The hole was an enigma. Harold Jennings, like many, had gotten the idea to visit it while he and his daughters were passing through the small town of Amber Grove. Just one stop of many on the way to Texas, Amber Grove was a little place that had gotten a lot of attention after one little discovery that birthed a modern rural legend. Excess tourism had not changed the town; the refusal to build a hotel or even allow much camping by the local government had kept the resident population to just around a thousand and that was the way they liked it. The business had allowed them to grow economically and that was enough for them.
“Daddy,” came a small voice from the backseat.
“What honey?” Harold said, glancing in the rearview mirror. “Can’t hear over the radio.”
“Then turn it down.”
He chuckled and turned the knob, DeLong’s grated vocals quieting from a shout to a whisper. Chancing another glance in the Subaru’s rearview he met his daughter’s eyes.
“What is it honey? Sarah?”
She looked down, shy and nervous. Her mousy-brown hair hung around her face and all he could see peeking out was her freckled nose. She was five years old and could not hardly remember her mother but she resembled her in almost every way. She even had her mother’s personality, her odd method of working up to a hard question and then backing away, worried about the response enough to just attempt to let it die.
Thump. The deadened hit was followed by squealing, illegible squabbling, and a modicum of tears.
“Karlie!” Harold chastised. “Karlie don’t hit your sister.”
His redheaded child, two years older than her sister, still held her stuffed dinosaur aloft as though ready to strike again. Karlie was less like their mother and more like their mother’s brother, Karlie, for whom she was named.
“She was being a wuss!” she exclaimed. “She wussed out again. She always does this and it’s annoying.”
Harold was not going to disagree with his daughter, mostly because he was unsure of whether or not he could do so convincingly. The kid was right, her sister’s penchant for jumping in and out was obnoxious and only the practice he had developed interacting with their mother saved him from rolling his eyes at her through most of their interactions. Sarah was thoughtful, contemplative, and smart but she was shy. Karlie, on the other hand, was a loaded gun and while intelligent in her own right never seemed smart enough to keep her mouth shut.
“Karlie you shut it,” he said. “Sarah, honey, go ahead. What’s up?”
The little girl looked up at her sister first, looking for permission. She always looked to Karlie for guidance and the older girl gave the go-ahead nearly every time. The allowance for mischief, the push to learn something, the angel and the devil on the shoulder of a five-year-old, Karlie always pushed her to do things. The only times she did not was when there was a real chance for pain, for suffering. And, as Sarah cautiously looked at her older sibling, Karlie nodded and urged her onward.
“Hop up with dad and go ahead,” she encouraged.
“No Sarah, don’t…”
But it was too late. Sarah had already unbuckled and began climbing over the tattered leather of the center console to join her father. She stumbled over the emergency brake, her foot caught for a moment, but recovered when her hands hit the passenger door and she gracelessly tried to slide into the seat next to him. Karlie giggled at this.
“Shut up,” Sarah muttered.
Harold smiled at this. There was something wonderful about the way his kids bickered and he could not help but enjoy it. There was no real menace in it – they were both nice girls. They were merely very different and it caused friction, but nothing they had any trouble handling.
It was The Hole. It had to be that. Harold had told them they could swing by, that he was curious about checking it out, and he had thoroughly researched it before the trip. Reading every article he could find online, every magazine that touched on it their small library had, and even making a few calls to friends who had gone to look had convinced him it was worth checking out. Most of his reading had floated between the paranormal, theoretical physics, and straight-out calling it an urban legend but it had all been enough to get him excited.
“Daddy?” Sarah said quietly. “Daddy I don’t know if I wanna see The Hole.”
“Huh?” he asked. “Why not?”
“Daddy it’s a hole. It’s a hole in the ground that freaks people out. It scares me.”
He had anticipated this but had hoped to avoid it. A small part of him had wanted her to need to pee, need a snack, something. If that had been all it was he could have pointed out that she had that opportunity half an hour ago at the gas station and reminded her to hold it or that they had chips in the back of the Outback, nice and easy.
“Honey it’s a hole in the ground. That’s all it is.”
