Short Fiction Friday: Panther Mine (Part 2)

Posted: January 6, 2012 in Ryan Crutchfield, Short Fiction, Short Fiction Friday
Tags: ,

The second part of our Short Fiction Friday Event, brought to you by TQP contributor Ryan Crutchfield. Part One can be found here, probably read that one first.

As they spread out across the hill and began mapping, Patrick’s mind wandered to the last time a project he was on had run into problems. It was years ago, a simpler time, before he was crew chief running his own projects. Practically the entire office was on site helping out with the excavation of a site overlooking the Tennessee River near the Interstate 65 bridge. DOT officials wanted to widen the interstate and the entire site needed to be excavated before work could commence.

The project had commenced under favorable circumstances and Dr. Mathis, the principle investigator on the dig, had even taken the crew on a special field trip after the first week had finished ahead of schedule. He announced the trip during Friday lunch, as everybody gathered around the wheelbarrows, buckets and screens. Dr. Mathis had a loquacious manner and spent at least 15 minutes talking about a local bat species (or “little Myotis lucifugus” as he kept referring to it) before announcing that at dusk the entire crew would watch thousands of these bats launch themselves from a local cave system.

After work the entire crew loaded into the vans and trucks and traveled to see the bats. The cave opening faced south on a gently sloping yet heavily wooded hill that ended in an unnamed drainage. As the light started to fade, the crew gathered below the cave mouth in anticipation. The mosquitoes were hell, but as the last vestiges of light began to fade and melt into the trees, thousands and thousands of bats erupted from the cave and danced around the humans devouring the mosquitoes. Some of the crew panicked and ducked or took off running through the woods towards the vehicles, but Patrick and most of the others stood in awe. Patrick was sure that he felt the the breeze of passing bats on several occasions. Just as quickly as they had appeared, the bats disappeared deeper into the forest.

After the bats had mostly left, Dr. Mathis gathered them all by the mouth of the cave in order to give a short history of this cave system and the general geological history of the area. He lived for that kind of thing.

The mouth of the cave was fairly large, stretching up to about thirteen feet at its apex and stretching across the hillside for about 100 feet. A stream flowed out of the darkness of the cave from some unknown source, spilling out of the western mouth of the cave and into the drainage below. As Dr. Mathis had stood with his back to the cave addressing the crew a large splash erupted behind him in the stream and he had yelped and ran away from the cave. A flashlight had been found and when Patrick and some of the other crew had gone back to check out the noise they had found an otter munching happily on crayfish. They never got to hear the end of his lecture, but Patrick still laughed whenever he remembered the panicked look as Dr. Mathis fled the deadly cave otter.

Dr. Mathis had joined the crew afterwards and bought the first round at Jimmy’s, a hole located on the outskirts of Madison near their hotel. Heady from an exciting week and flushed from the incident with the otter, he was in rare form, laughing and swapping tall tales. At some point in the grimier hours in the morning, somebody had started calling him Dr. Otter. Patrick didn’t remember if it had been him, didn’t remember if Mathis had laughed or not. Patrick mostly remembered the thumping of the jukebox and how it had started to sound like the flapping wings of a bat.

It had been a great first week, ending with a fantastic and memorable field trip, but the following weeks would destroy all signs of those initial days. When they got to the lower levels of the site, the ones closer to the river, they had started finding complex and bizarre burials. A headless human buried upside down, the five deer skeletons found arranged in a circle – these were the beginning of a series of discoveries that absolutely blew the project timeline and budget apart. When Patrick and Thomas had excavated what appeared to be the severed head of a horse from the bottom of a trash pit, Dr. Mathis had lost his shit. He began arguing with Dr. Felder, who had been brought in to assist when things started to get weird. Patrick remembered them shouting about “chronological continuity” and Dr. Felder had told Mathis where he could put his artifacts.

Shortly after this event, Patrick and a number of the crew had been pulled off to start the Parris Island project. Patrick later heard that the remaining team found even stranger discoveries and that eventually the project was shut down and that maybe the government had gotten involved. All unconfirmed rumours, but Patrick had yet to work with anybody again who had been left behind. He had also heard that Dr. Mathis had been sent to Vieques on a multi year project but that he had quit after a few months and disappeared.

Patrick looked down at the map he had started and frowned. He had doodled bats and otters all over the page. The otters had sharp eyes and sharper teeth; the bats had large eyes and no mouths. Patrick cursed and furiously erased the doodles. He checked his watch and was shocked to see that an hour had passed. He had only mapped two headstones.

Patrick stood up and looked up the hill and muttered, “Where in the hell are those guys.” He glanced over to Jeff who was measuring a headstone off to his right. Patrick sighed and grabbed his two-way.
“God dammit Jolie. Where are you at?” The radio crackled back with inveterate silence. He thought he heard a mechanical whine in the background and then the radio died. He shoved the radio into his backpack and muttered to himself as he began to map again.
As he focused on his task the map began to take shape and he took notes, sketches, and photographs of the headstones. The dates were averaging around the middle of the 18th century, which still bugged Patrick, but he would let some of the researchers back at the office figure that out. Off to his left at the far edge of the cemetery bounds, he noticed Jeff walking downhill. Patrick thought to himself that he must be making good time and focused back on his work.
“Here is the graph paper you wanted,” Jeff said from behind him and Patrick screamed like a schoolgirl and lurched forward scattering his clipboard.

