“That ol’ place out there… There's something wrong with it,” Dave said.
That place he was referring to was the old salt quarry just east of Exton. The quarry itself was a giant off-white pit in the ground reaching down to depths unknown, and around it were scattered dilapidated buildings, outhouses, break rooms, and the largest and best-preserved of them was the office, where the quarry management had worked in relative coolness and workers had lined up outside to receive a hard day’s pay. It was the place I liked to go to spend time and be alone with my thoughts.
“There’s something wrong with it, I tell ya,” Dave said. “I don't think anyone in their right mind would go down there. My pa done tell me stories when I was little that scared the bejesus out of me an’ my brothers.” He paused to sip at his drink.
“He used to work down there, you know, before they shut it down and left damn near everyone in town without a job. Anyway, as I was sayin’, he used to tell us stories about the place. He said one of the other guys, one of them that worked real deep in the thing, although my pa never did know his name, he said that man disappeared one day while working. He clocked in one morning, then never clocked out.” Dave stopped and peered at me, apparently expecting me to be shocked. I wasn’t, but I feigned it and told him to continue.
“My pa told us they held a manhunt and everything. Apparently the missing man had been related to the mayor or some such thing, otherwise there wouldn't have been such a fuss, but even after searching the place and everywhere around it, they never found him and eventually gave up. Couple days passed though, and then out of nowhere the missing man just showed up one night, walking down the road into town from that place like nothing had happened. Everyone knew it was him, pictures been posted all over town, and it matched his likeness well enough, but anyone who talked to him got this uneasy feeling in the pit of their stomach like something just ain't right about him. The man’d forgotten some things he shoulda known, knew some things he shouldn’t, acted different-like. Whatever the case, he got the picture soon enough and ended up leaving town. Not many people were sorry to see him go, and no one never seen him again. My pa told us that after a couple more guys went missing at the that place, some of them disappearing for good, some of them showing up later, all of them wrong, that’s when they shut down that place for good.” He inclined his head towards me and raised his eyebrows. “Like I said, there’s something wrong with that place.”
What was really wrong with the quarry, and the reason it had been shut down those many years ago, was it had just run out of salt. Not completely, mind you, but enough so that mining the rest of it just wasn’t worth the time and effort, and the company running it had moved on to bigger and better sites. I didn’t bother telling Dave that. He was a good ol’ boy, nice enough, and he seemed to have taken a liking to me in the short time I’d been in town.
We exchanged some more stories, and when it was time to leave the bar we parted warmly, but not without another warning from Dave.
“Stay away from that place, you hear?”
“All right, take it easy,” and that was that.
The next day, I was late to the school. My head felt like it was filled with nails and looking at anything that wasn’t in a shadow felt like I was staring directly into the sun, and looking near the sun felt ten times worse. Regardless, I had to teach dozens of loud, distractible, unruly middle school kids their math, and that day was no exception. I sent Weston to the principal’s office for disruption of class and just generally making a mess in period two, broke up what was nearly a fight in period five after a boy had borrowed a girl’s favorite eraser and refused to give it back, and then finally the misery that was a school day was over. Walking under the mid-September sun, feeling the humidity of the air upon my skin, and hearing the screams of children boarding buses grating against my eardrums, all I could think of was a nice, cool bottle of whiskey and being alone in the quiet solitude of the salt quarry. Unbidden, Dave’s warning from the night before came to mind. I dismissed it immediately. Any place without screaming children, screeching engines and whistling, rumbling trains was a right place to me.
Before I could go the quarry though, I had to stop by my apartment. It was on the main street of Exton, just far enough down the road to be away from the okay restaurants and bars that I might have otherwise frequented, and just close enough to still hear traffic at all hours of the day. Behind the apartment were a set of far-too-active-in-the-middle-of-the-night railroad tracks. I changed clothes, out of the long-sleeved button-up stained with ketchup on the right sleeve by Weston, out of the slacks that were considered appropriate for a teacher at the local middle school, and into T-shirt and jeans that were appropriate for anyone who wanted to be comfortable in the current weather. I also grabbed a jacket to stay warm in case the temperature dropped while I was still out there, and I grabbed the whiskey to stay warm no matter the temperature.