“Daddy it’s not just a hole. It’s a scary hole.”
“Wuss,” Karlie chimed in.
“Shut it Karlie,” Harold said evenly, rolling his eyes. “Sarah, honey, look at me.”
She glanced at him, her face twitchy and nervous.
“Honey it’s just a hole,” he began. “It’s a hole in the ground. They’ve sent scientists and government workers, real smart guys out there to look at it. There’s nothing weird or off about it, it’s just a hole.”
“But daddy,” she said, “things don’t come out of it.”
“It’s a very deep hole but it’s still just that – a hole.”
“It’s a hole that makes people feel weird.”
“It doesn’t make people feel weird, Sarah. Where did you hear that?”
“Karlie told me.”
“Damn that laptop,” he thought to himself. “Karlie have you been scaring your sister?”
Silence from the backseat, but he could see her quivering quietly. She was holding in her laughter. “Damn that stupid laptop, I Bob and Kelly she wasn’t old enough,” he thought. His father-in-law had thought it was a good idea to get the girls a computer for Christmas, nearly a year ago now. In that time they had become far more proficient than he was at internet searches and while Sarah was still working on her reading skills Karlie had devoured everything she could find on there. She had a Facebook page, a Twitter account, all that nonsense. He had never felt older than the day he had gotten a Facebook friend request from his daughter, who had been six at the time. There were parental blocks on the internet of course, he was not going to let them watch porn or anything, but there was still plenty they could access on there and he was powerless to do anything but limit their time online to a couple of hours before bed on rotating nights.
“Karlie, what did you say to Sarah about The Amber Grove Hole?” he asked.
“Daddy I found this article….” she started.
“What article?” he interrupted.
“This one I found on the town website. I was looking it up before our trip.”
“Blast,” he thought, “I shouldn’t have brought it up before we left.”
“It was really cool daddy, they had army guys check it out and science guys…”
“Scientists,” he interrupted again.
“Scientists, yeah! They looked at it and did tests and stuff, threw things in it to see if they could reach the bottom. They couldn’t find anything but it was really interesting because the town said it made them feel weird and they protect it and stuff.”
“See daddy?” Sarah said. “The town doesn’t feel good about it and they protect it.”
“They just don’t want people trying to jump into it honey,” he said.
“Yeah, that’s all,” Karlie agreed.
“See?” Harold told his youngest. “Karlie found all that too. They don’t want people getting hurt but they’re happy to let people come look at it, check out the mystery and stuff. You aren’t curious?”
“I’m sorta curious,” Sarah replied. “Karlie couldn’t find much but she was looking and the filters wouldn’t let her see much more and that makes me worried.”
The filters. They had blocked some of the research about the weird little tourist attraction. That was it then, she was scared of what she had not learned about it. Reasonable, definitely, but there was nothing to be afraid of as long as they kept to the distance the town allotted and did not try to get in there.
“Honey are you just worried about the stuff you and Karlie couldn’t look at?”
“Yeah daddy, that’s what freaks my shit.”
“Don’t swear,” he said, rolling his eyes and trying not to laugh.
“Uncle Karl swears,” his eldest interjected. “He says he’s got a mouth like a sailor”
“That he does,” Harold said gravely. “His mouth is filthy and you are not to talk like that with me, him, or anyone else. It’s not polite.” The girls were trying not to giggle at this point, memories of their uncle’s harsh language conjuring up hilarity. “Definitely,” he continued, “do not speak like that in front of your gramma. Give her a heart-attack.” At this Karlie burst out laughing, unable to contain herself any longer, and Sarah was smiling widely at the thought of their Gramma Kelly’s face every time Karl dropped a hard, firm “fuck” in casual conversation. “Oh yes,” he continued smugly, “Your Gramma would just keel over if she heard that kind of shit coming out of you.”
At this Sarah finally exploded in laughter of her own and he joined, all three of them cracking up as the SUV plowed through the wheat fields of Northern Kansas, headed for Amber Grove.
“Sweetie,” he said addressing Sarah, “You don’t have to worry about The Hole.”
