Story from Below

    I am writing to you from inside a dark, damp cave. The last of my candles is burning out, and I fear my message may not be complete. Nonetheless, I must tell of the horrible things I have found.

    The day started much like any other. I was camping near a mountain park and decided to take an early morning walk. A thick mist hung in the air that made it impossible to see more than fifty feet ahead. But even so, it wasn't the mist. It was something else, a shaking of the ground, a strong wind, I don't know. But I lost my balance, slipped, and fell down the side of a hill.

    It was dark when I woke. I had my backpack with me and a few supplies: some food, a bottle of water, and a flashlight. I turned the flashlight on and looked around. The hillside was not very steep. It should be no trouble to climb back up and find the trail. But I didn't. I can't say why. I wanted to see where I was, see what stretched out before me. It was a strange feeling, like the world I came from no longer existed, no longer mattered.

    Anyways, I wandered around for a few hours and found nothing at all, not a thing. I don't know what I expected to find. I turned off the flashlight, found a comfortable spot on the ground, and proceeded to sleep.

    It was an unpleasant sleep. In a dream, there was a great hole in the ground, like the vent of a volcano. And a deep beating sound from all sides hammered at my senses. I was sweating terribly and an itch spread over my body, like hundreds of centipedes burrowing into my veins. I clawed at the ground and tried to cover myself with dirt and leaves.

    Farther and farther down I went. The ground became cold and icy. Then the ground gave. I fell through and landed in water. Something weighed me down. I struggled to reach the surface but kept sinking. Water all around. Trees. Digging roots. Burning heat. Grabbing. Tearing me. Sweat crawling.

    Now ordinarily I would be glad to wake from a dream like that. But when I looked behind me and saw a cave entrance exactly as I had dreamed, the volcano vent, well, all the blood left my body, and I just sat there shivering, wishing I could be back in the dream, back where it was safe no matter how frightening.

    And I couldn't think of any safe places to picture to calm myself down. I couldn't remember home or pleasant strolls through grassy fields. There was none of this. All I knew was that there was a great haunting in front of me, with no reason or purpose to it.

    I saw tree branches moving. One of them spoke and whispered and hummed to me that they were cleaning up pieces of bark and that there was nothing to worry about because everything gets hurt sometimes. They picked my up gently and threw me into the hole.

    I realized then that I must still be dreaming, but it didn't matter. It was the same as it ever had been. I dreamt more, of the same things moving along and all about me. And when I did finally wake, if in fact I did, I was not at all surprised to find myself in a cave, light from the entrance barely visible far above me. I laughed, because it seemed I had finally caught up with this, that I had expected what would happen next.

    I no longer had my backpack, my supplies. And the gnawing in my stomach would soon be very important. I reached out and tried to feel my way around. There must be some way to figure this out, to make sense of it. I almost slipped into a much deeper hole.

    Acting more carefully now, I found a piece of cloth on the ground, directly underneath the entrance. I pulled at the cloth and there was resistance. A sudden crawling feeling told me that I should stop. I let go of the cloth and fell backwards, quite near the hole in fact. The cloth was a part of something that I was beginning to realize. If a thousand rats had come up from the hole and clawed at my flesh I would not have noticed then, so uneasy did I feel.

    I can't write about what I found. I'm afraid that if I do I will go quite mad. I can feel the little bit of sanity that I have left slipping away. It was many hours before I could stop my hands from shaking. I can say that I found a bag lying off to the side. In the bag were some candles, a few well-preserved matches, and paper and writing utensils from someone's journal. There were many other things, things that had been...

    I plan to finish this letter, secure it to something that can be thrown out of the cave, and hope that someday someone finds it. I know that will probably not happen.

    But even so, it will not be long. There is something that...

    I must go. By whatever powers there be, may this letter reach you.

(c) 1994, Matthew K. Coughlin