Out at the quarry, I spent most of my time in the old office building. It seemed sturdy enough. There were holes in some of the walls and I felt that if I kicked the right wooden post hard enough the entire thing would come crashing down, but it was safe enough for my purposes. I sat and listened to the silence of the quarry. The pit seemed to suck the sound out of the surrounding air as if there were a reverse-echo. Anything yelled into it would disappear, never to be heard again. Maybe that acoustic anomaly was the root of the wrongness Dave had droned on about. Whatever, it was fun sometimes to yell out over the pit and hear the sounds cut short, pulled into the darkness that puddled in the pit’s bottom to never be touched by the rays of the sun again. I thought about going down there occasionally, but even just the thought gave me the creeps. As much as I enjoyed the quiet solitude at the top, I wasn’t interested in the silent loneliness that laid at the bottom. When my bottle was empty, I chucked it as hard as I could across the pit and listened as the sound of it crashing never reached me. Then I left.
I was late again the next morning. It was becoming a habit, and when I could think coherently through the pain in my head and the constant buzzing of students, I feared the administration would soon notice. They did. In fact, that very day in my planning period, that brief near-respite that formed the sole bright spot of each workday, the front office called me down. I was given warning that administration could overlook a teacher being late once or twice, especially one who had come so highly recommended, but that they would be forced to take action if it happened again. Sort of a “three strikes, you’re out” thing, only I was pretty sure there had been more than two strikes. It had just been two so far this week. I reassured them that it wouldn't happen again, I was just going through some personal troubles, and then I walked slowly back to my classroom, getting there just before the bell rang and a multitude of students trampled through the halls, all their tiny legs acting in unison to bring them from one place to the next, and some of those students barged through the door and at last came to an uneasy rest in my classroom, where I began to teach their lesson for the day.
Dave called that afternoon, asking if I wanted to get together for a drink later. I told him I was busy, maybe next time. There must have been something in my voice though, because he asked if I had a rough day. I was thrown off by the question, then reasoned that he was asking as a way to convince me to go with him. I told him it had been just another day, apologized again and hung up. There was no alcohol left in my apartment, so I stopped by the liquor store on my way to the quarry.
I had been something once, you know? Perhaps not been something, but I had been on the way to being something. In my youth I had wanted to do so many things, write, be a banker, become president, be the head of some huge international corporation. I had a lot of aspirations really, almost too many. I could have done any of it too, if I had tried hard enough. I'd gotten great grades in high school without hardly even trying. I got into the best universities, getting into every school I’d applied for. When it came time to pick a major, I felt I could do any of them and any one of them would be easy. But it had been time for me to pick one, focus and choose the path the rest of my life would take, and that was hard. I made a choice, and I chose wrong. I switched majors and switched majors, getting the grades but never truly enjoying any of the classes I took, instead preferring to go to a park, sit on one of the university lawns or even stay alone in my dorm. I was finally forced to graduate, and the only career I really felt was attainable after so little specialization was education, and so that’s what I did. Oh, sure, I gave it my best effort, at first. The kids in there were well-behaved, and I actually received some accolades for my teaching. Eventually though, the kids started to be more disruptive and unruly, my head started to hurt more and more in the mornings, and my few refuges around town were growing more and more crowded. And so I moved to Exton and found this quarry, where no one else was willing to go and I could be left on my own to contemplate what mystery lay at the bottom of the pit while never growing the courage to go down and find out.
This time, I was laying on my back on the wooden floor of a room in the office building. I could feel the rough wood through the gray cloth of my T-shirt, splinters piercing through and pressing into my skin. I could turn my head sideways and see just how thick the layer of dust was that lay upon the forsaken floorboards. I didn't want to back to that place in my head, the one where I forgot where I was in the present. I reached out and my hand jostled something that made a tinking sound. I grabbed it and lifted the bottle to my lips. It was empty. Luckily it had a twin that was also in reach. It was not empty.
I woke up in a cold sweat. The air drafting in through the window was chilly and damp, tinged with a smell of something rotten and best left forgotten. There were little sounds carrying through the air as well, though they didn't seem to be drifting in through the window. No, it was coming from inside the building, in the hallway. I sat up and then groaned from the sharp pain that rang through my skull from the movement. The little sounds stopped. I tried to stand and instead stumbled, knocking one of the bottles into the other in a cascade of piercing glassy noises as they rolled across the floor. I caught myself against a wall and stood straight. The wooden slats beneath my fingers crumbled as I gripped them, and I let go. Then the sounds started again, like a trickling waterfall or a thousand tiny voices speaking at once and heard from far away. As it grew closer, I stepped towards the door. I had never seen a rat or a mouse in the building or anywhere else on the grounds. I didn't recall even hearing birds in the vicinity of the pit. I grew closer to the door, and a board freaked underneath my feet. The little sounds stopped again. I poked my head through the threshold to see what had been making them and froze.