“I don’t worry!” she protested, still laughing. “I just wanna know stuff before.”
“What stuff?” he asked.
“Yeah, you wuss, what stuff?” Karlie said from the backseat.
“Be nice or I’ll make you go to church with Gramma Kelly,” Harold threatened. At this Karlie froze, a look of real fear on her face. She nodded and looked down, picking up the book she had brought with her and staring intently at it, determined not to have to suffer the geriatric experience of ointment-smell and cheek-pinches that a visit to Kelly’s small church would bring. “Yeah,” Harold said, “that’s what I thought.”
The car was quiet for a few minutes. Harold had not really been mad at Karlie, but he needed her to be quiet. Sarah was at that critical point and while he really wanted to see this thing he would not make her if she really felt that uncomfortable about it. She would question, he would answer, and hopefully that would calm her fears. Nothing would help, though, like Karlie being quiet instead of picking at her sister.
“Daddy?” Sarah finally asked. “Daddy, what exactly is it?”
“It’s just a hole honey,” he replied. “That’s all. The whole myth is weird and I don’t think it makes any sense, so the real explanation is that it’s just an unusually deep hole in the ground near a small town in Kansas. Nothing special, but all the stories and such from the townspeople over the last couple of years has built it up into something weird and that’s why people like stopping to see it. It’s a silly thing and it’s just for fun, none of the stuff they came up with is true.
“You see, sweetie, this old guy found it in a field outside of town while he was plowing. Took his whole damn tractor actually, it was a big hole. It just kind of appeared out of nowhere, like a sinkhole or somethin’. So this guy, Jimmy Griffin, he found the whole with his tractor and barely caught the edge.”
Sarah was contemplating this, and hard. She had squinted, bunched up her nose, and she got that same little crinkle her mother had gotten when she was really considering some difficult decision. Hell, her mother had gotten that same crease when they had been nearing the end of their fifth date as she thought about having sex with Harold for the first time, she got that crease over everything.
“He fell. He fell in the hole?” she asked.
“Yup, he said, he fell but he climbed out because he caught onto the edge.”
“So…was he ok?”
“Yeah honey, he climbed out and went to get his dad so they could try to get the tractor out but it was gone. Fell clear down to wherever the bottom is and stayed there.”
“But he was fine?”
“Yes. When he climbed out of there he was fine.” Harold said.
What he neglected to tell them was what happened later, what Jimmy Griffin had become, the aftermath of his brief moment in The Hole of Amber Grove. The kid had been ok for a couple of weeks, sure, but then he had started to get weird. Nothing horrid, nothing sordid, but he had become a recluse that preferred to stay in his room rather than interact with the people of the town that he had once been, according to reports, very social with.
Jimmy had changed so suddenly, so blatantly, that his parents had not known what to do about it. Every day he tried to spend as much time in his room as he could, scribbling in a journal and mumbling to himself on occasion but mostly just thinking and chuckling to himself. The days had worn on harder and with less human interaction for the boy. His attitudes began to grow from reclusive to aggressive, his moods swinging from absolute calm to cruel tongue lashings, momentary cracks of the verbal whip at his parents who tried to coax him to different outings; his date to the Valentine’s Day dance in town never happened, the time spent with family at Easter service instead just a day in his self-imposed prison. He was a time-bomb waiting to tick down to the final seconds.
Growing testy, he had finally snapped at the dinner table one night and thrown his plate against the wall. Harold did not tell his girls how the peas and mashed potatoes and stuck there, been left to run down the wall and stain the wallpaper while his parents sat in silence, wondering what they had said to set him off and trembling with fear and worry for their son. He did not tell them how, after discussing it with some of their friends and fellow parents, they had decided to make the worst decision they could have made – they called a pastor.
