come was not opening up to the light at the end of the tunnel. They hadn’t passed any other turnoffs, so they must get close soon. At least, Mark thought, the flashlight doesn’t need batteries. That’s me, with the silver lining. Gunther’s face was grim as he paced a few steps back into the dark to peer at something he thought he’d seen.
Mark heard a slip, a short yelp, and Gunther was gone. A thud came a moment later from far below. And silence. It took Mark a second to realize what had happened, and then he started yelling.
“Gunther! Can you hear me? Are you ok? Yell if you can hear me!”
Heart thudding, limbs trembling, Mark shined the light in the direction Gunther had disappeared. There was a slight pathway to the right that vanished into the dark. How had they not seen this?! The ground opened onto a gaping precipice. The light didn’t reach the bottom.
He looked around trying to think about what to do next, maybe see if he could get down there, and abruptly stopped, adrenaline blazing through his veins. Staring at him was a diminutive gray figure. It was ancient and gnarled, with piercing dark eyes. It wasn’t human.
“Who are you!” Mark blazed. “What do you want? Wanna fight?! Bring it!”
He fumbled a knife from his bag and realized it was a can opener. He held the heavier end towards his assailant. But the figure stood, silently regarding him.
Mark’s voice echoed in the corridor, tremulously.
“What do you want? My friend just fell. He’s hurt or dead. Are you going to help me or not?”
The figure said nothing. Mark edged toward the abyss. He didn’t have a rope, and saw quickly that there was no way down without a rope.
“GUNTHER!” He yelled one last time.
The creature glared at him and raised a knotty gray hand to its lips. “Shhhhh.”
There was nothing to do but go for help. If he could even get out himself. He stalked past the creature, who turned and followed him as he paced down the hall. Finally he slowed, and then stopped. He didn’t know which way was out. The circumference of light bobbed to a halt, and Mark slid down to his butt in freezing dirt. The creature
stopped just beyond the cone of illumination. He looked up at it. It stared back at him.
“You going to help me get out?”
It didn’t answer.
“You don’t like the light?”
It shook its head.
“Don’t you talk?”
It stayed stock-still. He moved the light against his leg so it wasn’t shining into the corridor, but there was no way he was turning it off.
“Three words, four syllables…sounds like…” he pantomimed Charades. Its eyes looked puzzled.
Mark buried his face in his hands.
“Are you a ghost?” His voice came out muffled.
The figure glided swiftly to his side and a hand like the root of a bonsai tree grasped his arm. Before Mark could leap out of his skin, there was a shock, images that weren’t from him, rushing into him. That was how the creature talked. He gazed at its grey eyes, flecked like opals.
“You’re not a ghost are you?”
Its eyes answered No.
“What are you?”
It felt confused for a moment. Images came of blazing rock, congealing in swirls and crystals and heavy gravity. Pressure cracked the great weight into fissures, ice cleaving through, water dripping. The images were set in geologic time and thought like stone. Then came the hammering and blasting, the chiseling, soft irritating people prying the veins of its home for metal, digging into
its fortress, and shattering the ponderous voices of the rock. Miners, hats bobbing, women, traders, all passing through, leaving footprints that scuffed each other out for years, and then lingered when there were no more treads to replace them in the still close dust. All it wanted was silence and solitude. It thought, until they were gone. The voice of the rock was all it had, until the harried frenetic intruders, who lived their lives so quickly and loudly. Its knotted fingers clung to his arm, its eyes wistful.
“You didn’t mean to kill Gunther.”
It shook its head.
“You want me to stay with you for a little while? I have to go. But I’ll stay here for a few minutes longer.” He shifted his weight on the dirt, where the cold was seeping through the seat of his pants.
Rescue operations continued for three days, until it was concluded that no one would be found, and the cars were towed.
If you’ve had any underground adventures that you want to share, please feel free to post!