There, ten feet down the hallway, was what could only be described as a thing. Maybe a monster. The tip of its head brushed the ceiling as it stood there, seemingly as transfixed as I was. Its gray-yellow torso took up much of its height, deep wrinkles stacked upon each other from its neck all the way down to where hundreds of tiny tendrils supported both its torso and slug-like tail as a bed of nails supports a body. On either side of the torso were curled two long tentacles, the tips of which wavered in the air, pointed towards him, sniffing him out. The thing’s face itself resembled a human much more than it had a right to, with two eyes, a nose, a mouth and an ear, but spaced oddly evenly across the expanse of skin, and its entire body was completely hairless.
And then the thing began to move again, hurtling towards me on its many tiny legs, eyes intent and mouth slightly parted. Its arms began to unwhirl, and I darted back into the relative safety of the room, slamming shut the half-door that remained. That wouldn’t be enough to stop it. I spotted a door on another wall that led to the next room. I ran to it and prayed it wasn't locked. I could hear the scrabbling growing closer. I threw the next door open and slammed it shut behind me.
This room was smaller, containing only a window and a heavy wooden desk. I ran to the desk and began to shove it up towards the door. As I pushed, I saw there was a small hole in the wall by the door and I watched the thing lean through the top of the other doorway, its lower body folding up and over the top of the broken door as the innumerable tendrils pulled it through. I pushed harder. The legs of the desk caught and snapped on the uneven floorboards. The desk fell over with a crash, and I shoved the bulk of it against the door. The handle turned and wiggled and bulged, but the door held fast. I backed away too fast and tripped, sending splinters of old wood through my fingers as I caught myself. I picked myself off the floor, then the ghastly face appeared through the hole. A tentacle shot through, wrapped itself around my right arm and jerked me forward back off of my feet. I was thrown into the remnants of the desk and felt something break, then braced myself upon it and tried to yank back away from the tentacle. It had a slimy but crushing grasp, none of my attempts at battering the tentacle seemed to affect it. I was slowing, inexorably being pulled upwards toward the hole. I placed my feet against the wall and extended my legs, pulling with all my strength, grimacing through the pain, and then I felt a sharp pop in my shoulder as something gave, then more pops and a tear and a scream and I fell hard back onto the floor, blood pouring freely from what was left of me. The tentacle disappeared, and there was a crunch. I scrambled backwards, away from the hole and from the door, then noticed the window again. I had to get out. There was a crash behind me and the door bulged inward, cracks forming across the middle, and the desk surged forward. I dashed for the window, stumbling as I went, and hit the sill hard. I flung myself wildly through it, glancing backwards in time to see the door frame and desk in front of it both explode as the thing broke through. There were low moans and creaks from the building’s roof as the beams near the door collapsed, and I was running, cupping the stump of my right arm with my left. I heard a furious shriek behind me and then an enormous crash as the entire building came down, shockwave and debris knocking me off my feet. I made it to my car and managed to stay awake long enough to guide it back to town, where someone must have found me and taken me to the local hospital.
I was told there was no monster, that I was drunk and hanging out in a unsafe dilapidated building when it finally collapsed. I didn’t bother arguing. I had been drunk, and they never found any sort of strange body. I almost believed them, and would have if not for how very vivid the memory was. Most of my trips to the quarry were dream-like, half memories that only partially existed, but this last felt real.
A couple days later, after I had been discharged from the hospital, right arm wrapped and bandaged, lacerations treated, headache gone, I drove back to the quarry. I had to see it for myself, before I went back to my oh-so-ordinary life. I didn’t even bring something to drink. I parked and walked to the edge of the pit. I peered down into it. It didn’t seem so quite so intimidating as it had before. This early in the day, the sun was highest and its rays lit the bottom of the pit. It was far away and difficult to tell, but I thought I could see a cart and some hard hats, but it nothing like I had imagined before. I heard a car door open. I spun around, alarmed and curious as to who had joined me out there. And there I stood. I looked at him. He looked at me. He glanced at my stump, then at his own right hand, and waved. Before I could move, he climbed into my car and drove away.