Articles that Harold read did not go into much detail over what had happened in the meetings with one Pastor David Sheppard – a man whose name was far too on the nose – and what had happened but the theorists had dug and found plenty. There had been pictures of the good reverend though, author’s photographs from his books on the prayer styles of Jabez and the meaning of select word couplings in Old Testament monologues, black and white pictures of the man seated at his desk in his best black suit. There were photos of him preaching in the church of Amber Grove, so much of the town in attendance and his arms raised to the sky as he taught of the love of Christ. Jimmy’s parents had been sure that his kind man, this sanct preacher, would be able to help their child.
Apparently, or so the story went, there had been an exorcism of sorts.
Apparently, according to one article, it had not gone well.
“Honey we’re not getting too close and we’re not dippin’ our toes in, we’re just swinging by for a peek on the way,” Harold said. “I’m just curious about it, that’s all. I mean, who wouldn’t be?”
“The site said there had been a few weird things,” Karlie said, startling Harold. She hadn’t spoken in nearly ten minutes now, a new record for her, and he had been under the impression that she had actually started reading instead of just pretending to so she could avoid church with Kelly.
“What weird things?” he asked her.
“They said someone never came out.” So she had read a bit further than he thought. Apparently the site was more open about the crazy stuff than he had thought.
It made a lot of sense. When you had a haunted house or hotel you advertised it, you let everyone you could know, and you made sure the basics of the legend made it to everyone you could so that the tourists would have a neat place to visit when passing through. Folks were always looking to see a bit of the local color, they were always in the mood for thrills, and anything remotely strange just begged to be looked at. This was one of the weirdest in the state, right up there with that cemetery that they said opened up to hell, a this was a new legend – the best kind there was.
“Honey some idiot jumped in a hole that’s so deep they never found the bottom. There’s nothing that weird about it except his mental health. No one just jumps in a hole like that without something seriously wrong with them.”
“Daddy,” Karlie said tentatively, “the page said he was military.”
“Takes all kinds to make an army, sweetheart,” he replied.
Charlie Cordell had been a grunt, an army corporal from a local base, that was part of the team brought in to guard the site during the brief period a decade ago when scientists and military had come to look themselves. Harold had looked up photographs displaying swarms of people who had been around to not only inspect the place, but guard it.
Bright white coats and tents surrounded the anomaly while drab, dark green uniforms stood on the edges of the photos in the web article. Some kids from the university in Kansas City had come down to try to get information for an article. He had looked at the images of smart men and women running around, all trying to find out what was going on. They had discovered absolutely nothing, backing Harold’s point to his children. The local legend was just that – legend.
They had pulled out after being unable to conclude anything, but not before the incident with Corporal Cordell. One of the snapshots taken by a budding journalism major, Mai Mitchell, showed a proud young man in his early twenties smiling for the camera as she snapped a shot of him for the article she was working on with her friends. The story had gone nowhere, at least so far, but they had wanted to come back with at least something to show for their time spent. Some shots of the phd candidates and their supervisors, the military boys in their army greens, and one shot of the actual hole as everyone pulled out would go over a lot better than a small block of text about how “it was nothing.”
Finally getting ready to leave, the article had been near completion and Mai had wanted one shot of the hole. Corporal Cordell had been willing to show it to her, get her close. “Probably just hoping to get a little action,” Harold had thought as he read the article. The two had gone up close, right up to the edge, and the young soldier had dangled his feet into the hole and sat right on the edge, eating a sandwich for lunch as the young woman too his picture.
The camera survived.
She had sat on the grass a couple of feet away, unwilling to get too close to something rumored to be “bottomless,” and so they had chatted. The rest of his group had come running when they heard the screams, had seen her struggling in his arms, and had raced towards them. They had not been fast enough.
Mai Mitchell had been flung into the hole, never to be seen again. Her camera had lain on the ground, it’s SD card containing photos of a smiling and happy young man just hoping to do a little innocent flirting, or so it seemed. She could he heard, according to reports, for a full minute after being thrown in. The screams echoed up into the sunlight where the troops were wrestling Cordell to the ground in front of the rest of the students from the university, the bulk of them also following the screams.
“They’ll like her,” Cordell had said. “They’ll keep her. The gone will take her in there.”