Scrambling to his feet and turning he looked at Jeff, who was backpedaling, and shouted, “How did you get there!”

Jeff swallowed. “Damn Patrick, what are you talking about?”

“I just saw you walking down the hill over there,” Patrick pointed. They both looked at the eastern edge of the cemetery, but nothing moved and Patrick began to feel worried.

“You just shouted over to me not 30 seconds ago that you needed some more graph paper. And you know that I was right over there.” An awkward silence stretched between them. “Maybe it was Matt?”
Patrick started to feel dizzy and sat back down, struggling to pull everything together. “I didn’t ask you for any graph paper. I have plenty right here.” He reached for his clipboard and turned it over. His map was covered in doodles again, this time mud daubers haunted the page, loud and glaring. He flipped through the pages. They were all ruined with sketches.

Jeff looked at him strangely, “Dude. What are you doing?”

Patrick didn’t answer. He just looked at the drawings. He felt proud of them for some reason that he couldn’t quite place.

“And where the heck are Jolie and Matt?”

“I don’t know.” Patrick wasn’t sure what else he could add. He looked at his watch; it was about an hour and a half since Jolie had said they were on their way. “They must be lost. If we don’t hear from them soon then we will go looking.” He didn’t mention the radio dying, didn’t mention the static. He wasn’t sure why.

Jeff handed him some graph paper and walked back to his area, glancing back at Patrick occasionally.

Patrick rubbed his head. He looked at his clipboard to see how much work he had actually done. Frowning, he realized that much of the work he had thought he had done was not there. Worse, he apparently had also added specious information to some of the notes. Under each tombstone record he had appended what appeared to be cause of death. Strangulation. Drowned. Sacrificed. Scaphism. Sepsis. Suicide. Patrick didn’t even know what some of these words meant and and he scribbled them out.

Patrick wasn’t sure what was going on, but he knew that they needed to finish this project before nightfall. He redoubled his efforts and after awhile reached the eastern perimeter of the graves. He could no longer see the truck from this position, and there were too many trees between him and Jeff to maintain visual line of sight. Down at the bottom of the hill a large and dank swamp soaked the edge of the forest. Trees and tombstones vanished into the murk and it radiated a foul miasma. A shadowy mist hung low to the water and wafted in and out of the trees in an unholy pattern.

Patrick walked down the hill, weaving through the headstones which were closer and more concentrated in this area. The trees were thick and the sunlight struggled through the branches. As he approached the edge of the water, he noticed large shapes standing in the murk at a distance. He stopped at the edge and squinted through the haze at the shapes. They would not come into focus, seeming to stay just at the edge of clarity. He thought that they might be burial vaults, but he couldn’t be sure. Being underwater, this part of the cemetery would go unmapped.

He walked slowly back up the hill to where he had paused his mapping. He went to glance at his watch, but it was missing. He checked his pockets and backpack, but it was nowhere to be found. He couldn’t recall taking it off. As he was searching his backpack, the radio crackled softly. He pulled the radio back out of his pack and stared at it. He held the microphone close to his face and whispered softly,
“Hello?” The radio answered back with the droning of ten thousand wasps. Patrick dropped the radio and ran.

He scrambled through the slabs towards Jeff. He stopped when he saw Jeff’s backpack and clipboard leaning against a tombstone. He picked up the clipboard and stared with horror at the picture that Jeff had sketched. It was an image of a person buried up to their neck. Insects swarmed around the head. The head bore an spooky resemblance to Jeff.

His eyes were missing.

Patrick began to panic. He swiveled and scanned the graves but he was alone on the hill. He looked up the hill towards where the truck should be, but he couldn’t make it out.

“Hey!”, he yelled. The silence was only broken by the passing flight of a paper wasp. A shrill whistle from downhill caused Patrick to jerk his head around. At the base of the hill near the edge of the swamp stood a figure. It gestured for him to come down then loped off behind the trees. Patrick did not move, did not like the way that the figure had moved. It had not been Jeff; it was Jolie. He started down the hill wondering if this was all some cog in one of Jolie’s annoying pranks. He smirked. Jeff had probably been in on it from the beginning.

He approached the bottom of the hill and he could see the shapes deep in the swamp again. He walked in the direction that Jolie had vanished, deep into a particularly dense section of the forest.

“Patrick,” a voice whispered in his ear and he jerked around and looked up the hill. Jolie sat on one of the tombstones smiling at him with her head cocked to one side. Her eyes were black and gleaming; her teeth looked sharper than he remembered. Her mouth parted slightly and a wasp crawled out and down her chin and took flight off into the forest.

“Jolie? What is going…”, Patrick started before a sharp pain lanced through his left arm. Searing pain raced through his veins and he saw white spots at the edge of his vision. He lurched and cursed. He felt something crawling up his back under his shirt.

A loud splashing from the swamp erupted behind him. Images of Dr. Mathis running and stumbling from the cave mouth flashed through Patrick’s mind, but Patrick’s body would not move, no matter how much he willed it. As Jolie continued to smile impishly from her eidolic throne, wasps of all shapes and sizes continued to clamber and wriggle from her body. Patrick felt a slow, numbing warmness moving through his body and occasionally hammer strikes of pain would rocket across his arms and back. The splashing neared and even though Patrick could not move, could not turn around, he knew it wouldn’t be an otter this time. As the numbness circulated through his body he smiled back at Jolie and closed his eyes.

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