Harold had also looked up what happened to the Corporal afterward, but there was nothing. The only article had come from Mai’s friends and even that was very bare. The university capitalized on it, made a statement out of it, and there were candlelit vigils and anti-military protests on campus but ultimately that was the end of it. She had simply been unable to be recovered, her parents still in a legal battle with the town over the attempt to recover her body.
“Did the military man get….ok?” Sarah asked.
Harold paused for a minute.
“I mean, was there anything about The Hole afterward?” she pressed. “From him?”
“No, baby,” Harold said, “there was nothing more about that and I’m sure he’s fine.”
And this was true to him. He felt like the military would take care of their own, and there had been no further information on him other than the one article. It was an angry one but it had been public, in front of students with cell phones who had said things to people and made a rather significant deal out of the death of their friend very quickly. There was another legal battle over that, but Harold had not followed that further down the rabbit hole.
They followed the highway for the last spurt, twenty miles or so, avoiding the topic of what they were about to see. Sarah’s fears had been placated, that was enough for Harold, and Karlie had gone back to picking at her sister for some other nonsense and he was fine with their distraction. He really wanted to see this thing and as long as Sarah didn’t freak things would work out.
The corporal had talked about “the gone” after he had thrown the girl into the hole. Harold had no understanding of it, no idea what it meant, but it was kind of intriguing to him. The townspeople had encouraged the rumors about voices and such, it really upped the foot-traffic, but there had not been an incident in years. What made Harold so curious as to what “the gone” could have been. There were no real, true guesses online. There was a lot of theorizing on forum sites and fanboys, eerie gore-hounds who lived for this kind of macabre thing, had come up with all sorts of crazy things. Everything from ghosts to Lovecraft’s monsters to even Amun-Ra had been suggested and agonized over, video posts from conspiracy theorists on YouTube had all been done, but there were just no solid ideas out there about what it could be.
And so Harold took “Exit 37”, which his phone map told him was the exit for Amber Grove. The ramp led them up and he took the right, following the signs. A bit of graffiti had been put up on the green highway sign, a dark splotch of black spray-paint next to the name of the town. The Hole was the main way to identify the town, to know you were in the right place, a symbol for those who had heard of it to follow.
“Almost there girls,” he announced jovially.
“They painted the sign,” Karlie said. She sounded excited.
“Just so we know we’re in the right place,” Harold replied, winking at her in the mirror.
Sarah stayed quiet but her eyes were wide and looking out the window, peering through the stalks of wheat at the line of trees in the distance. She could see cows roaming far off, chewing cud.
“Cows on my side,” she said, whipping about to face her father.
“Dangit!” Harold cried in mock frustration, theatrically setting his face to “defeated.”
She turned back to face front and squinted at something coming up. An arm extended, her finger pointing ahead. Harold followed it and found what she was wanting him to look at – a small wooden sign, in the shape of an arrow pointing right to indicate a turn. On it in red, painted-on letters, was the word “Hole”.
“Gee, wonder which way we go now?” Harold chuckled.
“Take a guess daddy!” Karlie chirped.
Sarah remained silent but smiled. She was ok.
He took the turn and slowed down, sticking at forty miles-per-hour. He had no desire to get pulled over in this tiny town, to have to pay a large ticket for irking someone. All he wanted was to see this weird spot, to look at this place and see if he could figure it out. He loved the mystery, the conspiracy, the discussion surrounding it all. New myths and legends were in short supply in his world, most of them things he had no chance to check out, but this one was on the way to a place he was headed and it was not to be missed. Even if it was just a silly nothing it was a chance to have some fun with the girls, to show them something inexplicable, and to give them a little thrill.
Up ahead was an iron gate, marking someone’s land. The Griffin family most likely, the swing-bar of the gate blocking entrance without permission. There was a shack next to it, a booth that looked like a child’s lemonade stand build out of dingy wood. A sign had been erected that read “The Hole”. A small, grey-haired woman sat at it with a sour expression on her face. Harold wondered, briefly, if they would have to pay to see this thing. He slowed and rolled down his window, pulling right up to the gate and turning to address the woman.
“Is this where we…”
“No cars passed this point,” she said in a withered, croaking voice.
“Oh,” he replied, caught off-guard. “Ok then, do we just park here?”
“Yup. Park right there, just turn the car off and I’ll take you on down.”
“Thank you,” he said, smiling. “Do we pay you anything or owe you a fee or something?”
“No fee,” she replied.
“Well excellent, I’ll get the girls out.”
He rolled up the window, keeping the smile plastered to his face. The woman rose and headed began to walk to the other side of the gate. She was decked to the small-town-nines, her orange wool skirt and threadbare blue cardigan matching her tight bun and stern librarian’s spectacles nicely. The atmosphere was already unfriendly, but he supposed it was all part of the showmanship.
“Ok girls,” he said, turning to face his kids, “we’re going in.”
“She looks like a shriveled grape,” Karlie said, setting Sarah into a fit of giggles.
“That she does,” Harold agreed, “but we still need to be polite. She’s going to take us to the site and let us look so we’re going to be nice. Very nice. Keep that smile on, don’t let her see we think she’s a bit pruney.”
At this both girls began laughing again and the mood was lightened enough. They were ready.
Harold, Sarah, and Karlie got out of the car and began to follow the woman he assumed was Mother Griffin. Swinging over the gate one leg at a time he trudged after her, the kids opting to duck the bar instead and sticking close behind. The path had been worn down by tractors and cars, a lot of the field damaged by the inspecting visitors. There was still wheat though, and it rustled in the light breeze that chilled the afternoon air. The golden waves swirled around them as they walked down the path.
“Mrs. Griffin?” Harold asked. She turned her head slightly, slowed her gait and allowed him to catch up. He quickened to come alongside her and they matched pace.
“What can I do for you?” she asked.
“Harold Stinton’s the name.”
“Well, Harold, I repeat – what can I do for you?”
“I was just wondering, ma’am, what all you can tell me about what we’re going to see?”
At this she smiled a bit, a thin one and not without humor. Her weathered and tan skin stretched with the effort of it, like it was an expression she did not use often. The eyes, which he now saw were a bright blue, sparkled a bit behind the eyeglasses.
“You think we’re capitalizing on our son’s death,” she said with tone of patronization.
“N-no,” he stuttered, “I don’t think…”
“But you do! You and everybody else who takes the exit to Amber Grove hoping for a thrill, for a laugh, for some sort of spook. Everyone who comes this way to see The Hole is also hoping to see a bit of Midwestern brutality around here, looking to see some eerie religious zealots charging people to see a legend built around what happened to their son. But we aren’t like that, this isn’t a paid-for thing, and we want people to know – we want people to understand what happened to Jimmy, or to that horny soldier for that matter. You’d think we were something out of Shirley Jackson, drawing lots and murdering people for the wheat harvest, the way people act.”
“Mrs. Griffin what did happen to your son?” Harold whispered, blurted. The girls were several paces behind them, poking at each other with discarded chaff and playfully ankle-biting. They could not hear him ask, hear him probe for juicy details.
“Do they know anything about him?” she asked, lowering her tone to match Harold’s.
“No. I haven’t told them much about the aftermath, just that he found it originally.”
She sighed, reached one hand up to touch his shoulder in a friendly gesture. They were compadres now, conspirators working to hide the truth from those who were not yet ready to handle it. She squeezed his shoulder and looked him in the eye, the small glint of a tear just visible.
“The pastor was unable to help him, but he thinks he figured out what was wrong.”
“What was it?”
“Poor Pastor Sheppard,” she sighed. “He tried everything he could. We aren’t Catholic but he checked into it, drove a couple of hours to speak with a priest and get holy water, find out what to do, even tried to get someone to come out but in the end he had to make the attempt himself. Came back and tried an exorcism. It didn’t pan out.”
“Tell me,” he said, his breath short and his pulse quickening.
“In the end our son grew violent in his desperation. He wanted to quiet what was in his head, wanted to unsee whatever he had seen. He attacked the pastor, fought back while his father and I tried to hold him down. We had a few of the folks from around here downstairs, ready to step in and help if we needed. Already we knew something was wrong about The Hole, knew it was something terrible, but we didn’t know it would do this. They were down there, ready to run up the stairs and bushwhack him if we needed. Seems he’d thought of that, though.
“He leapt out the window, through the glass. When they picked him up off the lawn he had glass everywhere and was all twisted up, like somthin’ out of nightmares. It doesn’t look like it does in videos, in movies I mean. Stuff like that, they still try to make the body look human, like there’s still a soul in there. Jimmy? He was just a broken body, nothin’ left of him.”
“Shit,” Harold whispered. “Shit.”
“Language,” she chastised. “Our son was dealing with whatever hitched a ride in him from that place and it got that soldier-boy too. They saw somethin’, somethin’ nobody’s supposed to see, and they brought part of it back with them.”
“So why do you show it to people?” Harold was scared now, edgy, and worried.
“Son we don’t let people get too close,” she explained. “We let ‘em see it, let ‘em be close to it, but we don’t let ‘em get too close, understand?” He shook his head.
“Ok, she said, pointing up ahead, “look at that then.” Ahead were a cluster of men, locals by the look of it, all facing down the path. Harold saw them, knew they had already seen his family approaching. “They guard it, you see?” she said to him. “We have a small group of townspeople that surround the thing, never let anyone get too close. They’ve gotten used to how it feels and they rotate around so that no one ever falls asleep on the job, no one snaps and goes for the thing, and no one gets to dip an arm or anything in there.”
“You keep it guarded?” he asked.
“Day and night. We watched our son die, watched that Corporal as they wrestled him to the ground. He was spoutin’ off about “the gone” and such, losing his head after he’d killed that poor girl, and we don’t want any repeats of the situations. We just want people to see it, to feel it, and to understand that there really is something here.”
“Hey now what did he mean by that?” Harold asked. “What did he mean by “the gone”?”
“Ah,” she said. “Now that we haven’t been able to figure out. No one is brave enough to go in and see, to get too close. We don’t want to know.”
“You have a guess?”
“Me? My guess is that it’s something awful, something dead.”
“Yes, dead. Dead and gone.”
Harold did not engage in further conversation, and she offered none. The girls were quiet now, and he hoped they had not heard any of what had been said. His curiosity was stronger than ever, but he had them to think about and if anything looked hairy they would be headed back up that path immediately and probably to Sarah’s relief.
They reached the line of townsfolk, a group of surly individuals who looked none too pleased about having to guard this thing. They held up their hands, stopping the tour party short. One of the bigger men stepped forward and the other men shuffled to close the gap.
“Wade Higgins,” he said, extending a hand.
“Harold Stinton,” came the reply, reaching to clasp the offered hand. They shook.
“Ok,” Wade said, “rules are pretty simple about this whole thing. Girls!” he called to the kids. “Girls, can you come up here and listen with your daddy for a sec? We’re gonna go over the rules for The Hole.” They dropped the vegetation they had been playing with on the walk and stepped up, Sarah reaching for her father’s hand and holding tight while Karlie stood off too the side, too old and too cool for kid things like holding daddy’s hand.
“So, basics are this – don’t get closer than we do, stay back, and remember that you don’t want to put anything in there. Don’t throw a rock, don’t run up and stick your arm in, don’t do anything but look. You start to feel scared or weird you just tell Mrs. Griffin and she’ll walk you back to the car if your daddy’s ok with it. Other than that just take a gander and be done with it. Any questions for us then go ahead and ask.”
“I think we can handle that,” Harold said.
“Ok then,” Wade replied, “you’re good to go.”
The line of men stepped aside and Wade led them forward. Sarah hung back, nervous.
“You coming honey?” Harold asked.
“In a sec daddy. I just want to stay here with Mrs. Griffin for a minute. That ok?”
“Yeah honey,” Harold said. He turned and reached for Karlie but she shrugged him off, excited to just get on with it. They stepped through the gap in the line and walked in behind Wade.
It was a weird hole, that was for sure.
It had to have been at least a fifteen foot diameter, large enough for the small tractor to have fallen into with ease. It just looked like a hole, Harold could see the sides going down. The grass had grown in a bit at the edges and hung over the rim of the pit. The darkness grew as it sunk further and further down, out of sight, but that was not the thing that put a brick in Harold’s gut.
The thing that freaked him out was its’ cylindric perfection, the exact circle of it. The sides were smooth, leading his gaze further and further down. The ring of men around it matched, a perfect circle that guarded the pit. Harold imagined it was honorary for them, a prized activity that allowed them to hold strong against the sheer discomfort that any person would feel looking at this thing.
“It’s still just a goddamn hole in the goddamn ground,” Harold thought to himself. Karlie grasped his hand, pulling herself close to him, but leaned forward as if hoping to try to glimpse the bottom. They could not get close enough to see if it was, indeed, just a hole that led down into darkness. As they inched closer Harold was aware of the townsfolk, the guardians and human gargoyles that lined this holy and terrifying site. They carried no weapons, were probably wary of frightening the tourists and of any repercussions from the wider public eye since the small but national attention they had received due to their dark charge. Their tense attitude still made Harold uneasy, but his curiosity got the better of him and he inched forward a little more.
Wade put a hand out, his palm resting on Harold’s chest and looked down at Karlie, shaking his head to indicate they should move no further. Her grip on her father’s hand tightened, and he heard a small whimper slip out of her. She had not started to cry but it was close.
The other men closed in as Wade carefully moved Harold and Karlie back. “Sir, please,” Wade tried to reason. “Just step back.”
“We are,: Harold said. Out of the corner of his eye he looked for his other daughter. Where was Sarah. He moved back and the cadre of tense men stepped back, diffused by his compliance. Karlie stood behind him, shielding herself from the men with her father, the patron saint of outspoken and inquisitive daughters everywhere. He put is arm on her shoulder and led her around to his side so she could see the hole.
“Oh, daddy,” she said. He barely heard her, he was still looking Wade in the eye.
“Yes, baby,” he replied, “it’s weird. Gives me the shivers.”
“No, daddy, Sarah!” she yipped.
The group of men spun around, Harold craning his neck to try to see over them. He his youngest sitting on the edge, her legs dangling over the side. She was giggling and talking, seemingly to herself. She began to lean forward.
The guardians were frozen in shock, the sight of the small child in their semi-sacred hole disturbing and unseemly. Harold seized his opportunity and hoisted Karlie, hurtling her over his shoulder and bursting forth. He knocked Wade and two other men to the ground, racing forward. His stomach lurched and, in the distance, he heard shouting and laughter. It was odd, the muffled sound of it in his ears. He felt light-headed but he pushed on, sweeping Sarah up as she was beginning to lose balance and tucking her under his arm. Without stopping to look where he was headed he burst into the wheat field, the guardians still stumbling to get off of the ground.
“I am he,” Sarah sang to herself.
The stalks scratched at his arms, his face, his neck. Harold bowled through the stalks, knowing they could see where he was going and not caring. Already he could hear them calling to each other, shouting. They were trying to stop him, stop the girls, from getting away. Already they would be back to the car. Swearing at his lack of hands he called out to Sarah to fish out his phone.
“As you are he,” she sang back, sweetly.
“Fuck,” he muttered and hurled forth. They would have gone to his car, he would have to make for town and hope he reached it before they got back and the whole creepy, culty lot of them were on his tail. If he could just get to the gas station, get to a phone, he might be able to get some law enforcement and some help.
“As you are me,” Sarah sang, a broad smile spreading across her face.
The cocking of a rifle sounded behind Harold and a shot rang out. He hunched and continued running, his thighs and calves burning from the effort of carrying the two girls the whole way. Another shot, and the head of the stalk right above him burst, the bits cascading everywhere like autumn leaves in the wind.
“As we are all together,” Sarah continued, her brows furrowing and the smile spreading, a wicked gleam to it. Harold pushed on, harder and harder. He felt the stabbing pain in his side but he had to think of the girls, of saving them.
They would make it. They had to make it.